Thursday, May 16, 2013

Spring migration the high point of the birding year

Spring migration the high point of the birding year

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People who pay attention to the weather understand that knowing the average high temperature for May 17th doesn’t tell you what the actual high temperature tomorrow will be. In the same way, people who pay attention to the migrations of birds understand that knowing the average date of arrival for Baltimore orioles in Champaign doesn’t tell you which day they’re actually going to get here.

Much of the pleasure of birding derives from learning the general patterns of bird behavior and observing the variations on those patterns that occur over the course of time.

No birds that occur in east central Illinois are more reliable in the timing of their migration than chimney swifts. In spring, they arrive here from South America within a few days of April 15th, like clockwork, year after year after year. They then depart almost exactly six months later, in the middle of October. For now, you can see them in the sky throughout the day. Chimney swifts are recognized by their quick, acrobatic manner of flight, their stubby, dark cigar-shaped bodies and tapering, swept-back wings.

[Photos by author: common loon in Champaign; greater yellowlegs in a flooded corn field; hooded warbler from back yard.]

Other birds have completely ignored the migration schedule this spring. Two species that typically occupy east central Illinois only during the winter, pine siskins and red-breasted nuthatches, are still being observed here regularly. Will they come to their senses and head for the northern forest to breed? For now, nobody knows.

The oddest local stopover so far this spring was a common loon that recently spent five days in the retention pond in front of Menard’s in Champaign. It’s not that migrating loons are unusual in Illinois; they’re regularly seen on larger bodies of water. What was unusual was that the Menard’s loon landed on such a small pond. Loons typically stop on larger lakes because they need up to a quarter mile of water surface for a “runway” to get airborne. Fortunately, a strong headwind seems to have enabled our wayward loon to get back into the air and resume its trek north.

The flooded agricultural fields that have hampered local farmers this spring have benefited both migrating shorebirds and bird watchers. One day in late April, birders discovered thousands of pectoral sandpipers in fields southwest of town. Think of it. These are birds that winter in South America and then go all the way to the arctic to breed. And thousands of them spent a day or more feeding in Champaign County.

Other shorebirds that can be seen here and there around flooded fields range from the tiny least sandpiper to the relatively bulky greater yellowlegs.

For many birders, no aspect of spring migration compares to the waves of warblers passing through. More than thirty species of these most colorful little birds can be observed here. Ironically, the highly fragmented nature of the central Illinois landscape makes for great warbler watching. Warblers need trees to feed in, so when they stop over in our part of the world they are concentrated in urban areas and the isolated woodlands that remain here.

Many warblers feed on insects in the crowns of mature trees and flit from branch to branch quickly, so it’s best to start warbler watching with an experienced guide. One way you could do this is to take advantage of the two remaining Sunday morning bird walks led by members of the Champaign County Audubon Society. These walks—one this Sunday and one next—start at 7:30 a.m., departing from the Anita Purves Nature Center at 1505 North Broadway in Urbana.