Some lists keep growing, and others come to an end
(published 12-28-06)

Seeing a bird for the first time is a great feeling, so I can understand why it leads some birders to do the “life bird dance.” I’ve never actually seen this performed, but I picture it looking something like a sandhill crane’s courtship ritual—interesting, but not terribly graceful.

My own ritual following a first-time sighting is to make a hand-written entry in the birdwatcher’s logbook I’ve been using for about a dozen years. I keep a master list on my computer hard drive too, as a back up, but that’s just a bunch of bird names without any details. The log contains all the meaningful stuff, and it would be one of the first things I’d reach for if my house was burning down.

I didn’t travel much in 2006, so my life list was stuck on 450 species all year. That is, until October 29. That day I drove to the Chicago lakefront in search of my first snow bunting, a bird I’d been pursuing for years. I knew from Internet postings that my chances were pretty good. Migrating snow buntings were reported on Montrose beach for several days leading up to my visit.

Within two hours of arrival I had the bird. Several small flocks of snow buntings were swirling around that morning, and fortunately I spotted a solitary bird foraging on the ground, affording me a nice long look in perfect light. It wasn’t easy, but I resisted the temptation to dance.

I made slightly better progress with my yard list in 2006, adding two new species. The first of those, a common yellowthroat, was No. 100. Of all the lists you can keep, I think the yard list is the most personal and possibly the most rewarding. It’s your property after all, so feeding, habitat creation and identifications depend on your efforts alone. For me, seeing an uncommon bird in the yard is more satisfying than seeing that same bird in the field.

I’m not a chronic lister (I swear!), but I do have a few other favorite lists. One is for Florida, where my parents live most of the year. I try to add a few species whenever I’m there. The list benefited substantially from a birding festival I attended in Tampa a few years back, a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park and multiple visits to the Everglades.

Sadly, some lists come to an end. It happened this year when my in-laws sold their home at Kiawah Island, S.C. We had the good fortune to visit there for many years, and during those times I saw some amazing birds, many of them “lifers.” Painted buntings love it at Kiawah, and I loved watching them. I’ll keep my Kiawah list on file in case we ever go back, but for now it’s officially retired.

I blame Donald Trump for another favorite list that ceased to be. Sapsucker Court was the unofficial name for a little downtown Chicago plaza between the Wrigley Building and former Sun-Times Building. I walked through it every morning on my way to work and kept close track of the birds, growing my list to 66 species. Now the courtyard is gone, blown up to make way for The Donald’s massive condo tower now under construction. Too bad—not for me, for the birds. I’m hopeful that some decent green space will be restored once the project is complete.

You can enjoy birding without keeping lists, just like you can enjoy golf without keeping score. In my opinion, though, the ritual of list-keeping is part of the fun. Dancing is optional.

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Right place, right time: When good luck prevails
(published 11-1-06)

Luck and chance play a big role in bird watching. It’s part of the fun, and everyone seems to have a story about the time a really great bird made a surprise appearance.

I’ve shared a few “luck stories” myself in this space, most recently about an improbable yard visit by a pair of green herons. For this column, however, I invited a few of my DuPage Birding Club colleagues to relate some of their luckier moments in the field. The hardest thing, they told me, was choosing just one.

Jeff Chapman, from Woodridge, recalled a cold November day when he was birding with his wife at Morton Arboretum. They were looking for crossbills in the hemlock area when Melinda’s back stiffened up.

“To stretch it out, she would get in a catcher’s stance while I held her hands so she could lean back,” says Chapman. “As I was holding her hands I looked up into a white pine and saw a Northern saw-whet owl staring back at me. He was not more than a few feet above our heads!”

It was only the second saw-whet Chapman had ever seen. The tiny species is a rare visitor here and quite difficult to find. This owl was in the open, but would he have noticed it if he hadn’t been helping his wife? Maybe, maybe not. He thinks luck had a lot to do with it.

Susan Kaley from Naperville described the time she was biking on the Prairie Path and, on a whim, decided to take a different route than usual. Near Timber Ridge Forest Preserve she heard an unusual bird sound. So she jumped off her bike, pulled out her binoculars, and was soon looking at a prairie warbler—a truly rare bird in DuPage County and a new entry on Kaley's life list.

“It was exciting,” she says, “and you can imagine my relief when other people went out and reported seeing the bird, too.”

This last story is my favorite. Kate Frazier, from Batavia, was birding in Rocky Mountain National Park with her husband Jim and some friends. Their “target bird” one morning was the three-toed woodpecker. They went to a spot where the species had been seen before and waited. And waited. Finally, they decided to move on and try another place. But Frazier stayed back to take care of some personal business—nature was calling. And then, as she was doing her thing in the underbrush, a male three-toed woodpecker landed on a tree beside her!

“Imagine my dilemma,” she recalls. “If I finish what I’ve begun, the bird may fly away and no one will believe I saw it. But if I yell loud enough, three people are going to turn around and see a sight they don’t want to see.”

Luckily, the woodpecker was cooperative. After Frazier reassembled herself she caught up to the group and led them to the bird, a “lifer” for all.

For sure, some birders are luckier than others. They’re the ones who are always prepared, always ready for something unusual. I know people who have seen golden eagles pass over DuPage County—this fall, in fact. That’s lucky by any measure, but they knew what to watch for.

And take my friend Susan. She’d never seen a prairie warbler before but she’d heard a recording of one, so she hit the brakes.

Me? Well, when those green herons appeared last June I had a garden hose in one hand and a coffee cup in the other. But my eyes and ears were open, and binoculars were around my neck.

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Backyard wrens: three kinds to watch and listen for
(published 10-4-06)

If I could choose one bird that I’d like to hear every morning for the rest of my life, it might well be the house wren. Its loud, exuberant song is hard not to love. The sound permeates our neighborhoods in the spring like no other.

Wrens are fun to watch, too. They’re always moving, always busy. I admire their industry.

I have only one birdhouse in my yard, a terra cotta model that I placed about four years ago with hopes of attracting a wren family. I’m still waiting, but this summer I had a close call. Just one day after moving the house to a new location, I noticed a wren checking it out. He perched momentarily on the roof and then went inside.

A day or two later, I noticed a single twig poking out of the house’s entrance hole. Yes! Nest building has begun! But then a funny thing happened: nothing. All activity suddenly stopped.

At times like these, it’s great to have a good birding library. I began reading up on house wrens and learned a lot about these common backyard birds with the big voice. Turns out I had witnessed some typical wren behavior. The males are known to choose several potential nest sites, “claiming” them with a few sticks and other debris. And yup, one stick out the hole is a classic marker.

Once his territory is in order, the male wren shows a female his handiwork. If one of the home sites meets her approval, she takes over and completes the nest.

Apparently my terra cotta casa didn’t pass muster. So I’ll clean it out and hope for better results in 2007. Meanwhile, the house will stay out all winter as a potential roosting place for chickadees.

House wrens head south this time of year, to the southern U.S. and beyond. October and November, however, are good months for spotting another kind of wren.

The winter wren is an uncommon treat. If you see one it will probably be on the ground, scurrying mouse-like through your garden or shrubs. These birds are smaller, rounder and darker than house wrens, and their stubby tails point straight up. Some say it has the sweetest song of all the wrens. I don’t dispute that, based on recordings I’ve heard, but I long to hear one in real life.

Winter wrens are seen here only during late fall and early spring, as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the North Woods and Canada.

Only one member of the wren family occurs in this region throughout the year, the non-migratory Carolina wren. This is the northern edge of its range, however, so the species is relatively scarce in these parts.

My yard has hosted a Carolina wren on just two occasions, and in each case I heard the bird before I saw it. Like the house wren, it announces its presence with gusto. And keep in mind that could happen at any time—the Carolina wren is known for singing during all four seasons.

To complete the picture, marsh wrens and sedge wrens also nest here. But as their names suggest, these species are closely associated with specific habitats. Neither one is likely to visit a typical suburban backyard.

For more information about wrens, and to hear their remarkable songs, go to

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

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Nelson Lake Marsh: Kane County birding at its best
(published 9-14-06)

There are times when Kane County might as well be Iowa for me. I just don’t get out there very often. But this much I know: For birding, Kane County is always worth the drive.

If you could go to only one place in Kane, make it Dick Young Forest Preserve near Batavia. Best known as Nelson Lake Marsh, it is the largest (1,000 acres) and most naturally diverse preserve in the county.

Jon Duerr, a St. Charles resident, has been watching birds at Nelson Lake since the late 1950s. It was private property then, used for peat mining because the land was too soft and wet for farming. Through the years, Duerr has seen an impressive 237 bird species on the grounds, including some rare one-timers like Wilson’s phalarope, prairie warbler and spotted towhee. His life list for all of Kane County holds 275 species.

“On a good day you’ll find birds on the lake, in the marsh, flying into trees and shrubs or popping out of the drying grasses,” he says.

Habitat diversity is indeed a Nelson Lake hallmark. The open land west of the lake and marsh—corn fields just eight years ago, according to Duerr—is now restored prairie, attracting a variety of grassland birds. Dickcissels, Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks and sedge wrens reside there in season.

Wetland birds are the main attraction, however. Marsh specialties include American bittern, least bittern and common moorhen. “These are tough to get anywhere else in the county, but pretty regular at Nelson,” says Scott Cohrs, another St. Charles birder.

Nelson Lake spans 40 acres, making it a prime destination for migrating ducks and geese in the spring and fall. Rarities like loons and scoters also use the lake occasionally. For the past four years, during the first week of April, a flock of American white pelicans has visited. Mark your calendars for 2007!

Put Nelson Lake on your fall schedule, too. October and November are ideal for spotting waterfowl from the observation deck near the parking lot. It’s best to get there early so the sun is at your back. Keep an eye on the trees near the deck for migrating songbirds, and don’t forget to look up—flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes are quite likely, especially in November. You might even see tundra swans.

My own birding experiences at Nelson Lake are few, but I well remember a beautiful fall morning in 2004 when I went looking for a reported red-necked grebe. I didn’t find the grebe, but I saw a lot of great birds including nine species of ducks. Snow geese were on the water and in the air, wheeling against a perfectly blue sky.

You could spend a whole morning on Nelson Lake’s viewing platform and see plenty of birds (and birders). I also recommend the easy three-mile trail that loops around the lake and marsh. What you’ll see depends on the season, but Nelson Lake is truly an excellent birding venue year-round.

The preserve is located about three miles west of Batavia. From the village, take Main Street west to Nelson Lake Road and turn south. The entrance will be on your right. For more information, call the Kane County Forest Preserve District at (630) 232-5980.

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Resources available to become a better birder
(published 8-3-06)

I’ve commented before on what a wonderfully simple and inexpensive activity birding can be. The only essential tools are binoculars and a field guide. That’s still as true as ever. But in this column I’ll highlight some additional resources that can elevate your birding skills and, hopefully, your enjoyment of the hobby.

Let’s start with two books: “Sibley’s Birding Basics” and “Pete Dunne on Bird Watching: The How-to, Where-to and When-to of Birding.” These recently published paperbacks are loaded with good advice for beginners and beyond. Make a point to read at least one of them. A third book, “The Complete Birder” by Jack Connor, is also well worth a look, especially if you’ve been at this for a while.

“All About Birds” is a terrific online reference offered free by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Imagine your field guide with sound. More than 600 species are highlighted. Go to

If you have an e-mail account, consider signing up for IBET, a statewide list-serve where birders report their sightings and share other useful information. The network provides opportunities to see more birds, including rarities like the pileated woodpecker that visited DuPage County in June. But just reading the incoming messages is valuable—you’ll learn what birds to expect at different times throughout the year, and the best places to go see them. To sign on, send a blank e-mail to, wait for the response, then follow the instructions.

If you’re not a computer user, try calling the DuPage Birding Club hotline at (630) 406-8111. You’ll hear a recorded message about what’s being seen and where. This is the low-tech alternative to IBET so sighting information is updated less frequently.

Speaking of the DuPage Birding Club, why not become a member or at least tag along on some of the group’s field trips? There is no better way to learn about birds and birding than to spend some time with others who share your interest. You’ll see new birds, too. Visit the club website,, for more information about membership, meetings and outings. To receive a sample newsletter, call (630) 933-0387.

Subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest or Birder’s World. These magazines, each published six times a year, will educate and inspire you. The photos alone are worth the price.

Another subscription worth having is to the quarterly newsletter of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. It’s free for county residents and offers a calendar of activities that always includes a few birding events at local hot spots like Fullersburg Woods, Springbrook Prairie and Tri-County State Park. To sign up, call (630) 933-7085 or send an e-mail to While you’re at it, ask for a copy of “A Guide to Bird-Watching in DuPage County’s Forest Preserves.” It’s a nice booklet with tips for beginners.

Bird identification becomes a lot easier—and satisfying—when you know the songs and call notes. Think about acquiring some CDs. The narrated “Birding by Ear” series from Peterson is excellent. For just the bird sounds without the commentary, try “Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region.” Finally, if you’re new to birding, the Peterson “Backyard Bird Song” CD is a good starting point. It features 28 common birds.

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

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Luck and persistence lead to backyard milestone
(published 7-5-06)

In 2002, when Sammy Sosa was still a Chicago icon, the former Cubs slugger finished the season with 499 career home runs. He had to wait until the following spring to hit the Big One.

I thought of that last fall after a black-throated blue warbler appeared in my yard. It was a completely unexpected bird, and it raised my all-time yard list to 99 species. Now, like Sammy, I’d most likely have the whole winter to ponder my date with destiny.

I’ve had my sights on 100 yard birds for the last few years, when hitting the century mark began to look like a realistic goal. I started keeping the list in 1997 when we first moved to Glen Ellyn. Since reaching about 80 species, the “game” has been a lot more challenging—growing the list now depends far more on luck than identification skills.

I was determined this spring to be in ready when a new bird came along. Almost every morning before work I spent at least an hour on the back patio, waiting and watching. That meant getting up at 5:00 a.m. but it was always worth it. I welcomed many beautiful and interesting birds, including a blue-headed vireo, scarlet tanager, Blackburnian warbler, Wilson’s warbler and veery.

The best bird of all, a male common yellowthroat, arrived on May 21. No. 100 at last! Seeing that bird—a species I’ve seen dozens of times in other places—was a special moment.

I’m still a bit surprised that my yard hadn’t produced a common yellowthroat before. The species—a striking member of the warbler family with a bright yellow breast and black mask—usually prefers wetland habitat. But like many migrating songbirds, yellowthroats can turn up just about anywhere in May. I guess it was just my turn.

Two weeks after spotting No. 100, I received a bonus. While outside watering some new grass, a pair of green herons flew in low and landed in a neighbor’s tree. After getting over the shock of just seeing these out-of-place birds, I watched for several minutes as they rested and preened. Those herons made my day, and they raised my yard list to 101.

For me, “keeping score” is part of what makes birding so much fun. I love the challenge of seeing new birds, especially in the yard, where the birds must come to you instead of you going to them. It still amazes me what can be seen and heard right outside our doors.

Of course, some doors lead to greater possibilities than others. If your yard overlooks a lake or pond, for instance, you’ll see more species. But you work with what you have. My property is small and unremarkable. It is surrounded by other houses. I’ve always felt fortunate, however, that our back patio faces west. That puts the morning sun at my back, making it easier to see and identify the birds.

When something special comes along, a bird you’ve been waiting for, it’s nice to see it in the best possible light.

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

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Swainson’s hawks in Illinois? Now I’m a believer
(published 6-1-06)

Is this Colorado? No, it’s Huntley, and that’s a Swainson’s hawk up there.

I had to say this to myself, because the sight I’d driven 40 miles to see was still a bit unbelievable. Along with a dozen other birders, I was watching one of this region’s true avian specialties from our position in the northeast corner of the Huntley Outlet Mall parking lot. The location seemed almost disrespectful of the bird’s majesty, but nobody was complaining.

I’d seen a Swainson’s hawk once before, on a visit to Pawnee National Grassland northeast of Denver. You’d expect to see one there—Swainson’s are fairly common on the Western plains and prairies. Their breeding range is vast, stretching from Alaska to Mexico, and California to central Iowa. But there is one exception. For reasons not fully understood, a few Swainson’s hawks make their spring and summer home in parts of Kane and McHenry counties. They are the only Swainson’s known to nest east of the Mississippi River, and they’ve been doing it since at least 1973.

This spring, an important research project was initiated with the goal of learning more about the lives and needs of our “local” Swainson’s hawks. Vic Berardi, a veteran hawk watcher from Gurnee, is the project’s coordinator.

“In a broad sense, the project is very important for gaining knowledge of how and possibly why these hawks are living 400 miles east of their usual range,” Berardi told me. “We don’t know if this population is a remnant population or an accidental population. We’re hoping to get a better idea in the coming years.”

The study area spans more than 1,000 square miles—as far south as Sugar Grove, Huntley and I-88, and north to Harvard, near the Wisconsin border. About 30 volunteers are conducting the field surveys. (To learn more, visit the project website,

There are probably 10 or fewer Swainson’s hawks living in northern Illinois. No surprise, then, that the species is on the state’s endangered list. But while further land development poses a constant threat to habitat, Berardi has a positive outlook.

“I believe the Kane/McHenry Swainson’s hawks and humans can live side by side,” he says. “We just have to make sure we approach it correctly and avoid disasters. I’ve been watching the hawks for 11 years now and I can’t imagine driving over to the Huntley area and not being able to see them.”

Luck was with me the morning I joined Berardi and the others for some “hawk shopping” at the outlet mall. I was on the scene less than 30 minutes when a beautiful Swainson’s appeared overhead against a clear blue sky. The soaring bird was unmistakable from below with its long pointed wings with light-colored linings and dark flight feathers.

It was a fabulous morning for raptors of all kinds. Along with expected species like red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks and turkey vultures, we saw two kinds of falcons—American kestrel and merlin—plus an osprey. Two sandhill cranes also flew by.

But the main attraction was the Swainson’s hawk. We only saw one, but we saw it well. In Huntley, not Colorado. It was a great day to be a birder.

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

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.
See nesting herons and more at Glen Ellyn’s Churchill Woods
(published 5-3-06)

As a birder, there are some spots you never forget—places where good fortune prevailed and you found something special. I could show you the exact tree, for example, where I saw my first yellow-billed cuckoo, a bird I’d been hoping to see for years. It was at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.

I’ve been visiting Churchill more often lately, not for the “cuckoo tree” but to check on some other trees containing giant nests made of sticks.

If you’ve never seen great blue heron “rookery,” now is a fine opportunity. A small nesting colony of great blues is easily visible from the parking lot just off Crescent Boulevard, the south entrance to Churchill Woods. Look across the DuPage River to the small islands and you’ll see five active nests. Four of them are clustered near the top of a tall dead tree.

Great blue herons are large, long-legged waders. They are usually seen alone, feeding along the edges of ponds and streams. So it’s almost a shock to see the birds congregating up in trees. Herons are believed to nest in colonies primarily to protect their eggs and young from predators such as raccoons.

The Churchill rookery is fairly new, according to Scott Meister, animal ecologist for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District. He told me the first nest was noticed in 2003, two appeared in 2004, and a third in 2005. So the colony is growing—a positive sign for the preserve’s ecosystem.

Visit the rookery in May and some fuzzy-headed hatchlings should be in the nests. But that’s just one reason to go birding at Churchill. The 270-acre preserve offers great habitat diversity, including mature forest, wetland, savanna and prairie. This attracts many kinds of birds. Colorful warblers, orioles and tanagers will arrive on the scene this month.

Glen Ellyn resident Jim Hedges spent all of 2005 monitoring bird populations at Churchill for the Forest Preserve District. In 88 total hours of observation, he recorded 103 species. One of his most surprising finds, he told me, was nesting red-headed woodpeckers. They are not at all common in DuPage County, and Churchill Woods is one of the few places I’ve seen them myself in this area.

Other “goodies” Jim observed last year at Churchill were alder flycatcher and nesting chestnut-sided warblers. He finds the most consistent bird activity to be along the north side of the river from the youth campground west and north to St. Charles Road. You can park at the main entrance to the preserve off St. Charles and pick up a map at the trailhead.

A unique feature of Churchill Woods is the 60-acre native prairie on the north side of St. Charles Road. Henslow’s sparrows have been seen here during breeding season in recent years. And thanks to a tip from Jim Hedges, I was able to observe American woodcocks on the prairie in early April. (I took my kids along that evening and they were far more impressed by the white-tailed deer we encountered.)

Also in April, I twice found a singing Carolina wren in the woods adjacent to the parking lot that overlooks the rookery—a very nice bonus.

Churchill Woods is a place worth exploring. For more information, go to, or call (630) 933-7200.

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

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Binoculars 101: Sample the goods, spend the money
(published 3-2-06)

I’m no expert on binoculars, but I can offer this advice: Get some good ones. You’ll never regret it.

That’s certainly been my experience. The first few years I was birding, seriously birding, I used a pair of inexpensive Bushnells that seemed just fine. I was seeing a lot of new birds and never gave much thought to my optics. Then something happened. On a visit to Indiana Dunes State Park, a fellow birder allowed me to peak through his “high end” binos. Wow! At that moment I knew the game had changed. I had to trade up.

I was tempted to go buy the same binoculars that I’d been so impressed with in Indiana. Then came sticker shock—they would cost about $1,000. So I started shopping around and ultimately acquired a Pentax 8x42 roof-prism model for less than half that amount—“free,” actually, because they were a 40th birthday present from my parents! They are wonderful binoculars that I think perform on par with costlier brands like Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss.

I knew the Pentax were right for me because I’d sampled a pair in a camera store. They felt good in my hands, delivered a bright image and, best of all, I could use them without taking my glasses off. That was quite a revelation. With the Bushnells, I’d been accustomed to whipping off my glasses before putting them to my eyes. It was a nuisance, and I’m sure I missed a few birds because of it. If you wear glasses, look for binoculars with good “eye relief”—18mm or more.

Eye relief, like roof prism, is one of the technical terms you’ll encounter when shopping for binoculars. A little basic knowledge is helpful, and a great source is Eagle Optics, a retailer that caters to birders, primarily via mail order. The company’s catalog features a buying guide (also posted online) with everything you need to know. Call 1-800-289-1132 or visit You can also learn a lot by studying the many binocular ads in birding magazines. Some even include pricing.

For good quality binos, plan on spending at least $200. If you can go a bit higher, a nice model to consider is the Audubon Equinox HP. I picked up a pair last summer at Eagle’s store in Middleton, Wis. (It was on our way to Minnesota—I couldn’t just drive by!)

Binoculars are very personal. Everyone has their preferences. I mentioned good eye relief, and for me another key feature is twist-up or pop-up eyecups, which are superior to the rubber fold-down kind. More generally, I like a full-size, 8-power binocular that isn’t too heavy—26 oz. or less. And I wouldn’t buy anything that isn’t waterproof and fogproof.

Birding is a pretty cheap hobby when you think about it. Binoculars and a field guide are the only “required” equipment. So if your budget allows, consider investing in some better optics. The birds will look even more amazing.

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

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Flocks of robins: A sure sign of winter?
(published 2-9-06)

Two years ago, shortly after my first column, I received an e-mail from a reader in Winfield. He’d just seen a robin in his backyard and wondered how that could be so in the dead of winter. Why didn’t the bird fly south? Well, turns out it probably did, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The subject of wintering robins recently came back to mind when I was birding at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve in Wheaton. I was participating in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, surveying the area with two other heat-challenged souls. Mid-morning, we encountered hundreds of American robins—far more than could be expected on a bitter cold December day.

Most of us think of robins as one of the traditional heralds of spring, and local robin populations do indeed skyrocket in March and April. But robins are in fact a fairly common winter resident in DuPage County—they just keep a lower profile. To find food, primarily berries, they hang around thickets and woods instead of our frozen yards.

So robins are with us now if you know where to look. Still, like the Winfield reader, I wondered why any robins would be here during the winter. Most robins spend the non-breeding months in the southern states and Gulf Coast. Some go as far as Guatemala.

For answers, I turned to Doug Stotz, conservation ecologist and ornithologist at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. He explained that the robins we see in winter are likely not the same birds that bred here last spring and summer. Our local breeding robins tend to migrate south, so the birds we see now came from up north. Chicagoland winters are no bargain but life could be worse in places like northern Wisconsin. Makes sense. But why stop here?

“It’s true that farther south one’s life would be easier,” Stotz said, “but there are advantages to wintering farther north. One is that migration is a dangerous business. It’s probably more dangerous than getting through the winter if the minimum you need to survive is present.

“Probably more important is that by migrating less far, birds have a head start on getting back to their breeding sites. The earlier they get back, the better the selection of territories.”

Most robins we see in winter are males, Stotz says, adding that males of just about all migrating songbirds return to their breeding grounds before the females. So staying here gives them a jump on things in early spring. Male robins are easily distinguished from females by their bolder orange breasts and darker heads.

There is evidence that the “winter range” for American robins has been extending northward in recent decades. Stotz credits milder winters, more fruiting ornamentals in our yards, and increasing fruiting bushes (mostly non-natives like buckthorn and honeysuckle) in forest preserves.

Increasing overall robin numbers play a role, too. Residential areas are ideal habitat for breeding robins, so increasing land development has helped the species thrive.

For Stotz, for me and many other area birders, the first avian sign of spring is not the appearance of robins but red-winged blackbirds. In late February, males will begin establishing their territories. Visit a local marsh to see and listen for yourself—it’s a wonderful show! But let’s appreciate our robins, too. Especially the hardy ones that brighten the winter landscape.

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Car birding on Kane County’s country backroads
(published 1-12-06)

In “Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher,” author Leonard Nathan recounts his frustrating quest to see a snow bunting. It’s a neat little book that I relate to closely because his “nemesis bird” is also one of mine.

A nemesis bird is a species that, against all odds, continues to elude you. These are birds that other people see but you don’t, mainly due to bad luck or timing.

On a bitter cold day last January I went looking for two species that somehow had never landed on my life list—snow bunting and Lapland longspur. In the days preceding my search I’d seen online reports of these birds in the farmlands of northwest Kane County. Directions to the best spots were very specific, so my confidence level was reasonably high when I gassed up and headed west.

This would be a day of “car birding”—not my favorite kind, but necessary. There was a lot of ground to cover, plus staying behind the wheel can be the best way to observe roadside birds in open country. The car acts as a moving blind, allowing a closer approach. A clean windshield is essential.

Well west of Geneva I began to see flocks of horned larks. They were foraging on the snow-free road shoulders and some strolled out on the road itself. At times I was close enough to see the little feather tufts or “horns” that give this bird its name.

The larks were an encouraging sign because buntings and longspurs often associate with them. With patience, and by scanning enough flocks of roadside birds, I would find my quarry.

Turns out I was half right. A few hours into my rural odyssey, near the town of Hampshire, I enjoyed good views of several Lapland longspurs. The birds were more skittish than the larks but I still managed to creep within 15 or 20 yards for a good look.

I never did find a snow bunting, so that’s one nemesis I still need to resolve. Maybe this month I’ll take another run at it. But my disappointment on that score was easily offset by the Lapland longspurs, a true winter specialty that was well worth the effort (and 97 round-trip miles). It’s getting harder for me to see a “life bird” in this region, so whenever I do it’s a very good day.

My Kane County wanderings produced two other interesting sightings. Most notable was an Eastern meadowlark—a nice find in the middle of winter. I also spotted an American kestrel, our smallest falcon, sitting on a utility wire with a mouse or shrew dangling from its bill. (Yes, it’s amazing what you can see from a moving vehicle.)

If you try car birding yourself this winter, please be safe. Country roads usually have narrow shoulders. Pull over as far as you can, use your hazard lights and be alert for other cars. Safety is another reason why it’s best to keep inside your vehicle.

Patience will come in handy, too. Birds along the road naturally flush every time a car goes by. Some birders throw some seed down to keep them coming back to the same spot. In any case, be prepared to do some waiting and lots of creeping along at less than 5 mph. Hey, at least you’ll be warm!

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

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