Saturday, January 25, 2014

Breaking 90

There's the vast majority of people who choose to stay inside on days like today. Then there's the minority who have to go outside against their own will. Then there's the small sliver of crazies who could stay in, but go out of their own volition. January in Chicago this year has forced me into the latter category on multiple occasions, including this breezy morning in southern Cook County.

A busy week of work had me up late five nights in a row, the latest of which was last night. Any sane person would have taken Saturday morning to sleep in, stay inside, and be warm. Big years do not attract sane people, though, and since Andrew was up for going out too, I couldn't pass up an opportunity at likely year birds. The first step I took outside was surprisingly warm, and the breeze was manageable. But the weather man had said that the temperature was going to drop by the hour for the rest of the day. The weather man was right.

Our initial moments at the bend of the Little Calumet River weren't all that cold, partially due to the conditions, partially due to the adrenaline that comes from a refreshingly large flock of waterfowl when so much of the region is iced in. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite wintertime spots in the county.

Double-crested Cormorants were my first year bird of the day (phew! Don't have to sweat that one any longer! Yes, I'm joking.). A nice flock of White-winged Scoters grew to 10 birds while we stood there, including a couple beautiful males that offered some good views.

White-winged Scoter
Bend of the Little Calumet River, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

That was nice, but by far my favorite part of this stop, and one of the highlights of the year for me so far, was getting great views at two gorgeous adult Great Black-backed Gulls. These were the first adults of this species I have ever seen, and they did not disappoint! It was still pretty dim, so the pics aren't great, but you get the idea; what a striking bird. The way it can dwarf Herrings is remarkable to me.

Great Black-backed Gull
Bend of the Little Calumet River, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Great Black-backed and Herring Gull
Bend of the Little Calumet River, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Great Black-backed Gull
Bend of the Little Calumet River, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Great Black-backed Gull
Bend of the Little Calumet River, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Other birds of note at the bend were Gadwall, American Black Duck, Ring-necked Duck, both scaup, a healthy flock of 25 Redhead, Common Goldeneye, many Common and two Red-breasted Mergansers, Ruddy Duck, and Pied-billed Grebe. An adult Bald Eagle made a pass through too. After about 45 minutes of scoping in the steadily decreasing temps and increasing winds, we made it back to the car to thaw for a few moments while conversing about whether or not we really need toes. We couldn't feel them at that point, and it didn't seem to be a major loss. A quick stop at the pull off around the corner didn't get us any more ducks, but we simultaneously got on a first cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull sitting in the river. It took off, and Andrew pointed out the black tail band, thick all the way to the outer retrices. Year bird #2 for the day.

126th Street Marsh was our next stop, where the light was in our favor, but the wind did not share the same quality. So cold, and not much to look at. As we headed out of the area, the local Peregrine Falcon flew by, adding another bird to the year list. Stony Island was initially a letdown as we arrived only to find a barge parked between us and the roosting gulls. The odd winter phenomenon of the shining sun did not do us many favors either as we looked east, trying to pick through a small flock of gulls. I was just beginning to think I had gone 0 for 3 at this location when I noticed that part of a large gull flock was partially visible from the parking area. We climbed up on a little berm where we could look over the fence and bushes. The sun was still harsh, but the views weren't terrible. I found a first cycle Great Black-backed, and Andrew quickly got on a first cycle Glaucous, shortly followed by first cycle Iceland. Two more for the year, and just in time, because after the flock lifted up and lit a couple times, the Glaucous and Iceland were no longer to be found. It was frustrating not being able to get on a Thayer's because we know they had to be there. We had a couple good candidates, but just couldn't get views of the entire bird in each case. Oh well.

We swung back by 126th Street again, where a few Red-breasted Mergansers were in close, and another first cycle Great Black-backed Gull was sitting out on the ice. Fine looking bird.


Great Black-backed Gull
126th Street Marsh, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Running low on time, we decided to swing by Wolf Lake real quick, which was a first for me. A little patch of open water produced some really interesting birds. Three Trumpeter Swans had joined a lone Mute. Trumpeters were a long overdo county lifer, one of five on the day. This was also one of the only times this year that picture taking conditions were actually decent - a nice change of pace.

Trumpeter Swans
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Trumpeter and Mute Swan
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Mute Swan
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

But the real treat came in the form of a hybrid, hanging out with a group of three Redheads.

Redhead Hybrid
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead Hybrid (right) with Redheads
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead Hybrid
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead Hybrid withe Redhead
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead Hybrid with Redhead
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead Hybrid with Redhead
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

Redhead Hybrid
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
January 25, 2014

At this point, we're leaning towards a Lesser Scaup x Redhead hybrid. The head color initially tipped us off to the fact that it was a hybrid, reminiscent of Andrew's Ring-necked Duck x Redhead Hybrid at Whalon last year. But this clearly wasn't a Ring-necked. Its bill, head shape, color, body pattern, and wing pattern all point to Lesser Scaup. Doesn't look like it's been documented in Illinois before. Cool find! The birds took off while we were there, but I doubt they went far. Maybe they'll come back?

Another really solid day in the bag. While I added five, Andrew and I also made the tough but responsible decision of taking one bird off our list from the previous weekend. Our report of Carolina Chickadees in the Lake Shelbyville area garnered some chatter. It's a fuzzy area for chickadees, and while the birds we heard sounded much more like Carolina than Black-capped (fast paced, high pitched), there's serious questioning as to their status in the area. Andrew is doing some research, and I'll post about it when the data comes in. For now we're leaving them as Black-capped/Carolina in eBird, which means I'm losing one for the year. Obviously it's not a bird I'm worried about missing for the year, and these kinds of situations are great learning experiences. I really want to stay above board with my reporting this year and not let the pursuit of 300 deter from that goal. Thanks to Travis Mahan for bringing up the issue, hopefully we can come to a conclusion that's beneficial for the Illinois birding community.

ABA: 123

Illinois: 91

Cook, IL: 57

Andrew and Joshua Buddy List: 240 (Great Black-backed Gull and Trumpeter Swan)