Month: January 2018

The Sad Tale of the Slaty-backed Gull… And Three Stupendous Surprises!


So, I went on a brief trip up to Chicagoland over January 8-11.  At the time, a rare Siberian gull, the Slaty-backed Gull, had appeared in southern Chicago, in the Calumet area.  I figured I’d start out my year with a rare bird, so I decided to look for it with some friends; Kyle, Lucas and Oliver.  Lucas and Oliver share a blog, linked here.


We started out at Turning Basin #3 on Monday.  Immediately, we spotted a dark-backed gull that appeared to be the Slaty-backed Gull, directly in front of us on the ice.  It was roughly the same size as the nearby Herring Gulls, had pink legs, dark streaking around the eye, and what appeared to be the correct back color to our inexperienced-in-Slaty-backed eyes.   Some banded Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) were also present:


Happy that we’d seen the gull, and unaware of the looming catastrophe, we blissfully left the spot, pictured below, after finding a Glaucous Gull for Lucas.   This area, the Calumet River area, smells nasty, is full of industrial buildings, and is basically the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, but with more gulls and ice, and fewer wraiths and ghosts.


Next we visited a Monk Parakeet colony, but due to the cold weather the birds hid inside their nests, only flushing briefly when a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipter cooperii) showed up.  Yes, I said Parakeet. There are wild parrots in Chicago.  Having escaped from captivity, Monk Parakeets began to colonize Hyde Park in downtown Chicago in the 1970s.  They reside throughout the area in several colonies, including this one under the Chicago Skyway.  And they were lifer birds for me, so I was happy to see them, albeit briefly and unphotographed.


From there, we moved to the Lake Michigan shoreline.  The ice was so blue behind the breakwater, and we watched mergansers fly low over it.


The waves lapping against the shoreline covered the breakwaters and pilings with ice.  As a freshwater lake, Lake Michigan can freeze over, and the sides of it do.


In the lake itself is an endless supply of mergansers- especially Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), of which this is a female:


Suprisingly, on the day we visited, Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) like this male were… well, more common!  We spotted a Snowy Owl on the breakwater, and I didn’t get photos of it because it was too far out.


However, we were at this area, Park 566, for a certain winter finch.  Here’s Lucas spotting the finches we were after with a scope:


Those finches were Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), little red-capped birds of the Arctic that consider the Chicago lakefront an adequate winter home.  They were stupendous birds #1:


They’re both shy and cute, which is an impossible combination to resist:


We said goodbye to Lucas and Oliver at this point, and continued on into Indiana.  Oliver sent his pics of our “Slaty-backed Gull” to a gull expert.  This is where things suddenly went wrong.


Oliver began texting me that people online said we hadn’t seen the gull, and after a bit of arguing, Kyle and realized we hadn’t. Here’s the problems with that gull, in terms of it being Slaty-backed:

  • The mantle is too dark
  • The bird shows large white wingspots, not a “string-of-pearls”.
  • The black on the wingtips is too large
  • The bill is too large
  • Not enough streaking around the eyes
  • Not enough streaking around the head
  • Build is too thick
  • Legs are not bright pink enough

These points all  make this a Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), or GBBG, albeit a runty one.  Ordinary, a GBBG should be noticeably larger than a Herring Gull, and this one wasn’t.


So, we went back to Turning Basin #3.  One unusual dark-backed gull, streaky-headed gull with pink legs caught our attention… We never did ID that bird as a species, but I have my suspicions, and they are not that it was a Slaty-backed… more on that later.


An adult Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) at the same spot was a welcome find.  These are the second largest gull species in the world:


The following day we went to Fermilab.  A friend of mine, Glenn, the man who actually put Kyle and I in contact with each other, is the bird monitor at Fermilab and has access to bring himself and guests behind some of the restricted areas at Fermilab, had invited us to visit. So we did.

We got to see the main particle accelerator ring (and no, none of us gained superpowers, unlike the television show The Flash).  This water-cooled ring has open water because the heat of the accelerator keeps the temperature of the water from freezing, and ducks like this stunning male Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) were swimming about on top, taking advantage.


One of the better finds was a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) in one of the cooling rings:


The five Coyotes (Canis latrans) were also a good find!  This one watched us from the middle of  frozen Lake Law.  It’s unfortunate the lake was frozen over, as it’s held a wide variety of rarities over the years.  More details at the link here.  We checked the edges for Northern Shrikes- no luck!  Even checking reliable spots didn’t turn up any shrikes.  The fog was intense- perhaps they were hiding just out of view?


Crawling along the snow was a winter-adapted insect, the Snow Scorpionfly, pictured.  I have no idea what species it is.  We thought it was odd.  The fog began to let up, and we decided to have one last look for the Northern Shrike, my nemesis bird of the last year and a half.


Sitting far off, on top of a tree… Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis)!  The GREAT SHRIKE HUNT is ended!  I’ve seen both North American shrikes… unless I want to get even more crazy and try to see ALL shrike species in the world…. which is tempting…and probably a really dumb idea…


We watched as the bird finished eating one animal and then unsucessfully attempted to catch another. Shrikes are known for impaling prey they catch on thorns, to save it for later.  A friend of mine actually found the body of a shrike that had been impaled by another shrike, recently.  Shrikes like this Northern Shrike are awesome.


After this, I tried Portillo’s for the first time.  That is a spectacular hot dog place.  Full of excitement, and bolstered by a report of the Slaty-backed Gull, we returned to look for it, spotting a Peregrine Falcon on the drive back.  When we got to the spot- nothing! – except this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), which was a bit of a surprise for northern Illinois in January:


We watched as the tugboat pushed ice out of the way, scaring up gulls as it chugged along:


The following morning at 10:00 AM, someone found the Slaty-backed Gull.  I was at the same  spot at 11:10 AM.  When I arrived within a minute someone had pointed out what they said and what looked to me like a Slaty-backed Gull.  It flew off downriver, unphotographed.  The birder who pointed this out to me showed me a photo that appeared to be the bird I wanted to see, containing all of the features I’d listed above- pink legs, “string-of-pearls”, “black eye”, the whole kit and caboodle.  He reported this to Ebird and it was confirmed.

I assumed I’d seen it and could go home happy.  About ten minutes later a similar gull flew in, landed briefly on the ice, and then flew downriver.  We all rejoiced that we’d seen the “Slaty-backed Gull” again, and gotten better photos.  Yet fate had another cruel trick to play:


In truth, this is the well-known “Gull Nasty”, and it’s a Chandeleur Gull, which is a fancy way of saying a hybrid of a Herring and a Kelp Gull (Larus argentatus x dominicanus). Herring Gulls are commonplace in this region, if not so downstate.  Kelp Gulls, native to South America, are significantly less so.  Actually, a pure-bred Kelp Gull has never been seen anywhere in Illinois, though they did live on some Louisiana islands for a bit last century and one did show up just over the border in Hammond, Indiana in 1996. This hybrid, usually dwelling in Indiana, decided to come along and mess with us.  It is probably the most similar bird to a Slaty-backed Gull that we could have POSSIBLY seen.  That’s not annoying at all!

Shortly after this, we all mistook a runty Great Black-backed Gull (probably the same one from before) as the same Slaty-backed Gull, having come from left to right just like “Gull Nasty”.  At this point, I’m not even sure if I saw the correct gull the first time.  It looked like it to me, more than the other two, but without a photo I can’t be sure.  The uncertainty’s worse than missing it entirely.  I’ve gotten to the point that when I finally find a 100% for certain Slaty-backed Gull, I will yell profanities at it in significant quantity.  I’ll start out by darning it to heck, and go from there.


I returned to Sangamon County, IL, full of brooding and discontent over the end of my Chicago trip, the return of school, and the disappointment of the Slaty-backed Gull.  About this time, rumors came from the west of a great white owl in a field.  I set off in quest.


A Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) was less unexpected, but still a joy to see. This bird is only present in Illinois in the winters, flying back to Arctic cliffs to nest each year.


It has feathered legs- hence, “Rough-legged”.  I stopped to watch it land in a field, and to see what was ultimately a plastic bag.  That’s when I spotted it… an apparition in the field far behind:




I was told in Cub Scouts “When you can’t sing good, sing loud.”  So, by the same principles, when you have no good photos, post lots of them. Besides, before Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) showed up there’d been no records of a Snowy Owl in Sangamon County since 2004.  I got to show this bird off to my parents (from a safe distance, of course).  It’s so nice to finally find a bird I’ve been looking for in Sangamon County for a VERY long time.  This was the last and best of the stupendous finds, and it got me out of my funk.


A Long-tailed Duck (that dove before I could get my camera out and on it) was the best bird following this one, and I saw it on Lake Springfield.  I guess this is all to say I had a fun winter break… I’m back in Southern IL now, doing my County Big Year that I’ve talked about.  To track my progress, you can see what bird names are bolded on this list, linked here.  The unbolded ones are species I’m hoping to find.  I do a daily post about what I see on my County Big Year on Facebook, at this link here.

Thanks to Glenn, Oliver, Lucas and especially Kyle for showing me around Fermilab and a few areas in Chicagoland!  I say especially Kyle because he did most of the driving.

Christmas Bird Count 2017! (And The END OF 2017)

Tis the Christmas season, and for bird obsessives that means Christmas Bird Counts.  Over a hundred years ago, people used to go on Christmas hunts, and some conservation-minded people decided to instead count the birds they could find within a circle of diameter 15 miles.   This has happened for over a hundred years, and while Christmas Bird Counts have been surpassed by Ebird and other forms of data collection, they still provide a hundred-year record of species shifts and changes across certain areas in the US.

Logically, I would go to a CBC near where I live.  However, I don’t.  I instead go to the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area CBC, one of the best ones in Illinois.  With a large, shallow lake usually packed to the banks with ducks, I figured if nothing else I’d see some waterfowl.

On the way, of course, I intended to see a very special duck.  If you recall my trip to Carlyle Lake in the past, I’ve mentioned that it’s a good spot for rarities.  I think I said that.  I may not have, but at any rate, it IS a good spot for weird things, mostly birds and bad drivers, to show up.  (I’m not kidding about the bad drivers.  I think I’ve had someone pull out in front of me every single time I’ve been around Carlyle.  I’m not sure what it is about that place- perhaps it’s the same person every time in different vehicles.)


Anyway, on the way there I spotted a couple of Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus, above) and a Rough-legged Hawk, as well as a few Northern Harriers.


The latest rare bird to show up at Carlyle Lake was a Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus).  This is a bird of rocky shores and rapid rivers, not usually placid Midwestern lakes.  It was up against a breakwater, with some small waves, so it wasn’t completely out of place.


Twas a cute little duck, and not very shy. The male Harlequin Duck (link here) is all dressed up in orange, blue, and white- it’s a sight to behold.  This was a female, but still fun to see.


Many American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) also lingered on Carlyle Lake, moving south as the ice froze them out up north.  Further out, some 15,000 Snow Geese flew up, looking like a mushroom cloud of white and black as they moved further out into the lake.


Hundreds of gulls too flew about, stirred up by Bald Eagles.  Many of these are the common Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis), but a few dozen Herring Gulls, a  couple of Iceland Gulls and a Lesser Black-backed Gull hid among the flocks.


Here’s a good look at a Ring-billed Gull, a rather tame one accustomed to stealing bread from the hands of babes at a park in central Illinois.


Further down the road, a large flock of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) also held a few Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) (the two birds on the right in the photo above). These two species completed the trifecta of swans that are possible to find in Jackson County.


Unlike last year, there were more than enough volunteers, so a friend and I were assigned to Sector #5, an area of low hills and brushy thickets with mixed woods,  at least five cemeteries, a few meth labs, and some farmfields.  There’s a topographical map above, and Google Maps below:

Of course, everything froze over due to temps in the 10s Fahrenheit at night.  That’s highly unpleasant and made for a significant lack of ducks.  However, my section wasn’t badly affected by this, since it was mostly woodland.  The day started by meeting up and assigning territories from the gas station in Olive Branch at 6:30 AM- close to the center of the count circle. From there, we drove along the levees in the southern portion of the CBC, where we watched a Coyote run across the road and two Hooded Mergansers fly overhead.  Those were the only ducks we saw and could identify all day long.

We had a few dozen species driving the levee roads in the southern part of our sector, mostly sparrows, juncos and cardinals.  One of our bigger surprises was a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), black-masked brown berry-munchers:


We went up into the hills after this, where flock after flock of juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and cardinals grazed by the side of the road.  Less common birds like Hermit Thrushes, Fox Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees occasionally joined in.  Red-bellied, Downy, and Northern Flickers (woodpeckers) sat on the side of trees and flew as we passed.   Red-shouldered Hawks perched on trees at every second bend in the road.  We were up to about thirty species by the time we’d driven through Shiloh Road, including a surprise Chipping Sparrow and Oregon subspecies of Junco.  However, we had a few misses… where were the robins, the doves, the pigeons?  Bluebirds, too… those should be everywhere.  At the village of Villa Ridge we found House Sparrow.  We also learned that in the hills here “lane” indicates a private, dead-end road.

After a Pileated Woodpecker flew off a tree nearby, we’d gained four of the seven woodpeckers necessary for WOODPECKER SHUTOUT- finding all the woodpeckers usually present in Illinois.  WOODPECKER SHUTOUT is only achievable when the migratory Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius, below) is present.  My friend in the car hadn’t seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in five years.  We found five -one for each year that he’d missed them!


We may or may not have accidentally witnessed what appeared to be a drug deal just north of Mounds, Illinois, the only town on our route and one of the saddest places I’ve ever visited.  Just under half the town is below the poverty line.  Symptoms of meth were apparent, including on one of those in the suspected drug deal.  I also smelled a smell that I’ve been told is the smell of a meth lab north of town.  Southern Pulaski County (and the adjacent city of Cairo)  is one of the poorest areas in Illinois, though the northern part is somewhat better off and contains many of the Cache River sites visited by tourists.  Bypassed by the highway, forgotten by industry, and too distant from tourism sites, this area is poor and in severe need of trade.  I suspect manufacturers don’t want to settle here because of the potential for flooding from the two nearby rivers, the Ohio and Mississippi, which converge at Cairo.  Anyway, I’m here to discuss birds, not socioeconomic problems.

The gas station in town had bars over the windows, multiple locks, and a sign saying “No ski masks, scarves, or sunglasses inside.”  Evidently they’d been robbed a few times.  We got our gas and left.  On the north end of town was a cemetary with our only kinglets.  Just below it was a refinery or factory of some kind, and I decided to drive in and see if I could drive around it and find a Rock Pigeon.  We were nearly to the end of the road when “Hallelujah!”  Rock Pigeon!  That’s the only time I’m ever going to say that about those birds!

Eastern Bluebirds began to emerge as the temps climbed, and so did Turkey Vultures- lots of Turkey Vultures.  Black Vultures should also be present… where were they?

I drove the whole day, down roads marginally better than this (though, yes, I drove down this road, and it was a decision that got us our first Killdeer and some of our few Bald Eagles):


I got out to look for Wilson’s Snipe in a flowing ditch, and was startled to discover Killdeer.  We’d had one flyover Killdeer at this time, but these and another, larger flock down in the bottomlands helped to bring us to 47- the high count among all sectors on that day, if I remember correctly. Also present was a Hairy Woodpecker, the only one we found that day.  With two Red-headed Woodpeckers seen earlier in the day flying among oaks on the eastern side of our sector, that brought us to WOODPECKER SHUTOUT.


We spotted an incredibly pale hawk in a tree, and hoped it was a Snowy Owl.  This proved incorrect, but it does appear to be a pigment-deficient Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis):


A random Mourning Dove was seen while backtracking through old territory, and we found two robins by going down a dead-end road not marked as a lane. The Black Vultures still eluded us, while 36 Turkey Vultures had flown by over the course of the day.

We walked down the banks of the Cache River to the Mississippi River, spotting almost all of our Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Brown Creeper, and our only Tufted Titmouse.  We then went back and picked up Savannah Sparrows on the levee.

An hour before sunset,  I went up a road that I thought was just a lane, but it turned out to be more than that- for it brought us dark shapes huddled on a water tower- the Black Vultures we sought. Just down the road were seven Mourning Doves.


We spent our sunset time watching Snow Geese fly overhead, while Northern Harriers danced in the fields and a Red-tailed Hawk watched from a perch.  Attempts to find Short-eared Owls in a large grassy field nearby were unsuccessful, but a Barred Owl called nearby.


We looked into this Barred Owl, and saw another one only twenty feet from the roadside.  Playing owl calls provoked a response from three Eastern Screech-Owls and another Barred Owl.  We ended the day with 57 species, as you can see in the checklist below.  Our biggest misses were waterfowl- our CBC as a whole got most of the expected species, but it was a struggle and a few species were represented by only one individual.  Our rarest species in our sector were the Chipping Sparrow, the Oregon Junco, and the pigment-troubled Red-tailed Hawk, and the three rarest species found on the CBC were an Indigo Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Sandhill Crane.  The first two are quite frankly ridiculous- they should be well south of us by now!

We had dinner at a local greasy spoon, and since I’m back in central IL over winter break it was a long drive back home for me, broken up over two days.


I did a little more birding New Year’s Eve, and found a lifer Glaucous Gull on Lake Springfield (above and below) as my last species (#304 for the year), though I don’t have photos of it.  I’m happy with 2017- over 100 lifer birds, many of them unusual, rare, and unexpected, several lifer snakes and I survived living on my own for four months.  That last one is the most impressive, even though everyone does it at some point.  As the sun has set on 2017, I look forwards to 2018 (five days in and I’ve seen 56 species so far!)


Full list of birds seen on Christmas Bird Count: