A Year of Big Days: May?

by Greg Neise on May 21, 2011

This was the big one.

The one big day that really has some competition: the peak of spring migration. Jeff and I planned, plotted and schemed. We begged, brow-beat and cajoled our birding brethren for intel. We watched the listserve and the forum…and we watched the weather.

Picking “the day” is the key to any big day, but in May it is particularly important. Birds are moving through and they’re in a hurry to get to their breeding grounds. We’ve all seen it. One day the woods are quiet. The next morning, birds fall from the sky like rain…and then they’re gone a couple of days later.

It seems to me that in the past few years that spring migration has become shorter, more intense and happens about a week earlier than I seem to remember. In much of the east and midwest (and southern Canada, for that matter), mid-May is when it’s happening. From New York to Ohio to Iowa, May 10—20 is when it’s raining birds.

Prothonotary Warbler

In Ohio, at the Biggest Week in American Birding they had a fantastic, weeklong (and still going) extravaganza. That is what I remember migration in northern Illinois being like. It started in early May with the first wave; things like orioles and grosbeaks. The early warblers usually included some goodies like Worm-eating, Pine and Yellow-throated. And for the next three to four weeks a steady stream of migrants came through, culminating with the Empidonax and other flycatchers, cuckoos and the bulk of late warblers like Blackpoll.

Not any more. Migration happens in fast pulses, and then boom–gone. This year, the “rain” fell on May 13. The next day saw a 180° turn in the weather, with a 50°+ drop in temperatures and frost on the morning of the 14th. Birders had a field day that Saturday. Warblers and other migrants were everywhere…and most were foraging on the ground, munching on the frozen insects in the grass. NAB blogger Chris West reported 32 species of warblers in west-central Wisconsin that weekend, and another NAB blogger, Ethan Gyllenhaal, reported 20 warbler species in a two-block radius around his house in a Chicago suburb.

On May 13 I was out with my friend (and our big day “non-combatant” team member) Andy Sigler, scouting for the run that Jeff and I scheduled for May 19. We got a rather late start and spent most of the day just pottering about. We checked on breeding species mostly, but also looked into shorebird locations. We finished the day with 147 species, which held great potential for the upcoming big day attempt.

Six days later, Jeff and I began our day at 1 a.m. Between the two of us, I think we had something like a total of 3 hours sleep. I hadn’t even climbed in to the Prius, and already the day was a challenge.


The morning was dead calm, with fog hanging in the low spots, under a full moon. The past 5 days had been cold and raw, with stiff northeast winds and record-setting low temperatures. In the 24 hours before our start, the weather had started to turn more seasonal, and we had high hopes that this would bring in some new migrants.

If only that were true. By about 9 a.m. we had tallied just over 100 species, mostly birds that Andy and I had staked out earlier in the week: Prairie Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Kentucky Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Pileated Woodpecker. The birds passing through, it seemed, had moved on in the night.

At mid-morning we were birding along a road that followed the shore of the Illinois River. This road is a great place to pick up just about anything from lingering migrants to hawks. It was dead. We pulled up one Prothonotary Warbler that I knew was on territory, but the rest of the hour or so we spent working the area was for naught. Our next stop was going to make or break the day. We had one spot for shorebirds.

The habitat was beautiful and on the scouting trip there were 12 species of sandpipers and plovers present. My hope was that the shift in the weather the day before would bring in some more shorebirds. A square mile of beautiful mudflat netted us seven Dunlin and a Killdeer. We were sunk and we knew it.

Iceland (Kumlien's) Gull

But we kept going. We had another shorebird location that we could fit in, and if we hit one pocket of migrants, we could still pull it off. Every woodlot we stopped at was as quiet as late July. A prairie that just a few days before had Henslow’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens on territory was silent. I didn’t understand it. This was the first beautiful day in a week. The birds should be up on the highest perches singing their little heads off. There was only one explanation.

The birding gods were unhappy with us. I don’t know what we did, but once again, we pissed them off royally. But we continued on. And on.

A couple of new warblers here. A sparrow there. We stopped at a forest preserve where Red-breasted Nuthatches were nesting. As we got out of the car, they greeted us with their tiny tin horns. We smiled. While checking that woods for anything else, we happened upon a Blue-headed Vireo. We were crazed…we almost cried. Sleep depravation and Red Bull was taking it’s toll.

Without discussing it…telepathically even…we both just quit. We didn’t stop birding. Oh no. We kept going for another two and a half hours. But now we were just birding. We weren’t trying for any records.

19 hours and 490 miles later, we had tallied 153 species. Jeff’s highest one-day total ever, and my second-highest in Illinois by one species. My favorite bird, a Common Nighthawk, was our last bird of the day—sailing over into a beautiful sunset.


This was one of the most difficult and challenging days of birding I’ve had in my 40 years of doing this. The pockets of migrants were small, few and far between. When we happened upon one, I pished until I almost passed out and we picked out onesies and twosies (mostly onesies). We saw 23 species of warblers, but only one each of half of them. A great number of the species we saw were breeders on territory. In the end we had a good, but strenuous day of May birding. Or, one hell of a scouting trip for our June big day.

Our list includes some really fun birds:

White-rumped Sandpiper
Franklin’s Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Iceland Gull (great bird for late May)
Pileated Woodpecker (what’s noteworthy is that, as seems to be the trend this year, I’ve been seeing them all over the place. We had twice as many Pileated as Red-headed Woodpeckers)
Olive-sided Flycatcher (fun for me…it was the first one I’ve seen in nearly 25 years. I should have included it in my nemesis list)
Loggerhead Shrike (any day you see a Loggerhead in Illinois is a red-letter day)
Bell’s Vireo
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-throated Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Hooded Warbler
Kentucky Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Yellow-breasted Chat

But what made, or more actually unmade, the day was the lack of “gimme” birds. These are what I call “tier 1” birds that we should have gotten, but missed. The list of birds we didn’t see on May 19:

Virginia Rail
Sandhill Crane
Solitary Sandpiper
Wilson’s Snipe
Great Horned Owl
Sedge Wren
Nashville Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Canada Warbler
Lark Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

The goal(s) were to beat 174 (the current northern Illinois record), 184 (the current state-wide record) and 200 species (just because it had never been done in Illinois).

I have the species expected on our routes aligned into tiers. Tier 1 is birds that we should get, either because they are common or because they are reliable. Tier two is species that we probably will get a good percentage of, but missing any of them is a distinct possibility. Tier 3 is birds that are present, but either unreliable or simply secretive (think American Bittern).

Tier 1 and tier 2 in my calculations total 215 species. Plus 22 tier 3.

On our May big day, we saw 10 out of 38 tier 2 species. We saw 1 out of 22 tier 3 species. We had 3 species not even factored in as possibles.

…and we saw 121 of 171 tier 1 species.

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  • Chatterbirds

    Some good species there but sorry to hear that the migrants didn’t cooperate.

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