Category: Field Trip

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).


#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.


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


#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.


#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).


#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…


#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.


#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


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


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


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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?


#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:


Inspiration Point, IL:


Western Wood-Pewee, CO:


Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:


Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:


Black-necked Stilt, IL:


Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:


Rocky Mountains, CO:


Compass Plant, IL:



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




Black Rat Snake, IL:


Cottonmouth, IL:


Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.)

We Three Men of Illinois Are… Searching for Birds, Near and Far…


I’m going to start this post out with a prologue to explain how I figure out where to go to see birds I’m after, because that factors into how this particular day went.

First off, I pick a target species, depending on the season and if I’ve seen it (or not), or seen it recently (or not).  Often this is a rare species that just showed up in an area.  I find out that it showed up through IBET and MO Birders- two listservs- email groups that send emails about birds to all other members in the group.  These are collected at   Another way I find out is through checking Ebird reports on a regular basis.  For instance, if I want to look up a particular county, say Mason County, Illinois (home of Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Sand Ridge State Forest, and generally just a bunch of interesting birds), I can go here:

Facebook groups mentioning rare birds have also been helpful, especially for out-of-state birds like the Red-necked Stint. Among these are the ABA Rare Bird Alert and the Illinois Rare Bird Alert. For some reason, Missouri lacks a “Rare Bird Alert” Facebook group, something I may have to rectify sooner or later.  That might be my Christmas gift to Missouri birders, haha…


So, for the last few weeks I’ve been planning to go looking for Greater Prairie-Chickens on Veteran’s Day.  I roped in a couple of friends and we drove up, spotting a Short-eared Owl on the way at the Southern Illinois Veteran’s Airport.  However, our first spot of the day was Bartel Land and Water Reserve in Marion County, Illinois, which is NOT where Marion, Illinois, is located.  Bartel Land and Water Reserve provides habitat for one of the two populations of Greater Prairie-chickens in Illinois, one of the rarest birds in the state and our target for the day.


Our second good bird of the day was another owl- a Barred Owl (Strix varia) perched on a power line!  Barred Owls are the most common species of owl in Southern Illinois, with Great Horned Owls a close second.  Barred Owls are a species of wetlands and the deep woods for the most part- finding one in the mixed cropfield–patchy grassland- scrubby forest that more ostensibly suits a Great Horned Owl was a bit of a surprise!


Another surprise were the flocks of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), the first time I’ve ever encountered flocks of this species.  Ordinarily a bird of wet forests, Rusty Blackbirds were present along the edges of several yards and cropfields, flying overhead occasionally. Rusty Blackbirds are one of North America’s greatest mysteries.  By several estimates, Rusty Blackbird populations today are less than 10% (and possibly less than 1%) of what they used to be in the early 1900s.  Most other bird populations have declined significantly over that time period, but not to the same extent, and for more explicable causes (habitat loss, pesticide usage, etc.) In contrast, no one knows for sure why there are so few Rusty Blackbirds now.


Under the same list of additional mysteries emerged three others.  First off, why on November 11 was Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) still in bloom?  Secondly, why were there no Prairie-Chickens? (We found none despite extensive searching.)  Third, why did three Bonaparte’s Gulls, another wetland species, decide to fly over the preserve?  This area’s birdlife somewhat resembles that of a wet forest bordering a lake, when in fact I saw little evidence of wetland conditions or large lakes.


Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) flew overhead near Carlyle Lake.  As I took the photo, I could hear the gunshots of happy duck hunters- it was the first day of duck season.  I have mixed feelings about duck season- without it, most of Illinois’ wetlands would not exist.  However, it does make it unsafe to go birdwatching in my favorite habitats for about two months.  And, the wetlands that have no hunting also have no trespassing at this time of year, to provide shelter to the ducks.  Spring waterfowl birding is often better than fall for this reason, at least in my limited experience.

Since birdwatchers who are too obsessed call themselves birders, I’m going to call myself a ducker. (Currently, that’s not inappropriate slang, which really surprises me- I expect that will change.) If this ducker can’t look for wetland birds, what is he to do?


Look for strange Red-tailed Hawks on the side of the road?  Sure!  This is a Northern Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis abieticola).  Abieticola means “Dweller of the Firs” in Latin, which is pretty awesome. Northern Red-tailed Hawks are a mysterious subspecies of the usual, everyday Red-tailed Hawk that lurks on one out of every five highway signs, posts, and poles (start counting).  They live in far northern Canada, among the firs (hence the name).   While they often look like regular Eastern Red-tailed Hawks (B. j. borealis), Northerns have a very thick dark “belly band”, a darker, cool-toned back with less white than an Eastern, and a strong band on the red tail, all features which this specimen had perfectly:


This is the fifth definite subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk I’ve seen in Illinois, after Eastern (99.5% of all seen here), Western (solid brownish-dark with a red tail, though this varies a LOT) Krider’s (extremely pale with lots of white in the wings and tail), and Harlan’s (Cool dark tones, streaked chest with some white, mine was mostly dark).  Here’s a really bad photo of the Harlan’s (B. j. harlani), seen at Garden of the Gods recently:


Our targets were in Missouri, at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, arguably Missouri’s best birding area.  Both a Snowy Owl and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks had been seen only the day before, and both were odd birds to find in Missouri.  One is a fierce predator of the frozen Arctic tundra – the other is the tropical answer to the temperate Mallard Duck.  Both are known to wander widely, but rarely do they wander to within a mile or two of each other.   And yet the record stands, with photos of each on display.


As a bonus, there were American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).  Actually, we only saw the bonus- the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks gave us the slip, despite nearly everyone else finding them both before, during, and after our visit.  And the Snowy Owl left shortly after being seen Friday.  Oh well.


Other large white birds proved a bonus bonus.  These were Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator), which began to appear in the few, then the dozens.  Before we knew it, we’d seen a hundred of what is North America’s heaviest bird, up to six feet long and weighing more than 25 pounds (which is a LOT for a bird!)  I’d never seen more than seven at once, and I could look out to see hundreds.  It’s quite a sight!


With the Trumpeter Swans came a bonus- my lifer Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus).  In the photo above, the upper right bird is a Tundra Swan, smaller and with differing bill length and facial shape.  As with many birds, there’s two nearly-identical species, and figuring out which is which is a requirement of good birding.  Another example of paired species confusion is below:


Sparrows!  Except, not exactly.  These are the rare Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), only found on every continent except Antarctica and South America. Easily confused with- well, any small brown bird by the average person, and with House Sparrows by the slightly-above-average-in-terms-of-bird-knowledge-only person, Eurasian Tree Sparrows differ by having a brown cap to their heads and black spots on their cheeks.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows were released in St. Louis by somebody or other in the early 1900s.  Cut to 100 years later, they’ve progressed up the Mississippi and Illinois River Valleys into southeastern Iowa, western Illinois, and northeastern Missouri.  Unlike the ubiquitous invasive House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrows remain somewhat localized.  This makes them “fun nonnatives” and not “pesky invaders”.


Other sparrows of  a native persuasion hid out in the nearby brush.  This is my best photo of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)- I need to work on my Fox Sparrow photography, is what this image says.  Fox Sparrows are one of those birds I don’t see as often as I think I ought to.


Thankfully the White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were much more photograph-friendly.  White-throated Sparrows are in genus Zonotrichia, as is one of the more interesting American sparrows- the Harris’ Sparrow.  On our second trip here, we encountered a Harris’ Sparrow while looking out at Heron Pond, the Trumpeter Swan pond.  While it decided to avoid pictures with skills that put Fox Sparrows to shame,  the Harris’ was an uncommon bird and a good find for us.


We also made another interesting observation. Two girls were trespassing on the marsh trails, having walked straight past at least three signs warning them not to enter the protected waterfowl area.  They used the marsh as backdrop for several photos of each other- I’m not sure why.  As they were more oblivious than malicious, we directed them to the signs and let them take selfies someplace else.  I sound really old writing that, but it’s just… there are so many better spots to take selfies, which aren’t trespassing.  Leave the Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) alone- they’re too awesome to be disturbed.  Look at those mohawks!


While looking at some ducks in Ellis Bay, another birder asked us if we were here for the Red-throated Loon.  What!  A Red-throated Loon is a bird I’ve never seen before.  We trained our scope on the bay and found what was a lifer for all of us, Red-throated Loon:


A Red-throated Loon has three major features.   #1- It doesn’t have a red throat in the fall and winter.  #2- It is generally thinner in features and build than the more common Common Loon, the most common species of loon, commonly.  #3- It should be on an ocean or Great Lake, mostly the former, and definitely not in Missouri 200 feet or so away.


I never promise good photos, and in this case- well, it’s a Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata).  That’s about as much as anyone can say.  At least it’s not in breeding plumage- that would have been sad to get grainy photos of what is a neat-looking bird some parts of the year.


On this we departed to Fazoli’s.  Afterwards, a reported Red-necked Grebe the following day ensured that two of us returned to see it (and to get those pesky Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, who were still mocking us by being seen every day, as well as the not-uncommon Peregrine Falcons we missed the previous trip).


The Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) was literally the second bird we saw on our second visit.  Like the Red-throated Loon, the red on the neck is easier to see other parts of the year.


A more common grebe, the Horned Grebe, dove for fish near us.  We met other birders while looking for more interesting birds (Peregrine Falcon, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Sandhill Crane flyovers, etc.).  Nothing turned up, so we asked them to call us if they saw anything.  Evidently they forgot, because the stupid Black-bellied Whistling Ducks reappeared after we left a good while later, as did a Peregrine Falcon, and doubly irritatingly, a White-winged Scoter that  remained somewhat irregularly seen for a few weeks after, which would have been a good year bird for me.  I doubt we’d have been in a position to chase the birds, though.


Driving north on the best road in Illinois (State Highway 100 between Alton and Hardin, worth a trip for Bald Eagles and bluffs), we took the Brussels Ferry over to Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, in search of White-faced Ibis and large geese flocks.  Our luck with previously-reported rarities continued- no White-faced Ibis (though they evidently continue as of December 6).  Two out of nine previously reported rarities chased?  That means I’m due for some good luck down the road.  The Harris’ Sparrow was a good find, though, but unfortunately no one else relocated it.   At any rate, we got the giant flocks of waterfowl we expected at Two Rivers:


Most of these were Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), and Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), in the thousands.


Among the more unusual species here were a few late Blue-winged Tea (Anas discors) which usually leave Illinois by the end of October:


Did I mention that there were thousands of ducks and geese?  Several thousand?


We drove over to Stump Lake to chase an improbable Mottled Duck that someone had reported. This was what we came to, with fifteen minutes of daylight left:


Unsurprisingly, if a Mottled Duck had been in there (which I doubt), we didn’t have time to find it among the several thousand ducks.  The nearby bluffs glowed red in the setting sun.  Earlier this year, in February, I’d watched a Golden Eagle fly over those bluffs, and most of the same ducks were in the same spot.  It didn’t happen again, and the sun set over the red hills as we left.


The sunset was spectacular.  Of late I’ve seen many good sunsets, including this one photographed further down the river.  Watching the light reflect over the river was even better.  As I was driving, however, there were no photos of this event.  We then went owling at Pyramid State Recreation Area, which was amazing with eighteen owls of three species but unphotographed.  Even better, a Bobcat ran out in front of the car, my first time ever seeing one- also unphotographed.


After sunset, on our first trip, we found out about the Alton Crow Roost, which words cannot describe.  Suffice it to show this, and call this a blogpost:


Year birds

Tundra Swan (lifer!)

Red-throated Loon (lifer!)

Red-necked Grebe (lifer!)


Selected Ebird Checklists:

Bartel LWR:

Northern Red-tailed Hawk:

Riverlands MBS- all checklists, in order of date:

Alton Crow Roost:

Two Rivers NWR:

Stump Lake STFWA:

Pyramid SRA:

My First “Pelagic” Trip- IOS Lake Carlyle


“I’m not talkin’ ’bout pleasure boatin’ or day sailin’. I’m talkin’ ’bout workin’ for a livin’. I’m talkin’ ’bout sharkin‘ (pelagic birdin’)!”- Quint, Jaws (1975).

There’s few occasions where I’ve birded sunup to sundown.   In fact, the only one I can think of was my first Christmas Bird Count last December.  My aborted Big Day back in March wasn’t all-day since I only got to my first spot at 8 A.M. (one of the reasons it was aborted, although having 75 species in early March isn’t too bad.  More on the Big Day at my old blog, here, and my first CBC, here.)  I had decided a month ago to participate in the Illinois Ornithological Society’s Carlyle Lake Pelagic Trip.  I’d never visited Carlyle Lake before, having only driven past at night and at twilight.  It has the third-highest hotspot list of species on Ebird for Illinois, probably due to its proximity as the closest large reservoir to St. Louis and to the variety of habitats present.  See Dan Kassebaum’s website for more details about and photos of Carlyle Lake birds:

I woke up around 4:30 AM, and wondered why my alarm was going off.  As I drifted back to sleep, I suddenly realized why- I had a birding expedition!  I was supposed to be there at 6:30 AM, and it was over an hour and a half away, not including the time it takes me to get my lunch packed, etc.  One slow van in front of me put me as the last of 16 birders to arrive at the McDonald’s in Carlyle, our meeting place.  I then carpooled onwards with Craig Taylor and Kimberly Rohling, until our entire group stopped near the entrance to Eldon Hazlet State Park.


Pulling off at the entrance area, warblers proved to be abundant, if fleeting.  Thankfully, a half-dozen Black-throated Green Warblers decided to take pity on the photographers* in the group, and showed themselves well as they bounced around the top of a planted Baldcypress tree.


Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) are a favorite of mine, mostly because they’re easily recognized.  Few other birds have such a bright yellow head combined with dark stripes underneath.  We moved on from these, picking up several more species along the way.  I had my first miss of the day with Blackburnian Warbler, when Colin saw one well enough to get a photo.  That would’ve been a lifer if I’d seen it.

We moved to a spot where someone spotted a would-be LeConte’s Sparrow in the brush, and all but myself and two birders went down to look for it.  The three of us continued talking and mentioned that we’d love to find a Nelson’s Sparrow.  I spotted what I thought was the LeConte’s Sparrow in the bush and took a record photo (what I call photos where the bird isn’t easy to find or particularly well-photographed).  Curiosity got the better of me, and I went down to see what was so fascinating.  Keith McMullen mentioned that they’d found a Nelson’s Sparrow.  I double-checked my photo of the “LeConte’s Sparrow”- it’s a lifer Nelson’s:


With this Nelson’s Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni) , I’ve seen all but one of the regularly-occurring sparrow species in Illinois.  That one exception is the Clay-colored Sparrow, difficult to find except in certain spots in Northern Illinois in the spring and summer. In the fall, the vast majority of Clay-colored Sparrows migrate south via the western Great Plains.  To be fair, the Nelson’s Sparrow is also somewhat difficult to find outside of the sand dunes, beaches, wetlands, and parks along Lake Michigan. I was very happy with this very unexpected find!


I laid on my back on the ground to look at this male Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), arrayed in fine red, the only completely red bird in the US.  Unlike male Scarlet Tanagers, male Summer Tanagers stay red all year long.  They are currently expainding their range northwards, being a Southeastern species.  Formerly, they were on the edge of their range in Central Illinois.  Now, however, they are found even as far north as Chicagoland. I got good looks, and despite being directly underneath the bird, it chose not to poop on me.  I wish gulls were so kind.


I strongly appreciate Eastern Wood-Pewees (Contopus virens) for their willingness to grant an excellent photo opportunity.  These were the only flycatchers of the day, besides Eastern Phoebes.  Evidently, the rest of the flycatchers have moved on.

Another stop found me my second lifer of the day, a Philadelphia Vireo, the last of the commonly-occurring vireos for Illinois that I wanted to find.  The second irritating miss of the day came when someone else found a Chestnut-sided Warbler and it got away before I could find it.  Honestly, the whole day was someone finding a bird I could barely even see, and my glimpsing it just well enough for ID purposes before it flew away into the undergrowth.  Well, most of the day…


A female Summer Tanager is far more drab than the male, even without the odd lighting in this photo.  We spotted several more species, including TEN species of warblers  for me, a personal record for one morning. I was definitely the least-experienced birder on the trip, which is why I’ve elected myself to write it up.  I believe the count was ~70 species seen by the group when we left Eldon Hazlet State Park, which is quite respectable for one morning!  (I had 64 species.)


Hundreds, if not thousands, of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) and American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) were present on Carlyle Lake that day.


It’d been awhile since I’d seen so many American White Pelicans.  There’s something so comical and yet so majestic about a flock of pelicans, and there’s certainly little else to match their size.


It was a mostly birding day, as intended.  With the drought affecting southern Illinois, not much was stirring that didn’t have feathers. A few good butterflies were present, including this Cloudless Sulpher (Phoebis sennae), which I always enjoy seeing.


This Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) at Whitetail Access decided to demonstrate how to do the splits upside down and eat bugs off a leaf at the same time.  Northern Parulas are a special bird for me- my first ever warbler was a dead Northern Parula at the base of the windows of a hospital in downtown Springfield.  After that, I heard a few, but I didn’t see one in the wild until the one I saw at Eldon Hazlet State Park, and this one at Whitetail Access proved far more interesting to watch up close- well, about fifteen feet.


A Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), a Wilson’s Snipe, and an Eastern Screech-Owl (heard only) proved to be three of the four best finds at Whitetail Access, almost entirely devoid of birds on  its mudflats.  Shorebird season is wrapping up.


So is butterfly season, unfortunately.  I’ve seen quite a few  new and colorful butterflies this year, and I’m certain I’ll see many more next year.  This one is a Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus), on what I believe is a Stickseed (Bidens spp.)

The next great bird we found was a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), the last breeding species of wren I hadn’t found in Illinois until now. (We’re going to ignore Bewick’s Wren in this discussion, despite the possibility that they reside in far western Illinois still.)  The Marsh Wren is half a lifer for me- I heard one singing in Indiana in August, but I never saw it, and it’s hard for me to really count a bird as a lifer until I see it. So, this is lifer 2.5 for the day. This little wren is very unusual- it creeped through the brush until being flushed into a nearby bush, where it scolded us from a partially-concealed perch.  This behavior is unusual for someone used to Carolina and House Wrens, but isn’t uncommon for this species.  Have fun finding it:


I think the juxtaposition of these two photos show why I prefer to look for shorebirds over songbirds.  Sure, shorebirds are hard to tell apart, but much of the time they let you sit and try to figure it out!  This one below is a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) at Patoka Access, where we stopped to find some shorebirds when Whitetail Access proved to be rather poor in that respect. My first Black-bellied Plover was spotted across the bay.  A third lifer for the day!


Alongside the Black-belled Plover, three American Golden-Plovers and several Sanderlings made for an interesting mix of shorebirds.  I have never seen those three species together before.  A few Cliff Swallows flew past, severely overdue to migrate south.  They were quite early this year and have stayed equally late.  I’m really not sure what they were doing there.


I did mention there were tons of Pelicans, right?

We boarded two rented pontoon boats to participate in the actual “pelagic” part of the trip.  A pelagic in birding terms is a boat trip, usually out to the middle of an ocean or a big lake, after birds that only live on the open ocean (or large open inland water body, like Carlyle Lake, during migration).  A Sabine’s Gull, one of those species that can only be found rarely on open bodies of water like this, had been seen the night before, but we all struck out on that one, the third big miss of the day.  At least I saw Sabine’s Gull last year on Lake Springfield.


Throwing bread off the back of the boat to bring in any rare gulls, we only found three species- Ring-billed, Bonaparte’s, and two Herring Gulls.  Still, as you can see, we had some of the best eyes in the state looking for it, in two boats.  From left to right above, we had Tyler Funk, Keith Mcmullen, Craig Taylor, ? (sorry about forgetting your name), and Colin Dobson, all scanning for whatever we could find.  Sitting on a boat for three hours or more, doing nothing but looking through what seems like an endless colony of Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) is not for everybody.  I enjoyed it, but the pelagic section was definitely much slower-paced than birding on the shoreline of Carlyle Lake.  Pelagic trips are not for people who prefer instant results.


We did have the other boat to help spot birds.  Occasionally the gulls would swarm us, and it was at this point that I’d wear my hat to keep the shower of gull crap from hitting me.  Our pilot, Tyler Funk, spotted something in the water that the rest of us didn’t.  In addition to steering the boat and looking for Sabine’s Gulls, he’d spotted this little guy on the water:


It was the fourth lifer for the day, (I’ll just say fifth by combining the “half-lifers” Northern Parula and Marsh Wren), a Red Phalarope  (Phalaropus fulicarius).  This was somewhat unexpected.  Red Phalaropes, despite their small size, almost entirely live far out at sea, only flying up to the tundra in far northern Canada to breed.  These are the rarest of the three phalaropes in Illinois (all three of which are the only phalaropes in the world, which means I’ve seen all of the phalaropes in the world).  This Red Phalarope was incredibly tame, allowing for close approaches as seen here:


It got within about eight feet of the boat, and if there had been no waves and a better cameraman behind the camera I’m sure my pictures would be better.  As it was, I’m still impressed with how well we saw this bird.  It even called and did a little feeding as we watched, the black and white pattern helping to hide it  surprisingly well in the waves once it flew further away.


We caught up to it again, and took even more photos.  This bird is rusty-red in the spring- it’s in fall plumage currently.  If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ll know that I saw a similar looking bird, the Red-necked Phalarope, which has a similar life cycle and can look quite similar. However, that bird has a dark, striped back and a thinner bill and body shape.


We let the Phalarope go back to its merry spinning (they spin in a circle to concentrate plankton in the water, and then eat the concentrated plankton), while we paid attention to the nearby tern flocks.  Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) congregated in large numbers off to the east- I’ve never seen anything like it!  We saw not a single other species in the flocks of hundreds of birds (the other boat did see a lone Black Tern some time before this, but we didn’t).  We watched them fly off as we made our way back to the boat docks, to end the day.


With 89 species, I did pretty well.  That may or may not be the greatest number of bird species I’ve seen in one day, though I’d have to double-check.  Either way, I strongly enjoyed meeting all the birders and I couldn’t have asked for more lifers!  There were three subjects of discussion that dinner- southern Arizona dream trips, birding stories, and horseshoes- that last, the famous Springfieldian “burger” with Texas toast, fries, and cheese sauce.  We all split up around 8:00 PM, to get back to our usual lives.  And thus concluded my first “pelagic” trip.

Thanks to Craig Taylor for driving me and Kim Rohling around all day,  Tyler Funk for finding the best bird of the day in the Red Phalarope, for steering my boat, and for organizing the trip, and to Keith Mcmullen.  It was wonderful to meet a few of my longtime readers, and even better to met those whose Ebird checklists I’d read in the past with considerable envy. I’m already planning to return next year- we’ll have to see what happens then!


Ebird Checklists:

West Access Marina:

Eldon Hazlet State Park:

Grasher Creek:

Whitetail Access:

Patoka Access:


*Photographers in the sense of birders with cameras.  There is an ongoing war between “birders” and “photographers”, the “birders” seen as the more stuck-up, holier-than-thou snobs who go out of their way to be irritating to those who simply want to take pictures of birds, and the “photographers” as irresponsible, bird-scaring jerks who regularly disturb sensitive birds like owls solely for the sake of am Instragram-worthy photograph.  Both stereotypes are equally true and false, in that there’s a minority of jerks in both groups, as with most hobbies.  I’m a birder- I don’t know half my camera’ settings.  However, as is obvious, I like to take pictures.  It’s about exploration and discovery for me, and if someone gets that out of camera settings, as long as they’re ethical about what they do (not doing this, for starters), then I don’t have a problem if they’re not interested in adding to their life, state, county or yard lists, chasing rare birds, participating in events like Christmas Bird Count,  or complaining about other people’s supposed finds, Ebird, and records committees- more traditional “birder” activities.