This story originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2019 edition of The Chicago Birder, COS's bi-monthly member newsletter. For more information about this, other membership benefits, and ways your support makes our work possible, take a look at our membership page.

By Bob Dolgan

It’s early on a Monday morning in February, and I’m stuck in a patch of brambles. Literally. I’d just ventured off the trail in a suburban forest preserve, Paul Douglas, as part of an Audubon Climate Watch survey. The goal was to find as many nuthatches as I could in a big swath northwest of Chicago. Now I’m stuck.

My predicament began when I tried to reach a patch of woods that looked like favorable nuthatch habitat. I took a turn off the trail and headed for a narrow gap in the brush. Before I knew it, inch-long thorns had sunk into my jacket, my pants and even my hat.


It wasn’t exactly the grizzly bear attack from “The Revenant,” but on this wintry day it was perhaps my most dramatic entanglement with nature.

Ironically enough I had just stepped away from a spot where I located and identified my first two nuthatches of the day. Walking between two ponds in the snowy woods, I thought I heard a single, nasally nuthatch call note. I paused for a moment to listen and look. I soon spotted a white-breasted nuthatch in the crook of a small tree. The location went on to be productive and yielded a number of woodland birds, including another nuthatch.


The visit was part of National Audubon Society’s Climate Watch, an innovative community-science program that enlists volunteer birders across North America to count certain bluebirds and nuthatches in the same place (or places) twice each year. Participants help track whether birds are moving in accordance with projections from Audubon’s climate models. The information helps Audubon target its conservation work to protect birds.

The goal on this day was to reach a total of 12 potential nuthatch locations in accordance with Climate Watch’s scientific protocol.

I took a look at a satellite image showing a big section of woods in a trail-less section of the preserve—a good potential spot for nuthatches. Through the brush, I saw a little clearing with the rusty metal remnants of what might have been an old campsite. It was an ideal spot for one of my 12 counts. A few minutes later, though, I was snagged.

As appealing as the clearing was, I decided to back out of the thicket and accept defeat. I trekked across a frozen grassland with ease, toward another patch of woods. There wasn’t much avian life there, though I did see two coyotes and a fox squirrel.

A few miles away, at Carl Hansen Woods, I heard two more nuthatches and spotted our three most common woodpecker species. The trail was icy, but it was wide and mercifully clear of prickly vegetation.


All told, I had 24 individuals across eight species for the morning. Not bad by February standards. Even after my run-in with the brambles.

Learn more about Climate Watch here: