Oriole at rest. The number and species of warblers at any location will vary day-by-day.Photo by Libby Hill

May 1, the first warm day since last fall, and in my personal calendar, the first day of spring bird migration. I never travel in May, I let the birds travel to me.

During the years I worked at Royce-more School as a librarian, I barely made it to school on time during the first weeks of May, so intrigued was I watching the returning Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and the Northern Orioles (now called Baltimore Orioles), who ate or drank at the pink flowers of my neighbor’s crabapple tree. The branches hang deliciously close to my upstairs deck; I could almost reach out and touch the Nashville Warblers that flitted nervously through the blossoms picking off the insects.

Not this year, at least not in this tree on this day; the tree is only sticks with no green. The unusually cold April has delayed the leaves, blossoms and the insects, all so necessary for the birds returning to breed either in the vicinity or needing to tank up to fly farther north.

The radar map showed a wave of migrating birds coming our way. Evanston is part of the Mississippi flyway. We can expect about five million birds representing about 250 species to come our way during spring migration. The early migrants like the fox sparrows and the towhees need the winter’s leaves to thrash through to find seeds or insects buried under them. That’s why it’s so important not to remove all the fall leaves from under bushes. The Northern flicker, also an early migrant, finds insects in trees and lawns. The Brown Creeper, as its name implies, ascends tree trunks, pecking away under the bark for insects. The Woodcock, another early migrant, also probes the ground for worms and the male delights watchers with his wonderful aerial mating display. But the warblers, the orioles and the grosbeaks are attracted to buds and blossoms that attract insects.

Knowing that I would find no birds among the bare branches, I went five blocks north to Perkins Woods, hoping to find the Wood Ducks and a few other birds. To my astonishment, birds were everywhere in the woods! They were flying around and walking through the “vernal” spring ponds. It was hard to turn my back on the gorgeous Black-throated Green Warbler that came within arm’s length in order to look in the other direction to see the Spotted Sandpipers chasing each other, and then the Green Heron alighting on a branch a few feet away. The Palm Warblers were all around, pumping their tails and flitting in the trees along with the Yellow-rumped Warblers, while the Black-and-White Warblers were all over the trunks of the trees. Northern Water thrushes, not thrushes but warblers, were bobbing their tails as they waded in and along the pond edges and the fallen logs. A huge dragonfly skimmed the water’s surface. I left reluctantly, but came back in the late afternoon to the same amazing show. I continued visiting Perkins at least once a day, adding species to the total.

By the time May 5 rolled around, Josh Engel could post on Facebook, “Incredible day of birding yesterday around Evanston for the statewide Spring Bird Count. Tops was this Prairie Warbler right in my parents’ front yard.” His group found 110 species in the area on just that one day. By time you read this column, the species just mentioned will be gone, and new ones will have arrived.

There are great places to go birding in Evanston and close by. You can even find interesting birds in your yard or in any local park. Perkins Woods, Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary, Northwestern University, James Park/Mt. Trashmore, North Shore Channel, Grady Bird Sanctuary, Harbert Park, Lighthouse Beach, Sanitary Canal, Calvary Cemetery, Canal Shores Golf Course, Evanston lakefront and beaches, South Boulevard Beach/Garden Park, in addition to nearby Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie and Gillson Park in Wilmette, are all “hotspots” on ebird. The new North Shore Channel Habitat Project that includes Ladd Arboretum is sure to be a great birding location.

The worldwide database eBird is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It allows users to enter information about when, where and how you went birding, regardless of whether you were in your car, or out on a walk or just standing still looking and listening. Then you fill out a checklist of all the birds you saw and heard. It’s easy (and free) to create an account. Google ebird.org. The more people who enter data in eBird, the more we will know where and when to find birds.

The best way to get to know these and other birds is to get yourself some binoculars and go on a field trip sponsored by one of the bird clubs in the Chicago area. Evanston North Shore Bird Club’s field trips can be found in the calendar on our website ensbc.org. Join us.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.