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.
Bobolink by Jackie Bowman

New "Birds of Concern" is region's watch list

(published 1-13-15)

Last September, during a solo bird walk on my lunch hour, I spotted a wood thrush. It was the first one I’d seen in six years of birding at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. I felt incredibly lucky.
There was a time when no luck was needed to see or at least hear a wood thrush. But habitat loss has taken a toll.  The total wood thrush population has fallen by more than half in the past 50 years, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Indeed, two recent reports confirm rough times for our feathered friends. “State of the Birds 2014” identifies 233 North American species that are either endangered or at risk of becoming endangered. Shorebirds are especially vulnerable.
The other report, “Birds and Climate Change,” by National Audubon, concludes that 314 species will suffer significant shifts or reductions to their breeding ranges before 2080. Some species may be unable to adapt to the climatic stress predicted by scientists.  
Many of our locally breeding bird species, like the wood thrush, are already suffering sharp declines. Others are just barely holding their own. We know these things because of the Bird Conservation Network (BCN), a regional coalition of 20 organizations that share an interest in the conservation of birds. Approximately 200 BCN volunteers have been monitoring breeding bird populations in the Chicago area for 17 years.
Those thousands of field hours tell an interesting story. Lots of them, actually, and most are not good news for birders or for anyone who cares about our native wildlife.
The stories are told with numbers, up arrows and down arrows in “Chicago Wilderness Region Birds of Concern.” Published by BCN and available online at, the brochure was funded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources from contributions to the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund. Hard copies are available starting this month at nature centers, birding supply stores and regional birding events such as the Wild Things conference in Chicago on Jan. 31 and next month’s Gull Frolic in Lake County.
Red-Headed Woodpecker
by Harv Meyers
Birds of Concern is a “watch list” organized by habitat: Grasslands, Shrublands, Woodlands and Wetlands. Birds associated with each habitat are ranked according to their degree of need for conservation action. About 60 birds are listed.
Importantly, while all the listed birds face significant threats, not all are declining. Local breeding populations of a few, like the bobolink and Henslow’s sparrow, are actually trending upward, due in part to successful habitat management.
Examples of such action can be found in places like Springbrook Prairie in Naperville and Bartel Grassland in Cook County.  In these locations, birds have responded to improved and expanded habitat. BCN encourages such initiatives by providing hard data and guidance but relies upon the region’s forest preserve districts and volunteer stewards to carry out the work.
“Converting large tracts of grassland habitat so they are no longer bisected by hedgerows or trails has had particularly dramatic and convincing results,” said Eric Secker, BCN’s webmaster and lead author of “Bird Population Trends of the Chicago Region (1999-2012)”, published by BCN in 2014.
Secker noted that Henslow’s sparrow, a threatened species in Illinois in 2007, has since been delisted. Ongoing restoration efforts are also benefiting bobolink, dickcissel and possibly other grassland species.
But helping birds through habitat restoration is complicated because individual species often have very specific needs.
“Cerulean warblers require large, tall, mature woodlands with minimal disturbance,” said Lee Ramsey, BCN Survey coordinator. “Yellow-billed cuckoos want taller woods with shrubs nearby because they nest on the ground. Veerys want wet woodlands with a variety of cover.”
All three species Ramsey mentioned are listed on the Woodlands page in Birds of Concern. Yet no one single strategy could be expected to benefit all three birds. For instance, while clearing out nonnative understory vegetation and replacing it with natives may benefit some birds, such action may have no effect or even a negative effect on others.
In general, birds with very particular habitat requirements are the most vulnerable. They are less able to adapt to changing landscapes, and the arrows next to their names tend to point downward.
BCN watches the direction of those arrows closely. But as Secker noted, Birds of Concern is different than the State Threatened or State Endangered lists. The BCN list instead addresses a wide mix of species for which the Chicago Wilderness Region is relatively important.
This is a critical distinction, Secker explained, because state threatened or endangered species require a substantial investment to monitor and maintain their populations. The BCN approach is proactive.  Ideally, species in need of management are identified before their regional populations drop to extreme levels. This can enable more cost-effective conservation strategies by land managers.
“Before lists like this one, figuring out which species need our help was a much more uncertain process,” said Secker.
To be sure, Birds of Concern features far more down arrows than up. Most of the listed birds are declining in total numbers. Plus, the list includes some species that are probably beyond hope in terms of restoring their population levels in the region to significant levels—Swainson’s hawk, Northern bobwhite and Eastern whip-poor-will, for example. But certainly most of the listed species can benefit from the habitat-specific conservation efforts advocated by BCN.
Those efforts are informed by the data collected by BCN Survey monitors—volunteers who gather population trends data using a standardized protocol. Casual bird sightings entered into the eBird database also contribute to the monitoring effort.
The more eyes and ears in the field, the better the information. If you’d like to help with monitoring or in other ways, visit the BCN website. Chicagoland’s native birds are depending on us.
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Fork-Tailed Flycatcher by Mark Bowman

2014: Another amazing year of birds and birding

(published 12-19-14)

With the Christmas Bird Count still to come, another rare sighting or two is possible before New Year’s Day. But some things can’t wait, so here’s my collection of news and notes from the 2014 birding year. I can assure you there was no shortage of material.
Let’s start with Bird of the Year. Officially, it was the rufous hummingbird, a western species announced last January by the American Birding Association. In September, as if programmed by the ABA, a wayward rufous took up temporary residence in a St. Charles backyard. Luckily for birders, the yard belonged to the president of Kane County Audubon.
My personal choice for Bird of the Year is Martha, the last passenger pigeon on earth. We marked the 100th anniversary of her passing on Sept. 1 and filled the year with books, news stories and a film documentary about the demise of her species. The sad but timely history lesson brought much-needed attention bird conservation issues.  
For Local Bird of the Year, of the non-extinct variety, I nominate the black-bellied whistling ducks that visited a Yorkville neighborhood in May. The feathered vagabonds hung around for 10 days, thrilling birders from the region and neighboring states. I travelled to Yorkville not once but twice, just to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. The ducks—and the generosity of homeowner Irene Kaufman—will long be remembered.
Probably the rarest bird to sample our region in 2014 was the fork-tailed flycatcher in Geneva on May 12—only the fourth Illinois record of this species. Oh man, I’d have traded 10 birds on my life list just to see that one. (I’d choose the 10 birds, of course, beginning with house sparrow.)
Barrow's Goldeneye by Jackie Bowman
The year was filled with other notable sightings by area birders. A snowy egret stopped at Churchill Woods in Glen Ellyn. A Barrow’s goldeneye spent weeks on the Fox River in West Dundee. Woodridge hosted a red phalarope, and Elgin made news with a black-throated gray warbler. Batavia’s Fermilab delivered yellow-crowned night heron, cattle egret, red-necked phalarope and scissor-tailed flycatcher.
A vagrant slaty-backed gull excited Lake County birders in February, and throughout 2014 the Chicago lakefront dished up its usual share of rarities—curve-billed thrasher, lark sparrow, Harris’s sparrow, Swainson’s hawk, red-necked phalarope and western grebe among other goodies.
A migrating American anhinga flew over the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawkwatch in DuPage on Sept. 6, followed 10 days later by the hill’s first-ever prairie falcon.
Those hardy fools on the hill, incidentally, shattered their record for bald eagle sightings with an even 100 this fall. Their previous high was 60. Seven golden eagles were spotted, too. This was the ninth season for the Greene Valley operation, where data are collected by volunteer birders from September through November.
The brutally cold winter of 2014 had an upside for birders. White-winged scoters and other uncommon waterfowl were surprisingly easy to observe. With open water scarce, birds moved closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline or even inland to find it. Some 96 scoters were counted at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien on March 20. A long-tailed duck found refuge along the Batavia Riverwalk, and a harlequin duck paddled the Fox River in Elgin.
Snowy owls seemed a dime a dozen thanks to a spectacular “irruption” across the northern tier of the U.S. Owls were still present around Chicagoland in March, apparently in no hurry to return to their arctic tundra homeland. One snowy vacationed near Jacksonville, only the third ever recorded in Florida.
Sadly, we lost two legendary local birders and mentors in 2014. Jack Pomatto (St. Charles) and Muriel Smith (Wheaton) will be missed.
Greater Prairie Chicken by Jackie Bowman
The Illinois Audubon Society and its partners relocated about 90 greater prairie chickens from Kansas to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area near Effingham, Ill. The three-year program aims to rebuild the prairie chicken population in our state, which before the relocation was less than 100 birds.

Gov.-elect Rauner, you might recall, enjoyed poking fun at the relocation program during his campaign.
Are you stocked up like me on those awesome songbird postage stamps issued in April? They make me want to give snail mail another try.
I like that live feeder cam in Canada, too. Checked it out for the first time this month and within two minutes was watching a mixed flock of evening and pine grosbeaks. Excellent sound and image quality. Google “Ontario FeederWatch.”
Kane County Audubon teamed with the Veterans Conservation Corps of Chicagoland and the Kane County Forest Preserve to build four chimney swift nesting towers. The one at Brunner Family Forest Preserve in West Dundee enjoyed quick success, with three swifts fledging in August. Congrats to Marion and Rich Miller, champions of the project. 
Kudos as well to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn for completing their expansion and renovation, and to Naperville Park District for the new nature center at Knoch Knolls Park.
A tip of the birding cap also to Dewey Pierotti, for 20 years of protecting our open spaces as president of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Thank you and happy retirement!
Favorite lifer of 2014: crested caracara, near Clewiston, Fla. Runner-up: "Mockingjay," AMC Yorktown.
Best non-bird sighting: giant swallowtail in August, at Cantigny golf course.
Other memorable moments: The yellow-bellied flycatcher at Willowbrook during the International Migratory Bird Day event; a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers carefully harvesting a spider web in my yard, presumably for nest building; cruising black terns over the marsh at Point Pelee National Park in July; and the ovenbird that popped up next to my grill when I was cooking brats.
For two straight days in mid-November, large and noisy flocks of sandhill cranes streamed over downtown Chicago. I’m hoping a few city dwellers looked up from their smart phones and wondered.
The second edition of "The Sibley Guide" hit the shelves in March, including mine. A few lucky folks birded with the author when he visited Chicago on his book tour.
The DuPage Birding Club celebrates 30 years in 2015. Come have some cake at the Jan. 8 meeting (7:30 pm at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn) and enjoy a presentation about birding in Cuba. Details at
Cuba sounds pretty good right now. Stay warm, happy Christmas counting, and remember the birds need our help.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

RTP's 1949 self-helper for beginners still has
a lot going for it. It set the course for similar
books on the market today.

Peterson’s legend lives on with today’s birders

(published 11-14-14)
Every now and then I need an RTP fix, as in Roger Tory Peterson. The father of modern American birdwatching died in 1996 but his influence on the hobby remains strong.
Like many birders, I still turn occasionally to the Peterson guide to eastern birds, including my replica version of the 1934 original. But what I value most about Peterson today is his storytelling. He was a gifted writer in addition to his remarkable talents as a naturalist, artist, photographer, conservationist and lecturer. 
Bird Watcher’s Digest certainly does its part to keep Peterson’s legacy alive. When the latest issue arrived in October I reflexively turned to “After the Spark,” the column by Kenn Kaufman, himself a Peterson disciple. This time, however, I found a surprising byline. Due to a scheduling conflict, the magazine filled the space with a 1988 story by RTP. Kaufman is popular, but I doubt if any subscribers objected to finding Peterson’s classic account of his search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in 1942. He regarded the adventure as his most exciting bird experience ever.
If you admire Peterson as I do, two books are must reading. The first is “Wild America,” co-authored by Peterson and his British friend James Fisher, about the pair’s epic 100-day, cross-country birdathon in 1953. Written before “big years” were fashionable, the book paved the way for more recent birding travelogues like Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway” and Pete Dunne’s “The Feather Quest.”
Another book well worth tracking down is “All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures,” a collection of Peterson’s best writings from Bird Watcher’s Digest. The full version of the ivory-bill story is included along with 41 other essays.
In September I stumbled across another Peterson gem when shopping a used book sale at the Wheaton library. “How to Know the Birds: An Introduction to Bird Recognition” caught me by surprise; I’d never seen it before. Published in 1949, it complemented his groundbreaking field guide, which by then was in its third edition.
Ever the educator, RTP believed newcomers to the hobby needed some basic guidance. This book filled the need nicely while providing perspective.  In the preface, Peterson describes birdwatching—not yet called birding—as “an antidote for the disillusionment of today’s world, a world beset by pressures it has never before known.” Watching birds could be an escape!
“How to Know the Birds,” in my view, still holds up today as a useful reference for beginning birders. The sections on bird families, habitats and ID silhouettes are as relevant as ever.
Of course, we have more choices now, and several excellent paperbacks are available to help improve our skills. Each of them, I believe, owe a tip of the birding cap to Peterson.
If you have watchers on your Christmas list, these are my top choices to supplement the field guides they already own, or the ID apps on their smart phones:
“Sibley’s Birding Basics,” by David Sibley ($15.95). Even expert birders can find something new and interesting here. Sibley’s superb artwork is a major plus.
Thompson's new book takes an
innovative approach that's both
fun and informative.
“Birding Essentials,” by Jonathan Alderfer and Jon Dunn ($15.95). This National Geographic title is my favorite work on how to be a better birder. The final chapter alone, called Fieldcraft, is worth the cover price. The color photos are outstanding and the two-page glossary of birding and ornithology terms is useful.
“Pete Dunne on Bird Watching,” by Pete Dunne ($12). The author’s dry humor shines through on every page. All birding fundamentals are covered in a readable and entertaining format, and the pages on binoculars should be required reading for anyone shopping for optics.
“The New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America,” by Bill Thompson, III ($16.95). This is more a field guide than the how-to books named above but includes plenty of advice for beginners along with “wow” facts about each of the 300 common birds depicted. With this work, published in 2014, Thompson achieves his goal of informing without overwhelming the novice birder.
It’s appropriate that Thompson’s new book belongs to the Peterson Field Guides Series. RTP, after all, did more than anyone to bring new birders into the hobby. (To learn more about the man himself, check out Elizabeth Rosenthal’s wonderful Peterson biography, “Birdwatcher.”)
During this season of thanksgiving, we are blessed with many fine resources to help make birding even more enjoyable. Roger Tory Peterson would be pleased, I’m sure, that birds (and books) still matter in a world just as “disillusioned” as the one he described more than 65 years ago.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Carolina Wren by Jackie Bowman

Backyard wrenaissance

(published 10-19-14)

It’s been a strange year in my backyard. A few months ago I told you about the peanut-eating robin. That was just weird.

Also notable, in a different kind of way, was the general absence of house wrens. Our wooden nest box went unused for the first time in years. I missed having tenants. House wrens always pay their rent, rewarding landlords with their incessant, bubbly song. For a small bird, they are amazingly loud, too. If wrens are in the neighborhood you know it, and spring just isn’t the same without them.

On the bright side, it’s been a surprisingly good year for Carolina wrens in my yard. Larger than a house wren, the Carolina is far less common in our region.

I’ve seen and heard Carolina wren many times while vacationing in South Carolina, where it’s the state bird. I think of it as a “southern species.” This notion is reinforced every April when I watch The Masters golf tournament. Singing Carolina wrens and tufted titmice can always be heard during the telecasts, as if the tournament organizers fitted them with miniature microphones. 

Fortunately for us, the Carolina wren has expanded well beyond Dixie. Today, Chicagoland is considered the northern edge of its breeding range. And unlike the house wren, the Carolina is non-migratory, meaning it can be found here in all seasons.

Carolina is also the only wren that may break into song in the middle of a snowstorm. The species sings year around. The bird’s emphatic “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” is the familiar vocalization but I heard some variations of it during the summer. My new rule of thumb is that when I hear a high-volume bird song not immediately recognized it is probably a Carolina wren.

My first Carolina sighting this year was in February when a single bird visited the peanut feeder. From May through September I heard the wren often and even witnessed two birds at once. I strongly suspect that a pair nested in the neighborhood.

Winter Wren
I’ve had years without a single sighting of Carolina wren, so 2014 has been a treat. But another wren species, the winter wren, is even more uncommon in the backyard. Spotting one takes some careful observation and some luck. Your best chances are in April and October, when winter wrens are migrating to and from their breeding grounds in the North Woods and Canada.  

Yes, now would be a good time to watch for a tiny, mouse-like bird scuttling around in the garden and under your shrubs. Winter wrens are most often on the ground, foraging for small insects and spiders. They are smaller, rounder and darker than house wrens, with a stubby tail that points up. Picture a wind-up toy with feathers.

I was fortunate to host a winter wren on consecutive days in mid-April. The bird never revealed itself for long but I did manage a few passable photos when it popped into the open on my back patio. I was in the kitchen, sprawled on the floor, shooting through the sliding glass door. It was a rare opportunity to be close and nearly eye-level with our most diminutive songbird.

Some say the winter wren has the sweetest (and longest) song of all the wrens. I can’t argue that, based on recordings I’ve heard, but hearing one in real life is still on my birding bucket list.

Five kinds of wrens are possible in DuPage, so I’m compelled to also mention marsh wren and sedge wren. As their names suggest, these two species are closely associated with specific habitats. Neither one is likely to visit a typical suburban backyard. To find them, I suggest a trip to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville early next summer, or any other forest preserve with wetlands and open fields.

For more information about wrens, and to hear their remarkable songs, try Cornell University’s excellent online resource, All About Birds dot org.

Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (immature) by Gordon Garcia

Why birding is the BEST hobby

(published 9-30-14)

An email arriving in my birding mailbox last month had a certain air about it. The subject line read, “A Few Highlights from the Calumet Sewage Ponds.”

Is this a great hobby or what? No really, it is, and I can prove it.
That was among my goals when I agreed to be a guest speaker at the Glen Ellyn Lions Club. Public speaking isn’t my thing; I’d rather write than talk. But what appealed to me most, besides a free dinner at Barone’s, was that I’d be addressing people who probably, at most, had only a passing interest in birds. Maybe, just maybe, I could get them jazzed about birds and birding by showing them what they’ve been missing.
Sensing no reason to hold back, I titled my presentation “Why birding is the BEST hobby.” And you know what? The Lions ate it up.
I started by explaining that birding is a bigger deal than they might realize. Every year, an estimated 85 million Americans enjoy feeding, observing or photographing wild birds. Only one hobby, gardening, has more fans.
Birding’s popularity is due in part to its simplicity, I told the Lions. Getting started is easy. All you really need is a decent pair of binoculars, available for as little as $125. I used to say that the other must-have is a field guide to help identify the birds. Books are still an essential reference tool for most of us. But a smart phone with a birding app works fine, too, and then you have a field guide with the advantage of sound.
The simplicity of birding includes being able to do it almost anywhere at any time.  Once a birder, you are never really not birding. Sometimes I go weeks without a “bird walk,” but a day never goes by that I’m not watching birds.
I went to a Cubs game this month, settled into my seat, and the first thing I noticed was a double-crested cormorant flying toward the lake. Need I say more?
We need our hobbies to be convenient, so we have more time to pursue them.  If you have a moment to peek out the kitchen window in the morning then you have time for birding. Talk about convenience: If you prefer, the birds will come to you. Just hang a feeder and set out a birdbath.
This hobby is truly 24/7, inviting your daily participation at all times of the year. At home. Away from home. In the car. From the train. Through your office window. You can be a birder and never even step outside, a beautiful thing for people with age or mobility issues.  And all of us can watch birds with a hot drink in our hands when the polar vortex strikes.
Even darkness doesn’t stop us. At night we look and listen for owls.
I told the Lions how birding connects us with nature. Feeling inspired, I summoned a favorite John Burroughs quote: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed and have my senses put in order.”
We could all use a little more of that, agree? Birding is a trigger, a nudge, a reason to power down and take note of our surroundings. It slows us down and sometimes stops us in our tracks. 
A two-minute encounter with a seldom-seen bird, when you least expect it, makes you feel lucky and blessed. I spotted a wood thrush at Cantigny earlier this month, the first I’d ever seen in the park. That bird turned an average day into a great one.
I told the Lions that birds are beautiful and worthy of our attention. For this point, no words were really needed—the images on screen were quite enough.
Someone in the audience asked where they can go see these birds.  Central America, I replied, but if that was inconvenient then perhaps Churchill Woods, about a mile down the road. It was May, after all, and the migrating warblers and vireos and tanagers were decorating trees throughout DuPage.
I talked about the challenge of birding, too. For some birders that’s a big attraction. Finding rare birds. Nailing the difficult IDs. Learning calls and songs. Growing our lists.
I think any good hobby should offer challenges and opportunities to learn. Plus a few surprises now and then.
Birding delivers all of these things, and sometimes all at once. At Fermilab a few weeks ago our small group encountered a young night heron. We first assumed it was a black-crowned and nearly moved on to watch other birds. But something didn’t seem right, so we began to look at the heron more closely. We soon worked out that it was beyond doubt a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron, an amazing find for this region.
It’s nice to be with fellow birders when the unexpected happens, like that morning at Fermi. But the hobby rewards solitary birders, too, when every discovery is yours and yours alone. Birding solo is a wonderful stress reliever.
Finally, I told the Lions that birding will take you places. Maybe outside on the back patio a little more often. Maybe to that forest preserve or city park you’re always driving by.
The deeper you get into birding, the more you’ll want to travel. Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Texas. Belize and Costa Rica. South America. For birders, the chance to experience new species in unfamiliar habitats is irresistible.
True, not all of our destinations are exotic. Like the Steve Martin character in “The Big Year,” some birders will eagerly visit the county dump if a rare bird is at stake. Or the local sewage pond. 
Sometimes this hobby stinks, but it’s still the best one I know.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Indigo Bunting by Jackie Bowman

Celebrating the birds we know best

(published 8-26-14)

Netflix is back in my favor. Finally, I searched for and found (!) a movie I’d been wanting to see: “Birders: The Central Park Effect.” Legendary birding tour guide Victor Emanuel called it “the best film about birding that I have ever seen.”
I could write all day about “Birders.” There are so many things to like about it. But one segment that’s still in my head is when the narrator asks a group of four long-time Central Park birders a simple question: Do you ever get tired of looking at a cardinal? No, of course not, they answered.
“If you get tired of looking at the common birds then you might as well just pack it in,” said one of the grizzled vets with a thick New York accent.
Nodding heads all around, including mine.
Birders know that all birds are worth watching. Many of the common ones, fortunately, are strikingly beautiful and practice interesting behaviors.  
The common birds are also the entry point for beginning birders and potential future birders. At Cantigny Park in Wheaton, my employer, we’re in the second year of a Bird of the Month program. The idea is to “celebrate” easily seen species that park walkers and golfers might encounter during their visits. We’re not trying to create new birders—it’s more about raising awareness and sparking some curiosity.
Hopefully Bird of the Month has helped a few people put a name to a bird that they’ve been seeing for years. Maybe it was an indigo bunting, the electric-blue summer songster that’s surprisingly common in certain places of the park.
We featured the bunting in July. This month’s bird is barn swallow. Colorful or charismatic species that seem to say “look at me” are the best Bird of the Month candidates. Baltimore oriole, Eastern bluebird, red-headed woodpecker and great blue heron have each been honored. Great egret, purple martin, red-winged blackbird and ruby-throated hummingbird also took their turns. Wild turkey, one of Cantigny’s signature birds, is slated for October. (Why not November you ask? Because currently Bird of the Month is an April through October program, when golf and park traffic is highest.)
The attention-getting photos on our Bird of the Month banners are key. I am indebted to talented contributors including Jackie Bowman, Jim Frazier, Glenn Kaupert, Christian Goers and Leslie Morrison. Their bird images sometimes accompany this column, too.
For me, the fun part about Bird of the Month is choosing the species and then gathering some interesting facts about them. The process is a reminder that there’s always something new to learn about our common birds. Did you know the oldest great blue heron was 23 years old? Or that barn swallows breed on every continent except Antarctica?
I also confirmed that purple martins don’t eat many mosquitos. They much prefer larger insects such as dragonflies.
Birds are never boring, and the common ones occasionally surprise us.  This past spring and early summer I witnessed something I’d never seen in 17 years of watching my Glen Ellyn backyard: a peanut-eating American robin. The bird was up on my shelled peanut feeder constantly but too plump to stay on the perch for long. It spent more time on the grass below, picking up peanut bits just like a squirrel.
The robin even adapted its behavior, learning that the best time for a peanut fix was when another bird was on the feeder. The bird above became the robin’s ally, causing peanut fragments to drop into the grass. It was amazing to watch!    
Several times this summer I observed a male cardinal give a sunflower seed to his mate, passing it from bill to bill. A nesting pair of downy woodpeckers also captured my attention. They set up shop in a dead snag two houses down but easily visible from my driveway. I suspect that blue-gray gnatcatchers nested in another neighbor’s tree but was never able to confirm it.
Yes, there is always something to learn about birds just outside our doors, and usually it’s a common species delivering the lesson.
Back at Cantigny, our monthly bird walks, like most field trips, seldom turn up anything truly remarkable and rare. But they nearly always produce an interesting discovery.
The danger is going too fast. In our quest for the unusual we sometimes need to slow down and be sure to appreciate the familiar jewels that invariably brighten the day.
I believe cardinals, blue jays and goldfinches raise our spirits even if we don’t realize it. Their sounds alone enrich the precious time we spend outdoors, whether we’re birding or just going about our daily business.
It’s not just the flashy birds that have this effect. Hearing or seeing a house wren, catbird or white-throated sparrow can do it, too. A noisy, swirling flock of sandhill cranes—fairly common above our heads in spring and fall—gets me every time.
“Where is it written that great birding experiences must ever and always involve rare or unusual species?” asks birding guru Pete Dunne in the current issue of BirdWatching magazine.
Not here, that’s for sure. If it has wings, I’ll watch it. Including that bright red one with the handsome crest.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Viewing the bog at Glacial Park. Great Egrets were foraging and
a probable American Bittern was briefly seen.

Getting a taste of Hackmatack

(published 7-29-14) 
Like most birders, I am a collector. My prized collection is a list of bird species I’ve seen during my 55 years on earth. But I also collect places, and it was a pleasure to recently add another National Wildlife Refuge to my inventory of good birding memories.
You’ve probably heard something about Hackmatack, the newly established preserve that straddles the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The word is Native American and means tamarack tree. For birders, Hackmatack means a wonderful opportunity to explore the first and only National Wildlife Refuge within 100 miles of Chicago.
On Father’s Day I went to see it for myself, joining a bird walk arranged by the Chicago Ornithological Society. The 50-mile drive from Glen Ellyn was interesting. Now I finally know where Wauconda is! I also passed through the pleasant little town of Lakemoor and noticed signs for Volo.
This was all new territory for me, including our designated meeting place, Glacial Park Conservation Area in McHenry County.  The 3,200-acre Glacial Park is one of the key pieces of open land that comprise Hackmatack, itself a collection of federal, state, county and private parcels. The refuge, officially born in 2012, will eventually consist of 11,000 acres under federal jurisdiction through easements, partnerships and purchases from willing sellers. It’s a “corridor style” refuge designed to grow over time.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
by Jackie Bowman
Our band of 11 birders was fortunate to have an expert guide, Randy Schietzelt from McHenry County Audubon. A resident of Crystal Lake, Randy started birding 40 years ago and served MCA as president for 14 years. He also was part of the long and successful grass-roots conservation effort that made Hackmatack NWR a reality.
Before the walk began I found Randy aiming his spotting scope toward Lost Valley Marsh, from the parking area next to the historic Powers-Walker House. A rule of thumb in birding is to show up on time because the best birds of the day are often seen from the meeting place parking lot. Certainly two of them were before us now, Black Tern and Yellow-headed Blackbird.  Only one tern was zipping around the wetland but multiple yellow-heads played hide and seek in the tall rushes.

Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-Winged Blackbirds provided background vocals as Randy gave a short overview on Hackmatack. A pair of Bobolinks flew by during his remarks as well. Yes, this would be a fine morning of birding.
How could it not be? The diversity of habitat at Glacial Park is excellent and that means a wide variety of birds. Our walk took us through or alongside sedge meadows, savannas, tallgrass prairies, glacial kames (hills) and wetlands. There was even a bog, on the edge of which we observed an active Orchard Oriole nest, a first for me.
It was also at the bog where some in our group spotted a probable American Bittern before it settled down in the weeds. We waited a good while and played the bird’s distinctive song but it never reappeared.  
Gusty winds hampered our search for grassland specialties like Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows.  They were likely present but hunkered down during our walk.  The Bobolinks were more cooperative.
Another highlight for me was a singing male Eastern Towhee. This one wasn’t a bit shy, affording us nice long views as he performed his trademark “drink your tea” ditty. I’ve always loved towhees and don’t see them nearly enough. They like to hide in the underbrush.

Randy Schietzelt was our leader.
Our species total after a full morning was just north of 50. Had the walk taken place a month earlier, during spring migration, we might have seen 100. But this day was not about running up a list. It was about getting a first look at a special place that’s sure to gain a reputation as one of our region’s birding hotspots. Many birders, especially those in McHenry County, already know it as such.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar referred to Hackmatack as “a crown jewel for this part of Illinois and Wisconsin.”
The refuge is reportedly home to 49 birds that are rare or declining “species of concern.” So this is first and foremost about wildlife and land conservation. Hackmatack is a big win for birds and nature, and of course that’s good news for birders as well.
If you go, I recommend starting at the Lost Valley Visitor Center inside Glacial Park.  The sparkling four-year-old facility offers interpretive exhibits and free literature, plus a great view (and good birding) from the elevated outdoor deck.  An excellent hiking trail is adjacent to the building. For more information visit

Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks
These are five of the nine that visited Yorkville in May.

Black-bellied whistling ducks pay rare visit to Illinois

(published 6-8-14)

Like most birders, I was out and about often during May, enjoying the prime of spring migration. It’s the best month, and always full of surprises. A black-throated gray warbler popped up in Elgin, and a snowy egret in Glen Ellyn. Most amazing of all, a fork-tailed flycatcher appeared in Geneva.
I missed each of these goodies because birding, like most things in life, is all about timing. Few of us can drop what we are doing to chase a rare bird. At least not very often. My favorite rarities are the “sticky” ones that allow time to go see them. The Evanston varied thrush of 2013 comes to mind, and the Chicago sage thrasher in 2011. 
Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks are rarely seen in Illinois but the species
has a tendency to wander, especially in the spring.
So when nine black-bellied whistling ducks were reported in Yorkville on May 21 and again the next day, and the next, I made a beeline for Kendall County.  The duck is a Gulf Coast species so this was big news in the Illinois birding community.  
How big?  Well, a good indicator was in the driveway outside the home of Irene and Wayne Kaufman in Yorkville. There, on a table, sat a three-ring binder with the names of 218 birders who’d visited the Kaufman’s tidy backyard since the vagrant ducks arrived. And those were just the ones who signed the guest book.
“One young man came in a suit and tie on his lunch hour,” said Irene. “I told him he was the best-dressed birdwatcher so far.”
For all of us, the opportunity was almost too good to be true.  Here was a chance for an up-close look of a species rarely spotted this far north, and a friendly homeowner who was welcoming any and all birders. Irene even put chairs in the yard. Need some bug spray? No problem, she provided that too.
Irene Kaufman, who sings baritone with the Sweet Adelines, is a
friend to birds and birders alike
For 10 days, the whistling ducks picked seeds off the grass under Irene’s bird feeders and loafed on the edge of the large retention pond in her Autumn Creek subdivision. 
I went to Yorkville twice and each time the ducks were AWOL when I arrived.  But after a short wait, they came wheeling back to Irene’s yard, flashing large white wing patches and sounding their trademark whistle. This is one conspicuous duck.
When the birds first appeared Irene didn’t know what they were. Her field guide didn’t show them so she called a bird store in Geneva. The store put her in touch with Kane County Audubon Society. “I sent them an email and boom!” she said.
The parade of visiting birders commenced that afternoon, and Irene quickly learned a lot about the birding culture.
“I had no idea this world was out there,” she told me. “They all knew each other.”
Irene said she was surprised to see so many young people interested in birding. The big camera lenses also made an impression.   
The duck's pale eye ring and brilliant pink
bill are distinctive.
“They were friendly,” she added. “They all said thank you and seemed very grateful that I was letting them in my yard.  I heard a lot of ‘awesome’ and ‘this is a lifer.’ I had to ask what a lifer was.”
Unlike the birders coming and going, Irene got to observe the black-bellied whistling ducks on a daily or even hourly basis.  She found their behavior patterns to be very predictable. She also kept a close eye on one of the ducks that was getting picked on by the others.  “No. 9,” as she called it, walked with a limp but seemed okay otherwise.  
On the ground, the first thing you notice about the ducks is their brilliant pink bill and pale eye ring.  Birding guru Pete Dunne calls them “harlot faced.” Their long necks and legs also stand out, giving them a goose-like appearance.
The species is regular in Texas and Louisiana, and even more common south of the United States. But over the last 20 years its range has been expanding across the South. I saw the bird myself in Florida a few months ago. 
“This range expansion has led to an extraordinary increase in sightings far outside their normal range,” said Josh Engel, a Bird Division research assistant at Chicago’s Field Museum. “They occur regularly, especially in spring, in the Midwest. This year alone there have been records on the Lake Erie shore of Ohio, Horicon Marsh (Wisconsin) and southwest Michigan. This year seems to be exceptional, with more records than normal this far north.”
For Engel, like most of us who scurried to Yorkville, this was a first-time sighting in Illinois. Many birders added the species to their life lists. 
More than 200 birders signed The Kaufman's
guest book. 
That would include Irene Kaufman, if only she kept one.  I encouraged her to at least begin keeping a yard list, if for no other reason than to make black-bellied whistling duck her first entry.  How many Illinois birders, after all, could claim BBWD as a yard bird?
The Kaufmans are new on the block, having moved in last September. This is their first experience living by a pond. Cormorants, egrets and herons entertain them daily. “It’s all new to us,” Irene said. “Every day is a new adventure to watch.”
I asked if she had a favorite backyard bird. “Right now it’s the black-bellied whistling duck.”
And one final question: Any regrets about opening your life and yard to the birding paparazzi? On this point she was emphatic.  “Absolutely not! I think something as rare as this needs to be shared.”
The ducks were last seen on May 30. I wonder if they flew north or south.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.