Uncommon visitors made this a winter to remember
(Published 3-22-07)

Retirement and birding, they go together. This winter I was again envious of my older birder friends who have the freedom to pursue this hobby with abandon. When a rare bird is reported in the area, they can drop everything and go see it.

Being tied to a nine-to-five, my schedule isn’t that flexible. But at least I can follow their adventures vicariously via the Internet. Hey, just because I’m office-bound doesn’t mean I can’t be informed!

Some of the sightings reported on the birding list-serve this winter were quite remarkable, reinforcing what I’ve said before: We live in great place for year-round birding. In January and February, many coveted species made local appearances, rewarding those who had the time (and cold-weather gear) to go after them.

Fortunately, not all the birds escaped me. When a pair of harlequin ducks was reported near North Avenue beach in Chicago in mid-January, I jumped at the chance to go see them. How could I not? I’d never seen a “harlie” before, and these birds were too close to pass up.

The six-dollar cab ride to North Avenue from my office was money well spent. It didn’t take long to find the ducks, which were conveniently swimming close to shore. The male harlequin is simply a spectacular bird, possibly North America’s most beautiful duck. Harlies are rare visitors to the Great Lakes, let alone downtown Chicago. They breed in northern Canada and winter primarily along rocky East Coast shorelines.

How I wish all the birds this winter had been so accessible! There were many I’d have loved to “chase.” Tops among them would be the purple sandpiper that turned up at Waukegan Beach and stayed for a tantalizing 10 days. The red-throated loons and black scoters seen at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion tempted me as well. Other nice finds by local birders included a red-shouldered hawk at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien; rough-legged hawks and a bald eagle at Springbrook Prairie in Naperville; and a saw-whet owl at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Northern shrikes—a true winter specialty—were seen in multiple DuPage County locations.

Two other exciting discoveries this winter took place early last month in Lombard. The one attracting the most attention—fueled by a prominent story and photo in the Daily Herald—was a snowy owl. The large white raptor was spotted on top of an apartment building across from Yorktown Center. A few snowy owl sightings occur each winter in this region, but they usually take place along the Chicago lakefront or in wide-open rural spaces—habitats similar to the species’ arctic tundra homeland. I’ve never seen a snowy in DuPage County, and unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to see the one in Lombard.

Proving that “good birds” sometimes come in pairs, a northern mockingbird was found in Lombard on the same day as the owl. Mockingbirds are uncommon this far north, even in the spring and summer. Other songbird surprises this winter included an orange-crowned warbler found outside the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and a male Baltimore oriole at a backyard feeder in McHenry County. Hopefully these out-of-place birds survived the bitter cold.

Periodically I like to share the sign-on information for the Internet list-serve I mentioned earlier. It’s a great tool for all birders, retired or not. Besides alerting you to local rarities, the postings help you learn what birds to expect throughout the year and the best places see them. To get started, send a blank e-mail to ILbirds-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, wait for the response, then follow the instructions. The service is free.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.