Ending with a whimper…

For many reasons, 2016 was largely agreed to be a pretty crappy year.  Personally, I had two areas of my life in which I could take refuge from the harsh world: the outstanding year of birding I was having, and the anticipation of my first child.  (I’m not saying those are equally good.  I mean, I didn’t see THAT many birds.)  So, before my bird-laden Facebook feed becomes baby central, Aly and I planned one last road trip up to the frozen abyss of Minnesota.

In the weeks before our trek to the Sax-Zim Bog in Duluth, things were falling in line; nearly a dozen Rough-legged Hawks appeared at Big Marsh, we found 5 screech-owls on an early morning in the Palos area, and I finally added Snow Goose to my Cook County list.  (I had seen 2 Ross’s Geese in my home county before finding its larger cousin.)  This is how a good birding year was supposed to end.

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Good stuff.  Ruffed-legged Hawks aplenty on the south side of Chicago.

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A 2 hour drive west will find thousands Snow Geese but, they’re rarities on the Chicago lakefront

We headed out early on December 30th.  I had planned a slightly longer route for us to pass through the Buena Vista Grassland to try and track down a Greater Prairie-Chicken.  The endangered birds do exist in a few pockets in Illinois but it’s about a 4 hour drive from Chicago.  After about 90 minutes of driving around, I had turned our car to towards the highway, all but ready to admit defeat.  At one of our last stops, I noticed black blobs hanging out at the top of a tree, several hundred yards away.  Got em!  A quick confirmation in the scope provide excellent views of the treed chickens.  As we were packing up, lifer in tow, a light and dark morph pair of Rough-legged Hawks swooped right over our heads.  We got to Duluth that night, ate cheese curds, and went to bed.  Things were looking up…

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Chickens are actually really good fliers.  If you were a walking meal, you’d learn how to fly away pretty well, too.

…and then it all came crashing down.

Listen, I still picked up 3 lifers (Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, and Ruffed Grouse) and the boreal forests are beautiful but, the chasing ineptitude that followed for the next 2.5 days made me want to give up on the trip, birding as a hobby, and life in general.  We followed every hot tip to find a Great Gray Owl.  We had a can’t miss American Three-toed Woodpecker.  We were assured that Sharp-tailed Grouse would visit the feeders if you’d wait a little while.  Like suckers, every time we talked to someone who told us new local info, we’d get excited and say, “At least if we can get this bird, it’ll make the trip worth it.”  The epitome of this Sisyphean effort were the texts a fellow travelling Illinois birder, a snot-nosed high school kid, was sending me, 30 minutes ahead our present location.  (Actually, he’s a real nice kid and a hell of a birder but, when you’re getting gripped on good birds, you hate everything and everyone.)  “Get to the Visitor’s Center!  Hundreds of White-winged Crossbills!” “The bird is easy at the plow turnout, exactly 4 miles in!” “Just sit by the feeders, it’ll walk up to them!”  Argh.  No amount of assistance could undo the bad birding mojo that had overcome us.  Three lifers of the potential 9-10 and none of the bog specialties that inspired us to spend 3 days sitting in the car.

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We actually had good luck with some fancy finches.  Pine Grosbeak.

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Evening Grosbeak.

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What we saw, we saw well.  Common Redpoll

Alas, that was it: 2016 year birds 425, life list settled in at 510; all in the US.  A nice birding year that could have been just a little bit nicer.  With the impending arrival of my birder understudy, I definitely won’t have the opportunity for a couple of years to match my US year total.  However, perhaps out of concern that my bird-chasing incompetence will affect the self-esteem of our soon-to-arrive son, Aly agreed to let me take a February dad-chelor party weekend and head to Mexico with birding buddy Steve (BWM).  This will be my first foray into neotropical birding nirvana.  So, since 2017 is looking up already, let’s get crazy.  Goals for the year: 500 total year birds, 625 life list.  Happy New Year everyone!!

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American Red Squirrel

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