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.

48 Hours in Texas

One aspect of “listing” I’ve come to like is that it forces you to consider what is actually possible versus only what is practical.  Need to be at work in 14 hours?  That’s enough time to drive to Ohio, see a Brambling and get back.  Black-tailed Gull in southern Illinois? If you leave at 1 a.m. you can be back in time for dinner.  Often times, while eating lunch at my computer, I’ll look for cheap airfares to no place in particular with the daydream that I could jump on a red-eye flight, explore for a day, and get back the following night.  While Aly can handle any type of trip I can dish out, the “bird until you can’t open your eyes” style of travel is not really her thing.  So when her architecture firm decided she needed to fly to India for a new hospital she’s designing, a $150 round-trip flight to Houston was the enabler to my weekend birding bender.  “After all,” I tried to justify to her, “if you’re in the land of bee-eaters and bulbuls, shouldn’t I at least get to be around caracaras and chachalacas?”  Clearly, the alliterative argument had an effect on her because, she agreed to let me go.

The plan was set.  I’d land in Houston late on Thursday, drive through the night to the Corpus Christi area, then head to the lower Rio Grande Valley for a day, then book it back for an early morning return flight.  My goal was to see 125 bird species.

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Sunrise at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

I landed around midnight on Thursday, grabbed my rental car, and hit the road.  I wanted to be at Aransas before sunrise so getting a hotel room didn’t make much sense.  Instead, I’d spend a few hours with my eyes closed siting in the parking lot of the Victoria County Rest Area on Route 59.  Finding the rental car’s folded down rear seats and trunk to be too short for any comfort, I woke up after a couple hours of restless sleep and hit the road at 4:00 a.m.  Ninety minutes later, I was driving along the San Antonio Bay, near the entrance to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Walking through the Rail Trail, the marsh was starting to wake up.  Coots and Sora rails were starting to clack and scream.  As the sun started to paint the sky, dozens of Sandhill Cranes took off with their signature rattle.  Crane excitement at Aransas is not limited to Sandhills; the real prize at Aransas is the other North American crane, the highly endangered Whooping Crane.  Returning annually from their breeding grounds in Alberta, this patch of land on the Gulf of Mexico is the wintering home to the last of the migratory Whooping Crane population.  Beginning on the auto tour loop, I started to tick off the standard Texas wintering birds.  Over the shallow waters of the Gulf, both kinds of pelicans glided over the top of the water to their daytime roosts.  Ponds along the route were filled with teals and grebes.  A quick walk along a path yielded very little besides a feral hog and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Approaching the top of an observation tower gave panoramic views of the entire refuge as well as the oil derricks out on the water.  Seeing those symbols of greedy exploitation so close to the natural landscape of the refuge made me nervous for the long-term health of the pristine wetland.  The destruction a Deepwater Horizon sized spill at one of those structures could knock entire species right off the planet.  On my way back to the auto path, I observed several dozen vultures hopping along the ground, clearly jockeying for some kind of carrion.

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Female Ring-necked Duck

Continuing on the auto tour, I’d occasionally see a passerine fly across the road.  When I’d stop and train my binoculars, I’d usually find a few mockingbirds with some Eastern Phoebe’s mixed in.  Reaching a long north-south segment of road, I started to lengthen the time taken between stops.  Most of the birds seen were repeats and their density started to thin out.  A few minutes later, I decided to get out and get some closer looks at a bright male kestrel when three large white birds appeared in the distance.  Stretching almost five feet, bill to feet, the massive white Whooping Cranes flew across my field of view.  Panicking, I grabbed my camera and managed to snap a few quick photos of the.  A couple of years earlier I had seen the Wisconsin Direct Autumn Release Whooping Cranes.  Essentially, caged birds that were human-raised to join nearby Sandhills and, hopefully, migrate south.  Of the 13 Wisconsin birds I saw on that day, only one bird, named Latka, survived to the second year.  However, in those three wild birds flying over me continued the knowledge of how to migrate thousands of miles and reproduce as they have done for thousands of years.

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Whooping Cranes

After that thrill, I eager completed the auto tour loop.  I only stopped one more time to look at dark, soaring bird that didn’t quite look like a vulture.  As it banked in the late morning light, I saw two white flashing on its wings; a telltale sign for a Crested Caracara.

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Crested Caracara

I’m not much of a rarity chaser but, the rarities in this part of Texas are fairly sought after.  The state’s closeness to Mexico means that Neotropical vagrants show up regularly.  Throughout the week, a Golden-crowned Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, and Greater Pewee all were observed in a little park in the hamlet of Refugio.  Studying the stickers on the cars as I pulled in (“I brake for crakes”), I knew I was not the only birder here.  Grabbing my camera and binoculars, I started walking along the quarter-mile long loop through the riverside woodland.  Joining a few other folks at the previously reported warbler location, we all scanned the underbrush for any sign of movement.  A half hour yielded nothing until I saw a flycatcher, with its large head and bicolored bill perched 30 feet away.  Calling out my pewee sighting, another birder joined me and started reciting field marks for Greater Pewee.  Sure enough, this bird checked out.  Filling ourselves with vagrant-delight for a couple of minutes, we continued our look for the warbler.  Having a packed schedule in front of me, I regrettably threw in the towel and head to the car.  The Golden-crowned Warbler would be spotted a few hours after I left.  All was not lost, though, on my way out a kind birder pointed out a Barred Owl nestled in between the branches, 15 feet above my head.

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The only rarity of the trip: Greater Pewee

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Barred Owl

I am a sucker for shorebirds.  I don’t know if it’s their superlative migration distances or the fact that they’re so easily observable, if there is a shorebird hotspot nearby, I’m visiting.  The Texas gulf coast at this time of year is loaded with wintering shorebirds.  My destination was a narrow string of land that follows the coast almost the full length of Texas, Padre Island.  On the way, I’d stop at a few county parks to pick up a few of the area’s unique species.  Gregarious Green Jays pecked at some seed spread over a picnic table, Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds swooped over water grabbing insects, and Least Grebes darted underwater and fled the moment I was noticed.

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Couch’s Kingbird (probably)

Corpus Christi is separated from Padre Island by a shallow channel.  Often less than 5 feet deep in many locations, this creates excellent habitat for waders and shorebirds.  Immediately after passing over the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, I turned into Packery Channel Park and beheld shorebird nirvana.  While fishermen did a good job of scaring away most of the birds off of the near shoreline, there was a narrow strip of land about 60 feet out, that was loaded.  Every square foot held terns, yellowlegs, Laughing Gulls, herons, spoonbills, Willets, and Godwits.  Walking along the saturated, squishy shoreline I moved away from the many fishing area to where I could crouch along the edge of the water and allow the birds to come to me.  Black-bellied Plover and Sanderlings, with their frenetic run and peck feeding style, passed not more than 15 feet away.  My favorite, though, was the Long-billed Curlew that stood like a statue while it snapped photo after photo.

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I’ll stop being a birder when I’m no longer thrilled at seeing this bird: Long-billed Curlew

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Black-bellied Plover

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Brown Pelican

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Roseatte Spoonbill

While I was in bird bliss, there was the unfortunate disturbance of a fishing boat screaming by, leaving harried birds in its wake.  These were scarcely better than the off-road trucks that would go bounding over the rutted-out beach.  Despite my indignation, I spent a few more hours observing the wildlife here and then returned to my car.  This would be the last stop for the day before heading to the Rio Grande Valley.  To add symmetry to my day, as the sun was getting ready to duck below the horizon, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes flew over my car, on their way to their nighttime roost.  Making McAllen, Texas by 7:00 p.m., I ate some forgettable Mexican food, tallied up my day’s count, and collapsed in bed.

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Sunset, end of day one

I had gotten a taste of what Rio Grande Valley birding could be like the previous year when Aly and I backpacked Big Bend National Park, so it was with high anticipation I pulled myself out of my hotel room and hit the road.  I would have the daylight hours to bird along the Rio Grande River and then turn back north for the 5 hour evening drive to Houston.  I would hit a series of state parks and preserves starting at the west end of McAllen, working my way east.  Nearby there were reports of rarities such as Northern Jacana, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and Tropical Parula.  My route was planned so that, if I got lucky, I could see all of them.  I began walking through the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP and, more by virtue of us getting there at the same time, paired up with a kind couple from the Houston area.  More birders equals greater likelihood of not missing a rarity so we were happy to grow our group.  For a birder from far away, the feeding stations  here were remarkable.  Green Jays and kiskadees were trash birds.  A group of at least 50 Plain Chachalacas pecked at the group as a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk scream by.  We watched the chaos instigated while we discussed exactly what would happen if the offending hawk, scarcely larger than the chachalacas, would actually try to catch one.  Moving on, we ticked off other lower valley standards like Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Prryhuloxia, Clay-colored Thrush, and White-tipped Dove.  When we reached the river, we glanced at the international shoreline for either of the two specialty kingfishers; Green and Ringed.  Neither making an appearance, I decided to end my time as a third-wheel birder, thanked the couple, and head to the car.

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Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

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Great Kiskadee

I swung by the Santa Ana NWR where I missed the Northern Jacana that had been spotted there over the past few days but, I got some outstanding views of a couple of Olive Sparrows.  After a couple hour visit, I headed to what would be my last major stop of this trip, the Estero Llano Grande State Park.

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Harris’s Hawk

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Olive Sparrow

At this point in the trip, I was beginning to run out of gas.  I was about 38 hours into my 48 hour birding blitz with a 5 hours drive in front of me.  Coincidentally, Estero Llano provided the capstone on the trip.  Walking around the bird-packed state park, I couldn’t help reflect on how a state, whose politicians seem to relish in destroying the natural world, could have such an extraordinary state park system.  Upon entry, you walk onto a deck near the park office where the bird life is in your face.  Five feet from the deck edge, Wilson’s Snipe probed the mud.  Teals of all flavors floated a bit further away.  Ibis, Spoonbill, and Herons commanded the standing water and flycatchers swooped back and forth.  This is the only moment of the trip I came to regret chasing lifers as I could have sat and watched that pond for hours.  I did take a few minutes to rest and photograph a few birds, including a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at a feeder, then I started walking the boardwalks and paths to look for a few remaining Rio Grande Valley specialties.  Coming to a pond, I noticed a few night-herons in the trees.  As I identified both Yellow and Black-crowned a kingfisher flew across me and landed on some low branches.  Smaller and more blue-green than royal blue, I watched the Green Kingfisher move back and forth between two select perches.  Nearby is a “can’t miss” patch for the Common Pauraque, a true valley specialty.  After scouring the ground in the small loop for 30 minutes, I could not find the damn bird.  Sitting down to watch the night-herons and regroup, I noticed a family of 7 crowding around a downed log.  Of course, they found the bird I walked past at least a half-dozen times.  After snapping a few cracking photos of the cute, little nightjar, I took a long, slow walk back to the car.  If I visit the lower valley again, I thought to myself, I will allow for a full day of exploring this park.

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Common Pauraque

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Green Kingfisher

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Wilson’s Snipe

I realized at that point, it was 3 p.m. and I had only ate a granola bar; such is the single-track mindset of a birder, I suppose.  So I made my way to the main commercial drag in Harlingen.  Along the way, I gave a half-hearted effort at the Frontera Audubon Center to find the Crimson-collard Grosbeak and Tropical Parula, missing both.  Instead, I proceeded the nearest Wendy’s and sat at a nearby reservoir to eat my Junior Cheeseburgers.  A few cormorants swooped past, an Osprey soared overhead, and I sat in the car, filling out my checklists.  One glaring omission jumped out at me; right at the top.  I had not seen a Black-bellied Whistling Duck!  According to eBird stats, almost 20% of a checklists submitted for this area contain this bird and, despite visiting at least 10 places, I had not seen one.  Finishing my drive-thru meal, I started to pull a little closer to a Neotropic Cormorant for a picture when I noticed a pier full of ducks, about 150 yards away.  On it rested about 30 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, tucked together to stay out of the cool (by Texas standards) wind.  A rarity they are not but, a lifer they were.  Having picked up one last tick, I jumped in the car and turned my back to Mexico, heading to Houston.

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Neotropic Cormorant

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Osprey

The drive back was pretty uneventful.  Near the valley there were drainage ponds packed with waterfowl.  I stopped at a few, trying to get my binoculars on as many birds as possible but, more often than not, the birds flushed, so I just kept driving.  Sitting in the hotel bar outside the Houston airport, I reviewed my final tally for the trip.  I counted 123 birds and almost 20 lifers.  If anything, this trip was just an appetizer.  I knew then that I will be coming back to this place. Instead of simply running around, trying to get a taste of the incredible Texas bird scene, I’ll pick a few locations and really get to immerse myself in the Neotropical wonderland of the Rio Grande Valley.

My eBird Checklists:

Day 1
Aransas NWR
Lions/Shelly Park (Refugio)
Hazel Bazemore Park
Pollywog Pond
Packery Channel Park

Day 2
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP
Santa Ana NWR
Estero Llano Grande SP
Frontera Audubon Center
Dixieland Park
Driving out of the valley

Chicago area Birding (Oct 21-Nov 1)

My birding has been pretty spotty the past couple of weeks.  I’m sure I’m not the first to discover that full-time employment can be somewhat of a hinderance to your hobbies.  Regardless, I’ve been able to visit Park No. 566 a couple of times before work.  I will be quite happy when daylight savings time ends as the current clock is robbing me of pre-work morning sunlight.  Regardless, the past week and a half has definitely seen a large outward movement of passerines.  The gaudy numbers of late warblers and sparrows found early in October have given way to isolated patches of land birds and growing numbers of winter waterfowl.  While the species counts have declined, the opportunities to enjoy natural beauty have not.

Park No. 566 Sunrise

Satisfying consolation as fall migration winds down. Sunrise at Park No. 566

However, there were still some highlights the past couple of weeks. Short-eared Owls have begun to take up winter residency in the area and this one has now been spotted twice. I went to the Bartel Grassland in Orland Park last year to find my lifer Short-eared Owl and struck out so accidentally getting this bird at Park No. 566 was a thrill!

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Best shot I could get of the flushed Short-eared Owl

The songbirds that are arriving now are a mix of late migrants just passing through and those that will set up here for the winter.  I hope this little Winter Wren decides to make the south lakefront its home for the next few months.

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Winter Wren, Park No. 566

Finally, my schedule eased up where I could spend a large part of Saturday, November 1st exploring the south side. I had heard that access to the Big Marsh in the Lake Calumet area had been improved with the cutting down of some tall cattails.  When I got there, I was able to easily find the newly exposed dike. Just from the small portion I could observe, I could see why the more-tenured birders speak highly of this area. The whole area is surrounded by mudflats and marshy ponds. Walking in, I flushed several Great Blue Heron as well as a state-endangered Black-crowned Night-Heron.  Any November shorebirds are especially pleasing and I was happy to find that the mudflats were occupied by Killdeer and Dunlin.  Gulls and a small sampling of ducks rounded out the birds that were hanging around here. Occasionally, a raptor would come circling overhead, usually a Red-tailed Hawk.  I had forgotten how great of a place the Lake Calumet area can be for birds of prey and I would definitely be reminded of it at my next stop, the Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve.

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Northern Harrier, showing its telltale white rump. Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve

As with other locations, the songbird density was down significantly but, hawks, eagles, and falcons have arrived in their stead.  An adult Bald Eagle was observed north of the entrance drive, several Red-tailed Hawks and a Cooper’s/Sharp-shinned passed by overhead.  Seen most closely, though, was a Northern Harrier that was skimming the tops of the grass for the 2.5 hours I was there.  When it would crisscross the marsh, it’d cause quite a bit of commotion among the 6 Greater Yellowlegs that were feeding.  As I was lurking in the perimeter grasses, I notice a lengthy animal swimming around one end of the marsh.  I was in perfect position to watch an American Mink swim around a submerged truck.  I’m hoping the fence around the entire wetland is enough to keep people from harassing the animal, as this sneaky weasel can be a tough find.  The harrier however, had no problem finding it as it flew about 15 feet over the mink’s head.  I watched for a little while until both I and the harrier lost interest.  On my way out, a screaming American Kestrel zipped by bringing my raptor species count to 5.

My day ended with a quick stop at the MWRD plant at the bend of the Little Calumet River. This will be a frequent destination for me as the temperature drops and ducks look for the artificially warmed waters in this area. For now, I was entertained by the hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls that followed a passing barge.

My eBird Checklists:
10/21 Park No. 566

10/24 Park No. 566

10/27 Park No. 566

11/1 Big Marsh

11/1 Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve

11/1 Bend of Little Calumet River

Chicago area Birding (Oct 17-18)

I didn’t have much time to get out and bird during the week so I tried to make the most of the weekend.  Saturday we headed to the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve to join the ongoing hawkwatch.  While the epic weekend didn’t materialize as anticipated (sustained west-northwest winds for several days) there were some highlights.  Any time a Merlin went wizzing by was thrilling to watch but, the best spotting of the day was our last raptor; my lifer Rough-legged Hawk!  I’ve been improving too slowly at raptor identification at a distance but I was surprised at how visible the carpal patches were on the bird’s wings.  After the hawkwatch ended, we enjoyed the mirth and merriment of our fellow birders at the monthly Birds & Beers gathering.

Sunday morning, I drove down to the Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve in (fittingly) Burnham, a tiny suburb right on the city boundary.  I was hoping to find some “good” sparrows but it was not meant to be.  However, the numbers of the more common sparrows were quite strong.  I spotted several first-of-season Fox Sparrows and, in the non-songbird category, a Black-bellied Plover.  Overall, the birding was quite pleasant and I got some great looks at many common birds which is always a good opportunity for learning.  This also gave me the excuse to break out the new Nikon 200-500 F5.6 lens and take some pictures and video.  Enjoy!

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Swamp Sparrow

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Black-bellied Plover

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Belted Kingfisher (Female)

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Lincoln Sparrow

Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve from Carl Giometti on Vimeo.

My eBird Checklists:
Fort Sheridan Hawkwatch
Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve

Chicago area Birding (Oct 4-10)

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!

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Le Conte’s Sparrow

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Dark-eyed Junco

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.

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Northern Harrier

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.

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Great Blue Heron with lunch

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:

10/7 Rainbow Beach

10/7 Park No. 566

10/7 Grant Park

10/8 Park No. 566

10/10 Hennepin & Hopper (Big Sit)

Marco Island area Birding (August 7-10)

Ever since my good friend Aaron became engaged and announced they were having their wedding in Florida, I’ve had this date circled on the calendar.  While an April or October wedding would have been nice, I’ll have to forgive him and his bride for not planning their nuptials around avian migration.  As a consolation, they chose to have their wedding on Marco Island, an area loaded with birding hotspots.  Keeping with the theme our 2015 trips, the hot weather would mean I’d have to do my birding bright and early.  This would be complicated by the late-night, tiki-drink fueled celebrations.  However, we fought through the hangovers and managed to find the outstanding birding we had hoped for.

The first day we visited the closest and most productive hotspot of the trip, Tigertail Beach.  Located at the north end of the beach, this lagoon absolutely delivered.  The only complication we ran into was something completely foreign to us Great Lakes birders; tides.  Weather and wind patterns are hard enough to plan birding around; tides added a third dimension.  The mass movement of water, exposing or concealing land, greatly altered the birds found in an area, as I learned when I made a return trip, later in the afternoon.  Arriving during high tide, did not mean we left empty handed.  Within 5 minutes of arriving wading birds were everywhere.  Herons included Tricolored, Green, Little Blue, and Great Blue.  Egrets found were Great, Reddish, and Snowy.  A group of White Ibis probed the south end of the lagoon.

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Reddish Egret

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White Ibis

Walking around the south end of the lagoon, towards the beach, a substantial group of shorebirds, gulls, and the like collected around some standing puddles of water.  Again, my Great Lakes birding expectations did not prepare me for the embarrassment of riches running a few feet from my binoculars.  Dozens of Willets, Sanderlings, Marbled Godwits, and Ruddy Turnstones were completely at ease with close human proximity as they frenetically fed along the shoreline.  Later, when Aly and I took to lounging around in the ocean, a Red Knot walking right by would become commonplace.  I blasted away with my camera taking pictures of the terns and skimmers along with the previously mentioned birds.  Walking back, I was a bit nervous that I hadn’t found a Wilson’s Plover yet, when two ran within 10 feet of me.  My frustration with Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a glaring absence from my life list) would not be satiated, though.

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Willet, one of hundreds seen

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Ruddy Turnstone

When I returned in the afternoon, low-tide opened up easier access to the “tail” end of the beach.  Wading across the lagoon, I could see shallow water and flats now exposed.  As I began to walk along the beach, I noticed people walking just steps from a large raptor perched on a sign.  My birding ethics indignation kicked in and I grew annoyed that people would not give this expert fisher some space.  As I walked towards the lagoon shoreline, I saw the reason for the folks’ encroachment; Osprey were literally everywhere.  It was impossible to walk along the beach and not pass within 5 feet of these birds.  For their part, the Osprey did not seem to mind.  In fact, they probably were more frustrated by the shorebirds that would occasionally run into their area.  I’m not sure if this was normal behavior or a result of the extreme heat but, several Osprey lounged in 5-6 inches of water throughout the lagoon.  The dozen or so Osprey would not be the only close encounter.  A Wilson’s Plover was headed my direction while I knelt on the beach taking pictures of other birds.  The plover walked to about 3 feet away from me before decided that was close enough. The little shorebird apparently had its mind made up on walking south on the beach, so I took a few pictures and got out of its way.

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Osprey

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Wilson’s Plover

The following morning, we decided to head north on I-75 and hit two locations: Hidden Cyprus Preserve and the renowned J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Hidden Cyprus Preserve was our first stop and largely consisted of a main road you would walk along.  The quality of the habitat was high but, the bird life was a bit subdued.  There were highlights, though.  Black Vultures roosted in trees on both sides of the road in substantial numbers.  As we walked by, several were perched on the fence, allowing us to clearly see the differences with Turkey Vultures.  As the sun started to create thermal movement of air, dozens of vultures would take to kettling in the sky above our heads.  Aly, through some insanely good spotting, found a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched in the trees.

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Black Vulture

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Red-shouldered Hawk

After a few hours we took off to Sanibel Island and the Ding Darling NWR.  If the lesson of coordinating our birding with the tides was not learned at Tigertail, it was etched in our minds here; we saw more cars than birds.  The high tide pushed birds away as the mangrove roots and mudflats became inundated with saltwater.  Climbing up an observation tower gave us distant and unsatisfying views of Roseate Spoonbills.  A few Mottled Ducks and hardly visible manatees later, we retreated to the Lazy Flamingo for some delicious grouper that would make the two hour return trip to Marco worth it.

After the wedding, we had one last destination in mind, the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  During migration, the serpentine boardwalk would be dripping with migrant passerines.  Songbirds were still present but they were mostly observed by call rather than sight.  Regardless, the White-eyed Vireo, an elusive species for me in Illinois was heard from first step to last on the boardwalk.  As we approached halfway on our path, the volunteers began to disperse and take their daily counts.  Not more than twenty feet after we met a pleasant birder and swapped sightings, we ran into a Limpkin perched on the wood railing, staring right at us.  On the other side of the walk, an Anhinga perched in a tree, spreading its massive tail.  We took our time observing the two birds since we knew we had only one route and it would definitely flush the birds away.  We couldn’t help but wonder if the Limpkin flew in just for us, since surely the birder would have mentioned the presences of this large, unique bird.

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Limpkin

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Anhinga

The difficult thing about taking trips where the main focus is not birding is to be satisfied with the birding time you have, no matter how excruciating the misses.  I remain dumbfounded as to how I could not spot a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bird that appears on over 25% of eBird checklists in August.  But, I think it’s those challenges that make me excited to return to southern Florida and enjoy the unique wildlife that lives there.

My eBird Checklists:
8/7 Tigertail Beach (AM)

8/7 General Beach Observations

8/7 Tigertail Beach (PM)

8/8 Hidden Cypress Preserve

8/8 J.N. Ding Darling NWR

8/8 Eagle Lakes Community Park

8/9 General Beach Observations

8/10 Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

National Park #26: Great Basin, Day 3

Previous Day

Aly woke up early in the morning to catch the sunrise and get us moving on our last day in Great Basin National Park.

Upper Lehman Creek Camp

Worth waking up early

Once we got moving, we knew exactly where we wanted to go, the grove of ancient Bristlecone pine trees. (C) Gnarled and denuded of needles, these trees have been growing for thousands of years making them the oldest known organisms on the planet. The hike up is pleasant and wooded. As we rounded a shallow valley a mile or so before the grove, we encounter a small hotspot of birds. About 20 or so Red Crossbill were plowing through the cones on a group of trees. Their odd bill adaptation seemed perfect for dismantling the cones to feast on the seeds.

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Red Crossbill

A bronze tablet marked the entrance to the short loop trail around the grove of trees. We ran into a few other couples and noticed that everyone fell into a sort-of hush as they slowly walked the trail. It felt as though one was in a holy place and any loud noise might disturb the slow, painstaking growth of the Bristlecone and Limber pine trees. Placards marked specific trees and gave approximate dates of their birth. The oldest tree in the park is about 4,600 years old and still growing. It was humbling to stare at these trees and think back to what the view from that spot must have been thousands of years ago, when that tree’s roots first grasp the rocky soil and began growing.

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A Limber pine

Once we were down from the old trees trail, we began to head out of the park. We made one last stop at the Baker Creek Trailhead (E) and went for a short hike. Upon crossing the creek, we found ourselves in a lush prairie meadow that seemed out of place for an area so lacking of water. Across the field, hopping among the tree branches was a MacGillivray’s Warbler, the western counterpart to the eastern Mourning Warbler.

If there was one thing stood out to Aly and I about Great Basin National Park it was the remarkable diversity of the ecosystems contained within the park. Between green meadows spotted with flowers, parched, scrubby sagebrush, and glacial moraines below bouldered peaks, one could experience a different park on every hike. Even as we drove down the long, straight road to Baker, it was jarring how quickly the varied micro-landscapes gave way to the desolate expanse of the Great Basin.

26 parks down, 33 to go.

Great Basin NP

Click for full Great Basin NP Album

My eBird checklists:
Bristlecone Pine Trail
Baker Creek Trail

National Park #26: Great Basin, Day 2

Previous Day

We started out early in the morning to summit Wheeler Peak (13,063). (A)  You’re in beautiful forests with comfortable trails until you get about a mile past Stella Lake  It’s pretty tame until you get above the treeline and then you’re in switchback/scrambling/sucking air hell.  For the last 1,000 feet of the ascent, we probably averaged 30 seconds of progress for every 2 minutes of rest.  Breathless, we made it to the top (B) found a friend, a Black Rosy-Finch, one of the highest nesting birds in North America.  The trail is 8.6 miles, round-trip, with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain.  It was quite satisfying from the top but we couldn’t linger too longer as there was a storm the next mountain over.

Mount Wheeler Trail 2

The forest approach to the peak

Mount Wheeler Meadow

The meadow above Stella Lake, the beginning of the switchbacks.

Mount Wheeler Trail 1

Wheeler Peak

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Black Rosy-Finch

Once we returned to the trailhead, we drove down to the visitor center (F) for some ice cream and rest.  Alison took a brief nap in the shade while I explored the area surrounding the building.  Our ongoing joke about the best birding in national parks being the area around the parking lot held true.  As I was walking around, I ran into a Common Nighthawk being harassed by an Ash-throated Flycatcher.  Violet-green Swallows circled overhead and a Black-throated Gray Warbler was spotted behind the cave trail.  Once Aly woke up, she came to join me an ended up finding a second nighthawk right off the main path down from the caves.  Who knows how many people walked right past this little guy!!

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Ash-throated Flycatcher

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… and the offending Common Nighthawk.

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Nighthawk, perched right next to the Lehman Caves path.

Finally, after an action packed day, we head back to our site (D), had a cold beer, and made steak fajitas on the fire.

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Upper Lehman Creek Campsite

Next Day

Here are my eBird checklists from the day:

Wheeler Peak Trail

Lehman Caves Visitor Center

National Park #26: Great Basin, Day 1

We head out from Salt Lake city early on the morning of July 1st. Driving through the Great Basin gave incredible views of parched desolation. However, storm clouds would occasionally gather and provide some drama to the endless sagebrush sea.

In the Basin

The Sagebrush Sea

Once we got to Great Basin National Park, we set up camp at the Upper Lehman Creek campground (D).  Our site was right along the creek so that its noise was a constant presence.  Cassin’s Finches nested above our tent and an adult Red-naped Sapsucker with its own fledgling were regular visitors.  Yellow-rumped Warbler and Mountain Chickadees occasionally passed through.

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Red-naped Sapsucker, adult

We then took a tour of the Lehman Caves(F), home to hundreds of “shield” formations as well as the more typical stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, flowstone, and popcorn formations.

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Lehman Caves, The Grand Palace room

The remainder of the ending day was spent exploring the Lehman Creek trails around the campsite.   Complete eBird checklist can be found here.

Next Day

National Park #25: Big Bend, Day 6

Previous Day

We had one last stop before heading back to Midland-Odessa, the Christmas Mountain Oasis. (J)  The story behind this spot is simple but, remarkable.  A woman bought a piece of land in Texas, built a reservoir pond to hold water, and then built a planted area to host wildlife, specifically, birds.  And it worked.  The Christmas Mountain Oasis is now the go-to spot for Lucifer Hummingbirds.  Getting here was quite an adventure, as well.  The route involved hand-drawn maps obtained from a local ranch, combinations to locked gates, and a test of the full range of our rental car’s suspension.  I only wished that we had as much time to spend here as it took to find it.  Almost immediately after pulling in, we spotted numerous Lucifer, as well as Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  While exploring a bit on our own, I finally spotted an animal we’ve read plenty about but still eluded us, a Javelina!  They really do just look like medium-sized black pigs. While this one went about its business,  I ran over to Aly yelling, “Javelina! Javelina!” (which is a lot of fun to yell) She finally ran over to where I was but, a moment too late.  The little pig had disappeared.  Disappointed but, also motivated by my spotting of a snake, Aly retreated to a chair near the hummingbird feeders.  We birded for about an hour and then figured we should call this trip a success and head to the airport.

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Ash-throated Flycatcher

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Lucifer Hummingbird

In the end, Big Bend is an incredible place. There were times when we were going from place to place that we remarked that we hadn’t felt this remote since we were in Alaska.  While we found ways to cope with the heat, we would have preferred to do this trip in the early spring.  The high density of wildlife was very noticeable compared to many other parks, I could only imagine what this place is like during peak migration.  But, we had a blast and, as written by the champion of the Chisos, enjoying yourself is victorious:

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” – Edward Abbey

25 stamps in the book,

halfway done is within our sight.

Big Bend NP

Click for full Big Bend NP album

My eBird checklists:

Terlingua

Christmas Mountain Oasis