Sage Thrasher by Jerry Goldner
News, notes and observations from a very “big year”

(published 12-12-11)

2011 began ominously when thousands of blackbirds dropped dead out of the sky in Arkansas. Remember that? A few days later, in Louisiana, it happened again. Thankfully, it was not a nationwide trend and avian conditions soon returned to normal.

For birders, normal is great. In any season, there is always something to see, share and discuss. But sometimes things are better than great, like last month along the Chicago lakefront. There, and also in Oak Park, some crazy, magical stuff took place, producing a string of local rarities that will long be remembered.

The fun began on Oct. 29 with the discovery of a sage thrasher at Montrose Beach. It was only the 5th Illinois record for this species, a rare visitor from the west. Amazingly, the bird lingered in the same general area for weeks. It was a “lifer” for most birders, including me.

Meanwhile, three more western vagrants were on the way! A mountain bluebird appeared at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion on Nov. 10, followed by a Brewer’s sparrow at Chicago’s Northerly Island on Nov. 12. Then, against all odds, a Townsend’s solitaire turned up at Montrose and actually visited the very same fruiting bush favored by the sage thrasher. They don’t call it the Magic Hedge for nothing.

But it wasn’t over. Two snowy owls delighted the Montrose faithful on Nov. 19, and then a probable broad-tailed hummingbird (yet another westerner) appeared at an Oak Park feeder. The hummer, still around in early December, attracted major-media coverage as well as birders from several states. If confirmed, it would be the first documented broad-tailed hummingbird for Illinois.

Other notable finds in Chicago during 2011 included a Ross’s gull in late March (Illinois’s 3rd) and a green-tailed towhee in October.

Here in DuPage County, more than 8,000 migrating sandhill cranes passed over the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawkwatch on Nov. 16. The counters are still recovering.

“IBET” is the online birding list-serve that alerts us to all these discoveries, and sometimes the postings are accidentally funny. For example: “The Northern Mockingbird was still present at Binny's Beverage Depot on Thursday morning, Oct. 27.” Or this, posted by a man who had just attended a certain film about competitive birding: “There were only 4 persons at the movie the day we were there, myself and Laura, and another guy who has some bird feeders and his wife.”

Ah yes, “The Big Year,” surely one of the highlights of 2011. The movie was a box office bomb but birders generally liked it and I’ll bet some of us will even buy the DVD. Or at least visit Redbox.

Thanks to the all-star cast and a modest promotion campaign, “The Big Year” was noticed by a lot of people who are not yet birders. Lots of people told me about it (just in case I hadn’t heard).

Another 2011 event that seemed to transcend the birding community was an “eagle cam” in Decorah, Iowa. People all across America were logging on to watch those birds—an avian version of “The Truman Show” with Jim Carrey. Kudos to the Raptor Resource Project for making it happen.

Speaking of eagles, lots of opportunities to get a winter fix: Bald Eagle Days in the Quad Cities, Jan. 6-8; Clinton Eagle Watch, Jan. 7 (at lock and dam #13, near Fulton, IL); and Starved Rock Eagle Watch Weekend, Jan. 28-29.

I love that new species of birds are still being discovered. In 2011, Bryan’s shearwater joined the list of about 10,000 species worldwide.

I’ll probably never see a Bryan’shearwater, but I did add two birds to my life list this year: the sage thrasher in Chicago and Florida scrub jay, found at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Something else I love: the new “environmental” license plate for Illinois. I’m still getting used to the green background but the cardinal illustration is much improved. We owed that to our state bird.

Canada might finally get a national bird. Red-tailed hawk is reportedly leading in the Canadian Raptor Conservancy’s online poll.

If you like owls, conservation and wine, check out

A great-horned owl presented me with a gift on Aug. 2. It was daybreak and I’d just finished my workout at the Glen Ellyn YMCA. As I walked to my car I heard some hooting. I followed the sound until I was behind the building, at the little field where my son once played t-ball. For a few minutes I just sat on the bleachers to listen and remember. Birding can slow us down sometimes, and this is good.

In April, Team Sapsucker from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology set the North American Big Day record by finding 264 bird species in 24 hours. In Texas, of course!

Best feel-good bird story of the year: The return of the two Mooseheart eaglets to the wild on Nov. 13. The birds spent five months at Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington after falling from their nest last May.

Saddest bird story of the year: In May, a 38-year-old Naperville man was struck and killed when he attempted to help a family of ducklings across I-294, near O’Hare.

Moving from sad to just plain disappointing, Kentucky passed a measure allowing sandhill cranes to be hunted in that state beginning Dec. 15. The hunt will last 30 days or until 400 birds are dead. Thirteen western states allow crane hunting but Kentucky is the first state east of the Mississippi to do so.

I’m OK with hunting, and I buy a federal duck stamp every year. But cranes?

Have you heard about the new Frontier League baseball team, the Schaumburg Boomers? The mascot is a greater prairie chicken. Sweet logo. Gotta get me a hat.

Consider this description of Wild Delight Cardinal Food, spotted in a recent Ace Hardware ad: “A premium wild bird food blended to attract and feed the most desirable outdoor pets.”

Birders are allowed to watch mammals, too! My favorite four-legged sighting of 2011 was a 13-lined ground squirrel at Prairie Landing Golf Club in West Chicago, in June and again in August. We are at the far eastern edge of this species’ usual range.

New books on my nightstand, waiting patiently for my tired eyes: “Avian Architecture,” by Peter Goodfellow, and “Bird Coloration,” by Geoffrey Hill.

Finally, was it three or four times that I went searching for the pileated woodpeckers reported on the east side of The Morton Arboretum? Never did see one. But it’s OK—finding that bird gives me yet another excuse to go birding in 2012.

I hope that you find lots of excuses, too. Make the time and get out there! Best wishes for a wonderful new year of birding and discovery.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Wild Turkey
October journal reveals the daily joys of birding
(published 11-15-11)

Well, that was fast. "The Big Year" came and went like a fall warbler in a hurry to go south. It didn’t hang around very long because box office duds never do. I liked the movie, did you?

"The Big Year" wasn’t the only thing birdy about October. For chirping out loud, the Cardinals even won the World Series.

For me, the month was defined by a string of short but satisfying bird encounters. Each one reminded me that it’s the seasonality—and the little surprises—that make this hobby so rewarding. These are my journal notes:

Oct. 2: I was playing catch with my son and heard the distant bugle of sandhill cranes. We looked up and soon located five birds swirling around, enjoying the warm sun just like us. November is prime time for “sandie” sightings, often in large migrating flocks, so be alert for these spectacular birds.

Oct. 8: My only full morning of birding. The site was St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Warrenville, where we’d moved the regular Cantigny Park bird walk—for variety and because St. James is new territory for most local birders. And that includes me. Until last June I’d never set foot inside the 600-acre preserve, located immediately south of Cantigny. It’s an “underbirded” venue with excellent habitat variety. Our band of 75 birders found 42 species (plus a coyote) on a day that felt more like summer.

For now, on most days, St. James is quiet. Public access began only in 2007, when the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County officially took possession of the property from the Brooks McCormick estate. Since then the preserve has gradually ramped up toward a goal of daily visitation, a process that continues today. St. James is open through November but then closes until Memorial Day weekend in 2012. It lacks a paved parking lot so winter visitation isn’t yet possible. Full 365-day access will likely begin sometime in 2013.

I made two more short visits to St. James in October. For natural beauty, history and birds (including wild turkeys), it’s a great place to go.

Oct. 13: I arrived home late from the DuPage Birding Club’s fundraising auction. As I unpacked the car, with the garage door still open, a great-horned owl hooted softly. I stepped onto the driveway in hopes of seeing the bird but never did. No doubt it saw me.

Oct. 14: The morning was special as the season’s first dark-eyed juncos appeared in my yard. These Canada nesters—some call them “snowbirds”—will be with us until late April. We are in the northern part of their wintering range. Marking their October arrival is an annual tradition.

Oct. 17: I stepped into the backyard after work to check the feeders. A hermit thrush flew up from the ground-level birdbath, and then I spotted what appeared to be a feathered mouse scurrying across the bluestone and into the peonies. It was of course a winter wren, a secretive species that goes undetected more often than not. October is a good time to see one and this year I was lucky.

Oct. 24: White-throated sparrows were regular in the yard from mid-October on, loving the millet I toss on the bare ground beyond my feeders. On this day, a pair of fox sparrows joined the feast. I noticed them at dusk and expected to see them again the next morning. Not to be, but another fox appeared the day before Halloween. One of my favorite sparrows.

Oct. 27: At the office, late afternoon. I check IBET, the online birding list-serve, and learn that a red-necked grebe was reported at Fermilab 30 minutes ago. Gee, that’s only 6 miles away.

By 4:15 I’m on the scene, standing at the edge of Lake Law with three other birders. Two of them have scopes fixed on the bird. Then more birders arrive, and a few more. It was a “lifer” for some, and it certainly felt like one for me. My only previous red-necked grebe was in Alaska in 2001, spotted from a moving train. This sighting was a lot more satisfying and enjoyed with friends. Nice.

Oct.28: Sometimes I just need a red-headed woodpecker fix. When that happens I know right where to go: behind the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, in the big oaks. I took a walk at lunch and easily found my target. Was this the bird that spent the whole winter at Cantigny in 2010-2011? If yes, will it stay again? Hope so.

Oct. 29: A female white-crowned sparrow joins the backyard brunch. Hey, this millet trick really works! If you try it, start with just a few handfuls when the ground is dry.

Oct. 30: A rather late-for-the-season golden-crowned kinglet stopped by the yard. As kinglets will do, it flitted around in perpetual motion, like a bird that’s had way too much caffeine.

Now it’s November and the birding year is winding down. But it’s still an exciting time. Watch for those sandhill cranes, listen for owls, keep your feeders full, go on some bird walks and just enjoy whatever Mother Nature sends your way. The seasonality of birding is something to savor, one moment and one day at a time.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Jack Black and Greg Miller
Hollywood takes up birding with “The Big Year”
(published 10-4-11)

This could be the biggest thing in the birding world since the announced rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I’m speaking of “The Big Year,” an upcoming movie based on a true story that is sure to capture the attention of birders and nonbirders alike.

Is America ready for this, a mainstream Hollywood movie about an over-the-top 365-day birding competition? We’ll soon find out. The film opens in theaters on Friday, October 14.

“The Big Year” was a popular conversation topic at the Midwest Birding Symposium last month in Ohio. Most of us who attended agreed that even if the movie lays an egg at the box office it will still bring a lot of attention to our hobby. People who don’t care a lick about birds will go see it, if only for the all-star cast. The main actors are Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.

“The Big Year” was first a bestselling book, superbly written by Mark Obmascik and published in 2004. It was so good that nonbirders read it, too. Excerpts appeared in Sports Illustrated. The book’s broad appeal was surely a consideration when 20th Century Fox decided to bring it to life on the silver screen.

That decision would lead to a dream come true for Greg Miller, one of the real-life characters in the book. He is not exactly a household name in birding circles—certainly not as famous as some other speakers at the Birding Symposium, including Pete Dunne and Kenn Kaufman. But Miller’s star is rising thanks to “The Big Year” movie. His character is played by Jack Black.

It was fun meeting Miller in Ohio, his home state, and chatting about his involvement with the movie. He was on location for 15 days in 2010 as a paid consultant, hired to show the main actors and extras how to look, act and speak like birders. For training, he even took Jack Black on a two-hour bird walk around Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C. The actor was wowed by the bald eagles.

“I’m pretty un-Hollywood,” Miller said. On the set, “Jack went out of his way to make me feel accepted.”

Miller has not previewed the movie but feels confident that the “heartfelt comedy” will be accepted and enjoyed by birders. He thinks the birding scenes will be realistic and that viewers will not hear random out-of-place bird calls.

In the book, Miller was the one you rooted for, the underdog. His goal was to break the standing North American record for most birds listed in a calendar year (721 species). It was 1998. But unlike his wealthy and retired competitors, Miller was short on cash and pinched for time because he worked for a living. This made his quest a lot more remarkable.

Miller says “The Big Year” film script deviates in many ways from the book. One of the biggest differences is that the story is set in the present. So the actors are seen using modern technology that makes birdfinding today faster and easier—GPS and smart phones, for example.

Air travel, of course, was much different in 1998. Back then, Miller and his two competitors had no problem dashing through airports, hopping on last-minute flights to far-off places. They left a huge carbon footprint but the practice enabled all three to rack up more than 700 bird species for the year, an astounding achievement.

“The Big Year” will surely be entertaining, but will it make our hobby look silly? Miller doesn’t think so, because the story isn’t just about birding. Like the book cover says, it’s “A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.”

“The thing that I’m most thrilled about is the effect it had on people who are not birders,” said Miller, speaking of his on-set experience. He noted that four out of the 170 people working on the movie became new birders, purchasing their own field guides and binoculars. If the same conversion rate applies to those who watch the movie, “The Big Year” will have a huge positive impact on birdwatching.

Like Miller, I’m all for growing the hobby. Maybe Hollywood—and Jack, Steve and Owen—can help. I’ll be thinking about that when I buy my ticket and popcorn.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Photo of Jack Black and Greg Miller by Cam Shaw, Tofino, BC

Taking young birders under our wings
(published 9-20-11)

In 2008, I applied to be a Boy Scout merit badge counselor. I submitted to a criminal background check, took the required Youth Protection Training, paid my fee and purchased a badge booklet at a Scout supply store. I was ready to serve.

Well, apparently Bird Study is not a very popular merit badge. The phone never rang. After a year without a single inquiry, I let my counselor status lapse.

None of this is too surprising. On local field trips, birders under the age of 20 are about as common as mockingbirds in Illinois. We hope to see them but rarely do.

The monthly bird walk at Cantigny Park last month had a theme: “Take a Kid Birding Day.” Adults were encouraged to invite a child, a grandchild, a neighbor kid or any young person who might have an interest in birds. We were ready, with plenty of adult leaders ready to share their skills. The park even purchased 50 copies of the “Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America” so that each child would have a book to use and take home.

Turns out, two books would have sufficed.

We all know that getting kids interested in nature—or just getting them outdoors—can be a challenge. The really encouraging thing, though, is that the two 11-year-old girls at Cantigny last month were enthusiastic, and it was by no means their first birding experience. By the end of the walk they’d exchanged e-mail addresses.

Seeing those girls reaffirmed my belief that kids and birds are a good fit. It’s fun to see them get excited about sights and sounds that most of us take for granted. The key is to keep them interested by offering more opportunities for birding and steady encouragement as they explore the hobby.

This is already happening, a good example being Illinois Young Birders. The club, ILYB for short, was founded in March 2010 as a special project by the Illinois Ornithological Society. So far it has about 30 youth members as well as adult supporting members and partner members such as the DuPage Birding Club.

“The social element of our club is very important,” says Brian Herriott, ILYB coordinator. “Often, children that develop a great interest in a hobby like birding soon find that there are few peers who share that interest.

“As an adult birder, some of my most valued friendships are my ‘birding buddies.’ I want members of ILYB to experience the same joy that I have of sharing the wonder of birds with friends and family.”

The club is for ages 9 to 18. Organized field trips are the major benefit of membership, and parents are welcome on all of them. To learn more, visit The next 20 youth members to join will receive a free copy of “Birds of Illinois,” a terrific book (for all ages) by Sheryl DeVore and Stephen Bailey.

Another book I recommend is “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,” by Bill Thompson III. There is nothing else like it—fun and light, but still very useful.

Kids need decent binoculars, too, and some models are better for young birders than others. A good source is Eagle Optics, a Wisconsin-based mail order house that caters to birders. The Eagle website offers helpful information about binocular buying in general. But what I absolutely love is their package deals for young birders. The “Young Naturalist Kit,” for example, includes a good binocular for small hands and a copy of Thompson’s book, all for $130. Shipping is free. There’s another value-priced package geared to slightly older youth birders.

To be sure, getting kids into birding is not expensive. Guided bird walks are almost always free, and there are many to choose from. For ideas, check out the DuPage Birding Club website and the newsletter of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn offers some excellent youth programs. Kids can get up-close looks at the center’s resident birds, too, including hawks, owls and eagles.

Not all outings are suited to children but most bird walks offer plenty of guidance. Many birders really enjoy sharing the hobby with youngsters.

Don’t overlook the backyard either! Watching birds at home is an easy way to develop a child’s interest. Encourage him or her to notice what’s coming and going, and to keep a list of sightings. The list will grow quickly, especially if you have feeders. Try offering a few different kinds of food and also a birdbath. Keep the field guide and binoculars in a handy place.

I know it sounds obvious, but the future of our hobby—and bird conservation—really depends on getting more young people interested in birds. Let’s all do our part to bring them along.

Me? I recently joined ILYB as a supporting member and also reregistered with the Scouts. I’m a Bird Study counselor again. When the phone rings, I’ll be ready.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Common Nighthawk by Dave Irving

Migrating nighthawks provide a late summer spectacle
(published 8-14-11)

There is an iconic work called “Nighthawks” hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Edward Hopper masterpiece is dark and a little mysterious. I’ve always liked it, including the name.

The painting has nothing to do with birds, of course. The “Nighthawks” are those three customers in the diner. But the picture always reminds me of one of my favorite birds, the common nighthawk. I’ve been watching them since the mid-1990s when I saw my first ones in Chicago. Later this month I’ll be admiring them all over again—a yearly ritual that never gets old.

I love telling new birders about the nighthawk because it’s often a bird they not familiar with and yet one that is easily observed. Mid-to-late August through early September is the peak viewing time for this area. Go outside around dusk and with a little patience you are almost certain to see one or more common nighthawks cruising by. With luck, you might see a large flock.

I’ll never forget an ice cream social we attended at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Glen Ellyn about 8 years ago. It was and maybe still is an annual event, held on the evening of the first day of school. It was good to see old friends, meet Rachel’s new teacher and have a sweet treat. But what I remember most is the nighthawks. Gobs of them were swirling overhead, feeding on the wing. Conditions evidently were perfect for this avian phenomenon.

“Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion” describes the common nighthawk as “a wheeling, drunken-looking, falcon-like bird feeding high overhead at dawn and dusk.” The longish, pointy wings are what liken the nighthawk to a falcon, but the species is not related to falcons or even hawks. Nighthawks belong to a family of birds called the nightjars, which includes the whip-poor-will.

Something I just learned is that common nighthawks are also closely related to owls in terms of DNA composition and morphological structure.

Dunne’s “drunken” reference relates to the nighthawk’s distinctive flight pattern. The wing beat is irregular, resulting in a floppy but darting aerial behavior that is very entertaining to watch. The birds are catching insects, which they accomplish by flying straight into them with their mouth and throat wide open.

The body of a common nighthawk is about the same size as a robin but their long wings make them appear much larger. What you may notice first is the white patches near the end of their wings. These markings are obvious so identification is easy in good light.

As you get to know nighthawks better, you’ll be able to ID them by sound, too. They have a one-of-a-kind call that is loud and buzzy—“beeeez’t,” according to Dunne.

In my last column I mentioned hearing that sound after a June baseball game in Iowa. I never did see a nighthawk that evening but it was cool to know they were in our midst. Like giant moths, the birds are attracted to the bright lights of stadiums and parking lots, where flying insects are plentiful.

Occasionally you might see a nighthawk in broad daylight. Once I spotted one during an afternoon ballgame at Wrigley Field. The bird landed at the base of one of the light towers and that’s still the only time I’ve ever seen a nighthawk sitting still!

Nighthawks are virtually invisible during the day, which gives them another thing in common with owls. Their bark-like coloration helps them blend in with their surroundings, keeping them safe from predators as they roost on the ground or on tree branches. Occasionally they will perch diagonally on a wire. On branches they perch lengthwise. (It’s not just the nighthawk’s flight style that is quirky.)

The common nighthawks we’ll see this month in DuPage County are migrating. They have a long journey ahead, so all those bugs they’re eating will serve as fuel. Their destination is South America, on the east side of the Andes from Ecuador to Argentina.

To see these fascinating birds on their way, start watching the skies after 6 p.m. If you have a decent amount of open sky the backyard patio will do just fine. You’ll likely see some solitary birds flying quite low and maybe some swirling flocks up higher. Calm, clear evenings are best for viewing. Give it a try!

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
American White Pelican by Dick Yamasaki
In the car, at the ballpark, always birding
(published 7-13-11)

Birdwatching and birding are the same thing. I believe that. But there is a sense within the hobby that “birding” is a little more serious. So a few years ago the DuPage Birding Club asked its members to contribute ideas about what makes a birder. Their responses, published in the club newsletter, revealed a level of obsession that nonbirders would find amusing if not call-the-cops alarming.

One of the tamer entries came from my friend Jerry Z. He said you know you’re a birder when “you’re the one looking at the sky while everyone else is fixed on the national monument you’ve all traveled to see.”

I thought of that last month when attending a baseball game with my son at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals were playing the Blue Jays, so the evening had an avian quality to it from the start.

Before and during the game I was pleasantly distracted by cliff swallows. The sky over the emerald field and bright red seats was full of them. Every now and then I’d spot a barn swallow, too. Was anybody else seeing this?

Baseball can be a slow game, and that’s not a complaint. I like the pace. There is plenty of time between pitches to look around and notice things, like birds. Jay and I each observed a robin grazing in left field during the game, and I kept an eye on those swallows until nightfall settled in and the aerial feeding frenzy ended.

Busch was the first stop on our six-day baseball road trip through Missouri and Iowa. My binoculars were in the trunk just in case but I didn’t intend to use them. This trip was not for the birds. It was about father-son bonding, baseball, hot dogs, silly jokes and hotel pools.

But of course every day contains birding opportunities. There is always something to see.

Naturally I began a mental “trip list” as soon as we left the driveway in Glen Ellyn. Watching for birds while driving may at first seem unsafe but I think it keeps me more alert. The key is staying focused on what’s ahead, not to the sides. No rubbernecking! By the time we reached Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield I’d already spotted 15 species, including a flyover green heron.

Car birding can really test of your identification skills. You often only have a second or two to assimilate clues such as size, body shape, flight pattern and color. Habitat is one of the best clues of all. Red-winged blackbirds, for example, America’s most abundant species, show a strong preference for roadside ditches and fences. Turkey vultures soar above, looking for roadkill. Bridges attract swallows and pigeons.

The list grew quickly as the miles went by. I saw a kestrel hovering, getting set to drop down on unsuspecting prey. Also in the air, easy to see and ID: great blue herons, cormorants and an egret. Starlings, grackles, robins and mourning doves were abundant. Baltimore orioles zipped over the highway like orange and black comets.

At Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, as at Busch, cliff swallows were part of the entertainment. We sat high in the upper deck so most of the bird action was at eye level. Down on the field, the Royals defeated the Cubs.

Throughout our time in western Missouri I was hoping to spot a scissor-tailed flycatcher. We were at the northern edge of the usual range for this species, the state bird of Oklahoma. And because it likes to perch on wires, viewing one at 65 mph seemed possible. Well, no such luck, but we did see a few roadside mockingbirds.

On our second-to-last day we stopped in tiny Van Meter, Iowa, to visit the Bob Feller Museum. An osprey was circling a small reservoir as we exited I-70, just west of Des Moines—a nice addition to the trip list! As we left the museum I heard the loud trill of a chipping sparrow. I’m not always “tuned in” like some birders but that one was easy.

The last game on our road trip was in Davenport, home to the Quad Cities River Bandits. Their little ballpark is a gem, hard along the Mississippi River with a view of Centennial Bridge. It’s a minor league version of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, but without the large buildings. In the Steel City, however, you’d never enjoy close views of American white pelicans flying by as we did at Modern Woodmen Park. What an unexpected treat it was to see these huge, magnificent birds.

After the game, in the parking lot, I picked up the buzzy call of a common nighthawk. Jay and I looked skyward, scanning to find the source of this classic sound of summer. Some onlookers probably wondered what we were doing. Maybe a few thought we were a little batty.

No matter. As I said myself in that DuPage Birding Club survey: “You know you’re a birder when you no longer care what the neighbors think.”

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Another field guide might be just what you need
(published 6-13-11)

Does anybody besides me remember watching a birding show on PBS? It was a series, about 10 years ago, hosted by Don and Lillian Stokes. I loved that show. But since it aired around five in the morning I always taped it and watched it later. Yes, taped it, with a cool device called a VCR!

The Stokes series ended but the plucky husband and wife team are still very active in the birding community. Some of us had the thrill of meeting them last month at a DuPage Birding Club meeting held at Cantigny Park. It was a fun night, and the audience of 200 treated Don and Lillian like rock stars. At the very least they are birding celebrities, well known not only for the TV show but for numerous books and bird song CDs over the years and even Stokes-brand binoculars.

The Wheaton appearance was all about an extraordinary new book: “The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” In tag-team fashion, Don and Lillian talked about its creation, a six-year project, and showed how and why the guide is different than others on the market.

The bright orange 792-page brick with a painted bunting on the cover (Lillian’s favorite bird) was impossible to resist—for me and for 94 other birders who lined up to buy a copy and have it signed by America’s best known birding couple. Others brought along copies they’d purchased when the book first appeared last fall.

Some birders collect field guides, old and new. Others, like me, accumulate them. I own the Sibley, Peterson, National Geographic, Golden, Smithsonian and Audubon guides. And now the Stokes. My library includes several classic guides picked up at used book sales, and a reprint of Roger Tory Peterson’s original “Field Guide to the Birds,” published in 1934.

I may have more books than I really need, but I do use them all—sometimes in the field but mostly at home. They are amazing resources for learning about birds, including the common ones. At least one guide is usually parked on my nightstand.

No two field guides are alike. If you are looking to buy one, by all means go to a bookstore and see all the choices. The two basic formats are illustrated and photographic. Like many birders I generally prefer the illustrated books, like the Sibley or Peterson. They show you how “typical” members of a species should look because the pictures are drawn or painted, and key field marks are emphasized.

The new Stokes book is photographic. There are 3,400 images in all, about 500 of them taken by Lillian herself. This is far more than any previous national field guide. A top priority was to show more flight photos and sure enough 800 shots are of birds on the wing. Some will take your breath away, including Lillian’s pileated woodpecker image on the back cover.

The Stokes guide is notable for more than just its outstanding pictures. One of my favorite features is the rarity code given for each species. The 1 to 6 scale, established by the American Birding Association, indicates the ease of finding a bird in its normal range. This information is especially handy when birding in new places. I also like that each photo is labeled with the month and state in which it was taken, in the lower right corner.

For me, the Stokes book will be a stay-at-home reference. It’s simply too thick and heavy to carry in the field. At the Cantigny presentation, Don and Lillian showed a picture of the guide on the front seat of a car, with a seat belt around it. Keeping your copy safe is an excellent idea—it’s that good.

Another new field guide that I’m eager to investigate further is “The Crossley ID Guide,” by Richard Crossley. This book, for Eastern U.S. birds only, is being heavily marketed as “revolutionary” in design. It features large, lifelike scenes for each species, digitally composed from the author’s photographs. There are 640 scenes, created from more than 10,000 photos. The birds are shown in their usual habitats at different distances, stationary and in flight, giving the reader a good sense of size, shape and behavior. It’s an appealing format with minimal text.

When David Sibley’s book appeared in 2000, it seemed like no other field guide would ever be necessary. It was and still is a masterful work. I see the Eastern birds version on the trails more than any other resource, and the original full-size version, national in scope, is a permanent resident of many back seats and trunks.

But here we are in 2011 and new guides with true innovations are still being printed. As birders, are we lucky or what? And of course many birders now prefer to carry an electronic guide, loaded on a mobile device. In addition to pictures, range maps and everything else a traditional field guide provides, they have the songs and call notes of the birds at their fingertips. That’s nice but so far I’m still a “birding without batteries” advocate.

At home I’m all about technology, like that VCR I mentioned before. It still works! Fortunately we have a DVD player too because Lillian and Don Stokes said they plan to release all 26 episodes of the “Stokes Birds at Home” series this fall. Like another new field guide, the boxed set will be hard for me to pass up.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Searching for big birds with little birders
(published 5-31-11)

It was nearly 80 degrees, unusually windy and two o’clock in the afternoon—not exactly ideal birding conditions.

On the plus side, the calendar said April 10. Spring migration was well underway, so there would be plenty of birds around. Hopefully some big ones, too.

Yes, big ones, because I was about to lead a group of Cub Scouts from St. Charles on a bird walk at Cantigny Park. My experience with guiding youngsters is slim, but this I know: large birds are easier to see. Better to show kids without birding experience a great blue heron standing by a pond than a warbler flitting around in the treetops.

Oh, and the turkeys! The boys would love seeing those. Wild turkeys are sort of a way of life at Cantigny these days. It’s quite common to see one or two birds pecking around the buildings or under the bird feeders. Sometimes a flock of 10 or more birds will appear, perhaps wandering over from St. James Farm.

I didn’t mention the turkeys during my pre-walk comments to the boys—the park was full of people so maybe the gobblers would be laying low. But before setting off I did ask the Scouts about their favorite birds. Eagles, hawks, vultures and owls, they told me. Big, awesome birds—the kind all little boys seem to like. Pack 151, Den 3, would not be impressed by a ruby-crowned kinglet.

OK, enough talk, time to go find some birds. The Scouts, some parents and a few siblings followed me east from the Visitor Center, toward the rose garden and prairie. My 10-year-old son, Jay, tagged along too, documenting the adventure with the family Nikon.

Chickadees, robins and cowbirds gave themselves away first, allowing the kids some practice with their loaner binoculars. Soon we were on the wood chip trail that runs between the Scout campsites and the golf course. The trees give this area some shelter from the wind, and it’s good habitat for woodpeckers and nuthatches.

What happened next was remarkable—a miracle of good timing. A large brown bird swooped toward us through the woods and landed fairly close, in plain view. Wait a minute. No way. At this time of day? Sure enough, it was a great-horned owl!

Just seconds after the owl landed, a huge turkey vulture performed a low flyover, not far above the owl itself. I had the sense that little jaws were dropping to my left and right.

But in a moment the vulture was gone. Now, as the leader, I wanted to make sure all the boys had a good look at the owl before it was too late. How many of them, I wondered, had ever seen one in the wild? This was a truly exceptional opportunity. Fortunately, the big not-so-nocturnal raptor stayed put, apparently as curious about us as we were about him.

Even for me, this was a first. With help from the DuPage Birding Club, I’ve been leading monthly walks at Cantigny for almost three years. On those walks we’ve never encountered a great-horned owl. Not once. Seldom have I seen one in broad daylight anywhere.

We watched the bird for about 10 minutes. It was clear that anything else we might see would be a bonus—the walk was an official success. Up the path we observed bluebirds, flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers. Beautiful birds, all of them, but nothing was going to upstage Mr. Hoots.

Our search party never did spot a turkey. We also struck out (or “dipped,” as the say in Britain) on red-headed woodpecker, another Cantigny Park specialty. Trust me, the boys didn’t mind. We were now outside the First Division Museum. Enough of this bird business; it was time to climb on tanks and make some noise!

No offense taken. We’d had a good hour of birdwatching and that’s plenty long enough for most second graders.

The parents soon pried the Scouts off the tanks and marched them over to the Cantigny picnic grounds. Time was short. They had a schedule to keep. After dinner the boys were going fishing at Blackwell Forest Preserve.

Birds had been a small part of their busy day. Would they even remember what they’d seen? Would any of them ask to go on a bird walk again? Maybe or maybe not. But there’s something else I know: It only takes one bird to create a spark, and close encounters with big, awesome, yellow-eyed raptors are not easily forgotten.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Photo by Jay Reiter

Exciting birds are right outside your door
(published 4-12-11)

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of birding—at home and away from home. Yard birding and field birding. Like most birders I enjoy them both.

Today’s column is about the backyard, where many of us spend the majority of our birdwatching hours and minutes. On busy days just a glance at the feeders is better than no birding at all!

It’s personal, too. The yard is your space and those are your birds out there. Whatever you see is because you took the time to look, and making the identification is your call. It’s a great feeling to see something special right outside your kitchen window.

For me, keeping a record of backyard sightings is a big part of the fun. If you are not maintaining a yard list too, I urge you to start. It can add to your enjoyment of the hobby and it will definitely sharpen your observation skills.

My Glen Ellyn backyard is small and average. It is surrounded by other houses. And yet, after nearly 14 years in this location, my yard list is up to 110 species. The more you watch the more you see, and I spend a lot of time watching.

There are no official rules, but most birders define a “yard bird” as any species seen on or from one’s property. That opens up a lot of possibilities. In fact, over time, most yard birds will not be those that visit your feeders. The majority will be the birds you see flying over, or the birds you spot flitting around your trees and shrubs during the spring and fall migration seasons. Birds in your neighbor’s yard count too, but watch where you point those binoculars!

Feeders, birdbaths and bird-friendly plantings will increase species variety on your property. Offer them, by all means. However, my logbook shows that through the years only about 30 species have visited my yard because of something I did to attract them. Most sightings are random occurrences, resulting from steady observation and sometimes just dumb luck.

Keeping a “year list” adds another fun dimension to yard birding, and I’ve been doing it every year since 2003. There’s the challenge of seeing how many species you can observe—my best so far is 88, in 2007—plus the data are useful for tracking seasonal patterns or changes from year to year. I know people who could pinpoint the latest date in April that they’ve ever seen a junco in their yard. Birders thrive on this type of information; it’s in our DNA.

In recent years my interest has tended more toward adding new birds to the list—something that is getting harder and harder to do. In 2010 I added red-headed woodpecker and two kinds of warblers, blue-winged and golden-winged. All three sightings gave me a thrill that is hard to describe.

I guess it’s partly about beating the odds. Seeing a golden-winged warbler anywhere around here takes a fair amount of luck. They are quite uncommon. So what are the chances of finding one in your own suburban backyard? Very slim, but freak sightings happen all the time.

One I’ll never forget is the bright yellow prothonotary warbler that stopped by in April 2008. That bird—“a golden bird of wooded swamps” as Roger Tory Peterson famously described it—was way out of place. I was incredibly lucky to be outside at just the right moment.

The same is true about the belted kingfisher that once rattled by, or the wood ducks that landed on my neighbor’s chimney. Once, and so far only once, a peregrine falcon wowed me with a high-altitude flyover.

This spring I’m on the lookout for more first-time visitors and passersby. But I’ll also be enjoying the parade of interesting migrating species that make April and May the best time of year for birdwatching. This is an ideal time to begin your own yard list. You may be surprised by how quickly it grows.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
White-crowned sparrow photo by Jim Frazier

A Florida lifer, and one that got away
(published 3-29-11)

A day after the big blizzard in February, I did the sensible thing and flew to Miami. It was a pre-planned trip to visit my parents in Key Largo. There would be some golf, a Super Bowl party and, of course, plenty of amazing birds.

Golf is really just another birding opportunity, especially in Florida. My binoculars were always within reach. At one point I was walking down a fairway with a magnificent frigatebird soaring directly above me, mockingbirds singing from the gumbo limbo trees and a flock of white ibis pecking away in the rough. These were most welcome distractions!

On Super Sunday mom and I took a drive to Everglades National Park. I’d been there at least five times before but it never gets old. And this time I saw something new—nesting American anhingas. A thriving rookery was eye-level and only a few feet off the Anhinga Trail boardwalk at Royal Palm. Alligators lurked in the dark water below the nests. I wondered if the anhinga chicks, some of them with featherless pink heads, perceived the danger just below them. I’m sure the adults did.

Just outside the park is an unmarked woodlot known to birders as Lucky Hammock—a local hotspot akin to the Magic Hedge on the Chicago lakefront. Some photographers with very large lenses were on site when we arrived. Either there’d been a Bigfoot sighting or an interesting bird was present. It was the latter, in the form of a brown-crested flycatcher—a western species that occasionally winters in South Florida. I’d have loved to see the bird but had to settle for just hearing it call from deep inside the hammock.

The best birding, I knew, was yet to come. I’d built in some time at the end of my trip for a visit to central Florida. I’d been to this region twice before on family vacations to Disney World. This time I’d have an afternoon to explore a different magic kingdom: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center, about 40 miles east of Orlando, Merritt Island is Florida’s top birding destination. It didn’t take long to see why.

My top priority was to locate the preserve’s signature bird, the Florida scrub-jay. This is Florida’s only endemic species—a bird that occurs nowhere else in the world. It is endangered, but fortunately not difficult to observe; like other members of the jay family, it’s not shy. A ranger at the Merritt Island visitor center told me exactly where to go look and within 30 minutes I had my lifer scrub-jay. Yes!

Another must-see at Merritt is Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven-mile self-guided auto tour through salt and freshwater marshes. Birders (and nature photographers) could easily spend an entire day here. My time was limited so I really had to push myself to keep from stopping at every available parking area. There was one large pond in particular that was absolutely loaded with waterfowl and wading birds. Highlights were reddish egret, American avocet and a nice assortment of ducks including many northern pintail. The skies were full too, with bald eagles, ospreys, herons and vultures.

Another great Merritt moment awaited near the end of Wildlife Drive where a cluster of glossy ibis feeding in shallow water. The late afternoon sun was showing off their iridescent plumage to perfection.

It was painful pointing my car away from Merritt Island but I needed to be in Orlando for a work-related event that evening. The consolation was that I’d have time for more birding the next morning before heading to the airport.

The Orlando area offers many fine birding opportunities. I settled on the Disney Wilderness Preserve, a 12,000-acre property near Kissimmee owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. It opened in 1992 through an agreement with Walt Disney Company.

The morning of my visit was quiet—I never saw another person on the trail! But I did see lots of birds. My favorite sighting was a family of limpkin, on the edge of the preserve’s Lake Russell. I’d never seen this Florida specialty quite so well, and in such a wild setting. Other interesting birds were loggerhead shrike, tufted titmouse, wood stork and sandhill crane.

With more luck I might have seen my first red-cockaded woodpecker. The Nature Conservancy successfully introduced this highly endangered species at the Disney preserve four years ago.

Another hoped-for species was Bachman’s sparrow, and my desire to see it probably cost me a life bird. I’m a little embarrassed to even tell this story but here goes. I was nearing the end of the walk, coping with an annoying drizzle, when I encountered a mystery bird. It was a sparrow of some kind, perched near the trail and looking very soggy. I studied it for several minutes, trying to memorize its features and markings. Could this be a Bachman’s? I’d check my Sibley guide when I got back to the car. The bird finally flew off and I headed in.

I soon realized the bird was not a Bachman’s sparrow but was almost certainly a vesper sparrow—another species missing from my life list. If only I had watched more carefully when the bird flew! Then I might have seen the white outer tail feathers that are conspicuous on a vesper.

The other mistake I made was not spending a few minutes perusing the preserve’s bird checklist before hitting the trail. If I’d done so I would have known that vesper sparrows are winter residents on the preserve. A valuable clue had been right in my pocket!

Despite flunking the vesper sparrow challenge I left the Disney Wilderness Preserve in high spirits. It was a fun morning at a wonderful birding spot. It’s also the kind of place that feels good to support, especially if you are a fan of The Nature Conservancy like me. Go there if you ever have the chance.

Now it was time to head back to the frozen north. But before surrendering the rental car I needed to satisfy a craving. One exit before Orlando International, there it was, a Waffle House beckoning me to a seat at the counter. My pecan waffle was a sweet ending to a warm and bird-filled week.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Florida scrub jay photo by Travis Wilcoxen

Sport or hobby? Birding is anything we choose
(published 2-7-11)

I love ESPN, even though I don’t watch it at home. It’s not part of our bare-basic cable package. But at the YMCA, when I'm using the treadmill, SportsCenter is my best friend. Especially during baseball season.

Of course there is more to ESPN than SportsCenter. On a recent Saturday the network featured a turkey shoot. The clicker was out of reach that morning so I watched.

I’m not a hunter, but I’m not against hunting either. Birding and hunting can easily coexist. In fact, one of America’s best-known birders, Pete Dunne, is also a gunner. I’m sure that he shares my admiration for the way waterfowlers support habitat management through the federal “duck stamp” program. Many birders who never lift a shotgun buy a stamp every year and I count myself among them.

So I wasn’t offended by the turkey shoot, just surprised. First of all, it didn’t seem all that sporting. In segment after segment, hunters would sneak up on a grazing bird and shoot it. Surely there is more skill involved than came across on TV.

The hunters’ reactions after taking down a bird surprised me even more. They laughed and smiled and traded high fives. Being on camera, perhaps they were hamming it up a little. But the scenes reminded me of how birdwatchers sometimes celebrate after spotting a mega-rarity.

As birders, we have more in common with hunters than we might care to admit. We don't kill, but we certainly hunt. We get up early, we go outside, we hike, we carry binoculars, we buy duck stamps and a few of us (not me!) even wear camo clothing. I’ve often thought that birders and fishermen share a few tendencies as well.

Not that it really matters, but maybe, just maybe, the hobby we love is also a sport.

Sports Illustrated once featured birdwatching on its cover. May 16, 1955. The magazine also published cover stories that year about archery, skin diving and hot-air ballooning. Dogs made the cover three times, as did the Princeton University marching band.

Earlier, in 1934, the great Roger Tory Peterson referred to “the sport of birding” in his groundbreaking Field Guide to the Birds. He added: “Field birding as most of us engage in it is a game—a most absorbing game.”

Roger that, RTP! He was talking about listing fever, of course, and the desire many of us have to see as many bird species as possible. It’s a side of birding that truly does approach the realm of sport. Annual tournaments like the World Series of Birding in New Jersey and the Great Texas Birding Classic crown teams that see or hear the most birds in 24 hours. (Such events are not just for fun; they are important fundraisers for bird conservation.)

Examples of the birding “game” needn’t be so extreme. The game, if you prefer, might be as simple as watching bird feeders from your kitchen table, keeping track of what stops by. Or maybe it’s “competing” against an existing list. I record what we see on the monthly bird walks at Cantigny Park and like to compare our results with those from the same month, one year earlier. It provides a benchmark and heightens my awareness of the seasonality of local bird populations.

So, game, sport or hobby? Call it what you wish—birding is a bit of all three. I happen to favor “hobby” because it seems broader and more inclusive. Would this column fit better in the Sports section than in Neighbor? Not in my opinion.

Birding is many things to many people, and that’s a big part of its appeal. It’s a backyard activity for some and a worldwide pursuit for others. It’s personal and social, sedentary and active, indoors and outdoors, casual and highly organized. You can be a competitive lister, a passive lister or choose to keep no lists at all. Whatever you want from birding, it’s out there.

Well, there is one thing missing. Some day I’d like to step on that treadmill and see a birdwatching show on ESPN. I’d even give up SportsCenter for that.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Winter birding rewards those willing to bundle up
(published 1-6-11)

It wasn’t a Christmas Count bird—a few days late for that. It wasn’t a “lifer” either. But it was a bird I’d been waiting to see for a long time. Almost 11 years, in fact.

My last column, you might recall, featured a fine photo of a Northern shrike. I included it on a short list of birds that I’d only observed once and longed to see again. Turns out my wish came true a lot sooner than expected.

Just before Christmas I received a tip from a friend who’d been walking at McDowell Grove Forest Preserve in Naperville. He didn’t see a shrike but he told me about a birder he met on the trail that had just seen two. They were spotted in the open area on the east side of the 515-acre preserve.

Two days later I went to check it out. My hopes were high but tempered by the reality that Northern shrikes can be elusive. The species visits here only in winter and most birders go out of their way for a chance to see one. Those who succeed sometimes perform silly dances to celebrate their luck. It’s that kind of bird.

I wore my dancing shoes just in case. From the McDowell Grove parking lot I walked east to the “prairie”—perfect shrike habitat. A scan of the terrain paid off immediately. In the distance, on top of a tall bare tree, was a bird with a longish tail. Shrikes prefer high, open perches, so my heart beat a little faster. I moved in to get a better view. The bird stayed put just long enough to confirm the ID—my first Northern shrike since January 2000, when I glimpsed one for about 15 seconds at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington.

I didn’t actually do a jig. A little fist pump maybe. Then I marched on, hoping to see the shrike again. About a half hour later it reappeared, this time on the peak of a small bur oak in the middle of the prairie. This was my best look yet of the black-masked bandit that preys upon small birds and rodents. At that moment I’m certain that Northern shrike was my new favorite bird.

A bit later I savored my good fortune over a bracing cup of joe at McDonald’s. Maybe there was something in my coffee but I found myself getting sentimental about winter birding. I thought about how some of my best memories from this hobby were born on cold mornings and afternoons when a birder’s only reasonable expectation would be a few cardinals, chickadees and juncos. I recalled the snowy owls on the Chicago lakefront, the Lapland longspurs in Kane County, and once, just once, the common redpolls that visited my backyard thistle feeder.

And then there’s Morton Arboretum, the best winter gift giver of all. I owe the Arb for my first ever saw-whet owl, Townsend’s solitaire and white-winged crossbill. And I owe my fellow birders who guided me to those birds.

Winter is indeed full of surprising avian gifts. Just a few days before my shrike hike I dropped hand warmers into my gloves and joined the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count (CBC) team covering Cantigny in Wheaton. Despite bitter conditions we found two red-headed woodpeckers—a species we never expected on December 18. Only three were seen that day in the designated 15-mile diameter count circle centered at Fermilab in Batavia.

Our Cantigny search of the park and golf course yielded 27 species. Included were eight Eastern bluebirds, five yellow-rumped warblers and one purple finch. (No partridge in a pear tree but we did tack on two wild turkeys.)

Nearly 100 other Christmas Counters were out working the trails and they too had some good stories for the evening buffet. Would you believe 20 bald eagles? Four sapsuckers? Two hooded mergansers? Three Carolina wrens? Oh, and five chipping sparrows—the first “chippies” for the Fermilab CBC since 1977!

I was surprised as well by the 33 red-winged blackbirds that were counted. Who knew they were even here in the winter? Not me.

When reviewing CBC data—all of which are turned over to the National Audubon Society—I always look for species with a “1” next to their names. These tend to be premium, hard-to-find birds. The Fermilab CBC featured seven one-timers: tufted titmouse, Eastern meadowlark, rusty blackbird, red crossbill, black-crowned night heron, sharp-shinned hawk and, yes, one Northern shrike.

Such exciting discoveries keep the thrill factor high in winter birding. Staying warm can be a challenge, and finding uncommon or rare birds is seldom easy, but the potential rewards are great. The first step is getting out there.

I posted my McDowell Grove shrike sighting on IBET, the region’s birding list-serve, which in turn motivated at least three other birders to conduct their own searches at McDowell. All three succeeded on their first try, which happened to be Christmas Eve morning. I suspect they were dancing like elves.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Yellow-rumped warbler photo by Greg Hull