Category Archives: Lake-Cook Audubon

Down with Red Tape, Up with Barn Owl Boxes!

I’m so proud of Lake-Cook Audubon for getting Barn Owl boxes installed at Illinois Beach State Park! I know it took a long time to get there, but the boxes have been installed thanks to the hard work of club members. Here are a few photos of the installation. All photos by Sonny Cohen, posted with permission.

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Roomy box!

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Adding wood shavings to box #1

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
That’s the idea!

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Box #2 going up

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Box #2 installed

Sonny also posted a video of the box installation, which you can view here: Barn Owl Nest Box Raising. Barn Owls are an Illinois state-endangered species. A nearby county has a reintroduction program and it is hopeful that Barn Owls will find and use these boxes, which have been placed in ideal Barn Owl habitat. Yay!

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BPW: Cackling Goose

Cackling Geese

The Cackling Goose is a newly-recognized full species. Formerly it was considered a small subspecies of the Canada Goose. The plumage of the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose are very similar. Cackling Geese have have an overall smaller body size. Common Canada Geese average a 60″ wingspan and weigh around 9.8 lbs; Cackling Geese have a wingspan averaging 43″ and weigh just around 3.5 lbs. The bill of the Cackling Goose is also proportionally smaller compared with the head, which is more round in shape.

Cackling Geese

Besides the physical differences, the breeding range of the Cackling Goose is further north and west than the Canada Goose.

In late March, during a Loon-finding trip with Lake-Cook Audubon, I had my most recent Cackling Goose sighting at the Prairie Crossing subdivision. Cackling Geese pass through the area regularly during migration, so I was surprised when my entry into eBird triggered a question from a volunteer regional reviewer. Good thing I had pictures. 🙂

Cackling Geese

The Cackling Geese were very cooperative, hanging out with larger Canada Geese for easy identification and comparison. The water at Prairie Crossing was full of cute waterfowl that afternoon, also hosting Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck and Pied-billed Grebe.

Learn more about Cackling Geese by reading David Sibley’s Distinguishing Cackling and Canada Goose and All About Birds’ Cackling Goose.

Cackling Geese

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!

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Posted in Bird Photography Weekly, Lake-Cook Audubon | 4 Comments

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!

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Posted in Illinois, Illinois Audubon, Lake-Cook Audubon, Life List | Leave a comment

Finding Loons in Lake County

Common Loons migrate through Lake County here in northern Illinois in early spring. I grew up in the northern Chicago suburbs, but until I became a birder I had no idea that loons passed through our lakes during migration. It wasn’t until 2009 that I saw loons for the first time.

Common Loons by Gary J. Wege
Common Loons by Gary J. Wege by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region, Creative Commons on Flickr

Judging from some of my blog visitor statistics, there are more locals interested in finding loons during the brief time they visit our part of the state. I’m no expert but I do have some tips for finding loons in Lake County, Illinois.

When can birders find Common Loons in Lake County? The time to look for Common Loons in Lake County is right now. At least two area bird clubs offer annual loon-finding trips. These trips are free to everyone – you don’t have to be a member. The trips run as caravans and you can end your day after any stop on the route. Last week we joined Lake-Cook Audubon on their Loons of Lake County trip. Dave Johnson leads a Looney Trip each year for the Evanston North Shore Bird Club (we joined the Looney Trip in 2009). This year’s trip will take place April 2nd. These trips generally occur during the last week of March or the first week of April. With migration, anything goes, but generally this time period will be your best bet to find loons.

Where is the best place to find Common Loons in Lake County? You don’t have to join a club outing to find loons (although both clubs mentioned above are a lot of fun!) in Lake County. While there are a few glacial lakes that are probably good bets year to year, if you’re limited in time it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what other area birders are seeing before venturing out on your own. There are a few great resources for this. One is the Illinois birding mailing list (listserv) IBET. You don’t necessarily have to subscribe because recent posts are archived to the public online: Recent Postings from The Illinois List. At the time of this writing, I see posts from other birders reporting loon sightings in Cook, Jasper, and Winnebago counties, plus a few posts about a “Loonapalooza” in the Chain-o-Lakes area (Lake & McHenry counties).

Common Loons
Breeding plumage Common Loons on Diamond Lake, photo by blogger

Another great place to check is eBird. A quick look at the eBird entries for Common Loon in Lake County, Illinois in March and April over the last five years reveals a few hotspots and recent sightings: Fox Lake; Long Lake; Independence Grove; Butler Lake; Lake Zurich; and Diamond Lake. If you’re going out on your own, keep in mind that loons (also known as Great Northern Divers) prefer larger, deeper lakes.

Why do birders look for Common Loons in Lake County during spring migration? Loons are considered medium-distance migrants, spending the winter in coastal areas of North America and breeding across much of Canada and far northern areas of the Great Lakes in the United States. In the spring, they take on their beautiful, striking black-and-white breeding plumage. Loons are typically easier to find in Lake County during the spring migration; fall migration is more protracted so you’re less likely to find them in quantity during the fall. And while loons can be vocal all year, you’re more likely to hear their haunting wail calls during the spring as breeding season approaches.

Common Loon at Gloucester Harbor
Common Loon at Gloucester Harbor by Dendroica cerulea, Creative Commons on Flickr

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Posted in Illinois, Lake-Cook Audubon, LCFPD, Migration | 5 Comments

Birds of the Year

Earlier this month, the Barn Owl was named Audubon California’s 2010 Bird of the Year by popular vote. Although not one of the six birds nominated by group, the Barn Owl won as a write-in candidate with nearly 70% of the total vote. The species probably got a boost via an extremely popular Barn Owl nest cam that ran over the spring. Molly the Owl got worldwide attention. The Barn Owl is doing relatively well in California; local populations suffer from habitat loss. The species is endangered here in Illinois for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, Dutch bird research partners including the Dutch branch of BirdLife International named 2011 the Year of the Barn Swallow. The population of Barn Swallows in the Netherlands has been cut in half over the past 40 years. Researchers are asking for the public’s help in reporting Barn Swallow sightings as well as previous and potential nest sites. Dutch friends can visit this site to learn more.

While I can’t predict what my bird of the year for 2011 will be, I can say that 2010 was the year of the Barred Owl. I got to meet a very special education Barred Owl named Meepy, and I am looking forward to spending more time with her in 2011.

Meepy the Barred Owl

And one of my most exciting bird sightings of the year took place on November 13th, when Arthur and I attended an Owl Prowl at Ryerson Woods in Lake County and saw our first Illinois Barred Owl! The owl was a lifer for many on the trip and a county tick for everyone except the trip leader (I think), including a friend who has been birding in Lake County for over 40 years. It was so exciting and I regret that I didn’t blog about it at the time (because I didn’t have any photos to share).

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Fort Sheridan’s prairie

On Sunday we walked a newly-accessible prairie trail at Fort Sheridan with Lake-Cook Audubon. Part of the former army property is managed by the Lake County Forest Preserve District, and the land is deeded to become a golf course. Locally, there is some opposition to the development, which has been on the books for years. It’s a complicated issue, and I urge local readers to learn about what’s happening at Fort Sheridan. You can also send a comment to be added to the public record by sending an email to Following our walk yesterday, I also strongly urge local birders and naturalists to visit this property before it is too late.

About 70 people, split into 4 or 5 groups, joined the bird club on the walk.

Prairie Trail
A group of birders enjoy Fort Sheridan’s newly-opened prairie

The highlight of the morning was seeing at least 10 Red-headed Woodpeckers, both adults and juveniles – easily the most RHWOs I’ve ever seen in one place.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpeckers were everywhere!

We also had great looks at a pair of American Kestrels. They were hunting huge numbers of dragonflies and being dive-bombed by Barn Swallows – what a show!

Lake Michigan
Kestrels had this view of Lake Michigan from Fort Sheridan’s prairie

There were also screaming Red-tailed Hawks, fly-catching Eastern Kingbirds and Eastern Wood-Pewees, and plenty of grassland species like Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark

The great birds, perfect company, sunny skies and break in the recent heat and humidity made it a fabulous morning out in the field!


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Birds, art at Ryerson Woods

Last Wednesday I joined the Lake-Cook Audubon walk at Ryerson Woods. Ryerson is a hot local birding spot, named recently in Birder’s World magazine as a top location for watching warblers. Leading the walk was Nan Buckhardt, The Lake County Forest Preserves’ Environmental Education Manager. As we began the walk, she mentioned that the trees and other area vegetation are one to two weeks ahead of their normal schedule, due to warm weather we had in early April. Over several nights it did not dip lower than 50°F, which triggered the plants to start doing their spring thing. That means warbler-watching will be extra tough in the coming weeks.

A trail at Ryerson, a bit too green for the time of year

Unfortunately the morning’s walk was rather quiet, having come just days before a huge south wind brought up migrants by the truckload. We did have nice looks at a Swamp Sparrow and Wood Ducks in a tree; a male Eastern Bluebird shone brightly in the sunshine for everyone. A few lucky birders also got to see a lone Black-throated Green Warbler, but I missed it.

Illinois listserv reports from Ryerson in the following days named many more migrants than we. For the morning I saw 25 species, including a few I picked up on another go round the trails after the group walk. My morning’s highlight was a close encounter with a deer, who crossed the trail towards the river right in front of me.

Later, when the Brushwood building at Ryerson opened up, I finally got to see an art exhibit I’d been wanting to see for several months. AVIARY, Artists’ Passion for Birds ran at Brushwood from March 7 through April 28 (I was JUST in time). There was a nice mix of bird art, from photos to paintings to sculptures, tastefully arranged in the small multi-room space.

The art joined permanent fixtures at Brushwood, which includes several Audubon prints and a great collection of 20 small bird dioramas. The dioramas are part of a larger collection of 900 bird displays, most of which are housed at the Field Museum.

I was surprised to learn that members of the public as well as educators could borrow the dioramas as part of the Harris Educational Loan Program. I wonder how often they are loaned out, and I wonder how often it is done by a non-educator.

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FOY joy

As spring migration starts picking up, so do the spring bird club field trips. Lake-Cook Audubon kicked off their 2010 field trip season with today’s Loons of Lake County lead by Fred and Cheri Thompson. We had 33 total species for the day, with nine FOY (First Of Year) birds, including Common Loon and Double-crested Cormorant. We also had our FOS (First of Season) big group of birders. 🙂

We found at least seven Common Loons on Diamond Lake

Cormorants and Great Blue Herons were starting to nest at Kemper Business Park

We had good looks at Bufflehead at several stops. I just love these guys!

FOS field trip

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Nests revealed

Today we joined Lake-Cook Audubon‘s Ducks on Lake Michigan auto tour. With temperatures unseasonably high (we reached the mid-60’s, about 15 degrees warmer than normal) it was no duck weather, although it was incredibly pleasant to be outside. A misty fog also sat over placid Lake Michigan, making for lousy visibility. We did have Bufflehead, Scaup, Goldeneye, Mallard and Horned Grebe for the day. We also had one Common Loon which was both amusing and frustrating, as it seemed to dive almost as quickly as it surfaced, over and over, leaving birders scrambling to share their scopes so everyone could get on the bird. We also managed three lifers for the day: Fox Sparrow; Brown Creeper and Hermit Thrush. Plus we had a woodpecker superfecta with Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied and Red-headed all being seen throughout the day.

At our first site someone pointed out a lovely embellished nest that had recently been exposed when the tree lost its leaves.

Ribbon-embellished nest

The rest of the day I was noticing nests everywhere we went and thought them to be quite photogenic. Here are a few of them.

Nest with car

Nest in black and white

Nest in berries

Another nest

Sharpened nest in bare tree

Yet another nest

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The hawk and the dove at Middlefork Savanna

On October 17th we joined Lake-Cook Audubon‘s morning bird walk at Middlefork Savanna. The total area of Middlefork Savanna measures 670 acres, 25 of which “is considered the highest quality tallgrass savanna of its kind in the nation and recognized as a globally threatened ecosystem.”

Middlefork Prairie

Middlefork Wetland

Our large group of enthusiastic birders saw a total of 34 species. Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere, showing off and calling as if it was springtime.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

A family of Red-headed Woodpeckers gave almost everyone in the group really great looks, and a few flying Wilson’s Snipes were lifers for many in our party. A young Cooper’s Hawk was also very cooperative, alternately swooping over the prairie and perching in plain sight.

Cooper's Hawk

Interestingly, at one point when the young hawk was perched in a bare tree, we noticed there was also a Mourning Dove sitting in the same tree. They sat this way together for quite a while, and a sparrow even joined them later.

Hawk and Dove

Had the hawk just eaten and the other birds knew this, seeing no threat in the hawk? Was the hawk exhausted from hunting? Why did the other birds feel comfortable perching so close to a killer?

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