Cerulean warbler is a hard-to-find species in the Chicago area. Birders often have better luck at Indiana Dunes State Park, about 75 miles east. Photo by Christian Goers.
Back to the Dunes
Two years ago, I attended the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival for the first time. The weekend rocked, highlighted by an unexpected encounter with a worm-eating warbler, my first, ending a decades-long quest—one of my best birding moments ever.
I resolved to go back this year, figuring the Dunes would be even birdier with the festival two weeks deeper on the May calendar. Maybe I could find a certain blue and white bird that eluded me and everyone else in 2017.
Truth is, I had a bad case of the blues, meaning I really wanted a cerulean warbler. I’d put eyes on one just once before, at Indiana Dunes State Park, in 1999, long before Indiana Audubon began hosting a festival there. I was way overdue.
Devoted birders can see up to 35 kinds of warblers during spring in our region. Cerulean is among the most coveted due to its scarcity. It’s a poster bird for avian habitat conservation, and one of North America’s fastest-declining migratory songbirds. The species winters in northern South America.
Cerulean warblers prefer to feed and nest in the upper canopy, making them hard to spot in a leafy forest. When searching, the two-step process is to listen for the song, then watch for movement and hope for a satisfactory look. I prepared by playing and replaying the cerulean track on a “Birding by Ear” disk, thankful that my car is old enough to still have a CD player.
Here I am with artist Kristina Knowski and her cerulean warbler painting. She designs the festival's official poster every year, along with event hats, t-shirts and other items. Photo by Aaron Melendez.
Arriving in Chesterton, the song was burned into my brain, and it didn’t take long to hear the real thing. Indiana Dunes State Park, I’m happy to report, is still a hotspot for cerulean warbler. They are by no means abundant, but they are present and nesting on property. I found several without much trouble the first day, then enjoyed an upgraded view the next day with friends Bonnie and Joan from the DuPage Birding Club.
Knowing the cerulean’s buzzy song helped, but we needn’t have worried—plenty of other birders were on the same mission. That’s the thing about birding festivals, you can often locate the “best” birds just by joining a group, or by sharing notes with fellow lanyard-wearing chasers. A giant “scoreboard” at festival headquarters keeps a running record of sightings, so the on-site possibilities are well known to all. This year, 208 species were seen over four days at the Dunes.
Cerulean warbler was not my only target species in Indiana. Another was Kristina Knowski, the festival’s official artist who contributes so much to the event. Tracking her down required a lot less effort. Festival week is busy time, and her colorful prints, magnets and notecards were moving. This artist knows her audience.
The 2019 festival poster depicted this nesting pair of
prothonotary warblers at Indiana Dunes State Park.
Photo by Bonnie Graham.
I first met Kristina about 10 years ago when she attended a few Cantigny Park bird walks with her mom, Sue. Little did I know we had a talented artist in our midst. A Joliet native, Kristina graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago as valedictorian and now resides in Porter, Indiana, with her husband and son. As an illustrator and fine artist, she is best known for her portfolio of extinct bird species (kristinaknowski.com). The ivory-billed woodpecker inspired her passion for birds.
Kristina’s poster for the 2019 festival featured a pair of prothonotary warblers at their nest box along the famed Wilson Boardwalk inside the state park. Patient birders were able to witness the actual birds depicted on the poster, a must-see sideshow at the Dunes every spring.
The artistic elements add a nice dimension that few other birding festivals offer. In addition to creating the annual poster (four so far), Kristina heads up the “Dune Birds in Art” exhibition, a canvas painting workshop and a field-sketching class with the Indiana Young Birders.
Birders couldn’t ask for a more welcoming festival, which this year raised $5,500 for bird-related conservation, education and research. About 850 watchers attended.
Kristina’s original poster art—signed, framed and donated by the artist—sold for just under $1,000 at the festival’s silent auction fundraiser on Saturday night. That was too rich for this birder’s blood, but I didn’t leave the festival empty handed. One of Kristina’s watercolors now lives on my mantle—a cerulean warbler, naturally.
My enthusiasm for spring birding on the Indiana lakefront—now a national park!—continues to grow. The 2020 Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, May 14-17, is already on my calendar.
You should go, too, especially if you’ve never attended a birding festival. This one is incredibly well organized and suited to all ability levels. You’ll see some amazing birds, meet friendly people and maybe even take home some art.
Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
The books on my nightstand are mostly about baseball, golf and birding. Those three, with few exceptions. Same with magazines. I’m a reader of habit.
My favorite kind of bird books are the travelogues, like Wild America, The Feather Quest, The Grail Bird, Kingbird Highway and The Big Year. Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Borders further enriched the genre in 2017.
But recently a different kind of bird book caught my eye.
The Art of Mindful Birdwatching: Reflections of Freedom and Being, by Claire Thompson, is for deep thinkers and regular birders alike. I’m in the latter camp, for sure, and the book’s trendy title gave me pause before hitting the Place Order button on Amazon.
Concepts like “mindfulness” and “being present” seem to float right over my head. I’m even a little skeptical of such terms. I do not meditate, practice goat yoga or bathe in the woods. I did hug a tree once, at the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination event. I keep a life list but not a daily journal.
So, could a touchy-feely book about mindful birdwatching be worth my time? Could I survive all 139 pages?
To my surprise, yes! I learned a few things, too. Did you know that birds are so sensitive to sights and sounds that they can read our body language? That’s right, the attitudes we carry down the trail affect how birds respond to our presence. The lesson: be careful how you walk.
Thompson’s advice and insights throughout the book are practical enough to make us better birders, or at least more appreciative ones. She wants us to “let go” when looking at birds, and not let our controlling minds keep us from the joy of the moment.
Birders, the author says, “can easily fall into a pattern of ‘notice, label and move on.’ The more we do this, the more we close up that special place where mindful awareness allows wonder and appreciation to blossom.”
That really hit home with me. In a group or on my own, I’m usually building a list—pursuing the goal of seeing or hearing as many species as possible. I’m think about where to look next, and what birds I’m missing. The success (or not) of the search can sometimes dominate the experience.
Thompson urges us to be accepting and welcome things as they are, to leave expectations at home. We might not see the bird we are hoping to see, not today, but that’s not a failure. Let go of negative emotions, she says, and give full attention to what you can see and hear in the moment. Embrace the unpredictability of birdwatching.
“Through the practice of mindful acceptance, our chance encounters with birds become gifts.”
She means the super common birds, too. We don’t pay them enough attention, and they have stories to tell.
In a mindfulness exercise called Sit Spot, Thompson suggests spending 20 minutes each day watching and listening from the same place—a calming method of getting closer to nature and honing our observation skills. She calls it tuning into “radio bird.”
The trick, of course, is to avoid the static. It’s not easy watching birds—or doing anything—while keeping your mind clear of random, unrelated thoughts. Our attention spans have probably never been shorter. Distracted birding, it’s a thing!
While any kind of birding is better than no birding at all, The Art of Mindful Birdwatching is a good reminder to slow down, notice more and enjoy whatever the birding gods throw at us. Hey, maybe even go crazy and leave the smart phone in the car.
Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
My birding bucket list is mostly in my head and hopelessly long. It contains birds I want to see, places I wish to go and milestones I hope to achieve. For some items, I’ll need some big-time luck.
One aspiration, for example, is to host a rare bird in my yard—an accidental tourist, the showier the better, and one that hangs around my feeders for at least a week. I’d invite birders from near and far to come see my special guest. They’d sign my guest book. We’d gab about birds and gear and trips. I might even serve coffee and donuts.
The scenario isn’t so far-fetched. I’ve been on the visiting end of backyard “stakeouts” several times, most recently this winter, when Warrenville homeowner Kate Hopkins hosted a spotted towhee. Her generosity enabled dozens of birders to experience a western species that for some was a new tick on the life list.
Kate first noticed the towhee at her feeder on January 21. She initially figured it was an eastern towhee, which itself would be a notable sighting in the dead of winter. But after applying the Merlin ID app she realized it was a spotted and posted her discovery on eBird. That alerted area birders, many of whom wanted to stop by for a look.
Front door sign at the Hopkins residence in Warrenville
“There was zero hesitation,” Kate said. “I couldn’t wait to share.”
She did not have to wait long. In a few hours the doorbell rang.
“There are two young men standing at the door. Their cameras and binocs gave them away but they say, ‘We’re here about the rare bird.’ My husband and I just looked at each other and laughed. We found it delightful.”
That moment, Kate said, was the start of “a fabulous introduction to the birding community.”
Incoming birders were directed to Kate’s side yard by a handwritten note on the front door, complete with a photo of the wayward towhee. Her busy feeding station offered plenty to see while waiting for the main attraction, including a handsome Carolina wren.
Observing the spotted towhee was just a matter of patience. My wait was only 20 minutes—quite fortunate since the temperature was slightly below zero. Others waited longer or had to return for a second or third try.
Kate has no idea how many birders stopped by—she works during the day—but tracks in the snow indicated a steady flow of thrill seekers. Some left thank you notes, birdseed donations and even a box of Earl Grey tea. Others showed their appreciation by sharing photos of her avian celebrity and posting thankful messages on the Illinois Rare Bird Alert Facebook page.
Everyone was gracious, grateful and respectful, Kate said. “There was not a single negative interaction. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”
Varied Thrush by Emil Baumbach
Kelly Oliven from Palos Park recalls a similar experience when a varied thrush discovered her feeder in January 2018. Like Kate, she welcomed visiting birders after realizing the bird was something special. What came next took her by surprise.
“At one point we had 20 cars parked up and down the street,” she said. “The local newspaper came and even the TV news (FOX32). People came from as far as six hours away in southern Illinois.”
Kelly wisely notified the local police about the situation and credits her neighbors for being understanding. The “circus” lasted about six days, during which Kelly got to know the visiting birders.
“I got out there as much as I could to chat with them and just loved every minute of it,” Kelly said. “The camaraderie, the information sharing . . . I had no idea that people took this so seriously.”
I didn’t attempt to see Kelly’s varied thrush. At the time, a mad dash to Palos didn’t fit my schedule. Besides, I’d seen the species once before—not in the Pacific Northwest, where it belongs, but in Evanston.
That’s correct, I owe my “lifer” varied thrush to a different backyard stakeout six years ago. I remember that Sunday morning well, standing in a snowy alley, my toes almost numb, gazing over a neck-high wooden fence into the homeowners’ private space. My cold, lonely vigil lasted about 90 minutes before the target bird took pity on me and flew in to the platform feeder. Instantly, my feet felt warmer.
The 2013 Evanston varied thrush was my 500th life bird. To Jason and Judy on Cleveland Street, thank you again!
Thanks, as well, to all the kind people who share their backyard wonders with total strangers like me. Generosity like yours is notable and rare, just like neighborhood birds that come around once in a lifetime.
Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
If this column is a bit tardy, blame “The Feather Thief.” It stole my time! If the next book I open is only half as good, I’ll be happy.
My previous piece recapped the 2018 birding year. However, since that rambler was submitted in mid-December, it omitted a few developments from the year’s final weeks. Today I’ll close the loop and cover some early highlights of 2019.
So, remember that piping plover in Chicago? To refresh, the bird first visited Montrose Beach in October and stayed until early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. The plover vanished for several days, then made history in a second state by appearing December 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC).
But the story wasn’t over. On December 22, the feathered mighty mite reappeared at Montrose! The plover was easily located by Evanston North Shore Bird Club members on Christmas Day during their Chicago Lakefront CBC. I guess some birds just want to be counted.
The plover rang in the new year at Montrose and was last seen on January 13.
The backyard yellow-throated warbler in St. Charles also departed, hopefully for warmer climes. Homeowner Jon Schuler last saw it on December 23.
Warblers in winter are rare indeed, the one exception being yellow-rumped warbler. “Butterbutts” are uncommon this time of year but we do see a few. The species is content to eat berries, seeds and suet when other warblers head south to maintain their bug-based diets. Nine yellow-rumps were recorded on the Fermilab CBC and they popped up all over the region in January. Keep an eye out, especially if your yard features bayberry, juniper or a heated bird bath.
Common yellowthroat, another warbler species, was sighted during both the Fermilab CBC and Lisle-Arboretum CBC. Nashville warbler was a coveted discovery at the Kankakee Valley CBC, along with white-eyed vireo. A palm warbler appeared in Cook County on January 11.
The Lisle-Arb CBC, by the way, held December 16, turned up 21 pileated woodpeckers—a record-high for the species. The previous best was 13 in 2017. These numbers support the widespread notion that our local pileated population is growing.
Flocks of sandhill cranes staged a rare January passage over DuPage and Kane as the year began, but the big story was a black-legged kittiwake, observed January 1-5 at Whalon Lake Forest Preserve in Will County. The kittiwake, a coastal gull species seldom observed inland, could easily have been overlooked. Kudos to Kirk LaGory from Downers Grove for picking it out and sharing an exciting find.
Mandarin Duck by Bonnie Graham
A rarity of a different color—actually, many colors—turned up in Orland Park. A Mandarin duck! First reported by Susan Zelek on January 4, where it came from is still a mystery. Like the Mandarin in New York’s Central Park that caused a sensation last fall, the Orland bird is possibly an escapee from a zoo or private collection.
Mandarin duck is a non-native intruder, an Asian species. But there’s no denying its beauty. Only our male wood duck comes close to matching the Mandarin’s spectacular plumage. In fact, thanks to Bob Andrini, a St. Charles birder, I learned the two species are related—the only members of the Aix genus.
As the deep freeze settled in, yet another January surprise, a spotted towhee, found a busy backyard feeder located near Wheaton Warrenville South High School. Kate Hopkins reported the bird and generously opened her yard to visiting birders. I was among them and besides the towhee (a western species) witnessed the yard’s other featured visitor, a Carolina wren. As if that weren’t enough, some lucky birders received a further bonus when a pair of unusual red-bellied woodpeckers flew in; their head markings were yellow instead of red!
Such moments must be savored because winter birding in northern Illinois is not always so exciting. As watchers, it pays to stay alert as we count the days until spring.
Meanwhile, keep your feeders stocked and enjoy the show, especially when it snows. Cyber birding is fun option, too. My guilty pleasure lately has been the Cornell Lab’s feeder cam streaming live from Manitouwadge, Ontario. With a few clicks (and a little patience) you can observe guest appearances by evening and pine grosbeaks, Canada jays, ravens, redpolls and even ruffed grouse. Google Ontario FeederWatch.
Of course, nothing beats a good book on a cold winter night. If you need a recommendation I can help.
Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Birders scurried to Palos Park to see this Varied Thrush, a western species, in January. (photo by Bonnie Graham)
An eventful Year of the Bird
Could it be that birding gets more interesting, and more exciting, the longer we do it? Dedicated watchers know the answer is yes.
The 2018 birding year, officially The Year of the Bird, only escalated our curiosity and passion for the hobby. It was remarkably newsy and birdy, filled with feathery surprises, the latter including a plucky little plover, long out of season, lingering on a frigid Chicago beach.
A major anniversary hovered over 2018, inspiring the Year of the Bird celebration and calling attention to bird conservation at a critical time. Ironically, just as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act turned 100, it came under attack in Washington. A bill in Congress, HR 4239, would pull some key enforcement teeth from MBTA, our country’s most important bird protection law. National Audubon Society sued the Department of the Interior, with similar suits filed by Attorneys General in eight states, including Illinois.
“State of the World’s Birds,” released in April, reported that 40 percent of bird species worldwide are in decline, with one of every eight threatened with extinction. BirdLife International issues the report every five years.
This Long-tailed Jaeger was the first on record along Chicago's lakefront. (photo by Jake Cvetas)
One of those potentially doomed species is the blue-throated hillstar, an Ecuadorian hummingbird revealed to the world in September. An estimated 750 individuals exist. Yes, amazingly, new birds are still being discovered.
Northwestern University earned kudos in March for making its glassy buildings along the lakefront less deadly for migrating birds. To reduce collisions, the college applied patterned film to many existing windows and chose glass with patterns visible to birds in some new construction. Chicago Bird Collision Monitors advised.
Notes and scribblings
Bird Watcher’s Digestcelebrated 40 years of publishing and launched Redstart Birding, a gear company out to fill the void left by Eagle Optics.
Julie Zickefoose, artist and author, spoke at Morton Arboretum on back-to-back nights in June. Always the birder and keeping a trip list, Zick observed a nesting killdeer at the Hyatt Regency Lisle—on the roof!
The gray jay is now the Canada jay. Remember that when you visit the North Woods.
A yellow (not red) northern cardinal, spotted in Alabama, went viral on Facebook. So did several hilarious photos of a high school golfer in Michigan being attacked by a goose. Only his pride was hurt.
King Rails are usually elusive but this one awarded brief looks to patient birders in Chicago. (photo by Jackie Bowman)
In March, I happened to be on the Wheaton College campus 90 minutes before the memorial service for Billy Graham. Hearing a mourning dove calling, I looked around. The bird was on top of Graham’s namesake building. Too perfect.
A white-tailed kite visited Porter County, Indiana, during the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. Found by Mark Welter, it was the third state record of the species, the last being in 1994. Many festival attendees scored a highly improbable lifer.
An out-of-range blue-footed booby sent birders scrambling to Kane County in September. The Kane County in Utah, unfortunately.
But the Chicago region offered its own excitement for birders in 2018, and plenty of it.
The year began with a mega rarity when Amar Ayyash bagged an ivory gull at the Lake County Fairgrounds. Also in January, birders beat a trail to Palos Park for a varied thrush in the yard of a birder-friendly homeowner. Big Rock, Kane County, ourKane County, would host a varied thrush in November.
Notable: Greater white-fronted geese were widespread in late February; common loons were unusually prolific in March and April; numbers of pine siskins were still around in late May; and black-bellied whistling ducks turned up throughout the state from May to October.
The DuPage County Spring Bird Count on May 5 tallied a record-high 188 species. Red-winged blackbird was the most numerous one by far, followed by robin and palm warbler. A northern goshawk, spotted by Bob Fisher in Woodridge, was the first SBC “gos” since 2000.
This Western Grebe on Lake Michigan was among many avian surprises in November. (photo by Tamima Itani)
A quartet of coveted May warblers visited Elsen’s Hill: cerulean, Connecticut, mourning and yellow-throated, plus a white-eyed vireo. Elsen’s, a.k.a. Warblerville, is part of West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield.
Morton Arboretum produced blue grosbeak, lark sparrow and pileated woodpecker. Purple martins nested at the Arb for the first time after their long-vacant house was relocated to Arbor Lake on the west side. Four martins fledged.
St. James Farm featured worm-eating and hooded warblers in May, and a bobwhite quail in July. Waterfall Glen hosted a wormie, too.
A neotropical cormorant appeared in Roselle, on the same pond a neo visited in 2017. Same bird?
Joe Suchecki, bird monitor for Naperville’s Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve since 1994, added four birds to the site list: Carolina wren, Brewer’s sparrow, whip-poor-will and willet. He’s now seen 236 species on the property. With that total, just adding onespecies takes some luck. But four in one year? As Joe told me, “pretty amazing.”
Hawkwatchers completed their 13th fall season on the hill at Greene Valley, counting migrating raptors almost every day for three straight months. Northern goshawk, Swainson’s hawk and four golden eagles were highlights. The team also witnessed a massive monarch butterfly migration on Sept. 7, and 6,185 sandhill cranes on Nov. 10.
Kane County goodies, besides that varied thrush, included yellow rail, red-necked phalarope, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Smith’s longspur and a snowy egret in downtown Elgin. A pair of whooping cranes joined nine sandies in a field near Hampshire in late October.
On the waterfront
You could fill a book with significant Cook and Lake County sightings in 2018. The Lake Michigan shoreline combined with a higher density of active birders once again delivered eye-popping results.
Parasitic and long-tailed jaegers, like avian fighter jets, zipped past Wilmette’s Gillson Park in early September. A western grebe plied Chicago and Evanston waters in November, with harlequin duck, red-throated loon and red-necked grebe also making waves.
This female Great-Tailed Grackle, spotted in Lake County, is likely the first ever in Illinois. (photo by Joan Campbell)
Montrose beach and the Magic Hedge hosted barn owl, little gull, least tern, red knot, loggerhead shrike, Bell’s vireo and yellow-headed blackbird. King rail, a secretive marsh species, teased birders with brief but regular appearances in June and July.
Additional Cook treasures included black-belling whistling duck, cinnamon teal, cattle egret, snowy owl, Townsend’s solitaire, western tanager, prairie warbler and Harris’s sparrow.
Great-tailed grackle was a premium find in Lake, discovered in August by Bonnie Graham and Joan Campbell at Spring Bluff Forest Preserve. They’d gone there looking for a reported whimbrel. It’s not official yet, but the grackle is likely a first state record.
Al Stokie picked a hoary redpoll out of flock of 112 common redpolls at Chicago Botanic Garden in January. In May, he located CBG’s second-ever prairie warbler. The site surrendered a white-faced ibis for Amanda Tichacek.
Also in May, a Hudsonsian godwit and glossy ibis shared the same “fluddle” in Waukegan. Piping plover, a federally endangered species, nested on a gravel parking lot at Waukegan Beach, and a colony of state-endangered common terns set up shop in the dunes.
A western bluebird checked into Knox County in April. Chain O’Lakes State Park, in McHenry, yielded black-necked stilt in May, and white ibis in August.
In Springfield, where Governor Rauner proclaimed April 22-28 Bird Appreciation Week in Illinois, rarities included Swainson’s warbler, Mississippi kite and little gull.
The roster of southern Illinois birds in 2018 felt Floridian, with brown pelican, mottled duck, anhinga, white ibis and roseate spoonbill all reported.
A Sabine’s gull at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Putnam County was close enough for Chicago-area birders to chase in September. A second Sabine’s turned up at Carlyle Lake two weeks later in downstate Clinton County.
This Yellow-throated Warbler in St. Charles was a most unlikely backyard visitor, given its arrival in late November. (photo by Chuck Berman)
Home sweet home
Road trips, of course, are optional. In 2018, birders proved once again that amazing things sometimes happen just outside the kitchen window. A western tanager turned up at Springfield feeder in April, and Lombard residents Rick and Mary Lingle noticed a summer tanager at their birdbath in May. The snow and ice storm just after Thanksgiving delivered a chilly American bittern to Diane Swaim’s yard in Aurora.
The most remarkable backyard visitor occurred in St. Charles, where homeowner Jonathan Schuler attracted a yellow-throated warbler that forgot to migrate. The bird appeared Nov. 22 and was still feasting on a hot pepper seed cylinder at press time. On Dec. 15, it became the first yellow-throated warbler ever recorded on the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count, an annual event since 1976.
This chilly but resilient Piping Plover on Montrose Beach was the latest ever in Illinois. (photo by Fran Morel)
My own space in Glen Ellyn produced 78 species, better than most years, and included two flyover additions to the yard list: greater white-fronted goose (No. 117) and osprey (No. 118).
And what about that Chicago plover? In the Year of the Bird, I’d call it the Bird of the Year: an unbanded piping plover, first spotted on Montrose Beach in October and still there in early December—by far the latest record for the species in Illinois. As the tiny puffball captured birders’ hearts, it eluded capture by naturalists trying to save it from freezing or starvation. Three rescue attempts using mist nets failed.
The plover vanished for several days, then made history in another state by appearing Dec. 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area’s CBC! Let’s hope the bird somehow survives the winter or, better yet, moves on to a warmer climate.
Thanks for reading and may your 2019 be filled with interesting birds!
Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Chimney Swifts at Abbott Middle School in Elgin. Photo by Susan Szeszol.
Some say the most memorable birds are rarely the ones you expect to see. I agree, but there are exceptions. Let me tell you about one.
In September, I traveled to Portland, Ore., for a nephew’s wedding. Weeks before the trip—okay, months—I began studying up on the birds I might be able to see. It’s what birders do.
Chimney Swift by Rob Curtis (theearlybirder.com)
I was especially interested in lifers—birds I’d never seen before. A prime candidate, I quickly learned, was Vaux’s swift. It’s the western version of our chimney swift, and common in the skies over cities and towns. I’d be in Portland at the perfect time, too, when large numbers of Vaux’s swifts gather before starting their fall migration. This was a bird I could expect to see.
The Audubon Society of Portland website put me in a fever when I found the page about Chapman Elementary School, site of a nightly Swift Watch throughout September. Since 1982, Vaux’s swifts have used the school’s old furnace chimney as a communal overnight roost. On some evenings, 40,000 birds pour into the stack, creating a spectacle.
I longed to see it. Wedding activities, however, were planned for all three nights of our stay in Portland. Sneaking away to Chapman, even for an hour, was not happening.
What’s a birdman to do? Look up, of course. I see chimney swifts in broad daylight quite often around DuPage County. In Portland, I figured it would be the same with Vaux’s swifts. Except it wasn’t.
I birded in the city a bit on Friday morning, our first full day, in the green space along the Willamette River. Not seeing any swifts, I impulsively rented a bright orange bike—Portland’s version of Chicago’s Divvy—and looked up Chapman School on Google Maps. If I could find the school, surely there would be a few swifts cruising around its legendary chimney.
The view of Chapman Elementary School from the swift watching hill in Portland, Ore.
Getting to the school was a workout—nearly three miles from city center and mostly uphill. It was noon, sunny and unseasonably warm. A western scrub jay welcomed me, but no swifts.
Young voices drifted out the classroom windows as I surveyed the grounds, hoping not to be reported as a suspicious schoolyard character. The kids inside knew all about the birds, no doubt about that. The school nickname is the Swifts, and the student newspaper is the Swift Current.
A fence banner promoted the upcoming Chapman Swift Family Fun Run. On the grassy hill where the swift watchers gather, a three-sided kiosk dispensed information about Vaux’s swift and the importance of Chapman School, one of the largest known roosting sites for the species.
I soon gave up the vigil, glad for having made the effort but disappointed by the lack of swifts. I coasted back to the downtown Marriott.
At the wedding Saturday night, it occurred to me that hope wasn’t lost. All those swifts needed to exit the chimney at some point. What if I returned to Chapman School on Sunday morning?
And that’s what I did, waking early and pedaling back up the hill, in the dark. Calm silence greeted my arrival at the school as the skies began to brighten. Maybe I was too late.
At 6:20 I spotted a single swift fluttering near the top of the smokestack. My Vaux’s lifer! Seven minutes later, the chimney erupted with departing birds, chittering loudly and ready for another day of feeding on the wing. In 10 minutes every bird was out.
I was the only apparent witness at Chapman, and I wondered how many people were on the hill 12 hours earlier, watching the swifts tuck in for the night. Judging by the full trash cans, I missed quite a party.
Abbott Middle School in Elgin, Ill.
Six days later I got another chance. This time the party was in Elgin, outside Abbott Middle School, site of Kane County Audubon’s (KCA) fourth annual Chimney Swift Sit. The scene at Abbott was just how I imagined the one at Chapman, but on a smaller scale.
We were watching chimney swifts, not Vaux’s, but you’d never know the difference. Just after 7 p.m. the volume of swifts grew rapidly as they swirled clockwise around the school’s giant stack. About 15 minutes passed before a few birds started to drop in, first a trickle and then a steady flow. Like a vacuum, the chimney seemed to pull in the swifts until the air was clear and quiet.
About 2,000 swifts entered the Abbott School chimney. We know this because Marion Miller counted them—a challenging task! Marion maintains the Facebook page “Chimney Swifts Over the Fox Valley,” and with KCA works on chimney swift conservation. The species is declining, primarily due to habitat loss. Large, uncapped chimneys are increasingly scarce.
Residents of the Abbott School neighborhood were curious. Who were these people with binoculars and folding chairs, watching a school on a Saturday night? Marion and others happily explained, even passing out a KCA brochure about chimney swifts and how to help them. The accidental onlookers went to bed wise to an amazing slice of nature just outside their front doors. Maybe some will pull up a chair next year.
The swifts of Portland and Elgin greatly enriched my 2018 birding year. Vaux’s swift and chimney swift—two crowd-pleasing aerialists, 2,000 miles apart, performing nights (and mornings!) in September, for those who care to watch.
Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Twenty years ago last month, I witnessed my first yellow-billed cuckoo. Saw it well, too, at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.
A few things made that experience especially rewarding. First, I found the cuckoo all by myself. It’s satisfying when that happens, even though it was pure luck. I happened to glimpse the bird as it flew to a tree.
Secondly, at the time of discovery, yellow-billed cuckoo was like a mythical species to me. As a serious birder for about four years, I was beginning to wonder if cuckoos really exist.
Well, they do, and not just yellow-billed. There’s also the similar black-billed cuckoo, which in our region is even more elusive. Adding to the challenge is that both birds are declining. Black-billed cuckoo, in fact, is listed as a threatened species in Illinois.
Cuckoos are secretive, preferring leafy trees and prone to long periods of inactivity. Birding guru Pete Dunne describes them as “slothlike.” Even if you locate a cuckoo it can be hard to observe the whole bird.
My lifetime cuckoo sightings total about 20, yellow-billed and black-billed combined. Amazingly, three of those sightings (all yellow-billed) were in my yard, the last coming in 2008.
I haven’t seen a cuckoo of any kind in 2018, and time is about up. Cuckoos are now migrating to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Rain Crow IPA Courtesy of Wren House Brewing Co.
Today’s column was only partly inspired by my lucky sighting two decades ago. The other trigger was Rain Crow IPA, a new beer bearing the colloquial name for cuckoo, which according to folklore vocalizes before it rains.
I’m keeping an eye out for Rain Crow IPA at Binny’s. For now, however, it’s a western thing, introduced in July by Audubon Arizona in collaboration with several craft breweries in Tucson and Phoenix. The brew calls attention to water conservation needs and the importance of healthy rivers.
The increasingly scarce western race of yellow-billed cuckoo, depicted on the Rain Crow IPA can, depends on riparian woodlands. A sustainable water supply, Audubon says, is essential to the species as well as the region’s other birds, wildlife, communities and economies. Brewers clearly have a strong vested interest, too.
I was indeed fortunate to see my own rain crow that day at Churchill Woods. Cuckoos are quiet during fall migration; they give no vocal clues. In the spring and summer, though, listening for cuckoos is our best chance of finding them.
“They are shadows living in a world of shadow, and we identify far more cuckoos by call than by plumage,” said Eirik A.T. Blom, writing for Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Just don’t expect to hear your grandmother’s cuckoo clock. The birds do not sound like that. But with a little practice you can learn what to listen for and tell our two local cuckoo species apart. To hear them, go to All About Birds, the online resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
As a family, cuckoos are slender birds—about the size of a mourning dove but less plump—with long tails. Gray-to-brownish upperparts, white below. When you spot one, your job is to ID the species. As the names indicate, bill color is a key field mark. Other distinctions are the red eye ring on the black-billed and differing underside tail patterns—bold white spots on yellow-billed, faint white bars on black-billed.
On more tip: If you see a cuckoo in flight, pay attention to the wings. If the feathers show a lot of rufous (reddish brown), you’re looking at a yellow-billed. Dunne calls it the “cinnamon-winged cuckoo.”
There is a third cuckoo species that in North America is found only in southern Florida. At least that’s the rumor. I’ve been chasing the mangrove cuckoo for many years without success. It currently tops my Most Wanted list and I envy anyone who has seen one. If that includes you, please don’t tell me.
Some birds just take time. Eventually we find them, or they find us. My first yellow-billed cuckoo was like that, and last year a worm-eating warbler finally crossed my path. But since I don’t live in Florida, mangrove cuckoo may well be a lifetime pursuit.
That’s OK. In birding, anticipation is a positive force! I will not let a cuckoo drive me crazy.
Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
On a sunny July morning, I woke up extra early with a bird on my mind. No surprise there. But this bird was different. I’d seen it before but never in the United States. It was time to do something about that.
The plan was to meet Al Stokie, the most avid birder I know, who’d generously agreed to help me find a European goldfinch. He knew of two places in Lake County where the species regularly occurs.
European goldfinch is a non-native “introduced” species, and not officially countable for birders who spot one in North America. (At least not yet; more on that later.) I’d admired this red-faced beauty before during a trip to Ireland in 1996. It’s a common bird throughout the U.K. and European mainland—a must-see species for any visiting birder.
How and when European goldfinch arrived in Chicagoland isn’t exactly known but they’ve been nesting here since at least 2003. Most likely a colony developed after some imported birds escaped from their cages or were released. Our local monk parakeets share a similar provenance.
A close relative of our bright yellow American goldfinch, European goldfinch is not widespread in the region. But the species is certainly breeding in Lake County and its population is growing. It is not considered invasive or a threat to ecosystems. In that regard, Euro goldfinch differs from non-native bad guys like house sparrow and European starling.
Plus, this is one fine looking bird. Countable or not, I wanted to see a European goldfinch on American soil.
I met Al at Waukegan Beach, one of his usual haunts. Sure enough, within two minutes, several adult European goldfinches were in plain view. The birds flew around as group and kept returning to the utility wires above the parking area, making it easy to observe their red faces, whitish bills and large yellow wing patches. Al pointed to some trees in the adjacent park where the birds apparently nest.
Among birders, Waukegan Beach is best known for gulls, waterfowl and shorebirds. Al and his friend Bob showed me a staked-out piping plover, also viewable from the parking lot, and then a small colony of nesting common terns in a protected area along the beach. Both are hard-to-find, state-endangered species.
Out next stop was the south unit of Illinois Beach State Park, where we quickly located a few Euro goldfinches in the pines outside the resort and conference center. Al and Bob moved on from there, in search of other avian quarry, leaving me to work on getting a good photo.
My limited camera skills combined with skittish goldfinches were getting me nowhere when a couple on bicycles pulled up. Steve and Mary were birders and recognized one of their kind. I told them what I was up to and they gushed about the European goldfinches that visit their Pleasant Prairie (Wis.) backyard.
Steve suggested that I visit The Bird Nest, a store in Kenosha. Euro goldfinches flock to the feeders behind the store, he said, where a nice viewing area is set up for onlookers.
How could I resist? I pointed the Jetta north and crossed into America’s Dairyland. The Bird Nest was easy to find, just off I-94 next to a massive Woodman’s. The shop’s manager, Brian Nett, invited me to head out back and enjoy the show.
Right away I knew this would be an entertaining hour or two. About 15 kinds of birds were coming and going to all manner of feeders, including the species that brought me there. For close views of European goldfinch, this place is a lock.
Brian told me the finches arrived about seven years ago, and that their numbers are growing. The store’s feeding stations typically host six to 10 birds at a time in the summer and up to three dozen in winter. These are hardy, non-migratory birds. Safflower is their seed of choice.
Juvenile European Goldfinches eating safflower seeds at The Bird Nest in Kenosha, Wis.
I hadn’t noticed any young birds at the two Illinois sites. At The Bird Nest feeders, however, juveniles outnumbered the adults. Aside from their yellow wing patches, they were nondescript and seemed less wary than the parent birds. Or maybe they were just hungrier!
My time in Kenosha recalled a similar birding experience in 2013, at the Sugar Grove Nature Center near Bloomington. My target that day was Eurasian tree sparrow, another non-native species that tweaked my curiosity. I’d heard the bird frequented the nature center’s feeders and was not disappointed.
The tree sparrow is officially countable in North America because it’s been here since 1870. Despite a small geographic range—west-central Illinois and Greater St. Louis—the bird’s population is obviously established and self-sustaining. You can go see it like I did and add it to your life list.
Not so with European goldfinch. You can see it but not list it. On this side of the Atlantic, the ornithologists who decide these matters have been slow to confirm what everybody seems to know: European goldfinch is here to stay.
A change in classification seems inevitable. Perhaps within five or 10 years the species will become “official,” making the birds in Lake County and southeast Wisconsin fair game for rule-abiding listers like me.
Meanwhile, I recommend a stop in Kenosha if you’re up that way. Shop at The Bird Nest, watch the feeders, and maybe have breakfast or lunch at the Perkins next door.
Here in DuPage, be alert for a surprise visitor. A lone European goldfinch sampled a Wheaton backyard feeder in February 2016.
Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.