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 climate.audubon.org. 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.
Barn Swallow by Jerry Ting

Barn to be wild

(published 8-11-15)

In July, I attended the annual “Purple Martins 101” program at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton, conducted by Ray Feld, a devoted Cantigny volunteer. Feld monitors and maintains the busy purple martin colony that visitors see when they enter the grounds or when they play past on Hillside No. 6.
The golf course entrance drive, in fact, features a Purple Martin Place street sign. There is perhaps no better address in DuPage County to observe dozens of the largest member of the swallow family.
But martins are not the only swallows that enjoy some pampering at Cantigny Golf. Just down the way from Purple Martin Place is a new attraction called Barn Swallow Hollow. It was dedicated in June, in memory of a lady golfer who loved the game and the birds she could see while playing it. The barn swallow was one of her favorites.
It’s easy to understand why. There is much to admire about barn swallows. In the course of helping create the colorful interpretive panel for Barn Swallow Hollow, I learned a few things that made me like barn swallows even more.
Of course I already knew about the bird’s agility and grace in the air. Barn swallows are fast, sleek and distinctive. Their deeply forked tails resemble streamers as they dart about, feeding on the wing. Flying insects are their fuel.
All swallows are skilled flyers but I believe “barnies” win on style points. Golfers, these are the long-winged metallic-blue rockets that skim the fairway grass, sometimes passing within a few feet of your FootJoys. Barn swallows thrive at golf courses, sharing their playground with the paying customers.
Unlike purple martins, the birds are not dependent upon man-made housing. They do, however, favor human-built structures for their signature cup-shaped mud nests, attaching them to walls or beams that offer protection from rain.
At Barn Swallow Hollow, two bridges over a water channel provide ideal habitat. They are busy passages but the birds don’t mind. Fact is, they have a sweet situation thanks to Scott Witte, Cantigny Golf’s superintendent. Witte installed tiny platforms under the bridges to facilitate barn swallow nesting. And between the bridges he rigged a steel cable that functions as a perch for young birds and adults. Flight school can be exhausting!

Barn Swallow nestlings by Jackie Bowman
Witte knows that barn swallows would be fine without his intervention. The species is among the most widespread in the world, breeding on every continent except Antarctica. But if there is a way to make Cantigny Golf more bird and wildlife friendly, he’ll find it. Witte established a honey bee colony at the golf course, too. These projects—along with the purple martin program and a “bluebird trail” with 50 nest boxes—contribute toward Cantigny’s status as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, so designated by Audubon International.
What I didn’t know about barn swallows until recently is that parents sometimes get a hand from other birds when feeding their babies.  The helpers are usually siblings from previous clutches but unrelated juveniles may assist as well.
But here’s something else I learned, and it’s far from admirable: an unmated male barn swallow may kill the nestlings of another pair. His sinister actions often succeed in breaking up the pair, giving him the opportunity to mate with the female.
Barn Swallow Hollow at Cantigny Golf
There’s a lot going on under those bridges—the good, the bad and the ugly. Nature happens.
For the barn swallows, it won’t be happening around here for much longer. In August the birds begin their journey to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Since they depend exclusively upon airborne insects for food, they must depart our region earlier than most other migrating species. They travel in large groups, called kettles, and cover up to 600 miles a day.
Some of the same birds that occupied Barn Swallow Hollow will return to Cantigny in 2016.  We look for them in early April, about the same time the first purple martins and tree swallows arrive.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Great Spangled Fritillary by Cheryl Rausch

Warning: Distracted birders ahead!

(published 7-16-15)
Hopefully, over the years, I haven’t given you the wrong impression about birders. But just in case, let me clear something up.
Most of us are not one-dimensional and obsessed. We are not like the Owen Wilson character in “The Big Year.” Occasionally we think about things that don’t wear feathers.
In fact, I once met a birder who had a second hobby. He called it photography. When not birding he took nice pictures. Of birds, mostly.
Seriously, the more I hang out with birders the more I witness people who are fascinated by the natural world. They love nature and love being outside. Birds are No. 1, but we are easily distracted.
I agree with birding guru Kenn Kaufman who said, “Once you go outdoors and start looking around, it’s almost impossible to just see the birds.”
So I was not surprised that plenty of birders turned out for the June 27 “Centennial BioBlitz” conducted by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. The 24-hour event brought together scientists and citizen scientists to help District ecologists identify and catalog plant and animal species in four DuPage preserves: Blackwell, Danada, Herrick Lake and St. James Farm.  It was a major undertaking, to say the least, and the first field work of its kind in the DuPage preserves.
BioBlitz results are still being tabulated and I’m eager to see them. Odds are good that some species not previously known to exist in DuPage or even Illinois were discovered.
No, not bird species. We couldn’t realistically hope for that. The birding teams were just out to enjoy a fun morning of doing what we love in the name of “citizen science.”  Our job was simple: take inventory, keeping a list of species and noting the ecosystems where we found them (woodland, marsh, prairie, etc.).
I joined a team covering St. James in Warrenville, where we found about 60 birds. Highlights were Acadian flycatcher, hooded warbler and veery, all presumably nesting within the 600-acre preserve. Two scarlet tanagers brightened our day as well.
Birds were just a part of the big picture, and that’s what made the BioBlitz so interesting. All day we rubbed elbows with experts who cared just as much about bugs, weeds and fungi as we did about birds. At least one birder I know “crossed the line” and spent the day searching for dragonflies. (Can she do that?)
At the lunch tent I happened upon Bill Murphy, a research collaborator with the Smithsonian Institution and one of the world’s leading authorities on snail-killing flies. He’d traveled from his Indiana home to participate in the BioBlitz and showed me a vial of flies he’d collected for later study. Until the BioBlitz the presence of snail-killing flies in DuPage had never been documented. Cool stuff!   
Compared to most BioBlitzers, we birders had it easy. Think about birds and bugs. The world contains 10,000 kinds of birds, about 300 of which can be found in Chicagoland during the calendar year. There are an estimated 1 million insect species with new ones being discovered all the time. The beetle family alone includes nearly 300,000 species and most are never seen!
I think I will never again gripe about sorting out the “confusing fall warblers,” an annual ID challenge involving a handful of alternate-plumage songbirds. And I won’t complain when a singing bird (like the hooded warbler I mentioned) chooses not to reveal itself. These are small frustrations and just part of birding. It could be worse. We could be sweeping a net through marsh grasses, gathering thousands of tiny bugs and then trying to identify them later under a microscope. I’m not sure that’s the exact process but I’m certain that watching birds is more on my level.    
BioBlitz participants, at least for a day, seemed to possess a heightened awareness of all living creatures. We cared about what each other and what everybody else was finding. On one grassy trail we noticed a shiny green beetle, the kind of spectacular bug you might see inside a block of Lucite on a CEO’s desk. A fellow birder thought it might be a tiger beetle.   
Sadly, our team didn’t encounter a single monarch on June 27. Their current scarcity is painfully obvious. We did, however, encounter another striking orange butterfly, the great spangled fritillary. Lots of them, apparently freshly hatched, were nectar shopping in St. James’ summery meadows.     
Butterflies are not just a pleasant distraction. As a kid, they meant more to me than birds. I knew them all, and the big showy moths, too. I captured them and stuck pins in their bodies.
Those framed collections are long gone, and I can still smell the mothballs.  
The day after BioBlitz I went to Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville, to the “scenic overlook.” The scenery I had in mind was of the avian kind, a lingering loggerhead shrike first spotted on the hill about a week earlier. I arrived an hour after its latest reported appearance. Then I waited.  And waited.
During the stakeout I watched a pair of black swallowtails chasing around the second-highest point in DuPage County. To quote Kaufman again, “It’s OK to be distracted—the birds won’t mind.”
I never did see the shrike. When rare birds see me coming they tend to scatter. However, those butterflies, plus a singing eastern meadowlark, made the visit worthwhile. We don’t always “get the bird,” but the hours we spend in nature are never wasted.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Kirtland's Warbler by Christian Goers

A spring migration full of wonder

(published 6-15-15)

I used to be smarter, or felt like I was, because The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox every week, a gift from my generous mother in law. I read only a small percentage of the pages and scanned the trademark cartoons. But I never missed “The Sporting Scene” pieces by Roger Angell, the legendary baseball essayist.
I still retain Angell’s 25-page account of the 1991 World Series, an epic seven-gamer claimed by the Minnesota Twins. The last sentence is a gem: “This World Series is over, and we can watch its departure only with gratitude and wonder—a great ocean liner, brilliant with lights and music and the sounds of celebration, slipping off down the dark waters, not soon to come this way again.”
What does this have to do with birds and birding? Well, it dawned on me that Angell’s prose could also apply to the exceptional spring migration we just experienced.  As it trickled to an end around Memorial Day, the words gratitude and wonder seemed to fit perfectly.
Truth is, I’m a little sad. It’s June and I miss May.
Surely I’m not alone. Birders were spoiled rotten last month. Every spring migration is good, sort of like pizza, but I think most would agree that 2015 was a cut above.  If you longed for warblers like cerulean, Connecticut and mourning, this was your year.
Opportunities to witness these and other coveted species were abundant if you had the time and the gas money. I was a bit short on the former, so I settled for following most of the daily excitement vicariously.
Not once did I make it down to Montrose on the Chicago lakefront—generally the hottest of the area’s hot spots. Highlights on the beach included snowy plover, piping plover, red knot, whimbrel, American golden plover and black-necked stilt.
Montrose’s famed Magic Hedge produced several 25-warbler days and even a photogenic least bittern. Most fantastical of all was the two-day appearance of a Kirtland’s warbler, one of the rarest birds you could ever hope to see in this region. First spotted May 16, it provided wonderful views for throngs of thrill-seeking birders.
Up the coast in Evanston, a violet-green swallow made a brief appearance May 9, just 10 days after flock of 104 American avocets held a meeting on Northwestern’s beachfront.
An out-of-place loggerhead shrike spent a few days at Chicago’s 63rd Street beach the last week of May.
Blue Grosbeak by Jackie Bowman
Not all the action was along Lake Michigan, of course; DuPage had its own share of avian excitement.
Fermilab hosted a scissor-tailed flycatcher for several days in mid-May, plus blue grosbeak and black tern—quite a handsome trio. One of my favorite sightings this spring, a barred owl, also occurred at Fermi as I walked around during my son’s “Saturday Morning Physics” class.
I tried and whiffed on the Fermi grosbeak but the next day was able to see one at Morton Arboretum. Apparently there are several blue grosbeaks at the Arb and possibly a nesting pair. Chicagoland is a little north of its usual summer range but blue grosbeak sightings are increasing around here. One was reported at Elsen’s Hill in Winfield, too, on May 28.
A week before, also at Elsen’s, a birder detected no less than five Connecticut warblers. The preserve also attracted a cooperative prothonotary warbler that many were able to hear and see.
Observers on two occasions in May spotted a Mississippi kite drifting over the county, a reminder to always keep our eyes on the skies.
Let’s face it, spring migration can be exhausting, and not just for the birds. As watchers, every day is filled with opportunities and choices. In May especially, we struggle just to keep up with the online postings of fellow tribe members.
This spring I slowed things down a bit and cut back on the chasing. The price was a lot of missed birds—feathered treasures that slipped off down the dark waters. On the upside, I spent less time in the car and more time enjoying my backyard. 
Three pine siskins were still visiting the thistle feeder in late May.  Will they ever go north? Could they nest here?
A pair of house wrens hung a No Vacancy sign on the wooden nest box and now fill the whole block with their loud, bubbly song. (I was wrenless in 2014 and felt cheated.)
My grape jelly feeder failed to attract the birds I expected. Instead of orioles or catbirds, a male cardinal is the surprise customer—first time I’ve seen that. And yes, that crazy robin I’ve mentioned before is still snacking on fallen peanut fragments in the grass.
One of my best spring memories will be Family Night Out at Cantigny Park on May 15. The theme was birds and we lucked into a perfect evening for anything outdoors (including prom pictures!). The kids painted little birdhouses and then my friend Joan and I took the families on short bird walks. Children and adults alike were thrilled to see their first indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. It was like the birds wanted to be seen and heard.
That, for me, is the magic of May—the best time of year to share the joy of birding. It is our World Series and tickets are free.
Best of all, unlike baseball, the hobby doesn’t go on hiatus. We keep birding, no waiting for pitchers and catchers to report. June may not be as colorful and exciting as May, but there’s still plenty to see and learn.  Hint: make a point this month to visit a grassland habitat.
For watchers, every time of year holds promise. The gratitude and wonder never stop.

Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Red-Headed Woodpecker by Rosanne Jordan

It’s OK to play favorites

(published 5-18-15)

On a recent Saturday I awoke to find a text message waiting. It was a question, accompanied by a photo of feathers and bones on the ground. “What bird did this used to be?” the person asked. An interesting start to the day!
Being known as a “bird guy” is both a blessing and a curse. As I’ve said before, I’m just a birder, not an ornithologist. Ask me anything, but there’s a good chance I’ll have to go look it up, or consult with a more knowledgeable birder (no problem finding those).
It’s all good. One of the best things about birding is the learning process. It never ends, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t pull a book off the shelf or go online. It’s easier than ever to find answers to bird questions—my own and the ones people ask me.    
There is one question, though, that cannot be answered in a book or on a website. It’s way too personal for that.
What is your favorite bird?
Picking just one is next to impossible for most birdwatchers. There are, after all, about 10,000 species in the world to choose from.
Before I go on, credit the inspiration for today’s column to Roger Tory Peterson. Here’s what the great RTP once said about his favorite bird: “I have to say it’s the blue jay, though many people dislike its aggressive ways, and of course my other favorite is the flicker. Locally, here in Connecticut, my favorite is the osprey, and among sea birds it’s the wandering albatross. My favorite bird family is the penguins.”
Peterson’s nickname, in fact, was King Penguin, and he made many trips to Antarctica. But see what I mean about choosing a single favorite bird?    
It’s still a deliciously fun question to ponder. And if picking one favorite bird is too stressful, how about your top 10?  We birders are good at making lists.
My favorite bird, on most days, is the red-headed woodpecker. I like everything about it, even its perfectly descriptive name. I like its regal colors and the way it flycatches, unique for a woodpecker. I also appreciate that I can see this bird where I work—a claim, unfortunately, that few people in DuPage can make. Spotting a red-headed woodpecker is always a great moment on the Cantigny Park bird walks. Watching them never gets old.
It is fascinating to me how favorite birds come to be.  Birders, I am finding, often take after Peterson. They have lots of favorite birds, and many come with a good back story. 
Prothonotary Warbler by Reinhard Geisler
I could easily make a case for the hooded warbler because it reignited my interest in birds back in 1994. It happened at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. I didn’t know what I’d seen until later that day but that’s part of what got me hooked—the process and satisfaction of putting a name to a bird.
And yet today, if pressed, I’m not sure I could even choose a favorite member of the warbler family. Lately I’ve been leaning toward prothonotary, another bird with an important role in my personal birding history.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ve only seen your favorite bird once.  Yes, once.  I think of the elegant trogon at Madera Canyon, near Tucson—probably the most spectacular (and elusive) bird I’ve ever witnessed. I was lucky that day.
This game has no rules. You can change your mind tomorrow.  You can even pick a favorite bird you’ve never seen before. It will inspire you to go find it. I daydream all the time about spotting a resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica.
Milestone sightings can produce favorite birds, too.  Varied thrush, No. 500 on my life list, will always be special. So will common yellowthroat, my 100th yard bird.
Of course, a favorite bird needn’t be momentous. A backyard regular will do just fine. Plenty of birders and casual watchers alike would gladly claim the northern cardinal or black-capped chickadee. Great choices!
Choosing favorite birds is fun. But the exercise has some practical value, too: it’s a great conversation starter. People who don’t consider themselves birders sometimes have a favorite bird. These are often the same people who ask me those hard-to-answer bird questions.
Kids, in particular, are usually eager to announce their favorite birds, even if they’ve never gone birdwatching. It might be “owls” or “hummingbirds” or something specific like a peregrine falcon. Eagles get a lot of love, too, and not just from youngsters. 
Got a favorite? Tell me your story.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.