Birds and books fill a memorable May

(published 6-12-24)

Miller Woods, Indiana Dunes National Park
I’m a little late with this column and the best excuse I can give is spring migration. I’ve been birding, OK? Now, on a rainy day before Memorial Day, I’m finally collecting my thoughts about an eventful May, the month that watchers hate to see end.

Two books also kept me from my writing table. First came “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird,” a 400-pager by Jack E. Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Bald Eagle is quite the recovery story, a great victory for conservation. Davis covers that, of course, and tons of other information. Benjamin Franklin, I learned, did not formally propose the Wild Turkey as our national bird, and even today the Bald Eagle does not officially hold that title.

My first eagle sighting in the wild came in South Carolina in 1996. I’ll never forget it. Now we see Bald Eagles regularly in the Chicago region. Amazing! I even have the species on my yard list (just once, a distant flyover).

Bald Eagle by Sid Padgaonkar
Every sighting is special. Bald Eagle, for most of us, is not an everyday bird.

On Mother’s Day, our family was dining at Village Links in Glen Ellyn when an adult eagle cruised low across the 18th fairway. The bird then put on a show, circling over the patio for all to see.

An immature Bald Eagle—just as large but without the white head and tail—visited Cantigny Golf in Wheaton during the Spring Bird Count on May 4, wowing our group as it sparred with a pesky Red-tailed Hawk.

Eagles came back from the brink of extinction. The Passenger Pigeon wasn’t so lucky.

Exactly 10 years ago we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the last Passenger Pigeon on earth. Her name was Martha, and today she’s inside a glass display case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I visited her in April.

Seeing Martha is both a sad and inspiring experience. She is a star, an icon, the last of her kind. How could the most abundant bird species on earth be made extinct in only 50 years? It’s true: In1850, up to 5 billion pigeons rules the skies; by 1900, virtually none.

I knew a few things but needed more. “A Message from Martha,” by Mark Avery, provided the answers. The 2014 book had somehow eluded me until now—110 years after Martha’s lonely death at the Cincinnati Zoo. Avery, a Brit, takes readers along on a Passenger Pigeon road trip in telling a fascinating story that every birder should know.

Spring birding was ramping up when I returned from Washington, with Martha still on my mind. The migration started early, confirmed by a backyard hummingbird on April 30, a week sooner than usual. For once my nectar feeder was ready but she zipped right by.

A Baltimore Oriole discovered the sweet treat instead, prompting me to lay out the grape jelly. Wouldn’t you know, the jelly went untouched all month. Maybe it was the brand. I have a friend who swears that orioles only like Welch’s.

Early-morning backyard birding was productive. MTVs (most-treasured visitors) were Red-headed Woodpecker, Common Yellowthroat, and Wilson’s Warbler. None were first-time guests but all three were coffee spillers. Male Scarlet Tanagers dazzled me two days in a row.

Another fine moment came while jogging on the Illinois Prairie Path, between Glen Ellyn and Lombard. Not far off I heard a singing Wood Thrush, a declining species with a heavenly voice. I floated on air for the next mile.

Picking the region’s bird of the month is easy: Black-tailed Gull, spotted May 29 at Waukegan Beach by Matt Tobin. Hundreds of birders got a look, a lifer for most.

Black-tailed Gull by Matt Zuro
Other notables included Kirtland’s Warbler at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago; Prairie Warbler at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien; and Black-necked Stilt at both Springbrook Prairie in Naperville and Muirhead Springs in Kane County. In April, a Sage Thrasher thrilled birders at McKee Marsh in Warrenville.

Wisconsin tempted Illinois birders with two remarkable first state records, Varied Bunting and Bar-tailed Godwit. The bunting was in Grafton, just north of Milwaukee; the godwit turned up near Hartford.

I attended my fourth Indiana Dunes Birding Festival May 17-19. Attendance hit 750 for the festival’s 10th anniversary, a new record. I go for a lot of reasons, and one is Cerulean Warbler. Indiana Dunes State Park is a great place for it—you almost can’t miss, and I didn’t. The festival’s surprise bird was Tricolored Heron, one of 189 species recorded.

On the last day of the fest, I birded Miller Woods in Gary, a wonderful preserve near Lake Michigan, inside the national park. I’d never been and will surely go back. Highlights included more Red-headed Woodpeckers than we could count, a wailing Pied-billed Grebe in courtship mode, and a handsome lizard that our excellent guide Michael Topp identified as a Six-lined Racerunner.

Chicago Birding Alliance (formerly Chicago Audubon) exhibited at the festival marketplace, rallying support for new regulations that will help make Chicago safer for migrating birds. It also dropped a news bomb: Chicago, finally, is getting a birding festival of its own. CBA is partnering with several other birding organizations to stage the inaugural Urban Birding Festival, Sept. 14-15. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will be home base.

For now, it’s all about the red-eyed bugs, and that’s OK. Turns out the cicadas are saving me money. They’re good eating! For the birds, I mean. I haven’t refilled my sunflower feeder in 10 days.

Copyright 2024 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

The highs and lows of “owl mania”

(published 4-17-24)

In my last column I mentioned a just-for-fun goal of seeing or hearing 25 bird species in my yard in 2024, before the first day of spring. I came up just short, and one unexpected miss was Great Horned Owl.

Eastern Screech Owl by Randall Everts

I usually hear owls in the neighborhood regularly, during the night or just before dawn, when retrieving our Daily Herald on the driveway. The hooting is a small but rich aspect of suburban living.

Any kind of owl encounter is special, and I lucked into a good one in February at a small preserve in Wheaton. Until that day, I had never viewed an Eastern Screech Owl in DuPage County or even Illinois. The species is possibly even more common than Great Horned Owl in our region, but you’d never know it.

“Screechies” come in two color morphs, red and gray. The bird I witnessed was a beautiful red-morph, sunning on an open perch. I didn’t see its mate, but it probably saw me. Screech Owls are incredibly well camouflaged, especially the gray ones.

Across the way, in the same preserve, visitors could view a Great Horned Owl nest with three owlets. Like the Screech Owl location, the area was marked off by yellow caution tape to keep spectators at a respectful distance. Site managers had stepped in to protect the birds.

Protectionary measures are sometimes necessary.

People do get excited about owls, and sometimes their enthusiasm (or thoughtlessness) gets out of hand. A Chicago newspaper ran a front-page story in January about a pair of Great Horned Owls in Lincoln Park being harassed by a drone. The operators expressed no remorse.  

Indeed, the popularity of owls makes them vulnerable to human interference. You may remember the “owl mania” that broke out when a family of Great Horned Owls nested in a hollow tree in Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. This went on for several years around 2015. The charismatic birds were highly visible and attracted crowds of onlookers. Many people were too close and too loud. Preserve staffers and volunteers from Kane County Audubon did their best to manage the circus.

Birdwatching has rules we are expected to follow. The American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics should be required reading. The gist: Be courteous, to the birds and to your fellow birders.

Great Horned Owl (juvenile)
Disclosing the precise location of nesting owls is frowned upon. It goes against the code.

It’s not just owls. Last month the Forest Preserve District of Will County announced the presence of four active Bald Eagle nests. Wonderful news! But where? To protect the birds, the district does not disclose nest locations to the public. It’s a good policy.

Birders who ask around can usually find what they’re after. I wouldn’t have seen the Screech Owl in Wheaton without an assist. The birding grapevine is built upon trust.

I’m not sure I know any birders who practice total secrecy when it comes to owl locations. Doing so would be a little selfish in my opinion. Helping others experience special birds can be a spark, leading those people into a lifetime of birding and conservation. That sounds a little dreamy, I know, but it really happens.

“Owls might be rivaled only by Bald Eagles as ornithological recruiting agents, inspiring young and old to take an interest, to care about wildlife and to want to share with others,” said Noah Comet in an insightful 2018 New York Times story titled “The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls.”

Delicate is indeed the word. I strive to be an ethical birder while also being someone who shares the joy and excitement of the hobby. Sometimes, I admit, it’s hard to be both. Bird walk leaders feel this tension all the time.

The birding police are out there, and some day they might haul me in for questioning. If that happens, I will plead my case, for the owls and for the people. On the scales of birdwatching justice, I’m going for balance.

Illinois owls (sidebar)

There’s no debate about the two most common owl species in northern Illinois: Eastern Screech and Great Horned. Both are nocturnal and their overall populations are declining according to the American Bird Conservancy.

Great Horned is the husky-voiced “hoot owl” we often hear, especially in winter. Sometimes we see them as well, flying silently like giant moths or silhouetted on a perch. These are special moments for the observer.

Screech Owls are tiny and much less conspicuous. I’ve heard their “whinny” call a few times in the yard or close by. It’s an eerie sound you don’t forget.

Six other owl species are found regularly in Illinois, depending on the season: Barn, Barred, Long-eared, Northern Saw-whet, Short-eared, and Snowy.

Burrowing Owl, a rare visitor from the west, turned up at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago just last week. Watchers went bonkers.

In January 2012, three birders set off on an Owl Big Day and saw or heard all eight Illinois species, an amazing achievement. The veteran owlers—Steve Bailey, Pete Moxen and Jeff Smith—timed their quest perfectly, aided by knowing a Barn Owl location in advance and by 2012 being an “irruption” year for Snowy Owls in our region.

The United States is home to 19 own species. Worldwide there are 220. To learn more about them, I recommend a recently published book, “What an Owl Knows,” by Jennifer Ackerman.

Copyright 2024 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Birding by numbers

Keeping lists is what many watchers do, and some take it to extremes.  

(published 3-20-24)

Bonus bird: Black-throated Gray Warbler
(photo by Jackie Bowman)
In February, the man who has seen more birds than anyone else on earth put a bow on his lifetime quest of 64 years. Peter Kaestner, birding in the Philippines, spotted an Orange-tufted  Spiderhunter, becoming the first person to ever witness 10,000 species.  

If you are wondering, there are roughly 11,500 officially recognized bird species. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever see them all, or even try to. The list is constantly growing due to genetic studies that reveal new species.

Birders are known for keeping lists, of course, and most of us maintain at least a few. Listing helps us remember what we see, where we saw it, and when. It’s a way to chart our personal progress in the hobby. List building can also motivate us to spend more time birding, as if we need it.

This winter I’ve been playing a little listing game myself—to see how many kinds of backyard birds I can spot before the first day of spring. I’m up to 17 with a goal of 25. I’ll need some luck to get there but the unusually warm winter is a plus. Spring migration is ahead of schedule.

If you happen to be a member of the Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS) then you probably know about Listers Corner. It’s a database on the IOS website where birders annually submit their personal sightings (for Illinois only) in all manner of categories such as life list, big year, big month, big day, county list, backyard list, green list and more.

Listers Corner is fun to peruse—google it and see. The volume of arcane data is astounding. Want to know who has spotted the most species in Ogle County? That would be Dan Williams, with 276. For DuPage, it’s Pete Moxon with 315. In Vermilion County, Steve Bailey leads with 281.

Records for specific birding sites are celebrated, too. The Montrose Point (Chicago) leader is Robert Hughes, with 339 species. No other Illinois venue sports a larger list, with 351 species recorded all-time. Hughes tracks Montrose sightings on his website, The Orniphile.

But maybe you wish to know who has seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the most counties? Andy Sigler holds that mark with 102, which means he’s seen the bird at least once in every Illinois county. Some birders really get around.

It’s all a bit silly, of course. County, state, and national borders are human inventions. Birds don’t know or care how we draw things up. On the other hand, a few species sound like they are laughing. I’m looking at you, Mr. W. B. Nuthatch. Maybe they find our listing games amusing.

All birders can play. IOS welcomes submissions to Listers Corner, even by non-members. The archive goes back to 1987.

Finally countable: European Goldfinch
(photo by Christian Goers)

My name appears in only one category, Yard Life List-Suburban, where my total is 124 species—a respectable number after 27 years in the same home but still way down the list. The top yard birder, remarkably, claims 207 species after just five years of residency. I’m fortunate to add one or two species per year.

For all listing categories, the honor system applies. I don’t know any birders who would pad a list with made-up sightings. Owen Wilson, the actor, has a good line about that in “The Big Year,” not suitable for a family newspaper.

The most-watched section of Listers Corner is Illinois Life List. Two birders are tied at 417 species each, and only 10 birders have seen at least 400 species in the state. The “400 Club” is rare air.

Four hundred fifty-nine species have been officially recorded in Illinois. Two were added in 2023: Crested Caracara and Broad-tailed Hummingbird. When those two lit up the Rare Bird Alert there was a mad rush to see them, with the 400 clubbers and birders approaching the magic milestone leading the way.

Joe Lill, who heads up the three-person Listers Corner Committee for IOS, sits at 393 species for Illinois. He told me he missed the caracara in Fulton Co. by a day, and the hummingbird in Champaign by an hour. His failed efforts speak to the importance of reacting to rare bird sightings on a moment’s notice and always keeping the gas tank full. Good timing helps, too.

Lill did experience some listing joy in 2023, elevating his state life list by three with Ross’s Gull, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, and Rock Wren.

State listers received a welcome bonus in January when the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee voted to add European Goldfinch to the Illinois checklist. The species is seen regularly, especially in Lake County, but until now was regarded as “introduced” and therefore not officially countable.

Yet another bonus this winter was the appearance of a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Elgin. The rare visitor from the West visited a private feeder during the severe cold snap in mid-January. An accommodating homeowner welcomed birders, enabling many to score an unexpected addition to their life, Illinois or Cook County lists—in some cases all three.

So, to list or not to list? You decide. It’s a matter of preference, personal style, and maybe your feelings about the competitive side of birding. That said, few birders are outwardly competitive, and many keep their listing achievements private.

For all of us, it’s about appreciating birds. Enjoy them however you wish. I’m thankful that birding offers so many ways to go about it. 

Copyright 2024 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Recapping the 2023 birding year

Local watchers experienced some mind-bending sightings

(published 1-17-24)

A Limpkin at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook was a
first for DuPage County. Photo by Mike Warner.
For birders, the word invasion usually refers to birds from the north coming south. We treasure the occasional winters when large numbers of fleeting species such as crossbills, redpolls and Snowy Owls drop down to visit our region. Years may pass before the phenomenon repeats.

In 2023, we experienced a reverse invasion, this time from Dixie, and by a tropical species that until four years ago was entirely foreign to Illinois. By mid-summer Limpkins were popping up all over the Midwest and other parts of the country, even Canada.

Finding the big-billed wader in Chicagoland was easy, and some days you could track one down in multiple counties. Individuals at Chicago Botanic Garden and Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve were among the most conspicuous, the latter being a first record for DuPage.

Limpkins lingered through the fall and at least one into winter, emboldened by relatively balmy weather conditions. As the holidays approached, visions of Limpkin were dancing in the heads of Christmas Bird Count participants. Insane!

Five wayward American Flamingos created a public spectacle
north of Milwaukee. Photo by Matthew Cvetas.
Seeing a Limpkin in these parts is shocking enough, but flamingos? Bizarre describes the scene in Port Washington, Wis., where in September five American Flamingos frolicked on a Lake Michigan beach. Dozens of the tropical long-leggers were blown north by Hurricane Idalia and touched down in 14 states, most with no previous record of the species. Illinois wasn’t so lucky, but plenty of birders scurried north for their own version of Summerfest.

It was indeed a most entertaining year, filled with avian surprises quite within reach—or at least a reasonable drive. Locally, the madness began in March when Dan Lory spotted a juvenile Ross’s Gull along Lake Michigan, near the Indiana line. The bombshell sighting of this rare arctic species triggered a three-day rush to the lakefront. Binocular fingers trembled and not from the cold.

This juvenile Ross’s Gull on the Chicago lakefront
thrilled birders in March. Photo by Matt Zuro.
I confess to being partial to rarities that stick around long enough for lots of birders to see them. These so-called “stake out” birds lend a fun social aspect to the hobby and build a sense of community. The Chicago “Rossie” certainly did that, as did two other unexpected visitors.

News spread quickly of a Rock Wren in West Chicago, discovered by Haley Gottardo at Kress Creek Farms Park in October. I was a few days late to the party but upon arrival there were four other helpful birders present, all just as excited as me.

Another western wanderer, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, caused a stir on the campus of Northwestern University campus a couple weeks later. An alert undergraduate, Collin Porter, reported the rarity and scores of birders thanked him for a hard-to-get lifer. The only previous Illinois record of the species came in 1990, in Will County.

Two downstate birds also dialed up the crazy, both first-time records. A Crested Caracara appeared in Fulton County last January, first spotted by Marcia Heitz. In November, a Broad-tailed Hummingbird fueled up at a backyard feeder in Champaign, hosted by accommodating homeowners Deanna and Doug Uphoff.

A surprise Rock Wren lived up to its name in West Chicago,
delighting birders in October. Photo by Bonnie Graham.
The surprise raptor and hummer raised the all-time Illinois roster to 456 species.

Migration tragedy and other news

The year 2023 was newsy in other ways, and not always good. In fact, the biggest local bird story was so tragic it captured national attention.

Bird deaths from collisions with McCormick Place in Chicago exceeded 1,000 the night of October 4-5. Bright lights and a giant glass-covered building in combination with high migration volume and rainy weather delivered the deadly toll, comprised mostly of warblers. Bird advocacy groups immediately petitioned McCormick Place management to implement known solutions for preventing bird strikes under Chicago’s bird-friendly buildings ordinance. What happened in October was largely preventable.

Matt Igleski was named the first executive director of Chicago Audubon Society, just before CAS changed its name to Chicago Bird Alliance. The new moniker came about as a growing number of Audubon chapters around the country seek to distance themselves from the problematic legacy of their namesake, John James Audubon. The famous bird artist profited from the slave trade and opposed abolition.

Last March, after a lengthy review process, National Audubon decided to keep its name. Several NAS board members resigned in protest.

An observant Northwestern University student spotted
this Gray-crowned Rosy Finch on the Evanston campus.
Photo by Fran Morel.
Birds named after people (eponymous names) will be phased out starting in 2024, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) recently announced. A pilot renaming program will begin with about 10 birds and assign more descriptive labels. Blackburnian Warbler, for example, might become Flame-throated Warbler. Only common names, not scientific names, are set to change.

The plan to purge all eponyms is not sitting well with many birders and birding organizations, who prefer that name changes be considered on a case-by-case basis. Opposition to the AOS declaration appears intense. This is likely not a done deal.

More notable sightings

Listing all the notable birds of 2023 is an impossible task, and I’m sure a few escaped my radar. But some sightings simply can’t be ignored.

A breeding plumage Ruff triggered many road trips to Boone Co. last spring. Dan Williams found the showstopper and followed it to McHenry Co. Roseate Spoonbills popped up in both Mason and Putnam Counties in August, followed by two reports in Chicagoland. A spoonie even traveled to Green Bay!

Chicagoland’s perennial hotspot, Montrose Point on Lake Michigan, produced California Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Snowy Plover, Red Knot, King Rail, Snowy Owl, Evening Grosbeak, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. A Piping Plover named Imani also checked in, the son of legendary parents Monty and Rose.

Birdwatchers hope Red Crossbill sightings at Morton
Arboretum and other venues across the region
continue into 2024. Photo by Randall Everts.
A migrating Chuck-will’s Widow was rescued in downtown Chicago by a volunteer with Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. The nightjar went to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn for treatment.

Lake County goodies included a Kirtland’s Warbler at Chicago Botanic Garden, discovered by Anna Tendero, plus Harlequin Duck, Glossy Ibis, Yellow Rail, Black Vulture and Loggerhead Shrike. The Latest Limpkin Award went to the bird at Mellody Farm Nature Preserve in Lake Forest, still present on Christmas Day.

A floating colony of state-endangered Common Terns at Naval Station Great Lakes (North Chicago) enjoyed a banner year, fledging 32 chicks. Kudos to Brad Semel from IDNR for his project leadership.

In DuPage, a Little Blue Heron at Danada Forest Preserve excited birders for a solid week in August.

Nesting Northern Mockingbirds were a nice story at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and from Thanksgiving on the Arb proved reliable for Red Crossbill.

Neighboring Hidden Lake Forest Preserve surrendered an Eastern Whip-poor-will on the DuPage Birding Club’s Spring Bird Count, an event drawing a record-high 148 watchers across the county on May 6.

Fermilab discoveries included Marbled Godwit, Lark Sparrow and Blue Grosbeak. A lone Trumpeter Swan spent most of the year on site.

Illinois’s first Crested Caracara cruised
Fulton County in early 2023.
Photo by Keith McMullen.
Paul Clifford knows it pays to keep an eye on the sky and to never underestimate a parking lot’s birding potential. He spotted a Golden Eagle at Waterfall Glen in March, and then a Mississippi Kite at Maple Grove in May. At both forest preserves, Paul was standing in the car park.

Of course, watching your backyard feeders can be rewarding, too. Palatine resident Tom Syme reported a stunning all-yellow cardinal on May 30—a one-day wonder, unfortunately.

Frequent sightings of Trumpeter Swan, Red-shouldered Hawk and Pileated Woodpecker in 2023 indicate these species are gaining traction in the Chicago region. Bald Eagle as well.

Finally, every year it seems that a new “hotspot” is discovered. Word gets out, more birders start going there, and like magic the site list grows. I’d never heard of Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Kane County when 2023 began but the place quickly earned a reputation as a magnet for uncommon birds. Feathered guests included Eared Grebe, Red-necked Phalarope, Whooping Crane, Black-necked Stilt, Black Tern, Say’s Phoebe and Smith’s Longspur. Surely a Limpkin was lurking in the marsh as well.


Congrats to Winfield’s Diann Bilderback, who earned the DuPage Birding Club’s highest honor, the Distinguished Achievement Award. She is the club’s only two-time president and a tireless can-do volunteer.

The Uphoff family in Champaign hosted this Broad-tailed
 Hummingbird and all who came to see it. Photo by Steve Zehner.
The International Crane Foundation (Baraboo, Wis.) celebrated 50 years in 2023, with co-founder George Archibald still going strong. Chicago’s Fort Dearborn Chapter of Illinois Audubon Society also hit 50.

Indiana Audubon turned 125 and will conduct the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival May 16-19. If you’ve never been, do check it out.

BirdWatching magazine quietly folded in 2023 but nice to see its former editor, Matt Mendenhall, hook up with American Bird Conservancy, an organization doing important work.

The Chicago birding community remembered John Purcell with a memorial tree planting at North Pond (Lincoln Park) in April. John was a friend and birding mentor to many, especially Montrose Point regulars.

The author was over the moon
 about his first Luna Moth sighting.
 Photo by Jeff Reiter.
The Endangered Species Act, born 50 years ago, is credited with helping save 99% of listed species. Still clinging to that list is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In October, U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced the species will not be declared extinct—at least for now. Hope is still alive!

Personal notes

From my last column you might think that all I read are picture books. Not true! Two of my favorite books of 2023 were “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds,” by Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal, and “What an Owl Knows,” by Jennifer Ackerman. 

My home list grew by one thanks to a singing Warbling Vireo in May. Hard to believe it took 26 years to finally notch such a common species, No. 123 for the yard.

A winter visit to Arizona and five days with Colorado Birding Adventures in June yielded 14 lifers. In both places, the birds, fellow birders and guides surpassed my expectations. Favorite sighting? Had to be the White-tailed Ptarmigan in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Birds are the best, but butterflies and moths are cool, too. Seeing a Luna Moth was literally on my bucket list, and I got to check it off in June, at Cantigny in Wheaton.

Wherever nature watching takes you in 2024, be ready for anything and appreciate all that you see, the common and the rare. Happy trails!

Copyright 2024 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.