May is the Ideal Month for Novice BirdwatchersApr 28, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
The Great Egret is a large wading bird that is easy for beginning birders to see.. Photo by Steven D. Bailey.
The month of May is a birder’s delight. “It’s the equivalent of Christmas for birders,” says Rena Cohen, president of the Lake-Cook Audubon Society. “That’s when the birds are dressed to the nines in full breeding plumage,” Cohen says. “A male scarlet tanager, for example, is an eye-popping crimson with black wings in the spring, but a drab yellow in the fall. Birds also sing in the spring to attract mates, so you can bird with your ears, as well as your eyes.”
In May, some 300 or more different species can be seen in the Chicago region. The sheer number of birds at this time may sound daunting, but those picking up their binoculars for the first or maybe the second or third time in the merry month of May can bring their skills up to a higher level and enjoy the show even as beginners.
“The bird bonanza in May can be overwhelming for a new birder, but it’s also a great opportunity to begin your birding journey because (as my husband would say) there are more birds per inch than at other times of the year,” says Cohen, a Highland Park resident who leads bird walks in the region. “That means you usually don’t have to search too hard to encounter some of these special spring visitors. Get started by taking a walk in the woods, seeing what you can see and focusing on learning two or three birds per outing. Zero in on a few birds that you see really well, particularly any with distinctive plumages, and note their field marks, as well as their shape and size.
“In the warbler family, for example, one of the most common migrants is a yellow-rumped warbler, with an almost comical number of identifying features, including a yellow rump patch, earning the nickname ‘butter butt’, yellow patches on the flanks, and a black cheek, and black streaks on a white breast. You’ll find him frantically foraging for insects on tree leaves, frequently at eye level” she says.
Baltimore Orioles, with black heads and bright orange breasts, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black and white with red hearts on their breasts, and indigo buntings, which are a brilliant blue with black wings, are relatively common and easy to identify, according to Cohen. “Learn a few at a time, initially males, because they’re easier to identify, then add every time you’re out,” she suggests.
Edward Warden, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society, says one of the best ways to get started birding is to join a bird walk, many of which are free. “Even with all of the field guides out there and the plethora of (online) resources, the tried and true most effective way to get started is by joining a bird walk,” Warden says. “That’s where you can get that social and personal experience with people who know what they are looking at and hearing.”
Warden says that’s how he become a birder. “I was a city kid. Sparrows and pigeons were the norm.” He didn’t realize when he was a youngster that the Chicago region “is a tremendous place to see a whole wide array of birds, and many are easy to encounter and notice.”
When his parents realized he was interested in birds, they took him to free weekly birding walks at North Pond, in Lincoln Park. “I showed up with a crappy pair of binoculars and my birding guide from an aunt of mine,” he recalls. On one of his first walks, while sitting on a bench at a pond, a large white bird with feathery plumes came out of the trees. It was a great egret, a species he had never seen before.
Evanston resident Judy Pollock, president of Chicago Audubon Society began birding in spring. “In May, every day was like a week because I was just discovering so many new birds all the time,” Pollock recalls. “It’s not a bad time to get started. It’s a time when everything is just so magical, and you’re really getting started with a bang.”
Pollock agrees with Warden that joining bird walks in May is a great way to get started. “Seasoned birders are very welcoming to new birders, especially on field trips,” she says. “Beginning birders shouldn’t hesitate for a second about joining a field trip. A lot of organizations will even loan people binoculars.” Pollock says on walks with beginners, Chicago Audubon Society field trip leaders will show them how to use binoculars. Warden adds beginners that attend local bird walks will notice the many different types of binoculars people use, and veteran birders happily let them try them out.
“There are also a lot of great online resources about buying binoculars, such as the best one for cost,” he says. “Not all binoculars are equal. That doesn’t mean they have to be expensive. Choose binoculars designed for birding specifically,” he advises. “Once you have the binoculars you prefer, that just levels up the game for you. It’s a unique experience, being able to see a bird right in front of you.”
Pollock says beginning birders will find that the activity will open a new world to them. “The nice thing is, birds are never very far from you,” she states. “They’re in your local park. They’re in your back yard. They’re out at the lake front and along rivers and lakes.”
Using field guides while out birding as well as when at home can enhance skills. “Just remember, field guides are not one-size-fits-all,” Warden says. “There are so many out there, some older, some newer, some use art work, some use photos. They’re organized differently. No one is gospel versus another.”
Pollock notes that apps also can help beginning birders. “I would recommend people get Merlin,” she suggests. “It’s a good tool for identifying birds not only by sight, but also sound. You hold your phone up and every time Merlin hears a bird, it will appear on your screen. That’s great in spring when the birds are singing.”
Warden adds beginners should realize that each person is better at certain aspects of birding. Some are more adept at bird songs. Others can pick out plumage details better, and some enjoy photographing birds, while others feed birds in their yards.
Warden says feeding is a good way to start birding. “There are lots of birds around in spring. If you put out the food, they will come,” he says. For example, hummingbirds visit feeders in spring and may remain all summer long. “Make sure you use larger seeds like sunflowers and peanuts instead of using the mixes,” Warden cautions. Sunflower oilers, for example, attract birds like blue jays and cardinals all year long and species like rose-breasted grosbeak in spring.
Cohen says the main thing for
beginning birders is to “enjoy the treasure hunt. You never know what you’re
going to find, and if you’re a beginner, you’re sure to come across birds that
you’ve never seen before. You’ll also be in habitats that soothe the soul. Fair
warning: the experience may change the month of May for you forever.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.Wordpress.com.
Free bird walks for beginners
Register for these free bird walks in May, then join the
group and prepare to learn. The number of participants may be limited.
Beginners Spring Migration Bird Outing
7-8 a.m., May 15, Gillson Park, Wilmette. Led by Chicago Audubon Society. Visit ChicagoAudubon.org/bird-walks-list
to register online.
Beginner Warbler Walk
7 a.m., May 4, Lyons Woods, 10300 Blanchard Rd., Waukegan.
Sponsored by Lake Cook Audubon Society. Visit LakeCookAudubon.org.
Contact leader Adam Sell at 847-910-2813.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary Birding Field Trip
7 a.m., May 7. 4400 N, Simonds Dr., Chicago. Sponsored by Lake Cook Audubon Society. LakeCookAudubon.org. Contact leader Rena Cohen at 847-971-1107.