Category Archives: Birding Tips

Probability and Birding

Chimney Swifts

Migrant Chimney Swifts swarming over Montrose Point in Chicago, September 2015 (click to see the larger version)

Probability plays a big part in birding. By probability, I mean using history and what’s expected to aid identification. A good example is identifying swifts. If you see a swift in Chicago, chances are overwhelming it’s a Chimney Swift, the common and regular swift in the Midwest. You don’t have to scrutinize field marks to know, with a high degree of certainty, that a swift in Illinois will be a Chimney Swift. In fact, Chimney Swift is the only swift we see in Illinois – there are no verified records of other swifts in the state as of 2021. Where probability falls short and becomes problematic is if other possibilities for occurrence exist. Chimney Swift may be the only swift recorded in Illinois, but it’s not the only swift species recorded in the Midwest or eastern United States. A check of eBird reveals a handful of records of four other swifts in the United States east of the Mississippi River – Vaux’s, Black, White-throated, and White-collared. If you relied solely on probability for swift identification you could miss something unexpected. Swifts are strong-flying, migratory birds, and the number of vagrant species that have shown up far out of range in the United States warrants not relying solely on probability to identify them. My approach is to use probability as a general guide but to be mindful of other, less likely possibilities if they exist, and be prepared for the unexpected. For the swift example, I’m aware of the less likely possibilities, so I periodically brush up on Vaux’s, Black, White-throated, and White-collared Swift identification. This way I’m at least familiar with the basic field marks of these species.

eBird Tip – Viewing Bar Charts

eBird bar chart screenshot

eBird bar chart screenshot for Montrose Point (click to see the larger version)

Among the many features eBird has to offer, one of the most useful is the ability to view bar charts for a given hotspot. These bar charts make it easy to see monthly status information for all the species eBird has records of for a hotspot. To pull up an eBird bar chart

  1. Go to an eBird hotspot
  2. In the pale blue sidebar on the left side of the page, click the Bar Charts link under the EXPLORE heading (the graphic below is a screenshot of this section).

eBird sidebar screenshot

That’s it. The chart may take a few seconds to completely load, so be patient. Try it for Montrose Point and see what comes up.

Urban Birding Tip – Watch Those Pigeons

Have you ever seen a group of pigeons explode into flight or flying back and forth in a panic? When I’m walking around or driving through Chicago, I sometimes see pigeons launch into flight for no obvious reason. More often than not the source of their disturbance turns out to be a bird of prey, like a Cooper’s Hawk or Peregrine Falcon. The pigeons are smart enough to recognize the threat a hawk presents and they respond to that threat by getting up and flying around. This predator response is the same for other birds, like shorebirds or gulls that flush at the sight of a hawk, falcon, or other large bird of prey. So the next time you see a flock of pigeons explode into flight, look around, there might be a Peregrine Falcon or Red-tailed Hawk behind or above them.

Whoever said pigeons were useless was wrong.

Early December 2020 – Winter is Upon Us

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (click to see the larger version)

Avian activity has slowed considerably at Montrose. I’ve been topping out at about 20 species on my two hour morning visits since December 1. Things won’t improve much until late February when spring migration begins, and if the harbor and Lake Michigan freeze it will only get worse. Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, the two main wintering ducks, haven’t arrived yet in numbers because of the mild weather we’ve been experiencing. They’ll start to show up when it gets seriously cold. The big flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers from November have pulled out. Lake Michigan now feels lifeless and empty without them. Common Redpolls are still around but for how long is anyone’s guess. Most of the sparrows from mid-November have left, with only Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows remaining. Despite the doldrums, we have had a few interesting species. An adult light morph Snow Goose has been keeping company with Canada Geese. Scan any group of Canada Geese if you’re looking for it. You could also find other uncommon geese like Cackling or Greater White-fronted by looking through the Canadas. An American Black Duck, an unusual bird for Montrose, has been with Mallards, usually in the harbor. On December 4 I saw an immature Great Black-backed Gull on the public beach. As always, check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot for current sightings.

Suggestions for Winter Birding at Montrose

I have some suggestions for winter birding at Montrose. As long as the harbor remains open it’s worth checking for waterfowl, gulls, and grebes. Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, Red-necked and Western Grebes, and several unusual gulls have been seen in the harbor in early winter. Once the harbor freezes over this won’t be an option. The hawthorns near the restroom building on the south side of the harbor are full of berries as of early December. On December 4 I had American Robins, European Starlings, and a few House Finches gorging on these berries, and something rare like a Pine Grosbeak or Bohemian Waxwing is possible while the berry supply lasts. Finally, 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a flight year for Snowy Owls but a few could still show up. The best places to look for them are the beach, Dunes, and fishing pier.

eBird Tip

eBird is a great tool for adding your sightings and contributing to ornithology. Scientists can use your data to better understand bird distribution and abundance. eBird is also a great way to share information with other birders. When I plan birding trips I check the eBird hotspots for the locations I intend to visit. I then look for information about any birds I’d like to see. eBird makes it easy to add details about your sightings. When you enter numbers for species in an eBird checklist, a small button labeled Add Details appears. Clicking this button opens a text field where you can add additional information about each sighting. To help other birders, you should be as precise as possible about where you saw a bird. For example, a Surf Scoter was hanging around Montrose Harbor in November 2020. This is an uncommon species at Montrose that other birders might like to see. Below are screenshots of my entry for this sighting in an eBird checklist I submitted, with extra information about where I saw it (hold your mouse over each image to increase the image size).

eBird screenshot

eBird screenshot

eBird screenshot

Recap

To add additional information about your sightings in eBird

  1. Click the button labeled Add Details that appears after you’ve entered numbers for a species in an eBird checklist.
  2. In the text field that appears, enter details about your sighting, including where exactly you saw it.
  3. If you need to edit the details later, just click the Show Details button and make your edits.

eBird logo

2020 Winter Finches

Purple Finch

Purple Finch, one of the winter finches (click to see the larger version)

Winter Finch – A collective term that refers to Arctic, subarctic, and boreal forest breeding members of the family Fringillidae. This includes redpolls, Pine Siskin, crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, and Purple Finch.

This continues to be an excellent fall for winter finches in the Midwest. Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches are being seen almost daily at Montrose. Even more exciting were reports of two of the rarer winter finches. On November 3, I found 10 White-winged Crossbills in a spruce tree near the Park Bait Shop (at the corner of W. Montrose Avenue and W. Montrose Harbor Drive), and several observers saw an Evening Grosbeak on November 5. According to eBird, the last White-winged Crossbills from Montrose were in 2012. The last Evening Grosbeak record was about 20 years ago. The rest of the fall should see more of these birds. The Montrose Map page has an interactive map that shows the road system at Montrose.

How to Look for Winter Finches at Montrose

There are a couple of ways to look for winter finches at Montrose. We don’t have a lot of finch habitat but we have some. The pine and spruce trees south of the main entrance of the Sanctuary on W. Montrose Harbor Drive have cones that could attract crossbills. The hawthorns on the service road to the beach house are laden with berries. We’ve been seeing Purple Finches in these hawthorns and they could attract Pine and Evening Grosbeaks. The pine and spruce trees next to the Park Bait Shop don’t have many cones but could attract crossbills and are easy check. Redpolls like weedy areas such as the native planting areas at the south and east end of the Point and north of the Marovitz Golf Course.