Tuesday, June 16, 2015

May The Fourth Be With You

It was a rough April to be a Midwest resident. An unrelenting cold front showed up about halfway through the month and simply would not go away. You may recall that Andrew and I were quite unsuccessful in dodging the poor weather even on our trip to southern Illinois at the end of the month. Forecasts began promising warmer weather to come. And then it kept getting pushed back. Each additional day of unseasonably cool breezes seemed to be another nail in the coffin of a Winter that wouldn't give up and a Summer that would never come. While everyone experienced the temperatures in the same way, the lack of neotropical migrants just felt like salt in the wound for the birding world.

And it is for that very reason that I imagine birders all over the region met the shift in weather with a heartier greeting than our non-birding friends, because for us it meant far more than comfortable temperatures. There's a flip side to an extended time of waiting for birds to show up, because in the mean time they're all bottling up to the south. Then, when a new weather system hits, places to the north - particularly lakefront locations like Chicago - get absolutely loaded up with birds.

Such was the case with Monday, May 4.

I was already planning on hitting Montrose early this morning, assuming the birds would be piling up pretty soon. Right before I went to bed Sunday night, photos of a Snowy Plover in the protected area of the beach showed up on Facebook. Needless to say there were no changes to my plans as my anticipation for the morning grew.

I arrived before daybreak, expecting to find a large group of locals down at the beach looking for the rarity. Having just driven almost an hour to get there, I was shocked to have the place to myself for the moment. This Pectoral Sandpiper and a nice looking Dunlin were among the first shorebirds I saw.

Pectoral Sandpiper
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Dunlin
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

I turned around to see Fran Morel and a couple other birders heading my way, and as I walked back towards them, a little plump shape just outside the protected beach caught my eye. Binoculars up. "Here it is!"

There was no guarantee this bird was going to stick around, so I was thrilled to have relocated it. I got the word out by 5:45am, and for the rest of the day birders showed up to see this little rarity.






Snowy Plover
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

I found this size comparison with Least Sandpipers and a Pectoral to be intriguing.

Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Snowy Plover
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

And here's a pair of its relatives:

Semipalmated Plover
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

The day was off to a fantastic start. I then checked out the dunes and the hedge where there were already eleven species of warblers around, including this Blue-winged and a handful of Ovenbirds.

Blue-winged Warbler
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Ovenbird
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Thrushes were all over the place, too. Catharus thrushes can provide some identification challenges at times, especially in Spring when they arrive at the same time that the cobwebs are having to get cleared out all over again for everything from warbler calls to Empidonax ID issues, all gloriously relevant again. So, let's start simple. The easiest member of the Catharus family to identify is the Veery. Even this poor picture shows the uniform reddish coloration on the back. Underneath the bird is all white with the most subtle spotting of any of the thrushes. They're a treat to look at and a true delight to hear!

Veery
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

That then leaves the messier business of Hermit, Swainson's and Gray-cheeked. These are all much more similar in appearance, but field marks aren't the only thing to take into consideration when it comes to separating these three species. A quick lesson in status and distribution goes a long way towards clearing things up. The picture below is a screenshot of the frequency bar charts for northeast Illinois. A couple things are worth pointing out. First, if you see a Catharus before April, it is a Hermit Thrush. No ifs, ands, or buts, it's a Hermit.

Also, there is actually only a tight little window in which all three of these species are likely to be found on the same day, and it occurs right at the beginning of May. It could happen a little earlier; it could happen a little later. But for the most part, it just doesn't. Hermits arrive earlier and are on their way out by the time Swainson's and Gray-cheeked are hitting their peak migration numbers. This is really important to keep in mind when it comes to any discussion of an ID with a Catharus thrush - and any bird, for that matter. Birding is so much more than parsing certain field marks. Birds, just like you and me, are creatures of habit. They follow patterns every season. Understanding the patterns of individual species allows you to be better prepared to make the correct identification when you encounter them in the field. There are always anomalies, of course, but there's a reason they're called anomalies in the first place. If a bird flags in eBird, there's likely a very good reason for it. Do you know what it is? If you don't, take that as a learning opportunity AND do your best to document the bird!

OK, back to my blissful morning of birding. It just so happened that I was able to see all three of the above species, completing the Catharus slam for the day. The fact that all three of these can be identified from less than spectacular photos speaks to the fact we maybe don't need to be quite so intimidated by these ID issues  Here's the most distinctive first, the Hermit Thrush: bold and rather extensive spots below, and chocolate brown back interrupted by a notably russet-colored tail, which is the most reliable way to identify this species. Even at this angle, you can see the reddish tail in the photo below.

Hermit Thrush
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Swainson's and Gray-cheeked is where it can get more difficult. There are elements of the facial patterns that distinguish the two species, but even at a more distant look one can notice the overall buffy tones around the face of the Swainson's Thrush. The contrast between the olive-brown back and buffy color of the face and chest is actually quite notable.

Swainson's Thrush
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Compare that, then, to the poorly named Gray-cheeked Thrush. Poorly named because the other two we've been discussing have gray in the cheek as well. But this species stands out because of the way, well, it doesn't stand out. It's the most drab of these three thrushes and strikes me every time as a plain though quite handsome bird. Its overall complexion is darker, and its spotting underneath is heavier than the other species.

Gray-cheeked Thrush
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

The differences are admittedly subtle, but with some patience, practice, and experience - and a sense of which species ought to be present at the moment - sorting out the various thrushes gets easier over time.

Once Andrew arrived, we headed back down to the beach where our first buddy list bird of the day was still waiting for us, affording pretty spectacular looks:











Snowy Plover
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Here's a shot of the celebrity with its paparazzi, which includes Jerry Goldner, Jeff Skrentny, and Luis Munoz.


As it turns out, Jerry wasn't photographing the bird at this particular moment. Thanks for the pic Jerry! You can (and should) check out his incredible photography here.


And the birds just kept coming. Andrew spotted a pair of Willets back in the protected area, and a group of Lesser Yellowlegs flew by while we watched them. Love the black and white wings!




Willets
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Lesser Yellowlegs
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

This Caspian Tern was kind enough to put on the brakes and not totally pummel the Dunlin in the photo.

Caspian Tern and Dunlin
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Then the small terns made their passes. Here's a Forster's, with a Caspian in the second photo.


Forster's and Caspian Tern
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

And, more importantly for us, this Common Tern was another buddy list bird for us!

Common Tern
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Things were still busy back at the hedge, too, where the most unexpected bird was a perched Merlin.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Orchard Orioles
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Marsh Wren
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Merlin
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Least Flycatcher
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Brown Thrasher
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015
In addition to the general activity, the passerine movement was highlighted by the numbers of sparrows, both the diversity and quantity. It was the highest number of White-throated and Swamps I can ever remember seeing, and Clay-colored was a nice county tick for me.

White-crowned Sparrow
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

 Clay-colored Sparrow
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

I was already up to 87 species just at Montrose alone! We decided to walk the trail along the golf course down to Jarvis, and the birds kept coming.

Lincoln's Sparrow
Marovitz Golf Course, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Palm Warbler
Marovitz Golf Course, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

The first surprise upon arriving at Jarvis was this singing Prothonotary Warbler, a county bird for both of us!


Prothonotary Warbler
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Here's that other member of the thrush family.

Wood Thrush
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

We added seven more species of warbler here altogether, putting me at 18 for the day. Another big surprise came when Andrew somehow picked out a Yellow-breasted Chat from deep within the fenced in area - again a county bird for both of us! It was unfortunately a little too illusive for photos to be a possibility, which are already quite difficult at Jarvis.

Magnolia Warbler
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Black-and-white Warbler
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015


Cape May Warbler
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015


Northern Waterthrush
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Northern Parula
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

This was my first chance to photograph the ABA Bird of the Year, too:

Green Heron
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

On the walk back to Montrose, we had up to five Clay-colored Sparrows together!




Clay-colored Sparrow
Marovitz Golf Course, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

All of this had taken place before noon. I looked at my tally for the morning and I was well over 100 species across a pretty small stretch of lakefront! I had to get back for work and class, but the morning wasn't quite over yet. Near the golf course pond, Andrew picked out a funny looking object sitting stationary a few feet away from a bush. American Bittern!


Bitterns are masters of disguise. Even though this bird was relatively out in the open, look at how difficult it is to locate in this photo (click to enlarge)!


From the other side it was a little easier to pick out. Needless to say this was my best photo op with one yet!



 American Bittern
Montrose Point, Cook Co, IL
May 4, 2015

Bitterns are just ridiculously cool birds. What a way to close out an outstanding morning!