Painted Redstart by Hemant Krishan
Extraordinary birds of 2022

Rare sightings and other surprises captivated local watchers throughout the year

(published 12-15-22)

The younger, hot-shot birders call them megas, as in mega-rarity—their name for the occasional OMG birds that send dedicated watchers racing for their binoculars and car keys.  

Megas can be once-in-a-lifetime events. What are your chances, say, of spotting a painted redstart in Illinois? Almost zero. And yet it happened on August 21, at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda.

“It was an exciting adrenaline rush for sure,” said the finder, Jeff Bilsky. “The bird was amazing and beautiful with its brilliant red belly, white wings and the constantly waving tail.”

Painted redstart is a bird of southeast Arizona. Our state had never seen one.

Jeff’s companion that day, Beau Schaeffer, quickly alerted the birding community via the GroupMe app, enabling about 50 fast-acting birders to get eyes on the history-making songbird before it vanished. Searchers came up empty the next day.

Another surprise visitor from the West, lesser goldfinch, appeared in March at Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lamont. The bird, also an Illinois first, was discovered during a banding project and hung around the center’s feeders for a week.

Exciting birds filled out 2022 from start to finish. Few were megas, of course, but a good many left their viewers feeling lucky and thankful.

News of a feather

I’ll get to those sightings in a bit. First, let’s review the year’s bird-related news, leading off with the serious stuff:

The "2022 State of the Birds Report,” issued in October by 33 leading science and conservation organizations, said more than half of U.S. bird species are declining. Seventy “tipping point species,” it added, have each lost half or more of their populations in the past 50 years and could lose another half in the next 50 years if nothing changes. Among them: chimney swift, rufous hummingbird, golden-winged warbler, evening grosbeak, and bobolink.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2022, now in Congress, would deliver a significant boost for at-risk species, supplying $1.3 billion in annual funding. The bill enjoys strong bipartisan support and could be signed into law any day now.

The Bird Conservation Network released a landmark study based on 22 years of bird census data. “Breeding Bird Trends in the Chicago Region 1999-2020” calls out the importance of protected lands as critical habitat for nesting species.

Neotropic Cormorant by Randall Everts
Monty died at Montrose Beach on May 13, from a respiratory infection. The renowned piping plover was no doubt missing his mate, Rose, who did not return. This would have been the fourth year of nesting by the pair on their namesake Chicago strand.

On a brighter note, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team noted a record-breaking 2022 breeding season, with 149 plover fledglings, the most since counting began in 1984 and up from 87 in 2020.

Imani, one of Monty and Rose’s chicks from 2021, was spotted on Montrose on May 25, the same day birders held a memorial for his famous parents.

Monty did not die from avian flu, but an outbreak of the virus last spring caused the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to advise a shutdown of bird feeders and bird baths. Among wild bird populations, aquatic birds were most affected locally, including a large die-off of double-crested cormorants at Baker’s Lake near Barrington.

Infection also claimed the life of a beloved female great horned owl that nested for many years at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County approved a $25 million expansion and revitalization of Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Completion is set for 2025.

Willowbrook took in several raptors for rodenticide poisoning last winter, including a bald eagle and snowy owl. Both were released after successful treatment.

Voters approved a tax increase last month that will provide extra resources for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, a big win for urban and suburban nature.

Illinois Audubon Society celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2022 and in August named Jo Fessett executive director. She succeeds Jim Herkert who retired in April.

The Naperville-based Conservation Foundation achieved a milestone as well, turning 50.

Bird Watcher’s Digest folded suddenly after 43 years in print, only to be reborn six months later as BWD, with new ownership and a larger page format.

A greater white-fronted goose crashed a Los Angeles Dodgers playoff game in prime time, and a Volkswagen commercial with a birdwatching theme made the song “I Like Birds” even more popular. You know that tune from “The Big Year,” right?  Right?

New video from Louisiana prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pause plans for declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. Hope is still alive.

Notable sightings

Redpolls and white-winged crossbills invaded from the north, delighting birders all winter and deep into spring. A Mundelein homeowner reported 300 redpolls in her yard at once!

Northern Bobwhite by Henry Meade
The DuPage County Spring Bird Count (SBC), coordinated by the DuPage Birding Club, turned up 173 species on May 7. Adding just one new bird to the SBC all-time list is a long shot—the logbook is going on 50 years. Incredibly, three were added in 2022: common redpoll, Neotropic cormorant and trumpeter swan.

Six woodpecker species, none of them an ivory-bill, were among 205 birds found on May 13 by the Big Day team of Mike Avara, Colin Dobson, Mark Vukovich and Mike Ward. Their carefully planned itinerary covered 750 road miles and shattered the old Illinois Big Day record of 191 species, set in 2013 and tied in 2016.

Across all counties, water-loving species considered uncommon or rare popped up regularly, perhaps due in part to climate change. Black-bellied whistling duck; cattle and snowy egrets; little blue heron; black-necked stilt; red-necked and eared grebes; Neotropic cormorant; white-faced ibis; and trumpeter swan—all presented excellent viewing opportunities in 2022. State of the Birds, mentioned above, singled out wetlands as the one habitat in which bird numbers are increasing.

“If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the birds” made a good jingle for 2022. Here are some additional highlights:

In January, a snowy owl spent two weeks at DuPage Airport while another watched planes at O’Hare. In April, a third snowy turned up at Northerly Island in Chicago, formerly Meigs Field.

Three whooping cranes rested overnight at Nelson’s Lake Marsh in March. Black terns coursed over the Batavia preserve in August.

Kaneville Cemetery produced a white-winged dove and once again proved to be the most reliable place to find a Eurasian tree sparrow.

Fermilab, finally reopened to birders in April, boasted three pairs of nesting ospreys.

Morton Arboretum produced cerulean warbler, northern mockingbird, blue grosbeak, western kingbird, and pileated woodpecker. Best of all was a spotted towhee in October.

A flyover golden eagle electrified a DuPage Birding Club walk at Danada Forest Preserve in Wheaton.

In June, a northern bobwhite called its name along the Great Western Trail in Lombard.

Evening Grosbeaks by Bonnie Graham
Vera Miller was justifiably giddy after finding a Brewster’s warbler (blue-winged/golden-winged hybrid) at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve near Darien.

After an absence of many years, grasshopper sparrows returned to Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

Hooded warblers nested again at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, where pileated woodpeckers may be breeding as well. A pileated was spotted next door at Cantigny Park twice.

Observers at the Greene Valley Forest Preserve hawk watch tallied 1,809 migrating broad-winged hawks on September 26, the site’s fourth-highest daily count for the species.

Numerous evening grosbeak sightings across the region in November sparked hopes of an irruption year for the coveted species.

A Neotropic cormorant hung out all spring and summer at Lambert Lake, a small preserve in Glen Ellyn.

Barn owls appeared three times at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago, the region’s hottest of all hot spots. The site’s 2022 avian goodies included piping and snowy plovers, red knot, laughing gull, upland sandpiper, Townsend’s solitaire, and yellow-headed blackbird. Tack on 30 species of warbler, too.

A purple sandpiper at Montrose in September, seen by many, was the earliest fall sighting of the species on record.

Marsh dwelling black rails were heard in both Cook and Lake Counties, and a yellow rail turned up in a Ravenswood back alley.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher by Bonnie Graham
Chicago’s creatively named Park 566 produced a black-legged kittiwake, lark bunting, Say’s phoebe, and loggerhead shrike.

Jackson Park surrendered a western tanager, and a sage thrasher turned up at Northerly Island.

Illinois Beach State Park was the place to be in May, for rare flycatchers and their human admirers. Some birders scored a remarkable trifecta on the same day: eastern kingbird, western kingbird (a pair) and scissor-tailed flycatcher. One week later a fork-tailed flycatcher visited, the third on record for Illinois. Mega!

Birders who missed the IBSP “forkie” had two more chances. In late October, a fork-tailed flycatcher toured Glacial Park Conservation Area in McHenry County. Another (maybe the same bird) lit up the Indiana Dunes a few days later.

A Bullock’s oriole graced a private residence in Winthrop Harbor, and a tricolored heron thrilled birders at nearby Waukegan Beach in June.Will County pitched in with Barrow’s goldeneye, great-tailed grackle, Smith’s longspur, and painted bunting, the latter at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington.

Midewin and Indiana Dunes are practically next door compared with other 2022 rarity hideouts. Birders zipped over to Mason County for limpkin, the state’s fifth record, and Knox County for swallow-tailed kite. Last month, a northern wheatear landed in Jasper County.

Rufous Hummingbird by Graham Deese
Two McHenry homeowners enjoyed (and shared) unlikely feeder birds this month—a juvenile male rose-breasted grosbeak in Algonquin, and a Harris’s sparrow in Crystal Lake. A McHenry County surf scoter at Turnberry Park was notable in October.

Finally, it’s almost a holiday tradition for a rufous hummingbird to visit a backyard nectar feeder that was kept out “just in case.” Hosting honors this year belonged to Oak Park homeowner Rebecca Koch Czurylo, who generously opened her yard to scores of eager birders in late November. The western hummer was still sipping away in early December.

Personal highlights

One of my best moments of 2022 occurred in March while up on a ladder cleaning out the gutters. The dreaded task took an unexpected turn toward joy when a big flock of noisy white-fronted geese passed over—my second-ever yard sighting of the species.

Vesper Sparrow by Nick Waite
Vesper sparrow always eluded me until April, when Haley Gottardo alerted birders to their presence at Kress Creek Park in West Chicago. Once there, Nick Waite pointed me to the cryptic ground-feeding birds (a flock of three) and shared one of his photos. Thank you both!

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed “An Evening with the Cranes” at the International Crane Foundation in June. It was our first visit to Baraboo (Wis.) since ICF’s impressive $10 million renovation, completed in 2021. You don’t have to be a craniac to love the place, or the organization.

In closing, kudos to all my fellow birders, young and old, who graciously shared the hobby in 2022. The pandemic brought many new watchers under our tent—truly a silver lining. We all appreciate birds, and there’s a place for everyone, from relentless chasers to kitchen window feeder peepers. Let’s keep growing the community and raising public awareness for bird conservation. Birding is fun but it carries a responsibility, too.

May your holidays be mega-happy, and the new year filled with lifers!

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Prairie Falcon by Mike Dunn
Stumping for birds

Bob Dolgan’s documentaries capture the magic and mystery of Illinois birds


(published 11-16-22)

Chicago resident Bob Dolgan is a birder, a conservationist, and a fan of the Cleveland Guardians—impressive credentials in my book.


I first met Bob at last spring’s Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, where he was promoting a film project called The Magic Stump. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, a flashback, because I can’t resist an opportunity to talk baseball in a birding column.


In 2021, knowing Bob only from his “This Week in Birding” newsletter, I came across his name in a book about the 1948 Cleveland Indians (now Guardians). I zipped off an email, asking him about his apparent connection to baseball history.

Bob Dolgan

Turns out the book reference was to Bob’s father, a retired sportswriter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He is credited with giving ace pitcher “Sudden Sam” McDowell his excellent nickname and, Bob Jr. told me, attended the ’48 World Series as a fan. Talk about credentials! The Indians won that Series and haven’t won the Fall Classic since, no thanks to the 2016 Cubs.


This year, their first as the Guardians, the team surpassed expectations and gave fans an all-too-brief thrill ride in the postseason. Damn Yankees.


OK, calming down and working my way back to birding now. After graduating from Ohio’s Kenyon College, the younger Bob, now 47, followed his dad into journalism, including a stint with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He moved to Chicago in 2001, shifted to public relations, and more recently earned a Northwestern MBA.


In 2018, feeling burned out and looking for a change, Bob did what any sensible person would do. He quit his job and went birding. A lot. Like 150 times during the winter of 2018-19.


Monty and Rose by Tamima Itani
“It was therapeutic in a way,” he said. “Birding helped me think about what I wanted to do next.”

At least for the short term, two little birds on a busy Chicago beach helped answer the question. Bob would tell and preserve their remarkable story on film.

The endangered piping plovers known as Monty and Rose nested on Montrose Beach for three straight years starting in 2019. Bob’s two short documentaries about them received widespread acclaim and brought needed attention to the issues of bird conservation and habitat management in a high-traffic urban setting.


In October, Bob visited the DuPage Birding Club to show and discuss his latest film, The Magic Stump. It’s a 20-minute piece about some special birds and dedicated birders in Coles County, about 50 miles south of Champaign. We learn how a solitary tree stump in a farm field attracts a remarkable variety of wintering raptors.


The stump that started it all. 

The stump became a thing shortly after a prairie falcon—a species rarely seen east of the Mississippi River—was found close by in 2010. Tyler Funk, the spotter, was fascinated. Over time, he confirmed that the falcon, and later a second bird, returned to the same place, year after year, always in winter. His observations appeared in Meadowlark, the journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society, and inspired The Magic Stump.

Bob Dolgan made six trips to Coles County to capture the magic, but a trail cam installed by Funk proved more efficient. Besides the prairie falcons, a partial list of birds caught on camera includes gyrfalcon, northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, kestrel, merlin, short-eared owl, and snowy owl. At least 10 species of raptor have visited the gnarly stump, once a thriving Osage orange.


The Magic Stump is great storytelling without many words. Birders will appreciate some familiar themes: be curious, expect the unexpected, and bird your local patch like you own it. Funk and fellow birders Ron Bradley and David Mott patrolled their agricultural “backyard” relentlessly, sometimes in frigid conditions. All three appear in the film.


“Some people may come away from the film with the impression that it’s easy to find the birds of the stump, and that’s just not the case,” Bob said. “The stump is a half-mile from the nearest road, and it took the guys in the film a lot of years to record so many sightings.”


You can watch a teaser video at and see a schedule of upcoming screenings.


Bob is back to work, but on his own terms. He founded Turnstone Strategies in 2018, a communications consulting firm with a focus on nonprofit clients. His bird films are Turnstone branded but not intended to be money makers. Making them is just something he enjoys.


“In putting together the story, it’s really about the joy of birding and how even our ordinary surroundings can have a bit of mystery and magic to them.”


In September, Bob received an award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting from Chicago Audubon Society. CAS cited his role in promoting bird conservation, educating the public, and shining a light on the work of local activists.


Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Northeastern Illinois is a stronghold for Henslow's Sparrow,
a grassland species in decline nationally. Photo by Jackie Bowman.
Birds savor our ample green space

Study: Chicago region’s protected lands offer critical habitat for nesting species

(published 9-21-22)

Remember when dead bugs would plaster your car’s windshield and front bumper during summer road trips? I also recall swarms of flying pests around our porch lights, and a lot more fireflies flashing in the yard. More butterflies, too.

Insect populations are crashing, another sign of our troubled ecological times. Birds need those bugs, of course, which is one of many reasons why their populations are falling as well. Other downward drivers include climate change, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and building collisions.

The journal “Annual Review of Environment and Resources,” published in May, reported that 48 percent of bird species worldwide are known or suspected to be experiencing population declines. Only 6 percent are showing gains, and 39 percent are stable.

We all remember the bombshell dropped by the journal “Science” in 2019: 3 billion birds lost in the last 50 years, translating to 30% fewer birds overall. It’s noticeable, in the field and in our backyards.

Birds are struggling, no doubt, but not all of them, and not in all places. Some good news emerged in June courtesy of the Bird Conservation Network (BCN), a coalition of 21 conservation organizations serving the Chicago region.

“Breeding Bird Trends in the Chicago Region 1999-2020” documents that some local nesters, previously in decline, are stabilizing or growing in numbers. Bellwether species such as Henslow’s sparrow (up 3.4% per year) and red-headed woodpecker (3.3%), for example, are gaining ground.

The BCN report, based on 22 years of bird survey data, updates the status of species that raise families in natural areas within six counties: Cook, Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Kane and Will. Analysis was based on 30,000 bird census surveys conducted by volunteer birders under the BCN Survey monitoring program. The surveys occur in target habitats (grassland, shrubland, wetland and woodland) during June and early July, prime nesting season in northeastern Illinois.

The outlook for Red-headed Woodpecker has improved,
thanks to effective land management. Restoration of
 open oak woodland and savannah habitat is
helping the species. Photo by Harv Meyers.
Data collected for 104 species reveal that 56% are steady or increasing in the region versus 37% for the rest of Illinois.

“People in Chicagoland tend to forget how unique it is that we have so many green spaces concentrated in the area,” said Eric Secker, BCN president. “We found that a lot of birds in Chicago are doing better than the rest of the state and elsewhere in the nation because we have so much land being actively managed and restored.”

The protected lands—about 220,000 acres of county forest preserves municipal nature preserves and state parks—in northeastern Illinois are critical to the health of our nesting birds. In addition, these non-agricultural landscapes provide vital stopover habitat for migrating birds on their way to breeding grounds farther north.

Effective habitat management is complex business, and not a perfect science. Practices aimed at helping one species may be detrimental to another. Everything is connected. Further, we don’t always know why the population of a given species is up, down or holding steady. Trends for some birds, especially secretive ones, are poorly known.

BCN’s survey work helps set priorities by identifying the species most in need of assistance. Private and public land managers use the information to guide their conservation efforts.

Grassland birds are high priority, which makes the upbeat news about Henslow’s sparrow—and dickcissel, up 5.5% per year—a cause for celebration. These species benefit from open landscapes like Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

For the nondescript Henslow’s, whose population is declining nationally, it’s no stretch to say that northeastern Illinois is a region of global importance. Only an estimated 410,000 remain in the world, according to BCN.

BCN’s analysis, however, shows that populations of other grassland specialists are falling, with bobolink, grasshopper sparrow and savannah sparrow each down about 3%.

Birders in search of northern mockingbird and pileated woodpecker—uncommon species in these parts—are facing slightly better odds. Both species are trending up. In the case of mockers, geographic range expansion is a factor.

You can see all the data for yourself, organized by habitat, at The trends are eye-opening, and BCN rightly expects them to be a catalyst for action.

“Birds can be good indicators of the overall quality of the habitat in general,” said Secker. “It’s important to remember there are lots of areas that continue to be developed and under threat."

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Cornell's Merlin Bird ID app is a very good listener.
It’s not magic, it’s Merlin

The app’s Sound ID feature is changing how we go birding—and likely growing the hobby

(published 8-11-22)

If the party involves technology, I usually arrive late. But I’m there now and having a wonderful time.

With my new friend, Merlin.

You know those smartphone apps that tell you what song is playing? Merlin is like that, only for birds. I finally added it to my phone in May.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology introduced the Merlin Bird ID app in 2014. It’s one of several apps that can identify birds based on color, size, location, and time of year. Upload a photo or just describe the bird and Merlin will put a name on it.

The game-changer, though, came in June 2021 when Cornell added real-time sound identification capability. Overnight, Merlin became a must-have for birders.

Merlin Project Manager Drew Weber told me the app has received about two million downloads since the launch of Sound ID. Merlin has around 8.5 million downloads in total.

We should all send a thank you note to Cornell—and to birders from all over the world who share what they see and hear in the field. The “magic” behind Merlin is the application of machine learning technology to the lab’s immense dataset of bird sightings and photos submitted by birders via eBird (another Cornell invention) and audio recordings supplied to the lab’s Macaulay Library. Cornell collaborated with experts in computer vision and artificial intelligence to bring Merlin to our phones.

American Redstart by Jackie Bowman
Try the app (it’s free) and you will understand its appeal. The Sound ID feature is addictive, and rapidly changing how we bird.

I was leading a walk at Cantigny recently during which three or four birders were using Merlin. With the app in listening mode, their phones displayed a constantly updating list of birds. We used the information like clues to guide our search.

For birders with hearing loss, Merlin is a godsend. But even those blessed with perfect hearing may lack confidence in identifying birds by sound alone—a trained skill we call “ear birding.”

Some bird songs are loud and easy to learn, like those of the blue jay, cardinal, and house wren. Most birders would not need Merlin to identify them. But when a half dozen or more species are all chirping, chipping, and whistling at the same time, at various distances, at different frequencies and volumes, Merlin can sort it all out.

Sometimes a single bird might have you stumped. Never fear, Merlin to the rescue.

In June, I was hiking at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin and kept hearing some faint call notes. A bird seemed to be following me, but I couldn’t find it in the trees. Then I remembered Merlin. I pulled out my phone and activated Sound ID. Within 10 seconds the app picked up American redstart, and minutes later a dazzling black and orange male finally revealed itself.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to find a bird when you know what to look for!

Baltimore Oriole by Linda Petersen
Merlin isn’t perfect, though. The app offers “best matches” based on the input it receives. On that Cantigny walk we all heard a loud oriole-like song that sounded a bit different. Merlin told us a tufted titmouse was present—a strong candidate for Bird of the Day! After a brief chase, however, we tracked down the true singer, a Baltimore oriole.

Species with highly variable songs can fool Merlin, just like they fool humans. (No question, the birds love doing this.) But the app never stays down at our level for long. It usually nails the ID.

Birding is easier with Merlin, which makes the hobby more accessible. Cornell’s Weber said the app’s goal is to demystify identification, so that anyone can ID the birds around them. Tech-savvy young people might be drawn to it especially. Merlin adds a coolness factor to birding.

With Sound ID, birders of all ages and skill levels have a superpower at their fingertips. Those rare birders who can identify any bird by sound without a device will become rarer still—ear birding may become a lost art.

I do have mixed emotions about smart phones in the field. Birding is a chance to be off-line from technology and most of us need that. It’s also quite satisfying to find and identify an uncommon bird on your own, completely unaided.

My advice is to download Merlin and use Sound ID as much or as little as you wish. Over time you will figure out what degree of use feels right. Many birders apply it to confirm and document their IDs. Merlin records as it listens, providing an audio record for later review.

I am trying hard to use Merlin only as a back-up for ID purposes, listening with my “real ears” as much as possible. With the app constantly on, I’ll spend too much time looking down.

It’s called birdwatching for a reason. Seeing birds is still the main point.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

By nesting in colonies, usually in bare trees above marshy areas, herons gain
 protection from predators. Photo by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
Rookery rebound

(published 7-1-22)

When leading a bird walk, I’m secretly grateful whenever a great blue heron comes into view. Lurking on the edge of a pond, or rowing across the sky, a “GBH” always makes an impression. It’s a big, majestic bird that everyone in the group gets to experience—a welcome respite from the challenge of spotting little birds in leafy trees.

For kids, especially, bigger is better. As a boy, I loved when great blues glided low over our suburban Ohio neighborhood, preparing to land on the nearby golf course. They looked huge and prehistoric. I’d shout out “Crane!” to anybody listening.

 Yeah, not proud of that, but I was 10. Butterflies and moths occupied my time in those days. 

Fortunately, my curiosity about birds (and their correct names) took off later in life and continues today. This led me to a drop-in program called Heron Rookery Rendezvous—a “pop up” viewing opportunity in late March offered by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. 

A great blue heron nesting colony—called a rookery or heronry—is located just west of the District’s headquarters building in Wheaton, in the Danada Forest Preserve. You can easily see it from the turf racetrack where 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair once trained. 

Spotting scopes were set up, but even without them, the view was excellent. We counted 20 stick nests high in the bare cottonwood trees, some still under construction. 

The breeding season had just begun, with courtship behavior and mating on full display. A few herons were settled down on nests but were probably not incubating eggs just yet. 

Great Blue Herons prefer solitude when they feed, which can
 take place miles from the rookery. Photo by Christian Goers.
As the District naturalists shared their knowledge, I quickly realized how little I really knew about our largest commonly seen bird. My scribbled nuggets piled up fast: 

  • Great blue herons usually feed alone, and they do so up to six miles away from the bustling rookery. Feeding is their “me time.”
  • Like owls, the herons regurgitate pellets of indigestible materials, such as fish and frog bones.
  • Herons possess special equipment just for preening—a “comb toe” on each foot and three patches of powder-down feathers.
  • Nesting in large, noisy groups is for safety. Crows, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and raccoons are common predators.
  • The great blue is among 65 heron species worldwide, and one of six found regularly in northern Illinois.

My learnings included a new appreciation for the transitory nature of rookeries. They come and go. The one at Danada peaked in 2008 with 200 nests. By 2017, there were none. 

High winds can destroy a heronry. The nests are vulnerable, and so are the trees that hold them. Great blue herons prefer dead or dying trees in marshy areas. The leafless trees, already in decline, are further weakened by the acidic guano raining down from above.  

Land development and human disturbance are the greatest threats. You might recall the dust-up in 2014 when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra considered buying a 58-acre site near the Danada heronry to build a summer concert venue, an idea widely opposed by conservationists. 

The CSO plan never materialized, and yet the great blue herons still moved away. Now they are back, continuing a rebuild that began with a modest five nests in 2018, according to Forest Preserve ecologist Brian Kraskiewicz.  

The ebb and flow of the Danada heronry is a curious thing—an inspiring story of avian resilience in plain view. 

Back home in Indiana

I suppose curiosity also played a part in my return to the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. What would it feel like, I wondered, after three years away? The pandemic wiped out the 2020 festival, and the 2021 edition employed a hybrid format. This year was back to normal, and normal at this event is very, very good. 

And it was—excellent birding and camaraderie in ideal weather. I especially enjoyed Trail 2 inside Indiana Dunes State Park, with its newly opened boardwalk. That hike alone was worth the 75-mile drive to Chesterton. 

The Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, hosted by Indiana Audubon,
succeeds by making birders of all ability levels feel welcome.

The festival’s bird list over five days totaled 207 species. Best of all were the colorful warblers, tanagers, and other spring migrants that light up the dunes every year. Keynote speaker David Lindo, “The Urban Birder,” rocked the Saturday night gathering. 

Kudos to Indiana Audubon for staging another winner. This was the festival’s eighth year and the biggest one yet with 650 registered birders. I can say with confidence that everybody who wished to see a cerulean warbler saw at least one and a whole lot more.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

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.