A Travellerspoint blog

January 2021

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 Comments (3)

Racking up year birds with Tian

Cook County, IL

semi-overcast 22 °F

Today I once again headed to South Chicago & Calumet in search of year birds — some I had in mind were: Glaucous & Great Black-backed Gull, Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk, White-winged Scoter, and even Red-winged Blackbird (lol!). We started at Rainbow Beach where it was evident how frozen-over Lake Michigan has quickly become following the snowstorm and subsequent days below zero.

A small patch of open water held the common winter ducks like BUFFLEHEAD:


Scaup and REDHEAD:

Scaup and more Mergs:

Unfortunately I dipped on a Glaucous Gull reported here earlier which would have been a sweet year bird. So we continued on to Steelworkers Park where the gull activity was much higher — there was a much larger area of open water in front of the breakwall here which allowed for more of a gull congregation. I picked through the countless Ring-billed and Herring, which can be annoying, and ended up finding this oddball. Yep, a bill and head like a perfect breeding Lesser Black-backed, but too pale of a mantle — I posted this bird to “North American Gulls” and gull expert Amar A told me this resembled the hybrid GREAT BLACK-BACKED X HERRING GULLS he has seen in this part of Chicago before. Quite a cool sighting and evidence of the common hybridization of gulls (we have it easy — MOST gulls in areas of the West Coast are hybrids of some form!).

Then, I spotted one of my targets for the day — WHITE-WINGED SCOTER! Sick! Year bird and definitely one of my favorite ducks, it is just such a unique-looking bird.

And BOOM! Another year bird after one final scan of the gull flock in the form of an adult GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL! My first one in Illinois in a couple years (they are expected winter visitors, I just haven’t gotten out enough in recent years, lol).

Here it is showing its pink legs — this, along with its larger size, differentiates it from Lesser Black-backed Gull.

And can’t forget about the pretty COMMOM GOLDENEYE:

Next stop, Wolf Lake in case any Tundra Swans or anything else unexpected would be hanging out with the waterfowl. Nothing completely unusual — just the resident MUTE SWANS:

And hundreds of REDHEAD:

And a chilly but happy Tian!

Indian Ridge Marsh was quiet but there was a lone GREAT BLUE HERON attempting to ice-fish.

Turning Basin #5 was also dead but a male BELTED KINGFISHER was nice to see:

We didn’t stop for long at Big Marsh but did have this nice RED-SHOULDERED HAWK alongside the road, a very decent bird for the winter.

And thanks to my friend Isoo he gave me directions to distant viewing of a GREAT HORNED OWL nest which was suuuper cool for Tian and I to see. A great ending to a sweet day!

Bird-of-the-day to the White-winged Scoter with runners-up to the Great Black-backed and the Great Black-backed X Herring Gull. Good stuff!

World Life List: 1123 Species

Posted by skwclar 06:46 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Twitch: Long-eared Owl

Chicago, IL

overcast 30 °F

Yesterday, Tian, Pearl, and I ventured out to twitch a LONG-EARED OWL and I’m not even trying to build the suspense with this one — we got it right away!!! Thanks to my friends Isoo and Simon for giving detailed directions (a dropped pin ALWAYS does the trick!). I pulled up, got out of the car with Pearl, walked fifty feet, and boom there it was a pine tree. Back to the car, grabbed Tian, showed her, and away again. We stayed far enough away not to disturb the owl as roosting owls are very sensitive to any kind of disturbance (also why I brought them one at a time, and why I will not disclose the location on here). This was a photographic lifer for me so I was super stoked! The only other times I have seen this species were out in Idaho and every time there I have accidentally flushed them from thick brush and they evaded photos.

Next we headed to Harborside International Golfcourse where I thought I might be able to pick up a few new birds for the year such as Gadwall. Upon arriving, we spotted literally thousands of CANADA GEESE congregating by the entrance road. Tian’s favorite bird so this was awesome for her to see too.

I scoped out Lake Calumet for Gadwall or anything interesting. Some distant MUTE SWANS:


A raft of distant “Aythya” genus ducks — mainly unidentifiable Scaups with some REDHEAD and RING-NECKED DUCK mixed in.



More Goldeneye:

Didn’t add any new birds for the year at Harborside, but it still was a sweet stop. Flushed a bunch of White-tailed Deer while driving out and spotted this beautiful female BELTED KINGFISHER:

Bird-of-the-day to the Long-eared Owl, my photographic lifer, with runner-up to the Pied-billed Grebe. Good stuff!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species (1 photographic life bird: Long-eared Owl)

Posted by skwclar 04:03 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Palos w/the Tolzmanns

Cook County, IL

overcast 34 °F


This afternoon Simon, Peter, and Andrea Tolzmann joined me for a day of exploring the Palos Preserves in search of the specialty birds they have to offer. They picked up Carolina Wren before I arrived, and soon we met at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center where, as usual, the feeders were bustling with activity. Highlighted here is a RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER with a HOUSE SPARROW (left) and AMERICAN TREE SPARROW (right) among AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES.

And pretty soon I spotted a RED-HEADED WOODPECKER swoop in which was a nice surprise — they are scarce in the winter! My first of the year.

Our next stop at a preserve further west was dead, so we continued to Ford Rd where I proceeded to successfully get the car’s wheels stuck in some ice while trying to park on the side of the road. Yikes! Thankfully, the Tolzmanns were there to help by providing towels to put underneath the wheels for traction — I gunned it in reverse as they pushed against the hood and it worked like a charm! Thank you thank you! Interestingly enough we also witnessed another car do the exact same thing right after I parked somewhere else, and they got their 2-wheel drive vehicle stuck a little worse — about ten minutes of pushing the vehicle and coaching through wheel motions — and it did the trick again!

Meanwhile a nice group of EASTERN BLUEBIRDS seemed unphased by the vehicular commotion:

Simon spotted a NORTHERN HARRIER way out over Bergman Slough which was cool:

And at the seed area, there were plenty of DARK-EYED JUNCOS, TUFTED TITMICE, and AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS — all represented here in this photo:


A calling RED-SHOULDERED HAWK was a nice addition to the year list for this location.

The best sighting at Cap Sauers was this PILEATED WOODPECKER which was flying about and acting quite territorial. Awesome!

A quick final stop at McClaughry Springs for the day was slow but did produce BROWN CREEPER which was nice:

So a great day out! Bird-of-the-day for me goes to the stunning Red-headed Woodpecker with runners-up to the Red-shouldered Hawk and Pileated Woodpecker. I’m also grateful I could get the car out easily!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species

Posted by skwclar 04:02 Archived in USA Comments (3)

January Big Day & Brant Chase

Cook County, IL

semi-overcast 34 °F

Isoo and I started off the new year on January 3 by conducting a January Big Day to see if we could break the record set the day earlier. We had moderately good luck in the morning in the Palos starting with two GREAT HORNED OWLS pre-dawn and a few helpful pick-ups like bonus BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDS at Sagawau Canyon Nature Center:

And it was good to clinch WHITE-THROATED SPARROW early in the day at Saganashkee Slough which unfortunately was frozen over:

We picked up a few more Palos specialties like PILEATED WOODPECKER, TUFTED TITMOUSE, and CAROLINA WREN so then continued to our next stop which was Diversey Ave Basin on the North Branch of the Chicago Reever where we picked up BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and this PIED-BILLED GREBE:

RUDDY DUCK was an important pick-up at North Ave basin and then we continued on to the Lincoln Park Zoo where we picked up the wild ducks which hang out with the stocked waterfowl there: AMERICAN WIGEON, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, and this WOOD DUCK:

Next stop — Solidarity Drive next to the Planetarium where we chummed for gulls and luckily picked up this gorgeous immature Thayer’s ICELAND GULL, super cool!

Next stop: Washington Park where we snagged NORTHERN SHOVELER in a tiny little area of open water and the CACKLING GEESE that have been overwintering with the larger and larger-billed CANADA GEESE:

At Rainbow Beach, we picked up most of the Aythya ducks for the day: GREATER SCAUP, REDHEAD, and not pictured here, LESSER SCAUP, but we annoyingly missed Canvasback which were there the day earlier! Argh!

Next stop: Calumet Park where we got our target quickly: NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL! I’d never actually seen one before in Illinois so this was an awesome sighting. We also picked up MONK PARAKEET at the nearby Skyway Bridge.

So it was off to Wolf Lake where we missed Northern Mockingbird and Trumpeter Swan but picked up a surprise calling NORTHERN BOBWHITE, NORTHERN HARRIER, BALD EAGLE, MUTE SWANS, and these COMMON REDPOLLS:

And Indian Ridge Marsh came through with my Illinois life bird NORTHERN SHRIKE which was suuuuper awesome!


Big Marsh was dead but luckily O’Brien Lock and Dam pulled through with the overwintering WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS.

Next stop: Bend of the Little Calumet River where we picked up HOODED MERGANSER and this DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT:


Turtlehead Lake Forest Preserve was a dip on Red-breasted Nuthatch but thankfully Isoo pulled a SHORT-EARED OWL sitting impossibly far out at Killdeer Wetland, putting us at 67 species for the day.

At the Ridgeland Ave. farm fields south of there, we lucked into a group of at least 30 HORNED LARK:

With a LAPLAND LONGSPUR mixed in! These were #68 and #69 for the day respectively and we needed 75 to break the record...was not gonna happen since the sun had already set and we could only possibly pick up two more owl species for the day.

So, we gave it our best shot, snagged a BARRED OWL (#70) in Orland Park, but yet again missed Eastern Screech-Owl in Palos despite trying desperately for it. Well, 70 would have to do for the day which is still a great total for any day in the winter. So, it was a GREAT day with a lot of quality winter birds seen — Iceland Gull, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Common Redpoll, and Lapland Longspur are all great pick-ups for the winter.

This past monday, Tian and I headed to Montrose to hopefully find a super-rare bird for the Midwest: Brant! I’ve only ever seen one in Illinois and that was the only other one to have shown up in recent history, so this would be a darn good bird if found.

We headed to the harbor where it was last reported to find some other waterfowl like LESSER SCAUP:

COMMON GOLDENEYE drake and hen:

An AMERICAN BLACK DUCK feeding with the MALLARDS — the Black Duck was new for 2021:

Tian in front of many of her favorite birds — CANADA GEESE:

Then, a friendly birder pointed us to the western edge of the harbor where we found it — BRANT! A tiny goose scarcely larger than a Mallard and with a beautiful white neck band that is distinctive. Awesome bird!!!

We then headed to the Magic Hedge to see if we could find some uncommon wintering birds there including Lincoln’s & Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark. The more common NORTHERN CARDINALS were giving stunning views in the afternoon light:

And it was sweet to get some killer looks at this COMMON REDPOLL before my camera died:

It was a successful chase and a great day out with Tian! So bird-wise, a pleasant start to 2021 despite the happenings in our country...

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species

Posted by skwclar 04:09 Archived in USA Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 6) Page [1] 2 » Next