Shorebird Weekend

American White Pelicans in Flight, Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge

American White Pelicans in flight, Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge

I got home late last night from a weekend trip to Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Lesa. It was a somewhat last-minute, spur-of-the-moment, why-not trip which means we did not plan ahead too well, but the spirit of adventure overtook us and we went to see what is perhaps the premier shorebird viewing spot in the state of Illinois during fall shorebird migration. We drove down Saturday night, stayed at a motel another 45 minutes away, and got up early Sunday morning to thick fog and cloud cover. Not exactly ideal conditions for viewing anything, let alone shorebirds which are always distant unless you are on a beach. I have been nodding off for a couple hours going through fuzzy far away pictures I took anyway to see if there were perhaps any species we missed or if anything came out clear enough to reproduce here, but the consensus is generally negative. Below is perhaps the best shorebird picture, such as it is.

Lesser Yellowlegs with Blue-Winged Teal

Lesser Yellowlegs with Blue-Winged Teal

The light was so poor in the morning, even birds a tad bit closer were hard to photograph. We stopped first at Goofy Ridge but the water levels were too high, so we spent most of our time further south at Eagle Bluff which features a cross-dike you can walk out on to view the birds. There were perhaps eight more birders off and on. A bit closer to the dike were some dead trees, where we encountered a noisy family of Red-Headed Woodpeckers.

RHWP, Chautauqua 8-31-14-4422

Adult Male Red-Headed Woodpecker

Juv RHWP, Chautauqua 8-31-14-4438

Juvenile Red-Headed Woodpecker

RHWP, Chautauqua 8-31-14-4414 Juv RHWP, Chautauqua 8-31-14-4431

As the fog began to wane I managed a few pictures of birds in flight, albeit none too sharp.

Canada Geese, Chautauqua

Canada Geese, Chautauqua

More and more American White Pelicans took to the air. They are regular visitors to the Illinois River in migration and make flying look like a lot of fun. In bright sunlight when they turn away from the sun, they became almost invisible as the black tips to their wings only show underneath. They looked like stars on a light blue sky.

Pelicans

Pelicans

The sun finally came out at midday and it became too hot to stand around behind our scopes out on the open dike, so we decided to leave. We were almost at the car when we encountered a couple of venerated birders we know. They had just identified a Ruff. But we were hot, a bit tired and hungry, so we decided to let it go rather than stay and have them point the bird out to us. One reason for this trip was to figure out the birds ourselves, because we decided that we would otherwise never learn to distinguish them. So we took off for a fairly leisurely drive around the area, crossing the river and back again, stopping and getting out here and there, looking for camping and/or birding spots for future trips. The idea of making this trip every year to sharpen our shorebird identification skills was in our minds. One early stop was at the Chautauqua Nature Trail which starts off the back of the headquarters building and winds through black oak sand forest, where I took the snail and butterfly images below.

Snail

Snail

Tiger Swallowtail

Giant Swallowtail

We also made a stop at Emiquon, more restored habitat along the Illinois River basin. There wasn’t much to see this time of year, but one shaded area afforded space for perhaps a dozen or more Barn Swallow nests.

Empty Barn Swallow Nest

Empty Barn Swallow Nest

We went back to Eagle Bluff at Chautauqua late in the afternoon, after the heat had begun to dissipate and the light was still good, to find the Ruff mentioned earlier. I had seen Ruffs in East Africa last November, where they commonly spend the winter, but they are a rarity around here. As we approached the dike for viewing, I improvised a dream conversation for our encounter: “Hi. I’m Joe Ruff. Didn’t I see you in Tanzania last winter?”

There were a lot fewer shorebirds than were present earlier in the day, which likely helped the Ruff stand out that much more. We are confident that we did see it, after studying our field guides while eating a leisurely, late lunch. Unfortunately it was not possible to photograph more than a pinkish blob on legs. But it was worth sharing a high-five to find it, identify it and study it. Thus fortified, we pronounced our impromptu shorebird expedition a success. This will inspire us to plan better next year and maybe spend a few days, as the weather is never reliable. Plus every day different birds come in, so chances are if we visited the refuge for two or three days we would see many more species.

In addition to the Ruff we had nice looks at a Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semi-Palmated Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, American Avocet, a Least Sandpiper, Short-Billed Dowitcher and many, many Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Semi-Palmated Plover. We had one Greater Yellowlegs when we returned to see the Ruff. I think I probably saw a Hudsonian Godwit too but may not have realized it at the time. Then there were many Blue-Winged Teal and Black Terns. I’m sure I’m forgetting something; we decided to leave the listing and counting to those more experienced. But I am not forgetting that the most common shorebirds we normally see, Solitary and Spotted, were not present. And I can remember seeing only a couple Least Sandpipers, which is a bit unusual. As luck would have it, the last reports from today counted 26 species, so that’s a definite incentive to extend the next trip another day at least.

I am still figuring out the insect pictures from last weekend’s outing to Kane County where the idea for this trip was hatched. With the swimming pool being closed this week for maintenance, there’s a possibility I’ll manage another post featuring my six-legged friends. In the meantime here is the most cooperative subject on the way out from our second stop at Eagle Ridge. One of those unidentified but interesting grasshoppers.

Grasshopper

Grasshopper

I got over to the Chicago Portage this morning before the predicted rain, which turned out to be nothing substantial, to see if there were any more hummingbirds present. I encountered only two, a female from the flash of white tail feathers, and later what was probably a beautiful male on my way out, but both left too quickly to study, there were hardly any other birds, and I got tired of being the primary food source for the local mosquitos. I’ll likely try again next weekend. I cleaned and refilled my hummer feeders at home, but no action there either. I keep trying to tell myself I will have great looks at Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds in November in Costa Rica and I should just wait.  But it will take something like an influx of warblers to make me get over this.

 

Wetlands and Bottomlands

Hennepin-Hopper

Hennepin-Hopper

Last Sunday my friend Lesa and I joined Jeff Smith’s DuPage Birding Club outing to the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin-Hopper Lakes in Bureau County, Illinois.  The weather was cooler than predicted and cloudy, but it was good to get out. As you can read the link, the refuge is fairly new. Twenty years ago the water was still drained out of it for soybean and corn fields. Since restoration, Hennepin-Hopper has attained Audubon Important Bird Area status and in February of 2012 was listed as a wetland of international importance.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird

On the map, Hennepin-Hopper inhabits an area to the south and east of the crook in the Illinois River when it changes course from west to south. In addition to marshes and lakes, there are a lot of bottomlands close to the river as well. We walked a trail through the marshes that border the lakes, and there we saw and heard plenty of Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows proclaiming their territories.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

I believe we had all seven woodpecker species: Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Red-Bellied, Red-Headed, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and Pileated, which is the rarest of all, but for some reason the Pileated was the only one I got representative pictures of, and it was far away.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

We had a couple Red-Tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. One Red-Tail was close enough to photograph. Click on the picture to see a larger image.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

At one point we heard Blue Jays harassing something and it turned out to be a Barred Owl, distant and well-hidden behind several trees. The only thing making this photograph possible, I suppose, is the absence of leaves.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Also a bit rare, Rusty Blackbirds. We’re always on the lookout for them as they pass through. The drab backlighting doesn’t do them justice unfortunately.

Female Rusty Blackbird

Female Rusty Blackbird

Male Rusty Blackbird

Male Rusty Blackbird

This Great Blue Heron blended in, even in silhouette.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

So where are the lakes and the waterfowl, you say? A lot of pictures like the one below, but hardly ever close enough to take pictures of the several species we had.

Waterfowl at Hennepin-Hopper

Waterfowl at Hennepin-Hopper

A few species hung a bit closer to the edges, like Bufflehead…

Bufflehead

Bufflehead

and Northern Shovelers.

Northern Shovelers

Northern Shovelers

And our only shorebird species was a Killdeer.

Kildeer

Kildeer

American White Pelicans were a presence. Below, several flew over shortly after we arrived.

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans

Later we caught up with them or some others on the Illinois.

Pelicans on the Illinois River

Pelicans on the Illinois River

Here’s a closer view of one that flew overhead.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Perhaps the bottomlands left the greatest impression on me. The reflection of the tree trunks in the water is mesmerizing.

Bottomlands

Bottomlands

Turning homeward, we stopped by some bottomlands to see Wood Ducks and Mallards, but were eventually distracted by a Little Brown Bat hunting over the water.

Little Brown Bat

Little Brown Bat

It’s been a hellishly busy week but I will be back.

 

Shivering in the Snow and Sunshine

Bald Eagle L&D 1-19-14 1723.jpg-1723

Yesterday three of the Four Elles joined the DuPage Birding Club outing to Starved Rock in LaSalle County, Illinois. Although the fourth Elle could not join us, she participated in the same field trip with two of us last year. We met a large group of birders at the Lock and Dam across the river from the main entrance to Starved Rock State Park, where we watched birds on the Illinois River from the comfort and convenience of the deck behind the visitor’s center.

Common Mergansers flying on the Illinois River

Common Mergansers flying on the Illinois River

Common Mergansers L&D 1-19-14 1753.jpg-1753The Bald Eagle pictures are from this location. The birds were not always close enough, but they were active and in general viewing them turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

Bald Eagle L&D 1-19-14 1794.jpg-1794Bald Eagle L&D 1-19-14 1774.jpg-1774

Bald Eagle L&D 1-19-14 1787.jpg-1787

There were not many species of waterfowl, but we did have a couple Great Blue Herons, one of which is flying below.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

We then caravanned across the river to the visitor’s center adjacent to the lodge at the state park, where they have well-stocked bird feeders. There were many Blue Jays, not willing to sit still for the most part; this one looks pretty cold.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

On and around the feeders, White-Breasted Nuthatches were common, like the one below.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

And invariably, we saw Downy Woodpeckers. And Tufted Titmouse, Dark-Eyed Junco, American Tree Sparrow and Black-Capped Chickadees, although less available for good shots.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

After lunch, the field trip took off for Lee County instead of further down the river this year, a change driven as much by the weather as the opportunity to search for a previously reported Snowy Owl. We scanned field after field like the one below. Unable to keep up with the 4-wheel drive vehicles in the blowing snow on the roads, after an hour or two we turned homeward and did not see the eventual Snowy. Luckily there are still opportunities closer to home.

Lee County farm field

Lee County farm field

(Last weekend on another field trip, I saw a Snowy in Bolingbrook but could not get a decent picture. Three individual birds have been spotted near this location, so there may yet be a chance to return and try again.)

Snowy Bolingbrook 1616.jpg-1616

Bolingbrook Snowy Owl

After the Flood, Part Two

Flooding at Emiquon

Flooding at Emiquon

So as not to forget the biggest weather event of the year so far, at least around here… here are a few more photos from last weekend’s Emiquon expedition, part of the Illinois Audubon Spring Celebration. In the picture above, the water beyond the first row of trees is the Illinois River, which was at 26.8 feet: flood stage is 14 feet. Normally the depth of water on the near side of the trees would not be there…instead there would be more puddles and shorebird habitat.

Spoon River College Arboretum

Spoon River College Arboretum

So Saturday morning instead of the original plan, we visited Spoon River College Arboretum, which is a beautiful 10-acre tract of natural habitat and wood chip trails. I saw my first-of-year Wood Thrush early on in the walk.

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush

Brown-Headed Cowbirds, more often heard than seen, but this one was glistening when the sun made it through the clouds for a few moments.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird

One of many Chipping Sparrows…

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

At some point we found a Blue-Headed Vireo, but he was elusive.

BH Vireo IMG_6887_1

Blue-Headed Vireo

I remember walking through a crop field to get to the parking lot as the walk was winding down, so this must be it.Field IMG_6907_1

After lunch we went out again to see as much of Emiquon as was possible. This road was washed out.Flooded Road IMG_7029_1

Blue-Winged Teal were everywhere.

Blue-Winged Teal

Blue-Winged Teal

And invariably some were flushed. But then you get to see the blue on the wing that they’re named for…

Blue-Winged Teal IMG_6925_1

Blue-Winged Teal IMG_7004_1

Not much more than the profile of a Double-Crested Cormorant, but it is distinctive.

Double-Crested Cormorant

Double-Crested Cormorant

Along the side of a road going back to Dickson Mounds, which if the mounds had not been underwater might have made for interesting photographs…there was a lone Snow Goose.

Snow Goose IMG_7055_1

Snow Goose

On Sunday morning, we decided to head home instead of go farther out of our way for yet more flooding… so we stopped by Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria Heights on the way back home. Tufted Titmouses (Titmice? Titmeese?) were everywhere.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

And although this is out of chronological order, maybe it’s a good place to stop: a perfectly-formed flowering Magnolia tree.

Magnolia IMG_6909_1

Tomorrow morning I am participating in my first Spring Bird Count. Wish me luck getting up at 2:30 a.m. 🙂

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans IMG_7040_1

Just a quick picture-post of the American White Pelicans at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, located at the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, a featured site of the Illinois Audubon Society’s Spring Gathering based in Canton, Illinois, this weekend.

I’ll have more photos later in the week. It was a long, frustrating weekend, with the weather on the chilly, wet side: a lot of the planned birding activities were canceled because they were inconceivable with the flood conditions resulting from last week’s rain.

American Pelicans IMG_7018_1

But the pelicans were undeterred. Indeed they seemed to be enjoying the extra habitat. I have never seen so many so close and in breeding plumage. And I found them surprisingly fascinating to watch: their movements are in sync, and beautifully choreographed. Dancing to a tune only pelicans can hear.

American White Pelicans IMG_6998_1

Starved Rock and LaSalle County

Distant Birds IMG_1980_1

Bald Eagle on ice, Illinois River

As winter wanes (we are experiencing a significant thaw as I write this), I feel compelled to get caught up with the past couple weeks’ photos. On February 24, 2013, I joined two other Elles on a DuPage Birding Club field trip to Starved Rock. It was my last chance to see numerous Bald Eagles, this time on the Illinois River. It was a beautiful day, but because there wasn’t a lot of frozen water, the birds were farther away and harder to photograph.

Eagle IMG_1768_1

Bald Eagle, soaring

Eagles IMG_1786_1

Juvenile and adult Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles, three plumages

Bald Eagles, three plumages

Of course there are always gulls too, although we did not see anything very unusual.

Lock and Dam 13, Illinois Waterway Visitor's Center

Lock and Dam 13, Illinois River

Gull IMG_1721_1

As we moved down the river, we saw more species, some on land, some on water.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

It was wonderful to see a Pileated Woodpecker, but impossible to get close enough for a decent picture. The quest continues.

Pileated IMG_1959_1

I forget exactly where we were when I got the picture below of the Ring-Necked Pheasant.

Ring-Necked Pheasant IMG_2057_1

On the grounds of the Starved Rock Visitor’s Center, where there are some feeders, there was a very cooperative Tufted Titmouse. Since I don’t get these guys in my yard and they can be elusive in the woods, I am always thrilled to see them.

Singing Tufted Titmouse

Singing Tufted Titmouse

And of course, there were a few White-Breasted Nuthatches. I like the branch this bird chose to pose on.

White-Breased Nuthatch

White-Breased Nuthatch

On the way back, numerous flocks of blackbirds. Below, Cowbirds in a Bare Tree. It always amazes me to see Cowbirds find their own species after being raised by others.

Cowbirds in a Bare Tree IMG_1931_1

Brown-Headed Cowbirds

On the way back the three of us stopped at Gebhardt Woods State Park in Grundy County for a little walk along the I&M Canal.

I&M Canal IMG_2083_1

One species we picked up here was a Winter Wren. He was mostly preening, behind these stalks.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

At the end of a long but beautiful day outdoors, perhaps the full moon from the parking lot where we’d started was the best image of all.

Full Moon IMG_2195_1