Bird watchers need not hibernate in winter

  • This Mandarin duck attracted thrill-seeking birders to Orland Park.

    This Mandarin duck attracted thrill-seeking birders to Orland Park. Courtesy of Bonnie Graham

  • This black-legged kittiwake at Whalon Lake entertained birders for several days in early January.

    This black-legged kittiwake at Whalon Lake entertained birders for several days in early January. Courtesy of Bonnie Graham

 
 

If this column is a bit tardy, blame "The Feather Thief." It stole my time! If the next book I open is only half as good, I'll be happy.

My previous piece recapped the 2018 birding year. However, since that rambler was submitted in mid-December, it omitted a few developments from the year's final weeks. Today I'll close the loop and cover some early highlights of 2019.

So, remember that piping plover in Chicago? To refresh, the bird first visited Montrose Beach in October and stayed until early December -- by far the latest record for the species in Illinois.

The plover vanished for several days, then made history in a second state by appearing Dec. 15 on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, just in time for that area's Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

But the story wasn't over. On Dec. 22, the feathered mighty mite reappeared at Montrose! The plover was easily located by Evanston North Shore Bird Club members on Christmas Day during their Chicago Lakefront CBC. I guess some birds just want to be counted.

The plover rang in the new year at Montrose and was last seen on Jan. 13.

The backyard yellow-throated warbler in St. Charles also departed, hopefully for warmer climes. Homeowner Jon Schuler last saw it on Dec. 23.

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Warblers in winter are rare indeed, the one exception being yellow-rumped warbler. "Butterbutts" are uncommon this time of year, but we do see a few. The species is content to eat berries, seeds and suet when other warblers head south to maintain their bug-based diets.

Nine yellow-rumps were recorded on the Fermilab CBC and they popped up all over the region in January. Keep an eye out, especially if your yard features bayberry, juniper or a heated bird bath.

Common yellowthroat, another warbler species, was sighted during both the Fermilab CBC. and Lisle-Arboretum CBC. Nashville warbler was a coveted discovery at the Kankakee Valley CBC, along with white-eyed vireo. A palm warbler appeared in Cook County on Jan. 11.

The Lisle-Arb CBC, by the way, held Dec. 16, turned up 21 pileated woodpeckers -- a record for the species. The previous best was 13 in 2017. These numbers support the widespread notion that our local pileated population is growing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Flocks of sandhill cranes staged a rare January passage over DuPage and Kane as the year began, but the big story was a black-legged kittiwake, observed Jan. 1-5 at Whalon Lake Forest Preserve in Will County. The kittiwake, a coastal gull species seldom observed inland, could easily have been overlooked. Kudos to Kirk LaGory from Downers Grove for picking it out and sharing an exciting find.

A rarity of a different color -- actually, many colors -- turned up in Orland Park. A Mandarin duck! First reported by Susan Zelek on Jan. 4, where it came from is still a mystery. Like the Mandarin in New York's Central Park that caused a sensation last fall, the Orland bird is possibly an escapee from a zoo or private collection.

Mandarin duck is a nonnative intruder, an Asian species. But there's no denying its beauty. Only our male wood duck comes close to matching the Mandarin's spectacular plumage.

In fact, thanks to Bob Andrini, a St. Charles birder, I learned the two species are related -- the only members of the Aix genus.

As the deep freeze settled in, yet another January surprise, a spotted towhee, found a busy backyard feeder located near Wheaton Warrenville South High School.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Kate Hopkins reported the bird and generously opened her yard to visiting birders. I was among them, and besides the towhee (a western species) witnessed the yard's other featured visitor, a Carolina wren. Some lucky birders received a further bonus when a pair of unusual red-bellied woodpeckers flew in; their head markings were yellow instead of red!

Such moments must be savored because winter birding in northern Illinois is not always so exciting. As watchers, it pays to stay alert as we count the days until spring.

Meanwhile, keep your feeders stocked and enjoy the show, especially when it snows.

Cyber birding is a fun option, too. My guilty pleasure lately has been the Cornell Lab's feeder cam streaming live from Manitouwadge, Ontario. With a few clicks (and a little patience) you can observe guest appearances by evening and pine grosbeaks, Canada jays, ravens, redpolls and even ruffed grouse. Google Ontario FeederWatch.

Of course, nothing beats a good book on a cold winter night. If you need a recommendation I can help.

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

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