Baltimore Oriole by Jackie Bowman

In the yard, this could be my big year


(published 5-9-17)

May is Monarch Butterfly Month in Illinois. Yes, it’s official: Governor Rauner signed the proclamation last fall. Soon we might even see a monarch license plate. The idea is to raise awareness about the falling population of our state insect; monarchs need our help.

It’s all good, and the birding community supports monarch conservation. But let’s be honest: May is for the birds. 

There’s no better time than now to be a watcher. Our binocular fingers are quivering with anticipation. Christmas morning for birders is finally here.

Except this holiday—spring migration—lasts for weeks, with colorful feathered packages arriving daily.

I’ll be out searching in all the usual places for the warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers and grosbeaks coming our way. And this year I have big plans for the backyard. In March, I hatched the crazy idea of trying to beat my own Big Year yard record of 88 species in 2007.

Twenty years of birding my average, surrounded-by-houses yard tells me this won’t be easy. It will take many hours of observation this spring and again in the fall to have any shot. To maximize these magical weeks of May, I’m aiming for at least 30 minutes on the back patio every day.

Note to neighbors: I have season tickets for the dawn chorus and intend to use them. If you see me scanning the bushes, trees and skies with my 8x43s do not be alarmed. I’m watching birds.

Besides putting in the hours, I’ll need plenty of luck. This game I play involves random acts of birdness.  Much of what I see or hear depends on fortunate timing.

So far so good. I’ve already tallied some birds that I don’t see every year in my yard: a song sparrow on March 20, an Eastern towhee six days later, and then a purple finch on Easter. All three were “bonus birds,” especially the towhee, a species I’d recorded only once before at home.

Another nice surprise was a flyover rock pigeon. Go ahead, call me pathetic for getting excited by a pigeon. But spotting one in the neighborhood is hit or miss.

Squirrels love me this time of year. They don’t mind a bit that I’m tossing a few handfuls of cheapo mixed seed on the ground almost every morning. The seed attracts sparrows—fox, chipping, white-throated and white-crowned among them. A brown thrasher might materialize if my lucky streak continues.

Ground feeding can boost the bird variety in your yard but a little caution is advised. Throw down just enough seed for one day, and only when the ground (or hardscape) is dry. Squirrels will Hoover up most of it but too much seed can attract unwanted guests after dark.

When my parents moved from their Ohio home last fall I inherited three wren boxes. Two are now on duty, awaiting tenants, along with the one I already had. This will be interesting to watch. Last year my wren house was appropriated by black-capped chickadees, for the first time. Could my yard possibly host a wren and chickadee family simultaneously? I’ll find out.

I’ll also see if my new oriole feeder was a wise purchase. It’s a simple design that holds two orange halves. A few feet away hangs a little dish filled with grape jelly, another oriole magnet. Catbirds like the jelly feeder, too.

Rounding out my yardly buffet are three tube feeders, one each for thistle, black-oil sunflower and shelled peanuts. The hummingbird feeder went up in late April.

Of course, many of the birds I’m wishing for this month will never visit my feeding stations. The migrating warblers and vireos are primarily bug eaters. They forage high, low and in between, depending on the species. As the trees and shrubs leaf out, the birds become harder to detect. By late May, most will be long gone, raising families in the North Woods.

But right now almost anything is possible, which is one reason why my patio time is never boring. Every morning brings hope and promise. 

Even on days when the birding is slow, there’s always something to keep track of. The first warbler (yellow-rumped) appeared on April Fool’s Day. A red admiral butterfly zig-zagged through the yard on April 15, and a green darner as well. The log says my last junco of the spring visited April 22. These little milestones recur every spring with remarkable consistency.

Watch carefully this month, even if your only view is from the kitchen window. It’s one of the wonderful things about our hobby. The birds make house calls.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Northern Mockingbird by Christian Goers

What makes a rare bird rare?

(published 4-12-17)


Sharing good news is a natural human instinct. When I’m excited about a bird sighting, I’ll sometimes tell the nearest bystander, birder or not. The reactions I get are interesting.

Strange looks and quick walkaways are normal. But another common response is the person asking, “Was it rare?” And sometimes that’s an excellent question.

Like the colorful spring warblers now upon us, the notion of avian rarity deserves a closer look.

Defining “rare” seems simple on paper. The American Birding Association (ABA) assigns a number to every North American species. Every bird is rated from 1 (easily observed in its normal geographic range) to 6 (no chance). Some Code 1 examples are blue jay, cardinal, chickadee and robin, along with less common visitors like yellow-throated vireo, prairie warbler and Lincoln’s sparrow.  

Species rated “6” are presumed extinct, exist only in captivity or have no self-sustaining population in the wild. Want a Code 6 for your life list? You’ll need to find that ivory-billed woodpecker.

Most birds are Code 1 or Code 2: “Regularly occurring North American avifauna.” Code 3 species are officially “Rare,” since they occur in very low numbers—spotted just a handful of times in a year.

Code 4 is “Casual” and Code 5 is “Accidental.” Avid birders sometimes use the term “mega” for these ones, as in mega-rarity. Some lucky Illinois watchers scored a mega in 2016 when a black-tailed gull (Code 4) visited downstate Carlyle Lake.  

The ABA system doesn’t measure rarity, per se. It rates difficulty of observation within the defined ABA listing area. There is a difference.

Everyone agrees that the whooping crane is a rare species; fewer than 500 exist in the wild. But it’s a Code 2 bird because seeing a whooper is easy if you visit the right place at the right time.

Likewise, Kirtland’s warbler, “America’s rarest warbler,” is ABA Code 2 since you can readily find one with a good map. (Hint: Go Blue!)

Almost every bird we encounter locally is Code 1. “Rare” birds just don’t come around much. That’s what makes them rare! But rare sightings happen all the time, and usually they involve common birds gone astray.

A northern mockingbird in DuPage County is notable, and many birders (including me) would jump at the chance to witness one. Triple that jump for a scissor-tailed flycatcher. In the South, these birds are as common as cotton. Here they are rock stars.

Vagrant birds are always cause for excitement. Anybody recall the sage thrasher at Montrose? The nine black-bellied whistling ducks in Yorkville? Or the varied thrush at Morton Arboretum? I dare you not to call them rare.

Common but out-of-season birds can be rarities too, such as a “winter bird” that appears in the dog days of summer. In August 2014, a dark-eyed junco turned up in downtown Chicago! That’s rare.

The DuPage Birding Club offers a handy checklist showing the relative abundance of our local birds, season by season. It’s an excellent reference for knowing what birds to expect and when. For example, the line on Killdeer is F in early spring (meaning fairly common), C (common) in late spring through early fall, U (uncommon) in late fall and X (extremely rare) in winter.

X-rated birds are a lot of fun. We had one on the Christmas Bird Count in 2015, a Nashville warbler. The chances of it being here in December, let alone our stumbling upon it, were thinner than a rail on a crash diet.

But here’s the real skinny: You decide what’s rare. The rarity is in the experience, and it’s personal. What’s “rare” may depend on who you are, the time of year and where you happen to be standing.

Oh, it’s personal all right. Until I see one, worm-eating warbler is absolutely the rarest bird on earth.      

Lastly, a travel note: I’m off to the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival May 4-7 and promise to report back.  Maybe you should go, too: check out indunesbirdingfestival.com. I don’t know if we’ll see any rare birds but the spring migration weekend is sure to be mega fun.  

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Imagine spotting this Canada Warbler--plus 6,840 other
 species--all in the same calendar year. A Dutch birder 
did so in 2016, establishing a World Big Year record for
 the ages. (photo by Jerry Goldner)

Birding by numbers. BIG numbers.

(published 3-7-17)

Sorry, but my recap of the 2016 birding year was incomplete. Two of the biggest stories in birding last year were late-breaking news, coming too late for my December deadline. Both involved stunning individual achievements.

A little background is needed. In 2013, Neil Hayward set the North American Big Year record by spotting 749 bird species. He beat the old record—set in 1998 and later immortalized on the silver screen—by a single bird. Hayward wrote a book about the experience and is now a popular keynote speaker at birding festivals and other gatherings. Audubon magazine declared him “King Bird.”

But Hayward is suddenly old news. In 2016, no fewer than four birders topped his Big Year milestone and one absolutely crushed it. John Weigel, an American living in Australia, finished the year with a jaw-dropping 780 species. Well done, mate!

We also have a new World Big Year record and this story is perhaps even more remarkable. Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis, age 30, tallied 6,841 species in 2016, topping the global record by 800 as he raised money for BirdLife International. A documentary is coming soon.

The previous World Big Year record, set by Noah Strycker in 2015, was widely regarded as untouchable. He shattered the global record, set in 2008, by an astonishing 1,701 species. Before Strycker, nobody had ever seen 5,000 kinds of birds in a single year. He found 6,044. Is there any doubt that he expected to wear his world crown for more than just a year?

There are approximately 10,600 bird species in the world. No one person has seen them all, and fewer than 10 have surpassed 9,000 in a lifetime. The first one, a Brit named Tom Gullick, did it in 2012. Then he quit.

These numbers are almost beyond my comprehension. It’s taken me 25 years to piece together a humble life list of 526 birds, and 20 years to build a Glen Ellyn yard list of 115.
Just the thought of devoting 365 straight days to all-out competitive birding is hard to fathom. I’m quite sure I couldn’t do it, even if I had the money for unlimited travel. I’d suffer birding burnout in a matter of weeks.

But it’s still fun to think about, and to live the experience through others. For me, books like Wild America, Kingbird Highway, The Feather Quest and The Big Year are classics, as thrilling as any John Grisham novel. 

Some Illinois birders have lived out bookworthy adventures, too. The state Big Year record belongs to Pete Moxon with 334 species in 2011. Locating 300 species in one year inside state lines is the goal of many and relatively few ever achieve it.

Likewise, only a handful of birders belong to the “400 Club” for career sightings in the Land of Lincoln. The highest published life list for Illinois belongs to Jeff Sanders, with 402 species. Two birders, Joel Greenberg and David Johnson, hit the 400 plateau in 2016.

The collective all-time list of species observed in Illinois now stands at 441—up by one from a year ago thanks to the common ringed plover sighting near Kankakee last September. (That bit of news did make my year-end report.)

Looking only at DuPage County, the highest life list total is 313, by Moxon. Only four birders have seen 300 or more species in the county.  

Big Days, those madcap 24-hour birdathons, also leave me scratching my head. For Illinois, the single-observer Big Day record is 161 species, accomplished by Eric Walters in 1989, Michael Baum in 1996 and Travis Mahan in 2007. Somebody really needs to break that tie, and soon a highly caffeinated birder probably will.

The Illinois Big Day record for a team is 191 species, set last May 15 (and also in 2013) by the Mighty Jizz Masters: Greg Neise, Josh Engel, Adam Sell, Jeff Skrentny, Amar Ayyash and Larry Krutulis.

A few of the “easy” birds the team missed on its 2016 Big Day run were greater yellowlegs, willow flycatcher, swamp sparrow and blue-winged warbler. Any one of them would have been No. 192. Ouch!

The team will try again this spring. “200 is and always has been the goal,” Neise told me.

The DuPage County Big Day record for a team is 132 species, by Joe Suchecki, Denis Kania and the late Jack Pomatto. They did it twice, in 1997 and 1999. The top individual Big Day for the county belongs to Eric Secker, with 127 birds in 2011. All of these Big Day heroics occurred in early or mid-May.

Listing will always be part of the birding culture. Most of us couldn’t stop if we tried. It’s a game we play, alone or in groups. It’s how we have fun and chart our progress.  

Listing can make us better birders, too. Keeping track and always having a few “target birds” promotes strong observation and birdfinding skills. It motivates us to get outside and look around, and to keep checking that feeder in the backyard. 

The lists I hold dearest are Life, Yard, Cantigny, Florida and Illinois. I keep growing them, little by little, storing up memories of favorite birds, places and people along the way. 

That’s it, really, the memories. Not the numbers. Our lists are a collection of birding moments we choose not to forget. 

But of course it’s more than that, just as watching birds is more than a hobby. 
I love this forward thinking perspective on listing by Cindy Carlson, writing in Birding magazine back in 2004:

“A bird list is about possibility. By listing what we have seen, we document what we have not seen. Not yet. The list gives a name and a validation to what we have experienced; but it contains the promise of what lies ahead. We count because we have seen this bird, and because we believe we can see another. A bird list is about hope.”

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
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.