A Travellerspoint blog

June Big Day 2023!

Cook County, IL

all seasons in one day 84 °F

JUNE 1, 2023: My favorite day of every year. The annual young(ish) birder big day. Started in May 2018 with Eddie, Isoo, Jake and I finding a modest 141 species, we shifted focus in 2019 to try to break the June record on June 1st with Jake, Isoo, and Ethan and came up with a record-breaking 132 (for June). Ethan, Isoo, and I tried again on June 1, 2021 and came up with 132 ticks (131 species + 1 Tringa sp) to just barely tie the record, but not enough to break. Now, two years later, Ethan, Simon, Henry M, and I were hellbent on breaking our count of 132. Shout-out to Oliver who was planning to join us but unfortunately got sick last minute.

We started the day at 1:15am in Oak Park where we dipped on Common Nighthawk and Cooper’s Hawk (supposedly on a nest), but picked up a migrating SWAINSON’S THRUSH — an important tick that we wouldn’t get the rest of the day.

Our next stops focused on marsh birds and we picked up several species like VIRGINIA RAIL, MARSH WREN, EASTERN SCREECH-OWL, and RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD for the day.

By 4am, we were at our “dawn chorus spot” — a strategic location in the southeast part of the county where we could try for owls, crepuscular birds, and of course: the dawn chorus of breeding songbirds that we were counting on getting us above 70 species by the time we left this spot. We had good luck with GREAT HORNED & BARRED OWLS, missed Woodcock, and picked up a number of woodland species in the dawn chorus like TUFTED TITMOUSE, RED-EYED & WHITE-EYED VIREO, EASTERN BLUEBIRD, this GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER, and more:

Simon said “flip this log and we’ll get Blue-spotted Salamander under it” and sure enough one was there! Just a brief herp break!

A sweet catch on the way out of this preserve was a tom WILD TURKEY, our only of the day and this saved us a stop we were planning on making later in the itinerary that we could now skip and save time.

By leaving, we were pushing 60 species — a bit lower than hoped for, but not hopeless. So, we continued to the Orland area to focus first on grassland/scrubland species, and then hit the woods again. ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK:


We picked up grassland sparrows such as HENSLOW’S, GRASSHOPPER, and SAVANNAH SPARROW among others.



A great tick here was PIED-BILLED GREBE, a tough bird for June:

And we were stoked to find this juvenile HOODED MERGANSER, what we thought would be our only of the day…

We dipped on King Rail and Ring-necked Pheasant at this location, unfortunately.

We kept racking up birds such as COMMON YELLOWTHROAT:

And grassland species like DICKCISSEL and EASTERN MEADOWLARK:



We were thrilled to get our heard-only BELL’S VIREO as well as this YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT at the same spot:



A stop at a random retention pond cleaned up all of targets for that location including BLUE-WINGED TEAL:


A surprise SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, our only of the day seen by the whole group!

Our first SPOTTED SANDPIPER of the day:

One of only two BALD EAGLES seen today:

Our next stop netted us PRAIRIE WARBLER and soon we were again on the move.

Palos came through with woodland species like a heard-only SUMMER TANAGER on the way in, and this PILEATED WOODPECKER:


A juvenile RED-SHOULDERED attacking a COOPER’S HAWK, our only examples of these species of the day — and saving us a spot we could now skip later in the day — a Cooper’s nest!

This Eastern Gartersnake musked all over me when I picked it up:


Nice looks at both female:


We also picked up BLUE-WINGED & HOODED WARBLERS, BLUE GROSBEAK, and others — but missed a couple things, too, like Osprey and Cerulean Warbler. On the way out, we picked up our only TRUMPETER SWANS of the day!

EASTERN TOWHEE at our next location:

Along with a very solid tick for the day, and another species where it was our only individual of the day, BROAD-WINGED HAWK:

And EASTERN PHOEBE, one of only a handful found:

We dipped on Prothonotary Warbler & Carolina Wren but picked up a heard-only VEERY and this OSPREY at the next few stops:

River Grove netted us EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE and Thatcher Woods came in clutch with the breeding pair of BROWN CREEPERS, so it was off on the long drive to Rosehill Cemetery to pick up AMERICAN WIGEON, which we found immediately:

Along with our first of many BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS today:

And a continuing Pied-billed Grebe family, though we did have one earlier:

Montrose Point was fairly quiet in the songbird department, disappointingly, but we were already over 100 species into our list which was on target for mid- day and picked up a couple additions such as this extremely late YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, our only of the day of course:


Our only BANK SWALLOWS of the day:

CASPIAN TERNS & RING-BILLED GULLS on the beach. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t pull anything rarer from the flock — and keep this in mind as this will prove to be an important foreshadowing detail for later in the day.

We scoped a few far-away DUNLIN on the Fishhook Pier, our only of the day as the one at Rainbow was a “dirty bird”

Back in the Hedge, we produced a few more migrants for our list like this YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER:


A continuing NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD came in clutch after I masterfully pulled an illegal U-turn and parallel-parked the car on Marine Dr:

Next stop was Lincoln Park Zoo (we were working our way down the lakefront) where we picked up tiny, pointy-tailed RUDDY DUCKS for the day — keep this sighting in mind, as well, as this will again prove to be an integral detail for our day.

We annoyingly missed Green-winged Teal in the Zoo but did spot a sunbathing Common Snapping Turtle:

The greatest hero of our day, a dying AMERICAN WOODCOCK, was found at our next stop — our only of the day as we missed these in the morning. Poor thing was missing an eye and a bunch of facial feathers…and it was clearly too late to call to help this bird, unfortunately.

See that speck of Fanta orange amongst the leaves? Yep, that was our only BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER of the day:

And our only LEAST FLYCATCHER of the day! At this point, we were over 120 species so within arm’s reach of our target 133.

Rainbow Beach was dead (but we did pick up CLIFF SWALLOWS and a “dirty bird” SANDERLING driving by 63rd St Beech — I missed it because I was behind the wheel), so we continued to Steelworkers where we found the long-continuing second-year RED-THROATED LOON in beautiful breeding plumage:

And a random RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, our only one of the day:

As well as this weird, oiled Ring-billed Gull:

The MONK PARAKEETS were at their typical Skyway Bridge spot:

And Eggers Grove was disappointing with no new additions, though Wolf Lake did provide our only MUTE SWANS of the day which proved to be our 130th species — only two more to go to tie and three to break the record!!

MALLARDS at our next spot, Indian Ridge Marsh, though not our first of the day of course.

Our tying bird, #132, turned out to be BELTED KINGFISHER which had eluded us the whole day and I was worried it would be another dirty bird I would end up missing, but thankfully just as we were leaving our next stop, another one flew right across the road leaving enough time for a “doc shot!” ONE MORE BIRD TO GO!!!

We rescued this Common Snapping Turtle from the road on the way out:

Our itinerary took us way back down to the southern part of the county again on a long drive where we were entertained by a car whose shocks seemed to be nearly nonexistent as it bumped its way down I-57, sometimes oscillating widely enough to even hit the concrete, creating brief plumes of friction smoke!

And, leave it to Chicago drivers to leave the most uplifting messages on their vehicles:

At our next stop, we almost immediately got eyes on a HORNED LARK, our TIE-BREAKING 133rd bird for the day!!!!!!!

BUT — just as we got that bird, we received a notification that sent us into a conundrum. An extremely-rare Gull-billed Tern had decided to show up at Montrose (why couldn’t it be there four hours earlier?!) so we decided to put an unprecedented pause to our big day to drive all the way back across the county to chase this bird. Technically, Big Days are supposed to run without any outside help on the day of, so this means chasing a bird from an alert necessitates a pause in the day.

So, we drove all the way back up I-57, I-94, and Lakeshore Dr up to about Museum Campus when we received the dreaded text: “Bird flew south.”

Shit. It didn’t seem like this bird would stick, so we turned around in Museum Campus (which was swamped by cars going to a dumbass Taylor Swift function, filling up ALL the parking spaces and making it impossible to scope from there) and headed to 31st St Beach to scope the lake in case this bird were to fly by.

By the way — another important detail for the day — Ethan tore his ACL a while ago and still had a valid handicapped parking pass from doing that, so you can bet we abused the shit out of that pass to get the best parking spots on our itinerary, lol!

After getting heckled by drunk beachgoers wanting to “have their picture taken,” we set up shop and scoped for this Gull-billed Tern in the slim chance it would make an appearance.

Quick Big Day Team Selfie in front of the skyline.

While we were waiting, I noticed my second camera battery of the day was about to die, so I quickly snapped a photo of a distant flyby Black-crowned Night-Heron and then reverted to scoping with Simon’s binoculars.

We scoped. And waited. And scoped some more. And with no more reports of the bird coming in either, we realized it was futile to try for this rarity. Argh!

So, considering that we had already broken the record, we enjoyed a celebratory dinner at Culver’s, tried one last location for Sora (an annoying miss for the day), and called it a night.


Did we actually break the record?

Two days later, I received an email from Walter M that made my heart stop: it was an eBird review email that said the photos of our “Ruddy Ducks” from Lincoln Park were actually Hooded Mergansers. After close examination of our photos, which I am attaching for a second time below, we realized to our extreme disappointment and frustration that Walter was correct. Note the long, thin, pointy bills on these birds and their dark features overal… we had goofed and misidentified these small, pointy-tailed, distant ducks simply because we were expecting to get Ruddies there and not Hooded Mergs (which we already had on our list from earlier). Oy.

Now, considering that we had stopped our big day due to the rarity chase after breaking our record by only 1 bird, Horned Lark, this bad news unfortunately set our total back to a simple tie — and two days too late! There is nothing we can do about it except plan with excruciating detail, identify with utmost scrutiny, and absolutely stick to the plan on June 1, 2024…

Annoying as it is, this means that for a THIRD TIME, we got 132 species on June 1 in Cook County. An extremely respectable total, but an incredible disappointment after we thought we had finally broken this venerable record.

Such is the game of birding — it is a game of details and everybody mis’ID’s from time to time, though this example was definitely not a particularly proud one for us. Well, even more inspiration for next year!

Bird-of-the-day to the Red-throated Loon as that was unquestionably the rarest bird seen today, with runners-up to the Wild Turkey, Common Gallinule, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Woodcock, and Red-breasted Merganser. A few noteworthy misses were Sora, Peregrine Falcon, Yellow-billed & Black-billed Cuckoo, and Cerulean, Wilson’s, Prothonotary, and Mourning Warblers, though we did pretty well today (especially with breeding birds).

A huge thanks to Simon, Henry M, and Ethan for being wonderful birding colleagues for the day, Oliver for his research contributions for the day (and honorable team member), and Isoo for his guidance from Southern IL — this was the first big day without Isoo but it was not without his help beforehand! It takes a village…

Good birding,
World Life List: 1151 Species

Posted by skwclar 04:09 Archived in USA

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What a day! Great catching up with all your stories.
Where should we go that you haven’t been when you arrive in August?

by Poo

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