The birds head north. ‘Zugunruhe’ and an oriole peeking in the window

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The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Around our house, May 9 is considered Baltimore oriole day.
 
  Tom Houlihan
For the third straight year, we had orioles at the feeder on May 9. At exactly 9:30 a.m., a male oriole turned up and began pecking at the orange halves that Patty had put out to attract that brand of bird.
 
Since 2013 – when we first started keeping records of bird activity, both in and out of our yard — orioles have regularly come to our feeder during the first couple weeks of May. This year, a male and female were apparently traveling together.
 
They never stay for very long and we know the orioles are just making a stop during their spring migration. Orioles winter in Central America and travel as far north as the lower Canadian provinces. 
 
When they visit our Flossmoor feeder, we get to see them for about a half hour, tops, and then they take off, perhaps to check out someone else’s supply of sweets. You can buy an oriole feeder at just about any hardware store these days and many people fill them with grape jelly or orange marmalade. We are purists and stick to the orange halves.
 
It’s a treat for us to see them three or four days in a row. This year, I was working at my desk and saw an oriole at the window sill, looking inside our house. Patty says she’s seen the same thing at the kitchen window.
 
We know that all the orange marmalade in the world would never get them to stay any longer. Ornithologists have a word — “Zugunruhe” — for the urge to fly north in the spring, and it can generally be defined as migratory restlessness. When the days get longer birds know they need to head to their breeding grounds, and they are usually much further north than our homes on the 41st parallel.
 
As modest birders, we always look forward to migration season, which starts in late March and will have ended by the time you read this. Our backyard feeder attracts regular species – cardinals, various finches, sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, mourning doves, woodpeckers and the occasional blue jay. We also put out a separate feeder for hummingbirds and a little house under the maple, which last year attracted a pair of wrens who built an extensive nest inside and stayed all summer. There are plenty of robins, which avoid the feeder but are always pulling worms out of the ground.
 
This year’s migrants at the feeder have included an indigo bunting, a lovely little blue bird. A Carolina wren — it’s different from the type that occupied the house last year – briefly showed up, along with a palm warbler. There are about 70 types of warblers and it is often hard to tell them apart since they move around so quickly. So any kind of a positive ID of a warbler is a good thing.
 
Clearly, though, even modest birders need to leave their yard to find more migrants. The weather was cold and nasty in late March and throughout April but we bundled up and went looking for birds.
 
Sometimes you just get lucky. On March 31, we drove to South Chicago to buy smoked fish and thought we’d stop in the Lake Calumet area, which is actually undergoing a transformation from post-industrial wasteland to a more natural environment. If you turn west onto 122nd Street at Torrence Avenue, you can get a good idea of what is going on.
 
The Chicago Park District, partnering with corporate and community groups, has already opened a park at Big Marsh, located at 115th and Stony Island Avenue. It’s along a substantial wetland next to the site of a former landfill where residue from long-closed steel mills was buried. We saw a few birds there – a wild swan, a flock of coots and an eastern phoebe, an interesting songbird.
 
Then we drove south on Stony Island to Deadstick Pond, just south of 122nd. This is a famous spot for birders and it is also a location where Chicago mystery writer Sara Paretsky stashed a body in one of her books. It’s easy to see why. Just about everything about the place smacks of a century of environmental degradation.
 
The pond itself is behind a chain link fence and that made it a challenge to use our binoculars. But man, did the place have birds. More wild swans and at least three kinds of migrating ducks  northern shovelers, lesser scaups and gadwalls. For good measure, we were able to ID a Nashville warbler outside the fence. There are plans to turn Deadstick Pond into an accessible natural space with trails that connect it to the rest of the Lake Calumet area. It can’t happen soon enough.
 
On April 6 – a day in the low 30s with winds gusting up to 30 mph — we went to two spots along LaGrange Road on the north and south ends of Orland Park.
 
In the morning we went to the Orland Grassland and found big flocks of ducks on a couple of ponds.
 
After lunch, we went to McGinnis Slough and saw more northern shovelers and also blue-winged teals, another type of duck. A pair of sandhill cranes waded along the side of the marsh. They are four feet tall and I’ve never seen one up close. Mostly we see them flying overhead in the spring and fall.
 
Then we took a trail to look at the north end of McGinnis Slough and saw 40 or 50 big white birds flying above the water. They were snow geese, a bird I have never seen before. They are known for migrating in flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. Their migration will take them north of Hudson’s Bay and onto islands in the far Arctic.
 
They are rare in this area and I may never see them again, at least so close to home. I know I will never forget them.
 
Like I said, sometimes you just get lucky. 
 

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