Bird watchers say census event yielded exciting totals

People look for birds on Nelson Lake during a bird walk on New Year's Day 2013 at Dick Young Forest Preserve in Batavia.
People look for birds on Nelson Lake during a bird walk on New Year's Day 2013 at Dick Young Forest Preserve in Batavia.

Birds of a feather flock together, they say, and so it is with birders, as the hardcore watchers bundle up on snowy December days to count their feathered friends.

The National Audubon Society’s 113th Annual Christmas Bird Count this month yielded some exciting numbers, volunteers said, as counts in Kane, DuPage, McHenry and DeKalb counties documented the ups and downs of various species. Birds are counted across North America from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5.

Volunteers count birds in designated 15-mile diameter circles every year. Results are tabulated and reported to the Illinois Audubon Society. The society then will report to the National Audubon Society, which partners with Bird Studies Canada, the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The McHenry County Audubon group counted 58 species, said Rob Gough of McHenry.

“We counted 8,559 individuals, which was way down from our usual 11,000-plus because we had no open water,” Gough said. “We lacked a lot of the water fowl that we normally got. We did get eagles, and a Bonaparte’s gull and a lot of Lapland longspurs. But none of the winter finches, which we had kind of hoped to get with the winter weather.”

Genoa resident Karen Lund, who belongs to the McHenry group, said numbers were down because it snowed all day.

“Our team had one screech owl and a yellow-rumped warbler,” Lund said. 

In DuPage County, birders reported two new species, said Jeff Chapman of Woodridge, a member of the DuPage Birding Club. 

“The American pipit and a pileated woodpecker,” Chapman said. “The pipit was counted at Fermilab. They normally migrate to southern Illinois by this time, so this was new.”

The pileated woodpecker – made famous by the cartoon character Woody the Woodpecker – was counted in the Elsen’s Hill area of the West DuPage Woods in Winfield.

“That is a bird that was not found in the Chicago area for years and years,” Chapman said of the large black woodpecker, known for the brilliant red crest on its head and the bold white stripes on its face and neck.

“In the last 10 years, it’s started to move in,” Chapman said. “It kept getting closer to us, and we finally got them in our area.”

Other species with good showings were bald eagles, American robins and eastern bluebirds, Chapman said. 

“In 20 years, we had zero bluebirds, and this year we had 88,” Chapman said. “We never had one bald eagle until the last 10 years. We counted 25 of them, which broke our record of 20 in 2010.”

They also counted 52 great blue herons, breaking its previous high count of 39 in 2006, Chapman said.

The Fermilab count, which is half in Kane and DuPage counties, is shared by volunteers from Chapman’s group and the Kane County Audubon Society.

Jon Duerr of St. Charles, a member of the Kane group, said 78 species were counted.

“It was a record-breaking year for great blue herons, eastern bluebirds and eagles,” Duerr said. “It’s always exciting to see the eagles flying back and forth across the river. It’s one of the feel-good stories about how the eagle population ... [is] taking advantage of the clean waters of the Fox River now and finding enough to eat here.”

To the uninitiated, counting birds might seem like an impossible task – but Duerr and Chapman said it is important work done that will show local trends among bird populations for scientists to study.

“It’s been done since 1900. That’s 113 years,” Chapman said. “It provides reliable data on a yearly basis where you can start to notice trends. We can clearly see an increase in eastern blue birds and an increase of Cooper’s hawks. Cooper’s hawks were nonexistent in the 1980s, and now you can see 30 and 40 of them.”

For Duerr, compiling information year after year provides solid data about bird species and habitat.

“The broad strokes are really quite striking,” Duerr said. “In Kane County, it’s 38 years of looking at something in the same area.”

For example, the closing up of the area’s landfills over the last couple of decades has resulted in fewer gulls, Duerr said.

“Ten thousand gulls frequented Settlers Hill landfill,” Duerr said. “That free food is no longer there.”

Bird counts also documented the decline in the American crow population, still devastated by West Nile virus that hit in 2002.

“The crow population in DuPage was especially hard hit by West Nile, and they have not recovered,” Chapman said. “Our high count of all time was 1,500 in 1998 …. Last year we saw 75. This year, we only saw 56 crows.”

In DeKalb County, the KROW Birding Group did the count, said Mike Andrews of DeKalb. The circle includes Glidden Road, Kingston, Kirkland, Genoa, Sycamore and a corner of Malta.

“The best bird of the day was a field sparrow – which does not belong here in the winter,” Andrews said. “We also counted a pileated woodpecker. That has never been recorded in the count here before. We have a new tiny population of pileated woodpeckers that have discovered DeKalb County.”

The group has about 125 members who stay in touch on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/144242675643241.

“It’s an informal group, we have no meetings or gatherings – we just share information,” Andrews said.

KROW stands for Kishwaukee Riparian Oaks Watershed, a name Andrews said he thought up while paddling down the Kishwaukee River one day.

“It had to spell KROW,” he said.

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