The week started out rough with the 18-25 mph winds out of the north continuing their unrelenting push. An outing at the end of the previous week supported the notion that most migrants were skipping the Chicago area as the winds whisked them southward. Tuesday night, finally, gave the area some reprieve and it sure showed.
I’ve been exploring other parts of the south lakefront since the Wooded Island in Jackson Park was closed. One of my favorites is the romantically named Park No. 566. Land acquired when the old US Steel plant shutdown, this little patch has been fallow for years. A single, deteriorated paved path can be walked from west to east, ending at the lake. The unruly plant life provides perfect habitat for sparrows and ground-dwelling warblers.
Visiting this park Wednesday before work and with the air growing still, the birds were very active. Palm Warblers were a constant as they crossed the path. Other birds that were present in good numbers were Yellow-rumped Warblers, Dark-eyed Junco, and Chimney Swift. At this time of year, though, the prize is Ammodramus sparrows, specifically Nelson’s & Le Conte’s. I got brief looks of 6 Ammod. sparrows but, only time to take photos of one. Later proving I’m still very much a beginning birder, I identified 4 of the birds as Nelson’s. Upon posting pictures of said bird, it was pointed out to me that the photograph was in fact a Le Conte’s Sparrow, a lifer! (Although, my hardcore listing buddies would point out that they’d never count that bird as a lifer since they didn’t personally ID it in the field. I’m not bound by such quibbles. 😉 ) The mistake threw into jeopardy my ID of the other 3 “Nelson’s” so I embarrassingly removed those ID’s from my checklist. But, that’s how birding goes!
I would revisit Park No. 566 again on Thursday (10/8). Radar showed a massive outward flow of migrants and once again, my experience supported that conclusion. The numbers of birds, while still strong, was greatly reduced from the previous day. The highlights would be a single, late Barn Swallow that shot across the top of the field as well as a Sharp-shinned Hawk that glided about 20 feet overhead.
The big event for the week though, was Saturday’s (10/10) Big Sit. A “Big Sit” is a friendly competition where teams choose a location to draw a 17 foot diameter circle and then spend 24 hours counting the number of bird species seen. Throughout North America, teams assembled early in the morning on the 10th and settled in for an intense day of camaraderie and birding. Our team of scruffy veterans (the backbone of the Big Day team, “The Mighty Mighty Jizz Masters”) and myself, the newcomer, decided to set up at the boat launch at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes. A Nature Conservancy property right on the Illinois River, this area is some of the best wetlands in the state. With the team and location set, we scheduled our start at 6:00 a.m. With a 2 hour drive west of Chicago required, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to make sure we could get there before sunrise. Upon arriving, the cool fog hung heavy around us. However, this was not an obstacle as the first hour was dedicated to birding by ear. Jeff and Larry had heard a Barred Owl before we arrived, which was a good thing as this was the only owl we would get. Some playback would also bring us Sora and Common Gallinule. Once we abandoned playback, we stood in our circle, surrounding in the low clouds listening for any chirp or peep. As the sun started to cook off the top of the fog we added a host of ducks to our list as well as Greater Yellowlegs. The clearing skies also prompted thousands of blackbirds to take flight towards their feeding grounds for the day. The massive movement of wings would create a quiet whirring sound as the black clouds of birds took off over the treetops.
Finally, the fog lifted and the full expanse of the refuge was before us. Thousands of ducks (and similar) filled our view f0r 180 degrees. We’d have time to inspect the ducks more carefully but early in the morning, we were looking for those long-distance migrants, shorebirds, before they took flight to continue their journey. We spotted a group of Dunlin in the distance joined by a few unidentifiable peeps. A larger group of White-rumped Sandpipers flew by, continuing the major influx seen in the past week in northern Illinois. The last group of shorebirds seen that morning were larger, chunkier birds missing black “armpit” patches, American Golden Plover.
Once shorebird activity began winding down, so did our birding intensity. We had been standing for 4-5 hours and it became time to begin the birding version of the tailgate. I cooked up breakfast on a little stove as the rest of the team settled in and started to pick out duck species and start scanning for birds in flight as well as passerines in the trees behind us. Until the early afternoon, we were able to pick up a species every 10 minutes and quickly increased our count to the low 70’s. Then the tough part of the day starts. Once the songbird activity waned the list watching increased. Every team member new exactly what number we were on and wanted to be person to find the next tick. While our focus was on identifying new species, there were sights that display the incredible productivity of the refuge. A chaotic cloud of 10,000 or more swallows was crawling along the tops of the cattails. When birding, we often find a bird, identify it and move on. It was great to sit with three experienced birders and be able to watch and discuss bird biology from vocalizations, range, feeding habits,… Larry, Jeff, and Greg are also highly skilled hawkwatchers, an area of birding where I desparately need improvement. One particular episode was when a very light-colored hawk flew over and presented possible signs of being a mega-rare (for Illinois) Ferruginous Hawk. Others snapped pictures while Greg explained his ID to the team. Or at least, the team without me, as I was in the Porta-potty for one of the most dramatic parts of the day. Late, once the pictures were processed, the hawk was determined to be a Red-tailed Hawk (Krider’s) not Ferruginous. Upon hearing this afterwards, while bummed about not adding a tick to the team’s list, I took some quiet pleasure in knowing I didn’t miss the sighting while in the bathroom.
As the day went on, the frequency of new ticks slowed but, the celebration intensified when a new species was found. The best find of the latter half of the day was Long-billed Dowitcher. Around 4:00 p.m., after 10 hours of birding, Greg and I head for home as Jeff and Larry stayed behind to pick up one or two more birds. We missed some pretty common birds (mindbogglingly, not a single cormorant or Cooper’s Hawk) but we had finished satisfyingly with 81 species. At the time of writing this, with many teams still to report, the Mighty Mighty Jizz Masters is holding on to 7th place. Regardless of our finish, it was a beautiful day or birding with excellent companionship.
My eBird checklists for the week: