Month: December 2017

Top Ten Birds, Herps, Plants, Trips, and Photos of 2017

I did several top tens as separate blogposts last year. This year I’m going to restrict it to one somewhat longer post.  Let’s get into it, and start off with birds!  (Caution, Snakes at end)


Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

I do have three honorable mentions, a lost Cinnamon Teal (Illinois),  two American Dippers (Colorado), and one Hurricane Irma-blown Sooty Tern (Kentucky).


#10 Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)-  I saw these both in Illinois and in Colorado this year.  The Illinois one was on an extremely fun trip, and I’m hoping to get a couple more this winter.

Whooping Crane #2

#9 Whooping Crane (Grus americana), southern IL -Easily the rarest worldwide of the birds I saw this year (with 600 or so in the wild), the Whooper is North America’s tallest bird.


#8 Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), CO- It’s a Burrowing Owl.  Need I say more?


#7 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), IL, KS- Not only is it a bird with an insanely long tail, I saw several over the course of the year.

#6 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (no photo), IL – Sure, I didn’t get photos, but I set a county record when they flew over my apartment in Jackson County.  What better way to see  new birds?

#5 Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), IL (photo by Colin Dobson, computer destroyed quality) -A Eurasian gull that often wanders to the Northeast, this was my first mega rarity of the year, and a fun one to find.  Unfortunately I have no photo, so I borrowed this one.


#4 Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) central IL- The second of the two Eurasian wanderers, this one is a little more in doubt (though I’m 99% sure it’s wild).  If accepted, it will be the state’s first or second official record (though there’s plenty of unofficial records).


#3 Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis), western KY- This bird is the rarest- it’s supposed to migrate from Siberia to Australia twice yearly, and how it ended up in a flooded cornfield in western Kentucky no one knows. It did- on Eclipse Day- and I chased it at 7:00 AM.  It is probably the best bird I’ve seen this year, easily a first state record (of any kind) for Kentucky, but it isn’t my favorite, because there’s two birds just a little higher on the scale…


#2 Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), KY/TN/IL- I’ve spent so much time looking for these, that in November I drove 7 hours round-trip to see a few in far southwestern Kentucky/far northwestern Tennessee.  This one posed ten feet from my car.  And then, driving back home in December- a Loggerhead Shrike flies across the highway in southern Illinois.  Shrikes are unusual, rare, and charismatic birds with the tendency to impale other, smaller animals on thorns.


#1 Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) MO/IL – My 300th US bird of the year (debatably- I’m not sure when I first saw Broad-winged Hawks) and my 100th or 101st lifer of the year (again, Broad-winged Hawk- I probably saw them in September 2015, but I can’t say for sure.)  The timing- just after finals- couldn’t have been better!  I then went on to find one in IL.

Top Ten Lifer Plants


#10 Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), central IL- It’s pretty.


#9  Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera), southern IL- It’s an orchid.


#8  Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii ), CO –  Other than two following plants, this was the most interesting plant I found in Colorado.  It looked like something someone might grow in a garden, instead of on a talus slope in the Rocky Mountains.


#7 Silvery Bladderpod (Lesquerella ludoviciana),central IL-  It only grows on one sand dune in Illinois, which I checked a couple of times until I found it in bloom.


#6 Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda)(IL state champion tree), southern IL- This is the biggest tree I’ve seen this year.  It’s absolutely massive, which you can see with my hat as a comparison.


#5 Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus),central IL – Another rare plant in Illinois, this one I had the distinction of discovering exactly where it grew by using a website.  It’s at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, one of my favorite spots to visit.  That’s honestly why I put it so high on the list.


#4  Spring Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), Missouri Ozarks- This is an orchid that steals nutrients from fungi. It was a somewhat unexpected find in the Ozarks.


#3 Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), CO- Even more unexpected was this orchid in Colorado, which also steals nutrients from fungi and is much prettier than its cousin.


#2 Orange-fringed Orchid (Platanthera cillaris), northern IL – The most beautiful and rare plant I’ve found in Illinois this year, the Orange-fringed Orchid grows in a spot guarded by giant mosquitoes and hidden from the world.  In that spot, there are thousands.  It was fascinating, and I got to see it with the Fenelon, one of my close friends.  That’s not easy to top… is it?


#1 Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis), CO  Evidently it is.  I got to see this with my family.  One of the most unexpected finds of the year, this unusual, somewhat rare orchid is widely praised in nearly every guide to orchids. Much of this praise is for the rarer Eastern form, but the Western form, while less rare, is still the best plant of 2017 for me.

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

#10 Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge/Four Corners, May 31… I almost put the trip with the Illinois Golden Eagle in southwestern central Illinois on as #10, but this trip, also with V.S., had a lot of unexpected species.  I went for Red-necked Phalaropes, an oceanic vagrant, and ended up finding a state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoo.  It got me over 200 species-wise for the year.

#9 Southern IL/Riverlands, November 11- On this trip I saw my first Red-throated Loon and had a blast birding all day with Chris Smaga and Kyle Wiktor.  I’ve been to Riverlands three times between November 11 and December 15.  The last trip got me the Snowy Owl, but the first trip was probably the most fun, even if the first half of that trip was an unsuccessful Greater Prairie-Chicken search.

#8 Snake Road, September 15- This is the trip where I found the Mud Snake.

#7 Southern IL, August 17-20- When I first moved down to Southern Illinois, I got to see so many unusual plants, animals, and natural areas in that first weekend, culminating in my trip to see the Red-necked Stint and the eclipse.  It’s unforgettable- and it was really hot!

#6  Three Weekend Days in Emiquon, April 10, 16, and 23- One of these was with the Lincoln Land  Environmental Club, one was with Mom, and one was by myself.  I saw a lot of unusual species on all three days, and it was interesting to see all the changes week-to-week.

#5  Lake Carlyle Pelagic Trip, September 30- I met many birders and got to see four lifer birds, as well as the most bird species I’ve ever seen in one day (88?).

#4  Kankakee Trip  with the Fenelon, August 1- Orange-fringed Orchids!  Thousand-acre prairies! Philosophical discussions in the car!  It was perfect.

#3Snake Road, October 13-14-  I saw 80 snakes over these two days.  That’s pretty awesome.  I also got to meet a LOT of herpers.

#2 Ozarks Trip, May 17-19- The Lincoln Land Environmental Club trip- that was so much fun.  We had skinks, a nesting Eastern Phoebe, and a Luna Moth on our front porch.  The ticks were a little annoying, but everything else- weather, sightings, lodging, people- couldn’t be topped… well, I guess it could, by #1…

#1 Colorado, June 5- 14- Family vacation in Colorado.  Snow-capped mountains, family, orchids, all kinds of animals (including 30 lifer birds)- I had so much fun here. I’ve had a great year.

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

Honorable Mention- the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an elusive bird and I finally got one good photo:


Inspiration Point, IL:


Western Wood-Pewee, CO:


Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:


Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:


Black-necked Stilt, IL:


Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:


Rocky Mountains, CO:


Compass Plant, IL:



————————————CAUTION, SNAKES BELOW THIS LINE!!!——————————————




Black Rat Snake, IL:


Cottonmouth, IL:


Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017


#10 Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), southeastern Missouri- This was an unexpected find on a fun trip to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (that’s not an exact location).  Since Broad-banded Watersnakes are almost certainly extirpated from Illinois, Missouri is the closest I’m going to get to seeing one locally.


#9 Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca), Snake Road, Illinois-  A State-Threatened species of treefrog in Illinois, the Bird-voiced has been a species I’ve wanted to find for a long time.


#8 Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), southern Illinois-  Another amphibian I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this salamander was even on its nest.  Bonus points to you if you find the Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) hiding in the photo.


#7 Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), Missouri – My only rare lizard of the year, this was one of the highlights of one of my Missouri trips. Overcollected for the pet trade, Eastern Collared Lizards are uncommon to find.


#6 Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri Ozarks-  This was in a parking lot, about ten minutes after we got to the location where we found it.


#5 Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), Missouri Ozarks- About fifteen minutes after finding the Eastern Hognose, this slithered across our path about three feet from my foot. Some people would freak out- I did, but exclusively from joy.


#4 Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), central Illinois- This is a snake I’ve always wanted to see, and I found it at a special spot to me, which I cannot state because collectors.  It was also up a tree, which I did not expect and which proved a photographic obstacle.


#3 Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Snake Road, Illinois- My long-standing nemesis snake decided to randomly crawl out in front of me one fine October day. 58 snakes later, that was still the best snake of the day.


#2 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), southern Illinois- I’ve managed to see three of these this year in Illinois.  The photographed one was the best of the three.


#1 Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Snake Road, Illinois- It was a slow day at Snake Road, on September 15, the day after a nice rain… Suddenly, I spot a snake crossing the road at the first marshy spot on the north end.  I figured it was a Cottonmouth… but the red was a giveaway.  This is a snake that people at Snake Road who’ve been looking for 20 years haven’t found. (Don’t judge that sentence’s verbiage too harshly.)

To #300, and Beyond! Irruptions! Let it SNOW! Random Exclamation Point!


I did it!  I saw (over) 300 bird species in North America in one year AND I saw (over) 100 lifer species in one year.  When last I posted on this blog, I was at 297 species, and that was in November.  With finals, last assignments, and other business, I’m amazed I saw as much as I did.  Let’s dive into this- a fairly long post with a LOT of  photos, some bad but of interesting birds.

I’ve mentioned before that I usually have pieces of music associated with spots I visit.  In this case, I discovered Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” shortly before doing pretty much all of this.  So that’s now associated with all this.  I’ve listened to music for about 54 days straight this year according to Spotify statistics.  Much of this is in the car driving to go see birds or go hiking.


Sunset on the Carbondale Reservoir is often quite spectacular, even when the birds aren’t.  None of my new species were seen here, but it did prove to be a good spot for a break from studying when I needed one.  I think this is the best small lake in Illinois, hands down.


In the edges of some woodlots nearby, frost flowers came after hard frost, when ice is exuded out of a plant’s stem.  While these can form on several different species of plants, the only species I saw these on was American Dittany (Cunila origanoides).


Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), one of the more interesting species I never saw back in Central Illinois, were remarkably abundant in the areas surrounding the Shawnee Hills.


A frozen pond in the middle of the river valley had about seventy Rusties drinking from the water on the surface.  It was easily the largest flock of this species I’ve ever encountered.


At the Carbondale Reservoir, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) posed for a photo atop a post.


That post was in fact holding up the lights for the baseball field.  I’ve seen Great Blue Herons this high up, but usually only when roosting.  I’m not sure what this bird was thinking!


In the woods nearby, some birds dwell that are gone from most of the rest of Illinois.  For instance, this Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) holds out still, when its kin, the other Catharus thrushes, have moved south for the winter.


Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), here holding a morning yoga session, also haven’t made it much past the Shawnee Hills in Illinois.  They like the wooded ravines here.


Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca) (of which this is now my best photo) can be found in more northern spots, but they aren’t particularly common further north.

The opposite of this was bird #298, a lifer heard-only Long-eared Owl, that I managed to scare up by playing the call alongside a friend of mine.  This species rarely vocalizes in the winter, but evidently this one did.  It was a bit south of its usual range, and a very exciting find.


Massive blackbird flocks overwinter just north of town.  These are mostly Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), with a few others mixed in.  We saw a flock of well over 50,000 blackbirds (about 95% Red-winged and Common Grackles, with a few other species mixed in).


And now it is time to consider the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), a common species of the roadside telephone pole or tree.  Most of them, like the specimen above, are Eastern Red-tailed Hawks (B. j. borealis).  Some are not.


This blurry one, for instance, is a Northern Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. abieticola).  That thick, interwoven “belly band”, the band on the edge of its tail, the dark throat and the cool dark color of its darker coloration (not a warm brown- that distinction is very important).


Here’s the back of a Northern Red-tailed Hawk.  Note how cool-toned and dark it is, and while it has a little white there’s significantly less than on the back of an Eastern.  Abieticola, the scientific subspecies name, means “dweller of the firs”- this subspecies is a Canadian migrant from the spruce-fir forest of eastern and central Canada.  It was only recognized as a separate subspecies of late, despite being fairly easy to discern from a regular Eastern (at least, to someone who knows the differences.  Trust me, it’s easier than most sandpipers.)

These two photos above and all the rest below were taken on Kaskaskia Island.  There were eight Red-tailed Hawks in one tree there.  Here’s two of them:


The one on the upper left- that’s a Northern.  The one on the right is something really weird.  At first glance, seeing the pale head, most regular birders (including me) would think  “Oh, cool!  It’s a Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk!”  Krider’s is the northern Great Plains subspecies that is extremely pale in all features, but more of an extremely light tan than pure white.  Krider’s also has a lot of white in the wings, which this bird lacked.  So, what is it?


What you are looking at in this grainy image is a light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk (B.j. harlani).  Usually, mostly-dark-with-some-white-streaks-on-the-chest and strongly-banded-on-wings-and-tail Red-tailed Hawks are called Harlan’s. However, in the northern Great Plains there exist birds like this light-morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, snow white in color and with solid almost black wings.  This is the strangest Red-tailed Hawk I’ve seen all year.


Almost as strange but far more expected was this dark morph Western Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus /alascensis ).  Note the warm brown coloration and lack of streaking on the front.  Along with the Easterns also present, there were four subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk in one tree.  I would say that might be a record for anywhere east of the Mississippi, but in fact Kaskaskia Island is one of the few small portions of Illinois WEST of the Missississippi River. Thanks to floods (which have ruined this island multiple times) the course of the river was diverted, and now the river flows south fairly straight just east of the village of Kaskaskia.


Kaskaskia Island is both a geographic oddity and a birding hotspot.  There were 18 Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in this one tree alone, and 39 on the whole island.


For some reason, other animals were scarce in the vicinity of all these Bald Eagles, excluding a few Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers.   Horned Larks, a flock of mixed blackbirds, and Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) were some of the few small birds we observed in any significant numbers, despite a decent amount of habitat:


In a “nearby” undisclosed location, we saw some Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus)  while out looking around for whatever we could find.  A couple of them posed very well!


Short-eared Owls are an Illinois state-endangered species (mostly because they are virtually killed off in this state as a breeding species).  Formerly they might have been one of our most common owls, as they breed in grasslands and winter in them also.


Where there are large tracts of grassland remaining in Illinois, it’s still possible to find Short-eared Owls in the winter, as was the case with this location.  The owls migrate down here from the northern Great Plains (sound familiar?).  Short-eared Owls fly at dawn and dusk, not nighttime, making them one of the easier owl species to see – if you know where to go!


We got to see four Short-eared Owls flying around the area that we visited, some flying within twenty feet of us as we sat in the car. Their stripey brown pattern serves as good camouflage in the grasslands where they hide out during the day.


A Barred Owl (Strix varia) was nearby on a telephone pole.

If you’ve noticed, for #298 I had no photo- it was heard only.  I did see #299, but it was not photographed either…


Species #299 was four lifer Red Crossbils, very unusual-looking finchs with an upper and lower bills that “cross”- used to extract pine nuts from pine cones.  They flew over my residence in Carbondale, and my camera was 20 feet away.  I’ve spent multiple hours looking for them in pine groves, and then they just show up flying over my apartment, where there are few pine trees… I don’t understand why they were there but it was still spectacular!  Red Crossbills are having an irruption year- there’s been far more of them in the Midwest than usual, probably due to a lack of pine nuts to eat in the boreal forests of the West and Canada from whence they come.


Back to owls for a bit… On the way out of my residence to go back home from college, I recieved a message from a friend whom keeps not finding Short-eared Owls, including the one at Riverlands, above. The message I received was not about Short-eared Owls, but a SNOWY OWL!!! at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.  That was sort of on my way home, so I shoved all my clothes in a basket and took off for Riverlands.  On the way, I spotted a Rough-legged Hawk in Jackson County (somewhat hard to do).  Just down the road in Perry County IL, a state-threatened and long-term nemesis Loggerhead Shrike flew across the road right in front of my car.  Following this up was a Northern Red-tailed Hawk.  I stopped for nothing (especially since all of the birds flew away from the road as I passed by).

I pulled into the main visitor’s parking lot at Riverlands, and I didn’t see anyone for a bit, while I read over the reports about the owl and where to go for it.  I joined up with three other birders and students who knew where the owl was, and together we joined the crowd watching it from afar… not afar enough for me to get terrible photos, but far enough that the owl wasn’t harassed or even took much notice of us.  Lifer #99 of the year, and bird species # 300 for the year:


SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)!!!  Snowy Owls are also having an irruption year.  Their life is tied to the voles of the tundra- the more voles there are in the tundra, the more Snowy Owl chicks are raised successfully and the more Snowy Owls show up in the US during the winter.


This is a young female- the amount of black on the feathers distinguishes almost-entirely-white male from the more-beautiful-thanks-to-patterning female, and more-patterned immature from less-patterned adult.  I’ve wanted to see one of these birds for awhile now.  The minimum distance to keep away from one of these owls to not disturb it is a hundred feet.  I was probably about 130 feet away, with a group, snapping many photos.  The owl didn’t seem to mind.


Snowy Owls are in fact remarkably not scared of people.  Don’t take advantage of this and get too close, but they do have a reduced fear of people.  This is in part due to their remote tundra lifestyle- our group was perhaps the first group of people this owl has seen.  As one of the top tundra predators, Snowy Owls have little to fear from other animals in their summer range.  We kept a distance, and eventually I had to leave- my detour was taking a little too much time.


Hundreds of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) (and three Tundra Swans) flew in for the night at sunset, and a couple of Short-eared Owls worked their way over the flooded fields.

The following day, I arose at 11:30 AM (extremely late for me) to the news that a Barnacle Goose had been seen in Towanda, Illinois.  A Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) is a European goose species extremely uncommon in the Midwest, and uncommonly found in the Northeast.the name Barnacle Goose comes from the Dark Ages belief that Barnacle Geese hatched from Goose Barnacles, a species of barnacle on the coast of England.  In fact, the Barnacle Goose nests on cliffs in the Arctic, and the chicks as one of their first actions have to glide down hundreds of feet to the ground below, where they join their parents.  It’s insane, and there’s a great Youtube video (with British narration!) here.  Caution, it tugs at the heartstrings a little.

So, in theory, the Barnacle Goose at Towanda survived a tumble off a high cliff, flew thousands of miles in the wrong direction, and had the luck to be found 300 feet off the exit ramp to Interstate 55.  Or it’s an escaped domestic bird (so goes the other theory, which is much less popular).  However, it  is believed enough that all three prior submitted records of Barnacle Goose,  submitted to the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee, were rejected on basis of origin.  And yes, there is a group that votes on whether or not a bird that was seen is wild or not and whether or not the bird was seen.  Quite frankly, I think this is a bit of nonsense, but it does hold weight with many birders and there is some value to having such a committee. (A fuller discussion  from one of America’s top birders, whose opinion I agree with, is linked HERE).


Here’s the pond.  Behind me when I took this photo is Interstate 55, to the south and east.  You can see the fresh Muskrat mound in the foreground (and we saw the Muskrat, too!)  This seems like an unlikely spot for a rarity, but that’s what makes it a rarity.


Here’s our Barnacle Goose, in the center, with Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on the left and a Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) on the right.  The Barnacle Goose was very shy, hid in the back of the pond, can fly, has no leg bands or clipped toes, has the correct plumage for the season, associated with wild migratory geese from Canada,  and showed up during the winter, as have all records of Barnacle Goose in IL that I’ve found online.  With all of these points of evidence, I believe that this is a wild goose and I am therefore counting it as my 101st lifer of the year… NOT 100th*.


Here, you can see some of its companions- Canada and Cackling Geese (Branta canadensis and Branta hutchinsii), with the Barnacle Goose looking head-on at us.  Cackling Geese have shorter bills, are smaller (duck-sized, virtually), make cackling noises, and are in the foreground.  Canada Geese- if you’re reading this blog, and you got this far,  you know all about those.

So, I’ve seen 302 birds this year.


Time to figure out a Top Ten List of Birds, Herps, and Trips- that’s going to be interesting…

* I had a lifer Olive-sided Flycatcher in the Ozarks in Missouri that I just discovered  in one of my old photos, so my Snowy Owl was actually  US year bird # 301 and  US year lifer #101, making Red Crossbill #300 and #100, and so on.

My Discontented List: 8 Goals for 2018, plus Goals Completed for 2017

1 . Beat the year record of 246 species for Jackson County (BIG ONE)- Canceled officially.

2.  SEE a Cerulean Warbler

3.  Find Yellow Ladies’ Slipper Orchids in bloom, any of the three species in IL.

4.  Find three of the following snakes:  Eastern Massasauga, Milk Snake, Kirtland’s Snake, Worm Snake, Fox Snake, Smooth Green Snake, Shawnee Kingsnake, Queen Snake, Flathead Snake, Coachwhip, Pygmy Rattlesnake, Plains Garter Snake, and/or Smooth Earth Snake

5.  Find five of the following birds:  Harlequin Duck, Brant, Eared Grebe,  Swallow-tailed Kite, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Barn Owl,  Yellow-crowned Night Heron, American Bittern,  Ferruginous Hawk,  Greater Prairie-chicken, Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Whimbrel, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Chuck- Will’s-Widow,  Northern Shrike, Mountain Bluebird, Smith’s Longspur, Alder Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher (IL only),  Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Cerulean Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler,  Canada Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, White-winged Crossbill, Monk Parakeet, and/or Evening Grosbeak.

6.  Visit Montrose Point- THIS WILL HAPPEN!!!

7.  Buy a complete set of Mohlenbrock’s  “Vascular Flora of Illinois” and find fifty species of plants new to me in Illinois.

8. Find three of the following amphibians:  Illinois Chorus Frog, Northern Crawfish Frog, Eastern Narrowmouth Toad,  Wood Frog, Eastern Spadefoot Toad,  Eastern Tiger Salamander, Ringed Salamander,  Mole Salamander, Blue-spotted Salamander, Four-toed Salamander, Lesser Siren, Common Mudpuppy, and/or Dusky Salamander.

Goals completed for 2017:

  1. (Find Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchids! ) NOPE.  

2. (See five of the following birds):  YEP!  Bolded birds were seen, struck-through birds are birds on my list that were not seen.  Long-tailed Duck, Golden Eagle, Mississippi Kite(either) [Least] Bittern,  Tundra Swan, Red-throated Loon,  Western Grebe, Black Scoter, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Greater Prairie-chicken,  Dunlin, WhimbrelWillet, Wilson’s Snipe, Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, Upland SandpiperBuff-breasted Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Barn Owl,  Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Snowy Owl, Nelson’s Sparrow, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, (both) Cuckoos,  (any) [Virginia] Rail,  Northern or Loggerhead ShrikeMarsh Wren, Orchard Oriole, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Cerulean WarblerKentucky Warbler, Canada WarblerYellow-throated Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Pine Siskin, (any)[Red] Crossbill, and/or Evening Grosbeak.

3. (Find two of the following reptiles:) YEP! Ornate Box Turtle, Blanding’s Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Slender Glass LizardBullsnake, Rough Green Snake, Smooth Green Snake, Western and/or Eastern Hognose SnakeMilksnake, Fox Snake, Lined Snake, Smooth Earth Snake, Coachwhip, and/or Plains Garter Snake.

4. (Find three of the following amphibians:)  YEP! Tiger Salamander, Marbled Salamander, Slimy Salamander, Silvery Salamander, Cave Salamander, Longtail Salamander, Two-lined Salamander, Spadefoot Toad, Eastern Red-backed Salamander, Narrowmouth Toad, Green Treefrog, Bird-voiced Tree Frog, Wood Frog, and/or Illinois Chorus Frog.

5. (Find a venomous snake in Illinois, of any kind.)  YEP!  Copperhead, Cottonmouth AND Timber Rattlesnake, all within about a mile or two of each other, actually.

6. (Find a Kirtland’s Snake) NOPE.

7. (Visit four new (to me) state parks and/or nature preserves) YEP!

8. (Revisit Fults Hill Prairie and find a Scorpion, [four herp species excised due to specific location] Splendid Tiger Beetle or just something that’s rare that lives there.) YEP… the beetle.

9.  (Visit Montrose Point) NOPE.

10. (Visit the Ozarks) YEP!

11. (Visit Snake Road) YEP!!!

12. (See a live, wild skunk, bear, or badger) NOPE.

13. (Find a Snowy Egret in IL) YEP!!!

14. (Find at least three of the following plants:)  YEP! Bird’s Eye Primrose, Poke Milkweed, Wild Agave, Bunchflower, (any) Turtlehead,  Kalm’s Lobelia, Obe-Wan Conobea, Lance-leaved Violet, Powdery Thalia, (either) Boltonia, Cancer Root, (any) Orobanche, Prairie Trout-Lily, (either) Ginseng, French’s Shooting Star, Showy Orchis,  Indian Pink, Snow TrilliumBird’s Foot Violet, Turk’s Cap Lily, (any) Twayblade, Pitcher’s Leather Flower, (either) Camassia,  French Grass, Violet Wood Sorrel, Missouri Coneflower, Royal Catchfly, (any) Spiranthes, (any native in Illinois) Rhododendron, Filmy Fern, Matalea, Heart-leaved Plaintain, Pink Corydalis, (any) SabatiaOzark MilkvetchBlue Hearts, Lobed Spleenwort, Walking Fern, Fameflower, (any in Illinois) clubmosses, Green Trillium, American Chestnut, Water Tupelo.

15. (Find at least one of any Platanthera orchid species)  YEP!

16. (Find at least one Coralroot Orchid) YEP!!

17. (Have fun!) YEP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Jackson County Big Year- Planning

Jackson County Big Year Map

So, for those not familiar with the “The Big Year”, a comedy starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson about three birders competing to see as many bird species as possible in the United States and Canada as possible, I’ll be doing that next year… to a significantly lesser extent.  A continental Big Year costs tens of thousands of dollars at minimum.  A county Big Year?  Well, it’ll probably won’t cost me much besides time, at least in terms of money I would already be spending.  I like getting outside anyway, and it’d be fun to get to know Jackson County, Illinois a bit better.

Jackson County consists of a wide variety of habitats, delineated by blue lines.

The northern and northeastern 1/3 of the county is a mix of plains forest, cropfields, and strip mines, as well as reclaimed strip mines.  Strip mines are perfect grassland habitat for rarer birds like Short-eared Owls and Loggerhead Shrikes, and in the summertime Dickcissels and grassland sparrows. The mysterious shrub-swamp Campbell Lake takes up the northeastern corner of Jackson County. The reclaimed strip mine territory up here is EXTREMELY underbirded, considering the species that could live in such an area.  Almost all birding in Jackson County is restricted to the central and western areas.

Target Species- Swans, Cackling Goose, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl,  Northern Bobwhite, Loggerhead Shrike, Sedge Wren,  Bell’s Vireo, Dickcissel, Henslow’s Sparrow

The plains give way to mostly-forested hills with lots of ravines in the southeastern and central part of Jackson County, including some of the best woodlands in the state.  These areas should be good for a wide variety of breeding and migrating warblers, as well as for thrushes.  Several reservoirs also exist in this area.

Target Species- Common Loon, Red-breasted Merganser (and other ducks),  Chuck-wills-widow, Red-breasted Nuthatch, warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill

Below the plains is the bottomlands along the Mississippi River, along with some forested areas,.  A small marshy patch in Oakwood Bottoms, and  the large fluddle areas throughout this region, should provide plenty of shorebird and heron habitat.  This is some of the best shorebird habitat in the region.

Target Species:  American Bittern, Sora, shorebirds, herons, Anhinga, Neotropic Cormorant,  Black Tern, Least Tern, Merlin, Lark Sparrow, LeConte’s Sparrow

January- I’ll try to get all the wintering birds, especially owls.  Riverwatching for Trumpeter/Tundra Swans is also on the books.  This also seems the most likely month for Ring-necked Pheasant, if one was to ever show up here. This will also be the time to finalize plans for the year and get advice from other birders on what to see where.  Also, this is when I plan to ask permission of the fish farm owners to visit their establishments.  Red Crossbills and Snowy Owls are in an irruption year- this will be the month to get either if I do.  Hoping to end the month with 80 species.  Side goal- find Red Crossbills in Jackson County (again).

February- Ducks migrate.  Late February is the time to search for loons and scoters on some of the more isolated lakes, particularly Kinkaid Lake and Cedar Lake.  Hoping to end the month with 100 species.  Side goal- get an unexpected gull and/or Snow Bunting

March- Between Snoring Thunder (frog trip), emerging snakes at Snake Road, and Greater Prairie-chicken lek-watching a few counties away, this month is going to be busy.  I plan to search for Woodcocks and early migrants with the little time I have remaining.  Checking backroads for the last winter species and stray Smith’s Longspur should help.  Hoping to end the month with 125 species.  Side goal- Swan species

April- Migration continues, and I get busier.  Check for American Bittern and Sora in Oakwood Bottoms- if I miss them in April, I’m out of luck for the year.  Hopefully get to 150 species.  Side goal- find a member of Rallidae that isn’t a Coot or a Sora.

May- MIGRATION! Also BUSIEST!  I have a lot of tests and work to do in this month, so I suspect there will be a lot of misses. Most of the birds to look for will be warblers, but also White-rumped Sandpipers and Godwits (if any) should be easier at this time. The goal will be 165 species by the end of the month. Side goal- get a Chestnut-sided Warbler (my warbler nemesis).

June- Clean up all the resident warblers and passerines. If no Least Terns by now, get Least Terns.   Hopefully be at 170 by the end of the month.  Side goal- see and not just hear a Cerulean Warbler.

July- Early fall shorebirds, waders -perhaps I’ll get lucky with a White Ibis or some other  Southern wader.  Hoping to break 175 this month.  Side goal- get a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

August- Target waders and shorebirds, then switch to warblers and flycatchers towards the end of the month.  Hopefully I’ll be over 180 by the end of the month.  Side goal- find 15 shorebird species

September-  Find whatever I missed in the spring warbler-wise and get as many shorebirds as possible.  Break the record of 186.  Side goal- observe five passerines I missed in the spring.

October- Hawkwatching near the bluffs for whatever comes along.  Ducks return- check them over.   Finish up warblers if I’m missing any (hopefully not- anything I get in October should be stuff I’ve seen already, insofar as warblers go).  Check for LeConte’s Sparrows at fish farms.  Side goal-if not seen by now, find a Peregrine Falcon.

November- Weird stuff shows up in November.   Find it.  Also- owls I missed.  Find them.  It’ll be a worse winter for finches and Snowy Owls than the previous winter, at least I’d expect so.  Side goal -get all three Merganser species.

December- Get whatever wintering birds I missed, and see about swans if I missed any.  Busy month, probably 1 species added at the most.  Side goal- if not done by now, find a Barn Owl.

Click on this sentence to see the list of birds I hope to find in Jackson County.