Running Out for a Sandwich

by Greg Neise on September 16, 2010

On Sunday, September 12 a photograph floated onto the Illinois Birders’ Forum of a most unexpected visitor: a Sandwich Tern. The bird was seen briefly the day before on the beach at Northwestern University in Evanston, a photo was taken, and then the next day the photographer sent a copy of the image to Sulli Gibson, who manages the Illinois Rare Bird Alert archives.

There was one other record of Sandwich Tern in Illinois. The species is strictly coastal—very rarely occurring inland, even in places like Florida and Texas—and that was April 26, 1989 at Waukegan Beach, barely a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin border. This was a very rare vagrant indeed. The 1989 record was discovered by Laurie Binford (who recently passed), and he was the only one to see it…so, every living birder in Illinois needed this bird for their state list.

Later that Sunday and the following day, birders checked the beach at Northwestern and no Sandwich Tern was to be seen. But low and behold, one of Lake Michigan’s most heralded migrant traps—Montrose Point—was about to produce.

On Tuesday, the Abbot of Montrose, Bob Hughes, relocated the tern at 6:45 am on Montrose beach and promptly called out the alarm. Being both fanatical about twitching and car-less, I got on the phone and called for transportation hook-up. Craig Taylor arrived at my Berwyn estate at 7:40 and we were off.

While en-route, we learned that the bird had been on the beach for only a few minutes and was last seen flying north. Knowing that there were eyes and cell-phones on the ground at Montrose, we headed for the beaches north of there. Between 8:00 am and 1:30 pm we checked every beach, lakefront access or park from Lincoln Park to Gillson Park in Wilmette. The bird was feeding or resting somewhere along a ten-mile stretch of urban lakefront and it was simply up to us to find it. Being a very strong flier, it could probably move along the shore faster than we could in mid-day traffic (what the hell are all these people doing driving around? Shouldn’t they be at work, or something??).

By 1:45 we had decided to call off the search. The bird had flown for the day and that was that. We made plans to reconvene at Montrose at dawn, and hopefully this off-course stray would make another appearance.

Back at home, I was just finishing up some work and thinking about what was up for dinner, when the ILRBA text message system sent out an alert:

Sep 14, 2010 4:01 PM by Sam Burckhardt's phone:
sandwich tern present at montrose at 4 pm with two forster's

20 minutes later, I am back out the door, this time with Bruce Heimer, who birded with Craig and I earlier in the day. We got to Montrose in record time, battling rush-hour traffic the whole way. We stood on the beach with a handful of other hopefuls…and nothing but a pair of Black-bellied Plovers (which were entertaining) chose to appear:

We headed home tired and deflated. Bruce had to work the next morning (actually this morning), so Craig and I confirmed our plans to be at Montrose at dawn to hope for the best.

It didn’t happen. Some dozen birders stood around on the beach and as the magic hour passed we realized the bird simply wasn’t going to show. We worked out our frustrations by confronting the dog walkers who were scaring all the birds off the beach (dogs are not allowed on Chicago beaches, ever—on-leash or not—except for designated, fenced in areas…or so the signs say).

Dejected, we disbanded at 7:30am and Craig and I headed back to our offices.

But the Birding Gods were not done with us. Tired, dejected, frustrated and plainly pooped was exactly what makes them happy. At 9:53am a new message went out on IBET:

The adult SANDWICH TERN was loafing with with a couple hundred Ring-billed Gulls when I arrived at the 63rd St. beach in Jackson Park at 9:05 this morning. It was still there when I left at 9:20.
Paul Clyne

The bird had been relocated about 15 miles south of where it had been seen yesterday afternoon! From space it looked like this:


1 is the first sighting on 9/11. 2 is the second and third sightings on 9/14 and 3 is the latest on 9/15

I quickly sent out another text on the ILRBA SMS system, and then called my partner in crime, Jeff Skrentny to see if he was going to jump. He was. I raced downtown on the CTA Blue Line and met him in The Loop. We tore down Lakeshore Drive and Jeff asked me to keep an eye out for “cherry-tops”. I knew that Larry Balch had just zoomed past ahead of us, and if there were any cops on this road they had peeled out after him, so we were safe.

We arrived at 63rd St. Beach at 11:30am to find a scope line set up. As I approached and started to unfold my spotting scope and tripod, Larry said, “hey! you know the drill…” and pointed to his Questar. I did know the drill: grab a look through the first available scope to get your bird, then set up your own gear and worry about pictures. And so, I nailed Illinois State Bird #352.

And pictures I did get. So here are some pictures of this slippery, ephemeral ocean-waif. Enjoy:

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