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.