2020 Bird of the Year: Cedar waxwing ... or is it?

  • The author's aspirational bird of the year is the Kentucky warbler, a hard-to-find species in the Chicago region.

    The author's aspirational bird of the year is the Kentucky warbler, a hard-to-find species in the Chicago region. Courtesy of Christian Goers

 
 
Posted2/21/2020 6:00 AM

It's official. Cedar waxwing is the 2020 Bird of the Year, declared by the American Birding Association on Jan. 12.

I attended the ABA's Sunday afternoon "reveal party," at a nightclub in Berwyn that I'm pretty sure did not attract many birders the night before.

 

We had it all to ourselves -- a good thing considering the entertainment included ABA president and part-time rocker Jeffrey Gordon performing "The Waxwing Song," a piece he wrote just for the occasion.

Don't get me wrong, he nailed it, but non-birders may not have fully appreciated the effort.

Also raising the event's cool factor was the presence of Tony Fitzpatrick, the renowned Chicago artist with a thing for birds. Signed copies of his Bird of the Year poster were selling like suet cakes, even at $50 each.

Cedar waxwing is a fine choice. The species is a crowd favorite for its sleek beauty and endearing behaviors, including bill-to-bill berry passing, as depicted in the poster.

Waxwings are accessible, too -- not terribly hard to find even for new birders. For some, it will be a "spark bird," the one that inspires a lifelong interest in birding.

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The cedar waxwing is officially the 2020 Bird of the Year. Chicagoan Tony Fitzpatrick created the supporting artwork, "A Communion of Waxwings."
The cedar waxwing is officially the 2020 Bird of the Year. Chicagoan Tony Fitzpatrick created the supporting artwork, "A Communion of Waxwings." - Courtesy of American Birding Association

The ABA's Bird of the Year series began in 2011 with American kestrel. Last year's selection was red-billed tropicbird, the ABA logo bird, to commemorate the organization's 50th anniversary.

Bird of the Year is good marketing for ABA and for the hobby. As a member, I love the program. But I like choosing my own bird of the year, too.

One of my rituals is to pick a personal bird of the year when the year is over, the way Time magazine picks a human. The candidates are assembled in December.

In many years, the choice is obvious. One bird usually stands out; one that meant more than any other. Sometimes it's a species that teased me for years before finally giving in. My life-list worm-eating warbler was that way.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

My 2008 Bird of the Year wasn't even a lifer. The prize went to a prothonotary warbler, a highly improbable visitor to my backyard. It appeared for a few minutes around 6 a.m. on April 18, just after a minor earthquake shook northern Illinois. (Oh yes, I felt it.)

Another year, my honored bird was locked in by mid-February -- a great gray owl at Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. Nothing could top the experience. I devoted a column to it.

What will it be, for you and for me, in 2020? We can't know for sure, and that's part of what makes birding fun and rewarding. A bird will surprise you this year, almost guaranteed.

It's tempting to think that birds find the birders, not the other way around. Random luck, it happens, like my miraculous earthquake bird. The birding gods do smile upon us now and then.

But remember, the luckiest birders -- the ones we envy, those who always spot the "good ones" -- seem to spend the most time watching.

They rack up frequent birder points instead of airline miles. They keep informed about local sightings, working the network. They often drop whatever they are doing (usually birding) to chase reported rarities.

So, I'm thinking, what if I were a little more like "them" in 2020? Could I pick an aspirational bird of the year, commit to finding it, and then make it happen?

The top bird on my radar is the Kentucky warbler. Years ago, I heard one, at Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. Or did I? I was alone that morning and not 100% sure. I've certainly never seen a Kentucky, and it's starting to bug me.

Last October, at the DuPage Birding Club fundraiser, one of the auction items was "DuPage County Life Bird," donated by club member and naturalist Glenn Perricone. The winning bidder got to choose their most-wanted bird from a list of 160 species, compiled by Glenn. He'd take it from there, applying his ace bird-finding skills.

Unfortunately, Kentucky warbler was not on the menu -- it's a tough species that couldn't be "guaranteed." But Glenn's list contained plenty of other coveted targets and the bidding for his services was brisk. The winner paid $140 and issued Glenn his marching orders: Find me a summer tanager or a Virginia rail.

I wasn't surprised by the price. Birders are known to go all out for a single lifer, including 500-mile road trips.

What would I do for a Kentucky warbler? I guess I'll soon find out. My quest begins this spring, when the secretive yellow bird with the black sideburns returns from its tropical vacation.

I have a good feeling. This could be the year.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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