Sunday, March 29, 2015

End of March Highlights

March has been the month that it has really begun to hit home that I'm not doing another Big Year in Illinois this year. I've been birding only a fraction of the times I got out last March, and I've covered way less ground. Spring Break, which was two weeks (though it feels like an eternity!) ago, was really slow bird wise, quite different from the huge strides I made during the same week last year.

As the month rolled along, I finally was able to clean up Long-tailed Duck for the year with this cooperative bird at Monroe Harbor.

Long-tailed Duck
Monroe Harbor, Cook Co, IL
March 20, 2015

Besides the quick outing to get that guy, I had hardly been out in the past two and half weeks. So, when I saw that this weekend provided a brief window between busy seasons, I began making plans. Jen's out of town for her Spring Break. My weekend began with a retreat for my Comprehensive Exams for my current grad degree. Tomorrow morning begins the wild ride of finishing up my final project for the degree, along with final papers for my current classes - all of which will be getting done in the next three and half weeksish. So, in the quick day and a half between the retreat ending and life getting back to its busy self, I took some "me time" as a way of decompressing and getting rejuvenated. A nice solo birding trip to central Illinois and back was in order.

The retreat wrapped up at 1 on Saturday afternoon, and by 2:15 I was pulling up to the Des Plaines Conservation Area in Will County. With the overall dearth of birding in my life lately, I had accumulated a pretty significant list of easy-to-get year birds. The first time I got the scope out, my year list instantaneously took a bump of three birds: American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, and a singing Eastern Phoebe. Felt nice.

I then made my way to the River Rd. bridge to take a stab at the Red-necked Grebe that had been there earlier in the week. I figured it was pretty unlikely for it have stayed this long, but within moments of beginning to scan, I spotted it out in the river! A very nice bird to kickstart the trip.

Red-Necked and Horned Grebe
Des Plaines Conservation Area, Will Co, IL
March 28, 2015

Red-Necked Grebe
Des Plaines Conservation Area, Will Co, IL
March 28, 2015

From there I booked it down to Bloomington, where I picked up a couple county ticks among the nice assortment of waterfowl at White Oak Park. The main destination for the day was Springfield, so I needed to keep moving if I was going to get there with enough light to see anything.

I pulled up to Lake Springfield with a little less than an hour worth of sunlight left, so the birding was quick as I made my way around the lake. From Center Park I pulled in my first Common Loons and Bonaparte's Gulls of the year, just as I had done at the end of March in 2014, interestingly enough. The waterfowl diversity on the lake was outstanding, and I wished I could have had an extra hour or two to pick through it. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable evening of counting ducks with the backdrop of a lazily setting sun. As I got back to my car at the last stop, an Eastern Towhee was calling from a nearby bush, securing my seventh year bird of the day. Not bad!

Sunday, March 29.

I was up early this morning, leaving Springfield well before sunrise, Starbucks in hand. The first year bird of the day came from a singing Eastern Meadowlark as I drove the backroads around Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary. Between last evening and this morning, I added ten new county ticks for Sangamon. I also found this little guy:

"Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco
Sangamon Co, IL
March 29, 2015

I stayed on backroads as I crossed from Sangamon to Morgan County. The Dredging Ponds near Jacksonville were really the main destination of the whole trip. I arrived there at 7:45 am, greeted by a steady breeze around 20mph, and wind chills in the low 20s, quickly reminding me why cold "Spring" days take more of a toll on me than the bitter cold Winter days we learn to grow accustomed to. These were not the conditions I had wanted, but the birding still turned out to be great. The waterfowl numbers were a small fraction of what had been reported earlier in the week, but the diversity was still decent. My first Tree Swallows of the year flew by overhead, and my first Savannah Sparrow flushed while I walked around. In the same little patch, American Tree Sparrows declared that Winter was still hanging on, while Savannahs pleaded their case for the hope of Spring. The former were far more convincing.

I was getting frustrated by the cold, and the fact that I wasn't finding my target bird. Before turning to head back to the car, I decided to hike across a portion of a grassy area I hadn't yet checked out. As I approached, I heard that distinctive rattle I had been waiting for. A group of birds bustled on the ground nearby, though the first one to take flight wasn't what I was expecting - an American Pipit.

American Pipit
Dredging Ponds, Morgan Co, IL
March 29

Ok, back to the rattles. It didn't take too long before I had a flock of 35 Smith's Longspurs scurrying and flying and rattling all around me. Having only ever seen three quick flybys before today, this moment was quite surreal for me. I managed my first ever pics of this species, even pulling off a couple decent flight shots. But the highlight of the whole experience was getting to view a few individuals on the ground through the scope at close range. These were the looks I had been hoping for, though that's not at all the kind of thing you can count on. Success!

Smith's Longspurs
Dredging Ponds, Morgan Co, IL
March 29

By the end of the morning, I had picked up 15 county ticks in Morgan altogether. Then it was on to Mason and Fulton to check out Chautauqua and Emiquon. I didn't have anything out of the ordinary, though the blackbird flocks ended up producing a hefty number of Rusties (one flock was actually dominated by them) and a single Brewer's in Mason. And, any shorebird other than a Killdeer is always an encouraging sight, as was the case with the Pectorals I had at Emiquon. I've made enough trips down to this area by now, so picking up county birds is a little tougher, but I still was able to add a handful in both and inadvertently ended on a couple round numbers: Fulton 170, Mason 180.

Rusty Blackbirds
Mason Co, IL
March 29, 2015

I kept moving pretty quickly, hoping to be able to get back in time to catch part of the Gonzaga game (which they ended up losing, oh well). But thankfully I slowed down long enough to check IBET before leaving Emiquon, because the bird that had been in the back of my mind the whole weekend had showed up at Evergreen Lake. This was directly on the way home, and thanks to Matthew Winks helping me out with the location, I was able to drive right up to the striking bird, almost in full breeding plumage!

Eared Grebe
Evergreen Lake, McLean Co, IL
March 29, 2015

What a great way to end this productive whirlwind of a trip! I was hoping for 10-15 year birds, and I wound up tallying 17 altogether. And somehow, at 132, I'm only ten behind my pace from last year.

Now, it's back to a few weeks of long days strung one after another. I'll be more than ready to resurface in April once the work is done. I'm glad I was able to take this weekend as a sort of deep breath before the plunge.

Trip total: 83

ABA 2015: 150
Illinois 2015: 132