Birds We Love

A look at some of the favorite species of Forest Preserve staff and volunteers

|  STORY BY MEGHAN MCMAHON |

Birds are always all around us, part of the backdrop whether you live in the city, the suburbs or more rural areas. For some people, birds are a collective, with all the species creating a soundtrack of life that becomes part of the background noise. For others, each bird is unique, appreciated for its distinct features and characteristics.

For even the most avid birders, there are certain species that stand apart, favorites for reasons as varied as the birds themselves. Here’s a look at some of the favorite species of Forest Preserve District of Will County staff and volunteers and why they rank at the top of their lists.

Snowy owl

Photo via Shutterstock

For many avid birders, the sighting of one particular bird got them hooked on the pastime. For Suzy Lyttle, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center, it’s the snowy owl.

“I love the snowy owl because it was my gateway bird,” she said. “Most bird nerds have one – the bird that got you hooked, the bird that made you realize this isn’t just watching birds, this is serious.”

Lyttle’s first attempts at seeing a snowy owl were during the irruption year in the winter of 2013-14. It seemed like a perfect opportunity, because the birds were here in numbers that had never been seen before. But Lyttle never saw a snowy owl that winter.

Her lucky sighting came the following winter — on February 14, 2015.

“I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was freezing, windy, with snow everywhere,” she said. “My coworker and I searched high and low. Our hands were about to fall off when another coworker came with a spotting scope. He simply said, ‘Take a look at this.’ I was convinced what I was looking at was just a snow pile. Until that snow pile rotated its head and opened its bright yellow eyes. I may have screamed, I may have shed a tear, who knows — it all is a bit fuzzy after those eyes stared me down.”

Sometimes, a bird sighting is special because of who you share it with. Joel Craig, a Forest Preserve District volunteer, first saw a snowy owl during the large irruption event in 2013. Craig was with his daughter Alex, who was 3 at the time, and “old enough to appreciate the beauty and awesomeness of what we saw,” he said.

Since that first sighting, they try to find snowy owls every winter. They aren’t as prevalent some years, but they have a few secret spots that they check to make sure they see once each year, he said.

Bald eagle

Photo via Shutterstock

For many people, and not just avid birders, their favorite is the bald eagle, the mighty and majestic emblem of the United States. But for Craig, seeing these birds around Lake Renwick isn’t just checking a box on a birding checklist.

Craig grew up near Lake Renwick, and in all his years never saw an eagle in the area until just a few years ago.

“I grew up literally right across the street from the lake, and I can say with certainty that we never had eagles in the area until recently,” he said.

Seeing the eagles in person provides new perspective on just how awesome they are.

“To watch these creatures from the process of bonding and courtship, nest building, and last year raising the first successful brood of eaglets at the preserve has been the highlight of my time working with the Forest Preserve District of Will County,” he said.

Cedar waxwing

Photo courtesy of Joseph Traina

A bird that looks like a comic book superhero? If you get a good look at a cedar waxwing, you’ll understand the comparison, said Katie McCollum, the Forest Preserve District’s digital and print marketing specialist, who counts these birds among her favorites.

“They look like bird superheroes because they have what looks like little black masks around their eyes,” McCollum said. “The coloring on these birds is also beautiful. They are a delightful mix of caramel brown, steel gray and a cheerful yellow. They have bright red patches on the tips of their secondary wing feathers as well.”

Those waxy red patches are actually where the “waxwing” name comes from. Stunning plumage aside, these birds also have adorable courtship displays, McCollum said.

“The male courts the female by doing a dance and offering her a present, which is usually fruit, flower petals or an insect,” she said. “If interested, the female will accept the male’s present. Afterward, she chooses where she wants to put the nest and builds it herself.”

In Will County, these beauties are fairly common. Your best bet of seeing one is in open wooded areas or near fruit-bearing trees, because they love to feast on fruit. If you do see one, you’re likely to see multiple waxwings, because they are social birds that tend to hang out in flocks.

Eastern phoebe

Photo via Shutterstock

Some birds are harbingers of a season, and the eastern phoebe fits that bill. Many people consider the American robin the quintessential spring bird, but that undersells the eastern phoebe.

These birds are a true sign of spring, said Chris Gutmann, the facility supervisor at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. Unlike the robin and the red-winged blackbird, which can be found in Will County in the winter if you look in the right places, the eastern phoebe is a migrant.

“When a phoebe shows up, I know spring is here or at least very close,” Gutmann said. “Phoebes are part of the flycatcher family and are insectivores. If they’re here, it’s because they believe it’s warm enough for insects to be out. They don’t always get it right — as we know, the only thing predictable about our weather in March is that it’s unpredictable — but in my experience, spring usually arrives with the eastern phoebes.”

Its season-signaling ability makes it a bird to treasure, even though it is otherwise rather unremarkable. They aren’t colorful birds, and their song is a little harsh, Gutmann said. They aren’t even very skittish.

“It’s my kind of bird — it’s not flashy and speaks bluntly,” he said.

Common Loon

Photo via Shutterstock

What Sara Russell, an interpretive naturalist at Isle a la Cache Museum, finds fascinating about these birds is that they speak in accents. Yep, weird as it may seem, they do.

“I love common loons because they have accents,” Russell said. “A naturalist friend told me that they were working on studies to find out where different loons were from based on the way they sounded and their different cadence of calls, aka accents.”

Loons aren’t alone in their lingual variations, but they were the first Russell learned about, so it stuck with her. Their accents aren’t the only noteworthy things about loon calls, either. Common loons are well-known for recognizable calls.

“Like a lot of birds, they have distinct calls for different communication, but my favorites are the long eerie calls you hear late at night over the water,” she said.

Loons have striking black-and-white plumage, and they are also unique in that they have solid bones rather than hollow bones like most birds. Their heavier skeletons make them excellent divers.

“With all of this, it’s no wonder they’re featured in a lot of native stories,” Russell said.

And spotting a loon in Will County is a rare treat.

“While their usual stomping grounds are further north, sometimes we’ll see them during migration,” she said. “I got so lucky to see one at Whalon Lake last year.”

Great Horned Owl

Photo via Shutterstock

Being able to experience a bird in its habitat is especially thrilling when that habitat is your own back yard. That was how Lyttle first came to love the great horned owl.

“I was lucky to have great horned owls in my back yard for a few years,” Lyttle said. “I love their call, a deep bellowing ‘hoo-hoo-hoo hooo-hooo.’ I was able to get my own recordings one night when one owl decided to perch on the top of my chimney. The song echoed through my whole living room.”

These up-close encounters with owls have left a lasting impression.

“I was lucky to experience a family of owls, see their fluffy babies grow into screaming teenagers and then fly off to their own territories,” Lyttle said. “I love that I had that experience and I will always love the great horned owl.”

Similarly, Craig loves the great horned owl because of his own experiences with these birds.

“During my first year volunteering at Lake Renwick, I discovered a great horned owl in a heron nest on the platforms at the lake,” he said. “It began a now 12-year ritual of monitoring nesting owls there.”

Belted Kingfisher

Photo via Shutterstock

Birds with a unique appearance often catch the eye, making them easy to love. That’s the case with the belted kingfisher, a favorite of McCollum and Lyttle.

“Their appearance alone is quite eye-catching,” McCollum said, adding their most striking feature is their spiky mohawks.

And belted kingfishers are unusual in that the females are more colorful than the males, with a bright chestnut color in addition to the blue-gray color both the males and females have.

These birds are also skilled hunters. They eat mostly fish, diving down into the water at speeds of up to 25 mph and dropping their feet into the water to catch their prey.

“I have seen them circle around the pond for a few laps, then fiercely dive into the water making a splash,” Lyttle said. “I also saw what happens when one catches a meal. I saw this female kingfisher perched on an exposed log in a pond. She had a fish but instead of just swallowing it, she whack-whack-whacked it, beating it on the log back and forth. When the fish sat still, then she ate it.”

One last admirable thing about the belted kingfisher is its distinctive call, which is why Lyttle first fell in love with them. She described it as a high-pitched clicking sound, like a race car blowing past you.

“Their loud rattling call is a familiar and distinctive one,” McCollum said. “You might have heard it while you were out kayaking, fishing or near water.”

No matter the season, you can see — or hear — belted kingfishers, because one of the best things about them is that they live in Illinois year-round, so you can spot them in any season, McCollum said.

American woodcock

Photo via Shutterstock

Some birds have unusual behaviors that make them easy to love when you learn about them. That was the case for Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center, when he discovered the American woodcock.

“I first learned about these birds on my first job as a naturalist, and they have always held a special place in my heart since then,” he said.

Woodcocks are hard to see both because their plumage provides good camouflage and because they have a naturally shy nature. They nest on the ground, sometimes nearly impossible to see unless you catch sight of one moving, Bryerton said.

In the spring, though, the normally hidden woodcocks suddenly become more visible when the males begin looking for mates. Their courtship display starts just after sunset, as the light fades. They do a short shuffle on the ground and turn and give a call that sounds like a nasal “peent.” They pause for a bit and then shuffle and call again, Bryerton explained. They do this several times and then suddenly lift into the air in a courtship flight. They fly in big circles upward and go as high as 250 to 300 feet in the air.  While doing this, a twittering noise is created by their wings. As they get higher and higher, the twittering goes faster and becomes intermittent as they reach the top of the flight. At this point, they start to come down in a zig-zag flight pattern while chirping, finally dropping to the ground near where they started. Then they repeat the whole process.

“This can go on for quite a while as the light fades,” Bryerton said. “The birds are so driven to do this in the spring they are very easy to spot if you look in the right habitat and have a little patience. If you have a good location, you may see and hear several at a time.”

Woodcocks are endearing too.

“It is kind of a goofy looking bird, with eyes way on the side of its head, so it can watch for predators as it probes the ground for earthworms with its long bill,” he said. “It has a plump body and somewhat short wings, which give it the appearance of a giant bumble bee as it flies up to do the courtship display.”

And the arrival of woodcocks in our area often comes at a time when we are hopeful about the change of seasons.

“They are a harbinger of spring, because they usually return in our area in March as the snow melts and the ground softens enough for them to find worms,” Bryerton said.

Turkey Vulture
 

Photo via Shutterstock

Some birds are so unusual in their behavior that they deserve our respect and appreciation, and that’s certainly the case with the turkey vulture. These birds are like nature’s recyclers because they eat dead animals, said Jen Guest, an interpretive naturalist at Isle a la Cache Museum.

“They sound gross, but without them it would smell a lot worse around here with nothing to eat roadkill,” Guest said.

Turkey vultures have a lot of adaptations that make them unusual in the bird world. For example, they sometimes eat so much they can’t fly. But this doesn’t leave it at risk of attacks by predators, because they have an interesting defense mechanism: they vomit on them.

“If a coyote thinks it might eat a stuffed vulture, it’s got another thing coming,” Guest said. “The vulture can projectile vomit on the coyote and temporarily blind it. Vomiting can also lighten its load so it can fly again.”

And seeing a turkey vulture in action, feasting on the carcasses of dead animals, can definitely leave a lasting impression.

“I once saw a turkey vulture riding a dead alligator down a canal in the Everglades,” Guest said. “Every once in awhile, it would stick its head in the gator’s belly to get some food. I can’t believe I saw it happen. I also can’t unsee it!”

Black-necked stilt

Photo via Shutterstock

Some birds make a lasting impression because catching a glimpse of one is such a memorable — and rare — experience. Such is the case for Kate Caldwell, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center — and her chance encounter with some black-necked stilts.

These migrating shorebirds are not regulars in Will County, so much so that Caldwell doubted her identification when she saw them a few years back at Black Walnut Creek Preserve. At the time, Caldwell was just beginning to learn about shorebirds and was hoping to spot some sandpipers, greater yellowlegs and lesser yellowlegs. Instead, she saw three birds “that were like nothing I had ever seen before.”

Using the Merlin Bird ID app, she entered the descriptive information, and it narrowed it down to the black-necked stilt. Still, though, it seemed so unlikely she didn’t trust it, she said. So she made a few calls to see if she could find someone else to confirm the ID.

She ended up connecting with Sue Zelek, one of the top birders in Will County. Zelek was on her way from Champaign to Streator to look for the very bird Caldwell was starting to realize was right in front of her — the black-necked stilt.

Zelek told her it would take a few hours for her to get there, but she rerouted to Black Walnut Creek Preserve, all the while Caldwell was hoping the three birds would stay put.

“She arrived by sunset with her camera, took great photos and confirmed the sighting,” Caldwell said, adding that two of the three stilts had remained while Zelek was in transit. “And then just like that, the birds lifted off and disappeared over the northern horizon. Wow! What a day!”

Tufted Titmouse

Photo courtesy of Kevin Keyes

In some cases, a bird’s appearance is enough to win a person over, as is the case with McCollum and the tufted titmouse.

“I am always excited to see a tufted titmouse,” she said. “They are cute, stocky birds that have spiked crests and big, black eyes.”

In fact, one of her favorite photos in the District’s annual Preserve the Moment photo contest was a shot of a tufted titmouse taken by Kevin Keyes in 2016.

“The bird’s expression in the photo, along with the contrast of color on the bird against the winter landscape, is what appealed to me,” McCollum said.

It’s not hard to find a tufted titmouse, since they like to visit bird feeders. They’ll also nest in nesting boxes if you have some in your yard. And if annual yard maintenance in the fall isn’t your thing, you can use the tufted titmouse as an excuse to skip it.

“If you are like me and don’t like doing yard work, skip raking your leaves in the fall, because they spend a lot of their time on the ground searching leaf litter for food,” she said.

(Lead image via Shutterstock)

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