Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Flying Past The Half Way Point + Eurasian Wigeon

With Jen still in Hawaii, I took this past weekend off to go birding and pass the time before she got back. In a matter of a few days, I saw more birds than I saw the entire month of March. Bring on Spring, baby!

Thursday, April 3: After a couple meetings in the morning, I was able to get away a little before noon for a little local birding before heading south. It didn't take much effort to pick up Western Meadowlark and Vesper Sparrow out by the Aurora Airport in Kane County. Two quick year birds, and I was off!

Lake Evergreen was my next stop as I wanted to look for Shanin's Little Blue Heron. I missed the heron, but had a couple nice birds kick start the trip list, including Common Loon, a lingering White-winged Scoter on the Woodford County side of the lake, and a fly by Merlin on the McLean County side. Some displaying Wild Turkeys were also an impressive sight as I approached the area.

Wild Turkey
Lake Evergreen, McLean Co, IL
April 3, 2014


Common Loon
Lake Evergreen, Woodford Co, IL
April 3, 2014

White-winged Scoter
Lake Evergreen, Woodford Co, IL
April 3, 2014

And any day I get this kind of shot of a Belted Kingfisher stands out to me!

Belted Kingfisher
Lake Evergreen, McLean Co, IL
April 3, 2014

It was another dreary day, and as I left Evergreen the fog thickened, then it started pouring. This dampened my attempts at Smith's Longspurs on the way down, so after trying for a little while to no avail, I decided to get back on the highway and head on to Coles County. The Charleston Sewage Treatment Plant came through for me again, as the Red-necked Grebe had decided to hang around for me.

Red-necked Grebe
Charleston Sewage Treatment Plant, Coles Co, IL
April 3, 2014

My first Northern Rough-winged Swallow of the year flew by with some Tree Swallows, then as I got ready to leave, this Brown Thrasher popped up in a bush and started chattering away.

Brown Thrasher
Charleston Sewage Treatment Plant, Coles Co, IL
April 3, 2014

I arrived at Lake Charleston with little daylight remaining, making the birding a little difficult. But I'm glad I made the stop, because I was treated to the spectacle of 12 Common Loons scattered about the lake!


Common Loon
Lake Charleston, Coles Co, IL
April 3, 2014

Not bad. Just like that I had constructed an eclectic list of 84 birds over the course of a single afternoon, four of which were year birds. I was hoping for 15 year birds on the trip, so that was a good start.

But the day's journey had only just begun. Twilight faded, and as I drove south down 57 a storm developed ahead of me. I was at first impressed by the lightning show. Thunderheads were silhouetted against the backdrop of consistent flashes. Bolts seemed to explode from the mess, and I craned my neck to get a look at the action which extended beyond my windshield on either side. I was amazed and absolutely loving it.

Then, I began to realize that my destination for the night - Marion - was right in the middle of the storm. I didn't think too much of it until the monsoon-like rains were upon me. My windshield wipers strained to keep up with the onslaught. Usually these things are short-lived, but this guy wasn't giving up. Then my phone went off. And by "went off" I mean "started beeping and buzzing incessantly." It was a flash flood warning. I understand wanting to get the word out about severe weather, and I appreciate that there's a system to accomplish that. But seriously, is there a way for the message to come in a way that doesn't add more stress to the situation? I'm already on edge, I don't need my phone to be freaking out.

The storm persisted, and it seemed I would never actually get to my hotel. The host of emergency vehicles and flood lights surrounding the semi truck on its side in the ditch didn't inspire much confidence. Lo and behold, seemingly hours later, my white knuckles and I arrived in Marion. As I pulled into town, the storm intensified. Roads were partially submerged, lightning lit up the road, and the claps of thunder actually shook my car - a new experience for me, and not one I'm eager to repeat. I parked in the hotel's lot to find my phone freaking out yet again, this time a tornado warning, urging me to seek shelter immediately. I got to my room safely, extremely relieved to be off the road and done with the most intense drive of my life.

Friday, April 4: Massac County, the southern tip of Illinois, was my first target location for the day. With the likelihood of water over the roads in a place unfamiliar to me, I chose to not get on the road before dawn. I didn't get to the Mermet Floodplain until 7:30 am, and was curious as to what I would find after such a crazy storm. Nine year birds in the next hour proved that the birds were on the move! One of my first birds of the day was a soggy Green Heron that flew into a nearby tree. A huge flock of swallows included Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and my first Barn and Cliff of the year. A sporadic flight above me caught my attention, and I got on it to see a sooty brown bird, shaped like a cigar with wings - Chimney Swift!

Green Heron
Mermet Floodplain, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal were the most abundant waterfowl in the ponds, and a few Pectoral Sandpipers worked along the shore near the road. A couple crows flew by saying "Uh-uh, uh-uh!" Fish Crow!

Pectoral Sandpipers
Mermet Floodplain, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

I New Columbia Rd south to the area where it is flanked by woodlands on either side. There was little traffic on the road so I trolled along slowly with the windows down. I heard a buzz that made me think gnatcatcher, and a few seconds later I nearly came out of my seat as the trill of a Northern Parula rang out! I couldn't take it any longer so I found a spot to park and walked the road for a little while. A large, black bird appeared in the sky with silver wing tips and a headless profile: Black Vulture! I made my way back to the original sound I heard and was happy to find a little group of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. It's always a relief when the songs from last year come back to you with accuracy. I eventually tracked down a little mixed flock of passerines that included the odd mix of Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, the previously calling Northern Parula, and a couple Yellow-throated Warblers! Along this stretch I also had six of the seven expected woodpecker species in Illinois, and I was more than a little surprised that Downy was the one I missed.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Mermet Floodplain, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

 I eventually pulled myself away from the wonderful madness and headed to Mermet Lake. On the way, a flooded field had a nice group of Rusty Blackbirds:

Rusty Blackbirds
Mermet Floodplain, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

 Mermet Lake provided my first Swamp Sparrows of the year (can't believe it took me till April to find one - a testament to how difficult they've been in the northern reaches of the state). I also got great views of a lot of birds and added some really nice Massac County ticks. The lake was loaded with waterfowl.


American White Pelicans
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Pied-billed Grebe
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Red-breasted Mergansers
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Lesser Scaup
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

A Red-necked Grebe had been hanging around here for quite a while, but I didn't know if it had been seen recently, so I wasn't necessarily counting on it. And then, as I made the loop on the road around the lake, it popped up right in front of me. And it was looking real nice. This made five counties (DeWitt, Will, Cook, Coles, and Massac) for this species for me. This bird is moving right along into alternate plumage, and it provided the best looks I've had of one in Illinois.


Red-necked Grebe
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

And there were some non-waterfowl highlights, too. Purple Martins joined the Tree, Cliff, Barn, and Rough-winged Swallows, and the woodland chorus was as alive as I've heard it this year, with contributing members like Carolina Wren and Pileated Woodpecker filling up the air waves. I had a total of 11 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and a decent number of Yellow-rumps too.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014


Yellow-rumped Warbler
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

But without a doubt the Northern Parula stole the show. This burst of color was truly a sight for sore eyes. Winter birds have a certain striking beauty about them, but they do not typically abound in brilliant colors. This guy broke up the monotony:



Northern Parula
Mermet Lake, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

As I birded Mermet, Keith McMullen was reporting all kinds of new migrants from Fort Massac State Park, which just so happened to be the next stop on my agenda. The wind was howling when I got there, and the bird activity had died down a little, but it was still a very productive trip as I added three year birds, including a couple early warblers. This Chipping Sparrow greeted me at the entrance:

Chipping Sparrow
Fort Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

I had all seven woodpeckers here, and of course the only thing that could steal my attention away from migrant passerines is a Red-headed Woodpecker:

Red-headed Woodpecker
Fort Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Yellow-rumps were around, along with Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warblers. I had never had an opportunity to photograph a Yellow-throat well before, so that was quite the treat!

Northern Parula
Fort Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014



Yellow-throated Warbler
Fort Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

I found a White-eyed Vireo flitting around but quickly lost it, then heard a squeaky call nearby and thought to myself, "Huh, sounded like a Black-and-White." Then look what popped up right in front of me!

Black-and-White Warbler
Fort Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

On my way back out of the park, I heard the buzzy call of a Black-throated Green Warbler. It took a little while to track it down, but I eventually got some good looks at it.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Fort Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 4, 2014

In the grand scheme of things, it was only five warbler species, each of which I'll see many more times this year, but there was something about getting them in early April that provided a certain kickstart to my month that was thoroughly enjoyable.

After that I headed to the Cache River system of preserves. Heron Pond was pretty quiet, and the trails were covered in water in many places - not too surprising. So I drive over to Little Black Slough, and on my way there a small white heron sitting along the edge of a pond brought me to a halt. I put up my binoculars to see a stunning Snowy Egret! Even after the excitement of my first real warblers of the year, this was my favorite bird of the day.

Snowy Egret
Little Black Slough, Johnson Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Then it was on to Cypress Creek NWR in Pulaski County. I was hoping for some shorebirds, but could only find Killdeer, Pectorals, and Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs. There was a nice assortment of waterfowl there though. At most of the places I had waterfowl down there, flocks were dominated by Pied-billed Grebes, Gadwall, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal and Green-winged Teal. But this spot also had 4 Aythya species (everything but Greater Scaup) and a lingering American Black Duck. The other grouping of birds I had at nearly every stop comprised of Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping, Field, and White-throated Sparrows. There were quite a few Great Egrets and Great Blues around too, of course.

Great Egret
Cypress Creek NWR, Pulaski Co, IL
April 4, 2014

One of my favorite parts of birding in the southern part of the state is the seemingly ceaseless highlight real of Red-headed Woodpeckers and Red-shouldered Hawks. We get those birds up here of course, but having them be the common birds that randomly dart across the road and land in nearby trees - it's just such a treat! Red-shouldered Hawk was actually a year bird for me, too. Sadly, this was the best pic I managed:

Red-shouldered Hawk
Cypress Creek NWR, Pulaski Co, IL
April 4, 2014

As the day grew to close, I wandered up to Jackson County to bird a spot that I fell in love with last summer - Oakwood Bottoms. I didn't have much of note there, but it was still just good to see the area, and the assembly of roosting egrets and herons was enjoyable too.

Great Egrets and Great-blue Herons
Cypress Creek NWR, Pulaski Co, IL
April 4, 2014

Thankfully my drive back to Mt. Vernon was much less eventful than the night before. On the way, a Great-horned Owl perched on a power line near the road just after dusk. This was bird #99 for the day, tempting me to go for triple digits. So I picked a spot to do a little owling, but came up empty. Oh well, can't complain about 99, especially when 15 of them were year birds!

I got into my Motel 6, grateful to not be staying in an Econo Lodge as I had the night before in Marion. Econo Lodge - not so great, that's all I'll say. Though it did provide shelter from tornado warnings, so it wasn't all bad.

Anyway, I didn't have much clarity on where I should head the next day. I had an entire day to bird and could go wherever I wanted. Andrew then alerted me to a couple reports from the day, and as I looked through them it became clear that Fulton County was going to be my target area.

Saturday, April 5: I woke up early and headed due west, beginning my day at Cahokia Mounds, adding 33 birds to my previously barren St. Clair County list. Then I crossed over into Madison County to spend some time at Horseshoe Lake State Park, which was quite the productive stop! I hadn't been in the park 10 seconds when I found these Rusty Blackbirds foraging.

Rusty Blackbirds
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

I drove out the dike road to see that there was a pretty substantial amount of waterfowl hanging around, including some really nice looking Ruddy Ducks right along the side of the road. I also had all three mergansers, which was a little surprising to me. At the turn around spot I had a chorus of Savannah, Vesper, Song, Field, Chipping, and White-throated Sparrows waiting to greet me. Then I spotted a large flock of geese out in the field, which I assumed were Canada based on what I had seen so far on the trip, but then I noticed a couple white specks. I got the scope out and discovered that the flock was predominantly Greater White-fronts, and that the white specks were Snows and a single Ross's, awesome!

Greater White-fronted, Canada, Snow, and Ross's Geese
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

This alternate plumaged Horned Grebe was another new trip bird for me:

Horned Grebe
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

The road around the lake had a decent amount of bird activity, including Eurasian Tree Sparrows and several singing Brown Thrashers. I had a gray bird with light wing patches pop up in front of me on the road, and when I was able to find it back in a bush I realized that it was my first Northern Mockingbird of the year, another nice addition.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

Brown Thrasher
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

The swallows were clearly on the move, too. I had Barn and Northern Rough-winged in with the many Trees.

Tree of Swallows
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

I had already typed in Meredosia NWR on my Google Maps app and was pulling out of the park when I noticed a couple gulls in a nearby fluddle with a smaller bird that I initially thought was a shorebird. I pulled over to see that it was also a gull, smaller than the Ring-bills, but not small enough to be a Bonaparte's. I snapped a quick picture and then it took to flight. I followed it back to the lake, put the scope on it, and saw exactly what I was hoping to see - white eye crescents. Franklin's Gull! This was a great surprise and put a nice cap on an excellent start to the day.

Franklin's Gull
Horseshoe Lake State Park, Madison Co, IL
April 5, 2014

I picked up a few county ticks here and there on the trip north. Didn't seem like much at the time but they really added up over the weekend. Spunky Bottoms was probably my best stop on the way up as I had another nice flock of White-fronts and Snow Geese there, and I got to hear the eternal chatter of a Winter Wren for the first time this year.

I was getting anxious about getting to Banner Marsh, so I made the mistake of passing up Emiquon on the way. No one posted any reports that day, but as it turned out, the place was loaded with shorebirds. I learned my lesson - don't ever pass up the chance to bird a place like Emiquon. Oh well.

I arrived at Banner Marsh, about as nervous as I had felt about any bird all year. I wandered a couple of the roads and found some nice groups of waterfowl and a little flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. But another Eurasian specialty awaited.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Banner Marsh, Fulton Co, IL
April 5, 2014

After checking a few spots, I looked at the specific directions to the bird again. I pulled down the right road and picked out this Eurasian Wigeon almost immediately. I've seen many in Washington, but this one was special to me as it was my 300th bird for Illinois! I also rarely get to see them this closely, and I've never photographed one in the sun before. This bird was an all around treat!


Eurasian Wigeon
Banner Marsh, Fulton Co, IL
April 5, 2014

The rest of the day slowed down from there as I missed the Varied Thrush that had been reported the previous day. My search for it made me wonder about the accuracy of the report, but who knows? And honestly, I didn't really even mind missing it all that much. I had just seen 122 birds in three days, including a totally unexpected state lifer. What an amazing trip it was! By the end of the day, I was also in an unfamiliar spot on the eBird Top 100 for Illinois. Of course it was short lived and Keith is back on top now, but it was fun while it lasted. Here's the proof:


Sunday, April 6: Wife comes back, much happier self.

Monday, April 7: Even after the trip I was still missing a couple easy birds for the year, so I headed to Waterfall Glen before work Monday morning. I arrived to find Eastern Phoebes, Eastern Towhees, and Fox Sparrows singing all over the place. I parked at the corner of Cass and Bluff roads, hoping to hear a trill coming from the pines. Eventually I did, but it sounded too metallic, and with the number of juncos around I wasn't about to conveniently assume that my target was the bird calling. So I drove back to the other parking area in the preserve and worked that area for a bit. After picking through some Fox Sparrows, I heard another trill, this time smoother and even slightly descending at the end. This felt more like a Pine Warbler to me, and sure enough that's what I found once I tracked it down!

Pine Warbler
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
April 7, 2014

I walked the trail through the preserve for a while, finding more of the same. This vocal towhee was rather conspicuous. It's so nice to be seeing them again!

Eastern Towhee
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
April 7, 2014

On my way out I came back by the original group of Fox Sparrows that I had seen and picked through it for a little while. A medium-sized brown bird caught my eye as it hopped along the ground and then out of sight. I pished for a little while, but nothing but juncos responded. I knew I had seem something other than a junco so I went the direction I thought the bird was headed. Some movement back in the bushes drew my attention again, and I saw the spotted chest and reddish tail of a Hermit Thrush as it scrounged about the leaves. Target #2: check.

And with that, I had bagged 125 birds in just a few days, and added 25 to my Illinois year list. My original high end goal for the end of April was 170, and I now stand at 167. I also added 388 county ticks over the course of the weekend, bringing my total to 3,686. 4,000 is just around the corner!

ABA Year: 189

Illinois Year: 167
Illinois Life: 300
Illinois Ticks: 3,686