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.