Category: Eagles

Winter 2019 Sort of Recapped

Right, I’m a wee bit behind here.

Last actual post I did on here was of the Carlyle Lake Trip.   I’m going to pass over Fall 2018- a lot happened but it’ll take too long to recap. Let’s move into January and February 2019.

I stayed up in central Illinois and spent early January 2019 with my parents, with very few plans of what I would do this year besides studying for the GRE, graduating college, finding a job, etc.  On January 7 I decided to get out and about on a warmer day and go looking around a nearby marsh in the Lick Creek Wildlife Area.  This resulted in my finding two unusual records.

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First up was a turtle- in particular, one of Illinois’ more common turtles, the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  I’ve never had a reptile before an amphibian in January.  This turtle, however, can be winter-active when it wants, and as this day exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature the turtle, one of a few, was out basking in the sun.

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The second and far more ridiculous of my two finds was a wintering Common Yellowthroat (Geoythypis trichas).  This warbler species is supposed to be down on the Gulf Coast at this time of year- not hanging out by the side of a creek in central Illinois!  This was one of TWO I found in January, the second down at Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area in Union co. Illinois, both in marshy grasslands with open water.

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After a couple of weeks, I went south for my last semester of college, to the Shawnee Hills.  I’ve earned a reputation in certain corners of the internet for praising Southern Illinois a lot, and this isn’t unearned.  As the landscape above shows (taken from Grand Tower Island) the Snow Geese wander around this area in January, and in great numbers, and with great scenery as a backdrop, and everything is “great” and I’m overusing that word now and this is a run-on sentence and I don’t know how to end it.  Ope, there we go.

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Here’s those Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens), along with a few Greater White-fronted Geese (foreground, orange bills and brown bodies, Anser albifrons), hanging out in a nearby shallow wetland just off Route 3 in Jackson co Illinois.  They’ve all mostly migrated out of here by now, but for two months the air was thick with Snow Geese down here.

Snow Geese aren’t the only large, mostly white birds to pass through this area…

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WHOOPING CRANES!  A pair of these incredibly rare, endangered birds (Grus americana) overwinter in a secret location in Southern Illinois.  This pair will fly back to Wisconsin in the summertime, where they’ve been reintroduced. Note that they were photographed from inside a car and we used a decent amount of zoom.  Don’t approach Whooping Cranes too closely, as there are less than a thousand of them in the world and scaring them could potentially do considerable harm.

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Another quite rare bird I found (this one personally) in January was a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) , one of which is photographed.  I found a third one at Larue-Pine Hills a month later, in late February. These birds are uncommon migrants through southern Illinois.  Back in the 1970s, Golden Eagles were recorded annually in parts of southern Illinois, following massive flocks of Canada Geese as they made their way south to forage here.  However, more recently farmers have started plowing their fields in the spring, leaving some corn remaining in their fields overwinter, and geese distributions shifted.  Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese came in and now feed upon the remains of corn in the area, while Canada Geese remain much further north. (This is potentially oversimplifying the shift in geese, to see some more causes read this article linked here) The Golden Eagles shifted their range also, although some still come down this far south after ducks and geese.

GHOW on nest

In addition to the rarer birds, I found this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) occupying a nest somewhere in the Mississippi River Valley.  Unlike many bird species, Great Horned Owls nest during the winter and typically take over other bird’s former nests.

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While driving around looking for salamanders the other night, some friends and I came across this Barred Owl (Strix varia) sitting on a road side and quite willing to pose for photos.

Little Gull

One of the rarest birds I’ve gotten to see of late, and the only new one (lifer!) for me was this Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), the bird with the black underwing in the blurry photo above.  A predominately Eurasian species that rarely nests in the US and Canada, Little Gulls sometimes tag along with large flocks of other gull species and migrate through Illinois.  I’ve tried and failed to find several over the years, and I finally found this one at Carlyle Lake with a friend last week.

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Alright, after spamming all those rarer birds, let’s cool off with some ice formations from Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park, before moving on to small and cute birds.

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Over this winter, an unprecedented irruption (winter movement) of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) occurred in the Eastern United States.  This species of bird lives in the boreal forests of Canada and feeds upon pine and spruce seeds.  In years of a poor seed crop (like this year) they move south in numbers to feed on pine seeds.  As the Shawnee Hills have many pine plantations and naturalized pines, Red-breasted Nuthatches thrive here during the winter.  Coming from the Canadian wilderness, Red-breasted Nuthatches have limited fear of people.

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Unlike the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) are found predominantly in the Southern US and up until the last few years they did not winter in Illinois regularly.  However as the climate warms just a bit and the pine plantations grow up and age, Pine Warblers become more and more frequent in Southern Illinois over the winter.

Birds are not my sole interest in life, however, and while they’re one of the few things to look at in January that will look back at you and show signs of life, I have looked for

On iNaturalist, I’ve joined the Illinois Botanists Big Year.  This is a competition to see who can observe the most plant species in Illinois over the course of this year.   I have a decent start going, mostly due to the fact that in residing near the Shawnee Hills I have access to a wide swath of biodiversity and far less snow cover than Northern Illinois.  Actually,  I might be downplaying my lead a little too much.  As of 3/4/19, I have 299 plant observations of 143 species.  The second highest observer in the competition is at 95 observations of 87 species.  I don’t expect to win overall- there’s a lot of time left and far more experienced botanists participating- but it definitely feels great to be #1 for now.  For more information visit this link here to go to the project’s homepage.

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Arguably the best plant I’ve seen this year was the Appalachian Filmy Fern above (Vandenboschia boschiana).  This bizarre fern with fronts one cell layer thick only grows in fully shaded, south-facing sandstone or other acidic rocks, with constant high humidity. It’s a VERY specific microhabitat, and as a result this fern is state-endangered in Illinois and only found in a few locations. I took a walk back to one of the locations in February and found it hiding there.

Cypressknee Sedge

Another rare plant in Illinois is Cypressknee Sedge (Carex decomposita) which grows on stumps, fallen logs, cypress “knees”, the sides of dead trees, and other dead masses of wood in slow-moving waters.   Plants can grow in some bizarre locations.

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This Asplenium pinnatifidum was a wonderful find, an uncommon fern growing in sandstone in Giant City State Park.  Half the leaves in that photo belong to an unrelated plant.

Harbinger-of-Spring

While many people semi-seriously use the prognostications of “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog to predict the end of winter, a far better sign of spring is the so-called Harbinger-of-Spring (Eregenia bulbosa), an early-flowering woodland plant shown above.  That being said, I went out and found this plant in late February.  It’s early March and there’s currently snow on the ground.   Plants and groundhogs say what they will, winter doesn’t end until it wants to.

In all seriousness, I was quite glad to find this plant, and while it might be cold now winter does come to an end soon and it will be spring.  The woods along Hutchins Creek (below) will be green before long, and I look forwards to it!

Hutchins Creek

Many people are not aware of the number of salamanders that can move on warm, rainy nights in the late winter.   This causes mass deaths of salamanders when they reach a road and have to cross it on a rainy night.  Thus, friends and I go out and move the salamanders across the road in the direction they’re trying to go, in order that they may survive to reproduce.

Spotted Sal

One of the first salamanders of the year is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), found in high-quality woods locally.  A friend and I spent a night moving a half-dozen of these from a busy state highway, including the gorgeous individual shown above.  Salamanders require fishless wetlands, typically large vernal (springtime-only) pools in woodlands, in order to reproduce.  Many die each year during their trek to the pools, and I’m glad we helped a few.

Crawfish Frog

Another specialist of fishless wetlands is the Crawfish Frog (Lithobates areolatus).  This species gets its name from its residence inside crayfish burrows, from which hundreds emerge every February-March in order to spend a week reproducing out in flooded fields.  Crawfish Frogs are extremely light sensitive and will retreat underwater or underground at the approach of light.  Thus, the only way to see one is to drive along a road slowly in an area where the Crawfish Frogs breed and hope for a “dumb” one to remain on the road for a minute when it sees lights.  Thankfully the lights it saw were ours and we got it off the road before it was run over.

Marbled Sal

In lowland swamps, another salamander that moves on warm rainy nights is the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), perhaps the most beautiful of Illinois salamanders.

PSA, if you can’t tell by now, don’t go driving on warm (40s-50s), rainy nights in wooded or lowland areas, or if you do, keep an eye out for salamanders and other amphibians crossing the road.  If you encounter a salamander on the road, wear plastic gloves (preferentially) and move it across the road in the direction it was initially facing when you first encountered it.

Northern Dusky Salamander

To switch up, here’s a couple individuals of the Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus).  These salamanders originated in Tennessee, but they are used as fishing bait and as a result were transported to Illinois.  They have since taken over a couple hundred feet of a spring-fed stream and now live there in an isolated colony, the only Northern Dusky Salamander population in the state.  An older one below shows how good they are at hiding on the creekbed.

Hidden N. Dusky Sal

While looking for other salamanders in another spot, a friend accidentally flipped this Blackspotted Topminnow (Fundulus olivaceus) out from under a rock.  I grabbed it and after a quick photo released it straight back into the creek.  This is, so far, the most interesting fish I’ve seen this year, and a first state record on iNaturalist.  It’s nice to get that database in agreement with official data, and it’s nice to get a new fish species I’ve not encountered before.

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Is this shorter? Probably not. It’s recap of two months worth of observations, however.  Considering that I’ve left out much of what I’ve seen (which y’all can view on my iNaturalist page at this link here) I feel it’s a good length.  That being said, I will try to keep it shorter from now on. Until then, have a good week!

Back to Mason County!

I decided to spend all day of the Ides of March exploring my old stomping grounds in Mason and Fulton counties and ended up having one of the better birding days of the year so far.  I’d hoped to find Red Crossbills, Smith’s Longspurs, and a Northern Saw-whet Owl or two, as well as several more common birds I hadn’t found yet this year like Western Meadowlark, Wilson’s Snipe, Tree Swallow etc.  It’d been rather cold and unpleasant much of the week, and I wanted desperately to get outside. So I did.

Map of Route on March 15, 2018

As usual for a birding trip, I woke up at 4 AM, decided I didn’t want to get up and slept in for two hours, then woke up and decided I really needed to get going, and left an hour later.   I’m not a morning person.  Most birds are.

I started in  Sand Ridge State Forest (1) at 8 AM and explored it for about two hours.  The warmer conditions certainly made the birds extremely active.   Driving in  from Forest City I had a Northern Harrier and Western Meadowlark (I had the windows rolled down and would stop every time I heard something interesting).  Flocks of American Goldfinches, Blue Jays and more flew across the road.  It seemed like every bush had its own birds. I’ve only ever had birds bouncing around in such numbers at one other time, the Carlyle Lake Pelagic, and at that time there weren’t as many, especially on the road itself.  I had several species (Wild Turkey, Eastern Phoebe, Horned Lark) just sitting on or alongside the road.  I also got out and walked in attempts to find Red Crossbills, which was a swing and a miss.  This did get me Winter Wren and Red-breasted Nuthatch, both good for this time of year.

By the end of two hours and about ten miles driving/walking, I had 36 species, which I considered a promising start to the day.  I wasn’t really going for numbers, and Sand Ridge can be hit or miss. This was the best I’d ever done in Sand Ridge, so I was happy about that.

Bufflehead Display 2

I checked through Chautauqua (2) and found close to nothing other than a few robins.  Apparently all the birds were at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge and Preserve (3), my next stop on the other side of the river.   All of them.  I’d never had so many except in coot season, and at that time it’s just coots.  It’s close to coot season, but that’s a still a couple weeks away. The Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola, above) were fighting, which was adorable.

Emiquon Boardwalk

Emiquon is almost never not a great place for birds, but it’s so great in March.  Hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese are there through the first part of March, and by the end of March the shorebirds are showing up in the hundreds.  In between the ducks move through en masse.  Emiquon does nothing small when it comes to birds.  This was, however, by far my best day at Emiquon ever in terms of bird numbers.  (It’s still not as fun as when I got to show my mom around Emiquon for the first time, but nonetheless amazing).

Tundra Swan

The best bird there was a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) on the south end of the visitor’s center walkway, but the newly-arrived Blue-winged Teal, Wilson’s Snipe, and Tree Swallows were also welcome.  The Tree Swallow was quite funny, actually.  While unintentionally chasing about twenty American Tree Sparrows around the boardwalk,  I spotted a couple of women with binoculars around my same age, and curious to see if there were actually other young birders in my area, I asked them if they’d seen anything good.

“We saw a crane stick its whole head under the water!”Pause. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes are ridiculously rare around Emiquon.

“D’you mean a heron?”  The only one around is the very common Great Blue Heron.

“Yeah!”  Internally I cringe, but I’m trying not to show how elitist I am and not say anything about how actually it’s fairly easy to tell a crane from a heron.

“Ok. Cool. There’s a Tundra Swan over there.”

“Oh, did it really fly all the way down from the tundra?”

“Yep, flew all the way down from Canada and it’s on its way back.”

“Awesome!”  Enthusiasm’s high, for sure.

“Alright, have a good day, I’m just looking for swallows, and ope, there’s one flying over your head right now!”  Ope is a Midwestern word used both in place of Oh and for when you bump into someone on accident, mostly the latter.

“Cool! (looks at swallow)  Goodbye!”

And we went on our separate ways.

American Tree Sparrow

I noticed a number of meadowlarks, sparrows and more here, which I wondered about.  It’s not usually to chase 20 American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) around the boardwalk.  And there was a plume of smoke on the horizon…

I then went to the Emiquon Globe Units (4) across the road, and the North Globe Unit was on fire. Quite literally.

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They were burning the prairie that day, which explained all the sparrows, meadowlarks, etc. over on the other side of the road.

Many Aythya

Also metaphorically, because there were thousands of ducks.  The dominant species were Canvasbacks(Aythya valisineria), Redheads (Aythya americana), Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), and Northern Pintail (Anas acuta).  It was just staggering to see them in such numbers.

Mixed Ducks and Swans

A lone Common Goldeneye flew overhead, and a lone Common Merganser was in the fish pond near Dixon Mounds.  There were also quite a few sparrows wandering about, I suspect having been temporarily displaced by the fire. I even saw some kind of longspur get stirred out of the brush, though I missed the call or facial features to ID it.  Partially due to the fire, I presume, everyone was very stirred up, making for a large amount of bird activity.   Red-tailed Hawks circled overhead, watching everything be driven out by the fire, waiting for a few mice to be scared out of the brush before diving down after them.

Northern Pintails

On a hunch I decided to check the often-productive fields along Bottom Road (5),
which were full of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator), Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Pintail, and two Pectoral Sandpipers.  It’s quite an odd sight seeing a Trumpeter Swan next to a Pectoral Sandpiper, with the vast size difference.  The swans are on their way back home, but they’re mostly gone from central Illinois, while the Pectoral Sandpipers are increasing.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swan

I then had lunch at Pizza Hut.  I  would recommend the Pizza Hut in Havana to those birding in this area. Because the buffet was closing, they gave away free dessert pizza, which is the best way to ensure continued loyalty to a restaurant.  Anyway this isn’t a food-reviewing blog, so after lunch I  decided to try a few spots for Smith’s Longspur.  An unreliable source had reported seeing them already, but no official sources had found them yet in Illinois.  I knew where the best fields were supposed to be, due east of me.  So I jumped back in the truck and headed out.  After an hour or so of searching, I finally found a few of my lifer Smith’s Longspurs in the well-known field at US 136 and County Road 3100 E in Mason County (6).
I was actually playing the call while sitting in the truck with the windows down, to remind myself of what they sound like.  The recording stopped and I heard their little… rattle is the word most people use to describe it, and I guess that works.  I double checked my phone to make sure it wasn’t playing, and I heard the call again after doing so, along with a Lapland Longspur call note for comparison.  I drove down the road a little ways, and several Smith’s Longspurs flew out in front of my truck and crossed the road into a field, where I lost them in the corn stubble.

Spring Lake

I then checked a few uneventful spots near Mason City (7) before deciding to visit Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area in Tazewell county (8).  (I should’ve gone for my towhee spot at Revis Hill Prairie instead.)  My 31 Mute Swans, single Bonaparte’s Gull, and 9 Tree Swallows were the only real finds of note at that location. Compared to the previous year, the bottomlands were pretty uneventful, so I just drove through and left.

Spring Lake Eagle Nest

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest here is one of the best in the state to see, though, so at least there’s that.  People always ask me “Have you see the eagles?” when I go birding, almost every time.  Along the rivers, Illinois has a bazillion Bald Eagles.  I’m tempted to ask them “Have you see the Song Sparrows?” but I don’t want to come across as a snob.  I am kind of a snob, though.  I spend all my time looking for little brown birds when there’s majestic eagles and swans everywhere (at least in this part of the world).  And Spring Lake is great, too:

South Bay of Spring Lake

I then went out and walked around the Goofy Ridge access at Chautauqua (9).  There wasn’t much, but calling lone Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers at least made the stop worthwhile.  I’d been hoping for a Red-headed, and the Pileated was an unexpected surprise from the nearby flooded forests to the northwest.

Horned Grebe

On a whim I went back to Emiquon (3) and checked around the visitor’s center. The Tundra Swan had departed, but I pulled my scope out this time (I’d only used binoculars at the visitor’s center the first time around, though I did get the scope out in the globe units). A close Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) showed off its molting, transitional plumage (it’s changing feathers for breeding season), but the Common Loons I was hoping for were not to be found.  Oh well.  Who cares, on a day like this?

Snow Goose Flocks Landing

The Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) were also considerably more stirred up, and extended in a line for a considerable distance.  I estimated 5000 roughly, but there were likely more.  This area can have half a million Snow Geese in the right season.

Lesser Scaup

The ducks (these are Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis) continued to amaze in their sheer numbers, and I stayed to admire them until the sun began dipping below the horizon.

Mason County Sunset

As it would soon be night, I decided to head back across the river and check for American Woodcocks and Northern Saw-whet Owls. As I drove back, the sun set over the river valley and it was spectacular.  More than one person pulled off at Chautauqua (2) to take pictures of it, including me.  As I was walking back, an American Woodcock gave its bzeent! call from the bush next to me.  It was VERY alarming, to be sure!

Sunset at Mud Lake

The sun had set by the time I reached Sand Ridge State Forest (1) and the owl spot.  I played call notes off my phone to see if the owl would respond.  It started screaming at me (quite literally) and so I was happy.  A Barred Owl called afterwards, which silenced the smaller, more timid Northern Saw-whet Owl.  It being after 8:00 PM with over an hour’s drive home, I departed.
I’d seen and/or heard 94 species over the course of the day.  Evidently that’s quite a bit for March, which is bad for me because it gets me in trouble again.  I was told by a friend that “hey, you kinda sound like a certain notorious Western Illinois birder in your post”- and I am so tempted to say who, because that person needs to stop- and that kind of scared me.  Said person in question has no credibility because they always go out and “beat” records, find the most ridiculous sightings, and never seem to have an “off” day.  I have people from Arizona text me and ask if said person’s sightings are legitimate.  It’s my goal to never have someone from Arizona text other Illinois birders and say “Is Jared on the level?  Is he not a good birder?”
I’m not out to beat records.  I don’t plan to submit this to Lister’s Corner, the keepers of “official” records, because I don’t want to and because I don’t have photos of everything.  I wasn’t going for a big day, I just had a good day.  Same with this year in general.  I wouldn’t have as high of a total  so far this year if I hadn’t been going for a county big year, but now that I’ve relaxed from doing that, I’m just going to see what I end up with by the end of the year.  I remain #3 on the Illinois Ebird 2018 list in terms of species as of this writing, but there’s no way whatsoever I retain that through April- I’ve just got too much going on and my knowledge of and ability to find warblers is insufficient.  And that’s a good thing.  I don’t want to be #1, or #2, or even in the top 10.  As I was discussing with some friends of mine tonight, being #1 always means people are jealous and envious of you.  I don’t want that.
All of this being said, I do plan to go back and refind my more “problematic” species ( LeConte’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows) at some point this year.  (I’ll mostly just wait around for Lincoln’s Sparrows to show up, and then actively pursue LeConte’s Sparrows at Pyramid.)
  And for a happier finale. This part of Illinois is my “first love” when it comes to birding- it’s where I visited every chance I could get when I lived in central Illinois.  I like southern IL quite a bit, but in my opinion there’s nothing better than the Illinois River Valley when it comes to birding here in IL.  I’m so glad I could return and see it yet again, in a perfect day of birdwatching.

 

Top Ten Birds, Herps, Plants, Trips, and Photos of 2017

I did several top tens as separate blogposts last year. This year I’m going to restrict it to one somewhat longer post.  Let’s get into it, and start off with birds!  (Caution, Snakes at end)

 

Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

I do have three honorable mentions, a lost Cinnamon Teal (Illinois),  two American Dippers (Colorado), and one Hurricane Irma-blown Sooty Tern (Kentucky).

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#10 Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)-  I saw these both in Illinois and in Colorado this year.  The Illinois one was on an extremely fun trip, and I’m hoping to get a couple more this winter.

Whooping Crane #2

#9 Whooping Crane (Grus americana), southern IL -Easily the rarest worldwide of the birds I saw this year (with 600 or so in the wild), the Whooper is North America’s tallest bird.

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#8 Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), CO- It’s a Burrowing Owl.  Need I say more?

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#7 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), IL, KS- Not only is it a bird with an insanely long tail, I saw several over the course of the year.

#6 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (no photo), IL – Sure, I didn’t get photos, but I set a county record when they flew over my apartment in Jackson County.  What better way to see  new birds?

#5 Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), IL (photo by Colin Dobson, computer destroyed quality) -A Eurasian gull that often wanders to the Northeast, this was my first mega rarity of the year, and a fun one to find.  Unfortunately I have no photo, so I borrowed this one.

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#4 Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) central IL- The second of the two Eurasian wanderers, this one is a little more in doubt (though I’m 99% sure it’s wild).  If accepted, it will be the state’s first or second official record (though there’s plenty of unofficial records).

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#3 Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis), western KY- This bird is the rarest- it’s supposed to migrate from Siberia to Australia twice yearly, and how it ended up in a flooded cornfield in western Kentucky no one knows. It did- on Eclipse Day- and I chased it at 7:00 AM.  It is probably the best bird I’ve seen this year, easily a first state record (of any kind) for Kentucky, but it isn’t my favorite, because there’s two birds just a little higher on the scale…

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#2 Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), KY/TN/IL- I’ve spent so much time looking for these, that in November I drove 7 hours round-trip to see a few in far southwestern Kentucky/far northwestern Tennessee.  This one posed ten feet from my car.  And then, driving back home in December- a Loggerhead Shrike flies across the highway in southern Illinois.  Shrikes are unusual, rare, and charismatic birds with the tendency to impale other, smaller animals on thorns.

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#1 Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) MO/IL – My 300th US bird of the year (debatably- I’m not sure when I first saw Broad-winged Hawks) and my 100th or 101st lifer of the year (again, Broad-winged Hawk- I probably saw them in September 2015, but I can’t say for sure.)  The timing- just after finals- couldn’t have been better!  I then went on to find one in IL.

Top Ten Lifer Plants

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#10 Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), central IL- It’s pretty.

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#9  Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera), southern IL- It’s an orchid.

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#8  Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii ), CO –  Other than two following plants, this was the most interesting plant I found in Colorado.  It looked like something someone might grow in a garden, instead of on a talus slope in the Rocky Mountains.

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#7 Silvery Bladderpod (Lesquerella ludoviciana),central IL-  It only grows on one sand dune in Illinois, which I checked a couple of times until I found it in bloom.

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#6 Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda)(IL state champion tree), southern IL- This is the biggest tree I’ve seen this year.  It’s absolutely massive, which you can see with my hat as a comparison.

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#5 Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus),central IL – Another rare plant in Illinois, this one I had the distinction of discovering exactly where it grew by using a website.  It’s at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, one of my favorite spots to visit.  That’s honestly why I put it so high on the list.

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#4  Spring Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), Missouri Ozarks- This is an orchid that steals nutrients from fungi. It was a somewhat unexpected find in the Ozarks.

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#3 Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), CO- Even more unexpected was this orchid in Colorado, which also steals nutrients from fungi and is much prettier than its cousin.

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#2 Orange-fringed Orchid (Platanthera cillaris), northern IL – The most beautiful and rare plant I’ve found in Illinois this year, the Orange-fringed Orchid grows in a spot guarded by giant mosquitoes and hidden from the world.  In that spot, there are thousands.  It was fascinating, and I got to see it with the Fenelon, one of my close friends.  That’s not easy to top… is it?

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#1 Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis), CO  Evidently it is.  I got to see this with my family.  One of the most unexpected finds of the year, this unusual, somewhat rare orchid is widely praised in nearly every guide to orchids. Much of this praise is for the rarer Eastern form, but the Western form, while less rare, is still the best plant of 2017 for me.

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

#10 Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge/Four Corners, May 31… I almost put the trip with the Illinois Golden Eagle in southwestern central Illinois on as #10, but this trip, also with V.S., had a lot of unexpected species.  I went for Red-necked Phalaropes, an oceanic vagrant, and ended up finding a state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoo.  It got me over 200 species-wise for the year.

#9 Southern IL/Riverlands, November 11- On this trip I saw my first Red-throated Loon and had a blast birding all day with Chris Smaga and Kyle Wiktor.  I’ve been to Riverlands three times between November 11 and December 15.  The last trip got me the Snowy Owl, but the first trip was probably the most fun, even if the first half of that trip was an unsuccessful Greater Prairie-Chicken search.

#8 Snake Road, September 15- This is the trip where I found the Mud Snake.

#7 Southern IL, August 17-20- When I first moved down to Southern Illinois, I got to see so many unusual plants, animals, and natural areas in that first weekend, culminating in my trip to see the Red-necked Stint and the eclipse.  It’s unforgettable- and it was really hot!

#6  Three Weekend Days in Emiquon, April 10, 16, and 23- One of these was with the Lincoln Land  Environmental Club, one was with Mom, and one was by myself.  I saw a lot of unusual species on all three days, and it was interesting to see all the changes week-to-week.

#5  Lake Carlyle Pelagic Trip, September 30- I met many birders and got to see four lifer birds, as well as the most bird species I’ve ever seen in one day (88?).

#4  Kankakee Trip  with the Fenelon, August 1- Orange-fringed Orchids!  Thousand-acre prairies! Philosophical discussions in the car!  It was perfect.

#3Snake Road, October 13-14-  I saw 80 snakes over these two days.  That’s pretty awesome.  I also got to meet a LOT of herpers.

#2 Ozarks Trip, May 17-19- The Lincoln Land Environmental Club trip- that was so much fun.  We had skinks, a nesting Eastern Phoebe, and a Luna Moth on our front porch.  The ticks were a little annoying, but everything else- weather, sightings, lodging, people- couldn’t be topped… well, I guess it could, by #1…

#1 Colorado, June 5- 14- Family vacation in Colorado.  Snow-capped mountains, family, orchids, all kinds of animals (including 30 lifer birds)- I had so much fun here. I’ve had a great year.

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

Honorable Mention- the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an elusive bird and I finally got one good photo:

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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————————————CAUTION, SNAKES BELOW THIS LINE!!!——————————————

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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#10 Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), southeastern Missouri- This was an unexpected find on a fun trip to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (that’s not an exact location).  Since Broad-banded Watersnakes are almost certainly extirpated from Illinois, Missouri is the closest I’m going to get to seeing one locally.

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#9 Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca), Snake Road, Illinois-  A State-Threatened species of treefrog in Illinois, the Bird-voiced has been a species I’ve wanted to find for a long time.

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#8 Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), southern Illinois-  Another amphibian I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this salamander was even on its nest.  Bonus points to you if you find the Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) hiding in the photo.

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#7 Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), Missouri – My only rare lizard of the year, this was one of the highlights of one of my Missouri trips. Overcollected for the pet trade, Eastern Collared Lizards are uncommon to find.

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#6 Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri Ozarks-  This was in a parking lot, about ten minutes after we got to the location where we found it.

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#5 Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), Missouri Ozarks- About fifteen minutes after finding the Eastern Hognose, this slithered across our path about three feet from my foot. Some people would freak out- I did, but exclusively from joy.

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#4 Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), central Illinois- This is a snake I’ve always wanted to see, and I found it at a special spot to me, which I cannot state because collectors.  It was also up a tree, which I did not expect and which proved a photographic obstacle.

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#3 Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Snake Road, Illinois- My long-standing nemesis snake decided to randomly crawl out in front of me one fine October day. 58 snakes later, that was still the best snake of the day.

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#2 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), southern Illinois- I’ve managed to see three of these this year in Illinois.  The photographed one was the best of the three.

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#1 Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Snake Road, Illinois- It was a slow day at Snake Road, on September 15, the day after a nice rain… Suddenly, I spot a snake crossing the road at the first marshy spot on the north end.  I figured it was a Cottonmouth… but the red was a giveaway.  This is a snake that people at Snake Road who’ve been looking for 20 years haven’t found. (Don’t judge that sentence’s verbiage too harshly.)

To #300, and Beyond! Irruptions! Let it SNOW! Random Exclamation Point!

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I did it!  I saw (over) 300 bird species in North America in one year AND I saw (over) 100 lifer species in one year.  When last I posted on this blog, I was at 297 species, and that was in November.  With finals, last assignments, and other business, I’m amazed I saw as much as I did.  Let’s dive into this- a fairly long post with a LOT of  photos, some bad but of interesting birds.

I’ve mentioned before that I usually have pieces of music associated with spots I visit.  In this case, I discovered Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” shortly before doing pretty much all of this.  So that’s now associated with all this.  I’ve listened to music for about 54 days straight this year according to Spotify statistics.  Much of this is in the car driving to go see birds or go hiking.

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Sunset on the Carbondale Reservoir is often quite spectacular, even when the birds aren’t.  None of my new species were seen here, but it did prove to be a good spot for a break from studying when I needed one.  I think this is the best small lake in Illinois, hands down.

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In the edges of some woodlots nearby, frost flowers came after hard frost, when ice is exuded out of a plant’s stem.  While these can form on several different species of plants, the only species I saw these on was American Dittany (Cunila origanoides).

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Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), one of the more interesting species I never saw back in Central Illinois, were remarkably abundant in the areas surrounding the Shawnee Hills.

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A frozen pond in the middle of the river valley had about seventy Rusties drinking from the water on the surface.  It was easily the largest flock of this species I’ve ever encountered.

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At the Carbondale Reservoir, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) posed for a photo atop a post.

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That post was in fact holding up the lights for the baseball field.  I’ve seen Great Blue Herons this high up, but usually only when roosting.  I’m not sure what this bird was thinking!

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In the woods nearby, some birds dwell that are gone from most of the rest of Illinois.  For instance, this Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) holds out still, when its kin, the other Catharus thrushes, have moved south for the winter.

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Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), here holding a morning yoga session, also haven’t made it much past the Shawnee Hills in Illinois.  They like the wooded ravines here.

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Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca) (of which this is now my best photo) can be found in more northern spots, but they aren’t particularly common further north.

The opposite of this was bird #298, a lifer heard-only Long-eared Owl, that I managed to scare up by playing the call alongside a friend of mine.  This species rarely vocalizes in the winter, but evidently this one did.  It was a bit south of its usual range, and a very exciting find.

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Massive blackbird flocks overwinter just north of town.  These are mostly Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), with a few others mixed in.  We saw a flock of well over 50,000 blackbirds (about 95% Red-winged and Common Grackles, with a few other species mixed in).

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And now it is time to consider the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), a common species of the roadside telephone pole or tree.  Most of them, like the specimen above, are Eastern Red-tailed Hawks (B. j. borealis).  Some are not.

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This blurry one, for instance, is a Northern Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. abieticola).  That thick, interwoven “belly band”, the band on the edge of its tail, the dark throat and the cool dark color of its darker coloration (not a warm brown- that distinction is very important).

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Here’s the back of a Northern Red-tailed Hawk.  Note how cool-toned and dark it is, and while it has a little white there’s significantly less than on the back of an Eastern.  Abieticola, the scientific subspecies name, means “dweller of the firs”- this subspecies is a Canadian migrant from the spruce-fir forest of eastern and central Canada.  It was only recognized as a separate subspecies of late, despite being fairly easy to discern from a regular Eastern (at least, to someone who knows the differences.  Trust me, it’s easier than most sandpipers.)

These two photos above and all the rest below were taken on Kaskaskia Island.  There were eight Red-tailed Hawks in one tree there.  Here’s two of them:

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The one on the upper left- that’s a Northern.  The one on the right is something really weird.  At first glance, seeing the pale head, most regular birders (including me) would think  “Oh, cool!  It’s a Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk!”  Krider’s is the northern Great Plains subspecies that is extremely pale in all features, but more of an extremely light tan than pure white.  Krider’s also has a lot of white in the wings, which this bird lacked.  So, what is it?

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What you are looking at in this grainy image is a light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk (B.j. harlani).  Usually, mostly-dark-with-some-white-streaks-on-the-chest and strongly-banded-on-wings-and-tail Red-tailed Hawks are called Harlan’s. However, in the northern Great Plains there exist birds like this light-morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, snow white in color and with solid almost black wings.  This is the strangest Red-tailed Hawk I’ve seen all year.

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Almost as strange but far more expected was this dark morph Western Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus /alascensis ).  Note the warm brown coloration and lack of streaking on the front.  Along with the Easterns also present, there were four subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk in one tree.  I would say that might be a record for anywhere east of the Mississippi, but in fact Kaskaskia Island is one of the few small portions of Illinois WEST of the Missississippi River. Thanks to floods (which have ruined this island multiple times) the course of the river was diverted, and now the river flows south fairly straight just east of the village of Kaskaskia.

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Kaskaskia Island is both a geographic oddity and a birding hotspot.  There were 18 Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in this one tree alone, and 39 on the whole island.

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For some reason, other animals were scarce in the vicinity of all these Bald Eagles, excluding a few Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers.   Horned Larks, a flock of mixed blackbirds, and Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) were some of the few small birds we observed in any significant numbers, despite a decent amount of habitat:

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In a “nearby” undisclosed location, we saw some Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus)  while out looking around for whatever we could find.  A couple of them posed very well!

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Short-eared Owls are an Illinois state-endangered species (mostly because they are virtually killed off in this state as a breeding species).  Formerly they might have been one of our most common owls, as they breed in grasslands and winter in them also.

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Where there are large tracts of grassland remaining in Illinois, it’s still possible to find Short-eared Owls in the winter, as was the case with this location.  The owls migrate down here from the northern Great Plains (sound familiar?).  Short-eared Owls fly at dawn and dusk, not nighttime, making them one of the easier owl species to see – if you know where to go!

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We got to see four Short-eared Owls flying around the area that we visited, some flying within twenty feet of us as we sat in the car. Their stripey brown pattern serves as good camouflage in the grasslands where they hide out during the day.

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A Barred Owl (Strix varia) was nearby on a telephone pole.

If you’ve noticed, for #298 I had no photo- it was heard only.  I did see #299, but it was not photographed either…

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Species #299 was four lifer Red Crossbils, very unusual-looking finchs with an upper and lower bills that “cross”- used to extract pine nuts from pine cones.  They flew over my residence in Carbondale, and my camera was 20 feet away.  I’ve spent multiple hours looking for them in pine groves, and then they just show up flying over my apartment, where there are few pine trees… I don’t understand why they were there but it was still spectacular!  Red Crossbills are having an irruption year- there’s been far more of them in the Midwest than usual, probably due to a lack of pine nuts to eat in the boreal forests of the West and Canada from whence they come.

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Back to owls for a bit… On the way out of my residence to go back home from college, I recieved a message from a friend whom keeps not finding Short-eared Owls, including the one at Riverlands, above. The message I received was not about Short-eared Owls, but a SNOWY OWL!!! at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.  That was sort of on my way home, so I shoved all my clothes in a basket and took off for Riverlands.  On the way, I spotted a Rough-legged Hawk in Jackson County (somewhat hard to do).  Just down the road in Perry County IL, a state-threatened and long-term nemesis Loggerhead Shrike flew across the road right in front of my car.  Following this up was a Northern Red-tailed Hawk.  I stopped for nothing (especially since all of the birds flew away from the road as I passed by).

I pulled into the main visitor’s parking lot at Riverlands, and I didn’t see anyone for a bit, while I read over the reports about the owl and where to go for it.  I joined up with three other birders and students who knew where the owl was, and together we joined the crowd watching it from afar… not afar enough for me to get terrible photos, but far enough that the owl wasn’t harassed or even took much notice of us.  Lifer #99 of the year, and bird species # 300 for the year:

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SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)!!!  Snowy Owls are also having an irruption year.  Their life is tied to the voles of the tundra- the more voles there are in the tundra, the more Snowy Owl chicks are raised successfully and the more Snowy Owls show up in the US during the winter.

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This is a young female- the amount of black on the feathers distinguishes almost-entirely-white male from the more-beautiful-thanks-to-patterning female, and more-patterned immature from less-patterned adult.  I’ve wanted to see one of these birds for awhile now.  The minimum distance to keep away from one of these owls to not disturb it is a hundred feet.  I was probably about 130 feet away, with a group, snapping many photos.  The owl didn’t seem to mind.

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Snowy Owls are in fact remarkably not scared of people.  Don’t take advantage of this and get too close, but they do have a reduced fear of people.  This is in part due to their remote tundra lifestyle- our group was perhaps the first group of people this owl has seen.  As one of the top tundra predators, Snowy Owls have little to fear from other animals in their summer range.  We kept a distance, and eventually I had to leave- my detour was taking a little too much time.

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Hundreds of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) (and three Tundra Swans) flew in for the night at sunset, and a couple of Short-eared Owls worked their way over the flooded fields.

The following day, I arose at 11:30 AM (extremely late for me) to the news that a Barnacle Goose had been seen in Towanda, Illinois.  A Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) is a European goose species extremely uncommon in the Midwest, and uncommonly found in the Northeast.the name Barnacle Goose comes from the Dark Ages belief that Barnacle Geese hatched from Goose Barnacles, a species of barnacle on the coast of England.  In fact, the Barnacle Goose nests on cliffs in the Arctic, and the chicks as one of their first actions have to glide down hundreds of feet to the ground below, where they join their parents.  It’s insane, and there’s a great Youtube video (with British narration!) here.  Caution, it tugs at the heartstrings a little.

So, in theory, the Barnacle Goose at Towanda survived a tumble off a high cliff, flew thousands of miles in the wrong direction, and had the luck to be found 300 feet off the exit ramp to Interstate 55.  Or it’s an escaped domestic bird (so goes the other theory, which is much less popular).  However, it  is believed enough that all three prior submitted records of Barnacle Goose,  submitted to the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee, were rejected on basis of origin.  And yes, there is a group that votes on whether or not a bird that was seen is wild or not and whether or not the bird was seen.  Quite frankly, I think this is a bit of nonsense, but it does hold weight with many birders and there is some value to having such a committee. (A fuller discussion  from one of America’s top birders, whose opinion I agree with, is linked HERE).

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Here’s the pond.  Behind me when I took this photo is Interstate 55, to the south and east.  You can see the fresh Muskrat mound in the foreground (and we saw the Muskrat, too!)  This seems like an unlikely spot for a rarity, but that’s what makes it a rarity.

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Here’s our Barnacle Goose, in the center, with Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on the left and a Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) on the right.  The Barnacle Goose was very shy, hid in the back of the pond, can fly, has no leg bands or clipped toes, has the correct plumage for the season, associated with wild migratory geese from Canada,  and showed up during the winter, as have all records of Barnacle Goose in IL that I’ve found online.  With all of these points of evidence, I believe that this is a wild goose and I am therefore counting it as my 101st lifer of the year… NOT 100th*.

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Here, you can see some of its companions- Canada and Cackling Geese (Branta canadensis and Branta hutchinsii), with the Barnacle Goose looking head-on at us.  Cackling Geese have shorter bills, are smaller (duck-sized, virtually), make cackling noises, and are in the foreground.  Canada Geese- if you’re reading this blog, and you got this far,  you know all about those.

So, I’ve seen 302 birds this year.

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Time to figure out a Top Ten List of Birds, Herps, and Trips- that’s going to be interesting…

* I had a lifer Olive-sided Flycatcher in the Ozarks in Missouri that I just discovered  in one of my old photos, so my Snowy Owl was actually  US year bird # 301 and  US year lifer #101, making Red Crossbill #300 and #100, and so on.

The Great Shrike Hunt- Success At Last!

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If you’re not aware, I’ve always wanted to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Thursday, November 9, I finally snapped.  It all started when I went over to find the northernmost  population of Brown-headed Nuthatches in the US, just below Kentucky Lake Dam along Airport Road there.   Brown-headed Nuthatches sound like a squeaking chew toy, but they were remarkably silent at my visit.  The Red-shouldered Hawk sitting in a nearby tree the whole time probably didn’t help.  I gave them half an hour, left to walk the shores of Kentucky Lake and contemplate life- more specifically, why I’d driven an hour and a half to do this when there’s so many other things I could be doing.  I came back to hear one finally give its little call.  This was a lifer for me.  I still haven’t seen it, but hopefully I will next time.

I decided I was going to drive the extra distance and find Loggerhead Shrikes where they’re abundant on the Tennessee- Kentucky border.  I’ve already gone far enough- why not go fully insane and drive all the way to Tennessee, another hour and a half away?

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A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) wished me good luck as I set out on my quest.  A wrong turn got me a Barred Owl, and despite my phone’s dying battery  I was determined to find a Loggerhead Shrike, or make a valiant effort for one.  Was the reward worth it?

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Yeah, in my book it was!  My first Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) merely sat on a wire a hundred feet away, but my second one flew down to a corn stem some ten feet away, grabbed a grasshopper, ate it,  and sat for a minute watching me.

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Loggerhead Shrikes are one of the most rapidly-declining birds in eastern North America.  Common throughout the Midwest a hundred years ago, Loggerheads used Osage Orange hedgerows and brushy field edges to hunt small birds, insects, and lizards, which they often impale on thorny bushes and small trees- like Osage Oranges!- or barbed wire.

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With the removal of trees around the edges of farmfields (to prevent seedlings from growing up with the crop- same goes for the brushy edges), increased pesticide use, and the general destruction of habitat, the Loggerhead Shrike began to vanish across the Midwest.  It holds out only in habitats it likes- such as the floodplain bottoms of the Mississippi River Valley in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the brushy edges and thorny trees remain somewhat intact.  I saw five throughout the day.  I got so excited about it that I took a video:

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After videoing the shrike, I drove to Kentucky Bend, seventeen square miles of land which the Mississippi River almost entirely encircles and Tennessee borders the rest, with Missouri bordering the whole area on the other side of the river.  Therefore, you can stand on Kentucky Bend, and look eastwards over the Mississippi River flowing north, and see Missouri, from a spot you can only drive to through Tennessee.  Geography is SO much fun.

After crossing the river, I stopped at a KFC to eat in Hayti, Missouri, after fufilling the #1 rule of birding trips (always buy gas in Missouri-it’s cheaper), and realized that my phone wasn’t going to make it the rest of the trip.  My phone’s plug doesn’t work,  and with the sun setting, I duck-taped my phone to a wireless charger, which worked surprisingly well.  I made it back home navigating by interstate signs and intuition alone, as the ancients did up to about 10-15 years ago.  It was seven hours of driving, but I did it.  I now feel that I can pretty much do anything.

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Back in Carbondale a couple of days, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flew over the Carbondale Reservoir, but the sunset there made it even better.  I couldn’t help but tack this spectacular sunset on to what has to be one of my favorite finds of the year.

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Year Birds

#292- Fox Sparrow (seen some time before this, but also at Carbondale Reservoir)

#293- Brown-headed Nuthatch(lifer, heard only)

#294- Loggerhead Shrike (lifer!)

Cottonmouths In November- I Forget That I Live In The South!

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This is basically a summary post of three trips at Snake Road, covering the last few days of October and the first week or so of November.

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At this time, Central Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis) efts (young) were everywhere.

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Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) were understandably happy about this.  Ribbon (and other types of garter) snakes and newts are in a toxic relationship- as the newts increase the amount of toxins on their skins, the snakes increase their immunity to such toxins.  I took a friend along to this area- this was his first Snake Road snake.

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His second was a Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake along the bluffs.  I posted online that this would be the last Rat Snake of the year.  I figured it would be the best snake on that particular day…

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It was upstaged by a Mississippi Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion)- a State-Threatened species in Illinois found only at Snake Road.  Frankly, I think these should be called Olive Watersnakes- their color and head shape both resemble olives to some extent.

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I have no problems with the common name Green Treefrog for Hyla cinerea.  We walked along the bluffs, looking hard for Cottonmouths and finding surprisingly none.  Where were they?

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Flipping a log in a creek did get us a Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda) and a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).  That this frog hasn’t eaten the salamander is a bit surprising to me.

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Wandering back to the Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) spot proved fruitful, as usual, with 15-20 salamanders present.  A crevice in this area yielded our first and only Cottonmouth of the day, and we watched the little Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans) hop out of our way as we left:

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A few days later, I returned with other friends.

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While looking for salamanders, we found this exotic blue fungus and an unusual type of harvestman (Vonones ornata) at the very bottom of the picture (I didn’t notice it until writing this blogpost, actually!)  We also went over to Grand Tower Island:

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Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) have arrived at Grand Tower Island for the winter.

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Driving backroads nearby, we found a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on November 3, in the middle of the road, miles from a den site.  This encouraged us to get over to Snake Road ASAP.

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The Cottonmouth was a real nicely-patterned one that posed nicely for us.

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So did a Western Ribbon Snake, just down the road.  I’m not used to just having snakes cross the road all the time in front of me.  Perhaps it’s because I never really looked before, but there do seem to be a LOT more snakes down here.

Once we reached Snake Road, we found nine Cottonmouths.  At one point, we were going down a steep slope on the bluffs, with some brush on one side and leaf piles and the bluff on the other.  I told my friend we need to move very slowly to ensure that we don’t step on a Cottonmouth.  That’s when I saw one in the bushes three feet away from my leg.  My friend and I backed up rather quickly and let it slide by into a hole.  We considered whether or not it would be worth it to go down, and that’s when I looked into the brush to see this:

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Needless to say, we didn’t go down that way!

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Northern Harriers perched in nearby crop fields.  I presumed they were hunting mice.  However, apparently there were other animals to hunt, also:

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A Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) juvenile, my first one of the year (and probably my last new snake species for the year, haha!) crossed the road and hid in the grass as I drove up.  The amount of dust on the snake’s body indicates that it had been on the road for some time. Racers are one of the fastest and most aggressive snakes in Illinois.  They’re also completely harmless unless you’re a hemophiliac or have some other weird blood disorder where receiving any tiny cut would kill you.

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To be fair, aggressive isn’t the right word-  defensive is. Like all snakes, Racers only bite if handled, stepped-on, or cornered, and the last two are extremely hard to do with a Racer, because they can slither away at speeds faster than most humans usually run.  I said this was a juvenile- an adult will be considerably longer and black with a white belly.

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Nearby, on Grand Tower Island, the last of the shorebirds were feeding in the mud.  Baird’s Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii), Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), and Least Sandpipers(Calidris minutilla) scurried about, eating the last few insect larvae as they fueled up for a flight to the Gulf Coast, where most of them will spend the winter.  The last few Baird’s had the farthest to fly- they have to get to South America!

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I say it a lot, but the distance which these tiny, robin-sized birds fly twice every year amazes me.

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One last trek out here, with a few friends from my apartment, brought us tons of frogs and salamanders moving on a light, misty Sunday.   Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) hopped about on the forest floor, the X on their backs making them instantly identifiable.

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In crevices, Long-tailed Salamanders lurked about.  I always wonder how many salamanders there are- I’d guess we only see a tenth of the ones present in the cracks at the most.

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We had to watch our step on that day, though- Central Newt efts were everywhere, in the dozens:

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I’d never seen so many salamanders at one spot.  I suspect the rain had gotten them moving.

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The last snake on Snake Road I saw was this Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster).

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I did mention there were lots of salamanders, right?  Here’s the full length of a Cave Salamander, tail and all.  They almost deserve the “Long-tailed” name!

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My possible last lifer salamander of the year was this Northern Zigzag Salamander (Plethodon dorsalis)- these are fairly common in parts of Southern Illinois, I just don’t see them often.  They replace the Eastern Red-backed Salamander in the Shawnee Hills, though in far eastern Illinois the Red-backed is the dominant species. “Zigzags” vary in their zagginess by range, with this form being one of the least zaggy.

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In crevices nearby were the last few snakes of the year, three Cottonmouths (pictured) and… a rat snake.  Well, even though none of the photos turned out, it was the last snake of the year (I expect).  We’ll see if that pans out- I’ve said it before, and I may end up saying it incorrectly again.

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I saved these last two photos for the end- I’m so happy with how they turned out.  There’s not much cuter in the herp world than this Western Ribbon Snake, and there’s not much better in the scenic overlook department in Illinois than Inspiration Point, especially with good clouds.  It’s a joy to live in such a beautiful place, with so many creatures.  This is probably the last herping post of the year, and while the herping year started out slow for me, it’s really gotten great.  Hoping for even more next year- I’ve still got plenty of herps (and everything) I haven’t found yet!

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Two Down, Nine to Go, and Ironic Timing, Too!

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I’ve had few better birding days than Saturday, 10/28/17.  A guy I’d never met in person before, Kyle W., and I joined forces  about 8:15 AM and birded much of the southwestern Mississippi River Valley, from Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County north to Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in Monroe County and then back south again until 7:00 PM. I’ve not birded Randolph or Monroe Counties much before.  Above is Kinkaid Lake Spillway, an “artificial” waterfall.

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At Kinkaid Lake Spillway, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and one migrant Northern Harrier, as well as about eighty Greater White-fronted Geese, flew overhead, in a good start to a great day.   Our first Cooper’s Hawk of the day flew past us while driving through Chester, IL.

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The greatest bird of the trip was our one lifer Whooping Crane (Grus americana)!  Kyle W. had actually seen it the day before, and I’d decided off the back of his sighting “Why not?”  He agreed to go, and we went. One of the rarest and certainly the tallest bird in North America,  It was a joy to see such an amazingly rare and large bird- it dwarfed the Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) around it, and those are not small birds.

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It’s funny- I’ve now seen Whooping Crane before Sandhill Crane in Illinois this year, despite there being ~650,000 wild Sandhill Cranes, compared to ~500 wild Whooping Cranes.  So using overly simplified mathematics, I had a 1300:1 chance to find a Sandhill Crane over a Whooping Crane.  However, despite several searches, I’ve found only the one (Whooping) Crane this year.

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Of course, this is a spot for Whooping Cranes, which mitigates all overly simplified mathematical ratios. Bird reporting is both a blessing and a curse for Whooping Cranes- people occasionally shoot them just for the heck of it (and, being the tallest bird in North America, standing in an open slough, it’s not like it’d be easy to miss).   Property owners near where rare birds like Whooping Cranes arrive, irritated by the inundation of  occasionally rude and disobedient birders, have also been known to shoot said rare birds (illegally) to keep people from trespassing.

By not reporting the exact location of this find, people don’t chase it and the bird isn’t hunted or in as much danger.  However, one concerning thing was our observation that a duck blind was being built in the same slough where the Whooping Crane was.  It’s on private property and the landowner is well within his legal rights to hunt there. Hopefully the crane moves on before that becomes a problem, though I suspect it won’t.

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Seen throughout the day were hundreds of Eastern Bluebirds- in some spots there were dozens, with about fifty on one set of wires near Ellis Grove, IL being our largest flock.   (Of course, it wasn’t till later that I realized I have no pictures of any bluebirds from the trip.) Equally in the hundreds were Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) and Savannah Sparrows, and approaching them in numbers were Swamp Sparrows in nearly every habitat.

Among the large flocks of Horned Larks (immature above)  and sparrows, there were three American Pipits and a Vesper Sparrow in the fields near and on Kaskaskia Island. Kaskaskia Island could be very productive for larks, sparrows, longspurs etc. in the winter- there’s a lot of weedy fields and good habitat. I suspect I’ll be asking local landowners if I can bird the fields there a couple times this winter, although the roadside birding was good enough on its own.

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In a single large slough at Kaskaskia Island were three Dunlin, a Pectoral Sandpiper, two Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) (including the one pictured above), a Wilson’s Snipe, a Lesser Yellowlegs,as well as a couple Killdeer- six shorebird species, and it was almost November!

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Also on Kaskaskia Island in a dried-up slough was one Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), seen at a quarter to noon- a bit odd for this usually crepuscular (dawn/dusk) species. This was probably my third-favorite find of the day.

About 40-50 American Kestrels, 35-odd Red-tailed Hawks (including a couple of unusually pale ones and a couple that wouldn’t be bad for subsp. abieticola), and about 25-30 Red-shouldered Hawks were seen throughout the day.  Unfortunately, we saw no Merlin or Peregrine Falcons, but other than those and Black Vulture, we saw at least two or more of all the expected or likely species of raptors.

Other numbers for raptors include 18 Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) throughout the day, the majority near or on Kaskaskia Island and in the brushy areas behind Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. A few were seen high up, migrating, including one at Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County.  Northern Harriers are my favorite raptor (excluding owls)- I love watching them skim feet above the ground as they hunt for mice:

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Many Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) including an unusually tail-less one, a dozen-odd Bald Eagles, three Sharp-shinned Hawks and two Cooper’s Hawks represented the rest of the raptors.

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Several of the migrating raptors were at Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve- this spot could be a good hawkwatch, although unfortunately it’s an hour or more from any significant towns.

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I still think this is the best scenic overlook in all of Illinois.  I’m willing to give Garden of the Gods, Mississippi Palisades, Grandview Drive,  or Inspiration Point some room for competing with it, but I really do like this spot.  Someday I’ll get here in the summer and find a scorpion, but it wasn’t to be this day.  The cold breeze- I was shivering- proved that.

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Fults Hill Prairie is probably my favorite because you look out at what appears to be Illinois.  It’s not like some beautiful forest- it’s actually the farmland of Illinois.  It feels more honestly Illinoisian than Garden of the Gods, for instance (the Illinois one, not the Scottish or Coloradoan ones). That, combined with the lack of crowds and the fact that you’re standing in a prairie, for “the Prairie State”, endears it to me.

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Here’s one of the Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) that flew past us, this one actually flying northwards below the bluffs, slightly protected from the  strongest winds. There may be some hawkwatching here done in the future -you can see so far around here:

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79 Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew over as we prepared to hike back down Fults Hill Prairie’s steep slopes (not recommended for beginners).  These were migrating, one of the last flocks I expect to see this year:

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Large flocks of Gadwall and some Wood Ducks were pursued by Bald Eagles at Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. There were clearly more birds, but due to the thick lotus cover and lack of viewing areas at Kidd Lake Marsh we couldn’t see them. A couple of Wilson’s Snipe and many Swamp Sparrows were present here.  Perhaps most interesting, however, was the Smeared Dagger Moth (Acronicta oblinita) caterpillar:

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A single Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) was spotted among about twenty decoys at a private hunting area (which we birded from the road) in southern Monroe County. It was being watched closely by a Coyote (Canis latrans) behind it as you can see below:

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The last and one of the best finds of the day was a lost male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher where the train bridge crosses Lock and Dam Road in Randolph County near the mouth of the Kaskaskia River- Kyle missed it, unfortunately, as it flew off when I drove past, I only comprehended what I saw once I’d driven past it. While searching for it unsuccessfully, hundreds of American Robins flew past. This capped our day, and we then went to a Halloween Party- dressed as birdwatchers. The costumes were remarkably easy to find… we didn’t have to change clothes at all!

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The sky looked very Stranger Things-y to me as we went away.  This was a splendid Saturday and with the Whooping Crane (Species #290 for the year, lifer #309 for the US and #263 for Illinois), I was 10 birds away. In an entertaining series of events, Sunday night, October 29,  I was saying to a few Chicagoland birders on Discord (like Skype, but better) that I’d trade my recent Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sighting for any scoter- preferably Black. I’ve seen White-winged and Surf Scoters before, in 2016, but Black Scoter, in Illinois the rarest away from Lake Michigan, has eluded me.

Monday morning, October 30, a Black Scoter showed up at Crab Orchard NWR, 20 minutes away from me.  Kyle W. and I chased it, spotting a few Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) along the way:

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The Black Scoter was far out- we had to scope for it, and no photos were taken.  As a result, the reviewers on Ebird have decided, despite there being four witnesses, that the bird was not there.  Either that or they just haven’t gotten around to updating it.  Irritating, but ultimately- it’s my word that I saw it, and I did see it (#291).

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A large flock of mixed ducks swam in the middle of the lake behind it.  Forster’s Terns (Sterna fosteri) continued at the campground beach, though no rare gulls joined them:

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In the perfect finale to the great Illinois bird exchange,  on Tuesday, October 31, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher showed up at Montrose Point in downtown Chicago. The guys I was talking to got to see their Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  I don’t know what happened, but the timing’s hilarious.  Hopefully we can do that again sometime!

In the meantime,  I’ve seen two lifers, so whoop whoop!

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Year Birds for 2017

#290 Whooping Crane

#291 Black Scoter