2019 birding: The good, the sad and the unlikely

Welcome to my annual review of the top news of a feather.

The 2019 birding year wasn't boring, that's for sure. Birds drew the national spotlight; drama and history played out on a Chicago beach; and a series of rare sightings sent local birders scrambling for their binoculars, scopes and car keys.

Like a dark cloud, one story overshadowed all the others. In September, the journal Science revealed that breeding bird populations in the U.S. and Canada are tanking - down 29 percent since 1970. About 3 billion fewer birds are in the air than 50 years ago. Researchers at seven institutions, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, co-authored the study.

Birders have long known certain species are in decline, some clearly inching toward extinction. But the magnitude of loss caught even the experts off guard, as did the news that so-called "common" birds such as blue jays and red-winged blackbirds are suffering, too.

Mainstream media jumped on it, owing that birds are an indicator of overall ecosystem health. "The mass disappearance of North American birds is a dire warning about the planet's well-being," The New York Times said.

Study details, including reasons for the decline and "7 Simple Actions to Help Birds," are online at

Birds are resilient creatures, one of the reasons my glass remains half full. In fact, waterfowl and raptor populations are increasing thanks to effective conservation efforts.

These juvenile piping plovers, offspring of Monty and Rose, were Chicago's first in more than 60 years. Courtesy of Tamima Itani

Avian resiliency was on full display last summer at Montrose Beach along Lake Michigan. I suspect you've heard a thing or two about Monty and Rose, the first piping plovers to nest in Chicago since the mid-1950s. It was the local nature story of the year, rivaled only by an alligator in the Humboldt Park Lagoon.

Some 190 volunteers from the birding community devoted more than 1,200 hours to the Piping Plover Watch, monitoring and protecting the federally endangered birds for two months on the busy beach.

Their extraordinary efforts were rewarded by the birth and successful fledging of two piping plover chicks. The siblings began their southern migration in late August.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared Nov. 18 to be Piping Plover Day, coinciding with the debut of "Monty and Rose," a film directed by Bob Dolgan. The first showing at the Music Box Theatre sold out, as did subsequent screenings at other Chicago venues. Watch for viewing opportunities in the Western suburbs.

Ironically, the inspiring Montrose plover story played out during a year in which the Endangered Species Act came under attack by the Trump administration. The ESA, enacted in 1973, is generally heralded as a success by Republicans and Democrats alike. We now enjoy bald eagles around DuPage County because of it.

In October, Kirtland's warbler exited the endangered species list, further evidence of ESA's effectiveness in helping imperiled species rebound from near-extinction.

Odd and rare

But enough politics. Head-scratching bird stories are more interesting, like the Georgia family that discovered a live screech owl in their Christmas tree days after they'd brought the tree inside and decorated it with lights and owl ornaments.

In Florida, a man raising exotic birds suffered death by cassowary. Also in the Sunshine State, a rare yellow cardinal visited a backyard feeder. A gynandromorphic cardinal - half male and half female - showed up in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania's other avian shocker was a snail kite, spotted in October - the first U.S. sighting of the nonmigratory raptor outside of Florida, South Carolina or Texas. Where was it seen? In Erie, of course.

In Redding, California, a fledgling red-tailed hawk was observed in a bald eagle nest along with two eaglets, all three being cared for by two adult eagles. Shockingly, the eagles settled on raising the baby hawk instead of eating it.

Sadly, in June, a car struck and killed one of the beloved Mooseheart bald eagles in North Aurora. The surviving adult male assumed full-time parenting duties.

Woody Goss witnessed a cowbird chick being fed by common yellowthroats, a male and female - and then by a catbird! It happened at Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

Wild turkeys strutting around Chicago added further proof that when it comes to birds, you just never know.

Now let's turn to the truly remarkable sightings of 2019 - the feathered wonders that local birders went out of their way to see and photograph.

This vagrant Lewis's woodpecker sampled the suet at Ballard Nature Center near Effingham. Courtesy of Leroy Harrison

In some cases, way out their way, such as Effingham County. That's where a western beauty, Lewis's woodpecker, visited feeders at the Ballard Nature Center in early May. The species was a first record for Illinois, and a lifer for many who ventured to see it.

On May 9, lucky watchers in Chicago witnessed both Kirtland's warbler and western tanager in the same area of Grant Park. The Kirtland's stayed for a week, and those who missed the western would have other chances. For whatever reason, 2019 was a phenomenal year for vagrant western tanagers in the Great Lakes region.

Jeff Smith discovered a male painted bunting at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County on June 2. The Technicolor songbird seldom strays so far north.

Two other rarities, little stint and ruff, caused a rush to downstate Fulton County in early August. Even further south, sightings of fulvous whistling duck tempted birders in August (Jackson County) and September (Monroe).

The state's first limpkin spent the summer and fall on Borah Lake near Olney. Courtesy of Jim Herkert, Illinois Audubon Society

The first confirmed Illinois record of limpkin, a large wader rarely spotted outside of Florida in the U.S., occurred near Olney in Richland County. Birders didn't hear about it until September, but the bird was first noticed by local homeowners in June.

A Cassin's kingbird at Montrose, discovered by Krzysztof Kurylowicz on Sept. 22, was a new species for the state's No. 1 hot spot.

On a frigid Halloween, Tamima Itani scoped a king eider paddling around the Northwestern lagoon. The large sea duck was well seen on subsequent days in Evanston and Chicago.

This ancient murrelet, a rare visitor to the Midwest, excited Montrose Point birders in mid-November. Courtesy of Mike Carroll

The next mega-rarity, ancient murrelet, arrived eight days later at Montrose. First reported by Bob Hughes, it was all-time species No. 347 for the site, according to eBird.

Montrose, of course, home of the Magic Hedge, is a magnet for migratory birds. And with lots of watchers, rare sightings are almost routine. Highlights in 2019 (not already mentioned) included barred owl, black tern, black-bellied whistling duck, black vulture, common gallinule, long-billed curlew, purple sandpiper, Smith's longspur, snowy egret, Townsend's warbler and a flyby pair of whooping cranes. Insane!

• Tomorrow: More on Jeff Reiter's look back on the year in birding.

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