Tuesday, January 7, 2014

More Birds Than Degrees!

I've hiked many a trail alone through grizzly country. I've had a flat tire on a remote mountain road, miles away from civilization and cell service. I've chased a sow Black Bear into the woods only to find that she had a couple cubs with her. I've scrambled to find a camping spot in the dark along the flooded Mississippi after plans A, B, and C had failed.

Today ranks as one of the crazier adventures I've been on. Frustrated that the weather was preventing me from going south or heading to Kane, I was still determined to at least do some birding today. So, I headed to Cook County with the hopes of scrounging up a roosting owl or a decent gull. Most of all, I just wanted to get some birds on my 2014 Illinois list! I did not have any specific goals regarding numbers, and I was quite content when I found that I had ended the day with 34. Not bad on a day in which the temperature took a long time just to break into the positive digits.

The first challenge of the day occurred when I got inside my car a little before 7 this morning, and found that there was more ice on the inside of my windows (every last one of them) than there was on the outside. Have you had the joy of scraping the inside of your vehicle's windows? If you have, then you know that ice scrapers were designed specifically for the angle on the outside of car windows. Needless to say, this was not the beginning that I had hoped for.

As I hit the road, I turned on the radio only to hear report after report of traffic delays and accidents. Hmm, had I made the right decision after all? At that point I was already out so I figured I would go ahead and proceed for the time being, and turn around if it got too crazy. Fortunately, on our brand new snow tires (Christmas gift), I did not have a single problem on the roads all day.

At my first spot (which will remain nameless due to the sensitivity of the species seen), I poked around in a little woodlot, hoping to come across something roosting. Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches were calling off and on as I meandered in and out of snow covered trees. The snow was about a foot deep most of the way, making the hiking cumbersome, and less than stealthy. I found a couple spots where deer had bedded down the night before and stood there a few moments. Eventually, I found my first owl. It was about thirty feet up in a tree and facing away from me, but based on its size alone I was pretty sure what it was. I wandered around to get a better angle, and in the process it turned its snow-coated face to look at me - definitely a Great-horned. As I looked closer, I saw two feet handing down below the owl, but they were clearly not owl feet. The feet belonged to a rabbit, actually. The Great-horned was sitting on, and almost entirely covering, its catch from last evening. Pretty cool!

Happy that I hadn't been skunked, but still wanting more, I kept searching the woods. Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, and American Goldfinch all made a showing. And then there was movement. I had accidentally flushed an owl, and it was flying right at me. It was medium sized (actually seemed quite small in comparison to the bulky Great-horned) and its orange face flashed before my eyes before it banked and dove off back into the woods. Long-eared Owl! It wasn't the most satisfactory look, but it was diagnostic enough to make the call, and I celebrated state lifer #290!

Having nailed my main target, I started to head back to the car. I didn't want to flush the owl again and I was ready to get out of the cold. I had looked into frostbite a little bit last night and came to the firm conclusion that I wanted nothing to do with it. Thankfully there was hardly any wind to speak of at this first location, but after being out for close to an hour, it was time to get in the car. On the way out of the area I had my county lifer Rough-legged Hawk. One of my last birds for 2013 is one of my first for 2014 in the state!

I then headed to the Calumet River, which I have not birded before, so part of the time was spent just learning my way around. The river was totally frozen over from the Stony Island overlook, and not a single gull was to be found. Back at the bend of the Little Calumet, the best bird was a Mute Swan, which was joined by Mallard, Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and what I estimated to be 250 Common Mergansers. There was obviously more, but a thick layer of fog/cloud hovering over the water made it difficult to see.

Calumet Park left much to be desired in the way of road conditions, but I did get several Redhead, Greater Scaup, and Red-breasted Mergansers to add to the day's total. I then checked a couple spots along the lakefront and was unable to come up with a Snowy, which was a bummer, but not a big miss this winter.

My final stop was back at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, where the feeders were alive with activity. Blue Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-bellied Woodpecker were all new for the day, as was Tufted Titmouse, another nice county lifer! I made my way inside the well-heated center, and sat down at a little table to watch the feeders. Birding from inside, why had I not been doing this all day!? Happy with an adventurous, modestly productive day, I headed back.

I left my camera in the car almost the entire day because I didn't want to risk it getting damaged in the cold. I got it out briefly at the feeders and snapped a couple shots. I usually see Blue Jays in the tops of trees, squawking and rarely coming close enough to photograph. And when they do get close enough, I usually have something more interesting to look at. So, on this quieter day, it was nice to slow down and appreciate the beauty in the details of this common, outgoing bird.

Blue Jay
Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Cook Co, IL
January 7, 2014

Tufted Titmouse
Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Cook Co, IL
January 7, 2014

Here are the numbers for 2014:

ABA: 90

Washington: 79
Illinois: 35
Idaho: 30