Backyard 'stakeouts' can produce rare bird sightings

 
 
Updated 3/18/2019 6:19 AM
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  • Warrenville resident Kate Hopkins first noticed this spotted towhee, a western species, under her feeder on Jan. 21. In mid-March the bird was still visiting.

    Warrenville resident Kate Hopkins first noticed this spotted towhee, a western species, under her feeder on Jan. 21. In mid-March the bird was still visiting. Courtesy of Mike Carroll

My birding bucket list is mostly in my head and hopelessly long.

It contains birds I want to see, places I wish to go and milestones I hope to achieve. For some items, I'll need some big-time luck.

One aspiration, for example, is to host a rare bird in my yard -- an accidental tourist, the showier the better, and one that hangs around my feeders for at least a week. I'd invite birders from near and far to come see my special guest. They'd sign my guest book. We'd gab about birds and gear and trips. I might even serve coffee and doughnuts.

The scenario isn't so far-fetched. I've been on the visiting end of backyard "stakeouts" several times, most recently this winter, when Warrenville homeowner Kate Hopkins hosted a spotted towhee. Her generosity enabled dozens of birders to experience a western species that for some was a new tick on the life list.

Kate first noticed the towhee at her feeder on Jan. 21. She initially figured it was an eastern towhee, which itself would be a notable sighting in the dead of winter. But after applying the Merlin ID app, she realized it was a spotted and posted her discovery on eBird. That alerted area birders, many of whom wanted to stop by for a look.

"There was zero hesitation," Kate said. "I couldn't wait to share."

She did not have to wait long. In a few hours the doorbell rang.

"There are two young men standing at the door. Their cameras and binocs gave them away but they say, 'We're here about the rare bird.' My husband and I just looked at each other and laughed. We found it delightful."

Dozens of birders scurried to Palos Park in January 2018 to see this varied thrush in Kelly Oliven's backyard. The species is native to the Pacific Northwest.
Dozens of birders scurried to Palos Park in January 2018 to see this varied thrush in Kelly Oliven's backyard. The species is native to the Pacific Northwest. - Courtesy Emil Baumbach

That moment, Kate said, was the start of "a fabulous introduction to the birding community."

Incoming birders were directed to Kate's side yard by a handwritten note on the front door, complete with a photo of the wayward towhee. Her busy feeding station offered plenty to see while waiting for the main attraction, including a handsome Carolina wren.

Observing the spotted towhee was just a matter of patience. My wait was only 20 minutes -- quite fortunate since the temperature was slightly below zero. Others waited longer or had to return for a second or third try.

Kate has no idea how many birders stopped by -- she works during the day -- but tracks in the snow indicated a steady flow of thrill seekers.

Some left thank you notes, birdseed donations and even a box of Earl Grey tea. Others showed their appreciation by sharing photos of her avian celebrity and posting thankful messages on the Illinois Rare Bird Alert Facebook page.

Everyone was gracious, grateful and respectful, Kate said. "There was not a single negative interaction. I would do it all again in a heartbeat."

Kelly Oliven from Palos Park recalls a similar experience when a varied thrush discovered her feeder in January 2018. Like Kate, she welcomed visiting birders after realizing the bird was something special. What came next took her by surprise.

"At one point we had 20 cars parked up and down the street," she said. "The local newspaper came and even the TV news. People came from as far as six hours away in southern Illinois."

Kelly wisely notified the local police about the situation and credits her neighbors for being understanding. The "circus" lasted about six days, during which Kelly got to know the visiting birders.

"I got out there as much as I could to chat with them and just loved every minute of it," Kelly said. "The camaraderie, the information sharing ... I had no idea that people took this so seriously."

I didn't attempt to see Kelly's varied thrush. At the time, a mad dash to Palos didn't fit my schedule. Besides, I'd seen the species once before -- not in the Pacific Northwest, where it belongs, but in Evanston.

That's correct, I owe my "lifer" varied thrush to a different backyard stakeout six years ago. I remember that Sunday morning well, standing in a snowy alley, my toes almost numb, gazing over a neck-high wooden fence into the homeowners' private space. My cold, lonely vigil lasted about 90 minutes before the target bird took pity on me and flew in to the platform feeder. Instantly, my feet felt warmer.

The 2013 Evanston varied thrush was my 500th life bird. To Jason and Judy on Cleveland Street, thank you again!

Thanks, as well, to all the kind people who share their backyard wonders with total strangers like me. Generosity like yours is notable and rare, just like neighborhood birds that come around once in a lifetime.

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

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