Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at black-oil sunflower seeds.
Spring migration: not canceled!

(published 4-16-20)

In terms of everyday life, what have you missed most during the COVID-19 crisis? My selfish answer would be sports on TV. In particular, the start of the Major League Baseball season and The Masters and PGA golf tournaments. Oh yeah, I watch more than birds.
Of course, staying healthy and looking out for one another is what matters most. I’m thankful that my family is fine so far, including my parents, both in their 90s.
I’m also glad the shutdown didn’t begin in December or January. Can you imagine?
For birders, the silver lining in all this is the time of year. We’re allowed to go outside you know, and every day it gets better—the weather, the scenery and the birds.
A walk around the block or some time on the back patio is never more interesting than in April and May. Each day is full of potential.  
“One of the great things about the spring migration is that it brings the birds to you—you don’t have to necessarily go out looking for them,” said Jim Herkert, executive director of Illinois Audubon Society. “A good variety of migrants can usually be found in most yards and neighborhoods.”
This year, most of us have more time to enjoy the spectacle. I don’t mind working from home, especially now!
My feeders are clean and full, with a few handfuls of mixed seed tossed on the ground. The hummingbird feeder is juiced up, oriole banquet set, wren houses hung. Other years I might be a week or two late getting things ready. In 2020, no excuses.
This would be a fine time to begin a yard list if you don’t already have one. Keep track of everything you see—in your yard, in your neighbor’s yard, flying over. Be observant and the list will expand quickly. In 2005, my yard hosted 41 species on May 15, and a few surely went undetected.
If you already keep a list, this is your chance to grow it. I have a regular yard, surrounded by other houses. My running count is 118 species. In a good year, I’ll add one or two new ones. This spring I’m targeting northern waterthrush, a type of warbler, and perhaps an orchard oriole or summer tanager. I can dream. Looking skyward, I wish for American white pelican and bald eagle.
Baltimore Oriole (male) at orange, grape jelly and nectar feeder.
For migrating songbirds, it’s best to get up early. I like to be on the patio, with coffee, by 6 a.m. On a calm, clear morning in May, the next two hours can be magical. I’m mostly watching for movement in the trees and shrubs. The warblers, vireos, tanagers and other long-distance migrants are hungry and searching for insects.
If you dispense sunflower seeds, watch for a rose-breasted grosbeak. It’s one of the few migratory songbirds that regularly visits feeders—and a real beauty, too. Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds also accept handouts, but not seeds. They crave oranges, nectar and grape jelly.
Migrating species arrive in our region on different schedules. Knowing what birds to watch for and when to expect them is helpful. To monitor daily movements, check out Illinois Audubon Society’s Spring Migration Dashboard (illinoisaudubon.org). The posted information, based on eBird data, includes a running count of Illinois species reported in 2020.
If the printed page is more your style, I recommend Kenn Kaufman’s “A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration.” It’s new, and it’s the perfect book for now.
I’m content with the backyard being my designated patch this spring. Birding it never gets old for me. Still, I will miss attending such rites of spring as the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival and the Birdwatching Open at Cantigny Golf.
But spring migration marches on, and we’re fortunate that birding from home is easy and often highly rewarding. The birds know nothing about the tragic virus down below. They are with us now or on their way, and there’s no stopping them.
Be ready, enjoy the show and please remember to bird responsibly if you venture out.
Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Peregrine Falcon with prey by Clive Slack
Falconers for a night 

(published 4-13-20)


In February I attended a different kind of bird walk. More accurately, it was a “ramble,” the term Kane County Audubon uses for hastily organized birding adventures. This one began at 5:15 p.m., across from the Paramount Theater in downtown Aurora.

I’ve been on evening walks before, the usual targets being owls or woodcocks. This time we’d be looking for peregrine falcons, and our chances for success were excellent.

In simple terms, the plan, concocted by KCA member and Aurora resident Vernon LaVia, was to spot a falcon or two and then gather at a nearby tavern. About 20 birders found the idea irresistible. Even my wife went along, curiosity overtaking her non-birding instincts. 

This was a classic stakeout and Vern had us covered. On the previous three nights, he’d observed a female peregrine reporting to the top of Leland Tower between 5:15 and 5:45. A bit later, he saw a smaller falcon join her, presumably a male.

For LaVia, this is personal. He’s been watching the female for a dozen years, and the pair for about seven. They roost during winters on the 22-story Leland, favoring a ledge on the building’s eastern side. Partnering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, LaVia installed a plywood nesting box on the roof in 2016.

Our group assembled on a concrete plaza across from the Paramount and waited, keeping an eye on the Leland’s upper levels. LaVia, naturally, felt some pressure to “show the bird.” He’d done his homework, called the meeting, and now he needed his falcon friends to do their part.

Birders gaze up at Leland Tower in
Aurora on February 22.
No worries. Like clockwork, the female flew in, landing in the expected place. All of us grabbed a quick look through one of the spotting scopes, just in case it would be our only view of the evening.

Again, no worries. In fact, our view was about to improve.

The falcon took off and we lost her. LaVia hustled down Galena Boulevard, across the bridge spanning the Fox River, to check the west side of Leland Tower. He relocated the bird and called us over. Now the setting sun was at our backs, casting a warm glow on the building. The falcon was perched near the top, and within minutes the male bird landed on a structure above her.

We couldn’t have asked for a better show. Calm conditions and a temperature near 60 added to our satisfaction.  

As we stood there looking up, fixing binoculars and scopes on the birds, theater fans began streaming across the bridge; the Paramount’s matinee of “The Secret of My Success” had just ended. People wanted to know what we were looking at, and we were happy to let them see for themselves.  

Maybe a new birder was born along the edge of the Fox. One could do worse than starting a life list with peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on earth.

The peregrine is a nice conservation story, too. It was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, and the Illinois endangered list in 2015. A ban on the pesticide DDT helped bring it back, along with captive breeding and release programs.    

The bird has also adapted well to urban settings, using tall buildings in place of rocky cliffs, its native habitat. Downtown Chicago is home to seven breeding pairs according to Mary Hennen from The Field Museum, who also directs the Chicago Peregrine Program.

Female peregrine on Leland Tower by Eva Dorman.
Looking at the greater Chicago region, there are 15 successful breeding pairs, Hennen said. Confirmed nest sites include Elmhurst, Joliet and Romeoville.

The Aurora falcons are clearly a pair, but the nest box has gone unoccupied, and juvenile birds have not been sighted. Nest failure isn’t unusual, but LaVia isn’t ruling out an alternative nest site. Leland Tower may only be a winter roost. For now, the falcons’ family life is a mystery.

LaVia’s monitoring of the pair includes the occasional stroll around Leland Tower’s base, a streetscape strewn with random bones and bird parts. Aurora’s ample pigeon population has good reason to be nervous.

Alas, a visit to the boneyard was not on the evening’s agenda. With daylight fading, Gillerson’s Grubbery, a block away on New York Street, was beckoning. This part of the ramble, like the first, was perfectly orchestrated by LaVia. He knew the owner, and I think the beer list as well.

We raised a toast to our leader and to the neighborhood raptors that brought us all together.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.