Savoring the sights and sounds of May (published 5-27-04) Back in January I wrote that one of the best things about birdwatching is the surprise factor—like “a box of chocolates,” remember? That’s especially true right now, when scores of bird species are migrating through our region. In the backyard or in the woods, it’s the time of year when almost anything is possible. For birders, it doesn’t get any better than May. I’ve been reminded of that almost every day this month, and I hope you too have been outside enjoying the avian marvels of late spring. From about mid-April until June I wake up extra early to have my coffee with the birds. On most days I’m on the back patio by 6:00 a.m. The neighbors must think I’m crazy. Or worse, creepy, since I’m always peering through binoculars. But so far nobody has called the police, and I appreciate my neighbors for that. Even more, I appreciate their big, tall trees. Outside on dawn patrol, I’m scanning everything that grows, looking for movement. And listening, too. I know the regular backyard sounds well enough to recognize when something unusual is flitting around. Then it’s just a matter of finding the vocalist. This spring I’ve had some exciting first-time visitors: a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a brown thrasher and an indigo bunting. These are common birds—you can find them rather easily any April or May in their usual habitats. But there’s nothing common about them when it comes to my yard. It took almost seven years in this location to finally add them to my coveted yard list, which is now up to 89 species. As expected, it’s been a terrific month to spot members of the warbler family. I’ve had backyard views of 11 species, including bay-breasted, blackpoll, Cape May and magnolia. Good birds, all of them, and I’m hoping to squeeze out a few more before summer sets in. On May 8, I took part in the Spring Count, a statewide event that supplies important data to people who study bird population trends. If weather conditions are right, these annual one-day birdathons can produce amazing numbers and variety. This year I was on a counting team that covered the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. It was a terrific day in the field: We tallied 102 species, including 23 kinds of warblers and five types of vireos. My favorite sightings, however, were birds of prey. Early on we found two young great-horned owls in plain view, snuggled up close on the same branch. Too bad I’m not a photographer! Then, near the end of the day, we watched a peregrine falcon soaring over the Arb’s west side. I see peregrines occasionally in downtown Chicago but this was my first in DuPage County. On the eve of the Spring Count, or before any May bird outing, I get far too excited for my own good, thinking about the possibilities. I’m like a kid the night before Christmas, dreaming of brightly colored packages—the kind with feathers. Will tomorrow be the day I see my first worm-eating warbler? Or my first Kentucky? Will a new species visit the yard? First-time sightings are always special, but in May I savor everything. One can never see too many scarlet tanagers or Baltimore orioles or Blackburnian warblers. I “need” these birds every year, and pursuing them is a spring ritual that’s always worth the effort. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Fun with feeders: setting out a backyard buffet (published 5-6-04) Sometimes I look around my garage and basement and wonder: Where did all these feeders and birdbaths and squirrel baffles and poles come from? My dust-gathering “inventory” is a birder’s garage sale just waiting to happen. If you’re a backyard bird feeder like me, you understand—there’s a trial and error factor that goes with the hobby. We’ve been in our present home for almost seven years, feeding the birds from day one, and only now do I feel like we have all the right pieces in place. Since I enjoy hearing about how other birders entertain their feathered guests, I thought maybe you’d like to hear about my own backyard tactics. I keep things pretty simple on our tiny plot—three tube-style feeders and one birdbath with a dripper. The feeders are filled with black oil sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts and thistle seed. I think of the sunflower seed feeder as the main course and the other two feeders as side dishes. In my view, if you only have one feeder, it should be filled with black oil sunflower seeds. This will satisfy a wide variety of birds, and cardinals especially. My peanut feeder is always busy. Yes, the nuts are a little pricey, and far too many of them end up in the bellies of starlings and house sparrows. But without the feeder, I’d miss watching one of my favorite backyard birds, the red-breasted nuthatch. Two kinds of woodpeckers—downy and red-bellied—also enjoy the peanuts and I like having them around, too. The thistle was discovered by some pine siskins last December and, amazingly, they stayed until the end of April before finally departing for their summer homes in Canada. Now the bright yellow American goldfinches have the feeder all to themselves. For years I’ve been hoping that a common redpoll will stop by for a thistle snack, too. Not yet. Of course, birds come and go during the week and I never see them. I really appreciate when uncommon birds have the good sense to visit my yard on weekends. One of the nice things about the thistle tube is that squirrels don’t bother it. Not so with the other two feeders, of course. Currently I have the sunflower seed and peanut feeders hanging side by side on a double shepherd’s hook. A metal, cone-shaped baffle is attached to the pole about four feet up from the ground. Only a couple of squirrels have ever defeated it, and both are in the rodent hall of fame. From early May through September I maintain at least one hummingbird feeder. We don’t see a lot of hummers in the yard but it’s always a treat when we do. This month there’s a fancy new “specialty” feeder on the Reiter estate. Thinking warm thoughts, I sent away for an oriole feeder in the dead of winter. It’s made of wood and features two spikes for holding orange halves and a built-in cupholder for grape jelly. I’m optimistic that it will attract a few of those flashy Baltimore orioles as advertised. However, part of me knows this was an unnecessary purchase. Here’s why: Last May, in a classic case of beginner’s luck, I had an oriole stop by just four hours after I’d put out some orange halves. It was the first time I’d ever put out oranges, which I attached to the tops of a couple fence posts. Two nails, one orange, one oriole. Simple can be good. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at email@example.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.