Wednesday, January 15, 2014

State Lifers in Cook County

For the second morning in a row, a striking rosy sunrise eased its way over the eastern horizon. Yesterday, the sky quickly grew dreary and filled with falling flurries. Today stayed crisp and clear as I drove towards the rising sun into Cook County. It was an interesting day, filled with my favorite and least favorite parts of this particular county. The bird highlights far outweighed the inconveniences along the way.

After picking up Monk Parakeets between meetings yesterday, I began today with 69 for the state. I had a long list of potentials for the day, and figured that getting 5-10 of them would constitute a solid day. It turned out to be just that.

During the first week of the semester, it turns out that I have five fewer hours of meetings than usual, which gave me an almost completely free day today! After dropping Jen off at work, I headed to Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, knowing that I wouldn't have another chance at woodland species for the rest of the day. One of the first things I heard upon getting out of the car was the "Peter! Peter! Peter!" of a Tufted Titmouse. First time hearing that distinct song this year. I was expecting it to be rather quiet, but the bird activity was actually rather impressive given the temperature in the teens and frost still clinging to the trees. The nicest surprise was seeing five species of woodpeckers: Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Downy were expected. A Hairy was a county lifer (rolling eyes). As I walked one of the small loop trails, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a crow-sized woodpecker, with large white wing patches and a bright red crest - Pileated! An unexpected county lifer and year bird, and a very pleasant way to begin the day. Like most of the birds for the remainder of the day, it managed to elude a decent photo-op.

Next stop was the bend of the Little Calumet River, which was rich with waterfowl. The water was loaded aythya species, dominated by Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup, with a handful of Greaters in with them. The Common Merganser flock was impressive, as was the number of Mute Swans. A lone Ruddy Duck was my only year bird here. I picked out one American Black Duck among the Mallards, and had a hybrid of the two as well. An immature Bald Eagle (county lifer, again rolling eyes) made a lazy pass by the waterfowl, which didn't so much as move as it flew over. And just like that, I had seen as many species in two stops as I had found all day last Tuesday - a tale of two weeks indeed!

One of my main targets for the day was Great Black-backed Gull. Getting stopped by a train on the way, twice - that was not one of my targets. Having to avoid potholes that would make the Grand Canyon proud - also not one of my targets. But I got both of those things nonetheless. I was on my way to the Stony Island Overlook when I realized that the sun would be much more in my favor at 126th Street Marsh, so I decided to stop there first. This ended up being a great decision. One of the first birds I put the scope on was a first cycle Great Black-backed Gull! This was not only a state lifer, but also a U.S. lifer for me. The only other one I had seen before today was at Point Pelee a few summers ago. I left the bird and kept scanning the others, only to look back and see it flying off just a moment later. I hadn't even taken a picture yet, gah! I quickly snapped this pathetic shot of it flying off:

Great Black-backed Gull
126th Street Marsh, Cook Co, IL
January 15, 2014

My journey to Stony Island was impeded by a stopped train. So I took the long way around, encountering along the way roads emulating lakes and others where I couldn't even tell what I should call "road" and what I should call "pothole." I've driven many a mountain road far less treacherous than that, Chicago. The thing is, there aren't people living on mountains where I go back home, so it's fine for roads to be rough here and there. But I'm pretty sure there are a few people living in the city, making these deplorable conditions all the more surprising to me. Not impressed.

I was also not impressed that the gulls at Stony Island decided to sit several hundred yards away, forcing me to look through a fence to see them. Though I did pick out another first cycle Great Black-backed, it was an overall frustrating experience. I had hoped to get a look at an adult, but it was not meant to be today. I thought I'd swing by 126th Street again to see if I could find another to study more carefully, but alas, the same train was still stopped on the tracks. I decided to move on and was happy to be leaving the area.

I then headed on to the lakefront, beginning with Calumet Park, which had the expected ducks, many geese, and another couple of Mute Swans:

Mute Swan
Calumet Park, Cook Co, IL
January 15, 2014

Monroe Harbor was my next stop. I hadn't really birded there before, and recent reports seemed to indicate it would be worth checking for waterfowl. I scanned for a while, finding more of the expected stuff, and I was beginning to lose steam. Then, between two flocks of Common Mergansers, a large black duck stuck out like a sore thumb. I watched it closely for a few moments, as a showed off a bright white wing and a white "tear drop" by its eye - it was a beautiful, adult male White-winged Scoter! This was the first male I had seen in Illinois doing something other than flying by during a lakewatch. Nice! I looked up from my scope to see a small brown bird in with some Common Goldeneyes, about 50 yards out. I put my binoculars on it and confirmed it was a Long-tailed Duck, another state lifer! It was a rather dingy female, definitely not the best looking Long-tailed I've seen, but still an excellent bird!


White-winged Scoter
Monroe Harbor, Cook Co, IL
January 15, 2014

Long-tailed Duck
Monroe Harbor, Cook Co, IL
January 15, 2014

Red-breasted Merganser
Monroe Harbor, Cook Co, IL
January 15, 2014

This stop alone would have been worth the whole trip, but already having some nice birds in the bag made it that much more of a treat! I ended the day at Montrose, where I was greeted by another adult male White-winged Scoter near shore. As I scoped a little further out, a flock of eight more scoters quickly grabbed my attention. I watched them for quite a while, trying to pick out a new species. But, between the bobbing of the waves, and all the diving they did, I wound up confirming that it was a pure flock of adult male White-wings again. Though not a new bird, it was definitely a pleasant spectacle and a first for me in Illinois!

White-winged Scoter
Montrose, Cook County, IL
January 15, 2014

Cooper's Hawk
Montrose, Cook County, IL
January 15, 2014

I ended the day with two state lifers and five new year birds. If you had told me that by January 15 I would already have Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Long-eared and Snowy Owl, and Great Black-backed Gull, I would have been one happy guy. With 74 species after just a week of birding in the state, plus the great birds on that list, I'm really happy with this start. Gotta keep plugging away!

ABA: 110

Illinois: 74

Cook, IL: 49