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.