More than cute: Picture books that leave a mark

(published 11-29-23) is tracking me. The Amazon creation knows what book I’m reading and every book I’ve read in the last four years. It even knows what I will probably read next.

“Feathered Friends,” by emerging author and artist
 Madelyn Lee, contains fun facts about birds
 in backyards and around the world.
(courtesy Early Light Press LLC)
Goodreads also reports how I’m faring in the 2023 Reading Challenge—if I’m ahead or behind. I’m almost never ahead. My goal this year is 50 books and it’s going to be close. What if I’m a book short on New Year’s Eve?

In August, an answer to that question arrived in a carefully wrapped package from Virginia. Inside was “Feathered Friends,” a children’s picture book from first-time author and illustrator Madelyn A. Lee, age 18.

I don’t receive review books very often, and this one was unlike the others—an oversized field guide for toddlers. The book’s 32 pages feature 17 birds, and how prescient that one of them is American flamingo, a species that crashed Virginia (and 10 other states) a month after the book’s publication.

Copies of Madelyn’s book flew off the table at a Barnes & Noble book signing in Williamsburg, just before she went off to begin studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

No, I did not add “Feathered Friends” to my Goodreads list. But I’m keeping that option in my hip pocket. A book is a book, right?

Yes, and potentially much more. The surprise arrival of “Feathered Friends” started me thinking about books for kids and their power to influence how we feel about birds and nature. Young minds remember stuff; early exposure to birds and conservation themes can only be good. Worked for me!

The inspiring Monty and Rose books, this one
and its sequel, are about birds and birders
 beating the odds on a busy Chicago beach.

My admiration for birdy picture books is soaring. I’ll mention a few of my favorites here because their authors and illustrators deserve the love, and because you might have little ones on your holiday shopping list.

You probably know about Monty and Rose, the piping plover pair that captivated Chicagoans by raising a family on Montrose Beach in 2019. The endangered species hadn’t nested here in more than 70 years.

Monty and Rose chose a tough neighborhood to call home. It took a small army of dedicated volunteers to protect them during their time on the busy strand. The general of that army was Tamima Itani, an Evanston resident who serves as lead volunteer coordinator for Chicago Piping Plovers, a collaboration between Chicago Bird Alliance, Chicago Ornithological Society and Illinois Ornithological Society.

Tamima is the go-to source for information about Monty and Rose and their extended family. Nobody knows them better and turns out she has a gift for putting good stories into words.

Tamima’s two children’s books, “Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose” and “Monty and Rose Return to Montrose,” will leave an impression, I promise. They are adorable but also informative and real. The illustrations by Anna-Maria Crum are terrific.

“The Christmas Owl,” successful on
 so many levels, shines a light on the
important role of wildlife rescue centers.
(courtesy Little, Brown and Company)

Net proceeds from Tamima’s book sales go to piping plover research and conservation. She’s raised $12,000 so far. For more information go to

On the cuteness scale, a piping plover is hard to beat, especially a downy chick on toothpick legs. Northern saw-whet owl is another heart melter.

Do you remember Rockefeller? She’s the saw-whet who was discovered trapped in New York’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 2020. Like Monty and Rose, “Rocky” became national news—a feel-good story when our Covid-stricken nation really needed one.

I wasn’t aware of “The Christmas Owl” until my wife purchased a copy in September. It’s a special book, and a New York Times bestseller at that. I like it because it highlights the important role of wildlife rehabilitators, in this case Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, N.Y., which came to Rocky’s rescue. The center helped her recover and then released her back into the wild.

One of the book’s coauthors, Ellen Kalish, founded Ravensbeard in 2000. You can watch her set Rocky free in a short video posted on the center’s website. Have a tissue ready. The site offers a line of Rocky merch, too. The famous little owl with the saucer eyes is a fundraising dynamo!

“Owl Moon” won the 1988 Caldecott
Medal for its illustrations and remains
 in print, available in nine languages.
 (courtesy Penguin Random House LLC)
I must say, until now, the only children’s book to consistently enter my thoughts was “Owl Moon,” the 1987 classic by Jane Yolen. You must know it: the tale of father and young daughter who go owling on a snowy, winter night. The words, the story, and illustrations (by John Schoenherr) are picture book perfection.

Yolen has more than 400 children’s books to her credit. She considers “Owl Moon” her best. If you are not familiar, do check it out.

Next month is the Christmas Bird Count, an all-day event that begins with pre-dawn owling. I always think of “Owl Moon” when I’m out there in the cold and dark, not knowing if the effort will be rewarded. As Yolen writes, “When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope.”

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Summer notebook

Limpkins, spoonbills, flamingos, and a really big chicken

(published 9-21-23)

Limpkin by Nat Carmichael

You never forget your first limpkin. Mine was at a lakeside trailer park near St. Petersburg, Fla. A book said limpkins would be there and sure enough they were. That was 1998, when finding the ibis-like wader in the United States, outside of Florida or southern Georgia, was unheard of.

How times change. A limpkin spent most of August and early September dining on fresh-water mussels at Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Cook County’s first record of the species. Another was spotted near Rockford.

These reports continued a trend that began several years ago. The first Illinois record of limpkin occurred in 2019, near downstate Olney. Second and third sightings followed in 2021, one of them in Lake County.

Limpkins visited a few downstate counties this summer, too, and multiple states. Colorado received its first, as did Pennsylvania. Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin also hosted limpkins.

Another large wading bird we associate with Florida, roseate spoonbill, mounted its own Midwest invasion. Sightings at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (Putnam Co.) and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge (Mason Co.) in early August were followed by two reports in Chicagoland, one in Northbrook and another in North Chicago.

Roseate Spoonbill by Jackie Bowman
Birders in Green Bay were shocked by a summering “spoonie” as well, Wisconsin’s second state record of the species. Michigan birders tallied a second state record, in Jackson.

What’s going on? We can’t blame Hurricane Idalia, which did blow some American flamingos northward in late August. Birders scored flamingo lifers in 10 states, including Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Remarkable!

But limpkins and spoonbills arrived well before the storm. Did climate change bring them here? We can’t rule it out.

The ranges for many species that we think of as “southern birds” are gradually expanding, shifting, or both. Little blue heron, snowy egret, and red-shouldered hawk are some examples. We are seeing these birds in Illinois more regularly.

It’s always exciting to spot a rarity. But if the reason we are seeing a bird is climate change, well, that’s disturbing. National Audubon Society’s “Survival by Degrees” report claims that by 2080, two-thirds of North American bird species may face unlivable conditions across their current ranges.

Arboretum mockers

Northern mockingbird, despite its name, is all over the South but uncommon in northeast Illinois. I’m still waiting to see one in my yard or at Cantigny Park, the places I bird the most. I’m confident that day will come, as mockingbird is another species on the move.

Northern Mockingbird by Paul Clifford
In June, birders were delighted to discover a pair of mockingbirds at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. The birds nested on the property’s east side and hatched four young. It is believed to be the first record of breeding mockingbirds at the Arb, and maybe even DuPage County.

In recent decades, mockingbirds have successfully expanded their range into the northeast U.S. Their presence in the Midwest is well established and growing. They prefer dense, fruit-bearing shrubs and adapt well to urban settings.

Road tripping

In early August I piloted a rental van to Seattle with my son, Jay, who is starting graduate school at the University of Washington. You can see a lot when crossing 2,000 miles of diverse habitat, and we did.

Greater Prairie Chicken statue in Rothsay, Minn.
A most unexpected sight occurred just off I-94 in Rothsay, Minn.—an 18-foot, 9,000-pound greater prairie chicken! Quite by accident, stopping for gas, we’d entered the Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota. Dedicated in 1975, the chicken statue is still in fine shape.

Another fabricated colossus awaited us in Jamestown, N.D. This time our stop was planned—no way we could pass up “The World’s Largest Buffalo.” At 46 feet long and 60 tons, the steel-and-concrete beast, called Dakota Thunder, offered a memorable welcome for two first-time visitors to North Dakota.

Playing ball in Bismarck, N.D.
Needing a baseball fix, we attended the Northwoods League All-Star Game in Bismarck, contested on the home field of the Bismarck Larks. The team mascot is a western meadowlark, the state bird.

I viewed several meadowlarks perching on fenceposts as we cruised west in the loaded-down Pacifica. Far easier to spot were the massive fields of blooming sunflowers. North Dakota leads the nation in sunflower growing and we were passing through at the perfect time.

At the far western end of the state, nearly in Montana, we spent a few hours amid the stunning landscapes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park was a bucket lister for me, but our timing could have been better. We arrived at mid-day with the sun blazing—too late for prime wildlife viewing. Birds were scarce, and even the park’s signature bison herds eluded us.

Backyard reset

In the weeks before the road trip, my backyard was overrun with house sparrows—adult birds and their fast-growing offspring. The pesky non-natives were draining my feeder daily, consuming prodigious quantities of the black-oil sunflower crop that I would soon witness in North Dakota.

Enough already. Before heading out, I took in my feeders and birdbath, gave them a good washing, and left them in the garage to dry. The sparrows would survive, even though I hoped otherwise.

When I got back and rehung the feeders, I was curious how long it would take for the sparrows to return. The answer was about four days. Hummingbirds, however, came back to the nectar feeder almost at once, like they were waiting for it.

I’m experimenting now with refill frequency, letting the sunflower feeder sit empty at times. It seems to help—house sparrow visitation is down. I like to think I’m winning the game, frustrating the greedy little buggers and driving them off to less Grinch-like neighbors.

It’s an illusion, of course. Like squirrels, house sparrows can never really be defeated, and some day they will rule the world. Their annoying presence is the price we pay for attracting the birds we cherish, like cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches. It’s a tradeoff we must live with.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Colorado calling

Summer birding tour of the Centennial State delivered unforgettable sightings

(published 7-26-23)

Chestnut-collared Longspur by Tony Dvorak,
Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Now and then a trip turns out way better than expected. In June, I took one that did.

I signed up with Colorado Birding Adventures in January. Waiting any longer was risky. Company owner and chief guide Carl Bendorf runs his “Best of Colorado Summer Birding” tour twice a year, always in June, and it sells out. Ten birders per trip, no more.

A month before departure, juicing my anticipation, I changed the screensaver on my phone to a Lewis’s woodpecker, and my laptop wallpaper to a chestnut-collared longspur. Soon, with luck, I’d be seeing these and other birds in Colorado’s grasslands, foothills, mountains, and even some urban environments. Carl’s well-scouted itinerary would take us where the birds are, with emphasis on hard-to-find specialties.

We traveled in two 6-seater vehicles and spent every night at the Fairfield Inn in Longmont, 40 miles north of Denver and 20 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. When birding all day, it’s nice to stay in the same place. Carl and assistant guide Bill Schmoker live in Longmont, so the logistics worked in their favor, too.

Our first full day of birding took us to Pawnee National Grassland. Target birds here were mountain plover (a declining species with a misleading name), chestnut-collared longspur, thick-billed longspur, and burrowing owl. All were “hiding in plain view” on the wide-open shortgrass prairie, but with Carl’s expertise we found them. Horned lark, lark bunting (Colorado’s state bird) and western meadowlark were everywhere, not hiding at all, and the occasional pronghorn antelope dotted the treeless landscape.

Ptarmigan country: Rocky Mountain National Park
Mountain plover was an exceptional find. The species had eluded Carl’s previous tour, two weeks before ours. As with many grassland birds, plover numbers are declining sharply. The same is true for chestnut-collared longspur and some other birds we’d see in the days ahead, such as pinyon jay and brown-capped rosy finch. Even on a joyful birding romp like ours, the dark cloud of falling bird populations is always there.

We entered Rocky Mountain National Park the next morning full of anticipation. Our goal: white-tailed ptarmigan, a ground-hugging resident of alpine tundra. The park’s Trail Ridge Road led us to Medicine Bow Curve, elevation 11,600 feet.

White-tailed Ptarmigan by Carl Bendorf
From the trailhead, Carl led our bundled up, well-layered party onto the barren, rock-strewn expanse. A ptarmigan is virtually impossible to see unless it moves, and this small chicken-like species is not big on exercise. It blends perfectly with its surroundings.

After a tense 30-minute search, two ptarmigans surrendered their cover, charming us all with close-up looks. The birds initially flew a short distance, aiding our search immensely. We slapped high fives while Carl and Bill breathed sighs of relief. When people depend on you for once-in-a-lifetime birds, guides naturally feel some pressure.

The roll continued 20 minutes later outside the Alpine Visitor Center just up the road. While most of us were using the restrooms or buying souvenirs, Carl and Bill spotted six brown-capped rosy-finches on a patch of snow, about 40 feet below the observation deck.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch by Carl Bendorf
Seizing the moment, the guides leaped into round-up mode, summoning the birders. We were scattered all over the place, mingling with an overflow crowd of summer tourists. Bill literally called out inside the packed gift shop. To paraphrase, “Birders, drop the merch! Come outside NOW!”

The real gifts could fly away at any moment.

The drill was effective, the group reassembled, and there they were, the rosy-finches, like they’d fluttered down from a heavenly aviary just for us. What a bonus: close views of another cryptic resident of the summer tundra, a species we didn’t really expect to see.

With ptarmigan and rosy-finch in the bag by 10 a.m., we were tempted to exit the park immediately and purchase lottery tickets at the nearest Loaf ‘N Jug.

Moose by Carl Bendorf
Thankfully we stayed because our lucky streak wasn’t over. More interesting birds were ahead but so were some remarkable mammal sightings—a giant American elk walking down the road, dropping the jaws of spectating tourists; a bull moose dining in a pond, submerged up to his neck; and a stealthy Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep high on a hill. By far the rarest sighting was a cinnamon bear, a color-morph of American black bear. Some of us caught a brief glimpse of it just outside the park entrance.

We would return to RMNP on our last day, but first came the Southern Swing, a 400-mile loop beyond Colorado Springs and back home along a raging Arkansas River, and through towns like Canon City, Salida and Buena Vista. It was a long but rewarding day, filled with memorable birds.

In a brushy field of cholla near Pueblo we watched the courtship behavior of the Cassin’s sparrow, a lifer for most of us, and a bird not even on my radar when the trip began.

Our van and SUV creeped around a neighborhood in Salida before finally locating some noisy pinyon jays. Carl knew their address. Mountain and western bluebirds lived on the block, too. A few human residents gave us curious looks.

Lewis's Woodpecker by Carl Bendorf
Lewis’s woodpecker, my phone bird, came next. Again, we were surrounded by houses, this time in Buena Vista. Carl had staked out a nest hole where an adult bird was coming and going, delivering food and taking out the white trash (fecal sacs).

The woodpecker is named after Meriweather Lewis, who collected the type specimen during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06). I’d wanted to see one quite badly ever since missing my chance in 2019, when for several days a vagrant Lewis’s visited a nature center feeder in downstate Effingham County—the first Illinois record of the species.

Lifers are great, but the Colorado tour produced many birds that I’d only encountered once or twice before. These were special, too:  band-tailed pigeon; broad-tailed hummingbird; golden eagle (two youngsters on a massive cliffside nest); Williamson’s sapsucker; Cordilleran flycatcher; Clark’s nutcracker (yes, that Clark); pygmy nuthatch; American dipper; pine grosbeak; green-tailed towhee; MacGillivray’s warbler; Lazuli bunting; and western tanager.

From left: Bill Schmoker, Jeff Reiter and Carl Bendorf

We tallied 129 species over the five days. A few hoped-for birds eluded us, like scaled quail, ferruginous hawk, and American three-toed woodpecker. But I heard no complaints—not at the end, not all week. Our birding cups were full, our moods Rocky Mountain high.

Returning to the hotel on the last night, Carl said, “It’s good to leave a few birds on the table. If this was easy it wouldn’t be fun.”

He’s right, of course. Best to save a few birds for next time.  

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Stately symbols

The nation’s roster of state birds is colorful but not so diverse

(published 6-7-23)

I drive with a cardinal on my license plate. It costs a little more but not as much as a plate that says COWBIRD, which I observed last year during a visit to Champaign-Urbana. If the owner of that car is reading, I’d love to hear your story!

These state bird and flower stamps, issued in 1982, were highly
popular. All 50 stamps are unique, but many states share the same bird.

I’m certain brown-headed cowbird was not considered for state bird when Illinois elected the northern cardinal in 1929. (Illinois schoolchildren proposed the redbird in 1928 and the state made it official the following year.)  

Until now I’ve stayed clear of state birds, a hot button for some birdwatchers. We have some strong opinions on the matter. In fact, if birders had their way, the current line-up of state birds would look a lot different.

For starters, the cardinal would not be shared by seven states, western meadowlark by six, and northern mockingbird by five. Only 20 of our 50 states have a unique state bird. With so much avian variety to choose from it seems like we could do better. There are some states where a new state bird makes so much sense.

One is Michigan. The first thing I’d do if I moved there is purchase a Kirtland’s warbler license plate, which became an option in 2022.

Michigan’s state bird, however, is the American robin, chosen in 1931. The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance is out to change that, and there is currently bipartisan support in the Michigan state legislature to adopt the rare warbler as the official state bird. Doing so would recognize the state’s successful efforts to bring Kirtland’s warbler back from the brink of extinction in the 1980s.

Kirtland's Warbler by Christian Goers

Replacing a state bird is a difficult process, achieved only once before when South Carolina booted the mockingbird in favor of Carolina wren, in 1948. Michigan might just pull it off, and by doing so would be the first state to officially recognize a warbler species—and one that is uniquely tied to the state. Two other states, Connecticut and Wisconsin, would still have the robin.

There are at least three good reasons why seven states celebrate the cardinal. It’s common, brightly colored, and non-migratory. In other words, the bird is accessible. Anybody can see it, everybody knows it.  

Kirtland’s warbler passes the color test but finding one takes effort. Their primary breeding range is a small section of northern Michigan (lower peninsula), and in the fall and winter they live in the Bahamas. Most Michiganders will never experience a Kirtland’s warbler unless they seek it out.

Must a state bird be conspicuous and familiar? Or may other factors such as local history, conservation success and geographic uniqueness win the day? Michigan legislators may soon have the answer. Keep an eye on H.B. 6382.

In 2010, some Illinois birders floated the idea of changing the state bird to red-headed woodpecker. Bob Fisher, president of the Illinois Ornithological Society at the time, asked a fair question: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the state bird was more representative of what the state was like when it was founded?”

“When Illinois was being settled, you could spot the red-headed woodpecker along the creeks and rivers, whereas you would have been hard pressed to find a cardinal,” Fisher added.

Indeed, despite the moniker “northern cardinal,” our familiar redbird was primarily a southern species in the 1800s. Its northward range expansion occurred in the last century.

Red-headed Woodpecker by Jeff Reiter

The native roots issue aside, red-headed woodpecker is in decline and needs conservation. Making it the state bird, birders argued, would bring it needed attention.

Alas, the grass-roots effort earned some publicity before falling flat. The beloved cardinal was untouchable.

None of the seven cardinal states are considering a change. But just for fun, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently conducted a “thought experiment” using eBird data to select alternative birds of honor. With eBird, Cornell’s self-serve database based on millions of citizen-science records, researchers can estimate the frequency of any bird species in any state.  Cornell’s analysis identified a logical bird for every state, 50 different species.

For Illinois, the eBird choice is indigo bunting, a blue beauty found in every county during spring and summer. Data show that 6.9% of the global population breeds here, the third highest of any state.

I especially like eBird’s selection for Indiana, another redbird state. Cornell said sandhill crane would be a proper choice, given that Indiana hosts the second most cranes in winter and during spring migration. Birders know to visit Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in the late fall to see the biggest annual crane gathering east of the Mississippi River.

Sandhill crane would be a nice choice for Nebraska, too—a chance for the Cornhusker state to break out of the western meadowlark cluster.

Finally, a confession: When I dove into this subject, I found it hard not to be judgmental. I was looking for mismatches and undeserving state birds. That was a mistake.

The eBird exercise showed that better choices may exist. But the current roster of state birds needn’t be viewed with disdain. All are worthy, all chosen for a reason.

A few even come with a good story. I learned, for example, that Utah picked “sea gull” because it saved the state from swarms of crop-damaging crickets in 1848. More than 100 years later, Utah clarified its choice as California gull, a species found in big numbers around the Great Salt Lake.

I do wish that every state had its own bird. Only 20 can make that claim, and hopefully Michigan will make it 21. Talk about a good story: the case for Kirtland’s warbler is too compelling to ignore. If Michigan gets it done, other states might take a harder look at their own state bird choices.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Chasing a rarity (or not)

(published 4-20-23)

What’s my birding style? What’s my favorite way to enjoy birds? These are questions we might ask ourselves as our engagement with the hobby grows.

Ross's Gull by Matt Zuro
I’ve been pondering them ever since an ultra-rare Ross’s gull gifted birders a huge surprise in March. First spotted by Dan Lory, the high-Arctic wanderer triggered a mad rush to a stretch of Chicago beaches near the Indiana line. It was only the fourth Illinois record for the species, and the best opportunity to see one here since 1978.

Soon about 100 birders were on the scene, trying for a glimpse. Many more were on the way, mapping out directions and wondering where to park. Word travels fast when Elvis is on the lakefront.

Hours before the discovery, no local birder expected to be life listing a Ross’s gull. A Ross’s goose perhaps, but not a gull. This was insane. Rare bird chasers were licking their chops.

Time was short, the pressure intense. Surely this bird was a “one-day wonder.” Nobody saw it the next day, or the next.

But three days after the initial sighting the gull returned, appearing off and on for another 48 hours. It believed in second chances. More thrill seekers dropped everything and hit the road. A few arrived from other states, with success far from guaranteed.

Birders reported the gull’s whereabouts constantly via the GroupMe app, helping others find the target. Most (but not all) searchers went home happy.

It may surprise you that I did not pursue the Ross’s gull, already a lock for the area’s Bird of the Year. Timing is everything, right? When the news broke, I was leading a bird walk at Cantigny Park; when the bird came back, I was too busy at work to skip out.

Once more, I had to experience an amazing bird vicariously. It was still amazing, just to know such a rarity was only 40 miles from my desk.

Townsend's Warbler by Jerry Ting
In birding, you get some and you miss some. We learn to be OK with it, otherwise we’d go crazy. My personal outlook is glass-half-full: most birds I really want to see will cross my path eventually. Maybe not Ross’s gull but most.

It took me years to locate some birds that my friends seem to find routinely—least bittern, worm-eating warbler, Kentucky warbler, and vesper sparrow, to name a few. Those same friends enabled some of my most coveted sightings. The birding community is incredibly supportive.

We do remember the misses, though. In 2015, I went all the way to Quincy, Illinois, to bag an ivory gull—another rare white wonder from the far north, and the first in Illinois since 1992. Too late, the bird was gone.   

This is a hobby, not life or death, and there are always birds to see. In Quincy, I recall watching eagles soar against a pure blue sky and a pileated woodpecker pounding away on a snag. A tufted titmouse called. Nature awards some fine consolation prizes if we are open to receiving them.

Fast forward to 2020, when dozens of birders scurried to Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine for a Townsend’s warbler, a rare visitor to the Midwest. Once again, I couldn’t get away. Oh well, I thought, I’ll see that bird someday—maybe out west where it belongs.

Sure enough, in January, my wish came true. I was birding at Madera Canyon in the Tucson area with my friend Chuck, a Chicago retiree on an extended winter getaway. Walking down a snow-dusted trail, we encountered a striking Townsend’s warbler, a most welcome surprise.

Chuck Berman (left) and Jeff Reiter
Three more lifers followed, and only one, yellow-eyed junco, was fully anticipated (thanks to Chuck’s scouting report). Hepatic tanager was a bonus, and Chuck later guided me to a small park in Green Valley for Lawrence’s goldfinch.

So, I’m back to my initial question about birding style. My experience in Arizona was just about perfect—easy pace, no pressure, let’s just see what we see. The only thing we chased was a good time.

In her new book, “Slow Birding,” Joan Strassmann urges us to relax and pay more attention to the birds all around us. That’s good advice that we probably don’t hear enough. Patience and careful observation go a long way.

How we bird is a personal choice. You can watch birds from your kitchen window, a park bench, or a wheelchair. You might travel the world to see exotic birds or track down rare birds all over Chicagoland and the Midwest. With so many options, the hobby is accessible for everyone.

Keep a list, keep 10 lists, or forego listing altogether. Fire up eBird, Merlin and GroupMe, or head into the field unplugged, with just a raggedy old Peterson guide. Bird alone or with others. Hang a feeder or not.

My own approach to the hobby is mixed. I love watching my yard, slow birding in familiar or new places, and writing about what I see. Experiencing new birds and growing my life list is fun for me, but I’ve morphed into a reluctant chaser. I’ll drive to see a rare bird only if it fits my schedule, isn’t too far, and the odds of success are high.  

Know your style and wear it proudly. There’s no crying in baseball, and no shame in birding. Do what feels right and gives you joy.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Red-winged Blackbird by Christian Goers
Black beauties of the marsh

Red-winged blackbirds are back, on territory, and sounding off

(published 3-2-23)

Sometimes I like to nerd out on a specific bird. The challenge is to learn something new, and I always do.

Today’s focus is the red-winged blackbird, a true harbinger of spring in northern Illinois. The glossy black males with scarlet shoulder patches (or “epaulets”) are now returning from the southern U.S., establishing territories in preparation for mating season. Their exuberant “konk-la-reeeee!” is a classic sound of the marsh that amplifies in the coming weeks.

The redwing is highly adaptable. It thrives in a variety of habitats, even low-quality ones, and adjusts its diet to the season. These traits, along with a hyperactive sex drive, make it one of the most abundant birds in North America, found coast-to-coast. We see redwings just about everywhere, from wetlands and farm fields to bird feeders and ditches along the interstate.

Beginning birders may find the female redwing tricky to identify. It’s brown and heavily streaked, like a large sparrow. The females migrate here a few weeks after the males and maintain a low profile.

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn
Redwings are famously aggressive during nesting season, generally mid-May through July. If you are close to an active nest the male will let you know. Agitated birds hover over human intruders, scolding repeatedly with a harsh “chack!” Parks with trails around lakes and ponds, and golf courses, are hot zones.

Some redwings get physical, approaching from behind and making light contact with their feet. Getting bopped on the head is startling but seldom bloody.

Any perceived enemy is fair game for the fearless RWBB. The species will even chase and briefly land on flying hawks, crows and herons, giving the larger birds a peck on the head or neck.

My Words on Birds business card features a redwing in the air, poised for attack. I snapped the photo looking straight up and then scrambled to safety.

But let’s get back to those epaulets. When a male redwing sings, the tail spreads out and the wings lift, fully exposing the red patches. Ornithologists, I learned, call this song-spread. The display serves to defend territory and attract potential mates. Birds with the biggest, brightest wing patches enjoy a competitive advantage.

The red patches have a yellowish edge at the base. A thin buffy wing bar is often the only color visible on a male, such as during a foraging trip inside another male’s territory. This species can be inconspicuous when it needs to be.

A few other gleanings:

-- The lifespan of a red-winged blackbird averages about three years. The oldest bird on record, which we know from bird banding, was 15 years and 9 months.

-- Redwings are among the most polygynous of all bird species. Males may breed with 10 or more females during nesting season, although three is average. Females are a little slinky, too, often mating with more than one male.

A former RWBB nest
-- A male’s territory is usually a quarter-acre or less—much smaller than I expected given all the hanky panky going on.

-- Females construct the nest from dried marsh vegetation and grasses, about four feet off the ground or water surface. The nest is used only once. A new one is built if there is a second brood, to keep the young safe from tiny nest parasites.

-- Redwings are capable of massive crop damage when they gather in huge flocks after nesting season. The species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and yet farmers are allowed to employ “control measures” to mitigate economic losses.

When not raising families, red-winged blackbirds are indeed highly social, which makes them easy targets. Winter roosts in agricultural areas, usually with grackles and starlings mixed in, can number in the millions.  

This time of year, however, the dapper redwings are setting up shop and looking out for No. 1. Celebrate spring’s early arrival by going for a look and listen at your local marsh. Even a neighborhood pond with some cattails might do the trick. The show is on!

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival, February 2016
From my kitchen table to yours

20th Anniversary Column!

(published 2-15-23)

Earlier this month I presented to the DuPage Birding Club, filling an hour with stories from this column. Amazingly, some audience members stayed awake until the end. As Words on Birds begins its twentieth year, here’s a light version of my remarks, without the 103 PowerPoint slides.

My inaugural column, “Birdwatching is like a box of chocolates,” ran in the Glen Ellyn News and other weekly newspapers in the now defunct Liberty Suburban chain. The Daily Herald picked up the column in 2008 and it’s been here ever since, running once a month if I’m on my game.

This is my passion project. After more than 200 columns, I still enjoy writing about birds, birding, and birders.

Finding topics isn’t hard. I usually have several column-worthy ideas swimming in my head, but many stories are pop ups—unplanned columns about unusual or rare bird sightings, by me and by others. “Chasing the big grackle,” last February, is a good example.

The story of that vagrant great-tailed grackle still makes me smile. Doug Stotz from Chicago’s Field Museum discovered the bird, hanging out next to I-57 at the Monee exit—the bird, not Doug. It stayed for weeks, surviving a brutal winter on gas station food scraps.

Stotz, Josh Engel and other true bird experts have provided helpful insights over the years, no doubt saving me from myself. I’m learning all the time, but I’m still a birder, not an ornithologist.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, May 2014
Monee was exciting, but it couldn’t top Yorkville. That’s where nine black-bellied whistling ducks visited Irene Kaufman’s backyard feeders in May 2014. That story had it all—a rare species for our region that revved up the birding community, a “stakeout” scenario lasting 10 days, and a welcoming homeowner who embraced the excitement in her once peaceful subdivision. More than 200 birders signed a guestbook in Irene’s driveway.

I write about common birds, too, especially those in our neighborhoods. The column has made me more observant, and I hope it’s had the same effect on you. Species that don’t visit feeders can be seen in your trees and shrubs, or in the sky, at certain times of year. The key is being alert and knowing when to look. I’ve devoted columns to cranes, eagles, nighthawks, hummingbirds, nuthatches, owls, sparrows, tanagers, woodpeckers, wrens and, of course, the dazzling spring warblers.

Going beyond the backyard adds to the fun. As birdwatchers we enjoy an outstanding network of county forest preserves and other local hot spots, dozens of them mentioned here. Some venues are worth a bit more driving. We’ve traveled to Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana Dunes State Park, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and the legendary Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota.

You’ve also endured my rambling bird-filled vacation reports from Florida (lots), South Dakota, Pacific Northwest, England, and Ireland. I’ll admit, Words on Birds sometimes reads like a personal diary—thanks for indulging me. I wrote about my “spark bird” (hooded warbler); 100th yard bird (common yellowthroat); 500th life bird (a varied thrush in Evanston!); and my triumphant encounters with former nemesis birds such as Kentucky warbler and worm-eating warbler.

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, June 2014

This column introduced you to birding rock stars like George Archibald, Vern Kleen, Noah Strycker and Julie Zickefoose. You met local birders Graham and Henrey Deese, Keriann Dubina, Ray Feld, David Johnson, Kristina Knowski, Al Stokie and Kyle Wiktor. You even met my late parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, who took me on a very cold woodcock watch early in life. I’m sure glad they did.

I profiled the “birdiest” yard in DuPage County; went downstate to observe prairie chickens on their lek; likened birding to fishing; debated birdwatching as sport vs. hobby; covered Big Days and Big Years; reviewed a dozen books; and sang the virtues of the federal duck stamp. One of my earliest columns was about butterflies!

No bird-related topic is off limits. Writing about the racism of John J. Audubon wasn’t easy, and it’s never fun to report on the steady decline of bird populations, a sadly recurring theme. But people need to know.

Birders tend to care about conservation and the environment, so the more of them the better. If my writings help bring a few more people into birdwatching, then I’m a happy reporter.

You should know that I don’t see or even attempt to see all the spectacular birds featured on these pages. It’s a rush just keeping track of all the action, conveying the experiences of lucky souls who track down their targets or who simply find themselves in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, a lot of them carry big lenses.

High-quality bird photos are essential. They draw people in way better than words. The following photographers have been especially generous with their images: Jackie Bowman, Mike Carroll, Jim Frazier, Christian Goers, Jerry Goldner, Bonnie Graham, Tamima Itani and Matt Misewicz.

Thanks also to you, for reading my stuff, and to the Daily Herald for providing a far-reaching platform. I’ll try to keep earning my wings.

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.