Year in birding: 2021 brought several rare sightings and new conservation laws

Year in birding: 2021 brought several rare sightings and new conservation laws

  • Vagrant hummers usually turn up at feeders, but not this broad-billed hummingbird at Chicago's LaBagh Woods.

    Vagrant hummers usually turn up at feeders, but not this broad-billed hummingbird at Chicago's LaBagh Woods. Courtesy of Matt Misewicz

 
 
Posted1/13/2022 6:00 AM

Area bird-watchers will remember 2021 for at least a dozen remarkable sightings, including two wayward hummingbirds and a lost flycatcher. The chasers among us enjoyed ample opportunities to witness "life birds" that seldom visit the region.

It was a newsworthy year in other respects, too:

 

• The Biden administration stood up for our feathered friends by restoring protections of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most important bird conservation law ever enacted. The Department of the Interior, under former President Trump, had severely weakened the government's power to enforce it.

• In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the "Bird-Safe Buildings Act," requiring the use of bird-friendly construction techniques for all new construction or renovation of state-owned buildings. The law aims to protect birds from collisions during their migratory journeys.

• Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, a vital care facility for injured birds (often from building strikes), announced plans for major site improvements. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County hopes for completion in 2024.

• Chicago's famous (and endangered) piping plovers, Monty and Rose, returned to Montrose Beach, nesting for a third consecutive year. The plucky pair lost their first clutch of eggs to a skunk attack, but recovered nicely, hatching four chicks in July.

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• Ohio celebrated its first piping plover nest in 83 years at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo. The male of the pair was Nish, son of Monty and Rose, born in 2020.

• Illinois Audubon Society received a $30 million bequest from the estate of Gilbert and Mary Hebard, the largest single gift in the organization's history. IAS celebrates 125 years in 2022.

• A growing nonprofit, Birdability.org, raised its profile in 2021, boosted by a partnership with American Bird Conservancy. Its goal -- and that of local groups like the DuPage Birding Club -- is to make birding more accessible for those with mobility challenges and other disabilities.

• Chicago Park District prioritized accessibility by installing an asphalt trail at the region's premier birding location, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, home of the Magic Hedge. No bikes!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• In September, a "Big Sit" team competition by the Illinois Ornithological Society raised $12,000 for IOS support.

• Cornell Lab of Ornithology added a Shazam-like sound identification feature to its popular Merlin Bird ID app. It's free, and birders love it.

Not all the bird-related news of 2021 was positive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its first update of "Birds of Conservation Concern" in 13 years. The report identifies 269 species needing support, excluding those already designated as federally threatened or endangered.

Among them: chimney swift, belted kingfisher, redheaded woodpecker, scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, wood thrush, bobolink, and cerulean warbler. I'll be looking at these birds a little differently now.

The USFWS also removed 23 species from the Endangered Species List, reclassifying them as extinct. One of them is the ivory-billed woodpecker. That news, however, isn't stopping a new search effort in Louisiana by Mission Ivorybill.

Volunteers with waterproof boots are welcome. Pack a camera, too, just in case.

The sightings

Ultra-rare visitor: This Mexican violetear sampled the nectar in a Mundelein backyard in August.
Ultra-rare visitor: This Mexican violetear sampled the nectar in a Mundelein backyard in August. - Courtesy of Matt Misewicz

Now, about those hummingbirds. Daily Herald readers may recall a front-page story in August about a Mexican violetear, a rare hummer seldom seen in the Midwest and seen only once before in Illinois. One visited the Cristino family's feeder in Mundelein, and word traveled fast. At least 100 lucky birders witnessed the emerald beauty, a solid candidate for local Bird of the Year.

In May, Nathan Goldberg found a broad-billed hummingbird feeding on a blossoming buckeye tree at LaBagh Woods in northwest Chicago. It was the third Illinois sighting of the species, a native of Mexico and the desert Southwest.

Another mega-rarity, small-billed elaenia, excited birders in early December. Susan Zelek discovered the brownish flycatcher, a South American species, in Waukegan. Only four records of the species exist for North America; remarkably, one of them occurred in Chicago (2012).

Bullock's oriole is a Western species hardly ever seen in Illinois. Birders dashed to Morgan County for a glimpse of this surprise backyard visitor.
Bullock's oriole is a Western species hardly ever seen in Illinois. Birders dashed to Morgan County for a glimpse of this surprise backyard visitor. - Courtesy of Andy Gilbert

Watchers road-tripped to Morgan County in late April to see a vagrant Bullock's oriole, an astounding new yard bird for welcoming homeowner Pat Ward.

It was that kind of year. The following select highlights from the region back up what I'm always telling new birders: Get outside and look around. You never know what you might see!

• Several typically hard-to-find species were quite accessible in the region in 2021, such as black-necked stilt, cattle egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, white-faced ibis, red-necked phalarope, and trumpeter swan. All appeared in multiple locations.

Two black-necked stilts visited the wetlands of Springbrook Prairie in late April and early May, a first record at the Naperville preserve.
Two black-necked stilts visited the wetlands of Springbrook Prairie in late April and early May, a first record at the Naperville preserve. - Courtesy of Dori Eldridge

• Two black-neck stilts visited Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in April, a new bird for the Naperville site (No. 241). A snowy owl in November was No. 242. In addition, green-winged teal nested at Springbrook, the first breeding record for the site and for DuPage County.

• A Eurasian shorebird called a ruff turned up in Oswego. A day later, a second ruff surprised birders at Wood Dale Reservoir near Itasca. The latter site became a hot spot, hosting ruddy turnstone and other unusual sandpipers, such as buff-breasted and white-rumped.

• Denis Kania spotted an American anhinga flying over McDowell Grove Forest Preserve during the DuPage Spring Bird Count in May -- the first anhinga in the 49-year history of the count. A black rail the same day, location undisclosed, was the event's second on record.

• Golden eagles sailed over Naperville's Greene Valley Hawk Watch, a site designated "Fisher Point" by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in October. The name honors Bob Fisher and his late wife, Karen, for their dedication to bird conservation and the popular hawk watching hill itself.

• Morton Arboretum goodies included blue grosbeak, northern mockingbird, Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and white-eyed vireo. St. James Farm also offered a blue grosbeak, plus Harris's and lark sparrows.

Seeing this limpkin, a Deep South species, required birders to rent canoes at Chain O' Lakes State Park in Lake County.
Seeing this limpkin, a Deep South species, required birders to rent canoes at Chain O' Lakes State Park in Lake County. - Courtesy of Nat Carmichael

• A limpkin found refuge at Chain O' Lakes State Park in Lake County, followed by a second limpkin at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Putnam County. These were just the second and third records for the species in Illinois, the first coming in 2019 near Olney.

• Rare delivery at UPS: in April, cattle egret and great-tailed grackle visited the grounds of the United Parcel Service facility in Hodgkins, just off I-294.

• As usual, Montrose Point birders crushed it. Highlight birds included black vulture, brant, long-eared owl, Franklin's gull, least bittern, western tanager, tufted titmouse, and white-faced ibis. The latter added to a site list approaching 350 species. The Magic Hedge remained magical, attracting 34 warbler varieties.

Painted buntings rarely travel this far north. This technicolor male stole the show at a feeder in McHenry County early last month.
Painted buntings rarely travel this far north. This technicolor male stole the show at a feeder in McHenry County early last month. - Courtesy of Randy Schietzelt

• A dazzling male painted bunting flashed birders at Winnemac Park in Chicago in May; a second one lit up a McHenry County feeder in December. McHenry also hosted a striking cinnamon teal in May.

• Snowy owls invaded the region in late November and hopefully will stay all winter. Most were roosting along the Chicago lakefront. A barn owl visited Burnham Park in August.

• European goldfinch was (and still is) a regular at Armstrong Park in Carol Stream. Likewise for Eurasian tree sparrow at Kaneville Cemetery in Elburn (watch the feeders).

• Orland Grasslands produced a loggerhead shrike, and a yellow-crowned night heron at Lincoln Park Zoo was not on the exhibit roster. Wild turkeys, once a rarity in Cook, popped up in at least four places.

Local birders found migrating Hudsonian godwits in multiple locations. This one visited a St. Charles marsh in October.
Local birders found migrating Hudsonian godwits in multiple locations. This one visited a St. Charles marsh in October. - Courtesy of Jackie Bowman

• Multiple Hudsonian godwits delighted birders in the fall. The one in St. Charles at Breen Park was incredibly cooperative -- a lifer for many, including me.

• Birders scurried to Wauconda in November when four whooping cranes settled in at Broberg Marsh.

Gull-watching birders were stunned when this gyrfalcon appeared in Waukegan last winter. The arctic raptor is the world's largest falcon.
Gull-watching birders were stunned when this gyrfalcon appeared in Waukegan last winter. The arctic raptor is the world's largest falcon. - Courtesy of Josh Engel/Red Hill Birding

• Josh Engel of Red Hill Birding was leading a gull trip last February in Waukegan when a spectacular gyrfalcon crashed the party. Nobody complained.

• A Bohemian waxwing at Elsen's Hill (Winfield) delighted Christmas Bird Count participants on Dec. 18.

• Other random oddities, all in DuPage: A common loon on Mallard Lake throughout the spring and summer; three surf scoters paddling around Hidden Lake Forest Preserve; and a backyard white-winged dove in Elmhurst. As I said, you never know.

Final thoughts

"Ornitherapy" is the title of a new book and a word that well describes the calming role that birds have played for us during the pandemic. Birding, like golf and gardening, is experiencing a growth spurt. People want to be outside, connecting with nature. It's good for us.

Sometimes, just a peek at the backyard feeders is enough -- that's a connection, too. Other times I'll step onto the patio or driveway and look up. This odd habit paid off big last March (on the same day!) when I spotted two distant bald eagles and a highflying flock of American white pelicans. With them, my yard list hit 122 species.

Perhaps my favorite sighting afield in 2021 was the summer tanager at Cantigny Park, a rosy-red songster with a large appetite for honeybees. I wrote a column about it.

In downtown Glen Ellyn, check out the outdoor murals by artist Tony Fitzpatrick, installed in September. I don't understand every element in the paintings, but the cardinal and red-bellied woodpecker are easy IDs. The works are part of the DuPage Public Art Project, sponsored by the College of DuPage.

Baraboo, Wisconsin, is on my 2022 itinerary. The International Crane Foundation held a COVID-delayed grand opening last May following a massive renovation. "Cranes of the World" will be worth the trip. I'm equally stoked for the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, always a great weekend. Dates are May 12-15.

More diversions are surely in my near future, planned or on the fly. The birding life takes you places. Wherever you go this year, stay safe, enjoy the birds, and report back!

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

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