Peregrine Falcon with prey by Clive Slack
Falconers for a night 

(published 4-1-20)

In February I attended a different kind of bird walk. More accurately, it was a “ramble,” the term Kane County Audubon uses for hastily organized birding adventures. This one began at 5:15 p.m., across from the Paramount Theater in downtown Aurora.

I’ve been on evening walks before, the usual targets being owls or woodcocks. This time we’d be looking for peregrine falcons, and our chances for success were excellent.

In simple terms, the plan, concocted by KCA member and Aurora resident Vernon LaVia, was to spot a falcon or two and then gather at a nearby tavern. About 20 birders found the idea irresistible. Even my wife went along, curiosity overtaking her non-birding instincts. 

This was a classic stakeout and Vern had us covered. On the previous three nights, he’d observed a female peregrine reporting to the top of Leland Tower between 5:15 and 5:45. A bit later, he saw a smaller falcon join her, presumably a male.

For LaVia, this is personal. He’s been watching the female for a dozen years, and the pair for about seven. They roost during winters on the 22-story Leland, favoring a ledge on the building’s eastern side. Partnering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, LaVia installed a plywood nesting box on the roof in 2016.

Our group assembled on a concrete plaza across from the Paramount and waited, keeping an eye on the Leland’s upper levels. LaVia, naturally, felt some pressure to “show the bird.” He’d done his homework, called the meeting, and now he needed his falcon friends to do their part.

Birders gaze up at Leland Tower in
Aurora on February 22.
No worries. Like clockwork, the female flew in, landing in the expected place. All of us grabbed a quick look through one of the spotting scopes, just in case it would be our only view of the evening.

Again, no worries. In fact, our view was about to improve.

The falcon took off and we lost her. LaVia hustled down Galena Boulevard, across the bridge spanning the Fox River, to check the west side of Leland Tower. He relocated the bird and called us over. Now the setting sun was at our backs, casting a warm glow on the building. The falcon was perched near the top, and within minutes the male bird landed on a structure above her.

We couldn’t have asked for a better show. Calm conditions and a temperature near 60 added to our satisfaction.  

As we stood there looking up, fixing binoculars and scopes on the birds, theater fans began streaming across the bridge; the Paramount’s matinee of “The Secret of My Success” had just ended. People wanted to know what we were looking at, and we were happy to let them see for themselves.  

Maybe a new birder was born along the edge of the Fox. One could do worse than starting a life list with peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on earth.

The peregrine is a nice conservation story, too. It was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, and the Illinois endangered list in 2015. A ban on the pesticide DDT helped bring it back, along with captive breeding and release programs.    

The bird has also adapted well to urban settings, using tall buildings in place of rocky cliffs, its native habitat. Downtown Chicago is home to seven breeding pairs according to Mary Hennen from The Field Museum, who also directs the Chicago Peregrine Program.

Female peregrine on Leland Tower by Eva Dorman.
Looking at the greater Chicago region, there are 15 successful breeding pairs, Hennen said. Confirmed nest sites include Elmhurst, Joliet and Romeoville.

The Aurora falcons are clearly a pair, but the nest box has gone unoccupied, and juvenile birds have not been sighted. Nest failure isn’t unusual, but LaVia isn’t ruling out an alternative nest site. Leland Tower may only be a winter roost. For now, the falcons’ family life is a mystery.

LaVia’s monitoring of the pair includes the occasional stroll around Leland Tower’s base, a streetscape strewn with random bones and bird parts. Aurora’s ample pigeon population has good reason to be nervous.

Alas, a visit to the boneyard was not on the evening’s agenda. With daylight fading, Gillerson’s Grubbery, a block away on New York Street, was beckoning. This part of the ramble, like the first, was perfectly orchestrated by LaVia. He knew the owner, and I think the beer list as well.

We raised a toast to our leader and to the neighborhood raptors that brought us all together.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Northern Cardinal
Where are the birds?

Published 3-10-20

In my last column I made a pretty safe prediction: A bird will surprise you 2020. Already this happened to me, the day after Valentine’s Day.

I had just entered my car outside the YMCA in Glen Ellyn, about 9 a.m. At that moment, a large dark bird in the distance caught my eye. It was flying low, partially obscured by the trees north of the building. My backseat binoculars confirmed it: an adult bald eagle!

I’d never seen an eagle in Glen Ellyn, my home for almost 23 years. The experience gave me hope of someday spotting one from my yard.

Unfortunately, hope is about all I’ve had in the backyard this winter. Feeder activity is super slow, with dark-eyed juncos the most reliable customers. Variety is down only slightly, but the volume of birds is disturbingly low. I long for a good old-fashioned feeding frenzy.

It’s not just me. I contacted Wild Birds Unlimited in Lisle.

“It’s been kind of strange,” said store owner Brian Neiman. “The majority of customers are reporting fewer birds so far this winter, while the remainder are reporting average to above average activity.”

Seed tonnage at WBU is somewhat below last year. Neiman said the relatively mild winter and infrequent snowfall makes foraging easier; natural food sources are more available.

A few birders told me they see lots of birds one day and none the next—a frustrating pattern of inconsistency.

Personally, my biggest disappointment is the absence of red-breasted nuthatch—my favorite backyard bird and the main reason I hang a peanut feeder. The cone crop in the boreal forest is reportedly strong, so the species hasn’t wandered south in search of food.    

Dark-Eyed Junco by Jackie Bowman
The same holds for the winter finches, such as common redpoll, pine siskin, purple finch and crossbills. This is not the “irruption year” that birders covet, when these occasional visitors from the North Woods arrive in numbers, bringing color and excitement to our feeders, parks and forest preserves. 

A range of factors can explain “no-bird syndrome” in the backyard. Weather, time of year, feeder placement and seed freshness, for example. Predators, too—a persistent Cooper’s hawk or prowling house cat will quiet things down in a hurry.

But this winter, with the apparent widespread shortage of birds, something else must be going on. I did some searching online.  

“Unless there has been a significant change in the immediate area of a feeder, or in the local habitat, the answer will usually be explained by population dynamics,” according to the Mass Audubon site. “Populations of all songbirds are subject to natural fluctuations from year to year.”

So the good news, besides the easy winter, is that we are probably doing nothing wrong. Birds are most likely not flocking to fine-dining feeders and 5-star heated bird baths with towel service just down the street. There may simply be fewer birds in the region. And those present, like Neiman said, are less reliant on our handouts.

I see my feeders as half full, not half empty. But it’s hard to be positive when the view from my kitchen window shows seed levels virtually unchanged from the day before.

You might guess where I’m going with this. The feeder slowdown this winter—at least in my yard—follows the recent release of that bombshell report in the journal Science.

Bird populations are crashing. Analysis of more than 50 years of data showed a 29 percent drop in total bird numbers in the U.S. and Canada since 1970—a staggering loss of 3 billion birds. Visit for details, along with things we can do to help.   

Ecologist and bird bander Julie Craves writes the popular “Since You Asked” column for BirdWatching. In the magazine’s current issue, she said readers in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania wrote to ask why their feeders are deserted.

While acknowledging that many bird species are declining, Craves cautioned “against drawing any conclusions about general population status from hyper-local observations.”

She’s right, of course. What we’re seeing or not seeing in our backyards should not be directly connected with the “3 billion birds” report. It’s not that simple.    

It’s obviously concerning, however, that some species we’ve always regarded as common are gradually fading away. Among them: blue jay, Baltimore oriole, dark-eyed junco, rose-breasted grosbeak and white-throated sparrow.

I’m not in a panic state, not yet, but I’m sure looking at birds a little differently these days. Every one that comes around seems more like a gift.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Officially, Cedar Waxwing is the 2020 Bird of the Year.
Chicagoan Tony Fitzpatrick created the supporting
artwork, “A Communion of Waxwings.”
(courtesy of American Birding Association)
Some thoughts on “Bird of the Year”

Published 2-21-20

It’s official. Cedar waxwing is the 2020 Bird of the Year, declared by the American Birding Association on January 12.

I attended the ABA’s Sunday afternoon “reveal party,” at a nightclub in Berwyn that I’m pretty sure did not attract many birders the night before. We had it all to ourselves—a good thing considering the entertainment included ABA President and part-time rocker Jeffrey Gordon performing “The Waxwing Song,” a piece he wrote just for the occasion. Don’t get me wrong, he nailed it, but non-birders may not have fully appreciated the effort.

Also raising the event’s cool factor was the presence of Tony Fitzpatrick, the renowned Chicago artist with a thing for birds. Signed copies of his Bird of the Year poster were selling like suet cakes, even at $50 each.  

Cedar waxwing is a fine choice. The species is a crowd favorite for its sleek beauty and endearing behaviors, including bill-to-bill berry passing, as depicted in the poster. Waxwings are accessible, too—not terribly hard to find even for new birders. For some, it will be a “spark bird,” the one that inspires a lifelong interest in birding.

The ABA’s Bird of the Year series began in 2011 with American kestrel. Last year’s selection was red-billed tropicbird, the ABA logo bird, to commemorate the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Bird of the Year is good marketing for ABA and for the hobby.  As a member I love the program. But I like choosing my own bird of the year, too.

One of my rituals is to pick a personal bird of the year when the year is over, the way TIME picks a human. The candidates are assembled in December.

In many years, the choice is obvious. One bird usually stands out; one that meant more than any other. Sometimes it’s a species that teased me for years before finally giving in. My life-list worm-eating warbler was that way.

My 2008 bird of the year wasn’t even a lifer. The prize went to a prothonotary warbler, a highly improbable visitor to my backyard. It appeared for a few minutes around 6 a.m. on April 18, just after a minor earthquake shook northern Illinois. (Oh yes, I felt it.)  

Another year, my honored bird was locked in by mid-February—a great gray owl at Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. Nothing could top the experience. I devoted a column to it.

What will it be, for you and for me, in 2020? We can’t know for sure, and that’s part of what makes birding fun and rewarding. A bird will surprise you this year, almost guaranteed.

It’s tempting to think that birds find the birders, not the other way around. Random luck, it happens, like my miraculous earthquake bird. The birding gods do smile upon us now and then.

But remember, the luckiest birders—the ones we envy, those who always spot the “good ones”—seem to spend the most time watching. They rack up frequent birder points instead of airline miles. They keep informed about local sightings, working the network. They often drop whatever they are doing (usually birding) to chase reported rarities.

Kentucky Warbler by Christian Goers
So, I’m thinking, what if I were a little more like “them” in 2020? Could I pick an aspirational bird of the year, commit to finding it, and then make it happen?

The top bird on my radar is Kentucky warbler. Years ago, I heard one, at Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. Or did I? I was alone that morning and not 100% sure. I’ve certainly never seen a Kentucky, and it’s starting to bug me.

Last October, at the DuPage Birding Club fundraiser, one of the auction items was “DuPage County Life Bird,” donated by club member and naturalist Glenn Perricone. The winning bidder got to choose their most-wanted bird from a list of 160 species, compiled by Glenn. He’d take it from there, applying his ace bird-finding skills.

Unfortunately, Kentucky warbler was not on the menu—it’s a tough species that couldn’t be “guaranteed.” But Glenn’s list contained plenty of other coveted targets and the bidding for his services was brisk. The winner paid $140 and issued Glenn his marching orders: Find me a summer tanager or a Virginia rail.

I wasn’t surprised by the price. Birders are known to go all out for a single lifer, including 500-mile road trips.  

What would I do for a Kentucky warbler? I guess I’ll soon find out. My quest begins this spring, when the secretive yellow bird with the black sideburns returns from its tropical vacation.

I have a good feeling. This could be the year. 

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Historic chicks: These juvenile piping plovers, offspring of
 Monty and Rose, were Chicago’s first in more than 60 years.
Photo by Tamima Itani.
2019 birding: The good, the sad and the unlikely

(published 1-6-20)

Welcome to my annual review of the top news of a feather. The 2019 birding year wasn’t boring, that’s for sure. Birds drew the national spotlight; drama and ornithological history played out on a Chicago beach; and a series of rare sightings sent local birders scrambling for their binoculars, scopes and car keys.

Like a dark cloud, one story overshadowed all the others. In September, the journal Science revealed that breeding bird populations in the U.S. and Canada are tanking—down 29 percent since 1970. About 3 billion fewer birds are in the air than 50 years ago. Researchers at seven institutions, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, co-authored the study.

Birders have long known that certain species are in decline, some clearly inching toward extinction. But the magnitude of loss caught even the experts off guard, as did the news that so-called “common” birds like blue jays and red-winged blackbirds are suffering, too.

Mainstream media jumped on it, owing that birds are an indicator of overall ecosystem health. “The mass disappearance of North American birds is a dire warning about the planet’s well-being,” said the New York Times.

Study details, including reasons for the decline and “7 Simple Actions to Help Birds,” are online at

Birds are resilient creatures, one of the reasons my glass remains half full. In fact, waterfowl and raptor populations are increasing thanks to effective conservation efforts.

The female piping plover parent, Rose, on Montrose Beach.
Photo by Tamima Itani.
Avian resiliency was on full display last summer at Montrose Beach along Lake Michigan. I suspect you’ve heard a thing or two about Monty and Rose, the first piping plovers to nest in Chicago since the mid-1950s. It was the local nature story of the year, rivaled only by an alligator in the Humboldt Park Lagoon.

Some 190 volunteers from the birding community devoted more than 1,200 hours to the Piping Plover Watch, monitoring and protecting the federally endangered birds for two months on the busy beach. Their extraordinary efforts were rewarded by the birth and successful fledging of two piping plover chicks. The siblings began their southern migration in late August.

Governor J. B. Pritzker declared November 18 to be Piping Plover Day, coinciding with the debut of “Monty and Rose,” a film directed by Bob Dolgan. The first showing, at the Music Box Theater, sold out, as did subsequent screenings at other Chicago venues. Watch for viewing opportunities in the western suburbs soon.

Ironically, the inspiring Montrose plover story played out during a year in which the Endangered Species Act (ESA) came under attack by the Trump administration. The ESA, enacted in 1973, is generally heralded as a success by Republicans and Democrats alike. We now enjoy bald eagles around DuPage County because of it. In October, Kirtland’s warbler exited the endangered species list, further evidence of ESA’s effectiveness in helping imperiled species rebound from near-extinction. 

Odd news & rare sights
This vagrant Lewis’s woodpecker sampled the suet at Ballard
 Nature Center near Effingham. Photo by Leroy Harrison.
But enough politics. Head-scratching bird stories are more interesting, like the Georgia family that discovered a live screech owl in their Christmas tree—days after they’d brought the tree inside and decorated it with lights and owl ornaments.

In Florida, a man raising exotic birds suffered death by cassowary. Also in the Sunshine State, an ultra-rare yellow cardinal visited a backyard feeder. A gynandromorphic cardinal—half male and half female—showed up in Erie, Pa.

Pennsylvania’s other avian shocker was a snail kite, spotted in October—the first U.S. sighting of the nonmigratory raptor outside of Florida, South Carolina or Texas. Where was it seen? In Erie, of course.

In Redding, Calif., a fledgling red-tailed hawk was observed in a bald eagle nest along with two eaglets, all three being cared for by two adult eagles. Shockingly, the eagles settled on raising the baby hawk instead of eating it.

Sadly, in June, a car struck and killed one of the beloved Mooseheart bald eagles in North Aurora. The surviving adult male assumed full-time parenting duties.

Woody Goss witnessed a cowbird chick being fed by common yellowthroats, a male and female—and then by a catbird! It happened at Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

A dazzling male painted bunting visited Midewin Tallgrass
Prairie in June. The species is typically found in the
southeastern U.S. and Texas, where this one was
photographed by Jackie Bowman.
Wild turkeys strutting around Chicago added further proof that when it comes to birds, you just never know.

Now let’s turn to the truly remarkable sightings of 2019—the feathered wonders that local birders went out of their way to see and photograph.

In some cases, WAY out their way, such as Effingham County. That’s where a western beauty, Lewis’s woodpecker, visited feeders at the Ballard Nature Center in early May. The species was a first record for Illinois, and a lifer for many who ventured to see it.  

On May 9, lucky watchers in Chicago witnessed both Kirtland’s warbler and western tanager in the same area of Grant Park. The Kirtland’s stayed for a week, and those who missed the western would have other chances. For whatever reason, 2019 was a phenomenal year for vagrant western tanagers in the Great Lakes region.

Jeff Smith discovered a male painted bunting at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County on June 2. The technicolor songbird seldom strays so far north.
The state’s first-ever limpkin spent the summer and fall on
Borah Lake near Olney. Photo by Jim Herkert,
Illinois Audubon Society.

Two other rarities, little stint and ruff, caused a rush to downstate Fulton County in early August. Even further south, sightings of fulvous whistling duck tempted birders in August (Jackson County) and September (Monroe).

The first confirmed Illinois record of limpkin, a large wader rarely spotted outside of Florida in the U.S., occurred near Olney in Richland County. Birders didn’t hear about it until September, but the bird was first noticed by local homeowners in June.

A Cassin’s kingbird at Montrose, discovered by Krzysztof Kurylowicz on September 22, was a new species for the state’s No. 1 hotspot.

On a frigid Halloween, Tamima Itani scoped a king eider paddling around the Northwestern lagoon. The large sea duck was well seen on subsequent days in Evanston and Chicago.

A juvenile king eider, first spotted in Evanston, paddled
around Chicago’s Monroe Harbor on November 2.
Photo by Michael Ferguson.
The next mega-rarity, ancient murrelet, arrived eight days later at Montrose. First reported by Bob Hughes, it was all-time species No. 347 for the site, according to eBird.

This ancient murrelet, a rare visitor to the Midwest, excited
Montrose Point birders in mid-November.
Photo by Mike Carroll.
Montrose, of course, home of the Magic Hedge, is a magnet for migratory birds. And with lots of watchers, rare sightings are almost routine. Highlights in 2019 (not already mentioned) included barred owl, black tern, black-bellied whistling duck, black vulture, common gallinule, long-billed curlew, purple sandpiper, Smith’s longspur, snowy egret, Townsend’s warbler and a fly-by pair of whooping cranes. Insane!

Suburban goodies
DuPage offered plenty of action, too. A misplaced spotted towhee located a Warrenville feeder in January, shook off the Polar Vortex, and lingered until April. Homeowner Kate Hopkins was a generous host, welcoming birders to view her unusual guest from the West.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien claimed a barnacle goose in February. In July, for the first time in 25 years, ecologists captured, banded and released a pine warbler at the site.

Morton Arboretum extended its reputation as a go-to place for pileated woodpecker, summer tanager and yellow-throated warbler. Cerulean, Connecticut, hooded and worm-eating warblers visited the Arb as well.

In May, Elsen’s Hill in Winfield attracted a well-seen Kentucky warbler, my current nemesis bird. Naturally it departed one day before I arrived on the scene.
This spotted towhee was exceptionally loyal to a Warrenville
backyard feeder, visiting from January to April.
Photo by Mike Carroll.

Springbrook Prairie steward Joe Suchecki added trumpeter swan and blue grosbeak to the site list, making 238 species for the Naperville preserve.

In September, a Say’s phoebe posed for birders atop the hawkwatching hill at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville. Jeff Smith sounded the alert.

The 14th season of counting migrating raptors at Greene Valley featured record numbers for bald eagle (112), osprey (79) and broad-winged hawk (4,993). Other notable flyovers were golden eagle, northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk and Mississippi kite. Seven Hudsonian godwits cruised over on October 23 and, on November 7, three whooping cranes mingled with 8,423 migrating sandhills. The hill is staffed by DuPage Birding Club volunteers from September through November.

Kane County featured a low-flying swallow-tailed kite in downtown St. Charles, reported by Leslie Yoshitani on April 15. Other Kane goodies in 2019 were cattle egret, prairie warbler, western meadowlark, western tanager, Swainson’s hawk and white-winged scoter. The latter visited Fermilab, which like other venues around the region witnessed an unusually large invasion of American white pelicans in April.

Up in Lake, a perching Mississippi kite was spotted at Perkins Woods on May 23, a first record for Evanston. A dunlin at Chicago Botanic Garden was a nice find by Al Stokie, who eight days later saw his first-ever common gallinule at the site. CBG surrendered a pine warbler in December.

A harlequin duck appeared content in Waukegan Harbor, present for two weeks and counting in December.
Common tern by Jeff Reiter.
Perhaps the best Lake County story of all involved the common tern colony at Naval Station Great Lakes. Eighteen adults, 13 nesting attempts and 15 fledged young were the highest results in years for the state-endangered species. A constructed raft in the harbor did the trick, and a second raft is planned for 2020. Kudos to Brad Semel, IDNR biologist, for leading the effort.

Since you asked, my personal favorite sightings of 2019 were hooded warbler at St. James Farm in Warrenville (likely nesting); black-crowned night heron along Lake Ellyn in Glen Ellyn; Mississippi kite in Dallas; and, last month, six scissor-tailed flycatchers in Key Largo, Fla. In the yard, I was thrilled to spot a red-headed woodpecker for only the second time in 22 years!

Remembering friends
Karen Fisher passed away in March. Along with husband Bob, she watched over their remarkable bird-filled yard in Downers Grove and traveled widely for birds, especially in Illinois. Karen also spent hundreds of hours counting migrating raptors at Greene Valley. Friends honored her memory with donations to The Wetlands Initiative.

Many of us subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest, a wonderful little magazine published in Marietta, Ohio. The publication suffered a double tragedy in 2019. Bill Thompson, III, editor, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 57. Two months later, Thompson family matriarch Elsa, Bill’s mother, died in a house fire. Both were active at the magazine to the end. Bill received the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award for Promoting the Cause of Birding, on March 25, just 12 hours before he passed.

Chip notes and upcoming events
Notable 2019 book releases included Kenn Kaufman’s “A Season on the Wind,” and Ted Floyd’s “How to Know the Birds.”

The International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, Wis., will reopen on May 2 (“The Crane Event”) following a massive $10.4 million renovation on the 10-acre site.  

Congrats to the Evanston North Shore Bird Club on 100 years! When founded on March 6, 1919, the cost to join was 50 cents.

Indiana Dunes National Park became official in February, the nation’s 62nd national park and the Chicago area’s first. The 6th annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival is set for May 14-17. 

Belted kingfisher emerged as a potential University of Illinois mascot. A snappy logo design by student Spencer Hulsey reopened mascot discussions in Urbana-Champaign, where former icon Chief Illiniwek got the boot in 2007.

The first-ever World Swift Day took place on June 7. Members of Kane County Audubon counted chimney swifts at local roosting sites.

The American Birding Association turned 50 and released an updated “ABA Code of Birding Ethics.” Head to WIRE in Berwyn for ABA’s 2020 Bird of the Year Reveal Party on January 12!

Did you find “Wingspan” under your Christmas tree? The new board game is popular, and not just with birders.

All are invited to the DuPage Birding Club’s first meeting of the new decade, on January 9. Texas birder Laura Keene will share stories from her epic “photographic big year” in 2016. It’s sure to be a fun and motivating start to a new year of birding adventures, near and far. Details are online at

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Sage Thrasher by Jerry Goldner
November’s rare air

This may be the best month of all to spot something unusual 

(published 11-4-19)

The birding year has a comforting, predictable flow. Month by month, season by season, experienced watchers know what birds to look for and the best places to find them.  

And yet birds never fail to surprise us. On any day, there’s always a chance of seeing something new—a rare bird, or perhaps a familiar one doing something odd. Maybe we see a species for the first time, rare or not.

Rare sightings of common birds count, too. I think of the junco in downtown Chicago in August 2014, or the Nashville warbler on the 2015 Christmas Bird Count in Wheaton. Both were several months out of season. You just never know.

Surprises are exciting, which makes November a great time to be a birder. This is the month to expect the unexpected.

Fall migration can be quirky. It lasts longer than spring migration, when birds are in a hurry to set up territories, build nests and start families. In autumn, the pace of travel is more leisurely, and birds may wander. Western species such as Townsend’s solitaire, varied thrush and rufous hummingbird turn up here in November on an annual basis. Not many, but a few. 

Weather plays a role, too.

“In November we see consistent nights in the 30s, with some nights just below freezing,” said Eric Walters, an avid birder from Zion. “This kills off insects and freezes up the smaller ponds. Once you get a couple strong cold fronts with northwest winds over 15 mph, the birds of many families are super motivated to move south.”

Purple Sandpiper by Steve Bailey
Walters recalls spotting two bohemian waxwings in Evanston on Nov. 2, 1991. The day stands out because it also produced an Illinois state record for most raptor species (12)—delivered by back-to-back arctic cold fronts the previous two days. The fronts spanned the eastern U.S. and inspired “The Perfect Storm” book and movie. 

But freakish weather events are certainly not a prerequisite for notable bird sightings. The latter occur annually in November. Serious listers monitor the rare bird alerts and keep their gas tanks full.

We watch for the November specialties as well. Sandhill cranes, certainly, but also a host of less conspicuous birds that tease and tempt birders who long for an end-of-year lifer, or a new tick on their year lists.

“It’s the time of year that western and red-necked grebes, kittiwakes, parasitic jaegers, little gulls and purple sandpipers migrate through,” said Al Stokie, a Park Ridge resident who birds daily. “They can also be seen in late October and early December, but November is the best time.”

Did somebody say purple sandpiper? How I’d love to see my first. Stokie will focus on the rocks along Lake Michigan this month, hoping to spot this uncommon visitor from the north. He hasn’t found one in a few years and figures he’s due.   

Western Grebe by Tamima Itani
One of Stokie’s favorite November sightings came in 2003, an adult pomarine jaeger flying north along the lakefront near Waukegan. The bird was so close he could easily see its telltale twisted tail feathers. 

Lake Michigan is indeed a rarity magnet this time of year. Birder Steve Bailey, from Mundelein, thinks of November as “loon and grebe month.” We see migrating common loons here in the spring and fall, but November is prime time for Pacific loons and red-throated loons. Bailey’s records show it’s also the best time for “sea ducks”—black, surf and white-winged scoters—plus red phalaropes and harlequin ducks.

Any day this month could yield an unexpected goodie, and maybe in your own backyard. Even hummingbirds can’t be ruled out. I keep a nectar feeder out until Thanksgiving, just in case.

“At least 75 percent of all rufous hummingbirds show up here in November,” said Bailey, who keeps Illinois birding data covering the last 50 years. The state’s only Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds occurred in November, and of the two broad-billed hummers ever recorded in Illinois, one came in November.

The only common hummingbird east of the Mississippi River is ruby-throated, and it usually departs our region by early October.

Rufous Hummingbird by Jackie Bowman
Vagrant hummingbirds are among the mega-rarities that birders may experience once in a lifetime in Illinois. And sure enough, a disproportionate share of the state’s legendary “megas” went down in November. 

On Nov. 23, 1981, a hepatic tanager, a southwestern species, turned up in Adams County. Discovered by Jim Funk, the bird remains the only record in Illinois and one of only three records east of the Big Muddy.

“I’ll always remember that bird [for triggering] the Thanksgiving Birders Express from Chicago, people who drove all night then had to get back home for Thanksgiving,” recalled David Johnson, a Glencoe birder who boarded that tanager train himself and got the bird.

Bailey didn’t snag the hep tanager, but he’s witnessed enough other megas that I don’t feel sorry for him—for example, the gray-crowned rosy finch found on Nov. 16, 1990, in Will County.

King eider, too—three days after Thanksgiving in 1986, in Chicago. The experience was extra special for Bailey because his nonbirder dad joined him for the chase, the only time he ever did. Birders lucky enough to ever encounter a king eider usually do so off the coast of Alaska or Maine.  

Barnacle goose, brant, brown pelican, dovekie, black-headed grosbeak, Clark’s nutcracker, common ground dove, golden eagle, northern wheatear, vermillion flycatcher, whooping crane, wood stork—all have paid November visits to Illinois over the years. Many were sighted in Cook, DuPage or Lake counties. 

Thankfully, rare birds are not always one-day wonders. Especially late-fall vagrants.

“Most birds will stay in a relatively small area once they are there—for days, weeks or even months,” Bailey said, provided they locate a food source.

Indeed, my personal best November sighting, a sage thrasher, stayed put long enough for me to see it thanks to some fruiting cherry trees. The site was Montrose Point, Chicago, in 2011. 

The best way to track rare bird sightings is through, operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. After registering, which is free, you can sign up for Rare Bird Alerts for any state or county. The reports arrive via email.   

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Killdeer is the familiar plover across North America. The 
species is strictly terrestrial, commonly nesting in open, 
human-disturbed habitats. (photo by Jim Frazier)
Parking lot plovers

(published 9-30-19)

As a bird, I could think of worse places to be born, but not many.

Imagine starting life in a parking lot, at the peak of summer. You and your two siblings take your first steps on a broiling sea of asphalt with bright yellow lines. You can’t fly, and the lot’s 5-inch curbs are insurmountable even with your long toothpick legs. Vehicles are a constant threat, along with gulls, hawks and assorted mammals looking for an easy snack.

Someday, if you survive, you might ask mama why she chose to lay her eggs on a white gravel traffic island, just feet away from passing cars, trucks and pedestrians. She couldn’t help it, of course. The killdeer is hard-wired to nest on open ground, sometimes in dangerous places.

The scene was Cantigny Park, where I work, so daily developments were easy to follow. Chicago had its plovers and we had ours.
Killdeer eggs are well disguised, a
critical adaptation for ground-
nesting birds.

In case you missed it, a piping plover pair made history at Montrose Beach this summer. For the first time since 1955, the endangered species nested successfully in Chicago, fledging two chicks. Their story involved plenty of drama, including a cancelled music festival on the birds’ behalf. Parents “Monty” and “Rose” became celebrities, nonbirder citizens learned about piping plovers and clever t-shirts were sold. It was national news!

Our plover story in Wheaton didn’t warrant media coverage but it was still fascinating to watch.

Killdeer is the common plover species across North America, and the one most often seen away from water. You know this bird: robin-sized, bright white in the front with two black breast bands. The sexes look the same.

As with blue jays and wrens, you’ll probably know when a killdeer is around. It’s the noisy plover, calling its name loud and often from the air and on the ground—a piercing kidee, kidee, kidee.   

Killdeer frequent beaches and mudflats like other shorebirds, but also prosper in open spaces such as farms, athletic fields, golf courses and, yes, parking lots. You’ll never see one in a tree, or at your backyard feeder. (Call me if you do!)

The killdeer’s broken-wing display, a distraction tactic,
exposes orangish feathers that are also noticeable
 in flight. 
The species is well known for its broken-wing display, a tactic employed to distract potential predators, drawing them away from eggs and offspring. Some other ground-nesting birds do this, too.

We didn’t assign catchy names to the killdeer pair at Cantigny, nor did we fence off their nest area. The horticulture team postponed planting activity in the traffic island but otherwise let nature take its course. These birds are naturally resilient.

Four speckled eggs were almost invisible from just a few feet away, hidden in plain sight on a simple scrape (hardly a nest at all). Throughout a July heat wave, the incubating adult killdeer took turns shading for the eggs. Instead of hunkering down, the birds stood over them day after day under a blistering sun.

I didn’t witness it, but the killdeer parents probably used a nearby water source to wet their belly feathers. Transferring moisture to the eggs before shading them provides cooling for the developing embryos through evaporative heat loss.  

Such extraordinary parental dedication paid off when all four eggs hatched after about 21 days. Unfortunately, one chick died on the nest—tragic, but not uncommon. In Chicago, only two of the three piping plover chicks survived.
A newly born killdeer chick is mobile within hours of
birth. It can fly in about 30 days.

Killdeer babies are precocial, meaning they are born with open eyes and downy feathers. They leave the nest within hours of birth and learn to feed themselves by following their parents’ example.

Like their famous cousins on Montrose Beach, the Cantigny kids were undeniably cute. They could really scoot, too, which I found out on photo day. A few weeks later they were airborne, gliding around easily on long, pointy wings.

In mid-September, I spotted the three grown-up chicks loitering in their home parking lot. They also graze on the second fairway of Cantigny Golf’s Lakeside course, a short hop over the fence from the park. I’m pretty sure the parents are still in the neighborhood, too. All seem to have everything they need on these constructed landscapes.

But not for much longer. Food is a powerful motivator. To maintain their insect-based diet, killdeer head south, spending winter in the southern United States and Mexico. They’ll return in March, an early spring marker just as sure as the red-winged blackbirds that precede them by a few weeks.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.