Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 in Review, Part II: July-December in Illinois

After a refreshing trip back to Washington at the end of June into the beginning of July (which I'll write about in a forthcoming post), Jen and I made it back to Illinois and moved across campus into a new place. A week long class inaugurated my new job and a season busyness that it is only slowing down now. But don't worry, the birding hasn't slowed down too much.

In my first couple weeks back, I stayed local and filled in some gaps on my DuPage list. My one goal for the year had been hitting 200 in the county. I did not realize that goal would be met by July 19, when the Pratt's Least Bittern croaked for me. That was an exciting milestone, mainly because I hit it so early in the year and knew I would significantly surpass it by the end.

The Fall approached quickly. Birding Fall, of course. Trying to explain to friends that you're excited about Fall migration in the middle of August is fraught with peril. I had a handful of targets, most of which were shorebirds. I also wanted to spend some concentrated effort on getting to know shorebirds better. The problem is that we have such a short window of time with them, so the chance to study plumage details and get used to behavioral tendencies is quite limited. So, I determined to spend as much time with them as possible. I immersed myself in The Shorebird Guide. I made my way to Montrose several times and just stared at the shoreline from the fishhook while birds flew in and out. I hit local spots frequently. I made a quick solo trip down to Chautauqua and stood among the thousands of birds there. Each time I learned something and gained a little more familiarity. I already look forward to doing it again next year. Here are a few of the things that stand out as I think back on that season:

This gorgeous first year Bonaparte's flew by quickly while watching shorebirds at Montrose on July 30. It turned out to be a really productive couple of hours as my first Baird's Sandpiper of the year made a quick stop, and a pair of young Willets was incredibly accommodating.

Bonaparte's Gull
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
July 30, 2013

Willets
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
July 30, 2013

I kept trying Montrose, hoping to get a Ruddy Turnstone or Whimbrel, but it just wasn't meant to be. On a day towards the end of August I did get outstanding looks at this Baird's Sandpiper, which turned out to be one of my favorite shorebirds of the season.

Baird's Sandpiper
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
August 28, 2013

On August 30, I took off early and made the 3 hour trek to get to Chautauqua by sunrise. This was my first time birding Chautauqua in the Fall, which was a very different beast than the high water levels I encountered on my June trip. It was remarkable. And while I missed some of the rarer things that had been reported in the previous weeks, I did manage three year birds and really enjoyed the experience of having unending birds to pick through.

The following weekend was Labor Day, which found a host of birders along the lakefront. The morning at Montrose provided some shorebird excitement as two American Avocets flew by while Andrew and I were running to the beach to see a Red Knot that had just flown in. These were the best looks at a Red Knot I have ever had:

Red Knot,
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
September 2, 2013

From there we headed south to 63rd St Beach, where we were greeted by the most cooperative Buff-breasted Sandpiper anyone could ever ask for. It wasn't a year bird, but it was a nice county tick and the looks were stunning as I just sat on the beach and it strutted past within just a few feet of me. A subtle, but truly striking bird:

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
63rd St. Beach, Cook Co, IL
September 2, 2013

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
63rd St. Beach, Cook Co, IL
September 2, 2013

Another standout highlight throughout August and September was the time I got to spend with Fall-plumaged warblers. This was the first concentrated experience I had with them, and again I learned a lot. I eventually picked up my first Black-throated Blue of the year (still never saw a male though), had a gorgeous Mourning, enjoyed the subtle differences of the Blackpoll/Bay-breasted duo, and found great delight in just how cool/different a Chestnut-sided looks after leaving its breeding grounds. One of the biggest surprises of the year was the number of encounters I had with Connecticut Warblers. Most of them were fleeting glances, but one very accommodating male put on a show for us at Montrose:

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

I knew that if 300 was going to happen, I would need to have a very productive Fall. Despite all the great experiences I was racking up, by the time mid-September hit, the numbers just weren't there. I was hoping a weekend trip to Lake Carlyle would change that. Sabine's Gulls and two species of jaegers had been seen there recently, and I still had a few gulls I needed to pick up. Based on the reports of previous years, I figured that I could expect at least a handful of year birds.

The trip ended up following the pattern already set by Fall to that point - great birding experiences, but relatively small numbers to show for it. I only ended up adding two to my year list the whole weekend. But seriously, I have no room to complain, because as I take a look back at that trip now, I can see more clearly that it was actually packed with outstanding birds.

A stop at Emiquon on the way down yielded my first Franklin's Gull of the year, as well as a chorus of Soras and this conspicuous Least Bittern:

Least Bittern
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
September 13, 2013

At Carlyle, a chorus of Great-horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech-owls greeted us as we neared our cabin that evening. An absurdly early Lapland Longspur was a pleasant surprise the next day. We enjoyed a couple extended periods (I almost said "stints," but that would have been misleading, ha) of sifting through a large flock of shorebirds. And while godwits insisted on continually eluding me, we did have the nice highlights of a couple inland Sanderlings, a Red-necked Phalarope, Stilt Sandpipers, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and the best of all, a Western Sandpiper. Studying this bird at length was probably the best part of the trip for me. Slightly drooping bill, subtle rusty scapulars, larger than nearby peeps:

Western Sandpiper
Carlyle Lake, Clinton Co, IL
14 September, 2013

The primary purpose of this trip, planned by the Illinois Ornithological Society, is the "pe-lake-gic" trip out on to Carlyle Lake. Unfortunately, the recent rarities around the lake had all departed, and the only unique gull we found was this sharp looking second cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull:

Lesser Black-backed Gull
Carlyle Lake, Clinton Co, IL
September 14, 2013

A completely albino swallow sp. amidst the huge flocks over the lake was one of the more bizarre birds I've ever seen. One of the best treats of the boat trip was getting close looks at flocks of Forster's and Black Terns:

Black Tern
Carlyle Lake, Clinton Co, IL
September 14, 2013

We stopped by Meredosia on the way home, where a really nice mixed flock of fall migrants gave us a little momentum: Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, and a lingering Prothonotary Warbler were nice additions. Then we headed back to Emiquon where we picked up a Little Blue Heron, yet our misses far outweighed our finds, leaving a bad taste in my mouth at the end of the trip. We missed a Ruddy Turnstone by 15 seconds, and later learned that a Parasitic Jaeger and a flock of plegadis sp. had been in the same area. We were just in too much of a hurry to see any of it. It was a tough ride home as the reality of 300 being out of the question sunk in (turns out May isn't the time to start thinking about such endeavors). But now, as I think back about the trip, I realize that it's important to soak in the good moments (and we had so many!) when you have them, and not let the misses get you down. This will be an important lesson for 2014 as I set my sights high.

Worn out on several levels after that trip, I didn't do much birding for the next couple weeks. School was really picking up at that time too, and I was still adjusting to my new work responsibilities, so when I finally got out again in early October, it was a welcome relief. I had actually been eagerly awaiting October, and not just for Pumpkin Spice Lattes (no, I don't start drinking them in August when Starbucks begins their advertising campaigns) the Midwest's changing colors, and the reintroduction of fleeces and flannels into my wardrobe. Rather, I had one word on the mind: ammodramus. I hadn't seen either of the "orange sparrows" in Illinois before, so I was thrilled to get out and gain some experience in this area. I wound up getting great looks at Nelson's Sparrows in DuPage, Will, and Kane Counties, and a series of fleeting encounters with a LeConte's at Prairie Green in Kane.

Nelson's Sparrow
Peck Farm, Kane County, IL
October 12, 2013

Our semester took an unexpected turn towards the end of October when sharp abdominal pains landed Jen in the ER late one Saturday night. Three hours later she was going in for surgery for a perforated ulcer. The next week was spent in the hospital, and it's been a slow recovery ever since. Thankfully everything went smoothly and the outstanding team at CDH took great care of her. We also felt very blessed as our church showered us with love and meals for the following weeks, and walked with us through every step of the process. And, Jen is doing great today thankfully!

My first chance to get back out after we got back from the hospital came a couple weeks later, just a day after the Townsend's Solitaire had been found in Kane County. This is a common bird in Washington, but I was genuinely excited to get to see it as the rarity that it is here in Illinois. The wonderful news is that, as of two days ago, it's still hanging around! Many of us are hoping it can hang on till January so that we can grab it for the 2014 list!

Townsend's Solitaire
Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, Kane Co, IL
November 8, 2013

Two days later I had the treat of seeing a local Northern Saw-whet Owl. This faithful guy comes back to the same tree every single year. It was snoozing when I found it, and I had no intentions of waking it. But when I coughed, it momentarily perked up, just long enough for me to get this shot. What a great bird.

Northern Saw-whet Owl
November 10, 2013

On November 22, a Harlequin Duck at Loyola Park along the lakefront beckoned me. I got there early in the morning to discover it had gained a White-winged friend overnight. I also picked up the Eared Grebe at Montrose for the first time that day.

Harlequin Duck
Loyola Park, Cook Co, IL
November 22, 2013

Harlequin Duck and White-winged Scoter
Loyola Park, Cook Co, IL
November 22, 2013

And anything significant since then I've already catalogued on this blog. Andrew and I had a killer day on the lakefront, I stumbled upon two much-needed birds for the year, and in the wake of the Snowy Owl invasion, I made a significant contribution to the field of ornithology. I'm ending with 217 in DuPage and 287 in Illinois for the year. Unless of course that Brown-headed Nuthatch turns out to be legitimate and accessible, in which case we may be making a detour in the middle of a day of shopping tomorrow. Oh, the life of a birder.

Part III will come soon, and will include my birding adventures in my neck of the woods, the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where we'll be in just two short days!