2020 was a big year in birding
You probably heard about "Rocky," the saw-whet owl discovered last month inside the huge Christmas tree on Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The adorable stowaway became an instant star, giving the Big Apple and nation a welcome feel-good story.
Around the same time, local birders found their own saw-whet to fawn over at Morton Arboretum. But a far more unexpected traveler would soon arrive in Channahon -- a great kiskadee found by John Weisgerber on Dec. 2. The species, a first record for Illinois, normally resides in South Texas and Mexico. Hundreds of birders scurried to the Des Plaines Widewaters Conservation Area in Will County for a peek, including me.
The "Miracle on Front Street" brought the curtain down on a birding year full of surprises. Well, not quite. A week later, in almost the same spot, a western tanager turned up, reported by Niklas Klauss. It was Channahon's third rarity in three weeks, a hot streak that began with a Eurasian wigeon in late November. You guessed it: The fancy duck was right about where the kiskadee, and later the tanager, would soon appear.
If birders didn't know where Channahon was before, they certainly do now.
Joining the kiskadee as worthy Bird of the Year candidates were a Townsend's warbler at Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine (found in April by Heidi Tarasiuk); black-headed grosbeak in Woodstock (October); and a golden-crowned sparrow in the Rockford backyard of Dan and Barbara Williams (November). A front porch rufous hummingbird hosted by the Baier family in Lisle was yet another December treat.
Sightings of these rare birds, combined with flexible work schedules and low gas prices, created a perfect storm for bird chasers. In 2020, homebound enthusiasts needed few excuses to hit the highway.
Indeed, the pandemic changed how we bird. We wore face coverings, did less carpooling and tried our best to social distance on the trails.
Perhaps the biggest change brought about by the virus was more birders, especially backyard watchers. Many came to realize that feeding birds is a pleasant diversion. Keeping a yard list became a thing -- a fun challenge for all ages and a solid remote learning activity.
For newbies and veterans alike, at home and in the field, it was an extraordinary year to be a birder. Not only did we have more time for the hobby, there was a lot to see. Spring migration was sick with warblers, followed by an early summer yellow-billed cuckoo fest fueled by major cicada hatch. Spotting or at least hearing a cuckoo was never easier.
Fall proved especially rich. In late October, reports of evening grosbeaks poured in throughout the region -- almost unheard of in these parts. Just the thought of one landing on my sunflower feeder is exciting, and currently it's a real possibility.
Other "winter finches" have invaded as well, namely common redpoll, pine siskin, red crossbill and white-winged crossbill. Red-breasted nuthatch is back, too. All are nomadic species from the north that don't come around every year. This will be an entertaining winter.
Space limitations force me to pick and choose, but a county-by-county listing of notable bird sightings shows the remarkable avian diversity that Chicagoland birders encountered in 2020.
Cook: black-legged kittiwake; buff-breasted sandpiper; Cassin's sparrow; Franklin's gull; great-tailed grackle; harlequin duck; Harris's sparrow; hoary redpoll; lark bunting; little gull; painted bunting; parasitic jaeger; piping plover (Monty and Rose returned to Montrose Beach, fledging three chicks!); purple gallinule; red knot; red-necked grebe; red-throated loon; Sabine's gull; Say's phoebe; snowy egret; snowy owl; Swainson's hawk; Townsend's warbler; varied thrush; western grebe; whimbrel; whip-poor-will; white-faced ibis
DuPage: black-bellied whistling duck; cattle egret; cerulean, hooded, Kentucky, prairie, yellow-throated and worm-eating warblers; eared grebe; golden eagle; lark sparrow; Neotropic cormorant; northern mockingbird; pileated woodpecker; red-shouldered hawk; rufous hummingbird; surf scoter; western tanager; whooping crane
Kane: American avocet; black-necked stilt; black scoter; black tern; Connecticut, Kirtland's and prairie warblers; Eurasian tree sparrow; Hudsonian godwit; northern goshawk; red-necked phalarope; ruddy turnstone; Say's phoebe; western kingbird; whip-poor-will
Lake: black-necked stilt; black vulture; buff-breasted sandpiper; harlequin duck; Kentucky warbler (in December!); loggerhead shrike; marbled godwit; Mississippi kite; purple sandpiper; scissor-tailed flycatcher; snowy owl
McHenry: black-headed grosbeak; black tern; common gallinule; lark sparrow; red-necked phalarope
Will: black-bellied whistling duck; black-necked stilt; cattle egret; Eurasian wigeon; great kiskadee; Hudsonian godwit; western tanager; yellow-crowned night heron
Finally, a shout-out to Kendall County, which produced a Townsend's solitaire last January at Silver Springs State Park, the first rarity of 2020. Doesn't that seem like five years ago?
When luck and skill collide
Congratulations to Isoo O'Brien for shattering the Big Year record for Cook County of 281 species. He did it with a common redpoll on Oct. 30. The Evanston high school senior likens birding to a treasure hunt, and I couldn't agree more.
The all-time Illinois Big Year record of 334 species also fell, but at press time it was unknown what the new record would be, and who would set it. Nathan Goldberg had 340 species with Steve Huggins just one bird behind. Their lists were identical except for the Geneva Kirtland's warbler in May; Nathan got it, Steve did not.
Springbrook Prairie steward Joe Suchecki witnessed the first successful sandhill crane nesting at the Naperville preserve. He also registered species No. 240 at Springbrook when a flock of 22 evening grosbeaks flew over on November 6. Joe said he hadn't seen evening grosbeaks in Illinois since 1996.
Illinois Ornithological Society made the most of a stay-at-home spring by holding a Backyard Big Day competition in April. Some 200 households from 34 counties participated. IOS followed up with a Big Sit tournament in September that raised $5,000 for bird-related causes.
Illinois Audubon Society purchased 40 acres within the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County, protecting additional habitat for greater prairie-chickens.
The 2020 Indiana Dunes Birding Festival was canceled but still won the Mindful Birding Award for its devotion to ethical birding and bird conservation. The 2021 fest is on for May 13-16.
The grand opening of the International Crane Foundation's updated campus in Baraboo, Wis., also was called off. They'll try again on May 1, 2021.
Black birders matter
Rocky the owl made us smile. Another New Yorker made us cringe. You surely heard about the ugly incident in Central Park last May, when a white dog-walker confronted Black bird-watcher Christian Cooper, falsely accusing him of threatening violence. A video of the encounter attracted 30 million views.
It wasn't about birding, of course, but it did create high-profile exposure for the hobby. Black Birders Week took flight in June, a first-time awareness campaign to encourage birding by people of color.
Worth mentioning, too, is the "Bird Names for Birds" movement. The idea, now gaining momentum, is to assign new names to birds currently named after people. Some of the individuals, history shows, were racist in their actions and beliefs. Some were slave owners. In August, McCown's longspur was officially reclassified as thick-billed longspur. Expect more such changes. About 150 North American birds are named for people.
Checking my notes
I'll remember 2020 for many things but the sweetest memories involve birding. May 15 produced my finest day of backyard birding ever, with 47 species. One was a worm-eating warbler, only the second of my life! Northern waterthrush also joined my all-time yard list that day.
Spotting a backyard "wormie" is hard to top, but finally getting my lifer Kentucky warbler was my best birding moment. A big assist goes to Joan Campbell for helping me find it at Greene Valley, where dozens of other birders enjoyed it, too. Kentucky's are not usually so cooperative! I guess it was just my turn.
I read 33 books in 2020, the best one about birding being Kenn Kaufman's "A Season on the Wind." Two more goodies wait on my nightstand: Sibley's latest, "What It's Like to Be a Bird," and Ted Floyd's "How to Know the Birds."
Best new beer? Piping Plover Pale Ale, of course, launched by Imperial Oak Brewing (Willow Springs) in August. I'm raising one now, in a toast. Here's to 2020, a difficult year made better by exciting birds and fun birding adventures. And to a brighter year ahead. Maybe I'll see you in Channahon.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.