A Travellerspoint blog

Palos Targets & an Unexpected Herping Slam!

Cook County, IL

semi-overcast 80 °F

Today, I head to the Palos area to try for three birds I have missed in Cook this year so far: White-eyed Vireo, Northern Bobwhite, and Least Bittern. My goal is to be in the top 20 birders in terms of species # by the end of the year for Cook County. My friend Isoo is currently leading the pack with a whopping list of over 260 species!

I started the day at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester where a Bobwhite has been reportedly calling recently. Unfortunately, it was a dip despite trying in the correct locations in which it had been heard by others.

My plan was to head to McGinty Slough Forest Preserve to try for White-eyed Vireo, but I noticed along the way that I would pass right by a certain forest preserve where there is reportedly a stronghold of salamanders, including the county-rare Eastern Newt. So, I wanted to check it out since I had never been to that preserve before! I have to keep the location of this exact preserve a secret, unfortunately, to preserve the safety of all the salamanders there.

The derecho storms yesterday were extremely damaging across the state, but they did provide a decent rainfall to spur salamander activity (since many of their burrows were presumably temporarily flooded in the rains). I immediately started to see the expected salamander species, Blue Spotted, AKA Laterale for my Latin-name-loving herping friends. One thing that is so endearing about holding salamanders is that they instinctively try to burrow in between the cracks of your fingers while holding them. Of course, I always gently handle them for a few seconds for a quick photo or two, but then immediately release them back alongside their logs — too much human handling can cause harm!

This one was a monster. It was most likely a Unisexual Mole Salamander due to some faint bluish markings, but my friend Simon thinks it might even be something else given its size! Either way, it was a pure beast. I was holding him upright — the photo just would not paste into this blog correctly.

Then, my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I flipped a small shred of broken bark and saw the tail of a beautifully yellow-spotted salamander: WOW! My second Spotted Salamander of the summer! And she was a pure beast! Look at the shape, size, and coloration of this animal: just a perfect-looking creature in my opinion.

When I thought things couldn’t get any better, I flipped a considerably larger log and found a tiny reddish salamander hunkered down underneath. I was beside myself: my lifer EASTERN NEWT!!!!!! Given that there are only a handful of public observations of this species in Cook County and this is the one known stronghold for newts in the county, it was like I had struck gold. Even a Spotted is incredible for Cook, but a Newt?! Insane!! So cool!! Newts are considerably less slimy than the Mole Salamander species found today, and this is even evident just by looking at the slightly more rough appearance of the creature in the photo. Super cool! I will probably run into many more of these when I finally get back to New York and explore the herping in that part of the country.

Two heard-only PILEATED WOODPECKERS were the only notable birds at this preserve.

After finding a whopping four types of Sals, I called it quits and drove over to McGinty Slough in hopes of the White-eyed Vireos which had been last seen there yesterday. A CEDAR WAXWING posed for me:

And an OSPREY flew over:

But despite finding exactly the right habitat for the White-eyed, it was a miss. At least a nice Eastern Tiger Swallowtail greeted me back near the car:

A quick drive along Ford Road at Cap Sauer Holding was fairly quiet with the exception of this pretty RED-HEADED WOODPECKER:

This Leopard Frog blended into the grass:

Next stop: McGinnis Slough for the last target of the day: Least Bittern! One had been heard calling just the other day in the cattail marsh near the parking area so I decided to give it a try. Swallows were roosting in the trees overhead including BARN:

And adult and juvenile TREE:

Frustratingly, yet another dip! This is what late-summer birding can be unfortunately, but hey, at least it was a wildly awesome day herping! Bird-of-the-day to the flyover Osprey with runner-up to the heard-only Pileated Woodpeckers. Creature-of-the-day to the Eastern Newt.

By the way, did I tell you I’m taking a gap year this year? Not into paying 35K for Zoom...

Good birding,
World Life List: 1120 Species

Posted by skwclar 17:19 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Twitch: Mexican Violetear

Soldier Valley, WI

all seasons in one day 69 °F

On this chilly day, I woke up at the brisk hour of 5:40am to twitch a rarity that had shown up hundreds of miles off-course: a Mexican Violetear in the hills of rural southwest Wisconsin! This would be a lifer for me if seen, so I was chomping at the bit to get there.

Along scenic Highway 14 in Wisconsin, I spotted a number of SANDHILL CRANES alongside the road which were just begging for photos.

And a roadside bathroom break (in the woods — no gas station bathrooms in the time of covid!), there was even a pocket of warblers including this secretive male AMERICAN REDSTART.

After a rather grueling drive, I arrived at the appointed country house by 10:40am to find a group of birders already gathered. I asked “the question” and faced some disappointing news: it hadn’t been seen since around 7am, by the owners. Well, I figured there was still a decent chance for it to show up randomly mid-day, so I parked myself in front of the house, near enough to chat with others but while being distanced.

The common hummer species, RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD, proliferated! Here is a female:

And a tail-less female!

And the glittering gorget of the male:

I loved admiring a Garden Orb Weaver in their plants. They had a great yard for wildlife overall — I heard a decent birdsong including several SEDGE WRENS and a SWAMP SPARROW, too.

Welp. No Mexican Violetear! Dang! A miss by three hours — sometimes, that’s just what happens, though. I had to head home in order to get the car back to my mom for her evening gig. I made a quick stop on the way back at Spring Green Nature Preserve to see if any of the interesting breeders were remaining. A CEDAR WAXWING greeted me with an AMERICAN GOLDFINCH. Love double photos!

And the surprise of the day came when a BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO, the much-less-common cuckoo species, swooped in and allowed for a few quick photos before disappearing into the second growth, as they tend to do. SUPER AWESOME!!!!

I believe this is my fifth Black-billed this year which is pretty unprecedented as I have gone years without seeing a single. It is a bumper year for them and the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOOS (which I also had today) overall, I believe. So that will be my bird-of-the-day, with runner-up to the Sandhill Cranes. Absolutely NO awards to the missing Violetear which made me drive 8.5+ hours for nothing!!! Jeez, what a jerk...

Good(ish) birding,
World Life List: 1121 Species

Posted by skwclar 15:02 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Shorebirding: A break to the summer doldrums

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, IL

semi-overcast 89 °F

This morning, I birded Montrose with my friends Simon, Peter, their mom Andrea, and Isoo. The morning was off to a very slow start at first with only an expected breeder here in the shorebird department, the SPOTTED SANDPIPER:

With the help of a SANDERLING and this PIPING PLOVER though, the shorebird activity slowly grew from nothing to a steady trickle of birds here and there. Monty and Rose, Chicago’s resident Piping Plover couple, were successful yet again this year despite unprecedented, high lake levels. They successfully fledged three chicks: Esperanza, Hazel, and Nish. This pale individual is one of the young ones.

And this cutie I believe is Rose, the adult female.

The nightmare of the day came when a parks district-hired bulldozer worker came and started filling in the fluddle on the beach (after leaving his bulldozer idling, pumping fumes for over 30 minutes!). We were PISSED! Why would the parks district be filling in shorebird habitat on a beach that is literally CLOSED to the public? Covid doesn’t grow on beaches, that’s for sure! The four of us marched on to the beach in front of the bulldozer and demanded to know what he was doing and he replied with a simple “mayor’s orders.” Whatever — yeah it’s your job but it’s a pretty crappy one if the parks district can’t find anything better to do with their workers than fill in migratory bird habitat at Chicago’s prime birding hotspot. Multiple angry calls were made to the parks district.

With what remained of the fluddle, shorebirds kept visiting including this solitary SOLITARY SANDPIPER, a good bird for Montrose:

Yep, the shorebird count did increase slightly after about an hour: here are SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS (left), a PECTORAL SANDPIPER (center), and KILLDEER (right).

The “Pec” by itself:

LEAST SANDPIPER — Montrose is where I got my lifer of this species, back in 2013 I think.

This SEMIPALMATED PLOVER made for a plover trifecta today! Any day with three plovers is a great day and today was no exception. Note the presence of only one black breast band, compared to two on the similar Killdeer.

CASPIAN TERNS with a RING-BILLED GULL. No hoped-for Laughings, unfortunately for big-year birder Isoo...

Can you spot the immature SAVANNAH SPARROW:


After the Tolzmann’s had to leave, Isoo and I hit the Magic Hedge in search of any early migrants. And in fact we got pretty lucky! Isoo picked out this YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER:

An oddly-streaked young WARBLING VIREO:

And I found this TENNESSEE WARBLER, super cool to see in July in Chicago!

Other non-photographed species in the hedge area included YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, WOOD THRUSH, and SEDGE WREN — pretty productive for July.

Out on Fishook Pier, we took delight in a close-range SANDERLING:

And another Least Sandpiper back at the beach:

Overall, it was an exceptional day of July birding with 56 species in total. Bird-of-the-day for me goes to the Piping Plovers, a new species for my year list. Runner-up to the early Tennessee Warbler. So nice to see nine species of shorebirds, and to be birding with friends!

Happy birding,
World Life List: 1120 Species

Posted by skwclar 19:33 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Burnham Prairie with Tian

Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve, IL

sunny 95 °F

Yesterday, Tian and I were up at the crack of dawn to head to Burnham Prairie to hopefully find some wetland bird species. And that, we did! Although we had nothing too common, we did find a number of GREAT EGRETS:

Painted Turtle:



This GREEN HERON gave stunning views.


MUTE SWAN family!

A pair of WILLOW FLYCATCHERS was also great, but perhaps even more interesting was an unidentified flycatcher which winged its way over at one point. Eastern Kingbird? Western Kingbird even? I shall never know, so fingers crossed it wasn’t anything too rare. I snapped one crappy photo of it flying away from me:

I was dismayed to have missed my target bird there which shall remain nameless in order to protect its sensitivity. Darn!

We later swung by Montrose but couldn’t find any parking so called it quits and headed back to Oak Park. It was getting hot out under the sun anyway. Bird-of-the-day to the Green Heron with runners-up to the Great Egrets. Rather slim pickings, though a species count of 41 was pretty good for a July morning.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1121 Species

Posted by skwclar 15:51 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Surprise hawk & Comet Neowise!

semi-overcast 81 °F

Today, I had a relaxing, unexpected full-day break from online Chautauqua music camp so I just spent a lazy day at home. BUT, during dinner in the back yard, a Buteo hawk flew over and so I of course ran to get my camera to check which species: Red-shouldered, Red-tailed, or Broad-winged?

Turned out to be a BROAD-WINGED HAWK, I think my first of the year! Very cool!

A bunch of AMERICAN ROBINS were mobbing it and the hawk seemed fairly agitated, giving its high-pitched “see-wee” call many times! Very cool to witness.

Then, mom, Tian, Pearl and I hopped in the car and we drove 45 minutes west to the farm fields of Kane County in hopes of viewing Comet Neowise. We were treated to a beautiful post-sunset western sky as we had arrived a smidge earlier than the comet was predicted to appear:

Then, after about twenty or twenty-five minutes of searching in the northwestern sky, I spotted it with binoculars! It was indeed about 2.5 or 3 fists almost directly under the Big Dipper and was much easier to see in binoculars than with the naked eye. Indeed, we found that we could not actually directly look at it without losing it — with the naked eye, we could only see it if we looked a little bit to the right or left! Binoculars, though, gave incredible views of the tailed beauty which won’t be around for thousands of more years. Amazing! Here are the girls admiring the comet.

No photos because a telephoto lens is required for this type of challenging night sky photography, but it was a memory that will be instilled in us forever!

Bird-of-the-day to the Broad-winged Hawk with runner-up to the angry robins mobbing it. Honorable mention to Comet Neowise, of course.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1121 Species

Posted by skwclar 21:08 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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