Birders scurried to Palos Park to see this Varied Thrush, a
western species, in January. (photo by Bonnie Graham)
An eventful Year of the Bird

(published 1-21-19)

Could it be that birding gets more interesting, and more exciting, the longer we do it? Dedicated watchers know the answer is yes.

The 2018 birding year, officially The Year of the Bird, only escalated our curiosity and passion for the hobby.  It was remarkably newsy and birdy, filled with feathery surprises, the latter including a plucky little plover, long out of season, lingering on a frigid Chicago beach.

A major anniversary hovered over 2018, inspiring the Year of the Bird celebration and calling attention to bird conservation at a critical time. Ironically, just as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act turned 100, it came under attack in Washington. A bill in Congress, HR 4239, would pull some key enforcement teeth from MBTA, our country’s most important bird protection law. National Audubon Society sued the Department of the Interior, with similar suits filed by Attorneys General in eight states, including Illinois.

“State of the World’s Birds,” released in April, reported that 40 percent of bird species worldwide are in decline, with one of every eight threatened with extinction. BirdLife International issues the report every five years.
This Long-tailed Jaeger was the first
on record along Chicago's lakefront.
(photo by Jake Cvetas)

One of those potentially doomed species is the blue-throated hillstar, an Ecuadorian hummingbird revealed to the world in September. An estimated 750 individuals exist. Yes, amazingly, new birds are still being discovered.

Northwestern University earned kudos in March for making its glassy buildings along the lakefront less deadly for migrating birds. To reduce collisions, the college applied patterned film to many existing windows and chose glass with patterns visible to birds in some new construction. Chicago Bird Collision Monitors advised.

Notes and scribblings
Bird Watcher’s Digest celebrated 40 years of publishing and launched Redstart Birding, a gear company out to fill the void left by Eagle Optics.

Julie Zickefoose, artist and author, spoke at Morton Arboretum on back-to-back nights in June. Always the birder and keeping a trip list, Zick observed a nesting killdeer at the Hyatt Regency Lisle—on the roof!

The gray jay is now the Canada jay. Remember that when you visit the North Woods.

A yellow (not red) northern cardinal, spotted in Alabama, went viral on Facebook. So did several hilarious photos of a high school golfer in Michigan being attacked by a goose. Only his pride was hurt.

King Rails are usually elusive but this one awarded brief looks
to patient birders in Chicago. (photo by Jackie Bowman)
In March, I happened to be on the Wheaton College campus 90 minutes before the memorial service for Billy Graham. Hearing a mourning dove calling, I looked around. The bird was on top of Graham’s namesake building. Too perfect.

A white-tailed kite visited Porter County, Indiana, during the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. Found by Mark Welter, it was the third state record of the species, the last being in 1994. Many festival attendees scored a highly improbable lifer.

An out-of-range blue-footed booby sent birders scrambling to Kane County in September. The Kane County in Utah, unfortunately.

But the Chicago region offered its own excitement for birders in 2018, and plenty of it.

The year began with a mega rarity when Amar Ayyash bagged an ivory gull at the Lake County Fairgrounds. Also in January, birders beat a trail to Palos Park for a varied thrush in the yard of a birder-friendly homeowner. Big Rock, Kane County, our Kane County, would host a varied thrush in November.

Notable: Greater white-fronted geese were widespread in late February; common loons were unusually prolific in March and April; numbers of pine siskins were still around in late May; and black-bellied whistling ducks turned up throughout the state from May to October.

DuPage highlights
The DuPage County Spring Bird Count on May 5 tallied a record-high 188 species. Red-winged blackbird was the most numerous one by far, followed by robin and palm warbler. A northern goshawk, spotted by Bob Fisher in Woodridge, was the first SBC “gos” since 2000.

This Western Grebe on Lake Michigan was among many
avian surprises in November. (photo by Tamima Itani)
A quartet of coveted May warblers visited Elsen’s Hill: cerulean, Connecticut, mourning and yellow-throated, plus a white-eyed vireo. Elsen’s, a.k.a. Warblerville, is part of West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield.

Morton Arboretum produced blue grosbeak, lark sparrow and pileated woodpecker. Purple martins nested at the Arb for the first time after their long-vacant house was relocated to Arbor Lake on the west side. Four martins fledged.

St. James Farm featured worm-eating and hooded warblers in May, and a bobwhite quail in July. Waterfall Glen hosted a wormie, too.

A neotropical cormorant appeared in Roselle, on the same pond a neo visited in 2017. Same bird?

Joe Suchecki, bird monitor for Naperville’s Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve since 1994, added four birds to the site list: Carolina wren, Brewer’s sparrow, whip-poor-will and willet. He’s now seen 236 species on the property. With that total, just adding one species takes some luck. But four in one year? As Joe told me, “pretty amazing.”

Hawkwatchers completed their 13th fall season on the hill at Greene Valley, counting migrating raptors almost every day for three straight months. Northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk and four golden eagles were highlights. The team also witnessed a massive monarch butterfly migration on Sept. 7, and 6,185 sandhill cranes on Nov. 10.

Kane County goodies, besides that varied thrush, included yellow rail, red-necked phalarope, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Smith’s longspur and a snowy egret in downtown Elgin. A pair of whooping cranes joined nine sandies in a field near Hampshire in late October.

On the waterfront
You could fill a book with significant Cook and Lake County sightings in 2018. The Lake Michigan shoreline combined with a higher density of active birders once again delivered eye-popping results.

Parasitic and long-tailed jaegers, like avian fighter jets, zipped past Wilmette’s Gillson Park in early September. A western grebe plied Chicago and Evanston waters in November, with harlequin duck, red-throated loon and red-necked grebe also making waves.

This female Great-tailed Grackle was a first
for Lake County.
(photo by Joan Campbell)
Montrose beach and the Magic Hedge hosted barn owl, little gull, least tern, red knot, loggerhead shrike, Bell’s vireo and yellow-headed blackbird. King rail, a secretive marsh species, teased birders with brief but regular appearances in June and July.

In May, Jon Grainger discovered and photographed a plumbeous vireo in Bolingbrook, a first state record.

Additional Cook treasures included black-belling whistling duck, cinnamon teal, cattle egret, snowy owl, Townsend’s solitaire, western tanager, prairie warbler and Harris’s sparrow.

Great-tailed grackle was a premium find in Lake, discovered in August by Bonnie Graham and Joan Campbell at Spring Bluff Forest Preserve. They’d gone there looking for a reported whimbrel.

Al Stokie picked a hoary redpoll out of flock of 112 common redpolls at Chicago Botanic Garden in January. In May, he located CBG’s second-ever prairie warbler. The site surrendered a white-faced ibis for Amanda Tichacek.

Also in May, a Hudsonsian godwit and glossy ibis shared the same “fluddle” in Waukegan. Piping plover, a federally endangered species, nested on a gravel parking lot at Waukegan Beach, and a colony of state-endangered common terns set up shop in the dunes.  

A mountain bluebird checked into Knox County in April. Chain O’Lakes State Park, in McHenry, yielded black-necked stilt in May, and white ibis in August.

In Springfield, where Governor Rauner proclaimed April 22-28 Bird Appreciation Week in Illinois, rarities included Swainson’s warbler, Mississippi kite and little gull.

The roster of southern Illinois birds in 2018 felt Floridian, with brown pelican, mottled duck, anhinga, white ibis and roseate spoonbill all reported.

A Sabine’s gull at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Putnam County was close enough for Chicago-area birders to chase in September. A second Sabine’s turned up at Carlyle Lake two weeks later in downstate Clinton County.

This Yellow-throated Warbler in St. Charles was a most
unlikely backyard visitor, given its arrival in late November.
(photo by Chuck Berman)
Home sweet home
Road trips, of course, are optional. In 2018, birders proved once again that amazing things sometimes happen just outside the kitchen window. A western tanager turned up at Springfield feeder in April, and Lombard residents Rick and Mary Lingle noticed a summer tanager at their birdbath in May. The snow and ice storm just after Thanksgiving delivered a chilly American bittern to Diane Swaim’s yard in Aurora. 

The most remarkable backyard visitor occurred in St. Charles, where homeowner Jonathan Schuler attracted a yellow-throated warbler that forgot to migrate. The bird appeared Nov. 22 and was still feasting on a hot pepper seed cylinder at press time. On Dec. 15, it became the first yellow-throated warbler ever recorded on the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count, an annual event since 1976.

This chilly but resilient Piping Plover on Montrose Beach
was the latest ever in Illinois. (photo by Fran Morel)
My own space in Glen Ellyn produced 78 species, better than most years, and included two flyover additions to the yard list: greater white-fronted goose (No. 117) and osprey (No. 118). 

And what about that Chicago plover? In the Year of the Bird, I’d call it the Bird of the Year: an unbanded piping plover, first spotted on Montrose Beach in October and still there in early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. As the tiny puffball captured birders’ hearts, it eluded capture by naturalists trying to save it from freezing or starvation. Three rescue attempts using mist nets failed.

The plover vanished for several days, then made history in another state by appearing Dec. 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s CBC! Let’s hope the bird somehow survives the winter or, better yet, moves on to a warmer climate.

Thanks for reading and may your 2019 be filled with interesting birds!

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Chimney Swifts at Abbott Middle School in Elgin.
Photo by Susan Szeszol.
Swift September

(published 11-19-18)

Some say the most memorable birds are rarely the ones you expect to see. I agree, but there are exceptions. Let me tell you about one.

In September, I traveled to Portland, Ore., for a nephew’s wedding. Weeks before the trip—okay, months—I began studying up on the birds I might be able to see. It’s what birders do.

Chimney Swift by Rob Curtis
I was especially interested in lifers—birds I’d never seen before. A prime candidate, I quickly learned, was Vaux’s swift. It’s the western version of our chimney swift, and common in the skies over cities and towns. I’d be in Portland at the perfect time, too, when large numbers of Vaux’s swifts gather before starting their fall migration. This was a bird I could expect to see.

The Audubon Society of Portland website put me in a fever when I found the page about Chapman Elementary School, site of a nightly Swift Watch throughout September. Since 1982, Vaux’s swifts have used the school’s old furnace chimney as a communal overnight roost. On some evenings, 40,000 birds pour into the stack, creating a spectacle.

I longed to see it. Wedding activities, however, were planned for all three nights of our stay in Portland. Sneaking away to Chapman, even for an hour, was not happening.

What’s a birdman to do? Look up, of course. I see chimney swifts in broad daylight quite often around DuPage County. In Portland, I figured it would be the same with Vaux’s swifts. Except it wasn’t.

I birded in the city a bit on Friday morning, our first full day, in the green space along the Willamette River. Not seeing any swifts, I impulsively rented a bright orange bike—Portland’s version of Chicago’s Divvy—and looked up Chapman School on Google Maps. If I could find the school, surely there would be a few swifts cruising around its legendary 

The view of Chapman Elementary School from the swift
watching hill in Portland, Ore.
Getting to the school was a workout—nearly three miles from city center and mostly uphill. It was noon, sunny and unseasonably warm. A western scrub jay welcomed me, but no swifts.

Young voices drifted out the classroom windows as I surveyed the grounds, hoping not to be reported as a suspicious schoolyard character. The kids inside knew all about the birds, no doubt about that. The school nickname is the Swifts, and the student newspaper is the Swift Current.

A fence banner promoted the upcoming Chapman Swift Family Fun Run. On the grassy hill where the swift watchers gather, a three-sided kiosk dispensed information about Vaux’s swift and the importance of Chapman School, one of the largest known roosting sites for the species.  

I soon gave up the vigil, glad for having made the effort but disappointed by the lack of swifts. I coasted back to the downtown Marriott.

At the wedding Saturday night, it occurred to me that hope wasn’t lost. All those swifts needed to exit the chimney at some point. What if I returned to Chapman School on Sunday morning?

And that’s what I did, waking early and pedaling back up the hill, in the dark. Calm silence greeted my arrival at the school as the skies began to brighten. Maybe I was too late.

At 6:20 I spotted a single swift fluttering near the top of the smokestack. My Vaux’s lifer! Seven minutes later, the chimney erupted with departing birds, chittering loudly and ready for another day of feeding on the wing. In 10 minutes every bird was out.

I was the only apparent witness at Chapman, and I wondered how many people were on the hill 12 hours earlier, watching the swifts tuck in for the night. Judging by the full trash cans, I missed quite a party.

Abbott Middle School in Elgin, Ill.
Six days later I got another chance. This time the party was in Elgin, outside Abbott Middle School, site of Kane County Audubon’s (KCA) fourth annual Chimney Swift Sit. The scene at Abbott was just how I imagined the one at Chapman, but on a smaller scale.

We were watching chimney swifts, not Vaux’s, but you’d never know the difference. Just after 7 p.m. the volume of swifts grew rapidly as they swirled clockwise around the school’s giant stack. About 15 minutes passed before a few birds started to drop in, first a trickle and then a steady flow. Like a vacuum, the chimney seemed to pull in the swifts until the air was clear and quiet.

About 2,000 swifts entered the Abbott School chimney. We know this because Marion Miller counted them—a challenging task! Marion maintains the Facebook page “Chimney Swifts Over the Fox Valley,” and with KCA works on chimney swift conservation. The species is declining, primarily due to habitat loss. Large, uncapped chimneys are increasingly scarce.

Residents of the Abbott School neighborhood were curious. Who were these people with binoculars and folding chairs, watching a school on a Saturday night? Marion and others happily explained, even passing out a KCA brochure about chimney swifts and how to help them. The accidental onlookers went to bed wise to an amazing slice of nature just outside their front doors. Maybe some will pull up a chair next year.

The swifts of Portland and Elgin greatly enriched my 2018 birding year. Vaux’s swift and chimney swift—two crowd-pleasing aerialists, 2,000 miles apart, performing nights (and mornings!) in September, for those who care to watch.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Yellow-Billed Cuckoo by Gene Koziara
Forecast: Slight chance of rain crows

(published 10-9-18)

Twenty years ago last month, I witnessed my first yellow-billed cuckoo. Saw it well, too, at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.

A few things made that experience especially rewarding. First, I found the cuckoo all by myself. It’s satisfying when that happens, even though it was pure luck. I happened to glimpse the bird as it flew to a tree.

Secondly, at the time of discovery, yellow-billed cuckoo was like a mythical species to me. As a serious birder for about four years, I was beginning to wonder if cuckoos really exist.

Well, they do, and not just yellow-billed. There’s also the similar black-billed cuckoo, which in our region is even more elusive. Adding to the challenge is that both birds are declining. Black-billed cuckoo, in fact, is listed as a threatened species in Illinois.

Cuckoos are secretive, preferring leafy trees and prone to long periods of inactivity. Birding guru Pete Dunne describes them as “slothlike.” Even if you locate a cuckoo it can be hard to observe the whole bird.

My lifetime cuckoo sightings total about 20, yellow-billed and black-billed combined. Amazingly, three of those sightings (all yellow-billed) were in my yard, the last coming in 2008.

I haven’t seen a cuckoo of any kind in 2018, and time is about up. Cuckoos are now migrating to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Rain Crow IPA
Courtesy of Wren House
Brewing Co.

Today’s column was only partly inspired by my lucky sighting two decades ago. The other trigger was Rain Crow IPA, a new beer bearing the colloquial name for cuckoo, which according to folklore vocalizes before it rains.

I’m keeping an eye out for Rain Crow IPA at Binny’s. For now, however, it’s a western thing, introduced in July by Audubon Arizona in collaboration with several craft breweries in Tucson and Phoenix. The brew calls attention to water conservation needs and the importance of healthy rivers.

The increasingly scarce western race of yellow-billed cuckoo, depicted on the Rain Crow IPA can, depends on riparian woodlands. A sustainable water supply, Audubon says, is essential to the species as well as the region’s other birds, wildlife, communities and economies. Brewers clearly have a strong vested interest, too.

I was indeed fortunate to see my own rain crow that day at Churchill Woods. Cuckoos are quiet during fall migration; they give no vocal clues. In the spring and summer, though, listening for cuckoos is our best chance of finding them.

“They are shadows living in a world of shadow, and we identify far more cuckoos by call than by plumage,” said Eirik A.T. Blom, writing for Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Just don’t expect to hear your grandmother’s cuckoo clock. The birds do not sound like that. But with a little practice you can learn what to listen for and tell our two local cuckoo species apart. To hear them, go to All About Birds, the online resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

As a family, cuckoos are slender birds—about the size of a mourning dove but less plump—with long tails. Gray-to-brownish upperparts, white below. When you spot one, your job is to ID the species. As the names indicate, bill color is a key field mark. Other distinctions are the red eye ring on the black-billed and differing underside tail patterns—bold white spots on yellow-billed, faint white bars on black-billed. 

On more tip: If you see a cuckoo in flight, pay attention to the wings. If the feathers show a lot of rufous (reddish brown), you’re looking at a yellow-billed. Dunne calls it the “cinnamon-winged cuckoo.”

There is a third cuckoo species that in North America is found only in southern Florida. At least that’s the rumor. I’ve been chasing the mangrove cuckoo for many years without success. It currently tops my Most Wanted list and I envy anyone who has seen one. If that includes you, please don’t tell me.

Some birds just take time. Eventually we find them, or they find us. My first yellow-billed cuckoo was like that, and last year a worm-eating warbler finally crossed my path. But since I don’t live in Florida, mangrove cuckoo may well be a lifetime pursuit.

That’s OK. In birding, anticipation is a positive force! I will not let a cuckoo drive me crazy.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

European Goldfinch by Christian Goers
European beauty

(published 8-28-18)

On a sunny July morning, I woke up extra early with a bird on my mind. No surprise there. But this bird was different. I’d seen it before but never in the United States. It was time to do something about that.

The plan was to meet Al Stokie, the most avid birder I know, who’d generously agreed to help me find a European goldfinch. He knew of two places in Lake County where the species regularly occurs.

European goldfinch is a non-native “introduced” species, and not officially countable for birders who spot one in North America. (At least not yet; more on that later.) I’d admired this red-faced beauty before during a trip to Ireland in 1996. It’s a common bird throughout the U.K. and European mainland—a must-see species for any visiting birder.

How and when European goldfinch arrived in Chicagoland isn’t exactly known but they’ve been nesting here since at least 2003. Most likely a colony developed after some imported birds escaped from their cages or were released. Our local monk parakeets share a similar provenance.

A close relative of our bright yellow American goldfinch, European goldfinch is not widespread in the region. But the species is certainly breeding in Lake County and its population is growing. It is not considered invasive or a threat to ecosystems. In that regard, Euro goldfinch differs from non-native bad guys like house sparrow and European starling.

Plus, this is one fine looking bird. Countable or not, I wanted to see a European goldfinch on American soil.

I met Al at Waukegan Beach, one of his usual haunts. Sure enough, within two minutes, several adult European goldfinches were in plain view. The birds flew around as group and kept returning to the utility wires above the parking area, making it easy to observe their red faces, whitish bills and large yellow wing patches. Al pointed to some trees in the adjacent park where the birds apparently nest.

Among birders, Waukegan Beach is best known for gulls, waterfowl and shorebirds. Al and his friend Bob showed me a staked-out piping plover, also viewable from the parking lot, and then a small colony of nesting common terns in a protected area along the beach. Both are hard-to-find, state-endangered species.

Out next stop was the south unit of Illinois Beach State Park, where we quickly located a few Euro goldfinches in the pines outside the resort and conference center. Al and Bob moved on from there, in search of other avian quarry, leaving me to work on getting a good photo.

My limited camera skills combined with skittish goldfinches were getting me nowhere when a couple on bicycles pulled up. Steve and Mary were birders and recognized one of their kind. I told them what I was up to and they gushed about the European goldfinches that visit their Pleasant Prairie (Wis.) backyard.

Steve suggested that I visit The Bird Nest, a store in Kenosha. Euro goldfinches flock to the feeders behind the store, he said, where a nice viewing area is set up for onlookers.

How could I resist? I pointed the Jetta north and crossed into America’s Dairyland. The Bird Nest was easy to find, just off I-94 next to a massive Woodman’s. The shop’s manager, Brian Nett, invited me to head out back and enjoy the show.

Right away I knew this would be an entertaining hour or two. About 15 kinds of birds were coming and going to all manner of feeders, including the species that brought me there. For close views of European goldfinch, this place is a lock.

Brian told me the finches arrived about seven years ago, and that their numbers are growing. The store’s feeding stations typically host six to 10 birds at a time in the summer and up to three dozen in winter. These are hardy, non-migratory birds. Safflower is their seed of choice.  

Juvenile European Goldfinches eating safflower seeds at
The Bird Nest in Kenosha, Wis.
I hadn’t noticed any young birds at the two Illinois sites. At The Bird Nest feeders, however, juveniles outnumbered the adults. Aside from their yellow wing patches, they were nondescript and seemed less wary than the parent birds. Or maybe they were just hungrier!

My time in Kenosha recalled a similar birding experience in 2013, at the Sugar Grove Nature Center near Bloomington. My target that day was Eurasian tree sparrow, another non-native species that tweaked my curiosity. I’d heard the bird frequented the nature center’s feeders and was not disappointed.

The tree sparrow is officially countable in North America because it’s been here since 1870. Despite a small geographic range—west-central Illinois and Greater St. Louis—the bird’s population is obviously established and self-sustaining. You can go see it like I did and add it to your life list.

Not so with European goldfinch. You can see it but not list it. On this side of the Atlantic, the ornithologists who decide these matters have been slow to confirm what everybody seems to know: European goldfinch is here to stay.

A change in classification seems inevitable. Perhaps within five or 10 years the species will become “official,” making the birds in Lake County and southeast Wisconsin fair game for rule-abiding listers like me.

Meanwhile, I recommend a stop in Kenosha if you’re up that way. Shop at The Bird Nest, watch the feeders, and maybe have breakfast or lunch at the Perkins next door.

Here in DuPage, be alert for a surprise visitor. A lone European goldfinch sampled a Wheaton backyard feeder in February 2016.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Keriann Dubina leading some warbler watchers at Elsen's Hill
Birding tour of DuPage

"FullersBird Fridays" program showcases local forest preserves when the birding is best

(published 7-6-18)

The first thing you should know about Keriann Dubina is that she likes brown-headed cowbirds. In fact, she’s a local authority on the species that most birders love to hate.

She goes against the birdwatching grain further by choosing not to keep a life list, and she’s not inclined to put her life on hold to chase a rare bird.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Dubina is a birder to the core, and more importantly she’s nurtured a lot of new birders since joining the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County as a full-time naturalist in 2011.

Her main tool of introduction is FullersBird Fridays, a series of weekly walks in the spring and fall that began in 2005 and quickly developed a loyal following. Dubina began leading the walks in 2012, which at that time were conducted only at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook, where she is based.

Three years ago, the series branched out, taking birders to a different preserve every week.
“We see more kinds of birds now that we move around,” Dubina told me, “plus it’s a chance for us to showcase different preserves.”

The idea is brilliantly simple, tailored to those who enjoy organized bird walks in a variety of places. FullersBird Fridays provide the gentle push we sometimes need to go somewhere new and meet other birders.

Dubina and her colleagues have led walks at 22 DuPage County forest preserves since the show hit the road. Meacham Grove, in Bloomingdale, joined the rotation this spring.

The DuPage system features 60 preserves. Some are considered better for birding than others, but there will always be plenty of choices.

When I chatted with Dubina for this column, we’d just finished a walk at St. James Farm in Warrenville. Among the avian highlights that morning were several orchard orioles. This reinforced her point about the value in surveying different properties. “We never see orchards at Fullersburg,” she said.

Orchard Oriole by CR Courson
The Friday walks coincide with spring and fall migration, which guarantees excellent birding no matter where the group travels. Dubina further schedules certain locations for certain dates to maximize success.

On the first or second Friday in May her choice is always the Elsen’s Hill section of West DuPage Woods near Winfield, a perennial hotspot for migrating warblers. The final spring walk goes to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, a fine place for spotting grassland birds after the warbler wave of early and mid-May.

Springbrook is high on Dubina’s list of favorite preserves, given her fondness for prairie habitat. She also likes St. James, McDowell Grove (Naperville) and Waterfall Glen in Darien, where she once enjoyed walks with her grandfather.

Dubina grew up in Lockport—and with birds. Her father worked at Brookfield Zoo, on the business side, and members of the household included exotic parrots. Young Keriann took a liking to wild birds, too, especially the common loons she encountered during summer trips to northern Wisconsin. If forced to name a “spark bird,” she’d go with those northern divers.

The cowbird thing happened later in life, at Western Illinois University. Dubina first earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology, taking an ornithology class along the way and learning to bird by ear. She stayed on at WIU for a master’s in ornithology, focusing on bird behavior. Her thesis? The egg destruction behavior of the brown-headed cowbird.

I attended a lecture by Dubina in 2013 about cowbird truths and myths. Her talk was fascinating, and I’ve thought about the species differently ever since.

“It’s funny how emotional people get about cowbirds,” said Dubina, who appreciates the complex natural history of the brood parasite far better than most of us. 

Don’t worry, if you attend a FullersBird Friday you won’t get lectured about cowbirds. What you will get is a guided birding tour of a local forest preserve that’s likely dripping with resident and migratory birds. It might well be a place you’ve known about for years but never visited. The company will be friendly, the scenery interesting and the potential for surprise sightings high. Just ask the Herrick Lake birders who on April 20 watched a flock of 16 American white pelicans wheel over their heads.        

The two-hour FullersBird walks are well-suited to new birders. They average about 20 participants and some are regulars. Those registering in advance pay a $3 fee, which feels like a donation. Walk-ons contribute $5.

The fall edition of FullersBird Fridays begins on August 31 at St. James Farm. Check for the complete schedule and to register for one or more walks.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Ring-Necked Pheasant by Christian Goers

A birding time capsule

(published 5-9-18)

The basement archive of a military museum seems an odd place to find a 41-year-old bird checklist. Then again, this is Cantigny. We like history. We save stuff.

Thanks to a sharp-eyed colleague, I was alerted last month to a file labeled “1977 Bird Census.” It was tucked inside one of 11 boxes of miscellaneous Cantigny Park records from the 1970s and 80s, squirreled away in the subterranean Robert R. McCormick Research Center at the First Division Museum.

This was exciting news! I’ve been birding regularly at Cantigny for 10 years but records of sightings on the property before my time are scarce. 

A few years ago, we stumbled upon a 1935 piece in the Chicago Tribune, a column about life on the Cantigny farm. It mentioned the abundance of pheasant and quail, so I promptly added ring-necked pheasant and northern bobwhite to the historical list. Legacy birds, I call them.

Now you can understand why my pulse quickened when the museum called. Here was a birding time capsule, just waiting to be appreciated by somebody like me. It felt like destiny.

The file folder contained just one item, a “Birds of the Chicago Area” checklist on cardstock. The observer was Janet LaSalle—a name I didn’t know—and this was her consolidated list of sightings at Cantigny for May 1-31, 1977. Her notations say she birded “usually 7:30 am-9:30am, sometimes till noon.” Conditions were “Mostly hot, very little rain.” 

On the back panel, Janet wrote, “Very poor migratory season. Few waves of warblers—no great numbers of birds.”

The neatly printed words carry the hint of an experienced birder, giving me confidence that this long-lost data can be trusted. And besides, like Fox Mulder on “The X-Files,” I want to believe.

For the month, Janet detected 129 species. Of those, 23 were new to our running all-time list, raising the Cantigny property total to 183 species. This far surpassed my expectations.

Some of the biggest surprises were in the shorebird category—dunlin, ruddy turnstone, American golden plover, long-billed dowitcher, yellowlegs (both kinds) and sanderling among them. Other notable finds: American bittern, black-crowned night heron, northern pintail, ruddy duck, black tern, whip-poor-will, yellow-bellied flycatcher, bobolink and vesper sparrow.  
Bobolink by Jackie Bowman
Landscapes can change a lot over the years, and the changes affect the birdlife. In 1977, the Cantigny golf course was still 12 years away, and the property featured more acres of open field. 

To be sure, birds once common here are now in decline. Habitat loss has hit some species hard. Birds Janet observed, like night heron, black tern and whip-poor-will, are now true rarities in DuPage. Others, such as red-headed woodpecker, are still present but challenging to find.

Conversely, some birds are better off now than in 1977, thanks to human intervention. Janet failed to see a wild turkey or Eastern bluebird, species common around Cantigny today. Her list also lacked sandhill crane, great egret and Cooper’s hawk. But most shocking to me is the absence of three sparrows: song, white-throated and white-crowned.

Out of curiosity, I examined the DuPage County Spring Bird Count (SBC) results for 1977. The count took place on May 7 that year, with 42 birders participating. All three sparrows named above were plentiful that day, when 130 species were found in total.  

If I could meet Janet, I’d first award her an official Cantigny Birding hat pin. Then I’d start firing questions. What was it like birding at Cantigny in the 1970s? Where were the most productive spots, and what were her most coveted sightings? Did she bird the grounds on a regular basis? 

Specific to the May 1977 census, where did she find all those ducks and shorebirds, and how could she possibly “dip” on song sparrow? I’d really razz her about that one.

Unfortunately, I’ll never have the opportunity. I learned that Janet LaSalle died in 1995 at age 72. She lived in Wheaton, served on the city’s environmental commission for 18 years, and made her living as a commercial artist.

Fortunately, she was also a list-keeping birder.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Blackburnian Warbler by Christian Goers

Season of wonder


For me, April is the best month. Baseball is back, golf courses are open and spring migration is ramping up daily. 

Avian April is exciting and filled with potential. Every walk outside, and every glance out the kitchen window, can be rewarding. Be alert and watch carefully!

Anticipation only adds to the excitement. A few early warblers are appearing, with many more on the way. Tanagers, vireos and orioles, too. This is the appetizer for the main course in May.

But savor every bite, because some special April birds will be long gone by Cinco de Mayo. DuPage is just a stepping stone on their way north. Look now for yellow-bellied sapsucker, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush, fox sparrow and pine warbler. You could even see a flock of American white pelicans.

A few weeks ago, in the Glen Ellyn Public Library, I stumbled upon the perfect companion for the season: “North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring,” by Bruce Beehler.
The newly published book describes a quest to observe all 37 Eastern wood warblers in their breeding habitats. Beehler, a Smithsonian ornithologist, starts on the Texas Gulf Coast in April and follows the neotropical migrants to their breeding grounds. It’s a 100-day birding road trip through America’s heartland and into Canada, with tales of interesting birds, places and people along the way.

Migration is a vast and complex subject. I’ve always been fascinated by it, but also a bit intimidated. I admire those who study migration and share their findings in a reader-friendly manner. Beehler does it, and likewise Scott Weidensaul, whose 1999 “Living on the Wind” is the modern classic on migration.

Be sure to read Weidensaul’s piece in the spring issue of Audubon. Using the rare Kirtland’s warbler as a model, his article examines how ground conditions in a bird’s wintering habitat can affect the success (or not) of its migration journey and subsequent breeding efforts. It’s groundbreaking stuff.

I also recommend hunting down the March issue of National Geographic, for the story “Epic Migrations.” The photos and text are amazing, as you’d expect, and so is the accompanying map, titled “How Birds Migrate.”  
There’s a good reason why so much awesome content is surfacing in 2018. Four organizations--National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International and Cornell Lab of Ornithology—declared this the Year of the Bird, to mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, our most important bird conservation law.

Migration is for anyone who likes a good mystery. We know a lot, and we’re learning more all the time thanks to tiny radio transmitters and other tracking technology.

But any ornithologist would tell you that much remains unknown. Knowledge gaps exist for many species, such as where they spend their non-breeding months or the routes they travel in migration. 
One of the “big questions” scientists debate is why some birds migrate and others don’t, even closely related species. And what price do birds pay for carrying out long-distance migrations year after year? Is it worth the stress and risk? Does it shorten their lives?

These questions are addressed in “Trade Off,” a fascinating article by biologist John Kricher in the March-April issue of BirdWatching.

Of course, watching birds beats reading about them any day. So, if you wish, forget about these books, maps and magazine articles. They’ll still be here when spring migration winds down in late May. Don’t wait: Get outside now and welcome back our long-distance champions.

While you’re at it, let yourself wonder.

When you see a brilliant Blackburnian warbler, wonder where it spent the winter, and where it might be a week from now. When you spot your first hummingbird, wonder how it crossed the Gulf of Mexico without stopping, a 600-mile flight. Marvel at how creatures so delicate can be so determined and tough. Be curious about their built-in GPS systems and navigational precision.

You might also ponder the man-made hazards and natural events that migrating birds encounter, making their success seem even more miraculous.

Let’s all celebrate World Migratory Bird Day on May 12 by doing something nice for birds, including our non-migrating regulars. For information and ideas, visit, the official Year of the Bird website.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.