Too busy for birding? Lately it has felt that way for me. In September I attended only two organized bird walks. That's rather pathetic considering all the opportunities. During fall migration, which is far from over, the local bird-watching agenda is loaded with events.
I plan to make amends in October. There is so much to see this month, including brown creepers, fox sparrows, hermit thrushes, kinglets, winter wrens and, yes, even yellow-bellied sapsuckers, the most migratory of our woodpeckers. I'll feel like a sapsucker myself if I miss any more of the autumn spectacle now upon us.
Fortunately, birding doesn't need to be time consuming. We can do it in little bits and pieces or while doing other things. That was my M.O. in September and it yielded a few interesting results.
On Sept. 21, the birding gods delivered a most welcome visitor to my Glen Ellyn backyard. It was an ovenbird, a ground-loving member of the warbler family named after its nest, which resembles a Dutch oven. I was looking outside from the kitchen at just the right moment.
An even more unusual backyard guest was a gray-cheeked thrush, a drab species that easily could go undetected. Getting the ID on this bird is tricky, so it takes a good long look to be sure. I was lucky to get one, clinching my second-ever gray-cheeked in the yard.
Singing Eastern wood pewees in September? Yes, and not one but two. I'm not skilled at "birding by ear" but the pewee is easy -- it says its name.
One more yard note: As so often happens, I got distracted while cutting the grass. It was late afternoon a few weeks ago when about 25 broad-winged hawks drifted over, all heading southwest. Classic!
The real hawk-watching experts gather this time of year on the big hill at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville. On Sept. 15, I dropped by to say hello and maybe mooch a view through their scopes. The hawk counters were hard at work that warm afternoon and, in fact, still recovering from a very busy morning. A few hours earlier they'd tallied more than 600 broad-wings as the birds lifted off from their overnight roosts to continue their southern migration.
The Greene Valley hawk-watch, in its seventh year, is organized and staffed by the DuPage Birding Club from September through November. The all-volunteer counting effort is "citizen science" in action, contributing to a database that monitors North American raptor populations. You can see the numbers, including daily Greene Valley reports, at hawkcount.org.
The overlook at Greene Valley -- the second-highest spot in DuPage -- is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays through October from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., weather permitting. Go pay a visit to the devoted hawk-watchers this month and experience birding from a different perspective. The view is great and the birders are friendly! More information is at dupageforest.org.
Two of my favorite pastimes, birding and golf, came together beautifully Sept. 25 when I attended a Ryder Cup practice round at Medinah Country Club. Spectating at golf events can be a little slow, leaving plenty of time to look around with binoculars. Once, during the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, I spotted a yellow-throated vireo. At the PGA Championship at Medinah in 2006, my top prize was a yellow-billed cuckoo.
I didn't see anything quite that exciting at Medinah this time. Among my 20 species for the day were several warblers and a red-breasted nuthatch. It seems to be an exceptional year for the latter, by far the less common of our two resident nuthatch species. They are popping up all over this fall.
Until last month, I'd never recorded a red-breasted nuthatch at Cantigny -- amazing, considering I've been birding the park since 2008 and the species is a regular in my backyard (having a peanut feeder helps).
Fellow birder Jim Frazier and I were photographing hummingbirds in the Idea Garden when we heard the nuthatch's signature call, which Roger Tory Peterson likened to a "tiny tin horn." I took off toward the sound but never did get a view of the perpetrator.
Certainly another highlight of my limited early fall birding was a visit to the Prairie School of DuPage County, a home school cooperative based on the grounds of the Theosophical Society in Wheaton. I led the young students there on a short Friday afternoon bird walk and the 10 species we found might as well have been 50.
The kids' enthusiasm was inspiring, and hopefully I convinced them to start keeping track of their sightings.
With regular walks, careful observation and the installation of a winter feeding station, the Prairie School kids can expect their bird list to grow quickly. They have the advantage of a wonderful 42-acre property with mixed habitat, not to mention a school curriculum that emphasizes nature study.
Now it's October and I'm waiting to spot my first dark-eyed junco, a northern-nesting species that considers our region to be a fine place to spend the winter. I'm not so sure about that, but I do know that autumn is a great time to be a birder in these parts. Let's all get outside and enjoy the show!
• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.