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 http://birding.aba.org/ 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:
Tundra Swan (lifer!)
Red-throated Loon (lifer!)
Red-necked Grebe (lifer!)
Selected Ebird Checklists:
Bartel LWR: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40511999
Northern Red-tailed Hawk: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40459347
Riverlands MBS- all checklists, in order of date:
Alton Crow Roost: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40665124
Two Rivers NWR: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40619880
Stump Lake STFWA: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40620022
Pyramid SRA: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40614522