Month: February 2018

Why The Big Year Is Over

Alright, I think it’s fair to fully disclose why I stopped the Jackson County Big Year 2018 a month in. I’ve had two birders whom I respect considerably and whom have significant experience in birding Southern IL both question or received questions about my sightings of late.  I got an email from one of them:

“Just a word of caution. I’ve received several messages from birders across the state inquiring about ALL of your recent sightings. Dude, no offense, but people realize you’re fairly new to birding and finding something rare, every day or most every time you’re out, just doesn’t happen.  It doesn’t help your cause that you’ve admitted you are doing a Jackson County Big Year.   Just trying to offer you some advice. SLOW DOWN. Your list of questionable finds is growing leaps and bounds. That throws up flags in eBird but also in people’s minds.   Your best defense is get photos!  I know, sometimes that is quite difficult. But you could hush your naysayers with positive ID’s from photos you take.   I’ve had to do the same sort of thing back in my beginning days… (Trails off in an encouraging story)”.

Yeah, that was a terrifying thing to read at the beginning of the day. Birdwatching is my escapist hobby (other than writing).  If people don’t trust me… that’s not good. There’s another young birder in my state in whom no confidence is given, as he regularly reports the most unlikely birds.  It’s always been my goal to not end up like him, and today I realized how close I’m coming, in people’s minds, to ending up that way.

I’ve been doing this for two, three years.  I think that’s long enough to become overconfident in my ability to correctly identify a bird.  I’ve certainly been overconfident in my ability to correctly ID Red-tailed Hawk subspecies.  As a result, I’ve removed all records of those on eBird, except for the ones in which I have absolute confidence, witnesses, and/or photos.

I’ve made some mistakes, the most public of which was a Slaty-backed Gull retraction last month, twice, in the listserv, when I mistook two different gulls for the bird.   Back in December 2017 I also had to retract a Golden Eagle sighting, when a friend and I mistook an immature Bald Eagle for a Golden Eagle.  I’m sure neither of these retractions has helped my believability in any way.

There’s also a few records for which I have limited evidence- a recent, unusual LeConte’s Sparrow, a very early Lincoln’s Sparrow the day before the LeConte’s, a Greater Scaup a few days before that, and going back into last year, some of the more notable ones include Red Crossbills and Long-eared Owl in southern IL.  Now, I firmly believe that I saw all the aforementioned birds (or heard, in the case of the owl), but I can understand why people would doubt them.

Younger birders (those below the age of 30) are not generally trusted anyway.  That’s understandable- birdwatching is a hobby that is built on experience.  Those who are younger have less experience-even if they have sharper eyes and more acute hearing.  It’s a bit of stereotyping of which I’m not particularly fond.  That being said, I also make mistakes due to my lack of experience.  For instance, I reported a male Brewer’s Blackbird from a field with Rusty Blackbirds near one of the best spots for Rusty Blackbirds in the state (and a bad spot for Brewer’s Blackbird).  I forgot that midwinter-onwards, male Rusty Blackbirds can start to change into breeding plumage and resemble male Brewer’s Blackbirds.  (That sighting is now “blackbird sp.” on Ebird.)  I was told of this by another birder with much more experience.  Remembering when plumage changes occur is one of the thousands of little bits of information gained through experience (and extensive internet research).  While I’ve done much of the latter, I still need much of the former.

As of this writing, I was #3 on Ebird in Illinois for 2018.  I don’t know most of the people in the top 100, and they don’t know me.  I’ll be dropping ranks quickly when spring migration rolls around, but until then I’m this odd newer birder few people know up on the top.  (I’m up that high because I went from the top to the bottom of Illinois over winter break, and I’ve been out nearly every day in southern IL where there’s more wintering species than in most of the state.)

People trying to break records are also not trusted, since it’d be only too easy to lie about something in the on-your-honor system of bird records.

I tend to go birdwatching solo- this works best for me, as I don’t really have anyone to go with at present.  However, this also puts me in the position of being the only person witnessing what I see.  As a birder in my 20s, birding solo is a good way to be absolutely not trusted whatsoever.  Add to that a county big year, a few unusual sightings, and being #3 in number of species on Ebird in the state of Illinois for 2018 (so far), and you have the perfect combination for doubters.

To take the birder’s advice, I do plan to slow down.  I was tiring of the big year before all this blew up, as I like wandering around anywhere I want without regard to county lines and other political boundaries. Also, my school and work loads are only going to increase, and I won’t be able to handle trying to see every bird during migration, doing my job, and passing my classes at school at the same time.  This sudden development happening at the same time put several nails in a coffin that was already being built.

So- the steps I have taken/ plan to take.

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#1- Get more photos- I’m going to have a camera in hand more often, and get photos of more birds that I see.  It’s hard to argue with a photo. For instance, I saw a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a field in Randolph county recently.  I took a photo, and while it’s not a great photo, it shows that I saw the bird (one of my favorites, too!)

#2- End the Big Year- If I don’t have a reason to be constantly looking for new species, people might consider me more credible.

#3- Go birding with other birders- The more witnesses I have, the more trustworthy I am. Obviously these need to be witnesses with enough experience to correct me when I am wrong.  When, not if, because at some point I will be wrong.

#4- Avoid RTHA ssp.- This is a weak point for me, and I’m going to stop submitting them until I get more experience. I’ve gone back and removed a few of these, also.  I don’t think people realize this, but I do go back and remove records if I think I made a bad call after the fact.  I reported a Red-necked Grebe in December 2016 on Lake Springfield- I saw one November 2017 and realized the bird I’d seen was different enough that I couldn’t be sure of its identity.  So, I removed that record from Ebird, and from my life lists.  (Thankfully, I’ve seen Red-necked Grebes in Illinois since, albeit without a photo or witness… at least other birders saw them before and after I did!)

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#5- Publicize my correct ID’s with photos – In order to ensure that I rebuild my reputation, I need to show that I have one worthy of rebuilding.  So, any rare birds I see that I have photos of are going on Facebook.  I started this recently, with this photo of a Taiga ssp. Merlin (Falco columbarius) above. Merlins are an uncommon falcon, and I saw two of them on this day- with witnesses, to be sure, but by putting photos out, I’m directly counteracting people who think I’m making stuff up.  Here’s the other one, a less common Prairie ssp. Merlin:

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#6- Underestimate numbers of birds and use the “sp.” on Ebird-  If I’m not 100% sure of a bird, I need to put it as a vague species, like “sparrow sp.”  I do this on occasion, but not enough.  If it’s a flock of birds and the only ones I can see are X species, I tend to count them all as X species, even the ones that I didn’t look over as closely.   I also need to lower the numbers of birds I see.  I tend to count higher numbers than some people, because I have good eyes and ears and probably a bit of overconfidence in my ability to ID everything that flies my way.   However, if I lower my numbers so that they are in line with what’s expected (or even lower than that), I’ll still be reporting the birds I saw- just not all of them.  Think about it this way; there’s at least the lower number of birds that I put.  If I put a higher number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a lower number, they may believe that I overestimated the number in the first place.  If I put a lower number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a higher number, they know that I was right, plus extra.

I believe that if I do these six things for a considerable amount of time, people will trust me more.  Hopefully no more LeConte’s Sparrows come along and mess this up.  I really don’t want to find any rarities right now, for once in my life. That’s kind of a sad position to be in.

January of The Big Year!

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As I talked about last year, I’m doing a county Big Year this year…. While I run a Facebook page on the topic, I figured a recap where I can tell more long-winded adventures might be nice!  I also figured I’d save a few stories back for this blog.  Trust me, when you commit to looking for as many bird species as possible, you see strange sights and wander mysterious paths. Roads you thought were impassible as an ordinary human being become almost driveable.  Then reality nearly drives you off a cliff… more on that later.  Also, some of these I didn’t want to mention at the time, and I’ve decided to give them two week’s grace period before revealing what happened.

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My main competition is the setter of the record last year, Jim Tudor, who from what little I know appears to be a retiree with a backyard that draws all the birds I have trouble finding.  As a busy college student with no backyard and far less experience in Jackson County, I’m the underdog.  I also missed the first 13 days of January, which means that I was playing catch-up for the first two weeks.  This left very little time for blogging and other extra activities, which is why this is out in February.  I can be complacent for a week or so, but once the next big thaw happens I need to be out and after Wilson’s Snipes and other early migrants.

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Sunday, January 14- The Big Year began with half an inch of ice covering most of the backroads and ground… it wasn’t a great start. I drove down Route 127 and found 20 species. The best were probably the 8 Trumpeter Swans just off Route 127 behind a silo on the west side, south of Vergennes.  The Trumpeter Swans in this area, according to their neckbands, are banded during the summer in Wisconsin.  Another find of interest was a Barred Owl sitting by the side of the road.

That night, in a supremely idiotic move, a friend and I decided to go owling (listening for owls) at Giant City, despite the ice.  It was fine until we decided to leave…. and drove up a sheet of ice.  On one side was a slight bank and then a hill, and on the other side was a 15-foot drop off into a creek.  We slid down and hit the bank.  I tried to go forwards, and nothing happened.  I had my friend get out of the car, while I backed it down. I’d back down into the main road, go a bit, and then slide back into the ditch. This happened eight times before we  were off the slickest part of the ice.  From there I reversed down a gradual slope for 200 feet before the road was wide enough to turn around safely and drive back to the cleared highway.

All we had to show for this misadventure was one Barred Owl, and only I heard it.

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Monday, January 15- So, I was going to do a Big Day and find a ton of bird species on Martin Luther King Jr. Day… that didn’t happen, because after the previous night’s escapades that would have been very dumb.  You can see a photo of the ice above.  I went to the Carbondale Reservoir and Campus Lake instead, and added 31 species for a total of 51 for the year… I don’t think that’s too bad. The best was probably a lone Red-breasted Merganser in a small hole in the ice on the Carbondale Reservoir, though the 147 Northern Shovelers on Campus Lake in another hole in the ice were also a good find! The half-inch of ice on the ground made the passerines flock close to the roads, paths, and fruiting holly trees- which made it a lot easier for me to find them!

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Tuesday, January 16-  Today I found eight new bird species, the best of which was an American Black Duck at the Carbondale Reservoir, and two Brown Thrashers at Marberry Arboretum. The Red-shouldered Hawk at Marberry was very patient, as was the Pileated Woodpecker, so I took pictures of both. There were dozens of robins and waxwings at the holly bushes near the entrance to Evergreen Park.   While I was exploring those parks, Don Mullison found a number of duck species and a Merlin (falcon, not the second/third most famous wizard in the world) at Cedar Lake Dam.  I’d never been there, but I apparently needed to go!


So, after class, that’s where I went on Jan 17.  I hiked in about a mile to view the open water with binoculars.  This got me 13  new species, the highlight of which were two Mute Swan (rare in this county) and six duck species (Common and Hooded Merganser, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Canvasback, and Common Goldeneye).  A Great Horned Owl seen in flight at Campus Lake was also new for the year.

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On January 18 I had things to do, and I only found two new species- American Goldfinch, and Northern Pintail- on a quick stop at Campus Lake. Still, every bird counts!  Campus Lake’s Northern Shoveler bonanza continued:

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January 19-  I had one very productive hour walking around Campus Lake.  I found three new birds: Purple Finch, Fox Sparrow, and Red-headed Woodpecker (I’d now found all seven expected species of woodpecker in this county).


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January 20 was busy. I meant to spend the day entirely in Jackson County and solo, but ended up roaming through Williamson and Union Counties for extended periods with a few different friends. That being said, I did get quite a few good birds (Rusty and Brewer’s Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbird in a giant blackbird flock near Fountain Bluff, Killdeer by the side of the highway between Murphysboro and Carbondale, Field Sparrows along the northern part of the Big Muddy Levee, a Cooper’s Hawk at Campus Lake, and a random female Wood Duck at the reservoir)… and an even better find.

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I haven’t seen River Otters since May 2016. Finding a pair in the same spot as a pair of continuing rare Mute Swans (the Country Club pond, birded only from the road) was a great end to the day! (Actually it wasn’t the end, but the pathetic results of an owling attempt afterwards make it the end of the day.) Including what I saw in Williamson and Union counties, I saw 72 species in that one day- not bad for January in southern IL!


January 21- After church I went over to the reservoir to hunt down Bonaparte’s Gulls. None were forthcoming, but I did find an American Coot. I then decided to investigate Kinkaid Lake, which proved to be very foggy. I did find an Eastern Phoebe while driving over, and three Ross’s Geese flew overhead while driving away… clearly I just need to spend more time driving.  I decided to stop by the Carbondale Reservoir again, and ran into  Don Mullison there who pointed out an uncommon first-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull, alongside a large number of ducks and gulls.

Unlike many other counties in Illinois, winter gull species are only rarely found in Jackson County. On my list of rare birds I’m trying to find, Lesser Black-backed Gull is a Code 6- the rarest category. It’s never been recorded on Ebird before in this county!  I then realized I had something important to do that I’d forgotten about, so though Don found an American Wigeon I wasn’t able to find it. Still, that’s a pretty common duck and I found a few later.

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January 22 I didn’t expect to see anything, but I was wrong! I had a Pine Siskin in with a large flock of American Goldfinches feeding on sweet gum balls near my residence. I also drove north of town during a gap in my time, and I found two Eurasian Collared-doves and two Tundra Swans. (I about blew off the road getting back to town, the gusts were highly unpleasant!) The swans are quite rare, and made for my third and final swan species in this county. I’ve now seen 15 species of ducks, 3 swan species of swans, and 5 species of goose in Jackson County.  Jim Tudor caught up with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (not the same as the one from the night before).


January 23 was a struggle, for the most part, to find anything new. I went out most of the afternoon looking for Rough-legged Hawks, and I didn’t find any. I did find at least one of the abeticola subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, many Northern Harriers, many Trumpeter (and the continuing Tundra) Swans, and even four Short-eared Owls, which are new for the county big year. Those were flying over Knight Hawk strip mine, at the very last spot I checked as I was leaving northern Jackson County. I repeat- the very last spot. I was in that area for an HOUR before I found them, but the quantity sufficiently made up for the time spent!

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After this, I had a cold for three days (January 24, 25, and 26).  Jim Tudor passed me.


January 27-  I recovered on the 26th and went out with friends on the 27th, which was definitely pushing it.  Despite the remnants of my cold,  I found three new year species (Green-winged Teal, Merlin, and  Wild Turkey) and a LOT of other birds- 185 Black Vultures, two Black Ducks, all resident woodpeckers, and out of Jackson County seven Trumpeter Swans, two Winter Wrens (both seen) one Loggerhead Shrike, a pair of Merlin (county line birds are the best!) 150,000 + blackbirds, 10 Northern Harriers, and 12 Short-eared Owls (a new personal high count).

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Basically I’m a tour guide on Saturdays. I take people around Southern Illinois, show them all the pretty spots (Kinkaid Lake Spillway, Inspiration Point, etc.) point out all the wildlife, and in exchange I get paid in gas.  On this day we decided to drive down Snake Road and look for herps.  On the herp list, we found  3 Zigzag Salamanders, 7 Cave Salamanders, two Eastern Newts (pictured), 2 Spring Peepers, one Cricket Frog, three Green Frogs, one Western Ribbon Snake, and one Cottonmouth (pictured). (That’s a LOT for January in IL).

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I then went up to Pyramid State Park to show the Short-eared Owl population off.  As I drove  in, some gigantic Vermont-plated dark green Humvee slowly creeps down the middle of the road.  I moved to the right of it, and the guy rolls down his window.

“You guys got a lighter?”

Yeah, just by saying “you guys”-  he’s definitely not from Southern Illinois, and between the smell and the green end of the rolled-up blunt in his mouth, it was quite clear what he was smoking.

“No.” -from me.

It would have been “No, sorry” but I wasn’t sorry to get out of there.

“That’s BS, you all smoking back there and none of youse got a lighter.”

Just to be clear, none of us were smoking and this guy should NOT have been operating a bicycle, let alone what is very nearly a road-legal tank.  We left him alone to go see the Short-eared Owls.  I point out one at a distance, and then mentioned that “Sometimes you’ll see the harriers and the owls fight, keep your eyes out.”  Less than ten seconds later, out the left windows- Northern Harrier fighting a Short-eared Owl!

As we watch the brief fight, I look behind us, and the Humvee is rolling up.  I move over to the side to let the guy pass us, and he moves right behind me, not slowing down much.  So, I stepped on the gas and drove down the dead-end road in this section, with the Humvee driving all over the road, but never slowing down and never passing even when I gave it opportunites to do so.   I told the other guys in the car to arm themselves with whatever I could find in case this guy tries to do something, and then noticed that I was on E on the gas tank.

WONDERFUL!

We reached the dead end, and turned head on to confront the Humvee driver.  Suddenly, he just turned around and drove back down the road.  I don’t know why, but we were free to look at what became a high count of 12 Short-eared Owls and then race to the nearest gas station.


On January 28 I found a Rough-legged Hawk and 5 American Wigeon in northern Jackson County, adding two for the yearlist. I also ventured over into Perry County (like I did yesterday) to get better photos of Short-eared Owls. I succeeded.  There were no Humvees.

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January 29 I did not try for anything- the wind was howling and I was exhausted. I’d pushed myself too hard the previous two days and received my consequences.  Jim Tudor caught up.


On January 30 I had a swing and a miss on Whooping Cranes out-of-county… but I got to 100!  #98 was a surprise Pied-billed Grebe at the dam by the Carbondale Reservoir, #99 was four Bonaparte’s Gulls by the dam at Kinkaid Lake, and #100 was an Eastern Screech-owl at Cedar Lake.


January 31 I didn’t go birding.  For every bigger day of birding there’s the following catch-up days that allow me to go out again.  Jim Tudor caught up in birds, meanwhile.

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On February 1 I did a brief trip over to some piney woods to find the elusive Brown Creeper and Red-breasted Nuthatch. I also got to watch someone be pulled out of the mud there. Hint- if there’s a gate across a road, there’s probably a reason for it.

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I was then gone for a family event over the next three days.  Jim Tudor passed me.


Cut to February 5- I came back and explored Campus Lake and Carbondale Reservoir.  I found one new bird- Bufflehead- and with that all the easy ducks except Blue-winged Teal had been found. I tied Jim Tudor at 103 sp and got to see some very cute Hooded Mergansers:

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On February 6  Jim Tudor, finding a Pine Warbler in his backyard, passed me again, with 104 species to my 103.   I found no new birds for the county- and I didn’t really intend to.  I went off and got my Illinois state lifer #275, Red-necked Grebe, at Baldwin Lake in St. Clair County. I’d like to get to 300 lifers in Illinois in the next couple of years, and get better looks at about 50 of the birds I’ve already seen.  I also more than doubled my Snow Goose and Ross’ Goose high counts (34600 and 57, respectively).

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Furthermore, I also found the pair of Whooping Cranes that had eluded me previously.  I’ve seen 3 Whooping Cranes in the last year, and zero Sandhill Cranes, despite there being roughly 1083 Sandhill Cranes for every living Whooping Crane in existence.  Birds are strange.  I’ll leave you with that thought.

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List of Birds I Need (Birds bolded have been seen already) linked here.