Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wonderful Day on the Illinois Lakefront

The last time I had more than one year bird in a day was August 30th. Since then, I've scraped and scratched my way one-by-one up to 282, where I began today.

Today, which will not soon be forgotten.

Birding friend Andrew Aldrich picked me up at 4:30 this morning and we made a quick stop by a local preserve to try for a screech. Instead we were greeted by a ornery Great-horned that seemed intent on letting us know there was no screech to be found, so after a little more effort we hit the road.

The plan was to bird the lakefront in Lake County and then either go west or continue south. As it turned out, we ended up birding the extremities of the Illinois lakefront - from the Wisconsin border to the Indiana border - with some high quality birding along the way.

The sun rose not long after our arrival at North Point Marina, where we were greeted by an impressive morning flight of gulls and geese. As they settled down, we began to sift through a flock of hundreds of Herrings with a fair smattering of Ring-bills. There's something about pre-dawn Laridae on a day you could be sleeping in that really causes you to reassess your priorities. But I must confess, after a restful Thanksgiving this was a wonderful way to begin a day! Highlights included 2 first cycle and 2 adult Thayer's, 1 first cycle and at least 1 adult Lesser Black-backed, and a juvenile (most likely second cycle) Glaucous Gull.

Showing those white wing tips:

 Glaucous Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
November 30, 2013

Always standing out in the crowd:

 Lesser Black-backed Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
November 30, 2013

Since it wasn't a species I grew up seeing frequently, up until a year ago I don't think I could have identified a Thayer's Gull - much less a first cycle - but hours of studying and blog-reading later, I was a little more confident stepping into the field this morning. It was encouraging to be able to pick a few out of the crowd. Note the light brown coloration, small bill, beady black eye, and pale edging to the primaries.

Thayer's Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
November 30, 2013

But gulls were only part of the story at this first stop. A single Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspur flew over while we wandered around the marina. The harbor also held a nice number of expected winter diving ducks, including all three mergansers, pictured below. The males of each of these species are readily distinguished, but the females (particularly Common and Red-breasted) can be a little difficult to tell apart at times, especially when seen in isolation. So, this was a treat:

From left to right - female Red-breasted, female and male Hooded, female Common, and female Hooded.
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
November 30, 2013

From this same place we lake watched for a while. Andrew pointed out a loon flying close, and I got on it with him as it flew directly towards us. It lit about 100 yards out, providing us great looks at white face and up-turned bill of this Red-throated Loon! Illinois year bird #283.

Red-throated Loon
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
November 30, 2013

With a fair amount of momentum from such a great start, we hopped back in the car (a means of thawing as much as a means of transportation) and proceeded south to the north unit of Illinois Beach State Park. My hoped-for Rough-legged Hawk was not to be found, pretty much securing this bird on my state nemesis list. I am coming for you Rough-legs. I am coming. Andrew did pick out a couple White-winged Scoters from the beach as we scanned the lake though, making it a worthwhile stop.

Checking Lyons Woods gave us a quick break from the breezy lakefront and a nice dose of woodland species. I've had both species of crossbills here before, but none were present today. A handful of Red-breasted Nuthatches made their presence known quickly, and we encountered 4 species of woodpeckers along the way, including a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We scoured thicket after thicket for some sign of a roosting owl, to no avail. Some cranky Blue Jays gave us some hope, but ended up leading us to another ill-placed Great-horned. Not impressed. As we were about to leave, a pair of Carolina Wrens filled the preserve with their explosive calls - a fun surprise and nice county bird. Is that face not adorable?

Carolina Wren
Lyons Woods Forest Preserve, Lake Co, IL

Then on to Waukegan, where we didn't find much of interest, though our first American Black Ducks and only Northern Pintail of the day were here. Male Bufflehead and Common Merganser provided nice looks nearby in the harbor.

Snowy Owl reports from 87th street continued to pile up, which made our next decision for us about which direction to head. We considered bypassing the rest of the lakefront and just heading straight to 87th, and in the process talked ourselves into and out of going to Montrose about half a dozen times. We finally went with our gut, which lead us to Montrose a little before 1:30. Good choice.

A quick stop at the harbor yielded the long-staying and continually cooperative Eared Grebe, a great bird which sadly got a little overlooked today. Here you go Eared Grebe, your very own spot on the blog post:

Eared Grebe
Montrose Harbor, Cook Co, IL

Then the fun began. We worked our way towards the pier, hoping to find a flock of gulls or a good duck. We got the latter, but in a most unexpected manner. As we walked the partially iced-over pier, a suspicious dark duck took off from a flock of Mallards sitting on the beach and circled within the fishhook area; when it banked, its light cheek patch confirmed that it was a female Black Scoter! It circled twice then returned right to the beach, rejoining the Mallards. Coastal diver or common dabbler? This thing seemed to be a little confused, but provided us outstanding looks while we were there! Turns out that this was the first Black Scoter ever recorded in the dunes area of Montrose - thanks to Leslie Borns for this info! Illinois year bird #284. Here it is, looking a little out of place:

And here it is just showing off. The female Mallard doesn't seem too amused.

Black Scoter
 Montrose Dunes, Cook Co, IL

Reluctant to leave this beauty, but knowing we had to keep moving, we pulled ourselves away and headed for 87th St. It took us a few minutes to figure out this newly available area along the southern extension of Lake Shore Drive - it's funny how many times birding naturally leads you to drive right past signs like "Road Closed." Anywho, we made our way to the correct parking area, walked along the lakefront, and found this Snowy Owl sitting on the Illinois side of the breakwater. Illinois year bird #285, ABA year bird #366.

Snowy Owl
Park #523, Cook Co, IL

Walking back south then produced a second! There's not much better than a Snowy in the late afternoon sun.

Snowy Owl
Park #523, Cook Co, IL

What a wonderful way to draw an already outstanding day to a close! We ended up picking up a couple more species at Calumet Park, including Snow Goose and Ruddy Duck, as well as a few more White-winged Scoters.

From the northern reaches to the southern reaches of the Illinois shoreline, it was an all around incredible day of winter specialties!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Introduction - Why a birding blog?

My life is packed with enough commitments to produce a standard of busyness that qualifies one to live in Chicago's claustrophobic suburbia. Two jobs and the pursuit of a second Masters degree fill many of my waking hours with meetings, assignments, and other meetings and assignments. While I genuinely enjoy all the things I'm involved in, I don't love the busyness. I'm not from the Midwest, or the suburbs, and after six years of living in the region, I still haven't developed much of a taste for either. Having grown up in Spokane, WA, I'm accustomed to natural beauty and a slower pace of life, both of which have mostly eluded me while living in here. But I begin to recapture both when I'm out birding.

My love for birding reaches back to my early days when the spectacle of Bald Eagles and thrill of chasing Snowy Owls with my dad first piqued my interest (you can learn a little more at the About Me link). This interest has ebbed and flowed over the years (read: "I went to college and didn't have the time for a few years"), but at my current station in life, it's as strong as it's ever been. Birding has now turned into some combination of a robust hobby and a welcome escape for me. Some days I get out to chase rarities or bolster state and county lists. Some days I get out for a breath of fresh air.

And now, some days I'll be writing about my excursions here. I've greatly benefited from the work that fellow birders have put into their blogs, and I figure I'd at least like to attempt to be a contributing voice to the growing online community of birders. This is not a Big Year blog, though I do have a couple lofty goals for 2014 which will be unfolding throughout my posts here. I'm going to use this space to pontificate about the pleasures and pains, validity and vanity, and reasons and risks related to birding. I plan to discuss everything from ID issues to equipment preferences. I also enjoy nature photography and will be breaking up my long-winded posts with some combination of digiscoped record shots and close-ups of cooperative specimens. You can see my work on Flickr here.

I'll end this first post with one of my favorite shots from this fall:

Connecticut Warbler
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
September 8, 2013