Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Mottley 300

At last, August drew to a close and I had enough time to get down to Chautauqua NWR, which is one of the hot spots in Illinois for migratory shorebirds in the Fall. And, Andrew was able to get the day off so we got to make the trip together. So he drove out to meet me in Wheaton early Friday morning, and we were on the road before 4 am. I began the day at 298 for Illinois with a couple pretty easy shorebirds that I still needed, so I figured this would be my day to hit 300. But that ended up being only part of the excitement of the day.

Our early departure got us to Eagle Bluff a few minutes prior to 7 am, the overcast sky making viewing conditions good, even if a little darker than we had anticipated by this hour. As we pulled to the parking area, large numbers of waterfowl and waders were readily visible, and we could already begin to see some shorebirds. We got out and began scoping from the parking area, finding many of the expected species in short order. Just a couple minutes into scanning, I found an odd duck. It was among a few Mallards, but clearly wasn't a Mallard. The only regular Illinois bird I could use as a reference point was American Black Duck, but something just felt wrong for Black Duck - both its gizz and the time of year. Naturally, Mottled Duck came to mind as the next best solution.

Suggestively, I asked, "Um, so what does a Mottled Duck look like?" keeping a close eye on the bird through the scope.

"Somewhere between a Mallard and a Black Duck. Black spot at the gape." Andrew replied.

"Yeah, you're going to want to look at this bird."

We walked out the dike to get closer, and what ensued was about an hour long study of the bird. It was generally darker than we wanted it to be, but all the other field marks were adding up to a Mottled: brown markings on the feathers, buffy face and neck, bright yellow bill, a small black spot at the gape visible from certain angles, and when it preened we got our first glimpse at the white trailing edge along the wing, which was again confirmed when it eventually flew off to the north with a few Mallards.

Hesitant to make a premature call on such rare bird for the state, we sent pics to friends, reliable sources, and eventually posted one on the comments section of a Facebook post. The response was overwhelmingly positive in support of it being a Mottled Duck.

My pics are pretty terrible, but Andrew's digiscoped shots are way better; you can see them here.

Mottled Duck
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

I wasn't counting it quite yet though because we didn't end up absolutely confirming the bird until later in the day once we had left, so we got back on track and went on scouring through the 6,000+ shorebirds. The shorebirds were a blast, and there were a few other nice treats along the way too, including the following assortment of raptors: Red-tailed Hawk, a cool looking immature Red-shouldered Hawk, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and American Kestrel. We also had a pretty sizable flock of Black Terns. I'd never seen one in this particular stage of molt with an all black head accompanying the white body.

Black Tern
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

The waders were impressive too! In addition to the common Great Egret, and Great Blue and Green Heron, the south pool hosted a lone immature Little Blue Heron, eight Snowy Egrets, and five Cattle Egrets, the latter two being buddy list birds for us too!

Little Blue Heron
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

Cattle Egrets
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

The numbers and diversity of shorebirds were quite the delight. Unfortunately, the massive group of Hudsonians that had been around the week prior had all left by the time we got there. Hopefully another group will show up at some point. But the Mottled Duck more than made up for that loss.

We ended up walking almost the entire way from Eagle Bluff to Goofy Ridge catching some sun and probably losing a few pounds along the way. It was a grueling walk, but the results were worth it. Our shorebird total ended up at 20 species. Among the more common species we had 12 American Avocets, two Ruddy Turnstones, at least one Sanderling, a couple nice groups of Long-billed Dowitchers among the more numerous Short-bills, at least 60 Stilt Sandpipers, nice looks at Baird's and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, tons of American Golden Plovers, and six Wilson's Phalaropes (we had a great Western Sandpiper candidate too, but couldn't quite get good enough looks at it).

Additionally, the birds that officially (at the time) brought me up to 300 for the year were Black-bellied Plover (several of which were still looking real nice in nearly full alternate plumage), and a distant group of Red-necked Phalaropes spinning around out in the middle of the north pond.

The conditions turned from dark and cloudy to sunny and hazy rather quickly, and the great distances at which we were viewing most of the bird life made pics difficult.

American Avocets
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

Ruddy Turnstone
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

One last quick stop by Goofy Ridge provided a great last bird of the day, this Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Chautauqua NWR, Mason Co, IL
August 29, 2014

Once the Mottled Duck was confirmed, it turned out that Black-bellied Plover was officially #300 for Illinois for me this year. I can't think of a better way of celebrating than with my personal best/rarest find of the year in the state. When I initially set out on this venture, I figured it would take most of the year to get there, so accomplishing it in just under eight months feels like quite the feat. I'll of course be finishing out the year to see just how many I can get. I'm setting my sights on 310. If the Fall is a good rarity season and it turns out to be a decent winter for finches, I could see 315 as an outside possibility.

I'm also just three birds away from 500 for the ABA this year too, so I should be hitting that goal in the next couple months.

ABA 2014: 497

Illinois 2014: 301!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

FINALLY Getting Back To It

And just like that, I went almost two months without blogging. Crazy.

July was a month of rest in many respects. The first part of it was spent back in Washington (posts about that trip to come), and the rest here in Illinois where I laid low for a bit before getting back to work. My birding adventures during this time were brief but productive.

Not a year bird, but a sweet county bird, this American Avocet put on a nice show for many and was a much appreciated addition for all those Kane County Big Year birders out there.

American Avocet
Kane Co, IL
July 18, 2014

At the same fluddle three days later I picked up a bird that was objectively less exciting, but more significant for my Illinois tally - my first Short-billed Dowitcher of the year.

Short-billed Dowitcher
Kane Co, IL
July 21, 2014

One of the birds I was committed to tracking down before getting back to work was a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, which I had missed on a couple trips down south earlier in the year. So, when this one showed up in Champaign, I jumped on it quickly.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Champaign Co, IL
July 22, 2014

With the usually reliable DuPage shorebird spots taking their precious time to get back to suitable water levels, I decided to get up to Lake County and join the resident expert Beau Schaefer for some birding at Rollins Savannah and a couple other local spots. We had a great morning which included a very cooperative Sedge Wren and my target bird for the day - first Stilt Sandpipers of the year.

Sedge Wren
Rollins Savannah, Lake Co, IL
July 25, 2015

Stilt Sandpipers
Rollins Savannah, Lake Co, IL
July 25, 2015

So July ended, my Illinois total at 296.

Which was good, because August has been one of the busiest months of my life.

I knew it was going to be busy, so I had hoped to be in a place where I could add a species here and there when a brief window of time opened up. Thankfully, that's exactly what happened. Amidst training, welcoming students back, and a weeklong time of training up at Wheaton's camp in northern Wisconsin (where our group flushed a family of Ruffed Grouse on a backpacking trip, yay!), I found a couple very short opportunities to get out.

I made a couple trips to the sod farm out in Kaneville, where a pair of Blue Grosbeaks arrived and nested successfully in late summer.

Blue Grosbeak
Kaneville Sod Farm, Kane Co, IL
August 8, 2014

But they weren't the main attraction. On the morning of August 17th - my birthday - Scott Cohrs texted me that there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at the sod farm, so after church that morning Jen and I headed that way. I dropped her off to do a little shopping in Geneva then popped out to the sod farm. The conditions were hot and muggy, the looks were distant and hazy, but after a few scans through the property a little buff-colored bird emerged among the hordes of Killdeer, its head characteristically bopping back and forth as it scurried along the turf - there it was! Hopefully I'll see another soon and be able to get a pic, but it was a satisfactory look for me!

And then a really sweet thing happened, though it didn't seem like it would turn out well at first. In the middle of check-in week at our dorm (a dorm of 600 underclassmen, so, it's just a little crazy), a Red Knot showed up at Montrose. This news was like a punch to the gut. A rare bird and a notorious one day wonder, the Red Knot was one that I could very easily miss because of the busyness of August. I wrote this one off and hoped I'd get another shot down south later in the Fall. But it stayed. A couple days. Several days. And all of sudden I had a couple hours free on Monday morning and was heading there before dawn, dodging the rush hour traffic. I arrived at Montrose to find this beauty feeding in the pond along the pier. This was only my third time I've ever seen one. The first encounter was a group of alternate plumaged birds in Washington with my dad many years back. The second was last year, also at Montrose, with a bird that was further along in its Fall molt, pretty much a solid gray coloration. So, the transitionary plumage of this bird was new for me. The early morning sun made for a wonderfully saturated scene.

Red Knot
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
August 25, 2014

So, my plan to pick up just a few here and there has turned out to work quite well. School has started back up now, which actually means more flexible hours for me, and I'll be using my first free day tomorrow to head to Chautauqua. I can almost taste 300...

ABA 2014: 497

Illinois 2014: 298