A Travellerspoint blog

Why I bird

The Midwest

34 °F

A crescendo by the form of exponential growth is what today’s birding comprised. It started off benignly, putting around Cook County with Oliver. We had vague plans to chase a certain bird in Indiana if it were to be re-found, but nobody had it in the morning...

So we stayed in Illinois, starting the day off with a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK and GREAT HORNED OWL at Big Marsh, as well as this male BELTED KINGFISHER:

Turning Basin 5 was dead, but it did afford me my first RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS of the year as well as a distant immature BALD EAGLE:

So we headed to Wolf Lake where we picked up waterfowl like these CANADA GEESE, REDHEAD, COMMON GOLDENEYE, and a LESSER SCAUP (center) which was a year bird for Oliver!

And another year bird for him — a hen CANVASBACK (along with a Redhead):

Then we headed down to Sand Ridge Nature Center and picked up some feeder birds like RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH:

And FOX SPARROW, shown here with HOUSE SPARROWS:

Then, we got a text from Isoo saying he was on a Common Loon at the Little Calumet River so we raced over as this is a good bird for Chicago in the winter. We parked off Torrence Ave, poked around a bit, crossed a busy bridge, and immediately spotted it on the water!

Then, the news broke—Gyrfalcon at Waukegan Harbor, an hour an a half drive away. The prospect of a Gyrfalcon to Illinois birders is comparable to a Bigfoot sighting. The Arctic Nomad. The Beast of the North. The Wandering Falcon. The Solitary Ghost. Many adjectives — many superlatives — could be used to describe a Gyrfalcon, but none of them can come close to doing the justice of actually seeing the bird. Even for the most seasoned of birders, seeing a Gyrfalcon is a dream come true, and finding one close to Chicago is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, at this point, 10:30am, the Illinois and, to an extent, the Wisconsin and Indiana birding community, went absolutely wild. I’m sure there were many speeders roaring up I-94, but I am happy to say I was not one of them (after being pulled over last summer), hah! A facebook group (see below) for tracking the falcon was quickly organized during my trek up to Lake County, and I could feel the suspense in the air. This bird had actually been sighted once three weeks ago, and countless people had searched since, but nobody had been able to re-find until today. So, the big question — would the elusive beast stay for us?

I pulled up to Waukegan Harbor to hear those dreaded words: “it was last seen fifteen minutes flying behind that tower.” UGHHH! So, eventually, Oliver and I walked behind the aforementioned tower to see a smaller group of birders peering up. There was a blob on the top of the side of the tower, and I quickly dismissed it as non-avian, but Oliver smartly took a closer look and lo and behold—

G Y R F A L C O N ! ! ! ! ! !

Words can’t describe the visceral response upon laying eyes on this vagrant from the High Arctic. I had finally tracked down a bird I thought would take years upon years to track — they are known for being particularly elusive and tough-to-chase.

This is the first angle I saw the falcon in — it was rather hunkered down so you can see why I thought it was a blob:

As cars crept along the slushy side road and more excited birders poured onto the roadway, the excitement only grew as I witnessed dozens upon dozens of birders gain a life bird — a nemesis for many and a dream for all. A Gyrfalcon. As every individual person let out a yip of joy, a lifer dance, a crazy smile, even a tear to the eye, a warm feeling crept into my heart that I hadn’t experienced for a long time. We were all truly happy. During a dark time where sometimes it seems like all that surrounds us is evil and despair, a lonely vagabond from the North, gracing our presence, brought happiness to hundreds of people. That right there, my friends, is the true joy of birding.

The (yes, socially-distanced and masked) crowd let out an audible “OOOH!” as the itinerant falcon lifted its mighty wings into the air and hovered in place, perfectly still against the whipping, gale-force winds — perfectly still despite the taste of a blizzard brewing in the air.

Another flight and the Gyr was pursued by another mighty bird — the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon. Though considerably smaller than the hefty beast, the Peregrine rose to mighty heights only to come sweeping down in a flash, announcing its displeasure with the new, friendlier-sized neighbor. You can see that the Gyrfalcon (top) easily dwarves the Peregrine which is already a mighty bird by all accounts.

Having chased the Gyr away, the Peregrine gave us a victory show and hovered in the air just as the Gyr had minutes before. Incredible!

Oliver and I then parted ways, and Isoo and I made the longshot decision to book it to Indiana in search of our original target for the day: Common Crane, a bird common in Siberia but incredibly rare in the New World. We were banking on the tiny chance it would be refound during our three-and-a-half hour drive to De Motte, IN.

And it was not. So we cruised down random corn fields, looking desperately for flocks of Sandhills with which it would be associating, only to come up with a few CANADA GEESE. But, as we were feeling extremely hopeless, my phone somehow came back into cell service and a message came through: “Common Crane re-found” along with a pinned location. So, with a little help from Simon who gave us both directions via phone, Isoo and I both made it to the appointed location where a couple birders were already scanning.

It was a needle in a haystack though. Hundreds of cranes lined a distant field and picking through the Sandhills to find an extremely-alike Common would prove a daunting task — the main differentiating feature of a Common Crane is a black throat.

Suddenly, as I panned my camera through the flock, one stood out to me as markedly different and I hollered, “There! There I have it!” Then, I proceeded to warn people to keep a social distance from me as I gave them directions to the bird: “Find the snow-covered building, then the next large building to the right of it, then it’s among the Sandhills below and to the right a little” and so on. Soon, everybody had views of their lifer COMMON CRANE and all was well with the world! True teamwork. The Common Crane is an objectively rarer bird than even the Gyrfalcon as Gyrfalcon are an expected North American species — they are just usually well to the north of us and extremely tough to track down. the Crane, on the other hand, is a true rarity — only two previous sightings of this species have occurred this year in North America, and only one other ever before in Indiana.

So, two lifers in a day! And an incredibly moving experience with both birds — reminding all of us that there is hope left in the world — there is a reason to keep birding, to keep enjoying life, to keep living.

How can I possibly pick a bird-of-the-day? You pick. For me it’s impossible but today will probably go down as the birding-day-of-the-year unless I have some darn incredible luck.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1125 Species (2 life birds today: Gyrfalcon, Common Crane)

Posted by skwclar 04:58 Archived in USA

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I will never forget your statement "and this, my friends, is what birding is all about". Brilliant and very moving. You and your colleagues bring joy to many people. Thank you!

by liz cifani

What an incredible day!!! Two totally amazing birds! Have you gotten your breath back yet Henry?!

by Poo

Your elation comes through in your writing and well describes why many of us go "birding." Congratulations on two rarities in one day.

by Mary Mc

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