Category: Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary

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

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

 

Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Lifer Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

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

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I’ve seen 302 birds this year.

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

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

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

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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:

http://ebird.org/ebird/subnational2/US-IL-125/activity?yr=all&m=

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…

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Year birds

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:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512028

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512034

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512037

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512054

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512057

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40630441

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40630495

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40630534

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40631122

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40631369

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