Bohemian Waxwing by Mark Bowman
2012: A wild and wonderful year for birders

(published 12-18-12)

Local birding stories have been piling up like twigs inside a wren house. November is always prime time for spotting rarities but this year was ridiculous. Birds that almost never visit Chicagoland were popping up all over. Some are likely still in the area, offering potential for more thrills this winter.

Red crossbills, for example, staged a massive invasion on the Morton Arboretum and other venues with large stands of conifers. Until Nov. 2 I’d never seen the species in Illinois. A few days later the Arb produced a varied thrush, a rare visitor from the west. That one I missed.

Evening grosbeaks, Bohemian waxwings and even whooping cranes were spotted in DuPage County in November as well. Amazing!

Speaking of cranes, autumn was unusually quiet until the day after Thanksgiving. The floodgates finally opened on Black Friday as thousands of migrating sandhills filled the skies, providing a timeless natural spectacle with a fabulous soundtrack.

Clues that this would be an exceptional year arrived early. The epic snowy owl irruption that began in late 2011 carried over well into 2012, transcending the birding community. My son and I watched a snowy on the Chicago lakefront on Jan. 7 along with a dozen bystanders who instantly became avid birders, at least for the day.

Winter ended, spring began, and a few snowy owls were in no rush to fly back to their arctic homeland. Remarkably, the species was documented in McHenry County on May 11, the latest sighting ever in Illinois.

Chicago’s Douglas Park hosted the rarest bird of 2012, in April. The second-ever discovery of an elaenia species on American soil created a frenzy like a scene from “The Big Year.” Birders from all over the country arrived as the little brown bird from South America played hide-and-seek for several days. NPR and the CBS Evening News each filed reports.

No question, if you had the time, gas money and motivation to chase down rare species, this was a fine year to be a birder.

My own birding adventures were not nearly enough, they never are, but I definitely had some good moments. Some are described below, along with my traditional year-end compendium of news, notes and random thoughts about the hobby we love.

• I went to Fermilab to see the visiting red-necked grebe on Oct. 27. Nice bird, and possibly the same one I watched from the same spot exactly one year before.

• First-time sightings in the backyard are always exciting. A tufted titmouse on Oct. 25 was No. 112 on my yard list.

• That catbird I wrote about in July, the grape jelly addict, apparently kicked the habit. It stopped coming around in September.

• No kidding, a swallow-tailed kite flew over the Illinois Beach State Park hawkwatch on Sept. 14! Nine days later a ferruginous hawk buzzed the hawkwatchers at Greene Valley in Naperville. Multiple golden eagles and Mississippi kites were observed this fall at both sites.

• Favorite field trip of 2012: A downstate overnighter to see the state’s few remaining greater prairie chickens. Sadly, only 100 or so remain in Illinois.

• Mostly because of that chicken trip I now own and proudly wear a Schaumburg Boomers baseball cap. The team has the best logo and mascot in minor league baseball, or at least the Frontier League.

• Does anybody remember when seeing a coyote during a bird walk was sort of unusual?

• The variety of birds seen annually at Montrose Point on the Chicago lakefront is astounding, in part because so many birders frequent the well-placed sanctuary. Home of the Magic Hedge, Montrose delivered big-time in 2012. Believe it: buff-breasted sandpiper, burrowing owl, cave swallow, scissor-tailed flycatcher, black-legged kittiwake, whimbrel, marbled godwit, western grebe and yellow rail. The wandering tattler at Montrose on Aug. 9 was a first for Illinois.

• Attention eagle fans: 29th Annual Bald Eagle Watch, Jan. 5, in Clinton, Iowa and Fulton, Ill. If that’s too far, try Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock, Jan. 26-27.

• Chicago Botanic Garden is once again The Place to see common redpolls in winter. Check the birches around the Regenstein Center. The current flock is sticky.

• Bobwhite quail were reported this year at St. James Farm and McKee Marsh in Warrenville.

• DuPage County recorded its first barn owl in 30 years. Once common here, barn owls are state-endangered. A pair nested in Naperville.

• Like owls, too? Don’t miss Jerry Goldner’s photo exhibit at Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. “Owls of Illinois” runs Dec. 22 to Mar. 17. Some of Jerry’s fine images have enhanced this column.

• Since you’re going downtown, stop by the Field Museum to see the newly upgraded Bird Hall.

• Including that barn owl, I added seven birds to my Life List in 2012. My favorite, by a whiskered auklet, was the evening grosbeak at Lake Quinault, Wash.

• I’ll be attending my first Gull Frolic in February. My target bird, a Thayer’s gull, would be lifer No. 499. Did I just jinx myself?

• So I renewed my subscription to WildBird, for two years. About a month later I received a postcard saying the magazine was folding and my subscription would now be for Hobby Farms.

• A lark bunting, the state bird of Colorado, showed off in McHenry County for most of June.

• Nice to see a male wood duck on the 2012-2013 federal duck stamp. Could there possibly be a more spectacular or more photogenic duck species?

• Take a look at the birds of paradise in the current issue of National Geographic. Talk about spectacular. Wow!

• Wild goose chase: A rare barnacle goose, spotted with a group of Canadas in Yorkville, caused excitement in late November. The bird vanished for a few days and then was relocated, again with some Canadian friends and also a Ross’s Goose!

• The DuPage Birding Club conducted its first-ever Big Day competition on June 2. The winning team found 94 species during an 11-hour search. The all-in total was 124 species by seven teams.

• We are not alone: A 2012 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says about one in six Americans enjoy watching and feeding birds. That’s nearly 50 million people.

• Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge is a go! Development of the 11,000-acre preserve on the Illinois-Wisconsin border was officially authorized in August. I’m there as soon as they cut the ribbon.

• From Birding magazine: “Despite ever-improving optics, many birders are enjoying ‘bare-naked birding’—observing and appreciating birds sans binoculars, scope or camera.” Hmm. Really?

• The bird list at Cantigny Park continues to grow thanks to monthly walks that started in 2008. It’s up to 135 species now, including the bald eagle we scored in June. It pays to keep an eye on the sky!

• Kudos to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County for launching “Early Birders” at Fullersburg Woods. The pilot program features bird walks for ages 11-17.

• As of Dec. 7, a hummingbird was still visiting a feeder in Rockford—likely a female rufous but not yet confirmed.

• Finally, my personal thanks to the Daily Herald for providing this monthly space and for the paper’s dedication to covering the natural world that’s all around us, in words and pictures. Let’s all get outside a little more often in 2013!

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.