Monday, June 10, 2013

Birding trips to Winnebago County and West-Central Illinois

Hi all,

I have finally graduated Junior year, and have been birding all over Illinois these past two weeks. On Thursday (June 6th), Dan Williams found a Tricolored Heron at Nygren Wetlands in Winnebago County near Rockford. This is about a two hour drive from Chicago, and I realized at about 10:30 PM that evening that I might be able to chase it the next day. After a couple of late night phone calls, I talked to Dan Williams who said he would be able to pick me up in Rockford if I was able to take a bus from O'Hare Airport in Chicago. I figured it all out and at 6:00 AM I was off to the airport. I boarded the bus at 7:00 AM and soon was off to Rockford.

I arrived at 8:40 AM, and Dan was in the parking lot, ready to get the heron. There had been no posts that morning, positive or negative, so we had hope that the heron would still be there. After the 20 minute drive to the wetlands, we got out and set up the scope. I scanned briefly with my binoculars and saw a heron that looked interesting. I put the scope on it, but it was just a Great Blue Heron. I panned the view to the right, and saw a Great Egret. Still no Tricolored Heron. But as I panned a bit more to the right, a bird flew into view. It was not a Great Blue, and as it got closer, it was the Tricolored! At the same time the bird flew into view, Dan called out that the Heron was flying left. I followed it in the scope and watched it land on a dead tree at the edge of the water. I took some distant photos, and high-fived Dan. We had only been there for a minute and had already gotten the bird!

The Tricolored Heron got progressively closer over the 30 minute period we watched it, and allowed for great photo opps. I used my iPhone and took some photos through Dan's scope, which turned out better than the ones taken with my Canon. Here are a few.

Since we thought this heron would take a while to find, we ended up with time to bird other areas. I asked Dan if we could look for a Cerulean Warbler at Rock Cut State Park, and he said we could give it a shot. We drove over there, and about 15 minutes after some searching, we had one fly in close over our heads and sing softly. I got some really bad photos of it, but this was a great bird for those of us from Northern Illinois.

After the Cerulean, we had a little more time to poke around, and I was curious if the Mississippi Kites were still around the Bloom School. We drove over to that area, and Dan showed me a favored perch of the Kites, but there was no bird in that tree. As we arrived at the school, one was perched in the top of a tree, and I looked at Dan and said, "All the targets, 1, 2, 3!" It was a fantastic morning, and we had gotten all of the targets planned for the day.

Dan had to drop me off at his home with Barbara (Dan's wife) and I stayed and chatted with her about their trip to Japan. Afterwards, we decided to check the trail camera they have placed on their property. While walking over, we heard an Acadian Flycatcher call near the trail and I wandered over to the area it was in. I was able to get a nice look at it in the open. Dan and Barbara think they are nesting there, and I did see the bird with food. We never did see the bird visit a nest but Barbara said she would check back soon and try and find it.

Dan soon picked me up, and I made the 1:10 bus back to the city, and made my drivers ed class with plenty of time for some BBQ from Smoque BBQ on Pulaski, south of Irving Park Rd.

Before the Heron trip, I had been in contact with my friend Andy Sigler about possibly doing a trip to Central Illinois. I really wanted to pick up the birds that were found on the IOS Spring Birding Weekend trip that I couldn't go on during Memorial Day weekend, as lots of them would be state birds. It looked like we could go on the 7th and 8th of June, and I finalized the plans with him the night of the 6th.

We left Chicago on the 7th at about 3:00 PM which was a horrible plan, as we got stuck in horrible traffic. We arrived in Jacksonville (Morgan County) at about 8:30 PM, and quickly checked into our motel. Not staying long, we made the 30 minute drive out to Brown County where Andy knew of a Chuck-will's-widow that was on territory. Andy only counts seen birds, and even though he had heard this Chuck multiple times, he wanted to see it for his list.

We got to the area, and while driving down the small road, we saw some eyeshine bouncing back to us from the headlights. It did not register fast enough, and we soon flushed a bird from the side of the road. Andy said outloud, "That was a Whip. Too small for a Chuck." By Whip, he meant Whip-poor-will, a bird in the Goatsucker family. This was a long overdue life bird for me, and we soon backed up to about where it had flown and opened the windows. I stuck my head out of the window, and I immediately heard the song of the Whip-poor-will. Finally! ABA bird 511, Illinois bird 316.

As we continued driving, we got to the spot the Chuck had been heard two weeks ago. There was no moon in the sky and it was a bit late, but we eventually heard the Chuck-will's-widow calling. Even though I only heard it, it was ABA bird 512 and Illinois bird 317 for me. I took a few recordings of the bird calling, but we never could see it (which made Andy unhappy as he had heard this bird now at least twice and still couldn't count it). The bird continuously called for about 20 minutes before we finally gave up.

We got to the motel at about 11:00 PM, a very reasonable hour in the sense that we were birding at night! As I got into the room, I could hear a Common Nighthawk calling, the third and final Goatsucker in Illinois left to get that night.

The next day was an early start, as we wanted to head out at 5:00 AM for enough time. After a quick breakfast at McDonald's, we were moving and got to a place commonly referred to as Toe Head Road Marsh. This area in the previous weeks and months was amazing for waders, as it held White-faced Ibis, Avocet, Hudsonian Godwit, both Dowitchers, and much more. This visit did not have much, although Black-necked Stilts are always a treat to see. While here, we also had a Black Tern and three Black-crowned Night-Herons. For the county listers out there, we birded along the Cass/Morgan County line, and I was able to get both Grasshopper and Henslow's Sparrows in Cass County and Grasshopper in Morgan.

We had to get a move on, as it was almost 6:45 by the time we headed out, and we had to get to Siloam Springs State Park. We made it at around 7:00 and birded the Brown County side (the park straddles Brown county to the east and Adams County on the west). We were able to get a Summer Tanager to come in, a year bird for me, and had a Pileated Woodpecker fly point blank in front of the car.

Moving into the Adams County side of the park, we got to the visitors parking lot where we got out and began looking for Bewick's Wrens. To my knowledge, these wrens are the furthest eastern nesting pair of Bewick's Wrens in the world, as they have nearly been extirpated from areas east of the Mississippi River (there even used to be an Appalachian population). The wrens have been seen most frequently in an area with tractors, sheds, and lots of scrubby habitat. We walked over and immediatly flushed a bird. I could tell it was a wren, and after a few fleeting glimpses, I determined it was the Bewick's. But I was not happy, and after it flew into cover, I never saw it again. Another issue I was having was that in the park, some type of fly had just hatched all over the place. At many times in the morning, I had over 100 flies around my head. So while waiting for the Bewick's, I could not stand still, as I had to swat my head ever second or so. It was not pleasant nor a good way to behave while trying to birdwatch.

We interspersedly heard the Bewick's call from back where we had started and Andy suggested we walk back into the forest from the main road access, and see what we could find. We heard the Bewick's singing, and ended up getting good looks of what we figured out was four birds (two adults and two fledged birds). I got some horrible photos, and hope to come back next year earlier and see them a lot better. Bewick's Wren was Illinois bird 318 for me.

Andy knew the park well, and took me to another nearby spot for Worm-eating Warbler. We heard one singing, and it ended up coming in right above to have a look. The bird came nearly to eye level, and I would have gotten some nice photos had I not had a massive cloud of flies bugging the heck out of me.

From Siloam Springs, we went east, eventually to Menard County to chase the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks seen last on June 6th. On the way, we passed through Cass County, and stopped at the Beardstown Marsh. Here, we were able to get a Least Bittern that was calling, yet would not show itself for us. We also found Common Gallinule here, and got a nice look at two birds swimming about. Also present was a Pied-billed Grebe.

Upon arriving at Country Lake Estates in Menard County, we could not find the Whistling-Ducks we were looking for. Keith McMullen and Dan Kassebaum also looked later in the day and had the same luck. I think all of us believe the birds are in the area, you just have to get there at the right time and they have to be sitting there. The only good bird there was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher which was a county bird for Andy.

We left the Estates at 12:30 and moved onto Mason County for Western Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. The Kingbird would be a state bird for me, and the Scissor-tailed a year bird. We got there at around 1:30, and had the Scissor-tailed right as we drove up. The Kingbird took some work, but it eventually came closer to us for an investigation. We only had one Kingbird, but there have been up to four reported at one time here. What was confusing to us was that this Western Kingbird was interacting with the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and both were coming in to investigate the Western Kingbirds call on the tape. Both Andy and I were curious if they might hybridize, but recent reports have sightings of two Kingbirds building a nest with the Scissor-tailed acting hostile towards them. The Western Kingbird was State bird 319 for me.

After looking at the Flycatchers, we drove over the river into Fulton County and went to Thompson Lake to look for any good water birds that were present. We put ourselves through the pain of trying to find the previously reported Arctic Tern. We had no luck with the Arctic Tern but did see both Forester's and Black Terns, and I also got an American White Pelican for my year list. While on the platform, I also took some time to photograph the nesting Cliff Swallows:

After our time on the platform, we had three Common Gallinules in the marsh next to the viewing platform and had a superbly cooperative Marsh Wren. As we drove north out from the lake, we stopped and got a Yellow-breasted Chat and Orchard Oriole. We had to head back north after this stop, as it was around 3:30 and I had to be home by 8:00 PM.

We began the long drive home, but as we passed through McLean County, I floated around the idea of looking for the Upland Sandpipers that nest near the interstate. Andy said we could look for them, but it would have to be quick. They breed near the M&M Sod Farm just north of Towanda and south of Lexington. We drove to the location and as we got there, we noticed a Killdeer flying along. I looked to our left as we drove in, and asked if the bird I was looking at was as well a Killdeer. Andy called out Upland Sandpiper and as it flew in front of us, I could identify it as well. I snapped a few photos through the windshield, and the bird landed way out in the field. We drove along the edge of the field, and eventually two Uplands flew over near the road and we were able to get amazing looks at two Uplands from only about 20 feet away.

The Uplands were a great end to a fantastic trip. I got two life birds, four state birds, and 14 year birds on this trip. Andy got about one new bird in each county we visited, which is remarkable as he lives so far away. I also was able to build my county lists and visit a part of Illinois I never had been to or seen before. Hopefully I'll get back to these areas again soon, preferably when there are fewer flies. Until then, I will be working at the Field Museum for most of the summer in the bird department.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Montrose Montrose Montrose 4/28/13-5/4/13

Hi all,

I apologize for not updating this blog in a while, but I hope to get back in the hang of posting here. This spring has been awesome for birding so far, as it has delivered a lot of amazing birds already and it's only May 4th! I am going to cover my last week of birding, but have had an incredible year so far.

April 28th

I was planning on birding with Josh Engel and Nick Block to try and find some Cook County birds for my list. As Josh was coming to pick me up, I read my email and saw a post on IBET that there was a Smith's Longspur at Montrose and the relocation process was underway. I quickly called Josh to see if we could abort our trip to Bartel for the morning and make it to Montrose to try for the Longspur. He agreed and I called Nick to alert him about the bird. Nick and I needed this bird for Cook County, so he changed his plan and was on his way as well. Josh and I got there in about 15 minutes and walked straight for the beach. As we arrived, I could see Matthew Cvetas and Fran Morel looking into the grass contently. I quietly ask Matthew if they had the bird and he waved us over. In plain view was an adult Smith's Longspur! This was a lifer for me and an amazing bird in an epic plumage (ABA 510, IL 313, Cook County 270). At one point it picked up and flew and we noticed that there was a second bird we had missed behind it. A second Smith's Longspur! We pished hard to try to get them to land, and they came back down into the dunes. Here are a couple of photos of the Longspurs:

Josh later called me over to where he was while I was looking for the Longspurs to look at a Grasshopper Sparrow that they had found, another year bird for me.

Nick then arrived, and since I didn't know where the Longspurs were, we began looking. Not even a minute into looking, he asked me what was in the tree. I look up and there was a Smith's Longspur sitting in a tree at eye level! I was in disbelief. I took some photos and after watching the bird for about two minutes it picked up and left with the other Longspur. They flew hard to the west, and we lost them.

After Montrose, we made a stop at Northerly Island to see if we could find something like a Vesper Sparrow, which I still needed for the county. While at Northerly, Nick asked if it was too early for a Nelson's Sparrow. Josh replied that it was a bit too early for a Nelson's but not too early for a LeConte's. Not even two minutes after he said this did we flush a small bird from the grass. It landed on some rocks and looked straight at us. A LeConte's Sparrow! What a coincidence!

Moving on from Northerly, we stopped in Palos Heights to try for both the White-winged and Red Crossbills coming to a feeder at a womans house (they had been there for over a month). No luck here, but we then moved to Maple Lake to try for the Eared Grebe. After some searching, we found it on the opposite side of the lake with its head tucked in. Sweet! Cook County bird 271, the second one of the day. It never did lift its head up, but I got a diagnostic photo of it.

Overall an awesome morning of birding with two amazing birders. I got two county birds, one of which was a lifer for me!

May 1st

I saw on IBET that morning that someone had found a Piping Plover at Montrose. Since I am trying for 300 birds in Illinois this year, I needed to see this bird as only one or two come through Illinois every year that I can chase. I do not know of many inland records of Piping Plover (maybe a few at Carlyle Lake). It turned out that I was done with school at 1:25 that afternoon, and I had until 3:00 before I had to be somewhere. I called my dad to get permission to go to Montrose and be back within that window. He said ok, so all I had to do was find a ride. I called Jeff Skrentny who was with Randy Shonkweiler and learned that they were already at Montrose. I knew I could not get a ride there, but I asked if I could get a ride back to school. We meshed our schedules and I was able to then hail a cab from school. I usually would never do this, but since a Piping Plover was there to meet me, I could not waste any time! 10 minutes later, I paid my fare and walked straight to the beach. As I approached the waters edge, I scanned the algae mat and there was the Plover! This bird was an adult and in a really crisp plumage. It also had no bands, which is expected because the species is endangered. There are only around 6,100 of them left in the US, but I believe their population is increasing. Here are some photos of the beautiful bird:

May 4th

I awoke late this morning, after having had a track meet and hanging out with some friends the night before. I checked my email around 11 AM, and saw that Dave Antieau, Fran Morel, and Sean Pfautsch had found a Spotted Towhee at Montrose. This was a bird I still needed for the state, but my parents were out of the house until around 12:30 PM. I awaited their return and soon asked if I could make a quick trip to Montrose. Aaron Gyllenhaal had texted me at 1:15 that he got the Spotted Towhee and that the Willets and Dunlin found there that morning were still present. Three year birds, two hard to get (the Towhee and Willets). My Mom and I left around 1:15 and got there and made a straight trip to the beach. We walked up and got the Willets hiding out behind a piece of driftwood and the Dunlin scurrying around near them. Two year birds down! The Willets were year bird 167 and the Dunlin 168.

We did not spend too long here, as I wanted the Towhee more than anything now. As we began walking back to the Point we ran into photographers Jerry Goldner and Roger Shamley, who told us where the Towhee was. They also said that someone had seen the Hooded Warbler earlier and that they might have had a Philadelphia Vireo. My mom and I decided to try to relocate these finds on the way to the area the Towhee had been seen in, and we were able to find and get drop dead amazing views of the male Hooded Warbler. I have only seen one other Hooded Warbler before this one, so this was especially awesome for me. It was year bird 169 for me:

Though we didn't find the Vireo, the Hooded Warbler was a nice consolidation prize. We then proceeded to the area the Towhee was in, and right after I began to look for it I was able to spot it "dancing" on the leaf litter, trying to uncover some bugs to eat. I got some amazing views and at points was only about 10 feet from it. This was IL bird 314, Cook county bird 272, and year bird 170.

After the Towhee we birded a bit near the "clump" trying to find some other year birds and found a Baltimore Oriole (171), Swainson's Thrush (172), and Rose-breasted Grosbeak (173). Quite a day for birding, and I even got to sleep in!

Overall, this past week has been amazing for birding, and I hope it only gets better. Even though my year list is not that high, the birds have been awesome and I hope in the next couple of weeks it only gets better. Here's to a great migration!