Spotted Towhee by Mike Carroll
Sharing a backyard wonder

(published 3-18-19)

My birding bucket list is mostly in my head and hopelessly long. It contains birds I want to see, places I wish to go and milestones I hope to achieve. For some items, I’ll need some big-time luck.

One aspiration, for example, is to host a rare bird in my yard—an accidental tourist, the showier the better, and one that hangs around my feeders for at least a week. I’d invite birders from near and far to come see my special guest. They’d sign my guest book. We’d gab about birds and gear and trips. I might even serve coffee and donuts.

The scenario isn’t so far-fetched. I’ve been on the visiting end of backyard “stakeouts” several times, most recently this winter, when Warrenville homeowner Kate Hopkins hosted a spotted towhee. Her generosity enabled dozens of birders to experience a western species that for some was a new tick on the life list.

Kate first noticed the towhee at her feeder on January 21. She initially figured it was an eastern towhee, which itself would be a notable sighting in the dead of winter. But after applying the Merlin ID app she realized it was a spotted and posted her discovery on eBird. That alerted area birders, many of whom wanted to stop by for a look.  

Front door sign at the Hopkins
residence in Warrenville
“There was zero hesitation,” Kate said. “I couldn’t wait to share.”

She did not have to wait long. In a few hours the doorbell rang.

“There are two young men standing at the door. Their cameras and binocs gave them away but they say, ‘We’re here about the rare bird.’ My husband and I just looked at each other and laughed. We found it delightful.” 

That moment, Kate said, was the start of “a fabulous introduction to the birding community.”

Incoming birders were directed to Kate’s side yard by a handwritten note on the front door, complete with a photo of the wayward towhee. Her busy feeding station offered plenty to see while waiting for the main attraction, including a handsome Carolina wren.

Observing the spotted towhee was just a matter of patience. My wait was only 20 minutes—quite fortunate since the temperature was slightly below zero. Others waited longer or had to return for a second or third try.

Kate has no idea how many birders stopped by—she works during the day—but tracks in the snow indicated a steady flow of thrill seekers. Some left thank you notes, birdseed donations and even a box of Earl Grey tea. Others showed their appreciation by sharing photos of her avian celebrity and posting thankful messages on the Illinois Rare Bird Alert Facebook page.

Everyone was gracious, grateful and respectful, Kate said. “There was not a single negative interaction. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”

Varied Thrush by Emil Baumbach
Kelly Oliven from Palos Park recalls a similar experience when a varied thrush discovered her feeder in January 2018. Like Kate, she welcomed visiting birders after realizing the bird was something special. What came next took her by surprise.

“At one point we had 20 cars parked up and down the street,” she said. “The local newspaper came and even the TV news (FOX32). People came from as far as six hours away in southern Illinois.”

Kelly wisely notified the local police about the situation and credits her neighbors for being understanding. The “circus” lasted about six days, during which Kelly got to know the visiting birders.  

“I got out there as much as I could to chat with them and just loved every minute of it,” Kelly said. “The camaraderie, the information sharing . . . I had no idea that people took this so seriously.”

I didn’t attempt to see Kelly’s varied thrush. At the time, a mad dash to Palos didn’t fit my schedule. Besides, I’d seen the species once before—not in the Pacific Northwest, where it belongs, but in Evanston.

That’s correct, I owe my “lifer” varied thrush to a different backyard stakeout six years ago. I remember that Sunday morning well, standing in a snowy alley, my toes almost numb, gazing over a neck-high wooden fence into the homeowners’ private space. My cold, lonely vigil lasted about 90 minutes before the target bird took pity on me and flew in to the platform feeder. Instantly, my feet felt warmer.

The 2013 Evanston varied thrush was my 500th life bird. To Jason and Judy on Cleveland Street, thank you again!

Thanks, as well, to all the kind people who share their backyard wonders with total strangers like me. Generosity like yours is notable and rare, just like neighborhood birds that come around once in a lifetime.  

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved. 
Black-legged Kittiwake by Bonnie Graham
Winter oddities keep us watching

(published 3-3-19)


If this column is a bit tardy, blame “The Feather Thief.” It stole my time! If the next book I open is only half as good, I’ll be happy.

My previous piece recapped the 2018 birding year. However, since that rambler was submitted in mid-December, it omitted a few developments from the year’s final weeks. Today I’ll close the loop and cover some early highlights of 2019. 

So, remember that piping plover in Chicago? To refresh, the bird first visited Montrose Beach in October and stayed until early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. The plover vanished for several days, then made history in a second state by appearing December 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

But the story wasn’t over. On December 22, the feathered mighty mite reappeared at Montrose! The plover was easily located by Evanston North Shore Bird Club members on Christmas Day during their Chicago Lakefront CBC. I guess some birds just want to be counted.

The plover rang in the new year at Montrose and was last seen on January 13.

The backyard yellow-throated warbler in St. Charles also departed, hopefully for warmer climes. Homeowner Jon Schuler last saw it on December 23.

Warblers in winter are rare indeed, the one exception being yellow-rumped warbler. “Butterbutts” are uncommon this time of year but we do see a few. The species is content to eat berries, seeds and suet when other warblers head south to maintain their bug-based diets. Nine yellow-rumps were recorded on the Fermilab CBC and they popped up all over the region in January. Keep an eye out, especially if your yard features bayberry, juniper or a heated bird bath.

Common yellowthroat, another warbler species, was sighted during both the Fermilab CBC and Lisle-Arboretum CBC. Nashville warbler was a coveted discovery at the Kankakee Valley CBC, along with white-eyed vireo. A palm warbler appeared in Cook County on January 11.

The Lisle-Arb CBC, by the way, held December 16, turned up 21 pileated woodpeckers—a record-high for the species. The previous best was 13 in 2017. These numbers support the widespread notion that our local pileated population is growing.

Flocks of sandhill cranes staged a rare January passage over DuPage and Kane as the year began, but the big story was a black-legged kittiwake, observed January 1-5 at Whalon Lake Forest Preserve in Will County. The kittiwake, a coastal gull species seldom observed inland, could easily have been overlooked. Kudos to Kirk LaGory from Downers Grove for picking it out and sharing an exciting find.


Mandarin Duck by Bonnie Graham
A rarity of a different color—actually, many colors—turned up in Orland Park. A Mandarin duck! First reported by Susan Zelek on January 4, where it came from is still a mystery. Like the Mandarin in New York’s Central Park that caused a sensation last fall, the Orland bird is possibly an escapee from a zoo or private collection.

Mandarin duck is a non-native intruder, an Asian species. But there’s no denying its beauty. Only our male wood duck comes close to matching the Mandarin’s spectacular plumage. In fact, thanks to Bob Andrini, a St. Charles birder, I learned the two species are related—the only members of the Aix genus.

As the deep freeze settled in, yet another January surprise, a spotted towhee, found a busy backyard feeder located near Wheaton Warrenville South High School. Kate Hopkins reported the bird and generously opened her yard to visiting birders. I was among them and besides the towhee (a western species) witnessed the yard’s other featured visitor, a Carolina wren. As if that weren’t enough, some lucky birders received a further bonus when a pair of unusual red-bellied woodpeckers flew in; their head markings were yellow instead of red!

Such moments must be savored because winter birding in northern Illinois is not always so exciting. As watchers, it pays to stay alert as we count the days until spring.

Meanwhile, keep your feeders stocked and enjoy the show, especially when it snows. Cyber birding is fun option, too. My guilty pleasure lately has been the Cornell Lab’s feeder cam streaming live from Manitouwadge, Ontario. With a few clicks (and a little patience) you can observe guest appearances by evening and pine grosbeaks, Canada jays, ravens, redpolls and even ruffed grouse. Google Ontario FeederWatch.

Of course, nothing beats a good book on a cold winter night. If you need a recommendation I can help.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.


Birders scurried to Palos Park to see this Varied Thrush, a
western species, in January. (photo by Bonnie Graham)
An eventful Year of the Bird

(published 1-21-19)

Could it be that birding gets more interesting, and more exciting, the longer we do it? Dedicated watchers know the answer is yes.

The 2018 birding year, officially The Year of the Bird, only escalated our curiosity and passion for the hobby.  It was remarkably newsy and birdy, filled with feathery surprises, the latter including a plucky little plover, long out of season, lingering on a frigid Chicago beach.

A major anniversary hovered over 2018, inspiring the Year of the Bird celebration and calling attention to bird conservation at a critical time. Ironically, just as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act turned 100, it came under attack in Washington. A bill in Congress, HR 4239, would pull some key enforcement teeth from MBTA, our country’s most important bird protection law. National Audubon Society sued the Department of the Interior, with similar suits filed by Attorneys General in eight states, including Illinois.

“State of the World’s Birds,” released in April, reported that 40 percent of bird species worldwide are in decline, with one of every eight threatened with extinction. BirdLife International issues the report every five years.
This Long-tailed Jaeger was the first
on record along Chicago's lakefront.
(photo by Jake Cvetas)

One of those potentially doomed species is the blue-throated hillstar, an Ecuadorian hummingbird revealed to the world in September. An estimated 750 individuals exist. Yes, amazingly, new birds are still being discovered.

Northwestern University earned kudos in March for making its glassy buildings along the lakefront less deadly for migrating birds. To reduce collisions, the college applied patterned film to many existing windows and chose glass with patterns visible to birds in some new construction. Chicago Bird Collision Monitors advised.

Notes and scribblings
Bird Watcher’s Digest celebrated 40 years of publishing and launched Redstart Birding, a gear company out to fill the void left by Eagle Optics.

Julie Zickefoose, artist and author, spoke at Morton Arboretum on back-to-back nights in June. Always the birder and keeping a trip list, Zick observed a nesting killdeer at the Hyatt Regency Lisle—on the roof!

The gray jay is now the Canada jay. Remember that when you visit the North Woods.

A yellow (not red) northern cardinal, spotted in Alabama, went viral on Facebook. So did several hilarious photos of a high school golfer in Michigan being attacked by a goose. Only his pride was hurt.

King Rails are usually elusive but this one awarded brief looks
to patient birders in Chicago. (photo by Jackie Bowman)
In March, I happened to be on the Wheaton College campus 90 minutes before the memorial service for Billy Graham. Hearing a mourning dove calling, I looked around. The bird was on top of Graham’s namesake building. Too perfect.

A white-tailed kite visited Porter County, Indiana, during the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. Found by Mark Welter, it was the third state record of the species, the last being in 1994. Many festival attendees scored a highly improbable lifer.

An out-of-range blue-footed booby sent birders scrambling to Kane County in September. The Kane County in Utah, unfortunately.

But the Chicago region offered its own excitement for birders in 2018, and plenty of it.

The year began with a mega rarity when Amar Ayyash bagged an ivory gull at the Lake County Fairgrounds. Also in January, birders beat a trail to Palos Park for a varied thrush in the yard of a birder-friendly homeowner. Big Rock, Kane County, our Kane County, would host a varied thrush in November.

Notable: Greater white-fronted geese were widespread in late February; common loons were unusually prolific in March and April; numbers of pine siskins were still around in late May; and black-bellied whistling ducks turned up throughout the state from May to October.

DuPage highlights
The DuPage County Spring Bird Count on May 5 tallied a record-high 188 species. Red-winged blackbird was the most numerous one by far, followed by robin and palm warbler. A northern goshawk, spotted by Bob Fisher in Woodridge, was the first SBC “gos” since 2000.

This Western Grebe on Lake Michigan was among many
avian surprises in November. (photo by Tamima Itani)
A quartet of coveted May warblers visited Elsen’s Hill: cerulean, Connecticut, mourning and yellow-throated, plus a white-eyed vireo. Elsen’s, a.k.a. Warblerville, is part of West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield.

Morton Arboretum produced blue grosbeak, lark sparrow and pileated woodpecker. Purple martins nested at the Arb for the first time after their long-vacant house was relocated to Arbor Lake on the west side. Four martins fledged.

St. James Farm featured worm-eating and hooded warblers in May, and a bobwhite quail in July. Waterfall Glen hosted a wormie, too.

A neotropical cormorant appeared in Roselle, on the same pond a neo visited in 2017. Same bird?

Joe Suchecki, bird monitor for Naperville’s Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve since 1994, added four birds to the site list: Carolina wren, Brewer’s sparrow, whip-poor-will and willet. He’s now seen 236 species on the property. With that total, just adding one species takes some luck. But four in one year? As Joe told me, “pretty amazing.”

Hawkwatchers completed their 13th fall season on the hill at Greene Valley, counting migrating raptors almost every day for three straight months. Northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk and four golden eagles were highlights. The team also witnessed a massive monarch butterfly migration on Sept. 7, and 6,185 sandhill cranes on Nov. 10.

Kane County goodies, besides that varied thrush, included yellow rail, red-necked phalarope, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Smith’s longspur and a snowy egret in downtown Elgin. A pair of whooping cranes joined nine sandies in a field near Hampshire in late October.

On the waterfront
You could fill a book with significant Cook and Lake County sightings in 2018. The Lake Michigan shoreline combined with a higher density of active birders once again delivered eye-popping results.

Parasitic and long-tailed jaegers, like avian fighter jets, zipped past Wilmette’s Gillson Park in early September. A western grebe plied Chicago and Evanston waters in November, with harlequin duck, red-throated loon and red-necked grebe also making waves.

This female Great-tailed Grackle was a first
for Lake County.
(photo by Joan Campbell)
Montrose beach and the Magic Hedge hosted barn owl, little gull, least tern, red knot, loggerhead shrike, Bell’s vireo and yellow-headed blackbird. King rail, a secretive marsh species, teased birders with brief but regular appearances in June and July.

In May, Jon Grainger discovered and photographed a plumbeous vireo in Bolingbrook, a first state record.

Additional Cook treasures included black-belling whistling duck, cinnamon teal, cattle egret, snowy owl, Townsend’s solitaire, western tanager, prairie warbler and Harris’s sparrow.

Great-tailed grackle was a premium find in Lake, discovered in August by Bonnie Graham and Joan Campbell at Spring Bluff Forest Preserve. They’d gone there looking for a reported whimbrel.

Al Stokie picked a hoary redpoll out of flock of 112 common redpolls at Chicago Botanic Garden in January. In May, he located CBG’s second-ever prairie warbler. The site surrendered a white-faced ibis for Amanda Tichacek.

Also in May, a Hudsonsian godwit and glossy ibis shared the same “fluddle” in Waukegan. Piping plover, a federally endangered species, nested on a gravel parking lot at Waukegan Beach, and a colony of state-endangered common terns set up shop in the dunes.  

A mountain bluebird checked into Knox County in April. Chain O’Lakes State Park, in McHenry, yielded black-necked stilt in May, and white ibis in August.

In Springfield, where Governor Rauner proclaimed April 22-28 Bird Appreciation Week in Illinois, rarities included Swainson’s warbler, Mississippi kite and little gull.

The roster of southern Illinois birds in 2018 felt Floridian, with brown pelican, mottled duck, anhinga, white ibis and roseate spoonbill all reported.

A Sabine’s gull at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Putnam County was close enough for Chicago-area birders to chase in September. A second Sabine’s turned up at Carlyle Lake two weeks later in downstate Clinton County.

This Yellow-throated Warbler in St. Charles was a most
unlikely backyard visitor, given its arrival in late November.
(photo by Chuck Berman)
Home sweet home
Road trips, of course, are optional. In 2018, birders proved once again that amazing things sometimes happen just outside the kitchen window. A western tanager turned up at Springfield feeder in April, and Lombard residents Rick and Mary Lingle noticed a summer tanager at their birdbath in May. The snow and ice storm just after Thanksgiving delivered a chilly American bittern to Diane Swaim’s yard in Aurora. 

The most remarkable backyard visitor occurred in St. Charles, where homeowner Jonathan Schuler attracted a yellow-throated warbler that forgot to migrate. The bird appeared Nov. 22 and was still feasting on a hot pepper seed cylinder at press time. On Dec. 15, it became the first yellow-throated warbler ever recorded on the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count, an annual event since 1976.

This chilly but resilient Piping Plover on Montrose Beach
was the latest ever in Illinois. (photo by Fran Morel)
My own space in Glen Ellyn produced 78 species, better than most years, and included two flyover additions to the yard list: greater white-fronted goose (No. 117) and osprey (No. 118). 

And what about that Chicago plover? In the Year of the Bird, I’d call it the Bird of the Year: an unbanded piping plover, first spotted on Montrose Beach in October and still there in early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. As the tiny puffball captured birders’ hearts, it eluded capture by naturalists trying to save it from freezing or starvation. Three rescue attempts using mist nets failed.

The plover vanished for several days, then made history in another state by appearing Dec. 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s CBC! Let’s hope the bird somehow survives the winter or, better yet, moves on to a warmer climate.

Thanks for reading and may your 2019 be filled with interesting birds!

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.