Environmental Almanac | Warbler neck a common ailment this time of year

Environmental Almanac | Warbler neck a common ailment this time of year

Have you noticed friends or co-workers looking a little sleep-deprived lately? Perhaps these same people complain of a sore neck and look past you into the trees while you're talking. You may be encountering birders caught up in the excitement of spring migration.

Sure, a variety of birds have been migrating through central Illinois since February. During the late winter and early spring, something like 240 species of birds belonging to 39 families pass this way. But for most birders, the highlight of spring is songbird migration, and that is at its most intense now and for a couple of more weeks.

There are great numbers of birds and a great variety of species represented in this wave, hundreds of thousands of individuals belonging to more than 120 species. The most dazzling among them are members of a family of birds known as warblers, which are incredibly colorful little birds that average only about a third of an ounce in weight. Although they are small, warblers migrate long distances, from wintering ranges in Mexico, Central and South America to breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada.

As they move north, warblers feed on insects, especially the caterpillars, bees and wasps that populate the crowns of trees as they flower and leaf out. (This habit of the birds accounts for a condition that afflicts birders known as "warbler neck." That's the pain you experience when you spend too much time looking up.)

Although 20 species of warblers breed in Illinois, only seven of those nest in Champaign County. Most individuals of the 37 warbler species that occur in the state during spring are just passing through on their way further north.

Ironically, the highly fragmented nature of the central Illinois landscape creates great opportunities for warbler watching. Migrating birds that need trees to feed in when they stop are concentrated in urban areas and the isolated woodlands that remain here.

It seems almost foolish to try to describe in words the vivid beauty that prompts birders to get out before sunrise day after day. Some warblers are all about color.

The blackburnian warbler's throat and head, for instance, exhibit such a bright combination of orange and yellow that it looks to be on fire.

And the cerulean warbler—well, if you've only experienced "cerulean" as the color of a crayon, you've got to see this bird.

Other warblers are about patterns. The aptly named black and white warbler, for example, makes up for its lack of color in the same way a zebra does, by sporting stripes so bold they appear to be painted on.

If you're new to birding, or just interested in getting out with people who share your enthusiasm, you might want to check out the Sunday morning bird walks hosted by the Champaign County Audubon Society at Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park in Urbana. Walks start out from the parking lot of the Anita Purves Nature Center at 7:30 a.m. and last until about 9 a.m. — although certain people hang out much later when the birding is good.

You may also want to add to your calendar the 10th annual Bird Migration Festival, which is scheduled to take place on Saturday at the Interpretive Center at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve. This family friendly event will include opportunities to see both wild and captive birds up close, as well as a number of other bird-themed activities. More information about the festival is available at the website of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

Also on Saturday, the local conservation group Grand Prairie Friends will conduct a sale of native prairie and woodland plants at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana. This sale represents the best opportunity of the year for residents of East Central Illinois to get their hands on a wide assortment of native plants at a very reasonable price — and to support broader conservation efforts at the same time.

The sale runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Given their concern for Monarch butterflies, patrons of this sale in recent years have been eager to buy milkweed seedlings, and this year, three varieties of milkweed will be available. But I would encourage you not to stop with milkweed. Let one of the knowledgeable volunteers at the sale help you figure out ways some of the other 30-plus types of plants available can help beautify your yard and support wildlife at the same time.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Environment, Pets