Ruby-Throated Hummingbird by Anubandh Gaitonde

Watch for fall hummingbirds


(published 10-10-17)

On October 27, 2002, a surprise guest appeared in my yard: a hummingbird.

Of course, I’d seen many hummers in the yard before then, and many since. But never in October.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared. I’d put away my hummingbird feeder a few weeks earlier. Too bad, because I’m sure my late-migrating visitor could have used a boost. Flying to Mexico takes fuel.

I’ve been thinking about hummingbirds a lot since attending the annual Hummingbird Fest in Lemont. Held August 19 at the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, it was my first birding event devoted to a single species, the ruby-throated hummingbird. And the parking lot filled up early.

In our region, the hummingbird population tends to peak in August, when migrating birds join the locally nesting birds and their summer offspring. Festival organizers know it’s the ideal time to celebrate one of nature’s most fascinating creatures.

Bird bander Vern Kleen shared his passion and expertise at
the Hummingbird Fest in Lemont.
A featured activity at Sagawau was a bird banding demonstration by Vern Kleen, one of just three people with a license to band hummingbirds in Illinois. He’s also the grand master of bird banding in our state, having applied tiny aluminum bands—each with a unique number—to the legs of some 140,000 birds since 1960. Of those, 36,000 were hummingbirds.

Banding plays a key role in bird study and conservation. While relatively few banded birds are recaptured (less than 2%), those that are reveal migration patterns, population trends, species longevity and more.

Plenty of hummers were zooming around Sagawau but few gave themselves up for banding. Catching them is tricky. The banders use a hanging trap—essentially a mesh cage with a small opening and nectar feeder inside to lure the birds.

Kleen banded only four hummingbirds—well below expectations even during a year, he says, when overall hummingbird numbers are down. Some 26 hummers were captured, banded and released at the 2012 festival.

The low level of banding activity, however, had an upside: It gave us more time to sponge knowledge from Kleen, whose enthusiasm for hummingbirds is contagious. Between bird bandings, he shared facts about the little dynamos and answered questions from the audience tirelessly. As he did so, hummingbirds zipped over and around us, often landing on nectar feeders just a few feet away.

I certainly learned a few things myself. For example, a hummingbird’s two biggest predators are the bullfrog and praying mantis. Up to 40% of a hummer’s diet is tiny insects like aphids and gnats. And the coolest nugget of all: Hummingbirds are known to build their walnut-sized nests near the nests of Cooper’s hawks. The hawks serve as a shield, unwittingly protecting the hummers and their eggs from potential predators.

Magic touch: Festival attendees of all ages lined up to feel a
hummingbird's heartbeat.
Kleen narrated the delicate process as he banded each bird. He’d then share the bird with the audience, providing close looks and even letting us feel its heartbeat by holding the chest to our fingertips. Talk about cool: Feeling the vibration of 1,200 beats per minute leaves a lasting impression.

Four lucky observers experienced the thrill of releasing a newly banded bird. Kleen placed the hummers in open hands where they’d sit for 10 or 15 seconds before zipping away to continue their busy, fast-paced lives.  

The only common hummingbird east of the Mississippi River is the ruby-throated. However, in October and later, the odds improve for spotting a vagrant species from the west. Watch for rufous hummingbirds, in particular. Last year, a rufous visited a Downers Grove feeder for several weeks in October.

It’s a myth that leaving out a hummingbird feeder will delay migration and put birds in danger. Even late-migrating hummers know their limits. They will eventually continue their long journey south, and the food you provide can help power their success.

My latest backyard birding goal is to attract a hummingbird in the month of November. Kleen recommends leaving a feeder out until Thanksgiving or later. No need to fill it all the way, he says, just keep some nectar fresh and available—the clear kind, without red dye. Bring the feeder inside at night to avoid freezing.

If a late-fall hummingbird comes calling, try to snap a photo in case it’s a rarity. Kleen and his colleagues in the North American Hummingbird Group try to band vagrant species whenever possible to see if they are the same ones showing up elsewhere or if they return in future seasons.

Last month, Kleen rushed to a homeowner’s backyard in the Springfield area where he successfully banded a broad-billed hummingbird, only the third one ever documented in Illinois.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher by Jackie Bowman

Invasion of the gnatcatchers


(published 9-5-17)

There is a tiny gray and white bird with a longish tail that you might know. If you don’t, it’s probably just a matter of time.  

I’m referring to the blue-gray gnatcatcher, an avian sprite nicknamed the “twig fairy” by birding guru Pete Dunne for its dance-like foraging technique.

For pure energy, the gnatcatcher has few rivals. The bird seems to be in constant motion, making it easy to detect but challenging to follow with binoculars.

Gnatcatchers are quite vocal, and once you learn its wheezy, high-pitched voice you’ll realize this bird is surprisingly common in neighborhoods and forest preserves alike. In fact, finding one in DuPage County has never been easier.

This wasn’t always the case. One of my birding friends recently referred to the blue-gray gnatcatcher as the “poster bird for range expansion.” Translation: it’s a traditionally southern species that has spread across the Great Lakes region in a big way.  

“Their breeding range has moved north by about 200 miles over the last 25 years or so,” said Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum. “I actually think that blue-gray gnatcatcher may be a climate change winner.”

The numbers don’t lie.  I looked at Spring Bird Count records for DuPage County since 1975, the first year of data collection. Zero gnatcatchers were found in 1975-1978, and less than 10 were spotted in the years 1979 to 1983. But sightings picked up in the late 1980s and hit triple figures for the first time in 1996 when 104 gnatcatchers were seen.

Spring Count totals in 11 of the last 14 years have been 300 or more, with a high of 550 in 2014. Bird Conservation Network data for the Chicago region also indicate a population boom.

I’ve noticed the upward trend in my own Glen Ellyn backyard. I went seven years before seeing my first blue-gray gnatcatcher at home, in 2004. I was thrilled! Little did I know how common this experience would soon become.

This summer, in fact, the presence of gnatcatchers was so consistent that I’m convinced a pair nested close by.

So, what’s going on? Stotz has a few theories. Because blue-gray gnatcatchers are insectivorous and winter widely in the Southeast U.S., he said, milder winters may be proving advantageous to the species.

“Beside this, I suspect that restoration of oak woodlands helps them in the Chicago area,” Stotz said. “They like oaks and they like things pretty open.”

The subject of range expansion recalls a few other species that are creeping northward with greater frequency. Yellow-throated warbler, summer tanager, Carolina wren and northern mockingbird are examples of “southern” birds that now breed in the Chicago region. But none approach the expansion success of the blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Identifying this bird is easy. I mentioned the gnatcatcher’s wheezy call, which stays in your head once you know it. Visually, the bird’s obvious field marks are a blackish tail with white edges (like a junco) and a conspicuous white eye-ring.

The hyperactive motions of the blue-gray gnatcatcher can clinch the ID, too. Its relatively long tail flicks from side to side when the bird is foraging in trees, likely a strategy to scare up small insects. Sometimes it momentarily hovers.

Gnatcatchers will be with us a few more weeks before starting their southerly migration. Some will travel to Mexico and Central America; many stop in Florida, where the species is resident throughout the year.

Next April, the twig fairy will return, bringing with it enough nervous energy to impress even the kinglets. If you ever wondered what a cup of Starbucks might do for a bird, watch and listen for the blue-gray gnatcatcher, a migrant on a mission.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
St. James Farm in Warrenville.

Nine great spots for autumn birding


(published 9-3-17)

Birders love to gush about the wonders of spring migration. But guess what? Those same birds pass through our region again in fall, traveling south. And lucky for us, the fall migration is a longer process, meaning good viewing opportunities from Labor Day through November.

Autumn birding does come with a catch: some species are trickier to identify this time of year. Members of the warbler family, in particular, have traded their bright May finery for more muted tones. There is less birdsong in fall, too, giving us fewer ID clues.

Not all the migrating birds are in disguise, of course, and there are plenty of interesting birds that live here year around. Cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches are always fun to watch, right? The important thing is to get outside and enjoy the show.

Here are nine places you might try, plus some tips on what to look for.

Elsen’s Hill, Winfield. Hours of happy warblering await you at this unit of the West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Even the parking lot here serves up a bounty when conditions are right. Elsen’s trails lead through a nice habitat variety of habitat including mature woods, savanna and ponds. This venue isn’t huge (about 150 acres with four miles of trails) but it provides everything migrating birds need to rest and refuel. Besides warblers, expect gray catbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, eastern towhee, fox sparrow, and Swainson’s and hermit thrushes. Tip: if it’s chilly, focus your birding on sunlit habitat edges.
Broad-winged Hawk by Vic Berardi

Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia. This 1,000-acre venue, commonly known as Nelson Lake Marsh, is a waterfowl hotspot. October, in fact, is one of the best months to see a wide variety of ducks, including coveted species such as canvasback and northern pintail. Birders also expect fall reports of snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swan from this site. The observation deck overlooking the marsh is best early in the day, when the sun is at your back. Kane County Audubon hosts a field trip at Nelson Lake on the first Saturday of the month and welcomes non-members.

Crabtree Nature Center, Barrington Hills. I’ve enjoyed some excellent birding experiences at this Cook County preserve, including my first northern shrike, spotted on the Phantom Prairie Trail. Last fall the Center’s well-stocked feeders hosted a Harris’s Sparrow, a rare visitor. The nature center and feeders make Crabtree an ideal destination for young birders with shorter attention spans. But with 1,182 acres of woodland, wetland and prairie there’s plenty for all birders to explore over three miles of trails. An observation blind overlooks Crabtree Lake, a waterfowl magnet.   

Greene Valley Scenic Overlook, Naperville. The DuPage Birding Club operates a fall hawkwatch atop this former landfill, collecting data on migrating raptors. The 360-degree view is ideal for spotting hawks and eagles on their southerly migration. Some days feature massive numbers of broad-winged hawks, plus flyover ospreys, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and occasionally a golden eagle. The overlook is part of the Greene Valley Forest Preserve and open to the public on weekends through October. If you stop by, ask the hawkwatchers what they’re seeing.

Whalon Lake, Naperville. Just down the road from the overlook is Whalon Lake, a Will County preserve with a strong reputation for waterfowl. Jeff Smith, who birds here frequently, says the 80-acre namesake lake is good for common loons, grebes and diving ducks starting around mid-October. A former quarry, Whalon also offers wetland and grassland habitats which attract a variety of sparrows during migration, including illusive ones like Nelson’s and Le Conte’s. Smith favors Whalon for its bird variety (230 species and counting) and ease of viewing. In fact, most of the lake is scannable without leaving your car or from under the picnic shelter.

Glacial Park Conservation Area, McHenry County. I’ve only been once but I’m itching to return to McHenry’s top birding location. Part of the five-year old Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, this impressively contoured 3,200-acre landscape has it all in terms of habitat. Start at the Lost Valley Visitor Center for information and to bird from the elevated back deck. An excellent hiking trail, adjacent to the building, features sedge meadow, savanna, tallgrass prairie, glacial kames (hills) and even a bog. Glacial Park fall specialties include all manner of waterfall (check Lost Valley Marsh), northern harrier and, as dusk approaches, short-eared owl. Earlier in the season, the preserve is prime territory for migrating warblers and sparrows.
Le Conte's Sparrow by Jackie Bowman

Illinois Beach State Park, Zion. Migratory birds use the Lake Michigan shoreline as a navigation aid, following it south. Al Stokie, a frequent watcher at Illinois Beach State Park and Waukegan Beach in Lake County, likes both locations for shorebirds, loons, grebes and southbound raptors, plus occasional rarities like harlequin duck, red-throated loon and western grebe. Check the woodlands at IBSP for migrating songbirds, and visit the park’s official hawkwatch at the North Unit of Illinois Beach, operating through November. (For autumn lakeshore birding, Stokie also highly recommends the Montrose Beach/Magic Hedge area in Chicago.)

St. James Farm Forest Preserve, Warrenville. Aside from birding, this historic country estate (600 acres) is a fascinating place to walk. Well maintained pathways lead past old dairy and equestrian buildings along with sculptures and interpretive signage. You’re almost sure to see eastern bluebirds here, and look for wood ducks on the ponds. Like its neighbor to the north, Cantigny Park, St. James is home to wild turkeys and red-headed woodpeckers—two species that favor this section of DuPage.

Your own backyard. Perhaps you have limited mobility, or just prefer the view from your kitchen window or patio. If you have feeders, watch carefully. Rose-breasted grosbeak is a good candidate to visit your sunflower seeds. If you put out thistle, pine siskins might come around in late fall. October is good time to watch for ground loving birds like fox sparrow and winter wren.  And don’t forget to look up! You can observe migrating broad-winged hawks and sandhill cranes just as easily from your driveway as from any local park or forest preserve. 

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Born in Nova Scotia, Dr. George Archibald co-founded the International
Crane Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to protecting and preserving the
world's 15 crane species. (Photo by K.S. Gopi Sundar)

Meet the king of cranes

(published 7-18-17)

I’m far too young to have a “senior moment,” and if I’ve ever had one I don’t remember it. But I experience Jurassic moments for sure. They happen to me every year, in fact, usually in early spring and late fall.

I’m referring to the semi-annual sandhill crane migration. Fossil records indicate the big, gray, magnificent birds have existed for at least 10 million years. No living bird species is older. When the sandies soar, swirl and bugle their way over my backyard—or the golf course, or the Jewel parking lot—I am transported to Jurassic Park, DuPage County style.

Sandhills didn’t roam with dinosaurs but it’s easy to imagine they did. Thankfully, it’s easy to observe them, too, which was not always the case. The sandhill crane was in steep decline prior to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other protective measures last century. The birds helped themselves, too, adapting to a newly agrarian landscape along their migration path. Fields of corn stubble now fuel their long journeys.

With an estimated population of 600,000, the sandhill is conservation success story. But there are 14 other species of crane in the world, 11 of which are in a race against extinction. The rarest of them all is the whooping crane, with less than 500 in the wild.

Enter the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., a crane’s best friend. Established in 1973 by George Archibald and Ron Sauey, a pair of Ph.D.’s who met at Cornell University, the ICF is a world center for crane research and preservation. The work of its staff, volunteers and partners around the globe is inspiring, innovative and vital to the species it serves.

I’m an ICF supporter and follow the organization’s progress, particularly its activities involving whooping cranes. This column, in 2016, highlighted the foundation’s newly launched “I Give a Whoop!” campaign.


Until recently, though, I was mostly ignorant of ICF’s remarkable achievements outside of North America. My enlightenment arrived in the form of “My Life with Cranes,” Archibald’s memoir published last year. To my surprise, a personally endorsed copy arrived in my mailbox in May, a kind gesture heralding of the author’s scheduled appearance at Cantigny Park later this month.

The book’s stories, some deeply personal, depict a man on an extraordinary mission. His official ICF bio says it best: "Archibald is a conservation ambassador who uses his unique brand of crane diplomacy to work in sensitive places. He leverages the charisma of cranes to unite people of diverse cultures and countries to work together to preserve the landscapes necessary for the survival of both cranes and people."

Archibald is the Jane Goodall of cranes, and the world’s foremost “craniac.” At age 71 he still travels extensively, focusing on programs in Bhutan, China, India, Mongolia, North Korea, South Africa, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

North Korea, really?  Yes, because birds have no geographic or political boundaries. Wherever cranes live, ICF is on the ground protecting them, directly and through alliances and partnerships. It is an international organization in the purest sense, supporting conservation programs in 45 countries.

Archibald’s book could rightfully be subtitled “The Adventures of Curious George.” One of my favorite stories occurs in Beijing in the 1970s. At 3 a.m., unable to sleep, Archibald leaves his hotel room to go for a jog. From the direction of the city’s zoo he hears the bugle of a black-necked crane, the one crane species he has not yet witnessed, in the wild or otherwise. Finding the call irresistible, Archibald manages to slip into the closed zoo and locate the source. And unlike the fictional George, he doesn’t get caught!

“My Life with Cranes” mostly covers 40 years of serious field research and conservation work, often carried out in difficult and dangerous conditions. Along the way, Archibald applies his passion for cranes, extraordinary people skills and the science of captive breeding techniques to help secure the future of his favorite birds. He makes some lifelong friends and blows out a few passports, too.

Oh, and because of the book, I now understand why the International Crane Foundation (savingcranes.org) is based in sleepy little Baraboo. The center welcomes visitors and houses all 15 of the world’s crane species. It’s a day trip well worth taking. Better yet, stay overnight and go birding at Horicon Marsh (64 miles east) the next day.

Archibald’s presentation on July 25 is co-sponsored by Cantigny and the DuPage Birding Club. The program and parking are free. If you like birds—and cranes in particular—don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear from a legendary conservationist.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Indiana Dunes State Park offers prime habitat for prothonotary
warbler. This one was investigating a nest box along the
 Wilson boardwalk. (photo by Andrew Edwards)

Magic at the Dunes


Indiana Dunes Birding Festival draws a crowd in search of migrating warblers

(published 6-14-17)

I couldn’t have known The Search would end in Chesterton, the last stop on a 15-year chase after a brownish little bird. In fact, when 2017 began, I was blissfully unaware of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.

The story begins in January, when Brad Bumgardner, a naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park, visited the DuPage Birding Club. He shared information about birding one of our region’s hottest of hot spots, where 371 species have been spotted so far.

Brad’s talk included an invitation to the aforementioned festival, hosted by Indiana Audubon. This guy knew his audience: In the dead of winter, the promise of spring warblers is irresistible.

Eastern whip-poor-will, a member of the nightjar family, is
most active after dark. Sharp-eyed watchers occasionally
locate a sleeping bird like this one. (photo by Jerry Goldner)
We left the meeting with a freshly printed copy of the 2017 festival guide, a 38-page booklet filled with daily schedules, field trip descriptions, speaker bios and logistical details for the May weekend. It was like giving candy to a pack of 10-year-olds.

Registration for the 3rd annual event would total about 425 birders, a record high, with at least 25 from DuPage. One of them was me.

I arrived Thursday afternoon in the rain, and the weekend forecast was not birding friendly: below-normal temperatures and winds from the north. It felt more like March than May. But after checking in at festival headquarters my spirits were quickly lifted—by birds, of course, as they often are.

The state park’s nature center features a viewing room overlooking an array of feeders. My timing could not have been better—16 species in about 20 minutes, including a swarm of rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-headed woodpecker and Eastern towhee. All were practically within reach, their sounds piped into the room from an outside microphone.

Festival organizers and the entire Indiana Dunes community
rolled out the red carpet for birders. The annual event
is a significant economic engine for local businesses.
That evening I joined a guided walk to find the forest dwelling whip-poor-will, a nocturnal Dunes specialty. After too much silence, so we enlisted the aid of a recording. As if on cue, a whip responded with the repeating namesake song we’d all come to hear. Some of us also detected the distant purr of a screech owl, a nice bonus.

With a strong breeze off Lake Michigan Friday morning our guide wisely selected a trail inside the state park with some protection. The walk wasn’t a total bust but things were slow for early May—clearly the wind was delaying the migration, keeping birds to the south. After lunch I retreated to my Chesterton hotel room to get warm, rest up and watch the Cubs and Yankees at Wrigley Field.
  
But suddenly there was more birding to do. At 5:15 a text alert announced a worm-eating warbler at the park. My most-wanted bird was 4 miles away!   

I took off in the Jetta, knowing the trail number and little else. Luckily, I met up with a couple from South Bend, Lindsay and Ben, who were better prepared. They knew precisely where the bird was last seen.

While not the flashiest bird, worm-eating warbler is a
challenge to find. Its primary breeding range is south of the
 Chicago region. (photo by Jerry Goldner)
About 40 anxious minutes passed at “the spot by the bench.” No trace of the warbler, a potential life bird for all three of us. This was beginning to feel like another “right place, wrong time” experience involving my avian nemesis.

I’d seen a “wormie” once before, in 2002. Unfortunately, it was dead, the victim of a building strike in downtown Chicago. Holding that bird, I’ll admit to briefly considering mouth-to-beak resuscitation. The Field Museum gladly added the specimen to its collection.

The Chicago encounter and other close calls crossed my mind as I waited in the woods with Lindsay and Ben. We were hearing a faint chip note—just enough to maintain a flicker of hope. Using her smart phone, Lindsay played the bird’s dry insect-like trill. Then, after several tries, a small miracle: the warbler of my dreams popped into view at eye-level, just off the trail about 20 feet away.

To say the least, it was a birding moment I’ll always treasure. Just like that the curse was over. I’d finally witnessed a worm-eating warbler with a pulse.

I practically floated into The Craft House that evening for a celebratory beverage and to check out the festival’s annual bird-calling contest. The beer was cold and the competition was a hoot. To their credit, the establishment’s regular patrons were patient and didn’t call the police. A young woman named Annie won the thing with her rendering of a pied-billed grebe, employing both voice and body language. Yeah, I guess you had to be there.

Indiana native Sharon Stiteler, a.k.a. Birdchick, led walks and
keynoted the festival’s banquet. Here, she’s helping a birder
take a “digiscope” photo of a pileated woodpecker. 
For me, after spotting the wormie, everything else was gravy. The chill and wind and general shortage of warblers no longer mattered. However, the weather was gradually improving and lots more birding was ahead.

On Saturday, I hit the trail with Sharon Stiteler, a nationally known birding blogger and personality from Minneapolis (birdchick.com). She’d be keynoting the evening banquet and the night before, at the bar, gave a fine impression of a veery. With Birdchick leading the way our group relocated the worm-eating warbler (apparently on territory) and enjoyed nice views of scarlet tanager, pileated woodpecker, wood thrush and blue-winged warbler. After the hike, birding on my own, a prothonotary warbler showed off along the Wilson boardwalk.

The master checklist at festival headquarters received an
impressive 186 “ticks” over four days. 
Birding festivals traditionally post a running list of birds seen or heard. At the Dunes, a giant checklist perched on an easel at festival headquarters, inside the state park visitor center. The four-day total of 186 species was a good number considering weather conditions.

I’ve now attended five birding festivals, each one surpassing my expectations. These events offer rich birding experiences and much more. It’s fun to hang around the tribe for a few days, make new friends and celebrate the hobby.

Festivals raise money for conservation, too. At Indiana Dunes, the International Crane Foundation received more than $2,000 from the banquet’s silent auction proceeds.

Another thing to like: the festival’s well attended free programs for kids and families, conducted by a legion of volunteers. Hopefully a few new birders were born.

Would I go again? Absolutely! The event was exceptionally well organized, reasonably priced and obviously convenient to DuPage (80 miles). Plus, the local community is incredibly welcoming to birders.

Maybe I’ll see you at the 2018 festival, May 3-6. My best advice is to register early, pray for better weather, and prepare to see some awesome birds. 

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Baltimore Oriole by Jackie Bowman

In the yard, this could be my big year


(published 5-9-17)

May is Monarch Butterfly Month in Illinois. Yes, it’s official: Governor Rauner signed the proclamation last fall. Soon we might even see a monarch license plate. The idea is to raise awareness about the falling population of our state insect; monarchs need our help.

It’s all good, and the birding community supports monarch conservation. But let’s be honest: May is for the birds. 

There’s no better time than now to be a watcher. Our binocular fingers are quivering with anticipation. Christmas morning for birders is finally here.

Except this holiday—spring migration—lasts for weeks, with colorful feathered packages arriving daily.

I’ll be out searching in all the usual places for the warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers and grosbeaks coming our way. And this year I have big plans for the backyard. In March, I hatched the crazy idea of trying to beat my own Big Year yard record of 88 species in 2007.

Twenty years of birding my average, surrounded-by-houses yard tells me this won’t be easy. It will take many hours of observation this spring and again in the fall to have any shot. To maximize these magical weeks of May, I’m aiming for at least 30 minutes on the back patio every day.

Note to neighbors: I have season tickets for the dawn chorus and intend to use them. If you see me scanning the bushes, trees and skies with my 8x43s do not be alarmed. I’m watching birds.

Besides putting in the hours, I’ll need plenty of luck. This game I play involves random acts of birdness.  Much of what I see or hear depends on fortunate timing.

So far so good. I’ve already tallied some birds that I don’t see every year in my yard: a song sparrow on March 20, an Eastern towhee six days later, and then a purple finch on Easter. All three were “bonus birds,” especially the towhee, a species I’d recorded only once before at home.

Another nice surprise was a flyover rock pigeon. Go ahead, call me pathetic for getting excited by a pigeon. But spotting one in the neighborhood is hit or miss.

Squirrels love me this time of year. They don’t mind a bit that I’m tossing a few handfuls of cheapo mixed seed on the ground almost every morning. The seed attracts sparrows—fox, chipping, white-throated and white-crowned among them. A brown thrasher might materialize if my lucky streak continues.

Ground feeding can boost the bird variety in your yard but a little caution is advised. Throw down just enough seed for one day, and only when the ground (or hardscape) is dry. Squirrels will Hoover up most of it but too much seed can attract unwanted guests after dark.

When my parents moved from their Ohio home last fall I inherited three wren boxes. Two are now on duty, awaiting tenants, along with the one I already had. This will be interesting to watch. Last year my wren house was appropriated by black-capped chickadees, for the first time. Could my yard possibly host a wren and chickadee family simultaneously? I’ll find out.

I’ll also see if my new oriole feeder was a wise purchase. It’s a simple design that holds two orange halves. A few feet away hangs a little dish filled with grape jelly, another oriole magnet. Catbirds like the jelly feeder, too.

Rounding out my yardly buffet are three tube feeders, one each for thistle, black-oil sunflower and shelled peanuts. The hummingbird feeder went up in late April.

Of course, many of the birds I’m wishing for this month will never visit my feeding stations. The migrating warblers and vireos are primarily bug eaters. They forage high, low and in between, depending on the species. As the trees and shrubs leaf out, the birds become harder to detect. By late May, most will be long gone, raising families in the North Woods.

But right now almost anything is possible, which is one reason why my patio time is never boring. Every morning brings hope and promise. 

Even on days when the birding is slow, there’s always something to keep track of. The first warbler (yellow-rumped) appeared on April Fool’s Day. A red admiral butterfly zig-zagged through the yard on April 15, and a green darner as well. The log says my last junco of the spring visited April 22. These little milestones recur every spring with remarkable consistency.

Watch carefully this month, even if your only view is from the kitchen window. It’s one of the wonderful things about our hobby. The birds make house calls.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Northern Mockingbird by Christian Goers

What makes a rare bird rare?

(published 4-12-17)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birding by numbers. BIG numbers.

(published 3-7-17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(published 1-4-17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.