Saturday, May 17, 2014

Kane County Big Day: Breaking a Record

Last May, Andrew and I began considering doing a Big Day after the Illinois record was broken by the Neise/Skrentny crew. A state level Big Day did not sound appealing to either of us, but one at the county level seemed intriguing. DuPage? Will? Kane? We figured that if we could get Scott Cohrs and Sean Fitzgerald we would be in great shape, and that a well planned route could launch us into the 130s on a good day.

Fast forward to March of this year. The four of us began emailing, trying to pick a target location and date, and we quickly landed on Kane County. Due to work, it also became apparent that Sean wasn't going to be able to join us in the venture, leaving just three of us. We put May 9 on the schedule as pretty much the only date that could work for all three of us. This happened to be in the middle of an incredibly busy season for each of us, given the various contributing factors of work, family, and school, but we weren't going to let that get in the way of taking a stab at a Big Day.

We wanted to set a Kane County Big Day record, but the pressure for doing so was pretty low. You see, Scott already held the record with an impressive 133 by himself in 2005. And last year, Andrew and I unintentionally took the top spot under the team category for Big Days by bagging a measly 103 on the Spring Bird Count day, when we added a few locations after running our SBC. So, between the three of us, we had a clean sweep of the #1 Big Day record in the county already.

But we knew we could do better. Andrew put together a list of potentials based on a tier system, and Scott did some scouting and constructed a route for us. We discussed both over email in the days and weeks leading up to the 9th and developed a pretty good sense of the way the day would look. After my final look through the route and list, I put forth 145 as an excellent number, and we all agreed that 150 had a nice sound to it. And then, the day came.

Here's how it happened.

2:40 am: Running on a solid 2 1/2 hours of sleep, I'm up and ready to go. Andrew picks me up and we make the half hour trek to Scott's house in Kane.

3:26 am: A minute after leaving Scott's house, the three of us stop at a little park just outside his neighborhood where Andrew and I had an American Woodcock peenting on our way in. The bird cooperates quickly, and we're on the board with our first species.

3:44 am: Hannaford Woods was our first stop for owls. We had more woodcocks there and a Song Sparrow. A Great-horned Owl squawked from the woods. As we listened for other night species, Scott picked out the nocturnal flight call of a Gray-cheeked Thrush which we were all able to hear well. This was our only one for the day.

From there, the night birds did not cooperate. More accurately, the weather did not cooperate. We had spurts of calm frequently interrupted by showers and breeze. We cut our losses and kept moving.

4:35 am: Nelson Lake was our first really clutch stop of the day. We birded there for nearly two hours as the day slowly emerged from a dreary dawn. In the process we found over 60 species, several of which we could not have again for the rest of the day. Beginning in the dark, we listened from the observation platform, where our first and only Marsh and Sedge Wrens of the day sounded off. Soras resounded from the marsh as well, and yet another woodcock was peenting. A quick drive to the other side of the preserve landed us in a quick rain shower, which we waited out for a few minutes. The conditions were windy, making it difficult to pick out the subtle calls we were trying to hear, yet we still managed to pick out a single Grasshopper Sparrow and our only Henslow's Sparrow of the day. At the little marsh, our first and last Virginia Rails of the day called too. The resident Sandhill Cranes sounded off and Ring-necked Pheasant steadily gave their cacophonous "Kaw! Kaw!"

The place wasn't exactly alive with birds, but we were getting good stuff and nailing some tough target species before the sun even rose. Once it became light, we decided to head back to the observation platform and scope the lake. This turned out to be a great call. Within the first few seconds of scanning, Scott got on a flock of Forster's Terns gliding along above the lake. Shortly after I picked out a couple late Horned Grebes. Then Andrew spotted a Common Nighthawk darting in and out over the marsh. None of these were species we were counting on for the day, and we could feel the momentum starting to build. A flock of Pectoral Sandpipers flew around the lake, and surprise Ring-necked Ducks along with Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks made for some nice additions to our meager waterfowl list. No Green-winged Teal though.

The little riparian tract running north from there was fairly birdy, so after scoping we worked it for a few minutes. This produced Lincoln's Sparrow and our first eight species of warblers for the day. The adjacent field had an active and vocal Bobolink.

6:35 am: After picking up a Bald Eagle at a nest in Aurora, we arrived at Les Arends Forest Preserve. Scott had made sure to include this in the route, and man were we glad he did! The woods were alive with song, but after ten minutes the rain grew too strong so we had to wait under the little shelter. We grabbed our coffee and checked the radars for what seemed like an eternity. Good weather is an essential component of a big day, and we were getting anything but that in our first four hours of birding.

After about 20 minutes, the rain finally started letting up and everything began singing again. What followed was one of the more notable flurries of birds any of us had experienced in recent memory, abounding in quantity and quality. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings, and Baltimore Orioles were all conspicuous. Upon leaving the shelter, we immediately had the wonderful surprise of a calling White-eyed Vireo that then popped up and gave us nice views for a short while. We would also go on to pick up Warbling, Yellow-throated, and Red-eyed while there. Our only Solitary Sandpiper of the day was down along the river, and another Bald Eagle flew by. Flycatchers included Least, Great-crested, Eastern Phoebe, and a couple Eastern Kingbirds. Thrushes included Swainson's, Wood, and Veery.

And then there were warblers. One of the great things about having a team of three is that you can get eyes on almost everything that is moving, even in the huge flocks that we were sifting through. And at the same time, with only three it doesn't take too much effort to get everyone on a bird quickly. This paid off for us over the next hour, which was a constant barrage of colorful little birds hanging from the branches above us. Lighting was poor, drizzle was steady, but the birds we outstanding as we raked in 20 species of warblers altogether, the most surprising of which was a very early Connecticut Warbler! Other notable species included Canada, Blackpoll, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Cape May, Golden-winged, Blue-winged, and Chestnut-sided. We knew our Big Day total was going to rise or fall on migrant passerines, so this stop was invaluable for securing a respectable number by the end of the day.

8:18 am: After grabbing Purple Martins in Batavia, we headed to Fabyan Forest Preserve. We unfortunately hit the small window of time between the specialty warblers here - too late for Pine, too early for Yellow-throated - both big misses, but the stop was still worthwhile as we picked up Orchard Oriole, cleaned up the rest of our swallows, and Andrew spotted our only Osprey of the day.

9:00 am: Having already bagged 110 species, we were pretty happy with our start to the day, especially given the way the weather was not cooperating too well. We got to Norris Woods, which was initially rather slow, especially compared to the flurry we had just come from. But instead of packing up and moving to the next spot (a perfectly acceptable Big Day type of decision), we kept working the area and ended up with some good finds, including our first Wilson's Warbler and our only Blue-headed Vireo and Tufted Titmouse of the day. One of the keys to amassing a sizable number is just picking something up at every stop, even if it's just a bird or two. That's exactly what we were doing.

10:22 am: Our final stop along the river was Tekakwitha Woods, which also started out rather slowly. We were starting to feel the pressure to find a kingfisher as we knew our opportunities for them were greatly diminished away from the Fox. And where on earth were the Green Herons? We decided to cross the river to Jon Duerr Forest Preserve and see if conditions were any better over there. They were.

Along the train tracks we heard then saw this Yellow-breasted Chat. It was our 25th and final warbler species of the day, a really solid number.

Yellow-breasted Chat
Jon Duerr FP, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

Back along the main trail, a large bird caught my attention. My initial impression was a cuckoo, and when I put my binoculars up I was thrilled to see that it was a Black-billed!

Black-billed Cuckoo
Jon Duerr FP, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

These two good birds gave a nice little kickstart to our day which had begun to lose momentum. Then a Belted Kingfisher rattled from the river, and we celebrated as though a code 5 had just landed in our laps. That's one of the beauties of Big Days - they make you appreciate every bird in a new light. Back on the east side of the river, Tekakwitha came through big time with a surprise Broad-winged Hawk, a lone Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a female Summer Tanager in a matter of minutes, all of which were our only ones for the day.

Broad-winged Hawk
Tekakwitha Woods FP, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

A little more at ease after another mini flurry of good birds, we headed west for a change of scenery and habitat.

12:09 pm: Had our first Least Sandpiper near Kenyon Farm. 

12:42 pm: The marsh at Pingree held promise. Potential for bitterns and/or gallinules seemed good enough. Unfortunately, as we got there the wind was howling, hearing was difficult, and the sun had just come out for the first time all day, making viewing conditions less than ideal. We quickly picked up the resident Yellow-headed Blackbirds and decided to keep moving.

1:23 pm: Chapman Road was another location we had debated including in our route. The target bird here can sometimes be elusive, and if it didn't cooperate it could have been a major blow to our list and available time. We still figured it was a risk worth taking, and the risk totally paid off. While waiting for our buteo to show up, our only Vesper Sparrow of the day sang from a nearby field. A Red-tailed Hawk was the first bird we saw in the air over the woodlot. Then seemingly out of nowhere another hawk was flying from the woods straight at us; it banked to show that rich brown head and gorgeous underwing, we had our Swainson's Hawk! Then a second joined it, and as we watched this pair, Andrew spotted a distant third soaring over the woods. Score!

Swainson's Hawk
Chapman Rd, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

As we watched these guys, our only American Pipit of the day called as it flew by, and this stop all of sudden seemed more than worth it. But it wasn't over yet. On the way out of the area, I was working on the list in the backseat when Andrew and Scott had a couple sparrows fly up in front of the car, one of which was large with white outer tail feathers. We got out with excitement, but couldn't relocate the bird at first. After a few minutes though, a Lark Sparrow sounded off from the nearby yard! As we kept looking, Andrew and Scott had another one the corner while another one called from some bushes right in front of me. They were pretty shy so we couldn't manage pictures, but we were thrilled to find such a quality bird for the county! This was also #134 for the day, which meant a new Kane County Big Day record had been set, and anything else we added for the rest of the day would just be icing on the cake. It was only early afternoon at this point, so we knew we had plenty more to find.

2:33 pm: A quick run through Batavia got us Eurasian Collared-Dove and Double-crested Cormorant.

3:18 pm: Only Green Heron of the day spotted by Scott at a little pond in Geneva. A Killdeer with babies slowed us down momentarily here too. You have to keep moving on a Big Day, but something about a baby Killdeer is just too cute to pass up.

Baby Killdeer
Geneva, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

3:29 pm: The next stop was Prairie Green, which is a random patch of prairie with a pond and hedge row. There always seems to be something good here, and we were hoping it could still work some magic in the middle of a windy afternoon. It did. Not even 10 minutes into our time here, we were picking through birds in the hedge when Scott called out "Mockingbird!" We looked up to see the black and white wings flying past us, then it landed in the group of trees right beside us. This is a surprisingly difficult bird in Kane and one we definitely weren't expecting!

Northern Mockingbird
Prairie Green, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

A couple minutes later, this cooperative little Clay-colored Sparrow popped up and started buzzing away. Another great addition!

Clay-colored Sparrow
Prairie Green, Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

Semipalmated Sandpiper and Gadwall were our only other new birds here, and we somehow missed Wilson's Snipe which are usually easy to flush near the pond.

4:55 pm: We checked a random little pond near Aurora, where the only notable bird was a Yellow-headed Blackbird. A good bird no doubt, but it was actually a frustrating find as we could have saved a significant chunk of time by not going to Pingree just for this bird. Oh well, that's how Big Days go sometimes!

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Kane Co, IL
May 9, 2014

5:26 pm: We hoped that a Willow Flycatcher or Bell's Vireo may be in at Aurora West preserve, but no dice. Did I mention that the wind wasn't helping?

6:03 pm: We were hoping for a Carolina Wren or Acadian Flycatcher at Bliss Woods, but no dice. Did I mention that the wind wasn't helping?

6:35 pm: Perhaps you've noticed that, to this point, we greatly lacked in the shorebird department. So you can imagine our delight when we finally came upon a fluddle with a few birds in it. It had our only Lesser Yellowlegs of the day in it, but didn't have anything else new for the day. This was along Wheeler Road, near the Aurora Airport, which was our next stop. As we got out and listened at the sports complex, Andrew picked up our only American Kestrel of the day hovering out in the distance. We then pulled back down the road and had our initially uncooperative target bird sing - Western Meadowlark.

7:26 pm: We stopped by Big Rock to try to pick up turkeys, but we had to leave sooner than expected because they were closing the gates. This threw off our end of the day plan a little. We decided to check some local fields for any fluddles, but everything was dried up. The neighborhood hummingbird feeders were lacking hummingbirds. And our daylight was running out.

8:05 pm: Our final stop of the day was at the Settler's Court Ponds. Light was low, but we did pick up three dowitchers spotted by Andrew. They flew off before we could get a good look at them, and they never called. When they returned to the pond they were too far away to be able to pick up any plumage details now that the sun was down. We had to leave them as a dowitcher sp, but the tick still counted for the day.

This brought us to 145 species (we actually thought it was 146, but recounted later and realized we were one off). With 3 1/2 hours left in the day, we accepted that 150 was out of reach. So instead of spending hours trying to pick up Screech and Barred in the howling winds, we decided to call it a day.

The big misses:
Carolina Wren
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Wilson's Snipe
Lesser Scaup
Hooded Merganser
Any decent shorebird

Here's the total list, all 145 species:
  1. Canada Goose
  2. Wood Duck
  3. Gadwall
  4. Mallard
  5. Blue-winged Teal
  6. Northern Shoveler
  7. Ring-necked Duck
  8. Ruddy Duck
  9. Ring-necked Pheasant
  10. Pied-billed Grebe
  11. Horned Grebe
  12. Double-crested Cormorant
  13. Great Blue Heron (Blue form)
  14. Great Egret
  15. Green Heron
  16. Turkey Vulture
  17. Osprey
  18. Cooper's Hawk
  19. Bald Eagle
  20. Broad-winged Hawk
  21. Swainson's Hawk
  22. Red-tailed Hawk (Eastern)
  23. Virginia Rail
  24. Sora
  25. American Coot
  26. Sandhill Crane
  27. Killdeer
  28. Spotted Sandpiper
  29. Solitary Sandpiper
  30. Lesser Yellowlegs
  31. Least Sandpiper
  32. Pectoral Sandpiper
  33. Semipalmated Sandpiper
  34. Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher
  35. American Woodcock
  36. Ring-billed Gull
  37. Forster's Tern
  38. Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
  39. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  40. Mourning Dove
  41. Black-billed Cuckoo
  42. Great Horned Owl
  43. Common Nighthawk
  44. Chimney Swift
  45. Belted Kingfisher
  46. Red-headed Woodpecker
  47. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  48. Downy Woodpecker
  49. Hairy Woodpecker
  50. Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)
  51. American Kestrel
  52. Least Flycatcher
  53. Eastern Phoebe
  54. Great Crested Flycatcher
  55. Eastern Kingbird
  56. White-eyed Vireo
  57. Yellow-throated Vireo
  58. Blue-headed Vireo
  59. Warbling Vireo
  60. Red-eyed Vireo
  61. Blue Jay
  62. American Crow
  63. Horned Lark
  64. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  65. Purple Martin
  66. Tree Swallow
  67. Bank Swallow
  68. Barn Swallow
  69. Cliff Swallow
  70. Black-capped Chickadee
  71. Tufted Titmouse
  72. White-breasted Nuthatch
  73. House Wren
  74. Sedge Wren
  75. Marsh Wren
  76. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  77. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  78. Eastern Bluebird
  79. Veery
  80. Gray-cheeked Thrush
  81. Swainson's Thrush
  82. Wood Thrush
  83. American Robin
  84. Gray Catbird
  85. Brown Thrasher
  86. Northern Mockingbird
  87. European Starling
  88. American Pipit
  89. Cedar Waxwing
  90. Ovenbird
  91. Northern Waterthrush
  92. Blue-winged Warbler
  93. Golden-winged Warbler
  94. Black-and-white Warbler
  95. Tennessee Warbler
  96. Orange-crowned Warbler
  97. Nashville Warbler
  98. Connecticut Warbler
  99. Common Yellowthroat
  100. American Redstart
  101. Cape May Warbler
  102. Northern Parula
  103. Magnolia Warbler
  104. Bay-breasted Warbler
  105. Blackburnian Warbler
  106. Yellow Warbler
  107. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  108. Blackpoll Warbler
  109. Palm Warbler (Western)
  110. Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
  111. Black-throated Green Warbler
  112. Canada Warbler
  113. Wilson's Warbler
  114. Yellow-breasted Chat
  115. Eastern Towhee
  116. Chipping Sparrow
  117. Clay-colored Sparrow
  118. Field Sparrow
  119. Vesper Sparrow
  120. Lark Sparrow
  121. Savannah Sparrow
  122. Grasshopper Sparrow
  123. Henslow's Sparrow
  124. Song Sparrow
  125. Lincoln's Sparrow
  126. Swamp Sparrow
  127. White-throated Sparrow
  128. White-crowned Sparrow
  129. Summer Tanager
  130. Scarlet Tanager
  131. Northern Cardinal
  132. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  133. Indigo Bunting
  134. Bobolink
  135. Red-winged Blackbird
  136. Eastern Meadowlark
  137. Western Meadowlark
  138. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  139. Common Grackle
  140. Brown-headed Cowbird
  141. Orchard Oriole
  142. Baltimore Oriole
  143. House Finch
  144. American Goldfinch
  145. House Sparrow

All in all it was an incredibly successful Big Day. It was our first attempt as a team, and the weather was less than ideal from start to finish, so I would say 145 a very respectable number. Given our misses, we really should have been able to hit 150. If the conditions came together just right, including shorebird habitat, I don't think 160 is out of the question for Kane. Maybe we'll be able to give it another shot next year!