Volunteers needed in Chicagoland this summer

Observation power: Sightings recorded by Bird Conservation Network help understand population trends of some of our most threatened species.

There’s nothing more gratifying than birding with a purpose. Just take the Christmas Bird Count’s part scavenger hunt, part science project vibe. Or most any list entered into eBird.

In summer, it’s breeding bird monitoring that provides the data and some quiet time in the field. And that brings me to the Bird Conservation Network (BCN).

When the weather warms, dozens of volunteers fan out all across wild places in Chicagoland looking for breeding birds. The work can be tough: These are humid early mornings, when the prairie is often sopping wet. By midday some of the sites are unbearable in the heat of the sun.

“Some years the grass is as tall as I am by June and dripping wet with dew,” Jenny Vogt, a longtime BCN monitor told me last year. “So it’s quite the adventure at 5:30 in the morning. For me the biggest challenge is getting just drenched with dew.”

The data gathered is critical for understanding bird populations. Without it we may not know of the plight of Bobolinks, Henslow’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens. Birds that are here fleetingly before heading back to places like South America.

BCN is a coalition of 21 local birding and other organizations founded in 1998. It started by implementing a standardized monitoring protocol spearheaded by Judy Pollock, Alan Anderson, Terry Schilling, Lee Ramsey and Elizabeth Sanders. That protocol is critical for ecology purposes.

“The data is collected in a repeatable way,” says Becky Collings, Senior Resource Ecologist for Forest Preserves of Cook County, “so that gives good data for us, and we know that it is collected by people who know their birds. That it’s being collected in the breeding season is really helpful.”

Monitors visit specific locations across the region at least twice each breeding season. They wade into prairies and trek through woodlands, looking, listening and keeping careful track of species and their GPS coordinates.

“I do get familiar with the places and do anticipate seeing birds,” says Vogt, who covers a portion of northwest Cook County. “I’m disappointed when a bird I expect to see isn't there. It makes me think, ‘Hey, what's going on here?’”

There’s a call out right now to recruit volunteers for the 2021 breeding season. There’s an opportunity for those looking to apply their bird knowledge—or to learn if they are just getting into it. And there’s a thrill in getting to know a single parcel of land and its avifauna.

“Nothing more exciting than having my first Henslow’s Sparrow show up and hang out and start breeding,” Vogt said with a smile.

BCN also plays a crucial role as an advocacy organization. If the Lorax speaks for the trees, it’s BCN that speaks for Chicagoland’s birds. It relies on the dues it receives from its member organizations, and if you’d like to donate you may do so here.

Searching for signs of spring

This week’s southwest winds are likely to bring spring migrants with them. Those spring migrants will most likely include the American Woodcock, aka Timberdoodle, aka Bogsucker.

Edward Warden described them aptly in a piece that appeared on WTTW’s website last week:

“The charm of this bird is that it is so bizarre,” he said. “It’s got a body like a mini-football, a tiny head and a long bill.”

Sheryl DeVore wrote about woodcocks for a piece in Natural Awakenings Chicago magazine, too:

“Those that get a view will see a somewhat comical bird with a large head, short neck, relatively short legs and rotund body. The eyes are placed far back on either side of the head to enable them to see a potential predator while they feed.”

The best places to see these birds are wet meadows and woodland edges, but I’ve found they can turn up almost anywhere during migration. And that’s part of the fun—the bolt of adrenaline that comes from flushing a well-camouflaged woodcock.

The males are also known for their dramatic display flights, too. Listen for their nasal peent sound and the wind whistling through their wings.

I’m going to try and get out this week and find a woodcock. Stay tuned.

TWiB Notes

Stay up to date on spring migration, and when you can expect big pushes of birds, by visiting Birdcast, which produces forecasts daily…..From Montrose Beach Dunes Site Steward Leslie Borns, who notes the Chicago Park District has still not issued a decision about the habitat addition to Montrose Beach Dunes. The acre that’s requested would offer more permanent protection for Piping Plovers and their feeding area…..A Eurasian Tree Sparrow has been hanging around at the entrance to Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary with a large group of House Sparrows. The species’ small North American population is generally south and west of Chicago, centered around St. Louis…..This is a good week to keep an eye out for Rusty Blackbirds. It’s easy to overlook them amid the Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and European Starlings that are around.

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