Chimney Swifts at Abbott Middle School in Elgin.
Photo by Susan Szeszol.
Swift September

(published 11-19-18)

Some say the most memorable birds are rarely the ones you expect to see. I agree, but there are exceptions. Let me tell you about one.

In September, I traveled to Portland, Ore., for a nephew’s wedding. Weeks before the trip—okay, months—I began studying up on the birds I might be able to see. It’s what birders do.

Chimney Swift by Rob Curtis
I was especially interested in lifers—birds I’d never seen before. A prime candidate, I quickly learned, was Vaux’s swift. It’s the western version of our chimney swift, and common in the skies over cities and towns. I’d be in Portland at the perfect time, too, when large numbers of Vaux’s swifts gather before starting their fall migration. This was a bird I could expect to see.

The Audubon Society of Portland website put me in a fever when I found the page about Chapman Elementary School, site of a nightly Swift Watch throughout September. Since 1982, Vaux’s swifts have used the school’s old furnace chimney as a communal overnight roost. On some evenings, 40,000 birds pour into the stack, creating a spectacle.

I longed to see it. Wedding activities, however, were planned for all three nights of our stay in Portland. Sneaking away to Chapman, even for an hour, was not happening.

What’s a birdman to do? Look up, of course. I see chimney swifts in broad daylight quite often around DuPage County. In Portland, I figured it would be the same with Vaux’s swifts. Except it wasn’t.

I birded in the city a bit on Friday morning, our first full day, in the green space along the Willamette River. Not seeing any swifts, I impulsively rented a bright orange bike—Portland’s version of Chicago’s Divvy—and looked up Chapman School on Google Maps. If I could find the school, surely there would be a few swifts cruising around its legendary 

The view of Chapman Elementary School from the swift
watching hill in Portland, Ore.
Getting to the school was a workout—nearly three miles from city center and mostly uphill. It was noon, sunny and unseasonably warm. A western scrub jay welcomed me, but no swifts.

Young voices drifted out the classroom windows as I surveyed the grounds, hoping not to be reported as a suspicious schoolyard character. The kids inside knew all about the birds, no doubt about that. The school nickname is the Swifts, and the student newspaper is the Swift Current.

A fence banner promoted the upcoming Chapman Swift Family Fun Run. On the grassy hill where the swift watchers gather, a three-sided kiosk dispensed information about Vaux’s swift and the importance of Chapman School, one of the largest known roosting sites for the species.  

I soon gave up the vigil, glad for having made the effort but disappointed by the lack of swifts. I coasted back to the downtown Marriott.

At the wedding Saturday night, it occurred to me that hope wasn’t lost. All those swifts needed to exit the chimney at some point. What if I returned to Chapman School on Sunday morning?

And that’s what I did, waking early and pedaling back up the hill, in the dark. Calm silence greeted my arrival at the school as the skies began to brighten. Maybe I was too late.

At 6:20 I spotted a single swift fluttering near the top of the smokestack. My Vaux’s lifer! Seven minutes later, the chimney erupted with departing birds, chittering loudly and ready for another day of feeding on the wing. In 10 minutes every bird was out.

I was the only apparent witness at Chapman, and I wondered how many people were on the hill 12 hours earlier, watching the swifts tuck in for the night. Judging by the full trash cans, I missed quite a party.

Abbott Middle School in Elgin, Ill.
Six days later I got another chance. This time the party was in Elgin, outside Abbott Middle School, site of Kane County Audubon’s (KCA) fourth annual Chimney Swift Sit. The scene at Abbott was just how I imagined the one at Chapman, but on a smaller scale.

We were watching chimney swifts, not Vaux’s, but you’d never know the difference. Just after 7 p.m. the volume of swifts grew rapidly as they swirled clockwise around the school’s giant stack. About 15 minutes passed before a few birds started to drop in, first a trickle and then a steady flow. Like a vacuum, the chimney seemed to pull in the swifts until the air was clear and quiet.

About 2,000 swifts entered the Abbott School chimney. We know this because Marion Miller counted them—a challenging task! Marion maintains the Facebook page “Chimney Swifts Over the Fox Valley,” and with KCA works on chimney swift conservation. The species is declining, primarily due to habitat loss. Large, uncapped chimneys are increasingly scarce.

Residents of the Abbott School neighborhood were curious. Who were these people with binoculars and folding chairs, watching a school on a Saturday night? Marion and others happily explained, even passing out a KCA brochure about chimney swifts and how to help them. The accidental onlookers went to bed wise to an amazing slice of nature just outside their front doors. Maybe some will pull up a chair next year.

The swifts of Portland and Elgin greatly enriched my 2018 birding year. Vaux’s swift and chimney swift—two crowd-pleasing aerialists, 2,000 miles apart, performing nights (and mornings!) in September, for those who care to watch.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Yellow-Billed Cuckoo by Gene Koziara
Forecast: Slight chance of rain crows

(published 10-9-18)

Twenty years ago last month, I witnessed my first yellow-billed cuckoo. Saw it well, too, at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.

A few things made that experience especially rewarding. First, I found the cuckoo all by myself. It’s satisfying when that happens, even though it was pure luck. I happened to glimpse the bird as it flew to a tree.

Secondly, at the time of discovery, yellow-billed cuckoo was like a mythical species to me. As a serious birder for about four years, I was beginning to wonder if cuckoos really exist.

Well, they do, and not just yellow-billed. There’s also the similar black-billed cuckoo, which in our region is even more elusive. Adding to the challenge is that both birds are declining. Black-billed cuckoo, in fact, is listed as a threatened species in Illinois.

Cuckoos are secretive, preferring leafy trees and prone to long periods of inactivity. Birding guru Pete Dunne describes them as “slothlike.” Even if you locate a cuckoo it can be hard to observe the whole bird.

My lifetime cuckoo sightings total about 20, yellow-billed and black-billed combined. Amazingly, three of those sightings (all yellow-billed) were in my yard, the last coming in 2008.

I haven’t seen a cuckoo of any kind in 2018, and time is about up. Cuckoos are now migrating to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Rain Crow IPA
Courtesy of Wren House
Brewing Co.

Today’s column was only partly inspired by my lucky sighting two decades ago. The other trigger was Rain Crow IPA, a new beer bearing the colloquial name for cuckoo, which according to folklore vocalizes before it rains.

I’m keeping an eye out for Rain Crow IPA at Binny’s. For now, however, it’s a western thing, introduced in July by Audubon Arizona in collaboration with several craft breweries in Tucson and Phoenix. The brew calls attention to water conservation needs and the importance of healthy rivers.

The increasingly scarce western race of yellow-billed cuckoo, depicted on the Rain Crow IPA can, depends on riparian woodlands. A sustainable water supply, Audubon says, is essential to the species as well as the region’s other birds, wildlife, communities and economies. Brewers clearly have a strong vested interest, too.

I was indeed fortunate to see my own rain crow that day at Churchill Woods. Cuckoos are quiet during fall migration; they give no vocal clues. In the spring and summer, though, listening for cuckoos is our best chance of finding them.

“They are shadows living in a world of shadow, and we identify far more cuckoos by call than by plumage,” said Eirik A.T. Blom, writing for Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Just don’t expect to hear your grandmother’s cuckoo clock. The birds do not sound like that. But with a little practice you can learn what to listen for and tell our two local cuckoo species apart. To hear them, go to All About Birds, the online resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

As a family, cuckoos are slender birds—about the size of a mourning dove but less plump—with long tails. Gray-to-brownish upperparts, white below. When you spot one, your job is to ID the species. As the names indicate, bill color is a key field mark. Other distinctions are the red eye ring on the black-billed and differing underside tail patterns—bold white spots on yellow-billed, faint white bars on black-billed. 

On more tip: If you see a cuckoo in flight, pay attention to the wings. If the feathers show a lot of rufous (reddish brown), you’re looking at a yellow-billed. Dunne calls it the “cinnamon-winged cuckoo.”

There is a third cuckoo species that in North America is found only in southern Florida. At least that’s the rumor. I’ve been chasing the mangrove cuckoo for many years without success. It currently tops my Most Wanted list and I envy anyone who has seen one. If that includes you, please don’t tell me.

Some birds just take time. Eventually we find them, or they find us. My first yellow-billed cuckoo was like that, and last year a worm-eating warbler finally crossed my path. But since I don’t live in Florida, mangrove cuckoo may well be a lifetime pursuit.

That’s OK. In birding, anticipation is a positive force! I will not let a cuckoo drive me crazy.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

European Goldfinch by Christian Goers
European beauty

(published 8-28-18)

On a sunny July morning, I woke up extra early with a bird on my mind. No surprise there. But this bird was different. I’d seen it before but never in the United States. It was time to do something about that.

The plan was to meet Al Stokie, the most avid birder I know, who’d generously agreed to help me find a European goldfinch. He knew of two places in Lake County where the species regularly occurs.

European goldfinch is a non-native “introduced” species, and not officially countable for birders who spot one in North America. (At least not yet; more on that later.) I’d admired this red-faced beauty before during a trip to Ireland in 1996. It’s a common bird throughout the U.K. and European mainland—a must-see species for any visiting birder.

How and when European goldfinch arrived in Chicagoland isn’t exactly known but they’ve been nesting here since at least 2003. Most likely a colony developed after some imported birds escaped from their cages or were released. Our local monk parakeets share a similar provenance.

A close relative of our bright yellow American goldfinch, European goldfinch is not widespread in the region. But the species is certainly breeding in Lake County and its population is growing. It is not considered invasive or a threat to ecosystems. In that regard, Euro goldfinch differs from non-native bad guys like house sparrow and European starling.

Plus, this is one fine looking bird. Countable or not, I wanted to see a European goldfinch on American soil.

I met Al at Waukegan Beach, one of his usual haunts. Sure enough, within two minutes, several adult European goldfinches were in plain view. The birds flew around as group and kept returning to the utility wires above the parking area, making it easy to observe their red faces, whitish bills and large yellow wing patches. Al pointed to some trees in the adjacent park where the birds apparently nest.

Among birders, Waukegan Beach is best known for gulls, waterfowl and shorebirds. Al and his friend Bob showed me a staked-out piping plover, also viewable from the parking lot, and then a small colony of nesting common terns in a protected area along the beach. Both are hard-to-find, state-endangered species.

Out next stop was the south unit of Illinois Beach State Park, where we quickly located a few Euro goldfinches in the pines outside the resort and conference center. Al and Bob moved on from there, in search of other avian quarry, leaving me to work on getting a good photo.

My limited camera skills combined with skittish goldfinches were getting me nowhere when a couple on bicycles pulled up. Steve and Mary were birders and recognized one of their kind. I told them what I was up to and they gushed about the European goldfinches that visit their Pleasant Prairie (Wis.) backyard.

Steve suggested that I visit The Bird Nest, a store in Kenosha. Euro goldfinches flock to the feeders behind the store, he said, where a nice viewing area is set up for onlookers.

How could I resist? I pointed the Jetta north and crossed into America’s Dairyland. The Bird Nest was easy to find, just off I-94 next to a massive Woodman’s. The shop’s manager, Brian Nett, invited me to head out back and enjoy the show.

Right away I knew this would be an entertaining hour or two. About 15 kinds of birds were coming and going to all manner of feeders, including the species that brought me there. For close views of European goldfinch, this place is a lock.

Brian told me the finches arrived about seven years ago, and that their numbers are growing. The store’s feeding stations typically host six to 10 birds at a time in the summer and up to three dozen in winter. These are hardy, non-migratory birds. Safflower is their seed of choice.  

Juvenile European Goldfinches eating safflower seeds at
The Bird Nest in Kenosha, Wis.
I hadn’t noticed any young birds at the two Illinois sites. At The Bird Nest feeders, however, juveniles outnumbered the adults. Aside from their yellow wing patches, they were nondescript and seemed less wary than the parent birds. Or maybe they were just hungrier!

My time in Kenosha recalled a similar birding experience in 2013, at the Sugar Grove Nature Center near Bloomington. My target that day was Eurasian tree sparrow, another non-native species that tweaked my curiosity. I’d heard the bird frequented the nature center’s feeders and was not disappointed.

The tree sparrow is officially countable in North America because it’s been here since 1870. Despite a small geographic range—west-central Illinois and Greater St. Louis—the bird’s population is obviously established and self-sustaining. You can go see it like I did and add it to your life list.

Not so with European goldfinch. You can see it but not list it. On this side of the Atlantic, the ornithologists who decide these matters have been slow to confirm what everybody seems to know: European goldfinch is here to stay.

A change in classification seems inevitable. Perhaps within five or 10 years the species will become “official,” making the birds in Lake County and southeast Wisconsin fair game for rule-abiding listers like me.

Meanwhile, I recommend a stop in Kenosha if you’re up that way. Shop at The Bird Nest, watch the feeders, and maybe have breakfast or lunch at the Perkins next door.

Here in DuPage, be alert for a surprise visitor. A lone European goldfinch sampled a Wheaton backyard feeder in February 2016.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Keriann Dubina leading some warbler watchers at Elsen's Hill
Birding tour of DuPage

"FullersBird Fridays" program showcases local forest preserves when the birding is best

(published 7-6-18)

The first thing you should know about Keriann Dubina is that she likes brown-headed cowbirds. In fact, she’s a local authority on the species that most birders love to hate.

She goes against the birdwatching grain further by choosing not to keep a life list, and she’s not inclined to put her life on hold to chase a rare bird.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Dubina is a birder to the core, and more importantly she’s nurtured a lot of new birders since joining the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County as a full-time naturalist in 2011.

Her main tool of introduction is FullersBird Fridays, a series of weekly walks in the spring and fall that began in 2005 and quickly developed a loyal following. Dubina began leading the walks in 2012, which at that time were conducted only at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook, where she is based.

Three years ago, the series branched out, taking birders to a different preserve every week.
“We see more kinds of birds now that we move around,” Dubina told me, “plus it’s a chance for us to showcase different preserves.”

The idea is brilliantly simple, tailored to those who enjoy organized bird walks in a variety of places. FullersBird Fridays provide the gentle push we sometimes need to go somewhere new and meet other birders.

Dubina and her colleagues have led walks at 22 DuPage County forest preserves since the show hit the road. Meacham Grove, in Bloomingdale, joined the rotation this spring.

The DuPage system features 60 preserves. Some are considered better for birding than others, but there will always be plenty of choices.

When I chatted with Dubina for this column, we’d just finished a walk at St. James Farm in Warrenville. Among the avian highlights that morning were several orchard orioles. This reinforced her point about the value in surveying different properties. “We never see orchards at Fullersburg,” she said.

Orchard Oriole by CR Courson
The Friday walks coincide with spring and fall migration, which guarantees excellent birding no matter where the group travels. Dubina further schedules certain locations for certain dates to maximize success.

On the first or second Friday in May her choice is always the Elsen’s Hill section of West DuPage Woods near Winfield, a perennial hotspot for migrating warblers. The final spring walk goes to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, a fine place for spotting grassland birds after the warbler wave of early and mid-May.

Springbrook is high on Dubina’s list of favorite preserves, given her fondness for prairie habitat. She also likes St. James, McDowell Grove (Naperville) and Waterfall Glen in Darien, where she once enjoyed walks with her grandfather.

Dubina grew up in Lockport—and with birds. Her father worked at Brookfield Zoo, on the business side, and members of the household included exotic parrots. Young Keriann took a liking to wild birds, too, especially the common loons she encountered during summer trips to northern Wisconsin. If forced to name a “spark bird,” she’d go with those northern divers.

The cowbird thing happened later in life, at Western Illinois University. Dubina first earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology, taking an ornithology class along the way and learning to bird by ear. She stayed on at WIU for a master’s in ornithology, focusing on bird behavior. Her thesis? The egg destruction behavior of the brown-headed cowbird.

I attended a lecture by Dubina in 2013 about cowbird truths and myths. Her talk was fascinating, and I’ve thought about the species differently ever since.

“It’s funny how emotional people get about cowbirds,” said Dubina, who appreciates the complex natural history of the brood parasite far better than most of us. 

Don’t worry, if you attend a FullersBird Friday you won’t get lectured about cowbirds. What you will get is a guided birding tour of a local forest preserve that’s likely dripping with resident and migratory birds. It might well be a place you’ve known about for years but never visited. The company will be friendly, the scenery interesting and the potential for surprise sightings high. Just ask the Herrick Lake birders who on April 20 watched a flock of 16 American white pelicans wheel over their heads.        

The two-hour FullersBird walks are well-suited to new birders. They average about 20 participants and some are regulars. Those registering in advance pay a $3 fee, which feels like a donation. Walk-ons contribute $5.

The fall edition of FullersBird Fridays begins on August 31 at St. James Farm. Check for the complete schedule and to register for one or more walks.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Ring-Necked Pheasant by Christian Goers

A birding time capsule

(published 5-9-18)

The basement archive of a military museum seems an odd place to find a 41-year-old bird checklist. Then again, this is Cantigny. We like history. We save stuff.

Thanks to a sharp-eyed colleague, I was alerted last month to a file labeled “1977 Bird Census.” It was tucked inside one of 11 boxes of miscellaneous Cantigny Park records from the 1970s and 80s, squirreled away in the subterranean Robert R. McCormick Research Center at the First Division Museum.

This was exciting news! I’ve been birding regularly at Cantigny for 10 years but records of sightings on the property before my time are scarce. 

A few years ago, we stumbled upon a 1935 piece in the Chicago Tribune, a column about life on the Cantigny farm. It mentioned the abundance of pheasant and quail, so I promptly added ring-necked pheasant and northern bobwhite to the historical list. Legacy birds, I call them.

Now you can understand why my pulse quickened when the museum called. Here was a birding time capsule, just waiting to be appreciated by somebody like me. It felt like destiny.

The file folder contained just one item, a “Birds of the Chicago Area” checklist on cardstock. The observer was Janet LaSalle—a name I didn’t know—and this was her consolidated list of sightings at Cantigny for May 1-31, 1977. Her notations say she birded “usually 7:30 am-9:30am, sometimes till noon.” Conditions were “Mostly hot, very little rain.” 

On the back panel, Janet wrote, “Very poor migratory season. Few waves of warblers—no great numbers of birds.”

The neatly printed words carry the hint of an experienced birder, giving me confidence that this long-lost data can be trusted. And besides, like Fox Mulder on “The X-Files,” I want to believe.

For the month, Janet detected 129 species. Of those, 23 were new to our running all-time list, raising the Cantigny property total to 183 species. This far surpassed my expectations.

Some of the biggest surprises were in the shorebird category—dunlin, ruddy turnstone, American golden plover, long-billed dowitcher, yellowlegs (both kinds) and sanderling among them. Other notable finds: American bittern, black-crowned night heron, northern pintail, ruddy duck, black tern, whip-poor-will, yellow-bellied flycatcher, bobolink and vesper sparrow.  
Bobolink by Jackie Bowman
Landscapes can change a lot over the years, and the changes affect the birdlife. In 1977, the Cantigny golf course was still 12 years away, and the property featured more acres of open field. 

To be sure, birds once common here are now in decline. Habitat loss has hit some species hard. Birds Janet observed, like night heron, black tern and whip-poor-will, are now true rarities in DuPage. Others, such as red-headed woodpecker, are still present but challenging to find.

Conversely, some birds are better off now than in 1977, thanks to human intervention. Janet failed to see a wild turkey or Eastern bluebird, species common around Cantigny today. Her list also lacked sandhill crane, great egret and Cooper’s hawk. But most shocking to me is the absence of three sparrows: song, white-throated and white-crowned.

Out of curiosity, I examined the DuPage County Spring Bird Count (SBC) results for 1977. The count took place on May 7 that year, with 42 birders participating. All three sparrows named above were plentiful that day, when 130 species were found in total.  

If I could meet Janet, I’d first award her an official Cantigny Birding hat pin. Then I’d start firing questions. What was it like birding at Cantigny in the 1970s? Where were the most productive spots, and what were her most coveted sightings? Did she bird the grounds on a regular basis? 

Specific to the May 1977 census, where did she find all those ducks and shorebirds, and how could she possibly “dip” on song sparrow? I’d really razz her about that one.

Unfortunately, I’ll never have the opportunity. I learned that Janet LaSalle died in 1995 at age 72. She lived in Wheaton, served on the city’s environmental commission for 18 years, and made her living as a commercial artist.

Fortunately, she was also a list-keeping birder.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Blackburnian Warbler by Christian Goers

Season of wonder


For me, April is the best month. Baseball is back, golf courses are open and spring migration is ramping up daily. 

Avian April is exciting and filled with potential. Every walk outside, and every glance out the kitchen window, can be rewarding. Be alert and watch carefully!

Anticipation only adds to the excitement. A few early warblers are appearing, with many more on the way. Tanagers, vireos and orioles, too. This is the appetizer for the main course in May.

But savor every bite, because some special April birds will be long gone by Cinco de Mayo. DuPage is just a stepping stone on their way north. Look now for yellow-bellied sapsucker, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush, fox sparrow and pine warbler. You could even see a flock of American white pelicans.

A few weeks ago, in the Glen Ellyn Public Library, I stumbled upon the perfect companion for the season: “North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring,” by Bruce Beehler.
The newly published book describes a quest to observe all 37 Eastern wood warblers in their breeding habitats. Beehler, a Smithsonian ornithologist, starts on the Texas Gulf Coast in April and follows the neotropical migrants to their breeding grounds. It’s a 100-day birding road trip through America’s heartland and into Canada, with tales of interesting birds, places and people along the way.

Migration is a vast and complex subject. I’ve always been fascinated by it, but also a bit intimidated. I admire those who study migration and share their findings in a reader-friendly manner. Beehler does it, and likewise Scott Weidensaul, whose 1999 “Living on the Wind” is the modern classic on migration.

Be sure to read Weidensaul’s piece in the spring issue of Audubon. Using the rare Kirtland’s warbler as a model, his article examines how ground conditions in a bird’s wintering habitat can affect the success (or not) of its migration journey and subsequent breeding efforts. It’s groundbreaking stuff.

I also recommend hunting down the March issue of National Geographic, for the story “Epic Migrations.” The photos and text are amazing, as you’d expect, and so is the accompanying map, titled “How Birds Migrate.”  
There’s a good reason why so much awesome content is surfacing in 2018. Four organizations--National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International and Cornell Lab of Ornithology—declared this the Year of the Bird, to mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, our most important bird conservation law.

Migration is for anyone who likes a good mystery. We know a lot, and we’re learning more all the time thanks to tiny radio transmitters and other tracking technology.

But any ornithologist would tell you that much remains unknown. Knowledge gaps exist for many species, such as where they spend their non-breeding months or the routes they travel in migration. 
One of the “big questions” scientists debate is why some birds migrate and others don’t, even closely related species. And what price do birds pay for carrying out long-distance migrations year after year? Is it worth the stress and risk? Does it shorten their lives?

These questions are addressed in “Trade Off,” a fascinating article by biologist John Kricher in the March-April issue of BirdWatching.

Of course, watching birds beats reading about them any day. So, if you wish, forget about these books, maps and magazine articles. They’ll still be here when spring migration winds down in late May. Don’t wait: Get outside now and welcome back our long-distance champions.

While you’re at it, let yourself wonder.

When you see a brilliant Blackburnian warbler, wonder where it spent the winter, and where it might be a week from now. When you spot your first hummingbird, wonder how it crossed the Gulf of Mexico without stopping, a 600-mile flight. Marvel at how creatures so delicate can be so determined and tough. Be curious about their built-in GPS systems and navigational precision.

You might also ponder the man-made hazards and natural events that migrating birds encounter, making their success seem even more miraculous.

Let’s all celebrate World Migratory Bird Day on May 12 by doing something nice for birds, including our non-migrating regulars. For information and ideas, visit, the official Year of the Bird website.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Red-Breasted Nuthatch by Christine Haines,
courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

It's true, I love this guy

(published 3-20-18)

Back in 2004, in what now seems like another life, I had a memorable experience on my way to work. Walking east along Wacker Drive I noticed what looked like a leaf floating toward the sidewalk. It landed softly, and a few steps later I was looking down at a male red-breasted nuthatch—the first and only one I’ve ever seen in downtown Chicago.

The tiny bird, a September migrant, had just collided with a building but was still alive. It seemed to be in good shape, just stunned. I placed it under some shrubs, hoping some quiet time would aid its recovery. Later in the day it was gone.

Red-breasted nuthatch is my favorite backyard visitor, so holding that bird in my hand was a thrill. It seemed impossibly small, and virtually weightless. Feathered perfection.

A red-breasted nuthatch photo hangs on the wall in our kitchen. When the feeders outside the window are vacant, I can still see my little friend.

Lots of my birding friends love this species, too. Roger and Diane from Wheaton exhibit their devotion with license plates bearing the letters “RBNH.” The green plates also feature a cardinal but it wouldn’t surprise me if the couple is working with the state on swapping that out.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a handsome little package that’s easy to ID. The male sports a dark cap, white eyebrow, black line through the eye, orangish underparts and blue-gray back. Markings on the female are similar but muted.

Shelled peanuts could attract this little
beauty to your backyard, too.
Stepping into my backyard, I often hear the bird’s nasal calls before I see it, if I see it at all. The persistent ank, ank, ank is small but distinctive, like the species itself. You can listen at, a terrific online resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Nuthatch behavior is unique as well. Their typical posture is upside down, with the head lower than their short tails. Extra-large feet help them creep along tree trunks, foraging for insects or “hatching” the seeds they wedged into a crevice earlier. Author and birding guide Alvaro Jaramillo calls nuthatches “the avian equivalent of Spiderman.”

Two species of are found in DuPage, red-breasted and white-breasted. Both are cavity nesters and may use man-made housing. White-breasted is a year-round resident and the most common of the two. It’s louder and larger than the red-breasted and favors mature trees, especially oaks. 

The red-breasted nuthatches we see here generally breed well north, in the upper Great Lakes and Canada. They visit this region mostly from October through April, with winter populations up and down from year to year.

That said, I’ve witnessed red-breasted nuthatches at my feeders in July, including juveniles. Their breeding range is known to be expanding south. 

Both nuthatch species enjoy black-oil sunflower seeds but shelled peanuts seem to be the key to attracting and holding red-breasteds. My wire mesh peanut feeder is a magnet for them along with chickadees and woodpeckers. Squirrels crave the nuts too but my trusty cone-shaped baffle keeps the critters grounded.
White-breasted is the larger and more common
of our two local nuthatch species.
Photo by Anubandh Gaitonde. 

Red-breasted nuthatch is my smallest feeder bird, and the most trusting. Once one landed on the peanut feeder just as I was about to hang it up. I froze and for a few seconds watched the bird 12 inches from face. With patience, nuthatches, like chickadees, will even take food from your hand.

Being tiny and weighing less than an ounce has a price. Red-breasted nuthatches must practice exceptional patience, waiting for just the right moment to fly in and grab a bite during times when the feeders are busy. It’s a pecking order thing, and fascinating to observe.  

Any story about Chicago-region nuthatches needs to include a third species, brown-headed nuthatch. In July 2001, birders had the improbable opportunity to see one here, at Illinois Beach State Park in Lake County. The bird was far from its usual home in the southeastern United States.

Brad Semel discovered the rare visitor, and it stayed in the park for nearly six months. It remains the only documented record of brown-headed nuthatch in Illinois.

North America is home to one other nuthatch species. Pygmy nuthatch, which closely resembles the brown-headed, is common in western states. None have been seen in Illinois, but a record exists from Iowa in 2000.

If red-breasted nuthatch is on your wish list, think about adding shelled peanuts to your bird feeding routine. Alternatively, an excellent place to look (and listen) is Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Check Hemlock Hill and other stands of cone-producing trees. The species is closely associated with conifers.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Oregonian Noah Strycker, right, had never been to Illinois
until last month. He witnessed five snowy owls along the
Chicago lakefront before his presentation and book-signing
at the Notebaert Nature Museum.  (Joan Campbell)

Noah lights a winter fire

(published 2-5-18)

The Year of the Bird started nicely with a red-breasted nuthatch, a visitor to my peanut feeder on New Year’s Day. I couldn’t have ordered a better “first bird” of 2018.

Since then, however, the action in my backyard has been slow. I figured the January deep freeze would trigger a feeding frenzy but it did not. Could the neighborhood birds have found more appealing offerings elsewhere on the block? Not likely. Besides the peanuts, I’m serving up black-oil sunflower seeds, thistle and suet, plus a heated birdbath. My yard is a winter bird paradise!

Of course, instead of just watching my feeders I should be out driving the backroads of Kane County, searching for horned larks, Lapland longspurs, snow buntings and other open country winter species. With luck, maybe even a snowy owl or rough-legged hawk.

Or I could head to Lake Michigan and do some gull watching. Already in 2018, a mega-rare ivory gull was spotted at the Lake County Fairgrounds, and a slaty-backed gull turned up at Calumet. A varied thrush teased birders for several days in Palos.

I did venture to the lakefront in January, but for a different kind of birding experience. My destination was the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, currently hosting an eye-popping exhibit on the Birds of Paradise (through June 10). The main attraction upon my visit, however, was Noah Strycker, a guest of the museum and the Chicago Ornithological Society.
Strycker's latest book features the birds,
places and people of his 2015 global big
year. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Strycker’s new book—Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World—is a big hit.

For me, nothing except birding beats a good book about birding, especially when the wind chill is way below zero. I loved every page of this one, which details the author’s epic 2015 adventure. Following a year of planning, Strycker ripped off 365 straight days of birding, visiting all seven continents and 41 countries with a goal of finding 5,000 species. If successful, he’d crush the global big year record achieved in 2008 by a couple from England. 

Spoiler alert: he did it. In fact, Strycker ended with 6,042 species, more than half of the world’s birds. It truly was the Biggest Year.

Strycker’s story is remarkable on many levels. Every destination was carefully chosen, and at every location he had at least one resident birder ready to help him find the local birds. The logistics of it all boggles my mind.

To his credit, Strycker did not hire professional guides. His budget wouldn’t allow it—expenses for the whole year totaled only about $60,000. But it wasn’t just the money. One of Strycker’s key objectives was to spend the year birding with locals. His story is as much about people as birds. 

The stamina factor also fascinated me. Strycker is only 31, which helps, but he still suffered periods of extreme exhaustion from so many days of dawn-to-dusk birding, difficult travel, unfamiliar food, and end-of-day blogging and record-keeping. Sleeping on a stranger’s sofa or floor was routine.

Strycker is a gifted writer, and his presentation skills we’re shockingly good. He rocked an overflow crowd at The Peggy, recounting his adventures with enthusiasm, humor and a wonderful sense of timing.

During his big year, Strycker learned that another young birder, Arjan Dwarshuis from The Netherlands, was planning a global big year of his own, for 2016. Naturally he was tracking Strycker’s every move and every bird—easy to do since Noah was documenting his trip on the National Audubon website.

The Dutchman ended his journey with an astounding 6,833 species. So Strycker’s global big year record didn’t hold up, but he’s OK with that. He succeeded by any measure, crushing his original goal of 5,000 species, making new friends around the world, and raising awareness about birds and birding.

Grab a copy of “Birding Without Borders.” I think you’ll like it, too. In fact, the book inspired me to get outside and bird, frigid conditions or not.

In late January I attended a pre-dusk short-eared owl walk at Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, and this month I’ll be in Lake County for the 17th annual Gull Frolic at Winthrop Harbor.

Winter birding, while not my favorite, can be quite satisfying—especially during “invasion” years like this when common redpolls, pine siskins and snowy owls are possible. I’m not putting away my woolies and hand warmers yet.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
The year ended with a Snowy Owl invasion, the first since
2013. This bird was roosting in Evanston.
Photo by Fabio Buitrago

Birding a welcome distraction in 2017

(published 1-15-18)

We obviously just endured a tough year. The bad news far outweighed the good. Fortunately, there were birds.

Watching birds can slow things down and help us forget, for five minutes or five hours. I hope you took advantage of our hobby’s calming effects, just like me. We needed it.

The 2017 birding year was filled with news, remarkable sightings and some sad goodbyes. Before jumping in, allow me to mention a few far-flung stories that I believe capture the wonderful unpredictability of birds and birding.

In Western Australia, four friends found and photographed a night parrot, a species presumed extinct for 100 years. Their search took nearly seven years. The lesson: Persistence and patience, combined with a little luck, usually get the bird.    

A red-winged blackbird, North America’s most abundant species, showed up in the U.K. for the first time. The Brits went mad, some chartering planes to reach the remote Scottish island where the bird appeared. Would we do that if a chaffinch, dirt common in England, landed two hours north of Bismarck? Yes, of course!

My favorite non-local story of 2017 comes from Maine, where in April a male vermillion flycatcher was detected by a web-cam pointed on an osprey nest. The southwestern beauty was a first for Maine, and what are the chances of it getting caught on camera? Here’s the kicker: the bird was reported by an observant birder watching online in Germany! Thanks to her, a few lucky birders got to witness an epic bird in person.

News and sightings
This hybrid warbler, discovered at Fabyan Forest Preserve
 in Geneva, looked mostly like a Cerulean but sang like a
Northern Parula. 
Photo by Jackie Bowman
Evanston’s Judy Pollock won the American Birding Association’s 2017 Betty Peterson Award for Conservation and Community. ABA cited her two decades of bird conservation work in the region, including the Lights Out Chicago initiative during spring and fall migration. Kudos, Judy!

Eagle Optics, the go-to source for binoculars and scopes, shocked the birding community by announcing its closure. The Wisconsin-based business grew the hobby and supported bird conservation throughout its 30-year history. EO will be missed.

Some birders might also miss the Thayer’s gull. Not me. Thayer’s got the Pluto treatment in 2017, deleted as a species and “lumped” with Iceland gull. We lose a tick on our life lists but will no longer struggle with a notoriously difficult bird to ID.

Ranger Rick, a magazine I once appeared in with my butterfly collection, turned 50. I still look for it in doctors’ waiting rooms.

Did you catch the video of a yellow-bellied sapsucker clinging to a moving car in downtown Chicago? It’s worth a Google, if only for the “conversation” between bird and driver.   

Also in the Loop, Vera Miller added winter wren to her office window list, spied from the 10th floor of the Monadnock Building. The bird was on a fire escape across the alley. That, my friends, is a good eye.

Andrew and Rebecca Steinmann were outside baggage claim at O’Hare, awaiting a taxi, when an American woodcock flew by and plopped down on the sidewalk next to them.

Unlikely or rare sightings add spice to our birding. I try to keep up, but this 2017 highlight reel is by no means comprehensive!

Notable DuPage findings included a record-high 10 barred owls on the Spring Bird Count. A pair of summer tanagers visited Herrick Lake, and a yellow-crowned night heron appeared at Cricket Creek in Addison. A calling whip-poor-will surprised a homeowner living by Willowbrook Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.

An Elgin homeowner hosted this male rufous hummingbird,
a western species, in late October. Photo by 
Jackie Bowman
Three surf scoters were well seen at West Branch Forest Preserve (Bartlett) in October, and a dozen trumpeter swans paddled around Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve (Warrenville) on Dec. 13.

Morton Arboretum lived up to its hotspot reputation by contributing western kingbird, pileated woodpecker, summer tanager, blue grosbeak, yellow-throated warbler and red crossbill. Adjacent to the Arb, a little blue heron stopped at Hidden Lake. St. James Farm (Warrenville) also surrendered a blue grosbeak.

Spotters at Naperville’s the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawkwatch enjoyed Mississippi kite, Swainson’s hawk, American anhinga, northern goshawk, golden eagle, whooping crane and a one-day hill record 12 bald eagles on Oct. 15. Volunteer birders, organized by the DuPage Birding Club, have now collected migration data for 12 seasons, September through November.  

Fermilab, in its 50th year, attracted white-fronted goose, common gallinule, red-necked phalarope, white-rumped sandpiper and mountain bluebird. Least bittern, a secretive marsh species, delighted Fermi birders (including me) in July.

Beyond DuPage
One of the most interesting birds of the year was a cerulean warbler/northern parula hybrid, discovered at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. Additional Kane County highlights: spotted towhee and yellow-crowned night heron (Aurora), white-winged dove (Kaneville) and a backyard rufous hummingbird (Elgin).

I could devote a full column to Chicago’s Montrose Point, where, on May 16, southwest winds triggered a one-day record 128 species at the lakefront hotspot. Birds on that magical day included 26 varieties of warbler.

Birders scurried to Illinois Beach State Park to see this
Tri-colored Tricolored Heron, a Gulf Coast species.
Photo by Craig Taylor
The 2017 Montrose haul featured cattle egret, snowy egret, western grebe, piping plover, laughing gull, American bittern, lark sparrow, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Bell’s vireo, Kentucky warbler, summer tanager and yellow-headed blackbird.

Other Cook County goodies: Eurasian tree sparrow (Lincoln Park), king rail (Bartel Grassland) and barn owl (location undisclosed). A black-legged kittiwake found Nov. 26 lingered well into December at Steelworkers Park on Chicago’s South Side. While stalking the kittiwake, some lucky birders also bagged snowy owl and red-necked grebe—not a bad trifecta!  

Libertyville birder Andy Stewart crushed his own big year record for Lake County by 13, finishing the year with 282 species. Significantly, his total is one better than the previous high for any of the 102 counties in Illinois, topping Aaron Gyllenhaal’s Cook County record of 281 species in 2013.

Among Lake County notables in 2017 were California gull, yellow-crowned night heron, snowy egret, red-throated loon, red phalarope, white-eyed vireo and black vulture. OMG birds included a tri-colored heron at Illinois Beach State Park and a magnificent frigatebird over Channel Lake in Antioch. A young frigatebird, spotted by Melinda Chapman, cruised over Will County in mid-September, likely a Hurricane Irma refugee.

Chicago Botanic Garden yielded least bittern, upland sandpiper and hoary redpoll. Al Stokie reported 72 common redpolls at CBG on Dec. 22, along with a pair of monk parakeets, a new site species (No. 242).

Glacial Park in McHenry County hosted eight white-faced ibis for several weeks in the fall, and two black vultures roosted there in October.
A Fermilab marsh surrendered a trio of Least Bitterns in July,
including this juvenile. Photo by 
Jackie Bowman

Chasers with ample gas money enjoyed many options in 2017, testament to our state’s amazing bird diversity. A golden-crowned sparrow appeared in Woodford County, and Sangamon recorded its first black-headed gull. Winnebago County posted a pine grosbeak; a swallow-tailed kite flew over Massac; and a wood stork drew birders to Rend Lake in Jefferson. Black-bellied whistling ducks checked into Carroll, and a western tanager landed in LaSalle. Emiquon Refuge in Fulton offered Hudsonian godwit, spotted redshank, Sabine’s gull and western grebe. Douglas County produced a cinnamon teal, and Putnam a chuck-will’s-widow.

Three high-demand species seemed to pop up everywhere in 2017: neotropic cormorant, merlin and prairie warbler. Maybe, just maybe, they are becoming more common in this region. Presently, the first snowy owl invasion since 2013 is bringing some winter excitement, especially along the lakefront.  

Birding in heaven
Renowned ornithologist Chandler Robbins (1918-2017) passed away in March at age 98. He created the Breeding Bird Survey and coauthored the beloved “Golden Guide” among other lifetime achievements. 

Marilyn Campbell, a key figure in Illinois Audubon Society history, also left us in 2017. 

Local birders we miss include Wes Serafin, a conservation champion for Orland Grassland, and Joan Norek, an avid Greene Valley hawkwatcher. Both were always on the go, chasing the hot sightings.

Personal faves
In any year, all I wish for is a few nice birds, around home or down the road.  

The birding gods smiled upon me at the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. A worm-eating warbler, the festival’s most popular attendee, ended a quest that began for me in 2002. I gushed about the experience in my June column.

My Glen Ellyn yard list hit 20 years and grew by one thanks to a well-timed Caspian tern flyover in July (No. 116). Other backyard notables were eastern towhee (only my second ever in the yard), pine warbler and purple finch.

I won’t soon forget the sandhill cranes on November 18. Thousands streamed over the neighborhood that afternoon, creating a heavenly racket as old as time itself. Yard work can be awesome.

Flying cranes are featured on the best postage stamp of 2017, a Nebraska statehood issue. Get some at

Book of the year: “Birding Without Borders,” by Noah Strycker. Couldn’t put it down!

Favorite quote: “We hate nemesis birds, but we love them, too, because it just feels so good to finally connect with them.” ABA blogger Nate Swick said it, and I lived it with that lifer “wormie” at the Dunes.

National Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International and National Geographic have declared 2018 the Year of the Bird. Why don’t we all? This year, let’s hit the trail a little more often, watch those feeders more carefully and introduce others to birding. Remember, too, that birds need our help.

Keep calm and bird on!

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.