Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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Birders reflect on record-breaking big year

Chicago native bests number of species sighted in Illinois

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The end of another year offers time to take stock of the good, the bad, and in the case of Nathan Goldberg, the birds.

Goldberg just wrapped a record-breaking year for birds spotted in Illinois, ending with 341 species seen across the state, one more bird than his friend Steve Huggins. The friends birded together, covering counties north to south, their lists neck and neck for most of the year.

“You’re just driving all over,” Goldberg said. “And the problem with a big year is you get news that a bird is there and you have no choice but to go for it. And you may miss it. It’s like playing the lottery but with nature.”

Goldberg lucked out in his big year — a challenge birders take to see as many species as possible in a given area in 365 days — after picking up a bird Huggins missed. But even in the final days of 2020, the friends — Goldberg a 24-year-old Chicago native and Huggins, a 47-year-old originally from England — were still birding together, adding a mountain bluebird to their counts.

Now they can look back on a nonstop year of birding triumphs and flaps. And consider taking a break.

“I don’t ever feel like I don’t want to be in the outdoors,” Goldberg said. “Except obviously in the brutal cold winter. But even then, if there’s a good bird out there, I will find a way to be outside.”

Taking on a big year was always in the back of Goldberg’s mind, he said, but he lacked confidence. After graduating from Cornell University, home to the Lab of Ornithology, he returned to Chicago with honed birding skills. For 2020, Goldberg decided he’d like to see 300 species across the state — a challenge in itself. The last state records were set at 334 species in 2011 and 330 in 2009, according to listings from the Illinois Ornithological Society.

Goldberg broke 300 in May.

Huggins was focused on his world birding list; he’s up to 4,498 species. But as the pandemic canceled trips around the globe, he decided to team up with Goldberg.

“He wanted to go for the record,” Huggins said. “And I was just like, well, I’m sort of along for the ride.”

Both birders took up the nature sport early on. Huggins grew up fishing with his dad and found himself more interested in the creatures above water than below. Goldberg was on a zoo trip when he saw wood ducks — striking water fowl with slick-backed, color-splashed plumage.

“I want to see one of these birds in the wild before I die,” Goldberg thought to himself.

A few years later, he asked his parents if he could hop out of the car in Lincoln Park and check out a group gathered by North Pond. “I thought I was going to find a turtle or something,” Goldberg said. “And lo and behold it was a couple of adult male wood ducks.”

His dad lent him a camera; Goldberg wondered how many different birds he could photograph. His mom joined him on bird walks. Over the years, Goldberg met mentors and friends in the birding world, like Huggins, a veteran in the birding scene, and another good friend who joined in many of their trips last year.

One difference in taking on a state big year as opposed to a county one, like the record-breaking Evanston teen Isoo O’Brien, is the coverage area. Sometimes Goldberg would get a call or text with news: “Nathan, I just found a snowy plover five hours away from you. Are you coming?”

The answer, usually, was yes.

“Some of these drives where we’re going four, five or even six hours downstate, just to go and get a bird, it’s a slog,” said Huggins. “It’s when you’re doing it like two or three weekends in a row, it does get tough.”

The early months of the pandemic added safety complications. But part of taking on a big year means spending a lot of time not being around other people.

“We’re on the roads that no one’s on, we’re in the places no one’s going, times of day no one’s awake,” Goldberg said.

One payoff for the friends: a magnificent frigatebird. The seabird’s knack for picking up currents allows it to travel long distances, fast. Goldberg and Huggins thought they might have missed one as they drove down to Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois.

“If it just spirals into the blue sky you sort of run out of luck,” Goldberg said.

But they arrived in time to catch it — and grab some photos of the black and white rarity in flight.

They can fly for long periods of time, Huggins said, “sleeping on the wing without ever landing.”

“It’s a pretty incredible bird.”

The other prized catch: a great kiskadee. The tropical bird, named for its three-syllable screech, generally meets its northern boundary in Texas. A birder was out in the Channahon area, southwest of Chicago, and photographed one. It’s believed to be the first recorded in the state.

By the time Goldberg and Huggins went out to look, there were no signs of the bird. Then Huggins queued up its call. Goldberg thought he heard something.

“And then within seconds he’s screaming at the top of his lungs, there it is, there it is,” Goldberg said. “I just look with my binoculars and there’s this bright-yellow bird with black and white stripes on its head sitting on this bush just out the car window.”

Birders flocked to the discombobulated kiskadee, masks on, binoculars out.

“A tropical bird that shouldn’t be up north of Texas,” Huggins said. “And here we are, not quite in the depths of winter, but getting to that point, and there’s one just down the road right off I-55 at Channahon.”

Goldberg and Huggins have seen almost all of the species recorded in Illinois on eBird, so the missed ones tend to come with their own stories.

“There’s one bird in particular that’s been eating away at Steve and I both,” Goldberg said. “And it’s called a black-legged kittiwake.”

Goldberg missed one of the gulls by about 20 minutes. “I don’t want to say I have a vendetta against it, but it really hurt to find out that I was that close to getting one and I didn’t get it,” he said.

For Huggins, there was a missed lazuli bunting, a songbird named for the gemstone.

The ups and down of their big year seem to be enough, for now. The friends are both hoping to travel more. But there’s still a tinge of regret over the missed birds, Huggins said.

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