Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail

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Yellow-Headed Blackbird

I saw a couple birds at the Portage a few weeks ago that reminded me of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds although they were most likely not, but the light was so bad I couldn’t determine what they were, even after enhancing bad pictures. They were definitely large blackbirds but not Grackles.

(For clarification – the pictures above are all Yellow-Headed Blackbirds and were taken at Goose Lake Natural Area in McHenry County.)

I then thought that by the time I get back from Ecuador next month, it could be too late to see the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds that nest in McHenry County close to the Wisconsin border. I went to this area last year for the first time and vowed to go back. So Sunday morning I picked up my friend Lesa and we headed up north into ensuing thunderstorms. By the time we got all the way up there about an hour and a half later, the rain was nearly over, so it was perfectly timed.

On our way out to the marsh through the wooded trail, we saw a distant Ring-Necked Pheasant and light at the end of the tunnel.

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There were other things happening on the gravel trail. Like feeding time for a fledgling Common Grackle.

And birds drying off after the rain.

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Common Grackle on the left, Brown Thrasher on the right.

And Empidonax flycatchers, likely Alder or Willow, but unless they say something we can never be really sure.

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The other rarity I lured Lesa with was Black Tern, and we definitely saw them.

Red-Winged Blackbirds were predictably everywhere.

The marsh had Pied-Billed Grebes (below, top), and some downy Hooded Mergansers (three pictures below) which I needed help to identify, not seeing any parents and forgetting that ducks other than Mallard are a possibility. I should have recognized the behavior of the Mergansers which was what drew our attention to them anyway. One had caught a fish and the others were chasing him or her.

Perhaps the nicest surprise were two Sandhill Cranes. We heard them for the longest time but could not see them until they decided to fly over us.

Predictably we saw American Goldfinch and Eastern Kingbird.

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American Goldfinch

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Eastern Kingbird

After wishing we’d brought our scopes and maybe even lawn chairs, we finally came to a little deck-like overlook with a bench, near the Song Sparrow pictured below who was sitting with a dragonfly waiting for us to quit paying attention so he could go feed someone at an undisclosed location.

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Song Sparrow

We were enjoying the cool cloudiness after the rain but the sun started to break through the clouds and the heat started to build, so it was time to retreat. Next time I think we have to find a way to carry a scope with us as it’s likely we missed a few birds. All in all we had about 33 species on our list.

I wish I’d thought to bring my recorder because the male Yellow-Headed Blackbird below gave us a few brief but beautiful spurts of song. Well, maybe beauty is in the ear of the listener. He sounded perhaps like a rusty crank turning. But it’s complex and probably musical to females. Here’s a link to the Cornell website if you want to hear what one sounds like. I’m entranced by the orange-colored crown on this bird.

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The last bird we counted was a Red-Tailed Hawk. We saw another accipiter fly over the trail on the way back but could not identify it quickly enough.

I had intended to do much more posting before my trip, but found I was still going through photos I took weeks ago! Time has flown and soon I must fly to my vacation destination.

I leave Friday for Quito, going to the Amazon and then the Galapagos. This is likely my last big trip. Although I may have said that before. So unless I manage the unthinkable and post once more before I leave, I’ll be back next month to share photos from my trip.

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Starved Rock and LaSalle County

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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.

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Bald Eagle, soaring

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Christmas Bird Count

I participated in my fourth or fifth Fermilab Christmas Bird Count today (of that, I’ve lost count) from 7:00 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. or so. It was probably the warmest and wettest CBC the area has ever had (although even at 45 degrees Fahrenheit the winds blow gustier through Fermilab’s wide open spaces and do not exactly feel “warm”). I was in one of three groups of birders attempting to cover the 6,800 acre space that provides a variety of habitats to wintering and migrant species.

So even though we are more used to dealing with snow and ice instead of rain this time of year, we still had a good time and there were some interesting birds, even if I suspect the numbers of species and the counts were down considerably from a “normal” year.

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Ring-Necked Pheasant

Birds just aren’t out and about as much in constant rain. Nonetheless I managed to see my lifer Ring-Necked Pheasant when we were driving from one location to another. This pheasant was busy wading in a puddle by the side of the road. I had my point-and-shoot camera on me in case we needed to document something, so I was able to document my first encounter with this bird.

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Tundra Swans with Canada Geese

The other nice surprise was to visit four Tundra Swans that another group had found in their designated area. I have seen Trumpeter Swans and Mute Swans but Tundra may also be a new species for my life list. Sigh. If I ever get around to figuring out exactly what’s on it. My List, that is.

Point-and-shoot, indeed. How easy it is to forget that the term of “shooting” a picture came from gettting the image of a bird without having to kill it first.

Even with the cold and rain, and getting up around 3 a.m. this morning so I could leave the house by 5:30, driving and walking through a lot of territory searching for birds in good company was perhaps the best diversion anyone could ask for on a day when the nation’s consciouness is blurred and blighted by the senseless slaughter in the grammar school in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t intend to use this blog space as a soap box for anything other than the importance of the music, intelligence, beauty and fascination of birds, but it could seem almost frivolous to be writing about a Christmas Bird Count. So I want to expound a bit on a connecting thought that occurred to me, if I may.

The Christmas Bird Count was started by the National Audubon Society at the beginning of the conservation movement in this country, in response to what had up until then been a national pastime called the Christmas “Side” Hunt where people went out to see how many creatures they could bag with their shotguns; obviously a lot of the victims were birds. The idea of counting birds instead of shooting them was a first, quiet step toward preserving bird species because it was feared their numbers were declining. The count has gone nationwide, participation increasing yearly, and the data collected by participants is used to monitor trends in bird populations. People still hunt waterfowl but it’s regulated during hunting season, there’s a quota, and the fees go toward preserving habitat.

I don’t know anything more about hunting, it’s not something I understand any need for whatsoever, but it seems people don’t shoot birds with semiautomatic rifles. Unfortunately sometimes ignorant people shoot birds they’re not supposed to, like endangered Whooping Cranes, but don’t get me started.

It’s too bad a national holiday for saving the lives of innocent people won’t work the same way as a CBC. Obviously setting aside one day to not shoot people but instead count as many as you can is not going to deter any desperately angry soul from murdering as many as he can on some other day. Setting up a quota of how many people you can take on the other days won’t cut it either. I am not trying to make light of this. I am as horrified, sickened and saddened as the next person. And maybe doing a Christmas Bird Count isn’t going to be enough to help birds survive, in the long run. But it still makes sense to do it. And it doesn’t hurt anybody. In fact, I think finding and counting birds helps the people who do the count as much if not more than it helps the birds.