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.