Recapping the 2023 birding year

Local watchers experienced some mind-bending sightings

(published 1-17-24)

A Limpkin at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook was a
first for DuPage County. Photo by Mike Warner.
For birders, the word invasion usually refers to birds from the north coming south. We treasure the occasional winters when large numbers of fleeting species such as crossbills, redpolls and Snowy Owls drop down to visit our region. Years may pass before the phenomenon repeats.

In 2023, we experienced a reverse invasion, this time from Dixie, and by a tropical species that until four years ago was entirely foreign to Illinois. By mid-summer Limpkins were popping up all over the Midwest and other parts of the country, even Canada.

Finding the big-billed wader in Chicagoland was easy, and some days you could track one down in multiple counties. Individuals at Chicago Botanic Garden and Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve were among the most conspicuous, the latter being a first record for DuPage.

Limpkins lingered through the fall and at least one into winter, emboldened by relatively balmy weather conditions. As the holidays approached, visions of Limpkin were dancing in the heads of Christmas Bird Count participants. Insane!

Five wayward American Flamingos created a public spectacle
north of Milwaukee. Photo by Matthew Cvetas.
Seeing a Limpkin in these parts is shocking enough, but flamingos? Bizarre describes the scene in Port Washington, Wis., where in September five American Flamingos frolicked on a Lake Michigan beach. Dozens of the tropical long-leggers were blown north by Hurricane Idalia and touched down in 14 states, most with no previous record of the species. Illinois wasn’t so lucky, but plenty of birders scurried north for their own version of Summerfest.

It was indeed a most entertaining year, filled with avian surprises quite within reach—or at least a reasonable drive. Locally, the madness began in March when Dan Lory spotted a juvenile Ross’s Gull along Lake Michigan, near the Indiana line. The bombshell sighting of this rare arctic species triggered a three-day rush to the lakefront. Binocular fingers trembled and not from the cold.

This juvenile Ross’s Gull on the Chicago lakefront
thrilled birders in March. Photo by Matt Zuro.
I confess to being partial to rarities that stick around long enough for lots of birders to see them. These so-called “stake out” birds lend a fun social aspect to the hobby and build a sense of community. The Chicago “Rossie” certainly did that, as did two other unexpected visitors.

News spread quickly of a Rock Wren in West Chicago, discovered by Haley Gottardo at Kress Creek Farms Park in October. I was a few days late to the party but upon arrival there were four other helpful birders present, all just as excited as me.

Another western wanderer, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, caused a stir on the campus of Northwestern University campus a couple weeks later. An alert undergraduate, Collin Porter, reported the rarity and scores of birders thanked him for a hard-to-get lifer. The only previous Illinois record of the species came in 1990, in Will County.

Two downstate birds also dialed up the crazy, both first-time records. A Crested Caracara appeared in Fulton County last January, first spotted by Marcia Heitz. In November, a Broad-tailed Hummingbird fueled up at a backyard feeder in Champaign, hosted by accommodating homeowners Deanna and Doug Uphoff.

A surprise Rock Wren lived up to its name in West Chicago,
delighting birders in October. Photo by Bonnie Graham.
The surprise raptor and hummer raised the all-time Illinois roster to 456 species.

Migration tragedy and other news

The year 2023 was newsy in other ways, and not always good. In fact, the biggest local bird story was so tragic it captured national attention.

Bird deaths from collisions with McCormick Place in Chicago exceeded 1,000 the night of October 4-5. Bright lights and a giant glass-covered building in combination with high migration volume and rainy weather delivered the deadly toll, comprised mostly of warblers. Bird advocacy groups immediately petitioned McCormick Place management to implement known solutions for preventing bird strikes under Chicago’s bird-friendly buildings ordinance. What happened in October was largely preventable.

Matt Igleski was named the first executive director of Chicago Audubon Society, just before CAS changed its name to Chicago Bird Alliance. The new moniker came about as a growing number of Audubon chapters around the country seek to distance themselves from the problematic legacy of their namesake, John James Audubon. The famous bird artist profited from the slave trade and opposed abolition.

Last March, after a lengthy review process, National Audubon decided to keep its name. Several NAS board members resigned in protest.

An observant Northwestern University student spotted
this Gray-crowned Rosy Finch on the Evanston campus.
Photo by Fran Morel.
Birds named after people (eponymous names) will be phased out starting in 2024, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) recently announced. A pilot renaming program will begin with about 10 birds and assign more descriptive labels. Blackburnian Warbler, for example, might become Flame-throated Warbler. Only common names, not scientific names, are set to change.

The plan to purge all eponyms is not sitting well with many birders and birding organizations, who prefer that name changes be considered on a case-by-case basis. Opposition to the AOS declaration appears intense. This is likely not a done deal.

More notable sightings

Listing all the notable birds of 2023 is an impossible task, and I’m sure a few escaped my radar. But some sightings simply can’t be ignored.

A breeding plumage Ruff triggered many road trips to Boone Co. last spring. Dan Williams found the showstopper and followed it to McHenry Co. Roseate Spoonbills popped up in both Mason and Putnam Counties in August, followed by two reports in Chicagoland. A spoonie even traveled to Green Bay!

Chicagoland’s perennial hotspot, Montrose Point on Lake Michigan, produced California Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Snowy Plover, Red Knot, King Rail, Snowy Owl, Evening Grosbeak, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. A Piping Plover named Imani also checked in, the son of legendary parents Monty and Rose.

Birdwatchers hope Red Crossbill sightings at Morton
Arboretum and other venues across the region
continue into 2024. Photo by Randall Everts.
A migrating Chuck-will’s Widow was rescued in downtown Chicago by a volunteer with Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. The nightjar went to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn for treatment.

Lake County goodies included a Kirtland’s Warbler at Chicago Botanic Garden, discovered by Anna Tendero, plus Harlequin Duck, Glossy Ibis, Yellow Rail, Black Vulture and Loggerhead Shrike. The Latest Limpkin Award went to the bird at Mellody Farm Nature Preserve in Lake Forest, still present on Christmas Day.

A floating colony of state-endangered Common Terns at Naval Station Great Lakes (North Chicago) enjoyed a banner year, fledging 32 chicks. Kudos to Brad Semel from IDNR for his project leadership.

In DuPage, a Little Blue Heron at Danada Forest Preserve excited birders for a solid week in August.

Nesting Northern Mockingbirds were a nice story at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and from Thanksgiving on the Arb proved reliable for Red Crossbill.

Neighboring Hidden Lake Forest Preserve surrendered an Eastern Whip-poor-will on the DuPage Birding Club’s Spring Bird Count, an event drawing a record-high 148 watchers across the county on May 6.

Fermilab discoveries included Marbled Godwit, Lark Sparrow and Blue Grosbeak. A lone Trumpeter Swan spent most of the year on site.

Illinois’s first Crested Caracara cruised
Fulton County in early 2023.
Photo by Keith McMullen.
Paul Clifford knows it pays to keep an eye on the sky and to never underestimate a parking lot’s birding potential. He spotted a Golden Eagle at Waterfall Glen in March, and then a Mississippi Kite at Maple Grove in May. At both forest preserves, Paul was standing in the car park.

Of course, watching your backyard feeders can be rewarding, too. Palatine resident Tom Syme reported a stunning all-yellow cardinal on May 30—a one-day wonder, unfortunately.

Frequent sightings of Trumpeter Swan, Red-shouldered Hawk and Pileated Woodpecker in 2023 indicate these species are gaining traction in the Chicago region. Bald Eagle as well.

Finally, every year it seems that a new “hotspot” is discovered. Word gets out, more birders start going there, and like magic the site list grows. I’d never heard of Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Kane County when 2023 began but the place quickly earned a reputation as a magnet for uncommon birds. Feathered guests included Eared Grebe, Red-necked Phalarope, Whooping Crane, Black-necked Stilt, Black Tern, Say’s Phoebe and Smith’s Longspur. Surely a Limpkin was lurking in the marsh as well.


Congrats to Winfield’s Diann Bilderback, who earned the DuPage Birding Club’s highest honor, the Distinguished Achievement Award. She is the club’s only two-time president and a tireless can-do volunteer.

The Uphoff family in Champaign hosted this Broad-tailed
 Hummingbird and all who came to see it. Photo by Steve Zehner.
The International Crane Foundation (Baraboo, Wis.) celebrated 50 years in 2023, with co-founder George Archibald still going strong. Chicago’s Fort Dearborn Chapter of Illinois Audubon Society also hit 50.

Indiana Audubon turned 125 and will conduct the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival May 16-19. If you’ve never been, do check it out.

BirdWatching magazine quietly folded in 2023 but nice to see its former editor, Matt Mendenhall, hook up with American Bird Conservancy, an organization doing important work.

The Chicago birding community remembered John Purcell with a memorial tree planting at North Pond (Lincoln Park) in April. John was a friend and birding mentor to many, especially Montrose Point regulars.

The author was over the moon
 about his first Luna Moth sighting.
 Photo by Jeff Reiter.
The Endangered Species Act, born 50 years ago, is credited with helping save 99% of listed species. Still clinging to that list is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In October, U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced the species will not be declared extinct—at least for now. Hope is still alive!

Personal notes

From my last column you might think that all I read are picture books. Not true! Two of my favorite books of 2023 were “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds,” by Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal, and “What an Owl Knows,” by Jennifer Ackerman. 

My home list grew by one thanks to a singing Warbling Vireo in May. Hard to believe it took 26 years to finally notch such a common species, No. 123 for the yard.

A winter visit to Arizona and five days with Colorado Birding Adventures in June yielded 14 lifers. In both places, the birds, fellow birders and guides surpassed my expectations. Favorite sighting? Had to be the White-tailed Ptarmigan in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Birds are the best, but butterflies and moths are cool, too. Seeing a Luna Moth was literally on my bucket list, and I got to check it off in June, at Cantigny in Wheaton.

Wherever nature watching takes you in 2024, be ready for anything and appreciate all that you see, the common and the rare. Happy trails!

Copyright 2024 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

More than cute: Picture books that leave a mark

(published 11-29-23) is tracking me. The Amazon creation knows what book I’m reading and every book I’ve read in the last four years. It even knows what I will probably read next.

“Feathered Friends,” by emerging author and artist
 Madelyn Lee, contains fun facts about birds
 in backyards and around the world.
(courtesy Early Light Press LLC)
Goodreads also reports how I’m faring in the 2023 Reading Challenge—if I’m ahead or behind. I’m almost never ahead. My goal this year is 50 books and it’s going to be close. What if I’m a book short on New Year’s Eve?

In August, an answer to that question arrived in a carefully wrapped package from Virginia. Inside was “Feathered Friends,” a children’s picture book from first-time author and illustrator Madelyn A. Lee, age 18.

I don’t receive review books very often, and this one was unlike the others—an oversized field guide for toddlers. The book’s 32 pages feature 17 birds, and how prescient that one of them is American flamingo, a species that crashed Virginia (and 10 other states) a month after the book’s publication.

Copies of Madelyn’s book flew off the table at a Barnes & Noble book signing in Williamsburg, just before she went off to begin studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

No, I did not add “Feathered Friends” to my Goodreads list. But I’m keeping that option in my hip pocket. A book is a book, right?

Yes, and potentially much more. The surprise arrival of “Feathered Friends” started me thinking about books for kids and their power to influence how we feel about birds and nature. Young minds remember stuff; early exposure to birds and conservation themes can only be good. Worked for me!

The inspiring Monty and Rose books, this one
and its sequel, are about birds and birders
 beating the odds on a busy Chicago beach.

My admiration for birdy picture books is soaring. I’ll mention a few of my favorites here because their authors and illustrators deserve the love, and because you might have little ones on your holiday shopping list.

You probably know about Monty and Rose, the piping plover pair that captivated Chicagoans by raising a family on Montrose Beach in 2019. The endangered species hadn’t nested here in more than 70 years.

Monty and Rose chose a tough neighborhood to call home. It took a small army of dedicated volunteers to protect them during their time on the busy strand. The general of that army was Tamima Itani, an Evanston resident who serves as lead volunteer coordinator for Chicago Piping Plovers, a collaboration between Chicago Bird Alliance, Chicago Ornithological Society and Illinois Ornithological Society.

Tamima is the go-to source for information about Monty and Rose and their extended family. Nobody knows them better and turns out she has a gift for putting good stories into words.

Tamima’s two children’s books, “Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose” and “Monty and Rose Return to Montrose,” will leave an impression, I promise. They are adorable but also informative and real. The illustrations by Anna-Maria Crum are terrific.

“The Christmas Owl,” successful on
 so many levels, shines a light on the
important role of wildlife rescue centers.
(courtesy Little, Brown and Company)

Net proceeds from Tamima’s book sales go to piping plover research and conservation. She’s raised $12,000 so far. For more information go to

On the cuteness scale, a piping plover is hard to beat, especially a downy chick on toothpick legs. Northern saw-whet owl is another heart melter.

Do you remember Rockefeller? She’s the saw-whet who was discovered trapped in New York’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 2020. Like Monty and Rose, “Rocky” became national news—a feel-good story when our Covid-stricken nation really needed one.

I wasn’t aware of “The Christmas Owl” until my wife purchased a copy in September. It’s a special book, and a New York Times bestseller at that. I like it because it highlights the important role of wildlife rehabilitators, in this case Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, N.Y., which came to Rocky’s rescue. The center helped her recover and then released her back into the wild.

One of the book’s coauthors, Ellen Kalish, founded Ravensbeard in 2000. You can watch her set Rocky free in a short video posted on the center’s website. Have a tissue ready. The site offers a line of Rocky merch, too. The famous little owl with the saucer eyes is a fundraising dynamo!

“Owl Moon” won the 1988 Caldecott
Medal for its illustrations and remains
 in print, available in nine languages.
 (courtesy Penguin Random House LLC)
I must say, until now, the only children’s book to consistently enter my thoughts was “Owl Moon,” the 1987 classic by Jane Yolen. You must know it: the tale of father and young daughter who go owling on a snowy, winter night. The words, the story, and illustrations (by John Schoenherr) are picture book perfection.

Yolen has more than 400 children’s books to her credit. She considers “Owl Moon” her best. If you are not familiar, do check it out.

Next month is the Christmas Bird Count, an all-day event that begins with pre-dawn owling. I always think of “Owl Moon” when I’m out there in the cold and dark, not knowing if the effort will be rewarded. As Yolen writes, “When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope.”

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Summer notebook

Limpkins, spoonbills, flamingos, and a really big chicken

(published 9-21-23)

Limpkin by Nat Carmichael

You never forget your first limpkin. Mine was at a lakeside trailer park near St. Petersburg, Fla. A book said limpkins would be there and sure enough they were. That was 1998, when finding the ibis-like wader in the United States, outside of Florida or southern Georgia, was unheard of.

How times change. A limpkin spent most of August and early September dining on fresh-water mussels at Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Cook County’s first record of the species. Another was spotted near Rockford.

These reports continued a trend that began several years ago. The first Illinois record of limpkin occurred in 2019, near downstate Olney. Second and third sightings followed in 2021, one of them in Lake County.

Limpkins visited a few downstate counties this summer, too, and multiple states. Colorado received its first, as did Pennsylvania. Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin also hosted limpkins.

Another large wading bird we associate with Florida, roseate spoonbill, mounted its own Midwest invasion. Sightings at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (Putnam Co.) and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge (Mason Co.) in early August were followed by two reports in Chicagoland, one in Northbrook and another in North Chicago.

Roseate Spoonbill by Jackie Bowman
Birders in Green Bay were shocked by a summering “spoonie” as well, Wisconsin’s second state record of the species. Michigan birders tallied a second state record, in Jackson.

What’s going on? We can’t blame Hurricane Idalia, which did blow some American flamingos northward in late August. Birders scored flamingo lifers in 10 states, including Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Remarkable!

But limpkins and spoonbills arrived well before the storm. Did climate change bring them here? We can’t rule it out.

The ranges for many species that we think of as “southern birds” are gradually expanding, shifting, or both. Little blue heron, snowy egret, and red-shouldered hawk are some examples. We are seeing these birds in Illinois more regularly.

It’s always exciting to spot a rarity. But if the reason we are seeing a bird is climate change, well, that’s disturbing. National Audubon Society’s “Survival by Degrees” report claims that by 2080, two-thirds of North American bird species may face unlivable conditions across their current ranges.

Arboretum mockers

Northern mockingbird, despite its name, is all over the South but uncommon in northeast Illinois. I’m still waiting to see one in my yard or at Cantigny Park, the places I bird the most. I’m confident that day will come, as mockingbird is another species on the move.

Northern Mockingbird by Paul Clifford
In June, birders were delighted to discover a pair of mockingbirds at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. The birds nested on the property’s east side and hatched four young. It is believed to be the first record of breeding mockingbirds at the Arb, and maybe even DuPage County.

In recent decades, mockingbirds have successfully expanded their range into the northeast U.S. Their presence in the Midwest is well established and growing. They prefer dense, fruit-bearing shrubs and adapt well to urban settings.

Road tripping

In early August I piloted a rental van to Seattle with my son, Jay, who is starting graduate school at the University of Washington. You can see a lot when crossing 2,000 miles of diverse habitat, and we did.

Greater Prairie Chicken statue in Rothsay, Minn.
A most unexpected sight occurred just off I-94 in Rothsay, Minn.—an 18-foot, 9,000-pound greater prairie chicken! Quite by accident, stopping for gas, we’d entered the Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota. Dedicated in 1975, the chicken statue is still in fine shape.

Another fabricated colossus awaited us in Jamestown, N.D. This time our stop was planned—no way we could pass up “The World’s Largest Buffalo.” At 46 feet long and 60 tons, the steel-and-concrete beast, called Dakota Thunder, offered a memorable welcome for two first-time visitors to North Dakota.

Playing ball in Bismarck, N.D.
Needing a baseball fix, we attended the Northwoods League All-Star Game in Bismarck, contested on the home field of the Bismarck Larks. The team mascot is a western meadowlark, the state bird.

I viewed several meadowlarks perching on fenceposts as we cruised west in the loaded-down Pacifica. Far easier to spot were the massive fields of blooming sunflowers. North Dakota leads the nation in sunflower growing and we were passing through at the perfect time.

At the far western end of the state, nearly in Montana, we spent a few hours amid the stunning landscapes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park was a bucket lister for me, but our timing could have been better. We arrived at mid-day with the sun blazing—too late for prime wildlife viewing. Birds were scarce, and even the park’s signature bison herds eluded us.

Backyard reset

In the weeks before the road trip, my backyard was overrun with house sparrows—adult birds and their fast-growing offspring. The pesky non-natives were draining my feeder daily, consuming prodigious quantities of the black-oil sunflower crop that I would soon witness in North Dakota.

Enough already. Before heading out, I took in my feeders and birdbath, gave them a good washing, and left them in the garage to dry. The sparrows would survive, even though I hoped otherwise.

When I got back and rehung the feeders, I was curious how long it would take for the sparrows to return. The answer was about four days. Hummingbirds, however, came back to the nectar feeder almost at once, like they were waiting for it.

I’m experimenting now with refill frequency, letting the sunflower feeder sit empty at times. It seems to help—house sparrow visitation is down. I like to think I’m winning the game, frustrating the greedy little buggers and driving them off to less Grinch-like neighbors.

It’s an illusion, of course. Like squirrels, house sparrows can never really be defeated, and some day they will rule the world. Their annoying presence is the price we pay for attracting the birds we cherish, like cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches. It’s a tradeoff we must live with.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Colorado calling

Summer birding tour of the Centennial State delivered unforgettable sightings

(published 7-26-23)

Chestnut-collared Longspur by Tony Dvorak,
Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Now and then a trip turns out way better than expected. In June, I took one that did.

I signed up with Colorado Birding Adventures in January. Waiting any longer was risky. Company owner and chief guide Carl Bendorf runs his “Best of Colorado Summer Birding” tour twice a year, always in June, and it sells out. Ten birders per trip, no more.

A month before departure, juicing my anticipation, I changed the screensaver on my phone to a Lewis’s woodpecker, and my laptop wallpaper to a chestnut-collared longspur. Soon, with luck, I’d be seeing these and other birds in Colorado’s grasslands, foothills, mountains, and even some urban environments. Carl’s well-scouted itinerary would take us where the birds are, with emphasis on hard-to-find specialties.

We traveled in two 6-seater vehicles and spent every night at the Fairfield Inn in Longmont, 40 miles north of Denver and 20 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. When birding all day, it’s nice to stay in the same place. Carl and assistant guide Bill Schmoker live in Longmont, so the logistics worked in their favor, too.

Our first full day of birding took us to Pawnee National Grassland. Target birds here were mountain plover (a declining species with a misleading name), chestnut-collared longspur, thick-billed longspur, and burrowing owl. All were “hiding in plain view” on the wide-open shortgrass prairie, but with Carl’s expertise we found them. Horned lark, lark bunting (Colorado’s state bird) and western meadowlark were everywhere, not hiding at all, and the occasional pronghorn antelope dotted the treeless landscape.

Ptarmigan country: Rocky Mountain National Park
Mountain plover was an exceptional find. The species had eluded Carl’s previous tour, two weeks before ours. As with many grassland birds, plover numbers are declining sharply. The same is true for chestnut-collared longspur and some other birds we’d see in the days ahead, such as pinyon jay and brown-capped rosy finch. Even on a joyful birding romp like ours, the dark cloud of falling bird populations is always there.

We entered Rocky Mountain National Park the next morning full of anticipation. Our goal: white-tailed ptarmigan, a ground-hugging resident of alpine tundra. The park’s Trail Ridge Road led us to Medicine Bow Curve, elevation 11,600 feet.

White-tailed Ptarmigan by Carl Bendorf
From the trailhead, Carl led our bundled up, well-layered party onto the barren, rock-strewn expanse. A ptarmigan is virtually impossible to see unless it moves, and this small chicken-like species is not big on exercise. It blends perfectly with its surroundings.

After a tense 30-minute search, two ptarmigans surrendered their cover, charming us all with close-up looks. The birds initially flew a short distance, aiding our search immensely. We slapped high fives while Carl and Bill breathed sighs of relief. When people depend on you for once-in-a-lifetime birds, guides naturally feel some pressure.

The roll continued 20 minutes later outside the Alpine Visitor Center just up the road. While most of us were using the restrooms or buying souvenirs, Carl and Bill spotted six brown-capped rosy-finches on a patch of snow, about 40 feet below the observation deck.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch by Carl Bendorf
Seizing the moment, the guides leaped into round-up mode, summoning the birders. We were scattered all over the place, mingling with an overflow crowd of summer tourists. Bill literally called out inside the packed gift shop. To paraphrase, “Birders, drop the merch! Come outside NOW!”

The real gifts could fly away at any moment.

The drill was effective, the group reassembled, and there they were, the rosy-finches, like they’d fluttered down from a heavenly aviary just for us. What a bonus: close views of another cryptic resident of the summer tundra, a species we didn’t really expect to see.

With ptarmigan and rosy-finch in the bag by 10 a.m., we were tempted to exit the park immediately and purchase lottery tickets at the nearest Loaf ‘N Jug.

Moose by Carl Bendorf
Thankfully we stayed because our lucky streak wasn’t over. More interesting birds were ahead but so were some remarkable mammal sightings—a giant American elk walking down the road, dropping the jaws of spectating tourists; a bull moose dining in a pond, submerged up to his neck; and a stealthy Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep high on a hill. By far the rarest sighting was a cinnamon bear, a color-morph of American black bear. Some of us caught a brief glimpse of it just outside the park entrance.

We would return to RMNP on our last day, but first came the Southern Swing, a 400-mile loop beyond Colorado Springs and back home along a raging Arkansas River, and through towns like Canon City, Salida and Buena Vista. It was a long but rewarding day, filled with memorable birds.

In a brushy field of cholla near Pueblo we watched the courtship behavior of the Cassin’s sparrow, a lifer for most of us, and a bird not even on my radar when the trip began.

Our van and SUV creeped around a neighborhood in Salida before finally locating some noisy pinyon jays. Carl knew their address. Mountain and western bluebirds lived on the block, too. A few human residents gave us curious looks.

Lewis's Woodpecker by Carl Bendorf
Lewis’s woodpecker, my phone bird, came next. Again, we were surrounded by houses, this time in Buena Vista. Carl had staked out a nest hole where an adult bird was coming and going, delivering food and taking out the white trash (fecal sacs).

The woodpecker is named after Meriweather Lewis, who collected the type specimen during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06). I’d wanted to see one quite badly ever since missing my chance in 2019, when for several days a vagrant Lewis’s visited a nature center feeder in downstate Effingham County—the first Illinois record of the species.

Lifers are great, but the Colorado tour produced many birds that I’d only encountered once or twice before. These were special, too:  band-tailed pigeon; broad-tailed hummingbird; golden eagle (two youngsters on a massive cliffside nest); Williamson’s sapsucker; Cordilleran flycatcher; Clark’s nutcracker (yes, that Clark); pygmy nuthatch; American dipper; pine grosbeak; green-tailed towhee; MacGillivray’s warbler; Lazuli bunting; and western tanager.

From left: Bill Schmoker, Jeff Reiter and Carl Bendorf

We tallied 129 species over the five days. A few hoped-for birds eluded us, like scaled quail, ferruginous hawk, and American three-toed woodpecker. But I heard no complaints—not at the end, not all week. Our birding cups were full, our moods Rocky Mountain high.

Returning to the hotel on the last night, Carl said, “It’s good to leave a few birds on the table. If this was easy it wouldn’t be fun.”

He’s right, of course. Best to save a few birds for next time.  

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Stately symbols

The nation’s roster of state birds is colorful but not so diverse

(published 6-7-23)

I drive with a cardinal on my license plate. It costs a little more but not as much as a plate that says COWBIRD, which I observed last year during a visit to Champaign-Urbana. If the owner of that car is reading, I’d love to hear your story!

These state bird and flower stamps, issued in 1982, were highly
popular. All 50 stamps are unique, but many states share the same bird.

I’m certain brown-headed cowbird was not considered for state bird when Illinois elected the northern cardinal in 1929. (Illinois schoolchildren proposed the redbird in 1928 and the state made it official the following year.)  

Until now I’ve stayed clear of state birds, a hot button for some birdwatchers. We have some strong opinions on the matter. In fact, if birders had their way, the current line-up of state birds would look a lot different.

For starters, the cardinal would not be shared by seven states, western meadowlark by six, and northern mockingbird by five. Only 20 of our 50 states have a unique state bird. With so much avian variety to choose from it seems like we could do better. There are some states where a new state bird makes so much sense.

One is Michigan. The first thing I’d do if I moved there is purchase a Kirtland’s warbler license plate, which became an option in 2022.

Michigan’s state bird, however, is the American robin, chosen in 1931. The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance is out to change that, and there is currently bipartisan support in the Michigan state legislature to adopt the rare warbler as the official state bird. Doing so would recognize the state’s successful efforts to bring Kirtland’s warbler back from the brink of extinction in the 1980s.

Kirtland's Warbler by Christian Goers

Replacing a state bird is a difficult process, achieved only once before when South Carolina booted the mockingbird in favor of Carolina wren, in 1948. Michigan might just pull it off, and by doing so would be the first state to officially recognize a warbler species—and one that is uniquely tied to the state. Two other states, Connecticut and Wisconsin, would still have the robin.

There are at least three good reasons why seven states celebrate the cardinal. It’s common, brightly colored, and non-migratory. In other words, the bird is accessible. Anybody can see it, everybody knows it.  

Kirtland’s warbler passes the color test but finding one takes effort. Their primary breeding range is a small section of northern Michigan (lower peninsula), and in the fall and winter they live in the Bahamas. Most Michiganders will never experience a Kirtland’s warbler unless they seek it out.

Must a state bird be conspicuous and familiar? Or may other factors such as local history, conservation success and geographic uniqueness win the day? Michigan legislators may soon have the answer. Keep an eye on H.B. 6382.

In 2010, some Illinois birders floated the idea of changing the state bird to red-headed woodpecker. Bob Fisher, president of the Illinois Ornithological Society at the time, asked a fair question: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the state bird was more representative of what the state was like when it was founded?”

“When Illinois was being settled, you could spot the red-headed woodpecker along the creeks and rivers, whereas you would have been hard pressed to find a cardinal,” Fisher added.

Indeed, despite the moniker “northern cardinal,” our familiar redbird was primarily a southern species in the 1800s. Its northward range expansion occurred in the last century.

Red-headed Woodpecker by Jeff Reiter

The native roots issue aside, red-headed woodpecker is in decline and needs conservation. Making it the state bird, birders argued, would bring it needed attention.

Alas, the grass-roots effort earned some publicity before falling flat. The beloved cardinal was untouchable.

None of the seven cardinal states are considering a change. But just for fun, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently conducted a “thought experiment” using eBird data to select alternative birds of honor. With eBird, Cornell’s self-serve database based on millions of citizen-science records, researchers can estimate the frequency of any bird species in any state.  Cornell’s analysis identified a logical bird for every state, 50 different species.

For Illinois, the eBird choice is indigo bunting, a blue beauty found in every county during spring and summer. Data show that 6.9% of the global population breeds here, the third highest of any state.

I especially like eBird’s selection for Indiana, another redbird state. Cornell said sandhill crane would be a proper choice, given that Indiana hosts the second most cranes in winter and during spring migration. Birders know to visit Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in the late fall to see the biggest annual crane gathering east of the Mississippi River.

Sandhill crane would be a nice choice for Nebraska, too—a chance for the Cornhusker state to break out of the western meadowlark cluster.

Finally, a confession: When I dove into this subject, I found it hard not to be judgmental. I was looking for mismatches and undeserving state birds. That was a mistake.

The eBird exercise showed that better choices may exist. But the current roster of state birds needn’t be viewed with disdain. All are worthy, all chosen for a reason.

A few even come with a good story. I learned, for example, that Utah picked “sea gull” because it saved the state from swarms of crop-damaging crickets in 1848. More than 100 years later, Utah clarified its choice as California gull, a species found in big numbers around the Great Salt Lake.

I do wish that every state had its own bird. Only 20 can make that claim, and hopefully Michigan will make it 21. Talk about a good story: the case for Kirtland’s warbler is too compelling to ignore. If Michigan gets it done, other states might take a harder look at their own state bird choices.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

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.