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Smoked Hawk

The radar showed birds moving as we got started at 2:30 am. But it looked like birds moving out of central Illinois, rather than moving in.

The radar showed birds moving as we got started at 2:30 am. But it looked like birds moving out of central Illinois, rather than moving in.

Anyone who’s read much of my drivel over the years, knows I like doing Big Days. With my perennial Big Day buddy Jeff, we have been working at setting a record for each month in our home state of Illinois for the past five or six years. We’ve done quite well, setting 20 area/season records, as well as the all-time Big Day record for the state in May of 2013.

But March has always been a problem. It’s a tough month to plan, and even more difficult to execute. At the end of March, one or two days of strong south winds can move out the wintering ducks faster than you can say “Aythya“, but yet, not bring the hordes of insect-eating migrants piling up just to the south. But, once in a blue moon, you might get that perfect set up as the lamb and the lion chase each other out the door, with gentle weather that encourages the waterbirds to linger, and allowing some of the other migrants to push up.

This past March 31 was not that kind of weather. The week before had been cold, and as our day approached, a tantalizing little bit of southerly wind appeared, but only for a few hours, before it switched back to NNW. But the day was sunny, and the warmest in quite a while. So we had hope.

We started out an hour before dawn (after a 3 hour drive) trying for a Saw-whet Owl that just didn’t want to come out to play that morning, then headed to Sand Ridge State Forest south-east of Peoria for the dawn chorus.

It was a beautiful morning, and the birds were singing everywhere. The Northern Cardinals of course, started things off with the American Robins, but soon we were developing a nice list of land birds: Field Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet … all the expected species in late March, including a singing Winter Wren, which brought smiles to our faces.

We worked the woods and edges as long as we could, but wanted to get to Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge before too long to avoid the heat distortion over the water, and see what wandered in to the shores of the lake during the night. Our first glimpse of the water confirmed our hopes: the place was loaded with waterfowl. Very quickly, pretty much all of the expected ducks, plus an unexpected Ross’s Goose, were part of the day’s tally. In the black willow stick forest across the lake, a Rough-legged Hawk was sitting high atop a snag no thicker than your thumb.

American White Pelican. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

American White Pelican. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

By mid-morning we were running between various spots in the Chautauqua/Emiquon area looking for concentrations of birds, especially shorebirds. There were still lots of birds, but the diversity just wasn’t there. So we headed north.

The first stop on our way to the Mississippi River was Double T Fish and Wildlife Area. We arrived to find a huge controlled burn underway. A dozen official vehicles and workers everywhere. One of the main fire lines was right along the road we were viewing the grassland from (or trying to, at least), and this made birding quite difficult. There was so much smoke and ash that we couldn’t open the car windows, and forget about getting out. And the 15 mph wind was blowing it all right in our faces. Still, there were birds.

Several hawks were working the burn, catching small animals as they fled the fires. There were at least four or five Red-tailed Hawks and one Northern Harrier. But without being able to open the windows, and all the smoke, viewing was a bit difficult. At one point, one of the birds made a close swing by the car, and one of our team of four, Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis, had had alls he could stands … and jumped out to grab a couple pictures, filling the car with smoke. When he jumped back in (more smoke and ash) he asked the rest of us to take a look at the image on the little screen on the back of his camera, because something just didn’t look right about it. We were rubbing our eyes, and one of the official vehicles was coming down the road, plus we were on a schedule, and so we really didn’t do much more than glance. Had to keep moving.

The next stop was another prairie with cattle ponds which can be a magnet for migrating shorebirds. It was so windy now that small land birds were hiding. The only thing at the ponds was a Wilson’s Snipe and a few Killdeer. But, we did pick up Sandhill Crane, which was a bit unexpected at that location. The mid-day doldrums had hit hard. Oh, well … gotta keep moving and try to stay awake. At this point we had been birding 11 hours, with another 6 or so to go.

Wilson's Snipe. Photo by team member #4, Fran Morel.

Wilson’s Snipe. Photo by team member #4, Fran Morel.

We arrived at the shore of the Mississippi River an hour or so later at Lock & Dam 13, near Fulton, Illinois. The river was completely filled with waterfowl. I’ve seen this spectacle before, and even knowing what to expect, I’m always overwhelmed. One bay held over 10,000 Canvasback. Flocks of scaup as far as the eye can see. The shallower bays and ponds filled with teal, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and other dabbling ducks.

Trying to pick out the few species we needed—namely all 3 mergansers, and any of the sea ducks, like scoters—was overwhelming. We soon picked up the mergansers, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egret and an early Northern Rough-winged Swallow. We were approaching 100, but it was apparent that we would not reach our goal of 118 species for the day.

Skrentny and I have done close to 40 Big Days together. We’ve pulled the plug when it’s obvious we won’t reach our goal, but we’ve also been at that point and decided to just keep going, and had a late afternoon rally save the day. We kept going.

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

As we drove past the Carroll County Airport, I made a snap decision. For years there have been a pair of Loggerhead Shrike that nest there. For years I’ve tried, and failed, to see them. But what the hell? It’ll only take a few minutes to drive the road where a small cemetery sits north of the airport, and scan the barbed wire fences the birds love. We drove out to the end of the runway, then turned around and were almost back out to the highway, when Fran called out that he saw a bird sitting at the top of a small pine in the cemetery. It was was a Loggerhead Shrike!

We made a very quick run through Mississippi Palisades State Park, which added Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Red-breasted Nuthatch, and kept going.

We had just ticked #100 for the day. Getting past 100 species in March in Illinois is tough. We’ve done it a few times, but try as we might, we can’t seem to be able to break 107 species (which we’ve hit twice).

Meanwhile, we’re all getting messages about a Say’s Phoebe (very rare in Illinois) near Chicago. In my home county of Cook, where I would very very much like to see one. A Say’s Phoebe, in my home county, 9,240 feet from my front door. In my local patch. [aaaarrrghh]

Nothing we can do about that … gotta keep going. At the Upper Mississippi NWR, Lost Mound Unit (one of my very favorite places to bird in Illinois), we picked up Western Meadowlark and Eastern Bluebird. We scanned the ridges for a Golden Eagle (Lost Mound is one of the best places in the state for them). No dice. We drove the roads hoping for some of the “easy” birds we were missing: Savannah Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler (??!!).

We made it to the end of the road, and the end of daylight. It was now 7:05 pm, and sunset was at 7:16. It was still and cloudless, so there would be light to see by until at least 7:40 or so. We had been birding at a hard pace for 16 hours, and were sitting with 101 species for the day. As we reached the gate at the end of the road, there were about 10 sparrows, mostly Dark-eyed Juncos, picking up grit. And one of them was an American Tree Sparrow! #102.

I started scanning the huge prairie to the north, looking for Short-eared Owls, which might come out to hunt at dusk. As I was doing this, a thrush-sized bird flew up from the ground and landed in a tree about a quarter mile away. But just that glimpse of it gave me the impression of a shrike. Loggerheads nest here too, and I thought it would be that species. But when we got a scope on the bird…

IMG_1920

NORTHERN SHRIKE! First time any of us had ever seen both shrike species on the same day … and #103 for the day. A few minutes later, White-throated Sparrow was #104. As we were leaving Lost Mound, we heard, and then saw, two displaying American Woodcock (#105).

It was on the way home, so we figured what the hell, let’s check in with our never-fail Eastern Screech Owl. And he didn’t fail to appear:

Eastern Screech Owl. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

Eastern Screech Owl. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

And that was that. It was a great day. We had loads of fun, and saw a lot of great birds … and finished with 106 species. A 3-hour drive home was now the end of a 21-hour day.

Epilogue

The next morning, Skillethead sent me a text message saying he and Jeff were on their way to pick me up and go get the Say’s Phoebe near my house. Fran texted and said he was on his way over too. I could have walked … but what the heck. So there we were, the four of us looking at the Say’s Phoebe. Then we looked at each other. We were wearing the same clothes from the day before, and we looked like [cuss-word].

Skillethead shows us the picture of the buteo again, on the little screen on the back of his camera. Only this time I look at it, for real…

IMG_3973

…it’s an adult Swainson’s Hawk (!!!), and [of course] #107 for the day.

But, having fun is what it’s all about, eh? Stay tuned, because we’ll be going for another Illinois state record at the end of April…

L to R: Jeff Skrentny, Larry "Skillethead" Krutulis, Greg Neise, Fran Morel.

L to R: Jeff Skrentny, Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis, Greg Neise, Fran Morel.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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  • Sandy Berger

    Enjoyed the read very much. We will be doing our annual big day on April 25 here on the western border of Arkansas.

  • Tyler D Funk

    Sounds like a good day 107! It seems interesting that you hit a consistent wall there. I need to look into this a little more and maybe start doing some Big Day in our area. Maybe I can talk Ron Bradley into giving it a go. Thanks for the post.
    Tyler Funk

  • Ted Floyd

    Great story. I always love Greg’s Big Day recaps. The Devil’s advocate in me can’t resist asking: Might a certain breed of purist object to your counting the Swainson’s Hawk? I mean, an after-the-fact ID based on technology? What’s the world coming to?

    I’m sure you can imagine MY response. I’m totally fine with it. Then again, I count roosters, hybrids, and subspecies on my Big Days. And I’d happily add to my patch list a bird detected by remote sensing technology (wildlife cam, flowerpot mic set-up, whatever).

    But, again, I’m wondering about our hypothetical purist. Any objections to this one?

    • Greg Neise

      According to the ABA Recording Rules, we are good with that one (and wouldn’t have counted it otherwise):

      RULE 4: Diagnostic characteristics, sufficient for the recorder to identify it to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented for the bird encountered.

      A. “Diagnostic characteristics” means the natural characteristics needed to uniquely determine the species of the bird. It is not necessary to experience every possible diagnostic characteristic, but simply sufficient characteristics to eliminate the possibility of the bird being any other species.

      (i) Identification of the bird may be made after the initial encounter. It is not always possible to secure a positive identification initially, but, using physical and/or written documentation, identification is sometimes possible after the fact, upon consultation of references and/or other authorities. With very tricky identifications, for example, photographs or recordings sometimes reveal minute, yet critical, details that were not discernible during the initial encounter. Furthermore, our knowledge of how to separate similar species in the field is continually advancing. On rare occasions, a species may not be identifiable until after it has been captured and studied in the hand, or had feather and blood samples analyzed. In such instances of “after-the-fact” ID, the bird may be counted on one’s lists.

      • Ted Floyd

        Works for me. Thanks, Greg. Still, the hypothetical (purely hypothetical…) purist in me objects on the grounds that this gives modern birders an “unfair” advantage over the Big Day teams from yesteryear.

        But it goes both ways. California birders have told me that certain records from the 1970s and 1980s are unbeatable for the very simple reason of traffic. That is to say, there’s too much of it in 2015. So those teams from the 1970s and 1980s have a leg up on the Californians of the 2010s: Too much technology (cars) today, too hard to get from hot spot to hot spot on a modern Big Day.

        • cestma

          “…the hypothetical (purely hypothetical…) purist in me objects on the grounds that this gives modern birders an “unfair” advantage over the Big Day teams from yesteryear.”
          Well, we’re not baseball. But even baseball is using a lot of new technology that older teams and players would never even have thought of. If baseball can deal with continuous statistics like that (albeit with the occasional asterisk), certainly birding can.

      • Ted Floyd

        The World Series of Birding doesn’t follow ABA Big Day rules. For example, you don’t have to see a stakeout bird. You just have to expend the amount of time that would be required to get out of your car and go and see it.

        And this: “The [World Series of Birding does] not allow the use of digital gadgets in the spotting or hearing of birds.”

        More here:

        http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/its-gadgets-vs-eyeballs-as-two-species-of-bird-watchers-clash/?_r=0

        • Ted Floyd

          And, again, just to be clear: I’m just putting this stuff out for thought. I favor the use of technology in Birding.

        • cestma

          “For example, you don’t have to see a stakeout bird. You just have to expend the amount of time that would be required to get out of your car and go and see it.”

          WTH??

          “The [World Series of Birding does] not allow the use of digital gadgets in the spotting or hearing of birds.”

          Well, obviously; why would they need them?

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