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 To receive a sample newsletter, call 630-887-7951 or e-mail

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 You can also call 630-584-8386 or e-mail

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.