Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 in Review, Part I: January-June in Illinois

Jen and I take off for Washington this Sunday, and given the busyness of finals week, work, and the necessity of seeing The Hobbit II in HFR before heading home, I think I have officially done my last birding in Illinois for the year. So, here's my attempt at capturing my experiences along the way. The number of relatively common lifers I got is evidence enough that this was the most birding I had done in Illinois yet. Some of these experiences I have already written about on the Illinois Birder's Forum, so I've provided a few links to those posts throughout this one.

In 2013, we celebrated our second wedding anniversary, I completed my first Master's degree and began a second, and continued my job at church while starting a new job in Student Development in August. Between trips to Washington and Wisconsin, by December 31 I will have spent about six weeks out of the state. I did not do much birding January-March, but I still managed to see 287 species of birds in Illinois.

The pressures of grad school kept me from birding consistently early on in the year, but I still got out a few times. While still on Christmas Break, I got to the Chicago Botanic Gardens to pick up both Common and Hoary Redpoll as a part of the huge winter finch influx last year. I spent some time trolling the backroads of Kane and DeKalb Counties, where I got to enjoy large mixed flocks of Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. These were some of my first satisfactory views at Lapland Longspurs, a bird I still have not seen in Washington. I never would have imagined how common they are here in Illinois, which has definitely been a treat!

Lapland Longspur
DeKalb Co, IL
February 8, 2013

On February 16, I attended the Gull Frolic at North Point Marina for my first time. That was the first day Andrew Aldrich and I birded together (we have since seen 238 species together, not bad!). Highlights abounded that day, including my lifer Iceland Gull, as well as my best looks ever at Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Thayer's Gulls. Andrew and I then headed south, where we picked up White-winged Crossbills and the long staying Varied Thrush.

Iceland Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
16 February, 2013

 Lesser Black-back Gull

 Glaucous Gull

 Thayer's Gull (back)

 White-winged Crossbills
Lyons Woods Forest Preserve, Lake Co, IL

 Varied Thrush
Cook Co, IL

Through the rest of February, into March and April, my birding was almost exclusively in my home county, DuPage. Over that time I filled out my county list nicely and started picking up some momentum for the year. The Whalon Lake American Avocets on April 29 were a nice little boost going into May.

Hours after getting out of my last class for the semester, I went to McDowell Grove Forest Preserve where I encountered my first big warbler flock of the year, totaling 14 species and over 100 individuals, the highlight of which was a Prothonotary Warbler. You can tell by the number of exclamation points in my eBird checklist that I was pretty excited. This lit the fuse for an exciting month of birding to come.
 Prothonotary Warbler
McDowell Grove Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2013

A return visit to McDowell the next day provided this incredible up close encounter with a Summer Tanager, which are easier to find breeding than in migration in DuPage:

Summer Tanager
McDowell Grove Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 3, 2013

The next day, Andrew and I did the SBC for the Nelson Lake area in Kane County. After finishing our SBC area, we birded a few other Kane County locations and somehow wound up with 103 species, the third highest Kane Co Big Day. The best find of the day was a pair of Eared Grebes! One is poorly pictured here:

Eared Grebe
Nelson Lake, Kane Co, IL
May 4, 2013

And then my dad came, and we had a series of incredible days. Our first day out, Elsen's Hill was hopping with bird activity and we tallied 18 species of warblers there. Later in the day we found a 
Piping Plover at Fermi Lab, which is probably my best find for the year.

Piping Plover
FermiLab, DuPage Co, IL
May 10, 2013

That was followed shortly by probably my best photo of the year (and my first time on Explore!):

FermiLab, DuPage Co, IL
May 10, 2013

A few days later I crested 200 for the year as we birded Will and Grundy Counties, racking up 113 species, including 18 warblers and 14 sparrows, the best of which was this Harris's Sparrow:

Harris's Sparrow
Goose Lake Prairie, Grundy Co, IL
May 13, 2013

My dad's last day here was May 15, which found us on the lakefront on an incredible day for migration. We began at Jackson Park where we had 78 species, including 23 warbler species and an American Bittern. The highlight was this secretive Worm-eating Warbler:

Worm-eating Warbler
Jackson Park, Cook Co, IL
May 15, 2013
Montrose was alive that day as well, and after enjoying the action there, we headed up to Lake County where we got Common and Forster's Tern along the lakefront. This was one of my first chances of putting my new D7100 and its 6fps to work:

Forster's Tern
Waukegan Beach, Lake Co, IL
May 15, 2013 

The next day I dropped my dad off at the airport, sitting at 220 species for the year, and thinking that I would coast to 250 or maybe 260 by the end of the year. A quick succession of events over the next couple hours changed my outlook. I stopped by Morton Arboretum on the way home, where I picked up my first Black-billed Cuckoo and, more importantly, a gorgeous male Cerulean Warbler singing his head off:

Cerulean Warbler
Morton Arboretum, DuPage Co, IL
May 16, 2013

While soaking in this exciting find, I got an email from Sean Fitzgerald about a nice group of shorebirds at Fermi, including a White-rumped Sandpiper. I quickly scampered over there, and before I knew it, my year list had jumped up to 227. All of a sudden something clicked. Something about those seven birds made me begin to consider my potential for the year, and 280 seemed within reach. I went back home and began assembling a list of all the possibilities for the rest of the year, including rarities I was likely to miss.

I rounded out the rest of May with some birding in DuPage, Kane, and a day trip with Andrew to Hennepin-Hopper in which we bagged 94 Putnam County species - Least Bittern, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Prairie Warbler were highlights. I saw 201 species in the month of May, and by the end of the first week of June, I was sitting at 236 on the year.

Throughout the Spring, I had been toying with the idea of a trip throughout the state, focusing on some of the southern Illinois specialities. It just so happened that Jen needed to go back to Washington a week earlier than I could because of her brother's graduation. Since my work responsibilities kept me in Wheaton, but only required that I be here on Sundays, I found myself with an entire week open for birding.

It started with a day trip to Carroll County, where I birded Lost Mound and the Mississippi Palisades for the first time. I found 95 species and my lifer Kentucky Warbler. The next morning I hit Montrose early before church and nailed Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, leaving me at 241 before heading out for my trip.

Kentucky Warbler
Mississippi Palisades, Carroll Co, IL
June 8, 2013

Starting the afternoon of June 9, I set out on a week long solo camping trip throughout the state. I logged 2,000+ miles and found 158 species. The list of highlights is too long for the scope of this post, but I catalogued most of them in these posts. Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Mississippi Kite, and Greater Prairie Chicken were my 3 lifers. All the Black-necked Stilts, Prairie, Prothonotary and Kentucky Warblers, Barred Owls, Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, and southern waders were just part of what made this trip the memory of a lifetime. I am so grateful I had the opportunity. By the end, I was at 262 for the year. I figured 280 would be doable, 290 would be incredible, and 300 would be pretty much out of reach unless something crazy happened.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Chataqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
June 10, 2013

Mississippi Kite
Michael Wolf Wetlands, Johnson Co, IL
June 12, 2013

Greater Prairie Chicken
Karl Bartel Prairie, Marion Co, IL
June 14, 2013

Okay, I really need to go write a paper now. Check back soon for Part II!