Feathery flashbacks: The best birds of 2008
(published 12-9-08)

The year isn't over yet. A hoary redpoll could still turn up at my thistle feeder. Or I could make local birding headlines by spotting a Bohemian waxwing during the Christmas Bird Count later this month. Hey, it's OK to dream, right?

It's fine to look back, too. No matter what happens in December, I've had a very good year, blessed with many special bird sightings. I hope the same goes for you.

Playing back the great birding moments of the past year is one of my favorite rituals. You should try it yourself—in a comfortable chair by the fire, perhaps with a glass of wine poured from a bottle with a bird on the label. It's a great way to savor the sights and sounds that make our hobby so rewarding.

I used to select a personal Bird of the Year but that was too difficult. Now I choose three: best yard bird, best field bird and best vacation bird. The latter is almost always a “lifer.”

Sometimes the selection process is simple. In 2008, my best yard bird was easily the prothonotary warbler that stopped by early on April 18—about 90 minutes after an earthquake jolted Chicagoland. By 6 a.m. it had already been quite a day! The prothonotary—a species normally associated with swamps—was my first warbler of the spring and a new addition to my yard list. Bright, unmistakable and so unexpected. It was all three. And in a few minutes it was gone. How incredibly lucky I was to have seen it.

Luck plays a big role in birding, we all know that. But sometimes we make our own luck by putting ourselves in exactly the right position to find a most-wanted bird. An American dipper was high on my wish list when we packed up the rental van for an old-fashioned family road trip last June. Our destination was South Dakota, and from pre-trip research I knew that dippers could be found in the Black Hills.

Talk about a unique bird. The American dipper, or “water ouzel,” is at home around fast-moving rocky streams. Plump and mostly gray, the species feeds on aquatic insect larvae and actually goes under water to obtain it. An extra eyelid enables it to see when submerged. This is fascinating to watch, and I was able to do so thanks to some excellent birdfinding advice from the owners of a cabin we rented near Deadwood, S.D. I was thrilled to find dippers in two places, the best known being Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon.

It's a tough choice, because the black-backed woodpecker at Custer State Park was special too. But I'll go with American dipper as my best vacation bird of 2008. I'll remember the dippers just as well as Mount Rushmore. (And I loved Mount Rushmore.)

I was fortunate to have a few more birding opportunities than usual last spring. It was job searching time and one can only spend so many hours a day networking. Three particular excursions stand out. One of them, to Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Woodridge, produced fine views of my second-ever Bell's vireo and a yellow-breasted chat. Both species—always nice finds in DuPage County—prefer dense, scrubby habitat. If not for their loud, distinctive songs I'd have never tracked them down.

In early May, during a bird club outing to Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien, I caught a brief glimpse of a pileated woodpecker—the first I'd ever seen in Illinois. The pileated is big and impressive, even to a non-birder. Plus they are quite uncommon in these parts.

But my favorite field bird of 2008 occurred at the Morton Arboretum. There, acting on a tip, I located a species that had always eluded me locally. And that's despite the fact that summer tanagers seem to be turning up with greater frequency in DuPage County. On May 28 my luck finally turned. On the Arb's east side, near Parking 7, I encountered a blazing red-orange male that nearly blew out my optics. His mate wasn't bad looking either.

The memory of those tanagers will help sustain me through the long, cold winter ahead. Or at least until the red-winged blackbirds return in late February. By then we'll all be counting down the days until spring migration begins in earnest.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.