Pouncing Coyote

Pouncing Coyote
Coyote pouncing on prey at Fermilab, in Batavia Illinois.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Wild Kane County- Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve

Spring is a wonderful time to be out in nature. It is a season of dramatic changes in weather, plantlife, and wildlife. Birds are one of the more significant areas that are noticed during the springtime because of migration, when birds return north to their breeding grounds from their wintering grounds as far away as South America. Needless to say, it is during this time that birders, birdwatchers, and wildlife photographers focus their attention on parks and forest preserves around the country in search of some of the rarest and most beautiful of the migrants we see annually, or even just on rare occasion such as vagrants. Migration brings anything, and the best thing those who hope to witness the marvel of migration can do, is find a good place to be to watch as migration unfolds. I hope in this piece, people will discover one of the premiere destinations for witnessing the wonders of migration in Kane County, and possibly even northern Illinois. May I present, Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in South Elgin!

Baltimore Oriole

Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, formerly known as Black Hawk Forest Preserve, lies along Illinois Route 31 east of McLean Boulevard in South Elgin. It was re-named in 2004, after the retired executive director of the Kane County Forest Preserve District (and avid birder) Jon Duerr, in order to recognize his efforts with and contributions to the Forest Preserve District during his service time. Jon Duerr Forest Preserve contains a large area of mature woodlands, lush woodland edge habitat, some riverfront territory and an old quarry reclaimed by shrubs and underbrush making for excellent sparrow habitat. For birdlife, eBird.org has 192 species of bird recorded at Jon Duerr Forest Preserve alone. The diversity of habitat makes it an ideal place for a wide variety of birds, and naturally a few rarities have occurred such as Townsend's Solitaire, Sharp-Tailed Sandpiper and King Eider. Jon Duerr Forest Preserve is also a wonderful place to view White-Tailed Deer which roam about the entire preserve, and insect lovers may also enjoy a stroll through this preserve as well, enjoying the diversity of butterflies and dragonflies. However, as a bird enthusiast, this blog is mostly about the birds, so let's take a look around, shall we?

Veery, a type of thrush.

For clarification, there are three parking lots at Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, and they are the upper lot, which is closest to the train trolley tracks. The middle lot, which as its name may suggest is in between the upper lot and the lower lot. Finally, there's the lower lot, which is closest to the river. We'll start as I normally do upon a typical visit to Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, and go to the quarry area from the upper lot. To make it to the quarry area, it is necessary to follow the train trolley tracks back. The train trolleys are occasionally in operation, so always be cautious, there's easily enough room on either side to step away from the tracks. Going back along the tracks, there are woods along both sides initially, but as you head further to the east along the tracks, the woods give way to the quarry, a scrubby area with bushes and trees that often have fruit on them, but mostly in the winter (junipers). It was because of these junipers that a Townsend's Solitaire decided to set up shop at this preserve for the winter of 2013-2014. During any time of the year, this area provides good habitat for sparrows, but especially in the spring. It can be productive for songbirds such as Brown Thrashers, Indigo Buntings, and sometimes warblers, including possibly Yellow-Breasted Chat.

Townsend's Solitaire, rare to our area.

As you continue east along the tracks, you'll come to an intersection with a footpath, which to the north extends back into the quarry, and to the south goes into the woods. This is the back end of the trail that goes east from the middle lot. Heading into the woods along this trail, songbirds really take over as these woods are the habitat of choice for various thrushes, warblers and other songbirds. Be sure to keep a watchful eye for Black-Billed Cuckoos flying around the canopy too.

Palm Warbler

Upon reaching the middle lot, heading towards the lower lot will bring you to the riverfront. Here various types of waterfowl have been seen over the years, including the best of the best, a rare King Eider! The King Eider was a great reminder to keep checking water wherever you go, you never know what could be on it on any given day. During warm, dry summers, the river can be a little shallow in this stretch, revealing sandbars and suitable habitat for shorebirds. Typical species seen include Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, but others such as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs may be found here too. A rare Sharp-Tailed Sandpiper (which is very similar to the Pectoral Sandpiper) was once spotted here.

Solitary Sandpiper

The trail closest to the river eventually converges with another bike trail. Taking a right will bring you to a bridge that leads across the river to the nearby Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve. Taking a left will take you further along the river. The brush and bushes along the river here host many species of warblers on any given spring morning, leading to good diversity, and occasional flyovers such as Broad-Winged, Cooper's and Red-Tailed Hawks, or even Bald Eagles and Osprey do occur. Keeping a sharp eye to the sky from time to time can be fruitful!

Singing Connecticut Warbler

Heading back towards the parking lots, you can see the bike trail extends beyond the parking lots. This path leads to open grassy fields bordered by short bushes, shrubs, and some pine trees. These grassy fields are rampant with Field Sparrows, and also provide friendly habitat for Eastern Bluebirds and the occasional Clay-Colored Sparrow. The pines that border the grassy fields also run along the road into the preserve from Route 31. These pines are good for both Golden and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, and occasionally Pine Warbler.

Pine Warbler
Any and every area within Jon Duerr Forest Preserve is typically birdy on a spring day, during migration. Unusual warblers have shown up, such as Kentucky, Worm-Eating, Cerulean, Yellow-Throated, Prothonotary, and both Connecticut and Mourning Warblers. In one day of birding in May of 2014, I saw and heard five different Connecticut Warblers! The different habitats within the preserve lead to excellent diversity, and really make it difficult to decide on any area not to cover during any visit. A walk around the entirety of Jon Duerr Forest Preserve can be lengthy and tiring, but it also can be well worth the effort given. Any day during migration at Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, is a good day! It is one of a few places in Kane County that can truly be considered a "can't miss" birding location. Do what you can to get out and explore this wonderful preserve for yourself!

Brendon Lake

Friday, February 20, 2015

Wild Kane County- Gunnar Anderson Forest Preserve

In eastern Kane County, along the west bank of the Fox River, the town of Geneva holds a secret. It's a hidden treasure of sorts, and a very well-kept secret. That is, until now. Wildlife enthusiasts everywhere take note, a wonderland has been right in front of everyone for a long time. Something so small, and so simple has so much to offer. I suppose by now everyone should really know, big things come in small packages. Gunnar Anderson Forest Preserve, is one you should know.

Gunnar Anderson Forest Preserve lies behind the Kane County government center in Geneva, along the west bank of the Fox River. It is just upstream from Fabyan Forest Preserve, and downstream from Island Park. It is a very modest forest preserve, and first impressions upon arrival to this 20-acre preserve are relatively underwhelming. What catches your eye immediately here is a picnic shelter and a wide-open grassy area used as a soccer practice field. But pay more attention, and you shall discover all this wonderful little spot has to offer.

Lincoln's Sparrow at Gunnar Anderson FP
The Fox River is a migration path for many species of birds, and often these birds wind up spending the day at one of the many parks and preserves along the Fox, fueling up for the next leg of their migration north in the spring, and back south in the fall. Gunnar Anderson's shoreline along the river is wooded with scrubby areas, and plenty of undergrowth. This makes it great habitat for sparrows, warblers, thrushes and songbirds of all sorts. Not to mention this section of the river hosted White-Winged Scoters in the winter of 2013-2014, so it is worthwhile to check for waterfowl. But the best is yet to come!

Winter Wren at Gunnar Anderson FP
The trail along the shoreline will bring you to an inlet at the southern end of the preserve, and the trail will turn west along a small creek. This is the treasure of the preserve, known as "the ravine". The ravine continues west along the creek, and many songbirds consider this area to be their own version of paradise. The creek is prime habitat for Winter Wrens, who like to skulk about the tree roots jutting from the banks. Other birds I've personally seen in the ravine include Gray-Cheeked Thrush, Canada Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo, Least Flycatcher, Pine Siskin and Northern Waterthrush. Just about any warbler species is very possible to find here, it is wonderful wooded habitat full of undergrowth, leaf litter, and has the creek as a source of running water. The trail continues west along the ravine for a while, or when it forks and shows the option to go back north, you can head back to the parking lot by going north.

Least Flycatcher in the Ravine
Talking statistically about Gunnar Anderson, I personally have recorded 98 species of bird at this forest preserve alone! Ebird.org has Gunnar Anderson at 139 species recorded among all observers. That is very good diversity for such a small preserve. The bonus is that Gunnar Anderson is far from physically demanding or challenging when it comes to accessibility and walking around. The only time it may be challenging is in the winter after a big snowfall.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher along the GA Fox River Shoreline
Perhaps the moment that put Gunnar Anderson Forest Preserve on the map so to speak, was when local birders and brothers Chris and Mark Bowman crossed paths with Illinois' second record of Fork-Tailed Flycatcher among the many Eastern Kingbirds hawking insects over the river there on May 12th, 2014. Fork-Tailed Flycatchers are native to South America, making them not only a state rarity, but a rarity for the country as a whole! Many birders from all over the state made it to Gunnar Anderson that day for the rarity, and I would hope they also took the time to appreciate the rest of the preserve.

Fork-Tailed Flycatcher (top) with Eastern Kingbirds
This preserve is one that doesn't look like much at first, but it holds plenty of beauty within for those who are willing to look. Maybe on a nice spring day, you will remember this article and think of Gunnar Anderson Forest Preserve, which is in my opinion, a can't miss birding opportunity in the peaks of spring and fall migrations. Take a walk, and you just may be surprised at what you find. 

Brendon Lake

Saturday, January 31, 2015

No Laughing Matter- Elgin Harlequin Duck Rescue

As is always the case on a Saturday morning, I had hoped that my plans for the day would lead to an eventful time out birding around the Fox River Valley. This was especially true because of the impending snowstorm headed our way, predicted to begin Saturday night with 12-18 inches of snow possible. My starting point for the day was Walton Island in Elgin, where a young male Harlequin Duck was continuing and progressing every day towards adult plumage. An adult male Harlequin Duck is quite the stunning sight, and after seeing photos of him taken Friday, I decided it would be nice to see him once again. I had no idea what was in store.

My mom and I arrived and once I stepped out of the car, I saw two birders standing near what had to be the Harlequin Duck. Such a rare visitor to the area has attracted much attention from those who hope to see something unusual, so it was no surprise there were onlookers already. I looked through my binoculars at the bird from a distance, noticing unusual behavior. It would barely stay above water for ten seconds at a time, and its body would rarely rise above the surface of the water. My first thought was possibly that it could have been bathing.

We walked up to the couple, who were watching the duck. I said hello and we began talking about the odd behavior. Larry, the gentleman I was speaking with, told me the bird was caught on fishing line, and the line was pulling it down. Immediately I was concerned about the bird, and it didn't help that it had been like that for at least 30-45 minutes at the time. It was obviously in trouble. Larry had mentioned that he believed someone had made a call, but he wasn't entirely sure. I started sending texts and making calls to people I thought could help, and two of them sent me the number of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors.

I called the number and explained the situation. It seemed to me by the response of the person I was talking to that indeed a call had been made. I was told to contact the Elgin Animal Control department, so I took down the number and did so. The Animal Control calls were handled by Elgin Police apparently, so I explained the situation to them, and was told they had no one they could send over right away because of a couple emergency calls. Of course it was understandable. The woman I spoke with asked if I could stay with the bird until help was available, and I said yes. I told her what I was wearing so the responding officer knew who to look for.

At that time, it was a waiting game, and more people were showing up to view the Harlequin Duck, completely unaware of its distress before arriving. Immediately more and more people became concerned, and several started discussing possible ideas for rescue in the meantime. They started thinking of people they knew who had kayaks, canoes, or even rafts that could be used to reach the bird, which was about 15 feet offshore in the middle of the river channel. Larry headed home to retrieve waders as a possible option, but no one was certain just how deep the channel was.

I received another phone call from the CBCM, and was told they had someone willing to transport the bird to Willowbrook Wildlife Center once it had been brought ashore. I updated them that the bird was still in trouble and still actively fighting to stay alive. It was hard to watch. Eventually, an Elgin police officer showed up, and we explained what was going on. He told us he was unsure what he could really do for the bird, and talks continued on how we could reach the bird and safely cut it free. The officer asked me to allow him to make some more calls. I was thankful for the fact that he took the situation as seriously as he did.

Eventually, the Elgin fire department responded, and came out with some long rods with hooks at the end for snagging the line. They were still too short to reach, so they regrouped to think of the best plan of action. The bird at this point, had been fighting for its life for at least an estimated two hours. Every minute that went by, concern would grow immensely. A second fire engine arrived, and a member of the fire department donned a wetsuit to go in and retrieve the bird.

Tethered to a safety line held by other firefighters on the shore, the fireman waded out towards the duck, with a rod in hand to snag the line. Fortunately, the water really wasn't very deep, only coming up to about the fireman's waist. When he was within reach, he extended the hook out into the river and began dragging it along the bottom in an attempt to snag the line and free it from where it was caught up. Success! The fireman was able to bring the line within his reach, and slowly and carefully pulled the duck toward him. It was not long before the bird was in hand! But the line was still attached, even as the fireman waded carefully back to shore.

Carefully pulling the Harlequin Duck in closer.

With the duck in hand, the fireman wades back to shore.

At that point, it was all too apparent just how much of a toll this had taken on the duck. It seemed as if the duck was taking full advantage of the fact that it no longer had to fight a strong current while struggling to free itself, as the bird was nearly motionless after being brought up. However, it was awake and alert, just obviously exhausted. The line was cut, and the bird was no longer hung up, but still had plenty of fishing line wrapped around its wing. Eric Secker began cutting the line away with care, as the bird rested in a shoe box on his lap. It took a while, but eventually it began to perk up.

The Harlequin Duck is cut free from the line, and obviously exhausted.

The camera-shy Harlequin Duck rests in a shoe box in the hands of Eric Secker.

At that time, a volunteer with Willowbrook was en route with a canoe, and about an hour away, as I had told him in our previous conversation that he should be headed our way in case the authorities could not or would not do anything. I gave him a call, letting him know it would no longer be required, and that the bird was resting comfortably and on his way to Willowbrook with Eric. It was a relief, a great relief!

I thanked the firemen and the police officer that responded for not only their seriousness about rescuing this bird, but also for going above and beyond what is necessary to be of service! This bird had become somewhat of a local celebrity, and it was that status that saved the bird's life. A huge thank you goes to Eric Secker for all of his help with this rescue, from the supplied phone number to the transport of the rescuee! I had taken video of the bird while it was in distress, something I normally will not do, to keep and possibly serve as a reminder why it is so important to keep our water bodies as free of fishing line as is possible. Watching this bird from time to time for the past two months, it really was hard to see it in so much pain and peril.

Currently, what I know of the Harlequin Duck, is that it is going to be examined for possible injury and for any remaining fishing line. The duck had a pre-existing right foot injury, but had been getting along just fine without intervention for the time it had spent there in Elgin. If all goes well, the bird will be released back into the wild once again at Walton Island, where it has spent so much time already. Eric Secker told me that the transport went well, and the bird was as active and spunky as ever upon arrival at Willowbrook. The prognosis looks good for our fine feathered friend!

Brendon Lake

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fox River Birding 1/17- Hits, Misses and Stars

Ah, today, a wonderful day to get out and go birding. A much needed distraction from a busy week. My plan, to see if I could re-locate the Trumpeter Swans seen recently in Yorkville, and head north along the Fox River from there. My mom and I jumped in the car, both hoping to have a good day in the field to relieve some stress built up over the past seven days, and we were off.

First up was the Yorkville Dam, just to the east of Route 47, where a male Red-Breasted Merganser had been seen. I needed one for my still young year list, and also for Kendall County. It was not long before I saw a couple new county birds, the aforementioned Red-Breasted Merganser and a female Bufflehead. The Bufflehead was amusing, as I had never seen one standing on ice before, only swimming. Also present a fly-by Red-Tailed Hawk and a Great Blue Heron. And after that nice stopover, it was off to the other side of Route 47 to find the swans. A gentleman at the dam had said that five of the six swans had been seen in flight, so it was unlikely they were still around.

When we stepped out of the car after finding a spot to pull over, the remaining Trumpeter Swan was sitting just down the hill on the ice. It was great to listen as it vocalized numerous times. The trumpet of a Trumpeter Swan is such an appealing sound to me. Also seen in this stretch of the river were another Great Blue Heron, a Bald Eagle, three Redheads (two males and a female) and an American Coot among the more expected birds. I snapped many photos of the Trumpeter Swan, as who can resist such a beautiful bird? The surroundings however, were less than picture perfect. Also, the Trumpeter Swan is pulling your leg, it's not missing one of its own, it's just tucked away and hidden from view.

Trumpeter Swan
So after a very successful first stop, we headed north to the Montgomery Dam. Not much there, but a flyover Bald Eagle, a fly-by Cooper's Hawk and two Great Blue Herons provided a little entertainment. Next up on the schedule was lunch, followed by Geneva. Again, all was quiet. So the question became: "What to do next?" Go to the St. Charles Dam, or skip it for South Elgin? We decided to stop at the St. Charles Dam, if only to briefly check the ice above for gulls. This was a disappointment, as there were none to be found.

After turning back onto Route 64 to cross back over the river to 31, we were held up by a van that blocked our lane of traffic as they unloaded something at the Hotel Baker. While waiting for an opportunity to get out from behind the van, we noticed some very expensive movie-type cameras walking around. Wondering why, we quickly found out. Donnie Wahlburg and Jenny McCarthy were standing outside the Hotel Baker (no photos because I'm not a paparazzo), waiting for their ride. That was the closest I had ever been to celebrities. That was the most unusual part of the day by far!

Heading north, a stop at the South Elgin Dam had literally nothing doing. I decided our next stop would be Walton Island to see if I could find the Redhead reported by Josh Little and Andrew Aldrich yesterday. Immediately upon arriving, I came upon familiar faces (Gordon and Scott B.) who confirmed that the ever-present Harlequin Duck was still just that. However, no one had apparently even looked for the Redhead, so I decided to do a thorough check of the island. I found the Harlequin Duck again in a hurry. Even with an apparent right foot injury or deformity, this duck is still flourishing here! On the other side of the island, the female Redhead was still hanging around!

Harlequin Duck Preening

Redhead and Mallard

It was at this time that I received a text from Scott Cohrs, asking frankly: "Is your Barrow's back???" I had no idea what he was talking about, until he told me John Heneghan had found an adult male Barrow's Goldeneye on the Fox River very near where I had found one last March (John has a photo). We headed up there as soon as we could, and ran into John and Tricia. The bird had flown since he had spotted it, and wasn't being seen at the time. And despite over an hour and a half of searching, I and several others could not re-find the bird. HOWEVER, just because it wasn't being seen, doesn't mean the bird is gone. And despite the miss, there were several highlights. Tricia was certain she had seen a Red-Shouldered Hawk earlier, and when I checked behind Otto Engineering, I was able to confirm that suspicion when a beautiful adult flew past me and landed in a tree.

Adult Red-Shouldered Hawk
It was a very bittersweet find, as this was one bird that had eluded me in my Kane County big year attempt last year, and now on the 17th of January, I already had it checked off! A Red-Shouldered Hawk always puts a smile on my face! Other nice finds were a male Wood Duck visible on the Fox north of John Hill Park on Lincoln Avenue, two American Black Ducks with what I believe was a likely American Black DuckxMallard hybrid (bill and plumage suggest it), several Hooded Mergansers, and a non-bird highlight, a mink at the Carpentersville Dam! What are the thoughts on the rear bird in the photo below? Mine were hybrid.

American Black Duck and Hybrid?

And thus, a largely successful day of birding was in the books. It will be interesting to see if the Barrow's can be re-located tomorrow morning. I sure hope so, congratulations go to John Heneghan for an excellent find!

Brendon Lake

Monday, December 29, 2014

Big Year in Review- February

Since the beginning of the new year, it had become obvious that this winter would be one for the record books, in multiple ways. The weather was so brutal and cold, that much of Lake Michigan was completely frozen over, forcing waterfowl of all varieties to find open water anywhere they could possibly do so. This was a perilous situation, as many ducks did not make it through the winter, but it was also a dream come true of sorts for birders away from the lake. The lake freezing over meant that the likelihood of finding waterfowl species that are hard to find away from the lake, increased greatly. Open bodies of water around the state were beginning to see an influx of White-Winged Scoters. Based on this, I thought it could only be a matter of time before they hit the Fox River. And on February 2nd, Andrew Aldrich proved me right.

I received a text from Andrew saying that FIVE White-Winged Scoters were presently at Island Park in Geneva, including one adult male. Adult males are a special treat, since they are hardly ever seen compared to females and immatures. I raced down to Island Park, and walked down the island to where another birder was watching what I assumed were the scoters. There they were! This was only the second time I had seen this species in Kane County, although it would certainly not be the last. Yet another hard to find duck species in the books!

Adult Male White-Winged Scoter

February 3rd began another theme for February, owls. While I was driving around in Sugar Grove trying to re-locate the Snowy Owl, just to see it again, I received a call from my mom. I pulled over to the side of the road, and listened to the message she left. As soon as I heard, I was on my way back towards home! You see, in this big year challenge, I had decided to NOT COUNT heard-only birds (birds only heard, not seen). That meant I must have visual confirmation of every species I counted. Since owls are largely nocturnal, they sometimes are hard to come by, so I thanked my lucky stars for my next bird on my list that mom, being the owl fanatic she is, had just so happened to find this beauty!!

Ace In The Hole- Eastern Screech Owl

This wonderful little creature, an Eastern Screech Owl, would be named "Ace". I chose Ace because it became my "ace in the hole". (Get it? I know, pretty bad.) If it weren't for this little one, I would probably not have had Eastern Screech Owl on my year list. It goes to show you, no matter how prepared you are for a task, sometimes it takes a bit of luck as well! And there was no shortage of luck that day!

The next day, February 4th, was the day I designated as my day to look for Barred and Long-Eared Owls. I no longer enjoy this part of the year, mostly because of ethics regarding finding owls. It is paramount not to flush the birds, because they need their rest, and they choose their roosting locations for safety. If you flush the bird, you risk exposing it to predators or crows, which like to harass owls. I do not enjoy seeking out these species because more often than not, I end up flushing the birds without meaning to. It's a hazard of seeking out these species, as it is far more likely that they see you coming before you find them, and they take off.

That morning, I went walking through a thick grove of trees in a wooded part of Kane County, trying to find Long-Eared Owls that had been seen there recently. I would stop after every several steps, and scan each and every individual tree I had a clear vantage of as thoroughly as possible, in an attempt to find the roosting owls long before there was any need for them to be on edge. Mid-way through the grove, a noise started coming from a tree about 40-50 feet ahead of me. There was a bird climbing branches, and I knew that could only mean one thing. I put up my binoculars in time to catch more than enough of a glimpse for the identification of a single Long-Eared Owl, and seconds later the bird took off further into the grove. After these looks, just enough to satisfy me, I turned around and left so I didn't risk stressing the bird any further. I completely despise looking for Long-Eared Owls, because I know that 9 times out of 10, I wouldn't find the birds before flushing them. Every time that happens, I feel terrible.

My next stop was a few miles north of where I was, and so I went there, ready to spend whatever time it took to find a Barred Owl. I had done it before, many times in fact, but it was beginning to get harder and harder to do. The owls there used to have a very predictable pattern, and it was with this pattern that I would successfully find the birds at least 5 out of every 10 times I would look for them. But their pattern became disrupted, and unpredictable, meaning I was in for a long day. It had already been a long walk into the woods, but I kept going, following a path they used to frequent. Finally, I looked up far ahead of myself, maybe a good 150 feet or more, and saw a large bird flying. I kept my eyes on the bird until it perched again in a tree and I walked in that direction, never once averting my gaze. When I made it to a good enough vantage point, I put my binoculars up and spied what I had come for, a Barred Owl! I watched as it sat there for the next five minutes or so at a distance of about 75 feet, and left when it flew over the hill behind it.

When I was once again close to home, I had agreed to meet up with a friend who was interested in seeing Ace, the Eastern Screech Owl. I took him to the spot, and while there we had a conversation, which briefly mentioned Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers being seen around Illinois in mid-winter. Unfortunately, Ace never popped out, but I had found out later that my friend had checked one last time on his way out, and gotten a glimpse of the seemingly shy little fellow. When I got back home, my mom was home on her lunch break. I walked in the door and she asked me about a woodpecker that was sitting in one of the maples near our bird feeders. Size looked pretty good for a Red-Bellied Woodpecker, but ultimately, I spied a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker with my binoculars! This was a first for the yard, and another year bird down! A successful, and yet admittedly bittersweet day finally came to an end.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

The evening of February 7th was another search for another owl species. Two Short-Eared Owls had been found at the Aurora Airport in Sugar Grove, and knowing this species, they would likely not be found a moment before sunset. So, my mom (the owl fanatic) and I drove on down to the airport, arriving at just about the perfect time. It wasn't long before I had my binoculars on a beautiful Short-Eared Owl flying low over the northern part of the airport. We drove down Wheeler Road, which borders the northern part of the Aurora Airport, and we watched in amazement  as the owl flew back and forth over the roadway just ahead of us. At one point in time, a car was coming in the opposite lane of traffic, and the owl was coming towards us right at the windshield level of the other car, directly ahead of them! I often wonder what other people think when they get to see something like that...

The owl was apparently on its way to the other owl, as just after that encounter we witnessed the interaction between the two, as they fought over a rodent the second one had just caught. The original captor of the rodent was the victor, and devoured the spoils of the battle as it sat on the chain link fencing bordering the airport grounds. Not long after, the owl took off again, and before we knew it, it was too dark to continue watching. We went home, completely satisfied.

Short-Eared Owl

The last significant find of February, occurred on the 15th. I was up in Lake County waiting for a state rarity, a Slaty-Backed Gull, to return to the Lake County Fairgrounds (if it was still around). It showed up and put on quite a show for a little while after a fairly long wait. While there, Andrew Aldrich and Joshua Little showed up, and Andrew asked me if I had heard about the Long-Tailed Duck in Batavia. Obviously I hadn't, as that question had caught me completely off-guard, and as soon as I found out where exactly the duck was supposed to be, I was gone. Marion Miller had reported the bird, so I texted her asking if there was anything being seen in the county, trying to verify what Andrew had told me. Her response was hilarious. "Are you serious?!!" And that was when we found out that I hadn't received her text telling me of the Long-Tailed Duck.

In Batavia, I arrived at the river walk near Wilson Street, where the duck had been sighted. I along with other birders began searching for it. A male Red-Breasted Merganser was also hanging around, and as I had said in the previous post, Red-Breasted Mergansers are not the easiest ducks to find in Kane County. The Long-Tailed Duck was nowhere to be seen, but I kept scanning, and eventually a small duck appeared, and just as quickly dove out of sight again. I stayed focused on the spot, and the duck re-emerged and was back underwater again in seconds. But I had my confirmation, it was indeed the Long-Tailed Duck! She did not like to stay above water for very long, which is why it took so long for me to find her, and to show her to other people.

Long-Tailed Duck

Long-Tailed Duck, another species I thought could NOT possibly occur in the county this year, and yet one was found. Yes, it was becoming abundantly clear, 2014 was going to be one for the record books. I found 15 new species in the month of February, bringing my year total up to 71 through the first two months of the year. I knew things were going to pick up and fast as soon as March rolled around. Spring was coming, and with that comes migration. My top five for the month were as follows.

1- Eastern Screech Owl
2- Long-Tailed Duck
3- Long-Eared Owl
4- Short-Eared Owl

5- Tundra Swan

Brendon Lake

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big Year In Review- January

Hello again everybody, it has been a while! I guess I was too carried away with my big year attempt and forgot to keep up with the blogging. Oops! My sincerest apologies! Anyways, with the year coming to a close, I thought it would be best to sum it all up, one month at a time. I will be making twelve posts, one for each month of the year, over the coming weeks in order to catch everybody up on how my big year has gone. As I write this, it is not quite over yet, but the finish line is definitely in sight. This has been one crazy ride, in an attempt to see as many species of bird as possible in Kane County in one year. So here now, without further ado, my recap for the month of January!

After the first day of the year was an almost complete bust, with bad weather such as driving snow and high winds, the second day was a must for my birding. I was able to get an early 11 species on the first day by feeder watching from my dining room window and also nabbed my first Northern Cardinal of the year by glancing out the window while helping my mom with some warehouse work at her job. But there was one bird that I just had to go find, a long-staying Townsend's Solitaire at Jon Duerr Forest Preserve in South Elgin. This bird, a local rarity, had been found originally November 6th, 2013, and everyone was hoping that it would stick into the new year. I got down to Jon Duerr Forest Preserve at around 8am to find out for myself if it had stuck around. Below is a photo I took of the bird on November 6th, 2013. The first time I ever saw it.

Townsend's Solitaire

I followed the trolley tracks back into the old quarry area, where it was nearly devoid of birds. Some snow was still falling, just enough to irritate me as it fell into my eyes, so looking up was a bit of a challenge. I came to where a trail crossed over the tracks, and stopped to look around. There was still no sign of the Solitaire, so I decided to follow the trail into the quarry. As soon as I did so, I heard a distinct chip note, and I knew what it was. It was not the Solitaire, but a Yellow-Rumped Warbler that was apparently trying to overwinter here during one of the harshest winters I've ever been through! My first good bird in the books, I kept on going. I made it to the back of the quarry with still no sign of the Solitaire. I turned around, and soon heard a loud, clear and beautiful whistle more lyrical than any bluebird. It was the Solitaire, and I had to follow that hauntingly beautiful call ringing out through the silence to see it! I made it back to the intersection of the trail and trolley tracks, and had a bird fly over me. The gold wing bars flashed brilliantly in the gray sky, in stark contrast to the rest of the bird's body. It perched high in the top of the tallest tree around, and I quietly celebrated my Townsend's Solitaire success!

The rest of the day I added the likes of Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Rough-Legged Hawk, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur and Cooper's Hawk among others. In two days I had a modest total of 29 species for my young county year list. A good start! The next solid day of birding I would have would be the 9th of January, when I had to run to St. Charles to try to find the Mute Swans that had been there for a while.

I arrived at the river a little after noon, parking at Mount Saint Mary Park, and walking up along the river. It wasn't long before I found two of the three Mute Swans sitting on the ice. Not long after, they started to actively feed alongside the ice in the part of the river that was still open. I kept walking north towards the dam, looking for Bufflehead, but no luck. However, I was even more fortunate as a male Redhead was feeding with the Common Goldeneye. I wasn't expecting to find one until March. There was also an American Coot swimming around in the river and three Song Sparrows bouncing around the walkway. From there, I decided it was time to head north up to South Elgin.

The dam was pretty quiet, with nothing really happening. I stumbled across a female Hooded Merganser below the dam in the rapids, which was the only highlight. Another duck species in the books! I decided I might as well walk around Seba Park for a bit, since it was right across the street just down-river. As soon as I pulled into a parking space, I noticed a shape in a tree that I immediately thought dove, but then corrected myself. I was beginning to get excited about what it could be, and by putting binoculars on it I confirmed my hunch, MERLIN!! This was one bird I thought I would miss for sure, so this chance finding was perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises of my big year! It sat there for a long time, completely unfazed by my presence. I moved on before it did, and returned to the spot later to find it had left.


The 11th was another memorable day of birding, particularly when I got word of a Harlequin Duck found that morning at Walton Island in Elgin by Tim Balassie, who I believe was leading a walk for Kane County Audubon. I headed down there as soon as I could, and started scanning around the island immediately after arriving. My mom, who was accompanying me, asked me about a duck she had seen with the Mallards hanging out just a few feet away from us. It wasn't the Harlequin Duck, but a male Red-Breasted Merganser! Of the three merganser species, Red-Breasted is the hardest to find in Kane County, and yet here was a beautiful male sitting with the Mallards and preening, just feet from where we stood! Another good bird, and another duck, in the books! Trekking on, just after crossing over the bridge at the south end of the island to check the west side of the island, a blur flew past me from behind! I tracked it until it perched on a large rock along the riverbank. It was a Peregrine Falcon, and no doubt one of the birds that spends time sitting on the Elgin Tower Building! I started to put some other birders on it, as they hadn't a clue it had arrived. Here I was less than two weeks into the year, and I had already completed the falcon and merganser tri-fectas!

Peregrine Falcon

Not long after that excitement, a rattling Belted Kingfisher flew by from up-river! I was talking to Andrew A. and Bill K. as they searched for the Harlequin as well, and I pointed out the Peregrine to them too. They in turn, pointed me in the direction of a Pied-Billed Grebe that was sticking close to the west bank of the river, tucked away. Another good bird for January! Finally the Harlequin Duck, a young male, made an appearance! At one point in time, it swam directly in front of the Peregrine who was drying off from its bath at the time. Another tough bird, one rarely seen in Kane County, and I could proudly say I got to see it! If you're starting to notice a theme emerging, you'd be correct if you said this was going to be a big year for waterfowl in the county of Kane.

Harlequin Duck and Peregrine Falcon

Also big in Illinois in the winter of 2013-2014 were Snowy Owls. In what was a record-setting irruption of these visitors from the Arctic, Illinois saw incredible numbers and concentrations of Snowy Owls, sometimes as many as eight in one place, or at least less than two square miles. Kane County was no exception, with sporadic one-day wonders popping up in locations such as a Jewel-Osco in St. Charles and a Wal-Mart in Huntley. However, a bird was spotted at the Aurora Airport in Sugar Grove, and this bird stayed a while. There ended up being photographic evidence of two in the area. I had been searching to see just one of them for my big year attempt for most of the first two weeks. Finally, on January 12th, I would get to see it!

My mom and I were driving around trying to spot it, when we came across Andrew A. and Scott C. on Scott Road, east of Dauberman. We exchanged pleasantries and phone numbers in case either of us came up with something. I fully expected them to find it, both of those birders really find some amazing things! A few minutes later, while scanning the fence row directly in the center of the two corn fields (about a half-mile away from the roadside I was standing on) I noticed a gray blob sitting immediately to the right of one of the fence posts. Sure enough, there she was, a smudgy-looking probable young female! I called Scott and Andrew and a few minutes later they were able to get scope views of the bird as well. It was great to see my first Kane County Snowy Owl ever that past December, and even better to have one two years in a row! Here is a photo that demonstrates how difficult it was to spot the owl.

Snowy Speck

The rest of the month was much slower in terms of adding new birds. I would add just five more after the 12th to bring my final total for the month of January to 56. Not a bad start to be sure, and it left me with plenty to look forward to in February! My top ten birds of the month of January are as follows.

1. Harlequin Duck
2. Townsend's Solitaire
3. Snowy Owl
4. Merlin
5. Peregrine Falcon
6. Red-Breasted Merganser
7. Northern Shrike
8. Mute Swan
9. Redhead

10. Pied-Billed Grebe

Brendon Lake

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Big Year Update- April So Far

Spring in northern Illinois. Is there even a word in the english language that can describe what happens in northern Illinois in April? Absolutely! The word is unpredictable! As an example, our high temperature this past Saturday, was 78 degrees. Two days later, our lows were in the mid-20's and we were dealing with over an inch of snow accumulation! But unpredictability has its upsides as well, as we never know what goodies are in store for us. Birders and birdwatchers keep a keen eye on the weather. Warming temperatures mean that migration is quickly coming. Now is the time where many radars and wind maps are looked at and scrutinized by people who wish to maximize their time outdoors, searching for the birds that brighten up the landscape throughout the Spring and Summer. Southerly winds overnight, will usually mean more birds the next day, and more diversity. But it is that diversity, that we can only guess about. Nobody knows for certain what that next southerly flow will bring! Unpredictable is the word. But there is another...


April has brought mostly expected species to Kane County. But, there have been some notably early arrivals per my observations. Below is how April 1st-15th broke down for me. You can see the date of the outing, and what the outing produced in terms of new year birds.

April 2nd

Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Winter Wren

Brown Thrasher

April 4th

Bonaparte's Gull

April 5th

Ross's Goose
Western Meadowlark
Eastern Towhee
White-Throated Sparrow
American Golden-Plover (a little early, but there it was)

April 7th

Ring-Necked Pheasant

April 10th

Chipping Sparrow
Barn Swallow
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Great Egret


April 11th

Northern Rough-Winged Swallow

April 12th

Purple Martin
Savannah Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow

April 13th

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
Swamp Sparrow

All in all, a total of 21 new birds in a span of 15 days. Not too shabby. But, by far and away, my favorite day of birding so far this month, was today (the 16th).

Tuesday night I was game-planning for what would hopefully be a productive morning of birding. I knew that I had to go for something hard, rather than something easy. Seeing as I completely dipped on the Louisiana Waterthrush Scott C. had found on the 13th, I had to give it another try. So the plan was to hit Gunnar-Anderson and Fabyan in the a.m. It was at this time, I found out fellow Kane County birder, Marion M., was planning on birding tomorrow morning as well. We both planned on checking different areas for Louisiana Waterthrush, and would give each other a call should one of us be successful.

Wednesday morning was very cool, with moderate winds out of the south. Not too bad of a morning for birding if you had layers (thankfully I did). As I approached the Gunnar-Anderson ravine, a pair of Wood Ducks flew into the tree right above me, and two Chipping Sparrows chased each other on the open lawn. Oh yeah, this was going to be good. And just before entering the woods, a low-flying Osprey gave me a great look at it. I love this day already!

The ravine was surprisingly quiet overall, with not even a Yellow-Rumped Warbler heard or seen. But as usual, the ever-present Winter Wren was a delight. Not much else was going on, so it was time to head out. As I headed back to the parking lot, I saw that the Chipping Sparrows had added a couple of friends to their little group. They turned out to be another Chipping Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and my first of year Field Sparrow! So it was productive after all! And now, onwards to Fabyan!

Fabyan Forest Preserve would be a good hike to get back to where I needed to be. But along the way, Hermit Thrushes kept me company, as did Black-Capped Chickadees. As I got closer and closer to the creek I heard and saw more and more. Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers were all over, along with a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, many Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, and another Winter Wren. A Yellow-Rumped Warbler sat just above the creek, and three Eastern Phoebes flew up and down the creek corridor. Still no Louisiana Waterthrush. I headed to the west end of the creek, and saw something in the water. Two Hermit Thrushes were splashing about in the creek, and another bird flew and headed for cover. This bird however, was not very good at hiding, as it kept bobbing its backside up and down, it had to be it!

And it was! The Louisiana Waterthrush! Even more special because it was not only a year bird, but a lifer, my first ever of this species!!

Louisiana Waterthrush

I enjoyed the bird for 10-15 minutes, and gave Marion a ring, feeling triumphant. There was no answer at first, but she called back soon enough and we planned to meet at the parking lot so I could take them to it. I took one more look, and headed back up the trail. Fifteen minutes later we were on our way back to the creek. I led the way at a rather brisk pace, in order to get them to it before it disappeared. We made good time back to the spot, and were on the way back to it, until Marion called out that she had something else...

"I think I have a Kentucky (Warbler)."

(Slow, and excited turnabout.)


"I think I see a Kentucky Warbler"


As I struggled to get on the bird, the anticipation of possibly another lifer began to get to me. I scrambled, frantically scanning with my binoculars. Then, a flash of brilliant yellow...

"I think it's actually a Hooded Warbler." I said with absolutely no disappointment whatsoever because either bird would be a great find and a lifer. And after photographing it, and talking it over, the chinstrap sealed the deal, a male Hooded Warbler!

Hooded Warbler

April 16th, and my warbler list for the year consists of Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Hooded Warbler. Two of those three are outstanding, especially before even getting a Palm Warbler!! But in all the excitement of having a Hooded (which sat in exactly the same spot on the forest floor for the next 10 minutes), Marion and I had forgotten to look for the Louisiana Waterthrush. Thankfully, Rich M. was all over it, as when the thought occurred to me, he called out "Louisiana".

We joined him, and Rich and Marion were able to enjoy good looks. Congratulations to Rich for the lifer too! We later lost track of the Hooded, but as we watched the Louisiana Waterthrush, it magically reappeared downstream. For a brief time, we had both warblers in the same binocular view! Both warblers were vocal at times, and the Hooded Warbler was actively hawking over the creek. Great way to get two lifers!! Another Winter Wren just added to the pure bliss I was feeling.

This concludes the first half of April for me, as I end the 16th sitting at 131 for the year, an increase by 24 since the 1st of April! I will be out of state for a little while, but that just means that I'll be writing about new places elsewhere! Stay tuned, we're just getting started...