Category: Rare Birds

Spring Break Wanderings

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American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Flickr and WordPress have conspired together to change up the formatting of my so that now photos form “blocks” in between text blocks, with the option for captions. I’m sure this change will be for the best, but I am change-adverse to some extent, except when it’s winter changing to spring. Speaking of which, I wrapped up my last-ever college spring break in a whirlwind of birding and other pursuits.

TUTI at LMG feeders
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

Recently, my good friend Kyle and I visited Lincoln Memorial Gardens, a local natural area on the shores of Lake Springfield in central Illinois. Having resided in Southern Illinois the last few months, I noticed immediately how much less green Central Illinois is in mid-March. Nevertheless, the birds were active, including…

PIWA in Cornus florida
Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)

… a Pine Warbler singing away in the center of the park. Pine Warblers are rare migrants in Sangamon county Illinois, and despite having lived there for many years this was only my second one ever. The lack of pine trees, introduced or otherwise, means most of Central Illinois lacks in Pine Warblers, especially compared to Southern Illinois.

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Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythocephalus)

This immature, molting Red-headed Woodpecker foraged nearby. I suspect these woodpeckers of being religious birds. Their populations have dwindled out in the Northeast, which has seen an increase in secularism, while Red-headed Woodpecker populations remain stronger in the Bible Belt of the South and Midwest. I’m joking of course, but it is an amusing idea to consider.

Esox sp. with snail sp.
Pickerel (Esox sp.)

A flooded cornfield in my wanderings produced this mysterious fish, which appears to be some kind of Pickerel. Unfortunately I was lacking a net so it remained uncaptured. One of the great rules of exploring nature- ABAN:

Always Bring A Net.

Bidens
Spanish Needles (Bidens bipinnata)

As spring approaches, a few old seedheads stick around, like these Spanish Needles. This plant’s seeds have barbs designed to attach in clothing, fur or feathers and carry the seeds away for dispersal.

Veronica
Bird’s Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica)

It’ll be a bit before most flowers bloom, but this Bird’s Eye Speedwell, a local weed, has decided to get an early start. This is an introduced species of disturbed, rarely-mowed lawns. It has several siblings in the genus Veronica with smaller flowers and shorter flower stems (pedicels) that are even more common and are among the first flowers I find each year.

Sugarberry
Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)

This Sugarberry, found in lowland areas throughout the southern 2/3 of Illinois, may win the prize for strangest bark on a native Illinois tree.

Smilax tamnoides
Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax tamnoides)

The only prize Bristly Greenbriar is in the running for is “Most Painful Plant”, which it loses to Multiflora Rose and its curved prickles. Sorry, but those straight prickles on the greenbriar are just too easy to pull out to be truly insidious, even in the thousands. Still, there’s a harsh beauty to them.

Rathki's Woodlouse
Rathki’s Woodlouse (Trachelipus rathkii)

Thanks to iNaturalist, I found out this is an introduced woodlouse (roly-poly, pillbug, sowbug etc.) from Europe. According to iNaturalist, I’ve found this species throughout Illinois woodlands of all qualities, which given that it’s an invasive species is more than a little concerning. Some brief Google Scholar searches turned up very little information on this invasive species, leading me to question exactly what effects it does have on our ecosystems?

Augochlora aura?
Pure Green Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura)

Under the same log was this Pure Green Sweat Bee. I used to be briefly employed in a pollinator survey down in the Shawnee National Forest, although the only Augochlora I ever got to see were pinned. I presume they winter under rotten logs? Honestly, I need to learn much more about bees.

Blacklegged Tick
Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

Unfortunately, around the same time I obtained another year first, possibly my least favorite of the year. Tick populations are increasing across the US, and I got this one in a downtown, urban park in Springfield Illinois. I highly recommend tick checks at all times of the year, anymore.

To end on a happier note, as I drove back to school I was interrupted by a flock of 13 Sandhill Cranes passing over. South of the Chicago area, Sandhill Cranes can be quite infrequent to rare in Illinois, despite passing through Chicago and other portions of northern Illinois in the hundreds of thousands. Some do breed at a few local wetlands in northern and eastern Illinois- a massive conservation success story, given that as recently as the 1980s Sandhill Cranes were extirpated (gone) from the state of Illinois as a breeding species. Seeing crane flocks this far southwest in the state hopefully becomes less rare of an occurrence. At any rate, these cranes were a wonderful end to a great week off.

SACR
Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Winter 2019 Sort of Recapped

Right, I’m a wee bit behind here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GHOW on nest

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

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

Little Gull

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

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

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

PIWA

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

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

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

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

Cypressknee Sedge

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

Asplenium pinnatifidum

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

Harbinger-of-Spring

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

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

Hutchins Creek

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

Spotted Sal

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

Crawfish Frog

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

Marbled Sal

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

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

Northern Dusky Salamander

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

Hidden N. Dusky Sal

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

Blackspotted Topminnow

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

Havana Great Time, Emiquon-dn’t Ask For Better Birding!

How have those two puns slipped past my notice for this long?  I mean, it’s probably good that they have, but still, you would’ve thought I’d have caught something like that by now.

After the adventures of the last week,  I figure it’s worth refreshing people’s minds on Central Illinois’ premier natural areas, which I broadly refer to as “Glorious Mason County” even though it’s a bit broader than just that area  It could also be called the “Havana area” as that’s the name of the largest town in the region.

Random fields

I could go into a very deep discussion about the complex geology of this area, and because I wouldn’t understand any of it, I won’t.  However, I’ll try to pass on the limited, simplified view that I do understand, and illustrate this with a map:

Mason County Map

Basically, most of the area is covered in sand dumped there by glacial runoff- the Kankakee Torrent flooding that drained Lake Michigan down to its current water level and carved the canyons in Starved Rock State Park. The primary area of sand is surrounded by a yellow highlight on the map.  To the west, the Illinois River  runs in a valley carved by the former path of the Mississippi River in pre-glacial times.

Field in mist

The sand deposits encouraged the growth of more Western plant and animal populations.  Bullsnakes, Pocket Gophers, Silvery Bladderpod, Prickly Pear cactus, Western Kingbirds, and Lark Sparrows  comprise some of the many “Western” animals and plants found here.  More “Southern” plants and animals, like Pawpaw, Ozark Milkvetch, Prothonotary Warblers  and Northern Mockingbirds also dwell in Mason county and the surrounding regions.  Just across the river, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, usually restricted to the Gulf Coast, have been discovered breeding in Fulton county as of 2017 and 2018.

Indeed, the wetlands along the Illinois River attract millions of migrating ducks and geese every year, as well as rarer species like King and Black Rails, Least Bitterns and Black-necked Stilts.  Strange vagrant birds like Sabine’s Gull, Anhinga, and Ruff have appeared in this area on multiple occasions.The two red areas are the largest wetlands in the region- Chatauqua and Emiquon.  Emiquon is on the left, Chautaqua on the right.

Grasshopper Sparrow

More  common birds like Eastern Meadowlark, Indigo Bunting or the  Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)  above have hung on here in numbers exceeding those of surrounding areas.   In recent years (early 1900s) someone looked at the sand dunes and thought “You know what this needs?  A large pine plantation!”  Sand Ridge State Forest (the large area circled in blue, top center of the map), and a few other localized areas, are the result.  Another fun introduction about the same time was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a small bird imported from Europe and released in St. Louis.  It’s since made its way upriver slowly into this region.

Random field

I think that’s enough for background.  Of late I’ve been spending time in southern Mason county, which hasn’t  been explored enough compared to the Sand Ridge – Chautauqua – Emiquon area to the north.  However, it has its rewards.  For instance, abundant Grasshopper Sparrows:

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrows are vanishing across most of Illinois.  Sure, they’re a little brown bird of limited interest to someone not interested in birds, but if they disappear something will be lost from the world- a bird that both sounds like and eats grasshoppers.  Thankfully there’s still a healthy population of Grasshopper Sparrows in most of Mason county.

Random weed

Another advantage of wandering around the backroads of southern Mason county is the occasional population of Cannabis sativa.  Mind you, this isn’t the kind generally smoked (though it is a controlled substance).  This is more or less hemp.  (I also don’t smoke anything- I generally think human lung tissue is not designed to take in smoke of any kind.)  Wild Cannabis is an actual weed in moist areas throughout this part of the state, though fairly uncommon.

Five-lined Skink

Also uncommon is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), especially one of this considerable size (approximately eight inches long).  This female was sitting on a mattress dumped at the marijuana spot photographed above.  It then ran up a post to be photographed.  Five-lined Skinks have an unusual range- they are close to their northern edge in Illinois at this spot, but they also occur in eastern Wisconsin.  It was my first time seeing one this far north, at any rate.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Across the road, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)  sat in a bush quietly, in pursuit of caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in this area, probably because of all the caterpillars from the ever-present butterflies.  There are a lot of butterflies in Mason county- far more than in the surrounding agricultural wastelands.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are primarily caterpillar predators, devouring caterpillars in the hundreds, so they do well here.  Thankfully they miss enough caterpillars to leave plenty of butterflies.

Poppy Mallow sp?

Growing on the side of the road was Clustered Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe triangulata), a fairly uncommon plant of dry soil and sand prairie.  I’d never found it in the wild before!  We pressed on to Revis Hill Prairie, spotting Northern Mockingbirds, Henslow’s Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers on the way, as well as NINE American Kestrels in one field.

Revis Hill Prarie

Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve is the area on the map circled in blue EAST of Kilbourne.  This contains the region’s highest hills, rising about 250 feet above the Sangamon River Valley.  I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation as to why there are hills here, but there are.  On top of these hills are multiple old hill prairies which have grown here since presettlement times.  Less common birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, White-eyed Vireo and Baltimore Oriole are abundant here.  However, Revis is very little-known for birds- most people come here for insects.  There’s a species of walkingstick and a species of leafhopper only known from here in Illinois.

Tiger Beetle

A number of burrowing wasps and tiger beetles (Cicindelidia spp.) take up residence in the sand and/or loess prarire sections of the preserve.  I don’t think I’ve ever stopped here and not found a new species of insect to me (except in the winter, of course).

Fowler's Toad

All of these insects serve as excellent food for Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri).  Growing above it was this unusual flower, the Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella), one of the hundreds of species of plants present at this incredibly biodiverse site.

Asclepias viridiflora

After driving through Revis, I drove my friend Kyle to see his first Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) in Illinois.  Birds of the Great Plains and further west, Western Kingbirds expanded into St. Louis (where dozens can be seen in industrial areas!) and upriver into Havana, Illinois, showing a strangely consistent fascination with power substations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Western Kingbird in Illinois on a natural perch- they have done well with manmade structures.

Western Kingbird

The Havana power substation where these Western Kingbirds nest also has a population of Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), and I managed to get both in a photo together.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows resemble the much more common House Sparrow, but they have an all-brown cap and black dot on their cheek that differs from the House Sparrow (unspotted cheek, gray cap with brown sides).  Eurasian Tree Sparrows also tend to be found on the edges of town in scrubby areas, and I find it rare to see them in backyards.

EUTS and WEKI

A levee at Chautaqua National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, is the perfect spot to find Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and that’s where I went on the previous day with a different friend.

Eagle Bluffs

Hundreds of  American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and some shorebirds were present here.  Most of the shorebirds were far out- it’s been a bad breeding season up in the Canadian Tundra from whence they come,  so the numbers of shorebirds migrating this year are likely to be uncomfortably low.

Pelicans and Gulls

Thankfully, not all is going horribly in the bird world because the pelicans are doing well.  Large flocks like this are becoming more and more common, and they are a delight to watch, gliding nd whirling about in the air.  Pelicans aren’t particularly graceful, but their colossal size makes them readily watchable. While not as long-winged as Bald Eagles, tall as Whooping Cranes, or heavy as Trumpeter Swans, American White Pelicans overall seem to me to be Illinois’ biggest bird.

AMWP flock

The wetlands here and across the river at Emiquon are being drained to allow seed plants to grow on them, providing food for ducks in the winter and mudflats for migratory birds.  Both Chautauqua and Emiquon are carefully managed by pumping water in or out at the right times of year to maximize the benefit for animals, especially waterfowl.

This Chautauqua-Emiquon area has become a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, one of several Ramsar Wetlands Illinois has.  (The others are Chiwaukee Illinois Beach up in Lake county (seen here)  Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (seen here) the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands (not seen yet, but definitely on my list for later) and the Cache River-Cypress Creek Wetlands (seen here). Hey, I’ve been to all but one of those this year!  A Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designation is basically like winning a conservation Oscar, and it’s great that Illinois has five of them- among US states, only California has more than Illinois does.

Emiquon North Globe Units

Over at Emiquon, we found many Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and other shorebirds wading around in the mudflats looking for insects and worms, and squabbling with each other.  Black-necked Stilts are particularly quarrelsome.

Black-necked Stilt

By contrast, these Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were content to work together and hunt down prey.  They’ve recently arrived from far northern Canada, so I imagine they’re fairly hungry.  The Greater Yellowlegs still have far to go- all the way to South America!

Greater Yellowlegs

Just as Illinois is a flyover state for many people, so it is a flyover state for birds on their way to other places.  Still, sometimes they stop in and visit, and we’re glad when they do.  Especially when, for instance it’s a Sanderling (Calidris alba) and I haven’t seen one since 2016.  The pale fuzzy bird on the left is, I believe, a Sanderling.  They like sandy beaches and as a result are uncommon inland, away from the Great Lakes (which DO have sandy beaches).  This is one of the world’s longest-distance migrants, traveling from the High Arctic (think top of Greenland) all the way to southern South America or Australia in the winter.

Not bad for a bird seven inches long!

Sanderling I think

We spent two days and saw over a hundred bird species in Glorious Mason County- not easy to do in late July, when many of them have stopped singing and many more have yet to migrate south.  Despite moving to ostensibly a better spot for nature (southern Illinois)- which IS really good despite what certain Ryans who’ve never been there may say about it – I always end up missing this area when I’m away from it.  It’s the first area I really explored away from my hometown when I got into birding, and it’s a place I can’t help but return to time and again.

I really am Havana great time.

Thompson Lake

Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.