Oregonian Noah Strycker, right, had never been to Illinois
until last month. He witnessed five snowy owls along the
Chicago lakefront before his presentation and book-signing
at the Notebaert Nature Museum.  (Joan Campbell)

Noah lights a winter fire

(published 2-5-18)

The Year of the Bird started nicely with a red-breasted nuthatch, a visitor to my peanut feeder on New Year’s Day. I couldn’t have ordered a better “first bird” of 2018.

Since then, however, the action in my backyard has been slow. I figured the January deep freeze would trigger a feeding frenzy but it did not. Could the neighborhood birds have found more appealing offerings elsewhere on the block? Not likely. Besides the peanuts, I’m serving up black-oil sunflower seeds, thistle and suet, plus a heated birdbath. My yard is a winter bird paradise!

Of course, instead of just watching my feeders I should be out driving the backroads of Kane County, searching for horned larks, Lapland longspurs, snow buntings and other open country winter species. With luck, maybe even a snowy owl or rough-legged hawk.

Or I could head to Lake Michigan and do some gull watching. Already in 2018, a mega-rare ivory gull was spotted at the Lake County Fairgrounds, and a slaty-backed gull turned up at Calumet. A varied thrush teased birders for several days in Palos.

I did venture to the lakefront in January, but for a different kind of birding experience. My destination was the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, currently hosting an eye-popping exhibit on the Birds of Paradise (through June 10). The main attraction upon my visit, however, was Noah Strycker, a guest of the museum and the Chicago Ornithological Society.
Strycker's latest book features the birds,
places and people of his 2015 global big
year. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Strycker’s new book—Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World—is a big hit.

For me, nothing except birding beats a good book about birding, especially when the wind chill is way below zero. I loved every page of this one, which details the author’s epic 2015 adventure. Following a year of planning, Strycker ripped off 365 straight days of birding, visiting all seven continents and 41 countries with a goal of finding 5,000 species. If successful, he’d crush the global big year record achieved in 2008 by a couple from England. 

Spoiler alert: he did it. In fact, Strycker ended with 6,042 species, more than half of the world’s birds. It truly was the Biggest Year.

Strycker’s story is remarkable on many levels. Every destination was carefully chosen, and at every location he had at least one resident birder ready to help him find the local birds. The logistics of it all boggles my mind.

To his credit, Strycker did not hire professional guides. His budget wouldn’t allow it—expenses for the whole year totaled only about $60,000. But it wasn’t just the money. One of Strycker’s key objectives was to spend the year birding with locals. His story is as much about people as birds. 

The stamina factor also fascinated me. Strycker is only 31, which helps, but he still suffered periods of extreme exhaustion from so many days of dawn-to-dusk birding, difficult travel, unfamiliar food, and end-of-day blogging and record-keeping. Sleeping on a stranger’s sofa or floor was routine.

Strycker is a gifted writer, and his presentation skills we’re shockingly good. He rocked an overflow crowd at The Peggy, recounting his adventures with enthusiasm, humor and a wonderful sense of timing.

During his big year, Strycker learned that another young birder, Arjan Dwarshuis from The Netherlands, was planning a global big year of his own, for 2016. Naturally he was tracking Strycker’s every move and every bird—easy to do since Noah was documenting his trip on the National Audubon website.

The Dutchman ended his journey with an astounding 6,833 species. So Strycker’s global big year record didn’t hold up, but he’s OK with that. He succeeded by any measure, crushing his original goal of 5,000 species, making new friends around the world, and raising awareness about birds and birding.

Grab a copy of “Birding Without Borders.” I think you’ll like it, too. In fact, the book inspired me to get outside and bird, frigid conditions or not.

In late January I attended a pre-dusk short-eared owl walk at Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, and this month I’ll be in Lake County for the 17th annual Gull Frolic at Winthrop Harbor.

Winter birding, while not my favorite, can be quite satisfying—especially during “invasion” years like this when common redpolls, pine siskins and snowy owls are possible. I’m not putting away my woolies and hand warmers yet.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
The year ended with a Snowy Owl invasion, the first since
2013. This bird was roosting in Evanston.
Photo by Fabio Buitrago

Birding a welcome distraction in 2017

(published 1-15-18)

We obviously just endured a tough year. The bad news far outweighed the good. Fortunately, there were birds.

Watching birds can slow things down and help us forget, for five minutes or five hours. I hope you took advantage of our hobby’s calming effects, just like me. We needed it.

The 2017 birding year was filled with news, remarkable sightings and some sad goodbyes. Before jumping in, allow me to mention a few far-flung stories that I believe capture the wonderful unpredictability of birds and birding.

In Western Australia, four friends found and photographed a night parrot, a species presumed extinct for 100 years. Their search took nearly seven years. The lesson: Persistence and patience, combined with a little luck, usually get the bird.    

A red-winged blackbird, North America’s most abundant species, showed up in the U.K. for the first time. The Brits went mad, some chartering planes to reach the remote Scottish island where the bird appeared. Would we do that if a chaffinch, dirt common in England, landed two hours north of Bismarck? Yes, of course!

My favorite non-local story of 2017 comes from Maine, where in April a male vermillion flycatcher was detected by a web-cam pointed on an osprey nest. The southwestern beauty was a first for Maine, and what are the chances of it getting caught on camera? Here’s the kicker: the bird was reported by an observant birder watching online in Germany! Thanks to her, a few lucky birders got to witness an epic bird in person.

News and sightings
This hybrid warbler, discovered at Fabyan Forest Preserve
 in Geneva, looked mostly like a Cerulean but sang like a
Northern Parula. 
Photo by Jackie Bowman
Evanston’s Judy Pollock won the American Birding Association’s 2017 Betty Peterson Award for Conservation and Community. ABA cited her two decades of bird conservation work in the region, including the Lights Out Chicago initiative during spring and fall migration. Kudos, Judy!

Eagle Optics, the go-to source for binoculars and scopes, shocked the birding community by announcing its closure. The Wisconsin-based business grew the hobby and supported bird conservation throughout its 30-year history. EO will be missed.

Some birders might also miss the Thayer’s gull. Not me. Thayer’s got the Pluto treatment in 2017, deleted as a species and “lumped” with Iceland gull. We lose a tick on our life lists but will no longer struggle with a notoriously difficult bird to ID.

Ranger Rick, a magazine I once appeared in with my butterfly collection, turned 50. I still look for it in doctors’ waiting rooms.

Did you catch the video of a yellow-bellied sapsucker clinging to a moving car in downtown Chicago? It’s worth a Google, if only for the “conversation” between bird and driver.   

Also in the Loop, Vera Miller added winter wren to her office window list, spied from the 10th floor of the Monadnock Building. The bird was on a fire escape across the alley. That, my friends, is a good eye.

Andrew and Rebecca Steinmann were outside baggage claim at O’Hare, awaiting a taxi, when an American woodcock flew by and plopped down on the sidewalk next to them.

Unlikely or rare sightings add spice to our birding. I try to keep up, but this 2017 highlight reel is by no means comprehensive!

Notable DuPage findings included a record-high 10 barred owls on the Spring Bird Count. A pair of summer tanagers visited Herrick Lake, and a yellow-crowned night heron appeared at Cricket Creek in Addison. A calling whip-poor-will surprised a homeowner living by Willowbrook Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.

An Elgin homeowner hosted this male rufous hummingbird,
a western species, in late October. Photo by 
Jackie Bowman
Three surf scoters were well seen at West Branch Forest Preserve (Bartlett) in October, and a dozen trumpeter swans paddled around Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve (Warrenville) on Dec. 13.

Morton Arboretum lived up to its hotspot reputation by contributing western kingbird, pileated woodpecker, summer tanager, blue grosbeak, yellow-throated warbler and red crossbill. Adjacent to the Arb, a little blue heron stopped at Hidden Lake. St. James Farm (Warrenville) also surrendered a blue grosbeak.

Spotters at Naperville’s the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawkwatch enjoyed Mississippi kite, Swainson’s hawk, American anhinga, northern goshawk, golden eagle, whooping crane and a one-day hill record 12 bald eagles on Oct. 15. Volunteer birders, organized by the DuPage Birding Club, have now collected migration data for 12 seasons, September through November.  

Fermilab, in its 50th year, attracted white-fronted goose, common gallinule, red-necked phalarope, white-rumped sandpiper and mountain bluebird. Least bittern, a secretive marsh species, delighted Fermi birders (including me) in July.

Beyond DuPage
One of the most interesting birds of the year was a cerulean warbler/northern parula hybrid, discovered at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. Additional Kane County highlights: spotted towhee and yellow-crowned night heron (Aurora), white-winged dove (Kaneville) and a backyard rufous hummingbird (Elgin).

I could devote a full column to Chicago’s Montrose Point, where, on May 16, southwest winds triggered a one-day record 128 species at the lakefront hotspot. Birds on that magical day included 26 varieties of warbler.

Birders scurried to Illinois Beach State Park to see this
Tri-colored Tricolored Heron, a Gulf Coast species.
Photo by Craig Taylor
The 2017 Montrose haul featured cattle egret, snowy egret, western grebe, piping plover, laughing gull, American bittern, lark sparrow, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Bell’s vireo, Kentucky warbler, summer tanager and yellow-headed blackbird.

Other Cook County goodies: Eurasian tree sparrow (Lincoln Park), king rail (Bartel Grassland) and barn owl (location undisclosed). A black-legged kittiwake found Nov. 26 lingered well into December at Steelworkers Park on Chicago’s South Side. While stalking the kittiwake, some lucky birders also bagged snowy owl and red-necked grebe—not a bad trifecta!  

Libertyville birder Andy Stewart crushed his own big year record for Lake County by 13, finishing the year with 282 species. Significantly, his total is one better than the previous high for any of the 102 counties in Illinois, topping Aaron Gyllenhaal’s Cook County record of 281 species in 2013.

Among Lake County notables in 2017 were California gull, yellow-crowned night heron, snowy egret, red-throated loon, red phalarope, white-eyed vireo and black vulture. OMG birds included a tri-colored heron at Illinois Beach State Park and a magnificent frigatebird over Channel Lake in Antioch. A young frigatebird, spotted by Melinda Chapman, cruised over Will County in mid-September, likely a Hurricane Irma refugee.

Chicago Botanic Garden yielded least bittern, upland sandpiper and hoary redpoll. Al Stokie reported 72 common redpolls at CBG on Dec. 22, along with a pair of monk parakeets, a new site species (No. 242).

Glacial Park in McHenry County hosted eight white-faced ibis for several weeks in the fall, and two black vultures roosted there in October.
A Fermilab marsh surrendered a trio of Least Bitterns in July,
including this juvenile. Photo by 
Jackie Bowman

Chasers with ample gas money enjoyed many options in 2017, testament to our state’s amazing bird diversity. A golden-crowned sparrow appeared in Woodford County, and Sangamon recorded its first black-headed gull. Winnebago County posted a pine grosbeak; a swallow-tailed kite flew over Massac; and a wood stork drew birders to Rend Lake in Jefferson. Black-bellied whistling ducks checked into Carroll, and a western tanager landed in LaSalle. Emiquon Refuge in Fulton offered Hudsonian godwit, spotted redshank, Sabine’s gull and western grebe. Douglas County produced a cinnamon teal, and Putnam a chuck-will’s-widow.

Three high-demand species seemed to pop up everywhere in 2017: neotropic cormorant, merlin and prairie warbler. Maybe, just maybe, they are becoming more common in this region. Presently, the first snowy owl invasion since 2013 is bringing some winter excitement, especially along the lakefront.  

Birding in heaven
Renowned ornithologist Chandler Robbins (1918-2017) passed away in March at age 98. He created the Breeding Bird Survey and coauthored the beloved “Golden Guide” among other lifetime achievements. 

Marilyn Campbell, a key figure in Illinois Audubon Society history, also left us in 2017. 

Local birders we miss include Wes Serafin, a conservation champion for Orland Grassland, and Joan Norek, an avid Greene Valley hawkwatcher. Both were always on the go, chasing the hot sightings.

Personal faves
In any year, all I wish for is a few nice birds, around home or down the road.  

The birding gods smiled upon me at the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. A worm-eating warbler, the festival’s most popular attendee, ended a quest that began for me in 2002. I gushed about the experience in my June column.

My Glen Ellyn yard list hit 20 years and grew by one thanks to a well-timed Caspian tern flyover in July (No. 116). Other backyard notables were eastern towhee (only my second ever in the yard), pine warbler and purple finch.

I won’t soon forget the sandhill cranes on November 18. Thousands streamed over the neighborhood that afternoon, creating a heavenly racket as old as time itself. Yard work can be awesome.

Flying cranes are featured on the best postage stamp of 2017, a Nebraska statehood issue. Get some at usps.com.

Book of the year: “Birding Without Borders,” by Noah Strycker. Couldn’t put it down!

Favorite quote: “We hate nemesis birds, but we love them, too, because it just feels so good to finally connect with them.” ABA blogger Nate Swick said it, and I lived it with that lifer “wormie” at the Dunes.

National Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International and National Geographic have declared 2018 the Year of the Bird. Why don’t we all? This year, let’s hit the trail a little more often, watch those feeders more carefully and introduce others to birding. Remember, too, that birds need our help.

Keep calm and bird on!

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
These Mallards by Minnesota artist Bob Hautman will 
appear on the 2018-19 federal duck stamp. The painting
 won the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest in September, 
an annual competition since 1949.
 (courtesy of Bob Hautman)

This idea really stuck

Birders owe a lot to the long-running federal duck stamp program

(published 11-14-17)

When all is well, a birder might say “I have no egrets.” That passes for humor in our hobby. But right now, I have a big one: I wish I’d gone to Wisconsin in September to witness the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest.

Yes, I blew my latest chance to attend the annual two-day event, which moves around the country and may not land this close to home for a long time. Next year it’s in Las Vegas. The 2017 contest and judging—the only juried art competition conducted by the U.S. government—took place at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Spectators were welcome, and the Noel Fine Arts Center was packed.

To fully understand why I longed to be in the audience you’d need to read “The Wild Duck Chase,” by Martin J. Smith. Or watch “The Million Dollar Duck.”

The book and feature-length documentary are all about the fascinating process and real-life drama that determine the design of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, issued every July 1 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Commonly known as the “federal duck stamp,” it sells for $25 with 98 cents of every dollar going toward habitat conservation in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Waterfowl hunters ages 16 and older are required to purchase a stamp. But plenty of others, including birders, buy duck stamps to support the cause. Stamp holders also get free admission to any NWR that charges an entry fee.

The first duck stamp featured a mallard drawing by Jay
“Ding” Darling, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning
editorial cartoonist and passionate conservationist.
 (courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
My dad gave me his mint duck stamp collection a decade ago and I’ve added to it every year since. The collection begins with the first stamp, issued in 1934 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.

You can buy duck stamps at the post office or online at usps.com. Many outdoor recreation stores carry them, too.

The look of the stamp I’ll buy next summer was determined in Stevens Point. Out of 215 entries, 12 made it to the final round. The five contest judges then chose an acrylic painting of mallards by Bob Hautman, awarding it a perfect score of 25 in the last round of grading.

It was Hautman’s third win in the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest, which itself is amazing. But get this: each of his two brothers have won the contest five times each! The Hautmans, from Minnesota, are living legends in the world of wildlife art. They are big ducks on a small pond.  

The pond would not exist if not for Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. A renowned editorial cartoonist, his mallard drawing appeared on the first stamp. Darling was a passionate conservationist, too, and his work on behalf of migratory birds helped ensure the duck stamp program’s long-term success.

Perhaps you have visited J. N. “Ding” Darling NWR on Sanibel Island in Florida. The site’s Visitor Center includes a nice exhibit devoted to Darling’s important legacy.

The duck stamp isn’t just about ducks—stamp purchases benefit all migratory birds. Birders should be thankful for it. Likewise, we should thank the duck hunters who account for most of the nearly $40 million in annual stamp sales.  

“The birds you see coming through your yard or local park in spring or fall may have depended on a stamp-supported national wildlife refuge for nesting or stopover protection,” said Paul Baicich, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp.

Since 1934, stamp sales have raised more than $950 million and protected about 6 million acres for birds and other wildlife, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
This 1984 regular postage stamp commemorated
the 50th anniversary of the federal duck stamp.

Boosting duck stamp awareness outside of the waterfowling community is a priority. Conservation-minded organizations have even floated the idea of a separate stamp—a wildlife-watching stamp—that would complement the duck stamp and perhaps expand the fundraising pool by appealing directly to non-hunters.

I’d buy a stamp like that, and I think many other birders would, too. A separate stamp, however, could cannibalize some of current duck stamp sales. For now, the focus is on broadening the appeal of duck stamps and building sales among those not required to buy them.

Awareness is growing among birders. The American Birding Association is a strong duck stamp promoter, and, locally, so is the DuPage Birding Club. Birders are responding, purchasing stamps and displaying them in plastic holders that attach to binoculars, field bags and jackets. It’s a good look!

The stamps, after all, are beautiful. Some contest entrants spend a full year perfecting their designs. They know that “winning the duck stamp” could change their lives forever. A contest champion doesn’t receive prize money but print and merchandise sales featuring their winning design can be lucrative. The movie is called “Million Dollar Duck” for a reason.

The competing artists have a say in what bird to draw or paint, choosing from five eligible species each year. Bob Hautman selected mallard for his 2017 entry, but he could have chosen cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal, gadwall or harlequin duck.

An exception occurred in 2001, when, for the first time, there was just one eligible species, black scoter—the only waterfowl that hadn’t yet appeared on the stamp. The winner that year? A Hautman brother, of course (Joe).  

Some observers believe the contest should adopt the single-species format every year. Judges would then be comparing mallards to mallards or eiders to eiders. But the current format of five rotating species seems locked in, and only “waterfowl” need apply—namely ducks, geese and swans.

This holiday season, consider adding a duck stamp to your gift list. I guarantee you’ll have no egrets.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
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.