A bit of advice for observing birds in spring: Think twice before visiting Chicago's premier birding hotspot on a beautiful evening in May without your binoculars.
One afternoon last week I was on Chicago's north side, and I had some time to kill between several engagements, so I decided to head to the city's wonderful Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary to have a look-see. I did not have my binoculars in the car, but I figured it would be fun to practice my listening skills, identifying birds by song instead of by sight.
What an exercise in frustration. I practiced my listening skills, all right. I spent an hour listening to all the other birders calling out the names of the beautiful warblers they were seeing. "Oh, there's a Blackburnian. Canada over there, down low. Two Magnolias at 9:00. Ah, what a beautiful view of that Chestnut-sided!" The trees were dripping warblers, and I felt like a sap for not having my equipment.
But I stuck to my original game plan, and I did get practice listening for the birds' songs, once I was able to ignore the din of the excited birders. Plus, despite the disappointment of not being able to see the birds clearly, I found it fascinating to take in the whole scene, instead of just the narrow vision that you get from binoculars. (Birders, by the way, can be as fun to watch as the birds.)
As I listened and watched, I learned that by far the easiest warbler to ID with the naked eye is the American Redstart. Like all warblers, it's a tiny bird--just five inches from tip of bill to tip of tail, and weighing less than half an ounce wringing wet right out of the shower. The mature male is a deep black with startling orange splotches on its flank and wings. The female is more subdued--soft gray overall, with yellow shoulder patches.
But it's the tail that makes both the male and the female stand out in a crowded tree. As the American Redstart hops and flits and twists non-stop among the branches, it constantly fans its tail wide, revealing bright orange and yellow patches on the outside edges of half the tail. It will often fan its tail even as it sits still on a branch, like a tiny peacock showing off its colors.
Most likely, all that tail flashing is to startle hiding insects into the open, which the Redstart then flits out to catch and eat. But the flashy tail also serves to catch the eye of binocularless humans who might be observing. As you watch a tree full of warblers flitting about, it is surprisingly easy to pick out the American Redstarts--even the soft-colored female--thanks to that startling tail.
So if you find yourself near a nice park on without binoculars, don't just pass on by. Stop for a few minutes and see how many American Redstarts you can find.
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.