Sage Thrasher by Jerry Goldner
November’s rare air

This may be the best month of all to spot something unusual 

(published 11-4-19)

The birding year has a comforting, predictable flow. Month by month, season by season, experienced watchers know what birds to look for and the best places to find them.  

And yet birds never fail to surprise us. On any day, there’s always a chance of seeing something new—a rare bird, or perhaps a familiar one doing something odd. Maybe we see a species for the first time, rare or not.

Rare sightings of common birds count, too. I think of the junco in downtown Chicago in August 2014, or the Nashville warbler on the 2015 Christmas Bird Count in Wheaton. Both were several months out of season. You just never know.

Surprises are exciting, which makes November a great time to be a birder. This is the month to expect the unexpected.

Fall migration can be quirky. It lasts longer than spring migration, when birds are in a hurry to set up territories, build nests and start families. In autumn, the pace of travel is more leisurely, and birds may wander. Western species such as Townsend’s solitaire, varied thrush and rufous hummingbird turn up here in November on an annual basis. Not many, but a few. 

Weather plays a role, too.

“In November we see consistent nights in the 30s, with some nights just below freezing,” said Eric Walters, an avid birder from Zion. “This kills off insects and freezes up the smaller ponds. Once you get a couple strong cold fronts with northwest winds over 15 mph, the birds of many families are super motivated to move south.”

Purple Sandpiper by Steve Bailey
Walters recalls spotting two bohemian waxwings in Evanston on Nov. 2, 1991. The day stands out because it also produced an Illinois state record for most raptor species (12)—delivered by back-to-back arctic cold fronts the previous two days. The fronts spanned the eastern U.S. and inspired “The Perfect Storm” book and movie. 

But freakish weather events are certainly not a prerequisite for notable bird sightings. The latter occur annually in November. Serious listers monitor the rare bird alerts and keep their gas tanks full.

We watch for the November specialties as well. Sandhill cranes, certainly, but also a host of less conspicuous birds that tease and tempt birders who long for an end-of-year lifer, or a new tick on their year lists.

“It’s the time of year that western and red-necked grebes, kittiwakes, parasitic jaegers, little gulls and purple sandpipers migrate through,” said Al Stokie, a Park Ridge resident who birds daily. “They can also be seen in late October and early December, but November is the best time.”

Did somebody say purple sandpiper? How I’d love to see my first. Stokie will focus on the rocks along Lake Michigan this month, hoping to spot this uncommon visitor from the north. He hasn’t found one in a few years and figures he’s due.   

Western Grebe by Tamima Itani
One of Stokie’s favorite November sightings came in 2003, an adult pomarine jaeger flying north along the lakefront near Waukegan. The bird was so close he could easily see its telltale twisted tail feathers. 

Lake Michigan is indeed a rarity magnet this time of year. Birder Steve Bailey, from Mundelein, thinks of November as “loon and grebe month.” We see migrating common loons here in the spring and fall, but November is prime time for Pacific loons and red-throated loons. Bailey’s records show it’s also the best time for “sea ducks”—black, surf and white-winged scoters—plus red phalaropes and harlequin ducks.

Any day this month could yield an unexpected goodie, and maybe in your own backyard. Even hummingbirds can’t be ruled out. I keep a nectar feeder out until Thanksgiving, just in case.

“At least 75 percent of all rufous hummingbirds show up here in November,” said Bailey, who keeps Illinois birding data covering the last 50 years. The state’s only Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds occurred in November, and of the two broad-billed hummers ever recorded in Illinois, one came in November.

The only common hummingbird east of the Mississippi River is ruby-throated, and it usually departs our region by early October.

Rufous Hummingbird by Jackie Bowman
Vagrant hummingbirds are among the mega-rarities that birders may experience once in a lifetime in Illinois. And sure enough, a disproportionate share of the state’s legendary “megas” went down in November. 

On Nov. 23, 1981, a hepatic tanager, a southwestern species, turned up in Adams County. Discovered by Jim Funk, the bird remains the only record in Illinois and one of only three records east of the Big Muddy.

“I’ll always remember that bird [for triggering] the Thanksgiving Birders Express from Chicago, people who drove all night then had to get back home for Thanksgiving,” recalled David Johnson, a Glencoe birder who boarded that tanager train himself and got the bird.

Bailey didn’t snag the hep tanager, but he’s witnessed enough other megas that I don’t feel sorry for him—for example, the gray-crowned rosy finch found on Nov. 16, 1990, in Will County.

King eider, too—three days after Thanksgiving in 1986, in Chicago. The experience was extra special for Bailey because his nonbirder dad joined him for the chase, the only time he ever did. Birders lucky enough to ever encounter a king eider usually do so off the coast of Alaska or Maine.  

Barnacle goose, brant, brown pelican, dovekie, black-headed grosbeak, Clark’s nutcracker, common ground dove, golden eagle, northern wheatear, vermillion flycatcher, whooping crane, wood stork—all have paid November visits to Illinois over the years. Many were sighted in Cook, DuPage or Lake counties. 

Thankfully, rare birds are not always one-day wonders. Especially late-fall vagrants.

“Most birds will stay in a relatively small area once they are there—for days, weeks or even months,” Bailey said, provided they locate a food source.

Indeed, my personal best November sighting, a sage thrasher, stayed put long enough for me to see it thanks to some fruiting cherry trees. The site was Montrose Point, Chicago, in 2011. 

The best way to track rare bird sightings is through, operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. After registering, which is free, you can sign up for Rare Bird Alerts for any state or county. The reports arrive via email.   

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Killdeer is the familiar plover across North America. The 
species is strictly terrestrial, commonly nesting in open, 
human-disturbed habitats. (photo by Jim Frazier)
Parking lot plovers

(published 9-30-19)

As a bird, I could think of worse places to be born, but not many.

Imagine starting life in a parking lot, at the peak of summer. You and your two siblings take your first steps on a broiling sea of asphalt with bright yellow lines. You can’t fly, and the lot’s 5-inch curbs are insurmountable even with your long toothpick legs. Vehicles are a constant threat, along with gulls, hawks and assorted mammals looking for an easy snack.

Someday, if you survive, you might ask mama why she chose to lay her eggs on a white gravel traffic island, just feet away from passing cars, trucks and pedestrians. She couldn’t help it, of course. The killdeer is hard-wired to nest on open ground, sometimes in dangerous places.

The scene was Cantigny Park, where I work, so daily developments were easy to follow. Chicago had its plovers and we had ours.
Killdeer eggs are well disguised, a
critical adaptation for ground-
nesting birds.

In case you missed it, a piping plover pair made history at Montrose Beach this summer. For the first time since 1955, the endangered species nested successfully in Chicago, fledging two chicks. Their story involved plenty of drama, including a cancelled music festival on the birds’ behalf. Parents “Monty” and “Rose” became celebrities, nonbirder citizens learned about piping plovers and clever t-shirts were sold. It was national news!

Our plover story in Wheaton didn’t warrant media coverage but it was still fascinating to watch.

Killdeer is the common plover species across North America, and the one most often seen away from water. You know this bird: robin-sized, bright white in the front with two black breast bands. The sexes look the same.

As with blue jays and wrens, you’ll probably know when a killdeer is around. It’s the noisy plover, calling its name loud and often from the air and on the ground—a piercing kidee, kidee, kidee.   

Killdeer frequent beaches and mudflats like other shorebirds, but also prosper in open spaces such as farms, athletic fields, golf courses and, yes, parking lots. You’ll never see one in a tree, or at your backyard feeder. (Call me if you do!)

The killdeer’s broken-wing display, a distraction tactic,
exposes orangish feathers that are also noticeable
 in flight. 
The species is well known for its broken-wing display, a tactic employed to distract potential predators, drawing them away from eggs and offspring. Some other ground-nesting birds do this, too.

We didn’t assign catchy names to the killdeer pair at Cantigny, nor did we fence off their nest area. The horticulture team postponed planting activity in the traffic island but otherwise let nature take its course. These birds are naturally resilient.

Four speckled eggs were almost invisible from just a few feet away, hidden in plain sight on a simple scrape (hardly a nest at all). Throughout a July heat wave, the incubating adult killdeer took turns shading for the eggs. Instead of hunkering down, the birds stood over them day after day under a blistering sun.

I didn’t witness it, but the killdeer parents probably used a nearby water source to wet their belly feathers. Transferring moisture to the eggs before shading them provides cooling for the developing embryos through evaporative heat loss.  

Such extraordinary parental dedication paid off when all four eggs hatched after about 21 days. Unfortunately, one chick died on the nest—tragic, but not uncommon. In Chicago, only two of the three piping plover chicks survived.
A newly born killdeer chick is mobile within hours of
birth. It can fly in about 30 days.

Killdeer babies are precocial, meaning they are born with open eyes and downy feathers. They leave the nest within hours of birth and learn to feed themselves by following their parents’ example.

Like their famous cousins on Montrose Beach, the Cantigny kids were undeniably cute. They could really scoot, too, which I found out on photo day. A few weeks later they were airborne, gliding around easily on long, pointy wings.

In mid-September, I spotted the three grown-up chicks loitering in their home parking lot. They also graze on the second fairway of Cantigny Golf’s Lakeside course, a short hop over the fence from the park. I’m pretty sure the parents are still in the neighborhood, too. All seem to have everything they need on these constructed landscapes.

But not for much longer. Food is a powerful motivator. To maintain their insect-based diet, killdeer head south, spending winter in the southern United States and Mexico. They’ll return in March, an early spring marker just as sure as the red-winged blackbirds that precede them by a few weeks.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
This unusually cooperative king rail treated birders to fine
views last year at Montrose Point in Chicago. The bird was
 spotted multiple times from May to July. Photo by Jim Hully.
Phantom birds of the marsh

(published 8-15-19)

I much prefer living birds to dead ones, but there are times when a cotton-filled specimen is just fine. Besides, if not for the Field Museum, I might never see a black rail.

Last month I visited the museum’s recently opened John James Audubon exhibit in the Brooker Gallery, a small space on the upper level. Then, as if pulled by magnetic force, I floated back downstairs to the Hall of Birds. I had a date with the rail family.

My curiosity about rails was heightened in July at a DuPage Birding Club meeting. The speaker, Stephanie Beilke from Audubon Great Lakes, presented “A Rare Peek at Rails.” Her talk included profiles of the seven rail species found in Illinois, plus an update on what her organization is doing to aid conservation of these famously secretive marsh birds.  

Beilke noted that rails are generally believed to be in decline—not a stretch, considering that so many bird species are. But rails are extremely difficult to study, making population trends hard to measure.  In the case of yellow rail, a “grail bird” for watchers like me, there’s some debate about the species being rare or just rarely seen.

One thing is sure: When you see a rail, you feel lucky. They are most active at night and prefer dense vegetation. Except in migration, they seldom fly. Rails are far more often heard than seen.

Birders, of course, thrive on the exceptions. Last year, in broad daylight, a king rail was spotted multiple times at Montrose Point in Chicago. It showed well, rewarding dozens of lifer-seeking bird nerds. (Sadly, I was not among them).

King rail is so named because it’s the largest North American rail. The smallest and hardest to see is black rail. I’d heard the latter is no larger than a well-fed sparrow and wanted to see for myself at the Field. Now I believe.

As Beilke pointed out, the rail family is quite diverse. The world’s 134 species use many kinds of habitat, not just wetlands. Sizes and bill shapes vary widely. On the surface, king and black rails do not appear related, and the duck-like American coot is a rail, too.

There are some things, however, that most rails have in common: long legs and oversized feet, perfect for scurrying through the weeds; and a preference for staying low and out of sight.

To see a rail, your best bet is to find a wetland with muddy edges. Be alert, because rails will sometimes step into view, like the Montrose king rail. Once, at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, I witnessed several Virginia rails foraging on a wide mudflat. Rails are not always shy, especially when hungry.  

Virginia rail and sora are the most widespread species in our region. At this year’s Spring Bird Count in DuPage County, birders found 23 Virginia rails (a new record) and 60 sora—numbers that speak well for the quality of our local wetlands.

Many years ago, I saw my first Virginia rail in downtown Chicago, on a sidewalk. It was having a bad migration day but seemed healthy.    
Sora, too, can turn up in odd places. In 1997, I found one exploring the shrubbery in our townhouse courtyard, also in Chicago. I was so new to birding that I first thought it was a small chicken. What a yardie!

I’ve since observed sora many times, for it’s truly an abundant swamp bird. So abundant, in fact, that 31 states consider it fair game for hunters.

Yellow rail, a species few birders ever
experience, dropped by Wrigley Field
without a ticket in April 2015.
 Photo by Houston Furgeson.
I suggest going online and listening to the sora’s distinctive call. You’ll often hear it around wetlands, particularly at dawn and dusk.  

At the extreme other end of the rarity scale are black and yellow rails, two species I’ve yet to see or hear. They are among the stealthiest birds on the planet.

I’ll always envy Wrigley Field patron Houston Furgeson, who found a wayward yellow rail under his seat on April 18, 2015. Thankfully, he snapped a picture and shared it.   
That was freakish. For a better idea of scarcity, consider Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville, home to some wonderful wetland habitat in addition to open grassland. As volunteer site steward, Joe Suchecki has been monitoring the birdlife at Springbrook for 24 years. During that time, he’s encountered yellow rail only twice, in 2008 and 2016. He knows of one other reliable record, from 2017.

Suchecki’s only black rail came in May 2000, a bird discovered by Bob Fisher. Both men, and others, heard the rail’s unmistakable voice. Fisher detected a second black rail five years later, also at Springbrook.
The rarest and smallest North American rail, shown here at the
Field Museum, measures just six inches. 
Just locating a black rail is a tall order. Seeing one may be the most challenging assignment a birder could receive.  
Indeed, for visibility, rails can make owls seem downright conspicuous. For black and yellow rails, think elusive, then multiply by 10. There are coastal regions of the United States where your chances for success are better than the Midwest.

For me, an exciting aspect of birding is just knowing that birds like these are out there. They are real and possible, prizes of the marsh to be savored upon every encounter.

Cerulean warbler is a hard-to-find species in the Chicago
 area. Birders often have better luck at Indiana Dunes State 
Park, about 75 miles east. Photo by Christian Goers.
Back to the Dunes

(published 7-8-19)

Two years ago, I attended the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival for the first time. The weekend rocked, highlighted by an unexpected encounter with a worm-eating warbler, my first, ending a decades-long quest—one of my best birding moments ever.

I resolved to go back this year, figuring the Dunes would be even birdier with the festival two weeks deeper on the May calendar. Maybe I could find a certain blue and white bird that eluded me and everyone else in 2017.

Truth is, I had a bad case of the blues, meaning I really wanted a cerulean warbler. I’d put eyes on one just once before, at Indiana Dunes State Park, in 1999, long before Indiana Audubon began hosting a festival there. I was way overdue.

Devoted birders can see up to 35 kinds of warblers during spring in our region. Cerulean is among the most coveted due to its scarcity. It’s a poster bird for avian habitat conservation, and one of North America’s fastest-declining migratory songbirds. The species winters in northern South America.

Cerulean warblers prefer to feed and nest in the upper canopy, making them hard to spot in a leafy forest. When searching, the two-step process is to listen for the song, then watch for movement and hope for a satisfactory look. I prepared by playing and replaying the cerulean track on a “Birding by Ear” disk, thankful that my car is old enough to still have a CD player.
Here I am with artist Kristina Knowski and her cerulean
warbler painting. She designs the festival's official
poster every year, along with event hats, t-shirts and
other items. Photo by Aaron Melendez.

Arriving in Chesterton, the song was burned into my brain, and it didn’t take long to hear the real thing. Indiana Dunes State Park, I’m happy to report, is still a hotspot for cerulean warbler. They are by no means abundant, but they are present and nesting on property. I found several without much trouble the first day, then enjoyed an upgraded view the next day with friends Bonnie and Joan from the DuPage Birding Club. 

Knowing the cerulean’s buzzy song helped, but we needn’t have worried—plenty of other birders were on the same mission. That’s the thing about birding festivals, you can often locate the “best” birds just by joining a group, or by sharing notes with fellow lanyard-wearing chasers. A giant “scoreboard” at festival headquarters keeps a running record of sightings, so the on-site possibilities are well known to all. This year, 208 species were seen over four days at the Dunes.

Cerulean warbler was not my only target species in Indiana. Another was Kristina Knowski, the festival’s official artist who contributes so much to the event. Tracking her down required a lot less effort. Festival week is busy time, and her colorful prints, magnets and notecards were moving. This artist knows her audience.

The 2019 festival poster depicted this nesting pair of 
prothonotary warblers at Indiana Dunes State Park. 
Photo by Bonnie Graham. 
I first met Kristina about 10 years ago when she attended a few Cantigny Park bird walks with her mom, Sue. Little did I know we had a talented artist in our midst. A Joliet native, Kristina graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago as valedictorian and now resides in Porter, Indiana, with her husband and son. As an illustrator and fine artist, she is best known for her portfolio of extinct bird species ( The ivory-billed woodpecker inspired her passion for birds.

Kristina’s poster for the 2019 festival featured a pair of prothonotary warblers at their nest box along the famed Wilson Boardwalk inside the state park. Patient birders were able to witness the actual birds depicted on the poster, a must-see sideshow at the Dunes every spring.

The artistic elements add a nice dimension that few other birding festivals offer. In addition to creating the annual poster (four so far), Kristina heads up the “Dune Birds in Art” exhibition, a canvas painting workshop and a field-sketching class with the Indiana Young Birders.  
Birders couldn’t ask for a more welcoming festival, which
this year raised $5,500 for bird-related conservation, 
education and research. About 850 watchers attended. 
Kristina’s original poster art—signed, framed and donated by the artist—sold for just under $1,000 at the festival’s silent auction fundraiser on Saturday night. That was too rich for this birder’s blood, but I didn’t leave the festival empty handed. One of Kristina’s watercolors now lives on my mantle—a cerulean warbler, naturally.

My enthusiasm for spring birding on the Indiana lakefront—now a national park!—continues to grow. The 2020 Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, May 14-17, is already on my calendar.

You should go, too, especially if you’ve never attended a birding festival. This one is incredibly well organized and suited to all ability levels. You’ll see some amazing birds, meet friendly people and maybe even take home some art.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Birding in the moment

(published 5-6-19)

The books on my nightstand are mostly about baseball, golf and birding. Those three, with few exceptions. Same with magazines. I’m a reader of habit.

My favorite kind of bird books are the travelogues, like Wild America, The Feather Quest, The Grail Bird, Kingbird Highway and The Big Year. Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Borders further enriched the genre in 2017.

But recently a different kind of bird book caught my eye.

The Art of Mindful Birdwatching: Reflections of Freedom and Being, by Claire Thompson, is for deep thinkers and regular birders alike. I’m in the latter camp, for sure, and the book’s trendy title gave me pause before hitting the Place Order button on Amazon.

Concepts like “mindfulness” and “being present” seem to float right over my head. I’m even a little skeptical of such terms. I do not meditate, practice goat yoga or bathe in the woods. I did hug a tree once, at the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination event. I keep a life list but not a daily journal.

So, could a touchy-feely book about mindful birdwatching be worth my time? Could I survive all 139 pages?

To my surprise, yes! I learned a few things, too. Did you know that birds are so sensitive to sights and sounds that they can read our body language? That’s right, the attitudes we carry down the trail affect how birds respond to our presence. The lesson: be careful how you walk.

Thompson’s advice and insights throughout the book are practical enough to make us better birders, or at least more appreciative ones. She wants us to “let go” when looking at birds, and not let our controlling minds keep us from the joy of the moment.

Birders, the author says, “can easily fall into a pattern of ‘notice, label and move on.’ The more we do this, the more we close up that special place where mindful awareness allows wonder and appreciation to blossom.”
That really hit home with me. In a group or on my own, I’m usually building a list—pursuing the goal of seeing or hearing as many species as possible. I’m think about where to look next, and what birds I’m missing. The success (or not) of the search can sometimes dominate the experience.

Thompson urges us to be accepting and welcome things as they are, to leave expectations at home. We might not see the bird we are hoping to see, not today, but that’s not a failure. Let go of negative emotions, she says, and give full attention to what you can see and hear in the moment. Embrace the unpredictability of birdwatching.

“Through the practice of mindful acceptance, our chance encounters with birds become gifts.”
She means the super common birds, too. We don’t pay them enough attention, and they have stories to tell.

In a mindfulness exercise called Sit Spot, Thompson suggests spending 20 minutes each day watching and listening from the same place—a calming method of getting closer to nature and honing our observation skills. She calls it tuning into “radio bird.”

The trick, of course, is to avoid the static. It’s not easy watching birds—or doing anything—while keeping your mind clear of random, unrelated thoughts. Our attention spans have probably never been shorter. Distracted birding, it’s a thing!

While any kind of birding is better than no birding at all, The Art of Mindful Birdwatching is a good reminder to slow down, notice more and enjoy whatever the birding gods throw at us. Hey, maybe even go crazy and leave the smart phone in the car.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Spotted Towhee by Mike Carroll
Sharing a backyard wonder

(published 3-18-19)

My birding bucket list is mostly in my head and hopelessly long. It contains birds I want to see, places I wish to go and milestones I hope to achieve. For some items, I’ll need some big-time luck.

One aspiration, for example, is to host a rare bird in my yard—an accidental tourist, the showier the better, and one that hangs around my feeders for at least a week. I’d invite birders from near and far to come see my special guest. They’d sign my guest book. We’d gab about birds and gear and trips. I might even serve coffee and donuts.

The scenario isn’t so far-fetched. I’ve been on the visiting end of backyard “stakeouts” several times, most recently this winter, when Warrenville homeowner Kate Hopkins hosted a spotted towhee. Her generosity enabled dozens of birders to experience a western species that for some was a new tick on the life list.

Kate first noticed the towhee at her feeder on January 21. She initially figured it was an eastern towhee, which itself would be a notable sighting in the dead of winter. But after applying the Merlin ID app she realized it was a spotted and posted her discovery on eBird. That alerted area birders, many of whom wanted to stop by for a look.  

Front door sign at the Hopkins
residence in Warrenville
“There was zero hesitation,” Kate said. “I couldn’t wait to share.”

She did not have to wait long. In a few hours the doorbell rang.

“There are two young men standing at the door. Their cameras and binocs gave them away but they say, ‘We’re here about the rare bird.’ My husband and I just looked at each other and laughed. We found it delightful.” 

That moment, Kate said, was the start of “a fabulous introduction to the birding community.”

Incoming birders were directed to Kate’s side yard by a handwritten note on the front door, complete with a photo of the wayward towhee. Her busy feeding station offered plenty to see while waiting for the main attraction, including a handsome Carolina wren.

Observing the spotted towhee was just a matter of patience. My wait was only 20 minutes—quite fortunate since the temperature was slightly below zero. Others waited longer or had to return for a second or third try.

Kate has no idea how many birders stopped by—she works during the day—but tracks in the snow indicated a steady flow of thrill seekers. Some left thank you notes, birdseed donations and even a box of Earl Grey tea. Others showed their appreciation by sharing photos of her avian celebrity and posting thankful messages on the Illinois Rare Bird Alert Facebook page.

Everyone was gracious, grateful and respectful, Kate said. “There was not a single negative interaction. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”

Varied Thrush by Emil Baumbach
Kelly Oliven from Palos Park recalls a similar experience when a varied thrush discovered her feeder in January 2018. Like Kate, she welcomed visiting birders after realizing the bird was something special. What came next took her by surprise.

“At one point we had 20 cars parked up and down the street,” she said. “The local newspaper came and even the TV news (FOX32). People came from as far as six hours away in southern Illinois.”

Kelly wisely notified the local police about the situation and credits her neighbors for being understanding. The “circus” lasted about six days, during which Kelly got to know the visiting birders.  

“I got out there as much as I could to chat with them and just loved every minute of it,” Kelly said. “The camaraderie, the information sharing . . . I had no idea that people took this so seriously.”

I didn’t attempt to see Kelly’s varied thrush. At the time, a mad dash to Palos didn’t fit my schedule. Besides, I’d seen the species once before—not in the Pacific Northwest, where it belongs, but in Evanston.

That’s correct, I owe my “lifer” varied thrush to a different backyard stakeout six years ago. I remember that Sunday morning well, standing in a snowy alley, my toes almost numb, gazing over a neck-high wooden fence into the homeowners’ private space. My cold, lonely vigil lasted about 90 minutes before the target bird took pity on me and flew in to the platform feeder. Instantly, my feet felt warmer.

The 2013 Evanston varied thrush was my 500th life bird. To Jason and Judy on Cleveland Street, thank you again!

Thanks, as well, to all the kind people who share their backyard wonders with total strangers like me. Generosity like yours is notable and rare, just like neighborhood birds that come around once in a lifetime.  

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved. 
Black-legged Kittiwake by Bonnie Graham
Winter oddities keep us watching

(published 3-3-19)

If this column is a bit tardy, blame “The Feather Thief.” It stole my time! If the next book I open is only half as good, I’ll be happy.

My previous piece recapped the 2018 birding year. However, since that rambler was submitted in mid-December, it omitted a few developments from the year’s final weeks. Today I’ll close the loop and cover some early highlights of 2019. 

So, remember that piping plover in Chicago? To refresh, the bird first visited Montrose Beach in October and stayed until early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. The plover vanished for several days, then made history in a second state by appearing December 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

But the story wasn’t over. On December 22, the feathered mighty mite reappeared at Montrose! The plover was easily located by Evanston North Shore Bird Club members on Christmas Day during their Chicago Lakefront CBC. I guess some birds just want to be counted.

The plover rang in the new year at Montrose and was last seen on January 13.

The backyard yellow-throated warbler in St. Charles also departed, hopefully for warmer climes. Homeowner Jon Schuler last saw it on December 23.

Warblers in winter are rare indeed, the one exception being yellow-rumped warbler. “Butterbutts” are uncommon this time of year but we do see a few. The species is content to eat berries, seeds and suet when other warblers head south to maintain their bug-based diets. Nine yellow-rumps were recorded on the Fermilab CBC and they popped up all over the region in January. Keep an eye out, especially if your yard features bayberry, juniper or a heated bird bath.

Common yellowthroat, another warbler species, was sighted during both the Fermilab CBC and Lisle-Arboretum CBC. Nashville warbler was a coveted discovery at the Kankakee Valley CBC, along with white-eyed vireo. A palm warbler appeared in Cook County on January 11.

The Lisle-Arb CBC, by the way, held December 16, turned up 21 pileated woodpeckers—a record-high for the species. The previous best was 13 in 2017. These numbers support the widespread notion that our local pileated population is growing.

Flocks of sandhill cranes staged a rare January passage over DuPage and Kane as the year began, but the big story was a black-legged kittiwake, observed January 1-5 at Whalon Lake Forest Preserve in Will County. The kittiwake, a coastal gull species seldom observed inland, could easily have been overlooked. Kudos to Kirk LaGory from Downers Grove for picking it out and sharing an exciting find.

Mandarin Duck by Bonnie Graham
A rarity of a different color—actually, many colors—turned up in Orland Park. A Mandarin duck! First reported by Susan Zelek on January 4, where it came from is still a mystery. Like the Mandarin in New York’s Central Park that caused a sensation last fall, the Orland bird is possibly an escapee from a zoo or private collection.

Mandarin duck is a non-native intruder, an Asian species. But there’s no denying its beauty. Only our male wood duck comes close to matching the Mandarin’s spectacular plumage. In fact, thanks to Bob Andrini, a St. Charles birder, I learned the two species are related—the only members of the Aix genus.

As the deep freeze settled in, yet another January surprise, a spotted towhee, found a busy backyard feeder located near Wheaton Warrenville South High School. Kate Hopkins reported the bird and generously opened her yard to visiting birders. I was among them and besides the towhee (a western species) witnessed the yard’s other featured visitor, a Carolina wren. As if that weren’t enough, some lucky birders received a further bonus when a pair of unusual red-bellied woodpeckers flew in; their head markings were yellow instead of red!

Such moments must be savored because winter birding in northern Illinois is not always so exciting. As watchers, it pays to stay alert as we count the days until spring.

Meanwhile, keep your feeders stocked and enjoy the show, especially when it snows. Cyber birding is fun option, too. My guilty pleasure lately has been the Cornell Lab’s feeder cam streaming live from Manitouwadge, Ontario. With a few clicks (and a little patience) you can observe guest appearances by evening and pine grosbeaks, Canada jays, ravens, redpolls and even ruffed grouse. Google Ontario FeederWatch.

Of course, nothing beats a good book on a cold winter night. If you need a recommendation I can help.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Birders scurried to Palos Park to see this Varied Thrush, a
western species, in January. (photo by Bonnie Graham)
An eventful Year of the Bird

(published 1-21-19)

Could it be that birding gets more interesting, and more exciting, the longer we do it? Dedicated watchers know the answer is yes.

The 2018 birding year, officially The Year of the Bird, only escalated our curiosity and passion for the hobby.  It was remarkably newsy and birdy, filled with feathery surprises, the latter including a plucky little plover, long out of season, lingering on a frigid Chicago beach.

A major anniversary hovered over 2018, inspiring the Year of the Bird celebration and calling attention to bird conservation at a critical time. Ironically, just as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act turned 100, it came under attack in Washington. A bill in Congress, HR 4239, would pull some key enforcement teeth from MBTA, our country’s most important bird protection law. National Audubon Society sued the Department of the Interior, with similar suits filed by Attorneys General in eight states, including Illinois.

“State of the World’s Birds,” released in April, reported that 40 percent of bird species worldwide are in decline, with one of every eight threatened with extinction. BirdLife International issues the report every five years.
This Long-tailed Jaeger was the first
on record along Chicago's lakefront.
(photo by Jake Cvetas)

One of those potentially doomed species is the blue-throated hillstar, an Ecuadorian hummingbird revealed to the world in September. An estimated 750 individuals exist. Yes, amazingly, new birds are still being discovered.

Northwestern University earned kudos in March for making its glassy buildings along the lakefront less deadly for migrating birds. To reduce collisions, the college applied patterned film to many existing windows and chose glass with patterns visible to birds in some new construction. Chicago Bird Collision Monitors advised.

Notes and scribblings
Bird Watcher’s Digest celebrated 40 years of publishing and launched Redstart Birding, a gear company out to fill the void left by Eagle Optics.

Julie Zickefoose, artist and author, spoke at Morton Arboretum on back-to-back nights in June. Always the birder and keeping a trip list, Zick observed a nesting killdeer at the Hyatt Regency Lisle—on the roof!

The gray jay is now the Canada jay. Remember that when you visit the North Woods.

A yellow (not red) northern cardinal, spotted in Alabama, went viral on Facebook. So did several hilarious photos of a high school golfer in Michigan being attacked by a goose. Only his pride was hurt.

King Rails are usually elusive but this one awarded brief looks
to patient birders in Chicago. (photo by Jackie Bowman)
In March, I happened to be on the Wheaton College campus 90 minutes before the memorial service for Billy Graham. Hearing a mourning dove calling, I looked around. The bird was on top of Graham’s namesake building. Too perfect.

A white-tailed kite visited Porter County, Indiana, during the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. Found by Mark Welter, it was the third state record of the species, the last being in 1994. Many festival attendees scored a highly improbable lifer.

An out-of-range blue-footed booby sent birders scrambling to Kane County in September. The Kane County in Utah, unfortunately.

But the Chicago region offered its own excitement for birders in 2018, and plenty of it.

The year began with a mega rarity when Amar Ayyash bagged an ivory gull at the Lake County Fairgrounds. Also in January, birders beat a trail to Palos Park for a varied thrush in the yard of a birder-friendly homeowner. Big Rock, Kane County, our Kane County, would host a varied thrush in November.

Notable: Greater white-fronted geese were widespread in late February; common loons were unusually prolific in March and April; numbers of pine siskins were still around in late May; and black-bellied whistling ducks turned up throughout the state from May to October.

DuPage highlights
The DuPage County Spring Bird Count on May 5 tallied a record-high 188 species. Red-winged blackbird was the most numerous one by far, followed by robin and palm warbler. A northern goshawk, spotted by Bob Fisher in Woodridge, was the first SBC “gos” since 2000.

This Western Grebe on Lake Michigan was among many
avian surprises in November. (photo by Tamima Itani)
A quartet of coveted May warblers visited Elsen’s Hill: cerulean, Connecticut, mourning and yellow-throated, plus a white-eyed vireo. Elsen’s, a.k.a. Warblerville, is part of West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield.

Morton Arboretum produced blue grosbeak, lark sparrow and pileated woodpecker. Purple martins nested at the Arb for the first time after their long-vacant house was relocated to Arbor Lake on the west side. Four martins fledged.

St. James Farm featured worm-eating and hooded warblers in May, and a bobwhite quail in July. Waterfall Glen hosted a wormie, too.

A neotropical cormorant appeared in Roselle, on the same pond a neo visited in 2017. Same bird?

Joe Suchecki, bird monitor for Naperville’s Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve since 1994, added four birds to the site list: Carolina wren, Brewer’s sparrow, whip-poor-will and willet. He’s now seen 236 species on the property. With that total, just adding one species takes some luck. But four in one year? As Joe told me, “pretty amazing.”

Hawkwatchers completed their 13th fall season on the hill at Greene Valley, counting migrating raptors almost every day for three straight months. Northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk and four golden eagles were highlights. The team also witnessed a massive monarch butterfly migration on Sept. 7, and 6,185 sandhill cranes on Nov. 10.

Kane County goodies, besides that varied thrush, included yellow rail, red-necked phalarope, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Smith’s longspur and a snowy egret in downtown Elgin. A pair of whooping cranes joined nine sandies in a field near Hampshire in late October.

On the waterfront
You could fill a book with significant Cook and Lake County sightings in 2018. The Lake Michigan shoreline combined with a higher density of active birders once again delivered eye-popping results.

Parasitic and long-tailed jaegers, like avian fighter jets, zipped past Wilmette’s Gillson Park in early September. A western grebe plied Chicago and Evanston waters in November, with harlequin duck, red-throated loon and red-necked grebe also making waves.

This female Great-tailed Grackle was a first
for Lake County.
(photo by Joan Campbell)
Montrose beach and the Magic Hedge hosted barn owl, little gull, least tern, red knot, loggerhead shrike, Bell’s vireo and yellow-headed blackbird. King rail, a secretive marsh species, teased birders with brief but regular appearances in June and July.

In May, Jon Grainger discovered and photographed a plumbeous vireo in Bolingbrook, a first state record.

Additional Cook treasures included black-belling whistling duck, cinnamon teal, cattle egret, snowy owl, Townsend’s solitaire, western tanager, prairie warbler and Harris’s sparrow.

Great-tailed grackle was a premium find in Lake, discovered in August by Bonnie Graham and Joan Campbell at Spring Bluff Forest Preserve. They’d gone there looking for a reported whimbrel.

Al Stokie picked a hoary redpoll out of flock of 112 common redpolls at Chicago Botanic Garden in January. In May, he located CBG’s second-ever prairie warbler. The site surrendered a white-faced ibis for Amanda Tichacek.

Also in May, a Hudsonsian godwit and glossy ibis shared the same “fluddle” in Waukegan. Piping plover, a federally endangered species, nested on a gravel parking lot at Waukegan Beach, and a colony of state-endangered common terns set up shop in the dunes.  

A mountain bluebird checked into Knox County in April. Chain O’Lakes State Park, in McHenry, yielded black-necked stilt in May, and white ibis in August.

In Springfield, where Governor Rauner proclaimed April 22-28 Bird Appreciation Week in Illinois, rarities included Swainson’s warbler, Mississippi kite and little gull.

The roster of southern Illinois birds in 2018 felt Floridian, with brown pelican, mottled duck, anhinga, white ibis and roseate spoonbill all reported.

A Sabine’s gull at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Putnam County was close enough for Chicago-area birders to chase in September. A second Sabine’s turned up at Carlyle Lake two weeks later in downstate Clinton County.

This Yellow-throated Warbler in St. Charles was a most
unlikely backyard visitor, given its arrival in late November.
(photo by Chuck Berman)
Home sweet home
Road trips, of course, are optional. In 2018, birders proved once again that amazing things sometimes happen just outside the kitchen window. A western tanager turned up at Springfield feeder in April, and Lombard residents Rick and Mary Lingle noticed a summer tanager at their birdbath in May. The snow and ice storm just after Thanksgiving delivered a chilly American bittern to Diane Swaim’s yard in Aurora. 

The most remarkable backyard visitor occurred in St. Charles, where homeowner Jonathan Schuler attracted a yellow-throated warbler that forgot to migrate. The bird appeared Nov. 22 and was still feasting on a hot pepper seed cylinder at press time. On Dec. 15, it became the first yellow-throated warbler ever recorded on the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count, an annual event since 1976.

This chilly but resilient Piping Plover on Montrose Beach
was the latest ever in Illinois. (photo by Fran Morel)
My own space in Glen Ellyn produced 78 species, better than most years, and included two flyover additions to the yard list: greater white-fronted goose (No. 117) and osprey (No. 118). 

And what about that Chicago plover? In the Year of the Bird, I’d call it the Bird of the Year: an unbanded piping plover, first spotted on Montrose Beach in October and still there in early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. As the tiny puffball captured birders’ hearts, it eluded capture by naturalists trying to save it from freezing or starvation. Three rescue attempts using mist nets failed.

The plover vanished for several days, then made history in another state by appearing Dec. 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s CBC! Let’s hope the bird somehow survives the winter or, better yet, moves on to a warmer climate.

Thanks for reading and may your 2019 be filled with interesting birds!

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.