Gracie McMahon, 2020 ABA 
Young Birder of the Year.
Photo by Kristine McMahon
Young birders who care

(published 11-4-20)

Those of us working through the COVID-19 era may be tiring of video conference calls. It’s easy to get Zoomed out, dreading the next “virtual” meeting.

But a Zoomer about birding? That’s different. I couldn’t wait to log on for the 2020 Illinois Young Birder Virtual Symposium.

The recent Saturday morning confab was time well spent and ended with a flourish as keynote speaker Kenn Kaufman addressed the kids and took their questions.

Kaufman tuned in for the entire symposium, listening to the presentations by some of our state’s top young birders and sharing his own perspectives in small doses. There is no bigger fan (and coach) of youth birding than Double K, one of the hobby’s rock stars.

The symposium is an annual gathering for Illinois Young Birders, a birding club for kids, teens and young adults ages 9 to 18. Administered by the Illinois Ornithological Society, ILYB aims to “foster and ignite a passion for birding among young people, provide community, promote conservation, investigate careers in birding, build positive relationships with other birding groups, and most of all to have fun!”

The fun part is easily achieved through monthly field trips to birding hotspots around the state, primarily in the Chicago region. Of course, ILYB members are usually birding somewhere every weekend. These kids eat, sleep and bird, and their field identification skills often surpass those of their elders.

Gracie McMahon's hand-painted bird rocks
served a conservation and public awareness
purpose in the Rockford area. 
The symposium showcased other skills, including sketching, painting and photography. A slideshow of member artwork and photos played to a soundtrack that included “Birding” by the Swet Shop Boys, a tune worthy of your investigation.

Earlier this year, one of the symposium participants, 14-year-old Gracie McMahon from Rockford, was named 2020 Young Birder of the Year by the American Birding Association. Her presentation to ILYB summarized her contest entry, including required elements focusing on conservation and community action.

In 2019, Gracie launched a public outreach project in which she hand-painted 52 rocks with different species of birds. Each rock was numbered, with a message on the back: “What bird is this?” along with sandbluff.org, the website of the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory, where Gracie volunteers.

Snowy Owl painting by Stephen Hurst
The rocks were placed throughout the Rockford area for random people to find. The finders could then go online to watch a video about their bird and receive an invitation to visit Sand Bluff. Gracie and other SBBO volunteers created a short video for all 52 birds.

“My project wasn’t for people who were already interested in birds,” Gracie said. “It was for people who knew nothing about them and weren’t aware that birds need our help. Hopefully now they are, and they will continue to expand the birding community.”

Other symposium presenters were Peter Tolzmann, speaking about the human impact on birds; John Fabrycky on birding in Israel; and Oliver Burrus sharing insights about data science and “machine learning.” Part of Oliver’s talk covered iNaturalist, a useful app for helping ID virtually any living thing.

Kaufman closed the event with an inspiring talk that reached beyond birding to show how everything in nature is connected. The kids were mesmerized, the way Little Leaguers would be if Anthony Rizzo showed up to their baseball practice. Everyone on the Zoom, it seemed, had read Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway” at least once.

White-eyed Vireo by Simon Tolzman
“Birds unite us,” he said, and “Birds will lead you to everything else in nature.”

Kaufman reflected on growing up in Indiana and how, at age 6, he learned to put a name on the blackbirds grazing in his yard. They were common grackles and European starlings—not the most exciting “spark birds,” he admits, but they were enough. The challenge of finding other birds to identify hooked him on birding.

Not surprisingly, as a teen, Kaufman’s favorite book was “Wild America,” the classic bird-finding travelogue by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, published in 1955. A few of the ILYB members had read it as well, which thoroughly impressed me.

Kaufman wrapped up his virtual visit with a call to action, encouraging everyone to share their knowledge and passion with others.

“We don’t have to make people into rabid birders,” he said. “If you can get them to care about birds, to have some interest, then they are likely to support bird conservation in the future. We need a lot more people like that.”

The message resonated but was hardly necessary. Not with this group. Young birders, the serious ones, are among the hobby’s best ambassadors. We need a lot more of them, too.

Visit illinoisyoungbirders.org to learn more and perhaps buy a membership ($10) for the future ornithologist in your life.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Yellow-headed blackbird, a declining species in DuPage, is among the
county’s most elusive species. 
Photo by Gary Sullivan/The Wetlands
Initiative


Bird finding made easier

Updated DuPage checklist of 268 birds shows best times of year for tracking them down

(Published 8-30-20)

I’ve gushed before about the wonderful simplicity of birding, how all you need is a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Today I’m recommending a third item, the regional checklist.

I don’t mean a list of species with check boxes. Picture instead a list that offers a rating for every regularly occurring local bird in every season, based on abundance—information that tells you what to expect, and what to look for, when birding.

Abundance or frequency ratings aid identification, too. When you’re unsure about a bird, a good checklist can help narrow the choices.

If you think you saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker in July, you probably didn’t. Not around here. A checklist tells you that.

The sixth edition of “Checklist of the Birds of DuPage County” is hot off the press, compiled by Denis Kania and published by the DuPage Birding Club (DBC). You can download a copy at dupagebirding.org.

Capturing the story of DuPage County’s birdlife is “an ever-moving target,” Kania said, who created the first DuPage checklist in 1989, the bird club’s fourth year. He was inspired by the helpful checklists he acquired during travels to national parks, nature preserves and other highly birded places.Pardon the cliché, but this checklist truly is “new and improved”—the first update in 10 years. The list of birds has changed along with many of the ratings.

“When I’d return from a trip, I often wondered why I didn’t have this same information close to home.”

Naperville resident Denis Kania is president of the DuPage
Birding Club. He teaches birding classes at The Morton
Arboretum and organizes international birding tours for
Field Guides, Inc. Photo by Diann Bilderback
 

Developing the initial checklist was extra challenging. As a novice birder, Kania relied heavily on local experts, written field notes and educated guesses. The eBird online reporting tool, a data gold mine and indispensable for compiling the sixth edition, was still 13 years away.

Bird checklists sometimes have four columns, one for each season. But like colors on a painted bunting, more is better.

“I always felt that four columns weren’t specific enough,” Kania explained. “In terms of birding, think about how different March is from May, or how different September is from November.”

The solution was to split spring, summer and fall into two periods each, assigning dates that reflect major shifts in bird populations. For example, “early spring” is March 1 to April 15; “late spring” is April 16 to June 5. “Post Breeding,” from July 6 to Aug. 15, is represented as a season, too.

Each bird receives a seasonal rating: A (Abundant); C (Common); F (Fairly Common); U (Uncommon); R (Rare); or X (Extremely Rare). A species may have different or repeating ratings across the seven “seasons,” or no rating at all, meaning the bird is not present. An eighth column indicates if the bird breeds in DuPage.

Our state bird, northern cardinal, rates a C across the board. It’s easy to find and doesn’t migrate. But most species are not so consistent; their numbers vary a little or a lot throughout the year.

Green heron, for example, a migrant, rates an X in early spring and F in late spring. Timing is everything.

The checklist contains 268 species, so a bird by bird update is no simple task.

“Establishing the ratings requires some history but I also try to predict how bird populations will change in the future,” Kania said.

I asked him what’s new about the sixth edition. The news is mixed.

Previously rated “accidental” in DuPage, blue grosbeak
now breeds in the county. Morton Arboretum is a good
 place to look for it. Photo by Jackie Bowman
“It’s disappointing to see some birds fall off the list or to see their abundance ratings on a downward slide. That is balanced by some species being seen more frequently and some moving off the accidental list, like pileated woodpecker and blue grosbeak—both are breeding species in the county now.

“We’ve also seen an increase in breeding attempts by osprey and sandhill crane, both making dramatic changes for the better. Bald eagle is another big breeding surprise over the last few years.”

Species dropped from the checklist include upland sandpiper, common tern and evening grosbeak; they are no longer seen often enough in DuPage to warrant inclusion. Among species still on the list but declining and rare in the county are sanderling, loggerhead shrike and yellow-headed blackbird. When the checklist is next updated in 2028 these birds may be gone from our landscape.

For additional details about the checklist and bird trends in DuPage County, check out Kania’s YouTube video on the topic, accessible from DBC’s recently upgraded website, dupagebirding.org.

Kania, club president through 2020, has made the most of his pandemic downtime. Besides updating the checklist, he launched a growing series of YouTube tutorials focused on bird identification, also on the club website.

If you go there, be sure to check out yet another excellent new resource, Birding Hotspots—profiles of the top places for birdwatching in DuPage County, contributed by the local birders who know them best.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Prairie Warbler by Jackie Bowman
Three sticky warblers

A trio of hard-to-find species cooperated nicely for area birders, including me.

(published 7-9-20)

On occasions when I simply must see a rock pigeon I know where to go. A small flock hangs out on the utility wires outside the Glen Ellyn McDonald’s on Roosevelt Road. They are what I call sticky birds, loyal to a site. Pigeons have a reliable weakness for parking lot French fries.

The Chicago region, of course, is a permanent or part-time home to more exciting birds. Many are uncommon, even rare. But seeing the rarities can be a challenge—they are often “one-day wonders,” observed by a lucky birder or maybe a small group in the right place at the right time.

Birders like me depend on stickiness. I am rarely among the first people on the scene after a rare bird is spotted and then reported online. Unless it’s an ivory-billed woodpecker, I’m inclined to try for a look after the bird is reported several days in a row. I like to know the odds of success are really good.

This laid-back style of birding, of course, can backfire. I’ve missed some rare birds from being late to the party. Not recently though. In the last six weeks, I’ve followed in many a birder’s wake to enjoy fine views of three coveted warbler species. All three birds were sticky indeed—just where the reports said they would be and in no apparent hurry to leave. Birders call them “continuing” birds.

Checking off Kentucky, mourning and prairie warblers shouldn’t be this easy. For sure, I’m indebted to the original finders of these yellow-bellied beauties and to the many birders who posted their sightings in the days that followed. Thanks!

Kentucky Warbler by Todd Fellenbaum

The Kentucky warbler, as I related here last month, was a lifer for me. Mike Madsen found it at Greene Valley Forest Preserve (Naperville) on May 23. I went there on May 25 and by then dozens of birders had eyed the bird, a singing male. The Kentucky’s churry-churry-churry song is loud and distinct, making this one easy to locate. 

Having a guide helped, too. Joan Campbell texted me from the woods, urging me to get my butt in gear for a chance to confront my long-time nemesis. Twelve minutes later I was heading south on Route 53. 

Once on site, I expected more of a struggle. Kentucky warbler is usually secretive and hard to view. You might hear it but seeing it can be iffy. The Greene Valley bird, however, was moving from branch to branch, teasing us with occasional open looks. I could not have been happier.

A reported mourning warbler at Lyman Woods in Downers Grove grabbed my attention next. Here was another elusive species apparently outfitted with a tiny pair of molasses slippers. Discovered by Graham Deese on June 5, the bird was sheltering in place.

Mourning Warbler by Philip Dunn

Joan agreed to meet me at Lyman, her home patch, on June 10. She’s a bird monitor at the preserve and leads walks there for the DuPage Birding Club. She’d already seen the warbler and took me directly to it. Easy peasy, and my best look ever of a species I’d last seen in 2003. (I might need to get out more.)

My luck continued on July 1 with a prairie warbler—fittingly, along the Prairie Path at West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve. Matt Wistrand found the bird on June 25 as he was biking by, alertly detecting its high-pitched buzzy trill. Acting like a male bird on territory, it stayed put long enough to be my first prairie warbler outside of Florida.




My inaugural visit to West Chicago Prairie was fruitful in another way. A singing yellow-breasted chat—yet another sought-after warbler—greeted my arrival, posing on a bare tree in the early morning sun. (Picture perfect, except my camera was in the car.) Chats breed on the preserve and this might be the best place in DuPage to find one.

Yellow-breasted Chat by Jackie Bowman

So, there it is, three successful sorties around DuPage and not a wasted minute or mile. Target birding at its best! It shows that sometimes it’s okay to be late—with good information, and perhaps a little help from a friend, you can still get the bird. 

To track notable bird sightings, consider using eBird, a free service of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Sign up at ebird.org to receive a daily list of uncommon or rare birds for any state or county in the United States. I get the Illinois and DuPage reports.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

A great-crested flycatcher was among 47 bird species spotted in or from the
author’s yard on May 15, a day when birders throughout the region enjoyed
 fallout conditions. Photo by Jackie Bowman.
Freaky Friday fallout

(published 6-23-20)

Almost three inches of hard rain can make a mess of a newly mulched landscape. I saw this when stepping into my backyard on May 15. But mulch wasn’t the only thing that migrated during the night. The yard was messy with warblers, too.

You could feel it. Something special was happening—in my yard, on my block and throughout the entire region, I’d find out later. The heavy storms had triggered an avian fallout.

Cleaning up the lawn could wait. I’d been waiting for this all spring. Stay at home order? No problem!

The first big surprise was a northern waterthrush, a streaky, ground-loving member of the warbler family. My little patch of Glen Ellyn offers nothing this bird typically prefers. In the prime of spring migration, however, almost anything is possible.

The waterthrush joined my all-time yard list as species No. 119.

Flashier warblers were all around: Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, bay-breasted, pine, Cape May and American redstart. Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeders would be all-day companions.

An ovenbird joined the party, another terrestrial warbler named for its Dutch oven-shaped nest. It walks like a miniature chicken. A great-crested flycatcher called “wheep!” from above as a yellow-throated vireo foraged nearby. Higher still, chimney swifts glided on stiff wings, adding their chittering notes to the morning’s natural soundtrack. (Conditions were far too wet, fortunately, for the neighborhood landscape crews to power up their lawn mowers and leaf blowers.)

A nice thrush triple-crown featured gray-cheeked, Swainson’s and veery. Robins are thrushes, too, so make that a grand slam.

At least 30 birders witnessed this worm-eating warbler at Elsen’s Hill in
Winfield. The species, while not colorful, is a rare visitor to northern Illinois.
Photo by Andrew Steinmann
The sparrow family, not to be unrepresented, contributed a Lincoln’s—by no means a bird I see every year in the yard. What else would drop from the sky?

At 9 a.m. my heart almost stopped when a worm-eating warbler appeared in the lilac bush—only the second one I’d ever seen. No. 120!

Sharing my backyard “wormie” with friends would have added to the experience. It’s a coveted, hard-to-find species in northern Illinois. Alas, in a few minutes my special visitor moved on.

Thrill-seeking birders willing to leave home did have a chance to see a worm-eating warbler at two locations on May 3: Elsen’s Hill, part of the West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield; and Les Arends Forest Preserve in Batavia.  

A couple of even rarer warblers made appearances this spring. Townsend’s warbler, a western species, turned up at Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Cook County on April 16, discovered by Heidi Tarasiuk. The bird stayed for 10 days, enabling dozens of watchers to extend their life lists.

On May 18, a Kirtland’s warbler surprised a birding group at Bennett Park in Geneva. Reported by Bob Andrini, possibly the first Kirtland’s ever found in Kane County.   

Scattered reports of cerulean, Connecticut, hooded, Kentucky and yellow-throated warblers also kept local birders on the go—with proper social distancing, of course.


In late May, with spring migration winding down, watchers enjoyed a singing
male Kentucky warbler at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville.
Photo by Matthew Studebaker
The Kentucky warbler at Greene Valley Forest Preserve (Naperville) on May 24 was my lifer, ending a long quest filled with rotten luck and near misses. Mike Madsen made the initial find but it was Joan Campbell who alerted me to the opportunity. I owe her a nice bottle of wine.

Mostly I stayed home this spring, watching my backyard like a hungry Cooper’s hawk. In fact, if not for COVID-19, I’d have been at work on that Freaky Friday fallout and missed a lot of the show. It was not a morning-only phenomenon; warblers and other newly arrived migrants were hopping around in the trees all day.

By sunset I’d counted 47 species, six more than my previous one-day best. Fifteen of the 47 were warblers, two of which were first-time visitors during my running yard watch of 23 years.

Coincidentally, I’d agreed to do a Zoom interview that day with Naperville Community Television, for a story on backyard birding during the pandemic. At noon, I calmed down enough to speak with the reporter, Aysha Househ, who asked, “What do you like most about birdwatching?”

Good question! I could have answered it 10 different ways but with that worm-eating warbler fresh on my mind I talked about the surprises that birding brings, and how you never know what might pop into view. Every day, there’s always the chance of seeing something remarkable. Even in your backyard.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Scarlet Tanager, male, by Linda Petersen
Songbird sirens

(published 5-4-20)

Ask people why they watch birds and you’ll get all kinds of answers. A common one is that birds are beautiful. Nice to look at. Colorful.

Those who feel this way are in luck. This month, pandemic or not, is spring migration’s prime time. Some of bird world’s brightest beacons have just arrived. They’re here and available for viewing—potentially, right in our own backyards.

Here are five feathered flamethrowers to watch for in May:

Scarlet Tanager
I love being close by when somebody sees this bird for the first time. Then I help them pick up their jaw. The male scarlet tanager is shockingly beautiful and is surely a “spark bird” for many new birders. Even for veteran watchers, the first spring sighting of a tanager is a moment to savor.

Tanagers we see in May spent the winter in South America, and some will nest here. But this is a forest-loving species that can be hard to spot during the breeding season. They are easiest to see when they first arrive—before they choose a mate and before the trees get too leafy.

Tanagers are not feeder birds, so watch for them in the upper levels of deciduous trees, foraging for insects. Oaks are a favorite.

For this bird and the others here, knowing calls and songs is an advantage. To hear them, visit All About Birds, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

American Goldfinch
Here’s one that will visit feeders, thistle preferred. In fact, you might have hosted American goldfinches all winter long, when they looked nothing like they do now. In May, the males are in full breeding plumage. If you favor eye-popping yellow and admire vegetarians, this is your bird!


American Goldfinch, male, by Christian Goers
Goldfinches are strictly seed eaters, never insects, which explains how they can survive winters around here. But the species is migratory. Most of the individuals we see now traveled from the southern U.S. or northern Mexico.

Goldfinches possess some notable quirks. Their flight is undulating, like a roller coaster, and they say “potato chip” as they fly. Their tiny cup-shaped nests are often affixed to the ends of branches, even when this places their home directly above a roadway. That’s living on the edge!

Baltimore Oriole
As noted in my last column, this striking member of the blackbird family hankers for oranges and grape jelly. It might even try to sip from your hummingbird feeder.

Baltimore Oriole, male, by Linda Petersen
Baltimore oriole is the state bird of Maryland, naturally, and is named after Lord Baltimore, whose coat of arms featured orange and black. As a baseball fan, this species reminds me of Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken every time I see it.

I also think about this bird’s nest, an architectural wonder. The hanging basket, about six inches deep, is woven together with plant fibers and grasses. I read that one oriole spent 40 hours on the project! The nest is durable, too. On fall and winter bird walks we sometimes see the vacant pouches swaying in the breeze, usually at the ends of wispy limbs in cottonwood or willow trees.

Indigo Bunting
This is the only all-blue species common to our region. Indigo buntings arrive here from Central America, raise their families and start heading south in August.

Indigo Bunting, male, by Jackie Bowman
When the sun hits a male indigo just right, the look is electric. Yet, from a different angle, this bird may appear blackish. Fortunately, we can usually get a good view of this guy, thanks to its birder-friendly habit of perching in the open and singing persistently.

Indigos prefer brushy forest edges, roadsides and weedy fields. They occasionally visit backyard feeders but locating this bird will be easier in edge habitat at a park or forest preserve.

Blackburnian Warbler
This is your challenge bird—the hardest to observe in this five-pack of avian hotties. Unlike the previous four species, Blackburnian warblers are just passing through, on their way to nesting grounds in the North Woods.

The bird is named after Anna Blackburn, an English patron of ornithology in the 1700s. I wonder if she wore a fluorescent orange scarf. That would describe the throat of a male Blackburnian, the signature field mark of this beloved warbler.


Blackburnian Warbler, male, by Christian Goers
The flaming throat and upper breast is handy for spotting this bird, since you’ll probably be looking straight up to find it. It prefers the canopy of tall trees and like most warblers is constantly moving. I usually see a Blackburnian or two every year from my back patio, high in my neighbor’s massive locust.

The special colors of spring migration are not limited to a few birds, of course. The warbler family alone—about 25 species are possible this month—is spectacular. Consider this column a starter kit.

Remember to be alert for subtle beauty, too. Taken a long look at a female cardinal, lately? All birds are worth watching.

Happy birding this month, the most colorful time of year. Even from home there is plenty to see and appreciate.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at black-oil sunflower seeds.
Spring migration is not canceled!

(published 4-16-20)

In terms of everyday life, what have you missed most during the COVID-19 crisis? My selfish answer would be sports on TV. In particular, the start of the Major League Baseball season and The Masters and PGA golf tournaments. Oh yeah, I watch more than birds.
Of course, staying healthy and looking out for one another is what matters most. I’m thankful that my family is fine so far, including my parents, both in their 90s.
I’m also glad the shutdown didn’t begin in December or January. Can you imagine?
For birders, the silver lining in all this is the time of year. We’re allowed to go outside you know, and every day it gets better—the weather, the scenery and the birds.
A walk around the block or some time on the back patio is never more interesting than in April and May. Each day is full of potential.  
“One of the great things about the spring migration is that it brings the birds to you—you don’t have to necessarily go out looking for them,” said Jim Herkert, executive director of Illinois Audubon Society. “A good variety of migrants can usually be found in most yards and neighborhoods.”
This year, most of us have more time to enjoy the spectacle. I don’t mind working from home, especially now!
My feeders are clean and full, with a few handfuls of mixed seed tossed on the ground. The hummingbird feeder is juiced up, oriole banquet set, wren houses hung. Other years I might be a week or two late getting things ready. In 2020, no excuses.
This would be a fine time to begin a yard list if you don’t already have one. Keep track of everything you see—in your yard, in your neighbor’s yard, flying over. Be observant and the list will expand quickly. In 2005, my yard hosted 41 species on May 15, and a few surely went undetected.
If you already keep a list, this is your chance to grow it. I have a regular yard, surrounded by other houses. My running count is 118 species. In a good year, I’ll add one or two new ones. This spring I’m targeting northern waterthrush, a type of warbler, and perhaps an orchard oriole or summer tanager. I can dream. Looking skyward, I wish for American white pelican and bald eagle.
Baltimore Oriole (male) at orange, grape jelly and nectar feeder.
For migrating songbirds, it’s best to get up early. I like to be on the patio, with coffee, by 6 a.m. On a calm, clear morning in May, the next two hours can be magical. I’m mostly watching for movement in the trees and shrubs. The warblers, vireos, tanagers and other long-distance migrants are hungry and searching for insects.
If you dispense sunflower seeds, watch for a rose-breasted grosbeak. It’s one of the few migratory songbirds that regularly visits feeders—and a real beauty, too. Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds also accept handouts, but not seeds. They crave oranges, nectar and grape jelly.
Migrating species arrive in our region on different schedules. Knowing what birds to watch for and when to expect them is helpful. To monitor daily movements, check out Illinois Audubon Society’s Spring Migration Dashboard (illinoisaudubon.org). The posted information, based on eBird data, includes a running count of Illinois species reported in 2020.
If the printed page is more your style, I recommend Kenn Kaufman’s “A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration.” It’s new, and it’s the perfect book for now.
I’m content with the backyard being my designated patch this spring. Birding it never gets old for me. Still, I will miss attending such rites of spring as the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival and the Birdwatching Open at Cantigny Golf.
But spring migration marches on, and we’re fortunate that birding from home is easy and often highly rewarding. The birds know nothing about the tragic virus down below. They are with us now or on their way, and there’s no stopping them.
Be ready, enjoy the show and please remember to bird responsibly if you venture out.
Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Peregrine Falcon with prey by Clive Slack
Falconers for a night 

(published 4-13-20)


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 3billionbirds.org 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.