Saturday, March 8, 2014

Red-necked Grebes!

I am happy to report that my initially pessimistic outlook on the potential bird productivity of March has taken a dramatic turn for the better in the past two days.

Yesterday I took a trip down to some counties where I had only birded briefly before, if at all - DeWitt, Champaign, and McLean. I was on the road by 4:15 am, cruising down I-55 en route to Clinton Lake. It's funny, because the day before I had woken up at 4:45 in order to pound out a paper before a day of meetings and classes. Yet, after that long day, getting up at 3:45 felt like nothing simply because I knew I would be spending the whole day birding. Birder habits are peculiar to say the least.

Another brilliant sunrise lit up the sky on the way - I always love seeing a sunrise the morning after seeing a sunset, I feel like my night of sleep hasn't gipped me out of life and beauty. Shortly before the sun appeared, my first bird of the day was a McLean County Rough-legged Hawk perched low near the highway. Something about starting the day with a non-crow makes you feel like it's going to be a good day.

The plan was to start on the east end of Clinton Lake and work my way west. The Weldon Access was my first stop and an excellent choice at that! The abundant waterfowl was most easily viewable from the bridge. I began by scanning a flock of Canada Geese sitting on the ice, several White-fronts mixed in. I then came to a small patch of open water with three smaller birds: a Ruddy Duck, a Redhead, and something resting with its head tucked in. Hmm. After closer inspection I could see that it was a grebe and I started getting excited. As it rotated, I was pretty sure that I knew what it was. A couple moments later it raised its head, and sure enough - a Red-necked Grebe! This was my target bird for the day, and I had it less than five minutes after getting out of the car!

Red-necked Grebe
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

Red-necked Grebe
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

Due to the incredible number of birds on the other side of the bridge, I momentarily put off the fist pump/happy dance celebration. Gotta stay focused. What followed was this checklist. The number of geese was staggering. There were several instances in which White-fronts were the only bird in my frame, such as this flight shot below:

Greater White-fronted Geese
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

Among the great diversity of duck species, my personal highlights were American Wigeon and a nice male Wood Duck, which were both year birds for me. I came into the day with only 42 species on my DeWitt County list, none of which were waterfowl, so it was enjoyable knowing that all these birds counted in more ways that one.

After scanning at the bridge, I pulled into the Weldon Access parking lot, quickly picking up this elegant Ring-necked Pheasant, glowing in the morning sun. Just like that I had four year birds on the board!

Ring-necked Pheasant
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

At that point, I could have called it a day and been perfectly satisfied. But, I kept moving, and I'm glad I did! My next stop was the Clinton Lake Marina, where a pair of Hooded Mergansers greeted me near the point. This is actually the only spot I had birded in DeWitt before; I stopped by on my way home from my camping trip last summer - looked a little different in June!

Hooded Mergansers
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

Ruddy Ducks were one of the more numerous birds at this stop, numbering near 50. All five aythya were present, including these close Redhead:

Redhead
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

The group of 12 White-winged Scoters that had been reportedly previously was still out there. Pictured poorly here:

White-winged Scoter
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

As I continued to scope and eventually came across a few that looked a little unique after seeing so many ducks. They were WNW of the Marina, near the far bank over by the power plant property. Most of the birds were too far away to ID because of the haze and glare; I left about a dozen unidentified. After patiently waiting, I could tell the two were Horned Grebes. After another little while, my second Red-necked Grebe of the day raised its head, showing the gray cheek, black cap, thick yellow bill, and red on the sides of the neck. Nice! I strained to try to make out the shapes further out, but couldn't do so. I took note of where they were and raced around to the other side of the lake to try to relocate them. Unfortunately, the whole shoreline is private property owned by the power plant. I left with the uneasy feeling that I had just left an Illinois high count of Red-necked Grebes out there. Oh well.

My last ditch effort at seeing these birds was the Mascoutin Boat Ramp, where I could vaguely make out some distant figures that were potentially the same flock, but they were even further away than when I had initially seen them from the marina. However, beyond a nearby flock of White-winged Scoters, I did have two more Red-necked Grebes sitting together, making four for the lake! Because of the lighting conditions, I was only able to get photos of the first, unfortunately.

White-winged Scoter
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

As I meandered around the lake, I filled in whatever waterfowl gaps were remaining at that point in the various inlets. I stumbled upon my first Turkey Vultures of the year as well. Not a super exciting bird, but a true sign that Spring is indeed going to come. And just like that, I had added 40 birds to my county list and five to the year list!

Turkey Vulture
Clinton Lake, DeWitt Co, IL
March 7, 2014

I continued on to Champaign County, where I first stopped at a local pond. There wasn't much of interest, but a couple more Greater White-fronted Geese were a nice sight.

Greater White-fronted Geese
Champaign County, IL
March 7, 2014

A tip about a possible Red-necked Grebe took me further east to Homer Lake. No grebe, but a nice assortment of waterfowl, including both scaup, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, and Red-breasted Merganser. On my way out, a chickadee caught my eye, so I stopped. I used the Carolina Chickadee playback just to see what would happen, and sure enough the bird perked up and flew in. Shortly after it began singing, sealing the ID and making for a truly Spring-like scene. Another year bird for the day, too!

Carolina Chickadee
Homer Lake, Champaign County, IL
March 7, 2014

Tufted Titmouse
Homer Lake, Champaign County, IL
March 7, 2014

I still had a few hours of birding time left before needing to head home, so I decided to head back to McLean County to start building a list there. I started at Sugar Grove Nature Center, which held my seventh and final year bird of the day: Eurasian Tree Sparrows. I know they're similar, but they're just so much better looking than House Sparrows.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Sugar Grove Nature Center, McLean County, IL
March 7, 2014

I hit Evergreen Lake on the way home, which had more of the same waterfowl. When all was said and done, I had racked up 72 species on the day, along with 126 new county ticks! Common Grackles, singing Red-winged Blackbirds, and a flyover Killdeer were all signs that Spring is coming soon; all those locked up bodies of water will soon be thawing and teeming with life.

I got to bed kinda late last night. So, like any normal birder, I squandered a great opportunity to sleep in this morning, choosing instead to go for some Will County goodies. My excitement about Spring coming was quickly dampened as Andrew and I scoped in the blustery snow at the Brandon Lock and Dam at 7 am. The previous day's Red-necked Grebe was not there at that point, but Andrew did pick out the persisting male Black Scoter down near the power plant, a great county bird for me!

We headed on to the Des Plaines widewaters, where we first checked under the bridge. We both just grabbed out binoculars, thinking we'd be in and out quickly. We should have known better. As we turned to look at the river, we both called out in what has become our standard just-found-a-rare-bird synchronicity, "Um, Red-necked Grebe!" We high-fived then scurried back to the car for our scopes and cameras, only to get back and find that the bird had disappeared. It works more times than not - don't take your camera with you, and you will find something great.

We spread the word and were quickly joined by Jeff Smith, Matt Wistrand, and Pete Moxon. I needed to get back home because I'm on call for work, so I couldn't stay with the party too long. Thankfully they were able to relocate the bird not long after. Andrew got this shot, so thankfully our bird is documented with a photo now.

Red-necked Grebe
Des Plaines Widewaters, Will County, IL
March 8, 2014

Though short, it was a very enjoyable morning of birding. Combined with yesterday, I'd say Spring Break is off to a good start so far!

ABA: 142

Illinois: 117

Will, IL: 72
DeWitt, IL: 59

Illinois Life List: 295Illinois Total County Ticks: 2,787

More numbers here.