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Winter Bird Watching

This is the perfect weather to bird-watch in McHenry County as bird species come to visit from the north.

As frosty weather rolls in, many birds migrate for warmer weather – and let’s face it, we humans tend to “migrate” indoors for the same reason. But there are a number of northern bird species that consider McHenry County a winter destination – from short-eared owls to European goldfinches – making this time of year a great opportunity to get out and bird-watch.

“We get a number of northern species that migrate down here for the winter – this season is a chance to see animals that do not breed anywhere near the Chicago area,” said Randy Schietzelt, president of the McHenry County Audubon Society and emeritus biology professor at Harper College.

Becoming a Birder

The McHenry County Audubon Society is a great place to start for the novice where “beginning birders are always welcome.”

Schietzelt recommends beginners start by “getting a bird book and a pair of binoculars and going out on organized bird hikes.”

At first, having so many species to recognize might seem overwhelming or intimidating, but Schietzelt insists that regular trips “will start to fix bird identifications in your head – and bird hike leaders should be able to help you pick out new species and  give you some pointers on the best characteristics,” he said.

Winter Birding Events

The Christmas Count in December is a major activity for the society. The count covers a 16-mile diameter centered at Bull Valley and Valley Hill roads in Bull Valley. The goal is to count the total number of individuals of all bird species in the circle. Bird counts began more than a century ago.

“It is considered important because it allows citizens to participate in science, and the data can be used to mark long-term species trends,” Schietzelt said.

It also opens a window into understanding climate change. “Comparing data from many different areas can show if species are modifying their range based on their climate limits,” he said.

More big birding events happen throughout the winter. See calendar.

Keeping Wildlife Safe

In order to maintain the safety and quality of life of the beautiful wildlife in our county, Schietzelt first and foremost encourages people to support the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD), The Land Conservancy of McHenry County and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “They provide the best habitat in the county,” he said.

In the yard, homeowners should limited the amount of mowed lawn and choose landscaping plants that are native because these species will provide food and shelter to wildlife. “Native plants also mean wildlife doesn’t have to cross busy roads to look for as much food,” Schietzelt  said.

In addition, bird feeders are recommended because they allow homeowners to enjoy the wildlife diversity in their neighborhood. “Plus, they promote an interest in wildlife that gets people motivated to support, for example, an MCCD referendum or learn about native landscaping,” he said.

Keeping cats indoors also helps keep wildlife safe year-round.

Unlikely Residents

Some unlikely birds have taken up residence in the county. Randy Schietzelt said whooping cranes that return from Florida each spring frequently stop in McHenry County – Glacial Park and farm fields south of Centegra on Doty Road have historically hosted them. There is one pileated woodpecker that has taken up residence in Bull Valley. European goldfinches occur at Brookdale, and gray partridge have been seen in farm fields along Menge Road – both of which are non-native species. What are the most common birds in McHenry County? Schietzelt said goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, mallards and Canada geese and  blackbirds are abundant and can be seen here year-round.

Best Local Winter Bird-Watching Sites

1.  Glacial Park for winter owls (short-eared owl) and hawks (northern harrier and rough-legged hawk).

2.  The pines at Pleasant Valley for owls.

3.  Rural farm roads (such as Dunham Road) for snow buntings, Lapland longspurs and horned larks, and possibly pheasants.

4.  Areas with extensive pines every other year for Red-breasted Nuthatches.

5.  Bird feeders throughout the county for migrant northern finches (redpolls, crossbills and evening grosbeaks). This is especially true if there are good pine plantings around the feeders.

6.  Volo Bog for long-eared owls. In late fall, there can be thousands of robins eating berries in the bushes around the bog.

7.  Open water on the Fox River for waterfowl and gulls. There is even a possibility of a bald eagle in winter if enough open water persists for them to catch fish. There are two summer nests – one at the south end of Grass Lake (Antioch, Ill.) and one on the Fox River just north of Dundee.

8.  Brookdale for European goldfinches.

9.  Brushy area near open fields for tree sparrows.

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