Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cook County Smith's Longspurs

I figured when I made the trek down to Jacksonville, IL to get the Smith's Longspurs at the end of March that I probably wouldn't see many more, if any, for the rest of the year. And surely I wouldn't get a chance to photograph them that well again. I mean, the pics weren't great, but they were pretty decent for such an outstanding species.

Man was I wrong.

When the sizable flock showed up to Orland Grassland in mid-late April, I was slammed with work and had no way of getting down to see them. Even in the days following my trip with Andrew I couldn't find a window of time to go look for them. I had to wait until Friday, May 1 for my attempt. I was skeptical about them still being there, especially since no one had reported them the day before. The last of the cold front was still holding on though, which offered a slight ray of hope.

After an early morning of birding with Wheaton's President (more on that in a later post), I booked it to Orland. The weather was just beginning to switch, the north winds abating minute by minute. The sun was out and the birds were enthused. Several Henslow's Sparrows gave their little insect like calls, and this Grasshopper Sparrow sat up in a snag to do the same. 

Grasshopper Sparrow
Orland Grassland, Cook Co, IL
May 1, 2015

I walked in from the west side to the top of the hill, then began traipsing back across the field to the north west. I flushed a few Savannah and Field Sparrows first. The ponds viewable from the hill were pretty calm, but a few Soras were calling intermittently. I kept moving, hoping for a rattle.

After a few more minutes of walking around fruitlessly, I detected a little movement just a few feet away. I stopped, and a small bird took to the air and began rattling. I took a deep sigh of relief - the longspurs were still here! Before long there was a large flock circling directly over my head. They're quick, and rather difficult to capture in flight, but I did manage a few decent shots.

There are some moments when you press down on the shutter and you just know you have taken a special picture before even looking at it. That was my precise experience with the photo below. One stunning male Smith's Longspur made a close pass, I did my best to get on it, and I came away with a photo that will probably stay on my all time top ten bird photos. I couldn't believe it.

I spent the next hour or so stalking these little grassland experts, marveling at their ability to simply disappear at will behind any clump of grass. With a great deal of patience, I eventually got some crippling looks at short distances. They wouldn't stay out in the open for long, but they did cooperate enough for some nice shots.

This is how hard they can be to find. Yes, there is one in there.

Smith's Longspur
Orland Grassland, Cook Co, IL
May 1, 2015

With the impending move back to the PNW in the back of my mind, I soaked up every last moment with these birds. It's quite possible that I'll never get the chance to walk a field full of breeding plumaged Smith's Longspurs again. It's one of the finest memories of Illinois birding I'll take with me.

And the morning's fun wasn't even over. At McClaughery Springs I picked up my Cook County lifer Yellow-throated Warbler, and this rather confiding Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
McClaughrey Springs, Cook Co, IL
May 1, 2015

Then it was on to Montrose, where this Hooded Warbler had been hanging around for a few days. If you look closely, you can see a couple flies in these pics, and the little warbler was contentedly making a feast of them.

Hooded Warbler
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 1, 2015

Thus began the month of May. Typically, this sort of day would stand out as one of the highlights of a month, but as we would quickly learn, this would just end up being par for the course for May 2015. Ensuing superlatives notwithstanding, this morning with the Smith's Longspurs was one of my favorite birding experiences of all time.