Summer 2021 Conservationist

A Big Year of Birding

by Glenn Perricone, Community Engagement Services

 

As a fan of all things feathered, in 2020 I attempted what birders call a “big year,” seeing as many species as possible in a defined geographical area within a calendar year. I chose to conduct my big year in DuPage forest preserves because they have diverse habitats of varying sizes, are easy to get to and have great trail systems that make exploration easy. On top of that, it’s estimated that over 310 species of birds have been observed in the preserves since 1915, from year-round residents to summer breeding birds, migrants, and vagrant birds not from this area.

A big year is a personal endeavor that any birder can do, if you are willing to put your ID skills and ability to plan to the test. Three important factors will determine what you may see. First, you need to think about what birds to expect at any given time of year. Second, you need to know which habitats support which species. Finally, you need to take into consideration that birding often simply comes down to luck.

January – March

My record-breaking big year began at a time of year that can seem bleak and cold, but many birds overwinter in the forest preserves. My favorite winter bird, the northern shrike, spent these months in the thickets at the McKee Marsh area of Blackwell, collecting a larder of prey including small mammals and birds. Northern harriers and short-eared owls spent the winter at Springbrook Prairie, hunting rodents hiding under the snow. However, no winter habitat is more important than unfrozen lakes and rivers, where bald eagles, geese, swans, and dabbling and diving ducks crowd the open water. By the end of the season, it was time to look overhead for migrating sandhill cranes flying in masses, their loud “garoo-garoo” calls often giving them away before they were spotted.

April – May

These months receive the county’s largest push of northward-migrating birds. I had an exceptionally “big day” on May 15 finding 109 species, including sparrows, warblers, vireos, flycatchers and thrushes along the wooded edges of Elsen’s Hill at West DuPage Woods. On May 25, I followed reports of a rare Kentucky warbler at Greene Valley, finding the masked singer in minutes by cueing in on his bouncy up-and-down song coming from a canopy of black walnut trees.

June – July

This is the heart of the bird-breeding season in DuPage, so it can pay to explore different habitats. On June 20, I teamed up with Forest Preserve District volunteer bird monitors on an extensive survey of different ecosystem units at Pratt’s Wayne Woods. We were thrilled to find fantastic breeding birds such as the ever-boisterous yellow-breasted chat in the preserve’s shrubby areas and the super-secretive least bittern in its wetlands, where we also spotted two exemplary birds: a trumpeter swan that should have migrated from the area three months earlier and a vagrant neotropic cormorant that seemed rather lost. Throughout the summer I enjoyed recurring trips to Pratt’s Wayne Woods to monitor the progress of osprey chicks as they grew from little heads peeking over the nest’s edge into three awkward fledglings that barely fit inside.

Late July – August

This time of year can be tough for birders. Many breeding birds have finished nesting and have quieted down significantly, but fall migration is just on the cusp. Drought-like conditions in 2020 meant low-water levels throughout many preserves, creating mudflats and stands of emerged cattails. As a result, the Wood Dale reservoir at Salt Creek Marsh in particular was the place to be! An early short-billed dowitcher on July 23 was my first official fall migrant of the year, but was subsequently followed by a black tern, American golden-plovers and numerous other shorebirds that stopped by the reservoir’s mudflats to fuel up on the immense source of invertebrates that were readily available due to low water levels.

September – October

This is the peak of the fall migration. Most species that passed through the preserves in April and May returned on their way south joined by their young. In 2020 the raptor migration was particularly exhilarating. On weekends I counted migrating peregrine falcons and sharp-shinned hawks among others from the top of Greene Valley’s scenic overlook. At West Branch, a walk along the sedge and cattail edges offered glimpses at shy LeConte’s and Nelson’s sparrows.

November – December

These months are dominated by the search for species missed earlier in the year, such as snow buntings and white-winged scoters, but in 2020 a rare push of boreal birds befell the forest preserves, bringing northern saw-whet owls and a regionally rare evening grosbeak. On Dec. 29 at Deep Quarry Lake at West Branch, I added my record 227th and final species, a pair of pint-sized cackling geese mixed into a Canada goose flock numbering in the thousands.

In 2020 I capitalized on the outdoor time afforded to me and discovered that you don’t need to chase birds to have a big year. You’ll have ample chances to discover the forest preserves’ diversity of birds just by taking frequent excursions. For me, it was often just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, listening patiently and being lucky enough to catch a glimpse in my binoculars.


More Notes on a Big Year

Below are some additional notes from throughout the year from author Glenn Perricone as well as the list of 227 species observed during his big year of birding.

January – March

I started the year off with a bang, finding a pileated woodpecker at Fullersburg Woods.
A true shock came on Jan. 15 when I found an out-of-season marsh wren chattering in a wetland at Waterfall Glen that had maintained a trickle of open water. This cold summer bird was not expected in the preserves for another three months!

At Deep Quarry Lake at West Branch and on the DesPlaines River at Waterfall Glen, I particularly enjoyed watching as male common goldeneyes threw their heads back in an arch that touched their scapulars and exclaimed a loud “meep” to impress females.

Throughout late winter, one of the silliest birds to visit DuPage , the American woodcock, danced through the sky over West Chicago Prairie and Greene Valley, in dizzying circles and dives, “peenting” their way into the hearts of females (and my own).

April – May

I regularly spotted diving horned and eared grebes as well as common loons on the forest preserves' deeper lakes, the birds stopping for the fish buffet before continuing their migrations north.

My first vagrant bird of the year, a dark-morph Swainson’s hawk at Springbrook Prairie, was particularly special as it represented the 250th species that I had seen in my lifetime in the forest preserves.

I was fortunate to happen across my only Wilson’s phalarope of 2020 at Pratt’s Wayne Woods. I had a brief five-second look at the colorful female sandpiper before she slipped away into cattails. Despite 20 minutes of searching, I was unable to find her again.

A bird of high demand by most birders, the cerulean warbler, was very cooperative at Elsen’s Hill at West DuPage Woods. Usually cerulean warblers are buried in the top-layer canopy; however, one male came down to eye level to grant me fantastically close looks as he picked caterpillars from the underside of sugar maple leaves.

I was surprised to find that the forest preserves' agricultural fields also hosted interesting birds. At Dunham a male vesper sparrow sang from a fence post, and at Kline Creek Farm a horned lark fed on cracked corn in the fields.

At Springbrook Prairie, a pair of northern mockingbirds attracted birders with their complex mimicry of other birds’ songs. Unlike a gray catbird, which runs through its repertoire song by song, or the brown thrasher, which sings all of its mimicked notes in doublets, the northern mockingbird plays his stolen songs on repeat.

A spring bird count at Hidden Lake contributed 67 different species, including a late pair of gadwall ducks, Virginia rails, a mystical-sounding wood thrush, and pair of red-headed woodpeckers nesting in a dead tree snag.

At Waterfall Glen the “veer-veer-eee” of the veery thrush and snappy repetitions of the prothonotary warblers filled my ears.

June – July

At Pratt’s Wayne Woods and Hawk Hollow, one of my favorite breeding birds, the Bell’s vireo, skulked in the dogwood thickets singing his snappy “bippity-boppity-boo” song.
A highlight for many local birders was a prairie warbler making a county-first breeding attempt at West Chicago Prairie.

Along the oak savanna at Churchill Woods, yellow and black-billed cuckoos as well as monk parakeets were found feasting on cicadas.

August

While searching for a stilt sandpiper at the Wood Dale/Itasca Reservoir, I was disappointed to watch the shorebirds suddenly rise from the mudflats and take off. This type of behavior generally indicates that a predator is nearby, and sure enough I found a merlin chasing at the heels of the stilt sandpiper and others.

September – October

In early October, pine siskins began popping up throughout many forest preserves, a precursor to what was to come. A pair of vagrant red-necked grebes easy to see from the fishing pier on Deep Quarry Lake at West Branch marked the first time the species had been documented in a DuPage forest preserve. At the scenic overlook at Greene Valley, regularly occurring Lapland longspurs provided excitement on days when the winds were not conducive to raptor migration.

November – December

At McKee Marsh at Blackwell I met a young birder who became interested in the hobby during the pandemic as a reason to get outside. As she was describing her list of favorite birds we were interrupted by an incredibly rare evening grosbeak flying overhead. 

Big Year of Birding Species List

Snow goose
Cackling goose
Canada goose
Mute swan
Trumpeter swan
Tundra swan
Wood duck
Blue-winged teal
Northern shoveler
Gadwall
Mallard
American black duck
Northern pintail
Green-winged teal
Canvasback
Redhead
Ring-necked duck
Lesser scaup
White-winged scoter
Bufflehead
Common goldeneye
Hooded merganser
Common merganser
Red-breasted merganser
Ruddy duck
Ring-necked pheasant
Pied-billed grebe
Horned grebe
Red-necked grebe
Eared grebe
Rock pigeon*
Mourning dove
Yellow-billed cuckoo
Black-billed cuckoo
Common nighthawk
Chimney swift
Ruby-throated hummingbird
King rail
Virginia rail
Sora
Common gallinule
American coot
Sandhill crane
Black-bellied plover
American golden plover
Semipalmated plover
Killdeer
Stilt sandpiper
Dunlin
Baird's sandpiper
Least sandpiper
Pectoral sandpiper
Semipalmated sandpiper
Short-billed dowitcher
American woodcock
Wilson's snipe
Wilson's phalarope
Spotted sandpiper
Solitary sandpiper
Greater yellowlegs
Lesser yellowlegs
Ring-billed gull
Herring gull
Caspian tern
Black tern
Common loon
Neotropic cormorant
Double-crested cormorant
American bittern
Least bittern
Great blue heron
Great egret
Green heron
Black-crowned night heron
Turkey vulture
Osprey
Northern harrier
Sharp-shinned hawk
Cooper's hawk
Bald eagle
Red-shouldered hawk
Broad-winged hawk
Swainson's hawk
Red-tailed hawk
Rough-legged hawk
Eastern screech-owl
Great horned owl
Barred owl
Short-eared owl
Northern saw-whet owl
Belted kingfisher
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Red-headed woodpecker
Red-bellied woodpecker
Downy woodpecker
Hairy woodpecker
Pileated woodpecker
Northern flicker
American kestrel
Merlin
Peregrine falcon
Monk parakeet*
Olive-sided flycatcher
Eastern wood pewee
Yellow-bellied flycatcher
Acadian flycatcher
Alder flycatcher
Willow flycatcher
Least flycatcher
Eastern phoebe
Great crested flycatcher
Eastern kingbird
White-eyed vireo
Bell's vireo
Yellow-throated vireo
Blue-headed vireo
Philadelphia vireo
Warbling vireo
Red-eyed vireo
Blue jay
American crow
Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse
Horned lark
Northern rough-winged swallow
Purple martin
Tree swallow
Bank swallow
Barn swallow
Cliff swallow
Golden-crowned kinglet
Ruby-crowned kinglet
Red-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatch
Brown creeper
Blue-gray gnatcatcher
House wren
Winter wren
Sedge wren
Marsh wren
Carolina wren
European starling
Gray catbird
Brown thrasher
Northern mockingbird
Eastern bluebird
Veery
Gray-cheeked thrush
Swainson's thrush
Hermit thrush
Wood thrush
American robin
Cedar waxwing
House sparrow*
American pipit
Evening grosbeak
House finch
Purple finch
Pine siskin
American goldfinch
Lapland longspur
Snow bunting
Grasshopper sparrow
Chipping sparrow
Clay-colored sparrow
Field sparrow
American tree sparrow
Fox sparrow
Dark-eyed junco
White-crowned sparrow
White-throated sparrow
Vesper sparrow
Leconte's sparrow
Nelson's sparrow
Savannah sparrow
Henslow's sparrow
Song sparrow
Lincoln's sparrow
Swamp sparrow
Eastern towhee
Yellow-breasted chat
Bobolink
Eastern meadowlark
Orchard oriole
Baltimore oriole
Red-winged blackbird
Brown-headed cowbird
Rusty blackbird
Common grackle
Ovenbird
Northern waterthrush
Golden-winged warbler
Blue-winged warbler
Black-and-white warbler
Prothonotary warbler
Tennessee warbler
Orange-crowned warbler
Nashville warbler
Connecticut warbler
Mourning warbler
Kentucky warbler
Common yellowthroat
Hooded warbler
American redstart
Cape may warbler
Cerulean warbler
Northern parula
Magnolia warbler
Bay-breasted warbler
Blackburnian warbler
Yellow warbler
Chestnut-sided warbler
Blackpoll warbler
Black-throated blue warbler
Palm warbler
Pine warbler
Yellow-rumped warbler
Prairie warbler
Black-throated green warbler
Canada warbler
Wilson's warbler
Scarlet tanager
Northern cardinal
Rose-breasted grosbeak
Blue grosbeak
Indigo bunting
Dickcissel


*Nonnative species