The essential tools of birding are optics and a field guide.
A strong sense of curiosity helps, too!
12 things every new birder should know

(published 5-10-16)

As a hobby, one of the best things about birding is ease of entry. The only essentials are a pair of binoculars and a field guide. For $100 or even less, you could start building your life list today.

May, in fact, is an ideal time to begin. In this region, no other month can match the color, variety and pure excitement of May. Experienced birders know it, and most of them are eager to introduce others to the avian spectacle rolling out now in our suburban yards, parks and forest preserves.
I’ve always found the local birding community to be inclusive and welcoming. Birders enjoy sharing the hobby. Of course I didn’t know that when I was just getting started. I felt a little alone, not realizing I’d stumbled into something enjoyed by 50 million other Americans. Everything was new, like the hooded warbler that sparked my interest in 1994.
Twenty-two years later I wouldn’t call myself an expert birder. “Advanced intermediate” seems about right, and I’m constantly learning. But I do feel qualified to offer the following nuggets, intended primarily for beginning watchers who (like most of us) are still figuring things out.
1. You’ll get some funny looks. Despite its immense popularity, birding still feels a little outside the mainstream. It’s cooler than it used to be, but the dork factor hasn’t faded away just yet. Outsiders may regard you with suspicion. Be careful when using binoculars at the beach or in the backyard. It’s good to tell the neighbors what you’re up to.
2. Age doesn’t matter. The hobby skews older, for sure, but a solid contingent of teens and 20-something birders possess off the charts birding skills. Their eyes and ears seem to work better, or maybe they just study harder. If you find yourself on a bird walk with one of these young guns, stay close to them and prepare to be amazed.

3. Decent binoculars are available for $125 or less. Last year I followed up on a magazine article about small, lightweight optics by purchasing Celestron Nature 8x32s for $111, tax and shipping included. They’ve surpassed my expectations and could be my primary binoculars in a pinch. If you can spend more, especially for your everyday glass, do it. About $300 is plenty. The go-to source for birders is

4. This isn’t so hard. If you have a fledging interest in birds, you know more than you think. Building on what you already know happens quickly if you put in the time. Take a walk or sit on the back patio. Look and listen. Start with the common birds and go from there. Join an organized bird walk; nothing elevates your skill level faster than birding with others. For instant camaraderie, check out the DuPage Birding Club or Kane County Audubon. Both groups conduct field trips and non-members are welcome.

5. Birds are predictable. Most birds migrate, and we know when to expect them in the spring and fall. We also know where they are most likely to be when they visit. Learning seasonal patterns and habitat preferences is essential to your birding education. You’ll begin to associate certain months or locations with specific species.

6. You can bird any way you want. You have choices. Keep a list or not, or keep 50 lists. Get up early or sleep in. You don’t have to memorize the plumages of immature gulls or learn the songs of every wood warbler. Bird alone or with others. Hit the trail or watch the feeders from your kitchen table. Your field guide can be a smart phone or a dog-eared Sibley with coffee stains. Choose the birding style that’s right for you and keep it fun.

7. The more you want to see a bird, the better your chances of seeing it. It’s motivating to have a few target birds. Like Waldo, you will find your first orchard oriole if you keep searching. Make it your mission. Do the research. Follow internet postings. Ask around.

8. “Nemesis birds” will haunt you. This is the nasty corollary to the previous point. It’s just a cold, hard fact that bad luck or poor timing will prevent you from ever seeing a certain species—usually the one you want most. For me it’s the worm-eating warbler, and in Florida, mangrove cuckoo. I’m exaggerating of course. The Moment will come, for me and for you. Patience.

9. Sometimes the bird gets away. This is another common frustration, and not just for newbies. You may only get a two-second peek at a species you’ve been coveting. Worse, the quick view might not be enough to make a positive ID. Or maybe you later realize what you probably saw but can’t be 100% sure. Go back if you can, but otherwise just learn from the experience and be ready for next time.

10. The Honor System applies. There’s a sequence in “The Big Year” (my favorite movie) when Owen Wilson talks about birders who cheat. Using a golf analogy, he says, “Everybody in the clubhouse knows which guy cheats on his score. He’s kind of pathetic. Who’d wanna be that jerk, right?” (Only he didn’t use the word jerk.)  Nobody I know would ever break the sacred trust of birding and report something they didn’t actually see. I love that about our hobby.

11. Ethics matter. Besides being honorable, birders are expected to behave responsibly. We do not trespass on private property and we don’t create stress for birds by getting too close or playing recorded bird sounds during the breeding season. At any time of year, it’s best to minimize the use of sound devices. Some venues don’t allow them at all. Take a few minutes to review the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics, online at

12. We are conservationists. Birders love the thrill of seeing something new, going to new places and just watching the birdlife change with the seasons. These are the hobby’s recreational drugs. But there’s a high degree of give-back inside the community, too. We donate a few hours or dollars when we can. We buy duck stamps, create healthy backyard habitats and keep our cats indoors. We support local organizations like the Conservation Foundation, Illinois Young Birders and Willowbrook Wildlife Center. We’re joiners on the national and international level, too, sending our dues (and used binoculars) to the ABA and perhaps writing a check to the American Bird Conservancy.

You get it, I know. The birds come first. Let’s get outside this month and enjoy them!
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
American Kestrel by Jerry Ting
Help for a handsome little raptor

(published 4-12-16)

If you told me the American kestrel was your favorite bird, I’d say you’ve made a fine choice.
The kestrel, the smallest member of the falcon family, is an easy bird to like. For starters, just look at the way it’s decorated. The male, in particular, has it all going on: spots, bars, stripes and a rich color combination of rufous, white and slate blue. This bird went to the feather store and said “Give me the works.”
Another reason to like kestrels, and to pull for them, is their underdog status. The species is not endangered, but kestrel numbers are steadily declining in areas like northeast Illinois where quality grassland habitat is shrinking. Survey data indicate annual population declines of around 10%. The Bird Conservation Network lists American kestrel among its Chicago Wilderness Region “Birds of Concern.”
Habitat scarcity isn’t the only issue. Kestrels depend upon pre-existing cavities for nesting, such as old woodpecker holes. As Eastern bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers know all too well, such home sites are often usurped by European starlings, a relentless non-native competitor.
Fortunately, kestrels respond to well-placed nest boxes. With that in mind, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County initiated a kestrel nest box program this spring aimed at boosting the local kestrel population in select preserves. Seven all-cedar, pole-mounted boxes were installed by the District last month.
“I looked at sites featuring large, open, short-structured grasslands with some perching trees nearby,” said Brian Kraskiewicz, District ecologist and kestrel box project leader.
Preserves where kestrels have been seen in recent years received priority. That includes Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, which received two nest boxes. Blackwell (Warrenville), Danada (Wheaton) and Greene Valley (Naperville) are among the other chosen sites.
Brian Kraskiewicz, ecologist with the Forest
Preserve District of DuPage County.
Raptors require larger territories so the distance between boxes must be at least a half mile. Another limiting factor, Kraskiewicz said, is the presence of bluebirds. Kestrels and bluebirds prefer the same open habitat and if their nest boxes are too close together it raises the possibility of bluebirds becoming falcon food. The District formalized a successful bluebird nest box program in 2000.
Kestrels will indeed prey upon birds, but their usual diet is large insects and small mammals. When I met Kraskiewicz he was installing the kestrel box at Blackwell, adjacent to the preserve’s native plant nursery. The District is hoping a kestrel pair will take up residence and help control the voles and mice that damage the nursery stock.
The box at Blackwell is not visible to the public but others are. Observers are urged to keep their distance and give the kestrels space if nesting occurs.
And “if” is the key word. Kraskiewicz said he hopes at least one box is occupied by kestrels this season but knows it might take a year or more to claim success. Plenty of science-based protocol guides the construction, placement and monitoring of nest boxes, but getting a kestrel pair to move in and raise a family is still hit or miss.
Fermilab in Batavia offers a strong measure of hope. Through Fermilab Natural Areas, a volunteer organization, the site ramped up its kestrel nest box program in 2012, adding 10 additional houses. The site now maintains and monitors 12 boxes. Five of them were successful in 2015, according to Ryan Campbell, Fermi’s ecologist.
The Forest Preserve District of Kane County has about 30 kestrel nest boxes in the field. Occupancy was just 8% in 2015 but the District remains optimistic. It checked with Audubon chapters around the Midwest with similar programs and learned that kestrel box programs often have low success in the first few years, followed by dramatic improvement once a few boxes become occupied. 

Back in DuPage, Kraskiewicz plans to be patient, and he’s leaving the door open for growth. He thinks the nest box program would lend itself nicely to Eagle Scout projects, and the DuPage Birding Club is a potential partner as well.
Those wishing to see an American kestrel this spring or summer have options. Best bets are Springbrook Prairie, Greene Valley (near the landfill) and Fermi. The farmlands of Kane County also are worth checking. Watch for a bird the same size and shape of a mourning dove on utility lines and other elevated perches. Kestrels do a lot of sitting and tail-bobbing as they watch for prey in the grass below.
Kestrels are aerial hunters, too. I’ve seen them hang in the air on flapping wings, 25 feet up, waiting for just the right moment to drop down on prey. This hovering technique is unique among falcons. Kingfishers also do it.
Once, in 2007, a kestrel perched at the top of a tree two houses down from mine. It stayed for several minutes, pumping its tail and thinking about where to go next. 
That neighborhood kestrel was quite a surprise. I was thrilled! At the time, however, I was barely aware of the species’ declining local population. It’s encouraging to see steps being taken in and around DuPage County to conserve and raise awareness of this small and beautiful raptor.

Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Great Gray Owl by Jana Kriz

Owl of a good time

(published 3-8-16)
It started during a local bird walk, when conversation somehow shifted to Minnesota and the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival. We dreamed out loud of the birds we might see, provided we could summon the courage to visit Duluth in mid-February. By the end of the walk we were talking hotels and rental cars.
Certain places, birders know, are associated with special birds—species you don’t dare miss if you go. Think puffins in Maine, trogons in Arizona and Kirtland’s warbler in northern Michigan. Target birds, all of them.
At Sax-Zim Bog it’s the great gray owl, the festival’s main attraction. The bog isn’t the only place in the U.S. to see one, but for Midwest birders it’s the nearest opportunity. Adding to the lure, Sax-Zim offers a host of other coveted species not available in DuPage such as boreal chickadee, hoary redpoll, gray jay, black-billed magpie, pine grosbeak, evening grosbeak and ruffed grouse. Northern hawk-owl, black-backed woodpecker and Bohemian waxwing are possible, too.
But you must visit the bog in winter, when these and other avian goodies are most accessible. That makes Sax-Zim one of the coldest hotspots a birder will ever experience.
Fearing nothing but a few lost digits, six of us headed north on Feb. 11. Provisions included all manner of high-power optics, mountains of winter apparel and boots, and enough packets of HotHands to start a bonfire. 
Our 500-mile trek to Duluth called for a slight detour to Galesville, Wis., where a Lewis’s woodpecker had been visiting some private bird feeders since late November. It’s quite rare for a Lewis’s to appear so far east. We had to try.
Our band of six, clockwise from top left: Roger Zacek, Diane
Meiborg, Joan and Ed Campbell, Chuck Berman and yours truly.
Well, the hour in Galesville was a cold reminder that birds don’t always cooperate. The locally famous woodpecker never showed.
Despite the Lewis’s outcome, spirits inside our rented Town & Country remained high. We sensed that good things were ahead, including one in particular with piercing yellow eyes and a feathery white “bow tie” under its chin.
The Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival is limited to about 150 visiting birders and sells out early. This year was the 9th annual fest and the tiny host community, Meadowlands, Minn., really rolls out the red carpet. The event is good for the local economy and also serves as a fundraiser for Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, a habitat conservation group.
Festival attendees sign up for all-day field trips aboard school buses “chaperoned” by professional birding guides. There’s no hiking, just stops along the roads and visits to well-stocked feeding stations.    
Our first day was spent entirely within the bog, a vast 200-square-mile wetland wilderness about 50 miles northwest of Duluth. When we boarded our bus at 6:30 am the temperature was 10 below frigid with a wind chill of don’t even ask. 

Naturally, task No. 1 was to find a great gray, North America’s largest owl. The customers wanted one and the guides knew it. They’d prepared by scouting the bog on the days leading up to the festival. Owl numbers were down this year but they’d seen a few and mapped the birds’ locations.  
The bus rumbled off and the search was on. Spotting anything from a moving bus with frosted windows is difficult, let alone a bird that blends in perfectly with its boggy surroundings. You hope for a great gray to fly across the road or assume a conspicuous perch.
No such luck. Two hours of nothing. The bird everybody most wanted to see was playing hard to get, like that woodpecker in Galesville.
But the first festival day was hardly a bust. A mid-morning stop at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center (on Owl Avenue) produced pine grosbeaks and a hoary redpoll along with gobs of common redpolls. Other feeders along the route yielded boreal chickadee, gray jay and evening grosbeak. We saw magpies picking on a roadside deer carcass and a northern shrike patrolling the scrub. And look, up in that tree, a sleeping porcupine!
When the bog trip ended we quickly transitioned from bus to van, determined to spend the remaining two hours of daylight looking for the elusive great gray. Same roads, different vehicle. But again, no luck. At least the day ended well with our first sightings of ruffed grouse.
Day two featured a birding tour of Duluth and surrounding areas. North of the city, in Two Harbors, we scored big with a long-tailed duck and harlequin duck on icy Lake Superior. Later we found a snowy owl in Superior, Wis., and a gyrfalcon in downtown Duluth.
An aptly named sign in the bog.
The eight-hour Duluth trip terminated back at Sax-Zim so once again we piled back into the van to resume the owl prowl. We learned a great gray was seen earlier, on Zim Road, so now we had a bit more hope. Off we went to that section of the bog and began a slow cruise—car-birding rubberneckers desperate for a fix. The few other vehicles on the road contained birders on the same mission. 
The black spruce-studded landscape looked beautiful in the fading light, but we all felt the pressure. Time was running out. We could not return in the morning. This was our last chance.  
Then, up ahead, an encouraging sight: cars on the side of the road! We pulled up and quickly spotted an unmistakable large-headed silhouette in the distance. A great gray was perched high, no doubt craving a vole supper. With binoculars we could easily see the owl’s plumage, yellow eyes and slowly rotating head. Moments later we copped even better views through the spotting scopes.
Dancing, laughing, high fives and maybe a tear or two. Hugs all around. I know, embarrassing, but we’re birders. We’d done it, with 10 or 15 minutes to spare. What a bird, and what a lifer.   
The Sax-Zim Festival, you should know, is more than just birding from a bus. Dinners and guest speakers are part of it, too. Unfortunately, the evening activities started so early we skipped them, choosing to bird until darkness instead. We made the right call, but I do regret missing the talks by Al Batt, a personal favorite, and Dr. James Duncan, a world-renowned expert on great gray owls.
The night before our triumph in the bog, at a restaurant in Duluth, the six of us had taken turns recounting our best moments in birding. The stories flowed—a fun ending to a great day, even though we’d failed in what we then figured was our best chance to spot the region’s signature bird.
Twenty-four hours later we had a new story to tell—the Miracle on Zim Road. If we’re ranking best moments, this one will be hard to top.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker by Ron Underwood
Back to Florida, for the experience

(published 2-9-16)
Best-selling author Jonathan Franzen, a birder, once shared his perspective on the hobby and it stuck with me. He said adding birds to his life list is not the point. He does it, instead, for the experience.
Speaking to Audubon magazine in 2013, Franzen explained that pursuing species you haven’t seen before is a way to force yourself to have experiences that you otherwise would not.
He’s right. Birding takes us places, often to locations a tourist would never go. Some of those places are hidden gems. Others, not so much, like stinky landfills and sewage treatment plants.
These thoughts filled my head as I waited on a bench outside the Holiday Inn in Titusville, Fla. It was 5 a.m. and dark. Any minute a guy I’d never met would scoop me up and take me to a remote nature preserve to watch birds, including two species that I’d never encountered.   
Four days earlier, on Christmas Eve, I’d “forced myself” to have an experience at one of Florida’s best-known birding spots. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island (Gulf Coast, near Fort Myers) is a place where tourists do go, along with scores of birders and nature photographers. I’d never been and was eager to patch up a major experience gap on my Florida birding resume.  
Reddish Egret by Matthew Paulson
Ding Darling is a northern travel writer’s dream. Articles about it (and Sanibel) sprout every winter, like post-holiday Chia Pets. The words and pictures tease us relentlessly. I’m guessing you know the place, so I will not dwell on it here. I will say, however, that my short visit to the refuge exceeded expectations. When three hours of birding feels like 30 minutes, that’s a good measure of birdiness. Roseate spoonbill, check. Reddish egret, check. Yellow-crowned night heron, check. Anhinga, check. And on and on.
The birds at Ding Darling are plentiful and easy to observe. It’s a birder’s playground. My only regret was not having more time. Well, maybe one more: I didn’t find a mangrove cuckoo. But the odds of seeing a cuckoo, I knew, were extremely slim. For now, it stays on my Most Wanted list.
Now, back to the Holiday Inn, where the prospect of other “lifers” was the only alarm clock I needed, even after a long day at Kennedy Space Center the day before. I’d arranged for a professional birding guide to show me some Florida hotties—inland species that take some effort. Most of all, I wanted to see my first red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered species with extreme habitat requirements.
I’d never hired a private guide before, and when a Subaru pulled up labeled “Birding with David Simpson” I knew this was the real deal. My adventure was about to begin, and the meter was ticking.
David, of course, knew exactly where to go. An hour later we were in pre-dawn position at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, roughly 25 miles south of St. Cloud. The diverse 85,000-acre site includes patches of the mature longleaf pine forest that red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer. 
The viewing protocol is to locate an active “cluster” (social group) of the rare woodpeckers and be there when they wake up. David parked near a particular roost hole—about 25 feet up in a longleaf pine—and set up his scope.
The preserve was alive with bird sound as we waited. David’s trained ears detected far more than mine but among the louder calls were Northern bobwhite, Carolina wren and barred owl.
Around 6:45, a face with distinctive white cheeks poked out of the hole we were monitoring. It looked around, surveyed the scene, and went back inside the roost. Moments later, the bird reappeared, paused, and then flew out, presumably in search of breakfast and to reconnect with other birds in the colony. During the next hour we’d see several more red-cockaded woodpeckers, moving about from pine to pine, mingling with brown-headed nuthatches, Eastern bluebirds and more pine warblers than I’d ever seen in one place.
At one point a Bachman’s sparrow popped up from the wet, knee-high vegetation, my second lifer of the morning. A bit later we lucked upon another Bachman’s that posed in the open at short range. Sweet!
The red-cockaded woodpecker is a highly managed species. It needs our help and it’s getting a lot of it. Biologists study the birds intensely, gathering data and tracking the health of local populations. Many of the woodpeckers wear identification bands, and trees with active nesting and roosting cavities are marked with white bands.
David Simpson
Because it can take years for a nesting pair to carve out a cavity, nest boxes are often embedded into tree trunks with the aid of a chainsaw. The ready-made artificial cavities, introduced about 25 years ago, are playing a key role in red-cockaded woodpecker conservation across the southeastern U.S. Restoring critical longleaf pine habitat through controlled burns is another essential strategy. 
Could I have found red-cockaded woodpecker and Bachman’s sparrow on my own, without David Simpson? The woodpecker, maybe; Bachman’s, probably not. Without David’s help I’d have missed a bunch of other birds, too. Plus, my morning at Three Lakes would have been far less educational and fun. David, age 45, offers a fine combination of birdfinding skills, Florida birding knowledge (the whole state) and good company. His half-day rate was $175, before tip, and I happily paid it.
Mostly I was happy to finally add red-cockaded woodpecker to my life list. Birders with sharp memories might recall the state-record red-cockaded that visited Illinois Beach State Park (Lake County) in 2000.
I missed seeing that historic bird at IBSP. But now I’ve witnessed the rare woodpecker where it truly belongs, and I appreciate more than ever the efforts being made to save it. Birding, once again, took me to a new place.
Franzen commented that you see a very different Italy if you’re looking for birds in Italy. That certainly goes for Florida, too, and I suppose even DuPage County.
You never forget a special bird, and you’ll always remember the experience of finding it.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Black-Capped Chickadee
Hot topic: climate change and birds

(published 1-18-16)
We found a highly unlikely bird during the Christmas Bird Count last month at Cantigny, a Nashville warbler. The species migrates through our region in the spring and early fall, and during those times it’s pretty easy to spot one. But after October? Good luck with that.
So what was a Nashville warbler doing here on Dec. 19? And what about the painted bunting that caused a media sensation in New York City, also in December?
The knee-jerk response to these questions might be two words: climate change. Or, an even better guess, El Nino. But cases of misplaced birds are nothing new. Storms and strong winds are often to blame, or sometimes a bird’s internal compass just goes haywire. Birds get lost.
That said, warmer conditions may cause a wayward bird to stay put in the same place for days or weeks, assuming it locates a food source. It learns to adjust.
Indeed, the ability of birds to adapt to new environmental conditions is one of their key strengths. That’s the good news. The bad news is that global warming in the decades ahead will test their resourcefulness like never before. 
In November I went to hear a talk about the effects of climate change on birds in the Chicago region. The speaker was Doug Stotz, a conservation ecologist and ornithologist at the Field Museum in Chicago. He’s also the co-chair of the Chicago Wilderness Climate Change Task Force.
“The great thing about climate change is that it makes our winters warmer,” Stotz said. “It’s hard, as a Chicagoan, not to think that’s a good idea.”
Yes, I think we could all agree that ditching the down-filled parkas and flannel-lined jeans would be okay. And what birder around here would not enjoy some traditionally southern or southwest species moving into our region as average temperatures climb?
We know it’s wrong, but it’s hard to stop visions of painted buntings and scissor-tailed flycatchers from dancing in our heads. A few southern beauties are already here.  
“Blue grosbeak, summer tanager and yellow-throated warbler are birds that didn’t use to breed in the Chicago area but they do now,” Stotz said. 
But whatever advantages climate change may hold for shivering Chicagoans and thrill-seeking birders, Stotz made one thing perfectly clear: global warming is not good for most birds. The science tells us so.
In 2014, the National Audubon Society unveiled a seven-year study on the predicted impact of climate change on North American bird populations. Out of 588 species studied, 314 were deemed at risk from global warming by 2080. For many, according to Audubon’s climate model, the “gathering storm” will come sooner. To survive, the birds must adapt to losing huge portions of their current living areas.  
Stotz cited the bobolink, a grassland species that even now struggles to prosper in the Chicago region. Climate change is shifting the bird’s range northward. By 2050, he said, “Bobolinks are going to be in what is now boreal forest. It seems unlikely that will work.”
Of the 314 at-risk species identified by Audubon, 126 are classified as “climate endangered,” meaning they are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050 if global warming continues at its current pace. 
Even common birds not listed in the Audubon study could vanish from our region due to climatic stress. The black-capped chickadee, Stotz said, could vacate Illinois, moving north as temperatures rise.
Avian visitors we look forward to seeing only in winter may no longer “drop down.” If you are lucky enough to see a redpoll, a crossbill or northern shrike this winter, savor the experience. Spotting these and other species in the Chicago region may become significantly more challenging.
Sorry, that’s the birder in me coming out again. Climate change is not about birding, of course. It’s about the gradual disruption of ecosystems and all the flora and fauna that depend on those systems being in balance.
The global climate talks in Paris last month yielded a glimmer of optimism. We’ll see.
“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed,” said David Yarnold, Audubon’s president and CEO, and I’ll bet he feels the same way today. Don’t we all?
For those who study birds, there is hope. Through effective habitat management, Stotz thinks the bobolink and other vulnerable species can be saved.
“One of the big things we can do to fight climate change is to get our natural areas into the best condition possible,” he said. “There is no question that birds in a healthy environment can hold on in the face of climate change much better than if they are already stressed.”
To learn more about birds and climate change, visit The site includes ideas for helping birds and ways we can all respond to the biggest conservation challenge of our time. 
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
When a Swallow-tailed Kite visits Illinois it's a big deal. This one sent
birders scurrying to Champaign in late August and Labor Day weekend. 
(photo by Brian Tang)
Another (remarkable) year for the birds

(published 12-17-15)

If there is one thing I probably say too much, it’s that birding is full of surprises. The 2015 birding year backed me up on that, serving up constant reminders that you just never know what’s coming next. We’re lucky: the hobby we love is never boring, and even a “slow” day of birding is usually pretty darn good.
Before diving into my annual compilation of birding highlights and notes, let’s acknowledge the obvious: it was a rough year for nature in Illinois, and not just for bobcats. The state’s budget crisis continues to wreak havoc on important environment and conservation programs. Endangered species in Illinois are especially vulnerable, most notably the fragile population of greater prairie chickens downstate.
Last winter's Ivory Gull in Quincy was quite
possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for
Illinois birders. (photo by Jackie Bowman)
This column is about birds, not politics, but unfortunately they are connected. My wish for 2016, besides a great gray owl at Sax-Zim Bog, is for the situation in Springfield to get better instead of worse. That’s not asking too much, right?
Our state, fortunately, is still a wonderful place to watch birds. More than 300 species live in or visit Illinois each year. In 2015, we enjoyed several jaw-dropping rarities and many more highly uncommon birds.Choosing the “best” of these sightings is completely subjective but for Illinois Bird of the Year my top picks are the ivory gull in Quincy last winter and the late-summer swallow-tailed kite in Champaign. Both birds were cooperative, hanging around for a week or more.   
For Chicagoland Bird of the Year, I again offer two candidates. Take your pick: the Kirtland’s warbler at Montrose’s Magic Hedge in May, viewed by many, or the magnificent frigatebird seen cruising down the lakefront on July 8 by the Field Museum’s Josh Engel.   

Often called America's rarest songbird, this Kirtland's Warbler was a lifer
for many area birders. It rested for several days at Chicago's Magic Hedge
in May. (photo by Jerry Goldner) 
A flamingo and penguin visited Wrigley Field, guests of animal-loving Cubs manager Joe Maddon. But birders agree the most amazing bird at the Friendly Confines was a yellow rail, found by Houston Furgeson under his chair on April 18. 
A singing Connecticut warbler delighted birders in Chicago’s near southwest Loop, lingering at the same busy corner for a week. A yellow-headed blackbird grazed on the Museum Campus lawn. And yes, that really was a red-throated loon paddling down the Chicago River last February. 
Other newsworthy sightings: Say’s phoebe (Maywood); violet-green swallow and a flock of 104 American avocets (Northwestern University); Barrow’s goldeneye (West Dundee); red-necked phalarope and white-faced ibis (Kane County); red phalarope (Will County); and red knot, snowy plover and piping plover on the beach at Montrose. 
This Yellow Rail, a secretive species that few
birders ever see, crashed the gates at Wrigley
Field in April. (photo by Houston Furgeson)
Black-crowned night herons continue to thrive in Lincoln Park, near the zoo. The year’s official nest count was 271, up slightly from 2014.
Also at the zoo, a common ground dove was the center of attention throughout most of November. But not for zoo patrons, for birders, because the dove wasn’t in a cage. It was the first ground dove documented in northern Illinois since 1980!
Another vagrant dove species, a white-winged dove, was found dead, the victim of a downtown building strike. It was the Field’s first Illinois specimen.
Steve Huggins gets a vote for best “yard bird” of 2015. On Nov. 7, he observed a barn owl in flight from his Lincoln Park rooftop. Got pics, too!
Other fall rarities included a wood stork and Pacific loon, each in Lake County, and a Thanksgiving week ovenbird under a feeder in Woodridge.
The western suburbs delivered plenty of other avian excitement. Morton Arboretum produced blue grosbeak, barred owl, pileated woodpecker and two coveted warblers, cerulean and yellow-throated. Another uncommon beauty, prairie warbler, showed up at Waterfall Glen in Darien.
Black-necked stilts were spotted at Hidden Lake in Glen Ellyn, and Whalon Lake (Bolingbrook) gave up a Harris’s Sparrow.
This wayward Snowy Plover visited Chicago's
lakefront last May. Sadly, the photographer,
Steve Spitzer, passed away a month later.
Naperville’s Greene Valley hosted buff-breasted sandpiper, loggerhead shrike and spotted towhee. Five whooping cranes sailed over the site’s hawkwatch on Nov. 13.
Reports of scissor-tailed flycatchers sent birders scrambling to both Springbrook Prairie in Naperville and Fermilab in Batavia. Fermi’s 2015 bounty included blue grosbeak, cattle egret, white-rumped sandpiper, greater white-fronted goose and 15 baby bison.
A squadron of American white pelicans patrolled the sky during the April bird walk at Cantigny Park, species No. 150 for the Wheaton property.   
Another nice moment at Cantigny occurred in July when I opened the back hatch of the park’s chimney swift tower. There, on the floor, were bits of tiny white egg shells. I got on my back, stuck my head in the tower and looked up. Sure enough, a sling of little sticks was attached to the wall, about five feet up. It took three seasons but what a thrill to finally have nesting swifts!
Fermilab erected three swift towers in 2015, and another went up at Lyman Woods in Downers Grove. Chimney swifts are among 33 “common birds in steep decline,” identified by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. They need our help.
Congrats to project manager Mary Hennen and her team at the Chicago Peregrine Program, which just finished its 30th year. Peregrine falcons are thriving in the city and a few suburbs thanks to CPP.
RIP Steve Spitzer. His sudden passing last June was a shock and loss to the Chicago birding community. A few of Steve’s terrific photos appeared here over the years, and one more accompanies today’s column.
There’s never been a bigger Big Year than the one Noah Strycker is wrapping up now. He broke the world Big Year record in September with Sri Lanka frogmouth, his 4,342 bird of 2015. Strycker’s goal was 5,000 birds for the year—about half of the world’s bird species—and he killed it. Insane. (Yes, there will be a book.)
The common birds made us smile in 2015, too. This Golden-Crowned
Kinglet gave new meaning to the word flexible. (photo by Fran Morel)
The first Global Big Day for bird conservation took place on May 9. Birders from 115 countries tallied more than 6,000 species.
A hummingbird species last seen nearly 70 years ago was rediscovered in northern Colombia. Let’s all welcome back the blue-bearded helmetcrest!
My life list grew modestly in 2015, but at least it grew. I picked up a few newbies in San Antonio, in January, and then joined scores of birders in Chicago’s Jackson Park for my lifer Bohemian waxwing in February. The latter was sweet consolation for missing The Gull in Quincy.
A highly visible family of nesting great-horned owls attracted birders and potential birders to Fabyan Forest Preserve near Geneva. Members of Kane County Audubon volunteered time at the site, sharing scope views, answering questions and managing the paparazzi. Good job!       
In June, a bald eagle was killed by a car in upstate New York. Turns out it was the oldest eagle ever discovered in the wild, age 38, banded as a nestling in 1977. Think about that. Eagles were still “on the brink” back then.
The price of the annual Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (the federal “duck stamp”) increased $10. It’s still a bargain at $25, and one of the best ways for birders to support wetland habitats.
The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County celebrated 100 years in 2015 and marked the occasion with its first-ever Bio Blitz on June 27. The massive 24-hour effort across four preserves documented 952 species, 95 of which were birds.
The DuPage Birding Club also reached a milestone, turning 30. Are you a member yet?
A red crossbill sampled the Arboretum on Nov. 28, and as December began, dozens of common redpolls were feeding in the alder and birch trees at Chicago Botanic Garden. Scattered snowy owl sightings are now lighting up IBET, the birding listserve. This could be a very interesting winter.
Finally, I was humbled and grateful earlier this year when the Chicago Audubon Society chose me for its Excellence in Environmental Reporting Award. What a kick to be recognized for something I do for fun and to introduce more people to this fascinating pastime.  
I’ll be back next month to begin the 13th year of Words on Birds. Thanks for reading!
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Common Grackle
Every season, something to watch for

(published 11-17-15)

My yard, and probably yours too, is a fine place to watch birds. It doesn’t matter that it’s surrounded by other houses, or that a park, pond or woods is nowhere in sight. The birds visit anyway, attracted by food, water and a chance to have their picture taken.
Newcomers are rare but always welcome. In September, an olive-sided flycatcher stopped by, No. 114 on my yard list. After 18 years, the list is still growing, albeit slowly.
I was nearly as thrilled when my favorite backyard bird, red-breasted nuthatch, appeared in mid-October. A pair turned up in the days that followed, making quick hits to peanut feeder. I’m crossing my fingers that they’ll be regular customers this fall and winter. Red-breasted nuthatches have been way too scarce around here in recent years.
The yard took on a Hitchcockian feel October 24 when a raucous flock of common grackles staged an invasion lasting several hours. Some homeowners might have shooed them away but not me. It was a scene well worth watching—loud, black, avian chaos. Cardinals and other innocents looked on in horror. For them, “The Day of the Grackle” could not end soon enough.
The next day, a Sunday, I kept a close eye on things, curious to see if the circus would return. Amazingly, not a single blackbird visited the yard. 
I would not have predicted that. But a lot of what happens in the backyard is rather easy to forecast. The more you watch birds, the more you appreciate their behaviors, seasonality and migration patterns. In early October you wait for that first dark-eyed junco to magically appear under your feeders, a feathered gift from the north. About the same time, trained eyes can spot chimney swifts high in the air, on their way to South America for the winter. I noticed a few on October 6. 
Pine Siskin
Very soon we hope to see and hear a more conspicuous migrant, the sandhill crane. Flocks of these bugling gray giants move through our region in November, a centuries-old sky show not to be missed.  
Besides the all-time yard list, I keep a backyard year list, recording every species and the date observed. This is good way to learn the seasonal patterns I mentioned, and part of my ongoing education as a birder. In most years, migratory birds come and go with a remarkable consistency. In time, you know exactly what to expect at different times of the year—in your yard and elsewhere.  You can get this information from a book or website but it’s more satisfying to track it yourself and compare notes from year to year.
As we move into the colder months, there’s a particular member of the finch family that I’m watching for: pine siskin. The species is special for me because the first one I ever saw was in my own yard, in February 1998. So far it’s my only “lifer” scored at home.

Siskins are not hard to tell apart from goldfinches and house finches but you need to be alert. They blend in with your regular feeder birds quite easily. Field marks to look for are pointy bill, heavy streaking and a deeply notched tail. Watch for yellow feathers in the wings and tail, too, especially on birds landing or taking off.
One more thing: siskins, like other finches, show a strong preference for “thistle” seed (Nyjer). You must offer it to attract them. Having some coneflowers and alder trees in the yard doesn’t hurt either.
Pine siskin is a “maybe species,” like the crossbills, purple finch and common redpoll. Some winters they visit our region in good numbers, some years not. It depends on the food supply in their northern breeding grounds. If the cone and seed crop is plentiful, siskins stay in their usual northern range. But when the pickins are slim they tend to wander south in nomadic flocks. 
Even in “off” years, small numbers of siskins are in the area. And if they locate your feeder they might become daily customers.
This year I didn’t see a siskin in the yard until March 7. Then two or three birds arrived and stayed through May, capped by a final yard sighting on June 9!
A single pine siskin was spotted at Cantigny Park in Wheaton on August 8. So the species, like birding itself, continues to surprise us. Perhaps due in part to climate change, it’s the “winter finch” most likely to be seen in spring, summer and fall.   
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Northern Cardinal
Exploring a seedy obsession
(published 10-20-15)
Last month on the train, returning to Glen Ellyn from Chicago, I might have been the only passenger reading a book and not fiddling with a smart phone.
And I’m 99 percent sure I was the only Metra client reading “Feeding Wild Birds in America.” 
I love this book. In fact, I couldn’t wait for the train ride home so that I could get back to it.
If you enjoy a little history with your suet cake, “Feeding Wild Birds in America” is definitely for you. But the book is much more than a historical account of a massively popular hobby. It may just inspire you to up your game in the backyard.
Bird-feeding is the ideal home-based pastime in many ways, and more than 50 million of us do it. It’s calming and brings us closer to nature. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive. It’s interesting during all four seasons. It’s a great teaching tool for children. 
I like that people with mobility issues can enjoy bird-feeding, too. Those who must stay inside or at home can still watch the birds and feel connected to the outdoors.  
Until “Feeding Wild Birds in America” came along, I never gave much thought to the hobby’s evolution. Modern bird-feeding is rooted in the late 1800s but many of the backyard innovations we now take for granted, like tube feeders, are less than 50 years old.
Bird-feeding was initially a winter-only activity. The emphasis was on helping birds survive, not so much on watching them. Early studies identified the economic value of birds, especially on farms. Community feeding stations in public places were common.

In backyards, pieces of fat and meat bones were tied to tree branches. Sweepings from the barn were scattered on the ground. Feeding devices were homemade, the most common being a wooden tray nailed to the window sill. Assorted table scraps were set out.
One of my favorite tactics from yesteryear was the “food tree.” As the book describes, various seeds, berries and ant eggs were mixed with melted animal fat. The hot, sticky concoction was then ladled onto the branches of an evergreen. Birds couldn’t resist it.
My neighbors needn’t worry; I am not planning a food tree of my own. I have a simple and less messy backyard routine that works just fine. My usual set-up consists of a double shepherd’s hook with two small tube feeders—one for black-oil sunflower seeds, one for shelled peanuts. For the finches, a tube of Nyjer hangs by the patio. Sugar water fuels the hummingbirds from May to early October. A ground-level birdbath, cleaned daily and heated in winter, completes the circuit.
Yards with even more food variety than mine are common, and that’s a big change from 100 years ago. Our approach to bird feeding today is a lot more calculated. We know far more about how to attract specific birds. Wild bird feeding stores, garden centers and hardware stores cater to backyard birders with a mind-boggling array of feeder and food choices. It’s big business all year long.
“Feeding Wild Birds in America” covers all this, and I enjoyed learning about the companies that produce the products we buy. Every kind of food and feeder has a back story. The one about black-oil sunflower seed, the most popular wild bird food today, is particularly fascinating. “Black oilers” were not even marketed in the U.S. until the 1970s.
Another sidebar—the book is loaded with good ones—offers advice on what to do if a rarity visits your feeders. You have the option of doing nothing, of course, but it’s nice to share your good fortune with others. If you do, have a guest book ready and prepare to make a lot of new friends.
In 18 years, I haven’t spotted anything truly “rare” at my feeders but I’ve had a few unusual one-time visitors. Common redpolls (2009) and a lone tufted titmouse (2012) were among them.
“Feeding Wild Birds” notes that only about 10 percent of our wild bird species visit feeders. A check of my yard list reveals that out of the 114 species recorded so far, 43 were attracted by my handouts, including fresh water. The others were foraging in trees, shrubs and leaf litter, or just flying over. 
Some of the most important pages in “Feeding Wild Birds” are devoted to best bird-feeding practices. Follow these guidelines and the volume of birds at your feeding stations could easily double: offer food and water all year around; offer multiple foods in multiple feeders; provide protection from bird predators; and keep your feeders, feeding areas and bird baths clean.
Being a good steward won’t guarantee a yard full of rare birds. But would you mind hosting twice as many cardinals, blue jays, chickadees and goldfinches? Almost anywhere, it’s a realistic goal.
“Feeding Wild Birds in America,” published this year by Texas A&M University Press, retails for $27.95. The book’s coauthors are Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker and Carrol L. Henderson. 
There are plenty of good books on bird-feeding but this one stands out for offering a historical perspective that is both interesting and relevant for birders today. My next trip to the feed store will be a lot better informed.

Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Olive-Sided Flycatcher by Sue Barth
Birding is what we choose to make it

(published 9-7-15)

I never really expect too much on an early August bird walk. Fall migration hasn’t quite arrived. The birding can be a little slow.
But I’m rethinking that after a walk last month produced two very unexpected birds.  The first was a pine siskin, a “winter finch” that our group might have overlooked if not for some goldfinches feeding in a patch of coneflowers.  The bright yellow birds led us to the brownish, streaky one. Finding a siskin here in August is no easy task.
An even bigger surprise came later that morning. Look, up high on those bare branches. What is it? Some kind of flycatcher, judging by its size, shape and posture. But what kind?
At times like this, birding in a group pays dividends. We all began studying the bird, and fortunately it gave us plenty of time. Several times it sallied out to capture flying insects, returning to its original perch—classic flycatcher behavior.  There was never a doubt about what family this bird belonged to.
The next five minutes were exciting, framed by a sense that we were seeing something special. Initial speculation pointed to olive-sided flycatcher. Apps were opened, field guides consulted, and photos taken as the birders shared their collective knowledge about flycatchers. It’s a fun but challenging process that doesn’t occur on every bird walk. Great care is taken to get it right.
We all agreed it was indeed an olive-sided flycatcher, a new species for Cantigny Park (No. 153) and a notable bird for any DuPage County location.  I personally had not seen one in seven years!
Our quarry was not a “rare” bird, just an uncommon one that apparently began its southern migration quite early. And as ID challenges go, this wasn’t extreme. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult, the olive-sided flycatcher was maybe a 6 or 7.  For more expert birders, perhaps a 2 or 3.
Accurate identifications depend on many things. Birding experience counts for plenty, and so does familiarity with the particular species. Light conditions, distance from the bird and the amount of time the bird presents itself also come into play.
Greg Neise, one of Chicago’s top birders, wrote a wonderful essay last spring called “Birding is hard,” posting it on the American Birding Association blog.  Putting names to birds is tricky business, Neise wrote, and even highly skilled birders occasionally get stumped.  
In fact, sometimes the bird “wins” and we must let it remain unidentified. Other times we get it wrong and don’t realize it until a few minutes later, the next day or even years down the road.
To borrow an old Chicago Cubs marketing slogan, It’s Gonna Happen.
Neise recalled the words of Pete Dunne, a legendary figure on the American birding scene:  “The difference between a beginning birder and an experienced birder is that beginning birders have misidentified few birds. Experienced birders have misidentified thousands.”
Yes, birding is hard. The more we do it, the more we discover how little we really know. You could learn the songs of 25 common birds, a nice accomplishment. But do you also know their chip notes?
Well, the good news is that you don’t have to. Birding can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s truly as challenging as you care to make it. We go at our own speed.
If you seek them, the tough IDs are out there waiting—the gulls, shorebirds, flycatchers and of course the fall-plumage warblers that are with us now.  Stick with it and you might come to relish such opportunities. Birding is hard, but in a good way.
So if you are just getting started, don’t be discouraged. Most of the time, birding is pretty easy. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular.  
Organized walks are good, and there are lots of friendly people ready to help you see and identify the birds. The DuPage Birding Club offers a full slate, and check out the “FullersBird Fridays” series conducted by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
You could also hang a feeder or two in the backyard and let the parade come to you. That’s birding too, and it’s easy.
This month you could stand outside just before dusk, look up, and see common nighthawks cruising by. Easy. Later this fall, listen for flocks of migrating sandhill cranes when you’re out raking leaves. Easy, and a must-have for any yard list!
Indeed, maybe the easiest thing of all about birdwatching is that you can do it almost anywhere at any time—for two minutes or two hours. I really can’t imagine a day without watching or listening to a bird.
Hey, have you noticed?  Birds, all kinds of birds, are around us. Have fun, be curious and expect surprises. The learning part comes naturally.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.