In spring, a symphony of trills and chirps draws hikers into the woods.
© Torsten Muller
On a guided hike in May, birders look for waterfowl in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
In April, everything returns to the forest.
It's easy to see the ephemerals — false rue anemone, hepatica and trout lilies, swelling into a carpet of
white — and the watercress that swirls in cold brooks.
Tiny chartreuse leaves unfold from the tips of tree branches, and tightly furled fiddlehead ferns push up from the old brown fronds.
The spring breezes also bring in birds, but they're not as easy to see. Birds don't stay put, unlike flowers and trees, and
they defy identification by amateurs.
It's a good guess that a flash of yellow is a warbler, but which kind — chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, magnolia,
And those tweets, twitters and trills — who's making them, and what do they mean?
It takes a finely tuned ear to pick out the songs in a babel of birds. Most of us can recognize the whistle of a robin and the piping of a whippoorwill, but to hear the whole symphony, you need an interpreter.
When I find one, I follow her into the woods and hang on every word. One May, I went along with the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's Barbara Duerksen, who was leading a bird hike into the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in southwest Wisconsin.The unusual topography of the 8,569-acre reserve — prairie savannah and marshes, cool valleys and sun-soaked cliffs — makes it breeding habitat for more than 100 species of birds and a stop for many others heading north to boreal forest.
"The biggest problem of birding here is figuring out where to go, because there are a lot of great places," said Duerksen, who lives in nearby Richland Center.
From the visitors center, we borrowed binoculars and walked down a trail that the previous year, Duerksen said, had to be
widened because a snapping turtle made a nest on it.
Soon, she began picking out bird calls — the meow of a catbird, the metallic chink of an Eastern towhee, the unison call of sandhill cranes in the distance.
"Let's go on, maybe we'll see some birds," she said. "It seems as if we ought to be able to see the towhee pretty close." But another bird distracted her.
"Oh, hear that little descending squeal?" she said. "That's a blue-gray gnatcatcher. They decorate their nests with lichen, and it looks just like a knot on a branch. It has a little tiny downward squeak; you can see it feeding."
Looking and listening
The morning was cool and gray, with a little mist — good for us, because it kept the birds close to the ground and
feasting on insects.
Overhead, someone spotted a brown bird hunkered on a bare branch, and we all lifted our scopes and tried to find it; even with help, it was hard.
© Torsten Muller
"I'm thinking it's a nighthawk," Duerksen said. "They're the ones I tend to see or hear most around town. They have a bzzzt-bzzzt sound when flying around; they make a rushing sound with their wings."
We were lucky, she said, to catch it roosting where we could see it.
"Its feathers have markings that are just like lichen on a branch," Duerksen said. "Once you see something like this, you can fix the image in your head, and it's easier to see it again."
We continued down the trail, into a stand of the white pines that were fooled into flourishing far south of their normal habitat.
"Hear that Tennessee warbler singing up ahead?" Duerksen asked. "It has a three-part chirpy trill thing."
We passed a shale outcropping, and a deer shot past. But everyone was looking at a bright-yellow warbler, which obligingly flew right into the spot on which I'd trained my binoculars.
"That's a common warbler — 'swee-swee-sweet, how sweet,' " she said.
Duerksen has been listening to birds for many years.
"I have bad eyesight, and the first thing that attracted me about birds is their songs," she said. "The first thing I
remember is asking my mother the difference between a robin call and an oriole, and she knew.
"I grew up in Kansas, and if you have Western meadowlark, you don't need Prozac. It's instant cheer — you're going down the road, and you hear this gorgeous bubbly song."
At the edge of a marsh, we watched red-winged blackbirds swinging from the tops of cattails and swallows swooping
A deer stood on the opposite end of the marsh; as I looked at it through my binoculars, I saw a coot pop its head out of the rushes, followed by its partner.
Walking toward the Kickapoo River, we heard the gurgle of a cowbird and the hollow tap of a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
As we approached a new covered bridge, one of 12 in the reserve, the sapsucker flew ahead of us and onto a wooden pillar of the bridge.
In the still air, the rat-tat-tat of the sapsucker on the bridge sounded abnormally loud, almost like the report of a gun.
When I asked why the bird was tapping at wood it knew wouldn't yield sap, Duerksen shrugged, as if the answer was obvious.
"It's mating season," she said. "It makes a cool sound."
Starting and stopping
A bird hike is a good excuse to get into the woods and inhale the ambrosia of spring air, heavy with the fragrance of damp earth and growing things. But don't count on getting a lot of exercise.
"I try to take a walk every day, but on a great warbler day, it takes 45 minutes to get down the driveway," Duerksen says. "There goes the aerobic value of a walk, but that's OK."
© Beth Gauper
Bird watchers come to Duluth's Hawk Ridge to watch the fall migration.
As birds start to migrate and become more active, naturalists will hold hikes all over the region, helping beginning as well
as experienced birders spot birds and identify their calls.
In the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in the Twin Cities, volunteer interpreter Craig Mandel leads bird-watching treks, each time to a different part of the refuge.
In mid-April, he says, hikers will see sparrows and perhaps osprey, peregrine falcons and great blue herons. In early May, they'll spot shorebirds, the first warblers and, perhaps, trumpeter swans; later, nesting birds will join the mix.
"There's not any bird not worth looking at," says Mandel, who leads 50 to 70 field trips a year.
He has been birding seriously since 1985 and taught himself by listening to bird calls on tape, over and over, just as if he
were learning a foreign language.
Every winter, he listens to the tapes again to brush up. Amateurs shouldn't feel bad if they don't catch on right away, he says.
"For me, it was a real struggle," he says. "It's a lot of work. You'll never learn it all, which is one thing I kind of like about it."
The payoff comes in spring, when the symphony starts anew, and he's there to listen.
"Every month should be May," Mandel says. "The birds, the flowers — it's just great."
Trip Tips: Bird hikes
Most hikes go out rain or shine; an overcast or even drizzly day often is better than a warm, sunny day for spotting
Dress for the weather and wear sturdy shoes. Bring binoculars and a field guide. Often, centers lend binoculars and/or guides to participants on hikes; call ahead to check.
Below are some of the spring hikes held around the region from late April through May; check nearby state parks, wildlife refuges and nature centers for others.
Spring Warbler Walks in Duluth. In May, members of the Duluth Audubon Society lead
walks at 6:30 a.m. Tuesdays from the Western Waterfront Trail lot in West Duluth and 6:30 a.m. Thursdays from the Park Point
Recreation Center lot.
Spring Birding Bird Hikes at Crex Meadows in Grantsburg, Wis., 8-10 a.m.
Bird Watching Walks at Sibley State Park near New
Bird Walks at 6:30 a.m., Beaver Creek Reserve near Stanley, Wis., east of
Bird Watching Treks, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife
Refuge at Rapids Lake Visitors Center in the southwest Minneapolis suburb of Carver, 4-6 p.m.
Native Plant and Bird Hike at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge, Wis., 8-11 a.m. Register in advance.
Guided Bird Walks, monthly at Effigy Mounds National Monument three miles north of Marquette, Iowa.
Bird Hikes at Wild River State Park near Taylors Falls, Minn., as part of Seegwan: A Celebration of the Sights and Sounds of Spring.
Bird Hikes in various Minnesota state parks through
FestivalsFestivals nearly always include hikes and field trips; see Spring bird festivals.
Bird Hikes from the DNR field office in Horicon, Wis., part of the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival.
Hikes from the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center in Ashland, Wis., part of the Chequamegon Bay Bird and Nature Festival.
Bird Hikes in Door County, part of the Festival of Nature at Ridges Sanctuary in
Baileys Harbor, Wis.
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