‘Tis the season to look and listen for owls
(published 12-1-05)

In the birding world, 2005 will rightly be remembered for the ivory-billed woodpecker. The announced rediscovery of the phantom bird in Arkansas last spring was truly remarkable—like an “extinct” bird rising from the dead.

But if not for the ivory-bill news, this might have been the Year of the Owl. The invasion last winter of 2,500 or more great gray owls into northern Minnesota attracted birders from throughout the country. The mass movement was triggered by a shortage of voles and other prey in Canada. Few great grays ever venture so far south, so it was a prime opportunity to see one of North America’s most sought-after birds. Northern hawk owls and boreal owls were also seen in uncommon numbers.

I didn’t make it to Duluth last winter—a fact I’m sorely reminded of when I see local birders wearing sweatshirts that commemorate the owlfest up north. So enough about great grays. Let’s talk about the owls we can enjoy close to home, starting in the backyard.

Great horned owls and eastern screech-owls are year-round residents in DuPage County. Of course, they are primarily nocturnal, and more often heard than seen. Now is the perfect time to be listening for great horned owls, in particular, as early winter marks the beginning of their mating season. Their “hooting” is loud enough to get your attention even at 3:00 a.m. If the bird sounds close, throw on a coat and go outside. These are big, chunky birds, so spotting one in a bare tree can be easy, especially on moonlit nights.

Every now and then you might encounter a great horned owl in broad daylight. When walking in one of the forest preserves, be alert if you hear crows or jays making a big fuss. They may be harassing a roosting owl in a behavior known as “mobbing.”

The other owl on my yard list tends to be more elusive. I’ve heard the eerie call of a “screechy” on just two occasions, a few days apart in August 2002. It was dusk, but my attempts to see the bird failed. Screech-owls are known to use nest boxes if you’re feeling lucky.

Other owl species can be observed in this region if you know where to look—and if you’re willing to pursue them on short notice. The owl everybody hopes to see is the snowy. This is an arctic tundra bird that wanders south in small numbers; a few usually turn up on Chicago’s lakefront every winter. The first snowy I ever saw was perched on a dock in Montrose harbor. Snowy owls in DuPage County are extremely rare.

The northern saw-whet owl is another winter specialty. Unlike the snowy, this species conceals itself during the day, roosting in dense evergreens. The traditional local “hot spot” for saw-whets is Morton Arboretum in Lisle, where the same trees and shrubs seem to attract them year after year.

Yet another winter resident is the short-eared owl, which hunts low over open fields around dusk. Good places to search include Pratt’s Wayne Woods and Tri-County State Park in Bartlett, and Fermilab in Batavia.

You can track local owl sightings by monitoring the free online list-serve for area birders. To join the network, send a blank e-mail to ILbirds-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, wait for the response, then follow the instructions. To study owl sounds and learn more about these fascinating raptors, try www.owling.com.

In the meantime, keep an ear open when you go to bed. Owls are in your neighborhood, and hearing is believing.

Jeff Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
No debate about DuPage County’s birdiest yard
(published 11-3-05)

When you spot a magnificent frigatebird soaring over Dupage County, you’re a pretty lucky birder. And that’s just what happened to Bob Fisher in September. The frigatebird, a Florida Keys and Gulf Coast native, was evidently carried here by the winds of Hurricane Katrina. It was the first documented occurrence of the species in Illinois since 1988.

For Fisher, perhaps the only thing unlucky about his frigatebird sighting is that it happened two blocks away from his south Downers Grove home. If he’d spotted it from
his own property, it would have been species No. 196 on the yard list he keeps with his wife, Karen, who’s also an avid birder.

Building a yard list of nearly 200 species is ridiculous, and I mean that in a good way. This is DuPage County, after all, not southeast Arizona or some other famous birding hot spot. I’ve been watching birds for eight years in my Glen Ellyn backyard and I’m up to 99 species. Not bad, but my list feels short when I think about what the Fishers have achieved.

“The Yard in Downers Grove,” as local birders reverently call it, it quite simply a bird magnet. And it’s much more than a yard. The Fishers home sits on 3.5 acres with many bird-friendly features, including a small creek. Trees, shrubs and flowers were planted with birds in mind, and brush piles offer further cover.

As for feeders, Bob keeps about 20 of them stocked year-round with a variety of treats. In the winter, he activates two heated birdbaths.

No wonder The Yard is a virtual aviary. It has hosted every possible eastern warbler—35 species in all. When I asked Bob about his favorite all-time sightings, he cited several. Like the time three northern goshawks were in the yard at once. And the day when an osprey landed in the willow tree, clutching a fish in its talons.

Fisher estimates that about 15 percent of his yard species have been flyovers. These include bald eagle, Mississippi kite, peregrine falcon, tundra swan and black tern. Again, ridiculous.

The Fishers like to share their sightings, so when a rarity is spotted in The Yard other birders are welcomed. Many got to see a prairie warbler that once hung around by the creek, and others came to witness an evening grosbeak.

As you would expect, the Fishers are accomplished field birders as well. Last year they set out on a “big year,” to see how many different species they could see in Illinois. Bob tallied 322 for a new state record. Karen saw 316.

The Fishers are active with the DuPage Birding Club, with Bob currently serving as president and Karen helping organize field trips. Bob also volunteers with the Bird Conservation Network.

But getting back to The Yard, Bob modestly points out that time has worked in his favor. He and Karen have been in their current home for 35 years and feeding birds the whole time. Being semi-retired also frees up more hours for observation. But luck still plays a role. Sometimes you just need to be outside at the right moment, like Bob was when those tundra swans passed over in 2003.

It’ll take more good luck, and perhaps years, for the Fisher yard list to hit 200. It will be a magnificent milestone.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Bird-friendly Hidden Lake Forest Preserve is worth a visit
(published 10-6-05)

Considering its proximity, I really should visit Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn more often. I’ve always known it’s a “birdy” place, and after spending a morning there last month, I appreciate it even more.

The Sept. 17 outing, sponsored by the DuPage Birding Club, had high potential written all over it. We were visiting Hidden Lake during the peak of fall migration and the weather was ideal. Plus, there were 27 birders in our group. With that many eyes, the chances of seeing something good are vastly improved.

Habitat is the most important thing, of course, and Hidden Lake has plenty. At 390 acres, it’s one of the more compact local forest preserves. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in diversity.

“Within steps from the parking lot you can experience diving ducks on Round Meadow Lake, marsh birds in the cattails and shorebirds along parts of the river,” says Scott Meister, animal ecologist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. “All of this is in addition to the numerous songbirds dwelling in the woods and the prairie upland surrounding the lake. Sharing a border with the Morton Arboretum can’t hurt either.”

Meister told me that Hidden Lake Forest Preserve gets its name from the lake on the south end of the preserve that’s invisible from nearby Route 53. A wide trail encircles the lake, and on the day we visited the most exciting bird activity was concentrated on the west side, where the path runs along a birm between the lake and the DuPage River. We encountered a nice pocket of migrants that included a brown thrasher, scarlet tanager, yellow-throated vireo and several warbler species. Further down the trail we spotted a Philadelphia vireo—the “bird of the day” for most of us. A red-headed woodpecker was another nice find.

The wetland areas of Hidden Lake are well-known for attracting wading birds and various shorebirds. Several birders could recall the time about eight years ago when a pair of American avocets visited the preserve. That was a freakish event, to be sure, but it supports Hidden Lake’s reputation as a shorebird magnet. Meister says the preserve’s open water and mudflats occasionally draw Caspian terns as well.

Mid-September is well beyond the peak period for migrating shorebirds, so our sightings along the river edges were limited to greater yellowlegs, killdeer and several Wilson’s snipe. We searched unsuccessfully for a sora or Virginia rail skulking along the cattails, settling instead for terrific views of several marsh wrens.

Our group tallied about 55 species in all, including a baker’s dozen of migrating warblers. The most numerous species was cedar waxwing—the most I’d ever seen in one day.

When visiting Hidden Lake, don’t expect serenity. It’s located, after all, across from a Wal-Mart. Massive utility towers are in plain view, and traffic noise is constant. But the birds don’t seem to mind, so you shouldn’t either. Just enjoy the show, and be ready for anything.

The preserve entrance is on the east side of Route 53, just south of Butterfield Road. After entering, turn right and park in the south lot. From there, walk 50 yards south to the bridge. On most days, you could stay at this spot and see a great variety of birds. Go another 100 yards or so through a woodland corridor and you’ll come to the “hidden lake” described earlier.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Wanted: A thirsty hummingbird to call my own
(published 9-8-05)

Please do me a favor. If you have an extra hummingbird hanging around your yard, send him over to my place.

I’m having a terrific year in terms of yard birds. My annual list is up to 63 species and includes such first-time visitors as yellow-billed cuckoo, northern parula and blue-headed vireo. Those birds stopped by in May. In July, the big surprise was a red-breasted nuthatch—a bird that until this year had never appeared in the summer. Amazingly, though, I still haven’t seen a ruby-throated hummingbird whizzing around the yard.

Hopefully my luck will change this month. September can be great for hummers so be sure to keep your sugar-water feeders clean and full. Consider leaving them out well into autumn, too. In 2002 a ruby-throat visited my yard on Oct. 27! Unfortunately, I’d put away my feeder at least a month earlier.

Hummingbirds sure are fun to watch, and I took full advantage of the opportunity last month when vacationing in Minnesota. The lake resort where we stayed, near Brainerd, had a fabulous garden loaded with the tubular flowers that hummingbirds can’t resist. The birds were enjoying the cardinal flower and bee balm in particular. Now I’m more motivated than ever to do a better job of landscaping our yard for hummingbirds in 2006. Sugar-water should really be viewed as a supplementary food source; red, trumpet-shaped flowers are what the hummers like best.

The volume of advice on how to attract hummingbirds to your yard is astounding. Entire books exist on the subject, which says a lot about how much people cherish these unique birds. The Internet is a great resource too. For interesting facts and answers to all your hummingbird questions, try www.hummingbirds.net.

Although it’s possible to see about 20 kinds of hummingbirds in the United States, only one species, ruby-throated, is common east of the Mississippi River. So if you see a hummingbird around here it’s almost certainly a ruby-throat. But do look carefully because rarities are quite possible. Just last month there was a confirmed sighting of a white-eared hummingbird in Brighton, Mich. That species is normally found on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The most likely vagrant species in the Chicago area is the rufous hummingbird. Several years ago a rufous was discovered at a backyard feeder in Elgin. The very generous homeowner invited birders to come see it for themselves and many jumped at the chance.

My own appreciation of hummingbirds took a big leap three years ago when I birded in southeast Arizona for the first time. At least 15 hummer species call that region home during all or part of the year. My visit was frustratingly brief but I still managed to see seven varieties. The most memorable was a calliope hummingbird, North America’s smallest bird.

Meanwhile, back here in Glen Ellyn, I wait. There’s something very special about hummingbirds, and I’ll be disappointed if one doesn’t stop by for a drink this month. The bar is open.

Mark your calendar: Tri-County State Park in Bartlett will host a two-hour bird hike starting at 8 a.m. on Sept. 24. The event is part of festivities to celebrate the designation of Pratt’s Wayne Woods as an Illinois Important Bird Area. The entrance to Tri-County is on the north side of Stearns Road, west of Route 59. For more information, call (847) 429-4670.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Reading up on the ivory-billed woodpecker
(published 8-11-05)

In downtown Chicago, across from my office building, there’s a natural history art gallery that specializes in the works of John James Audubon. For several months now the gallery’s front window has showcased the great painter’s rendering of the ivory-billed woodpecker. For me—and I wonder for how many others—it’s a daily reminder of the stunning news this spring that the iconic woodpecker had been rediscovered in a remote Arkansas swamp.

As a kid, I was fascinated by endangered species and recall saving a newspaper story about the ivorybill with the headline “Rakish Bird Bows Out.” I’m not sure what triggered the article, but it functioned like an official obituary. The last confirmed ivorybill sighting, after all, had been in 1944.

On April 29 I found myself clipping newspaper stories again, but these ones contained much happier news. Miraculous news, really. The ivorybill was back, and there was video to prove it. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune each gave it front page coverage. This was a story fit for mass consumption, not just birders.

Some wonderful follow-up articles have appeared this summer in the various birding and nature magazines. I especially enjoyed a piece in Audubon, written by Rachel Dickinson. She has an interesting perspective on the ivorybill rediscovery because her husband, Tim Gallagher, was among the first to see the bird in 2004. For more than a year, Dickinson had the goods but couldn’t deliver—she was sworn to secrecy along with the search team that followed up on the initial sighting.

Gallagher, meanwhile, is out with a book called “The Grail Bird” and I strongly recommend it. As editor of Living Bird, a magazine published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gallagher’s credentials and writing skills are well established. Plus he is quite simply a great storyteller. After “The Grail Bird”—possibly my new all-time favorite bird book, surpassing Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway”—I was even more intrigued by the ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird has a truly fascinating history and, now, a highly anticipated future.

Researchers will be spending a lot more time in the Big Woods region of Arkansas, trying to determine how many ivorybills exist. The territory is vast, and access is extremely difficult. That’s good for the species, of course, but tough on the people who want to help it. It’s important for them to know more so that conservation measures can be applied most beneficially. To keep up with the developing story, check out www.ivorybill.org.

Gallagher recently participated in an author’s panel at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago. I made a point to go see him. If I never see an ivory-billed woodpecker myself, I at least wanted to meet somebody who did. Less than four months ago, in my wildest dreams, I’d have never believed that would be possible.

Upcoming opportunities: For those interested in Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, the subject of my last column, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County will conduct free bird walks at the preserve on Sept. 8th and 10th. Details are online at www.dupageforest.com – from the home page, click on Events. Or call (630) 933-7200.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Springbrook Prairie offers great summer birding
(published 7-7-05)

It’s natural for birders to feel a letdown when summer arrives. The spectacular birds that filled our treetops in May are just memories now, making our resident robins, starlings, grackles and house sparrows seem far more conspicuous. My backyard, and maybe yours too, just isn’t very exciting this time of year.

Times like these call for a change in scenery. Pick any one of our local forest preserves and you may be surprised by the variety of birdlife—even in the summer. Following my own advice, I joined a DuPage Birding Club outing to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville on June 18.

It always helps when you have a ringer leading the way. Our guide was Joe Suchecki, who monitors Springbrook’s bird populations and serves as site steward for the 1,800-acre preserve. He knows the birds there better than anybody, and was eager to show them to our group of about 20 birders.

Over the years, Suchecki has documented 214 species at Springbrook, including such rarities as black rail, cinnamon teal and Mississippi kite. But our focus this morning would be grassland birds, most notably Henslow’s sparrow, a threatened species in Illinois. Suchecki estimates that 25 pairs of these birds are nesting in Springbrook’s short-grass prairie this summer, up from zero when he began his volunteer monitoring duties 12 years ago.

Ongoing restoration efforts at Springbrook—prairie plantings and the removal of non-native vegetation—are clearly paying dividends for Henslow’s sparrows and other birds that need open spaces. The National Audubon Society’s 2004 “State of the Birds” report revealed that 70 percent of grassland species are in significant decline, so habitat improvement and preservation are vitally important.

Seeing a Henslow’s sparrow takes patience and a good ear. They are secretive birds that usually stay low in the grass. The trick is to listen for a Henslow’s telltale “tsi-lick” song. That gives you the direction, then it’s a matter of watching for movement. We were lucky to view several Henslow’s, including a singing bird that perched on a grass stalk less than 50 feet from the trail.

Among the other grassland specialties we observed were bobolink, sedge wren, Eastern meadowlark and field, song, grasshopper and savannah sparrows.

In addition to prairie, Springbrook features wetlands, woodlots and scrub areas—and that means more kinds of birds. In one area by a creek we found several willow flycatchers and listened to their distinctive “fitz-bew.” Orchard orioles were another nice find. While not quite as flashy as their Baltimore cousins, they are far less common. Marshes and ponds produced killdeer, spotted sandpiper and four kinds of herons.

We identified 46 species during our three-hour tour. For many of us, the best of the bunch came at the end. That’s when Suchecki guided us to a shrubby area where, for the third straight year, several pairs of clay-colored sparrows are nesting. We heard one of the birds right away, and a few minutes later we had binoculars on it—a nice finish to a great morning of birding.

When visiting Springbrook Prairie, begin your walk from the parking lot on the west side of Plainfield-Naperville Road, just south of 75th Street. More details about the preserve, including a map, are posted on the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County website, www.dupageforest.com.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Village Links, other golf courses can be bird sanctuaries
(published 6-9-05)

There was a time when I played golf frequently, and I cared about my game. Birding changed all that. Now I hardly play at all, and when I do I’m more interested in what birds I might see than in shooting a good score.

Golf courses can be so “birdy” that I’d be better off leaving my clubs at home. In fact, that’s what I did on May 14 when I reported to the The Village Links of Glen Ellyn for the 2005 North American Birdwatching Open. Sponsored by Audubon International, the event takes place every spring on certified habitat-friendly golf courses all over the country. Birders keep score by counting how many species they see or hear.

Our host for the day was Chris Pekarek, Village Links assistant superintendent and a 32-year employee of the golf course. Before setting out he explained how Village Links strives to be a good home for birds and other wildlife. When the 225-acre course opened in 1967, Pekarek says, “we mowed from fence to fence.” In other words, it was maintained like most of the 17,000 other golf courses in America. But things began to change in the 1980s when The Links embarked on a long-term project designed to make the course more natural. Hundreds of native trees were planted along with native prairie areas.

A key turning point came in 1991 when Audubon launched a program with the United States Golf Association. Golf courses, for the first time, were encouraged to help wildlife by limiting pesticides, improving water quality and planting protective cover. In 1993, Village Links became the first public course in the nation to be designated an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

“The program’s been very positive for us,” Pekarek says, “and it was easy to get results.” He recalls putting up 10 nest boxes in 1991 and watching bluebirds move in two years later.

Eastern bluebirds remain a fixture at Village Links, although the population is up and down from year to year. There are dozens of bluebird boxes on the golf course but many are occupied by tree swallows. Active chickadee and wood duck houses are on the grounds, too.

We only saw one pair of bluebirds during the Birdwatching Open, but there was no shortage of birds overall. Pekarek took us to his favorite spots, including some obscure patches of woodland that most paying customers never notice. In one such area we found a black-throated blue warbler, one of 13 warbler species on the day.

Along the way, Pekarek showed us a killdeer nest, something I’d never seen before. It wasn’t much of a nest, just four well-camouflaged eggs lying on bare ground. The mother killdeer performed her broken-wing act in trying to divert our attention. We got the message and didn’t linger.

Not far from the killdeers we observed a red-tail hawk nest where a parent was feeding at least two youngsters.

Our final “score” was 58 species. Of course, the main point was to bring some attention to the important role that Village Links and other golf courses can play in providing bird habitat. The Links, in turn, sponsors the Glen Ellyn Backyard Wildlife Program for habitat-minded homeowners. To request information, send an e-mail to GEVLCP@aol.com.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
‘Field’ trip reveals trove of avian treasures
(published 4-7-05)

Museums are not usually my thing, unless you count “outdoor museums” like the Morton Arboretum. But when the opportunity arose to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of Chicago’s Field Museum I jumped at the chance.

The February event was sponsored by the Chicago Ornithological Society so naturally the focus was on the Field’s world-renowned bird collection. It proved to be a fascinating two hours for me and about 25 other birders.

The Field houses more than 450,000 bird specimens, and about 90 percent of the world’s 10,000 known species are represented. Only a small percentage of them are on display to the public. The rest of the specimens are in storage and used for research. The Field is truly a working museum, and ornithologists from throughout the country rely on its resources.

Some specimens are in the form of eggs or skeletons, but most are “skins”—essentially birds cleaned out and stuffed with cotton. The skins are stored on wide trays in large, climate-controlled cabinets, keeping them dry, dark and safe from pests. The smell of mothballs permeates the air.

Dave Willard, collection manager for the bird division, has hosted more than a few of these tours during his 28 years at the Field. He knew exactly how to push our buttons. In the skins collection, he first pulled out a tray of exotic birds from New Guinea. These were like fantasy birds, with impossibly brilliant colors and spectacular tail feathers.

We viewed only a tiny fraction of the skins, of course. One of the highlights for me was when Willard retrieved a specimen that I donated myself in 2002. It was a worm-eating warbler, picked up in downtown Chicago after it crashed into a building. A tag attached to the specimen’s leg said when and where the bird was found, and who found it. (Side note: I’m still searching for my first live worm-eating warbler!)

Willard told us that many of the Field’s locally acquired specimens are victims of building collisions during the spring and fall migration seasons. Over the years, more than 30,000 birds have been gathered from outside the McCormick Place convention center alone!

The Field’s owl inventory skyrocketed recently thanks to this winter’s “invasion” in northern Minnesota. Great gray owls, in particular, were unusually abundant in the Duluth area due to a decline in prey in Canada’s boreal forests, where the owls reside year-round. The phenomenon was great for birders—including dozens from here who traveled north—but not for the owls. Cars and trucks hit many of them, since great grays are low-flying hunters and tend to be unwary of highway traffic. With cooperation from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Field acquired more than 300 owl carcasses.

Our tour included the opportunity to see and touch several extinct species, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon and Bachman’s warbler. It was a neat experience but also a haunting one. Holding those skins, I wondered what unfortunate species might be next. Would people taking this same tour 50 years from now be passing around an extinct cerulean warbler? Or a Henslow’s sparrow? I hope not, but the trends are not good. Stanford University researchers predicted recently that at least 10 percent of all bird species will disappear by 2100. And the latest issue of Audubon notes that 28 percent of bird species are significantly declining.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Watching woodcocks: A favorite rite of spring
(published 3-3-05)

For birders, signs of spring start well before winter gives up its grip. In mid-February male cardinals started singing from high perches, and red-winged blackbirds descended on the local marshlands, setting up territories and belting out their familiar “conk-a-ree.” These are great sounds to hear after so many cold, snowy days.

Another early spring tradition I look forward to is the courtship ritual of the American woodcock. This is one of the true highlights of the local birding year and something every bird watcher should witness at least once.

As a kid, one of my first “beyond the backyard” birding experiences was a trip to the Stark Wilderness Center in Wilmot, Ohio. The center was hosting their annual woodcock watch and, frankly, I don’t recall being too thrilled about being there. It felt a lot like one of those snipe hunts at summer camp, except it was cold. Nor do I remember actually seeing a woodcock. I must have, though, because a few years ago I found an old Peterson field guide at my parent’s home—one of my first bird books. In the back there was a bird checklist and next to American woodcock was faded little “x.” The mark was mine.

Seeing this species does take some effort. As with many birds, success depends on being in the right place at the right time. Area forest preserves offering reliable woodcock sites—typically brushy fields adjacent to damp, open woodland—include Green Valley, Pratt’s Wayne Woods, Herrick Lake, West DuPage Woods and Springbrook Prairie. Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester is another good spot.

As for timing, try for dawn or just after sunset when the weather is dry and calm. Late March through mid-April is the peak viewing period.

The view you’re looking for is a male woodcock performing his aerial mating dance for the females on the ground. The chunky, long-billed bird spirals high into the sky, making a twittering sound with his wings during the ascent. After reaching his apex, he zig-zags back to earth like a falling-leaf. On the ground, in between flights, woodcocks make a buzzy, one-syllable call that’s easily recognized.

All of this takes place at twilight, so woodcocks are seldom seen in great detail. Occasionally, though, a high-beam flashlight can pick up a bird when it lands, affording a glimpse of these odd-looking birds. When darkness sets in the show is over.

Plan to join one of several woodcock outings offered by local birding clubs later this month. Non-members are welcome. The DuPage Birding Club will sponsor evening watches on six different dates beginning on March 23. Full details, including starting times and directions, are posted at www.dupagebirding.org. Or call 630-985-2956.

Kane County Audubon has a woodcock watch scheduled for March 30 at Paul Wolff Forest Preserve on Big Timbers Road, west of Randall Road near Elgin. Start time is 5:30 p.m. For more information, call 630-584-8386.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Wintering eagles are just a few hours away
(published 2-10-05)

My last column was about winter bird watching and the birds that make this season special. Now comes part two, but with a focus on one species, the bald eagle.

Winter is indeed the best time to go eagle watching. The birds congregate on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers in spots where open water allows them to catch fish. If you don’t mind a road trip, you can easily observe bald eagles through early March, before most of the birds return to their northern nesting grounds.

I saw my first bald eagle in the wild in 1996 and the memory is still vivid. I was walking with a naturalist at Kiawah Island, S.C., when we noticed a large dark raptor soaring above. Our binoculars then confirmed the trademark white head and white tail—a postcard image against the morning’s clear blue sky.

My experience at Kiawah made me want to see more eagles, so a few months later I joined a bus full of birders for a trip to the Mississippi. On that bitter-cold February day, my number of lifetime eagle sightings rose from one to about 50.

The winter eagle population in Illinois is healthy and growing—a great comeback story considering that about 40 years ago our national symbol appeared headed for extinction. You can’t help but think of that when watching these noble birds of prey.

But where to watch? There are many options. If you can spare two days instead of one, I recommend an overnight trip to the Mississippi. Spending the night in eagle country lets you be at the river in the early morning, when the birds are most active.

In Galena, the Eagle Nature Foundation sponsors bald eagle bus tours on selected Saturday mornings. For details, call 815-594-2306 or visit www.eaglenature.com. If you prefer an independent tour, consider visiting Cassville, Wis., or Guttenberg, Iowa. Both river towns are near Lock and Dam No. 10 and two power-generating plants, which ensures plenty of unfrozen water for the birds. The lock and dam has an observation deck for eagle watchers, as does Cassville’s Riverside Park.

Further south, in Illinois, a good starting point for a self-guided driving tour is Lock and Dam No. 12, just north of Savanna. From there, just follow the Mississippi River south along Highway 84, stopping where you please. Lock and Dam No. 13, five miles north of Fulton, provides a viewing platform and heated restrooms too!

Another great vantage point is across the river from Fulton in Clinton, Iowa. Just north of town is Eagle Point Park, where you can look down on the dam and watch the eagles from above.

The nearest eagle watch option is Starved Rock State Park in Utica—about 85 miles away. If you go, head for the observation deck at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center in Ottawa, located across the Illinois River from the park. It’s open seven days a week and offers fine views of Plum Island, a haven for wintering eagles. For more information, call 815-667-4054 or visit www.flocktotherock.com.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Winter bird watching can be full of surprises
(published 1-6-05)

When I was new to bird watching, I spent winter waiting for spring. Too cold for any interesting birds to be around, right? Well, turns out I was missing a lot. In the backyard and out in the field, there’s a lot to see (and hear) this time of year.

It’s a great season for owls, in particular. Last month I received a most welcome 1:45 a.m. wake-up call from a great horned owl. Winter is when this species is most vocal so you may want to leave your window open a crack. You might even hear an eastern screech owl, which, like the great horned, lives here year-round.

Other kinds of owls are just visiting. I’ll never forget a December bird outing in 1998 when, near the end of a long cold day, our group leader took us to Pratts Wayne Woods in Bartlett to search for short-eared owls, an endangered species in Illinois. Sure enough, as if on cue, the owls started flying around just before dusk.

Less than two months later, at Morton Arboretum, I was thrilled to see my first Northern saw-whet owl. Amazingly, that same February day at the Arb, birders located a Townsend’s solitaire, a Western species very rarely seen around here.

Indeed, a few rare birds seem to turn up every winter. Just last month, in fact, local birders spotted two more Western rarities—a varied thrush at Calumet Park and a lark bunting at West Aurora Forest Preserve. My schedule didn’t allow me to try for the thrush, and my one attempt to see the bunting was unsuccessful.

My luck was better last January when I caught a fleeting glimpse of a spotted towhee that turned up in Winfield. It wasn’t the prolonged view one hopes for when seeing a species for the first time, but at least I saw the bird.

Of course, there are a number of cold-weather “specialties” that occur here every year. Besides the owls already mentioned, some of the most coveted winter visitors are rough-legged hawk, snowy owl, northern shrike, Lapland longspur, snow bunting, common redpoll and white-winged crossbill. Find two or three of these species and you’ve had a good winter.

If you bird watch from the kitchen window, look for uncommon winter species that may join your regular feeder birds—pine siskins, purple finches and redpolls, for example. It’s also fun to spot familiar birds that are generally scarce in winter, like robins, flickers and white-throated sparrows. Even a catbird or hermit thrush could make a surprise appearance.

One of my backyard highlights of 2004 was the yellow-rumped warbler that visited our heated birdbath on January 6. Yellow-rumps are fairly common in the spring and fall, and a few of them are known to spend the winter here. Still, it was a shock to see one on that cold, snowy day. It was also a reminder of why I love this hobby—the element of surprise. During any month of the year, day or night, you just never know.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.