A Travellerspoint blog

December Big Day

Cook County, IL

snow 36 °F

Sorry about the false alarm earlier — I accidentally clicked “post” before I was actually finished writing here so I deleted the post immediately after. But finally, here it is — last weekend’s big day report!

Sunday, Isoo O, Jake C & I set out to break the December single-county big day record in Illinois. Since we had the entire next evening for owling (and the conditions looked good for it), we decided a moderate start time of 6:30am would do the trick. So our day started off at Plum Creek Forest Preserve in Sauk Trail and as soon as we got out of our cars, I heard our first bird of the day hooting in the distance: a pair of GREAT HORNED OWLS duetting! Super cool. FYI — this big day was done with separate vehicles and masks all day so we were properly safe.


Then, the local pair of BARRED OWLS started hooting as well! Super awesome! We even tracked one down hooting right above the trail.

Due to the fast-paced nature of the big day, we could only admire for a short time, but I was able to get a short clip of its amazing call (from fifteen feet away!) at this youtube link:

Next stop were the Lynwood farm fields where our targets were Ring-necked Pheasant and Horned Lark, and although we dipped on both we did pick up AMERICAN KESTREL and this NORTHERN FLICKER:

After that, it was off to Cap Sauer Holding in Palos where it was snowing (off and on precipitation the whole day), but we thankfully snagged a really tough bird there — PILEATED WOODPECKER. The usual seed that is strewn about the trailhead was absent, probably due to weather, so we gave up hopes trying to find other birds there fairly soon after and continued on to Sagawau Nature Center. Here we picked up our only definitive RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD for the day, sitting here with AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES and HOUSE FINCHES:

PINE SISKINS were another addition to the day list here:

Next stop — Saganashkee Slough where we added a number of things including another passerine we were hoping not to miss today — CEDAR WAXWING:

Waterbirds added here included HERRING & RING-BILLED GULLS, my first Illinois COMMON GOLDENEYE of the year (lol), COMMON MERGANSERS, and these HOODED & RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS:

We dipped on the continuing Eurasian Tree Sparrow at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center so then headed back east to the Calumet region, specifically Harborside Golfcourse...to find the gates CLOSED! Arghhhh! With the gates closed, we had an automatic miss on species like Canvasback, Ring-necked & Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, and possibly others. Isoo said at that point we should just call it a day and bird casually, but Jake and I convinced him that it would be worth continuing since there are just so few December big day records for the state.

So, we somewhat half-heartedly kept on birding at Big Marsh where we picked up NORTHERN PINTAIL with these MALLARDS:

As well as BALD EAGLE, pictured here with a RING-BILLED GULL:

And our only MUTE SWANS of the day:

Indian Ridge Marsh added NORTHERN SHOVELER & GADWALL to our count, our only location with Shoveler sunday. With these new additions, we picked up the pace again and were once again on a roll.

PEREGRINE FALCON on a tower — a fantastic scope job by Isoo!

At Lake Calumet we dipped on Canvasback & Trumpeter Swan since the gate was closed and we didn’t have time to walk all the way to the dike road, but we did pick up our other target there — our only COMMON REDPOLLS of the day:

And we picked up this GREATER SCAUP on the way out, which we thought was Lesser until we gave the photos a closer inspection. Lessers have a more blocky-looking head with the highest point of the crown appearing further back than Greaters.

After a surprising dip on Monk Parakeets at their nests under the Skyway Bridge (first time we’ve ever dipped there!), we continued on to Rainbow Beach Park. A COOPER’S HAWK sitting alongside Lake Shore Drive on the way there was our only one of the day and Isoo and I managed to get on it, but not Jake. Dirty bird!

SWAMP SPARROW was an addition at Rainbow:


REDHEAD, a new addition for the day, sticking out among LESSER & (predominantly) GREATER SCAUP:

HORNED GREBE, our only for the day:

We were running just 3-5 minutes behind schedule at this point, so keeping fairly good time, and hurried off to Washington Park to snag CACKLING GOOSE. Jake came in clutch and spotted 3 within 2 minutes of arriving so we were off again quickly. Look at that small bill!

Next was our most strenuous part of the day: Lincoln Park Zoo & North Pond. It would be nearly impossible to find street parking for three vehicles close to each other so we opted to park in the Zoo lot but this only gave us thirty minutes to bird both locations for free before we had to pay $25 per vehicle. So, we SPRINTED! And boy was I winded — running with boots is not the move, but I forgot/didn’t have time to change shoes. At least we got every last one of our targets at these locations — AMERICAN WIGEON & AMERICAN BLACK DUCKS with the MALLARDS at the zoo. Yes, these are confirmed wild birds.

Our only wild GREEN-WINGED TEAL of the day with more Mallards and a captive Barrow’s Goldeneye:

We dashed across Fullerton Ave to North Pond, scoped the pond and Isoo spotted this BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON on the far end of the pond.

And on the way out I found a long-lingering NASHVILLE WARBLER which we all got views of before running back to the cars! We started the engines, cruised out, and made it out in under 26 minutes. And with all our targets! Cool!

Montrose Point was tricky because we had to find street parking on Marine Drive (it is once again completely closed to cars), but we managed by sprinting in again (this time I changed into sneakers) and snagging the lone SNOW GOOSE that continues here with the Canadas:

I picked up another dirty bird for the day here, FIELD SPARROW, which unfortunately I couldn’t get my buddies on before it disappeared into the brush. At least we got enough species to count 3 dirty birds, our exact dirty bird count for the day! AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS were hanging out:

And a new addition for the day I spotted was this WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW:

Next, we hurried back to the cars and drove the 45 minutes down south to Killdeer Wetland in Tinley Park in search of Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier. Jake and I beat Isoo and we quickly found this SHORT-EARED OWL which was luckily still flying around when Isoo pulled up:

And a NORTHERN HARRIER soon joined a second owl that started flying around, as well. Super awesome! We made an unsuccessful stop at a pine stand for Red-breasted Nuthatch (a strange miss for the day), and the continued south to the Ridgeland Avenue farm fields where we picked up our last “daytime” bird for the day: calling HORNED LARKS just after sunset! That was quite a relief since we missed that species in the morning.

So, it was off to get a bite to eat and enjoy an absolutely wonderful day of big day birding. I ate delicious home-prepared food by Tian in order to stay safe from covid, FYI.

Now, we had the whole evening ahead of us to try for the rest of the owls we were missing: most likely Eastern Screech, but also possibly Northern Saw-whet, and even less likely, Long-eared or Barn. A stop back at Bartel Grassland was unproductive so we drove west again to try several locations in Palos. At our first location, we tried several times unsuccessfully for Screech, and finally tried a few times for Saw-whet since they had been detected at this location in the past, and after a few minutes, Isoo thought he heard a weird twitter.

So, we listened even more carefully and soon enough a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL gave its “comb” call much closer this time. We were ecstatic. It was Isoo’s first since the spring (this man has had a crazy big year this year), Jake’s first since 2013, and my first in a few years since the cooperative individuals in Central Park NY. This owl also gave an assortment of barks and whines which was super cool and I even managed to record one of them. Species #69 for the day, and a dang good one at that! Plus, this Saw-whet made sunday my first-ever 4-owl day! Super awesome.

We tried several locations after that, including Miller Meadow where we had another hooting Great Horned, and GAR & Thatcher Woods, but came up empty on Screech-Owl which is ironic since that is usually the “easiest” to get in the county.

So, we wrapped up an extremely successful — RECORD BREAKING — December big day! The previous county record was 65 from Lake County, so we set a new record! Super cool. And we could totally do better in the future since Harborside was closed making us miss several key waterfowl species, as well as some super obvious dips: White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Screech-Owl, and Monk Parakeet. List for the day is below.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species

Snow Goose
Cackling Goose IL YEAR BIRD
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Wood Duck
Northern Shoveler
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye IL YEAR BIRD
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Horned Grebe
Mourning Dove
Feral Pigeon
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Blue Heron
Northern Harrier
Cooper’s Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Short-eared Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl IL YEAR BIRD
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
House Sparrow
House Finch
Purple Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Nashville Warbler
Northern Cardinal

Posted by skwclar 04:41 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Scouting the Palos Region

Cook County, IL

sunny 39 °F

On wednesday I spent the entire day birding the Palos region of Cook in preparation for my december big day coming up TOMORROW (!) with Isoo and Jake. I started off at Centennial Park in search of waterfowl, and maybe some finches. HOODED MERGANSERS never disappoint!

And SWAMP SPARROW is always a decent find in the wintertime around here:

Next stop was Orland Grassland where I lucked into a GREAT HORNED OWL. Love spending time was these gorgeous creatures.

Then, back of LaGrange road to McGinnis Slough where a distant HERRING ruled over a group of smaller RING-BILLED GULLS.

And KILLDEER was a good pickup there too — a nice one for december! Next stop: McClaughry Springs Woods to try for Pileated Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, and any other passerines that might be around. BROWN CREEPER was nice to see:

Was super happy to pick up CAROLINA WREN there — can be a tough bird in Cook County:

Next stop — Ford Rd for Tufted Titmouse. WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH:


NORTHERN FLICKER across the road in Bergman Slough:

Next stop: RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH at Camp Sagawau Nature Center:


That’s when I noticed the SANDHILL CRANE migration starting to wind up for the day!

At my next stop, Saganashkee Slough, the migration continued:

And it was great to see two BELTED KINGFISHERS there as well:

It was a great day! Hopefully these birds stick around for my big day tomorrow. Bird-of-the-day to the GREAT HORNED OWL with runner-up to the CAROLINA WREN.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species

Posted by skwclar 21:18 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Crying for cranes


semi-overcast 43 °F

Yesterday, I dragged Tian and Pearl along with me so I could search for a very rare sophomore bird: the Whooping Crane. With less than 1K individuals left in the wild and the fact that I had only ever seen this bird once before (and for just about five seconds as a flyover above some treetops), I was really hoping to find this bird.

After about an hour and 25 minutes in the car, we arrived at the appointed location (have to keep it a secret in case for some reason the birds are still around — one is not allowed to post about this species in Illinois) to find many SANDHILL CRANES in attendance, along with CANADA GEESE:

Other waterfowl were around as well, including NORTHERN SHOVELER:

Drake GREEN-WINGED TEAL with more geese:



One of my favorite sightings of the fay was definitely this ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK, a winter visitor from the High Arctic which was a year bird for me:


And the Sandhills streamed in in numbers. First dozens, then hundreds, and I ended the day with about 2050 as a rough count.

As the last light of the day crept away from me, my hopes for the elusive Whooping Crane grew dimmer with it, despite my efforts of scanning all of the incoming Sandhill flocks in an impeccable manner. At least there was a beautiful sunset.

Well, you win some you lose some! Hopefully I can get the Whoopers next year. Happy late Thanksgiving to all!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species

Posted by skwclar 21:46 Archived in USA Comments (2)

A long day: Montrose, Evanston, and the Botanic Garden

Cook County, IL

overcast 42 °F

Today I hit several spots in Cook County: Montrose Point for anything random that might be there, Evanston for White-winged Crossbill, and the Chicago Botanic Garden for Common Redpoll and others.

I arrived at Montrose to find the continuing SURF SCOTER with the local Mergansers! Cool. Thanks to Josh E for pointing out.

Over by the fishhook pier there was a continuing GADWALL:

I had a few duck flocks fly past the pier including GREATER SCAUP — distinguished from similar members of their Aythya genus in flight by the thick white band that extends far along the trailing edge of their wings.

Another “Aythya” duck, the REDHEAD. These genus includes this species, Greater & Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and various other species:

Well this bird certainly gave me a start. Have you ever seen such a golden crown on a WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW? Well, I hadn’t until today — my friends informed me that this is within the range of normal for juvenile White-crowned (I’m assuming as the strip of the crown color transitions from a pale brownish color to white.

Next stop was Evanston where I came up empty at the feeder reporting a White-winged Crossbill yesterday. Darn! Would’ve been a nice year bird for Illinois, but it was sweet to get them in the Black Hills this past summer.

So, Isoo convinced me to follow through with my original plan to head up to the Chicago Botanic Garden as he had just had a group of 15 Crossbills there, as well as a good candidate for a Hoary Redpoll which would be a lifer for me if found! I bought a timed entry ticket for 11am and managed to get in a couple minutes early. I met Isoo as he was leaving and he pointed me in the direction of the redpolls. He wasn’t 100% on his bird but he said he got some pretty solid fieldmarks like unstreaked undertail which strongly leans Hoary as opposed to Common. The problem for me though, is that this time of year, there are DOZENS of redpolls to pick through to find that one Hoary!

GREAT BLUE HERON on the way to the Redpoll location.


Yep, finches were around — here is a PINE SISKIN:

More siskins bathing with goldfinches:

COMMON REDPOLL was a sweet year bird for me but I was definitely on the prowl for its rarer cousin, the Hoary. I counted about 65 Commons here, a pretty nice number for november.

I spent the next two hours chasing this huge flock of Commons, trying to check all of the paler-looking birds. It was pretty hopeless considering horrible overcast lighting and the flock kept flying all over the place.

A solid candidate for Hoary — thoughts? The undertail looks extremely clean from this perspective and this bird is awfully pale...

Super fat squirrel munching away...

After two and a half hours, I gave up and walked out. PIED-BILLED GREBE on the way out:

Feeling rather defeated and frustrated, I drove home...if only I had just gone straight to the Garden with Isoo this morning...

Alas, when I got home, I picked through my photos further, and BOOM! I had a super frosty redpoll with no undertail streaking and a white rump: textbook HOARY REDPOLL!!!!!! This was THE classic example of having such bad lighting in the field it was impossible to ID without reviewing and lightening up photos. So there I had it, a lifer discovered after I was done birding! Crazy.

Bird-of-the-day to the Hoary Redpoll, with runner-up to the 65 Commons. A Redpoll kinda day!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1123 Species (1 life bird today: Hoary Redpoll)

Posted by skwclar 20:31 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Miller Meadow hawkwatch & a Montrose Twitch

Cook County, IL

all seasons in one day 40 °F

A few days ago Tian and I headed to Miller Meadow to monitor any raptors that might be moving on WNW winds. And once I heard of a southbound Golden Eagle an hour of north of us, I absolutely had to get out in the slim chance it would pass by, following the Des Plaines River.

Once we got to the top of Kestrel Hill for viewing, I spotted a distant finch perched on a bare tree. Though I wish it were a Crossbill or Grosbeak, it turned out to be a PURPLE FINCH, a decent find nonetheless:

The first raptor of the afternoon, the local AMERICAN KESTREL, hawked over the hill at one point:


A fast-flying SHARP-SHINNED HAWK bolted past — a species I seldom get to photograph so this was cool:

It was a big day for SANDHILL CRANE migration — they tend to migrate in the fall on chilly days with northwesterly winds, and this was no exception.

By far the best bird-of-the-day though was a quick, unphotographed flyover of an EVENING GROSBEAK that zipped over the field, calling. Too bad I didn’t snap a pic but its “deer” “deer” “deer” call is very recognizable. Truly cool! My first one ever in Illinois. Unfortunately that Golden Eagle didn’t feel like flying by Miller, at least while I was there...

Yesterday, I was in complete agony most of the day as a Cassin’s Sparrow had been spotted by Montrose Point birder Bob Hughes early in the morning — BUT my dad was recording a recital downtown and had the car. So, I had to wait till mid-afternoon to chase this species which has only shown up three times before in Illinois.

Tian and I hopped into the car before two and headed straight to Montrose, and sure enough there was a small posse of birders including Josh E and Ian S huddled around a pine tree at the appointed location. CASSIN’S SPARROW! Life bird #1122 for me and a bird much more expected in states like Colorado and New Mexico — an absolute MEGA for Illinois and an incredible spot by Bob as this bird is the literal definition of an LBJ (little brown job). That being said, I think the bird is actually beautifully patterned in a subtle, classy way. I like its style, but then again I like any life bird.

I then dipped again on Common Redpoll which I still need for the year, so Tian and I headed a bit further south to Diversey Harbor to search for another year bird: SNOW GOOSE. We pulled up, I scanned for a few minutes, and soon spotted it as a bright speck all the way across the harbor hanging out with a gaggle of CANADA GEESE right next to LSD! Hilarious! It seemed unfazed by all of the speeding cars merely feet away.

So, it was on to the day’s fourth target: Harris’ Sparrow! This is another rarity but is encountered annually once or twice in the area so a little more expected then the Cassin’s, but only slightly. We drove down to North Pond where this bird was being seen and immediately began scanning the sparrows in the flocks present feeding on the lawn. Here it was also nice to see fellow birder Lyn who has come on my bird walks!

Its common cousin the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW:




Unfortunately, despite the Harris’ being reported to have been hanging out with the Juncos, the search for this bird was to no avail. And so yesterday was a case study in birding productivity: you win some, you lose some, BUT it is always worth trying — I got a solid life bird out of yesterday’s efforts! Love a nice Cassin’s Sparrow, my bird-of-the-day for yesterday. Runner-up to the Snow Goose. Stay tuned, and STAY SAFE!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1122 species (1 life bird: Cassin’s Sparrow)

Posted by skwclar 21:01 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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