Ten ideas for the new year
(published 12-24-08)

This column was born five years ago next month, though not in this newspaper. I'm grateful that the Daily Herald picked it up last spring, essentially promoting Words on Birds to the major leagues. In doing so, the paper also recognized that this birding thing is getting serious.

Birding is now a mainstream hobby, just like fishing, gardening and photography. Because of that, we can now talk about what we do without feeling embarrassed or defensive. I say better to leave those emotions to the folks who call themselves trainspotters!

Sorry, couldn't help myself. Any hobby is a good hobby if you enjoy it and it helps peel away the stresses of everyday life. But let's face it, birding is the best. In my very first column I listed some reasons why this is so. Birding is simple yet challenging. You can do it anywhere at any time. It's inexpensive.

And birding is fun! Whether you are out searching for a particular species or just glancing out the kitchen window, you never know what you might see. Discovery and surprise are as much a part of birding as getting up early.

Something else mentioned in that first column: I'm not an ornithologist. And that hasn't changed. I'm still just a birder who loves the hobby and wants to share it. Words on Birds is delivered in that spirit.

So with that in mind, I'll kick off 2009 with some friendly advice—and a new list! Here are 10 ideas for helping you enjoy birdwatching even more:

1) Upgrade your optics. It might be time. There is a huge difference between cheapo $75 binoculars and a $300 pair designed for birding. Buy what you can afford, but remember that optics and a field guide (see next item) are the hobby's only essential equipment. For buying advice and to see all the options, try the Eagle Optics website. Better yet, take a field trip to the store in Madison and sample the goods.

2) Get another field guide. It really helps to have a second resource, especially when confronted with an ID challenge. I refer to the Peterson, Sibley and National Geographic guides all the time. Each book has unique strengths, and each uses bird illustrations, not photographs. If your only field guide is the photo kind then definitely add an illustrated version to your bookshelf—they are better for highlighting a bird's key features, which simplifies the ID process.

3) Hone your skills, Part I. Assuming your bookshelf has at least one field guide, consider one of these: Sibley's Birding Basics and National Geographic's Birding Essentials. These two paperbacks are highly readable and worth their weight in gold if you want to improve your birding proficiency, no matter what your current skill level.

4) Hone your skills, Part II. Identification becomes a lot easier when you learn songs and call notes. And those who know them tend to find more birds. The Peterson “Birding by Ear” CDs are excellent. If you're an iPod user, look into birdJam or iBird—software packages that turn your device into a powerful electronic field guide.

5) Join a bird club. As president of the DuPage Birding Club I'm hardly an unbiased source. But being a member of any club adds a nice social dimension to the hobby. You can learn a lot from tagging along with expert birders on a local field trip, and you'll see new birds. The guest speakers at club meetings are interesting, too. To find out more about DBC, go to dupagebirding.org. Or e-mail me if you'd like to receive the club's latest newsletter.

6) Go birding in a new place. Joining a club may inspire you to get out more often and visit some new birding spots. Or just go on your own. Maybe there's a forest preserve that you've been driving by for years. Next time stop the car—you might see something new.

7) Sign up for IBET. Once you've sampled the local online birding community it's hard to log off. You'll see daily reports of common and uncommon birds, and you'll know where to go look for them if you are so inclined. On Thanksgiving Day I saw my my first white-winged crossbill in nine years, at the Morton Arboretum. I'd have never known to go there without IBET, short for Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts. To join this free listserve, send a blank e-mail to ILbirds-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, wait for the response, then follow the instructions.

8) Add a feeder...Consider a specialty feeder that will help attract more species. A thistle feeder will draw goldfinches and pine siskins, or go with a peanut feeder to attract more chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. And by all means have a hummingbird feeder ready when the calendar hits May.

9) ...and a heated birdbath. Fresh water is a backyard magnet for birds any time of year, and especially during the winter. Cleaning and filling takes discipline when it's frigid outside but the results will justify the effort. For durability, I recommend getting a birdbath that plugs in rather than a heating device that clips on to your existing bath. Your local bird store can show you the options.

10) Keep a log. If you're a regular reader, you know how I feel about list keeping. It can make you a better birder by raising your awareness of where and when species occur in our area. Listing sometimes gets a bad rap because of its competitive undertones. Don't worry about that. Keep track of what you see for the fun of it. Growing your lists can be motivating and a way to chart your progress as a birder.

Now it's time to get out there and bird. Or at least get back to the kitchen window. I wish you all many special sightings in 2009. Please share them with others. It's what birders do.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Feathery flashbacks: The best birds of 2008
(published 12-9-08)

The year isn't over yet. A hoary redpoll could still turn up at my thistle feeder. Or I could make local birding headlines by spotting a Bohemian waxwing during the Christmas Bird Count later this month. Hey, it's OK to dream, right?

It's fine to look back, too. No matter what happens in December, I've had a very good year, blessed with many special bird sightings. I hope the same goes for you.

Playing back the great birding moments of the past year is one of my favorite rituals. You should try it yourself—in a comfortable chair by the fire, perhaps with a glass of wine poured from a bottle with a bird on the label. It's a great way to savor the sights and sounds that make our hobby so rewarding.

I used to select a personal Bird of the Year but that was too difficult. Now I choose three: best yard bird, best field bird and best vacation bird. The latter is almost always a “lifer.”

Sometimes the selection process is simple. In 2008, my best yard bird was easily the prothonotary warbler that stopped by early on April 18—about 90 minutes after an earthquake jolted Chicagoland. By 6 a.m. it had already been quite a day! The prothonotary—a species normally associated with swamps—was my first warbler of the spring and a new addition to my yard list. Bright, unmistakable and so unexpected. It was all three. And in a few minutes it was gone. How incredibly lucky I was to have seen it.

Luck plays a big role in birding, we all know that. But sometimes we make our own luck by putting ourselves in exactly the right position to find a most-wanted bird. An American dipper was high on my wish list when we packed up the rental van for an old-fashioned family road trip last June. Our destination was South Dakota, and from pre-trip research I knew that dippers could be found in the Black Hills.

Talk about a unique bird. The American dipper, or “water ouzel,” is at home around fast-moving rocky streams. Plump and mostly gray, the species feeds on aquatic insect larvae and actually goes under water to obtain it. An extra eyelid enables it to see when submerged. This is fascinating to watch, and I was able to do so thanks to some excellent birdfinding advice from the owners of a cabin we rented near Deadwood, S.D. I was thrilled to find dippers in two places, the best known being Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon.

It's a tough choice, because the black-backed woodpecker at Custer State Park was special too. But I'll go with American dipper as my best vacation bird of 2008. I'll remember the dippers just as well as Mount Rushmore. (And I loved Mount Rushmore.)

I was fortunate to have a few more birding opportunities than usual last spring. It was job searching time and one can only spend so many hours a day networking. Three particular excursions stand out. One of them, to Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Woodridge, produced fine views of my second-ever Bell's vireo and a yellow-breasted chat. Both species—always nice finds in DuPage County—prefer dense, scrubby habitat. If not for their loud, distinctive songs I'd have never tracked them down.

In early May, during a bird club outing to Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien, I caught a brief glimpse of a pileated woodpecker—the first I'd ever seen in Illinois. The pileated is big and impressive, even to a non-birder. Plus they are quite uncommon in these parts.

But my favorite field bird of 2008 occurred at the Morton Arboretum. There, acting on a tip, I located a species that had always eluded me locally. And that's despite the fact that summer tanagers seem to be turning up with greater frequency in DuPage County. On May 28 my luck finally turned. On the Arb's east side, near Parking 7, I encountered a blazing red-orange male that nearly blew out my optics. His mate wasn't bad looking either.

The memory of those tanagers will help sustain me through the long, cold winter ahead. Or at least until the red-winged blackbirds return in late February. By then we'll all be counting down the days until spring migration begins in earnest.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Birding with Zick: A lesson in nature
(published 11-14-08)

The list of celebrities in the birding world is not long. But every hobby has a few nationally known standouts who are in constant demand as guest speakers. Last month I got to meet one. Better yet, I went birding with her.

Julie Zickefoose visited Glen Ellyn as a guest of the DuPage Birding Club, flying in from rural southeast Ohio. It is there, on the farm property she shares with her husband and two children, that Julie—or “Zick” as she often calls herself—writes, sketches and paints. These talents are well showcased in Letters From Eden, her 2006 book of essays about the simple pleasures of living with nature.

If the name Zickefoose rings a bell, you're probably a reader of Bird Watcher's Digest. The pint-sized magazine is a favorite among casual and serious birders alike, and Julie is married to the editor, Bill Thompson. Julie's paintings often appear on the magazine's cover and inside pages, plus she contributes the True Nature column. If you're an NPR fan, perhaps you've heard Julie on “All Things Considered,” where she's a regular guest.

Julie's appearance at the bird club was a big hit. More than 100 members and guests turned out, and many of them lined up for the book signing after the presentation. A Glen Ellyn fan club was born. But what I liked most is that Julie's talk went way beyond birding. She told stories about plants and butterflies and box turtles and snakes. This speaker was all about the big picture, the nature all around us.

It was good medicine for those like me who sometimes suffer from birding tunnel vision. The relentless pursuit of birds can keep us from appreciating all the other cool things that are part of their world. And our world.

Zick's message was reinforced for a small group of us the next morning at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. I knew from her presentation the night before that she'd be good company in the field. She is “down to earth,” funny and not the least bit hung up on her celebrity. I can see her laughing when she reads this. Me famous? Really? That's a good one!

Like the rest of us, Julie was happy to be outside on a spectacular Indian Summer day. Whatever birds we came across would be fine—there was no pressure to impress our guest. (Actually we did hope to show her a red-headed woodpecker but that was not to be. The Arb is a fine place to see one, but my favorite woodpecker is now almost a rarity in DuPage County.)

The first bird we found was dead. A hermit thrush had crashed into a Visitors Center window and was lying just outside the main entrance. Julie scooped it up for a close examination and the way she moved it around with her fingers made the bird seem alive. If anyone could save an injured bird it would be Zick, but it was too late for this one. At least the Field Museum could use it as a study specimen, so we set it aside until later.

Fortunately the next birds we encountered had a pulse—swamp and song sparrows around Meadow Lake. No big deal, except to Zick. She worked hard at photographing them with her long-lens Canon Rebel, treating them like something special. To her, they were.

This was 10 minutes into our walk, and for the next three hours Julie's enthusiasm for everything around us never waned. She stopped to photograph a fox squirrel as if she'd never seen one before. She marveled at a burning orange Chinese sumac, a tree even us locals had never before noticed. And she paused to inspect a ginkgo tree as if it were an endangered species, telling us some things about its architecture and leaf structure that we probably should have known but didn't. Good stuff, and right in front of our faces.

But my favorite part of the morning was when Julie noticed a bushy tree with a lot of bird activity. She suggested that we sit down in the wet grass and just watch it. The tree, a hackberry, was full of ruby-crowned kinglets, plus a palm warbler or two. The chasing kinglets posed a photographic challenge that Zick couldn't pass up. To her credit, she actually landed a decent shot. But then all of us settled on another challenge—to actually see the namesake field mark on one of these hyperactive birds.

Eventually we did spot a kinglet sporting a crimson mohawk. It was a sweet little victory on a day when little things mattered.

After lunch we set out for the airport, a trip that turned into a small adventure when yours truly missed an exit. I confess to suffering the indignity of having to stop at a 7-Eleven in Elk Grove Village for directions. But Julie stayed calm as we chatted away about our kids, two of whom possess bird names. She has a Phoebe, I have a Jay.

We pulled into O'Hare an hour before Julie would begin the journey back to her Eden. I'd like to think that she found a little bit of Eden here as well, in a place so different than Whipple, Ohio. We can find it too, Zick would tell us, if we just open our eyes.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Heads up! October is hawkwatching time
(published 10-8-08)

I have no reason to think that I'm being observed. But if my neighbors ever watched me mow the lawn, they'd see something strange: I'm always pausing to look up. And quite often they'd see me stop the mower and jog up to the top of my driveway—to grab my binoculars.

My habit is especially pronounced in the fall, when the sky holds migrating hawks, falcons, eagles and sandhill cranes. Sunny days with cumulus clouds usually offer the best viewing, all the way to Thanksgiving.

Hawkwatching occupies a special niche in the birding world, and those who devote themselves to it are a special breed. They live for this time of year, spending hours upon hours on the tops of hills or other open spaces, waiting and watching for raptors. Those can be mighty cold places, too.

“There's a lot of idle time when nothing is happening,” says Vic Berardi. “But when it gets busy it's a lot of fun.”

As the founder and coordinator for the Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) Hawk Watch in Zion, Berardi is one of our region's foremost hawkwatchers. The IBSP site is now in its ninth season of full-time hawk migration monitoring.

In favorable conditions, when westerly winds prevail, the volume and variety of migrating hawks and other birds of prey can be astounding. One magical day, in 2003, some 3,500 broad-winged hawks were counted at IBSP. Other common flyovers are red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks and turkey vultures. Peregrine falcons, kestrels, merlins, bald eagles and northern harriers are usually seen too.

In DuPage County, the best place to go hawkwatching is the hill at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Woodridge—the highest point around. Organized hawkwatching at Greene Valley began in 2006, initiated by the DuPage Birding Club.

The folks who turn out at IBSP and Greene Valley are hardy souls—and dedicated volunteers as well. By counting the birds, they contribute to a database that monitors North American raptor populations. This is “citizen science” at its best, conducted in the name of bird conservation.

So it's serious work at the hawk watch sites, but also a labor of love. Veteran hawkwatchers long for big days, when up to 15 different species of raptors can be observed. These include rarities such as northern goshawk, rough-legged hawk and our two eagles, bald and golden. In fact, six golden eagles were seen at the Greene Valley site in 2006, and three in 2007. And just a few weeks ago, on Sept. 20, a Swainson's hawk passed over IBSP—the fifth one in the last three years.

Another highlight of the hawkwatching season is the swirling flocks or “kettles” of broad-winged hawks. With patience, you can witness this fall phenomenon from your own backyard. The birds will likely be very high, appearing almost as specks. But with good binoculars you can see their distinctive black and white tail bands.

The challenge of identification is certainly part of hawkwatching's appeal. After all, most raptors are seldom seen perched—they must be identified when in flight. Keen ID skills are especially important during fall migration, and they are generally earned through countless hours of field observation. Experts can spot a flying raptor at great distances and know the species without the benefit of seeing specific markings or colors. Instead, they use clues such as size, overall shape and how the wings are held when the bird is soaring.

Luckily, there are some great books on the subject to assist novices like me. Berardi recommends two in particular: “Hawks in Flight,” the classic by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton, and “Hawks From Every Angle,” by Jerry Liguori.

Regular field guides are useful too—especially those that illustrate birds of prey as they appear from below, when flying over. The Peterson and Sibley guides do this quite well.

This month, try to get outside as often as possible and scan the skies. Even when you're cutting the grass or raking leaves. After all, some chores are just birding opportunities in disguise.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Broad-winged hawk photo by Vic Berardi
Keeping track of what you see
(published 9-16-08)

Does the name Sandy Komito ring a bell? Probably not, unless you read “The Big Year,” a book about three men who in 1998 each tried to set a record for the most North American bird species seen in a calendar year. Komito won handily, with 748 species. It's a record that may never be broken.

Komito, a New Jersey native now living in Florida, visited the DuPage Birding Club in July. His bird-by-bird account of his 1998 adventures was fascinating because most of us simply wondered how somebody could possibly see so many birds in one year. The answer had a lot to do with time and money—Komito, a self-made man, had plenty of each.

Truth is, not everyone in the room was impressed. The competitive side of birding is a turn-off for some, and then there's the carbon footprint issue. In most forms, a “big year” is anything but green. Komito, for example, never hesitated to book last-minute cross-country flights to see a single rare bird.

But “extreme listers” like Sandy Komito are themselves rare birds. Most of us keep lists, but we do it for fun, not sport. I think that's how it should be.

Of course, you don't have to be a lister to enjoy birding. There is nothing wrong with not knowing how many species you've seen in your life, or how many kinds of birds you've spotted in your backyard. For me, though, keeping track of these things is a way to chart my progress as a birder. List keeping also motivates me to keep an eye out for new birds, or birds in new places.

My lists are relatively few, with life list and yard list being the most meaningful. I'd be fine if I could only keep those two. But why stop there? I recently made room for another—a list of the birds I've seen in Illinois. The trigger was a small colony of purple martins at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Watching the birds, it dawned on me that I'd never before seen a martin in this state, my home since 1989.

Well, then I started thinking about a bunch of other cool birds I've seen in Illinois—some being species not easily observed in this region. This past spring I had two state “lifers,” a yellow-crowned night heron in Chicago and a pileated woodpecker at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien. And two trips to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie have yielded northern mockingbird, upland sandpiper and loggerhead shrike—the only place I've seen these species in Illinois.

My best Illinois bird, and one of my favorite sightings of all time, was the scissor-tailed flycatcher that visited the Batavia River Walk in 1998. It took me three visits to Batavia before I finally located this spectacular bird, which fortunately stayed in the same general area for several weeks. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, I've heard, are a dime a dozen in places like Oklahoma, where it's the state bird. But what a thrill to see my first one so close to home!

I'm especially excited about my new Illinois list because of its growth potential. Next spring I hope to explore extreme southern Illinois for the first time, where species like blue grosbeak, worm-eating warbler and Kentucky warbler are waiting if you know where to look. I might even take a side trip to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area (near Newton in Jasper County) and try for greater prairie chicken. Only a few hundred of these charismatic birds survive in our state, due mainly to habitat loss.

The fun of listing applies to the backyard, too. If you birdwatch at home, I highly recommend keeping two lists. The first is simply a log of all the species you've ever seen in or from your yard. That means “flyovers” count, and so does that scarlet tanager in the top our your neighbor's tree. A growing list is your reward for expanding your field of view beyond the feeders and birdbath.

The other backyard list I recommend is a record of the species you see each year and when you see them. I started doing this in 2003. So far my best “yard year” was 88 species in 2007, but my 2008 list is already up to 86. With a little luck, the upcoming fall migration will carry me to a new personal record.

One interesting aspect of an annual yard list is arrival dates. What's the earliest you've seen a junco in the fall? And when can you expect that first golden-crowned kinglet in the spring? With careful recordkeeping, your annual yard lists will answer questions like these and serve as valuable reference tools. Keep them all together—the patterns they reveal can be fascinating.

No matter how you approach listing, have fun with it. Keep track of whatever is meaningful to you personally. Those are the only lists that really matter.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Get ready for nighthawks and hummingbirds
(published 8-5-08)

Except for the most hard-core birders, these are the “dog days” of summer. Things are a bit slow. There are birds to be found, 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.

But now is also a time of anticipation. Two of my favorite annual birding events are just days or weeks away. First, the appearance of migrating common nighthawks. Then, in September, the almost magical influx of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

First let's talk about nighthawks. There is no better time than mid-August to mid-September to observe them, when large flocks are moving south toward their wintering grounds in South America. With a little patience, common nighthawks can be viewed from any backyard in DuPage County.

They are fun birds to watch, and often you'll hear them first. Nighthawks have a loud, buzzy one-syllable flight call that is unmistakable. Learn that sound, and then it's just a matter of looking up to find the bird. A good resource for bird calls is www.birds.cornell.edu. From the home page, click on “All About Birds” and then select the online bird guide to listen to a common nighthawk. (Take time to explore the rest of the site, too. A product of the Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, it's loaded with great information about birds and birding.)

The common nighthawk is easy to identify by sight as well. It's a dark, robin-sized bird with long pointy wings sporting white patches near the tips. Nighthawks are further distinguished by a floppy, erratic flight pattern as they feed on flying insects, their only food source. Given their diet, it's no surprise that nighthawks are not “hawks” at all. They belong to a family of birds called the nightjars, which includes the whip-poor-will.

Nighthawks are most active around dusk or at daybreak, but every now and then you'll see one in broad daylight. They're also known to congregate near bright lights, just like moths. When I go to night baseball games I always watch for them.

You have to be very lucky to ever see a nighthawk sitting still. Their coloration makes them virtually invisible when they roost during the day, typically on the ground or lengthwise on a branch.

The timing for migrating nighthawks varies year to year. In 2007, I didn't see one until August 27. In 2006, August 15 was my first sighting. The species does breed in this region so spring and summer sightings do occur, but its not until later this month that we can observe them in numbers, sometimes in swirling flocks of 50 or more birds. Enjoy the show!

Meanwhile, down on the ground, we are fast approaching the best time of year for attracting hummingbirds. Some of you may have been enjoying hummers throughout the summer. In my yard, however, the pattern has always been a few birds in May, none during the summer, and then lots in September. So be sure to have your sugar-water feeders up and ready by Labor Day.

The volume of advice on how to attract hummingbirds is astounding. Entire books exist on the subject, which says a lot about how much people cherish these unique birds. In general, sugar-water should be viewed as a secondary food source; flowering gardens with lots of red, trumpet-shaped blooms are the best hummingbird magnet of all.

Frankly, I've dropped the ball in terms of landscaping for hummingbirds. I rely instead on two feeders, placed about 20 feet apart. The dual-feeder strategy, which I applied last year for the first time, really does the trick. Hummingbirds are territorial, and some individual birds can be quite aggressive. So it's best to give them some space. Having multiple feeders can not only increase the activity level in your yard but also keep the birds coming back.

If you're in the market for a feeder, I recommend a simple plastic model that's easy to fill and clean. My favorite is the HummZinger, which comes in several sizes. Get the smallest—it has just the right capacity to help minimize waste, since you'll need to replace the sugar-water at least once a week. The feeder is mostly red so hummingbirds are sure to notice it.

There can never be too many hummingbirds outside my kitchen window. Maybe this month I'll invest in a third feeder.

Finally, a mark-your-calendar item: On October 9, the DuPage Birding Club will welcome renowned nature author and artist Julie Zickefoose. She'll discuss and sign copies of her latest book, “Letters from Eden.” All are welcome. For more information, visit dupagebirding.org or call (630) 487-0323.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
South Dakota road trip produces great birding memories
(published 7-8-08)

I read a lot of bird books, and my all-time favorite is “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman. It's the best birding adventure book I know. Even so, I'd never read it a second time until just before a family trip to South Dakota in June. I'm glad I did—for birders, Kaufman's memoir is the perfect read before hitting the open road.

We left on June 8, the start of a 10-day trip that would cover 2,400 miles in a rented minivan. This was a family vacation, not a birding trip. But clearly there would be excellent chances to see some new species, as well as some western birds that I'd only seen once or twice before. Weeks before we left Glen Ellyn, I spent hours thumbing through my Sibley guide, dreaming of the possibilities. I also acquired a book on birds of the Black Hills, which naturally raised a my birding fever a few more degrees.

The first notable birds occurred long before we reached South Dakota. Just after crossing the Mississippi River on I-90, we stopped at the Minnesota welcome center to stretch. Looking east toward La Crosse, I scanned the river for bald eagles and found one almost instantly. Moments later a black tern went coursing by. These would not be last “good birds” that I'd see while visiting rest areas on the trip. Lesson: Every pit stop is a birding opportunity!

We reached the Badlands on our second day. Before entering the national park we stopped at a scenic overlook to drink in the strange and beautiful landscape. That would have been plenty, but some locally common birds made that little pause even better. A Swainson's hawk was soaring low right above us, and a lark bunting and singing western meadowlark perched on a fence close to the parking area.

I was greatly impressed by the Badlands. The rock formations, the wildflowers, the big sky. Everything. We were greeted by a mountain bluebird at one of our first stops inside the park, and we'd be treated to many more of these powder-blue beauties. Say's phoebe, rock wren, white-throated swift, black-billed magpie, blue grosbeak, spotted towhee and lark sparrow were among other species I found inside the park. Nothing rare, but each one a treat.

After the Badlands we pushed on to our rented cabin the Black Hills, near Deadwood. This would be a chance for some woodland birding, and I aimed to make the most of it with early morning walks before the family was up. The most colorful sighting was a western tanager, a bird I'd encountered only once before, in Arizona. Black-headed grosbeak, Cordilleran flycatcher and Townsend's solitaire were other highlights on the property.

Our cabin was at the edge of a large open meadow, so from the porch it was easy to watch for soaring raptors. I twice spotted a golden eagle high in the sky, identifiable by its overall darkness and shape. This was one of my “target birds” for the trip, and I was to see another eagle at Wind Cave National Park in a few days.

Another target was American dipper, a truly unique species and a local specialty in the Black Hills.That is, if you know where to look. The cabin owners, birders themselves, were glad to help. They directed me to the Spearfish Canyon, which happily was right on our way to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, a planned day trip. I found a single dipper in three different locations, the most famous being Roughlock Falls. This was a fun bird to watch as it dipped in and out of the quick-moving mountain streams.

My next “lifer” was a total surprise. On our way to Rushmore one day we stopped at the gleaming visitor center for Black Hills National Forest. A pair of mountain bluebirds was nesting on site, and violet-green swallows were darting about. The center also featured some well-stocked bird feeders, and at one of them I quickly noticed an unfamiliar bird. A red crossbill! The olive-yellow female was soon joined by the more reddish male. Then a couple more females arrived. It was a great show, and completely unexpected.

My best birding moment of the trip occurred at Custer State Park. I knew that three species of woodpeckers that I'd never seen were native in the Black Hills—Lewis's, three-toed and black-backed. Finding any one of them would take time and some luck. At Custer, I got my chance. Driving on the Wildlife Loop, we passed a forested hillside blackened by fire. It looked like perfect black-backed woodpecker habitat based on my pre-trip research.

While my family patiently waited in the van—it was Father's Day, so they were in a compliant mood—I began hiking up the hillside. There was almost no undergrowth, just pine needles, so the walking was easy. I soon heard a drumming sound but the source turned out to be a hairy woodpecker. Then I heard more drumming, close but from a different direction. Obviously I was in the right place for woodpeckers! Moments later, a black-backed revealed itself. I watched as it moved from tree to tree, keeping its distance but still allowing me good views.

Mission completed, I practically flew back down the hill to the van. Nothing beats the feeling of finding a special bird completely on your own.

I'd been dreading the two-day drive back to Glen Ellyn but the first day was a lot more tolerable thanks to some interesting roadside attractions. No, not Wall Drug or the Corn Palace. This is about birds, remember?

One especially nice rest area, on the east bank of the Missouri River, featured a short nature trail where I found singing dickcissels, a grassland species. That was a new “trip bird,” as was the long-billed curlew that flew low over the highway about an hour later. I don't keep a list of birds spotted from a moving vehicle, honest, but the curlew made me think about starting one.

There were lots of little ponds or “potholes” along I-90, and many of them held waterfowl. The urge to pull over and have a closer look was strong but that would have been dangerous. Thankfully, even at 70 mph it was easy to enjoy the yellow-headed blackbirds in the cattail stands. They are spectacular birds, larger than their red-winged cousins.

To compare my trip to Kenn Kaufman's 1973 odyssey would be preposterous. For an entire year, at age 17, he hitchhiked around the country on a shoestring budget. We drove to South Dakota in a minivan and spent freely. But I do relate easily to Kaufman's desire to see new birds in new habitats. That desire makes every trip a little more interesting, no matter how you choose to travel.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Special birds deliver the moments we savor
(published 6-10-08)

There's a TV ad I've been seeing where one stranger says to another, “Congratulations on your moment.” I like that line, and lately I've been hearing it in my head when I spot an amazing bird—especially when I'm alone.

Don't worry, I'm not losing it. It's just a little celebration ritual—my way of savoring the moment when I find myself in exactly the right place at the right time.

I enjoyed many great birding moments this spring—some alone and some with others—and hope you did, too. During April and May I was between jobs so I had more time than usual to enjoy the migration season. What a great time of year to be unemployed! (I can say that now that I've landed a new gig.)

Most of my mornings began outside on the patio watching, listening and sipping coffee to stay warm. One day was by far the best, with 15 species of warblers spotted.

My list included a Blackburnian, the flame-throated warbler that every birder longs to see each spring. Like a Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting or scarlet tanager, the Blackburnian warbler is one of those “wow” birds that can turn anybody into a committed birder. See one and you never forget it. And then you just want to see it again.

Of course, many less dazzling birds are still coveted by those of us who practice this hobby. How else to explain my excitement over an orange-crowned warbler? It's a rather drably dressed species that can be tricky to identify; the “orange crown” is virtually invisible. I'd never positively seen this bird in my yard before, so when one came along and gave me a good close look, I was up to the challenge. Species No. 106 on my all-time yard list. Congratulations on your moment.

Several more memorable birding moments occurred on May 22 at the Elsen's Hill area of West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield. It was a sparkling day—ideal for seeing a wide variety of warblers. That was not to be, but what I did find was even better.

Almost from the time I stepped out of the car I could hear the flute-like sound of a wood thrush in the distance. It's a classic voice of the Eastern forest, and some would say it's the most beautiful bird song of all. Just listening was enough, but about an hour into my walk I realized the bird was quite close. Taking soft, gentle steps off the trail, I surprised myself by actually locating the singing thrush. It was perched on a branch about 20 feet up with it's back to me. What a treat it was to both see and hear this uncommon and declining species. Congratulations on your moment.

But the best was yet to come. Soon I walked into a clearing and noticed a bird sitting on a dead limb. I knew by its profile and stillness that it must be a flycatcher of some kind. I moved a little closer and saw the clean white belly and dark flanks that gave the bird a vested look.

Now, I'm thinking olive-sided flycatcher, which would be a terrific find. But I needed a better look, so I kept moving to get a different angle with the sun behind me. Fortunately, this bird wasn't timid. It held its position as I conducted a thorough study from head to tail. I saw white feather tufts on its back, confirming the ID, and then watched as the bird twice sallied out from its perch to snare a bumblebee.

But my morning at Elsen's Hill wasn't finished. As I was enjoying the olive-sided flycatcher, I heard a loud birdsong coming from a scrubby area just off the trail. The source then revealed itself, flying across the trail to a tree next to the one with the flycatcher. When I saw the bold white eye ring my heart skipped a beat. Then the bird turned toward me, exposed in perfect light. It was a Connecticut warbler, a truly difficult species to observe in this region. Congratulations on your moment.

Later, checking my log, I found that my only previous olive-sided flycatcher occurred at Indiana Dunes State Park in 1998. The Connecticut warbler also was a second-ever sighting, the first coming in 1999.

My morning at Elsen's Hill was another reminder that birding is all about great moments, and that some of the best ones invariably happen when we're alone.

I'm fine with that.

Unless it's an ivory-billed woodpecker, I don't need a witness to enjoy a good find. But I do like hearing that voice.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Warblers highlight peak season for birdwatchers
(published 5-13-08)

This is the time of year when the treasure hunt we call birding is at its best. I look forward to May like a college basketball fan looks forward to March. For birders, it’s May Madness, when spring migration reaches its peak.

A lot of my birdwatching takes place in the backyard, and every spring I'm amazed by the variety of birds that can be seen. Not so much at the feeders, but in the shrubs, on the ground and in the treetops. Be alert for unusual visitors and you'll be rewarded. Funny thing about birding—the more you look the more you see.

It's good to be lucky, too. How else could I explain the dazzling Prothonotary Warbler that momentarily graced my backyard on April 18? It was far from its usual swampy habitat, so I was extremely fortunate that the bird happened by at just the right time. It was a new species for my yard list, No. 105, and how easily I could have missed it!

Hopefully you will enjoy a similar experience this month, or maybe several. The memory of spotting an exciting or completely unexpected bird will serve you well when the birding hits a lull in July, or when the snow starts flying in November. What will be your personal Bird of the Year? There's a good chance that you'll see it this month, and it might well belong to the family of birds known as warblers.

With so many interesting birds, it’s hard to play favorites. But it's a fact: Warbers are the focus (or obsession) for most birders from mid-April until the end of May. We love these neotropical migrants for their vivid colors, sweet vocalizations and, yes, their elusiveness. Finding and identifying them can be a challenge, but it’s an enjoyable one.

In “Going Wild,” author Robert Winkler devotes a chapter to warblers.

“Unless I see at least 30 [species] in May, when their numbers peak, I feel I haven’t paid fitting tribute to the spring migration,” he writes. “No songbirds evince the power, beauty and mystery of migration more spectacularly than the warblers.”

I haven't seen more than 20 different kinds of warblers during any given spring. Nevertheless, a few of the 41 warblers on my life list are among my all-time most memorable sightings. In fact, it was a male Hooded Warbler that ignited my passion for birds about 14 years ago. And I’ll never forget my first Blue-Winged Warbler, spotted in downtown Chicago of all places. A Cerulean Warbler at Indiana Dunes State Park and the ultra-rare Kirtland’s Warbler in northern Michigan also stand out.

Still, my warbler resumé has some gaps. I’m still waiting to see my first Kentucky Warbler, Worm-Eating Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush—three species that are uncommon but certainly present in this region during migration.

It’s a different game at home, where quite a few warblers that I've seen “in the field” have still not signed my backyard guest book. I’m still waiting for a Mourning Warbler, for example, and a Connecticut. These are unlikely backyard birds, even in May, but the same could be said about the Prothonotary. Almost anything is possible, and that proved it. So I'll happily keep checking my trees and bushes, hoping for another magical moment.

Anticipating those moments, and savoring them later, is part of what makes birding so much fun.

A few warbler-watching tips:

-- Get up early, when birds are most active, and survey your backyard. Look for movement in the shrubs and treetops
-- Obtain a good field guide, and place a bookmark in the warbler section
-- Join a field trip with the DuPage Birding Club (dupagebirding.org) or Kane County Audubon (kanecountyaudubon.org)
-- Consider upgrading your binoculars
-- Purchase “Watching Warblers,” a wonderful DVD that helps identify the birds by sight and sound (birdfilms.com)

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Backyard gold
(published 5-15-08)

Last Friday an earthquake woke me up. Then a bird rocked my world.

The quake that all Chicago was talking about occurred at 4:36 a.m. and measured 5.2 on the Richter scale. That's a big one, and it really did interrupt my slumber. But what really gave me a jolt was the Prothonotary Warbler that visited my yard a few hours later. It was a first for my Yard List, species No. 105, and quite possibly the best. Bright, unmistakable and so unexpected. It was all of these things.

It was also my first warbler of the spring. What a start!

Funny, the day before, a Prothonotary Warbler was reported at Lyman Woods on IBET, the birding list-serve. I remember seeing that post and thinking I might go over to Lyman on Friday and try to see it. It would only be a 5-mile drive. Turns out the bird came to me.

To say the least, Prothonotary Warbler is not a bird I ever expected to see in the yard. They like stagnant water and swamps. That's the habitat where I saw my first Prothonotary--in Tampa, in 1998. It would be five years before I saw my second, at Kiawah Island, S.C.

But during migration, birds turn up in odd places. Almost anything is possible.

I saw the bird immediately as I stepped into the backyard to begin my daily spring ritual of scattering millet and cracked corn for the birds. There, climbing on the fence vines about 40 feet away was a glowing yellow bird. Not a goldfinch, I knew that. But my binoculars were inside!

I dashed in the house and quickly focused my bins on the fence, looking through the sliding door in our kitchen. The bird was still there, practically posing. That's when I knew for sure, a Prothonotary! I hustled back outside and enjoyed a few more good looks from even closer range.

It's quite possible that I was still in shock at that point. How else to explain my next move? I raced upstairs to alert my wife about the bird. Two problems. One, she was still asleep. Two, she's not a birder. But hey, we're talking about a Prothonotary Warbler here! Maybe the only time one will ever visit the yard! Sensing the urgency--or more likely, just humoring me--Catherine climbed out of the sack and stumbled over to the bathroom window that overlooks our backyard. But too late, the warbler was out of sight. Oh well, there will be other chances. Just not in this lifetime.

I went back downstairs and looked again but no luck. But that was okay, I'd had enough luck already.

Then I started thinking. Where was the bird now? Did anyone else in the neighborhood see it and appreciate it? Where would the bird be at the end of the day? Oh, and did it feel the earthquake, too?

Another question I had was off the wall: When an unusual bird like this comes around, do the other birds notice? My 7-year-old son and I answered that question with another: How could they not? To a House Sparrow, for example, a Prothonotary Warbler would almost certainly be a new and unusual sight.

It doesn't matter, of course. The warbler was just living its life, and that morning I was living mine in exactly the right place at the right time.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Area birding clubs give hobby a social dimension
(published 4-24-08)

I subscribe to a free e-mail list for birders--a place where fanatics like me can post their bird sightings and share information. 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." One response, from a birder in Palatine, suggested that she “Join the local bird clubs and go on all their field trips.” Great answer, I thought.

There is 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 10 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 have 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 the IIT Rice Center campus in Wheaton. For more information, visit www.dupagebirding.org. To receive a sample newsletter, call 630-887-7951 or e-mail yadempsey@birches.net.

Kane County Audubon began in 1966 and has about 110 members. Most meetings take place at Peck Farm in Geneva. For more information, go to www.kanecountyaudubon.org. You can also call 630-584-8386 or e-mail randrini@aol.com.

With either club, you needn’t be a member to attend a meeting or field trip--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 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Hail to the kinglets and other April birds
(published 4-3-08)

T.S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month.” I guess he wasn’t a birder.

I love this time of year. The days are getting longer and that means more time to watch birds. Best of all, there’s more to see! Look carefully and you may spot some interesting birds right in your backyard—migrating species that we haven’t seen since fall, or maybe since April of 2007.

Let’s start with the kinglets—golden-crowned and ruby-crowned. These tiny, aptly named birds seem propelled by nervous energy. They’re always in motion, flicking their wings and sometimes hovering as they feed. Golden-crowns appear in our region first, and of the two kinglet species these tend to be the least common in my yard. Some Aprils I don’t see them at all. By mid-month they are gone, off to their North Woods breeding grounds.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are on a slightly later schedule. They arrive in mid-April and often stay into early May. It’s always a challenge to see the male’s scarlet tuft, which is usually concealed.

There are many more April specialties to watch for. Some, like the kinglets, are just passing through. See them now or your next good chance will be in the fall. Fox sparrow, winter wren, brown creeper, hermit thrush and yellow-bellied sapsucker, for instance.

My yard records include about a dozen one-time sightings, and two of them—blue-gray gnatcatcher and Eastern towhee—are generally April-arriving species. Although these birds nest in our region, this month may be the best opportunity to spot them in backyard habitats.

Gnatcatchers like to forage high in trees, moving about quickly like the kinglets. Their white eye-rings and extra-long tails are distinctive. Seeing these features on distant birds can be tough, but at least in April the trees are still mostly bare. Something else in our favor is that the seasonal gnatcatcher population is said to be growing in the Midwest.

Towhees are large members of the sparrow family, which explains why they’re normally seen on the ground scratching for food. The one that visited my yard, a male, was in the grass below my feeders. That was surprising since towhees are typically more secretive. This one wasn’t shy at all, and even performed its sweet “drink your tea” song.

To see even more April species, be sure to take a few walks in the parks and forest preserves. A birding hot spot on my agenda is Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia. A flock of migrating American white pelicans has visited the Kane County preserve in early April for the past five years. Hopefully, this will make six.

Finally, while nothing beats actual birding, one of my favorite April rituals is to pop “Watching Warblers” into the VCR. It’s a beautifully made film that documents by video and sound all 39 warbler species in the Eastern United States. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for the color and excitement that awaits us in May, when spring migration reaches its peak. The warblers are coming, and so are Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings.

Come to think of it, that’s another thing I like about April—the anticipation. The birding is great now, but the best is yet to come.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
A purple surprise
(posted 3-8-08)

OK, it wasn't really purple. Not literally. In fact, it was a Little Brown Job.

Fortunately, I looked a little closer at the bird perched on my black-oil sunflower tube feeder on February 9. Behold, a Purple Finch! It was a female, making it quite easy to identify. Purple Finch is a species where the female is more obvious than the male. Usually it's the other way around.

The brown and cream-colored head pattern was unmistakable, and not seen in my backyard since October 2005. That was the only other time a Purple Finch (two or three females as I recall) came to visit.

I look forward to when a male finally shows up, and when it does I'll make sure it's not just a House Finch. The two can be confused, but the Purple Finch male lacks streaking on the flanks and its head and breast color is more raspberry than the red-orange sported by the House. It's a handsome bird.

When I saw the female last month I knew instantly it was a Second Sighting for the yard. Second Sightings are special. They make the Yard List, Life List or any other list a little richer.

And no doubt, Second Sightings are sometimes more satisfying than the first. I thought of this recently when I settled the score with an old nemesis species, the Common Redpoll. My first redpoll sighting occurred at Fermilab in 1999. Talk about a frustrating lifer. There were three birds, and by the time I got my binocs on them they were gone. At most I enjoyed a two-second peak, and our group never relocated the birds.

I had really hoped to see a redpoll at my thistle feeder this winter, which would have been a first. Lots of other birders have reported them, so it's clearly been a good year for this species in our region. Many years, redpolls are virtually impossible to find around here.

Not wanting to let a good opportunity get away, I went looking for redpolls at Springbrook Golf Course in Naperville on February 23. I'd heard through friends in the DuPage Birding Club that redpolls have been regular visitors this winter to the thistle feeders hanging by the maintenance shed, just off 83rd Street near Book Road.

Pulling into the driveway, the first thing I noticed was male Ring-Necked Pheasant. How could I not? What a striking bird. He'd probably been cleaning up spilled seed under the feeders. Without even leaving the car, I then focused on the large hanging thistle sacks. Within moments, I saw them--Common Redpolls coming and going, unconcerned by my presence. Because of that day at Fermi, this wasn't a "lifer," but it sure felt like one. I watched the redpolls for 10 minutes or so from different angles, savoring my Second Sighting of this often elusive winter finch.

A high-quality Second Sighting can be a worthy goal. You probably know without checking some of the birds you've only seen once. Think especially about species you've seen but not seen well, or have not seen for many years. Then get busy and track them down. Spring is a great season for treasure hunting.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
An Owlish January
(posted 2-2-08)

When I woke up on January 9th I had never once seen a Long-Eared Owl. By noon I'd seen eight, all but one in the same tree!

Starting off a new year with an easy "lifer" is great. It happened in 2007, too, when I spotted the pair of Harlequin Ducks that lingered for at least six weeks near Chicago's North Avenue Beach.

The roosting Long-Eared Owls also were "downtown birds," and that's what made them a big story—for birders and the general public alike. Chicago's major newspapers and several TV stations provided coverage, a few employing all-too-predictable phrases like "birdwatchers are flocking" and "giving a hoot." But that was OK. It really was a remarkable natural event and I, for one, was happy to see it play out in such a public manner. A lot of people were able to see their first owl of any kind in the wild, and right in the city!

A nice side story is that the occasion afforded a terrific teaching opportunity. That's because the roost site was in a park next to a South Loop elementary school. Easy to observe owls, just outside the classroom—what could be better?

For me it was a simple matter of jumping on a bus during lunch hour. I left my office at Tribune Tower at 11:30 and was back in exactly 60 minutes. Even the CTA worked in my favor that day! It was a noon-time owl prowl that I'll never forget.

Later in January I had another owl encounter and a teaching opportunity of my own. This time the event was in my own backyard, thanks to a visiting Great-Horned Owl. I was outside filling the feeders about 6:15 when I heard the unmistakable hoots. It really surprised me because I'd never heard an owl so early in the evening—two or three in the morning is more typical. So without wasting another second I ran through the garage and swung open the door to the kitchen, calling for Rachel (age 12) and Jay (7) to put on their coats and boots.
The kids mobilized quickly, trusting that my own state of excitement signified something worthy of their efforts. Back outside, the owl was still calling, and from pretty close range. I suggested that we listen for a minute or two before attempting to actually see the bird. Then, after creeping to the back corner of the yard, I spotted the bird at the top of a tall pine, about one lot over. A second later, the big owl lifted off. Jay was at my side and got a quick glimpse. Rachel didn't see the bird but hearing it was all that really mattered. She and her little brother really seemed pleased by the experience, which lasted all of five minutes. Or were they were just humoring their "bird man" father? Nah.

So for me, January was mostly about owls. But one other highlight this winter has been the Hermit Thrush that I mentioned in my previous post. This winter rarity continues to drink from the heated birdbath, and that's all the motivation I need to keep cleaning and filling the saucer every day, no matter what the weather conditions. It makes me feel needed. Truth is, the thrush and all the other birds give me a lot more than I give them.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
Siskins, just in time!
(posted 1-4-08)

The backyard birding year could not have ended any better for me. On the last day of 2007, a small flock of Pine Siskins appeared at my thistle tube feeder—an event I'd been waiting for since early November. They were my first “yard siskins” in four years, and they pushed my annual species count to 88. My best previous yard year was 79 species in 2005.

I'll be trying, but I can't imagine topping 88 species in 2008. I had more than my fair share of birding luck in 2007, with the New Year's Eve siskins perhaps the best case in point. Five or six birds came to the thistle around noon, when I just happened to be in the kitchen. Looking out, my first thought was goldfinches. But they seemed a little larger, and then I noticed the streaking. So even before I reached my binoculars on the other side of the room, I knew this was a special moment. I enjoyed a nice long look at these uncommon yard visitors, fully appreciating my good fortune. They stayed for about 15 minutes and I didn't see them the rest of the day.

Now it's the first day of 2008, and a new annual yard list begins. The first entry: White-Breasted Nuthatch, heard and then seen while I was outside shoveling snow. Not a bad First Bird. Certainly better than starting the year with a House Sparrow. My third bird of 2008, following a Downy Woodpecker, was a Hermit Thrush—undoubtedly the same bird that for several weeks now has been visiting our heated bird bath. He flies in, takes a few sips and then flies away. I'm hoping the bird stays around all winter.

According to Sibley, southern Illinois is about as far north as you could expect to see a Hermit Thrush this time of year. So “my” bird is a bit out of range, and it's the first Hermit Thrush to visit my yard in the dead of winter. Clearly the fresh water source is what's keeping him here.

Maintaining a bird bath in winter takes a little effort, but times like these really make it worthwhile. Plus, all the backyard birds will use it. They need water, and a heated bird bath can be every bit as attractive to wild birds in winter as a well-stocked feeder.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.