Shivering in the Snow and Sunshine

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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.

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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.)

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Bolingbrook Snowy Owl

Chasing Predators: In Search of Snowy Owls and Prairie Falcons

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Unidentified Falcon

Reports came last weekend from Coles County, Illinois–farm country about 3 hours south of Chicago–of sightings for two rare visitors: Snowy Owl and Prairie Falcon.

Even though Illinois is a “prairie” state, a Prairie Falcon sighting is a rarity. I saw one fly by in New Mexico last year but it’s a bird I would definitely like to see again. So I gladly joined three friends (as an aside, when we go out on expeditions together we call ourselves the 4 L’s or the Four Elles, all of our names beginning with “L”) for a day trip Sunday to comb the farm roads searching for these elusive creatures.

Farm Road wih Horned Lark - can you find it?

Farm Road wih Horned Lark – can you find it?

Alas, we did not find our target birds. An hour or two into our drive, in fact, we read a report of two Snowy Owls at Northerly Island back on the Chicago lakefront, the direction we were driving away from. But they were being harassed by…my crows, I’m afraid, and eventually left. I have reason to believe they are my crows evicted from the former Daley Bicentennial Plaza now under current destruction; earlier this winter an increase in the crow population was reported at Northerly Island. Crows would be the first to notice the Snowy Owls. But I’m also thinking if they had not harassed the owls, the owls might have gone unnoticed. There’s nothing like crows to detect the presence of predators and call your attention to them. Come to think of it, we could have used a few crows on Sunday to find the falcon for us…

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Our first bird was an American Kestrel, hunting in a field, then perched on the wire,

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that just would not become a Prairie Falcon. It had a vole and was trying to eat its prey, but we couldn’t get close enough for decent photographs.

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I’m afraid he got tired of us watching him.

After several more Kestrels, which I was still thrilled to see as they have all but disappeared from the Chicago area, we did have another falcon… this solitary creature, which might have been a Merlin. The bird appeared to be a juvenile, whatever it was. No matter how much we tried to make it into the sought-after species, it sat quietly in the middle of the field, no doubt amused by all the people peering at it, by now, with scopes from both sides, knowing we were too far away to get really decent looks.

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Even though these pictures are hardly worth publishing, we Four Elles had a great time, over the course of the day getting great if brief looks at Rough-Legged Hawk and Northern Harriers, lots of American Tree Sparrows and Horned Larks, and it was our last chance for sunshine for quite a while. The days are getting longer, but it seems the winter weather is just beginning.

White Christmas…Owl

We haven’t had any measurable snow yet in Chicago, but due to an irruption of Snowy Owls, we have had several visitors from the far north in the area. After a long Christmas Eve baking, I got up early to package the cookies for my neighbors on Christmas morning…

delivered the gifts, and went down to Montrose Harbor to see the Snowy Owl that has been there for weeks. The reason for the Snowys coming down from the Arctic is a lack of food, and in a Snowy’s case that’s lemmings. Perhaps there is a food shortage due to an overly optimistic breeding year for the owls, or weather conditions have disturbed the snow pack resulting in too much ice, affecting an owl’s hunting capability. Whatever this owl is finding to eat at Montrose I hope it is getting some nourishment and will make it back to its breeding ground.

Unfortunately for the owl, those of us who show up to gawk at it catch it when it’s trying to get some well-needed sleep. Yesterday I met some people who had just seen the owl fly from the beach where I was headed and then take off again, toward the harbor. I followed them and was lucky to be there when a generous young man spotted the owl sitting well-camouflaged on the dock next to the white something it tried to resemble.

Snowy on Pier, Montrose Harbor

Of course the owl knew we were taking pictures and would turn around to peer at us through half-opened eyes. The dock accoutrements didn’t make for a very good photo opportunity but I am not complaining. I’d never seen a Snowy Owl before.

Snowy Owl

Thought I would press my luck and check to see if a juvenile Harris’s Sparrow was still hanging out with the White-Throated Sparrows at the Aon Building. I had birdseed with me to draw the sparrows out, which worked beautifully but there wasn’t a Harris’s among them. I went down to Monroe Harbor briefly and saw nothing except one Common Merganser diving. I found out later I had missed a Red-Throated Loon seen earlier. I saw a Red-Throated Loon there a couple years back, but it would have been nice to see one again. Such is the way with birds. And with people. One lifer under my belt and I think I should be able to see everything.

I had peanuts with me because I knew I’d run into my crow buddies. White-Wing spotted me and virtually announced herself.

Hey, it's a holiday, what are you doing here?

She was soon saving some for later…

White-Wing in Peanut Flight

As I was heading back to my car, White-Wing followed me to the end of Daley Bicentennial, cawing all the way, and then she got courage and crossed Monroe into Butler Field, followed by her clan. They know how to fleece me, so I left them the rest of the peanuts. But Butler Field isn’t their territory, and sure enough, as White-Wing was busily selecting and arranging her peanuts…

White-Wing with Peanut

the other not-quite-as-white-winged crow I’ve seen occasionally in Butler Field showed up for this challenge.

Stop Thief!

The other crow took her stash. She complained.

Mom, he stole my peanut!

Then she went back to the peanut pile and decided to work a little harder. I caught her flying back to her territory across the street.

White-Wing flies far with her peanut.

My last stop was Northerly Island, where I heard no passerines and saw no birds save geese on the ground and gulls in the air. The wind was blowing through the tall dried grasses.

Northerly Island, facing south

I encountered sculptor Dessa Kirk’s Daphne Garden. I’m not used to taking pictures of inanimate objects, but these figures were too interesting to ignore.

Inevitably some of the Canada Geese took off for another location. On my way back, I caught them as they flew by Soldier Field…

and then back around toward the lake.

A fine Christmas Day.