Category Archives: Life List

Birding Highlights 2011

When I sat down to reflect upon the ups and downs of 2010 about a year ago I had no idea what was in store for me in 2011. Moving out of Illinois wasn’t on my radar at all. Now I sit here in my Florida home just one year later, looking back on twelve months that saw a lot of personal ups and downs, and one huge change – the move to DeBary.

But what about the birding? Here are my 2011 bird-type highlights.

Moving from northern Illinois to central Florida was a major highlight, bird-wise, even though it meant I’d be missing a lot. The below photo shows your blogger at Gemini Springs, the new local patch.


I managed to pick up a whopping 35 life birds in 2011! With just 285 ABA lifers, it’s still not too tough to pick up new birds. 15 of the birds were found in Illinois (including the Ogle County Snowy Owl), and the remaining 20 were all found in Florida.

Six of those life birds were picked up on my first-ever pelagic birding experience on a voyage out of Ponce Inlet in September.

One of those lifers was a rather out-of-range western treat in our own Florida back yard: a Western Tanager.

Early in the year I helped out with the Raptor Internship at FCWR. I had a lot of fun helping the new volunteers learn about handling raptors and I made a lot of friends (who I still miss every day). Of course spending time with some amazing birds is always special. This is Darwin puffed up on a particularly cold day.

My very best bird experience of the year also came courtesy of Flint Creek, and I’ll share that with you tomorrow (though regular readers will surely have no problem guessing my #1 for 2011!). Stay tuned!

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in FCWR, Florida, Gemini Springs, Illinois, Life List, Yard Birds | 1 Comment

Lifer #575

On Sunday, a grey and windy day, I drove up to the Illinois Beach State Park Hawk Watch. I wanted to visit with some friends there, but I have to admit there was another draw – a female Mountain Bluebird had been seen around the pavilion fairly regularly since November 9th.

When I pulled up I started fiddling with my binoculars and camera. I was still fumbling with my stuff as I started walking up to the pavilion – only to be greeted by Paul Sweet and Karen Lund, cameras in hand, pointing them in my general direction. Apparently the Mountain Bluebird arrived about the same time I did. I dropped everything to watch this lovely lost lady and snap some pictures. Life bird #575!

IBSP Mountain Bluebird

IBSP Mountain Bluebird

IBSP Mountain Bluebird

IBSP Mountain Bluebird

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Hawk Watch, Illinois, Life List | 3 Comments

Western Treat

Saturday was a busy day. Arthur’s family had just left us the day before, following an excellent and busy two-week visit. We had been to theme parks, nature preserves, restaurants, beaches, historical sites, shopping malls, and more. So Saturday was a day for a bit of relaxing, but also laundry, straightening up, and getting settled back into our offices, which had been turned into guest rooms.

The day also included a bit of yard birding, as you do. When chickamice are cheeping, the impulse to rise and check the feeders is automatic. Cheeps called us to the window at about 4:30PM. While I was watching Tufted Titmice, Arthur found a yellow bird that he didn’t immediately recognize. He tried to point it out to me, which shouldn’t have been too hard, considering the modest size of our yard, but I couldn’t find his bird. He speculated what it might be while I remained clueless, searching for movement about 10 feet too high from where I should have been looking.

Western Tanager

Finally I spotted a tanager-like bird in our orange tree. I’m not overly familiar with tanagers, but my first thought was that it was a female Summer or Scarlet Tanager. I noted it was a yellowish bird with dark wings and strong whitish wing bars. During this initial viewing I didn’t notice (or remember) the color of the beak, but I must have registered the general shape, because that’s what would scream “tanager” versus “oriole” or something else to me. I observed the bird for a minute or so before I lost it. I reached for Sibley while Arthur kept watch on the yard.

Western Tanager

So Sibley clearly lets me know immediately that both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers don’t show strong wing bars. But Western Tanagers, far out of their normal range here in Florida, do. Holy crap! This was getting exciting. I went for my camera and hoped the bird would be spotted again. Arthur to the rescue. He found the tanager again and I managed to take some photos. Now I noticed the pinkish beak. Western Tanager! Lifer! In OUR YARD! Boo-yah!

Western Tanager

Boy, am I glad I got photos! Obviously the bird is well out of range, but I had no idea how often they visit Florida. When I posted to the Florida listserv, birders replied to me privately that our Western Tanager might be a first for Volusia County. Whoa. I later learned from Michael Brothers that there are just two previous records: January 1957 in Ormond Beach and February-March 1968 in New Smyrna. I was also urged to report the sighting to the Florida Ornithological Society, so it might be officially recorded (like the 1957 and 1968 birds), a process which I have started.

Western Tanager

We saw the Western Tanager late in the day on Saturday. After dark, we went on a food run, picking up oranges and grape jelly. Apparently Western Tanagers will feed on the same types of food as orioles; I saw the tanager eat at least two large insects Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning we placed the jelly, two orange halves, and an oriole feeder with sugar water at one of our feeding stations, along with a camera.

Treats for a Western Tanager

As of Wednesday afternoon, the camera hasn’t recorded a single visitor to the feeders. We did have a second, extremely fleeting sighting of the Western Tanager on Tuesday afternoon. Arthur spotted it (natch) and got me on it, but it flew off after less than a minute. I know there are several local birders that would love to see the bird. I would love for it to stick around! We’re keeping our eyes peeled!

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Florida, Life List, Rare / Vagrant, Yard Birds | 1 Comment

What I Will Miss

When Arthur and I moved from the Netherlands back to the USA in 2008, I posted a couple of entries on our personal blog about what I would miss and not miss from my European home of nearly ten years. As we prepared for our recent move from northern Illinois to central Florida, I started thinking about the Midwestern things I would miss and what I was looking forward to in Florida. Since this is a birding blog, I’m sharing the bird-type things I will (and indeed already do) miss from northern Illinois.

The Birds*

To birders, Florida is known for several specialty birds, one endemic species, and fabulous birding opportunities with relaxed and easy-to-view birds. But there are plenty of species that I got to know up north that never or rarely venture so far south. I always enjoyed seeing winter visitors like Red-breasted Nuthatches and Dark-eyed Juncos at our back yard feeders. These two rarely travel as far south as central Florida.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
A Red-breasted Nuthatch visiting our feeding station in Round Lake Beach

The chances of seeing owl species like Saw-whet, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Snowy are virtually nil.

Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl (non-releasable education bird) at the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium

It was also fun to watch certain breeding birds in the summer, like American Robins, Tree Swallows, and American Goldfinches, that will only live in Florida out of breeding season. I suppose that also means I’ll only be seeing drab goldfinches from now on, too. Bummer.

The Birding Community

I enjoyed following the Illinois listserv, IBET, and getting to know local and statewide birders via the list. During our years in Illinois, we joined several different local clubs on various walks and at their monthly program meetings. There are a lot of birding clubs in Chicagoland, with many different affiliations, and we really enjoyed our time with most of them. I especially loved the one local bird club we joined as members, Lake-Cook Audubon. During the last year or so I volunteered as the editor of the newsletter, and I enjoyed that a lot. What I miss about the birding community is really the familiarity, which is something I hope will grow over time as we join local groups here for events, walks and talks, and keep up with the local listservs. But I am sure the especially welcoming atmosphere of Lake-Cook Audubon will be hard to beat.

Bird Banding

I learned so much last year while volunteering at the MAPS banding station at Rollins Savanna. Cindy, the master bander, is a great teacher and station manager, and all of the volunteers get along and have a lot of fun each day in the field. I miss them this summer.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing at Rollins Savanna MAPS banding station, June 2010

I think there might be some bird banding volunteer opportunities here as well, but from what I’ve gathered so far, nothing will be as close as Rollins was to our old house (about 8 minutes driving). There are banding stations at Wekiwa Springs State Park (about 30 minutes away) and at Tomoka State Park (50m), both of which welcome visitors. I’m not sure if they also welcome volunteers. I hope to find out this fall.

My Raptor Friends

Last, but absolutely not least, I already miss all of my feathered and unfeathered friends at Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation terribly.

Eastern Screech Owl Kotori, Red-tailed Hawk Old Red, American Kestrel Darwin, Barn Owl Pip

There are raptor rehab centers here as well, but my experiences with FCWR will never be matched by another facility. The two closest centers I have found seem to care for raptors alone. It was fun, in my limited experience, to work with different types of birds and other non-avian species, and to be able to participate in so many different activities. With FCWR I helped with migration rescue and recovery in Chicago, recovered an injured Great Blue Heron and other birds in need of rescue, released Great Horned Owls, ducks, and others, cared for rehabbing Eastern Grey Squirrels, Opossums, Red-tailed Hawks, and handled amazing birds of prey during education programs and public events. I hope to investigate local volunteer opportunities in the fall.

Finally, here’s a brief look back to that original What I Will Miss post. Over three years ago, I wrote:

I know there will be a lot of different and wonderful birds wherever we end up, but I will miss seeing some of my favorite European birds: the European Goldfinches and the acrobatic little Blue Tits that visit our garden; the big White Storks that like to hang out on highway light poles; the pairs of Tufted Ducks floating in roadside ponds; the beautiful, brightly-colored male Pheasants that patrol fields and forest edges along with their elusive dully-colored mates.

Well. I had so much fun getting to know the birds of Illinois that I didn’t really have the chance to miss Dutch birds at all. I wonder if the same will hold true here?

*Disclaimer: At this point I’m really not totally up to speed on local birding. So there’s a chance I’ve mentioned that I will miss a species that might actually occur here. I’m basing most of this on books.

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Florida, Illinois, Life List, Yard Birds | Leave a comment

2011 Goals: Mid-year Update

At the end of last year, I came up with a short list of birding goals for 2011. Now that the year is about half over, and we have just relocated from northern Illinois to central Florida, I thought it was a good time to review how I’m doing so far.

I had seven things I was going to work on for the year. So how’s it going?

1. I wanted to get my life list in order. What I thought would take several days spread over a few weeks took just a couple of days. By January 10th I had entered my old checklists into eBird and even came up with some of my milestone birds. I’ve since added a couple more: ABA #250 was Greater White-fronted Goose and World #550 was Eurasian Tree Sparrow*. I’m now at 263 ABA birds and 559 world birds.

2. I wanted to review and cycle out (get rid of) at least 20 books. With eight reviews published for the year so far and three ready to go, I’m just barely on track with the reviewing part. I’m not exactly sure where I stand on the getting-rid-of part, but I suspect not good based on the number of moving boxes labeled Amy’s bird books.

3. I wanted to improve my raptor handling skills by performing a few new tasks, including handling birds in and out of travel crates, handling a bird during flight training, and having a bird eat a meal while on my glove. (That last one is more about getting into a comfortable relationship with a bird rather than a handling skill.) I was only able to do the first skill here, multiple times and with a lot of success. Yay! Although the opportunity to try the other two tasks didn’t come up, I was able to improve my handling skills a lot by helping out with the FCWR 2011 Raptor Internship as an informal assistant instructor.

4. I wanted to improve my bird banding skills by performing a few specific tasks while volunteering with the MAPS banding station at Rollins Savanna this summer. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend more than the training session we had at the end of May and the first session in early June, so this goal will go unfulfilled… for now.

5. I vowed to keep a BIGBY list for 2011. That’s been a bust so far, although with little effort I reached 60 species out of my goal of 75. I just didn’t make time for local birding. I’ve updated the list with a few new Florida yard and neighborhood birds. We have a couple of nice parks within biking distance from our new place that I hope to visit often… as soon as I acquire a bike here.

6. I attempted the Bird-a-Day Challenge 2011, pitifully going bust on January 23rd.

7. Finally, I hoped to keep up with my bird blog reading. I’m doing okay with that. *cough*

*I’m sure I saw these in Europe but I never actually recorded it on a checklist until the Illinois birds.

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Banding, Books, Life List | Leave a comment

North Pond: Wood Ducks & a lifer

Following our rescue & recovery route one Thursday morning in late March, Arthur and I headed to a Chicago birding hotspot, North Pond in Lincoln Park.

The view from North Pond

We were hoping to see a Cinnamon Teal, a bird that had first been spotted at the pond on March 11th — almost three weeks prior to our visit. There hadn’t been any reports of the bird in recent days, so I fully expected it might already be gone.

Birding North Pond

We didn’t have a huge amount of time, so we walked the path around the pond, concentrating on the ducks and looking for the Cinnamon Teal. Most of the birds we saw were Wood Ducks and Mallards.

Wood Duck

There were Wood Ducks all over the place, making their darling squeaky call and acting much less afraid than most of the Wood Ducks we encounter outside of the city.

Wood Duck

We even got to see some Wood Ducks in their other element, perched above us on tree limbs.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

As we were finishing our walk around the pond, I was making a sad face, for we had not see the Cinnamon Teal. Just as we were about to leave, we looked back for one more check of the water, and finally saw our prize.

Cinnamon Teal

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Life List | 1 Comment

Three releases & a lifer

In late March Arthur and I were asked to release three birds after rehab with Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. A Cooper’s Hawk that was hit by a car in Chicago needed to be released close to where she was first recovered, and a pair of Mallards were to be released at a site Long Grove.

We picked up the birds at the FCWR Itasca facility in the morning, and placed the carefully labeled boxes in the back of our car. First we released the Cooper’s Hawk. With these birds, I learned that you typically just have to open the carrier and they’re gone in a flash. This big girl was no exception.

Next we traveled to Long Grove to release the two Mallards. These were both eager to be on their way, too, although once they were in the water they seemed a lot more relaxed.

It took us a few moments to release the second duck after the first, but as soon as we did, the first duck swam right over to join his friend.

Released Ducks

Released Ducks

With the birds released, we found we had some time to spare before our next appointment. We checked the Illinois birding listserv, IBET, using our iPhone. We learned that a Surf Scoter, first reported the day before, had been refound earlier in the afternoon in Mundelein. That wasn’t too much of a detour between Long Grove and our next destination so we headed over to St. Mary’s Lake in search of the scoter. We found the bird and had some nice looks (despite the lousy photo below). The Surf Scoter was a life bird for both of us.

This was a couple of weeks after we released a pair of birds at Burnham Harbor and found our lifer Long-tailed Duck at the same time. I wonder what we’ll find next time we release rehabbed birds?!

Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation is a non-profit, federally licensed rehab organization with locations in Chicago, Itasca and Barrington, Illinois. You can follow their blog here, follow them on Facebook here, and make donations online here.

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in FCWR, Life List | Leave a comment

A little R&R at H&H

In mid-March Arthur and I joined our bird club, Lake-Cook Audubon, on a waterfowl weekend trip down to DeKalb, La Salle and Putnam counties in north-central Illinois. In the weeks prior to the trip we had been feeling overworked and stressed out about some personal issues, so a weekend of birding was just what the doctor ordered.

The weather was seasonably cool with clear skies on Saturday and intermittent rain on Sunday. Overall it was a really nice weekend where we picked up 16 year birds, including American White Pelican flying over Buffalo Rock State Park, Barred Owl (heard only) at Matthiessen State Park, and Pileated Woodpeckers in Putnam County. We also picked up three lifers for the trip, although I’m pretty sure we’d seen Canvasback and Eurasian Tree Sparrow before. The other lifer was Ross’s Goose.

Our itinerary included a lot of area birding hotspots we’d heard of before but never previously had the chance to visit, including Shabbona Lake State Park and Hennepin and Hopper, our main destination on Sunday.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge
The entrance to the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

Hennepin and Hopper are two backwater lakes of the Illinois River. In the 1800s the area was known as an outdoorsman’s paradise, with legendary prosperity in both hunting and fishing. However, in the late 1800s the land was developed with levees and ditches. A pumping station lifted the water into the river and the land was claimed for agriculture. By 2000 the land was owned by eight private landowners. The Wetlands Initiative (TWI) transferred the lands of the Hennepin Drainage and Levee District to a private nonprofit organization. TWI moved to restore the hydrology of the land to its original condition. After just one season of work, flora and fauna that had been absent from the area since it was first developed began to recolonize the site. In 2005 the site was dedicated as the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. The site faced another challenge in the late 2000s, when huge numbers of common carp infested the lakes. In 2008, waterfowl numbers were down 90% compared to the peak season of 2004. In 2009 the water was drained in order to remove the carp. Water levels were restored, the lakes were stocked with native fish, and the waterfowl and other native fauna has returned.

A large viewing platform looks over the lakes. Our group climbed to the top and looked over the water through our scopes.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge
This impressive viewing platform gives birders a great view over the lakes and wetlands

Waterfowl on the lakes included Wood Duck, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Bufflehead.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge
Hennepin and Hopper on a drizzly March day

After checking out the water from the main viewing platform we walked out to another vantage point along the lakes. Normally we might have chosen to drive out, especially since it was threatening rain, but a truck got stuck in the muddy road and made it impossible for any other cars to pass.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge
Birders walking to another vantage point

We had a great visit at Hennepin and Hopper, the headline location for the weekend birding trip. I’m looking forward to visiting again. From the site stewards we learned that the marshes usually attract a fair number of nesting Yellow-headed Blackbirds – an extra reason to return!

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Illinois, Illinois Audubon, Lake-Cook Audubon, Life List | Leave a comment

When not to get a flat tire

Last month Arthur and I were asked to release a couple of birds after they were rehabbed by Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. It was a lovely Sunday morning when we drove out to the northwest suburbs to pick up the birds, a Lesser Scaup and an American Coot. We packed up the carriers and headed to the release site, Burnham Harbor in Chicago. The ride was uneventful until a couple of drivers in neighboring cars on the Kennedy indicated to us that we had a flat tire. We pulled off at the closest service station and were shocked to find the rear passenger tire completely flat. How could we not have felt that?! To avoid disturbing the birds too much, we elected to try filling up the tire and see if it would hold, rather than tearing up the back of our minivan in order to get the spare and tools out. Luckily the tire held… for the next ten minutes or so. Again we limped into a service station and filled the tire. We ended up stopping once more before finally rolling into Burnham Harbor with our fowl friends none the wiser.

The coot in particular was raring to go and was off flying as soon as I opened the carrier. Unfortunately we were a bit flabbergasted at the coot’s sudden departure; we aimed to document the release but only managed this photo immediately prior to the coot’s strong flight the hell away from us.

American Coot release
There’s a coot in there, really!

The scaup release was a bit more typical. I opened the carrier and the duck retreated to the back of the container. I gently lifted him out and placed him before the water. After a booty shake he was happily paddling in the water, not in any particular hurry at all but apparently delighted to be swimming free once again.

Lesser Scaup release
Moving the scaup from the carrier to freedom

Lesser Scaup release
Lesser Scaup shortly after release

Lesser Scaup release
Handsome, healthy Lesser Scaup just after release

With the birds safely released, the next order of business was changing the flat.

Changing the tire
Arthur changing the tire

This went off without a hitch, more or less, and with that out of the way we decided to see who else was out on the water. A Long-tailed Duck had been seen in Burnham Harbor, on and off, for several days prior to our visit. We found some other birders who let us know a female Long-tailed Duck was on the north side of the harbor. We couldn’t relocate her and decided to go back to the car to get the scope and check the birds on the south side. There we found lots of ducks, including Redhead, Common Goldeneye, lots of Lesser Scaup (some of which greeted our old charge shortly after his release), mergansers, plus this handsome fellow:

Long-tailed Duck
Lifer Long-tailed Duck

There was also a group of eight Horned Grebe, which was the most I’d ever seen at once.

Horned Grebes
Six of the eight Horned Grebes

Despite the flat tire it was a great morning out and we were thrilled to be able to release the rehabbed birds and score a lifer at the same time. Believe it or not, the next time we released birds for Flint Creek we were able to find another life bird on the same trip! Stay tuned for that story…

Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation is a non-profit, federally licensed rehab organization with locations in Chicago, Itasca and Barrington, Illinois. You can follow their blog here, follow them on Facebook here, and make donations online here.

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in FCWR, Life List | 1 Comment

Snowy Owl!!!

This afternoon, Arthur and I drove out to Ogle County, where a Snowy Owl was spotted a couple of days ago. A note posted earlier in the day on the state listserv indicated the bird was being seen this morning. She wasn’t too hard to find once we reached her favorite field – as a birder on the listserv mentioned yesterday, “my keen birding instincts told me I was close when I saw the line of six SUVs on the side of the road with a half-dozen spotting scopes mounted.”

Snowy Owl
The scene as we pulled the car over. Yes, there’s a Snowy Owl in this picture.

Snowy Owl
Using binoculars or scope we could see her much better

We got to watch the Ogle Co. Snowy Owl for almost two hours. She stood in a field north of Rte 72 and west of N. Fork Creek Road from the time we got there at around 2pm for about 90 minutes. She did a little bit of preening, and at one point she stretched out one of her legs behind her, showing off a gorgeous fluffy limb. Most of the time she was on the ground her eyes were nearly closed, either horizontal slits or impossibly cute upside-down U-shapes, making her look like a cartoon of contentedness.

Snowy Owl
Happy Snowy Owl

There were several cars parked along Rte 72 while we were there, and occasionally a driver would slow down and ask us what we were looking at. Once, a woman asked “hoot owl?” when I told her we were looking at a Snowy Owl. I repeated myself, and then answered her blank stare with “the white owl!” As she drove off, I heard her tell the others in her car that it was a “hoot owl.” WTH?

A lot of the other owl watchers had binoculars and cameras, and I was happy to let them look at her through our scope. I would be staring through the scope for a while and someone would come up and ask hopefully, “Have you seen her yet?” It was really nice to give several fellow birders a good scope view of their lifer Snowy Owl.

It was cold and she wasn’t moving much, so I went inside the car to warm up a few times while we were waiting. We saw her flap her wings once while on the ground and Arthur and I leaped out of the car to get a better view. Looking through the scope we could finally see her beautiful big yellow eyes, open and alert. We could sense she would fly soon, and we were right!

She flew towards the road and then over the road. It was a beautiful, strong, silent flight, and I think everyone was just standing there completely awestruck. She flew right over us! She made a U-turn over the field and flew back towards the road, landing on a utility pole about a half block from where we were standing. Arthur and I started walking towards the owl, but just at that moment another viewer came up to US (of all people there) and asked US to tell her all about Snowy Owls. WTH? As I was telling her why the owl was thought to be a young female bird, and why she might be here instead of further north, the owl flew off the pole back into the field north of the road.

I had followed her flight through my binoculars and seen her land kind of awkwardly. We were able to pick her up again through the scope. She hadn’t landed awkwardly, she had pounced on prey! We got to watch her swallow it whole! After about 10 minutes she flew back to a utility pole along the road, about a block away from where we were standing. Arthur ran down the road along with a bunch of other viewers while I ran back to the car with the scope and drove towards the bird. We all approached slowly and about a dozen owl fans got to watch her on the pole for about 10 minutes before she flew far off into the field once more.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

What a fantastic bird for my ABA lifer #249. I took some more pictures, which you can see here: Snowy Owl photos. There are some more amazing photos of this bird, taken by very talented photographers: Joan M’s Snowy Owl (amazing flight shot!); Illini Images’ Snowy Owl (look at the feet!); Rattlin Antler’s Snowy Owl (those eyes!).

Bird Photography Weekly is a regular collection of user-submitted bird photos from all over the world. The new edition comes out every Sunday. Go have a look at this week’s submissions!

Share the birds, share the love!
Posted in Bird Photography Weekly, Illinois, Life List | 4 Comments