A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

On May 4, I participated in the Spring Bird Count at Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods, where I entered the complex, intimidating world of spring warblers. These birds are small, dynamic insect-eaters that look very similar to each other in the eyes of a novice birder. They pass through Lake County in April and May as they migrate from the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America toward Canada and the northeastern U.S.

Warblers can be hard to spot; they’re small, they move a lot, and males and females of the same species can have different plumage. Prior to this effort, each time I opened my Peterson Field Guide I would skip the warbler section. Despite the challenge, warblers are the most thrilling birds to see. They bring a burst of color, a promise of spring. Their flashes of orange, yellow, and blue make any woodland seem more alive.

Thankfully, a coworker helped make this a less daunting experience by focusing me on three warblers to start: the palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), and the black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens).

The palm warbler is easily spotted by its near-constant tail pumping. And you can look for the yellow-rumped warbler’s, well, yellow rump patch, as well as white patches in its tail.

The black-throated green warbler is often heard before it’s seen. I quickly learned to pick out one of its calls: zee, zee, zo zo zee. It can be identified by its white wing bars and straight, thick bill. They’re found in all different types of forest habitats, even swamps, where they feed on insects, mainly non-fuzzy caterpillars.

A black-throated green warbler sings on a branch. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Soon I was confident with these species and ready to identify more. My next goal was the black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia). Named for its black-and-white stripes, it was fairly simple to identify. This species often hangs out on tree trunks looking for insects in the bark.

The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) tends to hang low in shrubs or short trees. Adult male magnolia warblers boast a distinguishing black mask. They migrate at night, traveling long distances to their summer breeding ground in Canada. In Lake County, they’re often found in thick vegetation, hopping branch to branch and collecting insects from the undersides of leaves.

Look for the male magnolia warbler's distinctive black streak across its face. Photo © Randall Wade.

There are plenty more warblers, plenty more birds, to learn about and identify and appreciate. As I continue to grow my annual list and become more familiar with birding areas in Lake County, I encourage you to do the same. Before you travel far and wide, consider engaging with the nature around you. Look no further than your backyard for your next adventure. A world of warblers is out there.

An educator searches for birds at Independence Grove. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Join us as we close out the spring birding season with our final Birdwatching Hot Spots programs on Saturday, June 1 and Saturday, June 15, 8–10 am at Spring Bluff in Winthrop Harbor. Look for waterfowl and other migratory species. Spotting scopes and binoculars will be available. FREE. No registration required. All ages welcome.

A snowy spark

Many years ago, while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline late on an evening in January, a feathered ghost appeared on top of a flag pole. It was the first time I had ever seen a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and it stopped me in my tracks. This was the spark on that frozen night that lighted my fire of curiosity about birds. This winter, snowy owls have left their Arctic homes in record numbers, causing one of the largest irruptions (sudden increase) in northern Illinois in decades.

Although it seems natural to correlate the arrival of these boreal birds with the extremely cold, snowy winter northern Illinois is having, experts say the motivator is more likely linked to food. On their Arctic breeding grounds, snowy owls feast under 24-hour sunshine. Their food of choice is lemmings, small mammals with an extremely cyclical population. Bird expert Kenn Kaufman explains in a recent Audubon magazine article, that when the lemming population explodes, like it did last summer in northern Quebec, snowy owls have great breeding success, producing large broods of up to 11 chicks. As these chicks quickly grow into juvenile birds, the competition grows for the now dwindling numbers of lemmings. Thus, the young birds get nudged further and further away to find a meal, resulting in them moving to areas that mimic their treeless tundra home, such as the Lake Michigan shoreline. Continue reading

“Kwirr, churr, cha-cha-cha”

Walking through the woods in late fall, everything seems to be settling in—the colors calming to variations of brown, the dull roar of the wind the only sound. That is, until the staccato “cha-cha-cha” call of a red-bellied woodpecker breaks the lull of the wind, and a tiny black and white tuxedo (complete with a red cap) flashes past me, announcing the bird’s entrance into the woods.

Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are year-round residents of Lake County, Illinois. The sounds and sights of these birds in the woodlands and at backyard feeders command attention, especially against the bland backdrop of late autumn and early winter. Like its six fellow species of woodpeckers in Illinois, the red-bellied woodpecker excavates holes, commonly called cavities, in trees for nesting and shelter—all the while snacking away on the tiny critters crawling under the bark. Continue reading

Warbler fever

Birding fever hit a high this past weekend in natural areas throughout northern Illinois. Birders flocked in throngs with binoculars strung on their necks like potential Olympic medals and a hope of spotting some of the most coveted migratory birds— wood-warblers. Members of the family Parulidae, wood-warblers are the colorful jewels of migration from the sapphire blue of a cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea) to the amber orange of a Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca). Yet, as these birds flit about in the treetops, no color is as visually striking as the lemony-yellow citrine that adorns so many warblers as they pass through our area on a flyway. Once these impish birds reach their destinations (as far as northern Canada for some species) and breed, they will molt their flamboyant plumage and become far less conspicuous, which is why seeing them in the spring is considered such a prize for birders.  Continue reading

Glimpses from the car window, bootprints on the trail

Like most of you reading this, my life is busy. Even though I work outdoors in the forest preserves, not all of my nature experiences occur there. Many days I have to take the glimpses of nature where I can get them. On my drive home from work last week, glancing at the “not-so-glamorous” retention pond next to the tollway, I spotted my first hooded merganser of the year. I knew the gang was back, although some of them not for long. This “gang” I’m referring to is the group of migratory waterfowl that show up here in the early spring during migration en route to their final destinations further north. With names like horned grebe, American wigeon, northern shoveler, and gadwall (just a few of the species seen in the past few days at Independence Grove Forest Preserve, here is the complete list), who wouldn’t want to meet this cast of characters?

This time of year is the perfect opportunity to take a peek at some fascinating birds close to home. Continue reading