Fork-Tailed Flycatcher by Mark Bowman

2014: Another amazing year of birds and birding

(published 12-19-14)

With the Christmas Bird Count still to come, another rare sighting or two is possible before New Year’s Day. But some things can’t wait, so here’s my collection of news and notes from the 2014 birding year. I can assure you there was no shortage of material.
Let’s start with Bird of the Year. Officially, it was the rufous hummingbird, a western species announced last January by the American Birding Association. In September, as if programmed by the ABA, a wayward rufous took up temporary residence in a St. Charles backyard. Luckily for birders, the yard belonged to the president of Kane County Audubon.
My personal choice for Bird of the Year is Martha, the last passenger pigeon on earth. We marked the 100th anniversary of her passing on Sept. 1 and filled the year with books, news stories and a film documentary about the demise of her species. The sad but timely history lesson brought much-needed attention bird conservation issues.  
For Local Bird of the Year, of the non-extinct variety, I nominate the black-bellied whistling ducks that visited a Yorkville neighborhood in May. The feathered vagabonds hung around for 10 days, thrilling birders from the region and neighboring states. I travelled to Yorkville not once but twice, just to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. The ducks—and the generosity of homeowner Irene Kaufman—will long be remembered.
Probably the rarest bird to sample our region in 2014 was the fork-tailed flycatcher in Geneva on May 12—only the fourth Illinois record of this species. Oh man, I’d have traded 10 birds on my life list just to see that one. (I’d choose the 10 birds, of course, beginning with house sparrow.)
Barrow's Goldeneye by Jackie Bowman
The year was filled with other notable sightings by area birders. A snowy egret stopped at Churchill Woods in Glen Ellyn. A Barrow’s goldeneye spent weeks on the Fox River in West Dundee. Woodridge hosted a red phalarope, and Elgin made news with a black-throated gray warbler. Batavia’s Fermilab delivered yellow-crowned night heron, cattle egret, red-necked phalarope and scissor-tailed flycatcher.
A vagrant slaty-backed gull excited Lake County birders in February, and throughout 2014 the Chicago lakefront dished up its usual share of rarities—curve-billed thrasher, lark sparrow, Harris’s sparrow, Swainson’s hawk, red-necked phalarope and western grebe among other goodies.
A migrating American anhinga flew over the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawkwatch in DuPage on Sept. 6, followed 10 days later by the hill’s first-ever prairie falcon.
Those hardy fools on the hill, incidentally, shattered their record for bald eagle sightings with an even 100 this fall. Their previous high was 60. Seven golden eagles were spotted, too. This was the ninth season for the Greene Valley operation, where data are collected by volunteer birders from September through November.
The brutally cold winter of 2014 had an upside for birders. White-winged scoters and other uncommon waterfowl were surprisingly easy to observe. With open water scarce, birds moved closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline or even inland to find it. Some 96 scoters were counted at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien on March 20. A long-tailed duck found refuge along the Batavia Riverwalk, and a harlequin duck paddled the Fox River in Elgin.
Snowy owls seemed a dime a dozen thanks to a spectacular “irruption” across the northern tier of the U.S. Owls were still present around Chicagoland in March, apparently in no hurry to return to their arctic tundra homeland. One snowy vacationed near Jacksonville, only the third ever recorded in Florida.
Sadly, we lost two legendary local birders and mentors in 2014. Jack Pomatto (St. Charles) and Muriel Smith (Wheaton) will be missed.
Greater Prairie Chicken by Jackie Bowman
The Illinois Audubon Society and its partners relocated about 90 greater prairie chickens from Kansas to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area near Effingham, Ill. The three-year program aims to rebuild the prairie chicken population in our state, which before the relocation was less than 100 birds.

Gov.-elect Rauner, you might recall, enjoyed poking fun at the relocation program during his campaign.
Are you stocked up like me on those awesome songbird postage stamps issued in April? They make me want to give snail mail another try.
I like that live feeder cam in Canada, too. Checked it out for the first time this month and within two minutes was watching a mixed flock of evening and pine grosbeaks. Excellent sound and image quality. Google “Ontario FeederWatch.”
Kane County Audubon teamed with the Veterans Conservation Corps of Chicagoland and the Kane County Forest Preserve to build four chimney swift nesting towers. The one at Brunner Family Forest Preserve in West Dundee enjoyed quick success, with three swifts fledging in August. Congrats to Marion and Rich Miller, champions of the project. 
Kudos as well to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn for completing their expansion and renovation, and to Naperville Park District for the new nature center at Knoch Knolls Park.
A tip of the birding cap also to Dewey Pierotti, for 20 years of protecting our open spaces as president of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Thank you and happy retirement!
Favorite lifer of 2014: crested caracara, near Clewiston, Fla. Runner-up: "Mockingjay," AMC Yorktown.
Best non-bird sighting: giant swallowtail in August, at Cantigny golf course.
Other memorable moments: The yellow-bellied flycatcher at Willowbrook during the International Migratory Bird Day event; a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers carefully harvesting a spider web in my yard, presumably for nest building; cruising black terns over the marsh at Point Pelee National Park in July; and the ovenbird that popped up next to my grill when I was cooking brats.
For two straight days in mid-November, large and noisy flocks of sandhill cranes streamed over downtown Chicago. I’m hoping a few city dwellers looked up from their smart phones and wondered.
The second edition of "The Sibley Guide" hit the shelves in March, including mine. A few lucky folks birded with the author when he visited Chicago on his book tour.
The DuPage Birding Club celebrates 30 years in 2015. Come have some cake at the Jan. 8 meeting (7:30 pm at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn) and enjoy a presentation about birding in Cuba. Details at
Cuba sounds pretty good right now. Stay warm, happy Christmas counting, and remember the birds need our help.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

RTP's 1949 self-helper for beginners still has
a lot going for it. It set the course for similar
books on the market today.

Peterson’s legend lives on with today’s birders

(published 11-14-14)
Every now and then I need an RTP fix, as in Roger Tory Peterson. The father of modern American birdwatching died in 1996 but his influence on the hobby remains strong.
Like many birders, I still turn occasionally to the Peterson guide to eastern birds, including my replica version of the 1934 original. But what I value most about Peterson today is his storytelling. He was a gifted writer in addition to his remarkable talents as a naturalist, artist, photographer, conservationist and lecturer. 
Bird Watcher’s Digest certainly does its part to keep Peterson’s legacy alive. When the latest issue arrived in October I reflexively turned to “After the Spark,” the column by Kenn Kaufman, himself a Peterson disciple. This time, however, I found a surprising byline. Due to a scheduling conflict, the magazine filled the space with a 1988 story by RTP. Kaufman is popular, but I doubt if any subscribers objected to finding Peterson’s classic account of his search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in 1942. He regarded the adventure as his most exciting bird experience ever.
If you admire Peterson as I do, two books are must reading. The first is “Wild America,” co-authored by Peterson and his British friend James Fisher, about the pair’s epic 100-day, cross-country birdathon in 1953. Written before “big years” were fashionable, the book paved the way for more recent birding travelogues like Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway” and Pete Dunne’s “The Feather Quest.”
Another book well worth tracking down is “All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures,” a collection of Peterson’s best writings from Bird Watcher’s Digest. The full version of the ivory-bill story is included along with 41 other essays.
In September I stumbled across another Peterson gem when shopping a used book sale at the Wheaton library. “How to Know the Birds: An Introduction to Bird Recognition” caught me by surprise; I’d never seen it before. Published in 1949, it complemented his groundbreaking field guide, which by then was in its third edition.
Ever the educator, RTP believed newcomers to the hobby needed some basic guidance. This book filled the need nicely while providing perspective.  In the preface, Peterson describes birdwatching—not yet called birding—as “an antidote for the disillusionment of today’s world, a world beset by pressures it has never before known.” Watching birds could be an escape!
“How to Know the Birds,” in my view, still holds up today as a useful reference for beginning birders. The sections on bird families, habitats and ID silhouettes are as relevant as ever.
Of course, we have more choices now, and several excellent paperbacks are available to help improve our skills. Each of them, I believe, owe a tip of the birding cap to Peterson.
If you have watchers on your Christmas list, these are my top choices to supplement the field guides they already own, or the ID apps on their smart phones:
“Sibley’s Birding Basics,” by David Sibley ($15.95). Even expert birders can find something new and interesting here. Sibley’s superb artwork is a major plus.
Thompson's new book takes an
innovative approach that's both
fun and informative.
“Birding Essentials,” by Jonathan Alderfer and Jon Dunn ($15.95). This National Geographic title is my favorite work on how to be a better birder. The final chapter alone, called Fieldcraft, is worth the cover price. The color photos are outstanding and the two-page glossary of birding and ornithology terms is useful.
“Pete Dunne on Bird Watching,” by Pete Dunne ($12). The author’s dry humor shines through on every page. All birding fundamentals are covered in a readable and entertaining format, and the pages on binoculars should be required reading for anyone shopping for optics.
“The New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America,” by Bill Thompson, III ($16.95). This is more a field guide than the how-to books named above but includes plenty of advice for beginners along with “wow” facts about each of the 300 common birds depicted. With this work, published in 2014, Thompson achieves his goal of informing without overwhelming the novice birder.
It’s appropriate that Thompson’s new book belongs to the Peterson Field Guides Series. RTP, after all, did more than anyone to bring new birders into the hobby. (To learn more about the man himself, check out Elizabeth Rosenthal’s wonderful Peterson biography, “Birdwatcher.”)
During this season of thanksgiving, we are blessed with many fine resources to help make birding even more enjoyable. Roger Tory Peterson would be pleased, I’m sure, that birds (and books) still matter in a world just as “disillusioned” as the one he described more than 65 years ago.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Carolina Wren by Jackie Bowman

Backyard wrenaissance

(published 10-19-14)

It’s been a strange year in my backyard. A few months ago I told you about the peanut-eating robin. That was just weird.

Also notable, in a different kind of way, was the general absence of house wrens. Our wooden nest box went unused for the first time in years. I missed having tenants. House wrens always pay their rent, rewarding landlords with their incessant, bubbly song. For a small bird, they are amazingly loud, too. If wrens are in the neighborhood you know it, and spring just isn’t the same without them.

On the bright side, it’s been a surprisingly good year for Carolina wrens in my yard. Larger than a house wren, the Carolina is far less common in our region.

I’ve seen and heard Carolina wren many times while vacationing in South Carolina, where it’s the state bird. I think of it as a “southern species.” This notion is reinforced every April when I watch The Masters golf tournament. Singing Carolina wrens and tufted titmice can always be heard during the telecasts, as if the tournament organizers fitted them with miniature microphones. 

Fortunately for us, the Carolina wren has expanded well beyond Dixie. Today, Chicagoland is considered the northern edge of its breeding range. And unlike the house wren, the Carolina is non-migratory, meaning it can be found here in all seasons.

Carolina is also the only wren that may break into song in the middle of a snowstorm. The species sings year around. The bird’s emphatic “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” is the familiar vocalization but I heard some variations of it during the summer. My new rule of thumb is that when I hear a high-volume bird song not immediately recognized it is probably a Carolina wren.

My first Carolina sighting this year was in February when a single bird visited the peanut feeder. From May through September I heard the wren often and even witnessed two birds at once. I strongly suspect that a pair nested in the neighborhood.

Winter Wren
I’ve had years without a single sighting of Carolina wren, so 2014 has been a treat. But another wren species, the winter wren, is even more uncommon in the backyard. Spotting one takes some careful observation and some luck. Your best chances are in April and October, when winter wrens are migrating to and from their breeding grounds in the North Woods and Canada.  

Yes, now would be a good time to watch for a tiny, mouse-like bird scuttling around in the garden and under your shrubs. Winter wrens are most often on the ground, foraging for small insects and spiders. They are smaller, rounder and darker than house wrens, with a stubby tail that points up. Picture a wind-up toy with feathers.

I was fortunate to host a winter wren on consecutive days in mid-April. The bird never revealed itself for long but I did manage a few passable photos when it popped into the open on my back patio. I was in the kitchen, sprawled on the floor, shooting through the sliding glass door. It was a rare opportunity to be close and nearly eye-level with our most diminutive songbird.

Some say the winter wren has the sweetest (and longest) song of all the wrens. I can’t argue that, based on recordings I’ve heard, but hearing one in real life is still on my birding bucket list.

Five kinds of wrens are possible in DuPage, so I’m compelled to also mention marsh wren and sedge wren. As their names suggest, these two species are closely associated with specific habitats. Neither one is likely to visit a typical suburban backyard. To find them, I suggest a trip to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville early next summer, or any other forest preserve with wetlands and open fields.

For more information about wrens, and to hear their remarkable songs, try Cornell University’s excellent online resource, All About Birds dot org.

Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (immature) by Gordon Garcia

Why birding is the BEST hobby

(published 9-30-14)

An email arriving in my birding mailbox last month had a certain air about it. The subject line read, “A Few Highlights from the Calumet Sewage Ponds.”

Is this a great hobby or what? No really, it is, and I can prove it.
That was among my goals when I agreed to be a guest speaker at the Glen Ellyn Lions Club. Public speaking isn’t my thing; I’d rather write than talk. But what appealed to me most, besides a free dinner at Barone’s, was that I’d be addressing people who probably, at most, had only a passing interest in birds. Maybe, just maybe, I could get them jazzed about birds and birding by showing them what they’ve been missing.
Sensing no reason to hold back, I titled my presentation “Why birding is the BEST hobby.” And you know what? The Lions ate it up.
I started by explaining that birding is a bigger deal than they might realize. Every year, an estimated 85 million Americans enjoy feeding, observing or photographing wild birds. Only one hobby, gardening, has more fans.
Birding’s popularity is due in part to its simplicity, I told the Lions. Getting started is easy. All you really need is a decent pair of binoculars, available for as little as $125. I used to say that the other must-have is a field guide to help identify the birds. Books are still an essential reference tool for most of us. But a smart phone with a birding app works fine, too, and then you have a field guide with the advantage of sound.
The simplicity of birding includes being able to do it almost anywhere at any time.  Once a birder, you are never really not birding. Sometimes I go weeks without a “bird walk,” but a day never goes by that I’m not watching birds.
I went to a Cubs game this month, settled into my seat, and the first thing I noticed was a double-crested cormorant flying toward the lake. Need I say more?
We need our hobbies to be convenient, so we have more time to pursue them.  If you have a moment to peek out the kitchen window in the morning then you have time for birding. Talk about convenience: If you prefer, the birds will come to you. Just hang a feeder and set out a birdbath.
This hobby is truly 24/7, inviting your daily participation at all times of the year. At home. Away from home. In the car. From the train. Through your office window. You can be a birder and never even step outside, a beautiful thing for people with age or mobility issues.  And all of us can watch birds with a hot drink in our hands when the polar vortex strikes.
Even darkness doesn’t stop us. At night we look and listen for owls.
I told the Lions how birding connects us with nature. Feeling inspired, I summoned a favorite John Burroughs quote: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed and have my senses put in order.”
We could all use a little more of that, agree? Birding is a trigger, a nudge, a reason to power down and take note of our surroundings. It slows us down and sometimes stops us in our tracks. 
A two-minute encounter with a seldom-seen bird, when you least expect it, makes you feel lucky and blessed. I spotted a wood thrush at Cantigny earlier this month, the first I’d ever seen in the park. That bird turned an average day into a great one.
I told the Lions that birds are beautiful and worthy of our attention. For this point, no words were really needed—the images on screen were quite enough.
Someone in the audience asked where they can go see these birds.  Central America, I replied, but if that was inconvenient then perhaps Churchill Woods, about a mile down the road. It was May, after all, and the migrating warblers and vireos and tanagers were decorating trees throughout DuPage.
I talked about the challenge of birding, too. For some birders that’s a big attraction. Finding rare birds. Nailing the difficult IDs. Learning calls and songs. Growing our lists.
I think any good hobby should offer challenges and opportunities to learn. Plus a few surprises now and then.
Birding delivers all of these things, and sometimes all at once. At Fermilab a few weeks ago our small group encountered a young night heron. We first assumed it was a black-crowned and nearly moved on to watch other birds. But something didn’t seem right, so we began to look at the heron more closely. We soon worked out that it was beyond doubt a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron, an amazing find for this region.
It’s nice to be with fellow birders when the unexpected happens, like that morning at Fermi. But the hobby rewards solitary birders, too, when every discovery is yours and yours alone. Birding solo is a wonderful stress reliever.
Finally, I told the Lions that birding will take you places. Maybe outside on the back patio a little more often. Maybe to that forest preserve or city park you’re always driving by.
The deeper you get into birding, the more you’ll want to travel. Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Texas. Belize and Costa Rica. South America. For birders, the chance to experience new species in unfamiliar habitats is irresistible.
True, not all of our destinations are exotic. Like the Steve Martin character in “The Big Year,” some birders will eagerly visit the county dump if a rare bird is at stake. Or the local sewage pond. 
Sometimes this hobby stinks, but it’s still the best one I know.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Indigo Bunting by Jackie Bowman

Celebrating the birds we know best

(published 8-26-14)

Netflix is back in my favor. Finally, I searched for and found (!) a movie I’d been wanting to see: “Birders: The Central Park Effect.” Legendary birding tour guide Victor Emanuel called it “the best film about birding that I have ever seen.”
I could write all day about “Birders.” There are so many things to like about it. But one segment that’s still in my head is when the narrator asks a group of four long-time Central Park birders a simple question: Do you ever get tired of looking at a cardinal? No, of course not, they answered.
“If you get tired of looking at the common birds then you might as well just pack it in,” said one of the grizzled vets with a thick New York accent.
Nodding heads all around, including mine.
Birders know that all birds are worth watching. Many of the common ones, fortunately, are strikingly beautiful and practice interesting behaviors.  
The common birds are also the entry point for beginning birders and potential future birders. At Cantigny Park in Wheaton, my employer, we’re in the second year of a Bird of the Month program. The idea is to “celebrate” easily seen species that park walkers and golfers might encounter during their visits. We’re not trying to create new birders—it’s more about raising awareness and sparking some curiosity.
Hopefully Bird of the Month has helped a few people put a name to a bird that they’ve been seeing for years. Maybe it was an indigo bunting, the electric-blue summer songster that’s surprisingly common in certain places of the park.
We featured the bunting in July. This month’s bird is barn swallow. Colorful or charismatic species that seem to say “look at me” are the best Bird of the Month candidates. Baltimore oriole, Eastern bluebird, red-headed woodpecker and great blue heron have each been honored. Great egret, purple martin, red-winged blackbird and ruby-throated hummingbird also took their turns. Wild turkey, one of Cantigny’s signature birds, is slated for October. (Why not November you ask? Because currently Bird of the Month is an April through October program, when golf and park traffic is highest.)
The attention-getting photos on our Bird of the Month banners are key. I am indebted to talented contributors including Jackie Bowman, Jim Frazier, Glenn Kaupert, Christian Goers and Leslie Morrison. Their bird images sometimes accompany this column, too.
For me, the fun part about Bird of the Month is choosing the species and then gathering some interesting facts about them. The process is a reminder that there’s always something new to learn about our common birds. Did you know the oldest great blue heron was 23 years old? Or that barn swallows breed on every continent except Antarctica?
I also confirmed that purple martins don’t eat many mosquitos. They much prefer larger insects such as dragonflies.
Birds are never boring, and the common ones occasionally surprise us.  This past spring and early summer I witnessed something I’d never seen in 17 years of watching my Glen Ellyn backyard: a peanut-eating American robin. The bird was up on my shelled peanut feeder constantly but too plump to stay on the perch for long. It spent more time on the grass below, picking up peanut bits just like a squirrel.
The robin even adapted its behavior, learning that the best time for a peanut fix was when another bird was on the feeder. The bird above became the robin’s ally, causing peanut fragments to drop into the grass. It was amazing to watch!    
Several times this summer I observed a male cardinal give a sunflower seed to his mate, passing it from bill to bill. A nesting pair of downy woodpeckers also captured my attention. They set up shop in a dead snag two houses down but easily visible from my driveway. I suspect that blue-gray gnatcatchers nested in another neighbor’s tree but was never able to confirm it.
Yes, there is always something to learn about birds just outside our doors, and usually it’s a common species delivering the lesson.
Back at Cantigny, our monthly bird walks, like most field trips, seldom turn up anything truly remarkable and rare. But they nearly always produce an interesting discovery.
The danger is going too fast. In our quest for the unusual we sometimes need to slow down and be sure to appreciate the familiar jewels that invariably brighten the day.
I believe cardinals, blue jays and goldfinches raise our spirits even if we don’t realize it. Their sounds alone enrich the precious time we spend outdoors, whether we’re birding or just going about our daily business.
It’s not just the flashy birds that have this effect. Hearing or seeing a house wren, catbird or white-throated sparrow can do it, too. A noisy, swirling flock of sandhill cranes—fairly common above our heads in spring and fall—gets me every time.
“Where is it written that great birding experiences must ever and always involve rare or unusual species?” asks birding guru Pete Dunne in the current issue of BirdWatching magazine.
Not here, that’s for sure. If it has wings, I’ll watch it. Including that bright red one with the handsome crest.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Viewing the bog at Glacial Park. Great Egrets were foraging and
a probable American Bittern was briefly seen.

Getting a taste of Hackmatack

(published 7-29-14) 
Like most birders, I am a collector. My prized collection is a list of bird species I’ve seen during my 55 years on earth. But I also collect places, and it was a pleasure to recently add another National Wildlife Refuge to my inventory of good birding memories.
You’ve probably heard something about Hackmatack, the newly established preserve that straddles the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The word is Native American and means tamarack tree. For birders, Hackmatack means a wonderful opportunity to explore the first and only National Wildlife Refuge within 100 miles of Chicago.
On Father’s Day I went to see it for myself, joining a bird walk arranged by the Chicago Ornithological Society. The 50-mile drive from Glen Ellyn was interesting. Now I finally know where Wauconda is! I also passed through the pleasant little town of Lakemoor and noticed signs for Volo.
This was all new territory for me, including our designated meeting place, Glacial Park Conservation Area in McHenry County.  The 3,200-acre Glacial Park is one of the key pieces of open land that comprise Hackmatack, itself a collection of federal, state, county and private parcels. The refuge, officially born in 2012, will eventually consist of 11,000 acres under federal jurisdiction through easements, partnerships and purchases from willing sellers. It’s a “corridor style” refuge designed to grow over time.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
by Jackie Bowman
Our band of 11 birders was fortunate to have an expert guide, Randy Schietzelt from McHenry County Audubon. A resident of Crystal Lake, Randy started birding 40 years ago and served MCA as president for 14 years. He also was part of the long and successful grass-roots conservation effort that made Hackmatack NWR a reality.
Before the walk began I found Randy aiming his spotting scope toward Lost Valley Marsh, from the parking area next to the historic Powers-Walker House. A rule of thumb in birding is to show up on time because the best birds of the day are often seen from the meeting place parking lot. Certainly two of them were before us now, Black Tern and Yellow-headed Blackbird.  Only one tern was zipping around the wetland but multiple yellow-heads played hide and seek in the tall rushes.

Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-Winged Blackbirds provided background vocals as Randy gave a short overview on Hackmatack. A pair of Bobolinks flew by during his remarks as well. Yes, this would be a fine morning of birding.
How could it not be? The diversity of habitat at Glacial Park is excellent and that means a wide variety of birds. Our walk took us through or alongside sedge meadows, savannas, tallgrass prairies, glacial kames (hills) and wetlands. There was even a bog, on the edge of which we observed an active Orchard Oriole nest, a first for me.
It was also at the bog where some in our group spotted a probable American Bittern before it settled down in the weeds. We waited a good while and played the bird’s distinctive song but it never reappeared.  
Gusty winds hampered our search for grassland specialties like Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows.  They were likely present but hunkered down during our walk.  The Bobolinks were more cooperative.
Another highlight for me was a singing male Eastern Towhee. This one wasn’t a bit shy, affording us nice long views as he performed his trademark “drink your tea” ditty. I’ve always loved towhees and don’t see them nearly enough. They like to hide in the underbrush.

Randy Schietzelt was our leader.
Our species total after a full morning was just north of 50. Had the walk taken place a month earlier, during spring migration, we might have seen 100. But this day was not about running up a list. It was about getting a first look at a special place that’s sure to gain a reputation as one of our region’s birding hotspots. Many birders, especially those in McHenry County, already know it as such.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar referred to Hackmatack as “a crown jewel for this part of Illinois and Wisconsin.”
The refuge is reportedly home to 49 birds that are rare or declining “species of concern.” So this is first and foremost about wildlife and land conservation. Hackmatack is a big win for birds and nature, and of course that’s good news for birders as well.
If you go, I recommend starting at the Lost Valley Visitor Center inside Glacial Park.  The sparkling four-year-old facility offers interpretive exhibits and free literature, plus a great view (and good birding) from the elevated outdoor deck.  An excellent hiking trail is adjacent to the building. For more information visit

Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks
These are five of the nine that visited Yorkville in May.

Black-bellied whistling ducks pay rare visit to Illinois

(published 6-8-14)

Like most birders, I was out and about often during May, enjoying the prime of spring migration. It’s the best month, and always full of surprises. A black-throated gray warbler popped up in Elgin, and a snowy egret in Glen Ellyn. Most amazing of all, a fork-tailed flycatcher appeared in Geneva.
I missed each of these goodies because birding, like most things in life, is all about timing. Few of us can drop what we are doing to chase a rare bird. At least not very often. My favorite rarities are the “sticky” ones that allow time to go see them. The Evanston varied thrush of 2013 comes to mind, and the Chicago sage thrasher in 2011. 
Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks are rarely seen in Illinois but the species
has a tendency to wander, especially in the spring.
So when nine black-bellied whistling ducks were reported in Yorkville on May 21 and again the next day, and the next, I made a beeline for Kendall County.  The duck is a Gulf Coast species so this was big news in the Illinois birding community.  
How big?  Well, a good indicator was in the driveway outside the home of Irene and Wayne Kaufman in Yorkville. There, on a table, sat a three-ring binder with the names of 218 birders who’d visited the Kaufman’s tidy backyard since the vagrant ducks arrived. And those were just the ones who signed the guest book.
“One young man came in a suit and tie on his lunch hour,” said Irene. “I told him he was the best-dressed birdwatcher so far.”
For all of us, the opportunity was almost too good to be true.  Here was a chance for an up-close look of a species rarely spotted this far north, and a friendly homeowner who was welcoming any and all birders. Irene even put chairs in the yard. Need some bug spray? No problem, she provided that too.
Irene Kaufman, who sings baritone with the Sweet Adelines, is a
friend to birds and birders alike
For 10 days, the whistling ducks picked seeds off the grass under Irene’s bird feeders and loafed on the edge of the large retention pond in her Autumn Creek subdivision. 
I went to Yorkville twice and each time the ducks were AWOL when I arrived.  But after a short wait, they came wheeling back to Irene’s yard, flashing large white wing patches and sounding their trademark whistle. This is one conspicuous duck.
When the birds first appeared Irene didn’t know what they were. Her field guide didn’t show them so she called a bird store in Geneva. The store put her in touch with Kane County Audubon Society. “I sent them an email and boom!” she said.
The parade of visiting birders commenced that afternoon, and Irene quickly learned a lot about the birding culture.
“I had no idea this world was out there,” she told me. “They all knew each other.”
Irene said she was surprised to see so many young people interested in birding. The big camera lenses also made an impression.   
The duck's pale eye ring and brilliant pink
bill are distinctive.
“They were friendly,” she added. “They all said thank you and seemed very grateful that I was letting them in my yard.  I heard a lot of ‘awesome’ and ‘this is a lifer.’ I had to ask what a lifer was.”
Unlike the birders coming and going, Irene got to observe the black-bellied whistling ducks on a daily or even hourly basis.  She found their behavior patterns to be very predictable. She also kept a close eye on one of the ducks that was getting picked on by the others.  “No. 9,” as she called it, walked with a limp but seemed okay otherwise.  
On the ground, the first thing you notice about the ducks is their brilliant pink bill and pale eye ring.  Birding guru Pete Dunne calls them “harlot faced.” Their long necks and legs also stand out, giving them a goose-like appearance.
The species is regular in Texas and Louisiana, and even more common south of the United States. But over the last 20 years its range has been expanding across the South. I saw the bird myself in Florida a few months ago. 
“This range expansion has led to an extraordinary increase in sightings far outside their normal range,” said Josh Engel, a Bird Division research assistant at Chicago’s Field Museum. “They occur regularly, especially in spring, in the Midwest. This year alone there have been records on the Lake Erie shore of Ohio, Horicon Marsh (Wisconsin) and southwest Michigan. This year seems to be exceptional, with more records than normal this far north.”
For Engel, like most of us who scurried to Yorkville, this was a first-time sighting in Illinois. Many birders added the species to their life lists. 
More than 200 birders signed The Kaufman's
guest book. 
That would include Irene Kaufman, if only she kept one.  I encouraged her to at least begin keeping a yard list, if for no other reason than to make black-bellied whistling duck her first entry.  How many Illinois birders, after all, could claim BBWD as a yard bird?
The Kaufmans are new on the block, having moved in last September. This is their first experience living by a pond. Cormorants, egrets and herons entertain them daily. “It’s all new to us,” Irene said. “Every day is a new adventure to watch.”
I asked if she had a favorite backyard bird. “Right now it’s the black-bellied whistling duck.”
And one final question: Any regrets about opening your life and yard to the birding paparazzi? On this point she was emphatic.  “Absolutely not! I think something as rare as this needs to be shared.”
The ducks were last seen on May 30. I wonder if they flew north or south.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Whooping Crane with Sandhill Cranes by Jody Zamirowski

Birds, like all natural resources, demand conservation

(published 5-19-14)

An extinct bird, the passenger pigeon, is getting lots of attention this year.  I’m good with that, and hope you are, too. Every so often we need to pause from the “joy of birding” and think about the serious stuff.
Extinction is about as serious as it gets, and 100 years ago marked the end of the line for “Martha,” the world’s last passenger pigeon.  She died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. The story of Martha and her doomed species is well told in “A Feathered River Across the Sky,” a new book by Joel Greenberg.  The author chronicles how the most abundant bird species in North America dropped from 4 billion birds to none in 50 years. That seems impossible but it really happened.
Audubon magazine last year estimated that 1,200 bird species face extinction over the next century, with many more suffering from severe habitat loss.  There are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world.
More bad news:  The American Bird Conservancy says fully one-third of species in the United States continue to decline as their habitats are lost or degraded to the point of being unproductive.
As we go about our birding lives, playing our listing games and chasing lifers, these realities hover in the background like a dark cloud.  It’s pretty obvious to avid birders that certain birds are in short supply around here, such as black-billed cuckoo, cerulean warbler, golden-winged warbler, grasshopper sparrow, rusty blackbird and upland sandpiper. Older watchers may recall when all six were considerably more common.  My last cerulean was in 1998!
Twenty-five bird species are considered endangered in Illinois, with five more listed as threatened.
Fortunately, a lot of good people care about saving our birds. Species once on the brink of extinction have been rescued, a list that includes bald eagle, wood duck, great egret, snowy egret, wild turkey, Kirtland’s warbler and Eastern bluebird.
The whooping crane population once fell to just 8 birds; now it’s up to about 500. A captive breeding program saved the California condor but its future, like the whooper’s, is far from secure.
Success stories can be found locally, too.  A really good one surfaced this spring when the Bird Conservation Network and Audubon Chicago Region released a population trends study on breeding birds for the period 1999-2012. The report shows that about half of our locally breeding species have stable or increasing populations. In fact, birds including Eastern bluebird, orchard oriole, Henslow’s sparrow, bobolink and dickcissel were found to be bucking a national trend by growing their numbers here in northeast Illinois. (To see the report, go to
The findings are a tribute to the dedicated work of more than 250 volunteer bird monitors who devoted thousands of hours to collecting population data based on a standardized protocol known as “point counts.” Data from DuPage County account for 25-30% of the 14-year database.
“The trends data show the positive impact of active restoration and management of the native bird species in our natural areas and wild places,” said Bob Fisher, an avid Downers Grove birder and past president of Bird Conservation Network.    
Importantly, Fisher added, the data indicate where more work is needed. Certain ground and low-nesting woodland bird species are declining. Land managers face the challenge of how best to remove non-native understory vegetation, replace it with natives, and then prevent over-browsing by the region’s abundant deer population.
Like I said, serious stuff, and the deeper we get into birding the more we tend to care about bird conservation.  It’s a natural progression.  If you are looking for ways to help, the BCN website is a good place to begin. Bird monitors are always needed.
You might also Google “ABC’s Top Ten Tips for Bird-Friendly Living” for a handy guide or check out “101 Ways to Help Birds” by Laura Erickson.
There are many organizations worthy of your cash. It’s hard to choose. But one of the best ways to spend 15 bucks is also one of the easiest: buy a federal duck stamp the next time you visit the post office. I love that program and I’m not even a hunter.
Finally, speaking of stamps, I’m fairly giddy about the new songbird series issued by the USPS. Buy some and use them on your envelopes. The stamps may not help birds directly but they sure will get noticed, and that has to be good.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Cape May Warbler by Christian Goers

Welcome to Warblerville

(published 4-3-14)

Finally, the magic of spring migration is upon us. The bird variety outside our doors is growing, with new species arriving daily. It’s the best time of year to be a birder.

The excitement of spring is punctuated by a family of birds called the wood-warblers. About 30 varieties of these neotropical migrants will visit DuPage between now and June. Some stay and raise families here; some are just passing through on their way north.
We are drawn to warblers for many reasons. Birders find their beauty, variety and elusiveness to be irresistible.  Observing warblers is challenging because they’re typically in constant motion, often high above us. Seeing them well and learning their songs takes patience.

You can spot warblers in your backyard this spring if you watch carefully, or in the trees and shrubs outside your workplace. But to see a wide variety of warblers all in one place, try the Elsen’s Hill area of the West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Excellent birding is virtually guaranteed at this Winfield hotspot in April and May.

For this column I contacted two expert birders—Pete Moxon and Eric Secker—who know every nook and cranny of Elsen’s Hill. It’s easily their favorite place for watching spring warblers as well as other birds.

“Late April through May is great,” said Secker, an Elgin resident who started birding Elsen’s in 2002 and will conduct his 10th Spring Bird Count there next month. “You definitely want to be there near dawn when the warblers start to feed. Any time of day when the sun comes out after a rainstorm can also be spectacular.”
Moxon, a Wheaton native, agrees.  Some days, he saids, the best warbler action is over by 8:00 a.m.

Blackburnian Warbler
by Christian Goers
“Bird the edges” is always good advice, and Moxon applies it at Elsen’s. In particular, when it’s chilly, he recommends focusing on habitat edges that are sunlit, including the east-facing trees in the preserve’s parking lot off of Garys Mill Road. The sun’s warmth ramps up insect activity, which in turn attracts hungry warblers.
Moxon sports an Elsen’s Hill/West DuPage Woods life list of some 254 species. He once birded there 40 consecutive days during spring migration and more than 300 times in a single year. One of his best discoveries was a black-throated gray warbler, a western species that turned up in October 2010 and stayed for weeks.  At least 200 birders from Chicagoland (and beyond) descended upon Elsen’s to see it, with Moxon playing birdfinder and host.  

Moxon also found a rare Kirtland’s warbler in 2004, a bird Secker also witnessed.  The Spring Count that year, in fact, was one of Secker’s best days ever at Elsen’s: 30 warbler species, including a worm-eating warbler and prairie warbler. (Worm-eating, like the prairie an uncommon visitor to the Chicago area, is my personal nemesis bird. I hope to see my first one this spring.)
Think about that, 30 warblers in one day at one site in DuPage.  Moxon’s best warbler day at Elsen’s is 32.  Trust me, it takes a lot of effort and luck just to see 25 species during an entire spring.

So what makes Elsen’s such a warbler magnet? Habitat variety, primarily. Ponds, ravines, river wetland, savanna and mature woodlands are all part of the mix. One of Secker’s favorite natural features is the hawthorn thickets that often harbor groups of warblers at eye level.  

Hooded Warbler by Christian Goers
Moxon credits the dense and lush habitat from the upper canopy to the ground—a vegetation structure that supports a wide variety of species and makes it easier for birders to see them.  Elsen’s isn’t huge (about 150 acres) but it provides everything migrating birds need to rest and refuel.

Not just warblers, of course.  Elsen’s is a wonderful place to see orioles, tanagers, thrushes, vireos and flycatchers. If you visit, keep an eye and ear out for pileated woodpecker, too, a tough-to-find bird in DuPage.
Elsen’s remains the only spot in the county where I’ve observed olive-sided flycatcher and Connecticut warbler—on the same day, in fact, in 2008. I’m planning to visit the preserve more often this spring, especially in May. And if somebody reports a “wormie” I’ll be there lickety split.

It’s always fun to bird where surprises are almost expected. Moxon once observed cerulean, black-throated blue and prairie warblers without even leaving the Elsen’s Hill parking lot. Other times, the warbler activity out on the trails is jaw dropping.
“When you get fallout or semi-fallout conditions you just want to soak it all in,” he said. “You don’t want to move.”

Elsen’s is that kind of place. Get there early and get there often.

Crested Caracara by Matthew Paulson
Birding in Florida's sweet spot

(published 3-11-14)

Traveling to Key Largo on Super Bowl weekend is getting to be a habit. I go there to visit my parents and, if possible, sneak in some birding. Last month, if only for a day, it felt good to be wearing binoculars without four layers of clothing under them.  
I’ve been fortunate to bird many of the Florida hotspots: Corkscrew Swamp, Dry Tortugas, Everglades National Park and Merritt Island among them.  My birding last month, however, was in a region of Florida I’d never experienced.  It wasn’t scenic by Florida standards but the quantity and variety of birds more than compensated for the lack of beaches and ocean views.
This was an inland mission, to the agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee. It’s a place relatively few visitors to Florida ever see.
My dad joined me on the trip, and I was happy for the company.  He’s a casual birder at best but always supportive of my pursuits. Our birding would take place on his 86th birthday and he was game.
We drove up to Clewiston the night before. “America’s Sweetest Town” is on the south shore of The Big O, in the heart of sugarcane country.  I guess it was sweet but what I’ll remember most is the Clewiston Inn, a local landmark built in 1938. Audubon prints were conspicuous, and a wonderful mural of original art featuring Florida birds and animals covers all four walls of the Everglades Lounge. Any birder with a sense of history would love the place. 
In the morning we drove 25 miles south to join the Hendry-Glades Audubon chapter at Stormwater Treatment Area 5. The birding really began just outside of Clewiston, though, because the road to “STA-5” is known for sightings of crested caracara, the bird I wanted most.  It wasn’t long before my wish came true. Dad and I spotted two caracaras, the second one providing killer views as it briefly flew alongside our rented Nissan.
The caracara is an interesting raptor. It has the head of an eagle, feeds on carrion like a vulture and yet is considered a falcon. A bird of open country, it’s right at home on the cane fields and ranches of south central Florida.  Caracaras also are found in parts of southern Arizona and Texas.  I was thrilled to add the species to my life list.
Birding tours inside STA-5 are guided by Hendry-Glades Audubon in partnership with the South Florida Water Management District. The 7,700-acre constructed wetland is a buffer, designed to protect the Everglades ecosystem from damaging agricultural runoff.  So the six-unit STA network is all about saving the River of Grass. But as we were about to witness, its creation 15 years ago was great for the birds, too.
The STA-5 parking lot was packed with vehicles and eager birders—106 birders to be exact.  A trip leader announced that a chipping sparrow had just been spotted, a new bird for the all-time site list, species No. 203. That was cool, but we had Florida specialties in mind, like the ones on that mural in Clewiston.  We took our place in the car caravan and headed out onto STA-5’s man-made dikes. 
Wetland species are naturally the big attraction at STA-5 and right out of the gate we enjoyed close views of purple gallinule, purple swamphen (a lifer for me), American bittern and several snail kites.
Wonderful birds surrounded the group at all times. When the cars were moving the leader in front pointed out notable birds via walkie-talkie, a nice service.  “Black-bellied whistling ducks flying right!” The vehicle train stopped about every 100 yards so we could get out and gawk at the avian magic.
American coot was the most abundant bird, followed by great numbers of tree swallows darting about the sky. Anhinga, black-necked stilt, black skimmer, limpkin, and all manner of heron, egret, ibis and waterfowl tempted our eyes. More secretive birds stalked the vegetation where palm warblers also flitted about.
The airspace over the mile-wide “cells” of open water included cruising American white pelicans and wood storks, Caspian and Forster’s terns, red-shouldered hawk, caracara, kingfisher, peregrine falcon and a wide variety of fast-flying ducks.       
Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher by
Carlos Escamilla
I expected many roseate spoonbills, a Florida classic, but we spotted only one. Thankfully the pink beauty flew directly over our heads. 
Dad and I would see 60 species at STA-5 but the official day list totaled 85, since multiple birding parties were moving about the dikes. The rarest spotting was tropical kingbird, a stake-out bird wintering at the preserve for a third straight year.  It was a lifer for many, including me. Cinnamon teal was another eye-popping rarity.
I could have birded all day at STA-5 and the next day, too. It was that good. But five hours on the muddy dikes under a hot sun take their toll and the tour was winding down. It was time to motor back to civilization, get cleaned up and give dad a proper birthday dinner.
Alas, the birding gods had one more gift in store.  Two miles outside the STA-5 gate, I noticed a pale bird perching on a fence wire. Or at least thought I did.  A quick U-turn confirmed it to be a scissor-tailed flycatcher!  I’d seen this striking species only once before, in 1998, when a vagrant bird visited the Batavia Riverwalk.
The flycatcher wrapped up a shared birding experience I’ll always treasure. Driving back to Key Largo it hit me: Trips, not just birds, can be lifers, too.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
American Avocets by Steve Spitzer

Big Days add excitement to the birding game

(published 2-19-14)

In my 2013 highlights column, published in December, one entry still blows my mind: the record-setting “Big Day” in Texas last April. If you recall, a six-person team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, raising money for bird conservation, identified 294 bird species in 24 hours. As my daughter might say, that’s just sick.
Incredible would be another word, especially considering Team Sapsucker bested the old North American Big Day record—their own, set in 2011—by 30 species.  
Birding is a numbers game for those who wish to play it. For the day, for the year and for a lifetime, most birders “keep score” in one way or another. The potential for listkeeping is endless.  It adds to the fun and helps us remember those special sightings.
Big Days are where birding and insanity come together.  I’ve never attempted one but I’m fascinated by the stories. Just thinking about a midnight-to-midnight birdathon in May makes a cold February day a little warmer.
“Serious” Big Days, like the one in Texas, take place around here, too. In fact, a new Illinois record was set on May 15, 2013. A six-man team called the Mighty Jizz Masters pulled it off, tallying 191 species during an 851-mile all-day chase during the peak of spring migration.  
Charting the perfect route was four years in the making, said team member Greg Neise, from Berwyn. The chosen circuit went from Chicago to the northwest corner of Illinois on the Mississippi River to an area south of Peoria. Every mile and every minute was planned. Every stop had a purpose.
Preparations for the Jizz Masters’ historic run included advance scouting by two birders who were not on the road team. It’s critical to have certain hard-to-find species “staked out” to minimize search time.
The team’s 191 species in 24 hours topped the previous record by four. But it was closer than that.  At 6 p.m. the team was exhausted and still three birds short of tying the record.
“The team was losing juice,” Neise recalled. “We were hot, sticky-sweaty, very, very tired and losing focus. Failure was staring us in the face.”
Then the birding gods decided to smile.  A red-shouldered hawk appeared for #187, followed by a broad-winged hawk, the recordbreaker. Onlookers must have thought the group just hit the $50 million Power Ball. Three more birds were icing on the cake: chuck-will’s-widow, American bittern and great-horned owl.
Personal Big Days are cause for celebration, too.  In a solo effort last July 20, Jim Mountjoy tallied 131 species, a remarkable number for mid-summer Illinois.
Birding in 10 counties surrounding his home base in Galesburg, Mountjoy went full out from 1:30 a.m. to about 9 p.m. He obeyed self-imposed deadlines throughout the day to stay on track and at one point took a rejuvenating 15-minute nap. As with the Jizz Masters, his final bird of the day was a great-horned owl.  
Mountjoy, a birder since age 13, loves the challenge of Big Days.
“They test your knowledge of local bird distribution and behavior, your logistics and navigational ability, as well as your identification skills,” he said.
“Of course, the main reward is seeing and hearing lots of beautiful birds.”
A Big Day is whatever you want to make it, and it sometimes involves spending all day at a single location.  As a team or individually, seeing how many birds you can pull out of one site can be fun. We do it every month at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, including all-day efforts in May (Birdwatching Open) and December (Christmas Bird Count).
Last May, on the same day the Jizz Masters were making history, Eric Walters of Zion did a Big Day at Illinois Beach State Park. Except his was a Big Green Day, meaning he only counted birds seen on foot. He scored 111 species, some 20 more than the previous best Big Green Day site (walking only) record in Illinois.  
In 2012, the DuPage Birding Club held a Big Day event in June that was more social mixer than a hard-core competition. Seven randomly chosen teams birded from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout DuPage County, going wherever they wished to build their lists. Teams had to travel in the same vehicle and the standard 95% Rule applied, meaning 95% of all species had to be seen by all team members for them to be countable.
Awards were bestowed for most species, most sites visited, most birds at one site and bird of the day, which turned out to be a black tern. The winning team spotted 94 species and everybody gathered at Portillo’s after the birding.
A Big Day that lasts 11 hours and is followed by good food, cold drinks and storytelling.  That sounds about right to me.
Meanwhile, the Mighty Jizz Masters are plotting strategy again. Neise told me the team will try for its Holy Grail this May: 200 species in one day in Illinois.

Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.