Month: June 2018

Lake County Beachcombing-ish (Chicago Trip, Part 2)

Waukegan Beach

After getting lost in Evanston because I listened to my GPS (one of the better towns to end up lost  in the Chicagoland area, I might add), I ended up in Waukegan Beach.  The rarities that had been here ( Hudsonian Godwit and Glossy Ibis) moved on the evening before were gone (the Hudsonian Godwit to a spot only a couple of miles away that I didn’t know about).  So I contented myself with Spotted Sandpipers and  Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia):

Yellow Warbler

I decided to venture next over to Illinois Beach State Park, where a Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) had crawled up and onto the Dead River Trail:

Red-eared Slider

I rounded a bend, to discover my first Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in Illinois in years ahead of me on the path.  Hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly through Illinois, and dozens remain to breed.  A few even winter here.  However, the vast majority of Sandhill Cranes in Illinois are seen only in the northeastern counties.  As I rarely visit those counties, it was a treat to do so, and to catch up and see this bird  I haven’t observed  since December 2016.

Sandhill Crane

There were two here, feeding in a small wet area between dunes.  Standing as tall as a deer, Sandhill Cranes are surprisingly tame, or at least this pair were.  I watched them forage for a bit in the open woods, before moving on.

Sandhill Cranes

I walked out into the sandy dunes of the beach, looking at the bizarre vegitation.  Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), Bearberry (Arctostaphyos uva-ursi), Marram Grasses(not pictured)… this is the vegetation of the New England coast, not Illinois!   Those first two are state-listed and only found in this limited habitat, as abundant as they are otherwise.

Illinois Beach Dunes

A strange white butterfly flew along, feeding on some white flowers.  Any suggestions as to its identification would be welcome.  I’m thinking of getting into butterflies more.

? Butterfly?

Of course, where there is a beach there are waves- the waves of Lake Michigan, the great inland ocean bordering Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and (duh) Michigan.  And the inland ocean has inland ocean birds, in the form of  Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia):

Dead River Gulls and Terns

Here, a Caspian Tern brings back a shad it has caught.  (I presume this is a shad… it could be a red herring and turn out to be something entirely different.)

Caspian Tern

Behind the gulls, on the far side of the creek known ominously as the Dead River, pines grew in a natural forest, something quite out of place in Illinois.  This pines dune forest is considered a very sensitive ecosystem and as such, almost no one is permitted to cross the Dead River and venture into this restricted area.  Of course, I really want to go there now after knowing this.  Illinois’ only record of Red-cockaded Woodpecker comes from this forest, one of the few open pine savannas in all of Illinois.  The habitat is so bizarre to find here that it attracts birds hundreds of miles out of place, and contains plants and animals so sensitive that people aren’t allowed.  I will go there someday, legally, but for now it remains the forbidden zone.

Dead River Pines

However, the existence of the forbidden zone and its open, grassy pine woods does mean that certain species of birds are present here that would otherwise be found further north or west.  The most obvious of those is the Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus), a roly-poly Western fellow, mostly likely to be portrayed by Jeff Bridges or John Goodman in a movie about the blackbirds.  I digress, considerably.  Brewer’s Blackbirds, for the most part, are only found here in the summertime in Illinois, combing the beaches of Lake Michigan.

Brewer's Blackbird

In the dunes themselves, other Westerners like this Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) grow:

Prickly Pear

Alongside the cactus, this migrating Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) felt out of place.  Though it was mid-May, few leaves were on the trees- one of the cooling effects of the lake.  As a result, the Magnolia Warbler was forced downwards to find cover and food.

Magnolia Warbler

The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) felt the most Illinois-ian, of anything- dull, the extremities are the most colorful parts, and it’s found in transitional habitats.  Illinois is a big transitional habitat- East meets West, North meets South- but for all that it’s a bit dull- no flashy scenery like mountains or canyons, for the most part, and most of the more interesting “colorful” parts are the edges of Illinois. So the Field Sparrow is, and so it is a great symbol of Illinois.

Field Sparrow

Speaking of small, dull birds, the Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) were about.  I probably saw hundreds of them, but this is the best picture I got of one, at the southern end of North Point Marina, just north of Illinois Beach State Park and my nest stop afterwards.  Palm Warblers are so named for their wintering grounds- the palms of Florida have Palm Warblers in January.  In May, they were heading back to the taiga bogs to nest, moving by the hundreds. I found my lifer Clay-colored Sparrow in with them, but it failed to reappear for a photo after I’d gotten my camera out of its bag.  So I took this bird’s photo instead… a blurry photo of my second pick for a photography subject.  Well, it is at least more colorful than a terracotta-hued sparrow.

Blurry Palm Warbler

But enough of this.  I ventured up to the north end of North Point Marina, curious to see what was about.  North Point Marina is the furthest northeast one can walk in Illinois- further north and you end up in Wisconsin, further east and it gets considerably wet.   Caspian Terns, Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and a lone Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) sat on the beach, watching me take photos of them and occasionally diving after the occasional lunch wrapper or stray small fish in the surf.  Bonaparte’s was a surprise, the rest weren’t.

RBGU, CATE, BOGU

As I was walking up to the beach, I spotted a small shorebird wandering about north of the gulls, nearly on the Wisconsin state line…  It was a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)!  Hallelujah!  I’d finally found one!  This has been a nemesis of mine for a very long time, and it took driving virtually into Michigan for me to find one.  The Ruddy Turnstone is uncommon away from the lakeshore in Illinois, and living downstate away from its habitat makes them difficult to find.

Ruddy Turnstone #1

I spent about the next fifteen minutes photographing this one bird as it pecked along the shoreline and pretended I didn’t exist.  I love the indifference that shorebirds along a beach give to people.  Put the same birds on a mudflat and they would freak out  with me 100 feet away.  Here I could virtually step on it before it would acknowledge my presence.

Ruddy Turnstone #2

So, I could see the Wisconsin border and a Ruddy Turnstone in the same view- that was fun!  Past the breakwater, it’s all Wisconsin.  So, all those trees- Wisconsin.

State Line Beach

Due to general stupidity, I forgot to drive into Wisconsin so that I was actually in Wisconsin sometime this year and could claim it as a state I’d visited.  Instead, I drove through Lake county, finding bizarre local attractions like the Gold Pyramid House along the way:

Golden Pyramid "House"

I ended up, after a cursory, unsuccessful search for Yellow-headed Blackbirds at Moraine Hills State Park, driving over to Mchenry Dam to see the Fox River.  At this point, I was driving half-asleep, and decided to walk about and wake myself up.  The river, some ten feet over  or so, was a good wake-up call.  That post in midground right side is supposed to be on the EDGE of the water:

Fox River Flooding

In the flooded forest adjacent to the dam, a surprise Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica) called.  I had no idea at the time that this Southern species of bird breeds here and has done so for many years.   I got to show it off to a novice with binoculars, and see it in close proximity to three Sandhill Cranes- something I never expected to do!  It was a fun send-off to a day spent along the beach, to find something that reminded me of home.  I would drive home the following afternoon, but I still had Indiana Dunes to see with Kyle.  Though half-asleep, I made it back to the place I was staying with no casualties or damages.  The following day- Indiana Dunes!

Yellow-throated Warbler

Indiana Dunes Almost Birding Festival (Chicago Trip, Part 3)

Dunes Parking Lot

Indiana Dunes  State Park was the last day of my Chicago trip. After hearing a Prairie Warbler from this parking lot,  I met up with Kyle around 10:30 AM  (no early rising!) and we immediately stumbled across an Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platirhinos):

Eastern Hognose #1

This is easily the best snake I’ve seen this year.  I love Hognoses and their goofy-grinning faces.  The “Hognose” refers to the upturned scale on the top of their upper jaw that they use to dig though sand in search of toads.  Pretty much all a Hognose eats is toads.  Feeling threatened, the snake flattened out and pretended to be a cobra for a bit.

Eastern Hognose #2

We let it be and wandered over to some trails.  Along one of them, a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nests in a little box, putting on a good show for us and a couple other birdwatchers. Thislocation is fairly far north for a Prothonotary, which is primarily a southern bird that creeps north in Illinois along the river valleys.  Pretty much everyone else had binoculars, because that afternoon was the start of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.  It was like Montrose all over again, except fewer giant cameras and ridiculous clothes.

PROW

Above the Prothonotary Warbler, a little Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sat up in a tree.  I’ve not seen very many hummingbirds this year, so it’s a joy to see.  I don’t know if my lack of hummingbirds is a personal coincidence or just an actual lack of them.  Time will tell.

Ruby-throated Hummer

Into the woods, and the late spring plants were in full flower.  My first Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) bloomed along a creek- hundreds of small white flowerheads.  This plant somehow doesn’t grow wild in Illinois, so it’s a treat to see here.

Dwarf Ginseng

Also a treat was Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) another lifer plant:

Rue Anemone

The woods here resembled late April back in Southern Illinois, right down to the Cerulean Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes calling from the trees above:

Stream, Indiana Dunes

However, the plants proved it to be distinct… this Great White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) doesn’t grow wild in southern Illinois, for instance.  It’s more of an Appalachian plant.

Great White Trillium

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were abundant, migrating back to the tundra from which they came.  One was enjoying the picnic area:

White-crowned Sparrow

Kyle had to go to a lecture, so I went off and explore by myself.  Several migrant warblers were calling and seen as I went down one of the longer trails, stumbling across Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) on the way.  This is another calling-card of this area’s biodiversity- Wild Lupine is a plant of the Atlantic Coast and sandy sections of the Great Lakes area.

Wild Lupine

The sand dunes and their environs have over 1400 species of plants, making them some of the most biodiverse habitat in the Midwest.  It’s a joy to walk here- you never know what’s around the next bend, and it can be wildly different from what came before!

Dunes Oak Savanna

For me, around the next bend was a Golden-winged Warbler pair, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and this Bird’s Foot Violet (Viola pedata), a plant of the Great Plains and open dry areas in the South.

Birds-foot Violet

Just behind the dunes, a wet area held many Swainson’s Thrushes, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and multiple tall trees sandwiched between a full wetland and the dryer landscape of the sand dunes themselves.  I love the golden look of trees leafing out- it’s Lothlorien in the real world. (I haven’t referenced J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings in awhile… it’s been too long.)

Forest- Indiana Dunes

Up on the sand dunes again, and a Least Flycatcher called.  Lowbrush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) covered a dune, their little white bells sweet-smelling and everywhere.

Blueberry

Alongside the blueberries, Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bloomed, also one of the most abundant plants in the dryer sandy woods of the dunes.

False Solomon's Seal

Back down in the woodlands, and I met up with Kyle. Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) bloomed abundantly- a sign of the woods in late spring.  Tennessee and Blackburnian Warblers called above us, not caring that it was one in the afternoon.

Wild Geranium

Alongside the geraniums, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) bloomed, something I’d seen two weeks before in equally full flower down in Southern Illinois, and which didn’t seem to be up yet at Illinois Beach State Park. Acadian Flycatchers called above us as we flipped a couple logs…

Wood Phlox

The log-flipping proved successful, as Red-backed Salamanders (well, lead-phase ones) stumbled out into the sunlight.  We carefully replaced their logs- the herping was going well!

Lead-phase Red-backed Salamander

All too soon, it was time to return to home, and so I stopped by the visitor’s center to watch their feeders briefly.  Another Ruby-throated Hummingbird fed as I watched from the window:

Hummer at feeder

Below the seed birdfeeders, my first Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) in the eastern United States foraged about.  Indiana Dunes has a bit of everything (East- Wild Lupine.  West- cactus.  North- Red Squirrels.  South- Prothonotary Warblers).  It’s a meeting ground for Western prairies, northern boreal forest, southern swamps and eastern hardwood forests.

Red Squirrel

I could tell you how Red Squirrels differ from Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), but why not just show you instead?

Red and Gray Squirrels

Behind the observation window, a map shows why this area has a birding festival, and to a lesser extent, birds to see.  I didn’t really get a great photo of this map, so I’ll explain- basically, birds don’t want to fly over the middle of Lake Michigan because there’s nothing there except water.  So they stick to the edges, east and west, that meet up at Indiana Dunes.  Birds then go north and south from Indiana Dunes, often using this spot to rest and refuel on their journey north.

Blurry- How Birds Migrate Indiana Dunes

After this, we went to the Observation Tower, where my friend Kyle worked as a bird counter.  He would take note of all the birds passing by the observation tower, which could be in the thousands and often was, on many days.  To learn more about this, read the official blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/

Behind the tower

Here’s Kyle in position, waiting for something to fly by.  Not much did at that time- it was 2 in the afternoon, which is basically nature’s siesta time.  It gets much more active at dawn and dusk.

Tower

Below the tower, a sign shows all the birds counted from the tower this season (mid-March to the end of May, though this sign was photographed in mid-May).  After saying goodbyes, I then booked it out of town, as I had a four-hour drive home.  By the time I’d left, I’d seen 81 species- it’d been a great several hours!  Now, I could do the same thing at Montrose, probably, but to see all the plants and life- this is by far the best birdwatching or nature-anything location near Chicago.  I will not be moved on that.  Indiana Dunes is a glorious spot, and I look forwards to my next visit here.

I had intended to stay a further two days and go on a big day of birding with some friends of mine.  However, work got in the way.  That being said, here’s their blogpost about that big day, which I did help to plan slightly:

https://whimbrelbirders.org/2018/05/20/2nd-annual-wbc-big-day/

Tower bird list- 2018

Ebird Checklist:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45783464

 

 

 

 

Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.

From Scorpions to Shorebirds in Southwest Illinois… (Shorter Post)

School was finally over!  I had a nice farewell dinner with a few friends at my apartment, and the following day I decided to take the scenic route home.

For those not familiar with the scenic route in question, I drove up Route 3 through Chester and along Bluff Road adjacent to the bluffs along the Mississippi River.  My  lifer (heard-only) Alder Flycatcher, state lifer (heard-only) Least Bittern,  and state-lifer Three-toed Box Turtle  went unphotographed along the way.  If that seems like quite a bit to leave out, you’re right!  I have since seen an Alder Flycatcher and Least Bittern in this state (with a witness on the latter, rarer bird).  The Three-toed was moved quickly across Route 3 and I forgot to take my phone or camera when I ran out to grab it.  It’s assumed to be an escapee on this side of the river, anyway, so not a huge loss.   I’ll find one again, I suspect, and if nothing else I can go see more of them “naturally” on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.

Of course, I could be making all this up, but what’s the fun in lying?

Anyway, it was high time that day to actually get a photo of something notable.   I stopped by Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve to see, and photograph, the view:

Fults Hill Prairie, SW

Yeah, that view doesn’t get old, ever.  It’s like being on top of the rest of the state.  Wood Thrushes called behind me, deep in the ravines even as the clock approached 11:00 AM.  Overhead, Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura)  soared past, so close I could count every feather as they flew by (though I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t think of it):

Turkey Vulture

Further overhead, I noticed a small flock of raptors that looked odd.  A high, distant photo of one showed it to be a Black Vulture flock (Coragyps atratus).  While these are all over the Shawnee Hills southward, up this far “north” is unusual for this species, so I took a few record photos, reveling in the fact that I actually got pictures of something notable on this trip:

Black Vulture

You have to be careful looking up here, as I was near a drop of some hundreds of feet down to the river valley below. Despite that risk, this would be a spectacular hawkwatch.  I understand why it isn’t- it would need to be closer to some city and not a slightly difficult hike up. (By slightly difficult, I mean that I was gasping for breath at the top and may have swallowed a few flies in consequence.  I’m a bit out of shape, but it’s still not an easy hike; just a short, steep one.)

Fults Hill Prairie, NW (2)

The hike here isn’t for the unprepared, but it’s certainly worth it.  Ignoring the view (and it’s hard to) there’s plenty of unique flowers and animals atop this hill prairie.  These Rose Verbena (Glandularia canadensis), bloom here in good numbers, just like their annual bedding cousins:

Rose Verbena

Fults Hill Prairie is basically a section of the Great Plains or Ozarks in terms of its flora and fauna (indeed, the hills on the other side of the river valley ARE the Ozarks), so it’s full of unique plants and animals like this Splendid Tiger Beetle (Cicindela splendida):

Splendid Tiger Beetle

A spot in this county held two other species of interest, the quick-running Prairie Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata), one of my favorite lizards:

Prairie Racerunner

Under a nearby rock, I happened to stumble across quite a unique creature for Illinois.  This Striped Bark Scorpion (Centruroides vittatus) is native to only a thin strip of bluffs in far southwestern Illinois- that is, within the state of Illinois.  Across the river, Striped Bark Scorpions are fairly common, and with their extensive range in the Great Plains this is probably the most commonly encountered scorpion species in the US.  In Illinois, it’s a protected species.  I’ve never seen a scorpion in the wild before, so this was a novel experience.  The sting of this species is roughly equivalent to a wasp sting, according to the literature. I didn’t make any effort to find out.

Striped Bark Scorpion

After the scorpion, I knew the time was going, but I had one last spot to check, up on Herbst Road.  Two sections of field flood here regularly, providing habitat for unique shorebirds migrating from the Gulf Coast to the Arctic to stop and find some food on the mudflats.  I noticed two particularly large, black-and-white plovers on the edge, and began debating whether or not they were Black-bellied Plovers.  I wanted them to be, but I don’t trust my instincts much when I “want” it to be a certain species.  So after looking them over,  I put them down as the more common American Golden-Plovers, probably more likely, and looked around at the Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) feeding and running around the mudflats nearby:

Black-bellied Plovers and Least Sandpipers

A flock of (mostly) Pectoral Sandpipers (Calidris melanotos) and White-rumped Sandpipers (Calidris fuscicollis) suddenly came in and landed, before flying off again:

Mixed Shorebirds

After submitting an eBird checklist for this spot, I went back and checked over the photos again.  With white undertail feathers, thicker patterning, larger bills and no dark “cap” on the head, these were in fact Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola).  I’d messed up, but hey, my first self-found Black-bellied Plovers are a great consolation prize:

Black-bellied Plover

I then noticed an email saying that several Ruddy Turnstones were seen at Riverlands. This lifer bird species would add an hour to my route home… and my brother whom I hadn’t seen in months was going in to work fairly soon and I wouldn’t see him for several hours more.  As much as I wanted to see Ruddy Turnstones, I made it home just in time to see him off.  A fun little day, and I was finally home… for a bit.  Restless as usual, I decided to go on and visit the far opposite end of Illinois from the one described in this blogpost- I was off to Chicagoland!

Fults Hill Prairie, NW

Ebird Checklists:

Fults Hill Prairie: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45614562

Herbst Road Pond: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45847220