A Travellerspoint blog

June 2020

Some birding, some herping

all seasons in one day 85 °F

Recently, I have had a few interesting bird sightings in my neighborhood, probably most notably of which is a CAROLINA WREN that has been seen and heard singing in my alley this week. Prior to this week, I have only ever seen this species ONCE in Oak Park! So very cool!

Today, I headed to the Palos area for some birding, but foremost in my mind, herping. Although it is quite late in the season for herping around here (prime salamander time is March & April), there were a lot of rain showers this morning and the overall damp feeling of today gave me a good feeling that salamanders might be out and about in the preserves (since in rains like this, their underground burrows can flood).

I arrived and almost immediately started seeing Blue-spotted Salamanders, the most expected type in the county. This species is endemic to Great Lakes’ hardwood forests. Other less-common salamander possibilities I had in mind for today, though definitely a longshot for any of them, included Unisexual Mole, Eastern Tiger, Spotted, or Eastern Newt/Eft. Many more species can be found downstate.

After flipping about twenty logs (a relatively small number), my eyes POPPED OUT OF MY HEAD because I had just struck gold — I found one of my most coveted salamander species, the SPOTTED SALAMANDER!!!! This species can be easily distinguished from the Blue-spotted above by, well, the color of the spots! Also, the Spotted has a bit of a larger, more protruding head when compared to the Blue-spotted if you look hard enough. The Spotted is also much rarer in Cook County; of all of my friends who like this sort of thing, only one has seen a Spotted, once, in Cook County. So this was kind a big deal and I was trying my best not to totally freak out about finding one. Especially in June!!!!!

So, my hopes were set on getting a third salamander species/species complex today in order to get a “trifecta” — my hopes were set on Unisexual Mole Salamander, which I had had once at this location in the past. I trudged through the forest, working up quite a sweat, taking note of the birds around me and enjoying one-on-one time with mother nature.

It was fairly birdy, but since my focus was herping, I kept my camera in my bag for most of the time so it wouldn’t get dirty. I did get it out, though, when I spotted a pretty, mid-sized passerine in the trees across a cleaning: blotchy yellow and red plumage means only one thing: an immature male SUMMER TANAGER! This is my first-ever sighting of this species in the Palos Preserves north of the Sag Valley Canal. Super awesome and a very uncommon bird for Cook.

After over a hour and a half of working up a sweat in the afternoon heat and getting my hands absolutely filthy by flipping logs, I happened upon a larger salamander with a very subtle dark blue wash on the bottom instead of bright blue spots: this was a clear Unisexual Mole Salamander! This type’s DNA is complex and cannot be nailed down to the species-level but is definitely a separate type from the others seen today! This type can reproduce on its own, hence the name unisexual. An awesome creature!!!

Bird-of-the-day to the Summer Tanager. Creature-of-the-day, though, of course goes to my lifer Spotted Salamander. I hope you guys can tolerate all these non-bird photos but ever since my friend Simon tipped me off to finding salamanders in Cook County (and now, other places too), I have been HOOKED! This goes to show that even with a specific interest like birding, there is always a chance to broaden one’s focus to learn about other parts of nature — birds are just one small, but absolutely integral, part of larger ecosystems that we, humanity, are tasked with preserving.

Good birding!
World Life List: 1120 Species

Posted by skwclar 18:53 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Miller Meadow Guided Tour

Miller Meadow Forest Preserve, IL

sunny 73 °F

Early this morning I led a guided tour to Miller Meadow Forest Preserve to search for Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos, Sedge Wrens, and Dickcissels among other things with Kim H and Susie N.

Basically upon stepping out of the car I had a YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO in the trees above the parking lot which was awesome to get one of our target birds right off the bat:

A male EASTERN BLUEBIRD in the area was also nice:


Upon arriving to the meadow, there was a good number of singing DICKCISSELS which is always nice to get in the little overgrown, weedy prairie that Miller has to offer. If they did some restoration, I’m sure the place could hold a lot more grassland birds. We also had a single each BOBOLINK & EASTERN MEADOWLARK.

WILLOW FLYCATCHER was also nice:


We checked for Sedge Wren and Black-billed Cuckoo out by the marshy pond (thanks to Jill A for the tip!) on the east side of the North Meadow but came up empty, instead finding a GREAT BLUE HERON and this single WOOD DUCK. Next time!

It was still a nice outing and great to be guiding. I had my doubts about guiding at first but since I have had years of experience through Oak Park Bird Walks I am happy to begin doing this. To reserve a guided birding trip with me, please email me at: [email protected]

Bird-of-the-day to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo with runners-up to the Dickcissels.
Good birding,
World Life List: 1120 Species

Posted by skwclar 06:54 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Cap Sauer Holding Species Slam with Tian!

Cap Sauer Holding Forest Preserve, IL

all seasons in one day 75 °F

After getting up a bit before 7 and driving to “Cap,” Tian and I were out of the car along Ford Road and ready to see some birds! My targets for the day included woodland birds at Cap: Summer Tanager, Pileated Woodpecker, Veery, Hooded Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush. Then, I was hoping to head over to John Duffy Preserve to search for White-eyed & Bell’s Vireos & Yellow-breasted Chat.

As reported by other birders, I heard the one male BLUE GROSBEAK that has been frequenting the Ford Road area almost as soon as I left the car! It was extremely obliging — I love to view and photograph this beautiful species.

Upon walking eastward on the green trail through the woods, we started racking up the species! EASTERN TOWHEE:

Both male and female INDIGO BUNTINGS abounded:

Then, Tian said “woodpecker right up there!” and lo and behold, there was a PILEATED WOODPECKER on a tree right above the trail! Great spot, Tian! It flew off and landed a bit away for a single photo:

When we got to a thicker, lusher part of the woodland, I played the VEERY song and one immediately rushed in to start singing:


A male ORCHARD ORIOLE that carried some bugs to his nest! Awesome:

Then, I heard the unmistakable “peet-sah!” of an ACADIAN FLYCATCHER and one soon came into view with a little searching:

I kept on hearing a loud “chink!” note coming from the bottomland forest understory but couldn’t locate it or call it in for the life of me. We soon came to a small bridge over a stagnant-looking stream and an idea popped into my head: I should try for Louisiana Waterthrush which has been seen here recently. I played the waterthrush song and immediately, in shot a male LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH flying so fast I could hardly track it! Luckily, after some tracking down, it sat long enough for some photography. Awesome bird — Cap Sauer is a historical location for this species but in recent years it has been pretty much non-existent (or non-detected) so it was super awesome to see this extremely-local species in northern Illinois.

Amazing! The birds were also active on the way back such as this NORTHERN FLICKER:

Upon getting back to the car, I walked across Ford Rd and bushwhacked a bit into Bergman Slough to look for grassland birds. And grassland birds, I found, such as this nice HENSLOW’S SPARROW:

Back at the trailhead, we enjoyed the fact that somebody had left out seeds for the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks, and Tian and I got positively enchanting looks at this RED-HEADED WOODPECKER — my best looks ever of this species:large_27A11FC5-E8AE-4E09-B120-A48255B01AD4.jpeglarge_4AD22C63-9768-4213-BE66-09EDEA26EB07.jpeglarge_EC348430-74F9-455D-8960-BE08F472932E.jpeglarge_F344DE8C-BCC6-45EC-89EA-EC3BDF150F11.jpeglarge_AA899234-8BA8-48FA-B9DC-836B51475021.jpeg


We drove over to Will-Cook Road to give one last look for Blue-winged Warbler and Summer Tanager. GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER was present:

And then, I heard a sweet, warbly song which indeed turned out to be the song of a first-year male SUMMER TANAGER — blotchy red and yellow! Super cool-looking bird and a great, great species for Cook County that is hard to track down.large_B6A86D6D-E753-4D3D-9007-F2816E870BE1.jpeg

Considering we had done extremely well with our targets at Cap Sauer finding almost all of them, as well as 58 species in total, we booked it with little time to nearby John J Duffy Preserve in Lemont in search of the aforementioned specialty shrubland birds.

I ran into one of my friends Jeff Skrentny, and of course when Jeff is around, the scope gets widened to searching for other small creatures! We found an impressive array of little creatures including a teeny-tiny American Toad and this cool Wolf Spider:

And most notably, this Question Mark which is an amazing find!

And it is aptly-named (if you have an imagination) as you can see:

Unfortunately, no time to chase my target birds, but it was still an amazing morning out with Tian! So awesome! Bird-of-the-day to the Summer Tanager which is a very tough one to nail down at any of their “more reliable” locations at Cook — runners-up to the Blue Grosbeak & Louisiana Waterthrush, two other tough species in the county!

Good birding!
World Life List: 1121 Species

Posted by skwclar 19:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Day 3: Moving back northward

sunny 93 °F


Isoo and I were up soon after 5am and on the road to try for some eastern Illinois targets: Loggerhead Shrike, Barn Owl, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Upland Sandpiper.

A bit of birding around Ferne Clyffe State Park yielded KENTUCKY WARBLER, ACADIAN FLYCATCHER, FISH CROW, YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER, and more common ones like this EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE:

Our first location, a random pair of country roads known from eBird to hold the shrikes, was decent for birds and had this silhouetted EASTERN BLUEBIRD:


This shrike-patterned bird had us for a second, but soon it was revealed it was the much-more-common-down-there NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD:

At a second location for the shrike, we frustratingly struck out again but picked up this GRASSHOPPER SPARROW.


We headed to one wetland reserve in hopes of Barn Owl, King Rail, Least Bittern, and others, but frustratingly struck out on ALL OF EM! Dang — we even located the Barn Owl box and tried our best impressions of Barn Owl calls, to no avail...

Isoo didn’t want to wade through waist-high grasses to get to the wetland area and I wasn’t too keen either since it was a hot, sunny day by then so we unfortunately dipped on all three targets there, too. We were beginning to say, “jeez, this day is ass...”

At a gas stop we picked up EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE:

Our route took us through Olney, IL which is famous for its albino squirrel population. It took a surprising bit of cruising around before we located one near the aptly named “White Squirrel Drive.”


Next stop: Bartel Preserve for the Greater Prairie-Chickens — nada.
At a random country road north of Champaign for Upland Sandpiper, we saw one bird that fit the description so much that I would call it an UPLAND SANDPIPER but it was such a brief fly-by that Isoo wouldn’t call it. We tried and tried to relocate but with no luck. THIS was particularly infuriating.

Finally, by evening we had made it back to Cook County where we checked the Hemlick Preserve which was dry, but nearby Bartel Grasslands added a few species to our trip list including VIRGINIA RAIL, MARSH & SEDGE WRENS, BOBOLINK, & SWAMP SPARROW.

We hopped back in the car and hopped to Burnham Prairie in hopes of a King Rail seen there fairly recently...it was a bit more birdy there with a MUTE SWAN family with an impressive seven cygnets:


Female ORCHARD ORIOLE, a nice species for this location in the summer:


One big surprise was a brief look at a flying AMERICAN BITTERN which quickly dropped down into the marsh. This is an extremely scarce species, barely staying in northern Illinois in the summer, so it was super cool to see even though I didn’t manage any photos. Dang it!

With the sunset came the fact that yet again we had dipped on King Rail. Sometimes, you just have days like that!

One last trip bird, a COMMON NIGHTHAWK was heard at a 5-second stop behind OPRF High School to pick up another species for the trip before Isoo dropped me off at home. The trip list is below.

Bird-of-the-day to the American Bittern with runner-up to the Fish Crows back at Ferne Clyffe State Park. 2/3 days on a trip being extremely productive is still a great trip! One explanation for our poor luck on the last day was the hot temperature, topping out at 93 degrees at one point. 3 lifers, 132 species, and many Illinois lifers (and 1100+ miles covered) and year birds are not a small feat! Stay tuned: tomorrow, I (and possibly my friends Isoo and Simon) will bird some Palos preserves including Cap Sauer Holding, McGinty Slough, and maybe Swallow Cliff Woods. Should be fun, and hoping for some nice Cook County birds!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1121 Species

1. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
2. Canada Goose
3. Mute Swan
4. Wood Duck
5. Blue-winged Teal
6. Mallard
7. Red-breasted Merganser
8. Northern Bobwhite
9. Ring-necked Pheasant
10. Pied-billed Grebe
11. Rock Pigeon
12. Eurasian Collared-Dove
13. Mourning Dove
14. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
15. Chuck-will’s-widow LIFE BIRD X 2!!
16. Eastern Whip-poor-will
17. Chimney Swift
18. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
19. Virginia Rail
20. American Coot
21. Sandhill Crane
22. Black-necked Stilt IL LIFER
23. Killdeer
24. Ring-billed Gull
25. Least Tern IL LIFER
26. Caspian Tern
27. Double-crested Cormorant
28. Neotropic Cormorant
29. American White Pelican
30. Great Blue Heron
31. Great Egret
32. Snowy Egret
33. Little Blue Heron IL LIFER
34. Cattle Egret IL LIFER
35. Green Heron
36. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron IL LIFER
37. Black Vulture IL LIFER
38. Turkey Vulture
39. Mississippi Kite LIFE BIRD!
40. Cooper’s Hawk
41. Bald Eagle
42. Red-shouldered Hawk
43. Red-tailed Hawk
44. Barred Owl
45. Red-headed Woodpecker
46. Red-bellied Woodpecker
47. Downy Woodpecker
48. Hairy Woodpecker
49. Pileated Woodpecker
50. Northern Flicker
51. American Kestrel
52. Eastern Wood-Pewee
53. Acadian Flycatcher
54. Eastern Phoebe
55. Great Crested Flycatcher
56. Eastern Kingbird
57. White-eyed Vireo
58. Bell’s Vireo
59. Yellow-throated Vireo
60. Warbling Vireo
61. Red-eyed Vireo
62. Blue Jay
63. American Crow
64. Fish Crow IL LIFER
65. Carolina Chickadee
66. Tufted Titmouse
67. Horned Lark
68. Bank Swallow
69. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
70. Tree Swallow
71. Purple Martin
72. Barn Swallow
73. Cliff Swallow
74. White-breasted Nuthatch
75. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
76. House Wren
77. Sedge Wren
78. Marsh Wren
79. Carolina Wren
80. European Starling
81. Gray Catbird
82. Brown Thrasher
83. Northern Mockingbird
84. Eastern Bluebird
85. Wood Thrush
86. American Robin
87. Cedar Waxwing
88. House Sparrow
89. House Finch
90. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
91. American Goldfinch
92. Grasshopper Sparrow
93. Lark Sparrow
94. Chipping Sparrow
95. Field Sparrow
96. Henslow’s Sparrow
97. Song Sparrow
98. Swamp Sparrow
99. Eastern Towhee
100. Yellow-breasted Chat
101. Bobolink
102. Eastern Meadowlark
103. Western Meadowlark IL LIFER
104. Orchard Oriole
105. Baltimore Oriole
106. Red-winged Blackbird
107. Brown-headed Cowbird
108. Common Grackle
109. Ovenbird
110. Worm-eating Warbler
111. Louisiana Waterthrush
112. Prothonotary Warbler
113. Kentucky Warbler
114. Common Yellowthroat
115. Hooded Warbler
116. American Redstart
117. Cerulean Warbler
118. Northern Parula
119. Yellow Warbler
120. Pine Warbler
121. Yellow-throated Warbler
122. Prairie Warbler
123. Summer Tanager
124. Scarlet Tanager
125. Northern Cardinal
126. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
127. Blue Grosbeak IL LIFER
128. Indigo Bunting
129. Dickcissel
130. Black-crowned Night-Heron
131. American Bittern
132. Common Nighthawk

  • last three species not in taxonomic order because they were added late in the trip

Posted by skwclar 14:58 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Day 2: Cleaning up the S IL specialties

semi-overcast 80 °F

DAY 2 TARGETS: Cerulean, Kentucky, Worm-eating, Prairie, Yellow-throated, & other warblers, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Fish Crow, Mississippi Kite, Least Tern, Black Vulture.

Today was Isoo’s and my one full day in the southern tip of Illinois and we absolutely made the most of it. We had a full itinerary covering the range of habitats down here and were up before 5, listening to CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOWS which were calling even closer to the road than last night at the campground. Dope!

We were soon on our way to the Cave Creek area near Pomona, IL in western Shawnee National Forest in search of hopefully all of the possible breeding warbler species around here. We were, of course, stopped by birds along the way including NORTHERN BOBWHITE:

And upon arriving, Isoo and I quickly spished down a male CERULEAN WARBLER who posed for my worst photo ever of this species. A great one to “clean up” early and the only one we had today!

Just for the hell of it, we played the unlikely Swainson’s Warbler song in a good-looking habitat in popped one angry bird: not a Swainson’s, but the LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH who must have been confused by the Swainson’s extremely-similar song:


And a female SUMMER TANAGER:

Soon, we had picked up a number of great warblers including YELLOW, YELLOWTHROAT, REDSTART, PARULA, WORM-EATING, HOODED, KENTUCKY, PROTHONOTARY, & at a nice stand of pines, a YELLOW-THROATED and this PINE! We were totally sweeping the warblers and only had Prairie & Blue-winged left for the expected ones down here this time of year.

On our way to our next location, Big Muddy Levee Road, we drove along some beautiful winding roads through the forested bluffs down here. Birds were active including a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK, our Illinois state lifer FISH CROWS, and of course more common ones as well.

I moved two Eastern Box Turtles off the road this morning.

We finally made it to Big Muddy Levee Rd where the habitat was impressively Floridian and the birdlife somewhat reflected that. RED-HEADED WOODPECKER:

SNOWY EGRET way out (picked out from 150+ GREAT EGRETS), another one of our targets!

CATTLE EGRET, awesome to see again:

We saw a couple very distant possible candidates at first, but were offered clinching views when I spotted two LITTLE BLUE HERONS fly overhead, a tough bird for Illinois and definitely a sign that we are half-way to the Gulf of Mexico! *from Chicago

I also had to move a female Red-eared Slider off the road and she promptly started pissing on me. Thanks, ma’am.

After an unsuccessful stop at the famous “Snake Road” to check for a beautiful salamander species called a Cave Salamander, we were back on Highway 3 headed south to the Cape Girardeau area in search of my lifer Mississippi Kites. We drove quickly passed a retention pond, and upon seeing two darkish ducks with pink bills, I shouted in a squeaky, excited voice “WHISTLING DUCKS! WHISTLING DUCKS!” Isoo turned the car around and we got this species, BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCK, which can be considered “casual” around here as it is certainly not one of the more expected species, but it is probably one of the most common “wandering-rare ones.” Still, an amazing bonus for the trip!!!

The Cape Girardeau floodplain area held more LITTLE BLUE HERONS, including an immature, which were so cool to see in Illinois. We kept saying that it feels like Florida!

And lo and behold, I spotted not one, two, or three, but FIFTY-THREE MISSISSIPPI KITES hawking for dragonflies over the floodplain! The experience of gaining this life bird could probably never be outdone — it is extremely seldom when you get 53 of any lifer together, especially if that lifer is a raptor species — just insane and another great thing about the crazy birding down here! It was also interesting because I only saw one other the rest of the day!

A BLACK-NECKED STILT also appeared in the floodplain while watching the kites.

Isoo and I enjoyed lunch in a beautiful cypress swamp, serenaded by singing PROTHONOTARY WARBLERS. Not bad!

Our next stop was down in one of the southernmost places in Illinois, a very flat, muddy area called “Glen Small Levee” where we promptly found our state lifer LEAST TERNS flying about and occasionally diving for prey. It was a super acrobatic show and awesome to see. This is another extremely local bird for Illinois.

Next, we headed eastward to the Lower Cache River Area in search of Black Vultures. On the way, Isoo suggested we open the windows in the perfect habitat for Prairie Warbler and sure enough, within a minute of his saying that, I heard a faint ascending song behind us meaning we had just passed a male PRAIRIE WARBLER! We hopped out, spished, and the bird flew right on. Now THAT is called cleaning up some nice target birds!

Unfortunately, we missed the vulture but I did have a WHITE-EYED VIREO singing at the parking lot at Lower Cache (they are common down here).

Next stop, Cache River Wetland Center for anything that might have been around (we were loosely hoping for Anhinga, a true rarity of cypress swamps), but of course that one didn’t materialize out of thin air. What did though, was a male SUMMER TANAGER that flew into the tree next to us! These birds are common as can be down here.


Next stop: Cypress Creek tract for Swainson’s Warbler. It was a longshot since the bird was last reported May 9 and details were not given, but we thought we’d give it a shot since it would be our only chance at this extremely hard-to-find species. BLUE GROSBEAK on the way in:

We hiked in quite a bit and taped Swainson’s Warbler in all of the likely-looking spots. PROTHONOTARY WARBLERS were everywhere which was a good sign, but...
Unfortunately, no Swainson’s, as we expected. It was a true longshot though as, even in this bird’s “regular” range, it is an extremely irregular, uncommon bird, somewhat like the Connecticut up north. On our way back to Ferne Clyffe State Park in the late afternoon, Isoo and I spotted a good candidate for Black Vulture fly by as we whizzed past on a country road. We pulled past a stand of trees and unfortunately couldn’t locate the bird, until we looked behind us to see the bird perched on a pole! BLACK VULTURE — AMAZING! Our final target for the day was tracked down — that’s a 100% success rate for our true target birds today (for Swainson’s we didn’t even get our hopes up).

Isoo and I herped a partially-dry river bed in Ferne Clyffe in search of any salamanders inhabiting the pools of water, and we almost immediately had luck, and with a VERY uncommon species: Long-tailed Salamander! Amazingly beautiful and different from our species up north. Southern IL has 20+ salamander species so we were super stoked to get a lifer herp. I was even more stoked when my friend Simon notified me that species is even less common than the Cave Salamander we missed earlier.

Green Frogs were also around:

I also caught a CRAYFISH of all things using two flat stones to scoop it out of the water. We believe this is a Northern Crayfish but will stand corrected easily.

The hiking area was absolutely gorgeous; a waterfall cascades over these rocks in the spring months but was down to a trickle with the recent lack of rain.

We ended an incredible day again with 4 singing CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW at and near the campground, SO COOL! Bird-of-the-day to my life bird Mississippi Kites with runners-up to the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Little Blue Herons, & Least Terns. Such an incredible birdscape down here.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1121 Species (1 life bird today: Mississippi Kite)

Posted by skwclar 16:36 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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