Northern Mockingbird by Christian Goers

What makes a rare bird rare?

(published 4-12-17)


Sharing good news is a natural human instinct. When I’m excited about a bird sighting, I’ll sometimes tell the nearest bystander, birder or not. The reactions I get are interesting.

Strange looks and quick walkaways are normal. But another common response is the person asking, “Was it rare?” And sometimes that’s an excellent question.

Like the colorful spring warblers now upon us, the notion of avian rarity deserves a closer look.

Defining “rare” seems simple on paper. The American Birding Association (ABA) assigns a number to every North American species. Every bird is rated from 1 (easily observed in its normal geographic range) to 6 (no chance). Some Code 1 examples are blue jay, cardinal, chickadee and robin, along with less common visitors like yellow-throated vireo, prairie warbler and Lincoln’s sparrow.  

Species rated “6” are presumed extinct, exist only in captivity or have no self-sustaining population in the wild. Want a Code 6 for your life list? You’ll need to find that ivory-billed woodpecker.

Most birds are Code 1 or Code 2: “Regularly occurring North American avifauna.” Code 3 species are officially “Rare,” since they occur in very low numbers—spotted just a handful of times in a year.

Code 4 is “Casual” and Code 5 is “Accidental.” Avid birders sometimes use the term “mega” for these ones, as in mega-rarity. Some lucky Illinois watchers scored a mega in 2016 when a black-tailed gull (Code 4) visited downstate Carlyle Lake.  

The ABA system doesn’t measure rarity, per se. It rates difficulty of observation within the defined ABA listing area. There is a difference.

Everyone agrees that the whooping crane is a rare species; fewer than 500 exist in the wild. But it’s a Code 2 bird because seeing a whooper is easy if you visit the right place at the right time.

Likewise, Kirtland’s warbler, “America’s rarest warbler,” is ABA Code 2 since you can readily find one with a good map. (Hint: Go Blue!)

Almost every bird we encounter locally is Code 1. “Rare” birds just don’t come around much. That’s what makes them rare! But rare sightings happen all the time, and usually they involve common birds gone astray.

A northern mockingbird in DuPage County is notable, and many birders (including me) would jump at the chance to witness one. Triple that jump for a scissor-tailed flycatcher. In the South, these birds are as common as cotton. Here they are rock stars.

Vagrant birds are always cause for excitement. Anybody recall the sage thrasher at Montrose? The nine black-bellied whistling ducks in Yorkville? Or the varied thrush at Morton Arboretum? I dare you not to call them rare.

Common but out-of-season birds can be rarities too, such as a “winter bird” that appears in the dog days of summer. In August 2014, a dark-eyed junco turned up in downtown Chicago! That’s rare.

The DuPage Birding Club offers a handy checklist showing the relative abundance of our local birds, season by season. It’s an excellent reference for knowing what birds to expect and when. For example, the line on Killdeer is F in early spring (meaning fairly common), C (common) in late spring through early fall, U (uncommon) in late fall and X (extremely rare) in winter.

X-rated birds are a lot of fun. We had one on the Christmas Bird Count in 2015, a Nashville warbler. The chances of it being here in December, let alone our stumbling upon it, were thinner than a rail on a crash diet.

But here’s the real skinny: You decide what’s rare. The rarity is in the experience, and it’s personal. What’s “rare” may depend on who you are, the time of year and where you happen to be standing.

Oh, it’s personal all right. Until I see one, worm-eating warbler is absolutely the rarest bird on earth.      

Lastly, a travel note: I’m off to the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival May 4-7 and promise to report back.  Maybe you should go, too: check out indunesbirdingfestival.com. I don’t know if we’ll see any rare birds but the spring migration weekend is sure to be mega fun.  

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Imagine spotting this Canada Warbler--plus 6,840 other
 species--all in the same calendar year. A Dutch birder 
did so in 2016, establishing a World Big Year record for
 the ages. (photo by Jerry Goldner)

Birding by numbers. BIG numbers.

(published 3-7-17)

Sorry, but my recap of the 2016 birding year was incomplete. Two of the biggest stories in birding last year were late-breaking news, coming too late for my December deadline. Both involved stunning individual achievements.

A little background is needed. In 2013, Neil Hayward set the North American Big Year record by spotting 749 bird species. He beat the old record—set in 1998 and later immortalized on the silver screen—by a single bird. Hayward wrote a book about the experience and is now a popular keynote speaker at birding festivals and other gatherings. Audubon magazine declared him “King Bird.”

But Hayward is suddenly old news. In 2016, no fewer than four birders topped his Big Year milestone and one absolutely crushed it. John Weigel, an American living in Australia, finished the year with a jaw-dropping 780 species. Well done, mate!

We also have a new World Big Year record and this story is perhaps even more remarkable. Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis, age 30, tallied 6,841 species in 2016, topping the global record by 800 as he raised money for BirdLife International. A documentary is coming soon.

The previous World Big Year record, set by Noah Strycker in 2015, was widely regarded as untouchable. He shattered the global record, set in 2008, by an astonishing 1,701 species. Before Strycker, nobody had ever seen 5,000 kinds of birds in a single year. He found 6,044. Is there any doubt that he expected to wear his world crown for more than just a year?

There are approximately 10,600 bird species in the world. No one person has seen them all, and fewer than 10 have surpassed 9,000 in a lifetime. The first one, a Brit named Tom Gullick, did it in 2012. Then he quit.

These numbers are almost beyond my comprehension. It’s taken me 25 years to piece together a humble life list of 526 birds, and 20 years to build a Glen Ellyn yard list of 115.
Just the thought of devoting 365 straight days to all-out competitive birding is hard to fathom. I’m quite sure I couldn’t do it, even if I had the money for unlimited travel. I’d suffer birding burnout in a matter of weeks.

But it’s still fun to think about, and to live the experience through others. For me, books like Wild America, Kingbird Highway, The Feather Quest and The Big Year are classics, as thrilling as any John Grisham novel. 

Some Illinois birders have lived out bookworthy adventures, too. The state Big Year record belongs to Pete Moxon with 334 species in 2011. Locating 300 species in one year inside state lines is the goal of many and relatively few ever achieve it.

Likewise, only a handful of birders belong to the “400 Club” for career sightings in the Land of Lincoln. The highest published life list for Illinois belongs to Jeff Sanders, with 402 species. Two birders, Joel Greenberg and David Johnson, hit the 400 plateau in 2016.

The collective all-time list of species observed in Illinois now stands at 441—up by one from a year ago thanks to the common ringed plover sighting near Kankakee last September. (That bit of news did make my year-end report.)

Looking only at DuPage County, the highest life list total is 313, by Moxon. Only four birders have seen 300 or more species in the county.  

Big Days, those madcap 24-hour birdathons, also leave me scratching my head. For Illinois, the single-observer Big Day record is 161 species, accomplished by Eric Walters in 1989, Michael Baum in 1996 and Travis Mahan in 2007. Somebody really needs to break that tie, and soon a highly caffeinated birder probably will.

The Illinois Big Day record for a team is 191 species, set last May 15 (and also in 2013) by the Mighty Jizz Masters: Greg Neise, Josh Engel, Adam Sell, Jeff Skrentny, Amar Ayyash and Larry Krutulis.

A few of the “easy” birds the team missed on its 2016 Big Day run were greater yellowlegs, willow flycatcher, swamp sparrow and blue-winged warbler. Any one of them would have been No. 192. Ouch!

The team will try again this spring. “200 is and always has been the goal,” Neise told me.

The DuPage County Big Day record for a team is 132 species, by Joe Suchecki, Denis Kania and the late Jack Pomatto. They did it twice, in 1997 and 1999. The top individual Big Day for the county belongs to Eric Secker, with 127 birds in 2011. All of these Big Day heroics occurred in early or mid-May.

Listing will always be part of the birding culture. Most of us couldn’t stop if we tried. It’s a game we play, alone or in groups. It’s how we have fun and chart our progress.  

Listing can make us better birders, too. Keeping track and always having a few “target birds” promotes strong observation and birdfinding skills. It motivates us to get outside and look around, and to keep checking that feeder in the backyard. 

The lists I hold dearest are Life, Yard, Cantigny, Florida and Illinois. I keep growing them, little by little, storing up memories of favorite birds, places and people along the way. 

That’s it, really, the memories. Not the numbers. Our lists are a collection of birding moments we choose not to forget. 

But of course it’s more than that, just as watching birds is more than a hobby. 
I love this forward thinking perspective on listing by Cindy Carlson, writing in Birding magazine back in 2004:

“A bird list is about possibility. By listing what we have seen, we document what we have not seen. Not yet. The list gives a name and a validation to what we have experienced; but it contains the promise of what lies ahead. We count because we have seen this bird, and because we believe we can see another. A bird list is about hope.”

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Black-Tailed Gull by Wes Serafin
This year passed with flying colors
News, notes and random jottings from a very birdy 2016

(published 1-4-17)

Birding deserves a “year in review” story every December just like the myriad other categories of American life and culture. So for all the watchers out there, here’s my compendium of birding news, notable sightings and random thoughts from a year that flew by faster than a peregrine with a tailwind.

In the milestones department, the biggie was the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The landmark conservation law, signed in 1916, came too late to save the passenger pigeon, but it has protected North America’s native bird species ever since.

Birds need the federal protection that MBTA and subsequent laws like the Endangered Species Act provide. A shocking reminder came in January with news that a 19-year-old Texas man shot and killed two whooping cranes, a rare species numbering just 450 in the wild.

In October a federal judge hit the perpetrator with a fairly severe sentence—not the “slap on the wrist” that’s happened before in cases like this. The outcome was a solid victory for the International Crane Foundation and triggered a collective fist pump by birders from coast to coast.
Common Ringed Plover
by Gary Soper
Protection is just one necessity; bird conservation is another. A 2016 report issued jointly by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, revealed that more than a third of the 1,154 native species occurring in all three countries are in decline and require urgent conservation action. Get details at stateofthebirds.org.

But enough doom and gloom. Good things happened in 2016 too, including some truly remarkable sightings.

A strong case for Bird of the Year could be made for the common ringed plover spotted by photographer Gary Soper in September. The Eurasian shorebird, a first for Illinois, sent birders scurrying to Iroquois County for a glimpse.

Some of those same chasers (and birders from at least eight states) began 2016 with a trip to Carlyle Lake in downstate Clinton County to witness a black-tailed gull, another mega-rarity for Illinois. Bill Rowe and his son Matt somehow picked out the vagrant gull in a swirling cloud of “everyday” gulls. 

Slaty-backed gull was another notable winter visitor, seen in Cook and Will Counties.

Several spring songbirds also lit up the hotlines. Matthew Cvetas discovered a Townsend’s warbler in Chicago’s Millennium Park in late April, and two days later a Swainson’s warbler turned up at LaBagh Woods, spotted by Glenn Giacinto. At about the same time, a western tanager appeared at Cook County’s Elmwood Park.

Coveted DuPage birds included yellow rail at Springbrook Prairie in Naperville—kudos to site steward Joe Suchecki—and a little blue heron at McKee Marsh in Warrenville, found by Kyle Wiktor. Pileated woodpeckers nested at Morton Arboretum.   

Observers atop the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawkwatch hill recorded the site’s first-ever gyrfalcon, plus whooping crane, golden eagle, northern goshawk and American anhinga. On Sept. 27, the crew counted more than 3,000 migrating broadwinged hawks—Greene Valley’s best single day ever for the species. This was season No. 11 for the hawkwatch, where data are collected by volunteer birders from September through November.
Rufous Hummingbird by Shannon Leslie

Downers Grove homeowners Bob and Karen Fisher welcomed a wayward rufous hummingbird (and dozens of appreciative birders) for several weeks in October. The hummer was species No. 198 for DuPage County’s birdiest yard.

Sightings along Chicago’s lakefront always amaze me. The area, especially Montrose Point and its Magic Hedge, is famously well birded, ensuring that nothing with wings escapes detection.

The partial—repeat, PARTIAL—2016 lakeshore list: brant, neotropic cormorant, cattle egret, red-necked grebe, black-bellied whistling duck (three!), piping plover, whimbrel, red knot, Say’s phoebe, American avocet, upland sandpiper and whip-poor-will. Tack on 30 species of warbler, too, including cerulean, Kirtland’s, prairie and worm-eating.

Lake County watchers hardly got cheated. Illinois Beach State Park produced western grebe, red-throated loon and ferruginous hawk, and Waukegan Harbor birders scored harlequin duck, purple sandpiper and snowy owl. Winthrop Harbor, home of the annual Gull Frolic in February, gave up California gull and little gull. A brown-headed nuthatch was earned at Chicago Botanic Garden.

Kane County’s highlight reel featured Barrow’s goldeneye, Ross’s goose, snowy egret, Hudsonian godwit and black-necked stilt. The latter two species visited the same roadside “fluddle,” two months apart, in Sugar Grove.
Brant by Carl Giometti
A cool thing happened in DeKalb County, too: In April, at Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, birders observed seven ibis: six glossy and one white-faced, all together. Even one Ibis of any kind in northern Illinois is newsworthy.

Did you hear that? Thousands of sandhill cranes filled the skies in early December, cruising over the region in waves ahead of a cold front.

Also in December, a Harris’s sparrow sampled the feeders for several weeks at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington. The species visited Lyman Woods (Downers Grove) in November.

Willlowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn celebrated 60 years in 2016. The Night Owl Benefit in September, a delightful event held on site, raised $27,000 to help fund new housing for the center’s education raptors.

Congrats and best wishes to Ron Skleney who retired after 12 years as a Willowbrook naturalist. I’ll always picture him with a hawk or owl on his arm, speaking at schools and other venues around DuPage. Nobody did it better. Ron is currently giving talks on the virtues of shade-grown “bird friendly” coffee and keeping his binoculars within reach.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Willowbrook’s parent, launched a pilot nest box program for American kestrel, a species in decline locally. Only starlings and tree swallows occupied the boxes this year but it’s a start.

Illinois Audubon Society resumed its greater prairie chicken restoration efforts, relocating 99 birds from Kansas to downstate Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. It’s all about growing the self-sustaining population of “boomers” in a state where they once thrived.

High fives for the Illinois Young Birders! The group’s first-ever symposium, held at Ryerson Conservation Area in August, was a hit. ILYB is a special project of the Illinois Ornithological Society.

Townsend's Warbler by Jerry Goldner
Watch “The Million Dollar Duck” if you get a chance. And then, please, purchase a federal duck stamp. 

On my reading wish list: “Lost Among the Birds” by Neil Hayward. He’s the guy who broke the North American Big Year record with 749 species in 2013.

The second annual Global Big Day on May 14 set a new mark for most species in 24 hours: 6,100. More than 15,000 birdwatchers from 144 countries reported via eBird.

Canada may finally get an official bird. The National Bird Project ended with gray jay as the top choice, with formal designation by the Canadian Parliament likely in 2017.

Canadians might also have considered the amethyst-throated hummingbird. The species, never recorded north of Mexico, turned up at a Quebec feeder in July.

Passings: Paul Mooring, a Glen Ellyn native, lifelong environmentalist and champion of the Illinois Prairie Path; Sally Baumgardner, another environmental superstar and past president of the DuPage Birding Club.

“Cookie,” Brookfield Zoo’s avian patriarch, also died. At 83 he was the oldest cockatoo of his species in the world, and the last of 270 animals living at the zoo when it opened in 1934.

Tufted titmouse, a common bird but scarce in the Chicago region, teased us with multiple appearances in DuPage, including Cantigny Park, Elsen’s Hill, Fullersburg Woods and a Glen Ellyn feeder.

My favorite backyard bird is on a postage stamp! All hail the small but mighty red-breasted nuthatch.   

No yardies for me in 2016—my list is stuck on 115—but what a surprise to pick off a Canada warbler in May and again in late August. Plus, for the first time, black-capped chickadees raised a family in our wren box.

Finally added common loon to my DuPage list, seen in March on Blackwell’s Silver Lake. My weirdest sighting of the year was a ring-necked pheasant in Wheaton, pecking in the grass along Shaffner Road.

My personal Bird of the Year was easily great gray owl, one of six lifers gained at Sax-Zim Bog near Duluth, Minn. Seeing that awesome bird with friends, after a desperate, down-to-the-wire search in frigid conditions, made the experience even better.

Sax-Zim was unforgettable, and so was a brief, unplanned visit to Congaree National Park in South Carolina. If you like prothonotary warblers, you’ll like Congaree.

A family vacation to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., included a side trip to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca. The Lab, long on my destination bucket list, did not disappoint. Nor did the sort-of-on-the-way Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, a city better known for Lucille Ball. Thanks Catherine, Rachel and Jay for indulging my passions for baseball, birding and classic road trips!

And thank you, readers, for supporting another year of Words on Birds. I wish you all a healthy 2017 filled with exciting birds and birding adventures. Remember, if the Cubs can win the World Series, anything is possible.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Visiting the seediest
place in Lisle

(published 11-8-16)

Does anybody else remember The Nature Company? The retailer had a store at Oakbrook Center, in the 1990s. It was a fun place to look around, like a shop you’d find in a natural history museum but on a grander scale with Disney-like branding and merchandising. Perfect for the mall.   
Well, The Nature Company didn’t survive. Maybe the goods were too pricey, or perhaps the advent of online shopping played a role. Or maybe the store simply didn’t carry enough bird stuff! 
These thoughts entered my head after a recent visit to Wild Birds Unlimited in Lisle. The franchise on Ogden Avenue is going on 28 years, a pretty amazing run. I went there to find out more from its original and current owner, Brian Neiman. 
I’d never met Brian and frankly expected him to be older. And why had we never crossed paths on a bird walk or at a bird club meeting? Because my assumptions were misguided, that’s why. Neiman is 52 and even though he caters to birders he is not inclined to go birding. Birds are his business, not his hobby. 
After graduating from Michigan State in 1986 Neiman took a job with Apple Computer in California. But he quickly realized that corporate life didn’t suit him and hightailed it back to the Midwest. He wanted to be his own boss.
Wild Birds Unlimited store owner Brian Neiman
shows a hopper-style feeder to a customer.
Neiman didn’t know a kinglet from a kingbird, but he knew of Wild Birds Unlimited because a college roommate’s mother fed the birds and frequented a WBU store in Okemos, Mich. After researching the business of bird feeding, and the franchisor, Neiman and a friend took the plunge and opened four WBU franchises in four years. 
Lisle was the first, in 1988. The store, initially located in a shopping strip at Route 53 and Maple Ave., moved to its present location in 1998. All four stores remain open, including one in Arlington Heights, but today Neiman is involved only with the Lisle outlet.  
“I don’t consider myself a ‘birder’ but I do love birds,” he told me.
He loves being more than bird seed retailer, too. With a reliable staff and his store on solid footing, Neiman keeps an eye on the bigger picture. 
“As owner, I use the business as a platform to get people educated and engaged in feeding birds, and for making people more aware of how their backyard landscape choices can affect our local biological diversity.”
Neiman believes in native plants and pesticide-free natural landscaping. He practices these tenets on his home property in Naperville and in the garden outside the store.
Customers, though, needn’t fear a lecture when they stop by for a package of Bark Butter or a bag of No-Mess Blend. The Lisle WBU is casual and friendly, with helpful advice available for all who visit. 
“We’re as likely to have a conversation about ridding your feeders of ‘blackbirds’ as we are to chat about attracting bats, the best native shrubs for berries or how to combat carpenter bees at your home.”
The subject of squirrels and their quest for world domination comes up often, too.
Of course WBU is primarily about the birds, dedicated to those who love feeding and watching them. It can and must be said: Birders enjoy hanging out at the seediest place in Lisle. Inside is a candy store for bird and nature geeks. Outside, well-stocked feeders and birdbaths tempt visitors to stay and see what comes in. (In 2014 a European goldfinch appeared; Neiman swears he didn’t “plant” it.)
WBU’s top selling points are seed freshness and product variety. Customers can keep their bulk seed purchases at the store and pick up supplies as needed. Try asking a “big box” store for that.
“We don’t sell lumber, motor oil, drywall, chemicals or paint,” Neiman explained. “We offer products sold by an adult who can answer any question related to the hobby and who actually cares about your success in attracting the birds you desire.”
Seed is No. 1 at WBU but the store also offers a wide choice of field-tested bird feeders, bird houses and water features. Related accessories, gift items and gear round out the inventory, including binoculars from Eagle Optics.  
Neiman expects 2016 to be his store’s best year ever. He credits the freshest bird seed and good service for building customer loyalty. The closing of a Wild Bird Center franchise in Wheaton a few years ago hasn’t hurt WBU’s business either.  
When I asked about challenges, Neiman mentioned competition but not the kind you might think. In his view, the enemy is those time-sucking electronic gadgets that increasingly rule our lives.
“People, especially those under the age of 40, are completely disconnected from nature,” he said, “and I fear we’ll keep drifting in that direction. Virtual reality is isolating us from the wonder of the natural world.”
WBU’s loyal shoppers are more connected to nature than most, even if that connection, for some, exists mainly in their backyards. I think about the children and the grandchildren of Neiman’s customers as well, because bird feeding can provide a spark.
Kids who grow up watching birds outside the kitchen window may or not become birders, but they might acquire a bit of that wonder.
At any age, letting more nature into our lives can only be good. Studies prove it. So I’m a big fan of stores like WBU that make it easy to bring birds a little closer.

The Nature Company is long gone, but our community has something better: a thriving, locally owned bird and nature store with real people inside. It’s a fun place to get connected. No gadgets necessary.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Green Jay by Carlos Escamilla
Birders book travel plans with $500 bonus

(published 9-20-16)

If $500 fell out of the sky, and you had to spend it, what would you do? I recently posed this question to about 50 birders, just for fun.

My ground rules were simple: The five heaven-sent Benjamins must be used for anything birding related, including equipment and gear, books, backyard feeders, software, education, memberships, travel and donations. The money could also serve as a deposit or down payment on something worth more than $500.
As I’ve said before, birding is a “cheep” hobby. You can do it anywhere, with binoculars and some kind of bird identification guide (hard copy or electronic) being the only essentials. Anyone can easily get started for $200 or less, so a $500 windfall presents some tantalizing options.
The birders did not let me down. They spent the imaginary money and spent it well. In the process, they strengthened the birding community, satisfied their wanderlust and added new birds to their life lists. Texas, in particular, was a coveted destination.
Birders indeed revealed a strong preference for experiences over stuff, but a few jumped at the chance to upgrade their optics. Had my survey focused on beginning birders I suspect that new and better binoculars would have been the No. 1 use of funds.    
My fellow watchers also demonstrated a commitment to introducing more people to the hobby. Birders, I’m happy to confirm, are a generous and sharing species.  
Here’s a sampling of responses to “The $500 Question”:
“I’d use the $500 to purchase two to four pairs of reasonably good binoculars. I lead bird and nature walks where some of the participants are first or second timers who may not have serviceable optics. … Having good binoculars during those first few outings can make a big difference in really opening the door into the world of birding.” – Geoff, Chicago
“I’d travel to Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas. I was in Brownsville decades ago visiting a friend but at that time had no idea of the magnitude of birding potential that was at our fingertips, including my most wanted bird: green jay!” – Joan, Downers Grove
“I’d apply it towards a pair of Swarovski binoculars.” – Rob, Darien
“I would put the money toward a VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) birding trip to High Island, Texas, in April.” – Ron, Wood Dale
“I’d spend it on a flight to Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I’d even have $150 to spend on field trip fees,” and a chance to see 20 species found nowhere else in the U.S. – Matthew, Evanston
“I’d probably buy four or five pairs of 6.5x binoculars [perfect for kids] from Eagle Optics for the DuPage Birding Club’s outreach and education programs. A lot of groups approaching me for programs don’t have suitable materials of their own.” – John, Glen Ellyn
“$500 happens to be the deposit on a Costa Rica tour I’m interested in for next year.” – Jim, Wheaton
“I think I’d go to a winter birding festival in Florida—lots of different birds to see, lots of interesting people to meet, lots of warm weather.” – Don, Aurora
“I love hummingbirds so I would use the $500 to help pay for a trip to the Sierra Vista area of southeastern Arizona. Hopefully I’ll spot 15 different kinds of those little guys.” – Candace, Naperville
“I’d use it to pay a landscape consultant to design a water feature for my yard. Or maybe I’d use it to pay off my South Africa birding trip, where I am right now!” – Diann, Winfield
“I would fund a winter birding trip to Minnesota or a visit to Cape May, New Jersey, during spring migration.” – Jim, Darien
“I’d buy a plane ticket to a place I’ve never birded and have a fun but long day trip.” – Scott, Glen Ellyn
“I would get a good pair of binoculars, since my money is in my camera gear right now. I would donate to a bird society, and I’d fund a trip for children to attend a seminar to learn about birds.” – Shannon, Carol Stream
“I’d buy plane tickets to Canada to see glaciers and golden eagles,” reliving a magical 2007 hiking trip to Jasper National Park and the Wilcox Pass Trail. – Diane, Wheaton
The longest and most detailed response to “The $500 Question” came from Nancy in Naperville. She carefully budgeted every dollar for a birding program to benefit the residents of Lifespring Women’s Shelter in Aurora, where she volunteers. While admitting that birding could be viewed as a “luxury” for homeless women who are learning basic life skills, Nancy believes the residents and their young children would enjoy learning about birds and going on bird walks. A little nature in their lives could go a long way, and several parks are walkable from Lifespring.
And what about me? Well, since you asked, I’ll spend $120 on two tickets to the Night Owl Benefit at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn this month. The Center is celebrating 60 years of helping local wildlife and deserves our support.
The rest of my allowance could facilitate a first-ever trip to the southern tip of Illinois and, hopefully, a successful search for two warblers I’ve yet to observe: Kentucky and worm eating. Maybe I’ll set aside a $50 bounty for anyone who can show me one or both of these mythical birds.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Kyle Wiktor can ID most birds without ever looking up.
Hearing is believing

(published 8-15-16)
There is my list, and there is Kyle’s list. When birding together, his list is always longer. The tall, quiet kid from Bellwood is a bird-finding machine.

Kyle Wiktor, age 22, is one of the “young guns” I referred to in a recent column. You know the kind. High-level birding comes to them easily, and they embrace the tough ID challenges like gulls, shorebirds, sparrows and fall-plumage warblers.
Young birders with talent are inspiring. Useful, too! I believe every bird walk should have one.
Kyle is a regular on the monthly walks at Cantigny Park. His ears, in particular, come in very handy. They look like yours and mine, but they work better. He hears stuff that most others do not, and he knows what’s making the sound. It is a learned skill, and frankly one that most birders (including me) do not work hard enough to develop.
“I got tapes and CDs that I’d listen to over and over, like while doing grade school homework,” Kyle told me. He suggests that birders who wish to improve make a dedicated effort to learn bird songs and calls like he did. Then, most importantly, practice as much as possible in the field.
I’ve witnessed Kyle’s ear-birding prowess many times, but the time I remember best happened in June 2013, at Cantigny. A small group of us were by the main parking lot when Kyle thought he heard a clay-colored sparrow off in the distance. We’d never had that species in the park before and I think it was a potential lifer for at least one of us. So we were feeling that wonderful rush of anticipation, tempered by a small dose of skepticism. Except for Kyle, none of us knew the song of a clay-colored sparrow, but we did know the odds of seeing one at Cantigny were thinner than a Virginia rail. The habitat isn’t right.
Kyle believed the vocals were coming from across the parade field, at least 100 yards away. So off we marched, following his lead. In short order we were all staring at a no-doubter clay-colored sparrow, perched high in a maple. It remains the only one ever spotted at Cantigny.
As with many things in life, it pays to start early. Kyle was 8 when he began getting “majorly interested in birds.” The decisive spark was a family vacation out West and his first looks at yellow-headed blackbird, mountain bluebird and black-billed magpie.

In 2010 the flame grew higher when Kyle was chosen to attend the annual Young Birders Event at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.
“The Lab,” situated at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, N.Y., is a worthy destination for all birders. Kyle soaked it all in for four days, mingling with top ornithologists and sharing his passion with nine other teenage bird geeks. 
The Cornell experience included field workshops, such as bird sound recording by day and night. Kyle took to it like a catbird to grape jelly. No wonder he’s been asking about coming out to Cantigny after dark to listen for birds passing over during migration. He thinks we can add some new species to the all-time property list, like bobolink and dickcissel.

Chip notes. At night. In the dark. Yes, Kyle approaches birding a lot differently than most us. I love his ambition.
Kyle is two classes away from earning an Associates of Science degree from Triton College. He works on the seasonal grounds crew at Brookfield Zoo to help cover education costs and hopes to transfer to Southern Illinois University or another four-year school to major in Wildlife Biology.
“I know some people who are avian biologists and field ornithologists,” Kyle said. “Those sound like ideal jobs to me.”
Kyle volunteers as a bird monitor for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. He’s been monitoring at Pratt’s Wayne Woods since 2011, and at Mallard Lake since last year. He learned the ropes from Marilyn Bell, assisting her at West Chicago Prairie in 2010.
Two other mentors figure prominently in Kyle’s birding life. He credits Pete Moxon for opening his mind to more advanced birding, and Fillmore Dryden for teaching him the importance of getting out to check what birds are around as often as possible, in all seasons.
Dryden, profiled here a few years ago, was a local patch-birding legend, surveying McKee Marsh in Warrenville almost daily. He’s since moved out of state, but Kyle often follows in Dryden’s footsteps at McKee—one of his favorite local spots along with Pratt’s Wayne.  
As you’d expect, when a rare bird shows up in DuPage, Kyle goes for it. His county list hit 250 species in May with a whip-poor-will at Naperville’s Greene Valley. No. 251 came a few days later with a prairie warbler at Lambert Lake in Glen Ellyn.
Away from DuPage, Kyle favors the Indiana Dunes region, citing its many habitat types and year-round species diversity.
Kyle’s North American life list stands at 409. His most-wanted bird is Swainson’s warbler, followed closely by black rail and chuck-wills-widow. He went to Michigan for Kirtland’s warbler in June, and on the same trip added a surprise long-tailed duck in the U.P.
Kyle told me he’s eager to visit Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh for the first time, and also Nebraska for the massive sandhill crane migration in late March. His dream destination is Guatemala, where Kyle has a personal connection thanks to Cornell. One of his friends from that memorable week is John Cahill, son of an ornithologist, whose family moved from Pennsylvania to Guatemala when John was age 4.
“I promised John I’d visit him down there some day, even though it might not happen for quite a few years.”
It will indeed happen, I’m sure of it, just like other good things for Kyle. He is among the lucky few with a chance to build a career around his passion for birds and birding. It’ll be fun to follow his progress.

Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Whooping Crane by Carolyn Whiteside
The big white bird we dream about

(published 7-12-16)

What’s the rarest bird you’ve ever seen?  It’s an exciting question for any birder.
As watchers, we are attracted to the big and the magnificent, especially if it’s rare. In 2013, BirdWatching conducted a poll, asking readers what birds they most wanted to see. California condor was No. 1, and whooping crane No. 2. Both of these federally endangered species were once on the brink of extinction. Today their small populations are so closely monitored that scientists know precisely how many exist in the wild and in captivity.
You will never see a wild condor in Chicagoland. A whooping crane, however, is quite possible. It’s easily the rarest bird you could ever hope to see in our region. And thanks to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a global center for crane conservation based in Wisconsin, our chances of spotting a whooper are gradually improving.
In May, the ICF’s Lizzie Condon addressed the DuPage Birding Club. She has a wonderful job title: Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe Coordinator.
Condon’s role is necessary, if only because whooping cranes number just 450 in the wild. Another 160 support a captive breeding program. About two-thirds of the wild birds, known as the Western flock, migrate between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. Small non-migratory flocks exist in Louisiana and Florida.
Over the last 15 years, ICF and partner organizations have focused on establishing a self-sustaining migratory flock in the East. The critical mission is to secure the species in case the Western flock is hit by disease, a major storm, an oil spill or some other catastrophic event.   

Whooping cranes observed locally are most commonly
flyovers. This pair, however, thrilled birders by touching
down in Geneva on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
(Photo by Jackie Bowman)
Condon explained that progress is slow, often tedious and sometimes heartbreaking. Earlier this year, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service announced an end to Operation Migration, the project that used ultralight aircraft to lead captive-bred whoopers on migration between Wisconsin and Florida. The new plan, “rear and release,” employs a more natural approach with less human intervention.
A key issue is parenting. Unlike the stable Western flock, Eastern whoopers don’t seem to have a knack for it. Chick mortality in the East is alarmingly high. Now, captive adult whooping cranes in Wisconsin and Maryland will be tasked with rearing chicks, which later in their first year will be placed with wild adult pairs that experience nest failure. Ideally, the surrogate parents readily adopt the youngsters and show them how to migrate.
The Eastern flock of free-flying whooping cranes is currently about 95 birds. If you see a whooper in DuPage it most likely belongs to this group. On the night she spoke to the bird club, Condon knew of five whoopers on the ground in Illinois.
Indeed, the day-to-day whereabouts of many whooping cranes are well known by ICF staffers, thanks to radio transmitters attached to the birds. But the tracking technology is not a safety shield. The birds are still vulnerable.
A shocking reminder of this occurred in January when two whooping cranes were shot and killed in Texas. The accused shooter will be tried under the Endangered Species Act and the ICF is pushing for a vigorous prosecution. In the last five years more than 20 whooping cranes have been lost to illegal shootings, some accidental and some not.
Twenty birds! That’s a huge number when viewed in context. In the early 1940s there were fewer than 20 whooping cranes alive. It’s taken 75 years to build the population to current levels, and whoopers are still the rarest of the world’s 15 species of crane.
The Texas incident triggered a national ICF campaign that aims to engage the general public in helping safeguard the species. “I Give a Whoop!” is coordinated by Condon and includes a strong informational element so that more people will be able to identify whooping cranes and report any suspicious activity that may put them in danger. You can learn more and participate in the cause by taking a pledge at www.savingcranes.org/i-give-a-whoop/. 
Condon's work is also about getting kids and families excited about having whooping cranes in their communities. In January she spread the ICF gospel at the Festival of the Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Some whoopers from the Eastern flock join hundreds of sandhill cranes in making Wheeler their winter home. It’s a celebration complete with Whooping Crane Red Ale from a local brewery.
The ICF’s outreach efforts include a larger-than-life mascot appearing at public events in areas where whooping cranes live or migrate. Her name, appropriately, is Hope.
I’ve never spotted a whooping crane in these parts. The only one I’ve ever seen was in Nebraska back in 1998. But every spring and fall I’m looking up, watching those large and loud flocks of sandhill cranes carefully. Occasionally one or two whoopers migrate with them, their white bodies and black wingtips setting them apart from the gray sandies.   
Whooping cranes will always be rare, at least in my lifetime. The species will not be downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” any time soon, if ever. But I’m thankful that free-flying whoopers still exist at all, and optimistic that the work of ICF and its partners will secure their future.
I give a whoop. If you do too, please go online and take the pledge.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
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 EagleOptics.com.

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 aba.org.

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.