Black-Tailed Gull by Wes Serafin
This year passed with flying colors
News, notes and random jottings from a very birdy 2016

(published 1-4-17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
A visit to the seediest
place in Lisle

(published 11-8-16)

Does anybody else remember The Nature Company? The retailer had a store at Oakbrook Center, in the 1990s. It was a fun place to look around, like a shop you’d find in a natural history museum but on a grander scale with Disney-like branding and merchandising. Perfect for the mall.   
Well, The Nature Company didn’t survive. Maybe the goods were too pricey, or perhaps the advent of online shopping played a role. Or maybe the store simply didn’t carry enough bird stuff! 
These thoughts entered my head after a recent visit to Wild Birds Unlimited in Lisle. The franchise on Ogden Avenue is going on 28 years, a pretty amazing run. I went there to find out more from its original and current owner, Brian Neiman. 
I’d never met Brian and frankly expected him to be older. And why had we never crossed paths on a bird walk or at a bird club meeting? Because my assumptions were misguided, that’s why. Neiman is 52 and even though he caters to birders he is not inclined to go birding. Birds are his business, not his hobby. 
After graduating from Michigan State in 1986 Neiman took a job with Apple Computer in California. But he quickly realized that corporate life didn’t suit him and hightailed it back to the Midwest. He wanted to be his own boss.
Wild Birds Unlimited store owner Brian Neiman
shows a hopper-style feeder to a customer.
Neiman didn’t know a kinglet from a kingbird, but he knew of Wild Birds Unlimited because a college roommate’s mother fed the birds and frequented a WBU store in Okemos, Mich. After researching the business of bird feeding, and the franchisor, Neiman and a friend took the plunge and opened four WBU franchises in four years. 
Lisle was the first, in 1988. The store, initially located in a shopping strip at Route 53 and Maple Ave., moved to its present location in 1998. All four stores remain open, including one in Arlington Heights, but today Neiman is involved only with the Lisle outlet.  
“I don’t consider myself a ‘birder’ but I do love birds,” he told me.
He loves being more than bird seed retailer, too. With a reliable staff and his store on solid footing, Neiman keeps an eye on the bigger picture. 
“As owner, I use the business as a platform to get people educated and engaged in feeding birds, and for making people more aware of how their backyard landscape choices can affect our local biological diversity.”
Neiman believes in native plants and pesticide-free natural landscaping. He practices these tenets on his home property in Naperville and in the garden outside the store.
Customers, though, needn’t fear a lecture when they stop by for a package of Bark Butter or a bag of No-Mess Blend. The Lisle WBU is casual and friendly, with helpful advice available for all who visit. 
“We’re as likely to have a conversation about ridding your feeders of ‘blackbirds’ as we are to chat about attracting bats, the best native shrubs for berries or how to combat carpenter bees at your home.”
The subject of squirrels and their quest for world domination comes up often, too.
Of course WBU is primarily about the birds, dedicated to those who love feeding and watching them. It can and must be said: Birders enjoy hanging out at the seediest place in Lisle. Inside is a candy store for bird and nature geeks. Outside, well-stocked feeders and birdbaths tempt visitors to stay and see what comes in. (In 2014 a European goldfinch appeared; Neiman swears he didn’t “plant” it.)
WBU’s top selling points are seed freshness and product variety. Customers can keep their bulk seed purchases at the store and pick up supplies as needed. Try asking a “big box” store for that.
“We don’t sell lumber, motor oil, drywall, chemicals or paint,” Neiman explained. “We offer products sold by an adult who can answer any question related to the hobby and who actually cares about your success in attracting the birds you desire.”
Seed is No. 1 at WBU but the store also offers a wide choice of field-tested bird feeders, bird houses and water features. Related accessories, gift items and gear round out the inventory, including binoculars from Eagle Optics.  
Neiman expects 2016 to be his store’s best year ever. He credits the freshest bird seed and good service for building customer loyalty. The closing of a Wild Bird Center franchise in Wheaton a few years ago hasn’t hurt WBU’s business either.  
When I asked about challenges, Neiman mentioned competition but not the kind you might think. In his view, the enemy is those time-sucking electronic gadgets that increasingly rule our lives.
“People, especially those under the age of 40, are completely disconnected from nature,” he said, “and I fear we’ll keep drifting in that direction. Virtual reality is isolating us from the wonder of the natural world.”
WBU’s loyal shoppers are more connected to nature than most, even if that connection, for some, exists mainly in their backyards. I think about the children and the grandchildren of Neiman’s customers as well, because bird feeding can provide a spark.
Kids who grow up watching birds outside the kitchen window may or not become birders, but they might acquire a bit of that wonder.
At any age, letting more nature into our lives can only be good. Studies prove it. So I’m a big fan of stores like WBU that make it easy to bring birds a little closer.

The Nature Company is long gone, but our community has something better: a thriving, locally owned bird and nature store with real people inside. It’s a fun place to get connected. No gadgets necessary.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Green Jay by Carlos Escamilla
Birders book travel plans with $500 bonus

(published 9-20-16)

If $500 fell out of the sky, and you had to spend it, what would you do? I recently posed this question to about 50 birders, just for fun.

My ground rules were simple: The five heaven-sent Benjamins must be used for anything birding related, including equipment and gear, books, backyard feeders, software, education, memberships, travel and donations. The money could also serve as a deposit or down payment on something worth more than $500.
As I’ve said before, birding is a “cheep” hobby. You can do it anywhere, with binoculars and some kind of bird identification guide (hard copy or electronic) being the only essentials. Anyone can easily get started for $200 or less, so a $500 windfall presents some tantalizing options.
The birders did not let me down. They spent the imaginary money and spent it well. In the process, they strengthened the birding community, satisfied their wanderlust and added new birds to their life lists. Texas, in particular, was a coveted destination.
Birders indeed revealed a strong preference for experiences over stuff, but a few jumped at the chance to upgrade their optics. Had my survey focused on beginning birders I suspect that new and better binoculars would have been the No. 1 use of funds.    
My fellow watchers also demonstrated a commitment to introducing more people to the hobby. Birders, I’m happy to confirm, are a generous and sharing species.  
Here’s a sampling of responses to “The $500 Question”:
“I’d use the $500 to purchase two to four pairs of reasonably good binoculars. I lead bird and nature walks where some of the participants are first or second timers who may not have serviceable optics. … Having good binoculars during those first few outings can make a big difference in really opening the door into the world of birding.” – Geoff, Chicago
“I’d travel to Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas. I was in Brownsville decades ago visiting a friend but at that time had no idea of the magnitude of birding potential that was at our fingertips, including my most wanted bird: green jay!” – Joan, Downers Grove
“I’d apply it towards a pair of Swarovski binoculars.” – Rob, Darien
“I would put the money toward a VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) birding trip to High Island, Texas, in April.” – Ron, Wood Dale
“I’d spend it on a flight to Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I’d even have $150 to spend on field trip fees,” and a chance to see 20 species found nowhere else in the U.S. – Matthew, Evanston
“I’d probably buy four or five pairs of 6.5x binoculars [perfect for kids] from Eagle Optics for the DuPage Birding Club’s outreach and education programs. A lot of groups approaching me for programs don’t have suitable materials of their own.” – John, Glen Ellyn
“$500 happens to be the deposit on a Costa Rica tour I’m interested in for next year.” – Jim, Wheaton
“I think I’d go to a winter birding festival in Florida—lots of different birds to see, lots of interesting people to meet, lots of warm weather.” – Don, Aurora
“I love hummingbirds so I would use the $500 to help pay for a trip to the Sierra Vista area of southeastern Arizona. Hopefully I’ll spot 15 different kinds of those little guys.” – Candace, Naperville
“I’d use it to pay a landscape consultant to design a water feature for my yard. Or maybe I’d use it to pay off my South Africa birding trip, where I am right now!” – Diann, Winfield
“I would fund a winter birding trip to Minnesota or a visit to Cape May, New Jersey, during spring migration.” – Jim, Darien
“I’d buy a plane ticket to a place I’ve never birded and have a fun but long day trip.” – Scott, Glen Ellyn
“I would get a good pair of binoculars, since my money is in my camera gear right now. I would donate to a bird society, and I’d fund a trip for children to attend a seminar to learn about birds.” – Shannon, Carol Stream
“I’d buy plane tickets to Canada to see glaciers and golden eagles,” reliving a magical 2007 hiking trip to Jasper National Park and the Wilcox Pass Trail. – Diane, Wheaton
The longest and most detailed response to “The $500 Question” came from Nancy in Naperville. She carefully budgeted every dollar for a birding program to benefit the residents of Lifespring Women’s Shelter in Aurora, where she volunteers. While admitting that birding could be viewed as a “luxury” for homeless women who are learning basic life skills, Nancy believes the residents and their young children would enjoy learning about birds and going on bird walks. A little nature in their lives could go a long way, and several parks are walkable from Lifespring.
And what about me? Well, since you asked, I’ll spend $120 on two tickets to the Night Owl Benefit at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn this month. The Center is celebrating 60 years of helping local wildlife and deserves our support.
The rest of my allowance could facilitate a first-ever trip to the southern tip of Illinois and, hopefully, a successful search for two warblers I’ve yet to observe: Kentucky and worm eating. Maybe I’ll set aside a $50 bounty for anyone who can show me one or both of these mythical birds.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Kyle Wiktor can ID most birds without ever looking up.
Hearing is believing

(published 8-15-16)
There is my list, and there is Kyle’s list. When birding together, his list is always longer. The tall, quiet kid from Bellwood is a bird-finding machine.

Kyle Wiktor, age 22, is one of the “young guns” I referred to in a recent column. You know the kind. High-level birding comes to them easily, and they embrace the tough ID challenges like gulls, shorebirds, sparrows and fall-plumage warblers.
Young birders with talent are inspiring. Useful, too! I believe every bird walk should have one.
Kyle is a regular on the monthly walks at Cantigny Park. His ears, in particular, come in very handy. They look like yours and mine, but they work better. He hears stuff that most others do not, and he knows what’s making the sound. It is a learned skill, and frankly one that most birders (including me) do not work hard enough to develop.
“I got tapes and CDs that I’d listen to over and over, like while doing grade school homework,” Kyle told me. He suggests that birders who wish to improve make a dedicated effort to learn bird songs and calls like he did. Then, most importantly, practice as much as possible in the field.
I’ve witnessed Kyle’s ear-birding prowess many times, but the time I remember best happened in June 2013, at Cantigny. A small group of us were by the main parking lot when Kyle thought he heard a clay-colored sparrow off in the distance. We’d never had that species in the park before and I think it was a potential lifer for at least one of us. So we were feeling that wonderful rush of anticipation, tempered by a small dose of skepticism. Except for Kyle, none of us knew the song of a clay-colored sparrow, but we did know the odds of seeing one at Cantigny were thinner than a Virginia rail. The habitat isn’t right.
Kyle believed the vocals were coming from across the parade field, at least 100 yards away. So off we marched, following his lead. In short order we were all staring at a no-doubter clay-colored sparrow, perched high in a maple. It remains the only one ever spotted at Cantigny.
As with many things in life, it pays to start early. Kyle was 8 when he began getting “majorly interested in birds.” The decisive spark was a family vacation out West and his first looks at yellow-headed blackbird, mountain bluebird and black-billed magpie.

In 2010 the flame grew higher when Kyle was chosen to attend the annual Young Birders Event at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.
“The Lab,” situated at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, N.Y., is a worthy destination for all birders. Kyle soaked it all in for four days, mingling with top ornithologists and sharing his passion with nine other teenage bird geeks. 
The Cornell experience included field workshops, such as bird sound recording by day and night. Kyle took to it like a catbird to grape jelly. No wonder he’s been asking about coming out to Cantigny after dark to listen for birds passing over during migration. He thinks we can add some new species to the all-time property list, like bobolink and dickcissel.

Chip notes. At night. In the dark. Yes, Kyle approaches birding a lot differently than most us. I love his ambition.
Kyle is two classes away from earning an Associates of Science degree from Triton College. He works on the seasonal grounds crew at Brookfield Zoo to help cover education costs and hopes to transfer to Southern Illinois University or another four-year school to major in Wildlife Biology.
“I know some people who are avian biologists and field ornithologists,” Kyle said. “Those sound like ideal jobs to me.”
Kyle volunteers as a bird monitor for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. He’s been monitoring at Pratt’s Wayne Woods since 2011, and at Mallard Lake since last year. He learned the ropes from Marilyn Bell, assisting her at West Chicago Prairie in 2010.
Two other mentors figure prominently in Kyle’s birding life. He credits Pete Moxon for opening his mind to more advanced birding, and Fillmore Dryden for teaching him the importance of getting out to check what birds are around as often as possible, in all seasons.
Dryden, profiled here a few years ago, was a local patch-birding legend, surveying McKee Marsh in Warrenville almost daily. He’s since moved out of state, but Kyle often follows in Dryden’s footsteps at McKee—one of his favorite local spots along with Pratt’s Wayne.  
As you’d expect, when a rare bird shows up in DuPage, Kyle goes for it. His county list hit 250 species in May with a whip-poor-will at Naperville’s Greene Valley. No. 251 came a few days later with a prairie warbler at Lambert Lake in Glen Ellyn.
Away from DuPage, Kyle favors the Indiana Dunes region, citing its many habitat types and year-round species diversity.
Kyle’s North American life list stands at 409. His most-wanted bird is Swainson’s warbler, followed closely by black rail and chuck-wills-widow. He went to Michigan for Kirtland’s warbler in June, and on the same trip added a surprise long-tailed duck in the U.P.
Kyle told me he’s eager to visit Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh for the first time, and also Nebraska for the massive sandhill crane migration in late March. His dream destination is Guatemala, where Kyle has a personal connection thanks to Cornell. One of his friends from that memorable week is John Cahill, son of an ornithologist, whose family moved from Pennsylvania to Guatemala when John was age 4.
“I promised John I’d visit him down there some day, even though it might not happen for quite a few years.”
It will indeed happen, I’m sure of it, just like other good things for Kyle. He is among the lucky few with a chance to build a career around his passion for birds and birding. It’ll be fun to follow his progress.

Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Whooping Crane by Carolyn Whiteside
The big white bird we dream about

(published 7-12-16)

What’s the rarest bird you’ve ever seen?  It’s an exciting question for any birder.
As watchers, we are attracted to the big and the magnificent, especially if it’s rare. In 2013, BirdWatching conducted a poll, asking readers what birds they most wanted to see. California condor was No. 1, and whooping crane No. 2. Both of these federally endangered species were once on the brink of extinction. Today their small populations are so closely monitored that scientists know precisely how many exist in the wild and in captivity.
You will never see a wild condor in Chicagoland. A whooping crane, however, is quite possible. It’s easily the rarest bird you could ever hope to see in our region. And thanks to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a global center for crane conservation based in Wisconsin, our chances of spotting a whooper are gradually improving.
In May, the ICF’s Lizzie Condon addressed the DuPage Birding Club. She has a wonderful job title: Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe Coordinator.
Condon’s role is necessary, if only because whooping cranes number just 450 in the wild. Another 160 support a captive breeding program. About two-thirds of the wild birds, known as the Western flock, migrate between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. Small non-migratory flocks exist in Louisiana and Florida.
Over the last 15 years, ICF and partner organizations have focused on establishing a self-sustaining migratory flock in the East. The critical mission is to secure the species in case the Western flock is hit by disease, a major storm, an oil spill or some other catastrophic event.   

Whooping cranes observed locally are most commonly
flyovers. This pair, however, thrilled birders by touching
down in Geneva on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
(Photo by Jackie Bowman)
Condon explained that progress is slow, often tedious and sometimes heartbreaking. Earlier this year, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service announced an end to Operation Migration, the project that used ultralight aircraft to lead captive-bred whoopers on migration between Wisconsin and Florida. The new plan, “rear and release,” employs a more natural approach with less human intervention.
A key issue is parenting. Unlike the stable Western flock, Eastern whoopers don’t seem to have a knack for it. Chick mortality in the East is alarmingly high. Now, captive adult whooping cranes in Wisconsin and Maryland will be tasked with rearing chicks, which later in their first year will be placed with wild adult pairs that experience nest failure. Ideally, the surrogate parents readily adopt the youngsters and show them how to migrate.
The Eastern flock of free-flying whooping cranes is currently about 95 birds. If you see a whooper in DuPage it most likely belongs to this group. On the night she spoke to the bird club, Condon knew of five whoopers on the ground in Illinois.
Indeed, the day-to-day whereabouts of many whooping cranes are well known by ICF staffers, thanks to radio transmitters attached to the birds. But the tracking technology is not a safety shield. The birds are still vulnerable.
A shocking reminder of this occurred in January when two whooping cranes were shot and killed in Texas. The accused shooter will be tried under the Endangered Species Act and the ICF is pushing for a vigorous prosecution. In the last five years more than 20 whooping cranes have been lost to illegal shootings, some accidental and some not.
Twenty birds! That’s a huge number when viewed in context. In the early 1940s there were fewer than 20 whooping cranes alive. It’s taken 75 years to build the population to current levels, and whoopers are still the rarest of the world’s 15 species of crane.
The Texas incident triggered a national ICF campaign that aims to engage the general public in helping safeguard the species. “I Give a Whoop!” is coordinated by Condon and includes a strong informational element so that more people will be able to identify whooping cranes and report any suspicious activity that may put them in danger. You can learn more and participate in the cause by taking a pledge at www.savingcranes.org/i-give-a-whoop/. 
Condon's work is also about getting kids and families excited about having whooping cranes in their communities. In January she spread the ICF gospel at the Festival of the Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Some whoopers from the Eastern flock join hundreds of sandhill cranes in making Wheeler their winter home. It’s a celebration complete with Whooping Crane Red Ale from a local brewery.
The ICF’s outreach efforts include a larger-than-life mascot appearing at public events in areas where whooping cranes live or migrate. Her name, appropriately, is Hope.
I’ve never spotted a whooping crane in these parts. The only one I’ve ever seen was in Nebraska back in 1998. But every spring and fall I’m looking up, watching those large and loud flocks of sandhill cranes carefully. Occasionally one or two whoopers migrate with them, their white bodies and black wingtips setting them apart from the gray sandies.   
Whooping cranes will always be rare, at least in my lifetime. The species will not be downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” any time soon, if ever. But I’m thankful that free-flying whoopers still exist at all, and optimistic that the work of ICF and its partners will secure their future.
I give a whoop. If you do too, please go online and take the pledge.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
The essential tools of birding are optics and a field guide.
A strong sense of curiosity helps, too!
12 things every new birder should know

(published 5-10-16)

As a hobby, one of the best things about birding is ease of entry. The only essentials are a pair of binoculars and a field guide. For $100 or even less, you could start building your life list today.

May, in fact, is an ideal time to begin. In this region, no other month can match the color, variety and pure excitement of May. Experienced birders know it, and most of them are eager to introduce others to the avian spectacle rolling out now in our suburban yards, parks and forest preserves.
I’ve always found the local birding community to be inclusive and welcoming. Birders enjoy sharing the hobby. Of course I didn’t know that when I was just getting started. I felt a little alone, not realizing I’d stumbled into something enjoyed by 50 million other Americans. Everything was new, like the hooded warbler that sparked my interest in 1994.
Twenty-two years later I wouldn’t call myself an expert birder. “Advanced intermediate” seems about right, and I’m constantly learning. But I do feel qualified to offer the following nuggets, intended primarily for beginning watchers who (like most of us) are still figuring things out.
1. You’ll get some funny looks. Despite its immense popularity, birding still feels a little outside the mainstream. It’s cooler than it used to be, but the dork factor hasn’t faded away just yet. Outsiders may regard you with suspicion. Be careful when using binoculars at the beach or in the backyard. It’s good to tell the neighbors what you’re up to.
2. Age doesn’t matter. The hobby skews older, for sure, but a solid contingent of teens and 20-something birders possess off the charts birding skills. Their eyes and ears seem to work better, or maybe they just study harder. If you find yourself on a bird walk with one of these young guns, stay close to them and prepare to be amazed.

3. Decent binoculars are available for $125 or less. Last year I followed up on a magazine article about small, lightweight optics by purchasing Celestron Nature 8x32s for $111, tax and shipping included. They’ve surpassed my expectations and could be my primary binoculars in a pinch. If you can spend more, especially for your everyday glass, do it. About $300 is plenty. The go-to source for birders is EagleOptics.com.

4. This isn’t so hard. If you have a fledging interest in birds, you know more than you think. Building on what you already know happens quickly if you put in the time. Take a walk or sit on the back patio. Look and listen. Start with the common birds and go from there. Join an organized bird walk; nothing elevates your skill level faster than birding with others. For instant camaraderie, check out the DuPage Birding Club or Kane County Audubon. Both groups conduct field trips and non-members are welcome.

5. Birds are predictable. Most birds migrate, and we know when to expect them in the spring and fall. We also know where they are most likely to be when they visit. Learning seasonal patterns and habitat preferences is essential to your birding education. You’ll begin to associate certain months or locations with specific species.

6. You can bird any way you want. You have choices. Keep a list or not, or keep 50 lists. Get up early or sleep in. You don’t have to memorize the plumages of immature gulls or learn the songs of every wood warbler. Bird alone or with others. Hit the trail or watch the feeders from your kitchen table. Your field guide can be a smart phone or a dog-eared Sibley with coffee stains. Choose the birding style that’s right for you and keep it fun.

7. The more you want to see a bird, the better your chances of seeing it. It’s motivating to have a few target birds. Like Waldo, you will find your first orchard oriole if you keep searching. Make it your mission. Do the research. Follow internet postings. Ask around.

8. “Nemesis birds” will haunt you. This is the nasty corollary to the previous point. It’s just a cold, hard fact that bad luck or poor timing will prevent you from ever seeing a certain species—usually the one you want most. For me it’s the worm-eating warbler, and in Florida, mangrove cuckoo. I’m exaggerating of course. The Moment will come, for me and for you. Patience.

9. Sometimes the bird gets away. This is another common frustration, and not just for newbies. You may only get a two-second peek at a species you’ve been coveting. Worse, the quick view might not be enough to make a positive ID. Or maybe you later realize what you probably saw but can’t be 100% sure. Go back if you can, but otherwise just learn from the experience and be ready for next time.

10. The Honor System applies. There’s a sequence in “The Big Year” (my favorite movie) when Owen Wilson talks about birders who cheat. Using a golf analogy, he says, “Everybody in the clubhouse knows which guy cheats on his score. He’s kind of pathetic. Who’d wanna be that jerk, right?” (Only he didn’t use the word jerk.)  Nobody I know would ever break the sacred trust of birding and report something they didn’t actually see. I love that about our hobby.

11. Ethics matter. Besides being honorable, birders are expected to behave responsibly. We do not trespass on private property and we don’t create stress for birds by getting too close or playing recorded bird sounds during the breeding season. At any time of year, it’s best to minimize the use of sound devices. Some venues don’t allow them at all. Take a few minutes to review the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics, online at aba.org.

12. We are conservationists. Birders love the thrill of seeing something new, going to new places and just watching the birdlife change with the seasons. These are the hobby’s recreational drugs. But there’s a high degree of give-back inside the community, too. We donate a few hours or dollars when we can. We buy duck stamps, create healthy backyard habitats and keep our cats indoors. We support local organizations like the Conservation Foundation, Illinois Young Birders and Willowbrook Wildlife Center. We’re joiners on the national and international level, too, sending our dues (and used binoculars) to the ABA and perhaps writing a check to the American Bird Conservancy.

You get it, I know. The birds come first. Let’s get outside this month and enjoy them!
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
American Kestrel by Jerry Ting
Help for a handsome little raptor

(published 4-12-16)

If you told me the American kestrel was your favorite bird, I’d say you’ve made a fine choice.
The kestrel, the smallest member of the falcon family, is an easy bird to like. For starters, just look at the way it’s decorated. The male, in particular, has it all going on: spots, bars, stripes and a rich color combination of rufous, white and slate blue. This bird went to the feather store and said “Give me the works.”
Another reason to like kestrels, and to pull for them, is their underdog status. The species is not endangered, but kestrel numbers are steadily declining in areas like northeast Illinois where quality grassland habitat is shrinking. Survey data indicate annual population declines of around 10%. The Bird Conservation Network lists American kestrel among its Chicago Wilderness Region “Birds of Concern.”
Habitat scarcity isn’t the only issue. Kestrels depend upon pre-existing cavities for nesting, such as old woodpecker holes. As Eastern bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers know all too well, such home sites are often usurped by European starlings, a relentless non-native competitor.
Fortunately, kestrels respond to well-placed nest boxes. With that in mind, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County initiated a kestrel nest box program this spring aimed at boosting the local kestrel population in select preserves. Seven all-cedar, pole-mounted boxes were installed by the District last month.
“I looked at sites featuring large, open, short-structured grasslands with some perching trees nearby,” said Brian Kraskiewicz, District ecologist and kestrel box project leader.
Preserves where kestrels have been seen in recent years received priority. That includes Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, which received two nest boxes. Blackwell (Warrenville), Danada (Wheaton) and Greene Valley (Naperville) are among the other chosen sites.
Brian Kraskiewicz, ecologist with the Forest
Preserve District of DuPage County.
Raptors require larger territories so the distance between boxes must be at least a half mile. Another limiting factor, Kraskiewicz said, is the presence of bluebirds. Kestrels and bluebirds prefer the same open habitat and if their nest boxes are too close together it raises the possibility of bluebirds becoming falcon food. The District formalized a successful bluebird nest box program in 2000.
Kestrels will indeed prey upon birds, but their usual diet is large insects and small mammals. When I met Kraskiewicz he was installing the kestrel box at Blackwell, adjacent to the preserve’s native plant nursery. The District is hoping a kestrel pair will take up residence and help control the voles and mice that damage the nursery stock.
The box at Blackwell is not visible to the public but others are. Observers are urged to keep their distance and give the kestrels space if nesting occurs.
And “if” is the key word. Kraskiewicz said he hopes at least one box is occupied by kestrels this season but knows it might take a year or more to claim success. Plenty of science-based protocol guides the construction, placement and monitoring of nest boxes, but getting a kestrel pair to move in and raise a family is still hit or miss.
Fermilab in Batavia offers a strong measure of hope. Through Fermilab Natural Areas, a volunteer organization, the site ramped up its kestrel nest box program in 2012, adding 10 additional houses. The site now maintains and monitors 12 boxes. Five of them were successful in 2015, according to Ryan Campbell, Fermi’s ecologist.
The Forest Preserve District of Kane County has about 30 kestrel nest boxes in the field. Occupancy was just 8% in 2015 but the District remains optimistic. It checked with Audubon chapters around the Midwest with similar programs and learned that kestrel box programs often have low success in the first few years, followed by dramatic improvement once a few boxes become occupied. 

Back in DuPage, Kraskiewicz plans to be patient, and he’s leaving the door open for growth. He thinks the nest box program would lend itself nicely to Eagle Scout projects, and the DuPage Birding Club is a potential partner as well.
Those wishing to see an American kestrel this spring or summer have options. Best bets are Springbrook Prairie, Greene Valley (near the landfill) and Fermi. The farmlands of Kane County also are worth checking. Watch for a bird the same size and shape of a mourning dove on utility lines and other elevated perches. Kestrels do a lot of sitting and tail-bobbing as they watch for prey in the grass below.
Kestrels are aerial hunters, too. I’ve seen them hang in the air on flapping wings, 25 feet up, waiting for just the right moment to drop down on prey. This hovering technique is unique among falcons. Kingfishers also do it.
Once, in 2007, a kestrel perched at the top of a tree two houses down from mine. It stayed for several minutes, pumping its tail and thinking about where to go next. 
That neighborhood kestrel was quite a surprise. I was thrilled! At the time, however, I was barely aware of the species’ declining local population. It’s encouraging to see steps being taken in and around DuPage County to conserve and raise awareness of this small and beautiful raptor.

Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Great Gray Owl by Jana Kriz

Owl of a good time

(published 3-8-16)
It started during a local bird walk, when conversation somehow shifted to Minnesota and the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival. We dreamed out loud of the birds we might see, provided we could summon the courage to visit Duluth in mid-February. By the end of the walk we were talking hotels and rental cars.
Certain places, birders know, are associated with special birds—species you don’t dare miss if you go. Think puffins in Maine, trogons in Arizona and Kirtland’s warbler in northern Michigan. Target birds, all of them.
At Sax-Zim Bog it’s the great gray owl, the festival’s main attraction. The bog isn’t the only place in the U.S. to see one, but for Midwest birders it’s the nearest opportunity. Adding to the lure, Sax-Zim offers a host of other coveted species not available in DuPage such as boreal chickadee, hoary redpoll, gray jay, black-billed magpie, pine grosbeak, evening grosbeak and ruffed grouse. Northern hawk-owl, black-backed woodpecker and Bohemian waxwing are possible, too.
But you must visit the bog in winter, when these and other avian goodies are most accessible. That makes Sax-Zim one of the coldest hotspots a birder will ever experience.
Fearing nothing but a few lost digits, six of us headed north on Feb. 11. Provisions included all manner of high-power optics, mountains of winter apparel and boots, and enough packets of HotHands to start a bonfire. 
Our 500-mile trek to Duluth called for a slight detour to Galesville, Wis., where a Lewis’s woodpecker had been visiting some private bird feeders since late November. It’s quite rare for a Lewis’s to appear so far east. We had to try.
Our band of six, clockwise from top left: Roger Zacek, Diane
Meiborg, Joan and Ed Campbell, Chuck Berman and yours truly.
Well, the hour in Galesville was a cold reminder that birds don’t always cooperate. The locally famous woodpecker never showed.
Despite the Lewis’s outcome, spirits inside our rented Town & Country remained high. We sensed that good things were ahead, including one in particular with piercing yellow eyes and a feathery white “bow tie” under its chin.
The Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival is limited to about 150 visiting birders and sells out early. This year was the 9th annual fest and the tiny host community, Meadowlands, Minn., really rolls out the red carpet. The event is good for the local economy and also serves as a fundraiser for Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, a habitat conservation group.
Festival attendees sign up for all-day field trips aboard school buses “chaperoned” by professional birding guides. There’s no hiking, just stops along the roads and visits to well-stocked feeding stations.    
Our first day was spent entirely within the bog, a vast 200-square-mile wetland wilderness about 50 miles northwest of Duluth. When we boarded our bus at 6:30 am the temperature was 10 below frigid with a wind chill of don’t even ask. 

Naturally, task No. 1 was to find a great gray, North America’s largest owl. The customers wanted one and the guides knew it. They’d prepared by scouting the bog on the days leading up to the festival. Owl numbers were down this year but they’d seen a few and mapped the birds’ locations.  
The bus rumbled off and the search was on. Spotting anything from a moving bus with frosted windows is difficult, let alone a bird that blends in perfectly with its boggy surroundings. You hope for a great gray to fly across the road or assume a conspicuous perch.
No such luck. Two hours of nothing. The bird everybody most wanted to see was playing hard to get, like that woodpecker in Galesville.
But the first festival day was hardly a bust. A mid-morning stop at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center (on Owl Avenue) produced pine grosbeaks and a hoary redpoll along with gobs of common redpolls. Other feeders along the route yielded boreal chickadee, gray jay and evening grosbeak. We saw magpies picking on a roadside deer carcass and a northern shrike patrolling the scrub. And look, up in that tree, a sleeping porcupine!
When the bog trip ended we quickly transitioned from bus to van, determined to spend the remaining two hours of daylight looking for the elusive great gray. Same roads, different vehicle. But again, no luck. At least the day ended well with our first sightings of ruffed grouse.
Day two featured a birding tour of Duluth and surrounding areas. North of the city, in Two Harbors, we scored big with a long-tailed duck and harlequin duck on icy Lake Superior. Later we found a snowy owl in Superior, Wis., and a gyrfalcon in downtown Duluth.
An aptly named sign in the bog.
The eight-hour Duluth trip terminated back at Sax-Zim so once again we piled back into the van to resume the owl prowl. We learned a great gray was seen earlier, on Zim Road, so now we had a bit more hope. Off we went to that section of the bog and began a slow cruise—car-birding rubberneckers desperate for a fix. The few other vehicles on the road contained birders on the same mission. 
The black spruce-studded landscape looked beautiful in the fading light, but we all felt the pressure. Time was running out. We could not return in the morning. This was our last chance.  
Then, up ahead, an encouraging sight: cars on the side of the road! We pulled up and quickly spotted an unmistakable large-headed silhouette in the distance. A great gray was perched high, no doubt craving a vole supper. With binoculars we could easily see the owl’s plumage, yellow eyes and slowly rotating head. Moments later we copped even better views through the spotting scopes.
Dancing, laughing, high fives and maybe a tear or two. Hugs all around. I know, embarrassing, but we’re birders. We’d done it, with 10 or 15 minutes to spare. What a bird, and what a lifer.   
The Sax-Zim Festival, you should know, is more than just birding from a bus. Dinners and guest speakers are part of it, too. Unfortunately, the evening activities started so early we skipped them, choosing to bird until darkness instead. We made the right call, but I do regret missing the talks by Al Batt, a personal favorite, and Dr. James Duncan, a world-renowned expert on great gray owls.
The night before our triumph in the bog, at a restaurant in Duluth, the six of us had taken turns recounting our best moments in birding. The stories flowed—a fun ending to a great day, even though we’d failed in what we then figured was our best chance to spot the region’s signature bird.
Twenty-four hours later we had a new story to tell—the Miracle on Zim Road. If we’re ranking best moments, this one will be hard to top.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.