Saturday, February 1, 2014

Snowy Delight

Thursday night, our new staff for the 2014-2015 school year met together for the first time. As part of introductions, I of course began explaining that I'm a birder, sharing the good news of this hobby from the get go. In the process, I joked that any of them were able to join me the next morning as I planned to take off around 5:45 am. I say "joked" because I gave a half-hearted giggle along with everyone else in the room. I say "joked" because no one had ever taken me up on such an offer.

The joke turned reality Friday morning when I opened my door to find a smiling face. It was Nate, asking if he could come along. After the initial shock of the situation wore off, I asked him what time he needed to be back. "I have a class at 9:15." I began calculating in my head, we had just a little over three hours. Calculations concluded, I said "Alright, let's go look for a Snowy Owl." And we were off. We had a great time talking on the way out, all the while I was hoping that his impulsive decision to wake up too early would pay off with a decent look at a Snowy.

Reports from a couple weeks ago seemed to indicate that a certain quadrant of roads out in Lee County would be our best chance. We were there right at the break of day, though the cloud cover left us with rather dim conditions initially. Not two minutes into our search I noticed a short post with an odd blob atop it. I stopped and got the binoculars on it. "There's one. A young one."

"Wait, really? Where?" Nate replied.

We got out and I put the scope on the bird, about 150 yards out in the field. Nate took a look and confirmed that I was not a crazy person. Mmm, that's a little generous. He at least confirmed that I wasn't lying about the first Snowy of the day. Verdict's still out on the crazy person thing. "That's honestly one more than I thought we were going to see," he remarked. I smiled.

Can you spot it?

Snowy Owl #1
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Having found one so easily, I figured there would be more; I just didn't realize how many more. We had driven less than a minute when a large bird in flight came into view straight down the road in front of us. I got on it and watched another young Snowy Owl land on a utility, two poles away from an adult that was already perched!

Snowy Owls #2 and 3
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

After getting some nice scope views, we approached gingerly.

Snowy Owl #2
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

This youngster hardly flinched as we slowly drove by.

Snowy Owl #3
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Around the corner there was a another one, this time on a barn. Probably the lightest individual of the morning.

Snowy Owl #4
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Snowy Owl #4
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

And then, something I have never seen before happened. At the next intersection, looking northwest, I spotted a Snowy Owl sitting in the top of tree!

Snowy Owl #5
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Trying to wrap my mind around what I just saw, we worked down a new road only to find another one in a tree. This was the darkest bird of the morning.

Snowy Owl #6
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

I couldn't believe it; but the magic wasn't over yet. We were beginning to run a little low on time, so we kept moving back toward the main road, still covering new territory. That's when this one showed up, hanging out on a snag in someone's yard.

Snowy Owl #7
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Same bird with better light:

Snowy Owl #7
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Quite appropriately, the last utility pole of our loop had this guy on top:

Snowy Owl #8
Lee Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Eight.  8. Ocho. Just like that we had seen eight Snowy Owls! On poles, on barns, in trees. I was meticulous, making sure that we didn't double count a bird we had already seen. Each of these were pretty evenly spaced, and only one of them flew while we observed. And with that, we trekked back to Wheaton, where we made it in plenty of time for Nate to get to his class, having seen eight more Snowy Owls than his classmates in the wee hours of this Friday morning. And I now know that someone may actually call my bluff the next time I joke about heading out early in the morning.

Still trying to process the startling success of this young day, I headed back out west, getting back to my original plan. I was hoping to find the Golden Eagle in Jo Daviess County, but I just didn't have enough time to thoroughly search the area. Nevertheless, it was really nice to bird another new county, and to check out Lost Mound - a far different experience than I had last June.

While I didn't get my target bird, I did find some nice stuff in the Hanover Bluff area, including Tufted Titmouse, Brown Creeper, and a nice assortment of Bald Eagles and Red-tails. A large flock of Wild Turkeys roamed the corn fields, and laughed at just how awkward they look when they take to flight.

Wild Turkey
Hanover Bluff, Jo Daviess Co, IL
January 31, 2014

The best bird of the day came in the form of an unexpected flock of Purple Finches, Illinois bird #92 for the year. I've only had a couple brief encounters with Purple Finches in Illinois, so slowing down and getting the scope on these was really a treat. And hey, I even managed a couple terrible pictures:

Purple Finches
Hanover Bluff, Jo Daviess Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Purple Finches
Hanover Bluff, Jo Daviess Co, IL
January 31, 2014

Along the way to and from the Mississippi, I added Rough-legged Hawk for a couple counties, and a Northern Shrike for Lee, all seen from I-88. By the end of the day, I had racked up 51 new county ticks, bringing me to 2,566 for Illinois. That felt like a really nice accomplishment, but really, when you've started a day with eight Snowy Owls, how can you complain?

Here are the numbers as of the end of January, 2014. I'll do a recap post of the month soon.

ABA: 149

Illinois: 92