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Good Natured: Different birds of a feather flock to Hickory Knolls

Screech owls prefer to roost in spots like tree cavities, which offer protection from the elements. Birders need sharp eyes, and a little luck, to spot these beautiful birds.
Screech owls prefer to roost in spots like tree cavities, which offer protection from the elements. Birders need sharp eyes, and a little luck, to spot these beautiful birds.

When we lead a nature program on the Hickory Knolls grounds, some things are a given. We know we’ll have trees and nonwoody plants, fungi, lichen and cool rocks to look at. But as far as wildlife encounters go, we’re reliant on just a little bit of skill and a whole lot of luck.

The other day we were fortunate to have both. In fact, it was almost like we won the lotto.

On that particular Saturday we were hosting a Winter Bird Count for Kids. Kane County Audubon Society’s Tim Balassie joined us for a neat introduction into the world of bird observation and survey. Wild Rose School’s Laura McKinsey came along, too, as many of the kids registered for the program were part of her popular Woods Club.

The one little wild card that day was the fact that Hickory Knolls also was the site for a local running club’s 5K trail run. Complete with an air horn start and 150 brightly clad runners.

With that sort of traffic in the park at the same time as the bird walk, we really didn’t know what we’d find. But thanks to Tim’s expert instruction and the sharp eyes of our young birders, we saw 13 species of birds, two of which were a complete and total surprise.

Near the building we’d recorded northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows and mourning doves – beautiful birds and exactly what you’d expect with an array of full birdfeeders nearby.

We heard the calls of a red-bellied woodpecker, a tufted titmouse and a blue jay and heard and saw several flocks – 128 individuals – of Canada geese. Three of the seven crows that visit Hickory daily stopped by too and played a little game of keepaway with a piece of bread near the garden plots.

Mom and Pop red-tailed hawk, longtime residents of the Hickory Knolls Natural Area, watched from their usual perches high up in an oak tree as our little group made its way along the Boys Home Road behind the nature center. We were making our way toward another, smaller hawk Tim had spotted earlier when one of the kids – a sharp-eyed girl named Morgan – said, “I see an owl!”

Now, we’ve led hundreds of kids on dozens of walks over the past few years, and more often than not, one of them sees an owl. But also more often than not, the object turns out to be a clump of leaves, a knob on a branch, once even a plastic bag snagged on a high-up branch.

But this time, by golly, there was an owl in a tree. A gorgeous eastern screech owl, hunkered in a bur oak, in the recesses of a shallow cavity where a branch had broken off.

Holding itself stock still, the bird was trying its best to be invisible. But thanks to the bright morning sun reflecting off the white feathers on its breast, we were able to make out its form among the nooks and crannies of the cavity.

I can’t tell you the last time we saw a screech owl at Hickory Knolls. Between the development that’s occurred in and around the park, as well as the pair of great horned owls that have taken up residence nearby, I would say it’s been at least five years. I’d really begun to think they were gone for good. But this little guy gave us hope that the birds persist here. Talk about a lucky find!

After much ooh-ing and aah-ing, it was time to move on. We needed to check out the small hawk before the race began.

Here’s the part where I have to restate a confession I’ve made several times before. I’m not a very good birder. I did eventually manage to focus my binoculars on the screech owl, but only because Morgan pointed it out to me and the bird was sitting there motionless.

The hawk we were headed toward was a different story. I think I asked Mrs. McKinsey where it was three different times before finally spotting it, perched near the end of a branch. Meanwhile, Tim was using his skills to ID the species. From a distance he had thought Cooper’s hawk, but as we got closer, he analyzed the bird’s traits: small and compact with a rounded head and a long, squared-off tail. Not a Cooper’s, but rather its more petite cousin, the sharp-shinned hawk. Lucky find No. 2!

Considered uncommon in our area in winter, sharpies do show up occasionally. But rarely on bird walks, and never, to my knowledge, during a Hickory Knolls 5K.

I really want to share more info on this unique and fascinating bird. But, like the footrace, this column has certain time and space constraints. Drat the luck!

Next week: The life and times of Accipiter striatus, the sharp-shinned hawk.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

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