Flock to the Forest Preserve District this winter to take advantage of a wide variety of avian-oriented Forest Preserve District outings. Program offerings range from beginning birding to views of the amazing woodcock’s mating ritual.
While you may think most birds have flown the coop and headed south for the winter, many stick around, soldiering on during sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms biding their time until spring.
“Bird viewing conditions tend to be better during the winter,” said Chris Gutmann, facility supervisor at Isle a la Cache Museum. “With no leaves on trees, it’s easier to find birds. For instance, this is the easiest time of year to find resident owls, such as great horned, barred and eastern screech owls.
“Many species of waterfowl are here in the colder months,” Gutmann added. “Bald eagles increase in numbers. If people waited until spring, they may have missed their chance to see visitors like common redpolls, snowy owls and short-eared owls. Northern harriers are common this time of year in and around the more open preserves.”
While long-distance migrants usually return to the area in April, some short-distance migrants will start returning in February, Gutmann said.
“Last year around this time, I noticed great blue herons beginning to return. Usually, red-winged blackbirds start arriving in the latter half of this month," he said. "Short-distance migrants are heavily influenced by weather patterns so timing varies from year to year.”
Some birds are here only during winter, said Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist for the District.
"Dark-eyed juncos, tree sparrows and snow buntings are examples of birds that winter here but summer farther north, so if you don’t get out in the winter you will miss them," he said. "Snow geese, greater white-fronted geese and many duck species only stop in this area on their way somewhere else. So, again, if you don't catch them when they are in our area, you will not see them again until next winter."
Wintering birds also gather near open water. "So you can see many species in one spot," Bryerton said. "This winter, Monee Reservoir has an open patch of water that has attracted a wide variety of birds. Many of them can be seen from the parking lot with a good spotting scope or just a short walk from the access area."
Bryerton said birdwatching is a good motivator to get people moving during winter.
"Even though it's cold, the possibility of finding something unique to the winter season – a snowy owl, rough-legged hawk, a rare duck, goose or swan – makes it worthwhile to get out and start looking," he said.
So bundle up and sign up for some free birdwatching fun in the preserves. Here is a lineup of bird programs scheduled for February and March (click the links to get more details, including registration and age requirements):
- Beginning Birding for All: Saturday, February 17, 9 a.m.-noon, Thorn Creek Woods Nature Center. Watch and count birds, participate in bird activities and get help with bird identifications. Participants also will be a part of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "Great Backyard Bird Count," a nationwide, citizen scientist survey taking place February 16-19.
- Winter Bird Walk: Friday, February 23, 10-11 a.m., Isle a la Cache Museum. Get a quick introduction to winter birds inside, and then head outside to search the preserve and the Des Plaines River area.
- Morning Bird Hike: Saturday, February 24, at Plum Creek Nature Center. Join fellow birders from 8-10 a.m. to learn, explore and search for birds.
- Woodcock Watch: Saturday, March 3, 5:15-7 p.m., Thorn Creek Nature Woods Center. Discover the fantastic aerial courtship display of this plump little shorebird.
- Woodland and River Bird Hike: Saturday, March 10, 8-10 a.m., McKinley Woods – Frederick's Grove.
- Migration Mania!: Saturday, March 10, 1-2:30 p.m., Isle a la Cache Museum. Discover which animals use Illinois as a summer home and how they manage to travel thousands of miles without a map.
- Morning Bird Hike: Saturday, March 17, 8-10 a.m. at Monee Reservoir.
- Woodcock Walk: Saturday, March 24, 6:30-8 p.m. at Hickory Creek Preserve – LaPorte Road Access. Search for the male woodcock as the sun sets, and watch as he makes his way to the edge of a field and prepares for his extraordinary courtship performance.
- Woodcock Walk: Saturday, March 24, 6:30-8 p.m. at Plum Creek Nature Center.
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