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.
Bohemian Waxwing by Keith Williams

Waxwings: One rare, one common, both beautiful

(published 4-6-15)
I’m in the habit of taping or tacking up pictures of cool birds I’ve never seen.  It’s my own little bucket list, expressed visually with images from magazines and the pages of old “bird a day” calendars. The pictures seem to taunt me, as if to say, “Good luck, but you will never find me.” That confounding worm-eating warbler is a particular nuisance.
Occasionally I do track down one of the birds in my gallery, and then the photo comes down. The ritual feels like progress, and the open space is soon filled by another “most wanted” species.
In early March, progress arrived in the form of a Bohemian waxwing, a winter beauty from the north that wandered into Chicago’s Jackson Park. The bird stayed in a small area just south of the Science and Industry Museum for two weeks, giving area birders ample opportunity to grab their binoculars and scurry down to the lakefront. For many, like me, it was an easy lifer.
Coincidentally, a few weeks later, I was in a Naperville library and came across a book with a Bohemian waxwing on the cover. “100 Birds to See Before You Die” came out in 2008 but somehow I missed it. Sure enough, inside, Bohemian waxwing was No. 67 on the countdown, with No. 1 reserved for ivory-billed woodpecker.
Bohemian waxwing is a challenging bird in this region, no doubt, but I was surprised to see it featured in ‘100 Birds.’ Such books usually feature only super rarities. 
Cedar Waxwing by Christian Goers
One or two Bohemians are generally reported in Chicagoland every winter. The species often congregates with flocks of cedar waxwings, its lookalike cousin. The Jackson Park bird was alone, however, and it stayed put because it located a good food source. Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs are a waxwing’s best friend.
It’s April now, so we should look for cedar waxwing, a common but often overlooked backyard bird. If you are new to birding, or just curious, this is your spring assignment: spot a cedar waxwing. You can do this.
The good news is that cedars, while present in DuPage throughout the year, are far more plentiful in spring, summer and fall. The bad news is they don’t visit bird feeders, and that makes them easy to miss.
Your first encounter with cedar waxwing might not deliver the view you wish for. You might only see and hear a flock of waxwings flying overhead. This highly social species usually travels in tightly packed groups and vocalizes as it flies. The call is a thin, high-pitched whistle; the flight pattern is undulating or bouncy.
Know these clues and, with practice, nailing the ID is simple.
Of course, cedar waxwings do occasionally land, and that’s when you really get to admire this bird. It was always one of my favorites as a kid and it still is. The silky sleekness, crest, yellow-tipped tail and black mask are distinctive.
Look carefully and you’ll notice some tiny red dots on the wings, too. Adult birds (males and females) have these namesake markings—as if the tips of their secondary flight feathers were dipped in red wax. I think of the waxy droplets as wing jewelry, but ornithologists are stumped as to their purpose.
If you notice a flock of smallish, light-colored birds perched at the top of a tree (often one with bare or dead branches) it might be waxwings. Check them out and listen for their whiny call notes. Waxwings are insect eaters during the warm months, and will “sally out” from their perches to catch prey, just as flycatchers do.
The surest way to attract cedar waxwings to your yard is to plant berry bushes and fruit trees. Cherry, crabapple and holly are a few of their favorites. Such offerings will make other species happy, too.
Something I haven’t yet witnessed is the berry-passing game. A group of waxwings, I’m told, will occasionally perch on a branch and playfully pass a single berry down the line, from bill to bill.
I really, really want to see that someday. My birding bucket list just keeps getting longer.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
European Starling by Jackie Bowman

Good birds, bad birds and trash birds

(published 3-19-15)
Fellow birders, we need to clean up our act. The trash talking must stop.
As in most hobbies that people are passionate about, the birding culture is full of catch phrases and insider jargon. Most of it is harmless enough. We discuss lifers and megas. We pish and we chase. We never fail in our pursuits, but we often dip.  Still, we keep on ticking and twitching.
Sometimes, however, the words we use are poorly chosen. This hit home after reading Kenn Kaufman’s piece in a recent issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest. Titled “Trashbird Miracles,” Kaufman recounted several occasions when, as a young birder, some older and wiser birders dismissed certain species as “trash birds.” One person he met actually used the term to describe a male Northern cardinal.
Trash bird. “What an awful phrase,” Kaufman wrote. “Over the years I’ve heard it far too many times, but as a matter of principle, I refuse to call any bird a trash bird.”
From now on, that goes for me as well.
A trash bird refers to any bird that’s too common and too ordinary to be worth watching. Species like house sparrow, rock pigeon, European starling and Canada goose come to mind. We tend to dismiss them and move on to the next bird.
House Sparrow by John Baxter
Sometimes the expression is applied tongue in cheek. A few years ago I was with birders on the Cantigny Golf course in May. It was spring migration and the most abundant bird of all was palm warbler. Gobs of the little twitchy-tails were hopping around on the short grass in every direction we looked. One birder remarked that on this day, palm warbler was a trash bird.
Well, the idea of any warbler being a trash bird is preposterous. It was said in jest. But it makes me wonder, did the inexperienced birders in our group get the joke?
And that’s the whole point, which Kaufman so eloquently explained.  As birders, the worst thing we can do is discourage new birders by making arrogant comments that label certain birds good or bad. Our hobby needs all the birders it can get, casual or serious. The more people who care, the better for birds. Every new birder is a potential conservationist.
We should be watching and enjoying all the birds, even the common ones. Some are more attractive and fascinating than others, but all deserve our attention.
“People forget that starlings are birds, too,” Roger Tory Peterson once said.
Trash bird may not be the only term we need to deep six. In a letter to the editor praising Kaufman’s trash bird story, a woman wrote that even birders who use the phrase “good bird” are practicing snobbery and elitism. I agree with that to a degree, but it’s a matter of nuance. 
Sometimes “good bird” is used and intended in a very positive sense.  If a friend reports finding a cerulean warbler I might say, “Wow, that’s a good bird!” I think most watchers would interpret that to mean good as in uncommon and hard to find.
But what about when you cross paths with another birder in the field? The usual greeting is, “Seen anything good?”  For a new birder, that could be a confusing and perhaps even intimidating question. What’s considered a “good” bird really depends on the birder. A more neutral salutation would be, “How’s the birding today?”
One more example: the January issue of a newsletter I receive contained a brief report on the nature center’s 2014 Christmas Bird Count. “The best bird was an orange-crowned warbler,” declared the second sentence. It was a notable winter sighting, I agree, but was it the “best” bird for all participants? Who decided?  Was a poll taken?
Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but the impressions we make upon beginning birders and especially young birders may be long lasting. The words we use are important.
I have to say, 99 percent of all birders seem to get it. They are courteous to their fellow watchers and helpful to fledgling birders.  They enjoy sharing the hobby and showing people new birds—even the ones they’ve seen themselves a thousand times before.

Most of us even have a sense of humor.  Given the way we act, dress and speak, it’s good if we can laugh at ourselves. I’m pretty sure the birds are laughing, too.

Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Ivory Gull by Jackie Bowman

Rare gull brings exciting start to 2015

(published 2-13-15)

I chased a gull and I liked it. But not just any gull. A history-making gull. The kind of bird most of us never see if we live to be 100, or even have the chance to see.  
It’s only February and the Bird of the Year for Illinois is all but locked down. In fact, it was booked on the second day of 2015.  That’s when an adult ivory gull turned up in Quincy, lighting up RBAs (rare bird alerts) throughout the Midwest and beyond.
I was in San Antonio at the time, wrapping up a post-Christmas family vacation. The gull was completely off my radar since I’d unplugged from the Illinois birding listserve before heading south.
So it was a shock to see all the postings shortly after we touched down at Midway. An ivory gull, really? What’s it look like? How rare is this? Where’s Quincy? I had some catching up to do.
In short order I learned that the ivory gull is a pure white bird of the Arctic Ocean, with black legs and a yellow-tipped bill. For a gull it’s on the small side. The last sighting around here occurred in 1992, in Chicago, two years before I took up birding. Prior to that, Waukegan, in 1949.
I also learned that Quincy is a Mississippi River town, closer to Hannibal, Mo., than Glen Ellyn is to Chicago. Getting there and back is no easy day trip from DuPage.
At least not by car. Amtrak, however, chugs over to Quincy every day and at least two birders chose this carbon-saving option out of Chicago’s Union Station. They got the bird, too!  Bagging an ivory gull via 600-mile roundtrip train service in one day is an awesome achievement. I suspect the birders enjoyed a cold beverage in the Amtrak club car on the way home. Well done!
My own travel options were few. The gull continued to be seen the first full week of January but I was back to work by then. Dozens of birders were planning a road trip to Quincy on Saturday, Jan. 10, eight days after the discovery. I was leading a walk that day at Cantigny Park.
After the walk I checked the listserve for any news from Quincy. At 10:14 a.m. a birder from Galesburg reported that so far the gull was a no-show.
Only two more updates posted the rest of the day, each one negative. I felt bad for all the birders gathered in Quincy—people who waited all week before taking their best and only shot at the bird of a lifetime.
Evidently the ivory gull decided eight days in Quincy was enough.
The next day, Sunday, I’d be driving my daughter back to Augustana College in the Quad Cities. From there, Quincy is within range, but I couldn’t be on the scene until Monday morning, nearly three days after the last confirmed gull sighting.
I had to go for it. My odds were terrible but at least I’d see some bald eagles. When Rachel chose to attend Augie I knew a parental side benefit would be some winter eagle watching on the Mississippi. It never gets old. 
What I didn’t expect was a quick but killer view of a rough-legged hawk, seen from the car about 50 miles south of Rock Island. The bird was flying low over the snowy open fields and crossed the road right in front of me. That moment gave my Quincy boondoggle a needed sense of credibility.  
Monday broke sunny and cold, which of course dictated a massive breakfast at the local Village Inn. When paying my bill I asked the manager if he’d heard about the gull or seen any other birders.  He said no.
Well, shame on that guy for not reading the Herald-Whig, Quincy’s daily paper. A photo and article about the ivory gull had appeared on the front page six days earlier. After breakfast I stopped by the newspaper’s office to pick one up.  Sometimes you just gotta have a hard copy.
It was in fact a Herald-Whig graphic artist, Jason Mullins, who discovered the gull that triggered the whole frenzy. He spotted it on the Quincy riverfront during his lunch break and then alerted some other bird nerds who confirmed his remarkable find.
The newspaper included the story of a Cleveland couple who left their home at 9 p.m. and drove all night to Quincy.  They got the bird.  Two birders from Texas high-tailed it to Quincy as well and went home happy.
My own visit to the Quincy riverfront was quiet, like a church on the day after Easter. During two hours of birding on and around Quinsippi Island I encountered only two other gull seekers, an older couple whom I’m pretty sure never left the comfort of their warm SUV. They, like me, would not see an ivory gull. Not on this day.
Returning to Glen Ellyn via Quincy put an extra 325 miles on the Jetta. I’m not usually a long-distance bird chaser so that’s a little embarrassing, especially since I missed the bird. 
But in this case, no regrets.  Some species demand the time and the miles.  Besides, a morning of birding beats a day at the office any day.  In Quincy I watched a pileated woodpecker from 20 feet away as it pounded away on a snag. I counted a flock of 13 great blue herons, got my eagle fix and tallied a tufted titmouse, the latter being a hard bird to find in DuPage.
Perhaps best of all I experienced a new place, a river town that seems a world away from Chicagoland, and where Main Street is spelled with an “e” at the end.
Now, for this birder and many others, Quincy will always be a gull town.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.