Local birding landscape continues to evolve
(published 6-9-09)

One of the things I like most about birding is the surprises. Like the hairy woodpecker that's been visiting my peanut feeder. It has two red spots on its head instead of one. I swear.

Also strange was seeing a pine siskin in my backyard on May 20. I'd never seen one of these “winter finches” so late before—well after the last juncos had headed north. Siskins as well as white-winged crossbills were all over the region this spring, mingling with the warblers. Weird.

Cattle egrets—another big surprise. This spring they were seen grazing in Chicago's Lincoln Park and also at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Not many birders, myself included, had ever observed this species in Illinois before.

The cattle egrets, plus my recent acquisition a 45-year-old booklet called Birds of The Morton Arboretum, started me thinking about changes in the local birdlife. What birds are showing up here now that never did before? And which ones were once common but now are rare or completely gone?

I found the booklet at a used book sale and what a treasure! It's even signed by the author. That would be the late Floyd Swink, the Arb's resident bird expert for many years who knew the place like his own backyard.

From Swink's species descriptions it's apparent that our avian landscape has changed a lot since the 1960s. Consider his write-up on the tufted titmouse: “Frequent in the woods; can be seen any time of year; it's cheery whistle is a commonly heard song.” Titmice were a nesting species at the Arb.

Today, finding a titmouse around here takes a lot of luck. The same goes for black terns, which Swink said were “flying over ponds and marshes May through September.” Not any more.

The text indicates that warblers such as cerulean, blue-winged and golden-winged were common, as were bobwhite quail and whip-poor-wills. As birders, we long for those days.

The booklet is also fascinating for the historic sightings it reveals. Like the golden eagle observed at the Arboretum on Nov. 10, 1946, or the burrowing owl seen on April 21, 1953.

One species not listed in the booklet that's been seen annually at the Arb in recent years is the yellow-throated warbler. Cattle egret is absent, too.

Indeed, there are a few other birds that are actually more common here today than 40 years ago. Examples are blue-gray gnatcatcher, red-bellied woodpecker and Carolina wren. The ranges for these species, as with yellow-throated warbler, have expanded northward.

But the hard reality is that a lot of birds are suffering alarming population declines due to habitat loss and other factors. Swink saw it happening 40 years ago, I'm sure, and now the trend is accelerating.

In March, several major conservation groups and government wildlife agencies teamed up to release The State of the Birds. It's an enlightening but sobering report that explains what bird species are in trouble and why. Out of the 800 species you could hope to see in the United States, 67 are listed as federally endangered or threatened. An additional 184 are on a watch list due to their small distribution, high threats or declining populations.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Sidebars in the report tell how some endangered or threatened species have bounced back. Among them: bald eagle, peregrine falcon and American white pelican. Even the rarest of all warblers, Kirtland's, is showing improvement.

Want more good news? In March, the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board removed Henslow's sparrow, bald eagle and sandhill crane from its priority list.

The connection between birding and conservation has always existed but now it seems to be tightening. This is good, and some would say it's about time.

Birding is fun. That's why we do it. But we need to remember the big picture and give back. For some excellent ideas, check out 101 Ways to Help Birds by Laura Erickson. The State of the Birds report is well worth a look too, including the 7-minute summary video. You can see both at stateofthebirds.org.

Copyright 2009 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.