Whistling ducks in Illinois?
Like most birders, I was out and about often during May, enjoying the prime of spring migration. It's the best month, and always full of surprises.
A black-throated gray warbler popped up in Elgin and a snowy egret in Glen Ellyn. Most amazing of all, a fork-tailed flycatcher appeared in Geneva.
I missed each of these goodies because birding, like most things in life, is all about timing. Few of us can drop what we are doing to chase a rare bird. At least not very often.
My favorite rarities are the "sticky" ones that allow time to go see them. The Evanston varied thrush of 2013 comes to mind, and the Chicago sage thrasher in 2011.
So when nine black-bellied whistling ducks were reported in Yorkville on May 21 and again the next day, and the next, I made a beeline for Kendall County. The duck is a Gulf Coast species so this was big news in the Illinois birding community.
How big? Well, a good indicator was in the driveway outside the home of Irene and Wayne Kaufman in Yorkville. There, on a table, sat a three-ring binder with the names of 218 birders who'd visited the Kaufman's tidy backyard since the vagrant ducks arrived. And those were just the ones who signed the guest book.
"One young man came in a suit and tie on his lunch hour," said Irene. "I told him he was the best-dressed bird-watcher so far."
For all of us, the opportunity was almost too good to be true. Here was a chance for an up-close look of a species rarely spotted this far north, and a friendly homeowner who was welcoming any and all birders. Irene even put chairs in the yard. Need some bug spray? No problem, she provided that, too.
For 10 days, the whistling ducks picked seeds off the grass under Irene's bird feeders and loafed on the edge of the large retention pond in her Autumn Creek subdivision.
I went to Yorkville twice and each time the ducks were AWOL when I arrived. But after a short wait, they came wheeling back to Irene's yard, flashing large white wing patches and sounding their trademark whistle. This is one conspicuous duck.
When the birds first appeared Irene didn't know what they were. Her field guide didn't show them so she called a bird store in Geneva. The store put her in touch with Kane County Audubon. "I sent them an email and boom!" she said.
The parade of visiting birders commenced that afternoon, and Irene quickly learned a lot about the birding culture.
"I had no idea this world was out there," she told me. "They all knew each other."
Irene said she was surprised to see so many young people interested in birding. The big camera lenses also made an impression.
"They were friendly," she added. "They all said 'thank you' and seemed very grateful that I was letting them in my yard. I heard a lot of 'awesome' and 'this is a lifer.' I had to ask what a lifer was."
Unlike the birders coming and going, Irene got to observe the black-bellied whistling ducks on a daily or even hourly basis. She found their behavior patterns to be very predictable.
She also kept a close eye on one of the ducks that was getting picked on by the others. "No. 9," as she called it, walked with a limp but seemed otherwise OK.
On the ground, the first thing you notice about the ducks is their brilliant pink bill and pale eye ring. Birding guru Pete Dunne calls them "harlot faced." Their long necks and legs also stand out, giving them a goose-like appearance.
The species is a regular in Texas and Louisiana, and even more common south of the United States. But over the past 20 years, its range has been expanding across the South. I saw the bird myself in Florida a few months ago.
"This range expansion has led to an extraordinary increase in sightings far outside their normal range," said Josh Engel, a Bird Division research assistant at Chicago's Field Museum. "They occur regularly, especially in spring, in the Midwest. This year alone there have been records on the Lake Erie shore of Ohio, Horicon Marsh (Wisconsin) and southwest Michigan. This year seems to be exceptional, with more records than normal this far north."
For Engel, like most of us who scurried to Yorkville, this was a first-time sighting in Illinois. Many birders added the species to their life lists.
That would include Irene Kaufman, if only she kept one. I encouraged her to at least begin keeping a yard list, if for no other reason than to make black-bellied whistling duck her first entry. How many Illinois birders, after all, could claim BBWD as a yard bird?
The Kaufmans are new on the block, having moved in last September. This is their first experience living by a pond. Cormorants, egrets and herons entertain them daily.
"It's all new to us," Irene said. "Every day is a new adventure to watch."
I asked if she had a favorite backyard bird. "Right now it's the black-bellied whistling duck."
And one final question: Any regrets about opening your life and yard to the birding paparazzi? On this point she was emphatic.
"Absolutely not! I think something as rare as this needs to be shared."
The ducks were last seen on May 30. I wonder if they flew north or south.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.