Category Archives: Opinion

Think Flycatchers

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird. Photo by M. Ferguson. (click to see the larger version)

We’re always trying to guess what the next new bird for Montrose will be. It’s a fun game to play, though we’re usually wrong with our predictions. Montrose has an impressive 15 species of flycatchers to its credit, including several rare and uncommon species – Western Kingbird (regular), Cassin’s Kingbird (first state record), Say’s Phoebe (several records), and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (several records). Montrose is clearly an excellent place for Tyrannids, and there are several excellent candidates we should be thinking about as fall approaches. These potentials include

  • Gray Kingbird (many extralimital records in the Eastern United States, including three for Illinois)
  • Tropical Kingbird (many extralimital records in the Eastern United States, including one for Illinois)
  • Fork-tailed Flycatcher (well established pattern of vagrancy in the eastern United States, with several records for Illinois)
  • Vermillion Flycatcher (multiple records for Illinois, including one from Lincoln Park)

These are the most likely Tyrannids to show up, but there are a few less likely, though possible species like Variegated Flycatcher (a handful of eastern US records), Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (a few eastern North American records), Thick-billed Kingbird (a few eastern North American records), and Hammond’s Flycatcher (multiple eastern North American records).

The best way to prepare for vagrants is to keep an open mind about what’s possible and to brush up on field marks for these birds.

Concepts – Relative vs. Absolute Rarities

Brant

A relatively rare but still exciting Brant at Montrose Point in Chicago, January 2021. (click to see the larger version)

Birders think a lot about rare birds. More than think about — we obsess over them, drive thousands of miles to chase them, and dream about finding them. But what is a rarity? There are a couple of ways to think about this. Most of the rare birds we see are only regionally unusual, that is, they are common someplace within their range but uncommon outside it. The Brant that showed up at Montrose in early January is a good example of this concept. The world population is in the hundreds of thousands, and they’re common on their wintering grounds from New Jersey to Massachusets on the East Coast. Illinois is outside of their main range and migration route, so it’s a big deal here; when one shows up it generates a lot of excitement in the birding community. Brant is rare enough in Illinois to be on the review list of birds requiring documentation, and Montrose has four or so previous records. Relative rareness doesn’t just include birds outside their normal range, it also includes birds outside of their normal timeframe. A Bay-breasted Warbler in Chicago in December is an example.

The other kind of rarity are birds whose entire population is low. The world population of Kirtland’s Warbler in 2020, for example, was a little under 5,000 birds. That’s not a lot. By comparison, the seating capacity of the bleachers at Wrigley Field is about 5,000. Such small populations are vulnerable to all sorts of disturbances. This class has a handful of species, most of which are on the Endangered Species List. Of these, a few have been recorded in Illinois, including Kirtland’s Warbler, and recent records of Whooping Crane and Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Montrose Dunes Garbage – We Need Your Help

I’ve been seeing a lot of garbage in Montrose Dunes. I pick up what I can but we need everyone to pitch in to make a dent in the problem. If you visit Montrose Dunes please pick up some of the trash you find. Garbage and recycling bins are on the path that borders the beach and Dunes. If we don’t do it no one else will.

The Joy of Surprise

Wood Thrush

A Haloween Wood Thrush treat in Chicago (click to see the larger version)

One of the most endearing qualities of looking for birds is an element of surprise – the potential to see something unusual, unexpected, or even extraordinary. This element of surprise doesn’t just apply to finding a rare bird. Finding a common bird in an unusual circumstance can be exciting too. Case in point, the Wood Thrush I saw at Montrose on October 31, 2020. Wood Thrushes are common in the eastern United States; we see them every spring as migrants at Montrose, and they breed throughout Illinois in appropriate habitat. By the end of October however they should be on their wintering grounds in Central America or well on their way there, so imagine my surprise when I first laid eyes on this bird. To borrow and modify something Forrest Gump said, birding is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.

The Red Baron

The Red Baron

The Red Baron (click to see the larger version)

In early August 2020, a sculpture appeared at Montrose near the harbor. The sculpture resembles a giant bird and I’ve dubbed it The Red Baron. Reactions from the Montrose community have been mixed. Some think it’s ugly and intrusive and doesn’t belong in a nature sanctuary. Others think it could interfere with migration and injure birds. My reaction was one of surprise and delight. Montrose is known for its nature and outdoor recreation but has no art of any kind. I think this sculpture adds character and brings something different to the park and it isn’t large enough to harm wildlife.

The Red Baron is near the Purple Martin houses on the northwest side of the harbor.