So where was the greenhouse effect when we needed it? This year’s statewide spring bird count ran directly into a snowstorm that in some places reduced visibility to near zero. One participant, trying futilely to count birds along the North Shore Channel, reported plaintively: “Because of the snowstorm, there was no bird activity in trees that I could detect.”
Another sent in a blank report form with a one-sentence note: “Visibility zero; area not covered.”
However, birders traditionally carry on whatever the weather. This is partly a reflection of their zeal and partly a recognition of the fact that there is no discernible relationship between good weather and good birding. I once took part in a Christmas count at Indiana Dunes State Park on an absolutely gorgeous day. The sky was a crystalline blue; the temperature set records for December. Starting before dawn and birding hard until nearly nightfall, I ran up a list of nine species. I could have done about as well if I had spent the day at home looking out my living-room window.
And often, lousy weather produces excellent birding. A few years ago, Dave Johnson, Laurie Binford, and Richard and Mary Biss, four of our most active local birders, tried a Big Day. Big Days are major undertakings. The idea is to run up the longest possible list of birds in a 24-hour period. The usual plan is to start at midnight and bird for 18 or 20 hours straight.
The four ran into some of the worst weather May can offer. The day was cold and rainy, and the winds were gusting to 40 miles an hour. But when I commiserated with Dave about their terrible weather luck, he told me they had actually seen lots of birds, that the high winds had improved the birding. Species such as cerulean and Blackburnian warbler, birds that you usually glimpse through a dense screen of leaves as they hop about in the crowns of 40-foot trees, had been driven to the ground by the high winds. They were feeding in the grass, providing the closest, clearest views you could get.
However, numbers on the spring count were down this year. With about 75 percent of precincts reporting, the Cook County total is 176 species. We usually end up in the high 180s or low 190s. Twice in the 17-year history of the count we have topped 200.
Lake County is doing slightly better, with 182 species reported so far. Dave Johnson is the compiler for Lake County, and right now he is puzzling over the question of what to do about the peregrine falcons, one of his 182 species. In the sport of birding, we don’t count birds that have escaped or been released from captivity. The Chicago Peregrine Project has released birds at Fort Sheridan and at Illinois Beach State Park, and the birds reported on the count are probably released birds, not wild migrants passing through on their way to the tundra.
So if we follow the rules of the sport, we wouldn’t count them. On the other hand, or perhaps the other wing, the spring count is not a sporting event. It is supposed to give us a look at the birds of Illinois, and these released peregrines are definitely Illinois birds. My own feeling is that we should count everything. We are producing a record for the future, and it ought to be as complete as we can make it.
I’ve had a running argument with the state Department of Conservation, which runs the spring count and publishes the results, over the monk parakeets in Jackson Park. Every year, Jackson Park birders report the presence of these birds, and I send the report along to Springfield (I have been compiler of the Cook County count since 1984). And every year, the official published results of the count do not list the species.
The monk parakeet is an alien species that escaped from captivity and managed to survive our winters and breed here. It is a very troublesome pest in its native lands–primarily Argentina–and there is good reason to believe that it will be equally troublesome here once its population gets big enough. The DOC should trap or shoot the Jackson Park birds, or urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do the job, but they don’t have the political will to do that. So they are pretending that these birds don’t exist.
Cook County’s low totals are partly the result of a total absence of rare species. In past years, we have come up with the occasional black rail, black-throated gray warbler, or bald eagle, but this year brought none of these.
We did get our first Carolina wren since 1978. This species is sedentary–the rest of our wrens are migratory–and we are situated at the northern end of its range. The cold winters of the late 70s killed off the birds of northern Illinois, but the warmer winters of recent years have allowed the species to reinvade.
We also found three Cooper’s hawks. A combination of persecution and habitat destruction had seriously reduced this species’ population over its whole range. Cooper’s hawks live mainly on birds, and in the days of open poultry yards farmers shot them whenever they could. Preferred habitat for the species is open woodlands or savanna, a very scarce community in late-20th-century Illinois.
During the past few years, Cooper’s hawks have been making a comeback. We have had reports of nesting birds along the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers and in forest preserves in the southern half of the county, so we could expect this species to show up regularly from now on.
Upland sandpiper was one that we missed this year. This is an endangered species in Illinois, but we have been getting a few birds every year. They have apparently been nesting in a forest preserve near Tinley Park, and that has been the only reliable location for them in Cook County during this decade.
This year the Tinley Park birds did not return. When the total population of a species is four or five birds, a minor accident during migration–a collision with a power line or a storm at sea–can wipe out the whole bunch. Upland sandpipers winter on the pampas of Argentina, and their long migration offers many possibilities for disaster.
Eastern bluebirds seem to be doing a little better. This species declined dangerously for several decades due to habitat loss and competition from invading aliens–house sparrows and starlings. Bluebird trails are a major reason for their revival. Bluebirds are hole nesters, and a bluebird trail is a line of nest boxes scattered over a field. The conscientious trail builder monitors his trail, removing sparrow and starling nests when necessary to give the bluebirds a chance to breed.
Bluebirds have been nesting for several years at Ryerson Woods in Lake County, and recently they have moved into trails on forest-preserve land near Barrington and in the southern part of Cook County. I don’t have all the results yet, but we may report a record high for the species this year.
We will probably also get record highs for yellow-rumped and palm warblers. These are among our most abundant warblers and among the earliest to arrive in spring. In an average year, most of them would have passed through by count day. In this far-from-average year, they were still here in great numbers. My guess is that we will top a thousand yellow-rumps in Cook County.
Lake County had better luck with rarities than we did. Birders on the lakefront near Waukegan reported piping plovers–another endangered species–and flocks of avocets and marbled godwits. These shorebirds are seldom seen in Illinois. They may have been driven to land by the foul weather.
Dave Johnson had an excellent day at Ryerson Woods, reporting no less than 22 species of warblers, an excellent total in any weather. He was impressed by the eerie beauty of the day, by the startling contrast of the deep blue of indigo buntings and the fiery orange of Blackburnian warblers seen against the white snow, by the sight of golden-winged warblers foraging on snow-covered branches and of scarlet tanagers scratching for food on the snow-covered ground.