Searching for a European goldfinch in Lake County

The European goldfinch has made its home in Lake County and Wisconsin

 
 
Updated 8/24/2018 11:56 AM
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  • The handsome European goldfinch is unmistakable, and tracking one down in our region is easier than ever. For now, however, the species is not officially countable for birders who spot it on this side of the Atlantic.

    The handsome European goldfinch is unmistakable, and tracking one down in our region is easier than ever. For now, however, the species is not officially countable for birders who spot it on this side of the Atlantic. Courtesy of Christian Goers

  • European goldfinches, including these juveniles, enjoy unlimited safflower at The Bird Nest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

    European goldfinches, including these juveniles, enjoy unlimited safflower at The Bird Nest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

On a sunny July morning, I woke up extra early with a bird on my mind. No surprise there. But this bird was different. I'd seen it before but never in the United States. It was time to do something about that.

The plan was to meet Al Stokie, the most avid birder I know, who'd generously agreed to help me find a European goldfinch. He knew of two places in Lake County where the species regularly occurs.

European goldfinch is a nonnative "introduced" species, and not officially countable for birders who spot one in North America. (At least not yet; more on that later.) I'd admired this red-faced beauty before during a trip to Ireland in 1996.

It's a common bird throughout the U.K. and European mainland -- a must-see species for any visiting birder.

How and when European goldfinch arrived in the Chicago area isn't exactly known, but they've been nesting here since at least 2003.

Most likely, a colony developed after some imported birds escaped from their cages or were released. Our local monk parakeets share a similar provenance.

A close relative of our bright yellow American goldfinch, European goldfinch is not widespread in the region. But the species is certainly breeding in Lake County, and its population is growing. It is not considered invasive or a threat to ecosystems.

In that regard, Euro goldfinch differs from nonnative bad guys like house sparrow and European starling.

Plus, this is one fine-looking bird. Countable or not, I wanted to see a European goldfinch on American soil.

I met Al at Waukegan Beach, one of his usual haunts. Sure enough, within two minutes, several adult European goldfinches were in plain view.

The birds flew around as a group and kept returning to the utility wires above the parking area, making it easy to observe their red faces, whitish bills and large, yellow wing patches. Al pointed to some trees in the adjacent park where the birds apparently nest.

Among birders, Waukegan Beach is best known for gulls, waterfowl and shorebirds.

Al and his friend, Bob, showed me a staked-out piping plover, also viewable from the parking lot, and then a small colony of nesting common terns in a protected area along the beach. Both are hard-to-find, state-endangered species.

Our next stop was the south unit of Illinois Beach State Park, where we quickly located a few Euro goldfinches in the pines outside the resort and conference center. Al and Bob moved on from there, in search of other avian quarry, leaving me to work on getting a good photo.

My limited camera skills, combined with skittish goldfinches, were getting me nowhere when a couple on bicycles pulled up. Steve and Mary were birders and recognized one of their kind. I told them what I was up to and they gushed about the European goldfinches that visit their Pleasant Prairie (Wisconsin) backyard.

Steve suggested that I visit The Bird Nest, a store in Kenosha.

Euro goldfinches flock to the feeders behind the store, he said, where a nice viewing area is set up for onlookers.

How could I resist? I pointed the Jetta north and crossed into America's Dairyland. The Bird Nest was easy to find, just off I-94 next to a massive Woodman's. The shop's manager, Brian Nett, invited me to head out back and enjoy the show.

Right away, I knew this would be an entertaining hour or two. About 15 kinds of birds were coming and going to all manner of feeders, including the species that brought me there. For close views of European goldfinch, this place is a lock.

Brian told me the finches arrived about seven years ago, and that their numbers are growing. The store's feeding stations typically host six to 10 birds at a time in the summer, and up to three dozen in winter. These are hardy, nonmigratory birds. Safflower is their seed of choice.

I hadn't noticed any young birds at the two Illinois sites. At The Bird Nest feeders, however, juveniles outnumbered the adults. Aside from their yellow wing patches, they were nondescript and seemed less wary than the parent birds. Or maybe they were just hungrier!

My time in Kenosha recalled a similar birding experience in 2013 at the Sugar Grove Nature Center near Bloomington. My target that day was Eurasian tree sparrow, another nonnative species that tweaked my curiosity.

I'd heard the bird frequented the nature center's feeders and was not disappointed.

The tree sparrow is officially countable in North America because it has been here since 1870. Despite a small geographic range -- west-central Illinois and Greater St. Louis -- the bird's population is obviously established and self-sustaining. You can go see it like I did and add it to your life list.

Not so with European goldfinch. You can see it but not list it. On this side of the Atlantic, the ornithologists who decide these matters have been slow to confirm what everybody seems to know: European goldfinch is here to stay.

A change in classification seems inevitable. Perhaps within five or 10 years the species will become "official," making the birds in Lake County and southeast Wisconsin fair game for rule-abiding listers like me.

Meanwhile, I recommend a stop in Kenosha if you're up that way. Shop at The Bird Nest, watch the feeders, and maybe have breakfast or lunch at the Perkins next door.

In the suburbs, be alert for a surprise visitor. A lone European goldfinch sampled a Wheaton backyard feeder in February 2016.

• Jeff Reiter's column has appeared in the Daily Herald since 2008. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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