Chasing a rarity (or not)

(published 4-20-23)

What’s my birding style? What’s my favorite way to enjoy birds? These are questions we might ask ourselves as our engagement with the hobby grows.

Ross's Gull by Matt Zuro
I’ve been pondering them ever since an ultra-rare Ross’s gull gifted birders a huge surprise in March. First spotted by Dan Lory, the high-Arctic wanderer triggered a mad rush to a stretch of Chicago beaches near the Indiana line. It was only the fourth Illinois record for the species, and the best opportunity to see one here since 1978.

Soon about 100 birders were on the scene, trying for a glimpse. Many more were on the way, mapping out directions and wondering where to park. Word travels fast when Elvis is on the lakefront.

Hours before the discovery, no local birder expected to be life listing a Ross’s gull. A Ross’s goose perhaps, but not a gull. This was insane. Rare bird chasers were licking their chops.

Time was short, the pressure intense. Surely this bird was a “one-day wonder.” Nobody saw it the next day, or the next.

But three days after the initial sighting the gull returned, appearing off and on for another 48 hours. It believed in second chances. More thrill seekers dropped everything and hit the road. A few arrived from other states, with success far from guaranteed.

Birders reported the gull’s whereabouts constantly via the GroupMe app, helping others find the target. Most (but not all) searchers went home happy.

It may surprise you that I did not pursue the Ross’s gull, already a lock for the area’s Bird of the Year. Timing is everything, right? When the news broke, I was leading a bird walk at Cantigny Park; when the bird came back, I was too busy at work to skip out.

Once more, I had to experience an amazing bird vicariously. It was still amazing, just to know such a rarity was only 40 miles from my desk.

Townsend's Warbler by Jerry Ting
In birding, you get some and you miss some. We learn to be OK with it, otherwise we’d go crazy. My personal outlook is glass-half-full: most birds I really want to see will cross my path eventually. Maybe not Ross’s gull but most.

It took me years to locate some birds that my friends seem to find routinely—least bittern, worm-eating warbler, Kentucky warbler, and vesper sparrow, to name a few. Those same friends enabled some of my most coveted sightings. The birding community is incredibly supportive.

We do remember the misses, though. In 2015, I went all the way to Quincy, Illinois, to bag an ivory gull—another rare white wonder from the far north, and the first in Illinois since 1992. Too late, the bird was gone.   

This is a hobby, not life or death, and there are always birds to see. In Quincy, I recall watching eagles soar against a pure blue sky and a pileated woodpecker pounding away on a snag. A tufted titmouse called. Nature awards some fine consolation prizes if we are open to receiving them.

Fast forward to 2020, when dozens of birders scurried to Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine for a Townsend’s warbler, a rare visitor to the Midwest. Once again, I couldn’t get away. Oh well, I thought, I’ll see that bird someday—maybe out west where it belongs.

Sure enough, in January, my wish came true. I was birding at Madera Canyon in the Tucson area with my friend Chuck, a Chicago retiree on an extended winter getaway. Walking down a snow-dusted trail, we encountered a striking Townsend’s warbler, a most welcome surprise.

Chuck Berman (left) and Jeff Reiter
Three more lifers followed, and only one, yellow-eyed junco, was fully anticipated (thanks to Chuck’s scouting report). Hepatic tanager was a bonus, and Chuck later guided me to a small park in Green Valley for Lawrence’s goldfinch.

So, I’m back to my initial question about birding style. My experience in Arizona was just about perfect—easy pace, no pressure, let’s just see what we see. The only thing we chased was a good time.

In her new book, “Slow Birding,” Joan Strassmann urges us to relax and pay more attention to the birds all around us. That’s good advice that we probably don’t hear enough. Patience and careful observation go a long way.

How we bird is a personal choice. You can watch birds from your kitchen window, a park bench, or a wheelchair. You might travel the world to see exotic birds or track down rare birds all over Chicagoland and the Midwest. With so many options, the hobby is accessible for everyone.

Keep a list, keep 10 lists, or forego listing altogether. Fire up eBird, Merlin and GroupMe, or head into the field unplugged, with just a raggedy old Peterson guide. Bird alone or with others. Hang a feeder or not.

My own approach to the hobby is mixed. I love watching my yard, slow birding in familiar or new places, and writing about what I see. Experiencing new birds and growing my life list is fun for me, but I’ve morphed into a reluctant chaser. I’ll drive to see a rare bird only if it fits my schedule, isn’t too far, and the odds of success are high.  

Know your style and wear it proudly. There’s no crying in baseball, and no shame in birding. Do what feels right and gives you joy.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Red-winged Blackbird by Christian Goers
Black beauties of the marsh

Red-winged blackbirds are back, on territory, and sounding off

(published 3-2-23)

Sometimes I like to nerd out on a specific bird. The challenge is to learn something new, and I always do.

Today’s focus is the red-winged blackbird, a true harbinger of spring in northern Illinois. The glossy black males with scarlet shoulder patches (or “epaulets”) are now returning from the southern U.S., establishing territories in preparation for mating season. Their exuberant “konk-la-reeeee!” is a classic sound of the marsh that amplifies in the coming weeks.

The redwing is highly adaptable. It thrives in a variety of habitats, even low-quality ones, and adjusts its diet to the season. These traits, along with a hyperactive sex drive, make it one of the most abundant birds in North America, found coast-to-coast. We see redwings just about everywhere, from wetlands and farm fields to bird feeders and ditches along the interstate.

Beginning birders may find the female redwing tricky to identify. It’s brown and heavily streaked, like a large sparrow. The females migrate here a few weeks after the males and maintain a low profile.

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn
Redwings are famously aggressive during nesting season, generally mid-May through July. If you are close to an active nest the male will let you know. Agitated birds hover over human intruders, scolding repeatedly with a harsh “chack!” Parks with trails around lakes and ponds, and golf courses, are hot zones.

Some redwings get physical, approaching from behind and making light contact with their feet. Getting bopped on the head is startling but seldom bloody.

Any perceived enemy is fair game for the fearless RWBB. The species will even chase and briefly land on flying hawks, crows and herons, giving the larger birds a peck on the head or neck.

My Words on Birds business card features a redwing in the air, poised for attack. I snapped the photo looking straight up and then scrambled to safety.

But let’s get back to those epaulets. When a male redwing sings, the tail spreads out and the wings lift, fully exposing the red patches. Ornithologists, I learned, call this song-spread. The display serves to defend territory and attract potential mates. Birds with the biggest, brightest wing patches enjoy a competitive advantage.

The red patches have a yellowish edge at the base. A thin buffy wing bar is often the only color visible on a male, such as during a foraging trip inside another male’s territory. This species can be inconspicuous when it needs to be.

A few other gleanings:

-- The lifespan of a red-winged blackbird averages about three years. The oldest bird on record, which we know from bird banding, was 15 years and 9 months.

-- Redwings are among the most polygynous of all bird species. Males may breed with 10 or more females during nesting season, although three is average. Females are a little slinky, too, often mating with more than one male.

A former RWBB nest
-- A male’s territory is usually a quarter-acre or less—much smaller than I expected given all the hanky panky going on.

-- Females construct the nest from dried marsh vegetation and grasses, about four feet off the ground or water surface. The nest is used only once. A new one is built if there is a second brood, to keep the young safe from tiny nest parasites.

-- Redwings are capable of massive crop damage when they gather in huge flocks after nesting season. The species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and yet farmers are allowed to employ “control measures” to mitigate economic losses.

When not raising families, red-winged blackbirds are indeed highly social, which makes them easy targets. Winter roosts in agricultural areas, usually with grackles and starlings mixed in, can number in the millions.  

This time of year, however, the dapper redwings are setting up shop and looking out for No. 1. Celebrate spring’s early arrival by going for a look and listen at your local marsh. Even a neighborhood pond with some cattails might do the trick. The show is on!

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival, February 2016
From my kitchen table to yours

20th Anniversary Column!

(published 2-15-23)

Earlier this month I presented to the DuPage Birding Club, filling an hour with stories from this column. Amazingly, some audience members stayed awake until the end. As Words on Birds begins its twentieth year, here’s a light version of my remarks, without the 103 PowerPoint slides.

My inaugural column, “Birdwatching is like a box of chocolates,” ran in the Glen Ellyn News and other weekly newspapers in the now defunct Liberty Suburban chain. The Daily Herald picked up the column in 2008 and it’s been here ever since, running once a month if I’m on my game.

This is my passion project. After more than 200 columns, I still enjoy writing about birds, birding, and birders.

Finding topics isn’t hard. I usually have several column-worthy ideas swimming in my head, but many stories are pop ups—unplanned columns about unusual or rare bird sightings, by me and by others. “Chasing the big grackle,” last February, is a good example.

The story of that vagrant great-tailed grackle still makes me smile. Doug Stotz from Chicago’s Field Museum discovered the bird, hanging out next to I-57 at the Monee exit—the bird, not Doug. It stayed for weeks, surviving a brutal winter on gas station food scraps.

Stotz, Josh Engel and other true bird experts have provided helpful insights over the years, no doubt saving me from myself. I’m learning all the time, but I’m still a birder, not an ornithologist.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, May 2014
Monee was exciting, but it couldn’t top Yorkville. That’s where nine black-bellied whistling ducks visited Irene Kaufman’s backyard feeders in May 2014. That story had it all—a rare species for our region that revved up the birding community, a “stakeout” scenario lasting 10 days, and a welcoming homeowner who embraced the excitement in her once peaceful subdivision. More than 200 birders signed a guestbook in Irene’s driveway.

I write about common birds, too, especially those in our neighborhoods. The column has made me more observant, and I hope it’s had the same effect on you. Species that don’t visit feeders can be seen in your trees and shrubs, or in the sky, at certain times of year. The key is being alert and knowing when to look. I’ve devoted columns to cranes, eagles, nighthawks, hummingbirds, nuthatches, owls, sparrows, tanagers, woodpeckers, wrens and, of course, the dazzling spring warblers.

Going beyond the backyard adds to the fun. As birdwatchers we enjoy an outstanding network of county forest preserves and other local hot spots, dozens of them mentioned here. Some venues are worth a bit more driving. We’ve traveled to Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana Dunes State Park, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and the legendary Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota.

You’ve also endured my rambling bird-filled vacation reports from Florida (lots), South Dakota, Pacific Northwest, England, and Ireland. I’ll admit, Words on Birds sometimes reads like a personal diary—thanks for indulging me. I wrote about my “spark bird” (hooded warbler); 100th yard bird (common yellowthroat); 500th life bird (a varied thrush in Evanston!); and my triumphant encounters with former nemesis birds such as Kentucky warbler and worm-eating warbler.

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, June 2014

This column introduced you to birding rock stars like George Archibald, Vern Kleen, Noah Strycker and Julie Zickefoose. You met local birders Graham and Henrey Deese, Keriann Dubina, Ray Feld, David Johnson, Kristina Knowski, Al Stokie and Kyle Wiktor. You even met my late parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, who took me on a very cold woodcock watch early in life. I’m sure glad they did.

I profiled the “birdiest” yard in DuPage County; went downstate to observe prairie chickens on their lek; likened birding to fishing; debated birdwatching as sport vs. hobby; covered Big Days and Big Years; reviewed a dozen books; and sang the virtues of the federal duck stamp. One of my earliest columns was about butterflies!

No bird-related topic is off limits. Writing about the racism of John J. Audubon wasn’t easy, and it’s never fun to report on the steady decline of bird populations, a sadly recurring theme. But people need to know.

Birders tend to care about conservation and the environment, so the more of them the better. If my writings help bring a few more people into birdwatching, then I’m a happy reporter.

You should know that I don’t see or even attempt to see all the spectacular birds featured on these pages. It’s a rush just keeping track of all the action, conveying the experiences of lucky souls who track down their targets or who simply find themselves in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, a lot of them carry big lenses.

High-quality bird photos are essential. They draw people in way better than words. The following photographers have been especially generous with their images: Jackie Bowman, Mike Carroll, Jim Frazier, Christian Goers, Jerry Goldner, Bonnie Graham, Tamima Itani and Matt Misewicz.

Thanks also to you, for reading my stuff, and to the Daily Herald for providing a far-reaching platform. I’ll try to keep earning my wings.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Painted Redstart by Hemant Krishan
Extraordinary birds of 2022

Rare sightings and other surprises captivated local watchers throughout the year

(published 12-15-22)

The younger, hot-shot birders call them megas, as in mega-rarity—their name for the occasional OMG birds that send dedicated watchers racing for their binoculars and car keys.  

Megas can be once-in-a-lifetime events. What are your chances, say, of spotting a painted redstart in Illinois? Almost zero. And yet it happened on August 21, at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda.

“It was an exciting adrenaline rush for sure,” said the finder, Jeff Bilsky. “The bird was amazing and beautiful with its brilliant red belly, white wings and the constantly waving tail.”

Painted redstart is a bird of southeast Arizona. Our state had never seen one.

Jeff’s companion that day, Beau Schaeffer, quickly alerted the birding community via the GroupMe app, enabling about 50 fast-acting birders to get eyes on the history-making songbird before it vanished. Searchers came up empty the next day.

Another surprise visitor from the West, lesser goldfinch, appeared in March at Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lamont. The bird, also an Illinois first, was discovered during a banding project and hung around the center’s feeders for a week.

Exciting birds filled out 2022 from start to finish. Few were megas, of course, but a good many left their viewers feeling lucky and thankful.

News of a feather

I’ll get to those sightings in a bit. First, let’s review the year’s bird-related news, leading off with the serious stuff:

The "2022 State of the Birds Report,” issued in October by 33 leading science and conservation organizations, said more than half of U.S. bird species are declining. Seventy “tipping point species,” it added, have each lost half or more of their populations in the past 50 years and could lose another half in the next 50 years if nothing changes. Among them: chimney swift, rufous hummingbird, golden-winged warbler, evening grosbeak, and bobolink.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2022, now in Congress, would deliver a significant boost for at-risk species, supplying $1.3 billion in annual funding. The bill enjoys strong bipartisan support and could be signed into law any day now.

The Bird Conservation Network released a landmark study based on 22 years of bird census data. “Breeding Bird Trends in the Chicago Region 1999-2020” calls out the importance of protected lands as critical habitat for nesting species.

Neotropic Cormorant by Randall Everts
Monty died at Montrose Beach on May 13, from a respiratory infection. The renowned piping plover was no doubt missing his mate, Rose, who did not return. This would have been the fourth year of nesting by the pair on their namesake Chicago strand.

On a brighter note, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team noted a record-breaking 2022 breeding season, with 149 plover fledglings, the most since counting began in 1984 and up from 87 in 2020.

Imani, one of Monty and Rose’s chicks from 2021, was spotted on Montrose on May 25, the same day birders held a memorial for his famous parents.

Monty did not die from avian flu, but an outbreak of the virus last spring caused the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to advise a shutdown of bird feeders and bird baths. Among wild bird populations, aquatic birds were most affected locally, including a large die-off of double-crested cormorants at Baker’s Lake near Barrington.

Infection also claimed the life of a beloved female great horned owl that nested for many years at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County approved a $25 million expansion and revitalization of Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Completion is set for 2025.

Willowbrook took in several raptors for rodenticide poisoning last winter, including a bald eagle and snowy owl. Both were released after successful treatment.

Voters approved a tax increase last month that will provide extra resources for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, a big win for urban and suburban nature.

Illinois Audubon Society celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2022 and in August named Jo Fessett executive director. She succeeds Jim Herkert who retired in April.

The Naperville-based Conservation Foundation achieved a milestone as well, turning 50.

Bird Watcher’s Digest folded suddenly after 43 years in print, only to be reborn six months later as BWD, with new ownership and a larger page format.

A greater white-fronted goose crashed a Los Angeles Dodgers playoff game in prime time, and a Volkswagen commercial with a birdwatching theme made the song “I Like Birds” even more popular. You know that tune from “The Big Year,” right?  Right?

New video from Louisiana prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pause plans for declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. Hope is still alive.

Notable sightings

Redpolls and white-winged crossbills invaded from the north, delighting birders all winter and deep into spring. A Mundelein homeowner reported 300 redpolls in her yard at once!

Northern Bobwhite by Henry Meade
The DuPage County Spring Bird Count (SBC), coordinated by the DuPage Birding Club, turned up 173 species on May 7. Adding just one new bird to the SBC all-time list is a long shot—the logbook is going on 50 years. Incredibly, three were added in 2022: common redpoll, Neotropic cormorant and trumpeter swan.

Six woodpecker species, none of them an ivory-bill, were among 205 birds found on May 13 by the Big Day team of Mike Avara, Colin Dobson, Mark Vukovich and Mike Ward. Their carefully planned itinerary covered 750 road miles and shattered the old Illinois Big Day record of 191 species, set in 2013 and tied in 2016.

Across all counties, water-loving species considered uncommon or rare popped up regularly, perhaps due in part to climate change. Black-bellied whistling duck; cattle and snowy egrets; little blue heron; black-necked stilt; red-necked and eared grebes; Neotropic cormorant; white-faced ibis; and trumpeter swan—all presented excellent viewing opportunities in 2022. State of the Birds, mentioned above, singled out wetlands as the one habitat in which bird numbers are increasing.

“If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the birds” made a good jingle for 2022. Here are some additional highlights:

In January, a snowy owl spent two weeks at DuPage Airport while another watched planes at O’Hare. In April, a third snowy turned up at Northerly Island in Chicago, formerly Meigs Field.

Three whooping cranes rested overnight at Nelson’s Lake Marsh in March. Black terns coursed over the Batavia preserve in August.

Kaneville Cemetery produced a white-winged dove and once again proved to be the most reliable place to find a Eurasian tree sparrow.

Fermilab, finally reopened to birders in April, boasted three pairs of nesting ospreys.

Morton Arboretum produced cerulean warbler, northern mockingbird, blue grosbeak, western kingbird, and pileated woodpecker. Best of all was a spotted towhee in October.

A flyover golden eagle electrified a DuPage Birding Club walk at Danada Forest Preserve in Wheaton.

In June, a northern bobwhite called its name along the Great Western Trail in Lombard.

Evening Grosbeaks by Bonnie Graham
Vera Miller was justifiably giddy after finding a Brewster’s warbler (blue-winged/golden-winged hybrid) at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve near Darien.

After an absence of many years, grasshopper sparrows returned to Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

Hooded warblers nested again at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, where pileated woodpeckers may be breeding as well. A pileated was spotted next door at Cantigny Park twice.

Observers at the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawk watch tallied 1,809 migrating broad-winged hawks on September 26, the site’s fourth-highest daily count for the species.

Numerous evening grosbeak sightings across the region in November sparked hopes of an irruption year for the coveted species.

A Neotropic cormorant hung out all spring and summer at Lambert Lake, a small preserve in Glen Ellyn.

Barn owls appeared three times at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago, the region’s hottest of all hot spots. The site’s 2022 avian goodies included piping and snowy plovers, red knot, laughing gull, upland sandpiper, Townsend’s solitaire, and yellow-headed blackbird. Tack on 30 species of warbler, too.

A purple sandpiper at Montrose in September, seen by many, was the earliest fall sighting of the species on record.

Marsh dwelling black rails were heard in both Cook and Lake Counties, and a yellow rail turned up in a Ravenswood back alley.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher by Bonnie Graham
Chicago’s creatively named Park 566 produced a black-legged kittiwake, lark bunting, Say’s phoebe, and loggerhead shrike.

Jackson Park surrendered a western tanager, and a sage thrasher turned up at Northerly Island.

Illinois Beach State Park was the place to be in May, for rare flycatchers and their human admirers. Some birders scored a remarkable trifecta on the same day: eastern kingbird, western kingbird (a pair) and scissor-tailed flycatcher. One week later a fork-tailed flycatcher visited, the third on record for Illinois. Mega!

Birders who missed the IBSP “forkie” had two more chances. In late October, a fork-tailed flycatcher toured Glacial Park Conservation Area in McHenry County. Another (maybe the same bird) lit up the Indiana Dunes a few days later.

A Bullock’s oriole graced a private residence in Winthrop Harbor, and a tricolored heron thrilled birders at nearby Waukegan Beach in June.Will County pitched in with Barrow’s goldeneye, great-tailed grackle, Smith’s longspur, and painted bunting, the latter at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington.

Midewin and Indiana Dunes are practically next door compared with other 2022 rarity hideouts. Birders zipped over to Mason County for limpkin, the state’s fifth record, and Knox County for swallow-tailed kite. Last month, a northern wheatear landed in Jasper County.

Rufous Hummingbird by Graham Deese
Two McHenry homeowners enjoyed (and shared) unlikely feeder birds this month—a juvenile male rose-breasted grosbeak in Algonquin, and a Harris’s sparrow in Crystal Lake. A McHenry County surf scoter at Turnberry Park was notable in October.

Finally, it’s almost a holiday tradition for a rufous hummingbird to visit a backyard nectar feeder that was kept out “just in case.” Hosting honors this year belonged to Oak Park homeowner Rebecca Koch Czurylo, who generously opened her yard to scores of eager birders in late November. The western hummer was still sipping away in early December.

Personal highlights

One of my best moments of 2022 occurred in March while up on a ladder cleaning out the gutters. The dreaded task took an unexpected turn toward joy when a big flock of noisy white-fronted geese passed over—my second-ever yard sighting of the species.

Vesper Sparrow by Nick Waite
Vesper sparrow always eluded me until April, when Haley Gottardo alerted birders to their presence at Kress Creek Park in West Chicago. Once there, Nick Waite pointed me to the cryptic ground-feeding birds (a flock of three) and shared one of his photos. Thank you both!

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed “An Evening with the Cranes” at the International Crane Foundation in June. It was our first visit to Baraboo (Wis.) since ICF’s impressive $10 million renovation, completed in 2021. You don’t have to be a craniac to love the place, or the organization.

In closing, kudos to all my fellow birders, young and old, who graciously shared the hobby in 2022. The pandemic brought many new watchers under our tent—truly a silver lining. We all appreciate birds, and there’s a place for everyone, from relentless chasers to kitchen window feeder peepers. Let’s keep growing the community and raising public awareness for bird conservation. Birding is fun but it carries a responsibility, too.

May your holidays be mega-happy, and the new year filled with lifers!

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Prairie Falcon by Mike Dunn
Stumping for birds

Bob Dolgan’s documentaries capture the magic and mystery of Illinois birds


(published 11-16-22)

Chicago resident Bob Dolgan is a birder, a conservationist, and a fan of the Cleveland Guardians—impressive credentials in my book.


I first met Bob at last spring’s Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, where he was promoting a film project called The Magic Stump. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, a flashback, because I can’t resist an opportunity to talk baseball in a birding column.


In 2021, knowing Bob only from his “This Week in Birding” newsletter, I came across his name in a book about the 1948 Cleveland Indians (now Guardians). I zipped off an email, asking him about his apparent connection to baseball history.

Bob Dolgan

Turns out the book reference was to Bob’s father, a retired sportswriter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He is credited with giving ace pitcher “Sudden Sam” McDowell his excellent nickname and, Bob Jr. told me, attended the ’48 World Series as a fan. Talk about credentials! The Indians won that Series and haven’t won the Fall Classic since, no thanks to the 2016 Cubs.


This year, their first as the Guardians, the team surpassed expectations and gave fans an all-too-brief thrill ride in the postseason. Damn Yankees.


OK, calming down and working my way back to birding now. After graduating from Ohio’s Kenyon College, the younger Bob, now 47, followed his dad into journalism, including a stint with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He moved to Chicago in 2001, shifted to public relations, and more recently earned a Northwestern MBA.


In 2018, feeling burned out and looking for a change, Bob did what any sensible person would do. He quit his job and went birding. A lot. Like 150 times during the winter of 2018-19.


Monty and Rose by Tamima Itani
“It was therapeutic in a way,” he said. “Birding helped me think about what I wanted to do next.”

At least for the short term, two little birds on a busy Chicago beach helped answer the question. Bob would tell and preserve their remarkable story on film.

The endangered piping plovers known as Monty and Rose nested on Montrose Beach for three straight years starting in 2019. Bob’s two short documentaries about them received widespread acclaim and brought needed attention to the issues of bird conservation and habitat management in a high-traffic urban setting.


In October, Bob visited the DuPage Birding Club to show and discuss his latest film, The Magic Stump. It’s a 20-minute piece about some special birds and dedicated birders in Coles County, about 50 miles south of Champaign. We learn how a solitary tree stump in a farm field attracts a remarkable variety of wintering raptors.


The stump that started it all. 

The stump became a thing shortly after a prairie falcon—a species rarely seen east of the Mississippi River—was found close by in 2010. Tyler Funk, the spotter, was fascinated. Over time, he confirmed that the falcon, and later a second bird, returned to the same place, year after year, always in winter. His observations appeared in Meadowlark, the journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society, and inspired The Magic Stump.

Bob Dolgan made six trips to Coles County to capture the magic, but a trail cam installed by Funk proved more efficient. Besides the prairie falcons, a partial list of birds caught on camera includes gyrfalcon, northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, kestrel, merlin, short-eared owl, and snowy owl. At least 10 species of raptor have visited the gnarly stump, once a thriving Osage orange.


The Magic Stump is great storytelling without many words. Birders will appreciate some familiar themes: be curious, expect the unexpected, and bird your local patch like you own it. Funk and fellow birders Ron Bradley and David Mott patrolled their agricultural “backyard” relentlessly, sometimes in frigid conditions. All three appear in the film.


“Some people may come away from the film with the impression that it’s easy to find the birds of the stump, and that’s just not the case,” Bob said. “The stump is a half-mile from the nearest road, and it took the guys in the film a lot of years to record so many sightings.”


You can watch a teaser video at and see a schedule of upcoming screenings.


Bob is back to work, but on his own terms. He founded Turnstone Strategies in 2018, a communications consulting firm with a focus on nonprofit clients. His bird films are Turnstone branded but not intended to be money makers. Making them is just something he enjoys.


“In putting together the story, it’s really about the joy of birding and how even our ordinary surroundings can have a bit of mystery and magic to them.”


In September, Bob received an award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting from Chicago Audubon Society. CAS cited his role in promoting bird conservation, educating the public, and shining a light on the work of local activists.


Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Northeastern Illinois is a stronghold for Henslow's Sparrow,
a grassland species in decline nationally. Photo by Jackie Bowman.
Birds savor our ample green space

Study: Chicago region’s protected lands offer critical habitat for nesting species

(published 9-21-22)

Remember when dead bugs would plaster your car’s windshield and front bumper during summer road trips? I also recall swarms of flying pests around our porch lights, and a lot more fireflies flashing in the yard. More butterflies, too.

Insect populations are crashing, another sign of our troubled ecological times. Birds need those bugs, of course, which is one of many reasons why their populations are falling as well. Other downward drivers include climate change, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and building collisions.

The journal “Annual Review of Environment and Resources,” published in May, reported that 48 percent of bird species worldwide are known or suspected to be experiencing population declines. Only 6 percent are showing gains, and 39 percent are stable.

We all remember the bombshell dropped by the journal “Science” in 2019: 3 billion birds lost in the last 50 years, translating to 30% fewer birds overall. It’s noticeable, in the field and in our backyards.

Birds are struggling, no doubt, but not all of them, and not in all places. Some good news emerged in June courtesy of the Bird Conservation Network (BCN), a coalition of 21 conservation organizations serving the Chicago region.

“Breeding Bird Trends in the Chicago Region 1999-2020” documents that some local nesters, previously in decline, are stabilizing or growing in numbers. Bellwether species such as Henslow’s sparrow (up 3.4% per year) and red-headed woodpecker (3.3%), for example, are gaining ground.

The BCN report, based on 22 years of bird survey data, updates the status of species that raise families in natural areas within six counties: Cook, Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Kane and Will. Analysis was based on 30,000 bird census surveys conducted by volunteer birders under the BCN Survey monitoring program. The surveys occur in target habitats (grassland, shrubland, wetland and woodland) during June and early July, prime nesting season in northeastern Illinois.

The outlook for Red-headed Woodpecker has improved,
thanks to effective land management. Restoration of
 open oak woodland and savannah habitat is
helping the species. Photo by Harv Meyers.
Data collected for 104 species reveal that 56% are steady or increasing in the region versus 37% for the rest of Illinois.

“People in Chicagoland tend to forget how unique it is that we have so many green spaces concentrated in the area,” said Eric Secker, BCN president. “We found that a lot of birds in Chicago are doing better than the rest of the state and elsewhere in the nation because we have so much land being actively managed and restored.”

The protected lands—about 220,000 acres of county forest preserves municipal nature preserves and state parks—in northeastern Illinois are critical to the health of our nesting birds. In addition, these non-agricultural landscapes provide vital stopover habitat for migrating birds on their way to breeding grounds farther north.

Effective habitat management is complex business, and not a perfect science. Practices aimed at helping one species may be detrimental to another. Everything is connected. Further, we don’t always know why the population of a given species is up, down or holding steady. Trends for some birds, especially secretive ones, are poorly known.

BCN’s survey work helps set priorities by identifying the species most in need of assistance. Private and public land managers use the information to guide their conservation efforts.

Grassland birds are high priority, which makes the upbeat news about Henslow’s sparrow—and dickcissel, up 5.5% per year—a cause for celebration. These species benefit from open landscapes like Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

For the nondescript Henslow’s, whose population is declining nationally, it’s no stretch to say that northeastern Illinois is a region of global importance. Only an estimated 410,000 remain in the world, according to BCN.

BCN’s analysis, however, shows that populations of other grassland specialists are falling, with bobolink, grasshopper sparrow and savannah sparrow each down about 3%.

Birders in search of northern mockingbird and pileated woodpecker—uncommon species in these parts—are facing slightly better odds. Both species are trending up. In the case of mockers, geographic range expansion is a factor.

You can see all the data for yourself, organized by habitat, at The trends are eye-opening, and BCN rightly expects them to be a catalyst for action.

“Birds can be good indicators of the overall quality of the habitat in general,” said Secker. “It’s important to remember there are lots of areas that continue to be developed and under threat."

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Cornell's Merlin Bird ID app is a very good listener.
It’s not magic, it’s Merlin

The app’s Sound ID feature is changing how we go birding—and likely growing the hobby

(published 8-11-22)

If the party involves technology, I usually arrive late. But I’m there now and having a wonderful time.

With my new friend, Merlin.

You know those smartphone apps that tell you what song is playing? Merlin is like that, only for birds. I finally added it to my phone in May.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology introduced the Merlin Bird ID app in 2014. It’s one of several apps that can identify birds based on color, size, location, and time of year. Upload a photo or just describe the bird and Merlin will put a name on it.

The game-changer, though, came in June 2021 when Cornell added real-time sound identification capability. Overnight, Merlin became a must-have for birders.

Merlin Project Manager Drew Weber told me the app has received about two million downloads since the launch of Sound ID. Merlin has around 8.5 million downloads in total.

We should all send a thank you note to Cornell—and to birders from all over the world who share what they see and hear in the field. The “magic” behind Merlin is the application of machine learning technology to the lab’s immense dataset of bird sightings and photos submitted by birders via eBird (another Cornell invention) and audio recordings supplied to the lab’s Macaulay Library. Cornell collaborated with experts in computer vision and artificial intelligence to bring Merlin to our phones.

American Redstart by Jackie Bowman
Try the app (it’s free) and you will understand its appeal. The Sound ID feature is addictive, and rapidly changing how we bird.

I was leading a walk at Cantigny recently during which three or four birders were using Merlin. With the app in listening mode, their phones displayed a constantly updating list of birds. We used the information like clues to guide our search.

For birders with hearing loss, Merlin is a godsend. But even those blessed with perfect hearing may lack confidence in identifying birds by sound alone—a trained skill we call “ear birding.”

Some bird songs are loud and easy to learn, like those of the blue jay, cardinal, and house wren. Most birders would not need Merlin to identify them. But when a half dozen or more species are all chirping, chipping, and whistling at the same time, at various distances, at different frequencies and volumes, Merlin can sort it all out.

Sometimes a single bird might have you stumped. Never fear, Merlin to the rescue.

In June, I was hiking at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin and kept hearing some faint call notes. A bird seemed to be following me, but I couldn’t find it in the trees. Then I remembered Merlin. I pulled out my phone and activated Sound ID. Within 10 seconds the app picked up American redstart, and minutes later a dazzling black and orange male finally revealed itself.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to find a bird when you know what to look for!

Baltimore Oriole by Linda Petersen
Merlin isn’t perfect, though. The app offers “best matches” based on the input it receives. On that Cantigny walk we all heard a loud oriole-like song that sounded a bit different. Merlin told us a tufted titmouse was present—a strong candidate for Bird of the Day! After a brief chase, however, we tracked down the true singer, a Baltimore oriole.

Species with highly variable songs can fool Merlin, just like they fool humans. (No question, the birds love doing this.) But the app never stays down at our level for long. It usually nails the ID.

Birding is easier with Merlin, which makes the hobby more accessible. Cornell’s Weber said the app’s goal is to demystify identification, so that anyone can ID the birds around them. Tech-savvy young people might be drawn to it especially. Merlin adds a coolness factor to birding.

With Sound ID, birders of all ages and skill levels have a superpower at their fingertips. Those rare birders who can identify any bird by sound without a device will become rarer still—ear birding may become a lost art.

I do have mixed emotions about smart phones in the field. Birding is a chance to be off-line from technology and most of us need that. It’s also quite satisfying to find and identify an uncommon bird on your own, completely unaided.

My advice is to download Merlin and use Sound ID as much or as little as you wish. Over time you will figure out what degree of use feels right. Many birders apply it to confirm and document their IDs. Merlin records as it listens, providing an audio record for later review.

I am trying hard to use Merlin only as a back-up for ID purposes, listening with my “real ears” as much as possible. With the app constantly on, I’ll spend too much time looking down.

It’s called birdwatching for a reason. Seeing birds is still the main point.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

By nesting in colonies, usually in bare trees above marshy areas, herons gain
 protection from predators. Photo by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
Rookery rebound

(published 7-1-22)

When leading a bird walk, I’m secretly grateful whenever a great blue heron comes into view. Lurking on the edge of a pond, or rowing across the sky, a “GBH” always makes an impression. It’s a big, majestic bird that everyone in the group gets to experience—a welcome respite from the challenge of spotting little birds in leafy trees.

For kids, especially, bigger is better. As a boy, I loved when great blues glided low over our suburban Ohio neighborhood, preparing to land on the nearby golf course. They looked huge and prehistoric. I’d shout out “Crane!” to anybody listening.

 Yeah, not proud of that, but I was 10. Butterflies and moths occupied my time in those days. 

Fortunately, my curiosity about birds (and their correct names) took off later in life and continues today. This led me to a drop-in program called Heron Rookery Rendezvous—a “pop up” viewing opportunity in late March offered by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. 

A great blue heron nesting colony—called a rookery or heronry—is located just west of the District’s headquarters building in Wheaton, in the Danada Forest Preserve. You can easily see it from the turf racetrack where 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair once trained. 

Spotting scopes were set up, but even without them, the view was excellent. We counted 20 stick nests high in the bare cottonwood trees, some still under construction. 

The breeding season had just begun, with courtship behavior and mating on full display. A few herons were settled down on nests but were probably not incubating eggs just yet. 

Great Blue Herons prefer solitude when they feed, which can
 take place miles from the rookery. Photo by Christian Goers.
As the District naturalists shared their knowledge, I quickly realized how little I really knew about our largest commonly seen bird. My scribbled nuggets piled up fast: 

  • Great blue herons usually feed alone, and they do so up to six miles away from the bustling rookery. Feeding is their “me time.”
  • Like owls, the herons regurgitate pellets of indigestible materials, such as fish and frog bones.
  • Herons possess special equipment just for preening—a “comb toe” on each foot and three patches of powder-down feathers.
  • Nesting in large, noisy groups is for safety. Crows, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and raccoons are common predators.
  • The great blue is among 65 heron species worldwide, and one of six found regularly in northern Illinois.

My learnings included a new appreciation for the transitory nature of rookeries. They come and go. The one at Danada peaked in 2008 with 200 nests. By 2017, there were none. 

High winds can destroy a heronry. The nests are vulnerable, and so are the trees that hold them. Great blue herons prefer dead or dying trees in marshy areas. The leafless trees, already in decline, are further weakened by the acidic guano raining down from above.  

Land development and human disturbance are the greatest threats. You might recall the dust-up in 2014 when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra considered buying a 58-acre site near the Danada heronry to build a summer concert venue, an idea widely opposed by conservationists. 

The CSO plan never materialized, and yet the great blue herons still moved away. Now they are back, continuing a rebuild that began with a modest five nests in 2018, according to Forest Preserve ecologist Brian Kraskiewicz.  

The ebb and flow of the Danada heronry is a curious thing—an inspiring story of avian resilience in plain view. 

Back home in Indiana

I suppose curiosity also played a part in my return to the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. What would it feel like, I wondered, after three years away? The pandemic wiped out the 2020 festival, and the 2021 edition employed a hybrid format. This year was back to normal, and normal at this event is very, very good. 

And it was—excellent birding and camaraderie in ideal weather. I especially enjoyed Trail 2 inside Indiana Dunes State Park, with its newly opened boardwalk. That hike alone was worth the 75-mile drive to Chesterton. 

The Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, hosted by Indiana Audubon,
succeeds by making birders of all ability levels feel welcome.

The festival’s bird list over five days totaled 207 species. Best of all were the colorful warblers, tanagers, and other spring migrants that light up the dunes every year. Keynote speaker David Lindo, “The Urban Birder,” rocked the Saturday night gathering. 

Kudos to Indiana Audubon for staging another winner. This was the festival’s eighth year and the biggest one yet with 650 registered birders. I can say with confidence that everybody who wished to see a cerulean warbler saw at least one and a whole lot more.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.