A Year of Big Days: Number 8

by Greg Neise on September 6, 2011

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We knew that August would be tough. The big day team members Jeff, Karen, Adam and myself had not had a lot of experience birding in northern Illinois in August.

Actually, let me clarify that: birding in August in northern Illinois is all about chasing shorebirds and the occasional vagrant. I couldn’t remember the last time—or if I ever had—gone out for a day of simply birding in August. The month was a mystery. Birds are certainly around, and most of the breeders are still present, but they’re not singing. They’re not on territory. They can’t be staked out.

Two days before the appointed day, I did some scouting and learned where we might find some hard-to-locate species. I was out with my friend Andy, and although he termed the day “dreadful” (it was awfully slow most of the day), we still managed to come up with 108 species… including some hard to find birds like Clay-colored Sparrow. One surprise was that we had multiple Blue Grosbeaks at almost every stop we made. BLGR can be a tough bird to find in northern IL when you need one, so this was good news.

Our day started, like all the others, shortly after midnight and on the same stretch of road where a very cooperative Eastern Screech Owl has provided our first tick on almost all of our big days this year. Jeff was quite upset that we had missed Great Horned Owl on our last 3 attempts, and was determined to get one this time. We stopped at a spot where he had heard them in the past, with no luck. Our next stop was almost two hours away, and most of the conversation concerned how the hell to find a $@&%!! Great Horned Owl. Jeff was almost obsessed.

We found a Yellow-throated Warbler early in the day.

We were exiting the interstate at about 3:30 am, when Adam, whom I supposed was asleep in the back seat, said, “Hey! There’s an owl on that sign!!”

Jeff threw the trusty Prius into reverse, and sure enough, there was a GHOW sitting on a sign by the side of the road. And there was much rejoicing.

We picked up a few more nocturnals, like Whip-poor-will (we were all amazed that it was still calling at this time of year), Barred Owl and Yellow-breasted Chat, and then waited for the dawn at one of Illinois’ premier wetlands: Hennepin-Hopper Lakes.

As the sun came up we realized quickly that lot of migrants had come through since my scout day. This was going to be good…but it would take a lot of trolling.

Trolling for birds during migration, especially productive in Fall, involves stopping where you hear Chickadees or chip notes and playing a recording of a Screech Owl. A lot of pishing helps too. Once the Chickadees get riled up, everything else in the neighborhood comes out to see what all the racket is about, and then you had better be on your game.

A molting male Scarlet Tanager.

An almost silent and dead woodland will be alive with warblers, tanagers, orioles and other migrants in a matter of minutes. The trees overhead will be loaded with small passerines, and you have to pick them out, identify, call them and then get the other team members on your bird. All this activity only lasts a few minutes, and then you slowly drive along listening for  the next flock.

It’s tedious and exciting at the same time.

The goals for this day were 120 species (the northern IL record) and maybe, 136 species (the state record).

By 11 am we were ticking over 100 species and things were looking good…very good. But the afternoon was approaching and the birds were becoming harder to find. Our time with woodland birds was now over, and we were out in the fields and marshes.

Blue Grosbeak: #122 Unlike on the scouting trip, we only found one.

At about 3 pm we had bird #120—a Marsh Wren—and after high-fives and a brief happy-dance, we started off after another 17 species. Up to this point, we were averaging about 13-14 species per hour—and we had almost 5 hours of daylight left—so we should be able to pull this off.

The big handicap of our route is that our mid-afternoon area (Lee county) is a two-hour drive from our late afternoon area (Cook county). This has always worked out in our favor, because the high-quality open habitat in Lee pretty much guarantees things like Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, Bobwhite, Bell’s Vireo…and so on. But in late August, not so much. We got a few of those species, but just barely, and after a lot of work.

5:30 pm found us back near Chicago for a staked out Osprey and a pair of Trumpeter Swans…and a Cooper’s Hawk that flew over the interstate. Almost 3 hours had netted us 3 species. It was going to be down to the wire. At our next stop, a marsh that has had a couple of Neotropic Cormorants all summer, we knew that we would come up short. No NECOs, and very few birds at all. We made one last stop, and in the very last light of day, found bird # 133: an American Black Duck.

As we walked back to the car, Jeff asked us, “Is that it? Are we done?” It was dark and we were done.

“Yes…we’re done”, we all agreed.

Jeff had his iPhone out and he said, “…good, because there’s a Red Knot, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone at Montrose Harbor”.

During a big day, you’re not allowed to receive any info or tips, so we had maintained radio silence all day. Three birds—to tie the state record—were sitting on a beach that was well-lit at night. We probably could have gotten those birds. Add to that a Peregrine that roosts on a theater building in Chicago (also well lit)…and there was the state record.

Oh well.

A few stats:

We finished the day with 133 species, a new northern Illinois record (making us 7-for-8 this year), and three shy of the state record for August.

I had rather conservatively given us 93 “tier one” species (birds we should expect to see, like Mallard). We missed 8 of the 93: Wild Turkey, Caspian Tern, Sedge Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow Warbler, Vesper Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Orchard Oriole.

I projected 45 “tier two” species (birds we are likely to see, but for one reason or another are not “gimme” birds: e.g. Greater Yellowlegs). We found 27 out of the 44.

I guessed at 37 “tier three” birds (species that are definitely around and possible, but are not expected to be seen, like Olive-sided Flycatcher). We found 17 out of the 37.

We had 3 “tier four” species (birds that are unexpected): American Black Duck, King Rail and Baird’s Sandpiper.

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  • Jeremy Medina

    What an exciting day!

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