This spring was one heck-uva-ride, wasn’t it? Winter this year achieved a painfully long stay. April still saw temperatures in the 30's and 40's, leaving us outdoors-people to contend with winter's continued snow, slush, and sleet.
The birds on the other hand, again exemplifying their adaptiveness in the face of adversity, responded--these responses are what made Spring 2013 so fascinating. Diving ducks, for example, remained in the prairie state (and others around it) far longer than is typical, with scaup, mergansers, and even scoters present along the lakefront into May.
Bit by bit, the boundary of the cold inched its way up the state, frequently disturbed by cold fronts and more recurrences of winter. By the time Mid-April came around, migrants were in state, mostly concentrated in the southern regions, giving lucky birders there a sneak-peek of what was to come. Spring-loaded with migratory fervor, the birds were strangely...lethargic. They didn’t move. As we followed migration together this spring, we watched repeatedly as perfect migrant-carrying weather-events passed through our region, and failed utterly to catch the classic spring burst of migration that we birders know and love. The cold air that still sat on top of some of central and northern Illinois effectively formed a barrier for migration, a barrier of cold and "insect-lessness". North of this barrier, no trees were budding, no flowers were blooming, and certainly no bees were buzzing.
The migrants stayed put, and waited for the barrier to give, for the cold to lift, and day after day we felt the suspense building as we waited as anxiously as the birds did. Some of the hardier birds were undeterred: many blackbirds and swallows moved north through the barrier of cold. But wave after wave of cold brought about the fascinating phenomenon of reverse migration, something we should know well after Spring 2013.
And then it happened. After relatively paltry Spring Bird Counts, the warmth came. Life bloomed all the way through the state, and with its lateness, it brought a mind-blowing variety of warblers: Wilson’s Warblers with Waterthrushes, Mourning Warblers with Redstarts, Parulas with Blackpoll Warblers. Every potential migrant-carrying wind brought them in great numbers. After early May, we saw the radar on fire night after night. After being stalled weeks off schedule for some, we witnessed the determination that I think defines spring migration. Migrants were determined to get up north as quickly as possible after losing so much time, and they did it with grandeur. With this definitive urgency, migrants were here and gone in the blink of an eye. But the fact that they all came through at once facilitated some amazing happenings this spring, the best of which was likely the breaking of the Illinois Big Day Record.
The extremity of this spring was more obvious in some places than others, but overall, it really taught us that climate, weather, and migration are intimately linked. And the more we come to understand these grand natural processes, and how they interact, the better prepared we will be for next spring, and even this Fall. So bring it on migration. We’re ready for the next round. And hey, maybe we’ll get a late-staying summer this time around…