A Travellerspoint blog

Wednesday: Bird walk, try for a salamander, & Thrush Twitch

Chicago, IL

semi-overcast 65 °F

Last wednesday I started off the day by leading an Oak Park Bird Walk right across the street from Oak Park, in Columbus Park! (Chicago)

I had a nice group and we started off with a WOOD DUCK:


This time a beautiful adult RED-SHOULDERED HAWK made a brief appearance, too!

As did a female PURPLE FINCH, very briefly:

It was a great walk. Later in the day, I headed to Chinatown to buy Tian some moon cakes for Mid Autumn Festival (which turned out great!), and afterward I was in the mood for some herping. So I wanted to finally nail down the Eastern Tiger Salamanders which have so far eluded me on the south side of Chicago. I headed to the appointed preserve where my friend Simon had one just a few days prior, and literally on the third log flipped, I pulled out a GIANT Eastern Tiger Salamander!!!!! Crazy cool especially given that I had tried at this location and failed over the summer. Incredible herp, possibly one of my favorite salamanders I’ve gotten so far. Here are my iPhone pics:

And a couple shots with the camera before I carefully placed it right next to the log which he or she promptly crawled right back under.

Upon excitedly calling Simon afterward, he alerted me that an even crazier sighting had come up: a Varied Thrush at Montrose! I had quite an internal debate for ten minutes as I drove north on the highway, debating whether I should head to Palos like I had originally planned, or try for the Varied Thrush, which had only been seen by a small handful of birders, briefly, so far in the morning. I figured the Varied Thrush is more of a one-time thing, especially in Cook, and Palos and its herps will be there waiting for me next time, so I headed to Montrose. TENNESSEE WARBLERS abounded there:

Many birds were lined up for the puddle at the Magic Hedge, including this three-in-one shot of RED-EYED VIREO, TENNESSEE WARBLER, & NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH:

Things were not looking good for finding my Varied Thrush with this COOPER’S HAWK patrolling the Hedge for tired migrants...

Other thrush species abounded though, like this HERMIT:


Another Waterthrush:

Welp, I soon had to head home for an errand, and the bird was never re-found again, so who knows where it could’ve gone...dip! It happens sometimes, and gives more motivation for the next rare sighting in the area.

Bird-of-the-day to the beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk at Columbus Park. Herp-of-the-day to my lifer Tiger Salamander! No awards to the missing Varied Thrush. Stay tuned!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 16:58 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Big Sit: Youthful Jaegers vs Bruhs with Bins

Montrose Point, IL

semi-overcast 71 °F

This sunday, two young birder teams engaged in an epic Big Sit battle at Montrose Point: the Youthful Jaegers: Oliver, Peter, Simon, myself pitted against the Three Bruhs with Bins: Jake, Isoo, and Eddie. Who could see the greatest number of species from a ten foot radius in one calendar day?

Both teams were in position around 6:45 and quickly tallying up the species. We focused on the shorebirds seen on the protected beach which included the continuing BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS as well as a PECTORAL SANDPIPER (the one bird mixed in).

The classic white tail feathers gave away the ID of this incoming STILT SANDPIPER too, cool!

The passerines behind us in the Hedge put on quite a show too, especially when we pished for them. Here is a PHILADELPHIA VIREO. We were poised on the cement wall between the Magic Hedge and the beach.

NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH I saw when walking in the dunes and I was able to get everyone else on it from the circle too, cool!

We got our SORA for the day as it got snatched out of thin air by this PEREGRINE FALCON! Look at those feet! Breakfast!

More passerines behind us. PALM WARBLER:


NELSON’S SPARROW was an easy one to snag in the panne part of the dunes that day but getting someone on it all the way from the count circle was less easy. Luckily, I had Simon on the phone with his scoped trainer on the area right in front of me when I flushed one of these beautiful orange sparrows. This was the tactic for a number of the bird species seen, and yes it 100% counts! This Nelson’s gave me a beautiful view (outside the count circle)

There were two star shorebirds of the day. First, this stunning AMERICAN AVOCET:

And a surprise LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER, a great bird for the county! While anyone from the team was out of the count circle for any reason including photographing these birds, at least one person would stay behind and monitor bird activity to see if anything new could be added to the Big Sit list. It was a great tactic.







Raptors made a bit of a showing migrating through in the afternoon, including several OSPREY:

The Big Sit Birders left to right: Ben (joined us later on), Eddie, Isoo, Oliver, Simon, Peter, me, and Jake. Posing in front of some lovely garbage cans.

Mid-afternoon, Isoo got a text from Jack B saying he had a possible Yellow Rail at Rainbow Beach which would be a MEGA if true! So, accordingly, we all abandoned ship and drove down to Rainbow Beach in hopes for flushing the Rail. After all, my group had won the Montrose Big Sit with 84 species; the other team came out at about 75, I think. Only one team in Illinois came out higher than ours; a group at Fort Sheridan up in Lake County with just one species more at 85 species.

So, as we pulled into Rainbow Beach on the south side we all spied the continuing WILD TURKEY:

Our tactic for flushing rails: drag a rope with gallon milk jugs filled with rocks through the grassy area where the rail was reported in hopes of flushing it.

We soon flushed many SORA and many sparrows, including this SAVANNAH:

And another NELSON’S:

Unfortunately, the Yellow Rail was never found. We only had this GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL as a consolation prize:

Afterward, Simon took a bunch of us to a nearby spot where we got our lifer Plains Garter Snakes & Common Skinks (a type of lizard), both of which were AWESOME! So all in all, it was a great day! Bird-of-the-day to all of the beautiful Nelson’s Sparrows with runner-up to the Long-billed Dowitcher. GREAT stuff!

Happy birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 20:56 Archived in USA Comments (0)

A weekend for the books


semi-overcast 84 °F

Friday mid-day I left Oak Park for a whirlwind one-night trip to central and southern Illinois for birds and herps. My destinations for friday: Kankakee River State Park, Busey Woods, and Lake Shelbyville!

But first, in the morning I led an Oak Park Bird Walk for birders Laura and Karen. There was a great amount of passerine activity including TENNESSEE WARBLER:


And again, a COOPER’S HAWK sighting:



You can see this is a molting male SCARLET TANAGER due to the limited red feathers still left on this bird’s body. A cool individual and beautiful bird altogether!


After a great walk, packing, and a short nap, I was on the road. I arrived to Kankakee River State Park in the 2 o’clock hour and very soon found my hoped-for lifer Southern Two-linee Salamanders!!! This is one of the few places in the state to find this species, so I was stoked. They are beautiful, sleek, orangeish salamanders with handsome striping going down the length of their bodies. Unfortunately, all three I found slithered away too quickly for photos (dang! kept me from recording on iNat) due to their slippery nature and their adept habit of scurrying under rocks. Still, a cool sighting!

Green Frog in that same area:

Next stop, Busey Woods in Urbana for Smallmouth Salamander. I made it a bit after four and very quickly found my lifer Smallmouth Salamander!!! Definitely my most efficient stop of the day and awesome to see a new herp. This salamander has discreet but very pretty grayish spotting on its sides contrasted with the otherwise black body. Awesome!!!

After getting just one, it was off to Lake Shelbyville an hour SW of Champaign in hopes of Red-necked Phalarope. I arrived right at sunset and had limited time — AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS abounded.

And some waterfowl flew over (I’m thinking these are possibly American Wigeon but too hard to tell), but no Phalarope. I later found out I had simply gotten lost and gone to the wrong place. Gah! Lake Shelbyville is huge with many access points, and it is literally in the middle of nowhere. With the sun set by the time I got back to the car, I had oficially dipped on the Phalarope. Plus, I later got a text from Colin telling me at a totally different place on Lake Shelbyville he had a Sabine’s Gull today which would have been a lifer for me. Too bad I didn’t have cell reception when he sent that text otherwise I could have re-routed to get a lifer...DOUBLE GAH!!!!! Well, that’s how it goes sometimes...

Anyway, Southern Two-lined & Smallmouth Salamanders in one day still make for a successful day. Plus the wonderful morning bird walk. It was time to go to sleep in my car camping spot in Effingham, IL for the night.

DAY 2 — saturday I woke up at 6:50 in order to make Colin Dobson’s pelagic at Carlyle Lake which had been rescheduled to 9am due to winds. After a breakfast at Cracker Barrel, I drove the hour to Carlyle Lake and was there in plenty of time for the pelagic. Our group of seven masked birders was soon happily out on the lake, searching for birds in the 70-degree, windy conditions. Some flyby STILT SANDPIPERS were nice:

And we came to a sandbar that had a massive roosting flock of RING-BILLED & BONAPARTE’S GULLS, AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS, FORSTER’S TERNS, and more.

Forster’s Terns in flight:

Bonaparte’s Gull:

COMMON TERN roosting on the sandbar with Ring-billed Gulls:

An Illinois lifer for me was this LAUGHING GULL, quite a nice find up here that is much less rare down on the Gulf & Atlantic Coasts.

And a great Larid species for the day was a small pod of BLACK TERNS (more grayish in their nonbreeding plumage). As you can see, there was a lot out on the lake.

And suddenly, Colin got excited because he spotted his target bird for the boat trip: PARASITIC JAEGER! A big, bulky brown sea bird with white wing flashes and a strong flight. Super cool! My photographic lifer of this species as the other times I’ve seen this type my photos have been crap.

Here it is passing another pontoon.

And chasing a Ring-billed Gull which this species does quite often:

It was a great pelagic! Even though I didn’t get my hoped-for Sabine’s Gull, the Parasitic Jaeger was a wonderful successful target. Next stop: “Rice and Rails” two hours south in East Cape Girardeau, IL.

I arrived mid-afternoon to a smoky Cape Girardeau from a bushfire across the Mississippi, and found the appointed rice field to have a combine working its way up and down the field, flanked on either side by eager birders checking all of the rails it was flushing from the harvesting of the field. It was quite a show as we would follow the combine and every once and a while a rail would pop up, somebody would shout, and we would get our binocs on it as quick as possible. I wanted to make sure to experience this since a few days prior, two would-be life birds had been sighted: the mega-rail Black & Yellow Rails.

Juvenile SORA flying away from the birders. So many of these.

And I apparently made it just in time for the only VIRGINIA RAIL sighting of the day, awesome!

After a while, the farmer drove over to a distant field which I took as my cue to leave since it didn’t seem like we were going to get anything else in terms of rail diversity. Other birders stayed for over eight hours on a careful vigil that day apparently there was a possible Black Rail later in the evening, but it couldn’t be confirmed.

So, I headed over to the world-famous Snake Road where I briefly visited with Isoo earlier in the summer, though it was crazy being there all alone, and in much different conditions with smoke hanging in the air. Still, I had my target salamanders to see, plus any snakes that might be found along the world-famous road.

I totally lucked out and one of the first logs I flipped contained two of my lifer Cave Salamanders, my most hoped-for amphibian pf the trip! AWESOME! This brilliantly-patterned species usually sticks to rock crevices but, as evidenced by this individual, will also shelter under nearby logs. It was just ten feet away from a large limestone wall.

Further down the road in a little spring I found a Long-tailed Salamander which is another great species to see — I only got it my first time this spring!

And beautiful, gentle Gray Rat Snake crossed the road at one point, at least I got one snake at Snake Road! Late in the day is not a great time for snake observation.

And one last salamander of the day is this Eastern Newt.

Soon, it got a bit too dark to go herping since venemous snakes lurk in those woods (Cottonmouth, Copperhead, & Timber Rattler), so I followed the road back to my car and made the grueling six-hour journey back home to Oak Park. It was a super fun one-night tour of Illinois and I was able to see some great birds & herps, and was very thankful for my safety during the journey.

More to come — I have a lot of catching up to do on here.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 21:13 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Montrose: the “best day of fall so far”

Chicago, IL

sunny 75 °F

It sure has been a crazy couple of days of birding, adventure, and herping. And boy am I behind on posting about some epic birding! Thursday morning, Montrose birder Bob Hughes pronounced it the “best day of the season” for Montrose yet, so of course I was over there around noon for a pleasant afternoon of birding. Pleasant quickly turned into intensely fun as upon just walking past Cricket Hill, I was bombarded by wave upon wave of warblers and other migrants moving through the trees. PHILADELPHIA VIREO was great:

As was this tad-early BROWN CREEPER:

As I said, warblers abounded. BLACK-AND-WHITE:


A nice CAPE MAY!


An EASTERN PHOEBE was present as well.

I finally made it to the beach where the BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS from wednesday were still there.

One and possibly two NELSON’S SPARROWS in the panne dune wetland area were my best birds of the day, but true to their nature, they were extremely shy and avoided photos, running on the mud between the thick marsh vegetation.

Back in the hedge, a COOPER’S HAWK was patrolling — he had many snack options thursday, that’s for sure.





There is always this one puddle that forms on the path in the Magic Hedge and it never fails to draw birds in between being flushed by passerby. This NORTHERN FLICKER was enjoying the company of several SWAINSON’S THRUSH:

A brief view at a nice GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER and a completely botched photo opportunity. Dang.





As you can see, it was quite the assortment of birds! Bird-of-the-day to the Nelson’s Sparrow with runner-up to the Golden-winged Warbler. Both crappy views but miles ahead of the other species in terms of scarcity. Next post: my insane weekend trip!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 19:54 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Montrose Twitch: Purple Gallinule

Chicago, IL

sunny 71 °F

Upon waking up to the news that a tired, young Purple Gallinule had been chased into the Magic Hedge at Montrose by a Peregrine Falcon (and yet it survived!), I knew I had to twitch this Illinois rarity. The last one detected at Montrose was in 1999, and as Montrose is a good measure for the rarity of any given Illinois bird, it was a no-brainer.

I was in the car headed there in the 11 o’clock hour after some errands and after completing my tightest parallel park ever, I made the 10-minute walk into the Point — the Gallinule had been roosting thick in the back side of the hedge.

I arrived to find a few confused birders looking into the exact bushes where it had been seen earlier, and the situation seemed dire as the bushes at Montrose can be so incredibly thick. Luckily, birder Leo Miller came to the rescue and spotted the non-purple Purple Gallinule (it is an immature bird). It was an incredible spot — the original finder, Bob Hughes, saw it because it was a strange-looking bird chased into the hedge by a Peregrine. Had it been chased in at any other moment, this rarity would have likely gone undetected! I’ve only seen these guys in Florida before — super awesome. This bird was so sleepy, presumably getting a rest from being chased by a falcon hundreds of miles away from its home range. Hope it survives.

I left the area quickly so as not to stress the bird and headed to the beach area where I dipped on Nelson’s Sparrow and American Pipit but did find the continuing BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS:


I had a busy afternoon so I had to leave quickly, but on the way out I did get distracted by a pocket of passerines — SWAINSON’S THRUSH:

A nice slightly-early DARK-EYED JUNCO — sure sing of winter:

Warblers are still moving through of course — PALM:


And last but not least, a nice ORANGE-CROWNED!

Bird-of-the-day to the Purple Gallinule with runner-up to the Black-bellied Plovers!
Good birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 23:01 Archived in USA Comments (2)

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