The Official 2020 Backyard Bird Blog!
Updated: Feb 19
In early July of 2020, Michelle and I moved into a house in Champaign. We really wanted a yard and the place we found had one, so we checked it out.
In May, we went to do a tour. The current tenants were nice enough to allow us to see the place in person. When we got there, they were outside looking at birds with their bird guide in hand. Turns out they were novice birders, originally from Oklahoma, so they were thrilled by every bird they saw here in the midwest!
I got out of the car, said hi, and started looking with them, when one of them said, “I think that’s a PROTHONOTARY warbler.” I was just kind of like, well, probably not, beginners mis-IDing. But as I saw the bright yellow in my bins, it WAS a Prothonotary! And not only that, with it a Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped, Nashville and Black-throated Green! At this point, I looked at Michelle and the landlord and said, “I don’t really have to see the inside. We’ll take it!”
We did of course tour the house and yard and we loved both. It had a garage and basement so we were psyched. I chose the room looking out into the backyard as my office. That way I could see the back yard and put the feeders strategically where I could see them best.
Not long after we moved in on July 9th, I experimented with a bird feeder setup. It took some tweaking to get the squirrel baffle in the right place and to decide which types of bird seed and feeders worked best.
I had some bad experiences with white millet. Since I didn’t get the kind that is dried, it was basically starting to sprout on the ground and even around the RIM of the feeder!
So I switched to cracked corn to try to give the House Sparrows something to munch on so they’d stay away from the black sunflower mixture. I also wanted to give the squirrels something so they didn’t try to climb the feeder pole. I started with whole kernel corn (which is super cheap around here!) and peanuts in the shell. I soon discovered this made a big mess, so I switched to shelled peanuts.
I ended up getting a hopper feeder so I could put black sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts in there. In the summer I put up an oriole feeder with a cup for grape jelly. (Just like at my folks’ house, they like Welch’s the best!) In the fall, I put up a thistle seed feeder to try to attract irruptive finches like Pine Siskin and Purple Finch.
And later I swapped out the oriole feeder for a platform feeder, to try to get bigger birds like Pine and Evening Grosbeak.
I also put up two hummingbird feeders. I tried putting them on the pole, but it was harder to see them. So since the squirrels really didn’t mess with it, I hung one from a long, thin string in the crabapple tree and another on a suction cup on the picture window in the front. The crabapple tree is right outside the window, so much better for seeing tiny hummingbirds. The feeders I got were great because they didn't attract ants or other winged insects. But they also didn't have any red on them. I discovered it is true that hummingbirds really are attracted to red. So I put some red stickers near them and they found them right away! :D
I also put a tray feeder of mealworms in the V of the crabapple tree. Turns out, squirrels WILL eat mealworms, so in late November, when I finally took the hummingbird feeder down, I hung the mealworm feeder in its place. When it was in the tree, Carolina Wrens really seemed to like it. But once it was hanging, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-breasted Nuthatches seemed to like it better.
I had one suet cage up since the beginning. But when I saw bigger birds like Northern Flicker struggling to get to it, I mounted another one on the very top of the feeder set up so they could get to it easier.
I made a makeshift birdbath out of a large, terra cotta flower pot saucer. I set it first on the fire pit, then right on the picnic table.
After that I got a bird bath sometime in late summer and made sure it was heated for the winter.
Mrs. Cardinal and some American Goldfinches enjoy the heated birdbath.
The crabapple tree right outside the window is great! So many different birds species love it and since it is right outside the window, I get great views from my desk!
There is a mulberry in the northeast corner of the yard, and a very large honeysuckle bush along the fence line south of that.
I convinced the landlord to let me leave some sticks and brush piled under that tree, along with a lot of leaf litter. Birds love foraging in there and we had a TON of tiny moths in that leaf litter, which attracted great bird species! There is a small willow tree in the middle of the yard and a few small evergreens scattered throughout. A large bitter nut hickory is right on the south property line, but hangs over our yard. I’ve seen TONS of great bird species in there- they love that tree! A Norway maple is on the west fence line. And some more small honeysuckle in the northwest corner. There is a huge oak in the front, too, which has attracted more great birds. We’re really lucky to have such a great yard!
Besides keeping a yard list in eBird, I kept a google doc of species actually seen in the yard. Whenever I could get a photograph I did. That way I could also log them into an app called iNaturalist. In addition to birds, I also logged mammals, insects, fungi and other non-bird species into iNat. I will put the full stats at the end of the blog post.
We immediately started getting lots of common yard birds: Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, House Finch, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove etc.
Mourning Doves snoozing in Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
the hickory tree
Male Northern Cardinal in an icy honeysuckle
We also often got Gray Catbirds in the yard. They were very vocal and liked to eat the jelly I put out for the orioles. :)
Robins weren't as common throughout the year as I thought they'd be. But in the summer we would get quite a few, including some young ones!
We got White-breasted Nuthatch right away, but Red-breasted, an irruptive species, didn’t show up until fall.
We got House Wrens in the yard once in a while, but to my delight, I found that Carolina Wrens are much more common here than in Cook County. They have been in the yard every day since we moved in! I love their crazy antics! They are so loud and fun and have such unique personalities!
Can you find the Carolina Wren in this photo!?
Carolina Wren on the feeders. (You can hear Chordy meow at the beginning!)
Another bird behavior I enjoyed observing with that of the White-breasted Nuthatch. They would grab sunflower seeds from the feeders and fly over to the crabapple tree and cache them in the bark! Over and over they would fly back and forth. Really cool and fun to discover, as I did not know they did this!
One of the nicer things I noticed is that we don’t get very many starlings at all. We do get quite a few House Sparrows, but there is more than enough food to go around, and they tend to stay on the ground anyway.
One of the first migratory birds we got in the was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Our first Tufted Titmouse showed up on July 27th. (They didn’t come as often in the Summer but in late fall we started to get 2 or 3 of them regularly)
Another thing I didn’t realize right away, is that Champaign is in the area where Black-capped and Carolina Chickadee ranges overlap! I took a photo of a Chickadee and posted it, thinking it was a Black-capped, of course. A friend pointed out there was very little white in the wings and it seemed to have a rounder head, with the white of the cheek not going so far back on the head. Sure enough, we have gotten our first recorded Carolina Chickadee on the feeders on July 30th!
Chipping Sparrows showed up under the feeder once in a while through July and August. One day in late August I noticed one doing something notable. A young Brown-headed Cowbird was also under the feeders. I noticed it making begging sounds and fluttering its wings. It was being fed by a CHIPPING SPARROW! I was not surprised because BHCOs are brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in other birds' nests and leave the to be raised by them. But I was really excited to be able to witness this phenomenon and get a photo of it!
A Least Flycatcher showed up on August 14, our first flycatcher in the yard! And our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird found our feeders on August 18th.
Our first and only Indigo Bunting to date perched briefly on the power lines just long enough for a photo on August 16th!
Our first fall warbler species was an American Redstart. (I really wanted to put a photo here, even a halfway decent photo, but every photo I have is TERRIB:E! LOL) The next was a Black-and-white, creeping in the crabapple tree outside the window for a great view! SO hard to photograph though so I have no good shots! (I had the screen in the window in the summer, but took it out in the fall so I could get clearer photos from the window!)
Next came a beautiful male Canada Warbler, which doesn’t change plumage in the fall, so he was bright and lovely!
A stunning Blackburnian was next, followed by Magnolia and Chestnut-sided. These species showed up often from late August until fall.
An Ovenbird came next. At one point, there was at least one Ovenbird in the yard for over two weeks! I counted over 4 at once one day! I was thrilled about this! I love watching them strut around the yard like mini chickens!
Bay-breasted and Blackpoll came next and were one of the most common warbler species in the yard. We also got our second Black-throated Green of the season (remember, this was one of the warbler species seen on May 2nd when we toured the house).
Bay-breasted Warbler Black-throated Green Warbler
However, we only got one single Yellow Warbler, one Wilson’s Warbler and one single Common Yellowthroat all season! Tennessee Warblers showed up next and came more often. After many looks at them across the street in the neighbor’s tree, we finally got our first Nashville in the yard on September 25th.
Tennessee Warbler Nashville Warbler
We only had one GOLDEN-WINGED warbler in the yard and I JUST couldn’t get a photo of it! But that was a pretty special bird. And in early October, we got our second Yellow-rumped Warbler (first of fall) in the willow tree. (My camera was in the shop so I got pretty good at taking photos through my binoculars!)
I thought I got a fleeting look at a Black-throated Blue, but not good enough to ID. That was a species that didn’t show up this season. I also had a mystery warbler skulking around with a full blue hood and yellow vent! I tried so hard to get good looks and photos, but could not. It was either a MOURNING or a CONNECTICUT!! So bummed I can’t count it as one or the other! Such a great yard bird THAT would have been, either way!
Other excellent migrants started coming, too: Red-eyed Vireos became fairly common to see. And more than one Yellow-billed Cuckoo showed up, too!
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-pewee came next.
Swainson’s was the first of the spotted (Catharus) thrushes to appear. Next was Veery, followed by Gray-cheeked thrush once or twice, neither of which cooperated for a photo. A Wood Thrush actually came into the yard twice, which was delightful! And Hermit was the last of the thrush species to come in early October.
Clockwise from top left: Swainson's Thrush, Veery, Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush
I personally had been eagerly awaiting our first Baltimore Oriole in the yard. My parents put grape jelly out for them and get tons in their yard in western NY. I started to see one here and there in the neighborhood. This made me hopeful and put up the jelly feeder right after that! Then on September 4th, we got our first group of Orioles!
Two days later we got our first Rose-breasted Grosbeaks! They frequented the feeders quite often from September to the end of October!
The first Ruby-crowned Kinglet came on September 6th
and our first and only Warbling Vireo of the year perched in the oak out front just long enough for a photo!
Our first Cooper’s Hawk came in mid-August. Nice to see but I started wondering if I had set up an inadvertent buffet for her! :o
A Broad-winged Hawk had perched just outside the year earlier in the season. On September 11th, one finally came into the yard proper!
On September 9th, I was not having the best day. But my day totally brightened when I looked out the window and saw a bird fly into the yard. I went outside to get a better look and at first thought it was another Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I was happy to have a chance to get a better photo of one. I got a closer look- it was a BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO!! I had struggled to see this bird all spring and here it was IN OUR YARD!! Hands down the best bird of the year in our yard!!
Scarlet Tanager, White-throated Sparrow and Brown Thrasher were great new additions in mid and late September.
I had been walking around the neighborhood in late September when I heard a distinct beeping call. It was a RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH!! After a spring in which they were scarce, they had FINALLY come! The first one came into the yard on September 21st!
Our first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker found the crabapple tree, which has many sapsucker holes in it. ( I noticed that right away when we moved in and was hopeful!) It also liked the berries on the honeysuckle tree.
A Northern Flicker also came into the yard around the same time.
Our first Dark-eyed Junco came on September 30th, but they didn’t come in droves until weeks after that.
The first days of October brought some great new additions: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Cedar Waxwing.
Golden-crowned Kinglets are Cedar Waxwings love the crabapple fruit! SO hard to photograph!
And a very brief glimpse at our first and only Winter Wren in a hole in the crabapple tree.
We have had House Finches in the yard every day since we moved in. But with fall in full swing, I was really hoping a Purple Finch would show up soon! I even wrote a parody song about it! (see videos below!) So when our first one, a female, landed on the feeder on October 5th, I was overjoyed! We got visits by some male PUFI on October 21 and a few times after that.
I WAS waiting, but then she showed up! :D
Another irruptive species that was supposed to show up in great numbers this season was Pine Siskin. I got a nice-sized thistle feeder and stocked it, hoping they would find it soon. One lone siskin showed up on October 2nd. But she must have been a scout, since she brought THIRTY of her friends the next day! I was thrilled! They often outnumbered even House Sparrows, and took over the feeders! The most I had in a day was SIXTY-FIVE, carefully counted! (That number got flagged as high on eBird!)
A beautiful Blue-headed Vireo showed up in the yard on October 8th, and AGAIN on October 9th and 20th! My camera was broken at the time, so I only got a digibin shot. But was happy to at least get that to document on iNat.
As mentioned before, we get a lot of cardinals in our yard. There was one bird that showed up a few times that had a condition called "Lizard Head". It is caused by mites and makes the feathers on the head fall out. (I still can't get a straight answer about whether or not this is harmful to the bird, but I hope not.) This bird totally reminded me of the Chamberlain from the Dark Crystal!
We had seen a ton of warbler species this season already, but we weren’t done! An Orange-crowned Warbler made an appearance a few times. And on the same day, we got our first and only PINE WARBLER! One of the best in the yard, he hung out with the Pine Siskins on the feeder for some great shots!
A big, lovely Fox Sparrow made his first appearance at the end of October, along with our first ever White-crowned Sparrow.
And a sweet little Brown Creeper showed up in the crabapple!
Our one and only Song Sparrow made super quick appearance on November 25th. I was psyched to be able to snap some quick ID photos before it flitted off.
Our very last bird of the year was a flyover Great Blue Heron on December 31th! That brought our total to 83 birds in the yard (or directly above) proper!!
In addition to birds, we had some other kinds of wildlife come into the yard. Lots of fun butterflies and insects! Mammals were gray squirrels, rabbits and a raccoon that came into the garage one night! We heard a noise and discovered he had climbed up on a shelf and knocked a bucket off to make room for himself! LOL We also had some fun fungus, too! Below are some highlights.
Top row: Monarch, EasternTiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple
Bottom row: Hackberry Emperor, American Snout, Tawny-edged Skipper
Woody Underwing Moth So excited to get a photo of the underside when it was on the screen!
Dingy Cutworm Moth Lucerne Moth
One of the reasons we had so many warblers in the yard was because they ate the many Fall Webworm Moths that hatched from this nest!
Praying Mantis!!!! Look how fast it can move in the video below!
Scaly Ink Cap came up right in the hole in the crabapple tree and under it! A day later it was completely gone! We also had White Jelly Fungus and another kind of jelly fungus in the hickory tree.
Eastern Gray Squirrel Eastern Cottontail
We had a phenomenal first year in the yard! And don’t forget, we moved in in July. That means we missed all of spring migration and still wracked up a great total and some serious quality birds! I can’t wait to see what we can see in a FULL calendar year!
As promised, below are some numbers and fun facts. Enjoy! We certainly have!
2020 yard notes - since July 8th, including May 2nd, when we viewed house
Total number of species in yard proper: 83
Total number of species in and around yard: 90
Most species in the yard on one day: 35, October 2
Most of one species seen in yard at a time: 65 pine siskin, october 21
Best yard birds: Black-billed Cuckoo, Prothonotary Warbler
Other awesome yard birds: Wood Thrush, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Golden-winged Warbler, Pine Warbler, Broad-winged Hawk, Scarlet Tanager, Purple Finch, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Fox Sparrow, Ovenbird, Canada warbler, Blackburnian warbler
Warbler species seen in yard: 21; Ovenbird, Golden-winged, Black-and-white, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Pine, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Canada, and Wilson’s
Most number of species on the feeder at same time: 6 (NOCA, HOFI, PISI, DOWO, TUTI, HOSP)
Notable birds NOT seen in yard: Eastern Towhee, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-winged Blackbird, and Palm Warbler
Most common yard birds (seen every day): Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow, Carolina Wren, and Blue Jay,
Most irruptive birds: Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch
Other notables: At least one Ovenbird in yard for almost 2 weeks straight!
All catharus species seen in yard: Hermit, Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, & Wood Thrush and Veery
All woodpeckers except Hairy and Pileated: Downy, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker