Champaign's Aerin Tedesco sets big year record for species seen by a female birder

Tedesco identified 319 species in 2020 and took an unusual route to toppling the Illinois record.

The beauty of Aerin Tedesco’s big year is that she didn’t set out to top a state record.

“I wasn’t competing with anybody,” Tedesco told me. “I wasn’t trying to break someone’s record, I was trying to set my own record for myself.”

When October came around, she realized she might be able to top 300 species in Illinois, though she’d also been birding extensively in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan and New York in 2020. When all was said and done, Tedesco’s total of 319 species in Illinois set a record for a female birder, according to data from eBird.

“It’s definitely great,” Tedesco says. “I had enough free time and it ended up being significant.”  

Tedesco moved from Chicago early on in the year, first to downstate Paxton and then to Champaign. That proved to be a factor, too.

“I was way closer to southern Illinois, so when people were driving five hours to get something I was only driving three,” Tedesco says. “One drawback was in the winter when so many good things were showing up in Lake County, it was now three hours away.”

Grasshopper Sparrow was one of the bigger misses on Tedesco’s Illinois list. The species is relatively common in the right habitat in summer. But Tedesco never seriously tried for one in Illinois, though she did have it in Indiana and Michigan.

“I went down to Kentucky to get a Swainson’s Warbler,” Tedesco says. “That I’m really happy about. That I had the time and energy to get to 39 warbler species this year, my best year for warblers ever, including two in Arizona.”

Tedesco plays in the band Congress of Starlings, which made the music for “Monty and Rose,” the film I made about Piping Plovers Monty and Rose. I asked her about the significance of a big year for a woman. She was the only woman among the top 10 birders in the state.

“I feel like the male thing to do with birding is to make it competitive,” Tedesco says. “I don’t want to cause a battle of the sexes here, but women just bird to bird and guys compete, even if it’s in a fun-spirited way.”

It wasn’t just the massive year total either that was special, it also was the number of additions to her Illinois life list—35 in all.

“That’s insane. That feels good,” Tedesco says. “A lot of it was just like, I’m coming home from Chicago, and Michael Carroll, a great guy, says there’s a Hudsonian Godwit sitting in a fluddle not far from Monee. I just took some shots out the window. He didn’t have to do that, so it was just really cool.”

Have you seen this bird?

Before Monty and Rose, there was Dodger, a lone Piping Plover attempting to make it through winter at Chicago’s Montrose Beach in 2018-2019. Dodger survived single-digit temperatures and an entirely frozen algal mat to become the only Piping Plover on record to make it to January in Illinois.

I got to know Dodger when I was birding nearly every day that winter and conceptualizing the business that would become Turnstone Strategies. The arrival of Monty and Rose was still about four months into the future then. Learn more on Friday about Dodger, and why this little one captivated so many, when the film makes its debut via this newsletter. Thanks to Geoff Williamson for the above photo.

TWiB Notes

I’ve written previously about the Great Horned Owls in my neighborhood. I first saw one while sitting in my backyard on Thanksgiving night. Then last Friday afternoon, I found the owls again in a local patch of woods, this time possibly on a nest. I’ll have more updates on this developing story soon…..There was a question of whether the Piping Plover identified as Rose in Florida a few weeks ago was actually Rose. There’s another plover with similar bands on Anclote Key. It’s now been confirmed that the bird was Rose…..I’ve visited the Chicago River at Diversey twice in the past week to check out the diverse array of waterfowl present. I had Redhead last Monday, as well as a spanking male Hooded Merganser and several Bufflehead. A Ruddy Duck also has been reported…...A Brant, a goose of the Arctic and Atlantic Coast, continues around Montrose Harbor after sightings of what may have been the same bird in Wisconsin and Waukegan.

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