Thursday, May 05, 2011

Let spring migration awaken your inner birder

Let spring migration awaken your inner birder

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The weather last Wednesday morning argued against outdoor activity, with heavy clouds threatening to unleash a downpour at any moment. But Wednesday morning was the time a birding jaunt best fit among the other demands of the week, so that’s when I went. I set out with some hope, too, because I’ve found that opportunities sometimes open up even when the forecast is dire; it seldom actually rains all day, right? Plus, migrating birds often travel with weather fronts, so people who are willing to cope with a little rain are usually the first to see what has blown in with a storm.

I headed for Crystal Lake Park in Urbana, which is for local birders the place to be at this time of year, when songbird migration is kicking into high gear. There’s a special combination of habitat components there—ancient oaks, open space, water with brushy margins—that attracts remarkable concentrations of birds.

I saw no other birders when I arrived at the Lake House, but a car belonging to my friend, Greg Lambeth, was there. Greg is a clinical psychologist at the UI and a passionate birder, who makes time to get out for a couple of hours before work whenever possible at this time of year.

A light rain was falling--enough to make rain pants worth the effort, but not to make me leave my camera behind. Even as I pulled myself together, I was energized by sounds from the branches above, the quiet “chips” of yellow-rumped warblers and the buzzy calls of blue-gray gnatcatchers.

I caught up with Greg as he scanned a flock of warblers flitting among the trees along the Saline Branch, the stream that runs through the park. He pointed out that the flock extended some distance upstream and downstream from where we stood, as well as into the woods on the other side. I was stunned by the abundance. There were so many birds bouncing around it was difficult to keep track of which we had identified and which we hadn’t. [Upper photo of prothonotary warbler by author; lower of scarlet tanager by Greg Lambeth.]

The greatest numbers of them by far were yellow-rumped warblers, which, as you might expect, are named for the colorful patch above their tail. But we spotted 12 other species of warblers that morning, too, among them my favorite, a prothonotary warbler. This is a bird whose yellow head and chest are so bright he appears to be lit from within.

And warblers were only one part of the picture on Wednesday. were scarlet tanagers, whose brilliant red body feathers are accented by jet-black of wings, and Baltimore orioles, whose striking combination of orange and black may be more familiar to you. There were indigo buntings, there were two kinds of vireos, there were . . . well, more birds than you would probably care to hear me describe.

So take this as encouragement to get out and see spring migration for yourself. A great place to start is with the Champaign County Audubon Society’s weekly bird walks, which Greg Lambeth usually leads. Novices and experienced birders alike are welcome at these walks, which set out from the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center at 7:30 on Sunday mornings through the month of May.

See more bird photographs by Greg Lambeth, many from Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods at

Further details about Sunday morning bird walks at