The Official 2021 Backyard Bird Blog!
My partner and I moved to the house we are renting in early July of 2020. In that six month period, we saw 90 birds in and around the yard, and 82 in the yard proper!
At the beginning of 2021, I was excited to discover what new birds we would see, and what our total would be for a full year of watching birds in the yard. Despite doing a Big Year in Champaign County this year, I worked from home at least 2 days a week, and watched and recorded what I saw in the yard usually from at least 9:30am (sometimes earlier) until about 4pm.
I will put the detailed stats at the end of this post. But it was a successful year to say the least! And a hell of a lot of fun!
January started off with some old favorites, drawn to the open water and protein our yard provided for them in the bitter cold.
Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, American Robin
The very first new species of 2021 to come into the yard was an American Tree Sparrow on 1/3.
It was a pretty expected bird for the winter but a real beauty!
The next new bird was not– our first Red-winged Blackbird on 1/5! To date, we have only seen this species in the yard three times ever, believe it or not. I guess there are enough ag fields for them that they don’t venture here much.
The next new species wasn’t seen until a good month later, but in my opinion, it was about time! For some reason we had not gotten a Hairy Woodpecker until 2/11! And to date, it is still by no means a regular visitor to the yard, though Downy and Red-bellied come often, and Red-headed, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker show up during the appropriate times during migration.
A lone Pine Siskin showed up for the first time on 2/19. This was not a new species since the irruption year the year before brought fairly large flocks to the feeders. But there was a bit of a carry-over, and we got at least one bird at a time many times from February through May.
A species that did NOT show up in the yard during the 2020 finch irruption was Common Redpoll. So we were ECSTATIC to get our first in the yard on 2/28! :D They had been seen in yards in the general area but it was still a pleasant surprise to get one in ours. They came the next day and the day after but not ever again.
In the second week of March, two species I was surprised we hadn’t gotten yet finally came into the yard: Swamp Sparrow and Eastern Towhee! Both are beautiful birds and very nice additions to our list.
A couple of birds got counted because they flew directly over the yard: Mallard and Killdeer were added this way, though I actually have photos of the Mallards perched on top of the neighbor’s house across the street!
More new sparrow species showed up next, with Field Sparrow on 3/23 and Lincoln’s Sparrow on 4/9.
I installed a water feature in the yard in late March. For ease of speaking, I call it the “pond”, though it is not more than 1’ X 2’ and more of a glorified birdbath. I installed a fountain pump to make noise to attract birds. The container I used for the pond is about 1’ deep, so I made sure to put in rocks so that smaller birds could use it. Along the way I figured out it was also good to put sticks across it, for smaller birds to perch on and walk down to have easier access to the water. I got a heater for it in late October so I could keep it available in the winter, though I took out the fountain at that point. On the coldest days, it is a huge draw since it is one of the only spots (besides our heated birdbath) for birds to find open water. To date I have documented a whopping FIFTY-THREE species using said pond!!
Fledgling American Robins, Brown Thrasher, Wood Thrush
American Redstart, Golden-winged Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler
Gray Catbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ruby-crowned Kinglet
The next new species I found particularly satisfying to see in our very own yard: White-eyed Vireo! Red-eyed come fairly often, and Warbling and Blue-headed less often but a fair bit. So this one was great to add. We added another new vireo species on 5/14, too! A beautiful Yellow-throated Vireo showed up! And we weren’t done yet! Because later in the fall on 9/3, we got our first Philadelphia Vireo, rounding out the species that we can reasonably expect in our yard.
Clockwise from top left: White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo
May brought some bright and very welcome new species to the yard. The first was a lovely female Summer Tanager! She came back fairly often in early to mid May and was attracted to the jelly feeder!
Some other lovely May visitors are pictured below.
Purple Finch, White-crowned (back) and White-throated Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker
Also in early May, we saw our first fledgling Carolina Wrens! I did not ever find where they were nesting, but my feeling was that it was somewhere in our adjacent neighbor’s yard, because we first saw them on the ground in the corner of their yard where it abuts ours. Soon they were jumping around like they owned the place, much like their animated parents that have entertained us since we moved in! They would look so proud when they found the mealworms I stashed in the holes in the crabapple tree. And one perched on a lawn chair and sat there for a long time, meeping and letting me shoot some priceless photos of its grumpy face, still sporting a tan-ish baby gape.
At some point in late April, we noticed a Robin building a nest on top of one of our front porch lights. We stopped entering from the front door, going in only from the garage, as we wanted to disturb them as little as possible. However, on 5/9 when I noticed the bird was off the nest, I snuck up and snapped a photo. There were three eggs inside!
We watched carefully, and before we knew it, on 5/26, there were three little heads sticking up and begging!
Robins then built another nest on the opposite light fixture (not sure if it was the same pair). On 8/3 I observed two eggs in that nest. However, the eggs did not prove to be viable and the bird eventually abandoned the nest.
On 5/11 a Great Crested Flycatcher showed up for the first time in the yard. They showed up a few times after that, but were mostly heard from the yard calling around the neighborhood.
We saw three more new Flycatcher species in the yard this year, the next two within days of each other. First, a Willow Flycatcher finally sang in the yard for a positive ID! We had Alder in the yard the year before, so it was great to finally see and hear Willow, too. An Acadian Flycatcher graced the yard next. I was THRILLED to hear that familiar “pit-see” I heard so often at Busey Woods right in our OWN yard! Willow Flycatcher
The third we had to wait all the way until 10/15 to get, it this was quite surprising indeed. Because the very common flycatcher we had not yet gotten until now was an EASTERN PHOEBE!! The wait was over for this very common breeding bird to grace our yard!
The next species seen on 5/24 was frankly one of the best we’ve EVER had in the yard: an adult male MOURNING WARBLER! Not only did this amazingly beautiful bird grace our yard, it went straight for the pond!
Here are some more beautiful species to visit out yard in the spring.
Tennessee Warbler Purple Finch , Baltimore Oriole, Gray Catbird
Broad-winged Hawk Red-breasted Nuthatch
Song Sparrow Gray-cheeked Thrush
After that, as spring migration slowed, so did new species. But there was plenty of action in the yard, as a pair of House Wrens chose to nest here!
I put up three nest boxes around the yard- a bona fide wren box with a 1” hole, a bigger box my aunt gave me that I modified, and a bluebird box I also modified. I modified them by making the 1½” opening smaller to keep out House Sparrows. I actually had to remove House Sparrow nesting material from one box!
At first the Wrens chose the small wren box. I observed them going in and out with nesting material. Then after a while that stopped and I noticed a bird just coming out of the box for a little while, before going in and staying in the box for long periods of time. So at this point, it appeared they had laid eggs in this box.
All seemed to be going well until one morning I woke up, looked outside and saw the wren box ON THE GROUND!!! I was afraid to open it in case there were eggs or young, so I just hung it back up. But the damage was done, and the wrens did not return to this box. (At the end of the season, I did look in the box and didn’t find any remains of eggs, so if a raccoon knocked down the box, they either took the eggs or there weren’t any before it was attacked.)
I was pretty bummed about this and felt somewhat responsible, since I hung it low in the willow tree where it was obviously not protected from predators.
But the wrens were tenacious, and built a new nest in the bluebird box!! I was thrilled when I saw one carrying nesting material. And watched behavior carefully after that to determine that they had eggs in this one!
Sure enough, in late August I observed the parents bringing food to the nest box, and could hear the VERY noisy young inside. Later on, they were getting big enough to peek out the box hole! And I was lucky enough to be watching the box closely on August 24th when they finally fledged! I got some shots of one fledgling sitting in the evergreen tree just outside the nest box.
This process was an amazing phenomenon to witness and I felt really lucky this pair chose to nest in our yard!
Though it wasn't a new species for the yard, it was the first time I got a great look and great photos of a Northern Parula. It really put on a show in the birdbath!
On 8/18 the drought of new yard species was ended! It seems the pond was drawing more warbler species, as a lovely BLUE-WINGED WARBLER came down to have a look! I wish I could have gotten better photos of this incredibly beautiful bird but having it come into the yard was enough of a gift!
As fall migration picked up, another very unlikely but incredible bird showed up: a HOODED WARBLER! Here’s why this bird was special on so many levels! Not only was it the first time I’d seen it in the yard, it was the only one I’d seen ALL YEAR in Champaign County! Though this bird is by no means a given in the county, it just wasn’t showing up for me in the spring. I had pretty much given up all hope of counting it for my Big Year, because it is MUCH more rare to see in the fall than the spring. But here it was, against all odds, in my OWN YARD!!
The look I got at our next new yard species was fleeting, but welcome. I was working from home and literally on the phone with a customer when a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT perched briefly in our yard! By the time I wrapped up the call and could chase after it, it was long gone. But I got excellent looks at it long enough to positively ID it! Our 20th new species in the yard was one of the best EVER!! This species prefers scrubby habitat and isn’t particularly known for showing up in urban or even suburban areas. So this quick look was a real gift!
We’ve had Common Nighthawks fly relatively close to the house, but on 9/3, one swooped so low over the yard, I could hear echo of the calls bouncing off the house! There was no way to stick my head out the window and wrench my body to see it, but I did have the presence of mind to get my phone out to record it! In that recording you can hear just how close it is!
The year 2021 brought us one more warbler species to our yard. Last year and again this year, Ovenbirds were, to my delight, very common. So when I saw a small, streaked bird walking in the leaf litter along the fence line, I assumed it was just that. However, this time, upon closer inspection, I found it to be a Northern Waterthrush! I was really excited to add another warbler species to our list!
Speaking of warblers, this year brought some milestones. I saw 4 new warbler species in the yard this year: MOWA, HOWA, NOWA and BWWA. This brought the life total to 25. I saw 23 species of warbler in the yard this year, up from last year’s total of 21.
Because we got a very, very lucky Prothonotary Warbler in the yard on the day we viewed the house (yes, before we even lived here!) on 5/2/2020, there are only so many warbler species we are still likely to see in the yard. There are of these species that frankly kind of baffle me, as to why I haven’t seen them in the yard yet: PALM, Cape May and Black-throated Blue. Palm Warbler are EVERYWHERE during migration, in great numbers, and are really not picky about habitat at all! If they don’t prefer a closed-in backyard, I still don’t get why we don’t get them pumping their tails and strutting on the front lawn! That’s a real head-scratcher, for sure! My friend Rob has had Cape May in his yard and he lives only a few blocks away. So it seems like one could show up. BTBW would be trickier, but not impossible. And as for Yellow-throated, Connecticut and Kentucky, we would have to be super lucky but, again, it could happen!
The fall continued to bring us great birds to the yard.
Brown Creeper Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The last two new species we added to the yard list in 2021 were both raptors. The first was a Sharp-shinned Hawk that swooped through the yard. I was going to write it off as another Cooper’s Hawk, which visit the yard often. But the shape just wasn’t right for COHA. I had just seen some Sharpies recently and had their general GISS etched in my brain. So though it was just a fleeting look, I was happy to be able to positively ID this great species for the yard list!
The look at the next new species was anything but fleeting! ON 12/7, a MERLIN perched high in the hickory tree on the edge of the yard and stayed there for a good five minutes or so. I just happened to be looking high up in the tree when I saw something land. So grateful for that good timing, because I was able to dash outside and get some decent photos, despite the weird angle. The last new yard bird of the year was a very special one!
Besides the warbler species I already mentioned, there are another couple species I feel we should see in or at least flying over the yard soon. There are Rock Pigeons that hang out just a little over a mile away! I think we could get a flyover at some point. Same with Ring-billed Gull; it would be less common but a total possibility.
We don’t get Baltimore Orioles that often, but they do show up during migration. Why an Orchard Oriole hasn’t showed up at some point is a bit of a mystery to me.
Other birds that prefer grassland habitats could be harder, like Savannah and Clay-colored Sparrow. But if we got a chat passing through, why not these species?
Of course, I have dreams of something rare coming into the yard. Eurasian Tree Sparrow or Eurasian Collared-dove would be amazing! And folks, on the rarest occasions, can get Rufous Hummingbirds if they leave their feeders up late into October and November! And a Harris’ Sparrow mixed in with White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows we get would also be a dream!
Mourning Dove says "Shazam!!"
And there you have it! The story of what happened in our yard in 2021!
Here is a link to the full list in eBird: https://ebird.org/lifelist/L11310228?time=year&year=2021
And here are some other stats:
New species seen in the yard proper in 2021: 26
Total new species in and around the yard: 29 (includes above total)
Species to use the pond to date: 53!!
Most total species in the yard day total so far: 45, 5/11/21
Other good days: 38 9/24/21 (best fall total to date)
I'll wrap all this up with a video of my FAVORITE singer of all the birds-- the Wood Thrush! I can't believe how lucky I was to have one singing in my very own yard this year! What a truly amazing year it has been!