Category: Bird Identification Field Trip

Snake Road in Recap (Part 2) (Herpers are weird)

Baby Cottonmouth

This is the spring snake post, if you hadn’t figured that out by now.  I’d recommend leaving if you don’t like snakes, salamanders or Scarlet Tanagers.

Above is a baby Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). As usual, I have to make the disclaimer that I have a camera with fairly good zoom. If you tried to get that same photo with a cell phone, you’d be an idiot. Baby Cottonmouths are just as venomous as regular Cottonmouths, only smaller and sneakier.  (More on that topic later).

Broad-headed Skink

Much less sneaky is this Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps).  It was a cooler April day when I found him, and everyone was up on logs or walls trying to catch a bit of heat.

Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

Rat Snakes (Whateveritisnow changeswaytoofrequentli) love to be in odd spots, so of course one was hanging on the side of a cliff.  It’s seriously impressive how they manage to do so with no arms and legs.  Also, I have no idea how it got there.

Green Watersnake

More obvious in its mobility was this on-the-ground Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion), my first state-endangered herp of the year. “First” implies that I’ll find more.  I don’t actually know that, but I assume I will.  This is one of the rarest snakes in Illinois, only found at Snake Road.  It certainly looks boring enough to be rare, that’s for sure.

Angry Cottonmouth

Less boring and more alarming was this Cottonmouth, a few days later, which decided to show off as a number of them usually do.  You basically have to pick one up for them to bite you, however.  I don’t know that from personal experience, so take that with a mild grain of salt and give them a bit of space (body length of the snake, is the bare minimum for me).

Whatever Rat Snake

This same day, we found a Rat Snake up in a tree. These are very good climbers- I see them up on something as often as I see them on the ground.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) crawled around on the rocks nearby.

Western Ribbon Snake

A Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) crossed the road nearby.  This is one of my favorite snakes.  It’s like an Eastern Garter Snake, but…better.  I’d say some random fact about why it is, but it just is, and that’s all there is to it.

Northern Parula

I am, of course, continually distracted by other things than snakes at Snake Road.  Those distractions usually have either chlorophyll or feathers.  In this case it was feathers, belonging to a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana).  Warblers at Snake Road this year seemed to be closer to the ground than usual, probably due to the colder-than-average temperatures.  This of course means better-than-usual viewing.  In one notable case, a herper friend of mine photographed the reclusive, canopy-dwelling, state-threatened Cerulean Warbler ON THE GROUND- and it’s a good photo, too!  The most irritating thing is that he doesn’t really care, because “it’s just a bird”.

No, it’s a feathered reptile that’s flown thousands of miles for you to see it and enjoy it, and even more rarely, it’s at a height where you actually CAN enjoy it.

Doubly irritatingly, one was seen at a low height on my Spring Bird Count at Snake Road by a herper, while I was looking the wrong direction.  It then flew away, and I saw it fly, but not well enough to be sure of the species for personal counting.

Cave Salamander, lost.

In the meantime, near Snake Road I found a couple of interesting salamanders, including this Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) that apparently had no problem hiding out in the middle of a brook several yards from anything resembling a cave.

Nearby, I located a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). Yes, they’re very slimy.

N. Slimy Salamander

On Saturday, May 5, I undertook a Spring Bird Count at Snake Road.  Along the way, a friend and I were treated to a plethora of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) we helped  cross the road:

Eastern Box Turtle- Wow!

Eastern Box Turtles are not graceful.

Get out of the road, you idiot!

We then met up with several herpers from across the state- all certifiably insane, of course.   (I mean, with all due respect, anyone who goes looking for venomous snakes for fun usually has a few wires crossed.)  For starters, I was instructed to call anything I saw a Copperhead, as a running inside joke, the origins of which I do not recall, a month later.   It’s hard to remember other specific examples- it’s been a busy month. They were enjoyably mad, however, so it was a fun trip in one of the best nature preserves in the Midwest- in a word, glorious!

Prothonotary Warbler

As it was May, the herping was slower, so I focused on things with feathers, to the mild amusement and/or irritation of the other herpers.  Woe to anyone who attempts to approach this Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), for it is well-guarded by Poison Ivy (Toxidendron radicans).  It didn’t elect to pop out for a better photo, unfortunately.

Beware

It was a slower day, but that didn’t mean nothing was out, and one of the “Copperheads” we saw was this juvenile Cottonmouth, carefully concealed in a tuft of grass about seven feet away from the path. Unfortunately for me, a blade of grass decided to photobomb in front of the snake.

Plain-bellied Watersnake

Along the path, we discovered this Plain-bellied Watersnake about ready to shed its skin, something snakes do every so often because their skin doesn’t grow with them as they grow.  The reason I know this snake is about to shed is that it has blue on its eyes- a traditional snake

Scarlet Tanager

The snakes were few and far between, and the birds were abundant, at least in voice, one of which was my lifer Golden-winged Warbler.  So I slowed down the group by stopping and calling them out every so often  (every five feet on a 2.5 mile walk).  Whatever. Birds are cool. There’s more of them to see, they’re easier to see, and they do more interesting things.  Sometimes they even let you almost get a good photo of them, like this Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) decided to do.  Oddly, the more common tanager was Summer, but I have no good or even mediocre photos of them from this trip.

Two-Hander

We flipped over a log and uncovered this large Northern Slimy Salamander, which, after some consideration, I think might actually be my first Northern Slimy Salamander at Snake Road.  It was a “two-hander”- if it had been legal to handle it, and if hypothetically we had done so, it would have required two hands to hold it.

Jack-in-the Pulpit

Distractions of the chlorophyte kind prevailed- this Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a species of which I am indubitably fond.  I haven’t used the word indubitably in awhile, and it feels good to try it out again.

We walked down the road, and collectively looked at a number of rocks.  As one group, we all decided without much speaking that we should flip the rocks, and we let the Canadian in our group go first.  He flipped this and we flipped out.  It’s a Midwestern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus helenae) – a lifer for me, and the Canadian guy, and my friend I’d driven there with, and a fun snake to find generally!  These are actually one of the more common snakes within their range, but they tend to be underground hunting and living like worms, so they’re rarely seen.

Worm Snake

Even more abundant are Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus) like the one below: Interestingly, at this location, three subspecies mix (Mississippi, Prairie, and Northern) resulting in unusual intergrades with patterning matching all three subspecies on the same snake.  This patterning is on the underside and is therefore not visible in the photo below:

Ring-necked Snake

Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) crawled about on old cut stumps (as seen below).

We also scared up a less-than-photogenic Broad-headed Skink that was a three-hander- nearly a foot long!  None of us had ever seen one so large at Snake Road before, and considering how often Snake Road gets visited by this crowd, that’s a surprise!

Five-lined Skink

I was technically supposed to count birds as part of the official Spring Bird Count, and I was the only one who never discovered a reptile first, as a result. Furthermore, I found flowers distracting on occasion. Larue-Pine Hills has about 1,200 species of plants recorded from it, which is a LOT:

Phlacia?

The other herpers, somewhat tired of having to wait for me while I counted birds and photographed flowers, moved on ahead.  I fell behind. My friend who’d ridden with me had stuck with me, and another herper had joined us- one of the original gang who’d arrived later and seen less of the road. I checked my phone and notices a message:

“We found a Rough Green Snake.”  A Rough Green Snake is arguably the best snake. Note the period after that sentence.

“Ok”- My traditional response to everything, which I have been informed is sometimes not helpful to the person on the other end.

“Do you want to see it or should we move on?”- The friend I’d brought along had never seen a Rough Green Snake, and I hadn’t seen one this year.  This was a no-brainer.

“See it”- I typed back.

“Run”- was the reply.

So we ran.  It was at that moment I discovered how out of shape I am.  But we did see it:

The Best Snake (Rough Green Snake)

It turns out that that last hour was apparently idea for Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)- we ended up seeing FOUR of them, which made my friend and I and virtually everyone there very happy.  This snake is a brilliant green, eats mostly bugs, and is completely docile and harmless. Therefore it is in a population decline (pesticide-induced lack of bugs, habitat destruction and overcollection are the big three.)  Indeed, if you ever see a snake in the wild, don’t give its exact location, especially if it’s colorful or venomous, as someone’s likely to either kill or capture it.

The Best Snake

I noticed my lifer Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) along the path as I walked.  It’s an overdue species for me, and I was glad to finally see one in the wild:

Zebra Swallowtail

While walking along the path, having caught up to the other herpers, we looked down and saw a young Ring-necked Snake, not much longer than my middle finger, hiding among the gravel:

The Cutest Snake

One last Rough Green Snake saw us off nearby.  They are called Rough Green Snakes because their scales have a “keel” or ridge on them, which makes their scales feel “rougher”.

The Best Snake

I took one last look at a flower, Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii, named for the Miami tribe of the Shawnee, not Miami, Florida), and then we prepared to leave.

Miami Mist

Snake Road wasn’t done with us just yet.  One Cottonmouth decided to sit in the middle of the road and block conscientious traffic (though many people would’ve just run it over).  Attempts to get it to shift, using the traditional implements of hats and sticks, resulted in it going under a car and disappearing.

Looking under the car, all we found was a toad we hadn’t noticed was there before.  The whole thing seemed like a bizarre magic trick, and we didn’t find the Cottonmouth despite extensive searching. The grass on the side of the road was therefore off-limits (venomous snake + tall grass = dumb idea to walk through it) and we gave up.

The guy whose car it went under later found the Cottonmouth’s remains crushed in his tire- apparently it had crawled up in the tire from underneath the car. When he’d started to move his car again, it had been killed, unfortunately.

So, this post is in dedication to this unfortunate Cottonmouth, whose persistent violation of road safety laws led to its demise.  Don’t be like this Cottonmouth- don’t crawl into a stranger’s tire.

Tragedy of the Cottons

As of this writing, I still haven’t seen an Eastern Garter Snake, Illinois’ most common snake.  For some reason, I’m not disappointed by this.

The final results of the Spring Bird Count: I had 79 bird species, my then-highest ever one-location total.  Ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45312902

Hardin County Showdown

It was Kyle Wiktor and I, the”Look Here, It’s Cranes”, versus the “Grumpy Old Men” (their team name, not insulting them here)  in a showdown for the highest number of species in Hardin County on April 28, 2018, as part of the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, a competition to see the most birds and raise the most money for charity.  (The charity in question is the restoration of  the Cache River watershed.)  The “Grumpy Old Men” were the dominant champions, with three of the best birders in Illinois (Mark Seiffert, Andy Sigler, and Craig Taylor) competing against me and Kyle, two of the birders in Illinois.  Actually, at present Kyle’s not even in Illinois- he’s the migratory bird counter at Indiana Dunes.  To see what he does, check out this blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/. The “Grumpy Old Men” had access to a secret wetland spot, and we had no idea where it was.  We assumed it was a quarry pond.  They’d scouted out the area to a limited extent, and so we followed their notes, having no time or money to do any of our own scouting.  As a result, we knew it’d be hard for us to beat them, and so therefore we were just doing what we were doing for fun.

The day started off with indecision over vehicles, but we eventually chose Kyle’s minivan.  At 4:30 AM we were stopped in Harrisburg, getting gas.  First two birds of the day were American Robin and Song Sparrow at the gas station while I filled up the tank.  Kyle missed the Song Sparrow.  We were off to a great start.

We turned down some road west of Hicks (Yes, there’s a town called Hicks in southern Illinois.) about 5:00 AM.  Immediately we were greeted by calling Eastern Towhees.   Barred Owls, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, a Field Sparrow, and a few Northern Cardinals joined in.  The Whip-poor-wills got louder and became one of the loudest birds present.  Whip-poor-wills are strange birds known as nightjars, with large eyes, mottled gray bodies and stubby bills.  They’re rapidly declining throughout their range, so hearing lots of them is a great sign.  Pictures of Whip-poor-wills can be found here:  https://lakecountynature.com/2013/07/29/campfire-serenade/

We spotted eyeshine on the road, and stopped to see what it was.  The eyes rose up and started flying- it was a pair of Whip-poor-wills on the road!  They flew right over our heads.  It’s rare to see such a well-hidden bird in flight.

The day only got better and better as we drove into our dawn spot.  Every Big Day requires a great dawn spot, and we chose Illinois Iron Furnace Park based on our hopes that it would be good.  We’d driven past the area back in February and noticed that it had a good mix of woodland habitats.  It proved to be ideal- we had about 40 species immediately.  The best were three Cerulean Warblers, calling from high up in the treetops.  I got to see one, but it flew off before photos.  In addition to Cerulean,  for the warblers we had Hooded, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Northern Parula (Setophaga americana, pictured):

Northern Parula

The Cerulean Warblers were lifer birds, so I was happy.  The day had started well, and it continued as we backtracked slightly towards a road we’d seen branching off from ours.  Google began to panic, and I checked… this road wasn’t on Google at all.  Yet it was well maintained and clearly had been here for awhile.  What on earth was going on?

This road doesn't exist, according to Google.

Despite the oddity of the road, it proved great.  We added Worm-eating Warbler,  Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager as we drove along through one of the finest woodlands I’ve ever seen in Illinois. Eventually we came to a road that Google recognized, part of Kyle’s original route.  This netted us several more birds, including Blue Grosbeak, Barn Swallow,  and a slightly unexpected Dickcissel.  Lots of breeding birds had shown up… very few migrants had, however. The cold had kept them away for the most part.

Dodecatheon (IDC about taxonomy)

Breeders everywhere, migrants nowhere.  I spotted a Nashville Warbler, a migrant, but it eluded Kyle.  The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) were blooming abundantly along the roadsides, as were many other flowers. Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) were moving through in flocks:

Indigo Bunting

We drove 225 E south to Peters Creek Tower Road down to Rock Creek Road, cutting through small farms and thick woods, with Louisiana Waterthrushes and Northern Parulas calling everywhere. This Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) posed in a tree as we drove past:

Broad-winged Hawk

On 225 E, we had the windows down listening for birds.  “Te-slick” something called. Kyle went “That’s a Henslow’s Sparrow!” We stopped, and found not only five Henslow’s Sparrows but also a Yellow-breasted Chat. Elated at our luck, we continued onwards, stopping by a set of sinkhole ponds adjacent to Rock Creek Road that looked good to us previously.   Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Boring Swallows, would be a better name) and this glowing Prothonotary Warbler  (Protonotaria citrea) greeted us, as did many other species:

Prothonotary Warbler

The sinkhole ponds got us Wood Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Orchard Oriole, House Wren,  Palm Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and more.  It’s a good migrant trap to remember for later.   Southern Hardin County is dotted with ponds like these, formed by sinkholes in the limestone bedrock underlying the area.  This particular one is directly adjacent to the road, so it’s somewhat publicly accessible, unlike the vast majority of sinkhole ponds.

We got Cliff Swallow a few minutes later down the road, at a spot where we missed Wilson’s Snipe and a Pectoral Sandpiper.  With that, Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Purple Martin, we were only missing one swallow… and Bank Swallow came just a few minutes later at a wetland called the Big Sink that we’d stopped by briefly (more on that later).  We had a Swallow Shutout!   We drove into Cave-in-Rock happy about this, and saw House Finch, House Sparrow, and Chimney Swift upon entering. Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) were quite abundant in the area, still “blue-ing” up for spring:

Blue Grosbeak

Cave-in-Rock is a cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River, accessible when the Ohio lets it be.  It wasn’t feeling generous today, so we contented ourselves with Red-headed Woodpecker, Nashville Warbler (heard by both), and a couple lunches at the eponymous state park.

Cave-in-Rock

We did see a Black Vulture flying over Kentucky from the park’s cliffs.  I have now seen two species in Kentucky this year- both vultures.  Other wildlife was to be had, also, including this Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) enjoying the sun at the restaurant.

Five-lined Skink

Down the road, we turned east and kept going.  A small marshy spot was our reward, with Swamp Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria):

Solitary Sandpiper

The spot wasn’t much to look at, but it’s hard to find this type of wetlands in Hardin county:

Small Wetlands in Hardin

We drove down more backroads.  Afternoon had set in and it was slow going, with a  Gray Catbird and Swainson’s Thrush on one particularly difficult road.  We had to rebuild that road using rocks before we could keep going.  The lovely flowers of Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) rewarded our trip, though our efforts didn’t.

Hoary Puccoon

We drove back and forth along the river, picking up Blue-winged Teal and Summer Tanager at one stop, but no Mallards.  No Mallards, no Ruby-crowned Kinglets, no Northern Flickers, and no Fish Crows.  Where were they?  Those should be easy birds to find.

A stop at a fish farm got us an unexpected Osprey, Double-crested Cormorants, an Eastern Meadowlark, and the overdue Northern Flicker, at about 1 PM.

We drove northeast to find that the shorebird habitat we’d hoped for had dried up, with only a few Solitary Sandpipers remaining.  Oh well.  We then decided to check a spot that looked like open pine trees, in hopes of Brown-headed Nuthatches expanding their range into Illinois.  Apparently last year the Shawnee National Forest people did logging here, so there wasn’t much to see… but it got us our Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  This is state land, to be clear, and it wasn’t marked with any obvious No Trespassing signs, nor were there any signs of recent activity.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Spot

Saline Landing was our next stop, which proved to be a very unique riverside town that Kyle said reminded him of Alaska. It only had one road in and out, and was likely an hour from the nearest Walmart.  I’ve never seen a more isolated community anywhere in the US.  And yet, unlike many southern Illinois river towns, it was fairly clean and well-maintained, despite the flooding of part of the town by the Ohio River.   However, it had no new birds  and the drive there took about an hour out of our day.

After this, we decided to take a slight break because Kyle wanted to see Garden of the Gods, just over the border in Saline co. We did that, got ice cream in Hardin, and sat out eating it while we planned out our night. We’d given up hope on Mallard and Fish Crow.  We hadn’t added any new birds in hours, and had basically wasted about three or four hours of time, something to not do on a Big Day.

To make up for lost time, we decided to try seeing the Big Sink again, a spot we’d popped in and out of earlier to get Bank Swallow.  It’s the largest wetland in Hardin county, and the only water lost from it is through evaporation- it flows nowhere.  The only access was down a narrow dead-end road between farmfields, which we assumed was public because there were multiple houses and a church connected to it.   As we arrived, we spotted the “Grumpy Old Men” scoping out things, as pictured below.  We realized that large flocks of ducks were on the opposite bank, just a bit too far off for us to identify with 100% certainty.  I did manage to pick out a Pied-billed Grebe.  The “Grumpy Old Men” came back up the road and told us we were trespassing.

Trespassing?  There wasn’t any purple paint, signs, or gates that we saw. What?

Big Sink + "Grumpy Old Men"

The owners of the property came out and confirmed this. We were trespassing!  Apparently this was a private lane, though neither Kyle or I had seen any signs of this.  Well, we got out of there, but it didn’t leave a good impression on the other birders and we weren’t thrilled about not being able to see the ducks well enough for ID. For a bit, we even thought the other birders had called up the owner and had us kicked us out just to keep us from seeing what they were seeing.  Of course, it did kick in that we’d actually been doing something massively illegal, and we could’ve been fined, arrested or shot. Thankfully the owners did none of those things, and just escorted us off their property.  We found out the next day that the “Grumpy Old Men” had taken time to get to know the owners well, but since the owners were private people dealing with their own issues they didn’t want a bunch of birders they didn’t know all over their land.  And then we showed up… twice…

Next time,  we won’t assume!  Our sincerest apologies, again, to both the “Grumpy Old Men” for jeopardizing their access to the spot and giving birding a bad name, and to the owners of the “Big Sink” for trespassing on their property and causing them a hassle they definitely didn’t need.

Our next plan was to go get American Woodcocks, but instead of going to the spot where the other team had definitely had woodcocks on scouting trips, we instead decided to try for them at the Henslow’s Sparrow spot and avoid any further interactions for a bit.  This proved to be a costly mistake, since we missed American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-Widow at the other spot, birds the other team had recorded there that morning.  Since they’d gotten all three of those nocturnal birds in the wee hours of the morning, the “Grumpy Old Men” felt no compulsion to return. We would have been alone and had three species, one of which, Chuck-wills-Widow, would have been a lifer for me at the time, though I’ve head one since at Cedar Lake.  Oh, well. We also got lost a bit on the way to the Henslow’s Sparrow field, which didn’t help us any.

We added nothing new, but the sheer numbers of Eastern Whip-poor-wills in this region are impressive.  I’ve never had anything like them. We tried for Chuck-wills-Widow at a few spots, but none were calling, at least not for certain.  We thought about trying harder,  but I had a rough week ahead so we stopped and went home. Our final list was 110 species.

Yeah, we didn’t win.   The “Grumpy Old Men” did, with 122 species.  That being said, we pulled 110 species out of a difficult county, with close to no preparation and with <10 species added after lunch. If we’d exerted a lot more effort in the afternoon, who knows… we might’ve pulled ahead. That being said, without more migrants and with limited wetlands, I doubt it.  There’s so many birds I’m sure we could have tried for with more effort, but we did a decent job and it was mostly for fun and charity anyway.

Our best finds were Cerulean Warbler (lifer!) and Henslow’s Sparrow, as well as the numbers of Whip-poor-wills and warblers in the area.  Our biggest misses were Mallard and Fish Crow.

Speaking of charity, several people donated to the GoFundMe campaign I’d done for this event. Thanks to Steve Bailey, Cynthia Gorrell,  Shawn Gossman, Ava Alford, and Ted Wolff for their generous contributions to conserving the Cache River Watershed.  Further credit goes to Rhonda Rothrock for running the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois.  And hats off to Craig Taylor, Andy Sigler, and Mark Seiffert for being excellent opponents.  Until next year, gentlemen.

 

Hardin County Showdown- Prelude

My friend Kyle and I have been planning a Hardin County Big Day pretty much since the day we met in person.  And so, that’s what we’re doing this Saturday.

What’s a Big Day?  It’s a competition to see as many species as you can in a limited geographic area, in this case Hardin County Illinois (far southeastern corner).  Hardin county is virtually unexplored, so Kyle and I wanted to find unrecorded species there.  We’ve gotten 40 species there together back in February, sort of scouting out what we might find in April (ok, there’s a major species turnover between then and now, but we just wanted to see what we could find and what habitat might be good).

After some consideration, we decided to sign up for the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, being run the same weekend.  It’s basically a competition to see as many birds as possible within southern Illinois, and there’s separate one-county completions, multi-county competitions, etc. where we raise money to participate. The money goes to supporting restoration efforts in the Cache River watershed, one of the greatest wetlands in the world (and I say that with no exaggeration, it’s internationally recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar convention (basically the international group that decides these sort of things.)

We’ve named our team “Hey Look, It’s Cranes” because- insomnia, mostly, and a slight lack of more relevant creative names. Also because Kyle and I met for the first time to go look at a Whooping Crane.

Unbeknownst to us, Craig Taylor, one of the best birders in Illinois (tied for highest state lifelist on eBird) has been planning the same for, what is in my understanding, years.  He’s set up a rival team and we’re doing Big Days, on the same day, in Hardin county.  And, this actually matters, because both of our teams are competing for the County Big Day top spot in the Birding Blitz- in the same county.   I’ll be like one of those sports movies where we’re the underdogs and he’s the defending champion.  Head to head, binoculars to binoculars.

Just to be clear, Craig’s a great guy.  I’m still indebted to him for driving me around on the Carlyle Lake Pelagic trip last September. So I don’t mind losing to him.  I’m certainly not to the level to bird with him yet as part of a competition, and having the competition will be fun.

I’m definitely the weak link here.  Kyle’s got considerably more experience than I do. I’m listening to warbler calls like a madman trying to memorize all the ones we *might* need to know… should be fun.  I did find an American Redstart today by listening for one (and then seeing it), so it’s working out so far.  Half of the birds I’m learning aren’t even in Illinois yet because spring was rather slow to start this year.  Cerulean Warblers finally showed up in numbers only today (4/25/18) to my knowledge.  It will be hard to determine what might be at what spot.  All we can do is try for everything. We’ve got a couple spots up our sleeves.  Kyle and I don’t have the time or resources to do much scouting, so instead we’re just delving into Google Maps and reading over all reports we see of the area.

Hardin is mostly hilly forest, which is good for some things but will be a struggle for many others. Waterfowl and waders are going to be hard.  Grassland birds will be a bit difficult.  Currently the weather looks great, even if the winds could be better directionally (a south breeze would bring more species north).  I look forwards to the challenge (and to seeing Avengers: Infinity War just beforehand!)

If you want to donate to the Birding Blitz,  I’ve set up a GoFundMe to raise our portion of the funds. We’d appreciate every penny, and it all goes to bird conservation in the Cache River Watershed.

https://www.gofundme.com/birding-blitz-of-southern-il

 

 

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

IMG_9198

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.

IMG_9091

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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:

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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SNOWY OWL!!!

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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.

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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.