Birders gathered on top of Butterfly Hill for
Cantigny's inaugural "Big Sit" in 2019. The
group tallied 43 species without leaving
their perch, the highest point on the property.
Birders pull up a chair


(published 9-7-21)


There are many ways to birdwatch, making the hobby accessible for just about everybody. It’s one of the best things about birding—you can do it anywhere, at any time.

 

I treasure the time on my patio, watching and listening for whatever comes by. Migrating common nighthawks in the evening grabbed my attention in recent weeks. Now I’m back on morning call, searching for fall warblers.

 

Traditional bird walks are fine—I eagerly attend them and sometimes lead them. But observing birds from a single position can be equally rewarding and fun.

 

Two years ago, in partnership with the DuPage Birding Club, Cantigny Park in Wheaton held its inaugural “Big Sit.” About 30 birders, coming and going throughout a full morning, spotted 43 species from our lookout atop Butterfly Hill. We had to cancel the 2020 Big Sit but we’re doing it again on Saturday, Sept. 11. Grab a chair and come on up!

 

Big Sitting is a thing, trust me. The New Haven Bird Club in Connecticut came up with the idea in 1993 and even trademarked the name. Big Sits are now frequently used as fundraisers for bird conservation and related causes, with donors pledging a certain amount per species. The events are often a popular sideshow at birding festivals, too.

 

To be official, a few Big Sit rules apply: the count must be conducted from within a 17-foot diameter circle, and species must be identified by the observers over a continuous period, sometimes 24 hours! It’s a stationary version of a Big Day, but a lot easier on the legs and better for the environment than driving from place to place.


Cantigny Park volunteer and DuPage Birding
Club member Joan Campbell adds a species to 
the board during the Big Sit. Butterfly Hill's 
namesake flower bed is visible in the distance.
At Cantigny, we don’t go all day, and we are a little loose about the 17-foot rule. Socializing is welcomed, and so are homemade brownies and other snacks. It’s a serious endeavor, though, as we strain to see or hear as many kinds of birds as possible. Every birder has a chance to help grow the list.

 

Maximizing a Big Sit count begins with a strategic location. Cantigny is blessed with an ideal spot, and Butterfly Hill did not even exist until three years ago. The hill originated from truckloads of displaced soil during the park’s recent renovation. Hauling the dirt off-site would have been expensive and wasteful, plus Cantigny wanted to create a scenic overlook. Park visitors now have a nice view of the Cantigny golf course, not to mention the giant butterfly-shaped flower bed behind the first green that inspired the hill’s name.

 

Most importantly for birdwatchers, the view from Butterfly Hill features multiple habitats, including grassland, scrub, oak savannah, pond, and wetland. Birders are nearly eye-level with the crowns of mature oaks behind the First Division Museum. And of course, open sky—critical for spotting all manner of fly-bys, from hummingbirds to turkey vultures.

 

Stationary birding naturally appeals to birders with limited mobility, and to people who just prefer a less vigorous birding experience in a social setting. So, in addition to Big Sits, there are little sits. The DuPage Birding Club this year supplemented its already robust field trip schedule with “bird sits” at venues around the county. These are two-hour BYOC (bring your own chair) outings, currently limited to 10 participants, and non-club members are welcome. You can find out more at dupagebirding.org.

 

Highly specialized watch parties are out there too, and good seats are available! In 2018, I wrote about Kane County Audubon’s annual Chimney Swift Sit. I’ll never forget watching 2,000 chimney swifts swirl into their nighttime roost, a smokestack at Abbott Middle School in Elgin. The mesmerizing process began at dusk before several dozen birders in folding chairs. Curious neighbors came out to see what we were watching. When the last bird dropped into the old pipe about 20 minutes later, we clapped as if we’d just witnessed the best fireworks show ever.

In August, Cantigny hosted its first "Birdability"
walk for people with mobility limitations.

The sedentary events I’ve described are for all birders, but they also fill a niche within a growing movement called Birdability, which strives to make birding and nature more accessible. Virginia Rose, a wheelchair-bound dynamo from Austin, Texas, is Birdability’s founder and head cheerleader. She’s all about creating no-barriers, away-from-home birding opportunities for people with disabilities (birdability.org).

 

As I read several inspiring stories about Virginia, it occurred to me that Cantigny would score high on the Birdability scale. The park offers wide, hard-surface pathways with gentle grades; ramps; and ample seating in the gardens. Wheelchairs and binoculars are available for borrowing.

 

In August, we dipped our toes in the water, hosting a small group of limited-mobility birders for two hours of slow and easy birding. We spotted 18 species in the gardens near the Visitors Center. The participants appreciated a walk tailored to their needs—topped by a dazzling Baltimore oriole that appeared just before we disbanded.

 

Cantigny is making Birdability walks a regular part of its birding program. The next outing is on September 24. For more information, visit Cantigny.org.


Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

John James Audubon painted every
known bird in America during the 
early 1800s, a feat that earned him
international acclaim. This 1826
portrait by Scottish artist John Syme
hangs in the White House.
Courtesy White House Collection/
White House Historical Association
  

John James Audubon’s complex legacy                                                                                 

The artist’s racism is a hot issue for many organizations bearing his name.

 

(published 8-6-21)


Years ago, when working in Chicago, I would occasionally drift into an art gallery in the Wrigley Building that specialized in the works of John James Audubon. The big, beautiful paintings filled me with awe. My admiration for Audubon soared with each visit.

 

Recently, though, my feelings about the most famous American bird artist have changed. I am still fascinated by his life (1785-1851) and impressed by his “Birds of America” masterwork. But his legend blinded me from seeing the unsavory aspects of his character.

 

My eyes were opened by an essay in the spring issue of Audubon, published by the National Audubon Society. The author, J. Drew Lanham, a Black birder and ornithologist, examined the problematic legacy of John James Audubon, a slave owner and perpetuator of white supremacist culture.

 

“The stories of icons and heroes are critical, but what happens when truth rubs the shine off to reveal tarnished reality?” Lanham asks.

 

The truth about Audubon was always available. We mostly chose to ignore it. As a kid, Lanham says he idolized Audubon: “In every book, John James was woodsy and heroic, the kind of birdwatcher I wanted to be.”

 

Birds of America Plate 66:
Ivory-billed Woodpecker


I read those books, too. Now, because of Lanham’s essay, and the courage of National Audubon to print it, I’m seeing “JJA” in a darker light.  

 

There is a course offered by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called “Love the Art, Hate the Artist.” I wanted to ask the instructor, Eileen Favorite, if Audubon’s name had ever surfaced in her class. She did not respond to my outreach, but the bird painter would be a strong candidate for discussion.

 

Audubon is not the only name in play. There is a push to change the common names of birds named after people because some of those people are tied to racism. In 2020, McCown’s longspur was reclassified as thick-billed longspur. The species was discovered in 1851 by John P. McCown, who later would serve the Confederate Army in defense of slavery.


About 150 of North America’s birds are named after people—including two species named after Audubon himself. The American Ornithological Society has expressed a commitment to changing “exclusionary or harmful” bird names. More to come, and probably sooner than later. A campaign called Bird Names for Birds is gathering support.

 

Meanwhile, as Lanham titled his essay, What do we do about John James Audubon? The name is everywhere. There is National Audubon and its affiliated local and regional chapters. There are also independent organizations that use the name, like Illinois Audubon Society, which has chapters of its own, such as Kane County Audubon.

 

Birds of America Plate 102:
Blue Jay
“The name John James Audubon is complex,” said Jim Herkert, executive director of Springfield-based Illinois Audubon. “For some, the name equates with birds, birding, and conservation, but for others, the name may be equated with racist beliefs and actions of the time in which he lived.”  


Perception is reality. The country band Lady Antebellum changed its name to Lady A in 2020. Done. Problem solved.

 

If only the Audubon issue was that simple. Hundreds of Audubon-branded conservation groups and bird clubs, some more than a century old, are affected.

 

Illinois Audubon, founded in 1897, will chart its own course of action and independently address the question of changing its name, Herkert told me. But more important, he said, is the need to engage a more diverse audience around the urgency of conservation, especially bird conservation. Part of that involves making nature (and birding) more accessible for all people.

 

“Actions are what matter,” Herkert said. “Conservation needs to be more inclusive, equitable and just. If all that happens out of this is a few groups change their name, then we’ve missed the boat.”

 

Illinois Audubon established a Diversity and Inclusion Committee last year to help chart its future. National Audubon, likewise, is taking steps to deepen its commitment to antiracism while reassessing its own history and connection to its namesake.

 

For a different perspective, I contacted Brian “Fox” Ellis, an Illinois-based storyteller, book author and naturalist. He’s been portraying JJA for nearly two decades, and last year published “Adventures with John James Audubon.”

Birds of America Plate 159:
Cardinal Grosbeak
 

“I have always made an effort to present history unvarnished, warts and all, because it is the drama that makes history exciting and honest,” Ellis said.

 

“Audubon owned slaves. He sold and traded human beings. This is unforgivable. Yet it does not erase his accomplishments in art and ornithology, his poetry.”


JJA was the first person to paint every bird in North America, some 497 species known in his day. He did it well: a first edition of “The Birds of America” went for $9.65 million at auction in 2018. Audubon also contributed to science by writing detailed biographies for each bird, some of them previously unknown.

 

When reenacting Audubon or any other historical figure—he portrays about 30—Ellis said he trusts in the intelligence of his audience members, allowing them to filter through the facts and form their own opinions.

 

In the case of Audubon, he believes “we can honor his brilliance and creativity while acknowledging his sins.”

 

But for the organizations that bear Audubon’s name, the reckoning continues.

 

Is a massive (and costly) rebranding ahead, or will the Audubon label survive? Some big decisions lie ahead for the various national, state and local Audubon groups that conduct vital work for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.

 

For every one of them, the question “What’s in a name?” has never been more relevant.


Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Summer Tanager by Maranda Mink
A "bee bird" made my day

(published 6-30-21)

One of my favorite spring rituals is the Birdwatching Open at Cantigny Golf, held every year on World Migratory Bird Day. 

The 12th edition of the “the Open” took place May 8, our first since 2019 due to the pandemic. The idea is to find as many kinds of birds as we can at the golf course. That is our score, and, unlike golf itself, the higher the better. Flyovers count!

But early May is finicky. The birding can be crazy good. Or not. Spring migration plays out a little differently every year. Timing is everything.  

Unfortunately, the 2021 Birdwatching Open, coinciding with the county-wide Spring Bird Count, took place during a migratory lull. We finished our “round” with only 55 species heard or seen—laughably short of our record 87 species in 2018.

It was far from a bad day, however. How could it be? Baltimore orioles were plentiful, seven kinds of warblers gave us peeks, and we found a nesting pair of red-headed woodpeckers. Our group of 15 hiked five miles, didn’t freeze or get wet and shared some laughs—including a few with the paying customers.

I think the golfers get a kick out of us. They make jokes about birdies and never seem to mind sharing the course. Some are genuinely curious about what we are doing and want to know our “best bird” so far.

The best bird for me, personally, was still to come. And not at the golf course.

Scarlet Tanager by Matt Misewicz

After the Open I went over to Cantigny Park to do a quick survey, so the park property would not go unrepresented in the Spring Bird Count, a census organized by the DuPage Birding Club. It was almost 4 p.m., I was exhausted and a little birded out. But off I went, searching for birds amid gaggles of photo-crazy prom and wedding celebrants. They had to be wondering about the guy with binoculars.

I found a few birds that we hadn’t seen on the golf course, including chipping sparrow, swamp sparrow and chestnut-sided warbler. Most notably, I got a fix on two great-horned owlets in a nest high above the Army tanks. A few hours earlier, our Birdwatching Open group, desperate for another species, had tried unsuccessfully to spot the owlets from the golf course side of the fence. Alas, too many leaves.

My car was parked behind the office building near the greenhouse. As I packed up my mind was on food and a cold IPA. Then a calling bird grabbed my attention. I followed the sound and 20 steps away, while still in the parking lot, I found myself eye to eye with a beautiful summer tanager. Hold that beer!

My first thought was why am I seeing this amazing bird all by myself? Some birds are meant to be shared. I managed a few decent photos for documentation and later confirmed that it was Cantigny’s first summer tanager on record, species No. 187 for the property list.

Western Tanager by Steve Jones


That evening, it dawned on me that the tanager was near a cluster of Cantigny beehives. Sure enough, a little quick research revealed that honeybees are one of the summer tanager’s favorite foods. Coincidentally, six days later, I received the Bird of the Week email from the American Bird Conservancy. You guessed it, summer tanager.

I learned a lot from the ABC email. The summer tanager has a nickname, the bee bird. Using its thick, pointed bill, it snatches bees and wasps out of the air like a flycatcher—a behavior I observed. Back on its perch, the bird subdues its prey and removes the stinger before chowing down.

Trivia: the male adult summer tanager is the only entirely red bird in North America. Chicagoland is at the far northern edge its migratory range, so the bird is uncommon here. It winters in Mexico and South America in the company of many tropical tanager species that never enter the United States.

Two other tanagers visit our region. The eye-popping scarlet tanager is the “expected” species, and our Birdwatching Open group was eager to see one. No luck. A week later, a scarlet lit up my yard, making my day just like the summer tanager before it.

The third potential tanager species is western, a true rarity around here. Many birders saw their first western tanager in Illinois last December in Channahon, including me. That bird was out of place and out of season, but a handful of westerns are spotted every year in the state.

The day of the Open, a western tanager was briefly seen at La Bagh Woods in Cook County by birders who were observing a broad-billed hummingbird—an astounding Chicago daily double! Birding is full of surprises.  

I do not claim to be a tanager magnet. Far from it. The Cantigny summer tanager was my first look at that species since 2008, at Morton Arboretum. But now I have The Cap. Yes, my current favorite headgear for birding features a western tanager on the front, a gift from my brother in Arizona. As a tanager attractant, it seems to be working.

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

The author's late parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, pictured in
in 2015 at The Wilderness Center, in Wilmot, Ohio.
Two more reasons I’m a birder

(published 4-29-21)

Birdwatchers often refer to a “spark bird”—a sighting experience that launched them into this wonderfully addictive hobby. I have one myself, a hooded warbler, spotted in 1994. Seeing it, and then figuring out what it was, hooked me for good.

It’s fun to have a spark bird but there is usually more to the story—true in my case, for sure. I was interested in birds as a kid. The hooded warbler ignited something that was already there.

If I’ve become a bird nerd, I blame my parents. In a good way. I’ve been thinking about them a lot since they passed in January, on consecutive days in Florida. Dad was 92, mom 90.

My folks were not devoted birders, but they were bird friendly. They kept a full feeder in our Canton, Ohio, backyard, and a Peterson field guide within reach. In the fall, dad would call attention to V formations of migrating Canada geese, a spectacle worth watching. Geese had a better reputation back then.

Our family of four traveled outside the neighborhood for birds, too. I remember an evening trip to The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, where mom did some volunteering. It was March or April, not warm, and we were woodcock watching. At the time, I didn’t know a woodcock from a woodchuck.

I think we saw American woodcocks performing their aerial courtship display but can’t swear to it. The experience, not the bird, is what I recall. Fifty-plus years later, I’m a dues-paying member of The Wilderness Center and my father-in-law is at rest in Foxfield Preserve, the center’s conservation burial ground.

Another family adventure took us to Hinckley, for Buzzard Sunday, a classic “rite of spring” event. I guess you could say it was my first birding festival. Legend says that the buzzards (turkey vultures) return to Hinckley Ridge every year on March 15. It’s Ohio’s version of the famous swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California, only more reliable.  Hinckley’s been celebrating the homely buzzards every year since 1957. Did we see them? Again, my recall is fuzzy, but the pancakes and hot chocolate were good.

Mom instigated those family outings and encouraged my interest in the natural world. Thanks to her, I became an avid subscriber to Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation and treasured my collection of annual NWF stamps. I became a nature boy, diverging from my more athletic older brother.

Around age 10, before I was old enough to join Boy Scouts and attend Camp Tuscazoar, mom and dad sent me to a one-week “conservation camp” in Kentucky, a place I surely learned about in Ranger Rick. The camp was in the Land Between the Lakes, near Paducah. I was too young to appreciate the natural beauty of the place. What I remember most is a mop-topped boy named Jeremy who was obsessed with birds and could ID anything with wings. We called him Bird Man. I didn’t necessarily want to be like him—perhaps I was beginning to question if birding was cool—but his skills impressed me.

The author and his dad visited this birding
hotspot in 2001, our country's southernmost
national park. For the senior Reiter, a U.S. history 
buff, it was all about the fort.
Flash forward to April 2001, my first of two trips with dad when birding was the main objective. I was deep into the hobby by then, and eager to see new species. Somehow, I talked dad into a three-day Florida Nature Tours excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of tiny islands 70 miles west of Key West.

Dry Tortugas was a perfect destination. As a history buff, dad was keen on visiting Fort Jefferson, the massive 19th-century garrison that dominates the park. He’d be happy exploring the fort while I explored the birdlife.

My plan worked! Sort of. Accommodations on the tour’s small ship were subpar, and dad took ill on the ride back to Key West. He’d spend the next several weeks recovering from acute diverticulitis.

Dad apparently forgave me because in 2014 he agreed to an all-day field trip with Hendry-Glades Audubon Society, in the Lake Okeechobee region of south-central Florida. We drove up the night before, and this time our beds were fine, at the historic Clewiston Inn. A fading but still beautiful hand-painted mural depicting Florida birds covered the walls in the hotel’s little tavern—a good omen. Better yet, it was fried chicken night in the dining room down the hall, like they knew we were coming.

The next day, his 86th birthday, dad shared my excitement in spotting a crested caracara, my No. 1 target bird for the trip. Later we bagged a scissor-tailed flycatcher. We enjoyed those birds a lot.

Rollin Reiter's hand-carved decoys, like this
wood duck pair, were coveted by family and 
friends. Some of them won awards.

Mom wasn’t on board for these adventures, opting to stay home in Key Largo with the ducks. Decoys, that is, about three dozen of them. Dad began carving and painting decoys in the late 1970s, soon becoming an accomplished amateur artist. His ducks, geese, and shorebirds, plus others purchased from master carvers, were widely admired by friends and family.

The decoys (and duck-inspired art on our walls) were an important aspect of my bird-filled upbringing. I learned about the importance of Ducks Unlimited and the federal duck stamp. Hunting isn’t my thing, but dad taught me to appreciate the conservation role played by waterfowlers. I purchase a duck stamp every year and probably always will. 

My final bird walk with dad, if you can call it that, was a brief stroll down his street last October. He was in a wheelchair, pushed by Linda, a young caregiver. To her, the game of looking for birds and trying to identify them was completely new. She was amazed when a bird landed in plain view and I told her it was Florida’s state bird, a northern mockingbird. Dad knew the species well, his favorite songster, and it momentarily lifted his spirits.

I wanted to thank that neighborhood mocker for its good timing. Today, I’m thanking a higher spirit for the two people who made birds and birding a part of me forever. It’s cool now.

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Al Stokie recorded his 400th Illinois bird last December in Channahon,
where a Great Kiskadee made a first-time appearance in the state.
He’s shown here at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Downers Grove. 
The birding life

Al Stokie, the area’s most prolific birder, writes a daily report that fellow watchers treasure

(published 3-10-21)

We are all creatures of habit. But to describe the daily routine of Al Stokie as habitual would be selling him short. It’s much more: curiosity, discipline and obsession all rolled into one.

The man went birding every single day in 2020, usually leaving his Park Ridge home before sunrise.

When I contacted Al for this column, he was hesitant. “I’m not really a very interesting person,” he said. “I’m just an old retired guy who goes birding a lot.”

Birders in the Chicago region view him differently. To us, Al is a fountain of information. His daily journal entries, composed after his morning adventures, are posted on the birding list-serv known as IBET, short for Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts.

The reports tell us where Al went today, what he saw, what he missed and who he ran into. We learn about places to visit, best times to go and what to expect. And through Al’s words, we experience the ups and downs of the hobby we love.

Each post begins with “Hello Bird People” and ends with his Bird of the Day award. Occasionally, he’ll declare a Fancy Pants Bird of the Day, an honor reserved for a particularly striking bird that catches his eye. Mammal sightings, fast food preferences and unusual license plates may get a mention, too.

A Vietnam vet with a master’s degree in early modern European history from Northwestern, Al spent his entire working career at DoALL Sawing Products in Des Plaines (now Wheeling). His job involved “getting reports out and distributed to the proper people.”

Hearing that made perfect sense. At 75, Al is still reporting.

Al Stokie scans the open water at Hidden Lake, looking 
for something special among the Canada geese and
mallards. "You can't have a kiskadee every day," he said.

The year he retired, 2013, Al purchased a Prius C that now sports 135,000 miles, reflective of his Iron Man birding ethic. Rain and snow may alter his plans, but he still goes birding—some days solo and other days with a friend or two.

“What I like most is searching for whatever birds I may find. Every day is different!”

Ah yes, the search. I can feel birders nodding their heads. Most of us love that aspect of birdwatching, especially when a rare species comes to town.

What sets Al apart, besides dogged persistence, is his humble acceptance of whatever a new day of birding may bring. He’s a master of finding little things to celebrate. Last month, he went out of his way to track down a reported killdeer—a common shorebird that’s quite uncommon in January. He recognized the significance of that bird and had to go see it.

Almost a year ago, in early March, Al challenged himself to see how many kinds of ducks he could find in a single day, touring the Palos area. His best-case scenario, with luck, was 20 species. He found them all, and his post-game report offered a fascinating lesson in bird-finding strategy.

Rarities, of course, get Al excited just like the rest of us. He often plans his birding around sightings gleaned the night before from IBET, eBird or messages from his birding buddies.

“I may want to chase a rarity but if there are none [being reported] then I might try a place I haven’t been in a while or check a place that should be good for a certain species at that time of year.”

American Redstart by Jackie Bowman 
Sometimes his destination is a no-brainer, as it was on December 6, 2020, when Al made a beeline to Channahon for a mega-rare great kiskadee reported the day before. That bird became Al’s 400th species for Illinois, a milestone that only nine other birders have achieved.

Al didn’t begin serious birding until 1985, but he recalls two formative sightings in the late 1970s, both in Des Plaines. The first was a male American redstart, a colorful member of the warbler family. Al was impressed.

The other bird was a tiny owl in a tree. After seeing it, Al spent a half hour walking back to his car and drove home (another half hour) to retrieve his camera. He then returned to the bird, which fortunately hadn’t moved. He took photos and later figured out it was a saw-whet owl.

Saw-whet Owl by Philip Dunn
If anything was a spark bird, that was it," he told me. 

These days, Al has a particular fondness for shorebirds, a category offering significant ID challenges. He’s good at telling them apart but firmly denies being an expert. “They’re big enough to see well and they aren’t as flighty as warblers,” he said, explaining his attraction.

Something else needed explanation: his lack of cellphone. Can a man who seeks rare birds not own such an essential tool?

“I’ve been with birders who get calls and messages every 10 minutes and I’d rather not go through that. I know that I miss some information about sightings but so be it.”

Al isn’t against technology; he just prefers to be off the grid while birding. I find that admirable, but not half as much as his eagerness to share what he sees and learns. Reading his stuff can make you a better birder.

Little wonder that Al is beloved within the birding community. That won’t change, but his daily regimen probably will. He talks about slowing down due to mobility issues. The Prius is fine, his legs are not.

Fortunately, there are many ways to bird—phones are optional, and so are long hikes! Al might finally spend some time watching his yard. I’ll be reading those reports, too.

To join the IBET network, a free service, send an email to ilbirds+subscribe@googlegroups.com.

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.