Fall migration is happening right now. Stop what you’re doing, grab a camera or binoculars, and go outside! You never know what you might see. It could be a fall warbler (but what kind?), a beautiful grebe, or a rusty blackbird—it may not even be a bird at all!
Spring and fall are times of great opportunity and diversity. With hundreds of species moving through, you get a chance to see and photograph some that would be impossible to find at any other time. Since they may be here only a few days before moving on, I like to get out any chance I get.
Migration is not just for birds. Most know the mighty migration of the monarch butterfly, but did you know that some dragonflies migrate, too? You can often find large numbers of dragonflies hunting other insects almost anywhere in the Chicago Botanic Garden. The most common ones to find migrating are the darners (Anax sp.) and saddlebags (Tramea sp.).
When you spot a warbler, take a close look and listen closely to its song—birds within the species are notoriously difficult to identify. Also, keep your eyes open for warblers, kinglets, blackbirds, hawks, ducks, shorebirds, sandhill cranes, and more. There will be a steady stream of birds migrating through this area through November. Any place in the Garden can have birds. Listen for the sounds, watch for movement in the trees, and you may be lucky to see one of these beauties. Check the logbook at the Information Desk in the Visitor Center to see what other birders have seen and add your finds as well.
Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.
Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.
Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.
After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.
When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.
I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.
I love Warblers! They are amazing and beautiful little birds. They migrate thousands of miles each year. A few of these jewels breed in the Chicago area, but most only pass through for just a few weeks each spring and fall on their way to breeding grounds. I marvel at their journey. They fly when the winds are favorable, and look for green spaces to spend the day fueling up on insects before heading out again for the next leg of their journey. I can only imagine how good the Chicago Botanic Garden must look to these tired birds as they approach the city. It’s a green oasis with trees, prairies and water.
My choices of possible warbler locations in the Garden are many. Mary Mix McDonald Woods, near the entrance, is a likely place to spot many birds so I head there first. As I approach, I’m greeted by a lovely female cardinal – a nice start to my walk. I slow my pace. Many birds can be found along the edges of the woods, and I don’t want to scare them off. I walk in a few feet and I hear the chirps of white-throated sparrows, another migrating bird. After a few minutes I see the flittering of small birds. Yes, here are my beloved warblers. They are first-year yellow-rumped warblers, hopping from tree to tree picking off bugs. One poses just long enough for me to focus and fire off a few shots. Another migrating bird makes a brief appearance, the Brown Creeper, scooting quickly up one tree and then another. I hear a call from the top of the trees. I focus my camera lens on the sound to find a yellow-bellied sapsucker. So many birds, and I have yet to make it off the first bridge! – All this in less than half an hour! I am anxious to see what else is around, so I start walking the paths. The rest of the woods are surprisingly quiet. I remind myself that when the birds are “hopping,” THAT is the place to be. It is not “better” someplace else. It’s good lesson in life as well. The grass is not greener on the other side!
I hope to see more warblers before the fall is over. There will be birds moving through for weeks to come. A good time to check for warblers is after a night of winds from the north. The birds will fly with the wind and will drop down onto the Garden in the morning. The woods, prairie, and top of the waterfall garden are all great places to check for new arrivals.
Warblers move so fast and are often hidden behind leaves and branches. It is a real treat for me when I get a good shot of these tiny birds. I probably toss 2/3 of all the shots I take. The best advice I can give to you is to get out often and to practice as much as you can. It WILL be worth it!
We learned some interesting things about hummingbirds in this interview with Ecologist Jim Steffen. You’ll find hummingbirds in many of our 24 display gardens and in our three native habitats. You’ll also find many other resident and migratory birds at the Garden because of the diversity of plant life. Visit chicagobotanic.org/birds for more information on birding at the Chicago Botanic Garden.