Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hard Work in Kane County

As I headed out today, I was greeted by a balmy 4 degrees which felt tropical after the past two days. This was my first chance to get out to Kane for the year, and my mind was filled with questions as I broke the border into the county. Did the solitaire survive the Polar Vortex? Would there be any open water? Will the Seahawks repeat their thrashing of the Saints again this weekend? Why does school have to start next week? I got satisfactory answers to the former two.

I began in Geneva, where I was happy to find good numbers of waterfowl at the dam. But good numbers did not produce great diversity, as Canada Geese, Mallards, Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers were the only species present. Not a single gull. I worked the east side of the river up to St. Charles, finding more of the same, and picking up a Bald Eagle along the way.

And then, the moment of truth. It was time to head to Jon Duerr Forest Preserve to search for the Townsend's Solitaire. My chances of getting to 300 will rise and fall on getting rarities like this, and there's really no guarantee that another will show up - especially within 20 miles of home! So, I felt quite a bit of pressure, but also realized that there was a very good possibility that the cold had either run it off or that it had become someone else's prey in the mean time. One thing was for sure, if I missed it, it wouldn't be due to a lack of effort.

My time at the preserve was grueling, and could be likened to an emotional roller coaster. I made my way down the snowy tracks, following the path created by those who had gone before me a few days prior. Chickadees were joined by White-breasted Nuthatches, and before long Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were chiming in too. Bald Eagles of three different ages passed by at different times while I was there, and a hungry Red-tailed Hawk persistently stayed in the area, apparently unaffected by my repeated requests for it to leave.

Bald Eagle
Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, Kane Co, IL
January 8, 2014

I stopped at the original location where the solitaire had been consistently seen, but there was little bird activity - except for the attentive Red-tail. So I headed further down the tracks where I encountered a sizable flock of American Robins. I picked through it for quite a while, neither seeing nor hearing anything out of the ordinary. I walked back down to the first area I checked and got a little ways off the beaten path. I looked through a few more robins, nothing. At this point I was really starting to question whether the bird was still present or not, but I could not bring myself to believe it was gone, so I continued the search.

A unique chatter caught my attention, and I looked up just in time to see a little grayish bird dive into the bushes. Too small to be the target, but I went after it nonetheless, blazing a trail into more knee deep snow. I pished for a bit and out popped a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a rather unexpected bird for this time of year. It was a well timed boost to the morale as my spirits were really starting to sink. Such a cute little thing, showing off that red crown rather nicely for January:

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, Kane Co, IL
January 8, 2014

I decided to go back and check out the large flock of robins again, surely I hadn't seen them all earlier. On the way there a nice flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over. When I got back to the robins, there was a decent amount of bird activity that lured me off the tracks and again off the beaten path. But all I could come up with was more of the same - waxwings, robins, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay... these were not sufficient cause to have me standing in deep snow like this again.

I realized I was going to have leave at some point if I wanted to see anything else for the rest of the day. At the same time, the solitaire was the only main target for the day, and likely the only bird that couldn't be easily refound at some other time. Again, back to the original location where it had shown so nicely for so many birders throughout November and December - back when the thought of it hanging around until January was still a pipe dream. When I came upon the area, I spotted a peculiar bird silhouetted against the sun. It was the shape of a thrush, but smaller and thinner than a robin. But something about the profile didn't quite fit.  It darted into some nearby bushes and I scampered over to get a better look. A bird fluttered into a juniper, and I put my binoculars up to see a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. The pair was soon join by a young male. A pretty little family in the snowy setting, but after the way they had toyed with my heart like that, I was not terribly enthused.

Eastern Bluebird (non-solitaire subspecies)
Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, Kane Co, IL
January 8, 2014

Rough. In many ways this felt like the straw that broke the camel's back. But I couldn't shake the feeling that bird was still around. And, to that point, I hadn't checked out the area where I first saw the bird for myself, which was about 100 yards west of the current place I was standing on the tracks. There's no trail out there, my feet were already wet, and I was getting incredibly thirsty, but I wasn't going to be able to leave in good conscience if I didn't make that trek. And off I went, following some combination of deer and rabbit trails, eventually breaking off on my own route. 

I got up onto a little mound and found bird activity on the other side. Mostly chickadees, with an American Tree Sparrow in the bunch. And then it happened. A medium sized gray bird with sporadic flight landed about 30 yards away. I got to look at it just long enough to confirm it was indeed all gray, and to see the distinct eye ring, and before I knew it the bird disappeared. Townsend's Solitaire! It's still here! I was bummed that I couldn't get a documentation photo, but content enough to have seen this rarity well enough to confidently ID it! A huge addition to my budding 2014 Illinois list (already had one on January 1 with my dad in southeast Washington).

Thus concluded a chilly, tumultuous 2+ hour search. It seems this bird has become increasingly difficult to find over the course of its tenure here, and it will be interesting to see if it continues this trend. Perhaps some warmer weather will coax it out more easily. Hopefully some more people can get on it in the coming days and weeks - who knows how long it'll stay now. What a hardy little bird!

Thankfully, after all that, I still had time to check some backroads. I headed to Seavy Rd, where my first little flock of Horned Larks had a Lapland Longspur. Another quarter mile down the road I found much larger flock. Though dominated by Horned Larks, there were decent numbers of longspurs, which could be easily picked out by their little chattering calls. As the group took flight, I heard then saw a couple Snow Buntings. That was easy! I can't overstate the importance of becoming familiar with the calls of these little roadside birds. I typically find these flocks to be pretty skittish, and I seldom feel like I get enough time to adequately look through every bird. But when you can pick them out by call, it goes a long way to being able to pick different species out from a flock. This has been my experience so far, anyway. I also can't seem to get a decent picture in these sorts of settings, as evidenced by the following shot:

Lapland Longspur
Seavy Road, Kane Co, IL
January 8, 2014

A couple miles further down the road, I encountered a gorgeous dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. It's one of the most striking raptors I can remember seeing, and I was sad I only got a couple moments with it. Hopefully I'll see another before too long. Here's a really crappy shot to commemorate the moment (not even in focus, really Joshua?):

Rough-legged Hawk
Seavey Road, Kane Co, IL
January 8, 2014

I proceeded to the area around the airport to try to scrounge up a Snowy, but there wasn't one to be found. I didn't search real hard, though I did check quite a few roads. There's gotta be one around out there somewhere. I needed to get back home, but still had some light in the day, so I made my way through Fermi Lab, where I picked up Northern Harrier.

All in all, it felt like a very different birding outing than what I experienced yesterday. Yet, I still managed 33 species today, just one fewer than yesterday. And it was a rewarding 33. I can't remember the last time I worked harder for a bird than I did today for that solitaire. I think I'll sleep well tonight.

Here's the number rundown. You can see my Illinois year list here, and more of my lists here.

ABA: 95

Washington: 79
Illinois: 47

Cook, IL: 34
Kane, IL: 32