Great Gray Owl by Olivia Jankiewicz

2013: A year for the birds, plus a few moths

(published 12-18-13)

In my little world, baseball is important.  I like watching it almost as much as birds. So don’t be too surprised that my favorite news story in 2013 didn’t involve feathers.
On July 15, Greg Van Niel, my new role model, collected four foul balls during a game at Progressive Field, home of my beloved Cleveland Indians. Van Niel is a season ticket holder so he goes to a lot of games. He’d never caught a single foul ball until the day he snagged four.
I don’t know if Van Niel is a birder. If he is, I like his chances of finding an ivory-billed woodpecker. Check that, the bird will find him.
Luck comes in pretty handy when birding.  Just ask Matt Daw, a 19-year-old birding whiz who on July 7 was shooting video of a least bittern at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Then something unbelievable: into the picture strolls a rufous-necked wood-rail, a species never before seen in the United States! The discovery made national news and sent birders around the nation scurrying for airline tickets to Albuquerque.
The 2013 birding year provided plenty of local excitement too, reminding me of how lucky we are to live in such a bird-rich region with so many dedicated, sharp-eyed and enthusiastic birders.  As usual, I was taking notes:
  • From late January through mid-April a varied thrush visited a backyard in Evanston. Homeowners Jason and Judy Kay deserve a gold medal for welcoming the hundreds of birders who went their alley to catch a glimpse of this rare avian visitor from the Pacific Northwest.
  • The thrush was my 500th life bird. Other lifers in 2013: Louisiana waterthrush (finally!), Mississippi kite, Thayer’s gull, glaucous gull, red-throated loon, Ross’s goose, Eurasian tree sparrow and Le Conte’s sparrow. All were seen in Illinois.
  • Like the varied thrush in Evanston, it amazes me how long a vagrant bird will sometimes stay put.  An evening grosbeak hung around Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago throughout February and March.
  • On Nov. 7, Margaret Mechtenberg triggered a bird rush by reporting a Townsend’s solitaire at Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in Kane County. A lifer for many, the bird was still present in early December.
  • By the way, pretty cool to see an email update about the solitaire on Nov. 19. Submitted by Jon J. Duerr.
    Townsend's Solitaire by Jackie Bowman
    I finally tracked down a pileated woodpecker at Morton Arboretum in 2013, but my friend Diann Bilderback pulled off something far more remarkable. On Sept. 29 she ran the table by spotting all seven local woodpecker species in one place, Elsen’s Hill in Winfield.  That would be pileated, red-headed, red-bellied, downy, hairy, northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker.
  • Congrats as well to Aaron Gyllenhaal for shattering the Big Year record for Cook County, a mark that stood for 23 years. He’d seen 281 species and was still counting as this went to press.  Aaron is 16 and a member of Illinois Young Birders.
  • National and state Big Day records were established too!  Team Sapsucker from Cornell smashed the North American mark by seeing or hearing 294 species in 24 hours on April 25. They did it in Texas, beating their old record by 30 species and raising $325,000 for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • The new state Big Day record is now 191 species, achieved in May by a team of six in southern Illinois.
  • So many sightings, so little space. What a year for DuPage! Prairie warbler at Hidden Lake. Blue grosbeaks at the Arboretum, Elsen’s and Danada Forest Preserve.  Upland sandpiper at Springbrook Prairie. A Northern goshawk in Downers Grove.
  • American anhinga, golden eagle and Say’s phoebe thrilled observers at  the Greene Valley Hawk Watch in Naperville.
  • The hawkwatchers also registered 17,500 sandhill cranes passing over the hill on Nov. 23. The word spectacle was invented for days like that.
  • Let’s not forget Fermilab. It was a banner year for the Batavia hotspot: Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes, buff-breasted sandpiper, piping plover and the site’s first-ever white-faced ibis. Three American avocets arrived at Fermi on Oct. 26 and stayed for weeks.
  • I do most of my birding at Cantigny Park, where the site list grew to 143 species. Kyle Wiktor, a young birder with incredible ear-birding skills, helped locate our first-ever clay-colored sparrow in June.
  • Northern shrike was another first-timer at Cantigny, first in March and then again in November and during the Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 14.
  • Many local birders traveled to southern Wisconsin in March where two great gray owls were discovered well south of their usual winter range. One of the owls was in Middleton, a suburb of Madison and home to Eagle Optics, a birder’s mecca. Now that is a well-placed bird!
  • My biggest surprise of 2013 was finding a great-horned owl pellet with a shiny aluminum bird band inside. The band was still attached to the leg of a female wood duck.
  • Only one new yard bird for me this year, a pine warbler in late April. I’m at 113 species.
  • We watch all kinds of wildlife, of course, and most of us witnessed the invasion of white-lined sphinx moths in September. They looked and acted a lot like hummingbirds.
  • I'll remember my first luna moth sighting, too. One fluttered out of a garage at Cantigny Park in broad daylight. I felt even luckier later in the day when I learned that lunas only live for a week.
    White-Lined Sphinx Moth by Scott Ellis
  • The award for Best New Bird Statue goes to College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Have you seen their (way) larger-than-life roadrunner?  But please, call it a chaparral, the school mascot.
  • “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” with Ben Kingsley debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. Still haven’t seen it, but will.
  • “Avian Architecture,” by Peter Goodfellow. Still haven’t read it, but will.
  • If you follow the NBA, you know the Pelicans recently hatched in New Orleans. Love the name choice.
  • Two other things I love: Naperville announced a 5,000-square-foot nature center at Knoch Knolls park, and a huge expansion is underway at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Yay!
  • Expect a lot of ink to be spilled in 2014 about the passenger pigeon, a species that went extinct 100 years ago.  I’ll be reading Joel Greenberg’s new book on the subject.
  • My favorite read of 2013 was “Wild Duck Chase,” about the federal duck stamp contest. Bill Rapai’s book on the Kirtland’s warbler was excellent, too.
  • Speaking of stamps, wait until you see the new hummingbird stamp coming in 2014. It’s a beauty of 33-center, for postcards.
  • Backyard birders will miss the Wild Bird Center in Wheaton, which recently closed its doors.  Best of luck to former owners Cathy and Paul Matovich—nice people who did a lot for our hobby.
  • Already it’s been a great winter for snowy owls on the Chicago lakefront. Birders at Montrose were treated to four of them at once on Dec. 13.
  • Reminder: You have until Feb. 16 to go see the Charley Harper art exhibit at the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda.
  • Finally, for those who need to know (like me): the International Ornithological Union’s current World Bird List says there are 10,582 species. Have fun watching them in 2014.
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Le Conte's Sparrow by Jackie Bowman

Under the spell of sparrows

(published 11-12-13)
On a late October Saturday my backyard was a sight to behold. House sparrows swarmed the feeders as usual, but down below, on the grass, were 10 white-throated sparrows.
There is nothing uncommon about white-throated sparrows, especially during fall migration. But I was happy to see my feeding efforts rewarded by a flock of “true sparrows.” House sparrows, after all, are imposters.  Look in your field guide and you won’t find them in the sparrow section.
What you will see on those pages is lots of brownish birds sporting streaks, chest spots or crown stripes. Sometimes all three! You’ll also see juncos and towhees, fellow members of the sparrow family that look nothing like their cryptically decorated cousins.
Appreciating the variety and subtle beauty of sparrows is the mark of a true birder. We reach a point when we no longer think of sparrows as “little brown jobs” or LBJs. Instead, we want to attract them, observe them and identify them. And we make special trips to find the obscure ones.
I recently went to Fermilab in Batavia to search for my first Le Conte’s sparrow.  Some birding friends on the Cantigny Park walk the day before convinced me to try, telling me exactly where to look.  
A Le Conte’s sparrow, unlike about half of the 20 sparrows that live in or visit DuPage, will likely never appear in your backyard. It’s a shy species that prefers the dense cover of wet grasses and sedge, usually near water.
I love how Pete Dunne describes the Le Conte’s: “Fairly common, but secretive bordering on the clandestine.”
Upon arriving at Fermi through the east entrance I noticed a small band of birders standing out in the scrubby wetlands adjacent to the “A.E. Sea.” I caught up and learned it was a Morton Arboretum class led by Denis Kania, one of this area’s top field ornithologists. They’d already enjoyed killer looks at Nelson’s and Le Conte’s sparrows, so I was definitely in the right place.
Sure enough, within five minutes my 8x42s were on the bird named after Dr. John Le Conte (1818-1891), a Georgia physician and president of the University of California at Berkeley. 
Fox Sparrow by Mike Daley
I thanked Denis for the assist as the class moved on to bird other parts of Fermi.  During the next hour I locked in on even better views of two or more Le Conte’s – a truly handsome sparrow and also our smallest. Wet feet and bur-covered clothing were a small price for some quality time with a bird I’d waited years to see.  
Patience goes a long way when tracking down a Le Conte’s sparrow. You wait for one to fly and then mark the point where it dives into the weeds.  Then you approach slowly, watch for movement and hope for a clear view of at least a piece of the bird. Occasionally a Le Conte’s will sit up in the open. Birders and photographers dream of such moments.    
The tiny Le Conte’s visits here only on migration. Ditto the Nelson’s, an equally bashful sparrow that I missed at Fermi but saw once before at Springbrook Prairie in Naperville. It too is a beautiful bird, with fine and colorful markings.
To find and observe these under-the-radar sparrows, as well as grassland specialties such as Henslow’s, grasshopper and savannah sparrows, I recommend joining a field trip.  The DuPage Birding Club stages regular visits to well-known sparrow havens like Fermi and Springbrook. Fellow birders with local site knowledge and “sparrow smarts” can help you avoid a potentially frustrating search.
Meanwhile, a good number of sparrow species can be seen from your kitchen window.  My own yard list so far includes 10 varieties, including one-time visits by Eastern towhee and field sparrow. Lincoln’s sparrow has appeared twice, but not since 2005. Others are fairly regular, depending on the season: white-throated, white-crowned, fox, chipping and song.
This time year, if you have feeders, dark-eyed juncos are common and watch for American tree sparrows, too. Both are northern breeders that come here for their winter vacations.
All of these backyard sparrows spend most of their feeding time on the open ground, making them easy to watch. I especially enjoy the “jump and scratch” foraging method of the fox sparrow, a colorful fall migrant that sometimes stays all winter.
At home or in the field, sparrows are worth a closer look. And with this family, every season offers new viewing opportunities.

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Road tripping for an avian oddity

(published 10-15-13)

If I ever stop feeding the birds, house sparrows will be the reason. Far too many frolic in my backyard. They eat too much. They spoil the birdbath. They hog nesting cavities, making life harder for other birds.
And the house sparrow, like the European starling, is not a native species. That alone is enough to raise the ire of most birders.
So it might surprise you that I put 250 miles on my Corolla last month just to see a non-native bird. Not a rare vagrant from overseas but one that lives in Illinois all year around.
Like the house sparrow, the Eurasian tree sparrow was imported here from Europe in the 19th century. The two are close relatives and look similar.  The big difference is range.  House sparrows were set free in Brooklyn, around 1850, and spread like wildfire. They are abundant from coast to coast.
Eurasian tree sparrows, on the other hand, are local and uncommon. In North America, they are found in only three places:  eastern Missouri; southeastern Iowa; and west-central Illinois. The species was first released in St. Louis’s Lafayette Park in 1870.
Until recently I had no idea that Eurasian tree sparrows existed within 120 miles of Glen Ellyn. Then I noticed an Illinois Young Birders outing scheduled for Sugar Grove Nature Center in Funks Grove, just south of Bloomington. The trip leader, Ben Murphy, described Sugar Grove as one of the most reliable places to see Eurasian tree sparrows.
I appreciate reliability, especially when it involves a bird I’ve never seen.  So off I went with my son Jay, who is not a birder but likes road trips.
Birding in late September, at the height of fall migration, is almost guaranteed to be good. And Sugar Grove proved better than good on a sunny but chilly morning.  The 1,100-acre preserve teemed with warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks and other migrating beauties.  In two hours we piled on 45 species including the most black-and-white warblers and rose-breasted grosbeaks I’d ever seen in one place. Spotting a Lincoln’s sparrow and a blue-winged warbler was especially nice since those two species traditionally elude me.
Turning our backs on the show outside wasn’t easy but I was eager to get a look at the star attraction.  Imagine that, a non-native sparrow pulling me off the trails on a bright and birdy September morning. The chance for a lifer makes us crazy sometimes.
Ben, Jay and I entered Sugar Grove’s Hazel Funk Holmes Bird Viewing Sanctuary inside the interpretive center. Multiple feeding stations just outside the crystal-clear windows were attracting a feathery crowd, including lots of hummingbirds.  A birder could spend many happy hours in a place like this. Clearly it’s a wonderful place for kids to learn about birds, too. 
Fortunately, the seed eaters outside the viewing room included a few Eurasian tree sparrows—far outnumbered by house sparrows but easy to tell apart by their black cheek patch and reddish-brown cap. Ben told me the Eurasian population at Sugar Grove is much greater in late fall and winter, when they naturally rely more on feeder food.
Comparing the two immigrant species side by side and watching them interact was interesting. Eurasian tree sparrows and house sparrows don’t play nice, at the feeders and elsewhere.  They compete for nesting cavities and the chunkier, more aggressive house sparrow usually wins.  Experts believe this is the main reason why Eurasians remain so limited in their U.S. distribution.  They’re simply not wired for world domination like house sparrows and starlings.
Before heading home, Jay and I took the Mother Road, Old Route 66, over to Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup. Yes, they really spell it that way, and the sweet treat is one of life’s simple pleasures.  As I purchased a glass-bottled quart, the shopkeeper asked what brought us to the area. Birding, I said, and one bird in particular.  She’d never heard of it.
Northbound on I-55, it occurred to me that the casual visitor might never catch on that Sugar Grove harbors an unusual avian resident. Nothing I noticed at the nature center told the story of the Eurasian tree sparrow, a bird just outside and yet so far away from its original home.
But for curious birders with some gas money, a “reliable” life list opportunity is really quite close.  
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Richard Crossley

Crossley's on a mission to fledge new birders

(published 9-8-13)

From my perspective, the birding hobby appears healthy and growing.  The bird walks and meetings I attend are usually well populated, and membership in the DuPage Birding Club continues to rise.
The national trend is positive, too, based on a USDA Forest Service report issued in April.  However, the report said that while birding continues to grow, the pace of growth has eased.  That may not qualify as a “dark cloud” but there’s no doubt that birding is falling short when it comes to attracting youngsters and ethnic minorities.

Birding can never have enough cheerleaders.  We know our hobby is fascinating and fun, but we could probably do a better job of sharing it.
Perhaps nobody embraces that idea with more enthusiasm than Richard Crossley, a popular figure on the national birding scene and best known for his “Crossley ID Guide” series.

A native of England now living in Cape May, N.J., Crossley will visit here on Sept. 12 as a guest of the DuPage Birding Club. All are welcome to attend his presentation at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

Crossley moved to the U.S. in 1991. He hasn’t lost his Yorkshire accent or his memories of hitchhiking 100,000 miles during his youth in pursuit of birds.  I asked him if he still gets the urge to “twitch” a rare bird, such as the rufous-necked wood rail that appeared in New Mexico in July.
“Occasionally I’ll chase a bird if it’s a plumage or a bird I want to learn more about,” Crossley says.  “My twitching these days is for photos for my books.”

More about the books later, and their development is a great story. But what really excites me about Crossley is his passion for getting more people to try birding. He is absolutely on a mission, and his trusty Nikons are focused on young people in particular.
In 2012, Crossley co-founded Pledge to Fledge, a global outreach aimed at hatching new birders. I like the concept so much that I added the “P2F” banner to the front page of my blog. The idea is for active birders to inspire a broader public appreciation for birds by sharing their passion with others.  It starts at the grass roots level by taking a friend or other non-birder out to see and enjoy birds for the first time.

Crossley says Pledge to Fledge is getting some traction but will take years to build on.  “Mobilizing birders is very difficult,” he admits, and recruiting new birders also is challenging.
“We have no household TV celebrities in birding and no TV programs that talk about things people see on a day-to-day basis. Celebrities make things fashionable and most people relate to their stories.”
But Crossley is not discouraged.
“The surge in the number of youth birding clubs in the last few years is the big bright spot that will have a huge positive impact. It will also help with our dowdy image.”
Crossley and his wife Debra provide time and leadership to the Cape May Young Birders Club, which they co-founded. On Oct. 19 the club is hosting a Young Birders Day in cooperation with other youth birding groups. They hope a few members of Illinois Young Birders might be able to attend.

One senses that Crossley’s time with the kids has been transformative. Indeed, so has his work on the Crossley ID Guides, the first of which (Eastern Birds) published in 2011.  His ID Guide for raptors debuted in April.
The books are quite different than conventional field guides and have caught on fast with birders. Crossley’s marketing materials say the guides provide the first real-life approach to identification. Pages feature lifelike scenes with multiple photographic images of the same species, the goal being to match what a birder really sees in the field.
Crossley will discuss his creative process for the ID Guides when he visits Cantigny and perhaps talk about what’s next.  His website indicates new guides are on the way for British birds and western U.S. birds.
If you have a chance, do take a look at  The site includes some excellent short (and funny) videos with Crossley offering specific advice to help us become better birders. You can see the man in action, too, shooting birds through an enormous lens. His energy level in the field is impressive.
“I still feel like I’m 21 years old when I’m out, but I have two teenage daughters who remind me that I’m not,” he says.
Richard Crossley obviously enjoys his craft, and the birding community is better for having this former twitcher in its ranks. He’s a bookseller, sure, but he’s giving the hobby more than he’s taking.
“My birding life is totally different to the past. Now it’s based on doing things such as creating books that will have an impact. To have an influence on anybody’s life has to be one of the greatest gifts anyone can receive.”

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Brown-Headed Cowbird
No love for the ill-mannered cowbird

(published 8-5-13)
One of the most interesting birds around is also among the most disliked. I speak of the villainous brown-headed cowbird.

Understandably, birders are critical of the cowbird, a brood parasite that deposits its eggs in other birds’ nests. This makes child-rearing difficult or worse for the host species.

Cowbirds are on my mind because of an excellent new book about the Kirtland’s warbler by Bill Rapai, a Michigan author who spoke to the DuPage Birding Club in May. Any book or article about our rarest warbler invariably involves the cowbird, a well-known Kirtland’s nemesis.
Kirtland’s warbler numbers have steadily increased in recent decades. Most believe this is due at least in part to human management of the cowbird population on the warbler’s north-central Michigan breeding grounds. Over the years thousands of cowbirds have been trapped and executed under special permit.
Cowbird control is a fascinating aspect of the Kirtland’s warbler recovery story.  Around here, however, warblers and other songbirds receive no such assistance. Their nests stand a good chance of receiving an unwelcome delivery from a female cowbird. The foreign egg usually hatches first and the chick grows quickly. It is often larger and more aggressive than the host bird’s true offspring. That spells trouble.  

In July I witnessed a male cardinal feeding sunflower seeds to a cowbird chick in my backyard. The cowbird was nearly adult-sized and it surprised me that the cardinal didn’t recognize the fledgling as an imposter. Soon enough, however, genetics kick in and young cowbirds move on to be with their own kind.
Keriann Dubina, a naturalist at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve in Oak Brook, has studied cowbirds extensively. Last winter I attended her presentation, “The Truths and Myths About Brown-Headed Cowbirds.”

Dubina said that cowbird eggs have been found in the nests of 274 kinds of birds, even a hummingbird nest! Unfortunately, only about 30 species seem to possess the ability to recognize a cowbird egg and do something about it.
However, one of Dubina’s key points was that bird species suffering the most from cowbirds (such as Kirtland’s warbler) are those that also have habitat issues. It is a myth, she said, that cowbird control improves a host species’ reproductive success and population. What matters most is increasing habitat, a notion well supported in Rapai’s book.  Bottom line: even without cowbirds some threatened or endangered bird species would still face serious challenges.

So we can’t blame the cowbird for everything, even though we might like to. The bird’s reputation took another big hit in 2012 when The Nature Conservancy published an article called “The Mafia Birds,” by Madeline Bodin.
The story reported a shocking discovery by Jeff Hoover, a researcher with the Illinois Natural History Survey.  Working in the Cache River watershed in the far southern tip of the state, Hoover found that cowbirds don’t just lay their eggs and move on.  Instead, wrote Bodin, “They stick around and use tactics of intimidation and retaliation—like avian mobsters—to make sure that warblers and other bird species raise their young.”  

True enough, when Hoover and his team removed cowbird eggs from prothonotary warbler nests, the cowbirds returned and destroyed the remaining warbler eggs.
Such behavior makes the cowbird hard to like but no less fascinating.

“Here’s a bird that doesn’t have the ability to build its own nest, evolved with mammal megafauna and once the megafauna were wiped out, adapted to changing habitat and figured out a way to survive,” said Ron Skleney, a naturalist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.
Indeed, the cowbird’s close association with the American bison earned it the nickname “buffalo bird.” Following the great herds was a feeding strategy; where there were bison there were lots of insects. But chasing buffaloes left no time for nesting.

Skleney further points out that the cowbird’s evolutionary success is due in large measure to humans. The species thrives in edge habitat, created by the fragmentation of our native forests and woodlands.
Keep these insights in mind the next time you watch a brown-headed cowbird grazing on your front lawn. The species has quite a complex natural history. Remember, too, that it’s native to North America, unlike those pesky house sparrows and starlings. For me that’s a positive.

Fair or not fair, birders must also admit that on a life list, the conniving cowbird counts just as much as a Kirtland’s warbler.

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter.  All rights reserved.
Mississippi Kite by John Longhenry
Go see a kite!

(published 7-9-13)

Rockford’s minor league baseball team changed its name this year, morphing from RiverHawks to Aviators. The new name recalls the city’s bit role in aviation history. It wasn’t a bad choice.
I suspect, however, that if birders had made the call, the Frontier League would now feature the Rockford Kites.

Named after the birds of prey, of course, not the kites you buy at a store.
My son and I traveled to Rockford in June.  We watched the Aviators play on a Saturday night, followed by a round of mini golf at Volcano Falls.  The next morning we focused on the real purpose of our mission: to see the Mississippi kites that have been nesting in a leafy Rockford neighborhood every year since 2008.  They are known as the Bloom School kites because they frequent a city park adjacent to an elementary school.
On Sunday morning we drove to the school’s parking lot to meet Dan Williams. A retired attorney, Dan is one Rockford’s top birders and now serves as board president for the Natural Land Institute, a Rockford-based organization that works to conserve and restore natural resources in northern Illinois.
The process for finding the kites is pretty simple: go to the schoolyard and wait.  However, as I learned from Dan, seeing the birds is never a sure thing.  He knows birders who have visited Rockford and gone home disappointed.
Many birders, like me, arrive at Bloom School without ever having seen a Mississippi kite.  Outside of Rockford, the species is rare in this region.  
In DuPage County, kites have been observed drifting over the Greene Valley hawkwatch during fall migration.  However, only four kites have been recorded since the hawkwatch project began in 2006; two of those were spotted last September.
Mississippi Kite by John Longhenry
Mississippi kites are far more frequent in extreme southern Illinois, the northern edge of their traditional breeding range.  But over the last 30 years their range has gradually expanded to the west and north. It is probably just a matter of time before a nesting pair is discovered in DuPage. Or maybe several pairs—the kites are social and typically nest in small “colonial” groups.  The Bloom School area has hosted up to four nests at a time.
Outside the margins of their usual range, kites often settle into parks, golf courses, cemeteries and residential zones.  Suburban living agrees with them. 
That is certainly the case in Rockford, and birders are enjoying the opportunity to see kites up close. In fact, as Dan and I stood in the Bloom School parking lot chatting, he suddenly noticed an adult kite resting in the top of a Siberian elm, about 40 yards away.  The bird had arrived without our noticing and stayed put for several minutes. Through Dan’s Leica scope we looked right into the red eyes of a pale-headed adult. At one point the kite vocalized, sounding a high-pitched call similar to a broad-winged hawk.

I was pleased to see a couple birds in the air, too. Kites have a distinctive shape and buoyant flight style. The wings are long and pointy; the tail is fan-shaped. If a kite is directly above, you’d never mistake it for a red-tailed hawk.
As the name implies, kites are aerial specialists. Their diet consists mainly of large insects like dragonflies and cicadas, captured and consumed on the wing. Dan told me they occasionally prey on chimney swifts and swallows, too.  That speaks volumes about the hunting skills of these graceful raptors from the South.
It was a thrill to add Mississippi kite to my life list, and the sighting completed a personal grand slam. I’ve now seen four kite species in the United States, the others being snail kite and swallow-tailed kite (each spotted in Florida) and white-tailed kite (San Diego).  A fifth kite species, hook-billed, is possible along the Texas-Mexico border.
In late August, when the Bloom School reopens for business, the kites outside the classrooms will be on the brink of migration. By mid-September they’ll begin their journey to Central and South America, where a ready supply of flying insects will sustain them through the winter.
Until then, the show goes on in Rockford, where aviators of the feathered kind are raising their young. Tickets are free, and it’s only 80 miles away.  You could even stay for a baseball game.

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin
Yellow gold in our own backyards

(published 6-4-13)

People who are looking at something through binoculars always get my attention. I think you know why.
Pulling into work on a recent morning I saw such a person.  Naturally I rolled down the driver’s side window and asked the obvious, “Are you looking at birds?”
Indeed he was, and the man had a question.  Earlier he’d spotted a small, bright yellow bird with some black markings. He wanted to know its name.  
The gentleman was visiting from India, so many of our local birds were unfamiliar.  He seemed fairly impressed by our avian attractions, especially that little yellow one.
It was an American goldfinch, a male, I told him. As we talked, several red-winged blackbirds moved closer, as if to say, “Hey, we’re worth a look too!”  No argument there. In fact, the man had been watching them when I first approached.
But my brief conversation that day started me thinking about goldfinches. Imagine seeing one for the first time—as an adult!
Most of us grew up with goldfinches so we’ve likely forgotten the thrill of that first sighting. Now they are just part of the landscape and we tend to take them for granted.  The species is found coast-to-coast in the United States and is the official state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington.
Like the cardinal, our own state bird, the American goldfinch possesses that rare combination of being really common and really colorful.  A male can grab the attention of anyone, birder or not. To some it’s a “wild canary.” Others might assume it escaped from the local pet shop.
David Allen Sibley was no fool when he chose a goldfinch for the front and back covers of his Eastern field guide. It adds to the book’s mass appeal. The handy “Birds of Chicago” also has a goldfinch cover. It shows a male and female, which is appropriate because goldfinches are almost always seen in pairs or small groups.
Accessibility is part of the bird’s charm. It prefers weedy fields and brushy roadsides but is readily attracted to backyard thistle (nyger) feeders. Black-oil sunflower seeds are popular with goldfinches, too.
Goldfinches are not especially skittish so we can watch and listen to them up close. In May I had the double pleasure of watching goldfinches share our thistle feeder with pine siskins, a fellow member of the finch family.  I was curious about how long the three siskins would hang around, since they are normally off to their northern breeding grounds by March or April. As of May 26 they were still visiting my yard, a routine that began in early February!
Many other birders in the Chicago area reported pine siskins in May as well.  It seems probable that the species is now nesting in the Chicago region at least on a small scale.
Goldfinches can be observed here throughout the year.  They are migratory, however, so the birds we see in winter are not necessarily the ones we admired during the summer. (This is true of our wintering robins, too.)  Winter goldfinches very likely moved to this area from points north.
In fall and winter, goldfinches are inconspicuous, appearing dull and brownish. But in early spring, an amazing transformation takes place.  The males start to show patches of yellow as their breeding plumage develops.  They also gain their jet-black forehead feathers.  Females turn greenish-yellow. For both sexes, bill color changes to orange.
One more cool fact: Goldfinch parents delay raising families until June or July so that seed crops are plentiful when it’s time to feed the young.  Two broods are common despite their late start to nesting.
For armchair birders, the American goldfinch will always be a favorite backyard visitor.  Thistle seed is pricey but it’s worth every penny to lure these brilliant yellow comets to our gardens, decks and patios.
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Pileated Woodpecker by Stosh D. Walsh
Sweet surprises keep birding fun
and interesting

(published 5-29-13)

In my first column, back in 2004, I had the Gumption to suggest that birding is like a box of chocolates.  It wasn’t the most original thing to say, perhaps, but it still applies.  April proved it, for me and for lots of other eager watchers who worked around the rain and flooding. Nothing keeps birders inside during spring migration!
The month began on a super high note with a trip to Morton Arboretum in Lisle.  I was there to pursue an old nemesis, the pileated woodpecker. There are seven woodpecker species possible in DuPage County and pileated is by far the most elusive. I’d seen one in DuPage only once before.
My previous visits to the Arboretum had come up empty, even though I knew where to look—in the woods around the Big Rock Visitor Station on the east side. But on April 7 my luck changed, and all I can figure is my wife was a charm. It was unusual for her to be with me on such a singular mission. She is not a birder but enjoys the Arb’s hiking trails.
Stepping out of the car we heard a loud drumming that could only be a pileated.  Across the road two men were watching something, one with a huge camera on a tripod. This is too easy! Within moments we too were viewing this large, impressive woodpecker. It was a sight worth waiting for and over the next 90 minutes we spotted and heard the bird several more times.

April got even sweeter 10 days later when I encountered my first Louisiana waterthrush. A member of the warbler family, the bird had been near the top of my Most Wanted list for many years. True to form, it was teetering along the edge of a small stream—a passage that would swell to a mighty river 24 hours later.  
I spotted the waterthrush (and a bonus rusty blackbird!) only because I was on the Cantigny golf course early one morning checking on a great horned owl nest. The nest contains two fast-growing owlets and it’s been fun showing them to interested golfers, Cantigny employees and visiting photographers. 

True story: The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews, played Cantigny Golf on April 22. When informed about the owls up ahead he became genuinely excited and couldn’t wait to see the nest and birds. Who knew? Who?
Cantigny birders have been enjoying the owls too, of course. The mom and babies were among the highlights of the April bird walk, along with two flyover bald eagles that caught us all by surprise. The night before that walk I observed an osprey fishing (successfully) on the small lake by the golf clubhouse. It wasn’t on the calendar but April was evidently Birds of Prey Month at Cantigny.

The owls also delivered a different kind of birding surprise last month and one I’ll always remember.  As you may know, adult owls spit up “pellets” of indigestible materials like fur, bones and feathers.  It’s the daily price they pay for swallowing their prey whole.

Pellets are pretty easy to find if you look on the ground under an active nest. I was doing that myself last month and discovered a pellet with some silver metal on the surface.  A bird band!  I photographed the 3-inch pellet intact, and then took it home to pull apart and report the band number.   The aluminum band, still attached the victim’s leg bone, included the website operated by the U.S. Geological Survey’s banding operation in Maryland. So I went online and filled out a form. A minute or two later an email came back, solving my little mystery: the band had been worn by a female wood duck, banded in Geneva in August 2012.  
The bander, in turn, was notified about when and where his band was recovered. That’s the whole point. Applying bands is how researchers track bird dispersal, migration patterns and life spans. But relatively few bands are ever recovered from dead birds. And how many are found inside an owl pellet? My experience was quite a long shot. I still haven’t made a hole in one or caught a foul ball at a Cubs game but at least I can say I found and reported a bird band. For a birder that’s pretty cool.

Getting back to those April chocolates, a pine warbler signed my backyard guest list for the first time, then returned a couple days later.  That’s 113 species for the yard now, a list I’m lucky to grow by one or two a year.
Another bird I was thrilled to see (not in my yard) was Wilson’s phalarope.  Many of them magically appeared in the area just after the big rains, tempting birders at Greene Valley Forest Preserve, Fermilab and other locations.  I hadn’t witnessed a phalarope since 1999 so this one felt like a “lifer.” Plus, until visiting Fermi on April 27 I’d had never seen a female Wilson’s in breeding plumage. With this species the female is the showy one, not the male.

The birding gods treated me kindly in April but I didn’t taste all the treats. Not even close. I’d have loved to see the prairie warbler discovered at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, the dozen American avocets at Whalon Lake Marsh, or the white-faced ibis at Fermi.
As you’d expect, remarkable avian treasures were reported along the Chicago lakefront, too. Among them: piping plover, Smith’s longspur, Say’s phoebe, lark sparrow and barn owl.

Now it’s May, and spring migration is peaking.  There is so much to see and hear, and many feathered surprises await. Take a walk. Check the backyard trees and shrubs. Put up a hummingbird feeder.  Dissect an owl pellet. You never know what you’re gonna get.    
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Chimney Swift by Rob Curtis
Chimney swifts return to area skies this month

(published 4-17-13)
April is a time of rising anticipation for local birders. We know the best of spring migration is just ahead. Soon the dazzling buntings, grosbeaks, orioles, tanagers and warblers will arrive in numbers, a yearly spectacle that never gets old.
I enjoy the colorful pageant as much as anybody, but this year it’s one particular species I’m looking forward to most. Not a flashy one either, just a little sooty gray bird that most people never notice.
I’d never given much thought to chimney swifts until 2011. That’s when Ray Kotz and Jackie Vernot, a Naperville couple, approached with an extraordinary offer.  Would Cantigny Park, they asked, be interested in a home for swifts?
Ray and Jackie wanted to build a chimney swift “tower” and thought Cantigny, where I work, would be an ideal site.  They know the property well from their participation in the park’s monthly bird walks.
Soon a package arrived from, sent by Ray.  Inside were two books, one about chimney swifts and the other about building swift towers.  The Texas-based authors, Paul and Georgean Kyle, are well known for their work in chimney swift conservation. Their books and website,, are prime resources for anyone interested in Chateura pelagica.
The chimney swift is a common species that visits our region from late April through mid-October, give or take a few weeks on either end.  It spends the rest of the year in the upper Amazon basin of eastern Peru, northern Chile and northwestern Brazil.
Swifts spend most of their daylight hours in the air, feeding on flying insects.  You can hear their loud “chippering” as they dart about the sky on long swept-back wings.  At night they roost in groups.
Unfortunately, as with many other neotropical migrants, the swift population is declining.  While not classified as a threatened species in Illinois, chimney swift is listed among “Birds of Concern” in the Chicago Wilderness Region.
The swift once relied upon natural habitat for roosting and nesting.  It was primarily a woodland species and favored large hollow trees.  But as America developed, swifts adapted to the urbanized landscape.  Silos, industrial air shafts and brick chimneys became their new haunts.  These days, however, suitable man-made structures are in shorter supply.  Factory smokestacks are demolished, residential chimneys are capped, and new chimneys are often lined with steel, rendering them useless to swifts.
Fortunately, chimney swifts will utilize “artificial” housing, just like purple martins and Eastern bluebirds.  Havens like the one Ray and Jackie were proposing for Cantigny can help.
Well, to make a long story short, the park accepted their generous offer.  Ray and Jackie developed the plans, hired the contractor and paid the bills—a remarkable gift.
If you build it, will they come?
Cantigny Park will find out.
Completed in November, the 15-foot Cantigny swift tower rises from the park’s prairie habitat, near the Idea Garden. The structure includes a display board with facts about the species it is designed to serve.
Now we wait for the birds. It could be weeks or it could be years. With swifts, as with purple martins, all you can really do is find a good site, offer the proper housing and then cross your fingers. 
I know of only two other swift towers in the region and both are still awaiting their first customers. One is located along the Batavia Riverwalk. Dedicated in 2010, the tower aimed to mitigate the loss of Batavia Bowl, which was demolished.  The bowling alley’s large chimney had been a popular roosting site for swifts.
Also in 2010, the McHenry County Conservation District erected a swift tower at Prairieview Education Center in Crystal Lake.
Swift towers provide ample and safe space for dozens of roosting birds. Inside, the swifts cling to the roughly textured walls, facing upward.  Their feet and short tails are specially adapted to this vertical lifestyle.  In fact, swifts are incapable of standing or walking on flat surfaces.
Only one pair of swifts will use a tower to raise a family.  Their shelf-like nest, truly an avian marvel, consists of tiny sticks, held together and fastened to the interior wall by sticky saliva.
I dream of seeing my first chimney swift nest, hopefully inside the new tower at Cantigny Park. More immediately, I’d like to witness the summer spectacle of hundreds or even thousands of swifts entering their evening roost. I’m told it’s like watching dark smoke swirl backwards into a chimney.
Paul and Georgean Kyle, the book authors, refer to chimney swifts as “mysterious” birds. That’s because we almost never see them up close or at rest.  The Kyles solved that issue by installing video equipment inside several swift towers located on their property. They watch the birds on a big screen inside their home!
The rest of us must settle for enjoying the sight and sound of swifts high overhead, and that’s not a bad alternative.  We may not think about chimney swifts very much, but some of us would sure miss them if they were gone.
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Varied Thrush by Jackie Bowman
Quest for 500th “lifer" ends in Evanston

(published 3-10-13)

So there I was in Miami last month, stalking a middle-class neighborhood with my binoculars, searching for a red-whiskered bulbul. The bulbul is originally from Asia, but despite its non-native status it’s considered a “countable” species by the American Birding Association.

Countable is the key word. I didn’t want the 500th bird on my life list to be questioned by the ornithological records police.

South Florida is loaded with exotic birds bearing tropical pedigrees, many of them escapees from pet stores or zoos. Only a few of the imports, like the bulbul, common myna and spot-breasted oriole, are considered to have self-sustaining wild populations. This means birders can add them to their coveted lists and feel no guilt.

There were lots of birds among the tightly spaced homes across from Baptist Hospital—mockingbirds, monk parakeets and even a loggerhead shrike carrying a small lizard in its bill. An osprey and kingfisher patrolled the little man-made lake. A hummingbird perched on a wire. But I detected no red-whiskered bulbuls.

Back in the rental car, driving to my parents’ home in Key Largo, I had plenty of time to think. Hey, at least I hadn’t been arrested. The streets I’d just finished walking had Crime Watch postings on every block. If there was a sign welcoming binocular-toting birders with pale white legs I missed it.

Soon my thoughts returned to birds, as they usually do. I was still stuck on No. 499, although I hadn’t been for long. When the year began my number was 498. A run to the Chicago lakefront in early January netted a red-throated loon, a bird posted on the Internet and seen by hundreds of other birders, too. For several days it floated close to shore near the Shedd Aquarium. As birders would say, the loon was “cooperative.”

But an even more cooperative rarity would soon arrive. A few days before I left for Florida a varied thrush was spotted in an Evanston backyard. Local reports of this species, an occasional wanderer from the Pacific Northwest, always get my attention. It’s a beautiful bird and closely related to our familiar robin.

I’d hoped to see my first varied thrush last summer, during a trip to Olympic National Park in Washington. That’s where you’d expect to see one, but the species can be secretive, especially in summer. No luck.

Then, in November, a varied thrush was discovered at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. I went there a day or two after the first sighting, reported to the right place and then along with other birders watched a large flock of robins feed on berries for about an hour. Again, no luck.

By the time I returned from Florida the Evanston varied thrush was a genuine sensation. Apparently it really, really liked the backyard on Cleveland Street and the homeowners were perfectly fine with birders stopping by to see it. The yard features multiple feeding stations, all easily observed from the back alley while peering over a neck-high wooden fence. The thrush would periodically visit a platform feeder with sunflower seeds.

Now ask yourself, how many people would tolerate dozens of birders looking into their yard from 50 feet away, pointing their binoculars and long-lens cameras directly toward their home?

Indeed, serious birdwatchers in this region are incredibly lucky that the varied thrush settled where it did. Jason and Judy Kay, the homeowners, welcomed any and all birders.

Jason, who writes a delightful blog called Garden in a City, didn’t know what he had at first. His post on Jan. 27 mentioned a mystery bird and a request for ID assistance. The accompanying photo was clearly a varied thrush and word spread quickly.

Four days later, Kay’s blog entry was titled “The Birders are Coming! The Birders are Coming!” And did they ever. Dozens of them, day after day.

“It has been a good experience,” Kay wrote, “and should you ever find yourself with a rare bird hanging out in your yard, I would urge you to welcome the birders.”

I went to Evanston myself on a raw and rainy Sunday morning, about two weeks after the avian celebrity first arrived. An hour went by, and my toes were going numb as I waited under a golf umbrella, my binoculars pre-focused on the platform feeder. Then, like magic, a male varied thrush appeared, filling my 8x42s. What a beauty! That moment was well worth the 35-mile drive from Glen Ellyn and my cold, lonely vigil in the alley.

I really couldn’t imagine a better bird to claim as No. 500—certainly more meaningful than a red-whiskered bulbul would have been. The “quality” of a milestone bird is important, at least to me.

The varied thrush was still enjoying life on Cleveland Street a full month after the first sighting. It might stay a good while longer. For a rare bird, this one’s about as sticky as they get.

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Cackling Goose by Nathan Goldberg
Finding feathery needles in haystacks

(published 2-7-13)

A cool thing happened in January when I least expected it. While walking from the Glen Ellyn YMCA to the Walgreen’s next door I noticed that the neighboring water detention area was full of ducks. All mallards was my first impression, and they were clearly enjoying the open water on this unusually warm winter morning. I paused for a moment to count them and then realized there was an imposter. Mixing with the four dozen greenheads was a single American black duck!

Black ducks are not uncommon in DuPage but they are not “everyday” birds either. It was a pleasant surprise to see one so close when just going about my usual routine.

Experienced birders know to expect the unexpected, and that’s a smart way to approach the hobby if you want to see new birds. There might be an uncommon species or even a mega-rarity in our midst but it takes a careful and patient observer to detect it.

Spotting the black duck was easy. The temporary pond was tiny so the birds were in close quarters. And while blackies are closely related to mallards they are not hard to tell apart.

With other waterfowl, that’s not always the case.

Some birders like to examine massive flocks of foraging Canada geese in hopes of finding a cackling goose. I seldom have the patience for this activity but I admire those who do. One such person is my friend Don, from Wheaton, who once pointed out a cackler during a Christmas Bird Count at Cantigny. We were on the golf course and trying to estimate how many Canada geese were grazing on the turf. Don then noticed that one of the birds was notably smaller, with a short neck and stubby little bill. Sure enough, it was a cackling goose—a Canada goose lookalike. It was a new species for my life list and I’m quite sure I’d never have found it on my own.

On the topic of geese, you might have heard about the barnacle goose that turned up in Yorkville last fall. That too was a case of somebody being observant and not assuming a goose flock was “all Canada.” The barnacle was a life bird for many who chased after it once the discovery was reported on the Internet.

If a barnacle goose or a cackling goose is flying with a flock of Canada geese then it would likely go unnoticed. Still, passing V formations of geese are still worth a scan. Occasionally you might notice one goose that is white with black wingtips. What you have then is a snow goose—or possibly even a Ross’s goose, since they look alike from afar.

Flocks of sandhill cranes should be checked carefully, too. Whooping cranes sometimes travel with the sandies and are easy to pick out since they too are white with black wingtips. A few whoopers were witnessed in DuPage last fall.

More than a decade ago I drove to Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana to see a vagrant common crane—a Eurasian species that rarely visits the United States. The gray bird was mingling with hundreds of sandhill cranes (also gray) way out in a field of corn stubble. How anybody spotted that bird in the first place was a miracle.

Excited birders reported a couple other “needle in a haystack” stories recently at Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. In both cases, the birds involved were far smaller than ducks, geese or cranes.

CBG is well known as perhaps the most reliable place in this region to find common redpolls, a coveted winter finch that favors the birch trees outside the garden’s Regenstein Center. In January, a locally rare hoary redpoll was found mixing with the flock.

I have never seen a hoary. In fact, one could land on my shoe and I’d probably still call it a common. The two species are virtually identical, making this one of the tougher identification challenges in birding.

Birders with far greater skills than me located, confirmed and photographed the female hoary redpoll at CBG last month. This is worth remembering in case you make a run up to Glencoe. And if you only find common redpolls it will be well worth the trip. (They too are hardly “common” around here.)

Another rare winter visitor to watch for at CBG is Bohemian waxwing. Like redpolls, cranes and geese, waxwings are usually seen in flocks. In this region that means cedar waxwings, one of our more beautiful local birds. But every so often a sharp birder will notice that one of the cedars looks a little too chunky. That’s the first clue that it might be something special. Bohemians are also grayer overall than cedars and sport a dark-orange patch under the tail. The undertail coverts on a cedar waxwing are white.

The lesson here is that closely related species often spend time together. When you encounter a group of birds that appears to be of one species, never assume that is the case. Take a few minutes to scan the flock. With luck and patience, you might be rewarded.

Copytight 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.