October journal reveals the daily joys of birding
Well, that was fast. "The Big Year" came and went like a fall warbler in a hurry to go south. It didn't hang around very long because box office duds never do. I liked the movie, did you?
"The Big Year" wasn't the only thing birdy about October. For chirping out loud, the Cardinals even won the World Series.
For me, the month was defined by a string of short but satisfying bird encounters. Each reminded me that it's the seasonality — and the little surprises — that make this hobby so rewarding. These are my journal notes:
Oct. 2: I was playing catch with my son and heard the distant bugle of sandhill cranes. We looked up and soon located five birds swirling around, enjoying the warm sun just like us. November is prime time for "sandie" sightings, often in large migrating flocks, so be alert for these spectacular birds.
Oct. 8: My only full morning of birding. The site was St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Warrenville, where we'd moved the regular Cantigny Park bird walk — for variety and because St. James is new territory for most local birders. And that includes me.
Until last June I'd never set foot inside the 600-acre preserve, located immediately south of Cantigny. It's an "underbirded" venue with excellent habitat variety. Our band of 75 birders found 42 species (plus a coyote) on a day that felt more like summer.
For now, on most days, St. James is quiet. Public access began only in 2007, when the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County officially took possession of the property from the Brooks McCormick estate. Since then the preserve has gradually ramped up toward a goal of daily visitation, a process that continues today.
St. James is open through November, then closes until Memorial Day. It lacks a paved parking lot so winter visitation isn't yet possible. Full 365-day access may begin sometime in 2013.
I made two more short visits to St. James in October. For natural beauty, history and birds (including wild turkeys), it's a great place to go.
Oct. 13: I arrived home late from the DuPage Birding Club's fundraising auction. As I unpacked the car, with the garage door still open, a great-horned owl hooted softly. I stepped onto the driveway in hopes of seeing the bird but never did. No doubt it saw me.
Oct. 14: The morning was special, as the season's first dark-eyed juncos appeared in my yard. These Canada nesters — some call them "snowbirds" — will be with us until late April. We are in the northern part of their wintering range. Marking their October arrival is an annual tradition.
Oct. 17: I stepped into the backyard after work to check the feeders. A hermit thrush flew up from the ground-level birdbath, and then I spotted what appeared to be a feathered mouse scurrying across the bluestone and into the peonies. It was, of course, a winter wren, a secretive species that goes undetected more often than not. October is a good time to see one and this year I was lucky.
Oct. 24: White-throated sparrows were regular in the yard from mid-October on, loving the millet I toss on the bare ground beyond my feeders. On this day, a pair of fox sparrows joined the feast. I noticed them at dusk and expected to see them again the next morning. Not to be, but another fox appeared the day before Halloween. One of my favorite sparrows.
Oct. 27: At the office, late afternoon. I check IBET, the online birding Listserv, and learn that a red-necked grebe was reported at Fermilab 30 minutes earlier. Gee, that's only six miles away.
By 4:15 p.m. I'm on the scene, standing at the edge of Lake Law with three other birders. Two of them have scopes fixed on the bird. Then more birders arrive, and then a few more. It was a "lifer" for some, and it certainly felt like one for me. My only previous red-necked grebe was in Alaska in 2001, spotted from a moving train. This sighting was a lot more satisfying and enjoyed with friends. Nice.
Oct. 28: Sometimes I just need a red-headed woodpecker fix. When that happens I know right where to go: behind the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, in the big oaks. I took a walk at lunch and easily found my target. Was this the bird that spent the whole winter at Cantigny in 2010-11? If yes, will it stay again? Hope so.
Oct. 29: A female white-crowned sparrow joins the backyard brunch. Hey, this millet trick really works! If you try it, start with just a few handfuls when the ground is dry.
Oct. 30: A sort of late-for-the-season golden-crowned kinglet stopped by the yard. As kinglets will do, it flitted around in perpetual motion, like a bird that's had way too much caffeine.
Now it's November and the birding year is winding down. But it's still an exciting time. Watch for those sandhill cranes, listen for owls, keep your feeders full, go on some bird walks and just enjoy whatever Mother Nature sends your way. The seasonality of birding is something to savor, one moment and one day at a time.
• Jeff Reiter can be reached through his blog, Words on Birds.
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