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.