Category Archives: Illinois

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

B-day birds & books

For my birthday last month Arthur and I spent the day doing a little birding and raiding a few bookstore clearance sales. We started out with a very nice walk at Grant Woods, where early Red-winged Blackbirds were singing in the grassland. It was also nice to see a White-breasted Nuthatch, which we haven’t seen around our yard for several weeks, plus a nice flock of Cedar Waxwings and American Robins nomming berries. Both of these were in the parking lot (as we were finishing up our walk, naturally).

Next we stopped at Pistakee Lake to check out the waterfowl. Near our vantage point we saw a small group of Common Goldeneye. Several males were wooing females, dramatically throwing their heads back and then diving after each other. I’d never seen this before and I was totally enchanted.

While I was scanning through huge numbers of Canada Geese, Arthur spotted a coyote on the far side of the lake, trotting along the ice.

Coyote walking on ice

Coyote walking on ice

As I was watching the coyote, Arthur made two more great finds. First, he picked out a Snow Goose between the hundreds of Canadas.

Snow Goose

Then he spotted three Greater White-fronted Geese, first in flight and then refound loitering on the ice (I managed to take just one lousy picture of Greater White-fronted Geese). Other waterfowl included Mallard, scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and tons of Common Mergansers. Eagle-eye Arthur found ANOTHER coyote on the far side of the lake. This time the coyote blended in perfectly with the surrounding grasses and was impossible to see without the scope.

Shortly before we left, something spooked the geese, and many of the birds took flight. The honking was pretty incredible.

Canada Geese

After the waterfowl stop, we loosely followed the Fox River south in search of bird… books. We were looking to take advantage of the unfortunate Borders shop closings in the Chicagoland area. We decided to check out the bird sections at a few of them. It was a successful mission.

Calendars were on sale for $1. I looked for bird calenders and found only one, a wall calender simply titled, “Hummingbirds.” I was amused by the thumbnail photos on the back, one of which shows a bird that is not a hummingbird. Can you tell which one doesn’t belong?

I bought it anyway. At home I noticed this disclaimer on the back…

… and my dreams of suing them for millions of dollars vanished before my eyes.

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Posted in Birding Blooper, Books, Illinois | Leave a 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!

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Posted in Bird Photography Weekly, Illinois, Life List | 4 Comments

Other raptors at Starved Rock

Last Sunday, Arthur and I drove down to Starved Rock State Park for the 14th Annual Bald Eagle Watch. Although the Bald Eagles that winter at the Starved Rock Lock & Dam are the big draw, one of the highlights for me was a raptor awareness program by the World Bird Sanctuary. We attended the same program two years ago, but this time I enjoyed the program with a very different perspective.

Like last time, an exciting part of the program was free-flying raptors, swooping over the amazed crowd. This time, four birds flew for us: Harris Hawk; Eurasian Eagle Owl; American Kestrel; and Barn Owl. If I understand it correctly, many of the birds that WBS uses in programs are reared from hatching by the sanctuary, meaning they are extremely accustomed to humans. I guess the training process for these birds is different than that for older birds who come into education after an injury sustained while living wild and free.

Eurasian Eagle Owl
Eurasian Eagle Owl (possibly Bogart)

The program’s Bald Eagle, Liberty, came to the Sanctuary after sustaining permanent injuries as a juvenile wild bird in Florida. I was interested to learn that as a southern bird, Liberty is smaller than the average male Bald Eagle living up here in Illinois.

Bald Eagle
Liberty and handler Jennifer

I was really impressed that the program was put on by just two handlers, one of whom spoke the entire time while occasionally handling and flying birds across the room. The whole operation was really smooth and the program was filled with great information, extremely impressive and beautiful birds, and a lot of humor. Right on cue, Tsavo the Bataleur even took a bow as his portion of the program ended!

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Posted in Festivals & Events, Illinois, Illinois Audubon | Leave a comment

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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Posted in FCWR, Illinois, Lake-Cook Audubon, LCFPD, Netherlands | Leave a comment

Results: Birding Goals for 2010

Last December I came up with a few birding-related things I hoped to accomplish during the coming year. My targets weren’t too lofty, really: use eBird; read some books; see some birds. So how did I do with my 2010 Birding Goals?

I started using eBird regularly right from the start, but on repeat visits to regular birding spots, I didn’t keep regular lists as the year wore on. In my initial blog post I expressed some frustration in understanding certain nuances of eBird, especially when it came to bringing up reports. Happy to say I got the hang of it enough to be able to find what I’m looking for, mostly, but sometimes it’s still a small struggle to find what I need. I can use it, but it doesn’t come naturally just yet. With a total of just 122 checklists entered for the year, representing an estimated 85% of my birding trips, I’d say the eBird goal I set for myself was met, but just barely.

Another goal I had was to read most of my birdy natural history books. Total failure! What once took up just over a shelf in my office now occupies an entire case plus. I did end up cycling out quite a few books out (see Book Reviews Revisited), but I took in far more. Book shelf space is a small issue, though, and I am happy with some great titles I managed to snag this year, even if I didn’t manage to read everything I wanted to.

Lastly, I hoped to see 200 birds in Illinois AND get my life list up over 500 birds. This was kind of a wonky goal, seeing as how my life list isn’t really recorded very well in the first place. I share most sightings with Arthur, who keeps a list with Birdstack. He has a bird or two on me, but I was using his list as a basis, saying at the end of last year that 13 new lifers were needed to hit 500. Together we got 44 new species which brings Arthur’s life list up to 545. Yeah, something’s not right with the math, I know. I can say with certainty that MY OWN Illinois list for 2010 only reached 165 species, and MY OWN world list for 2010 was 235 species. So, another big all-around fail.

Of course two failures and one just-barely met birding goal don’t mean all that much, really. I certainly don’t feel like the birding I did in 2010 was any kind of failure, especially since I learned a lot (!!) and had a lot of fun (!!). Those are the only goals that matter, anyway, and they will remain year after year.

Did you have any birding goals for 2010? How did you do? I’ll post my own goals for 2011 tomorrow.

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Posted in Books, Illinois, Life List | 1 Comment

Whoopers on their way

Operation Migration [OM] has been working to reintroduce critically endangered Whooping Cranes into the wild since 2001. Their goal is to establish a migratory population of Whooping Cranes in the eastern part of North America. Each fall, part of their work involves flying first-year birds from their breeding grounds in Wisconsin down to wintering grounds in Florida with the aid of ultralight aircraft. On Sunday, October 31st, Arthur and I were lucky enough to see the cranes as they departed their Fall 2010 stop in Winnebago County, Illinois. Arthur wrote up a nice post, which contains more information about OM, on our personal blog: Whooping Cranes and Operation Migration in Winnebago County, IL.

Volunteers with OM were on hand at the viewing site to let us know what the pilots were doing. The first step was to test the flight conditions. Once the initial flight was made, and conditions were deemed suitable for flight, the ultralight planes circled back to get the birds*, and they were on their way. Two ultralight planes accompanied the flock of 10 birds. The first plane appeared in the distance.

OM ultralight aircraft

OM ultralight aircraft

As it approached, we could hear other crane viewers shouting – “there they are!” and “I see birds!”

Soon we could all see the flock of birds-and-aircraft heading our way. The flightpath brought them directly over us as we waited in the viewing area. It was very exciting!

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

I stopped taking photos and stood in awe as they passed right over my head. I snapped a couple more pictures as they headed off towards the sun.

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

Here is the group of “craniacs” at the viewing site shortly after the flyover.

OM Flyover spectators

Over the next few weeks, the cranes will follow the ultralight aircraft as they make their way to Florida. Several stops along the migration route provide viewing locations, so you can go and view the birds flying overhead, as we did. You can also watch the birds online via the Operation Migration Crane Cam, and follow along with their progress via the Field Journal. You can help support Operation Migration by making a donation, becoming a member, or purchasing Operation Migration merchandise.

*This is an extreme simplification of the process. Follow the Field Journal to learn more about the process of teaching these young endangered birds how to migrate.

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Posted in Endangered, Illinois | 2 Comments

Saw-whet Owl banding @ Sand Bluff

Last Saturday night Arthur and I visited the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory in Durand, Illinois. The banding station is open each weekend during spring and fall migration, and they band a huge number of birds – up to 4,000 per year. The station has been in operation since 1967 and has always been run by a team of dedicated volunteers. Visitors are welcome to observe songbird banding activities, which takes place during the day. Our visit on Saturday night was to see a special, nocturnal bird: the Saw-whet Owl.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are small owls that winter in our region (there have been a few records of breeding Saw-whets in Lake and Winnebago Counties). The birds are banded during migration, when they are lured into mist nets using recordings of Saw-whet Owl calls. The data gathered through banding helps us understand more about these tiny nocturnal owls.

As in other bird banding work, data such as sex, age and condition are measured each time a Saw-whet Owl is captured and banded. Saw-whets can be sexed by comparing measurements like wing chord (the length of an extended, relaxed wing) and weight. Age can be determined by examining the plumage and molt pattern.

The program began with Sand Bluff Master Bander and founder Lee Johnson telling us about the banding station and their work. Since no Saw-whet Owls were found during the first evening net-run, Lee took some time to show us a few of the songbirds that were still being processed at the end of the day. Here he’s showing a Hermit Thrush. Of the thrushes that migrate through the area, Hermits are usually the first to arrive in the spring and the last to fly through in the fall.

Hermit Thrush with bander
SBBO Master Bander Lee Johnson with a Hermit Thrush

It was great to see these little birds, which included a Fox Sparrow and a fiesty Field Sparrow besides the Hermit Thrush. But it did come as a relief when a Saw-whet Owl was found in the nets on the second run of the evening. Notice the high-pitched tooting in the videos – that’s the recorded call of the Saw-whet.

Saw-whet Owl in the net
A Saw-whet Owl in the mist net

Removing the owl from the mist net

Putting the Saw-whet Owl into the mesh bag

In all, three birds were captured in the nets during the evening. After an owl was removed from the net, it was brought back to the banding station building in a mesh bag. The bird remains in the bag during the banding process.

Saw-whet Owl banding
Banding a Saw-whet Owl

The main reason for this is to protect the bander’s hands from these:

Sharp and deadly to prey! Saw-whet Owl talons

After banding, the bird is examined and measured, and the data is recorded. The wing feathers are even examined under a black light to help determine the bird’s age.

Saw-whet Owl wing
Examining the wings

Saw-whet Owl wing
Counting the feathers

Measuring the tail bands
Measuring the tail

Fluorescent wing
Viewing the plumage under black light; the uniform pink indicates a juvenile bird

Saw-whet Owls are extremely docile in the hand, which adds to their already high cuteness factor. Did you notice how calm the bird was in the two video clips above? After data was taken on each bird, visitors were able to have a closer look. Here, Lee shows us the large ear opening of a Saw-whet Owl.

Saw-whet Owl ear
A Saw-whet Owl ear opening

The birds also appear to enjoy having the backs of their heads stroked, as you can see in this short clip.

A Saw-whet enjoys a pet

Earlier in the evening, Lee had asked each visitor to introduce him/herself and tell the group his/her reason for visiting. As an introvert I admit I dread such moments, but I mentioned volunteering at the MAPS banding station at Rollins this summer. While the Sand Bluff volunteers were out on the third and final net-run of the night, Arthur and I remained behind and spoke with Lee about the MAPS work at Rollins and he told us quite a few fun banding anecdotes as we waited. It was really a treat to hear stories from someone with so much experience as a birder and bird bander.

After the third bird of the evening was banded, the few of us that remained were able to hold the bird, if we wished.

Saw-whet Owl & Amy

The Sand Bluff Bird Observatory will have another Owl Night this Saturday, October 23rd. I highly recommend it!

I took more photos during the evening besides the ones shared in this post; you can find them here: Amy’s Saw-whet Owl banding photos.

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Posted in Banding, IATB, Illinois | 3 Comments