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.

Des Plaines River Trail—Independence Grove to Route 60 Canoe Launch

Post by Jen BerlinghofIMG_8215

As our hike continued south along the Des Plaines River Trail, we began to see, feel and hear the palpable signs of the seasons shifting from summer to autumn. We were not the only ones heading south along this greenway. Small flocks of Swainson’s thrushes and yellow-rumped warblers created a ruckus of fluttering feathers in search of sustenance. Continue reading

Heron highrise

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Kenn Kaufman, a naturalist and bird expert, speak at the Smith Nature Symposium. He is somewhat of a “rock star” in the birding world. His novel, Kingbird Highway, chronicles a personal adventure hitchhiking around the country at the age of 16 on a quest to find birds—a story that has reached the status of folklore. Many years later, and surely a much longer “life list,” his keynote address at Ryerson Conservation Area focused on warbler migration: the phenomenon of these teeny tiny birds in every hue of the rainbow that travel thousands of miles across entire continents each spring and fall. He presented complicated doppler maps and in-depth scientific research on these migratory dynamos, but by the end of the discussion the focus had shifted to something more simple: the children from his young birders club.

guide-bookLate that evening, as I settled down with one of his many guide books, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, I was struck by this same theme of simplicity. Kaufman urges folks to slow down and focus not on looking for the birds, but instead to spend time looking at the birds. He stresses getting to know the common birds of an area very well. By doing so, we are well on our way to knowing when a rare bird may enter the scene. This concept brought to mind one of the best places to take a long look at one common bird of Lake County, Illinois: a great blue heron rookery.

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