Category: IBET

Why The Big Year Is Over

Alright, I think it’s fair to fully disclose why I stopped the Jackson County Big Year 2018 a month in. I’ve had two birders whom I respect considerably and whom have significant experience in birding Southern IL both question or received questions about my sightings of late.  I got an email from one of them:

“Just a word of caution. I’ve received several messages from birders across the state inquiring about ALL of your recent sightings. Dude, no offense, but people realize you’re fairly new to birding and finding something rare, every day or most every time you’re out, just doesn’t happen.  It doesn’t help your cause that you’ve admitted you are doing a Jackson County Big Year.   Just trying to offer you some advice. SLOW DOWN. Your list of questionable finds is growing leaps and bounds. That throws up flags in eBird but also in people’s minds.   Your best defense is get photos!  I know, sometimes that is quite difficult. But you could hush your naysayers with positive ID’s from photos you take.   I’ve had to do the same sort of thing back in my beginning days… (Trails off in an encouraging story)”.

Yeah, that was a terrifying thing to read at the beginning of the day. Birdwatching is my escapist hobby (other than writing).  If people don’t trust me… that’s not good. There’s another young birder in my state in whom no confidence is given, as he regularly reports the most unlikely birds.  It’s always been my goal to not end up like him, and today I realized how close I’m coming, in people’s minds, to ending up that way.

I’ve been doing this for two, three years.  I think that’s long enough to become overconfident in my ability to correctly identify a bird.  I’ve certainly been overconfident in my ability to correctly ID Red-tailed Hawk subspecies.  As a result, I’ve removed all records of those on eBird, except for the ones in which I have absolute confidence, witnesses, and/or photos.

I’ve made some mistakes, the most public of which was a Slaty-backed Gull retraction last month, twice, in the listserv, when I mistook two different gulls for the bird.   Back in December 2017 I also had to retract a Golden Eagle sighting, when a friend and I mistook an immature Bald Eagle for a Golden Eagle.  I’m sure neither of these retractions has helped my believability in any way.

There’s also a few records for which I have limited evidence- a recent, unusual LeConte’s Sparrow, a very early Lincoln’s Sparrow the day before the LeConte’s, a Greater Scaup a few days before that, and going back into last year, some of the more notable ones include Red Crossbills and Long-eared Owl in southern IL.  Now, I firmly believe that I saw all the aforementioned birds (or heard, in the case of the owl), but I can understand why people would doubt them.

Younger birders (those below the age of 30) are not generally trusted anyway.  That’s understandable- birdwatching is a hobby that is built on experience.  Those who are younger have less experience-even if they have sharper eyes and more acute hearing.  It’s a bit of stereotyping of which I’m not particularly fond.  That being said, I also make mistakes due to my lack of experience.  For instance, I reported a male Brewer’s Blackbird from a field with Rusty Blackbirds near one of the best spots for Rusty Blackbirds in the state (and a bad spot for Brewer’s Blackbird).  I forgot that midwinter-onwards, male Rusty Blackbirds can start to change into breeding plumage and resemble male Brewer’s Blackbirds.  (That sighting is now “blackbird sp.” on Ebird.)  I was told of this by another birder with much more experience.  Remembering when plumage changes occur is one of the thousands of little bits of information gained through experience (and extensive internet research).  While I’ve done much of the latter, I still need much of the former.

As of this writing, I was #3 on Ebird in Illinois for 2018.  I don’t know most of the people in the top 100, and they don’t know me.  I’ll be dropping ranks quickly when spring migration rolls around, but until then I’m this odd newer birder few people know up on the top.  (I’m up that high because I went from the top to the bottom of Illinois over winter break, and I’ve been out nearly every day in southern IL where there’s more wintering species than in most of the state.)

People trying to break records are also not trusted, since it’d be only too easy to lie about something in the on-your-honor system of bird records.

I tend to go birdwatching solo- this works best for me, as I don’t really have anyone to go with at present.  However, this also puts me in the position of being the only person witnessing what I see.  As a birder in my 20s, birding solo is a good way to be absolutely not trusted whatsoever.  Add to that a county big year, a few unusual sightings, and being #3 in number of species on Ebird in the state of Illinois for 2018 (so far), and you have the perfect combination for doubters.

To take the birder’s advice, I do plan to slow down.  I was tiring of the big year before all this blew up, as I like wandering around anywhere I want without regard to county lines and other political boundaries. Also, my school and work loads are only going to increase, and I won’t be able to handle trying to see every bird during migration, doing my job, and passing my classes at school at the same time.  This sudden development happening at the same time put several nails in a coffin that was already being built.

So- the steps I have taken/ plan to take.

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#1- Get more photos- I’m going to have a camera in hand more often, and get photos of more birds that I see.  It’s hard to argue with a photo. For instance, I saw a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a field in Randolph county recently.  I took a photo, and while it’s not a great photo, it shows that I saw the bird (one of my favorites, too!)

#2- End the Big Year- If I don’t have a reason to be constantly looking for new species, people might consider me more credible.

#3- Go birding with other birders- The more witnesses I have, the more trustworthy I am. Obviously these need to be witnesses with enough experience to correct me when I am wrong.  When, not if, because at some point I will be wrong.

#4- Avoid RTHA ssp.- This is a weak point for me, and I’m going to stop submitting them until I get more experience. I’ve gone back and removed a few of these, also.  I don’t think people realize this, but I do go back and remove records if I think I made a bad call after the fact.  I reported a Red-necked Grebe in December 2016 on Lake Springfield- I saw one November 2017 and realized the bird I’d seen was different enough that I couldn’t be sure of its identity.  So, I removed that record from Ebird, and from my life lists.  (Thankfully, I’ve seen Red-necked Grebes in Illinois since, albeit without a photo or witness… at least other birders saw them before and after I did!)

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#5- Publicize my correct ID’s with photos – In order to ensure that I rebuild my reputation, I need to show that I have one worthy of rebuilding.  So, any rare birds I see that I have photos of are going on Facebook.  I started this recently, with this photo of a Taiga ssp. Merlin (Falco columbarius) above. Merlins are an uncommon falcon, and I saw two of them on this day- with witnesses, to be sure, but by putting photos out, I’m directly counteracting people who think I’m making stuff up.  Here’s the other one, a less common Prairie ssp. Merlin:

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#6- Underestimate numbers of birds and use the “sp.” on Ebird-  If I’m not 100% sure of a bird, I need to put it as a vague species, like “sparrow sp.”  I do this on occasion, but not enough.  If it’s a flock of birds and the only ones I can see are X species, I tend to count them all as X species, even the ones that I didn’t look over as closely.   I also need to lower the numbers of birds I see.  I tend to count higher numbers than some people, because I have good eyes and ears and probably a bit of overconfidence in my ability to ID everything that flies my way.   However, if I lower my numbers so that they are in line with what’s expected (or even lower than that), I’ll still be reporting the birds I saw- just not all of them.  Think about it this way; there’s at least the lower number of birds that I put.  If I put a higher number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a lower number, they may believe that I overestimated the number in the first place.  If I put a lower number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a higher number, they know that I was right, plus extra.

I believe that if I do these six things for a considerable amount of time, people will trust me more.  Hopefully no more LeConte’s Sparrows come along and mess this up.  I really don’t want to find any rarities right now, for once in my life. That’s kind of a sad position to be in.

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.

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

 

The Police and I… and Some Weird Bug, Too!

I’ve had a series of run-ins with the law before, but this was the worst…. because this time, I actually did something illegal.

Where did I go wrong?

It all started with a bird. Well, two birds.  Actually, it started with a different bird- one I saw.

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This is my lifer Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla).  Laughing Gulls are birds of the oceanic coasts- especially Florida.  I’ve almost certainly seen them before, but that was back in the dark ages before I became a birder.  So, this is my lifer- first one I’ve officially seen in the wild.

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It joined a number of other unusual species at the Crab Orchard Lake Campground beach… including one very unusual species that WASN’T the Laughing Gull.

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Black Terns (Chlidonas niger) should have migrated out of Illinois a month or more ago.  This one was very late, though it’s gone now.  Ironically, I found one a few days before at Lake Springfield:

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Perhaps it enjoyed all the other terns present.  An unusually large flock here probably assembled to eat all the biting flies present, of which there were many.  A few Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), like the one on the tall buoy, also joined in the fly-hunting.

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The odd, buzzing calls of Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) can be heard all over this beach.

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Here, one’s squawking about my presence.  Note that the leg and bill color are black- in the spring and summer, these will be orange, and the bird will have a black cap on its head instead of eye patches.  Forster’s Terns look like an entirely different species in winter and summer.

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Tired of being analyzed, this tern took off, and flew right over my head on the way back out over the lake.  These terns are probably going to be here well into November, until all the bugs die.

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Also present here for several days were Franklin’s Gulls (Leucophaeus pipixcan) (the bird with wings raised).  These are similar to Laughing Gulls, but they have shorter bills, whiter eye rings and whiter tips around their feathers.  Franklin’s Gulls migrate inland, living alongside ducks in the summertime up in North Dakota and Canada- the Prairie Pothole region.  Franklin’s Gulls then migrate south and end up in Texas- they’re one of the few gull species easier to  find inland in North America.  They do end up on the South American coast for the winter.

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A late Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) tried to steal the show also, with its bright red bill remarkably unnoticed by me most of the time I was looking at these gulls and terns.  However, the Ring-billed Gull in front of it decided to steal the show by doing whatever that face is.   People would ordinarily pass off a group of  birds like this as “seagulls” and even many birders would look past it.  However, I’ve grown to really like gulls as of late… which is why, when a little kid on a bicycle rode up, scared all the gulls away, and then rode away before I could say anything, I was a little bit irritated. I don’t even know where he went.

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Several days went by.  I bought a Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge pass, which I believed entitled me to go and visit most of the refuge, (I was wrong about this, as we shall see) including the  remote spot of Wolf Creek Bay.  A Praying Mantis waited in the grasslands there, as did a LeConte’s Sparrow (unphotographed), on a previous trip.   After another birder told me about hearing Pine Warblers in the woods along the Harmony Trail, (and also that it was probably ok to go back to Wolf Creek Bay)  I went over and heard Pine Warbler and Red-breasted Nuthatch, adding to my year and Illinois year lists respectively.  (A lot of birders keep lists of species they find- birding of this sort is basically a giant scavenger hunt.  I enjoy watching behaviors, but I do also fit into the “lister” mentality).

With the Pine Warbler and Laughing Gull, I was at 288 species for the year in the United States- 12 away from  In the meantime, reports of an Eared Grebe and Long-billed Dowitchers, both of which would be lifers for me, tempted me back to the Wolf Creek  Bay overlook.

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On the drive over after church, wearing full , I spotted a few Franklin’s Gulls flying around.  That short bill and the faint white spots at the wingtip help to distinguish this species.  I spotted an open gate- apparently, on this particular Sunday, visitors were allowed to drive around the restricted area.  If visitors were allowed back here on this day- great!  I could go legally see the Eared Grebe and Dowitchers!  I would totally not get in trouble!

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Illinois’ largest Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) grew along the roadside.

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After driving around, I walked down the old road, at the end of which was the spot for Long-billed Dowitchers and the Eared Grebe. The fall color brightened  the grayness of the day.

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Large flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and mixed sparrows contained among their ranks a late Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  This was a good bird, if not exactly the one I wanted.

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A Raccoon (Procyon lotor) sat by the edge of the road and took off as I approached.

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Here’s a few lifer Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus),  (YAY!  New bird!  Species 289!)  but Eared Grebes were not evident.  I walked back up the road, and scared a Copperbelly Water Snake  that crossed the lane. I also found something else:

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Meet, Pselliopus barberi, the Tiger Assassin Bug.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  It’s easily the strangest bug of the month.  Assassin Bugs roam around, biting and sucking out the insides of fellow insects.  They’ve got a painful bite even for humans.  I took photos from a slight distance and then went back to my car, where I found out I’d broken the law.

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Waiting back at the parking lot were two refuge marshals, and they asked what I was doing down there without a permit… apparently, despite what I’d been told, I wasn’t allowed back there.  I apologized profusely and got off with a written warning.  I did have a nice chat with one of the officers while the other one wrote up the warning and looked me up to make sure I’m not a dangerous criminal.   Despite my checkered past with being detained as a terrorist, (full story here), they decided I was fine and let me off.  A copy of the warning is on file at the refuge office- if I trespass again, I’m getting a ticket, which is fair.

However, something about this is really not fair. The Eared Grebes have returned to the same spot, in greater numbers.  There are now two of them… I don’t want to break the law, again.    I’m going to ignore the fact that I saw a lifer bird species and remain bitter about the injustices of not being able to see Eared Grebes. ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Year birds:

Laughing Gull (287)

Pine Warbler (288)

Long-billed Dowitcher (289)