Spending some time outside? Watch the skies!

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By Oak Park Public Library

This spring's above-average temperatures had people asking me "how will it affect the birds?"  Well, birds have honed their migration routes over tens of thousands of years and have factored in fluctuations in temperature to arrive at the optimum time. Despite our high March temperatures, the birds have maintained their migration habits. So as is usual for May, we will continue to see millions of birds pass through our area, many under the cover of darkness, to arrive on their breeding grounds in northern Wisconsin all the way up to boreal Canada just as the first waves of insects are hatching out.

With spring well underway for some time now, people are happily enjoying the warm-weather sights and sounds.  No other hobby taxes those two senses like Birding.  Birding, the more au courant term for Bird-watching, has more the 46 million people who practice it in some form, from putting seed out in the back yard and watching the comings and goings of their feathered neighbors, to obsessive individuals who perform cross country treks trying to see as many species in a year.

Oak Park has recently been caught up in this web of pursuit.  In the late fall/early winter of 2011, the teen-age birding duo of Ethan and Aaron Gyllenhaal spotted a late hummingbird visiting their backyard feeders.  The DNA sample revealed that the bird was in fact, a female Rufous Hummingbird, a species that routinely shows up as a vagrant in the east.  This spring the Gyllenhaal Duo reported another bird even more rare – they discovered an Elaenia in Chicago's Douglas Park and quickly drew large crowds to see such an extremely rare bird in North America.  Elaenias are flycatchers from Central and South America.  They are extremely difficult to identify as individual species, so it could be several weeks before a final determination is made on this latest Gyllenhaal find.

If recent stories like that of the Gyllenhaals' spur you into finding your own Elaenia, or you simply want to identify that hawk you see perched above the expressway every day on the way to work, Oak Park Public Library can help you appreciate the sights and sounds of our local birds.

A good field guide is essential to get you started and we have several excellent ones to choose from:

The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, now in its sixth edition, has been a staple in birders backpacks for the last 25 years.  Each edition improves upon the last; using findings from the latest research to improve upon the illustrations and update the range maps.  

Many Americans did not know how popular birding had become until 2000 when the Sibley Guide to Birds appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.  This guide has more than 6,600 illustrations of over 810 species that occur in North America.  Sibley also provides unique regional illustrations to differentiate between how a species can look radically different in another part of the country.  This book has since been made available in more field friendly East/West editions, but the original is the bible for most serious North American birders.

The latest in field guides is Richard Crossley's The Crossley Id Guide: Eastern Birds.  Each plate features more than a dozen photograph set against a backdrop of the bird's preferred habitat. The photographs are "posed" in realistic ways, such as showing what a falcon would look like soaring at a high altitude, or perched on a bridge.  This guide is recommended as a desk reference since it is about the size and shape of a midsize city phonebook.  

Got a favorite field guide? Let us know in the comments.

-- Ed O'Brien is a librarian at Oak Park Public Library

Reader Comments

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Dave Coulter  

Posted: June 1st, 2012 2:40 PM

Great post Ed! I have a couple of the Stokes guides, which rely on photos. As time goes on I find myself preferring the Sibley and/or NatGeo guides and their artist renditions of the birds. Someday I'll add one to my collection :)

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