As I sit here, the day before December 1st, the prospect of 4 months of misidentifying gulls stares down at me.
Before that begins, though, it’s worth looking back at what was a pretty nice fall. In my last post, I professed my love for Ammodramous sparrows and the love was reciprocated. While Le Conte’s Sparrows didn’t show up in the same numbers as Nelson’s (they never do), they were equally as obliging.
October also presented me the opportunity to travel to New York City and chase a couple of lifers, because that’s what birders do. I decided to wake up before my family and take a cab out to Plumb Beach, a small intertidal marsh on the south side of Brooklyn where the habitat was fantastic but the upkeep was not. Litter was everywhere and off-leash dogs were bouncing through the grassy dunes. Amid this, I was able to find 3 Clapper Rails. However, with the high tide, none chose to grace me with views; so that lifer must wait. After plodding around the edges of the marsh and getting slight glimpses of sparrow-like birds, one Saltmarsh Sparrow jumped up just long enough to fire off a couple of shots.
Returning to my Midwest metropolis, the rest of the fall played out as expected; late migrants and a few choice November rarities. The main highlights for the Chicagoland birding community were the Brant at Northerly Island and the Purple Sandpiper at Waukegan Beach. My self-designated patch for this year of birding was a south side forest preserve, a 25 minute drive without traffic. So it was particularly enjoyable when I could ride my bike five minutes, find the small goose, and be in vagrant happiness.
The Purple Sandpiper took a little more effort. Heading in to the weekend, the hawkwatchers were ready for a big movement. The forecast showed huge northwest winds coming down from the tundras of Canada. Birding Buddy Steve and I decided to set up on the roof of his apartment building on the northside of Chicago. Within 10 minutes of starting our watch, a migrating Red-tailed Hawk passed on by. In the next 180 minutes, not a single migrating raptor was seen. When you’re not seeing birds, the wind bites and the cold stings. Calling a quick audible, we drove the hour up to Waukegan and walked out on the pier for the hearty shorebird. Not more than 30 yards in, a wave hit the pier and doused us. Undeterred but, grumbling about our soaked optics, we hurriedly walked on and, only by accident, walked within 5 feet on the bird. Most birds would panic and flush but, this bird simply did not give a crap and views were subsequently crushed. After a solid 10 minutes with the bird satisfying our wildest photographic dreams, we headed back to the beach. Fraternizing with other arriving birders, Steve noticed a bird flying with great haste along the shoreline. When it got closer, it clearly had the shape of a swallow. At this time of year, Cave Swallows are the “expected rarity” along the lakefront and an Illinois review list species. While Steve confirmed the identity, I frantically tried to take a few pictures. Steve got conclusive looks; my pictures? Not so much.
So that was an exciting fall. It ended with one last dramatic flourish. Just south of McCormick place, I got wind of a Long-eared Owl hanging around the small but, productive nature sanctuary there. Within minutes of arriving, the owl was sitting on a fence post 30 feet away. Clearly hungry and hunting, I snapped off a few pictures and left to give the silent predator some room but, WOW!! My wife, being an owl freak, asked to go look for the bird the following day, Thanksgiving morning. We had 15 minutes to look for the bird until we had to return home to take a pecan pie out of the oven. In that 15 minutes, we couldn’t find the owl, nor could we find the rear window to our car. Despite not being more than 100 yards away from our car, someone managed to smash a window and grab my tripod and a couple other items out of the back of my car; not a great way to start my favorite holiday. A week later, our window has been replace and insurance is covering the stolen items, so now I’m just disappointed we missed the owl the second time around. Anyways, stolen goods shouldn’t be a problem for the next few months as the temperature plummets and the only people outside are birders, clutching their scopes with frozen fingers, searching for that pale looking gull.