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The Buzz

In Extremely Rare Sighting, Coastal Bird Turns Up at Whalon Lake

(Photo courtesy of Ron Doerfler)

Birders have been flocking to Whalon Lake in Naperville this week, all for the chance for a rare sighting of a black-legged kittiwake.

For this particular bird, which lives on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, it's only the second report of one ever landing in Will County. The first came in 2010 at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, according to eBird data.

"I’ve never seen this species here before," said Chris Gutmann, the facility supervisor for the District's Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville. "That doesn’t mean they haven’t been here, I just haven’t seen them."

The bird was brought to our attention thanks to a post on the District's Will County Wildlife Facebook Group on Tuesday. The first reported sighting on eBird came on January 1. 

The black-legged kittwake is small and usually nests on cliffs. It has a dark eye and black wing tips, while its head and underparts are white. 

Gutmann said that each year Whalon Lake gets vagrant birds, and it was just in November that a red-throated loon was spotted. He predicted then that "more tantalizing sightings are likely still to come."

It turns out he was right.

But why is this body of water in Naperville a hotspot for birds that may have lost their way?

"It’s a large lake, so if there’s a bird that’s off-course, it’s looking for habitat," Gutmann said. "In this part of Illinois, there are no natural lakes beyond Lake Michigan."

That makes places like Whalon Lake, Lake Renwick in Plainfield or the Palos sloughs in Cook County likely places for spotting these vagrants. 

"Those are going to be some of the largest bodies of water it’s going to stumble upon, so it’s going to go there," Gutmann said. 

With off-course birds, they're usually by themselves and according to Gutmann, "as soon as it realizes Lake Michigan is nearby, it probably would bolt for that."

The good news for birders hoping to catch a glimpse of it is that it hasn't bolted just yet. As of Thursday morning, the bird was still out at Whalon Lake, putting on an aerial show for all to see. And word is quickly getting out among the birding community. 

"I’ve seen reports of people from all over the area," Gutmann said. "All of the big birding heavy hitters are out there."

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