Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter Weekend Trip

Where to start? I've blogged much less in April, not necessarily because I've birded more, but because my birding has been more concentrated over the course of a few trips. This last Thursday-Saturday was the most recent excursion. In the week leading up to it, I added Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, and best of all, LeConte's Sparrow - all in Kane County - bringing my total for the year up to 170.

Andrew and I had been planning this trip since last Fall, when we put together a list of targets and started to conceive of a route that could give us a good shot at those species. It had been over a month since we last birded together, too, so the buddy list was definitely ready for another bump. At last, April 17th came - a day which began for me at 5 am with writing a 7 page paper, followed by a meeting from 9-11. Andrew picked me up and we were on the road at 11:05, filled with anticipation for whatever may lie ahead. What followed in the next 2 1/2 days was a combination of surprising finds, listing milestones, and all around quality birding experiences.

Here's how it went down:

Thursday, April 17: Arcola and Bartel. Our target list included rails, so we had a number of marshes on the list to check. The first was Arcola Marsh, a convenient stop just off I-57 on the way south. A group of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers seemed a little out of place, but they were a nice treat nonetheless. The large pond was loaded with a surprising number and array of waterfowl. The first surprise came when I spotted a flock of geese that turned out to be Greater White-fronts, which should definitely be out of this area by now.

Greater White-fronted Geese
Arcola Marsh, Douglas Co, IL
April 17, 2014

On the trip down, we had been talking about the Eared Grebe reports that had come in across the state recently, and how so few of them truly excluded Horned Grebe in their descriptions. We'd each had separate experiences already this year in which a Horned Grebe gave us pause immediately after coming up from diving, as its shape can be skewed in such circumstances. We also share a frustration with such reports that lack photo documentation - of course it's not always possible to get a photo, but most of the time it is, and it really doesn't take much to capture an identifiable shot.

Rant over.

Anyway, as we were combing through the large group of waterfowl, I came across a familiar profile. I watched the bird for a few moments then said "Speaking of grebes that aren't Horned Grebes, I've got an Eared Grebe. An actual Eared Grebe." Great moment, and a fantastic bird to kickstart the trip! This is a pretty lame shot, but notice the sharp, pointed bill, super skinny neck, the peaked head, and the body, which I always consider to look "fluffier" than that of a Horned. It's not in full alternate plumage, but you can see a few golden plumes coming in on the side of the head.

Eared Grebe
Arcola Marsh, Douglas Co, IL
April 17, 2014

Shortly after I started whistling the call of a Sora, only to have one respond immediately from the marsh with its explosive descending call. A couple quick year birds, and our birding magic was in full swing.

Our next stop was Lake Mattoon, which we had never even heard of before, but we saw it on the map and thought it may be worth checking. There wasn't a whole lot around, but a nice flock of blackbirds greeted us in the marina parking lot, including about 15 Rusty Blackbirds.

Rusty Blackbird
Lake Mattoon, Cumberland Co, IL
April 17, 2014

Andrew scoped the lake, and I picked through the blackbirds, and found exactly what I was looking for. Up in a grassy patch, a really glossy blackbird with a blue/purple hue and white eye stuck out to me - Brewer's Blackbird! Year bird for Andrew, and my best look at one yet this year.

Brewer's Blackbird
Lake Mattoon, Cumberland Co, IL
April 17, 2014

We county listed from the highway and backroads our whole way down, pretty much continually submitting and sharing checklists, and noted that this makes road trips go by so much faster than usual. A flock of American Golden Plovers was an expected but nice addition in Shelby County. Then before we even knew it, we were in Marion County. A couple hours of daylight still remained, so our plan was to scope out the Bartel area to give ourselves an idea of what we would be doing in the morning. 

We tossed around the thought of whether prairie chickens would be out in the late afternoon or not. The answer came quickly as we scanned the field where I had them last summer and boom - there was a male right out in the open. We were thrilled at this easy find, and got out the scopes to enjoy the sight up close. There ended up being two males and two females, and the outstanding part was that the males were doing their full display! Usually you have to get up hours before dawn, then sit in a cramped blind in the dark for a while before getting to see this display, but we were getting our own show in full afternoon sunlight. I'll never forget it.


Greater Prairie Chicken
Karl Bartel Grassland, Marion Co, IL
April 17, 2014

The marsh yielded only a couple Sora in the rail department, though we trekked around a while trying to flush something up. We had an Eastern Towhee, Chipping, Field, Song, Swamp, Savannah, White-throated, and our first Henslow's Sparrow of the year, not a bad sparrow list. On the way to Stephen Forbes State Park, Andrew picked out a small flock of American Golden Plovers, which included one really nice looking male. What a remarkably striking bird!


American Golden Plover
Marion Co, IL
April 17, 2014

Having already nailed the prairie chickens, the plans for the next morning had opened up, and as we drove around Stephen Forbes Thursday evening it quickly became apparent that it had a great deal of potential. So we decided to use the evening hours before us to try for rails, then to do the park in the morning. Before heading out for rails, Andrew spotted a Barred Owl in a tree near the road, and we made a quick stop where we discovered an Eastern Screech Owl wailing in the distance.

Rails were probably our biggest bust of the trip, as we couldn't come up with anything other than Sora. Neither of us had been to Farina Wetland before, so when we arrived we truly had no idea what we were looking at. In the dark, it was difficult to determine the habitat, but it seemed it was better suited for shorebirds than rails. So we left, and decided we should check it out the next day. While here, our only Great-horned Owl of the trip called from a nearby farm.

We headed back to the Bartel Marsh, where the Henslow's Sparrow from earlier was still calling well after dark - when do those things sleep? The Sora from earlier called, but still no other luck in the rail department. This secured our plans to do Stephen Forbes in the morning. We stayed the night there in a little cabin, which was much like camping indoors, campfire smell and all. It definitely wasn't the best night of sleep I've had, but it did the job.

Friday, April 18: Marion to Jasper to Clinton. 5:40 am, my final moments of sleep and the pre-dawn silence are broken by a descending whistle from a nearby creek. 

"Hey Josh?" Andrew inquires from across the room, trying to determine if the call is coming from outside or if I'm working on my warbler songs at this particular moment. 

"Louisiana Waterthrush?" I posit. 

"Great minds." Andrew replies. 

And that's how our day began. I must say, a Louisiana Waterthrush makes a very pleasant alarm clock.

This was still 45 minutes before the sun came up, so we gradually woke up, gathered our things, and had about 20 species within earshot by the time we started off to troll the roads of the park, including our first Broad-winged Hawk of the year. The birds rolled in quickly as Yellow-throated Warblers and Northern Parulas sang from the roadside trees, while Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers filled in much of the space remaining in the air waves.

The Cattail Trail proved most productive, as our FOY Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos sang away.

Yellow-throated Vireo
Stephen Forbes SP, Marion Co, IL
April 18, 2014

The path led back to a little slough, and on the descent we could hear a familiar call resounding - Prothonotary Warbler! Though familiar, I admit it took me hearing it a couple times to clear out the cobwebs from last year and recognize what it was. In the same slough were our FOY Solitary Sandpipers and a couple Rusty Blackbirds.

Solitary Sandpiper
Stephen Forbes SP, Marion Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Prothonotary Warbler
Stephen Forbes SP, Marion Co, IL
April 18, 2014

The Marion County backroads were also productive bird-wise, though we did have a rather interesting encounter with a local. After pulling down a road, we noticed it was a dead end (a dead end which had our only White-crowned Sparrows of the trip), so we turned around. On the way out, a car was coming our way; the driver caught our attention and asked us to stop. Apparently he'd been following us for a while (what better way to spend a beautiful Friday morning than stalking strangers with binoculars, right?) and was not impressed by our erratic, bird-finding driving - which was of course a huge issue on virtually empty country roads. Of more concern to this disgruntled older man was the fact that we had driven down the private road on which we were currently having this exchange. "It's a very private road," he emphasized. "You need to be very careful on private roads out here," he added creepily. He kept trying to determine where we going, and despite Andrew's poised and consistent answers, this man seemed to only get more pissed off the longer the conversation went. We eventually just drove off, utterly confused by the situation, and grateful the crazy man didn't have a firearm on hand (or at least that we didn't provoke its presence). On the way out, we checked the signage on the road, and of course found nothing demarcating it as private. We couldn't figure out what this guy's deal was - seriously, of all the crap he had laying out across his yard and along the road, what were we going to want to take? Would he miss it even if we did? Whatever. This is sorta par for the course when birding in the boonies. For whatever reason, the further you get from civilization, the more paranoid people get about others being near their stuff (something that is rarely the case with downtown city dwellers, who often let birders traipse across their yards in search of continuing rarities). If that's not counterintuitive, I don't know what is.

Anyway, there were Wild Turkeys nearby, a snappy looking pair of Red-shouldered Hawks perched together momentarily, and a nice little flock of American Pipits as well.

American Pipit
Marion Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Red-shouldered Hawk
Marion Co, IL
April 18, 2014

After Marion County, we hopped back up to Farina Wetland, which had a strange combination of wonderful habitat and very few birds. I'm sure something good will be showing up there soon. From there we headed east, with a productive stretch through Clay County which including our FOY Northern Bobwhite near the road.

Northern Bobwhite
Clay Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Jasper County was our primary destination for the mid-morning, and between Prairie Ridge, Robert Ridgeway Grasslands, and the backroads, we pulled in 72 species, all of which were ticks for me as I had never set foot in the county before.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs
Robert Ridgeway Grasslands, Jasper Co, IL
April 18, 2014

I'm still learning my snakes; I think this is an Eastern Garter. Comments and info always welcome.

Snake
Robert Ridgeway Grasslands, Jasper Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Working the backroads of prairie country can be tiring at times, but it does eventually pay off. A little riparian area yielded our FOY Common Yellowthroat and a White-eyed Vireo - always an enjoyable call to listen to. Andrew spotted one of our main targets for the trip, a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes, working a brushy fence line. We got these birds in the scope and studied them for a little while, pointing out just how different they look than their Northern relatives - much thicker mask, entirely encapsulating the eye, stocky profile, dark gray back, clean breast, and a flat, disproportionately large head. It was a rewarding moment after what felt like an eternity in the car.


Loggerhead Shrikes
Jasper Co, IL
April 18, 2014

We had missed Upland Sandpiper and rails, but otherwise we were making good time and finding great birds. Given our proximity to Lake Carlyle, and the amount of daylight we still had remaining, we decided to make that our next destination. We began on the Fayette County side, where we had a couple nice finds on the way to the lake, including a flock of 60 American Pipits and a Barred Owl that Andrew spotted sitting in the open in the middle of the afternoon.

Northern Mockingbird
Fayette Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Barred Owl
Fayette Co, IL
April 18, 2014

American Pipit
Fayette Co, IL
April 18, 2014

When we got to the Patoka Access I quickly spotted three Forster's Terns flying by - didn't expect to have them before Caspians this year.

Forster's Tern
Lake Carlyle, Fayette Co, IL
April 18, 2014

It was clear that a distant sandbar had significant numbers of shorebirds, so we walked that direction to get a better look. On the way, Andrew stopped dead in his tracks. "Baby fox! Do you see it?" He pointed forward to a den where two fuzzy little heads were poking out to see what was going on. I had never seen baby foxes in the wild before, and it was without a doubt one of the cutest things I have ever witnessed! They were shy, but quite accommodating when it came to having their picture taken. Is this not adorable?


Baby Red Fox
Lake Carlyle, Fayette Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Among the usual, recurring shorebirds we already had on the trip, a couple Semipalmated Plovers and Dunlin made nice additions to the trip and year lists. We figured Whitetail Access would be an appropriate next stop, and this turned out to be a great choice. This is where we had all the shorebirds last Fall on the IOS trip, and the same was true this weekend. From the trail, we could see a distant mudflat full of shorebirds on the other side of a berm, and I had a peep that made me think Baird's. So we approached quietly and managed to get to the berm without flushing everything. There were about 400 Pectoral Sandpipers, and picking through them produced more Dunlin and Semipalmated Plovers, as well as a single Least and Baird's Sandpiper. It felt so good to have a huge shorebird flock to pick through, and to experience the benefits of spending so much time on them last Fall.

Pectoral (left) and Baird's (right) Sandpiper
Whitetail Access, Clinton Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Lesser Yellowlegs
Whitetail Access, Clinton Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Pectoral Sandpiper (left) and Dunlin (right)
Whitetail Access, Clinton Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Semipalmated Plover
Whitetail Access, Clinton Co, IL
April 18, 2014

As we left this area, we had a couple hours of daylight left. We drove around the south side of the lake, where we had a Yellow-throated Warbler singing. At the Lake Carlyle Marina, we were surprised (though not really surprised after this winter) that this funny looking duck was still lingering around in mid April.

White-winged Scoter
Lake Carlyle, Clinton Co, IL
April 18, 2014

Our final stop of the day was Eldon Hazlet State Park where there was little of note, with the one exception of the huge numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls coming back to the lake to roost for the evening. Many of them were in alternate plumage, making it a remarkable spectacle. It's the biggest numbers of this species that Andrew and I have ever seen. These pics don't do the situation justice, but if you click on them to make them larger it should help.



Bonaparte's Gulls
Lake Carlyle, Clinton Co, IL
April 18, 2014

The day drew to an end, and we had to decide where to go for the night in order to set ourselves up for some good birding Saturday. Mason and Fulton counties seemed a reliable place to target, so we got a hotel in Lincoln. On the way there, we tallied things up and realized we had already seen 117 birds on the trip. What would another day of birding one of Illinois' most magical birding locales do for us? That remained to be seen.

Saturday, April 19: Mason and Fulton to Putnam. We "slept in" Saturday morning till 6:45, which was not intentional, but also not detrimental to the day's plans. We're pretty sure we were the better for it because we felt rested and ready for another day full of good birds, which is exactly what was before us. I try to explain to my non-birding friends that 6:45 a.m. is sleeping in, they don't seem to get it though.

On our drive through Mason County, a roadside pond caught our attention and caused us to turn around. We got out to the sound of Ring-necked Pheasant and Northern Bobwhite calling. While scoping the ponds, Andrew called out, "Hey, Wilson's Phalaropes!" Sure enough, there were three fancy females doing there little spinny phalarope thing. A great surprise bird and a really nice way to kick off the day.

Wilson's Phalaropes
Mason Co, IL
April 19, 2014

This pond was on a side road, and we decided to stay on it and wander our way through Mason County as we had done the day before. Good results followed yet again as we picked up good numbers of Vesper Sparrows and had the pleasant surprise of a Western Meadowlark calling along the side of the road. There were several mockingbirds along the way, and we finally came across a pair of Lark Sparrows, which we had been hoping to encounter on the way at some point.

Lark Sparrow
Mason Co, IL
April 19, 2014

One of the mockingbirds was quite cooperative in the photo department!

bird, mocking something
Mason Co, IL
April 19, 2014

I liked the way this one turned out:

Northern Mockingbird
Mason Co, IL
April 19, 2014

From there it was on to Emiquon, where we were treated to a couple of exciting hours of birding. We picked up our first Eurasian Tree Sparrows of the trip here.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
April 19, 2014

Some of the first shorebirds we saw were these Black-necked Stilts:


Black-necked Stilts
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
April 19, 2014

The South Globe provided some great looks at yet more Baird's Sandpipers. Typically a Fall migrant here, this species has shown up in remarkable numbers in Illinois this Spring. It was cool observing the slightly different pattern on the back, especially compared with the fresh juveniles we see in the Fall.


Baird's Sandpipers
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
April 19, 2014

After the North/South Globe area, we headed over to the observation deck, where things just kept getting better. Andrew suggested we walk around the marsh. I wasn't sure how productive it would be, but I'm glad we did it anyway. A Sora was calling from the marsh and eventually showed itself. As we came to an opening, Andrew picked out an American Bittern, camouflaged well against the reeds. We got great looks at it before it flushed further out in the marsh, where it was much more difficult to pick out.


Can you see it here?

American Bittern
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
April 19, 2014

Sora
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
April 19, 2014

From the marsh, we walked north along a grassy path that bordered the lake to the west. We didn't find much new at first. Then Andrew stopped. "Did you hear that?" I hadn't. Then seconds later the dry rattle of a Smith's Longspur came from directly above us! We looked up to see a little orange bird with white secondaries and white outer tail feathers fly by. My camera didn't focus quickly enough, but Andrew managed a couple identifiable shots. Here's one of them:

Smith's Longspur
Emiquon NWR, Fulton Co, IL
April 19, 2014

Quite surprisingly, this was not a year bird for either of us, but it was still a target for our trip and a thrilling find at such an unexpected place - sweet buddy list bird, too! Good times.

At that point, our attention turned to our individual county ticks. The trip had covered a lot of ground and produced way more ticks than we had expected (both county and the bugs actually, which are just about back in full force), and we were both on the brink of significant milestones. So we formulated a plan to work through Peoria and Tazewell Counties on the way to Hennepin-Hopper in Putnam, which we figured would be a nice end to the trip. As we birded on the way up, Andrew passed 5,000, and I passed 4,000 county ticks for Illinois. This was an unexpected accomplishment on this trip, but a fitting one given the amount of work we put in.

At last we arrived at Hennepin, where Caspian Tern and Yellow-headed Blackbird were the final year birds of the trip.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Hennepin-Hopper, Putnam Co, IL
April 19, 2014

An interesting part about this final stop was the shift in waterfowl we observed as compared to what we had seen further south. There were still good numbers of Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup, and only a few Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal. I love covering enough territory to be able to see these sorts of shifts from one location to the next.


A stop at Greene Valley back in DuPage got us one final bird for the trip: American Woodcock. That brought our total to 136, not bad for 2 1/2 days! Our buddy list also took a significant bump up to 258 after 12 new birds on the trip. Andrew finished at 187 for the year, and I made it to 197.

The trip had a little bit of everything and was satisfying in so many ways. Andrew made the great point on the way home that, besides the prairie chickens which were at a known location, we found all of our own birds. The Eared Grebe, shorebirds, shrikes, bittern, Lark Sparrow, longspur... no directions to any of those, just good planning, good execution, and good timing - and a whole lot of work. We missed a few things, but that's the way birding goes, and it's all stuff I should be able to track down at some point this year.

I've added a few birds since, so here's the quick number breakdown at the end of the trip:

ABA 2014: 219

Illinois 2014: 197

Andrew and Joshua Buddy List: 258