A Travellerspoint blog

Early/mid march recap


all seasons in one day 61 °F

This month I have been out a fair bit for birding and now, herping, but have simply not had the time to post here. Well, consider this a “catch up” post for the month of March!

Tian, Pearl, and I visited Thatcher Woods early in the month when snow was still on the ground from the crazy arctic February we had. I was glad to see my first-of-the-year COMMON GRACKLE, a species that is actually in decline believe it or not:

As well as this beautiful PINE SISKIN in the trees above the Trailside Museum:

White-tailed Deer are a reliable sight from the entrance road north of Chicago Ave:


With the warmer temperatures those means that salamanders have come out for the year! So, last thursday Oliver B. and I set out for a downstate daytrip to find the rarest salamander that still lives in Illinois: the Jefferson Salamander! (the even rarer species, the Hellbender, is almost undoubtedly extinct due to pollution and habitat loss).

We met the lovely owner of the farm, Brian, and he very generously led us to the woods where the Jefferson breeds. After flipping for about thirty minutes, Oliver turned up a Smallmouth Salamander under his log which was a great first salamander of the year but not what we were looking for. Then, I spotted the tail of another salamander under the same log, pulled up the creature, and it was a JEFFERSON SALAMANDER! Identified by its non-smooshed face (unlike the Smallmouth), much grayer coloration, and long toes. Incredible! We had found quite possibly the rarest salamander and most likely one of the rarest amphibians in the state. Here you can compare the Smallmouth (left) with the Jefferson (right):

This past monday, Simon told me he had his first salamanders of the year in Cook County so I headed over with Tian and Pearl to a preserve where I had heard there is a large population of Tiger Salamanders. That would be an epic first salamander of the year for Cook County. I spotted a distant MUTE SWAN on one of the distant bodies of water in the preserve:

And after flipping probably like three hundred logs, I found this beautiful, large Eastern Tiger Salamander, the largest Tiger I’ve ever seen and the second-largest salamander I’ve seen (behind one monster Spotted last summer).

Yesterday, Simon and I headed to the Calumet region to set minnow traps for fun (yes, I got a fishing license) and to bird the region. We had our first BLUE-WINGED TEAL of the year at Indian Ridge Marsh:

And our first GREEN-WINGED TEAL of the year at Big Marsh along with this slightly-early GREATER YELLOWLEGS!

FOX SPARROW was nice too:

At Eggers Grove I pulled my first TURKEY VULTURES of the year in Cook County:

And I also found my first snake of the year, a beautiful Chicago Garter Snake! Awesome.

We checked the minnow traps after birding throughout the morning and unfortunately hadn’t caught anything. Bird-of-the-day yesterday to the Greater Yellowlegs with runner-up to the Blue-winged Teal.

Today I birded at Montrose Point while my sister was hanging out with friends nearby. The sparrow/butterfly garden and dunes were indeed full of sparrows, particularly SONG:

As well as SAVANNAH:


My first TREE SWALLOW of this year was a welcome sign of spring!

As was this beautiful EASTERN MEADOWLARK:

This flyover immature BALD EAGLE is a great bird for Montrose:

A female COMMON GOLDENEYE was paddling around in the harbor:

So nothing crazy today but nice to get out again. Bird-of-the-day to the Bald Eagle with runner-up to the Tree Swallow.

Super thankful to announce I have received the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine and can’t wait to complete my vaccination April 9.

So it’s been a decent month and I can’t wait for the rest of spring! Next weekend, Oliver, Simon & family, and I are heading down for a three night camping trip in southern Illinois to find my lifer Greater Prairie-Chickens and to get a bunch of salamanders (hopefully twelve species!) and other herps for the year! This summer, I plan to finally leave Chicago June 17 for a month of study at the Chautauqua Voice Conservatory, followed by a month out in Sun Valley, Idaho with my family! So stay tuned — things are finally looking like life may return to normal. Please continue to double mask, social distance, and wash your hands frequently so we can do our part to avoid harmful Covid mutations prolonging this pandemic.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 04:45 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Twitch: Kittiwake

Indiana & Illinois

snow 34 °F

Yesterday, I received a report of a Black-legged Kittiwake at Montrose Point in the morning. So, I opened the report to disappointingly see that it was a single fly-by sighting and it most certainly continued southward along the lakefront. Then, in the afternoon, news broke that a (the?) Kittiwake had been sighted at Porter Marina in Indiana — I mapped it and Google Maps said it would be an hour’s drive. Who knew if it was the same bird, but “one bird theory” people were having a field day for sure — hah! It was plenty of time to beat sunset so I quickly grabbed my camera, hopped in the car, and was off on yet another Indiana chase! Fingers cross that it would be as successful as the last one. I have seen Kittiwake once before — a brief fly-away sighting from the Block Island Ferry in Rhode Island, so I was hoping to get a satisfying, killer look at this elusive gull species.

I arrived around 3:30 and immediately started scoping out the Marina. Amazingly, no other birders were present. There were areas of open water among the ice so there were both ducks and gulls around. One duck that immediately popped out to me was a CANVASBACK, a pretty nice sighting any day:

This male BUFFLEHEAD was feeling lucky to be entertaining a harem of not only female Buffles but a female MALLARD too — lol! He was strutting his stuff and realing his head as far back as it could go, then suddently popping it forward, launching him forward a little bit into the water in an exceedingly dorky display of hormones.


One really nice sighting was a beautiful LONG-TAILED DUCK across the way in the other distant marina — these ducks are uncommon winter residents along Lake Michigan and it is a great treat to find one.

Then, I saw a smaller bird hiding behind the COMMON GOLDENEYES on the ice — whoa!! My heart stopped for a few seconds...

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE!! This is a small, rather pelagic species of gull that is annual on Lake Michigan but very elusive for birders since they tend to pass through on stormy days with strong northerly winds in November. A winter bird and particularly a cooperative bird is a great, rare treat. Some identifying characteristics of a juvenile Kittiwake like this are the black “M” pattern on their wings in flight (you can see part of this pattern even while this bird is resting) and its distinctive double collar. Definitely my new favorite gull!!

It didn’t mind the presence of other ducks like COMMON GOLDENEYE and LESSER SCAUP and at times it seemed rather ill as it roosted and closed its eyes periodically.

Thankfully, within about twenty minutes, it perked up and started flying around again which was great for seeing its beautiful black “M” in flight. What a stunning gull! Unfortunately, this also meant it must have moved on after I left because Simon and family tried for it later without success.

I still had some daylight left so I decided to book it back to Cook County and bird the Bend of the Little Calumet River which has been seeing some impressive duck numbers lately. Though diversity wasn’t great, I was not disappointed by the numbers — over a thousand ducks congregated in this section which consistently stays open due to the power plant nextdoor. Here are some LESSER SCAUP with a female Mallard — note that they are Lesser because the peak of their head (take note of the center bird in particular) is toward the back, giving their head shape a more squared-off appearance. Lesser and Greater can be hard to differentiate and I have to re-learn this every winter, lol!


MUTE SWAN with Lesser Scaup:

RED-BREASTED MERGANSER drake with more Scaup:

GADWALL, new for the year!




And the “best” ducks of the location — two RING-NECKED DUCKS (back) with GREATER SCAUP (foreground):

A great day! Bird-of-the-day to the Black-legged Kittiwake with runner-up to the Long-tailed Ducks! Now that’s a successful winter’s day of birding.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 23:12 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Finishing up the month strong

Cook County, IL

snow 33 °F

Today I noticed I was two birds away from the Cook County January record, so I set out in search of two target birds: Eurasian Collared-Dove and Pine Siskin which are both somewhat unremarkable birds, but had the potential to boost my standing at 87 species to a record-breaking 89.

The feeders at the Trailside Museum had a FOX SPARROW and more common species, but nothing that I needed for the year, so I continued on to Palmer St in River Grove where Eurasian Collared-Dove is a guarantee. And that they were! You can barely make out the dove’s collar in this picture. This tied me and my friend Isoo at both 88 birds for Cook County this year.

There were 49 in total! This picture doesn’t include all of them — but it does most.

So then I went on the longest chase I will probably ever do for a Pine Siskin — I drove all the way to Sagawau Canyon Environmental Center where the feeders there pretty reliably host one or two with the Goldfinches. Upon arriving, I walked in, inspected the feeders, and within two minutes found my year bird PINE SISKIN hanging out with the other finches. Awesome! With that I set the record for most birds seen in Cook County in the month of January. A negligible record compared to Isoo’s earth-shattering Cook County Big Year in 2020, but at least something!

Read about his awesome big year here — http://www.traveltobird.com/travelogue

I then continued onto Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center to see if there would be anything random there like a Northern Flicker, Purple Finch, or Sharp-shinned Hawk — no luck on any of those birds or any further year birds but did have another nice look at a FOX SPARROW:

So a great end to an eventful birding month!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 05:33 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Why I bird

The Midwest

34 °F

A crescendo by the form of exponential growth is what today’s birding comprised. It started off benignly, putting around Cook County with Oliver. We had vague plans to chase a certain bird in Indiana if it were to be re-found, but nobody had it in the morning...

So we stayed in Illinois, starting the day off with a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK and GREAT HORNED OWL at Big Marsh, as well as this male BELTED KINGFISHER:

Turning Basin 5 was dead, but it did afford me my first RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS of the year as well as a distant immature BALD EAGLE:

So we headed to Wolf Lake where we picked up waterfowl like these CANADA GEESE, REDHEAD, COMMON GOLDENEYE, and a LESSER SCAUP (center) which was a year bird for Oliver!

And another year bird for him — a hen CANVASBACK (along with a Redhead):

Then we headed down to Sand Ridge Nature Center and picked up some feeder birds like RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH:

And FOX SPARROW, shown here with HOUSE SPARROWS:

Then, we got a text from Isoo saying he was on a Common Loon at the Little Calumet River so we raced over as this is a good bird for Chicago in the winter. We parked off Torrence Ave, poked around a bit, crossed a busy bridge, and immediately spotted it on the water!

Then, the news broke—Gyrfalcon at Waukegan Harbor, an hour an a half drive away. The prospect of a Gyrfalcon to Illinois birders is comparable to a Bigfoot sighting. The Arctic Nomad. The Beast of the North. The Wandering Falcon. The Solitary Ghost. Many adjectives — many superlatives — could be used to describe a Gyrfalcon, but none of them can come close to doing the justice of actually seeing the bird. Even for the most seasoned of birders, seeing a Gyrfalcon is a dream come true, and finding one close to Chicago is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, at this point, 10:30am, the Illinois and, to an extent, the Wisconsin and Indiana birding community, went absolutely wild. I’m sure there were many speeders roaring up I-94, but I am happy to say I was not one of them (after being pulled over last summer), hah! A facebook group (see below) for tracking the falcon was quickly organized during my trek up to Lake County, and I could feel the suspense in the air. This bird had actually been sighted once three weeks ago, and countless people had searched since, but nobody had been able to re-find until today. So, the big question — would the elusive beast stay for us?

I pulled up to Waukegan Harbor to hear those dreaded words: “it was last seen fifteen minutes flying behind that tower.” UGHHH! So, eventually, Oliver and I walked behind the aforementioned tower to see a smaller group of birders peering up. There was a blob on the top of the side of the tower, and I quickly dismissed it as non-avian, but Oliver smartly took a closer look and lo and behold—

G Y R F A L C O N ! ! ! ! ! !

Words can’t describe the visceral response upon laying eyes on this vagrant from the High Arctic. I had finally tracked down a bird I thought would take years upon years to track — they are known for being particularly elusive and tough-to-chase.

This is the first angle I saw the falcon in — it was rather hunkered down so you can see why I thought it was a blob:

As cars crept along the slushy side road and more excited birders poured onto the roadway, the excitement only grew as I witnessed dozens upon dozens of birders gain a life bird — a nemesis for many and a dream for all. A Gyrfalcon. As every individual person let out a yip of joy, a lifer dance, a crazy smile, even a tear to the eye, a warm feeling crept into my heart that I hadn’t experienced for a long time. We were all truly happy. During a dark time where sometimes it seems like all that surrounds us is evil and despair, a lonely vagabond from the North, gracing our presence, brought happiness to hundreds of people. That right there, my friends, is the true joy of birding.

The (yes, socially-distanced and masked) crowd let out an audible “OOOH!” as the itinerant falcon lifted its mighty wings into the air and hovered in place, perfectly still against the whipping, gale-force winds — perfectly still despite the taste of a blizzard brewing in the air.

Another flight and the Gyr was pursued by another mighty bird — the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon. Though considerably smaller than the hefty beast, the Peregrine rose to mighty heights only to come sweeping down in a flash, announcing its displeasure with the new, friendlier-sized neighbor. You can see that the Gyrfalcon (top) easily dwarves the Peregrine which is already a mighty bird by all accounts.

Having chased the Gyr away, the Peregrine gave us a victory show and hovered in the air just as the Gyr had minutes before. Incredible!

Oliver and I then parted ways, and Isoo and I made the longshot decision to book it to Indiana in search of our original target for the day: Common Crane, a bird common in Siberia but incredibly rare in the New World. We were banking on the tiny chance it would be refound during our three-and-a-half hour drive to De Motte, IN.

And it was not. So we cruised down random corn fields, looking desperately for flocks of Sandhills with which it would be associating, only to come up with a few CANADA GEESE. But, as we were feeling extremely hopeless, my phone somehow came back into cell service and a message came through: “Common Crane re-found” along with a pinned location. So, with a little help from Simon who gave us both directions via phone, Isoo and I both made it to the appointed location where a couple birders were already scanning.

It was a needle in a haystack though. Hundreds of cranes lined a distant field and picking through the Sandhills to find an extremely-alike Common would prove a daunting task — the main differentiating feature of a Common Crane is a black throat.

Suddenly, as I panned my camera through the flock, one stood out to me as markedly different and I hollered, “There! There I have it!” Then, I proceeded to warn people to keep a social distance from me as I gave them directions to the bird: “Find the snow-covered building, then the next large building to the right of it, then it’s among the Sandhills below and to the right a little” and so on. Soon, everybody had views of their lifer COMMON CRANE and all was well with the world! True teamwork. The Common Crane is an objectively rarer bird than even the Gyrfalcon as Gyrfalcon are an expected North American species — they are just usually well to the north of us and extremely tough to track down. the Crane, on the other hand, is a true rarity — only two previous sightings of this species have occurred this year in North America, and only one other ever before in Indiana.

So, two lifers in a day! And an incredibly moving experience with both birds — reminding all of us that there is hope left in the world — there is a reason to keep birding, to keep enjoying life, to keep living.

How can I possibly pick a bird-of-the-day? You pick. For me it’s impossible but today will probably go down as the birding-day-of-the-year unless I have some darn incredible luck.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1125 Species (2 life birds today: Gyrfalcon, Common Crane)

Posted by skwclar 04:58 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Racking up year birds with Tian

Cook County, IL

semi-overcast 22 °F

Today I once again headed to South Chicago & Calumet in search of year birds — some I had in mind were: Glaucous & Great Black-backed Gull, Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk, White-winged Scoter, and even Red-winged Blackbird (lol!). We started at Rainbow Beach where it was evident how frozen-over Lake Michigan has quickly become following the snowstorm and subsequent days below zero.

A small patch of open water held the common winter ducks like BUFFLEHEAD:


Scaup and REDHEAD:

Scaup and more Mergs:

Unfortunately I dipped on a Glaucous Gull reported here earlier which would have been a sweet year bird. So we continued on to Steelworkers Park where the gull activity was much higher — there was a much larger area of open water in front of the breakwall here which allowed for more of a gull congregation. I picked through the countless Ring-billed and Herring, which can be annoying, and ended up finding this oddball. Yep, a bill and head like a perfect breeding Lesser Black-backed, but too pale of a mantle — I posted this bird to “North American Gulls” and gull expert Amar A told me this resembled the hybrid GREAT BLACK-BACKED X HERRING GULLS he has seen in this part of Chicago before. Quite a cool sighting and evidence of the common hybridization of gulls (we have it easy — MOST gulls in areas of the West Coast are hybrids of some form!).

Then, I spotted one of my targets for the day — WHITE-WINGED SCOTER! Sick! Year bird and definitely one of my favorite ducks, it is just such a unique-looking bird.

And BOOM! Another year bird after one final scan of the gull flock in the form of an adult GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL! My first one in Illinois in a couple years (they are expected winter visitors, I just haven’t gotten out enough in recent years, lol).

Here it is showing its pink legs — this, along with its larger size, differentiates it from Lesser Black-backed Gull.

And can’t forget about the pretty COMMOM GOLDENEYE:

Next stop, Wolf Lake in case any Tundra Swans or anything else unexpected would be hanging out with the waterfowl. Nothing completely unusual — just the resident MUTE SWANS:

And hundreds of REDHEAD:

And a chilly but happy Tian!

Indian Ridge Marsh was quiet but there was a lone GREAT BLUE HERON attempting to ice-fish.

Turning Basin #5 was also dead but a male BELTED KINGFISHER was nice to see:

We didn’t stop for long at Big Marsh but did have this nice RED-SHOULDERED HAWK alongside the road, a very decent bird for the winter.

And thanks to my friend Isoo he gave me directions to distant viewing of a GREAT HORNED OWL nest which was suuuper cool for Tian and I to see. A great ending to a sweet day!

Bird-of-the-day to the White-winged Scoter with runners-up to the Great Black-backed and the Great Black-backed X Herring Gull. Good stuff!

World Life List: 1123 Species

Posted by skwclar 06:46 Archived in USA Comments (3)

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