Right now, when I look away from my computer, I see thick fog rolling up the slow hill that rises from the ocean to my house, and I ponder how different a San Franciscan summer is compared to the vernal experience of so many others.
Illinois was amazing, thanks for asking. It was much hotter than I expected, and much more humid as well, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been out there in June, so I guess I’d forgotten. I often find myself thoroughly enjoying the continuous trips I get to Illinois and Texas, as I find that each time I’m there, I know a little more about birding than I did before, and am able to appreciate the places on a slightly more profound level than I once had. This, I think, is comparable to the experience of reading a classic novel multiple times, where I can find new meaning in the story every time I read it. Needless to say, I am never bored by a trip to Illinois, and this trip was no different, producing a healthy nine lifers, as well as bringing my Illinois state list over 100 (finally). But I am not all about lists, even though I do occasionally stalk the eBird profiles of other members of this blog in order to compare myself to them. That is beside the point, anyways. This is a chronology of my days of birding in Illinois this past week, for the sole purpose of having the memories here on file should I get dementia like John James Audubon did, and become crazy and depressed until I die. Read it and weep.
Flying east is always an interesting experience in the American time zones, as you lose two hours going from SF to Chicago. Because of this, leaving the west coast at noon placed me in Chicago closer to six than to four, and there wasn’t time to do anything, really, other than get to the hotel and unpack our bags. Thankfully, my dad had flown out a few days prior to the rest of us for business, so he had pizza for us in the room when we arrived, and we didn’t have to worry about getting dinner on top of everything else. In fact, I felt so settled in to the midwest by now that I woke up at 5 am the next morning, 3 am my time, in order to bird Lincoln Park. Somehow, my mom got up at the same time as I did, and so we set off to North Pond and the Lilypool, both nostalgic spots for me. I’ve gotten my lifer Field Sparrow at North Pond, and my lifer Eastern-wood Pewee at the Lilypool, both of which I managed to miss that morning, to my slight dissatisfaction. However, there were a dozen Chimney Swifts flying overhead, a species I had not seen in years. It was fun to see these Vaux-esque Swifts so abundant in the skies. The sight served as my first real example that I was not out west anymore, and the feeling was refreshing.
Around North Pond itself, I was able to find a few Eastern Kingbirds perched high in the trees. I’d never noticed their tail pattern before; all black with white tips to every feather, creating a curved white line along the edge of the end of their tail. Really interesting birds, and remarkably common.
There were also a few Black-capped Chickadees around the pond, on whom I practiced my photography skills. There wasn’t much light to work with, but the birds themselves were cooperative.
The Lilypool didn’t hold all that much, but as soon as I got back to the hotel room with my mom, my dad and brother were heading out to the fabled Montrose Point, land of the crazy fallouts and questionable characters. Upon arriving, I was almost instantly bombarded with dozens of eastern birds I’d been hoping for, including Baltimore Orioles, Northern Cardinals, and Grey Catbirds. The Magic Hedge delivered as well, producing a solitary Canada Warbler that was a few weeks late, and flagged as a rarity on eBird. A really fun way to start the morning!
We knew we had one lifer almost guaranteed this morning, which were the group of Semipalmated Sandpipers that had been hangin’ around the beach for almost a week now. My brother succumbed to the pressures of listing and sibling rivalry, and became anxious to go down to the beach as soon as possible. This was not only to see the Sandpipers as fast as he could, but also to see them first, so that he could claim to have found them for me, and therefore have “gotten me the lifer”. Like a Sophocles tragedy, the story played out as follows: Max rushed off down to the beach. I, in my zen state of enlightenment, waited patiently behind, watching the Magic Hedge with an eye of all-knowing certainty and patience. The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, in all it’s glory and splendor, flew down into the branches before me, to the quiet sound of me whisper-yelling “sh*t sh*t sh*t” as I awkwardly got my camera up and my settings adjusted. A few clicks of my shutter, and the moment was over much too soon, as all great moments in birding are.
Max never did see the Flycatcher; in fact, he never got the species throughout the rest of the trip. In all seriousness, without my sarcasm and anecdotal humor, it really goes to show how hit-or-miss birding can be, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why I love it so much. There are no guarantees in birding, and every species you ever see is in some part the result of nothing other than you being in the right place in the right time. I feel lucky to be able to see the birds I do, and I feel lucky to have been at the right place in the right time so many times before. Not sure who to thank for that. Oh well…
Moving on, I headed down to the beach, where I found Max, proudly standing in front of two Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Dunlin in alternate plumage. Yay, Max. You “got” me a lifer.
It was then time to leave, and spend the rest of the day with my grandma, the real reason we’d come to Chicago, but on the way out, I saw one more Eastern Kingbird, this time at eye-level. One can better appreciate the tail in this photo. Almost like two tails molded together, really…
The following morning, I had only a little time to bird, but once again I spent it all at Montrose Point, finding nothing new, although I did get nicer looks at Eastern Wood-Pewee. We also stopped by the Purple Martin nest boxes over near the harbor, and I found it entertaining to watch their behavior in close quarters with one another. Martins are very social birds; their nest boxes actually look more like apartments than anything else, and they convey their emotions quite clearly.
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Because today was a light day for birding, I had the time to spend part of the afternoon chatting with Eddie, another writer for this blog who lives just a half-hour’s train ride from where I was staying. We made plans to go birding the following morning, but by the time I got off the call, I realized I hadn’t kept track of time, and my mom had already gone to sleep. So, I evaluated my choices, and realized my best possible option was to wake up at 5 the following morning, and hope that 1.) she did the same, and 2.) was willing to get on an early train to Western Springs with no previous idea of the plans that had been made yesterday. By some miracle, things worked out as best as I could ever have hoped, and we managed to catch the 7:30 train to Eddie’s place. I had had no idea how many eastern migrants have tiny breeding populations in parts of Illinois, and I had been trying to dampen my hopes of warblers and tanagers for months, knowing that I was basically missing the entire migration season by coming in mid-June. However, within minutes of seeing Eddie at the train station, we were off to McClaughrey Spring Woods, in search of Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Barred Owl, and Rose-breated Grosbeak. As soon as we got out of the car, an Eastern Wood-pewee called, about 10 Robins sang simultaneously, a flock of Cedar Waxwings descended on the trees to our left, a Gray Catbird flew past us, and a Red-eyed Vireo bounced around in the trees above our heads. “What a dead place”, commented Eddie.
Walking up the trail, Eddie played Scarlet and Summer Tanager songs to show me the difference in their endings. As if on cue, a Scarlet Tanager sang from the trees across the stream. Lifer! We called the bird in a bit, and for about 10 seconds, it actually sat in a branch almost directly above our heads. Then, it was gone as quickly as it had came, and we were never able to see it again. Note that I have not adjusted the color of this photo in any way. Scarlet Tanagers really are that red.
Continuing up the path, we soon began hearing a song I actually knew, from hours of trying to find these birds in the Bay Area (with no success). A pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks gave us somewhat distant but clear views as they hopped in the lower branches of a tree. It felt really great to finally get this bird, although I still yearn for one for my California state list.
We tried and failed to call out a Barred Owl, despite Eddie’s ability to almost perfectly imitate its “Who-cooks-for-you” call. We headed back to the parking lot to try and hear a Wood Thrush, and even though we were unsuccessful with that as well, Eddie heard a Yellow-throated Vireo that we were able to see, another odd moment for me, as, like the Red-eyed Vireo, I’d only gotten my lifer Yellow-throated Vireo a few weeks before as a rarity out in the Bay Area.
Our next stop was Camp Sagawau, a forest with a name I can only spell at this point, and have no clue how to pronounce. Before I get into all the birds we saw there, I’d just like to take a moment to appreciate eastern forests. They’re absolutely beautiful. Over here, all our trees are ancient conifers, covered in lichen that hangs like beards on their cracked branches. Over there, there is a feeling of life and youth in the forests, with trees that dapple sunlight through their chartreuse leaves, so different from the abrasive needles that cover our pines, or even the oily Eucalyptus leaves that sometimes blanket forest floors on the west coast. I’m not saying I necessarily prefer eastern forests to western ones, and I am well aware that the land is not always so beautiful, but I do think it’s worth appreciating.
And onto the birdlife. Camp Sagawau I found to be filled with Eastern Wood-Pewees and Indigo Buntings. Out east, Wood-Pewees actually say “Pewee”, which brought me to a realization that all the common names of birds in the genus Contopus were probably coined off of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. By the time New World ornithologists discovered Western Wood-Pewees, Greater Pewees, and the 11 other Contopus species, the Eastern Wood-Pewee had already decided their common names, despite the other species possessing calls that sound nothing like “pewee”. Oh well. Tough luck other Contopus Species. The only one that escaped the name was Olive-sided Flycatcher. Good on you, OSFL.
A couple of Pileated Woodpeckers provided some welcome entertainment in the forest. I think eastern Pileateds are way easier to see than western Pileateds.
Further down the trail were spots for two more targets, Veery and Blue-winged Warbler. We tried it all for Veery, with absolutely no success, but it was mediated somewhat by the fact that a Blue-winged Warbler responded to our played call within seconds. Those things sure are pretty, but also darn hard to photograph.
Our final stop for the day was Orland Grassland. A prime spot for Henslow’s Sparrow, this wonderfully tick-infested field naturally yielded no Henslow’s Sparrows, but it did yield Dickcissels, one of the most unfortunately named birds in the world. What’s even worse, many birders refer to them by their banding code, which only consists of the first 4 letters of their name. Eddie soon alerted me to a “Dick in a tree”, and you can imagine my disappointment at looking up to see nothing but a yellow songbird, but you take what life throws at you in stride.
Eastern Meadowlarks provided a technical lifer, although I had seen in Texas what was pretty much definitely an Eastern Meadowlark. I cannot prove it, though. Getting this bird was extremely satisfying, yet incredibly underwhelming at the same time, if those two feelings can go together. Hopefully this explanation will help Eddie understand my odd reaction to seeing that bird when he reads this.
More Dickcissels abounded in the field, and one even posed for pretty darn good photo ops.
And with that, my morning ended. To skip some of the more boring details, I was quite sick later that day, but I took a 3 hour nap, and at 8:00 that night, I was once again on the BNSF train line to Western Springs. Passing through the suburbs is an experience; you see the houses, all lined up down the street, with lawns and roses and dogs, you leave that suburb and pass through abandoned train cars and old sheet metal, and then you enter another suburb and watch it all again. I am not used to suburbs.
In case that last bit wasn’t implicative enough, I spent the night at Eddie’s house, mostly so we could get an early start to the next morning’s birding, and do a sort of big day. Eddie’s house is filled with animals, another thing I am unused to, living in my government-owned apartment in a national park. We aren’t allowed to have animals, which has its pros and cons, but mostly cons.
Tuesday night ended with promises of an early rise at 4:30 am. Reality chimed in as well, and we woke up at 5 the next morning, getting out of the house a little before 5:30. We decided to use the early hours to do a sort of repeat of yesterday morning’s birding, seeing as we missed a good number of our targets. McClaughrey Spring Woods held absolutely nothing, although Camp Sagawau held a bit more, starting off with a Baltimore Oriole at the trailhead, something very common over there, but foreign to me all the same.
We found the Blue-winged Warbler, in fact we actually heard two of them, but I wasn’t able to get any better shots. The real prize of Sagawau was our heard-only Veery, which sang for us quite consistently, but also from about a mile off. What was really notable about this bird, though, was that it was actually my world lifer #600! I know world lists mean much less than ABA lists (heck, anyone can go to Costa Rica like I did and rack up), but the milestone meant something to me nonetheless.
Orland Grasslands, once again, was interesting. When we pulled up in the parking lot, a group of college-age people seemingly all cosplaying David Attenborough were gathered in a circle, while a wizened man told them of the potential birdlife of the field. While eavesdropping, I heard him mention Henslow’s Sparrows, and somehow the idea that other people came here for this bird gave me hope that we’d get it. Walking up the trail, however, produced a few more Eastern Meadowlarks, but not much else. I then went into that weird mode birders go into when they decide that maybe if they just believe, the bird will drop out of the sky for them. Lo and Behold, a Henslow’s Sparrow called. It was just like that; it called, we heard, and all was good. Sadly, we didn’t see the thing, so only so much of the magic was there, but simply knowing something like that is close to you holds some amount of significance for me.
Our next planned stop was Plum Creek, a spot almost at the Illinois-Indiana border. Here, we hoped to find Bobolinks, as well as have a chance for White-eyed Vireo in a nearby grove. Bobolink I had considered to be my most guaranteed lifer of the entire trip. The field at Plum Creek had been reliable for Bobolinks for a long time now, and Eddie had even seen 4 of them himself there, just a week prior to my visit. But irony is a fickle thing, and when we stepped out of the car at plum creek, we were greeted to nothing more than a freshly mown field, where a few dogs chased toys thrown by their owners. The Bobolinks, naturally, had seen the destruction of their home and had relocated, maybe to Africa, or wherever the heck Bobolinks go when they’re not a Plum Creek. It was a sorry day for the San Franciscan birder, but Eddie is not one to give up easily, and before I knew it, we were off to another field, which promised ticks, grass, and another chance for both Henslow’s Sparrow and Bobolink. I knew the place had to be good, because when we stopped at the side of the road we saw a car that must’ve exploded or something, and you could see where the metal had melted and then re-hardened into that weird substance that feels like metal but looks like it’s in the shape of a liquid. Anyways, I found a big-ass tick on me, but we finally saw some Henslow’s Sparrows, which was really nice. Not a bird I will soon forget. These guys are hard to spot.
At this point in the day, we really only had one more bird that we could still possibly get before we had to get back to the city. Our time was running out, but Eddie found one last spot on eBird that looking promising for Bobolinks. To keep a long story short, we pulled into a beautiful parking lot surrounded on all sides by grass flowing in the wind, and in 0.2 seconds (no joke), we had a male Bobolink singing from a stalk of grass. Really, it was that quick; my first view of the bird was through the car window before we even opened the doors. Not gonna lie, Bobolink has got to be one of my favorite birds in the U.S., right next to stuff like Northern Saw-whet Owl.
We spent a good long while photographing the Bobolinks, and overtime they seemed to get more comfortable with us. A female was the first to take her chances coming within 15 feet of me, but she soon saw my camera and filed a restraining order against me, so I stopped focusing on her and started really paying attention to the males. What a cool silver-white back they’ve got to go with their jet-black wings and faces. The vanilla-ice-cream-lookin’ skull cap they have did nothing but add to the outfit. Truly a unique bird, if ever there was one.
And now, ending on this sweet note, it was time for us to drive back to the antithesis of our current setting, downtown Chicago. I honestly forget if I fell asleep or not on the drive back, but I do remember getting on my phone at one point to check the rare bird alerts, because that was when I noticed the American Golden-plover at Montrose had stuck around from yesterday. I can’t emphasize enough how nice Mrs. Kasper is; Eddie and I told her about the report, and we were pulling up to Montrose point in no time. We scurried on down to the beach, and the bird was right there, just chillin’ on the ground. It wasn’t even standing, it was just nestled into the white sand at the water’s edge. I’d never seen a Golden Plover in breeding plumage before, so naturally getting my first look at this bird in binoculars was something of an epiphany for me. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Just to give a bit of perspective, heres Eddie photographing him. You don’t have to send me an email to complement the depth of field here; I already know.
And with that, my 3 readers, I conclude this tomb of a blog post with an artsy shot I’ve created. It counts as modern art too because I put a Black-and-white filter on it.
Much thanks must be given here to my mom, for taking me around the parks of Chicago, as well as getting on an early train to Western Springs with no prior notice the night before. Also, thank you so much Eddie for showing me around non-urban Illinois, and thank you Mrs. Kasper for driving us everywhere we went. I’m super grateful that you sacrificed basically a whole day to the drivers seat of a car in order for me to get the eastern birds I’d hoped to see.
that’s all, folks