2015 full of surprises for birders

Birders saw a plethora of avians during all seasons in 2015

  • When a swallow-tailed kite visits Illinois it's a big deal. This one sent birders scurrying to Champaign in late August and over Labor Day weekend.

    When a swallow-tailed kite visits Illinois it's a big deal. This one sent birders scurrying to Champaign in late August and over Labor Day weekend. Courtesy of Brian Tang

  • Often called America's rarest songbird, this Kirtland's warbler was a "lifer" for many area birders. It rested for several days at Chicago's "Magic Hedge" in May.

    Often called America's rarest songbird, this Kirtland's warbler was a "lifer" for many area birders. It rested for several days at Chicago's "Magic Hedge" in May. Courtesy of Jerry Goldner

  • This yellow rail, a secretive species few birders ever see, crashed the gates at Wrigley Field in April.

    This yellow rail, a secretive species few birders ever see, crashed the gates at Wrigley Field in April. Courtesy of Houston Furgeson

  • A wayward snowy plover visited Chicago's Montrose Beach last May. Sadly, the photographer, Steve Spitzer, passed away a month after taking this extraordinary shot.

    A wayward snowy plover visited Chicago's Montrose Beach last May. Sadly, the photographer, Steve Spitzer, passed away a month after taking this extraordinary shot. Courtesy of Steve Spitzer

  • Common birds made us smile in 2015, too. This golden-crowned kinglet gave new meaning to the word flexible.

    Common birds made us smile in 2015, too. This golden-crowned kinglet gave new meaning to the word flexible. Courtesy of Fran Morel

 
 

If there is one thing I probably say too much, it's that birding is full of surprises. The 2015 birding year backed me up on that, serving up constant reminders that you just never know what's coming next. We're lucky; the hobby we love is never boring, and even a "slow" day of birding is usually pretty darn good.

Before diving into my annual compilation of birding highlights and notes, let's acknowledge the obvious: it was a rough year for nature in Illinois, and not just for bobcats. The state's budget crisis continues to wreak havoc on important environment and conservation programs. Endangered species in Illinois are especially vulnerable, most notably the fragile population of greater prairie chickens downstate.

This column is about birds, not politics, but unfortunately they are connected. My wish for 2016, besides a great gray owl at Sax-Zim Bog, is for the situation in Springfield to get better instead of worse. That's not asking too much, right?

Our state, fortunately, is still a wonderful place to watch birds. More than 300 species live in or visit Illinois each year. In 2015, we enjoyed several jaw-dropping rarities and many more highly uncommon birds.

Choosing the "best" of these sightings is completely subjective, but for Illinois Bird of the Year my top picks are the ivory gull in Quincy last winter and the late-summer swallow-tailed kite in Champaign. Both birds were cooperative, hanging around for a week or more.

For Chicago Area Bird of the Year, I again offer two candidates. Take your pick: the Kirtland's warbler viewed by many in May at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary's "Magic Hedge," or the magnificent frigatebird seen cruising down the lakefront on July 8 by the Field Museum's Josh Engel.

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A flamingo and penguin visited Wrigley Field, guests of animal-loving Cubs manager Joe Maddon. But birders agree the most amazing bird at the Friendly Confines was a yellow rail, found by Houston Furgeson under his chair on April 18.

A singing Connecticut warbler delighted birders in Chicago's near southwest Loop, lingering at the same busy corner for a week. A yellow-headed blackbird grazed on the Museum Campus lawn. And, yes, that really was a red-throated loon paddling down the Chicago River last February.

Other newsworthy sightings: Say's phoebe (Maywood); violet-green swallow1 and a flock of 104 American avocets (Northwestern University); Barrow's goldeneye (West Dundee); red-necked phalarope and white-faced ibis (Kane County); red phalarope (Will County); and red knot, snowy plover and piping plover on the beach at Montrose Point.

Black-crowned night herons continue to thrive in Lincoln Park, near the zoo. The year's official nest count was 271, up slightly from 2014.

Also at the zoo, a common ground dove was the center of attention throughout most of November. But not for zoo patrons, for birders, because the dove wasn't in a cage. It was the first ground dove documented in northern Illinois since 1980.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Another vagrant dove species, a white-winged dove, was found dead, the victim of a downtown building strike. It was the Field Museum's first Illinois specimen.

Steve Huggins gets a vote for best "yard bird" of 2015. On Nov. 7, he observed a barn owl in flight from his Lincoln Park rooftop. Got pics, too!

Other fall rarities included a wood stork and Pacific loon, each in Lake County, and a Thanksgiving week ovenbird under a feeder in Woodridge.

The Western suburbs delivered plenty of other avian excitement. Morton Arboretum produced blue grosbeak, barred owl, pileated woodpecker and two coveted warblers, cerulean and yellow-throated. Another uncommon beauty, prairie warbler, showed up at Waterfall Glen in Darien.

Black-necked stilts were spotted at Hidden Lake in Glen Ellyn, and Whalon Lake in Bolingbrook gave up a Harris's sparrow.

Naperville's Greene Valley hosted buff-breasted sandpiper, loggerhead shrike and spotted towhee. Five whooping cranes sailed over the site's hawkwatch on Nov. 13.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Reports of scissor-tailed flycatchers sent birders scrambling to both Springbrook Prairie in Naperville and Fermilab in Batavia. Fermi's 2015 bounty included blue grosbeak, cattle egret, white-rumped sandpiper, greater white-fronted goose and 15 baby bison.

A squadron of American white pelicans patrolled the sky during the April bird walk at Cantigny Park, species No. 150 for the Wheaton property.

Another nice moment at Cantigny occurred in July when I opened the back hatch of the park's chimney swift tower. There, on the floor, were bits of tiny white egg shells. I got on my back, stuck my head in the tower and looked up. Sure enough, a sling of little sticks was attached to the wall, about five feet up. It took three seasons, but what a thrill to finally have nesting swifts!

Fermilab erected three swift towers in 2015, and another went up at Lyman Woods in Downers Grove. Chimney swifts are among 33 "common birds in steep decline," as identified by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. They need our help.

Congrats to project manager Mary Hennen and her team at the Chicago Peregrine Program, which just finished its 30th year. Peregrine falcons are thriving in the city and a few suburbs thanks to CPP.

RIP Steve Spitzer. His sudden passing last June was a shock and loss to the Chicago birding community. A few of Steve's terrific photos appeared here over the years, and one more accompanies today's column.

There's never been a bigger Big Year than the one Noah Strycker is wrapping up now. He broke the world Big Year record in September with Sri Lanka frogmouth, his 4,342 bird of 2015. Strycker's goal is 5,000 birds for the year -- about half of the world's bird species. (Yes, there will be a book.)

The first Global Big Day for bird conservation took place May 9. Birders from 115 countries tallied more than 6,000 species.

A hummingbird species last seen nearly 70 years ago was rediscovered in northern Colombia. Let's all welcome back the blue-bearded helmetcrest!

My life list grew modestly in 2015, but at least it grew. I picked up a few newbies in San Antonio, Texas, in January, and then joined scores of birders in Chicago's Jackson Park for my lifer Bohemian waxwing in February. The latter was sweet consolation for missing "The Gull" in Quincy.

A highly visible family of nesting great-horned owls attracted birders and potential birders to Fabyan Forest Preserve near Geneva. Members of Kane County Audubon volunteered time at the site, sharing scope views, answering questions and managing the paparazzi. Good job!

In June, a bald eagle was killed by a car in upstate New York. Turns out it was the oldest eagle ever discovered in the wild, age 38, banded as a nestling in 1977. Think about that. Eagles were still "on the brink" back then.

The price of the annual Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (the "duck stamp") increased $10. It's still a bargain at $25, and one of the best ways for birders to support wetland habitats.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County celebrated 100 years in 2015 and marked the occasion with its first-ever Bio Blitz on June 27. The massive 24-hour effort across four preserves documented 953 species, 97 of which were birds.

The DuPage Birding Club also reached a milestone, turning 30. Are you a member yet?

A red crossbill sampled the Morton Arboretum on Nov. 28, and as December began, dozens of common redpolls were feeding in the alder and birch trees at Chicago Botanic Garden. Scattered snowy owl sightings are now lighting up IBET, the birding listserve. This could be a very interesting winter.

Finally, I was humbled and grateful earlier this year when the Chicago Audubon Society chose me for its Excellence in Environmental Reporting Award. What a kick to be recognized for something I do for fun and to introduce more people to this fascinating pastime.

I'll be back next month to begin the 13th year of Words on Birds. Thanks for reading!

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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