These gifts for bird watchers are sure to fly
(published 12-2-04)

For a birder, the best presents are those that money can’t buy. Like a backyard owl on Christmas Eve, or a redpoll at the feeder the next morning. Events such as these would clinch a happy holiday for anybody who appreciates birds.

But just in case, you’d better have a back-up plan. Here are 10 gift ideas for serious and casual bird watchers alike:

-- A second field guide. It really helps to have a second resource, especially when confronted with an identification challenge. I refer to the Peterson, Sibley and National Geographic guides all the time. Each book has unique strengths.

-- Binoculars. This is a sensitive gift choice. Like neckties for men, it’s best to let birders choose their own optics. That said, a good pair of binoculars is potentially the most useful and most appreciated gift you can bestow. And every birder needs a reliable secondary pair. But unless you know exactly what the birder wants, buy a gift certificate.

-- A new feeder. Consider a specialty feeder that will help attract more species. A tube-style thistle feeder will draw goldfinches and pine siskins, or go with a peanut feeder to serve chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. If choosing a hummingbird feeder, look for a durable design—many glass ones are beautiful works of art but not very practical.

-- Heated birdbath. Fresh water is a backyard magnet for birds any time of year, especially during winter. Cleaning and filling is a chore when it’s frigid outside but the results will justify the effort.

-- Bird seed storage container. Not a glamorous gift, I know, but keeping seed dry, fresh and safe from garage critters is important. Select a container designed specifically for this purpose. Mine is heavy-duty plastic with an airtight lid and holds 25 pounds of seed. If you give one of these, fill it up with black-oil sunflower seeds and maybe bury a surprise.

-- Bird song CDs. Identification becomes a lot easier when you learn the songs and call notes. And those who know them tend to find more birds. The Peterson “Birding by Ear” series is excellent.

-- A good book. This was a banner year for birders who like to read. Amazingly, three full-length biographies on John James Audubon appeared. Two other new books tell the sad but fascinating story of the ivory-billed woodpecker. And birders are still talking about “The Big Year.” It’s highly entertaining, and also recommended for non-birder spouses who need to realize that birding obsessions are truly a matter of degree. “The Birdwatcher’s Companion” is another recent title worth investigating.

-- Memberships. The ones I think of first are the DuPage Birding Club and Kane County Audubon. Either club will open doors to new birding adventures and new friends who are eager to share the hobby. Or how about The Morton Arboretum? It’s one of this area’s best birding spots and the new visitor center makes it better than ever.

-- Magazines. You couldn’t go wrong by giving a subscription to Bird Watcher’s Digest or Birder’s World. Each is published six times a year.

-- Bird-a-day calendar. I love these things. Along with great photos, they offer interesting facts about common species and introduce us to exotic ones. The featured species on Sept. 25, for example, was East Africa’s bare-faced go-away bird. I quickly added that one to my running list of favorite bird names. Right after superb fairy wren.

I hope that your holidays are equally superb, and that you take some time to enjoy the birds!

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Close encounters of the nuthatch kind
(published 11-4-04)

It’s about a 20-minute walk from the Chicago train station to my office. Over the years, I’ve seen some great birds during that walk, including my first blue-winged warbler. I’ve also seen some surprising things on the sidewalk. Severed heads, for instance. Bird heads. One belonged to a red-headed woodpecker, the other to a northern flicker. The butchery was likely committed by a peregrine falcon.

Another interesting sidewalk birding experience took place in September. Walking east along Wacker Drive I noticed what looked like a leaf floating toward the ground ahead of me. It landed softly, and a few steps later I was looking down at a male red-breasted nuthatch—the first one I’d ever encountered downtown. The tiny bird had smacked into a building but was still alive. I picked him up and he seemed to be in good shape, just stunned. Sometimes a safe, quiet spot is enough to help a bird recover, so I placed the bird under some nearby shrubs. He was gone when I checked at the end of the day.

The red-breasted nuthatch has always been one of my favorite backyard visitors, so it was a thrill to hold that bird in my hand. What a beautiful and virtually weightless little creature.

Nuthatches are a joy to watch, and watching them became a whole lot easier once I bought a peanut feeder. In recent years I’ve had one or two coming and going almost daily from October into April. The birds enjoy black oil sunflower seeds and suet as well, but it’s the shelled peanuts that really keep them coming back. Plus, the peanut feeder is great for watching nuthatches eat upside down, one of their many quirky habits. Chickadees, downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers use the feeder, too.

There are two species of nuthatches in this area, red-breasted and white-breasted. Generally speaking, white-breasteds are more common. They are year-round residents, whereas red-breasteds arrive here after spending spring and summer further north.

A friend of mine who lives close by has white-breasted nuthatches in her backyard all the time, but she never sees red-breasted. In my yard the opposite is true. A lot depends on habitat—white-breasted nuthatches tend to prefer big trees, especially oaks.

Once, and only once, I had both species converge on my peanut feeder at the same time. Next to the red-breasted, the more robust white-breasted looked huge. But consider this: the combined weight of the two birds was about one ounce!

Like chickadees, nuthatches can be very trusting. One time, a red-breasted landed on my peanut feeder just as I was about to hang it up. I froze and was able to watch the bird 12 inches from my face for a few precious seconds. With patience, nuthatches will even take food from your hand. I hope to experience that some day. For now, I’m happy to watch them at any distance.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Sandhill crane passage is a fall classic
(published 10-14-04)

The first sandhill crane I ever saw was through a rental car window just outside of Grand Island, Neb. The huge bird was flying low, silhouetted in a soft evening sky. It was one of those “wow” moments in birding that you never forget.

I was in central Nebraska to witness one of the birding world’s great spectacles—the annual gathering of up to 500,000 sandhill cranes along the Platte River, the key stopover along their northerly spring migration. “Sandies” were everywhere, roosting on the Platte’s sandbars at dusk and foraging in surrounding corn fields by day. There was even a rare whooping crane mixed in among them, an exciting bonus for the hundreds of visiting birders like me.

That was 1998, when I barely knew a kinglet from a kingfisher. Now I fully appreciate that going to Nebraska in March to see my first sandhill crane was like somebody going to the Super Bowl to see his first football game. And frankly, I had no idea back then how easy it is to see sandhill cranes right here at home. October and November, in particular, offer prime viewing opportunities as the birds migrate south. You may not see a crane on the ground, but with a little patience you’re almost certain to see one of their noisy flocks passing over—maybe from your own backyard. 

Cranes are indeed conspicuous in the late autumn sky. They have extra-long windpipes that serve to amplify their distinctive bugle call. Even high-flying flocks are easily heard.

One of my favorite nature writers, Scott Weidensaul, described the sandhill crane’s call as “pure magic, guaranteed to raise gooseflesh on someone hearing it for the first time.” Such reverent words are commonly associated with cranes, which are among the world’s oldest living bird species. They have an almost mythical quality that people find inspiring.

Of course, sandhill cranes are distinguished by their size as well. With wingspans up to 7 feet they are slightly larger than great blue herons. Unlike herons, however, cranes fly with their long necks stretched straight out. They usually travel in loose V formations, like geese, but on Indian summer days you may see them soaring in a spiral pattern. In those cases they’re riding updrafts of warm air, called thermals, just like hawks and turkey vultures do. 

Sandies passing over DuPage and Kane counties this fall likely spent their summers on breeding grounds in Minnesota, Wisconsin or southern Canada. Most of them will now assemble at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana before journeying on to Florida and southern Georgia for the winter. 

To see cranes in great numbers, Jasper-Pulaski is the place to be from mid-October through November. It’s the Midwest version of the Platte River spectacle, and it’s a whole lot closer than Nebraska. For more information, call (219) 843-4841.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Bird list growing at Tri-County State Park
(published 9-30-04)

You know a place is serious about birds—and about attracting birders—when it publishes its own bird checklist. So it is with Tri-County State Park in Bartlett, which I visited for the first time on Sept. 4.

I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to get there. The 500-acre preserve—parts of which are in Cook, DuPage and Kane Counties—opened to the public in April 2003. Since then I’d heard good things about Tri-County, including some very promising bird reports. One that stands out is a field trip last April when birders spotted more than 50 Wilson’s snipe. Talk about a successful snipe hunt!

Tri-County is unique for being a joint venture between the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District manages the park and conducts environmental education programs on the grounds and in the impressive new visitor center.

Kevin Luby, one of several naturalists on staff, is Tri-County’s resident bird expert. He told me that nearly 100 species have been seen at the park since record keeping began in June 2003. Notable species sighted this year include bald eagle, osprey, sandhill crane, northern shrike, orchard oriole, yellow-headed blackbird, sedge wren and dickcissel. Among the park’s known breeding birds are wood duck, American woodcock, sora rail and Wilson’s snipe.

In August, birders discovered a common moorhen with four chicks in the wetland just north of the Indigo Trail loop—an excellent find for this area. A couple of those chicks were seen again when I toured Tri-County with the DuPage Birding Club. I was not among the lucky observers, but it was still a great morning. A highlight for me was learning the gurgling song of the marsh wren and then enjoying great looks of the bird at close range.

As a birding venue, Tri-County is very good and will only get better. The park offers five miles of easy-to-walk trails that showcase a nice variety of avian habitats. Native prairie and wetland restoration projects on the former farm fields will produce great benefits for migrating and breeding birds in the coming years. Displays in the visitor center explain the remarkable transformation that is taking place due to the Forest Preserve District’s efforts.

Currently, Luby says, most of Tri-County’s birds are seen in the marsh areas or in shrubby patches along Brewster Creek. For birders who want the “most bang for their buck,” he recommends the short Indigo Trail. He also likes the bridge between the Indigo and Bluestem Trails for spotting warblers and vireos in the spring. Pick up a map (and a bird list) at the visitor center.

Luby will lead bird walks beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 12 and Nov. 9. The walks are free but advance sign-up is required—call (847) 429-4670. The entrance to Tri-County is on the north side of Stearns Road, west of Route 59.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
So many birds, and so many things to learn
(published 9-16-04)

It happened again. On August 20, a bird made my day.

When I least expected it, smack in the dog days of summer, a Carolina wren visited my yard. A first! And like it so often does in birding, luck played a big role.

The lucky part is that I happened to be outside. It was one of those unseasonably cool days last month so I took my coffee and newspaper out on the patio. I was keeping an eye on our bird feeders, of course, but not expecting anything unusual. Then I heard it—a strikingly loud and distinctive song. I knew instantly that I’d never heard it before, at least not in the backyard.

I really should have recognized that sound. I’ve seen and heard Carolina wrens many times while vacationing in South Carolina, where it’s the state bird. But on my patio that morning I guess I was too surprised to think. I needed to see the singer. Fortunately, after an agonizing minute or two, the wren popped into view.

When the bird moved on—it never went near my feeders—I went inside and grabbed my “Birding by Ear” CDs. I wanted to hear that song again. That’s when I learned something interesting. The narrator said that the Carolina wren is one of the few birds that sing year-round. Come to think of it, it did seem odd to hear a bird singing like that in mid-August. Later I looked in a few books to find out more. Carolina wrens are not migratory, which I didn’t know, and the Chicago area is about as far north as they ever go. Like mockingbirds, another “southern” species, they are said to be turning up in DuPage County with increasing regularity.

Seeing the wren was a great surprise, and learning some facts about it made the experience even better.

Lately I’ve been reminded how much more there is to learn about birds, even the common ones. A few weeks ago I was reading “Two Blue Jays” to my 3-year-old son. From that children’s book I discovered that the blue jay is the only bird that will bury nuts and seeds in the ground and come back to them later. I knew jays were clever but I didn’t know that.

Then last month I went online to check out Laura Erickson’s monthly birding column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She wrote that cedar waxwings, when building their nests, sometimes steal building materials from the nests of their neighbors. This information took my opinion of waxwings down a notch, but I still think they are the best-dressed birds on the block.

We can all enjoy birds just by looking at them, and sometimes that’s enough. But learning about their habits and lifestyles can help us appreciate them even more. As birders, it’s always rewarding when we take the time to be curious.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
Online network spreads the joy of birding
(published 9-2-04)

One of my goals for this column is to share resources that can make birdwatching even more enjoyable. I’ve written about our local birding clubs, for example, and I’ve recommended some good books and useful Web sites. This time I’d like to tell you about an online community known as IBET, which stands for Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts.

The name is a little misleading—IBET is not some sort of intellectual think tank for birders. Yes, thoughts are exchanged, but the network is mostly used for reporting local bird sightings. The “what, when and where” is valuable information for birders who want to see more species, including the truly rare ones that occasionally visit the Chicago area.

As of mid-August, IBET had 588 registered members according to Sue Friscia, a birder from Alsip who founded the list-serve in 1985. Her motivation? “I was obsessed with knowing what everyone else was seeing and didn’t want to miss anything,” she says.

Devoted IBET users don’t miss much, that’s for sure. News travels quickly on the network, often leading to spur-of-the-moment birding opportunities that are too good to pass up. A few years ago I was in my downtown Chicago office when I noticed a fresh IBET posting about a least bittern at North Pond in Lincoln Park. The secretive marsh-dwelling species had been spotted about an hour earlier. What the heck, I decided, it’s Friday afternoon. So I grabbed my binoculars and dashed out the door to catch a northbound bus. I was on the scene 20 minutes later and, fortunately, so was the bird—in plain view, perched on a low branch just above the water. It was the first least bittern I’d ever seen, and IBET made it possible.

The network is valuable in other ways, too. It’s a place to ask questions and get answers, and a place to share birding stories that might otherwise go untold. Plus, at any given time, there’s usually a spirited discussion going on about some aspect of the hobby. For example, a recent exchange focused on the merits of field guides with illustrations versus those with actual photographs of birds. (For the record, most participants seemed to prefer illustrated books.)

The number of daily messages posted to IBET varies greatly by season. During the peak of spring and fall migration, when waves of non-resident birds are moving through the region, the network may receive 40 or 50 postings a day. That’s information overload for many of us. But if you read just a fraction of the messages you’ll get a good sense of what birds to watch for at different times throughout the year—and even what to expect in your backyard tomorrow.

So, if you’re a computer user and you want the latest local birding news, give IBET a try. Membership is free. To join the network, send a blank e-mail to, wait for the response, and then follow the instructions. (Note: “ILbirds” is the group’s formal name for registration purposes but users still call it IBET.)

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Migrating nighthawks mark last weeks of summer
(published 8-19-04)

Like most birders, I get a little impatient during the summer. Birds are out and about, but nothing like the variety of species we enjoy during the spring and fall migration seasons, when every day seems to bring a new surprise.

Fortunately, on the birding calendar, fall comes early. In fact, migrating shorebirds--sandpipers, plovers and dowitchers, among others -- began arriving here in mid-July!

But as summer winds down, it's the nighthawks I look forward to most -- common nighthawks, to be precise. And there is no better time than late August and early September to observe them, when large flocks are moving south. If you've never seen a nighthawk, or if you admire this birds as I do, now is your chance.

The common nighthawk is a fun bird to watch, and most often you'll hear the bird before you see it. It has a loud, buzzy one-syllable flight call that's unmistakable. Learn that sound, and then it's just a matter of looking up to find the bird. 

I highly recommend a visit to, where you can listen to nighthawks and other birds. Take time to explore the rest of the site, too. It's loaded with great information about birds and birding, courtesy of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology.

The common nighthawk is easy to identify by sight as well. It's a dark, medium-sized bird with long pointy wings that have white patches near the tips. Watch also for the nighthawk's floppy, erratic flight pattern as it catches flying insects -- its only food source. With that kind of diet it should be no surprise that nighthawks are not really "hawks" at all. They belong to the goatsucker family, which includes the whip-poor-will. (Seriously, you could look it up!)

Nighthawks are most active around dusk or at daybreak, but every now and then you'll see on in broad daylight. Last year I spotted one during an afternoon ballgame at Wrigley Field. That bird landed at the base of one of the light towers and it's the only time I've ever seen a nighthawk sitting still. Common nighthawks breed in this area so they can be observed throughout the spring and summer, though not as often as their name implies.

Nighthawk populations are said to be declining, especially in urban areas where they used to be abundant. One problem is their preference for nesting on flat, gravely rooftops. Only older buildings have them and many are being replaced. The birds you'll see in the coming weeks nested farther north and are heading toward their wintering grounds in South America.

To see them on their way, start watching the skies around 6 p.m. You'll likely see some solitary birds flying quite low, and maybe some swirling flocks up higher. Evenings are best for spotting these charismatic birds. 

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
One lucky sighting ignites a passion for birds (published 8-5-04) One of the questions I hear often is, How did you get interested in birdwatching? Maybe you’ve been asked the same thing. Most birders, I’ve found, rather enjoy talking about their earliest experiences in birding—in particular, the “spark” that triggered their interest and got them going in the hobby. I always like hearing these stories, and I’ve selfishly decided to devote this column to telling my own. For many birders, the spark was a particular bird sighting. That was the case with me, and it happened in 1994 at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. One day on my way to or from the beach I noticed a bright yellow bird flitting around in a thicket. I noticed right away it had some distinctive markings so I crouched down and tried to get a better look. The bird was cooperative, and I quickly realized I’d never seen anything like it. But what could it be? Luckily, our cottage at Kiawah contained a field guide to the birds. Within minutes I was able to match the image in my head with one in the book. Success! No doubt about it, I’d seen a male hooded warbler. The whole process of observation followed by a positive identification was very satisfying. The next day I went to Kiawah’s nature center to ask if “my bird” was anything unusual. That’s when I discovered that the resort had real live naturalists on staff who knew the local birds and offered guided bird walks. Best of all, they’d published a bird checklist just for Kiawah. The list showed all the species that had ever been sighted on the island and their relative abundance during each of the four seasons. Cool! Until then I never realized people were keeping such close track of things. And there on the list was the hooded warbler, rated R for rare. Clearly I’d been lucky the day before, and now I couldn’t wait to see what else I could find. With checklist in hand I was off to the races. I spent the rest of the vacation looking for birds, doing the best I could without binoculars. The treasure hunt was on. Almost overnight, I’d become a birder. I’ve been back to Kiawah many times since 1994 because my wife’s parents now have a permanent home there (more luck). Since that hooded warbler, I’ve seen another 120 species on the island, including my first gull-billed tern two months ago. It’s truly an exceptional place to watch birds, especially shorebirds and waders. And for me, it’s where a spark turned into a flame. Do you have a “spark story” too? Please share, and I’ll try to include your responses in an upcoming column. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Area birding clubs give hobby a social dimension
(published 7-29-04)

I subscribe to a free e-mail list for birders--a place where fanatics like me can post their bird sightings and share information. Recently one person wrote to the group looking for advice. She was a beginning birder who claimed to have seen all the "common" birds in her backyard and neighborhood and wanted to know how to expand her "life list." A birder in Palatine, suggested that she join the local bird clubs and go on all their field trips.” Great answer, I thought.

For me, keeping pace with one birding club is hard enough, and if I attended all of its schedules field trips I'd have to quit work and resign from my family. But there's no doubt that joining a club opens up opportunities to see more birds. The outings focus on local “hot spots,” and the leaders are usually experts who can identify virtually any bird by sight or sound. Plus, you’ll generally see a greater variety of species when birding in a small group, simply because more people are looking and listening.

We are fortunate to have two excellent birdwatching clubs in this area: the DuPage Birding Club and the Kane County Audubon Society. Joining either one would be a great way to take your interest in birds to the next level.

Members of these clubs range from beginners to highly advanced birders. Some watch birds primarily in their backyards; some have birded all over the world. But the wide range of experience and skill levels is not a problem. Most birders, I’ve found, are friendly and helpful--another reason why this hobby is so easy to enter. The expert birders seem to really enjoy the teaching role. In the field, they go out of their way to help beginners see and identify the birds.

When I moved to Glen Ellyn seven years ago, I knew nothing about the local bird scene. The DuPage Birding Club was just what I needed. The club’s meetings, guest speakers, newsletter and field trips brought me up to speed quickly. Without the club, I may have never participated in the Christmas Bird Count, gone on a woodcock watch or “discovered” some of this area’s best birding sites. There’s something very motivating about these clubs--they'll get you out and about, to places you might never go on your own.

The DuPage Birding Club was founded in 1985 and has more than 200 members. Meetings are held at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn. For more information, visit To receive a sample newsletter, call (630) 778-6672.

Kane County Audubon is 38 years old with about 110 members. Most meetings take place at Peck Farm in Geneva. For more information, including a sample newsletter, call (630) 584-8386, or email

You needn’t be a member to attend a club meeting or field trip. Give one a try and guests are always welcome. Even if you participate in a small fraction of a club’s activities, you’re bound to meet some nice people who share your passion for birds. That’s the greatest club benefit of all.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

A day at Midewin: grassland birds and more (published 7-1-04) There are many kinds of birds that most likely will never turn up in your yard. But some of them are not that far away. With a little effort, and if you know where to go, you can find them. I call them “destination” birds. My destination on one of the first really warm days of June was Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, about 15 miles south of Joliet. The site is widely known for its abundance of grassland bird species, and now it’s more accessible than ever. On June 5, about 5,000 acres of Midewin were opened to the public for the first time. I was there the very next day, taking advantage of one of this region’s prime birding opportunities. Midewin was established in 1996 as the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. It’s on the site of the former Joliet Arsenal, where explosives were manufactured, packaged and stockpiled by the U.S. Army. Grass-covered concrete storage bunkers still dot portions of the 20,000-acre property. Birding groups have been going to Midewin during the last eight years for pre-arranged tours conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. Now you can experience the prairie on your own. Several easy, self-guided hiking trails are set up that offer a nice variety of birds, butterflies and wildflowers. My target, of course, was grassland birds. Two minutes into Midewin’s new Henslow Trail I was watching a singing Dickcissel. I’d only seen this species once before, and throughout the day I’d see many more. There were plenty of Bobolinks too, filling my ears with their bizarre in-flight vocalizations. True to its name, the Henslow Trail takes visitors through ideal habitat for the endangered Henslow’s Sparrow, another bird I really hoped to see. Well, I didn’t see one, but I heard several. My luck was better with Grasshopper Sparrow, another grassland specialty. Twice I was able to watch one perform the high-frequency trill that inspired this species’ name. Midewin’s bird variety is not limited to grassland residents. My “bird of the day,” in fact, was a Loggerhead Shrike. I’d never seen one before in Illinois, where it’s designated as a threatened species. Other sightings included Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler and numerous Eastern Kingbirds and Indigo Buntings. One of the pleasures of Midewin is the wide-open prairie itself. There are some impressive vistas already and the best is yet to come. The goal is to restore the entire preserve to native prairie and build many more miles of hiking trails. It’s a massive undertaking that could take up to 20 years. Now is a great time to explore Midewin. The Forest Service is offering birding tours at 7:30 a.m. on July 3rd, 17th and 24th. Details about these and other nature programs are available by calling (815) 423-6370. Or visit Midewin’s website at Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Hey birders, we can watch butterflies too! (published 6-17-04) As I said before, “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman is my all-time favorite book about birding. So when the author spoke at the Morton Arboretum recently I made a point to go listen. But Kaufman’s visit wasn’t just about birds; his main topic was butterflies. Kaufman sees birds and butterflies as a natural fit. You can enjoy both at the same time, he says, and lot more birders these days are doing just that. A few even have the self-confidence to call themselves “butterflyers.” I’m not in that category yet, but I’ll admit that butterflies are high on my list of favorite things. In fact it was butterflies, not birds, which fascinated me as a child. I collected them, and my hometown newspaper back in Ohio even did a story about me and my unusual hobby. The headline was “Butterflies Bug Him”—something my older brother never lets me forget. Today, unless you are a lepidopterist, it’s generally not “PC” to capture and collect butterflies. Most people prefer to just watch them and try to identify them, just as we do with birds. That’s a lot easier than catching and mounting the little buggers anyway. I don’t keep a “life list” of all the butterflies I’ve seen, but I have started keeping track of what I see in the yard. My list is short but growing. As with birds, the more I look the more I see—it’s amazing how many things are flying around if we take time to notice. Most butterflies are very small, with wingspans less than an inch, so identification can be a big challenge. I purchased Kaufman’s new butterfly field guide to help me with that. The only other essential tool is a pair of binoculars with close-focus capability. Your birding optics are probably fine. When he was working on his field guide Kaufman says a few hard-core birders accused him of being a traitor. They couldn’t believe he was turning his back on the birds. But of course that wasn’t true at all; Kaufman loves birds as much as ever. With butterflies he’s just branching out into a related field. He says he’s also motivated by the chance to call more attention to important conservation issues. Habitat loss—the decline in native vegetation such as tallgrass prairie—is a major threat to many butterfly species. The Regal Fritillary, for example, has virtually disappeared from its former range east of the Mississippi River, including Illinois. Kaufman’s presentation really opened my eyes. Maybe I’ve been a little too one-dimensional. Birds are still No. 1, but now I’m looking at butterflies a lot more closely. They’re starting to bug me again. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Savoring the sights and sounds of May (published 5-27-04) Back in January I wrote that one of the best things about birdwatching is the surprise factor—like “a box of chocolates,” remember? That’s especially true right now, when scores of bird species are migrating through our region. In the backyard or in the woods, it’s the time of year when almost anything is possible. For birders, it doesn’t get any better than May. I’ve been reminded of that almost every day this month, and I hope you too have been outside enjoying the avian marvels of late spring. From about mid-April until June I wake up extra early to have my coffee with the birds. On most days I’m on the back patio by 6:00 a.m. The neighbors must think I’m crazy. Or worse, creepy, since I’m always peering through binoculars. But so far nobody has called the police, and I appreciate my neighbors for that. Even more, I appreciate their big, tall trees. Outside on dawn patrol, I’m scanning everything that grows, looking for movement. And listening, too. I know the regular backyard sounds well enough to recognize when something unusual is flitting around. Then it’s just a matter of finding the vocalist. This spring I’ve had some exciting first-time visitors: a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a brown thrasher and an indigo bunting. These are common birds—you can find them rather easily any April or May in their usual habitats. But there’s nothing common about them when it comes to my yard. It took almost seven years in this location to finally add them to my coveted yard list, which is now up to 89 species. As expected, it’s been a terrific month to spot members of the warbler family. I’ve had backyard views of 11 species, including bay-breasted, blackpoll, Cape May and magnolia. Good birds, all of them, and I’m hoping to squeeze out a few more before summer sets in. On May 8, I took part in the Spring Count, a statewide event that supplies important data to people who study bird population trends. If weather conditions are right, these annual one-day birdathons can produce amazing numbers and variety. This year I was on a counting team that covered the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. It was a terrific day in the field: We tallied 102 species, including 23 kinds of warblers and five types of vireos. My favorite sightings, however, were birds of prey. Early on we found two young great-horned owls in plain view, snuggled up close on the same branch. Too bad I’m not a photographer! Then, near the end of the day, we watched a peregrine falcon soaring over the Arb’s west side. I see peregrines occasionally in downtown Chicago but this was my first in DuPage County. On the eve of the Spring Count, or before any May bird outing, I get far too excited for my own good, thinking about the possibilities. I’m like a kid the night before Christmas, dreaming of brightly colored packages—the kind with feathers. Will tomorrow be the day I see my first worm-eating warbler? Or my first Kentucky? Will a new species visit the yard? First-time sightings are always special, but in May I savor everything. One can never see too many scarlet tanagers or Baltimore orioles or Blackburnian warblers. I “need” these birds every year, and pursuing them is a spring ritual that’s always worth the effort. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Fun with feeders: setting out a backyard buffet (published 5-6-04) Sometimes I look around my garage and basement and wonder: Where did all these feeders and birdbaths and squirrel baffles and poles come from? My dust-gathering “inventory” is a birder’s garage sale just waiting to happen. If you’re a backyard bird feeder like me, you understand—there’s a trial and error factor that goes with the hobby. We’ve been in our present home for almost seven years, feeding the birds from day one, and only now do I feel like we have all the right pieces in place. Since I enjoy hearing about how other birders entertain their feathered guests, I thought maybe you’d like to hear about my own backyard tactics. I keep things pretty simple on our tiny plot—three tube-style feeders and one birdbath with a dripper. The feeders are filled with black oil sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts and thistle seed. I think of the sunflower seed feeder as the main course and the other two feeders as side dishes. In my view, if you only have one feeder, it should be filled with black oil sunflower seeds. This will satisfy a wide variety of birds, and cardinals especially. My peanut feeder is always busy. Yes, the nuts are a little pricey, and far too many of them end up in the bellies of starlings and house sparrows. But without the feeder, I’d miss watching one of my favorite backyard birds, the red-breasted nuthatch. Two kinds of woodpeckers—downy and red-bellied—also enjoy the peanuts and I like having them around, too. The thistle was discovered by some pine siskins last December and, amazingly, they stayed until the end of April before finally departing for their summer homes in Canada. Now the bright yellow American goldfinches have the feeder all to themselves. For years I’ve been hoping that a common redpoll will stop by for a thistle snack, too. Not yet. Of course, birds come and go during the week and I never see them. I really appreciate when uncommon birds have the good sense to visit my yard on weekends. One of the nice things about the thistle tube is that squirrels don’t bother it. Not so with the other two feeders, of course. Currently I have the sunflower seed and peanut feeders hanging side by side on a double shepherd’s hook. A metal, cone-shaped baffle is attached to the pole about four feet up from the ground. Only a couple of squirrels have ever defeated it, and both are in the rodent hall of fame. From early May through September I maintain at least one hummingbird feeder. We don’t see a lot of hummers in the yard but it’s always a treat when we do. This month there’s a fancy new “specialty” feeder on the Reiter estate. Thinking warm thoughts, I sent away for an oriole feeder in the dead of winter. It’s made of wood and features two spikes for holding orange halves and a built-in cupholder for grape jelly. I’m optimistic that it will attract a few of those flashy Baltimore orioles as advertised. However, part of me knows this was an unnecessary purchase. Here’s why: Last May, in a classic case of beginner’s luck, I had an oriole stop by just four hours after I’d put out some orange halves. It was the first time I’d ever put out oranges, which I attached to the tops of a couple fence posts. Two nails, one orange, one oriole. Simple can be good. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Fascinating books that celebrate ‘the chase’ (published 4-22-04) How far would you go to see a rare bird? I guess my own limit is about 110 miles. In November 1999 I drove to Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana for the chance of seeing a common crane—a vagrant Eurasian species that occurs in the United States only once in a blue moon. According to Internet reports, a single common crane had been spotted among the hundreds of sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski a few days earlier. This was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I had to go. Fortunately, the effort paid off for me and for the throngs of other birders on the scene. I remember chatting with one guy who had just flown in from Baltimore. Yes, just to see a bird. Telling this story is my way of admitting that I, like many birders, can be a little obsessive. We are not always rational when the chance arises to see something new—especially something rare. Still, I don’t know anybody like the main characters in “The Big Year,” a new book about three men who stop at nothing (and spare no expense) in their quest to set a new U.S. record for most bird species seen in a single calendar year. “The Big Year” reveals a crazy, competitive side of birdwatching that bears little resemblance to the hobby as most of us know it. You might want to pick up a copy just for laughs. But when it comes to books about pursuing birds, I can highly recommend three. These stories, all published in the 1990s, will make you want to pack up the binoculars and field guides and hit the road. “The Feather Quest” by Pete Dunne takes you on a guided tour of the country’s birding hot spots. Whether or not you’ve ever been to places like Southeast Arizona, Everglades National Park or Cape May, N.J., you’ll enjoy Dunne’s entertaining accounts. He has a way with words, to say the least. Near the end there’s a riveting chapter based on a visit with the late Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote the book’s introduction. “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman is another entertaining read and rates as my all-time favorite bird book. It’s the story of Kaufman’s remarkable personal mission to see as many birds as possible in a single year. But unlike the “The Big Year” characters, he carried out his plan as a teenager with no money in his pockets, hitchhiking back and forth across the country multiple times. Kaufman, like Dunne, is today about as famous as a birder can be. “Chasing Warblers” by Bob and Vera Thornton is more obscure. It documents the authors’ attempt to find and photograph all 52 species of wood warblers in the United States. Seeing certain birds can be tough enough, but taking high-quality pictures of them is a far greater challenge. The effort behind this book is truly extraordinary. Buy it for the pictures and read it to see how the Thornton’s managed to pull it off. All of these books are interesting and readable, in part because they are not just about birds. They’re also about the people—some birders and some not—encountered out on the open road. Each book will captivate anyone who likes birds and likes to visit new places in search of them. Happy trails. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Habitat variety makes Willowbrook a bird magnet (published 4-15-04) If you ever have the chance to go birding in high winds and snow squalls please take my advice: don’t. I encountered both bird-deterring elements during an early March visit to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. My quick loop around the preserve’s nature trail yielded only one notable species, a brown creeper. Trust me, in better weather, Willowbrook is a great place for birdwatching. It’s really a special piece of property. The Center’s short nature trail feature four distinct habitats—wetlands, prairie, savannah and woodland. This attracts a wide variety of birds. Carl Strang, a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, says 146 species have been documented at Willowbrook, not counting injured or sick birds that have been brought in for treatment. (The Center is, after all, the area’s foremost wildlife care facility.) One of Strang’s most memorable sightings was a male Lawrence’s warbler—a bird so rare it took me three field guides before I could even find a picture of it. Other nice finds over the years include sedge wren, prothonotary warbler and Louisiana waterthrush. The latter two species were spotted alongside the little stream for which Willowbrook is named. There’s more. On two different occasions Strang witnessed a flyover osprey, and each bird was carrying a fish! Another time he watched an American bittern lift off from a tiny patch of wild rice and cattails in Willowbrook’s marsh. He likes that story a lot because it shows how even small landscape features can attract new birds. Habitat restoration work now in progress will give the preserve even more natural diversity. The preserve’s centerpiece is a restored four-acre prairie, where eastern bluebirds have nested for the past three years. Look for the bluebird boxes when you walk the trail. Besides the habitat variety, one of the things I like best about Willowbrook is its compactness. The entire property is 50 acres and the nature trail is less than a mile around. So it’s a great birding option if you just have an hour, and a good bird walk for young children with short attention spans. Willowbrook’s live animal exhibits are worth a look, too. A series of outdoor cages contain some impressive raptors, including bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures and four kinds of owls. These are birds that were treated for injuries and are now permanently disabled. Now they play an educational role. A surprisingly wide variety of smaller birds are on display inside the main building. This is your chance for close-up views of a Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak and American kestrel, plus hard-to-find species such as black-throated blue warbler, sora, purple martin and eastern screech owl. All the birds were brought to Willowbrook for treatment of injuries or disease. Fully recovered birds are released back into nature. But save the indoor exhibits for a rainy day. With spring migration now in full swing, it’s time to get outside and see some new birds. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at Willowbrook can help you with that. Guided tours of the nature trail will be offered at 9:00 a.m. on April 13 and 18, and May 18 and 22. Also on May 22, a program called “Birding by Ear” will begin at 7:30 a.m. For more information, call (630) 942-6200 or visit The Center is located on Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn, about a mile south of Roosevelt Road. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
This yard work needs binoculars
(published 3-18-04)

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of birding: at home and away from home--or "yard birding" and "field birding." I do both, but in recent years, I've done a lot more watching from my back patio than from the trails of our local forest preserves. Having young kids--one of whom answers to the nickname, "Jaybird--tends to keep me closer to the nest on weekends.

But I love watching the birds that come to our backyard feeders and birdbath. My favorite is the red-breasted nuthatch, the main reason I own and maintain a peanut feeder.

What really makes yard birding interesting for me is keeping track of all the birds that come and go, or in birding terms, maintaining a yard list. If you are not keeping a yard list, I urge you to start. It will add to your enjoyment of the hobby and improve your observation skills. 

My own back yard is small and surrounded by other houses. Yet after less than seven years in this location, my yard list is up to 86 species. That's pretty good, but it's really nothing remarkable. The more you look, the more you see, and I spend a lot of hours looking.

To put my own record into perspective, consider what local birders refer to as "The Yard" in Downers Grove. Those homeowners, who have lived on the property for 33 years, have built a yard list of legendary proportions--194 species! Now that's remarkable. Their latest addition came last fall when they spotted some tundra swans flying over.

That's right, fly-overs count. There are no hard and fast rules, of course, but most birders define a "yard bird" as any species seen on or from one's property. That opens up a lot of possibilities.

In fact, over time, most of your yard birds will not be birds that visit your feeders. The majority will be the birds you observe in the air, or the birds you spot flitting around your trees and shrubs during the spring and fall migration seasons. 

A quick analysis of my logbook shows that only about 30 species have visited the various feeders or other enticements I have placed in my yard over the years. More than half of my avian visitors were simply observed by looking up, down and around. Three of my yard birds weren't even seen, they were heard: great-horned owl, Eastern screech owl and killdeer.

One of my yard birds was also a "lifer"--the first pine siskin I ever laid eyes on was at my thistle feeder.

In 2003, for the first time, I kept a "year list" for the yard as well, logging the name and date for each species seen. I ended up with 73 species. 

Keeping a year list adds another fun dimension to yard birding. There's the challenge of seeing how many species you can observe, plus the data can be useful for tracking patterns or changes from year to year. I know people who could tell you when the first robin appeared in their yards for each of the last 10 springs. Useless information? Not for a birder.

Obviously, you can take the listing game as far as you wish. But at the very least, keep a yard list. You might be surprised by how fast it grows.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved. 
Birding on a cold winter’s night yields results (published 2-19-04) On the last evening in January, with outside temperatures hovering just above zero, I went to church. But not for religious services. I was there to hear about birds. The venue was the New England Congregational Church in Aurora. The event was the annual benefit dinner and silent auction for the Fox Valley Wildlife Center. It was the organization’s largest fundraising event of the year, and it had the look of a major success. The patrons I observed—about 125 in all—certainly were not holding back at the auction tables. The event also served as a tribute to Kay Johnson, the wildlife center’s founder and past president, who recently retired. In an after-dinner ceremony, Johnson was honored for her lead role in establishing what is Kane County’s only wildlife rehabilitation facility. Located in the Elburn Woods Forest Preserve in Elburn, the center began caring for birds and animals in 2001. Then came the “sermon”—a presentation called Birding the Midwest by Kathy and Bob Andrini from St. Charles. Bob, a retired high school biology teacher, is president of the Kane County Audubon Society and teaches birdwatching courses at the College of DuPage. Kathy, his wife, is a former preschool teacher. Both are avid birders and enjoy sharing their expertise. In fact, on the same day as their presentation, the Andrinis led a group of COD students on a frigid eagle-watching trip to the Mississippi River. Fortunately, Bob and Kathy regained feeling in their toes and fingertips just in time to present their remarks and slides. And we birders do love looking at bird slides, especially in the dead of winter. Know how baseball fans get all warm and fuzzy thinking about the start of spring training? Same thing with birders, except when it’s cold and snowy we’re thinking about the return of Red-Winged Blackbirds in March, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers in April and, of course, the inevitable wave of migrating warblers in May. The Andrinis wisely geared their remarks to beginning birdwatchers. While the room was obviously full of people who support wildlife, only a handful were obsessed birders like me. The presentation was a nice introduction to the common birds of the Fox River Valley region and included some helpful tips on identification. My guess is that audience members were fairly impressed by the variety of bird species that can be seen in Kane and surrounding counties. Even a Bald Eagle, if you’re lucky. Of course, seeing the birds is one thing, taking pictures is another. Nature photography is an art that requires great patience and skill. Judging by his slides, Bob Andrini has plenty of each. His many close-up shots were achieved by “digiscoping”—a process where one attaches a digital camera to a tripod-mounted spotting scope, which is what birders call their fancy telescopes. For distant subjects, like ducks on a lake, digiscoping is a great way to document your sightings. The method can yield amazing photos of your backyard feeder birds, too. Most of Bob’s photos were taken on the Fox River or at Nelson Lake Marsh near Batavia—one of the area’s outstanding sites for waterfowl and marsh birds. Kane County Audubon leads a birdwalk at Nelson Lake at 8:00am on the first Saturday of every month. The walks are open to everyone. If you’re a casual backyard birdwatcher and want to see some new birds in a diverse habitat, this is a great opportunity. For more information, call 630-584-8386. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Birdwatching is like a box of chocolates
(published 1-22-04) 

Last year I went out of my way to see “Winged Migration” at a theater in Chicago. No regrets, the film was excellent, but turns out I could have saved myself some trouble—a few weeks later it came to Glen Ellyn and stayed for weeks on end. Imagine that, a bird documentary held over.

The popular success of “Winged Migration,” in my view, is just the latest sign that birds are really something special. They can amaze and fascinate people who don’t even think of themselves as birdwatchers. And people are curious about them. I get bird questions all the time from friends and colleagues.

Many of us have taken our curiosity to the next level. We are birdwatchers or “birders” and not afraid to admit it. The hobby is mainstream now, having moved beyond those old stereotypes involving little old ladies in sensible shoes. It’s big business, too. Have you noticed how much space our local hardware stores devote to birdseed, feeders and other supplies? And how about those specialty stores that cater specifically to birders?

These are fairly recent developments. BusinessWeek, in an article titled “Where the Boomers Are Flocking,” reported in 2002 that the American birdwatching population now totals 46 million—up 10 percent from five years before. The U.S. Forest Service rates birding as the fastest growing outdoor activity.

So we know this is big and getting bigger--but why? What makes birdwatching so appealing? It really depends on the person. For some, the best thing about birding may be traveling to new places and adding species to their Life Lists. Others enjoy birding because they can do it from their kitchen window. I like it for each of those reasons, plus a few more:
  • Birding is simple. The only essential equipment is a decent pair of binoculars and a field guide to help identify what you see. The cotton vest with 27 pockets can come later.
  • Birding is convenient. It’s something you can do almost anywhere at any time. I am always looking and listening for birds. I’m so distracted by birds on golf courses that I should probably stop trying to play. Oh, and in the car. (My wife could tell you about that.)
  • Birding is like a box of chocolates. Really, at any place and time, you never know what you might see. This is particularly true during the spring and fall migration seasons, when a lot of non-resident birds are passing through Chicagoland. The more time you spend birding, the more you learn to expect the unexpected. Still, I am constantly being surprised, and that’s part of the fun.
  • Birding is challenging. Learning to identify birds by sight and sound is the main thing. Then there are challenges like going on field trips in search of particular birds or the game of adding new species to your yard list (hint: watch for flyovers).
  • Birding brings us closer to nature. I think most of us would like to feel more connected with the natural world. Birding satisfies that desire and broadens our horizons as well. In the spring, there’s something cool about spotting a scarlet tanager in your maple tree and knowing that a few weeks before it was probably somewhere in Central America.
I’m not an ornithologist—just a local birder who loves the hobby and wants to share it. If you too have a passion for birds, this column is for you. But it’s also for anybody who has ever hung a feeder or birdhouse in the backyard. Birds can be appreciated and enjoyed in many ways, no matter what your age, fitness level or degree of interest. And thanks to “Winged Migration,” you can even enjoy them with popcorn.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.