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Where the wood warblers are in summertime
"Basswood TV" is more interesting than many Roku channels
Ask any birder and they’ll tell you that wood warbler migration in the Midwest is the most wonderful time of the year. For about four weeks, it’s like Christmas morning every day. It’s a literal bright spot after a gray winter, in Chicago that means the glittering yellows, oranges, and greens of the tiny neotropical migrants making their way north. Trees and shrubs throughout the area are bejeweled by nearly three dozen warbler species that are headed from the tropics, mostly to points in the boreal forest.
Warbler migration’s a fleeting thing, though. We wait all winter long, most of spring, and then it comes and goes within a few weeks. When May’s done, we retreat into our dens and family rooms and watch the Cubs and White Sox for the next few months until fall migration. That’s that. The birds couldn’t be farther away, out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Some of us mark the days until next May.
This brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend a couple years ago. I needed to get in touch with a longtime birder in May of that year, let’s just call him Dave. I said to the friend, “What do you think about me getting in touch with Dave for a chat?” The response: “He’s busy.” Oh, I thought, he must have a big project at work or something. “It’s May. You don’t get in touch with Dave in May.” Right, I thought. You don’t get in touch with Dave in May. And why don’t you get in touch with Dave? He’s birding every day.
Funny thing is though, looking for warblers doesn’t have to end in May. All it takes is a ride a few latitudes north.
That brings me to the five days I recently spent above the 45th parallel. We were camped at an undisclosed location on Lake Michigan, 250 miles north of Chicago. This is deep spruce/bog forest, hard by the Niagara Escarpment, where there are endless rock gardens on the shores of the lake all the way to Manistique.
A basswood, or big leaf linden, graced our campsite along with scores of cedars, white pines, and paper birch. Each morning, the sun shone from the east, over Lake Michigan, and right on that basswood. And each morning, it harbored all sorts of birds. In total, there were nine species of warbler. Among the highlights, loads of American Redstarts, a pair of Black-and-white Warblers with young, and, in the non-warbler realm, a Red-eyed Vireo family. Also present were Northern Waterthrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Pine Warbler. It was as if we were transported back to May in Chicago each day.
One of the official brothers-in-law of TWiB, a real-life scientist, and a brilliant one at that, described it as “Basswood TV.” We’d set our chairs with the rising sun at our back and look up at the linden and all the birds. No power, no cell signal, no wifi. This was must-see morning viewing. I like to think that somewhere in the bowels of Roku there’s a Basswood TV app, where this particular grove of northern hardwoods is shown at all times.
In spring, we strain to see these birds all over the Chicago region. Here, they were right in front of us, in full view and with young. It was a reminder that the lengths we go to can be somewhat overwrought and a little silly. Here we were a few hours north of Chicago, and that May push—“Dave’s not available in May”—felt a thousand miles away.
The next time a warbler search is futile, the next time a May visit to a nature preserve feels like a struggle and a little bit rushed. Just remember that somewhere out there is Basswood TV, where the birds come to you and the sun is shining and it’s warm and comfortable all day long.
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