Wednesday, December 24, 2014

November Pomarine Jaeger (late post)

(life since this moment has been crazy, hence the extremely late post)

Aside from a few nice county ticks here and there, November was shaping up to be the lowlight of 2014. A month known for its ability to produce vagrant rarities hadn't coughed up a single addition to my Illinois year list. It had been over a month - and felt much longer - since I had added Pine Siskin back in mid-October. Add to this another unsuccessful search for that blasted Coles County Prairie Falcon and, well, you get the point. Not great.

Having already surpassed my goal, I was beginning to wonder just how badly I wanted those three extra birds for 310. I was beginning to wear down, and had already been thinking about how bolstering local county lists sounded like a nice plan for next year - slower paced, less driving, less pressure.

And then Ben and Carrie Murphy had to go and find a Pomarine Jaeger. I had no chance to go for it then and figured it would be gone the next morning.

And then it stayed. Reports confirmed it was there all day Saturday, and all day Sunday.

So I began deliberating. Could I make the trip work this week? Wait, what am I thinking - how could I not go for this bird? I had been dying for a jaeger in Illinois and this would likely be my only legitimate chance this year. So the only real question was whether my schedule would allow it or not. Thanks to a slightly altered schedule for Thanksgiving week, Monday and Wednesday both had potential to work, but the margin would still be narrow. Monday seemed like the better option for a couple important reasons, the first of which was the likelihood of the jaeger taking off sooner rather than later. I didn't want to risk waiting a couple extra days. Then I remembered that Wednesday was the day before Thanksgiving and that, while I love birds, I also have a strong affection for pie, and the eating of pie on Thanksgiving would be contingent on me making the pies on Wednesday. And just like that my decision was made: jaeger Monday, pie Wednesday.

My first meeting began at 11:15 Monday morning, so the five hour round trip to Weldon Springs and back would require an early wake up and a hiccup-free twitch. So, for the second time in four days, I was in the car at 4:30am, heading downstate. The wake up wasn't too rough, even after staying up to catch the end of the Cowboys win the previous night. What followed was a couple hours on I-55 in the pouring rain. Had I paid more attention to the weather forecast, I may have stayed home, but sometimes you just go with your gut.

But I admit I was quite nervous. There's something about the constant pelting of rain drops upon a windshield with nothing but a bleak and black pre-dawn backdrop that makes you start to pine for the warmth of your bed, question your sanity, and reconsider your hobbies. And the first light of a dreary dawn was no more encouraging as it revealed howling winds and rain turning to snow. I had a sinking feeling as I pulled up to Weldon Springs.

I stopped first at one of the pullouts on the east side of the little lake. The blustery conditions made it tough just to see, much less look for the jaeger. I could pick out a group of Canada Geese, but that wasn't exactly why I was down there. I checked a couple more spots around the lake, each to no avail.

I finally came to the west side access. I took a little trail down to the edge of the water, trying to keep a steady footing as things got increasingly more slippery. As I came to an opening, I spotted a brown something about 75 yards out on the water. I put my binoculars up, and freaked out. There it was! I watched it for a minute, took some pics, then scampered back up to the car to grab my scope, not wanting to pass up the opportunity to study a jaeger at such close range.

While enjoying amazing views of the Pomarine, it took off and spent a couple minutes in the air, its athletic build effortlessly knifing through the blizzardy conditions. The white wing flash, bulky build, and squared off tail feathers were just visible enough. It eventually landed on the far bank, and I snapped a couple shots as it settled in.

And that was the last time anyone laid eyes on this bird.

I took note of where it was on the shore, and decided to go back to the east side to see if I could get a closer look. But when I got there, I couldn't track it down. So I went back to the west side to try to relocate it, but I still couldn't get on it. I assumed it was just tucked away in some little nook where I couldn't see it, but as it turns out, the bird had taken off, as no one else saw it the rest of the day.

Everything about the moment was surreal. And, as is often the case, some of my favorite pictures are some of the lowest quality shots. Dark, grainy, and monochromatic, they capture the moment perfectly

Pomarine Jaeger
Weldon Springs, DeWitt Co, IL
November 24, 2014

Remarkably, this wasn't even an ABA year bird for me because I had my lifers less than a month prior on this crazy day. But, it was a fantastic addition for my Illinois list: #308 for 2014, and #316 for my state life list. It did end up being my only new bird for November.