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

The Long, Cold Expanse Ahead

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.

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Le Conte’s Sparrow, Park No. 566

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.

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Worth a $60 cab fair to Brooklyn, my lifer Saltmarsh Sparrow

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.

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Small only in stature, this Brant has been quite the attraction

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One of the classic late fall & winter migrants, the stocky Snow Bunting

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.

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Yeah, this bird was close.

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Purple Sandpiper, striking a pose

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It’s a Cave Swallow, just trust me

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.

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Thinking about it afterwards, I think the owl was in on the job

Ammodramus, Shmammodramus – Late Summer Wrap-up

I really dig Ammodramus sparrows. These smartly dressed birds are the sparrows’ answer to every person who gushes about the bright colors of warblers.  The elegance of these birds is compounded by the fact that they make you work for it.  Even when compared to the skulking warblers, these birds make you wander shorelines (Ammodramus is Latin for “sand runner”) hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse as they dart into thickets of grass and low shrubs.  When they decide to bestow outstanding looks, that becomes the day’s headline.  They must have decided to be charitable because Nelson’s Sparrows (Ammodramus nelsoni) were absolutely everywhere on the Chicago lakefront the past few weeks.  Birds that often number 4-5 seen during migration were spotted in groups of 15-20, setting Cook county record high counts in the process.  Le Conte’s Sparrows (Ammodramus leconteii) have just started to show up; hopefully they’ll be as generous as their sharp-tailed brethren.

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Views like this simply don’t happen, except when they do, and then it is awesome.

The other story this fall has been the irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches across the Great Lakes & Northeast.  Having chased and missed about 9-10 times last winter, this bird has been as much of a state nemesis as I’ve had.  These birds started to show up in buckets when I was still in Washington which led to the odd situation of being on vacation and having birder FOMO for birds back home.  So it was with much relief that I found my state Red-breasted Nuthatch within 10 minutes of arriving at Chicago’s Park #566.  That I found the bird in barren, overgrown piece of grassland gives a pretty good indication as to how common these gregarious little guys are this year.

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Nemesis slayed.

Besides those notable occurrences, the remainder of late summer-early fall wrapped up according to plan.  Warblers and shorebirds showed up on schedule, stuck around for a couple of days, and then jumped on the next weather system with winds pointed south.  I’ve now started to carry a light coat when I go birding which means that the warm temperatures and humid air of summer are gone for awhile.  It’s time to embrace autumn’s shorter days, arctic winds, and cheer the migrants on their southward journey.

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Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper (Big Marsh)

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Lowering water at Big Marsh (Calumet area) brought this Snapping Turtle out.

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Bay-breasted Warbler (Park No. 566)

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Blackpoll Warbler (Park No. 566)

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American Redstart (Park No. 566)

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Common Yellowthroat (Park No. 566)

Olympic NP – Mountains & the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Working our way clockwise around Olympic National Park, we had a few days to check out the interior of the peninsula.  Since we knew we’d be day-hiking, we looked for a trail that would give us some solitude from the crowds.  Helping achieve this goal was the fact that we never quite adjusted from Central time so we were always two hours ahead.  While we found ourselves tired early, we got to experience some breathtaking sunrises.  Nowhere did we benefit from this more than when we chose the hike to Mount Angeles.

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Hurricane Ridge visitor’s center at sunrise

We were pleased when the only car in the lot at the Hurricane Ridge visitor’s center was ours.  That rare occurrence was matched with an equally rare clear sky.  I don’t know how long I’d have to spend in this region to become complacent to walking above clouds but, after 5 days, it still left me astonished.  Our hiking pace was modest as we stopped at nearly every overlook to watch clouds wrap over mountain peaks.  For the next 4-5 hours, we could look any direction and not see another person.

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Walking on clouds as the sun comes up

This experience also reinforced a thought Aly and I started to discuss.  Some parks have access roads that bring you right into the heart of the park and then you branch out from there (i.e. Yosemite).  Alternatively, Olympic’s core is only accessible by backpackers and mountaineers.  You can chip at the edges with day hikes but, we wished he had backpacked several days to really experience the peace and respite from modern life we seek when we go to places of amazing nature.

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From the top of Mount Angeles

We finished our summit of Mount Angeles with some slightly-sketchy scrambling and down-climbing and headed back to our car.  At this point, fellow trail travelers began appearing and cars became visible on roads below.  As our trip was nearing its end, civilization would only become more apparent as Port Angeles then Seattle were on the docket.  However, we’d squeeze in a little more birding at the Ediz Hook.  A long, narrow strip of land that runs parallel to the strait, this spit is separated from the mainland by a huge paper processing plant.  As we drove past the thousands of tree trunks, felled to be turned into paper, we expressed gratitude for how much of the peninsula has been preserved by the national park.  I would have been so easy for the forests to all be turned into tree farms and old-growth wonders like the Hoh Rain Forest, lost forever.

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For a brief, hot second, my inland birding self thought I might be looking at a distant Marbled Murrelet.  This guillemot made up for not being a lifer by swimming right by.

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These stocky ducks, even without their spring finery, entertained both of us with their “paddle with head below water” feeding.

The birding at the hook was good and after some obliging views of sea lions, Pigeon Guillemot, and Harlequin Ducks we started to head further east, towards our ferry to Seattle.  Luckily, we were running a bit ahead of schedule and got to stop at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.  The spit at Dungeness is awesome and apparently the longest of its type in the country.  I would love to have this place be my local patch and spend a Saturday afternoon during migration walking the 5.5 miles to the tip of the sandy land-form.  Plovers and pipers were present and the forest and meadow produced several year birds and the last lifer of the trip, a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  I had hoped to tour the recently restored Elwha River but, due to flood damage, most access was closed.  For those who aren’t familiar with this dam removal project, check out this article, it’s hope-inspiring for those of us who live in areas where nature is always subverted in the name of growth.

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Sea lions always seem to have sadness in their face.

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Not the birdiest trip I’ve ever taken but, the birds that were here simply did not give a crap.  One last killer view of Black Turnstones to end the trip.

This entire trip felt a little like a teaser trailer for a future trip.  There were so many things we just barely explored, it left us wishing we had 3-4 weeks here rather than one.  The short ferry ride into Seattle makes the Olympic peninsula seem so close that even as I now sit in Chicago, typing this, I feel like I could jump on a plane and within hours, be bounding about the green mountains or be walking endlessly on foggy shores extending indefinitely into the distance.

Olympic NP – The Pacific Coast

After bonus mountains and the pelagic, we moved to the main destination for our trip, Olympic National Park (Park lifer #32!!).  Since we were already in Westport, we decided to attack the park in the clockwise fashion; working our way up the coast and then turning east to head to the inland portion.  We camped out at Kalaloch (pronounced CLAY-lock, apparently) for our first nights in the park.  The campground overlooks the beach with incredible views.  If you stay at one of the campsites along the western edge, you’ll be able to sit next to a fire, on a rocky cliff rising majestically over the driftwood dotted beach, basking in the serene progression of time as the ocean’s waves roll in below a setting sun.  Alternatively, if you’re along the eastern edge, like we were, you get to enjoy a night of logging trucks bearing down on you from 20 feet away.

Regardless, it was a comfortable campground and convenient to the Hoh Rain Forest, our next morning’s target.  Being Labor Day weekend, we were not surprised to arrive and see the lot packed.  Getting there early definitely gave us a little peace in the mossy forest but, there were always people around.  As such, we probably rushed through the two short trails near the visitor’s center.  Such is the paradox of the national parks, I suppose.  They need to be popular enough so people care about them but, being too popular robs them of their magic that made them worth saving in the first place.  Luckily, the Hoh Rain Forest still had plenty of magic left.  The “closeness” of the forest was fascinating.  The clumps of moss and lichen hanging from the trees, themselves growing up from a fern-strewn carpet, acted as sound dampers that made the trail feel more indoors than outdoors.  If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d swear you were in carpeted room.

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A green room

The bird life was pretty minimal, likely due to the growing crowds, so after we got our fill of rainforest, we headed back to Kalaloch where we, unfortunately, got rained out.  We passed our time sitting in the lodge, play cards and looking forward to the next day’s destination Shi Shi Beach.

Based on a tip from a friend, we added Shi Shi Beach to our itinerary (Pronounced SHY-shy, I swear I’m not making this up).  Heading up the Pacific Coast, this beach is right near where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the ocean.  The hike was a short mile or so through restored, then old-growth forest until you arrive at a hand-rope assisted descent to the beach.  The beach itself is probably the source of every Olympic NP postcard that features the coast, and with good reason, it’s extraordinary.  We arrived just after low tide, with millions of mussels clinging to wave-worn boulders and tide pools filled with aquatic life.

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Rock spire formations at Shi Shi Beach

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A small beach, just north of the trailhead back inland

Having an inkling as to what birds my be around I started to carefully scan the coast.  Climbing over some rocks to the beach just north of the Shi Shi campground, I finally found one of my main targets, a Black Oystercatcher!  Eventually, as I trapezed around the boulders, searching for every patch of bare rock I could actually stand on, I was eventually able to find myself looking at nearly a dozen oystercatchers.  Not only was this a lifer but, the only other time I had seen an oystercatcher was upon reviewing photographs from a previous trip and discovering a few American Oystercatcher I had missed in the field.  So this was a lifer bird family, as well.

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I even enjoyed the oystercatchers’ smug look on their face.  It’s like they knew how impressed I was by them.

We spent several hours hanging around the beach then turned our backs to the ocean.  We ended the day at the Log Cabin Lodge, alongside Lake Crescent and prepared to explore the interior of the massive park.

Westport Pelagic

Living on the shores of a Great Lake is somewhat of a seabird tease.  For example, Sabine’s Gulls and jaegers occur here every year but, they’re usually way offshore, a distant spec over a dark horizon.  You need to be out on the right day, at the right time of year to see one, maybe a few, if the winds are right.  Seeing one of those birds is cause for much celebration and toasting and almost assuredly requires documentation to your state’s ornithological records committee.  Obviously, a bird being rare in one place and common in another is not unusual but, for whatever reason, pelagic birds drive me mad with bird envy.  Perhaps it’s because the experience of finding, say, a storm-petrel, requires the better part of a day on a boat, heading out to the deeper parts of the ocean.  Lots of people walk on shores or in fields; birders just happened to have binoculars with them while they do it.  Pelagic birding trips are just such a “birder” thing to do; it’s the height of a birding obsession.

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Yeah, birds don’t walk on water where I’m from… Pink-footed Shearwater

Lucky for me, Aly really enjoys pelagic birding, as well.  After the balance of the birds have been seen, she’s pretty good as carving out a small corner of the boat to enjoy a nap.  If anything notable comes by, she knows I’ll wake her.

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Me and a mostly awake Alison

We arrived on the dock at 6:00 a.m. to board the Monte Carlo, operated by fine people at Westport Seabirds.  Once everyone was loaded we head out of the harbor, surrounded by fishing boats and a rising sun.

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The benefits of sitting astern…it was too dark to look at birds anyways

Once we moved beyond the inshore waters, Common Murres and Sooty Shearwaters started to appear.  For the coastal birders, a Sooty is a bird quickly relegated to the trash bin of the day’s list.  An inland birder like myself, made sure to appreciate the remarkable flying skill the shearwaters demonstrate while dodging among the waves.

After a few hours heading out, we reached the main focus of our day’s endeavor; the fishing boats.  Trailing these vessels were hundreds of gulls, shearwaters, and albatrosses.  As soon as one boat would begin to raise its nets, the birds would arrive and gorge on anything dropped or brought to the surface.  After the initial frenzy subsided, birds would resume exploring the other boats, looking for the next human-assisted meal.  Black-footed Albatross and the smartly-dressed Sabine’s Gulls rounded out the masses of California Gulls and Pink-footed Shearwaters.

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Black-footed Albatross

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Procellariiformes, the tubenoses

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The first time I’ve ever seen a Pomarine Jaeger with its spatulate tail

After we trailed a few fishing boats, we head out closer to the continental shelf where the water conditions were more conducive to Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels.  After about 10 minutes of trailing some cooking oil mixed with fish oil, the scent-guided bird arrived.  Like the swallows of the sea, the minute storm-petrel dotted around the boat, eventually being joined by a second.

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Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel – Pretty happy I get to lord this sighting over a birding buddy #gripped

As we turned towards the coast, we stopped by the fishing boats to see what else might be hanging around.  Our species and bird counts being a touch light, we were sure to scan the flock for the less common seabirds like Tufted Puffin, Short-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters.  Somewhat disappointingly, only the Short-tailed Shearwater (differentiated from Sooties by head shape and bill length) would make an appearance.

One last pelagic excursion was to see what other marine life we could locate. While we lacked that one “signature bird” to add some spark to the trip’s checklist, a group of 5 active Humpback Whales was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever witnessed. As the captain cut the engine, all on board fell silent and we were able to watch and listen to the 79,000 pound beasts breath through their blowhole and dive into the water. We talk about good looks of awesome birds as being “cripplers” as they freeze you in your tracks; I’m not sure a slang term exists for the condition of the 20 passengers on the boat that afternoon.

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Simply awestruck

On our way in, we swung around the east end of the spit to look for pure Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls (in these parts, the overwhelming majority are hybrids of the two) as well as any shorebirds that might be hanging around the rocky shore.  My lifer Glaucous-winged Gull would be the last addition made to my life or year lists on this pelagic trip.  What I did get, however, was to see more Marbled Godwits in one place than I have ever seen.  I am a huge sucker for numbers of shorebirds and at 700+ godwits, it was a satisfying end to an intense day of birding.

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Godwits.  A Bar-tailed version was found in this group the day before and the week after. Ouch.

(As a footnote… I cannot recommend Westport Seabirds more highly.  Their ship is quite comfortable and the crew is knowledgeable and accommodating.  The ginger snap cookies were a welcome snack as we head out on our birding pursuits.)

headshotHi! I’m Carl. I like birds. I like other things, too. Especially backpacking, rock-climbing, biking, hiking, camping, beer drinking, eating, travelling, great nature, and great cities. My wife and I have a life goal to visit all the US national parks. I mostly started this blog as a way to not forget things we’ve done.

Bonus Mountains: Mount Rainier NP

Early when scheduling our trip, we had our pelagic out of Westport scheduled on our second day in Washington.  However, when that outing was moved to Sunday, we were left with an extra day in our schedule.  After quick review of driving times, we decided we could swing by Mount Rainier National Park.  It was agreed that this would not count as our “Mount Rainier Trip” since it was only going to be about a day and a half but, that this would be a “bonus” park for our Olympic NP trip.

Busting out of Sea-Tac we made, Mount Rainier (National Park lifer #31) early in the afternoon.  Rain pelted us the entire way to the visitor center.  A short respite allowed us to pitch our tent and go for a short hike on a portion of the Wonderland Trail.  This also gave us about 15 seconds of the 30 total we’d actually get to see Mount Rainier with out its cloud veil on.  The trail was great and we made it back to our car right as the rain picked up.  A bowl of soup and a pot roast later, we were in our tent.

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Occasionally, sun would peak through the clouds

Enjoying the time zone difference, we woke up early to get on the Skyline Trail.  Once again, the visibility was pretty low but the fog created an interesting sense of closeness with landscape around you.  Not more than 30 minutes on the trail, a group of 5 Sooty Grouse would establish their own sense of closeness.  For a bird that has little natural defense other than its camouflage, these birds could not care in the least bit that hikers were walking 5 feet from them.  True to the term, these cripplers froze Aly and I in place for at lease 15 minutes.  With the sound muffled by the fog, we were able to hear their low hoots as they grazed on the mountain plants.

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Maybe we lost distant views with this fog and rain but, hiking among the clouds was a unique experience

 

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One of the five Sooty Grouse, focussed on eating more than Aly and I freaking out behind it

It’s a good thing those birds gave such great views because, in what became an unwelcome custom for this trip, birds were few and far between.  However, the ones that were seen, were quite confiding. 

We started looping back around for our return trip as we passed several large groups of hikers on their way to Camp Muir.  I can only imagine the commotion there as no fewer than 40 backpackers, replete with rented ice axes, crampons, and $600 hiking books passed us as we lumbered around looking for rosy-finches.  Although, Aly and I both admitted, jealously, that we had brought our mountaineering gear and were headed up the mountain.  With lifers to stave off any disappointment, we returned to our car and our bonus time in Mount Rainier came to an end.

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One of the Rosy-Finches, posing nicely on a rock as hikers walked by

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Not to be outdone by the other birds, this pipit wanted to get in on the “not giving a crap about people being nearby” action

We drove the two hours to Westport which gave us plenty of daylight to snoop around the rocky spits for shorebirds.  Feeling a bit premature, we found a few lifer alcids hanging around as well as a collection of cormorants.  Getting ready to turn back, I spotted a few smaller birds hopping around the green mat of algae at the base of one of the rocks and picked up my last lifer for the day, a Black Turnstone.  A quick dinner of halibut and cod on the dock and we were in bed, hoping to take advantage of the time zone difference one more time, so we’d be full of energy for the next day’s pelagic boat tour.

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Black Turnstone feeding on the mats of algae on the rocky shoreline

Specks in the mud, Chautauqua NWR

Bird buddy Steve and I missed out on a spring trip to southern Illinois so we settled on a late summer trip to Chautauqua NWR.  Chautauqua is one of the shining examples of restored wet prairie that has been cropping up around Illinois over the past couple of decades.  It’s big, the habitat is outstanding, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to bird.  The downside of being such a magnet for birds is that, in order to have the uninterrupted habitat they love, the trails and observation points are kept to a minimum; bring your scope.

As per usual, we left well before sunrise and hit the road.  Nearing the end of our drive, we got stuck behind a stopped train.  Luckily, the detour took us by some extraordinary flooded fields that were dotted with Killdeer as far as the eye could see.  On our way around this field 25 American-Golden Plovers were spotted, year bird for both of us!

Finally arriving at Chautauqua, we donned our rubber boots and slogged it across the dike at Goofy Ridge.  Stupidly, I left my scope in the car but, was compensated with point-blank views of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a pair of Prothonotary Warblers (state bird!).  Beyond that, I satisfied myself with watching the masses of pelicans and shorebirds shuffling about a hundred or so yards away.  Meanwhile, Steve would remain glued to his scope looking for the rare but, expected shorebirds.  Chautauqua is also one of the places in Illinois where you can get Eurasian Tree Sparrow and they are there in numbers.

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My Illinois Prothonotary Warbler, also the best views I’ve ever gotten of this bird.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo, sitting 5 feet above the Prothonotary

Slogging back to the car, we made a quick stop down the road for better views the distant birds but, found we couldn’t get any closer.  We did run in to some central-Illinois regulars who told us about the Red-necked Phalaropes hanging around another location.  They also had Buff-breasted Sandpipers, the only “expected” lifer for me on this trip.  Packing up, we went to the Eagle Bluff/Cross dike area.  Here the birds were much closer and I remembered to bring my scope.  Decent views of Black Tern, Marbled Godwit, and Black-necked stilts were nice but, off in the distance, the phalaropes were located.  We dutifully noted our year tick and continued to walk across the dike.

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Red-necked Phalaropes, stilts, & shovelers

About halfway, I went to set my tripod down and one of the legs half-collapsed inward sending my scope hurtling towards the ground, eyepiece first.  The eyepiece assembly cleanly snapped off and I was back to looking at distant specs in my binoculars.  Needing a walk to vent my anger at the fallen scope, I headed back to the car while Steve stayed at his post, looking for year-birds.  Even though I lost my scope at probably the worst spot to do so, I walked back out on the dike and tried to enjoy the peculiar mix of birds only a place like Chautauqua can offer.

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Only in Chautauqua… godwits, terns, sanderlings, stilts, teals, and gulls

Stomachs starting to grumble a bit, we made quick work of year-bird Ruddy Turnstone and found a few fall migrants near the park headquarters.  Still missing my lifer Buffy, we head to a local bar and grill for a burger, beer, and an escape from the sun.  We decided we’d stop by the flooded field that yielded the Golden plovers and then, if time allowed, an occasionally birded wastewater treatment plant that we may or may not have access to.

Returning to the flooded fields, the waters had subsided from the overnight rain but, the birds were still there.  After numerous scan, Steve was able to pick out 2 Buff-breasted Sandpipers about 75 yards away.  Scope-less he found the birds for me in his scope so I could get a rather unsatisfying lifer.  Lifers are great but, I will take drop-dead gorgeous views of a common bird over blurry, distant speck lifers most any day.  But, there it was, and after a Peregrine stirred up a bunch of commotion, we decided to make a run for the El Paso Wastewater Treatment Facility.

A place only a birder would think to visit, we were shocked to find the gates wide open.  In the ridiculous over-reaction to 9/11 many places of regional infrastructure that were regular stops on the birding circuit were closed.  I’m not really sure what a terrorist would do with a place that is, literally, shit sitting in a pool but, the fact that we were able to drive up onto the berms along the wastewater treatment pools took us by surprise.  We found one small, mostly dry pool that was absolutely loaded with shorebirds.  Even better, two Buff-breasted Sandpipers were quite brazenly hanging out about 25 feet from the edge.  So after all, I got my killer views even if it wasn’t my lifer.  We didn’t find any new birds for the day here but, we definitely took our time to appreciate looking through our binoculars or naked eye instead of squinting into our scopes.

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Sorta-lifer, Buff-breasted Sandpiper

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Considering how tame shorebirds can be, getting close views are possible and always satisfying.  Wilson’s Phalarope & Least Sandpiper

Tallying our checklists on the way home we pretty much got everything we came for except a Red Phalarope that had been spotted for several days leading up to our visit and Western Sandpiper, the rarest of the “regular” peeps that visit Illinois in the fall.  Our buddy list was added to quite nicely and our year lists for shorebirds were mostly rounded out.  Next effort will be tracking down those fall sparrows.

Walking the Walk

As part of the Cook County Forest Preserve #birdthepreseves Big Year, I decided to sponsor one of my favorite regular spots, the Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve.  As part of this effort I promised to lead a few bird walks throughout the year.  The forest preserve did a nice job holding a training session and getting the word out.  However, I was still a little nervous that no one would show.  Luckily, I was able to entice some of my friends with a post-birding 3 Floyds brewery trip to guarantee that we’d get a few people there, new birders to boot.  So I was quite surprised than when 8:00 rolled around, we had 16 people there.

Normally, if I’m not birding alone, I’m with birders who are better than me and whose relationship is most accurately described as “beer buddy.”  Having to lead a larger group of beginners and experienced birds who I just met was a little terrifying.  If I’m with one of my normal birding partners and misidentify a bird, I only risk a little ridicule.  Misidentifying a bird to someone who is counting on you to know what the hell you’re talking about definitely got the nerves going.

I definitely do not shy away from public speaking but, I probably would have liked a more manageable group size for my first bird walk.  “Either way,” I thought, “once people get a load of 30+ Great Egrets, that’ll make everyone happy.”  So, of course, when we approached the pond, we found that the south winds and taken away all the egrets I spotted earlier in the week.  Shorebirds were missing, passerines were silent.  There were birds there but, they were far away and not conducive to great observation.  After using my go-to tale about Thismia Americana, I started to push the group forward to where we could, at least, get great views of the prairie.  In the end, a Field Sparrow, a distant kingfisher, and a calling Sora gave plenty of interest during the first half of the trip.  First timers were excited at finally knowing the name of the Red-winged Blackbird which reminded me that my job is not to simply find the rarest bird but, to help give glimpses into the awesome world of even the most common species.

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Solitary Sandpiper

 

Eventually, we were able to locate a few of those migrants we were hoping for.  A mixed group of yellowlegs flew in and walking into the woodland gave us Solitary Sandpiper.   However, the best parts came at the end.  One of the rookie’s spotted the Downy Woodpecker that had been drumming away and her joy in finding a bird on her own was infectious.  Then someone called out, “kestrel! Kiting behind the trees!”  Yes!!  Kestrels are not rare but, being one of the handsomest birds of prey, are always a pleasure, even for birders who’ve seen it all.  One problem, the bird was too big.  Eventually, it glided over and, succumbing to groupthink, I uttered, “That’s a slightly larger falcon, a Merlin.”

It was not a Merlin.

When realizing my error, reviewing pictures later, I came to appreciate veteran walk leaders who are so confident and disciplined, that they can analyze a bird without prejudice to “delivering” a particular ID.  In this case, I had “falcon” in my mind so it wasn’t until afterwards, that I realized it was actually a Cooper’s Hawk; a bird more than twice the size and of completely different shape.  Oh well.  That is the nice thing about birding though, a botched ID, as embarrassing as it may be, matters very little.  The misidentification may be more valuable than a correct one because a valuable lesson was learned.  In the end, a good time was had by a great group of people and the beer at 3 Floyds was excellent… that’s a successful day.

 

 

Here’s our checklist.