Yesterday, my friends Isoo O, Ethan E, & Eddie K and I joined forces to put together a June Cook County Big Day (for my out of state followers: Cook County is the county which includes the City of Chicago & the surrounding suburbs). We were out to find as many species as possible in one day. Warning: this is a long post!
After staying the night at Eddie’s house (thanks to him & family for hosting us!), our alarms chirped at the sprightly time of 1:56am, and away we went! We were so excited that any drowsiness was absolutely out of the question.
Our day started at the nearby Wolf Road Prairie where our main target was American Woodcock, which we unfortunately missed there. The first bird of our day, though, was a night-singing SEDGE WREN, which I was particularly happy about because it was a bird I was moderately concerned about missing (we had it nowhere else that day). Then, its cousin the MARSH WREN began to join the nocturnal wren chatter and we had two birds for the day! A long way to go, so it was back to the car in no time...
A twenty-minute drive to Miller Meadow North Forest Preserve in Maywood had us in hopes of a screech-owl & maybe other night birds such as woodcock or nighthawk. We also hoped an axe-murderer wouldn’t jump out from behind one of the many gnarly trees there — we truly psyched ourselves out with paranoia, hah! A ten-minute walk to the “owl spot” and we played the call of an EASTERN SCREECH-OWL, which began to softly respond within five minutes. On our triumphant walk back to the car, we tried in vain for woodcock. Another bird we picked up here was a night-singing AMERICAN ROBIN — big days are a true anomaly where birders will rejoice over the most common species, such as robin & starling.
Next stop: Buttonbush Slough in the Palos Preserves area, which offered many superb additions to our list. Foremost on our list of gains there were calling LEAST BITTERN & VIRGINIA RAIL, and a few other species such as TREE SWALLOW were also chirping in the dark. Marshes are good places to check at night due to the nocturnal tendencies of many of their avian inhabitants.
After missing Barred Owl at Ford Road in northwest Orland Park, it was an almost one-hour drive to our first extended stop of the day: Plum Creek Forest Preserve in the far southeast corner of the county. We first stopped at the prairie, where many HENSLOW’S SPARROWS were singing in the crisp pre-dawn hours. It was definitely cooler-than-average for early June.
Other grassland species vocalizing included many GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS, a few BOBOLINKS, two DICKCISSELS, and many FIELD SPARROWS. As dawn approached, we picked up many fairly common but new birds for the day by ear alone, including NORTHERN CARDINAL, EASTERN TOWHEE, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, BALTIMORE ORIOLE, YELLOW WARBLER, & RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER. At the Plum Creek Play Meadow entrance, EASTERN BLUEBIRD & ORCHARD ORIOLE were nice to see, with ACADIAN FLYCATCHER, PILEATED & RED-HEADED WOODPECKERS, WOOD THRUSH, RED-EYED VIREO, & TUFTED TITMOUSE among others in the deeper woods. Brief looks at a BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO were a definite highlight. Back out near the road in the shrub, hearing a BLUE-WINGED WARBLER was a wonderful addition, although we unfortunately missed the White-eyed Vireo I had there just the other day.
Then, it was back to the Palos area where we stopped at Orland Grassland South in search of a few more openland target species. We missed our hoped-for Vesper Sparrow, but did pick up EASTERN MEADOWLARK, SAVANNAH SPARROW, & this far-away BLUE-WINGED TEAL that I spotted in the pond there:
After Orland Grassland, it was back to Cap Sauer Holding for breeding woodland bird species. Another one of my spots, this YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, was a definite highlight:
Another new bird there was this female ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK:
Additional new species there included SCARLET TANAGER as well as a few more woodland birds. A few minutes in the car, and we were at Swallow Cliff Woods South — one of our best birds there was a successfully-found but heard-only KENTUCKY WARBLER. I did photograph this high-canopy CEDAR WAXWING:
A really nice find in the parking lot was this singing male PINE WARBLER, one of two! A very uncommon breeding bird for the county which appeared to be on territory.
GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER:
Then, we were treated to absolutely incredible looks at a female Common Snapping Turtle laying eggs in a hole she appeared to have just dug. INCREDIBLE! She was as big around as a platter and looked absolutely terrifying. This turtle would easily be able to bite off a hand.
This EASTERN PHOEBE was new for the day, as well as a few other species such as YELLOW-THROATED VIREO and VEERY which breed at Swallow Cliff.
The next stop, Pulaski Woods, was fairly slow but did turn up a bird we didn’t find anywhere else: BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER. Then, it was off to the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center to check for any waterbirds in the slough behind it as well as feeder birds near the nature center. We did find a GREEN HERON:
And a RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD male perched in a tree:
GREAT BLUE HERONS & GREAT EGRET:
At that point, Eddie’s dad went back home and I took over the driving. Mr Kasper, thanks so much for driving during the morning!!!
Following an unproductive stop at McClaughry Springs Woods, we drove all the way to the Calumet Area, where our first stop was the Big Marsh. A second turtle species of the day, this Spiny Soft-shelled Turtle, was a great non-avian surprise — I have only ever seen this animal once before!
Other than this CASPIAN TERN and a few other things, it was a pretty unproductive stop. The weather was hot, we were sweaty, and our only new birds were BROWN THRASHER, WILLOW FLYCATCHER, and one I can’t remember at this time (so many birds to remember, hah!):
Next, we decided to go to the nearby Hegewisch Marsh since we were, amazingly, ahead of schedule, and could find some of the marsh birds we had missed at the last stop. Again, it was hot and pretty quiet, but we did end up hearing our only COMMON GALLINULE of the day, another solid breeding bird for Cook County. A third turtle of the day, this Eastern Painted Turtle, was basking in the sun.
Moving up the lakefront from the Calumet Area, Steelworkers Park in the South Chicago neighborhood yielded a bird that can be surprisingly tricky for Cook County, and another we only saw once yesterday: AMERICAN KESTREL! We unfortunately missed Blue Grosbeak which has been sighted there recently.
The next stop was at Rainbow Beach Park a little further up the lakefront where we founded BANK & this CLIFF SWALLOW, in addition to the swallow species we already had.
Another new bird for the day there was DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT:
An uncommon Prickly Pear Cactus was a cool find, especially in such a small park along the lakefront.
SPOTTED SANDPIPERS were a new bird for the day, and we even found a nest of the species!
SAVANNAH SPARROWS were also great to see:
Eddie got out of the car on the way out and spotted some RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS flying north along the lakefront, so we turned the car around and headed back to the harbor, where we immediately found a female sitting in the water.
After a lengthy debate over where to go next on the drive north, we chased a GREATER SCAUP which we immediately found at the North Ave. turning basin of the Chicago River. So cool! A flyover PEREGRINE FALCON was another new species we found there. Here is the scaup:
The next stop was the Lincoln Park Zoo for the wild male AMERICAN WIGEON which has been hanging out with the domestic zoo ducks. Once again, a success!
Montrose Point, which was almost a complete bust on our June Big Day two years ago, turned out to be one of the most productive spots of the day, boosting us over 120 species! It was a good decision to start with the fluddle and beach, where I found this DUNLIN:
SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS & SANDERLINGS were also around:
Our last swallow species for the day, PURPLE MARTIN, was another wonderful addition to the day:
As well as many migrants in the Magic Hedge, such as a YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER:
EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE doing its best Olive-sided impression on a dead snag:
Male MAGNOLIA WARBLER. The number of warblers was particularly impressive as we tallied 16 of these winged gems, a large number for June!
Female BLACKPOLL WARBLER:
Female BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER:
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH — getting particularly late for these:
This songbird was a mystery to us...
Until it fanned its tail, proving to be a female AMERICAN REDSTART:
Following Montrose, we headed to a location where EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE is known to come to a feeder, and once again — it was an immediate success!
Then, Isoo climbed up on some poles to peer into the yard’s extensive feeder setup, and he found us a pair of HOUSE FINCHES which, surprisingly, were also new for the day.
A drive on the highway, then more birding! This time, we found ourselves in the suburb of Westchester where yet another quick success yielded our target YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER — these birds nest in the suburb due to the many sycamore trees in the area, for which they have a particular affinity.
We then met Eddie’s mom at his house nearby and she drove us the rest of the evening — thank you so much!
Between several rounds of severe thunderstorms, we found a few new species at Eggers Grove back in the Calumet area, including a few juvenile GREAT HORNED OWLS, a really nice surprise for daytime!
As well as this far-off PIED-BILLED GREBE (tiny bird found between the CANADA GEESE) on the lake at Eggers Grove.
The sunset on the way to our next stop, Killdeer Wetland, was phenomenal.
We picked up quite a few new birds at Killdeer including these WOOD DUCKS:
Probably our rarest species of the day was a WILSON’S SNIPE we heard and also saw briefly as it flew over us — unfortunately, too quick for photos. The Killdeer Wetland/Bartel Grassland area is the only place is Cook County where this northern species breeds.
Another specialty bird we picked up here which we missed earlier at Great Marsh was this SWAMP SPARROW. As you can see, it was getting late for photography.
Although it was a crazy good day, we didn’t pick up a single new bird the rest of the evening after the stop at Bartel. What an incredible day it was, though. We ended with 132 species which is the second-highest June county big day in Illinois, EVER! It was particularly impressive due to the lingering migrants because of the delayed migration this cold, late spring. This day has also, once again, become my second-highest personal big day to date — sweeeeet!
I honestly cannot pick a bird-of-the-day. There is no better time than a big day to appreciate all native birds, from common to rare, so I will nominate all of the native birds we found on the big day as my birds-of-the-day.
World Life List: 971 Species