New birding checklist helps you find your favorite fowl

  • The yellow-headed blackbird, R-rated in DuPage and declining, is among the county's most elusive species.

    The yellow-headed blackbird, R-rated in DuPage and declining, is among the county's most elusive species. Courtesy of Gary Sullivan, The Wetlands Initiative

 
 
Updated 8/30/2020 2:44 PM

I've gushed before about the wonderful simplicity of birding, how all you need is a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Today, I'm recommending a third item, the regional checklist.

I don't mean a list of species with check boxes. Picture, instead, a list that offers a rating for every regularly occurring local bird in every season based on abundance -- information that tells you what to expect, and what to look for, when birding.

 

Abundance, or frequency, ratings aid identification, too. When you're unsure about a bird, a good checklist can help narrow the choices.

If you think you saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker in July, you probably didn't. Not around here. A checklist tells you that.

The sixth edition of "Checklist of the Birds of DuPage County" is hot off the press, compiled by Denis Kania and published by the DuPage Birding Club. You can download a copy at dupagebirding.org.

Pardon the cliché, but this checklist truly is "new and improved" -- the first update in 10 years. The list of birds has changed along with many of the ratings.

Naperville resident Denis Kania is president of the DuPage Birding Club. He teaches birding classes at Morton Arboretum and leads international birding tours for Field Guides, Inc.
Naperville resident Denis Kania is president of the DuPage Birding Club. He teaches birding classes at Morton Arboretum and leads international birding tours for Field Guides, Inc. - Courtesy of Diann Bilderback
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Capturing the story of DuPage County's bird life is "an ever-moving target," said Kania, who created the first DuPage checklist in 1989, the bird club's fourth year. He was inspired by the helpful checklists he acquired during travels to national parks, nature preserves and other highly birded places.

"When I'd return from a trip, I often wondered why I didn't have this same information close to home."

Developing the initial checklist was extra challenging. As a novice birder, Kania relied heavily on local experts, written field notes and educated guesses. The eBird online reporting tool, a data gold mine and indispensable for compiling the sixth edition, was still 13 years away.

Bird checklists sometimes have four columns, one for each season. But like colors on a painted bunting, more is better.

"I always felt that four columns weren't specific enough," Kania explained. "In terms of birding, think about how different March is from May, or how different September is from November."

The solution was to split spring, summer and fall into two periods each, assigning dates that reflect major shifts in bird populations. For example, "early spring" is March 1 to April 15; "late spring" is April 16 to June 5. "Post Breeding," from July 6 to Aug. 15, is represented as a season, too.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Each bird receives a seasonal rating: A (Abundant); C (Common); F (Fairly Common); U (Uncommon); R (Rare); or X (Extremely Rare).

Previously rated "accidental" in DuPage, blue grosbeak now breeds in the county. Morton Arboretum in Lisle is a good place to look for it.
Previously rated "accidental" in DuPage, blue grosbeak now breeds in the county. Morton Arboretum in Lisle is a good place to look for it. - Courtesy of Jackie Bowman

A species may have different or repeating ratings across the seven "seasons," or no rating at all, meaning the bird is not present. An eighth column indicates if the bird breeds in DuPage.

Our state bird, northern cardinal, rates a C across the board. It's easy to find and doesn't migrate. But most species are not so consistent; their numbers vary a little or a lot throughout the year.

Green heron, for example, a migrant, rates an X in early spring and F in late spring. Timing is everything.

The checklist contains 268 species, so a bird by bird update is no simple task.

"Establishing the ratings requires some history, but I also try to predict how bird populations will change in the future," Kania said.

I asked him what's new about the sixth edition. The news is mixed.

"It's disappointing to see some birds fall off the list or to see their abundance ratings on a downward slide. That is balanced by some species being seen more frequently and some moving off the accidental list, like pileated woodpecker and blue grosbeak -- both are breeding species in the county now.

"We've also seen an increase in breeding attempts by osprey and sandhill crane, both making dramatic changes for the better. Bald eagle is another big breeding surprise over the last few years."

Species dropped from the checklist include upland sandpiper, common tern and evening grosbeak; they are no longer seen often enough in DuPage to warrant inclusion.

Among species still on the list but declining and rare in the county are sanderling, loggerhead shrike and yellow-headed blackbird. When the checklist is next updated in 2028 these birds may be gone from our landscape.

For additional details about the checklist and bird trends in DuPage County, check out Kania's YouTube video on the topic, accessible from DBC's recently upgraded website, dupagebirding.org.

Kania, club president through 2020, has made the most of his pandemic downtime. Besides updating the checklist, he launched a growing series of YouTube tutorials focused on bird identification, also on the club website.

If you go there, be sure to check out yet another excellent new resource, Birding Hotspots -- profiles of the top places for bird-watching in DuPage County, contributed by the local birders who know them best.

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

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