35 X 25

The Tale of an Epic Big Sit in a Tiny Back Yard

by Greg Neise

July 13, 2020

My tiny yard. Click to embiggen.

COVID-19 had (and still has) me bottled up at home. As of today, I’ve left my property exactly six times since March 14.

But as the kids on the internets say: #BirdingNeverStops

Without going completely bonkers (something I’m known to do when it comes to birding challenges), I went about seeing how many birds I could see in my backyard during this spring migration.

So pour yourself a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine, cuz this is what them folks at the New York Times would call long form

My home is in a collar suburb of Chicago. If you leave Chicago while driving, riding public transportation, or walking, and enter my town of Berwyn, IL, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t notice. It’s got a different municipal government, but it’s essentially part of “the City”. I live in a 105-year-old bungalow, near the busy intersection of two main thoroughfares. Here it is from the air:

My home is in a collar suburb of Chicago. If you leave Chicago while driving, riding public transportation, or walking, and enter my town of Berwyn, IL, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t notice. It’s got a different municipal government, but it’s essentially part of “the City”. I live in a 105-year-old bungalow, near the busy intersection of two main thoroughfares. Here it is from the air:

It’s about 300 feet from the intersection of a busy avenue and a state highway truck route. The closest large trees are about the same distance.

Looking east, I have my tree, a green ash that’s maybe 30 feet tall, and to the south the neighbor’s honey locust, that’s about the same size. Along the streets the the east and southwest, there are some taller trees—mostly maples—about 100-150 feet away. To the north and west it’s pretty much clear skies … well, as much as I can see over and around the other houses and garages.

About a mile due west is the Des Plaines River, a forested riparian corridor that flows north-south, but just to the south of me angles southwest. About 30 miles further south, it joins the DuPage and Kankakee to create the mighty Illinois River.

The Strategy

I’ve lived here almost 20 years, and have noticed a definite pattern to birds flying over my neighborhood. Day migrants—which include things like most raptors, many water birds like herons and egrets, cormorants, ducks and geese, Sandhill Cranes … and passerines like swallows—follow the river on their journey north each spring.

The change in direction of the Des Plaines I mentioned a couple paragraphs up is key here. What I think happens is that as birds follow the river to the north east and it abruptly changes direction to run almost due north, they overshoot a bit, and make a “wide turn”.

Here, the faint blue outlined arrow shows this, and the small white arrow my location.

I will typically first notice some high-flying raptor, or a speck in the sky that will be a swallow, in the southwest quadrant of my view. The birds will pass by heading north, sometimes coming directly overhead, and exit my view to the northwest. But I also make a point of spending some time looking to the east … because birds are notorious for not following rules.

As far as night-migrating passerines, like warbler, orioles, flycatchers and such … the habitat is shall we say, limited. But, there is stuff to work with. Even while “resting” during the day, migrating passerines move about in loose flocks while feeding, especially early in the day. The busy streets just to my north creates something of a barrier for them, and the few tall trees a place to stop while considering their options.

So the strategy was to park my butt in front of the barn doors of the garage, and watch the skies to the west-southwest. From here I had a pretty good view of my own tree, the neighbor’s tree, a couple of the trees out on the street, and a lot of sky. Occasionally, I would sit on the back stoop, and watch the trees to the southeast, northeast, and again, a whole lot of sky.

The Result

So, how’d it go? Between April 18 and May 25 (38 days) I spent some time out “in the field” on 21 days—about 55% of the time available to me. This spring was very cold and wet in Chicago, and most of the 17 days I spent indoors was due to weather. Not necessarily rain (but a lot of rain), also cold northeast winds which tend to really limit the number of birds moving about. At some point or points during every one of those 38 days, I would go out back for a few minutes (usually 15 or so) to see if it seemed worth staying out longer.

I got to know the residents very well. There are three Northern Cardinals that I can see or hear from my yard. Two nest in a small tree in the neighbor’s yard. Another male sits up on the wires or rooftops a half-block away, and he and “my” male cardinal yell at each other. Unlike American Robins, cardinals seems to really respect territory boundaries. Counting American Robins was a bit more challenging, because of the high density of the species in my neighborhood.

I think American Robin is probably the most common breeding bird here, and interestingly, they seem to use city streets and alleys as territory boundaries (an interesting study waiting to be done). There’s always robins flying over and through, stopping at the birdbath in the neighbor’s yard, getting into fights with the local pair nesting under that same neighbor’s eaves … and generally just being noisy and demanding attention.

Birding magazine editor Ted Floyd once asked me a question, in the form of a quiz (note, it was in summer): “if you were to step outside your back door and listen for 5 minutes, you would almost certainly hear this bird. What is it?”

Chimney Swift, of course … speaking of common birds. The chittering of Chimney Swifts is such a ubiquitous part of the general summer noise of Chicago, that we ignore it as part of the background to be filtered out while listening for other birds. Counting Chimney Swifts is more or less impossible. There is a pair, but maybe two? Maybe three? … that nest in a small chimney 60 feet from where I sat observing. There were always a few, sometimes more than a few, swifts overhead. My counts are very conservative estimates at best. If there were some way to actually count them, I wouldn’t be surprised if my total was off by an order of magnitude. Or several. Chimney Swift was the most common species, with 215 individuals reported.

Ring-billed Gull was the second most common species, recorded every day, resulting in a total of 177. Ring-billed and Herring Gulls follow the east-west corridor of Roosevelt Road back and forth, all day long. The Ring-bills that congregate at the shopping malls a mile to the west of me, I assume are scarfing down Portillo’s fries and unfinished hot dogs—then flying back to feed their young out on Dime Pier, some 9 miles east.

I assume this because I know that Caspian Terns are doing something similar. Nesting at the shore of Lake Michigan, again, about nine miles to the east, they are going some ten more miles west to catch goldfish in the retention ponds scattered about the corporate parks out there. I know this because I’ve followed them. When in the yard, I see them flying high overhead—going west with empty bills, and returning east carrying fish. All day long. Another interesting study waiting to happen.

Caspian Tern going west... and headed back east with a fish.

So, how’d it go? Between April 18 and May 25 (38 days) I spent some time out “in the field” on 21 days—about 55% of the time available to me. This spring was very cold and wet in Chicago, and most of the 17 days I spent indoors was due to weather. Not necessarily rain (but a lot of rain), also cold northeast winds which tend to really limit the number of birds moving about. At some point or points during every one of those 38 days, I would go out back for a few minutes (usually 15 or so) to see if it seemed worth staying out longer.

I got to know the residents very well. There are three Northern Cardinals that I can see or hear from my yard. Two nest in a small tree in the neighbor’s yard. Another male sits up on the wires or rooftops a half-block away, and he and “my” male cardinal yell at each other. Unlike American Robins, cardinals seems to really respect territory boundaries. Counting American Robins was a bit more challenging, because of the high density of the species in my neighborhood.

I think American Robin is probably the most common breeding bird here, and interestingly, they seem to use city streets and alleys as territory boundaries (an interesting study waiting to be done). There’s always robins flying over and through, stopping at the birdbath in the neighbor’s yard, getting into fights with the local pair nesting under that same neighbor’s eaves … and generally just being noisy and demanding attention.

Birding magazine editor Ted Floyd once asked me a question, in the form of a quiz (note, it was in summer): “if you were to step outside your back door and listen for 5 minutes, you would almost certainly hear this bird. What is it?”

Chimney Swift, of course … speaking of common birds. The chittering of Chimney Swifts is such a ubiquitous part of the general summer noise of Chicago, that we ignore it as part of the background to be filtered out while listening for other birds. Counting Chimney Swifts is more or less impossible. There is a pair, but maybe two? Maybe three? … that nest in a small chimney 60 feet from where I sat observing. There were always a few, sometimes more than a few, swifts overhead. My counts are very conservative estimates at best. If there were some way to actually count them, I wouldn’t be surprised if my total was off by an order of magnitude. Or several. Chimney Swift was the most common species, with 215 individuals reported.

Ring-billed Gull was the second most common species, recorded every day, resulting in a total of 177. Ring-billed and Herring Gulls follow the east-west corridor of Roosevelt Road back and forth, all day long. The Ring-bills that congregate at the shopping malls a mile to the west of me, I assume are scarfing down Portillo’s fries and unfinished hot dogs—then flying back to feed their young out on Dime Pier, some 9 miles east.

I assume this because I know that Caspian Terns are doing something similar. Nesting at the shore of Lake Michigan, again, about nine miles to the east, they are going some ten more miles west to catch goldfish in the retention ponds scattered about the corporate parks out there. I know this because I’ve followed them. When in the yard, I see them flying high overhead—going west with empty bills, and returning east carrying fish. All day long. Another interesting study waiting to happen.

Caspian Tern going west... and headed back east with a fish.

Tangent: A Twist!

I didn’t mention my optics, did I? That’s because in the traditional sense, I didn’t use any. No binoculars, no scope.

My optical gear consisted of an Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera, a 300mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter (equivalent to an 800 millimeter lens, or about a 16X scope).

That was something else I wanted to try: birding with only a camera. For many small birds flying over, that meant shoot first, identify later.

The camera rig was brand new. I was learning on the fly how to use the autofocus and metering controls. There was a bit of frustration, such as 27 swallow “spuhs”, that I should have been mostly able to identify to species. A shorebird spuh that flew over. A largish falcon-looking thing that the autofocus wouldn’t get on.

But on the other hand, it allowed me to identify some birds—like swallows—that I almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to identify with binoculars.

Okay, Back to the Birds

Three Sandhill Cranes passing high overhead was a bit of a surprise on the afternoon of May 3, 2020.

I’ve done a lot of hawk watches, lake watches, and big sits. They are very enjoyable. You see birds, but they are also social events, and with lots of eyes present, you can take moments to chat with friends, admire the view, get lost in your thoughts … and you won’t miss much.

Sitting by myself, in my back yard, watching the sky and the few trees I can see, took a level of vigilance I wasn’t prepared for. A couple times I fell asleep (not for more than a few minutes 😉 ). I did have company—my dog Sammy. She was at once a very much needed friend, and a serious distraction. Border Collies are pushy.

April 18, 22, and 28 were all very … basic. Nothing but the 10 or so expected neighborhood birds, with three exceptions, a Killdeer and Hairy Woodpecker on the 18th, and my first-of-the-year Chimney Swift on the 28th.

May started out with a few real migrants. On May 2, I had my first Barn Swallows and about a dozen swifts. I also had my first Baltimore Oriole. The next day, it started to get busy. I counted 56 Chimney Swifts, and three species of swallows (!!). A Bank Swallow was a first for my yard.

There were gentle winds from the south, a good amount of blue sky and the local Turkey Vultures and Cooper’s Hawks were milling about (plus a couple migrants of each species), but the surprise of that day came in the form of three Sandhill Cranes circling high, and moving off to the northwest. I’m directly under a main flyway for the species, and in March and November can see thousands pass overhead. But these were the first I’ve seen in my home county in May … a county I’ve been birding for over 40 years.

The next week was just dismal. Cold, dreary, windy days that lull you to sleep late, and dawdle over coffee. But, I did step out for at least a few minutes each day, and submitted checklists for May 4 and 9. Those 6 days added a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet to the species tally.

May 10

My birthday! The weather had shifted during the afternoon of the day before, and while it was still kind of dreary out, with intermittent rain, birds had moved in overnight, and were moving during the day.

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak and 4 Orange-crowned Warblers started out what was to be a memorable day. The first unexpected species was a Sharp-shinned Hawk that buzzed past.

The other unexpected species, well …

Fish Crow, calling as it passed almost directly overhead. May 10, 2020.

I was going inside to refill my coffee cup at 11:30 am. As had become habit, before going in, I paused up on the stoop and checked the skies to the east. Before I had even turned around, I heard “GAH-uh GAH-uh” coming from … somewhere. I couldn’t quite place the sound. I knew I had heard it before, but couldn’t quite place it, when a crow came flying directly at me flying only about 30 feet above the rooftops. “GAH-uh GAH-uh”, it called with every other wingbeat.

It took my brain a second to snap to attention and … FISH CROW!!! There are no records of Fish Crow in Cook County in eBird, only one other that I’m aware of (that’s not in eBird) … and only one record of the species in northern Illinois. You have to drive at least 3 hours south to have even a chance of finding one. They are steadily expanding range northward, and is one of my most wanted and anticipated species in northern Illinois.

I whipped up the camera, fingers fumbling over the controls. I wanted video of this bird, but my index finger just couldn’t find the correct button. I wasted 2 seconds doing that and then started shooting frames. The bird was close, and coming right at me. It had started to rain. The autofocus seemed to be grabbing at raindrops in the sky.

I had the bird in the viewfinder for 8 seconds. I took 15 frames, about half of which actually contained an image of the bird. The rest were of leaden, out of focus sky.

But between the pictures I did manage to get, and very clearly hearing the bird call at least 8 times in the 12 seconds I was aware of it, I think I got enough to adequately document the sighting. We’ll see.

There’s a local pair of American Crows nesting at the end of the block, one of which is quite distinctive, with jaeger-like white flashes in the primaries. This bird launched from its lookout and escorted the Fish Crow from the area.

Spray and Pray

Birding with just a camera is … different. At first my reflexive muscle memory from 45 years of birding—to grab my binoculars immediately upon seeing a bird—was hard to overcome. I fumbled a few times, and missed a few birds that flew over. Passerine spuhs.

But after the first couple of days I overcame that, and taught myself a new technique …

Now, before I get into that, in a previous life I was a profession wildlife photographer, and staff photographer at a zoo. And that fact created some challenges too. Just like with the binoculars, my hands have years of muscle memory concerning what to do with a camera. I used the controls of my Nikon DSLR systems like a musician plays an instrument.

But I ditched all that gear and jumped into the new mirrorless 4/3 craze sweeping the birding community. The camera is smaller. The controls are in different places and there’s new options available. Having said all that, the Olympus 4/3 rig feels good in the hand, is a serious camera, and overall I’m delighted with it. Okay, where did I leave off?

… the new technique was basically this: point the camera at the bird, let the autofocus do it’s thing—don’t worry about framing a shot, or any of the other things one might think about when taking pictures. Taking nice pictures is not really the goal here. The goal is identifying and documenting birds.

Here’s an example. While sitting at my usual spot against the garage, the mail person came to the front door, flushing a small bird down the gangway. It landed in the tree next to me, about 7 feet up. It immediately noticed me as I moved the camera to my face.

Now, in that instant I got enough of a glimpse to be 75% sure of what it was. As I raised the camera to my face, it flew across four neighbor’s yards and landed in a small ornamental tree with brown leaves. The small brown bird is now in a tree with brown leaves 100 feet away.

I focused on the tree where the bird landed (I couldn’t see the bird) and held the shutter down while moving back and forth, up and down, shooting pictures of the tree at 13 frames-per-second: spray and pray.

Low and behold, I managed to grab a frame of the bird flying away, almost instantly again, that allowed me to positively identify it as a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

The technique got me a Magnolia Warbler (although that bird did wind up coming into my yard and giving great looks, as well as serenading me for a whole afternoon), Cliff Swallow, Bank Swallow, Purple Martin, and my only photograph of Baltimore Oriole during the month.

There is a Lincoln's Sparrow in there!

Birding with just a camera is … different. At first my reflexive muscle memory from 45 years of birding—to grab my binoculars immediately upon seeing a bird—was hard to overcome. I fumbled a few times, and missed a few birds that flew over. Passerine spuhs.

But after the first couple of days I overcame that, and taught myself a new technique …

Now, before I get into that, in a previous life I was a profession wildlife photographer, and staff photographer at a zoo. And that fact created some challenges too. Just like with the binoculars, my hands have years of muscle memory concerning what to do with a camera. I used the controls of my Nikon DSLR systems like a musician plays an instrument.

But I ditched all that gear and jumped into the new mirrorless 4/3 craze sweeping the birding community. The camera is smaller. The controls are in different places and there’s new options available. Having said all that, the Olympus 4/3 rig feels good in the hand, is a serious camera, and overall I’m delighted with it. Okay, where did I leave off?

… the new technique was basically this: point the camera at the bird, let the autofocus do it’s thing—don’t worry about framing a shot, or any of the other things one might think about when taking pictures. Taking nice pictures is not really the goal here. The goal is identifying and documenting birds.

Here’s an example. While sitting at my usual spot against the garage, the mail person came to the front door, flushing a small bird down the gangway. It landed in the tree next to me, about 7 feet up. It immediately noticed me as I moved the camera to my face.

Now, in that instant I got enough of a glimpse to be 75% sure of what it was. As I raised the camera to my face, it flew across four neighbor’s yards and landed in a small ornamental tree with brown leaves. The small brown bird is now in a tree with brown leaves 100 feet away.

I focused on the tree where the bird landed (I couldn’t see the bird) and held the shutter down while moving back and forth, up and down, shooting pictures of the tree at 13 frames-per-second: spray and pray.

Low and behold, I managed to grab a frame of the bird flying away, almost instantly again, that allowed me to positively identify it as a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

The technique got me a Magnolia Warbler (although that bird did wind up coming into my yard and giving great looks, as well as serenading me for a whole afternoon), Cliff Swallow, Bank Swallow, Purple Martin, and my only photograph of Baltimore Oriole during the month.

There is a Lincoln's Sparrow in there!

The Liftoff

May 22 started out blustery. It had rained overnight. Temperatures were in the 50s to start out the day, and it was just “blegh” outside. I was starting to worry that migration might pass me by this year, because May 22 is getting kind of late for peak activity in my neck of the woods. There’s still plenty of migrants around, but they are in a hurry to get to their breeding territories.

So far I had seen just three species of warblers: Orange-crowned, Nashville, and a female Common Yellowthroat (I also heard a male singing in the distance). Pretty slim pickings for having been out looking on eleven days during May.

Anyway, I went out to the yard at 1:30 in the afternoon, and set up. There was nothing singing or making much noise at all. The pair of American Crows (one of which I had named Flash) were sitting in their usual spot … where at least one of them can be seen almost all of the time, watching the skies for hawks.

Boy, did they get some something to watch that afternoon.

The sky was a high overcast. The wind had shifted during the day. It had been from the east, kind of cold and raw—but now was from the south-southwest, the sun heated things up through the thin clouds—and suddenly, at 3:08pm, eight soaring raptors appeared over the roof of my house.

I could immediately tell they were mostly Turkey Vultures. The closest was one of the local Cooper’s Hawks … but there were two buteos up there as well, and neither was one of the local Red-tailed Hawks. The six began kettling, gaining altitude. I scanned them through the camera lens and automatically locked on the one that seemed the most unusual.

According to the EXIF data I had this group of birds in front of me for two minutes and fifty-seven seconds. In that time, I took 83 frames of them, and they drifted off together to the southeast (which was kinda odd). I sat back and chimped. Here was the first picture (silhouette). My heart raced. I wasn’t 100% certain what it was (but I had a good idea), and the bird’s shape was exciting. Or at least could be.

The skies turned blue, it kept getting warmer, and birds that had been waiting a couple of days to fly were up and moving! The local Cooper’s Hawks were soaring together doing a nuptial dance in the sky. This is one of my favorite things to watch. They soar together, alternating soaring with very exaggerated, stiff-wing, slow, deep moth-like flapping, with their brilliant white under tail coverts floofed out. They go round and round, up and down, as if on a carousel. Then one will close its wings and plummet like a rocket toward the ground, swooping back up and joining its mate.

An America Kestrel came overhead, and hovered for a bit, just because. Turkey Vultures were streaming by, a Red-shouldered Hawk went over, and a Caspian Tern carrying a fish for its chick—some nine miles away—powered along following Roosevelt Rd.

I was anxious to get inside to my office and look at the pictures of “the hawk” … and when I finally did, my hope was confirmed: it was an adult SWAINSON’S HAWK! In my home county of Cook, there are 8 previous records for the species in eBird.

Adult Swainson’s Hawk over Berwyn, IL. May 22, 2020.

The final 30 Hours

Sammy, on her observation perch.

The last four days of sittin’ around the yard were enjoyable. There was a shift in the general weather pattern, and unlike the previous 30 days or so, it was usually warm, with light breezes and plenty of sunshine. My wife joined me part of the time, and I get her on some of the birds too. Sammy, my constant companion in this endeavor, sat on her perch scanning the terrain … between naps.

May 23 was my best as far as species count, with a tally of 30 for the day.

On May 23, Common Nighthawks finally started moving, with eleven passing over before it got too dark. The next afternoon, I counted 31 conservatively.

As is always the case, the flycatchers showed up last, and on May 25, I added Eastern Wood-Pewee to the teeny-yard list. A Chipping Sparrow and Purple Martin put the finishing tally at 64 species.

That’s a Wrap

Over those 21 days, I spent 90 hours and 35 minutes monitoring birds in my yard–never venturing from the 35-foot-by-25-foot brick patio. It was a tad frustrating, because Chicago had an excellent spring, with loads of lingering warblers that stayed low to the ground because of the weather–and I was trapped at home. And yet…

The flyovers were really inspirational. I mean, I knew that birds fly over my house all the time. But trying to catalog them, even inefficiently, was a bit eye-opening. The numbers of waterbirds going by, but also things like swallows, and of course the hawks–was really exciting.

I recorded 1231 birds of 64 species during that time. I’m not sure how I feel about that … it feels low, but since this is the first time I’ve done this, and have nothing to compare it to. Total individual birds was much higher than I would have guessed. My biggest takeaway is this: I wish I had spent more hours back there during migration.

I’ve put in a few hours of hawk watching on the patio, but nothing I would call a real effort. That’s gonna change this September and October. #BirdingNeverStops

Here’s a selection of images taken during my Tiny Yard Big Sit experiment:

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Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world’s tropical rainforests. Greg is Web Master for the ABA, helps manage social media, sits in on the ABA Podcast on occasion, and of course, is a fanatical birder.