From tip to tip, the Common Loon, or "Great Northern Diver," is perfectly
equipped for underwater fishing. Photo by Steve Huggins
Looney times in Lake County

(published 4-28-22)

This column has a soundtrack, and you might know the one. Imagine yourself in the North Woods, on a summer night, next to clear, quiet lake. Now listen for the haunting calls of a common loon, piercing the darkness. That’s it, that’s what I’m hearing.

Recently I was thrilled to hear those same yodels and wails just 50 miles from my Glen Ellyn doorstep. I was in Lake County for my first Loonapaloonza.

Yes, it’s a thing, searching for common loons on the county’s vast network of inland lakes. Late March and early April are best, when loons stop here on their way to northern breeding grounds. Large lakes in neighboring counties may host a loon or two, but the Chain O’Lakes region is the migration epicenter for Northeast Illinois. 

Even fluky April snow showers couldn’t erase the Loon Ranger’s
 smile. David Johnson’s fascination with loons began 50 years
 ago. “They are the first birds in my old field guides, and they
 have a lot of magic about them,” he said.

David B. Johnson, from Buffalo Grove, knows all the best places to look. He’s been leading loon tours since 1997, for the both the Evanston North Shore Bird Club and the Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS). David conjured up Loonapaloonza, an annual IOS event, in 2016—yet another way to share his passion for loons with others.

“I’m addicted to loon watching,” David admits. It started in the early 1970s when he was nature director at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Hearing the loons on moonlit nights from his tent cabin next to Spring Lake hooked him for life.

My day with the Loon Ranger and seven other birders began at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, followed by stop just north at Winthrop Harbor. In both places, we scanned Lake Michigan for red-throated loon, a rare species in these parts. We didn’t see any, but it was worth a shot.

Two days before, David surveyed 25 lakes on a full-day binge with fellow loonatic Karen Lund. They tallied 505 common loons across Lake and McHenry Counties, the third-highest total ever for their annual Chain O’Lakes Spring Loon Count. As our car caravan headed west toward Antioch, we felt confident that excellent looning was ahead.

Red eyes, distinctive feathering and eerie vocalizations add to the
common loon’s charm. The species is not closely related to
mallards and other ducks. Photo by Steve Huggins

Well, almost excellent. Mother Nature threw us an early-April curve, delivering rain, sleet, and eventually heavy snow flurries. The weather was manageable but more challenging with each passing hour.

Our first stop, Channel Lake, yielded 65 common loons and more than 200 American white pelicans. The birds were scattered throughout the lake and some, especially pelicans, were close to shore. Most of the loons were farther out so David’s Leica spotting scope was essential for viewing our red-eyed quarry up close. The Loon Ranger is always prepared.

Moving on to other lakes, our success declined in proportion to the visibility. We just couldn’t see much through the snow and fog. But now and again we’d hear those magical calls of the wild.

David’s trained ears can distinguish the four basic loon calls: hoot, tremolo, wail and yodel. The last two are classics—sounds we know from summer vacations up north, and from Hollywood movie soundtracks.

The looney projections seemed especially haunting during our stop at Fox Lake, next to the shuttered Mineola Hotel. Built in 1884, the landmark looks ideal for a horror movie, or at least a Scooby Doo episode. As we surveyed the foggy lake, the creepy hotel hovered behind us like a giant gray ghost.

The small but hardy 2022 Loonapaloonza team was joined by a wooden friend.

We’d just come from another point on Fox Lake, Columbia Bay, where we took the official 2022 Loonapaloonza group photo in a snow squall. For a prop, I retrieved a common loon decoy I’d brought along from home—a fitting mascot for the day, carved and painted by my late father. Young birders Harper and Harrison held it proudly in the front row.

The decoy joined us for lunch at Looney’s Pub in Antioch, resting amid our coffee cups. The server, Stacy, got a kick out of it—or maybe it was the clientele. The burgers were first rate—a Bleu Loon for me and a Looney Burger for David, which I suspect he’d ordered before. The pub is a traditional stop on his annual tour.

It was tempting to call it a day after lunch, but three of us pressed on. East and West Loon Lakes were just down the road, where we heard loons calling through the snowfall. One performed a beachfront fly-by, its heavy body pulling large, paddled feet.

Soon the Chain O’Lakes visitors will be off to their summer homes in northern Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada. But for a few weeks every spring, what a joy (and opportunity) it is to see and hear them in Illinois. I fully understand the Loon Ranger’s fascination with the species.

Happily, the common loon population is stable or increasing. For more information, including a migratory range map and amazing loon facts, check out the All About Birds website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

 

Great-tailed Grackle by Jake Cvetas

Chasing the big grackle

A shiny blackbird with a very long tail gave area birders a thrill this winter

(published 3-11-22)

Winter is a slower time for birding. There isn’t as much to see. So, when rare birds pay a visit, they get a royal welcome.

Thankfully, birders with cabin fever had some interesting options as we rolled into 2022. A Townsend’s solitaire at Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County drew our attention in January, followed by another Townsend’s in Kane, at Hampshire Forest Preserve.

Several snowy owls posted up along the Chicago lakefront, and another appeared at DuPage Airport in West Chicago. The latter was a new tick on the county list for some observers.

Some lucky watchers enjoyed special visitors without leaving home. Common redpolls and white-winged crossbills invaded the region this winter, many congregating at backyard feeders and atop seed-rich conifers. In a typical winter we see few (if any) of these birds.

Yet another winter oddity, and the focus of today’s column, was a great-tailed grackle in Monee. Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, discovered the bird, a native of the southern Great Plains and Southwest.

The Monee Miracle, still present in late February, was a convenient rarity, making itself at home just off an I-57 exit ramp. If it’s not at Thorntons gas station, the chat rooms said, check the nearby Amazon warehouse, or the Pilot Truck Stop across the interstate. Day after day, dozens of birders followed the drill.

Birdwatchers love a good stakeout, and this one offered excellent odds of success. The grackle’s general location was reliable, confined, and searchable from inside a warm car. This wasn’t a little gray bird in the woods, or an obscure gull standing on a frozen lake among 100 look-alikes. Instead, the target was a large blackbird with a massive caboose and a thing for salty snacks.

I went to Monee on January 30, two weeks after Stotz’s exciting find. The “big grackle,” as birders were calling it, had been reported the day before, so I wasn’t too worried about striking out.

But there’s a downside to being late to a stakeout: you might be the only birder present, potentially adding time and stress to the search. Locating the quarry is a snap when you arrive on the scene and spot a cluster of humans looking through binoculars and spotting scopes. Find the birders and you usually find the bird.

In any case, off I went to Monee, a 48-mile drive from Glen Ellyn in light Sunday traffic. First stop: Thorntons. Nothing but European starlings. The latter, I knew from reports, were buddies with the great-tailed grackle, whose tail alone is longer than they are.

Next stop: Amazon Fulfillment Center, visible just down the road. My strategy was simple, drive around the parking lot and find the grackle. Once again, plenty of starlings, and worse: annoying speed bumps about every 25 feet.

I’m thinking, this could get old really fast. The parking lot was busy and huge, with Amazonians coming and going. I detected no other cruising birders.

Thankfully, after 15 minutes, the big grackle appeared. Wow, that tail! I watched it land on a light fixture mounted on the east wall of the warehouse. It was eating something orange. For a bird far out of range, in a cold Chicago winter, it’s about survival.

The scene reminded me of a locally famous bird on the southeast side of Chicago—a laughing gull/ring-billed gull hybrid that dined regularly in a KFC parking lot in 2004 and for years thereafter. You could look it up.

Common Grackle by Jeff Reiter
Grackles of all kinds—including the one we know best, the common grackle—are comfortable around people and human-altered landscapes. They are opportunistic. In the fall, packs of noisy grackles will sometimes descend upon my backyard, depleting my feeders in a ravenous frenzy. I don’t mind when it happens because they are cool-looking birds.

Common grackles are scarce here in the winter; finding just one is a challenge. But in early spring they return in force from their southern hideouts. Watch for them now.

I suppose we should keep an eye out for more great-tailed grackles, too. Their population is increasing, studies show, and so is their range. The species is already established in parts of Iowa. As noted in my recent recap of the 2021 birding year, a great-tailed turned up last April in Cook County. Lake County hosted one in 2018.

Now Will County is on the board. Maybe DuPage or Kane will be next.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Red-breasted Sapsucker by Lee Jaffe

A sip of Napa Valley's birdlife

(published 2-24-22)

Most visitors to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa thirst for a fine cabernet. Me? I went for the birds.

It was the last stop on our family vacation to Napa Valley, the penultimate day of 2021. I volunteered for designated driver duty while my wife and two kids attended the tour and tasting. When we pulled into Stag's Leap, the birding potential seemed excellent. The grounds were beautiful. So instead of dropping everybody off and heading for Oxbow Preserve in Napa, I stayed put. It would prove to be a wise choice.

It was nice to get away—our first all-family trip since well before the pandemic. We picked the Napa region because we'd never been and because it seemed like a good place for our son (“Jaybird”) to turn 21 on Dec. 27.

The viticulture scene was interesting, from the vineyard-filled landscapes to the educational tastings. Being an occasional red wine drinker, I could appreciate all of it. But the chance to see new birds is what filled my glass. I'd birded in California only once before, in San Diego.

Our rental home in St. Helena featured a birdy backyard—no feeders, but lots of attractive plantings and a giant live oak. We arrived after dark on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning I began to collect the feathered gifts. One of them, an oak titmouse, ranked high on the wish list I'd scratched out the week before—the first of four "lifers" on the trip.

I was looking at everything, of course. Some of the common birds were species I'd seen only once or a few times before, like Anna's hummingbird, black phoebe, chestnut-backed chickadee, California towhee, scrub jay, Steller’s jay and western bluebird. Each sighting brought back memories of other places where I'd felt the thrill of spotting something new.

I was a happy birder just watching the yard and walking around the neighborhood, not knowing what might pop up next. Even the juncos were new, all sporting their distinct West Coast plumage. The croaks of resident common ravens filled the air.

Acorn Woodpecker by Lee Jaffe

One afternoon stroll took me past a scruffy junk-strewn property, the kind of place where you expect a big dog to come charging.  None did, and from the edges, I observed my first Nuttall's woodpecker, a classic California species that’s similar to our downy and hairy woodpeckers.

To my surprise, the lot featured a fresh-looking hopper feeder filled with mixed seed—perhaps a newly installed Christmas gift. Among its customers were a pair of Eurasian collared doves. I didn't think much of it, but later, when studying the local bird checklist published by Napa Solano Audubon, I realized the non-native dove was an unusual visitor.

At Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, near Calistoga, I caught a three-second glimpse of a varied thrush—my reward for summitting Coyote Peak, a rather challenging hike. Despite the brief look, it was satisfying to finally see a varied thrush in its proper habitat. My only previous encounter with the species, a Pacific Northwest specialty, was in Evanston, Ill., in 2013. Lots of us remember that bird, a backyard sensation for several weeks.

At Moore Creek Park we tried an all-family hike along the edge of Lake Hennessey—that is, one birder and three non-birders. Two regrets here: rain cut our outing short, and I botched the ID on a golden eagle. I knew the big raptor was an eagle, but my lack of experience with goldens made me blurt out "immature bald eagle!" Only later did I realize my error. My family got over this very quickly.

California Quail by Lee Jaffe

When the drizzle picked up at Moore Creek everyone scrambled back to the car except me. I'd located a colony of noisy acorn woodpeckers and couldn't pull myself away. Then I remembered: I have the car keys! Time to pick up the pace. Just before reaching the parking lot, another target species stopped me in my tracks—a covey of California quail. After delivering the keys I went back for a longer look. Luckily, my family was able to see the quail, too, as we pulled out. Even soggy non-birders can appreciate California's charismatic state bird.

Barn owls are known to hang around the vineyards, and I noticed a few pole-mounted nesting boxes to attract them. But no owls. California thrasher also eluded me, and I didn't see a spotted towhee all week.

The trip ended on a high note, though, thanks to our visit to Stag's Leap. For nearly three hours I stalked around with my binoculars, getting to know the security guards in the process. They were friendly, and I sensed their bemusement to be chatting with a tourist who was more interested in finding birds than sipping award-winning wine.

One guard told me about all the quail and turkeys on the property. That was news to me—I saw none. But I did see 22 other kinds of birds, including a gazillion yellow-rumped warblers, the most abundant species all week. My best find was a red-breasted sapsucker—a most welcome surprise because I'd somehow overlooked it during my pre-trip research.

That night, at a trendy restaurant in Napa, we raised a toast to a fun-filled day and week, and a positive end to a difficult year. Three wine glasses tapped against my pint of beer. The family pardoned my choice of beverage, understanding that the excitement of a life bird can sometimes cloud my judgement.

Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

Mexican Violetear by Matt Misewicz

A good year for birds and birders

(published 1-13-22)

Area birdwatchers will remember 2021 for at least a dozen remarkable sightings, including two wayward hummingbirds and a lost flycatcher. The chasers among us enjoyed ample opportunities to witness "life birds" that seldom visit the region.

It was a newsworthy year in other respects, too:

  • The Biden administration stood up for our feathered friends by restoring protections of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most important bird conservation law ever enacted. The Department of the Interior, under former president Trump, had severely weakened the government's power to enforce it.
  • In Illinois, Governor Pritzker signed the "Bird-Safe Buildings Act," requiring the use of bird-friendly construction techniques for all new construction or renovation of state-owned buildings. The law aims to protect birds from collisions during their migratory journeys.
  • Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, a vital care facility for injured birds (often from building strikes), announced plans for major site improvements. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County hopes for completion in 2024.
  • Hudsonian Godwit by Jackie Bowman

    Chicago's famous (and endangered) piping plovers, Monty and Rose, returned to Montrose Beach, nesting for a third consecutive year. The plucky pair lost their first clutch of eggs to a skunk attack but recovered nicely, hatching four chicks in July.
  • Ohio celebrated its first piping plover nest in 83 years at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo. The male of the pair was Nish, son of Monty and Rose, born in 2020.
  • Illinois Audubon Society received a $30 million bequest from the estate of Gilbert and Mary Hebard, the largest single gift in the organization's history. IAS celebrates 125 years in 2022.
  • A growing nonprofit, Birdability.org, raised its profile in 2021, boosted by a partnership with American Bird Conservancy. Their goal—and that of local groups like the DuPage Birding Club—is to make birding more accessible for those with mobility challenges and other disabilities.
  • Chicago Park District prioritized accessibility by installing an asphalt trail at the region's premier birding location, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, home of the Magic Hedge. No bikes!
  • In September, a "Big Sit" team competition by the Illinois Ornithological Society raised $12,000 for IOS support.
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology added a Shazam-like sound identification feature to its popular Merlin Bird ID app. It's free, and birders love it.

Not all the bird-related news of 2021 was positive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its first update of "Birds of Conservation Concern" in 13 years. The report identifies 269 species needing support, excluding those already designated as federally threatened or endangered. Among them: chimney swift, belted kingfisher, red-headed woodpecker, scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, wood thrush, bobolink, and cerulean warbler. I'll be looking at these birds a little differently now.

The USFWS also removed 23 species from the Endangered Species List, reclassifying them as extinct. One of them is the ivory-billed woodpecker. That news, however, isn't stopping a new search effort in Louisiana by Mission Ivorybill. Volunteers with waterproof boots are welcome. Pack a camera, too, just in case.

Broad-billed Hummingbird by Matt Misewicz
The sightings

Now, about those hummingbirds. Daily Herald readers may recall a front-page story in August about a Mexican violetear, a rare hummer seldom seen in the Midwest and seen only once before in Illinois. One visited the Cristino family's feeder in Mundelein, and word traveled fast. At least 100 lucky birders witnessed the emerald beauty, a solid candidate for local Bird of the Year.

In May, Nathan Goldberg found a broad-billed hummingbird feeding on a blossoming buckeye tree at LaBagh Woods in northwest Chicago. It was the third Illinois sighting of the species, a native of Mexico and the desert Southwest.

Another mega-rarity, small-billed elaenia, excited birders in early December. Susan Zelek discovered the brownish flycatcher, a South American species, in Waukegan. Only four records of the species exist for North America; remarkably, one of them occurred in Chicago (2012).

Bullock's Oriole by Andy Gilbert

Watchers road-tripped to Morgan County in late April to see a vagrant Bullock's oriole, an astounding new yard bird for welcoming homeowner Pat Ward.

It was that kind of year. The following select highlights from the region back up what I'm always telling new birders: Get outside and look around. You never know what you might see!

  • Several typically hard-to-find species were quite accessible in the region in 2021, such as black-necked stilt, cattle egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, white-faced ibis, red-necked phalarope, and trumpeter swan. All appeared in multiple locations.
  • Two black-neck stilts visited Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in April, a new bird for the Naperville site (No. 241). A snowy owl in November was No. 242. In addition, green-winged teal nested at Springbrook, the first breeding record for the site and for DuPage County.
  • A Eurasian shorebird called a ruff turned up in Oswego. A day later, a second ruff surprised birders at Wood Dale Reservoir near Itasca. The latter site became a hotspot, hosting ruddy turnstone and other unusual sandpipers, such as buff-breasted and white-rumped.
  • Denis Kania spotted an American anhinga flying over McDowell Grove Forest Preserve during the DuPage Spring Bird Count in May—the first anhinga in the 49-year history of the count.  A black rail the same day, location undisclosed, was the event’s second on record.
  • Limpkin by Nat Carmichael
    Golden eagles sailed over Naperville's Greene Valley Hawk Watch, a site designated “Fisher Point” by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in October. The name honors Bob Fisher and his late wife, Karen, for their dedication to bird conservation and the popular hawk watching hill itself.
  • Morton Arboretum goodies included blue grosbeak, northern mockingbird, Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and white-eyed vireo. St. James Farm also offered a blue grosbeak plus Harris's and lark sparrows.
  • A limpkin found refuge at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Lake County, followed by a second limpkin at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Putnam County. These were just the second and third records for the species in Illinois, the first coming in 2019 near Olney.
  • Rare delivery at UPS: in April, cattle egret and great-tailed grackle visited the grounds of the United Parcel Service facility in Hodgkins, just off I-294. 
  • As usual, Montrose Point birders crushed it. Highlight birds included black vulture, brant, long-eared owl, Franklin's gull, least bittern, western tanager, tufted titmouse, and white-faced ibis. The latter added to a site list approaching 350 species. The Magic Hedge remained magical, attracting 34 warbler varieties.
  • Painted Bunting by Randy Schietzelt
    A dazzling male painted bunting flashed birders at Winnemac Park in Chicago in May; a second one lit up a McHenry County feeder in December. McHenry also hosted a striking cinnamon teal in May.
  • Snowy owls invaded the region in late November and hopefully will stay all winter. Most were roosting along the Chicago lakefront. A barn owl visited Burnham Park in August.
  • European goldfinch was (and still is) regular at Armstrong Park in Carol Stream. Likewise for Eurasian tree sparrow at Kaneville Cemetery in Elburn (watch the feeders).
  • Orland Grasslands produced a loggerhead shrike, and a yellow-crowned night heron at Lincoln Park Zoo was not on the exhibit roster. Wild turkeys, once a rarity in Cook, popped up in at least four places.
  • Multiple Hudsonian godwits delighted birders in the fall. The one in St. Charles, at Breen Park, was incredibly cooperative—a lifer for many, including me.
  • Gyrfalcon by Josh Engel
    Birders scurried to Wauconda in November when four whooping cranes settled in at Broberg Marsh.
  • Josh Engel of Red Hill Birding was leading a gull trip last February in Waukegan when a spectacular gyrfalcon crashed the party. Nobody complained.
  • A Bohemian waxwing at Elsen’s Hill (Winfield) delighted Christmas Bird Count participants on Dec. 18.
  • Other random oddities, all in DuPage: A common loon on Mallard Lake throughout the spring and summer; three surf scoters paddling around Hidden Lake Forest Preserve; and a backyard white-winged dove in Elmhurst. As I said, you never know.

Final thoughts

"Ornitherapy" is the title of a new book and a word that well describes the calming role that birds have played for us during the pandemic. Birding, like golf and gardening, is experiencing a growth spurt. People want to be outside, connecting with nature. It's good for us.

Sometimes, just a peek at the backyard feeders is enough--that's a connection, too. Other times I'll step onto the patio or driveway and look up. This odd habit paid off big last March (on the same day!) when I spotted two distant bald eagles and a high-flying flock of American white pelicans. With them, my yard list hit 122 species.

Summer Tanager by Jeff Reiter
Perhaps my favorite sighting afield in 2021 was the summer tanager at Cantigny Park, a rosy-red songster with a large appetite for honeybees. I wrote a column about it.

In downtown Glen Ellyn, check out the outdoor murals by artist Tony Fitzpatrick, installed in September. I don't understand every element in the paintings, but the cardinal and red-bellied woodpecker are easy IDs. The works are part of the DuPage Public Art Project, sponsored by the College of DuPage.

Baraboo, Wis., is on my 2022 itinerary. The International Crane Foundation held a Covid-delayed grand opening last May following a massive renovation. “Cranes of the World” will be worth the trip. I’m equally stoked for the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, always a great weekend. Dates are May 12-15.

More diversions are surely in my near future, planned or on the fly. The birding life takes you places. Wherever you go this year, stay safe, enjoy the birds, and report back!

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.