Monday, March 24, 2014

Last Longspur Lifer

My history with longspurs is interesting. I didn't see my first until a trip across the country from Chicago to Spokane with my dad in May, 2010. On that trip, we got outstanding views of Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspurs in Montana. Lapland - by far the most nationally widespread longspur - has somehow evaded me in my home state of Washington. When I really started birding in Illinois, I quickly realized that they were much easier to come by out here. A quick fly by at a hawk watch in DuPage County was my lifer in the Fall of 2012. Since then I've obviously had quite a few encounters, and I enjoy each of them as if they're still a new bird for me. Just a couple weeks ago I got to hear a few sing along some backroads in Kane County for the first time - an excellent treat!

That left one more - Smith's Longspur. But where was I going to find one of those? In the middle of enjoying my initial exposure to Laplands, I learned last year that Smith's were a tough though regular find in Illinois on an annual basis. Unfortunately, I learned this fact after the appropriate season to find them. So, I began doing my research and highlighted the bird as one of my primary 2014 targets. Which brings me to Friday morning.

With a meeting Saturday morning and a weekend of being on call ahead, my only chance to get out was Friday morning. I originally wanted to stay local so that I could be back for a lunch appointment by noon, but an IBET report of Smith's Longspurs in McLean County from a couple days prior changed my plans. Not my lunch plans; my birding plans.

Not long after sunrise, I made my way south through the town of Chenoa. Temperatures got up into the 60s later in the afternoon, but they sure didn't begin there. Nevertheless, the sun had the birds up, and the sky was alive with meadowlark melodies. My first couple roadside birds were just Horned Larks. Then I turned onto 2800 and moseyed west with my window down, the rising sun at my back. Grackles, blackbirds, robins and Killdeer dominated the bird scene, until I came upon a field of corn stubble. I heard the now familiar chatter of Lapland Longspurs and quickly saw a large flock take to flight. As the flock circled above, another rattle stuck out, so my scan intensified. To my great delight, I spotted two birds with notably buffy bellies, white tail edges, and white greater coverts: lifer! The group was sporadic in its behavior, passing by a couple more times over the next 15-20 minutes. Each time I tried locating the Smith's Longspurs, but never got on them quickly enough to get a decent picture of them unfortunately. I wish I had a picture to commemorate the moment, but I think I'll be seeing them again this year, so maybe there will be another opportunity. A wonderful start to the day nonetheless, and now I have completed the longspur sweep in the ABA area. It was also a milestone in that it was my 650th lifer on my world list, and #530 on my ABA list. I'm also flirting with 300 for Illinois now, too.

After taking in the experience, I headed west to the El Paso Sewage Treatment Plant, figuring that a reliable water source on a warmer day could prove fruitful. I was right, and my inner county lister was greatly pleased. Upon arrival, I saw a nice flock of geese on the berm running along the sides of the ponds, including Snow and Greater White-fronted (making 18 counties for the latter, if you're keeping track, which I know you are).

Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese
El Paso Sewage Treatment Plant, Woodford Co, IL
March 21, 2014

As you can tell from the previous photo, there was no shortage of waterfowl present, and some of them were real close. It's not everyday you get to capture the iridescent sheen on the head of a Bufflehead:

El Paso Sewage Treatment Plant, Woodford Co, IL
March 21, 2014

As I scanned the ponds, the signs of Spring crept in. Tree Swallows called as they flew by, and a pair of Wood Ducks was joined by my first group of Blue-winged Teal of the year.

Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal
El Paso Sewage Treatment Plant, Woodford Co, IL
March 21, 2014

And then I experienced a first for my birding career. On my way out of the area, I caught a glimpse of a small shape diving. Curious, I drove up to where I anticipated the bird would come back up again. The car came to a stop, and up popped a beautiful male Long-tailed Duck! I looked across the pond to see some Blue-winged Teal, and my world was rocked as this clash of seasons sat in the same body of water. To me, it was March in a nutshell: Winter not letting go, Spring coming anyway.

Long-tailed Duck
El Paso Sewage Treatment Plant, Woodford Co, IL
March 21, 2014

Here's the whole checklist from that stop.

I added two year birds on the day, which was nice since I couldn't get out again for the rest of the weekend. Three of the next four weekends are pretty open for me, and I'm heading south for some of that time, so it'll be interesting to watch migration hit the state and hopefully see my year list take a healthy bump simultaneously.

ABA: 150

Illinois: 126

Total Illinois Ticks: 3,075