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June’s Colorful Marvels: South-Wintering Songbirds Nest and Nurture Young in the Midwest

Jun 03, 2024 ● By Sheryl DeVore
A tree swallow shows off its iridescent blue back.

A tree swallow shows off its iridescent blue back. Photo by Steven D. Bailey.

One fine June day, birders heard the mellifluous song of the eastern meadowlark at a Chicago Park District preserve near Lake Calumet. Perched on a branch, the meadowlark revealed a bright lemon-yellow breast and throat, contrasting with a deep, black V on its neck.

This scene is a reminder that while many of the migratory songbirds that pass through in April and May are breeding farther north, some have remained to raise young in the Chicago region.

Common birds such as northern cardinals and blue jays live here year-round and are raising young at the same time. But many of the birds seen in June in the region also have flown long distances from the southern part of the United States, the Caribbean and South America.

“In June, you have the opportunity to see lots of birds in your parks, your neighborhoods or even your driveway as they engage in their full circle of life,” says Edward Warden, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society and conservation stewardship coordinator at the Shedd Aquarium. “You can observe their entire life unfold before your eyes.”

Swallows

“Among the most beautiful of summertime birds in the Chicago region are the swallows,” Warden says. “We have several different kinds of swallows, breeding in different locations and different habitats. They all look bejeweled when the sun hits their backs.

“They’re not only incredibly gorgeous birds, but they’re also incredibly urbane,” Warden continues. “You can find them on structures, houses, underneath bridges. Oftentimes, they’re easy to observe.”

One of the best places to spot nesting barn swallows, which have a V-shaped tail, is beneath a local bridge or picnic pavilion. “They stick their mud nests on human structures,” Warden explains.

“Tree swallows prefer to be near trees and near water in particular,” he adds. Tree swallows often choose manmade bluebird nest boxes in which to raise young. Places where both bluebirds and tree swallows exist often have the boxes stationed so that both species can live in harmony. Many nature preserves have bluebird box trails, and June is a great time to see the bluebirds and tree swallows defending their nests. The observer might also see tree swallows engaging in aerial acrobatics including catching feathers mid-air, a courtship ritual.

One of Illinois Ornithological Records Committee recording secretary Geoff Williamson’s favorite places to watch swallows is at the underpass below Lake Shore Drive at the mouth of the Diversey Harbor. “We have nesting barn swallows and nesting cliff swallows there,” says Williamson, who also leads free walks at North Pond and runs Third Coast Birding.

“We get to see the different structure of the two different bird species’ nests, and the young of different ages,” he adds.

Another type of swallow, the purple martin, can be found where volunteers and natural area land managers set up and care for purple martin houses. Places to watch the antics of these colorful fly catchers in June include McHenry Dam, in McHenry County; Chicago Botanic Garden, in Cook County; and Lakewood Forest Preserve, in Lake County.

Purple martins like to be near water, which is a great spot to seek out birds of summer in general.

A male wood duck can be found in wetlands in June. Photo by Chuck Homler/Focus on Wildlife.

“In June, wood ducks are out with their young on North Pond [in Chicago's Lincoln Park],” Williamson says. One of the most colorful of North American waterfowl, the male wood duck sports multi-colored iridescent plumage, a red eye and a flared crest.

Williamson adds that along with the birds, visitors to the North Pond can see dragonflies such as green darners and blue dashers flying and turtles basking on a log.

For 10 years, a pair of green herons has nested near North Pond. In June, an observer may get the chance to watch a green heron as it sits on a branch in the pond, looking intently downward for a frog to snatch.

Rookeries

Green herons belong to a group of wading birds that can be easy to observe and find in June. Green herons nest singly or in small groups, but most of the other summer herons gather in rookeries, groups of birds with nests near one another.

“At the rookeries, when the baby herons start poking out of the nests, they are the epitome of awkward teenagers,” Warden notes.

“The absolute best rookery to go to and the easiest one to see is at Lincoln Park Zoo,” he suggests. The state’s largest colony of black-crowned night-herons can be found there.

“You don’t even have to go into the zoo,” Warden relays. “You stand outside the entrance and there they are up in the trees. I like to call them the Chicago penguins. They’re black, they’re white and they eat fish.”

Williamson said at North Pond one year, he led a group that observed a black-crowned night-heron that had captured a large goldfish and was trying to figure out how to swallow it.

Another place to see nesting wading birds including great egrets and great blue herons is at Baker’s Lake, in Barrington.

Anywhere there’s a little water and open areas, you might also hear and see the killdeer, which sings its name while in flight. When intruders get too close to their ground nest, the killdeer performs a broken-wing display, a bird behavior that’s fairly easy to see in June.


Grassland birds

Grasslands provide habitat for some colorful nesting species including the fairly common eastern meadowlark and the rare bobolink.

Warden’s favorite spot to watch and listen to the black-and-yellow-hued meadowlarks is at Park No. 566, also known as "USX" at 7901 S. Farragut Dr., in Chicago.

Bobolinks nest at Orland Grassland, in Cook County, and Glacial Park Conservation Area, in McHenry County, among other places. 

“You get to hear that crazy bubbly song while they’re doing their display flight,” Williamson says. “The males are just so gaudy-looking, with lots of white, black and yellow. Seeing bobolinks is a lot of fun.”

Warden suggests when visiting grasslands or woodlands in summer to engage the senses. “What are you seeing? What are you hearing? Some of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear come from woodland and grassland birds. The one that sticks out to me is the wood thrush.”

Wood thrushes have flute-like calls that sound like “ee-o-lay”.

“They are gorgeous singers,” Warden says. “They’re not super common. In your local forest preserves, you may hear them singing. The sound is ethereal and unbelievable.”

A Baltimore oriole takes grape jelly at a feeder. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

Baltimore orioles

One of the most familiar and colorful nesting songbirds that brightens neighborhoods is the Baltimore oriole.

“It can end up anywhere with trees, as long as they are large and relatively stable,” Warden says. Baltimore orioles build nests not only in forest preserves, but also in suburban and urban neighborhoods.

It’s more difficult to find their pendulous nests in summer, but people that put out grape jelly and/or grapes may see the orioles coming for a feast in between parental duties.

Baltimore orioles, as with many of the other colorful nesting birds, leave the Chicago area to fly south in late summer.

“We think about ‘our’ birds coming back during the summertime—the orioles, the indigo buntings, the scarlet tanagers,” Williamson says. “They are spectacular-looking birds. But they’re not really our birds. These are birds that spend eight months out of the year farther south, for example in Mexico."

“These birds come up to visit with us only for a short time in the summer,” Williamson says, adding that’s what makes birding in June so special.

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.

The rare grassland bird, a bobolink, nests in the region. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Local Bird Walks in June

North Pond Bird Walks

7-9 a.m., Wednesdays, June 5 and 12

Free. All welcome. No registration necessary. Meet near the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago, on the casting pier at the southeast corner of the pond. For more information, visit ThirdCoastBirding.com.

Bubbling Bobolinks

6-8:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 5

Glacial Park Conservation Area, 6316 Harts Rd., Ringwood. Registration required. Free for McHenry County residents, $5 for others. For more information or to register, check calendar on MccDistrict.org.

Bemis Woods Bird Outing

8-10 a.m., Thursday, June 20

Western Springs. Registration required. Free. Visit ChicagoBirdAlliance.org/new-events to register and learn about meeting place.

Field Trip: Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

Saturday, June 8

24256 N. Patten Rd., Highwood. Free. Meeting time and place to be announced.
Registration required with [email protected] or visit ensbc.org.

Field Trip: Liberty Prairie Nature Preserve

7 a.m., Thursday, June 27

Oak Openings, Castleton Rd., off U.S. Rte. 45, Libertyville. Free event. Registration required. For more information or to register, call 224-433-1675 or visit LakeCookAudubon.org.