Category: The Great Shrike Hunt

The Sad Tale of the Slaty-backed Gull… And Three Stupendous Surprises!


So, I went on a brief trip up to Chicagoland over January 8-11.  At the time, a rare Siberian gull, the Slaty-backed Gull, had appeared in southern Chicago, in the Calumet area.  I figured I’d start out my year with a rare bird, so I decided to look for it with some friends; Kyle, Lucas and Oliver.  Lucas and Oliver share a blog, linked here.


We started out at Turning Basin #3 on Monday.  Immediately, we spotted a dark-backed gull that appeared to be the Slaty-backed Gull, directly in front of us on the ice.  It was roughly the same size as the nearby Herring Gulls, had pink legs, dark streaking around the eye, and what appeared to be the correct back color to our inexperienced-in-Slaty-backed eyes.   Some banded Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) were also present:


Happy that we’d seen the gull, and unaware of the looming catastrophe, we blissfully left the spot, pictured below, after finding a Glaucous Gull for Lucas.   This area, the Calumet River area, smells nasty, is full of industrial buildings, and is basically the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, but with more gulls and ice, and fewer wraiths and ghosts.


Next we visited a Monk Parakeet colony, but due to the cold weather the birds hid inside their nests, only flushing briefly when a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipter cooperii) showed up.  Yes, I said Parakeet. There are wild parrots in Chicago.  Having escaped from captivity, Monk Parakeets began to colonize Hyde Park in downtown Chicago in the 1970s.  They reside throughout the area in several colonies, including this one under the Chicago Skyway.  And they were lifer birds for me, so I was happy to see them, albeit briefly and unphotographed.


From there, we moved to the Lake Michigan shoreline.  The ice was so blue behind the breakwater, and we watched mergansers fly low over it.


The waves lapping against the shoreline covered the breakwaters and pilings with ice.  As a freshwater lake, Lake Michigan can freeze over, and the sides of it do.


In the lake itself is an endless supply of mergansers- especially Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), of which this is a female:


Suprisingly, on the day we visited, Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) like this male were… well, more common!  We spotted a Snowy Owl on the breakwater, and I didn’t get photos of it because it was too far out.


However, we were at this area, Park 566, for a certain winter finch.  Here’s Lucas spotting the finches we were after with a scope:


Those finches were Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), little red-capped birds of the Arctic that consider the Chicago lakefront an adequate winter home.  They were stupendous birds #1:


They’re both shy and cute, which is an impossible combination to resist:


We said goodbye to Lucas and Oliver at this point, and continued on into Indiana.  Oliver sent his pics of our “Slaty-backed Gull” to a gull expert.  This is where things suddenly went wrong.


Oliver began texting me that people online said we hadn’t seen the gull, and after a bit of arguing, Kyle and realized we hadn’t. Here’s the problems with that gull, in terms of it being Slaty-backed:

  • The mantle is too dark
  • The bird shows large white wingspots, not a “string-of-pearls”.
  • The black on the wingtips is too large
  • The bill is too large
  • Not enough streaking around the eyes
  • Not enough streaking around the head
  • Build is too thick
  • Legs are not bright pink enough

These points all  make this a Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), or GBBG, albeit a runty one.  Ordinary, a GBBG should be noticeably larger than a Herring Gull, and this one wasn’t.


So, we went back to Turning Basin #3.  One unusual dark-backed gull, streaky-headed gull with pink legs caught our attention… We never did ID that bird as a species, but I have my suspicions, and they are not that it was a Slaty-backed… more on that later.


An adult Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) at the same spot was a welcome find.  These are the second largest gull species in the world:


The following day we went to Fermilab.  A friend of mine, Glenn, the man who actually put Kyle and I in contact with each other, is the bird monitor at Fermilab and has access to bring himself and guests behind some of the restricted areas at Fermilab, had invited us to visit. So we did.

We got to see the main particle accelerator ring (and no, none of us gained superpowers, unlike the television show The Flash).  This water-cooled ring has open water because the heat of the accelerator keeps the temperature of the water from freezing, and ducks like this stunning male Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) were swimming about on top, taking advantage.


One of the better finds was a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) in one of the cooling rings:


The five Coyotes (Canis latrans) were also a good find!  This one watched us from the middle of  frozen Lake Law.  It’s unfortunate the lake was frozen over, as it’s held a wide variety of rarities over the years.  More details at the link here.  We checked the edges for Northern Shrikes- no luck!  Even checking reliable spots didn’t turn up any shrikes.  The fog was intense- perhaps they were hiding just out of view?


Crawling along the snow was a winter-adapted insect, the Snow Scorpionfly, pictured.  I have no idea what species it is.  We thought it was odd.  The fog began to let up, and we decided to have one last look for the Northern Shrike, my nemesis bird of the last year and a half.


Sitting far off, on top of a tree… Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis)!  The GREAT SHRIKE HUNT is ended!  I’ve seen both North American shrikes… unless I want to get even more crazy and try to see ALL shrike species in the world…. which is tempting…and probably a really dumb idea…


We watched as the bird finished eating one animal and then unsucessfully attempted to catch another. Shrikes are known for impaling prey they catch on thorns, to save it for later.  A friend of mine actually found the body of a shrike that had been impaled by another shrike, recently.  Shrikes like this Northern Shrike are awesome.


After this, I tried Portillo’s for the first time.  That is a spectacular hot dog place.  Full of excitement, and bolstered by a report of the Slaty-backed Gull, we returned to look for it, spotting a Peregrine Falcon on the drive back.  When we got to the spot- nothing! – except this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), which was a bit of a surprise for northern Illinois in January:


We watched as the tugboat pushed ice out of the way, scaring up gulls as it chugged along:


The following morning at 10:00 AM, someone found the Slaty-backed Gull.  I was at the same  spot at 11:10 AM.  When I arrived within a minute someone had pointed out what they said and what looked to me like a Slaty-backed Gull.  It flew off downriver, unphotographed.  The birder who pointed this out to me showed me a photo that appeared to be the bird I wanted to see, containing all of the features I’d listed above- pink legs, “string-of-pearls”, “black eye”, the whole kit and caboodle.  He reported this to Ebird and it was confirmed.

I assumed I’d seen it and could go home happy.  About ten minutes later a similar gull flew in, landed briefly on the ice, and then flew downriver.  We all rejoiced that we’d seen the “Slaty-backed Gull” again, and gotten better photos.  Yet fate had another cruel trick to play:


In truth, this is the well-known “Gull Nasty”, and it’s a Chandeleur Gull, which is a fancy way of saying a hybrid of a Herring and a Kelp Gull (Larus argentatus x dominicanus). Herring Gulls are commonplace in this region, if not so downstate.  Kelp Gulls, native to South America, are significantly less so.  Actually, a pure-bred Kelp Gull has never been seen anywhere in Illinois, though they did live on some Louisiana islands for a bit last century and one did show up just over the border in Hammond, Indiana in 1996. This hybrid, usually dwelling in Indiana, decided to come along and mess with us.  It is probably the most similar bird to a Slaty-backed Gull that we could have POSSIBLY seen.  That’s not annoying at all!

Shortly after this, we all mistook a runty Great Black-backed Gull (probably the same one from before) as the same Slaty-backed Gull, having come from left to right just like “Gull Nasty”.  At this point, I’m not even sure if I saw the correct gull the first time.  It looked like it to me, more than the other two, but without a photo I can’t be sure.  The uncertainty’s worse than missing it entirely.  I’ve gotten to the point that when I finally find a 100% for certain Slaty-backed Gull, I will yell profanities at it in significant quantity.  I’ll start out by darning it to heck, and go from there.


I returned to Sangamon County, IL, full of brooding and discontent over the end of my Chicago trip, the return of school, and the disappointment of the Slaty-backed Gull.  About this time, rumors came from the west of a great white owl in a field.  I set off in quest.


A Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) was less unexpected, but still a joy to see. This bird is only present in Illinois in the winters, flying back to Arctic cliffs to nest each year.


It has feathered legs- hence, “Rough-legged”.  I stopped to watch it land in a field, and to see what was ultimately a plastic bag.  That’s when I spotted it… an apparition in the field far behind:




I was told in Cub Scouts “When you can’t sing good, sing loud.”  So, by the same principles, when you have no good photos, post lots of them. Besides, before Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) showed up there’d been no records of a Snowy Owl in Sangamon County since 2004.  I got to show this bird off to my parents (from a safe distance, of course).  It’s so nice to finally find a bird I’ve been looking for in Sangamon County for a VERY long time.  This was the last and best of the stupendous finds, and it got me out of my funk.


A Long-tailed Duck (that dove before I could get my camera out and on it) was the best bird following this one, and I saw it on Lake Springfield.  I guess this is all to say I had a fun winter break… I’m back in Southern IL now, doing my County Big Year that I’ve talked about.  To track my progress, you can see what bird names are bolded on this list, linked here.  The unbolded ones are species I’m hoping to find.  I do a daily post about what I see on my County Big Year on Facebook, at this link here.

Thanks to Glenn, Oliver, Lucas and especially Kyle for showing me around Fermilab and a few areas in Chicagoland!  I say especially Kyle because he did most of the driving.

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

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


Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

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


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

Whooping Crane #2

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

Top Ten Lifer Plants


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

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


Inspiration Point, IL:


Western Wood-Pewee, CO:


Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:


Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:


Black-necked Stilt, IL:


Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:


Rocky Mountains, CO:


Compass Plant, IL:



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




Black Rat Snake, IL:


Cottonmouth, IL:


Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

The Great Shrike Hunt- Success At Last!


If you’re not aware, I’ve always wanted to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Thursday, November 9, I finally snapped.  It all started when I went over to find the northernmost  population of Brown-headed Nuthatches in the US, just below Kentucky Lake Dam along Airport Road there.   Brown-headed Nuthatches sound like a squeaking chew toy, but they were remarkably silent at my visit.  The Red-shouldered Hawk sitting in a nearby tree the whole time probably didn’t help.  I gave them half an hour, left to walk the shores of Kentucky Lake and contemplate life- more specifically, why I’d driven an hour and a half to do this when there’s so many other things I could be doing.  I came back to hear one finally give its little call.  This was a lifer for me.  I still haven’t seen it, but hopefully I will next time.

I decided I was going to drive the extra distance and find Loggerhead Shrikes where they’re abundant on the Tennessee- Kentucky border.  I’ve already gone far enough- why not go fully insane and drive all the way to Tennessee, another hour and a half away?


A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) wished me good luck as I set out on my quest.  A wrong turn got me a Barred Owl, and despite my phone’s dying battery  I was determined to find a Loggerhead Shrike, or make a valiant effort for one.  Was the reward worth it?


Yeah, in my book it was!  My first Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) merely sat on a wire a hundred feet away, but my second one flew down to a corn stem some ten feet away, grabbed a grasshopper, ate it,  and sat for a minute watching me.


Loggerhead Shrikes are one of the most rapidly-declining birds in eastern North America.  Common throughout the Midwest a hundred years ago, Loggerheads used Osage Orange hedgerows and brushy field edges to hunt small birds, insects, and lizards, which they often impale on thorny bushes and small trees- like Osage Oranges!- or barbed wire.


With the removal of trees around the edges of farmfields (to prevent seedlings from growing up with the crop- same goes for the brushy edges), increased pesticide use, and the general destruction of habitat, the Loggerhead Shrike began to vanish across the Midwest.  It holds out only in habitats it likes- such as the floodplain bottoms of the Mississippi River Valley in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the brushy edges and thorny trees remain somewhat intact.  I saw five throughout the day.  I got so excited about it that I took a video:


After videoing the shrike, I drove to Kentucky Bend, seventeen square miles of land which the Mississippi River almost entirely encircles and Tennessee borders the rest, with Missouri bordering the whole area on the other side of the river.  Therefore, you can stand on Kentucky Bend, and look eastwards over the Mississippi River flowing north, and see Missouri, from a spot you can only drive to through Tennessee.  Geography is SO much fun.

After crossing the river, I stopped at a KFC to eat in Hayti, Missouri, after fufilling the #1 rule of birding trips (always buy gas in Missouri-it’s cheaper), and realized that my phone wasn’t going to make it the rest of the trip.  My phone’s plug doesn’t work,  and with the sun setting, I duck-taped my phone to a wireless charger, which worked surprisingly well.  I made it back home navigating by interstate signs and intuition alone, as the ancients did up to about 10-15 years ago.  It was seven hours of driving, but I did it.  I now feel that I can pretty much do anything.


Back in Carbondale a couple of days, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flew over the Carbondale Reservoir, but the sunset there made it even better.  I couldn’t help but tack this spectacular sunset on to what has to be one of my favorite finds of the year.


Year Birds

#292- Fox Sparrow (seen some time before this, but also at Carbondale Reservoir)

#293- Brown-headed Nuthatch(lifer, heard only)

#294- Loggerhead Shrike (lifer!)