“When trying to identify birds it is important to remember the following motto: I don’t know.”—Chris Earley
What a beautiful week it is shaping up to be in the Chicago region. Spring has landed in full force. Last night, a crescent moon set in the west, with Venus and Mars nearby. Gemini constellation stars Castor and Pollux glittered bright in the night. Summer! It seems only a breath away.
The tallgrass prairie, rejuvenated by fire, is aflame with wildflowers.
It’s easy to be motivated to go for a prairie hike with temperatures in the 70s, few bugs out, and cool breezes.
Each day on the May prairie is an exercise in discovery, from the first tiny Eastern Forktail damselflies that show up…
…to the big charismatic megafauna, lumbering through the tallgrass.
In the mornings, I wake up and sit with my coffee on the back porch where I indulge my latest obsession: Merlin Sound ID, part of the Merlin Bird ID free cell phone app. A decade and a half ago, when cell phones became a thing, I was a reluctant adopter. But the nature apps have changed all that. Each morning, I open up the “bird sound” option on Merlin and let it record as I get my caffeine fix. What an eye-opener—especially during spring migration! I’ve never seen some of the birds Merlin tells me are out and about in my yard; blackpoll warbler, Lincoln’s sparrow (!!), Tennessee warbler, northern mockingbird. But, when I see the name light up and then, listen for that bird calling, I’m often able to match the song to the bird.
I keep my Kenn Kaufman Birds of North America and Peterson Field Guide to Birds open by my side and read about each bird’s habitat, food preference, and migratory habits when the bird shows up. What fun! My binoculars are at the ready, as is my camera, but so far I’ve failed at getting good photos from my porch of anything other than the usual cardinals, goldfinches, house sparrows and downy woodpeckers at the feeders. My photos of more elusive birds tend to look like this:
The neighbors are starting to get nervous as I glass the their trees with my binoculars, or stand at the edges of their lawns with my camera. So far, I’ve not actually gone into their yards, but it’s only a matter of time.
Our backyard feeders are filled and ready for customers. The first hummingbird showed up last Wednesday to check out the territory. I love the ruby-throated hummingbirds! We plant a lot of wildflowers just for them. As summer heats up, they’ll swarm the zinnias, cardinal flowers, wild bergamot, butterfly weed, and even the blazing stars. The sugar water is just a bonus.
Welcome back, little hummers.
I’ve also been watching for orioles in our backyard this spring, without any luck.
Instead, we’ve had this backyard visitor… .
Ah, well. At least I can get a good photo of this species. Always willing to pose for food!
A few weeks ago, John Harris, my prairie co-steward, suggested turning the Merlin sound app on during work mornings to help our little band of prairie volunteers understand what birds are around us as we pull weeds. (Thanks, John). Wow! The list is long—much longer than I would have dreamed. Where before I might notice a bluebird or a cardinal flying along the edges of the prairie, I’m now tuning in to a long list of feathered members of our tallgrass community formerly unknown to me by sight or sound.
It’s a great reminder of how invisible much of the natural world is to us, especially when we’re older and our hearing isn’t as good as it once was. Using the app is teaching me to pay attention more closely, using my sense of hearing. Listening has has not always been my first “sense” when hiking or spending time outdoors. In the suburbs, I’m often trying not to hear things: jet noise, highway clamor, the whine of leaf blowers and lawn mowers. Tuning into sounds instead of tuning noise out is an intriguing idea.
Is the Merlin app perfect? Probably not (although it’s spot on so far). But it’s been a launching point for learning. It wakes me up to wonder.
I love that. So much of my sense of wonder has been sparked by what I see, not what I hear.
Listening is a new adventure.
The only downside? My friends and family are going to have to put up with endless chatter about another one of my “enthusiasms.”
But when I think of ways I can spend my time, attending to birdsong is a pretty good use of my hours.
Anything that brings a little more wonder in my world—even my cell phone—is always welcome.
The opening quote is from Guelph Arboretum (Ontario) interpretive biologist Chris G. Earley (1968-) from his charming book, Sparrows & Finches of the Great Lakes Region & Eastern North America, written for adult readers (Thank you John Heneghan for the book loan). I’m a big fan of Earley’s books, especially his children’s guide Dragonflies: Catching—Identifying–How and Where They Live (2013). I always come away delighted and with a new nugget of knowledge.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–on National Prairie Day! Saturday, June 3, 1-2:30 p.m. CT, Sterling Farmer’s Market (at the Pavilion) in Sterling, IL. Free and open to the public. Indoors in case of rain.
Literary Gardens Online –-Wednesday, June 7, 7-8:15 p.m. CT, Bensenville Public Library, Bensenville, IL, via Zoom. Free but you must register to receive the link (participation may be limited to first sign ups). For more information and to register, contact the library at 630-766-4642.
“In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm CT via Zoom. Brought to you by “Illinois Libraries Present.” Number of registrations available may be limited, so register here soon.
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — Friday, June 23, 8:30am-12:30 pm CT, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration coming soon. This class is split between classroom and field work. Fun!
More classes and programs at www.cindycrosby.com