Saturday, December 31, 2011

Annual report

It was a great birding year, starting with a late migrating american pipit at Montrose on Jan. 2. One thread throughout 2011 was my use of the eBird tracking tool. For no reason in particular, I embarked on a slow-speed chase to be one of the top 100 eBirders in Illinois. I fell short on my quest, ending up 113th with 119 species at the time of this writing. But I can count strange achievements like being the 73rd-ranked eBirder in the state of South Dakota, because of our week-long trip there, and 47th in the Bahamas.

I added seven birds to my life list: Bell's vireo, Henslow's sparrow, american dipper, upland sandpiper, mountain bluebird, plumbeous vireo and snowy owl. A snow-less winter, ironically, capped by a snowy owl sighting. Our trip to the Bahamas yielded a number of island specialities and a tally of 33 species, including LaSagra's flycatcher and thick-billed vireo--both common in Eleuthera but resident only on a couple of other islands.

The birding adventure starts over again tomorrow, starting at zero species for 2012. Should be fun.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Snowy haven

A snowy owl is a good reason to end a blog hiatus. Snowy owls are invading the Midwest this winter, with perhaps the largest surge in more than a decade. Two weeks ago, two were photographed at Montrose Point. I went out to search for them the next morning. I saw a couple of photographers who helped point me to an owl on the end of the fishhook pier. It was several hundred yards away, but I had an okay look at my first-ever snowy owl.

Then, this past weekend, an even better look. The owls had continued to hang around the point for days. We went Saturday afternoon. We didn't see the owls in the dune area, or near the pier. As we walked toward the beach house, a passerby said the owl was just ahead. Just a few yards away, the owl was sitting atop a light post in plain view. One needn't binoculars to make out many details. A small crowd had gathered, photographing the bird from every angle. Amazing stuff and a great way to cap an eventful 2011 of birding.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Big dipper

I have a report from South Dakota for the 501st post on this blog. Our trip took us to the Black Hills and Badlands. We recorded 48 bird species and eight mammal species. The birds included two additions to the North American life list--upland sandpiper and american dipper.

We found the sandpiper, pictured below, near the dusty grassland town of Buffalo Gap. We had left the highway at Buffalo Gap to catch a road to the Badlands. When we discovered that the 40-plus mile trip to the park would be on a dirt road, we decided to head back to the highway. On the way there, we saw a strange bird sitting on a hay bale. It took some research on the web to confirm that this indeed was an uppie. It was the big eye and relatively long neck that gave it away. Ironically, I had looked for this bird here in Illinois in July and came away empty.
The american dipper is a plump thrush-like bird that lives only in high mountain streams. It reaches the Black Hills at the eastern extent of its range. So we traveled to the northern Black Hills to find the bird, at Roughlock Falls near Spearfish Canyon. We walked down to the falls but didn't see a dipper on our first try. We walked downstream a ways and decided to go back for one last attempt. And there it was, sitting on a log in the water. The ouzel sat there for a long time, and we took many pictures. We never did see its peculiar behavior--plunging into streams and walking on the streambed in search of food--but that was OK. (The dipper is a gray dot in the bottom right of the first photo below.)

There are many more photos from our trip here.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Prairie companions

Today I visited the largest prairie restoration east of the Mississippi River. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is near Joliet, Ill., on the site of the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. The 19,000-plus acre preserve was created in the 1990s.

I went seeking three life birds and came away with two of them(!). I saw a Bell's vireo at the parking lot at the Explosives Road trailhead and later recorded a Henslow's sparrow along the Henslow's Trail. Both are uncommon and elusive, most often heard and not seen in their very specific habitat. Alas, I did not see an upland sandpiper, which are apparently even more scarce at Midewin now than ever. I also missed out on loggerhead shrike, at the northern extent of its range.

Still, it was a beautiful morning, with lots of singing dickcissels (above) and many other prairie birds. Other highlights included: about 30 bobolinks on the Henslow's Trail, grasshopper sparrow most everywhere and a male orchard oriole. I also encountered a number of ticks and managed to (mostly) keep them at bay.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Online birding

Fickle weather is one reliable aspect of a Midwest spring migration. Since March, we've seen cold, heat, cold again, heat again and now cold once more. My birding this spring has been inconsistent, too, in terms of number of species and the number of days I've spent in the field. One constant has been my enjoyment of eBird, the real-time online checklist program. EBird makes it easy to keep track of birds, and ensures that sightings are added to the scientific record. Birders can compare their sightings with other birders in their community and sort their lists by hotspot and species. So I know I've seen 91 total species this year while submitting 13 lists. I'm tied for 50th in Cook County with 77 species.

Among the highlights this spring: three singing blue-winged warblers at Indiana Dunes' Heron Rookery Trail (above). No Swainson's thrush and nary a vireo all spring, but nice sightings of orchard oriole, tennessee warbler and black-throated blue warbler. And two more species for the yard list: least flycatcher and american goldfinch. And in a non-avian note, I saw a white-tailed deer at Montrose this week, a first for me there.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bahamian birds

It's been a lot of fun to learn more about the birds of the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Island geography limits the number of species, though there are several birds that are only found on Eleuthera and a few other islands that stretch to Cuba. Most are distinct from the birds found in Florida a couple hundred miles away. I've seen about 60 species on Eleuthera; it's possible to see 60 species in a day regularly on the American mainland.

On this trip, we found two birds that were not supposed to be in Eleuthera according to bird guides. First, two brown pelicans in the harbor at Governor's Harbour and another flying over the ocean at the house; second, a red-legged thrush, above, which inhabits other Bahamian islands but not Eleuthera. Last trip, also contrary to the guides, we saw an anhinga that spent several days on Darnot's Pond.

A nice find also last month was a Cuban pewee along Banks Road. It's readily identifiable by its call, which is a cheery whistle not unlike an Empidonax flycatcher. The tiny pewee also is known as the crescent-eyed pewee for its thick white eye ring. It inhabits just a few Bahamian islands and pockets of Cuba.

Many species look a little different in the Bahamas and the Caribbean than on the mainland. This juvenile osprey, being harassed by a mockingbird, has much more white on its head and neck than a mainland osprey. (Great views of this youngster from the deck.)

Other firsts on the trip were: white-cheeked pintails, a pair on Darnot's Pond; and a LaSagra's flycatcher, with nesting material, on Banks Road. The pintails' range stretches from the Bahamas to the Caribbean, South America and the Galapagos Islands. The flycatcher only some islands of the Bahamas, Grand Cayman and Cuba.

April was a little lighter on migrants, particularly shorebirds and waders, than our last trip in March--the total trip tally this time was 33 species.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Snipe hunt

When I was in Cub Scouts, the Cubmasters and Den Leaders took us on a Snipe Hunt one evening at camp. The adults played up the mystery of the snipe and kept warning us to look for them. Well, we never really saw anything--I think we wound up at a bonfire or something--and eventually someone said there's no such thing as a snipe.

This isn't true, of course, and really the traditional Snipe Hunt seems a missed opportunity for ornithological education. Wilson's snipe is a medium-sized shorebird that frequents mudflats, fluddles and wet meadows. I hadn't seen one for years until last weekend. It was in a fairly unusual place at Montrose--the lawn north of the Magic Hedge. Even on the green grass, the snipe's plumage blended in amazingly well. We had a few good looks at it before it flitted off, and we declared our snipe hunt a success.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wild dogs

In January I posted about a coyote I saw at Montrose Point. Since then I've come across two local coyote videos, one from Uptown in February and the other from the Lincoln Park area this week (above). The Uptown coyote ran out of the Truman College parking garage, in a very urban area about a mile west of the lakefront. The other appears to be somewhere in Lincoln Park itself, on one of the overpasses near North Pond.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Marching onward

March is mostly a dreary weather month around here. It's not quite warm enough to be conducive to springtime outdoor activities, and it's not cold enough to be conducive to winter sports. But there are some subtle signs of spring that give us hope. I recorded my first red-winged blackbird of the year on Feb. 24. Red-wings don't completely leave this region in winter, but they do leave my haunts at Montrose Point. They also were plentiful on my ride to and from Springfield.

On March 3, I heard a killdeer flying around at the workplace on the Southwest Side; that same week a house finch was singing in our alley for the first time in months. Then this weekend produced a couple of spring-like scenes--turkey vultures soaring over the road to Lockport, and common goldeneyes displaying at Montrose Harbor. There also seems to be a great movement of raptors afoot--I've seen three peregrine falcons in the past two weeks.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Raptor ride

I made the 207-mile journey to Springfield, Ill., yesterday. The majority of the route uses I-55--basically from Lake Shore Drive to the outskirts of Springfield itself. The highway cuts across the Southwest Side of the city, continues along a heavy industrial corridor and the Ship and Sanitary Canal before encountering the distribution centers and nondescript warehouses of Bolingbrook, Will County and the I-80 corridor. South of 80, the landscape opens up, from farmland to restored prairies and woodlands. It was a bright, sunny day and everything was sort of a brownish yellow color from horizon to horizon--the fallow fields, the turf grass, prairie grass, everything was the same drab color. There were a lot of raptors, from dozens of red-tailed hawks and kestrels to an osprey hanging out by a small farm pond. The highlights from today--another bright day--included a rough-legged hawk flying low over a field near Normal, and many more red-tailed hawks.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Water everywhere

A big thaw is under way since the Blizzard of 2011. It was 45 yesterday and over 40 today, too. The forecast high for Thursday is 58! We really didn't have a January thaw so maybe this is making up for it.

There is actually grass visible in many places now, though the big piles of snow persist. Many sidewalks are still lined with steep snow banks. All over the city there are narrow passageways, cut by generous snowblower owners, that lead to the street.

The primal practice of dibs has left shattered patio furniture and other household items scattered all over. Dibs seems to have fizzled out about a week ago as more parking spaces have been cleared.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Cleaning up

It took more than 24 hours after the blizzard before I even bothered to venture to the alley behind our house. I had previously glimpsed the alley from Clarendon Avenue, and it looked like a series of 6-foot high ski slopes. It seemed it wouldn't be passable until spring. The lower photo shows what the alley looked like Thursday night. It remained unplowed and unshoveled until this morning when a group of neighbors took to the alley with shovels and cleared the last remaining drifts in about an hour. There is just enough space now for a car to make it through the alley (upper photo).

The cleanup by the city has been amazing in many ways, at least if you live on the North Side. The giant drifts on the west end of Lakeside were cleared (amazingly) by Thursday morning. Lake Shore Drive also re-opened Thursday. The only down side to the cleanup is the inane practice of "dibs." Our street usually isn't afflicted by this, but a few people have "claimed" their parking spots with lawn chairs. It's so silly--if we all just shoveled the snow in the street, even the piles that aren't "ours," there would be plenty of room for all to park. Dibs just makes me lose faith in humanity.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow job

It finally stopped snowing at about 12:30 today. Almost immediately, people began emerging from their homes. They shoveled, frolicked and generally absorbed the storm's aftermath. Our street was completed blocked as of a couple hours ago. There was a five-foot drift, maybe a 100-yards square, near the west end of our block. It's hard to imagine it being cleared any time soon. There are cars nearly entirely buried like the one above. Also, there are still cars abandoned on Lake Shore Drive. The temperatures are expected to plummet to minus-4 tonight in the city and minus-10 in outlying areas.

Snowbound still

We're still snowbound, with lake-effect moisture now coming into Chicago from the northeast. I've never seen our street like this--snow is caked onto every surface, our windows are snow-covered in amazing patterns. The photo above really doesn't do the storm justice, but those are drifts right through the middle of the street.

I've heard from two friends now who were stranded on Lake Shore Drive for hours. One abandoned his car and another somehow made it off a ramp and back to Uptown. I don't see how the city can clean this up in time for school/work even tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snowy howl

It's really hard to comprehend how awful the weather is here right now. We've seen a lot of big snows through the years, but this is incredible--and it's not nearly over yet. The storm arrived earlier than expected, around 2 p.m. It began blowing and drifting immediately and won't stop for nearly 24 hours. The winds keep shifting, for a time northwest, northeast and now southwest. There's a lakeshore flood warning, as Lake Michigan reportedly has been crashing onto Lake Shore Drive in places--the second time we've seen this in the past couple months. People are abandoning vehicles on Lake Shore Drive, and at least one bus is stranded. Wow.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Wintry trek

Birding with a 10-month-old strapped to your chest is a little different than birding without a 10-month-old strapped to your chest. For one, you can't really hold your binoculars the same way and you definitely have to forego a strap. Also, there isn't as much patience for stopping and studying every last primary on a two-year gull. In fact, when we did stop walking on Sunday, the little one looked up at me to suggest that I should keep on walking. Now, it was about 27 degrees and windy at the time, yet that didn't seem to be a problem--tough fledgling we have.

While on Montrose Point, a passerby asked if we'd seen the coyotes. We hadn't, in fact I've only seen fox at Montrose, never a coyote. I asked if he could show us to the coyotes, probably a dubious parenting decision to say the least with wild carnivores around. Yet we walked over to a thicket to get a good look at the big canines. About 50 feet away, there was a coyote looking back at us through the woods. It was impressive--more wolf-like than I imagined--but we soon made our way back to the car, satisfied with our wintry trek.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

New campsite

For the first time since it started in 2005, has a new look! The new site has updated descriptions of Chicago area tent camping destinations. There are also some new features, but it is a bit of a work in progress as the site transitions from PC to Mac-based. The Google map opens to a larger map that shows quick descriptions for each locale, FYI. Eventually, I'd like to add a better format for discussion and Facebook/social media sharing.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dune scrubbing

On my trek to Montrose Point last weekend, I discovered that the dunes had been ravaged by the storm that hit us in mid-December. The sandy area in the top photo, shown a couple summers ago, was littered with debris and the sign in the photo had been washed into a pile of riprap. The 15-foot waves must have poured right over the pier and into the dunes. The bottom photo, from last weekend, shows where dune grasses (in the darker brown area in the photo) were scrubbed away by the lake. All that's left is the rhizomatic mat, holding together the sand. I doubt the dunes, just less than two decades old, have ever been hit by anything like this before. It will be interesting to watch them regenerate this spring and in the months and years ahead.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Arctic visitor

I went birding at Montrose Point in clear, cold conditions on Sunday. It was snow-less because of the recent thaw. I saw some nice birds, but nothing unusual. I was a little frustrated at the lack of standouts when I stopped to examine a group of birds being fed human food just south of Montrose Harbor. Frankly, I was hoping for a house sparrow since I hadn't checked one off the list yet (a modest goal to be sure). There were a lot of geese, gulls and starlings feasting on bread and other household offal. Soon I saw one sparrow-like bird on the ground, in the shadow of a small tree. It was unusual because it was streaked on its flanks, which quickly ruled out house sparrow and american tree sparrow (which I had seen many earlier). It also bobbed up and down a little when it started walking, and was a bit larger than a sparrow--but not quite a thrush either. I got out of the car and crept within about 10 yards of the bird, which really didn't spook easily, as though it was tired or ill.

The bird is an american pipit, which breeds on the Arctic tundra and alpine meadows and normally passes through Chicago in fall and spring. Pipits are of their own family--Motacillidae--and occur on every continent. It's unusual to see one during mid-winter here--its mapped winter range stretches only as far north as Arkansas--though I've noticed other reports this winter. There are a couple more photos here.