Saturday, February 7, 2015

Fantastic Day of Winter Birding in Chicago

Winter birding in Chicago is not for the faint of heart. Especially right after a week with 20+ inches of snow. You have to really want to see some birds, and you have to be willing push through a bit of the discomfort that comes with the task.

Yesterday morning I picked up Andrew just before sunrise and we made our way to southern Cook County to poke around for a while. The cloudy skies left dawn to feel more like the gradual lightening of a room with a dimmer switch. Lake Shore Drive wasn't too busy, but what it lacked in traffic it made up for a in flying chunks of snow and ice detaching themselves from cars that had clearly just been unburied for the first time since Chicago's fifth largest snow storm this past weekend.

Me: "Are we in Chicago or Anchorage?"

***nails cavernous pothole the size of Texas***

Andrew: "Chicago."

On we clunked, dodging flying objects above and trying to find the road below among the endless strings of potholes.

Our first stop was the bend of the Little Calumet River, where it quickly became apparent that we were the first ones to visit this area since the big snow fall. We cleared out a couple spots in the knee deep snow and settled in with our scopes to scour the waterfowl. There were impressive numbers of all the expected ducks, plus two male Northern Pintail - my first county tick of the day!

We worked our way through the Calumet area and around to Wolf Lake. On the way Andrew asked if I had Red-shouldered Hawk for Cook County. About five seconds after I had answered "No," he spotted a small buteo in a tree along the roadside right at the south entrance to Wolf Lake. I made a u-turn, and the cooperative bird gave us fantastic views. Observing it for a couple minutes confirmed that it was indeed an immature Red-shouldered Hawk! At a couple points it ruffled its feathers, showing the dark barring on the tail to be thicker than the light. And if you look closely, you can see the subtle barring on the breast already beginning to come in on the right side of the bird. When the wind would pick up, the feathers would blow away from the hawk's body, revealing all the barring to be located on just two feathers. It's definitely just on its way to becoming a snappy adult, and it was a lot of fun to get to see in this unique stage!

And it was my second county lifer already for the day!

Red-shouldered Hawk
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

We pulled into Wolf Lake and scanned along the railroad tracks, where Andrew quickly picked out the Snowy Owl that's been hanging around recently, sitting on the corner of this wooden thing.

Snowy Owl
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

The feeders had a nice group of Monk Parakeets, which are always enjoyable to watch, especially at eye level like this:

Monk Parakeets
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

Our primary target here was the flock of redpolls that had been seen consistently throughout the winter - we still needed them for our buddy list and I needed it for the year. They've been working a section of alders along the shore of the lake, which is usually not too difficult to get to. But 20+ inches of snow changes things a little bit. The road down to the nearest parking area wasn't plowed, so we parked a little further back and began the trek.

Again the snow was knee deep, and forging our own path quickly presented itself as our only option for getting to these birds. We had just been remarking about how crazy ice fishing is (as there were some out on the lake doing this very thing at the moment), how walking out on a frozen lake just didn't seem worth it. But, seeing as how the snow on the iced-over lake was only a couple inches deep, it soon became the easier way to travel, so we forsook land and became as crazy as the ones we had just been making fun of.

Before long, we had made it to the patch of alders where the redpolls had been seen, and it didn't take much time at all to locate the flock.

Common Redpoll
Wolf Lake, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

A couple minutes into watching the group of 13 feeding in the trees above us, we had the following interaction:

Andrew: "Hey, there's a bird on the left side of the tree, out towards the end of the branch, that's, umm..."

Me: "A little lighter?"

Andrew: "Yeah."

We had been independently studying the same bird unbeknownst to each other. The bird preferred to stay on the backside of the alder initially, but when it would pop out, the undertail coverts stood out as being stark white and unmarked, which always raises a red flag when you're watching redpolls.

Could it be a Hoary Redpoll?

And all of a sudden we had an ID dilemma - a potentially a very good bird - on our hands. We were struggling to get better views of it, but then the flock moved trees and began feeding at a much more viewable height. As we watched carefully and snapped pictures, the following traits became apparent:

Very faint streaking on the flanks (compare with Common above):

The bird was stingy when it came to giving clear rump looks, but I did get a couple pics from a few different angles, all of which looked pretty clear white (bird on right in first shot):

I think the matter becomes a little clearer when you compare these shots with this one of a standard, heavily streaked rump that I captured on one of the Commons:

The frosty edging on the primaries:

And, though it can really only be used as a supporting piece of evidence, never a standalone proof, the bill was stubby and noticeably shorter than the others:

All these features point to a first year Hoary Redpoll of the exilipes subspecies. Our bird was basically identical to the bottom left bird under this subspecies at this link: Both the Commons and the Hoary were buddy list birds for us, bringing us up to 281. And these were the third and fourth species in Illinois that I didn't get last year.

With the momentum in our favor, we headed back to cover a couple different parts of the river to try to find some gulls. The only highlight at 126th St. Marsh was the pair of resident Peregrine Falcons. The overlook at the end of Deadstick Pond looked promising as we could see a flock of gulls circling after a barge passed through. But once again, we faced an unplowed road and a hike through knee deep snow to get where we wanted to go. And even then viewing conditions included scoping from awkward angles, looking through a combo of bushes and chain link fences, and of course remaining submerged in snow banks. At least identifying gulls is easy, right? Oh wait.

It was all Herrings and Ring-bills for a while, until I repositioned and got on a first cycle bird that piqued my attention. The lighter primaries with pale edging plus the frosty scapulars confirmed it as a Thayer's Gull, which was my third county lifer of the day! Through the chain link fence I was only able to manage one decent digiscoped shot. Funny how the angle and posture make it look larger than the Herring in the foreground.

Thayer's Gull
Deadstick Pond Overlook, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

All that, and it was only 10:30 am. This was remarkably efficient, especially for us. So we took our last couple available hours and worked our way north along the lakefront, which was pretty quiet with the exception of 63rd St. Beach at Jackson Park. While there we picked up an adult Glaucous Gull out on the ice, plus two adults and a first cycle Great Black-backed Gull. Andrew also picked out an adult male White-winged Scoter south of the park.

The birds dwindled again as we moved north, though we wound up with a total of three White-winged Scoters, including this female at Burnham Park:

White-winged Scoter
Burnham Park, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

Our day ended with checking the feeders at North Pond, where a male "Cassiar" and female "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco were the highlights.

"Cassiar" Dark-eyed Junco
North Pond, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

"Oregon" (front) and "Cassiar" Dark-eyed Juncos
North Pond, Cook Co, IL
February 6, 2015

After sorting through the subtleties distinguishing between the two redpoll species earlier, it seemed ironic to end the day with three very distinct kinds of juncos that only count as one species.

It comes with its difficulties, but if you're willing to tough it out, Chicago has some fantastic birds to yield in the winter. For me, it's just a reminder that, if you approach the weather like it's some cruel force you simply have to endure until Spring, you'll miss out on the beauty still inherent in it. But if you stay positive and like a little adventure here and there, there's always something worth seeing out there!

With this being my first time actually getting out in northeast Illinois this year, 21 of our 47 species were state year birds for me.

Illinois 2015: 92
ABA 2015: 126
Cook County Life List: 236