Monday, March 17, 2014

What Happens on Spring Break

This Spring Break has blown my expectations out of the water with double digit year birds and, far more surprisingly, three state lifers! It began with two sweet days of Red-necked Grebes and county ticks. Then, I went for my longest stretch without blogging yet this year (note to self: do not get this behind again), simply because I was birding almost the whole time. And, Jen and I spent a couple evenings doing this awesome Charlie Harper puzzle of the birds of Costa Rica. I considered submitting an eBird checklist of a DuPage County Resplendent Quetzal, but decided against it.


And now, for the birds I actually saw:

Monday, March 10: Northern Illinois. Everyone was getting all giddy about temperatures hitting the 50s, but the brisk westerly wind was anything but comfortable as I perused Grundy, LaSalle, Putnam, Marshall, and Bureau counties. Nathan Goldberg has successfully infected me with the county listing bug, and now we have a little friendly competition to see who has the most by the time he leaves for Cornell in August. So, if it seems like I'm covering a lot of ground, it's intentional.

I arrived at Goose Lake Prairie before sunrise and birded the area for about an hour, finding a few glimmers of birds moving northward. Hundreds of blackbirds were on the move, including at least five Rusties feeding in a roadside pond. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds had recently arrived and were quite active. My next stop was Dresden Lock and Dam, where I picked up a random Pileated Woodpecker, and then my first and only year bird of the day: a singing Eastern Meadowlark.

I continued west into LaSalle County - surprisingly my first time ever stepping foot in the county. My inaugural trip to Starved Rock did not disappoint as waterfowl abounded along the river. Here are my first Greater-white Fronted Geese from the day:

Greater White-fronted Geese
Starved Rock State Park, LaSalle County, IL
March 10, 2014

Of course there were eagles everywhere, but my favorite raptor was a beautiful dark morph Rough-legged Hawk perched low along the north bank of the river, doing its best eagle imitation. Several more Pileated Woodpeckers called, and one eventually showed itself once I got the visitor's center. Check out this checklist from Lone Point and this one from the visitor's center area to see what all I had. Definitely a successful first trip to the county!

After checking Hennepin-Hopper and finding more open water in the muddy road than on the lake (many Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese out on the ice), I briefly dipped into Marshall County. I added some waterfowl along the river, and this Eurasian Collared-Dove in the little town of Henry:

Eurasian Collared-Dove
Henry, Marshall Co, IL
March 10, 2014


I stopped by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow house in Putnam and quickly picked up two of them, and was there greeted by a great deal of bird activity. The Marshall/Putnam County line road had a nice flock of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs flying back and forth across it.

Lapland Longspur
Putnam/Marshall Co, IL
March 10, 2014


But the more impressive sight was the number of geese loading up the fields. Most of them were flying form the Marshall side and landing on the Putnam side - a county lister's dream.

Snow and Ross's Geese
Putnam/Marshall Co, IL
March 10, 2014

Snow and Ross's Geese
Putnam/Marshall Co, IL
March 10, 2014

Greater White-fronted Geese
Putnam Co, IL
March 10, 2014

Northern Pintail
Putnam/Marshall Co, IL
March 10, 2014

These little flurries of birds really get a guy ready for Spring to actually come! I picked up another 22 ticks in Bureau on the way back, giving me over 125 county ticks for the second time in four days. Not bad.

Tuesday, March 11: Grundy Scoters. After a morning meeting, I headed out to Kendall County for some more county ticks. The wind had lessened, and though the day was a little cloudy, it felt far warmer than Monday. The Killdeer, Common Grackles, and singing Song Sparrows apparently agreed. I added some birds to my Kendall list - primarily waterfowl along the river - but didn't find anything terribly noteworthy.

Since I was in the area, I met up with Andrew on his lunch break and we had an efficient hour of birding together. We picked up my first Will County Eurasian Collared-Dove near Renwick, shortly followed by my first Rough-legged Hawk for the county at Prairie Bluff. We then checked the 9th Street Bridge area to see if any interesting waterfowl was around. Sure enough, after scanning for a few minutes I found this Red-throated Loon. There had been one in this location a couple weeks prior, but we couldn't shake the fact that this bird looked different - not quite as clean and sharp as the other.

Red-throated Loon #1
9th Street Bridge, Will Co, IL
March 11, 2014

We chalked it up to molt and kept moving. Much to our surprise, we found this bird a couple minutes later, which looks much more like the original bird that was present. Two Red-throated Loons at an inland location, crazy!

Red-throated Loon #2
9th Street Bridge, Will Co, IL
March 11, 2014

After that, I went on a search of Andy Sigler's scoters in Grundy County. I parked at the Dresden access on the north side of the Illinois River and walked toward the dam. From there I scoped and saw an impressive assortment of waterfowl. Wood Duck and Ruddy Duck stuck out to me the most in the moment. The first White-winged Scoter I saw was a deceased bird along the shore. I didn't know if that was a good or bad sign, but shortly after I found a single adult male swimming along down the river. I could tell there was a portion of the river that I would not be able to see unless I walked further down, so I did just that.

Ruddy Duck
Dresden, Grundy Co, IL
March 11, 2014

Along the way, I was afforded some excellent looks at a large aythya flock with both scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Canvasback. Always a handsome group to check out.

Canvasback, Greater and Lesser Scaup
Dresden, Grundy Co, IL
March 11, 2014

Ring-necked Duck
Dresden, Grundy Co, IL
March 11, 2014

I kept walking an eventually came to a group of scoters. Amidst the White-wings was the bird I was really hoping for - Surf Scoter!

Surf Scoter
Dresden, Grundy Co, IL
March 11, 2014


It was great getting to watch this bird at close range for a while:

Surf Scoter
Dresden, Grundy Co, IL
March 11, 2014

Surf Scoter and Redhead
Dresden, Grundy Co, IL
March 11, 2014

Another successful day of great county ticks; and, while on this trail, I had a pair of Sandhill Cranes call and fly by, another year bird!

Wednesday, March 12: Chicago River Red-necked Grebe. On Wednesday, my mom was the fourth in a mercilessly long line of family and friends who are headed to Hawaii at some point in the next month. Meanwhile, we were getting a nice fresh layer of snow in Chicagoland. Unfortunately, the weather service overplayed the potential severity of the storm, so I just planned on staying inside for the day. When I was growing up, 4" of snow was not called a "winter storm" or even "snow storm." We just called it, "snowing," enjoyed it, and moved on. Whatever. By the time mid morning hit, it was obvious that the weather was suitable for getting out, and roads were even clear by that point too.

A recent report from Steve Huggins of a Red-necked Grebe in the city brought me to the Chicago River. A tip from Nathan got me to the bird's new location a little further south, and I was pumped to find it for my third county in less than a week! It was a really nice looking adult, but unfortunately it snoozed for most of the time I watched it.

Red-necked Grebe
Chicago River, Cook Co, IL
March 12, 2014

It did briefly poke its head out a couple times though, and I managed to capture it once. I hung around for quite a while trying to get a better picture, but the wind was hurling snow chunks at me, so I took it as a sign to keep moving.

Red-necked Grebe
Chicago River, Cook Co, IL
March 12, 2014

Since I was in the area and didn't have any other specific targets, I decided to skip up to a reliable spot for wintering Black-crowned Night-herons. Sure enough, it only took a few minutes to find this juvenile, my only year bird for the day:

Black-crowned Night-heron
Ranon Park, Cook Co, IL
March 12, 2014

Montrose was caked in snow still, looking like a winter wonderland a couple weeks into March. A group of robins were feeding along the pathways, providing a flare of color to the setting.

American Robin
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
March 12, 2014

On the way home I swung by Fermi and found this lone White-front among the many Canadas, my first in DuPage for the year.

Greater White-fronted Goose
Fermi Lab, DuPage Co, IL
March 12, 2014

Thursday, March 13: Central Illinois. I had been planning to hit central Illinios during Spring Break just to get to see the massive flocks of geese, and Thursday worked out to be the right day for the trip. I hit the road at 4 am and arrived in Peoria right around sunrise, where I picked up some nice waterfowl, but nothing too special. As I turned around in Eastport Marina, the glare of the sun caught my windshield just wrong, temporarily blinding me. Usually not a big deal, but in this case, there were huge chunks of snow/ice that had been plowed to the side along this narrow lane, and one of them cracked my fender before I could even see the pile I hit. One of the many frustrating things about this is that, had I hit the same chunk in the middle of the day, it likely would have dissolved. But it was still early, and well below freezing, and my fender gave way to this little piece of winter treachery.


Not a great way to start a day. Rather down, I kept on moving to a couple other Tazwell County locations. The first was Powerton Lake, where I had quite a nice spread of waterfowl, and a little flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows.


Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Powerton Lake, Tazwell Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Several pelicans flew by real close.

American White Pelican
Powerton Lake, Tazwell Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Near Spring Lake, a flock of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs slowed me down for a few minutes. I stopped to scope to make sure there wasn't anything else in with them. While scoping, an Eastern Meadowlark flew by, and my first two Snow Geese flew over. Nothing else of interest, though the alternate plumage longspurs were a nice sight in the early morning sun.

Spring Lake had a nice diversity of species, including my first big flock of Snow Geese, which held at least three Ross's.

Snow Geese with a few Ross's
Spring Lake, Tazwell Co, IL
March 13, 2014

And, while it wasn't my most exciting bird of the day, this was still a pleasant first for the year:

Savannah Sparrow
Spring Lake, Tazwell Co, IL
March 13, 2014

From there, it was on to the target destination: Chautauqua NWR. The reports of the waterfowl numbers in the preceding days had me excited. A Golden Eagle had also been seen that week, but I knew the likelihood of seeing one was still slim to none. I tried not to think about it too much as I pulled up to Eagle Bluff.

I was immediately greeted by a nice mixed group of waterfowl, dominated by Greater White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, Mallard and Northern Pintail in the near pool. 

Waterfowl
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

I stayed in the parking area and just stared at the mess of birds for about an hour. From there, I could see the huge flock of Snows that everyone had been talking about on the far side of the lake. When they took to flight, the sound was nearly as impressive as the sight.

Snow Geese
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

In the foreground I began to find Northern Shovelers, American Wigeon, Gadwall, a couple Ruddy Ducks, and all three swans. I thought I was hearing frogs croaking, but it turned out to be the many flocks of Green-winged Teal that were flying by. I had never noticed this before.

Green-winged Teal
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Northern Pintail
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Got a nice shot of the underwing of this harrier:

Northern Harrier
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Tundra Swan
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

A loud ruckus would occasionally crop up behind, which always turned out to be countless new waves of Snows drifting in. Of course there were Ross's mixed in.


Lotsa Gooses
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Looking back towards the large flock, the geese seemed to form a funnel cloud. I figured in this moment that Snow Geese probably got their name not because of their color, but because they truly resemble falling snow when seen in large flocks at great distances. Click on the picture to enlarge.

"Snow" Geese
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

The sheer number of birds was mind numbing, but I had the sense that there was more to be seen. I could tell some flocks of smaller waterfowl were landing in a pool I couldn't currently see, so I decided to walk to ridge out between the lakes to see if I could get a better look. Shortly after heading that way, a large group of waterfowl took off in the near pool. Instinctively, I looked up to see if a predator was causing the commotion. Indeed! I spotted an eagle-like raptor soaring above the tree line back to my left.

I quickly put the scope on the bird, saw a flash of white at the base of the inner primaries, and started to get excited. The bird continued to circle, and I soon got my next clue: white sub-terminal band. Getting more excited. At last, I caught it at the right angle to see a beautiful gold patch on the nape. GOLDEN EAGLE! I truly could not believe it. So I started snapping photos to document the moment. The first few shots were not too pretty, but they got the job done.

Golden Eagle
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

The eagle kept drifting towards me, providing some the best looks I've ever had at close range in the scope. I even managed a couple decent pics.



Golden Eagle
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Needless to say, I was pumped. State lifer #296 for me, and so satisfying to have found it on my own. I followed it northward along the ridge, as it eventually faded out of sight. A young Bald Eagle flew by shortly afterward, providing a great reminder of how little overlap there is in the field marks between immature Bald and Golden Eagles.

Bald Eagle
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

I was then happy to see that the extra trek had brought into view a great host of birds.


Lotsa Birdies
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Snow Goose abstract art:


Tundras and Trumpeters were out swimming together:

Tundra Swans and Trumpeter Swans
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Greater White-fronted Goose
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

From here I picked up Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, and American Black Duck, as numbers of the other species sky rocketed. Also, my first Tree Swallows of the year darted passed me quickly.

Canvasback
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

And always, the streams of Snow Geese coming to join the party, this time against a blue sky.



Lotsa Gooses
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
March 13, 2014

There's no way to capture these moments with a camera. Every once and a while I would have to stop myself and just soak it in. This was one of the Illinois spectacles I had wanted to see this year, and I am so glad that I made it a priority. I still can't believe a Golden Eagle flew by in the middle of it all.

But the day wasn't over yet. I crossed the county line into Fulton and checked out Emiquon. The main lake was well frozen, but still had a pretty similar assortment of water birds, including all three swans again, and Common Mergansers and Goldeneyes. And lo and behold, there were Snow Geese. Here's three photos of the same flock. Can you pick out the Ross's?



It's right in the middle of this one:

Snow Geese with a Ross's
Emiquon, Fulton Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Probably the coolest bird I had at Emiquon was my first "Western" Red-tailed Hawk for Illinois. Subspecies don't county as an additional tick, but it was still a sweet find. Here's a terrible shot:

"Western" Red-tailed Hawk, Dark Morph
Emiquon, Fulton Co, IL
March 13, 2014

I had plans of hitting some other counties further south, but my time had already been eaten up and I needed to head back. I stopped by the Des Plaines Widewaters quickly and didn't get anything out of the ordinary. However, both Tundra and Trumpeter Swans were close to the road:

Tundra Swan
Des Plaines Widewaters, Will Co, IL
March 13, 2014

Trumpeter Swan
Des Plaines Widewaters, Will Co, IL
March 13, 2014

And this winter scene, with deer on the ice and a couple Mute Swans, closed out an incredible day.


Friday, March 14: 17 and Counting. I have a thing with Greater White-fronted Geese. With all my birding from the previous week, I had racked up 16 counties with this species. One of my most glaring misses going into Friday was my neighbor county of Kane. We had a long trip to Northeast Ohio coming later in the day, so I decided to say local and try to pick up what would likely be an easy county tick.

I wandered some familiar Kane backroads, only finding Canada flocks with Cackling sprinkled in here and there. As I approached the Kaneville Sod Farms, I saw large groups of geese landing in the same general field, but I circled the area a couple times and could not find the field for the life of me. After far too long, I wandered down to the other end of the sod farms and finally came upon the flock I had been looking for, which included my county lifer White-fronts.

Greater White-fronted Geese
Kaneville Sod Farms, Kane Co, IL
March 14, 2014

American Kestrel
Kaneville Sod Farms, Kane Co, IL
March 14, 2014

 Scott Cohrs tipped me off to some huge flocks of geese along Peck Road, so I decided to investigate. Amidst the geese were four random Wood Ducks, an American Wigeon, and a couple Northern Pintail. My county lifer Sharp-shinned Hawk darted by, too. Though I didn't find a single Snow Goose, there were quite a few more White-fronts.


Greater White-fronted Geese
Peck Rd, Kane Co, IL
March 14, 2014

And with that, I am now up to 17 counties with this striking little goose!

Saturday, March 15: Ohio Long-tailed Ducks. We spent the weekend with some of our closest friends who moved to Warren, Ohio last summer. It was our first time seeing their new place, and as always it was a refreshing and restful time. Upon arrival Friday night, I pulled up my BirdsEye App just to see if there were any notable sightings nearby. Sure enough, it looked like some open water on Mosquito Lake was holding some pretty significant numbers of waterfowl. You know you have a friend when a non birder takes you out on a gray, chilly morning to look at little specs out in the water.

The flock was impressive, with well over 100 Tundra Swans in the mix.

Tundra Swans
Mosquito Lake, Trumbull Co, OH
March 15, 2014

But by far my favorite addition was this little group of male Long-tailed Ducks:

Long-tailed Ducks
Mosquito Lake, Trumbull Co, OH
March 15, 2014

 I had never birded Ohio before, so every bird was a new ABA tick, adding another layer of satisfaction to the whole experience. And all of this only 15 minutes from our friends' home!

Sunday, March 16: Ohio Red-shouldered Hawk. I swear it wasn't a birding trip. But then again, what trip isn't a birding trip at least in some little way? Two minutes into our journey home, we were waylaid by this cooperative beauty! Jen even got to see this one well.



Red-shouldered Hawk
Trumbull Co, OH
March 16, 2014

I had wanted a nice shot of this bird for quite a while, so it was fun for that to come to fruition in a random out of state moment. I don't even have one for Illinois yet this year!

On our drives to and from Ohio, Jen was my co-pilot, which included the duties of entering my eBird checklists so that I could keep up with my county ticks without using my phone while driving - a win win situation. I wound up with 45 species and 101 ticks in Ohio.

Monday, March 17: Barrow's Goldeneye! And finally, this morning, in the waning hours of Spring Break, before getting back to the reality of the final two months of the semester, I had one more bird to take care of. Saturday evening I got a call from Brendon Lake, telling me that he was looking at a male Barrow's Goldeneye in West Dundee. There was nothing I could do about it but hope that it stayed another couple days for me. I was relieved the see consistent reports of the bird all day Sunday.

Yesterday evening, Andrew told me that Sean Fitzgerald would be looking for the bird in the morning too, so Sean and I met up about 6:45 this morning where the bird was originally seen. The sky was alive with song, but the river held no Barrow's. We decided to split up in order to cover as much territory as possible. After a half hour of unsuccessful searching, we swapped areas, only Sean headed further south than I had gone in search of possible vantages. He called from South End Park while I was at the Carpentersville Dam, saying that he had the bird! I was only 1.8 miles away, but it seemed to take an eternity to get there. Finally, I arrived, and we enjoyed this gorgeous rarity together - my third state lifer in 10 days! Sean left to go to work, and I hung around to see if I could get a decent picture or two.



Barrow's Goldeneye
South End Park, Kane Co, IL
March 17, 2014

And somehow, after all that, I'm supposed to transition back into normal life this week. There was a point at the beginning of the month when I was pretty skeptical of what March had to offer. Seemed like it would be too cold, migration was bound to be slow, blah blah blah. I could not have been more wrong! Red-necked Grebe, Golden Eagle, and Barrow's Goldeneye were all state lifers and birds I absolutely was not counting on for my year list. I'm a fan of March now.

ABA: 148

Illinois: 124

More numbers to come later.