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.