Category: Chicagoland

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.

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

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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.

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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.