Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher by Jackie Bowman

Invasion of the gnatcatchers

(published 9-5-17)

There is a tiny gray and white bird with a longish tail that you might know. If you don’t, it’s probably just a matter of time.  

I’m referring to the blue-gray gnatcatcher, an avian sprite nicknamed the “twig fairy” by birding guru Pete Dunne for its dance-like foraging technique.

For pure energy, the gnatcatcher has few rivals. The bird seems to be in constant motion, making it easy to detect but challenging to follow with binoculars.

Gnatcatchers are quite vocal, and once you learn its wheezy, high-pitched voice you’ll realize this bird is surprisingly common in neighborhoods and forest preserves alike. In fact, finding one in DuPage County has never been easier.

This wasn’t always the case. One of my birding friends recently referred to the blue-gray gnatcatcher as the “poster bird for range expansion.” Translation: it’s a traditionally southern species that has spread across the Great Lakes region in a big way.  

“Their breeding range has moved north by about 200 miles over the last 25 years or so,” said Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum. “I actually think that blue-gray gnatcatcher may be a climate change winner.”

The numbers don’t lie.  I looked at Spring Bird Count records for DuPage County since 1975, the first year of data collection. Zero gnatcatchers were found in 1975-1978, and less than 10 were spotted in the years 1979 to 1983. But sightings picked up in the late 1980s and hit triple figures for the first time in 1996 when 104 gnatcatchers were seen.

Spring Count totals in 11 of the last 14 years have been 300 or more, with a high of 550 in 2014. Bird Conservation Network data for the Chicago region also indicate a population boom.

I’ve noticed the upward trend in my own Glen Ellyn backyard. I went seven years before seeing my first blue-gray gnatcatcher at home, in 2004. I was thrilled! Little did I know how common this experience would soon become.

This summer, in fact, the presence of gnatcatchers was so consistent that I’m convinced a pair nested close by.

So, what’s going on? Stotz has a few theories. Because blue-gray gnatcatchers are insectivorous and winter widely in the Southeast U.S., he said, milder winters may be proving advantageous to the species.

“Beside this, I suspect that restoration of oak woodlands helps them in the Chicago area,” Stotz said. “They like oaks and they like things pretty open.”

The subject of range expansion recalls a few other species that are creeping northward with greater frequency. Yellow-throated warbler, summer tanager, Carolina wren and northern mockingbird are examples of “southern” birds that now breed in the Chicago region. But none approach the expansion success of the blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Identifying this bird is easy. I mentioned the gnatcatcher’s wheezy call, which stays in your head once you know it. Visually, the bird’s obvious field marks are a blackish tail with white edges (like a junco) and a conspicuous white eye-ring.

The hyperactive motions of the blue-gray gnatcatcher can clinch the ID, too. Its relatively long tail flicks from side to side when the bird is foraging in trees, likely a strategy to scare up small insects. Sometimes it momentarily hovers.

Gnatcatchers will be with us a few more weeks before starting their southerly migration. Some will travel to Mexico and Central America; many stop in Florida, where the species is resident throughout the year.

Next April, the twig fairy will return, bringing with it enough nervous energy to impress even the kinglets. If you ever wondered what a cup of Starbucks might do for a bird, watch and listen for the blue-gray gnatcatcher, a migrant on a mission.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
St. James Farm in Warrenville.

Nine great spots for autumn birding

(published 9-3-17)

Birders love to gush about the wonders of spring migration. But guess what? Those same birds pass through our region again in fall, traveling south. And lucky for us, the fall migration is a longer process, meaning good viewing opportunities from Labor Day through November.

Autumn birding does come with a catch: some species are trickier to identify this time of year. Members of the warbler family, in particular, have traded their bright May finery for more muted tones. There is less birdsong in fall, too, giving us fewer ID clues.

Not all the migrating birds are in disguise, of course, and there are plenty of interesting birds that live here year around. Cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches are always fun to watch, right? The important thing is to get outside and enjoy the show.

Here are nine places you might try, plus some tips on what to look for.

Elsen’s Hill, Winfield. Hours of happy warblering await you at this unit of the West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Even the parking lot here serves up a bounty when conditions are right. Elsen’s trails lead through a nice habitat variety of habitat including mature woods, savanna and ponds. This venue isn’t huge (about 150 acres with four miles of trails) but it provides everything migrating birds need to rest and refuel. Besides warblers, expect gray catbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, eastern towhee, fox sparrow, and Swainson’s and hermit thrushes. Tip: if it’s chilly, focus your birding on sunlit habitat edges.
Broad-winged Hawk by Vic Berardi

Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia. This 1,000-acre venue, commonly known as Nelson Lake Marsh, is a waterfowl hotspot. October, in fact, is one of the best months to see a wide variety of ducks, including coveted species such as canvasback and northern pintail. Birders also expect fall reports of snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swan from this site. The observation deck overlooking the marsh is best early in the day, when the sun is at your back. Kane County Audubon hosts a field trip at Nelson Lake on the first Saturday of the month and welcomes non-members.

Crabtree Nature Center, Barrington Hills. I’ve enjoyed some excellent birding experiences at this Cook County preserve, including my first northern shrike, spotted on the Phantom Prairie Trail. Last fall the Center’s well-stocked feeders hosted a Harris’s Sparrow, a rare visitor. The nature center and feeders make Crabtree an ideal destination for young birders with shorter attention spans. But with 1,182 acres of woodland, wetland and prairie there’s plenty for all birders to explore over three miles of trails. An observation blind overlooks Crabtree Lake, a waterfowl magnet.   

Greene Valley Scenic Overlook, Naperville. The DuPage Birding Club operates a fall hawkwatch atop this former landfill, collecting data on migrating raptors. The 360-degree view is ideal for spotting hawks and eagles on their southerly migration. Some days feature massive numbers of broad-winged hawks, plus flyover ospreys, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and occasionally a golden eagle. The overlook is part of the Greene Valley Forest Preserve and open to the public on weekends through October. If you stop by, ask the hawkwatchers what they’re seeing.

Whalon Lake, Naperville. Just down the road from the overlook is Whalon Lake, a Will County preserve with a strong reputation for waterfowl. Jeff Smith, who birds here frequently, says the 80-acre namesake lake is good for common loons, grebes and diving ducks starting around mid-October. A former quarry, Whalon also offers wetland and grassland habitats which attract a variety of sparrows during migration, including illusive ones like Nelson’s and Le Conte’s. Smith favors Whalon for its bird variety (230 species and counting) and ease of viewing. In fact, most of the lake is scannable without leaving your car or from under the picnic shelter.

Glacial Park Conservation Area, McHenry County. I’ve only been once but I’m itching to return to McHenry’s top birding location. Part of the five-year old Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, this impressively contoured 3,200-acre landscape has it all in terms of habitat. Start at the Lost Valley Visitor Center for information and to bird from the elevated back deck. An excellent hiking trail, adjacent to the building, features sedge meadow, savanna, tallgrass prairie, glacial kames (hills) and even a bog. Glacial Park fall specialties include all manner of waterfall (check Lost Valley Marsh), northern harrier and, as dusk approaches, short-eared owl. Earlier in the season, the preserve is prime territory for migrating warblers and sparrows.
Le Conte's Sparrow by Jackie Bowman

Illinois Beach State Park, Zion. Migratory birds use the Lake Michigan shoreline as a navigation aid, following it south. Al Stokie, a frequent watcher at Illinois Beach State Park and Waukegan Beach in Lake County, likes both locations for shorebirds, loons, grebes and southbound raptors, plus occasional rarities like harlequin duck, red-throated loon and western grebe. Check the woodlands at IBSP for migrating songbirds, and visit the park’s official hawkwatch at the North Unit of Illinois Beach, operating through November. (For autumn lakeshore birding, Stokie also highly recommends the Montrose Beach/Magic Hedge area in Chicago.)

St. James Farm Forest Preserve, Warrenville. Aside from birding, this historic country estate (600 acres) is a fascinating place to walk. Well maintained pathways lead past old dairy and equestrian buildings along with sculptures and interpretive signage. You’re almost sure to see eastern bluebirds here, and look for wood ducks on the ponds. Like its neighbor to the north, Cantigny Park, St. James is home to wild turkeys and red-headed woodpeckers—two species that favor this section of DuPage.

Your own backyard. Perhaps you have limited mobility, or just prefer the view from your kitchen window or patio. If you have feeders, watch carefully. Rose-breasted grosbeak is a good candidate to visit your sunflower seeds. If you put out thistle, pine siskins might come around in late fall. October is good time to watch for ground loving birds like fox sparrow and winter wren.  And don’t forget to look up! You can observe migrating broad-winged hawks and sandhill cranes just as easily from your driveway as from any local park or forest preserve. 

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.