Saturday, January 11, 2014

Big Morning in Will County

I was already beginning to feel the pressure of the big year endeavor. With an overnight work retreat coming that evening, I was well aware that break was officially coming to an end. Early semester busyness would be upon me in a matter of days, and March would be here in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, I awoke with only 48 birds for the state. Before school and work started back up, I wanted to secure a nice base of winter birds from which I could build later. While I wasn't sure exactly what number I wanted, I knew 48 was definitely not it.

I began the morning with low expectations. Foggy conditions with a forecast of rain didn't sound promising. At the same time, I couldn't help but think that the birds would just as happy as I was about temperatures in the 30s; perhaps I would encounter some nice activity along the way. Even so, I set the bar low, hoping just to get to 50 by the end of my morning trip. I was headed to Will County, and part of the plan was to learn the Des Plaines Widewaters, which I had not birded before. I figured that if I picked up a couple year birds and felt like I got a grasp of the new area, it would be a success.

I dropped my wife off at work a little after 7:30, and I was off. I stopped by Lambert Nature Preserve real quick on my way out to see if I could pick up a White-throated Sparrow there real quick (I know, the county will be filled with them soon enough, I just thought I'd try here). While I missed White-throated, there was a decent amount of bird activity, and more song in the air than I had heard all week. I took this as a good sign and proceeded south.

I crossed the Will County border with a paltry 128 on my county life list. That's not too bad, considering I had only birded there a handful of times, and never for more than a few hours. But, obviously there were some big gaps to be filled yet. I began by trying for Rough-legged Hawk, which had been seen regularly just south of Green Valley Forest Preserve, but I came up empty. I headed down to Whalon Lake as a turn around spot, not really looking hard. As I wound my way down to the furthest parking area, I got strong Northern Shrike vibes. It's hard to explain. For no apparent reason I immediately started thinking about shrikes, how this area possibly looked good for one, how I could easily go a whole month into the year without getting one for the state. Shrikes are tricky, and in my experience they become more difficult to find the more you look for them. I pulled to the end of the drive, turned around, and spotted a lone bird in a tree. Huh, could it be? I put my binoculars up and sure enough, a Northern Shrike! How uncanny. Sometimes I think that birders develop Jedi-like sensory capabilities over the years, and experiences like this only confirm that theory.

Northern Shrike
Whalon Lake, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

As I headed out of the area, and American Kestrel was sitting on a line, and a little further down the road a Great-Horned Owl was sitting out in the open in broad daylight. I made my way towards I-55 and had my first Cooper's Hawk of the day fly over in Bollingbrook. Just like that I was at 50 for the state, and I hadn't even made it to my primary location for the day yet. Maybe it was going to turn out to be a better day than I thought!

Great-horned Owl
Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

I arrived at McKinley Woods Forest Preserve and found a much different place than I had seen last May with my dad. No Golden-winged Warblers to be found today. The fog wasn't too thick, and the snow covered forest provided a certain serenity that only winter can afford. I don't know why, but I was amazed at just  how beautiful it looked. The birds then joined the scenery to produce my favorite birding moment of this young year. I got out of the car to the sound of the expected woodland residents, singing quite contentedly. The drive down the slope to the lower parking lot is closed off for winter, so I walked the path laid by skis and some off-road bike as the upper region grew quieter. A Bald Eagle, then a flock of Common Mergansers flew over, suggesting open water nearby. Good.

McKinley Woods Forest Preserve, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

I went downhill towards the river bottom only to be greeted by the most bird activity I had experienced all week. Tufted Titmouse (titmice? titmouses? The debate will go on forever, I prefer using the singular to denote the plural, whatever) were chattering all over. A Carolina Wren sounded off. Some tapping drew my attention to a nearby tree. It belonged to a Downy, but what had joined the Downy garnered my interest. A little birding sliding up the trunk, Brown Creeper! Then another, and another, and another. Before I knew it, I had six (!) Brown Creepers in the same field of vision, all in one tree! From there I could see a river full of mergansers, so I headed that direction. I quickly found the first of several Red-breasted Mergansers on the day. I continued scanning and found two Pied-billed Grebes, a few Common Goldeneyes, and a handful of Hooded Mergansers. There's something about getting all three mergansers in one place that always makes me grin. This made me optimistic about my initial shot at the widewaters area, so I started heading back toward the car. As I ascended the hill, a couple Golden-crowned Kinglets sang out, putting the cap on what was officially my first flurry of birds on the year. I gave a fist pump and was on my way.

Great-blue Heron
McKinley Woods Forest Preserve, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

Red-breasted Merganser (left; note tiny bill and small size compared to Common)
McKinley Woods Forest Preserve, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

In watching this little guy, I realized this would be a good species with which to practice the different feather groupings. So detailed, so distinct:

Brown Creeper
McKinley Woods Forest Preserve, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

My first new stop was at Moose Island/Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. As I pulled up, I knew I would get great looks at the river, and I was hoping for swans. As I scanned the river with my binoculars, I could see swans to the north near the bend of the river. A look through the scope confirmed that there were good numbers of Mute Swans. But I could also see a couple swans with black bills. I was unfortunately too far to identify them, but a quick check of the map told me my next stop would get me a better look. I headed that direction, figuring I at least had Tundras coming my way. I had two more Red-breasted Mergansers here. As I left that area, a nice flock of American Goldfinches, House Finch, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and American Tree Sparrows, and another Brown Creep gave me a nice departure.

I approached the widewaters area, trying to get a decent view of the river. This endeavor was momentarily derailed by a flock of Wild Turkeys meandering through a field. Ha! This was probably my biggest surprise for the day. It's not that turkeys are improbable, they just weren't on my radar at all. Nice! K, on to the river.

Wild Turkeys
Des Plaines Widewaters, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

I found a spot to pull off, set up the scope, and began scanning the swans, which were now much closer and far easier to pick through. I counted 19 Mute Swans, most of which were swimming in the river. Then, there was a flock of 32 smaller swans on the ice straight out from me. The occasional head would pop up, the first few being clear Tundras, with the eye "pinched off" from the black of the bill. I quickly got on a Trumpeter, which had its head up long enough for me to see the head shape and the black extending all the way to the eye. All three swans in one place, excellent! In the photo below, the bird standing to the left is a Tundra. The one sitting just to the right of center is a Trumpeter. Even though you can't see the faces well (or at all) in this shot, you can still see the obvious difference in bulk:

Tundra and Trumpeter Swan
Des Plaines Widewaters, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

I kept scanning the flock. Most of the swans were smaller bodied, and my best guess that 29 of them were Tundras, though I could only get a firm ID on 10 of them. I found two more Trumpeters sitting at the edge of the flock; they're pictured below. Note to self - MUST get better at digiscoping. At least you can kinda see the black extending to the eye on this one's face:

Trumpeter Swans
Des Plaines Widewaters, Will Co, IL
January 10, 2014

Other waterfowl many American Coots, Gadwall, Bufflehead, Redhead, Red-breasted Mergansers (yet again), and a single Lesser Scaup. A Northern Flicker, shortly followed by a Belted Kingfisher. THe year birds were just pouring in. On the way out of the area, two Cackling Geese in a flock of Canadas gave me ABA 100 for the year. I was quite content, and felt like I had begun to get a feel for the widewaters area.

I couldn't afford to be out all day, so I decided to make just one more stop at Rock Run Rookery (exciting to say and spell for an alliteration geek such as myself), another new location for me. A White-throated Sparrow greeted me at the entrance of the park. And my first Song Sparrow for Will for the day popped up. There was a little open water in the ponds, packed with Common Mergansers. A Northern Harrier eating its prey alongside a Herring Gull was a funny sight. Three American Black Ducks gave me another year tick. And, yet another Red-breasted Merganser (this time a male) was in the river.

And with that, I headed home. The morning had far exceeded my expectations, and I was able to take a deep breath as 18 year birds put me in a much better place to begin the semester. Now its a matter of knocking off the other three geese, a few owl species, and gulls as I get a chance over the next couple months. I'll keep my fingers crossed on next year being a good finch winter. Good birding!

ABA: 102

Illinois: 66

Will Co, IL: 53 (all today!)