Historic chicks: These juvenile piping plovers, offspring of
 Monty and Rose, were Chicago’s first in more than 60 years.
Photo by Tamima Itani.
2019 birding: The good, the sad and the unlikely

(published 1-6-20)

Welcome to my annual review of the top news of a feather. The 2019 birding year wasn’t boring, that’s for sure. Birds drew the national spotlight; drama and ornithological history played out on a Chicago beach; and a series of rare sightings sent local birders scrambling for their binoculars, scopes and car keys.

Like a dark cloud, one story overshadowed all the others. In September, the journal Science revealed that breeding bird populations in the U.S. and Canada are tanking—down 29 percent since 1970. About 3 billion fewer birds are in the air than 50 years ago. Researchers at seven institutions, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, co-authored the study.

Birders have long known that certain species are in decline, some clearly inching toward extinction. But the magnitude of loss caught even the experts off guard, as did the news that so-called “common” birds like blue jays and red-winged blackbirds are suffering, too.

Mainstream media jumped on it, owing that birds are an indicator of overall ecosystem health. “The mass disappearance of North American birds is a dire warning about the planet’s well-being,” said the New York Times.

Study details, including reasons for the decline and “7 Simple Actions to Help Birds,” are online at 3billionbirds.org.

Birds are resilient creatures, one of the reasons my glass remains half full. In fact, waterfowl and raptor populations are increasing thanks to effective conservation efforts.

The female piping plover parent, Rose, on Montrose Beach.
Photo by Tamima Itani.
Avian resiliency was on full display last summer at Montrose Beach along Lake Michigan. I suspect you’ve heard a thing or two about Monty and Rose, the first piping plovers to nest in Chicago since the mid-1950s. It was the local nature story of the year, rivaled only by an alligator in the Humboldt Park Lagoon.

Some 190 volunteers from the birding community devoted more than 1,200 hours to the Piping Plover Watch, monitoring and protecting the federally endangered birds for two months on the busy beach. Their extraordinary efforts were rewarded by the birth and successful fledging of two piping plover chicks. The siblings began their southern migration in late August.

Governor J. B. Pritzker declared November 18 to be Piping Plover Day, coinciding with the debut of “Monty and Rose,” a film directed by Bob Dolgan. The first showing, at the Music Box Theater, sold out, as did subsequent screenings at other Chicago venues. Watch for viewing opportunities in the western suburbs soon.

Ironically, the inspiring Montrose plover story played out during a year in which the Endangered Species Act (ESA) came under attack by the Trump administration. The ESA, enacted in 1973, is generally heralded as a success by Republicans and Democrats alike. We now enjoy bald eagles around DuPage County because of it. In October, Kirtland’s warbler exited the endangered species list, further evidence of ESA’s effectiveness in helping imperiled species rebound from near-extinction. 

Odd news & rare sights
This vagrant Lewis’s woodpecker sampled the suet at Ballard
 Nature Center near Effingham. Photo by Leroy Harrison.
But enough politics. Head-scratching bird stories are more interesting, like the Georgia family that discovered a live screech owl in their Christmas tree—days after they’d brought the tree inside and decorated it with lights and owl ornaments.

In Florida, a man raising exotic birds suffered death by cassowary. Also in the Sunshine State, an ultra-rare yellow cardinal visited a backyard feeder. A gynandromorphic cardinal—half male and half female—showed up in Erie, Pa.

Pennsylvania’s other avian shocker was a snail kite, spotted in October—the first U.S. sighting of the nonmigratory raptor outside of Florida, South Carolina or Texas. Where was it seen? In Erie, of course.

In Redding, Calif., a fledgling red-tailed hawk was observed in a bald eagle nest along with two eaglets, all three being cared for by two adult eagles. Shockingly, the eagles settled on raising the baby hawk instead of eating it.

Sadly, in June, a car struck and killed one of the beloved Mooseheart bald eagles in North Aurora. The surviving adult male assumed full-time parenting duties.

Woody Goss witnessed a cowbird chick being fed by common yellowthroats, a male and female—and then by a catbird! It happened at Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

A dazzling male painted bunting visited Midewin Tallgrass
Prairie in June. The species is typically found in the
southeastern U.S. and Texas, where this one was
photographed by Jackie Bowman.
Wild turkeys strutting around Chicago added further proof that when it comes to birds, you just never know.

Now let’s turn to the truly remarkable sightings of 2019—the feathered wonders that local birders went out of their way to see and photograph.

In some cases, WAY out their way, such as Effingham County. That’s where a western beauty, Lewis’s woodpecker, visited feeders at the Ballard Nature Center in early May. The species was a first record for Illinois, and a lifer for many who ventured to see it.  

On May 9, lucky watchers in Chicago witnessed both Kirtland’s warbler and western tanager in the same area of Grant Park. The Kirtland’s stayed for a week, and those who missed the western would have other chances. For whatever reason, 2019 was a phenomenal year for vagrant western tanagers in the Great Lakes region.

Jeff Smith discovered a male painted bunting at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County on June 2. The technicolor songbird seldom strays so far north.
The state’s first-ever limpkin spent the summer and fall on
Borah Lake near Olney. Photo by Jim Herkert,
Illinois Audubon Society.

Two other rarities, little stint and ruff, caused a rush to downstate Fulton County in early August. Even further south, sightings of fulvous whistling duck tempted birders in August (Jackson County) and September (Monroe).

The first confirmed Illinois record of limpkin, a large wader rarely spotted outside of Florida in the U.S., occurred near Olney in Richland County. Birders didn’t hear about it until September, but the bird was first noticed by local homeowners in June.

A Cassin’s kingbird at Montrose, discovered by Krzysztof Kurylowicz on September 22, was a new species for the state’s No. 1 hotspot.

On a frigid Halloween, Tamima Itani scoped a king eider paddling around the Northwestern lagoon. The large sea duck was well seen on subsequent days in Evanston and Chicago.

A juvenile king eider, first spotted in Evanston, paddled
around Chicago’s Monroe Harbor on November 2.
Photo by Michael Ferguson.
The next mega-rarity, ancient murrelet, arrived eight days later at Montrose. First reported by Bob Hughes, it was all-time species No. 347 for the site, according to eBird.

This ancient murrelet, a rare visitor to the Midwest, excited
Montrose Point birders in mid-November.
Photo by Mike Carroll.
Montrose, of course, home of the Magic Hedge, is a magnet for migratory birds. And with lots of watchers, rare sightings are almost routine. Highlights in 2019 (not already mentioned) included barred owl, black tern, black-bellied whistling duck, black vulture, common gallinule, long-billed curlew, purple sandpiper, Smith’s longspur, snowy egret, Townsend’s warbler and a fly-by pair of whooping cranes. Insane!

Suburban goodies
DuPage offered plenty of action, too. A misplaced spotted towhee located a Warrenville feeder in January, shook off the Polar Vortex, and lingered until April. Homeowner Kate Hopkins was a generous host, welcoming birders to view her unusual guest from the West.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien claimed a barnacle goose in February. In July, for the first time in 25 years, ecologists captured, banded and released a pine warbler at the site.

Morton Arboretum extended its reputation as a go-to place for pileated woodpecker, summer tanager and yellow-throated warbler. Cerulean, Connecticut, hooded and worm-eating warblers visited the Arb as well.

In May, Elsen’s Hill in Winfield attracted a well-seen Kentucky warbler, my current nemesis bird. Naturally it departed one day before I arrived on the scene.
This spotted towhee was exceptionally loyal to a Warrenville
backyard feeder, visiting from January to April.
Photo by Mike Carroll.

Springbrook Prairie steward Joe Suchecki added trumpeter swan and blue grosbeak to the site list, making 238 species for the Naperville preserve.

In September, a Say’s phoebe posed for birders atop the hawkwatching hill at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville. Jeff Smith sounded the alert.

The 14th season of counting migrating raptors at Greene Valley featured record numbers for bald eagle (112), osprey (79) and broad-winged hawk (4,993). Other notable flyovers were golden eagle, northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk and Mississippi kite. Seven Hudsonian godwits cruised over on October 23 and, on November 7, three whooping cranes mingled with 8,423 migrating sandhills. The hill is staffed by DuPage Birding Club volunteers from September through November.

Kane County featured a low-flying swallow-tailed kite in downtown St. Charles, reported by Leslie Yoshitani on April 15. Other Kane goodies in 2019 were cattle egret, prairie warbler, western meadowlark, western tanager, Swainson’s hawk and white-winged scoter. The latter visited Fermilab, which like other venues around the region witnessed an unusually large invasion of American white pelicans in April.

Up in Lake, a perching Mississippi kite was spotted at Perkins Woods on May 23, a first record for Evanston. A dunlin at Chicago Botanic Garden was a nice find by Al Stokie, who eight days later saw his first-ever common gallinule at the site. CBG surrendered a pine warbler in December.

A harlequin duck appeared content in Waukegan Harbor, present for two weeks and counting in December.
Common tern by Jeff Reiter.
Perhaps the best Lake County story of all involved the common tern colony at Naval Station Great Lakes. Eighteen adults, 13 nesting attempts and 15 fledged young were the highest results in years for the state-endangered species. A constructed raft in the harbor did the trick, and a second raft is planned for 2020. Kudos to Brad Semel, IDNR biologist, for leading the effort.

Since you asked, my personal favorite sightings of 2019 were hooded warbler at St. James Farm in Warrenville (likely nesting); black-crowned night heron along Lake Ellyn in Glen Ellyn; Mississippi kite in Dallas; and, last month, six scissor-tailed flycatchers in Key Largo, Fla. In the yard, I was thrilled to spot a red-headed woodpecker for only the second time in 22 years!

Remembering friends
Karen Fisher passed away in March. Along with husband Bob, she watched over their remarkable bird-filled yard in Downers Grove and traveled widely for birds, especially in Illinois. Karen also spent hundreds of hours counting migrating raptors at Greene Valley. Friends honored her memory with donations to The Wetlands Initiative.

Many of us subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest, a wonderful little magazine published in Marietta, Ohio. The publication suffered a double tragedy in 2019. Bill Thompson, III, editor, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 57. Two months later, Thompson family matriarch Elsa, Bill’s mother, died in a house fire. Both were active at the magazine to the end. Bill received the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award for Promoting the Cause of Birding, on March 25, just 12 hours before he passed.

Chip notes and upcoming events
Notable 2019 book releases included Kenn Kaufman’s “A Season on the Wind,” and Ted Floyd’s “How to Know the Birds.”

The International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, Wis., will reopen on May 2 (“The Crane Event”) following a massive $10.4 million renovation on the 10-acre site.  

Congrats to the Evanston North Shore Bird Club on 100 years! When founded on March 6, 1919, the cost to join was 50 cents.

Indiana Dunes National Park became official in February, the nation’s 62nd national park and the Chicago area’s first. The 6th annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival is set for May 14-17. 

Belted kingfisher emerged as a potential University of Illinois mascot. A snappy logo design by student Spencer Hulsey reopened mascot discussions in Urbana-Champaign, where former icon Chief Illiniwek got the boot in 2007.

The first-ever World Swift Day took place on June 7. Members of Kane County Audubon counted chimney swifts at local roosting sites.

The American Birding Association turned 50 and released an updated “ABA Code of Birding Ethics.” Head to WIRE in Berwyn for ABA’s 2020 Bird of the Year Reveal Party on January 12!

Did you find “Wingspan” under your Christmas tree? The new board game is popular, and not just with birders.

All are invited to the DuPage Birding Club’s first meeting of the new decade, on January 9. Texas birder Laura Keene will share stories from her epic “photographic big year” in 2016. It’s sure to be a fun and motivating start to a new year of birding adventures, near and far. Details are online at dupagebirding.org.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.