October’s End

A goal for the last two years has been to get up to Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail in October to see Sandhill Cranes. October weekends were flying by with other commitments and I kept hoping for decent weather, should I attempt the trip on the last Sunday of the month. I was rewarded with available sunshine and went to investigate. I saw only 18 Cranes eventually, when there had been a few hundred reported earlier in the week, but I was lucky to have three calling raucously and flying right overhead.

My start down the eastward Hebron Trail, which is a gravel trail built on an old railroad bed, yielded a flurry of Cedar Waxwings, Robins and Starlings at the start.

Hebron Trail
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling

The more often I visit this place, the more I fall in love with it. But it takes me an hour and a half to drive up there, no matter which way I go. The first time or two I wasn’t sure I was ever going to find it, but now I know the route and the landmarks and it’s easy – just a long haul.

Not long after I reached the end of the tree-lined part of the trail, I saw this male Northern Harrier fly across the field and then maybe twenty minutes later it flew by right in front of me.

Sparrow migration is in full force and I saw plenty of sparrows to prove it. It was especially nice to see the Vesper and Savannah Sparrows. Also this was my first American Tree Sparrow of the season. Since I’m already over seeing Juncos come back, I see no problem welcoming the Tree Sparrows, as both species herald the return of colder months.

Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

There weren’t a lot of birds in the water, mainly American Coots. There were some Pied-Billed Grebes, but they were too far away to capture adequately.

American Coots

As I went through my photographs last Sunday, I realized I still had photos from my last visit back at the end of July, when I wondered if there were any Yellow-Headed Blackbirds left. I’m including some of those photos below.

Yellow-Headed Blackbird (female)
Song Sparrow
American Goldfinch
This Halloween Pennant would have been much more appropriate if I’d managed to post this last week!
Another reason why I like this place – I always see Crows!
Widow Skimmers look even better in retrospect.

A couple more of the Sandhills… My resolution for next year is to visit this place more often, maybe even closer to the peak times for certain species. Either way, it’s a beautiful place and I am happy to share it with you.

The Other Goose Lake

YHBL 07-16-17-6288

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail, in McHenry County up by the Wisconsin border, was on my list of places to revisit this year and I was so happy to be accompanied by my friend Susan who had a Yellow-Headed Blackbird in her sights as a species to add to her life list. I checked with ebird and confirmed the blackbirds had been seen in late July last year, so there was a good chance of seeing them still. These photos are from last Sunday.

On the way up, Susan spotted two Sandhill Cranes walking near a fence by the road.

It was cloudy and threatening rain, although we managed to avoid downpours. The sun did peek out a little bit later. Greeted by a Cedar Waxwing…

CEWA 07-16-17-6334

Cedar Waxwing

And a bedraggled-looking Yellow Warbler on the trail to the marsh…

YEWA 07-16-17-5961

Yellow Warbler

And a juvenile Song Sparrow.

SOSP 07-16-17-5967

Song Sparrow

The Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were suddenly in view in numbers and they dominated the landscape. Susan definitely added this bird to her life list. We did not see an Black Terns, a species that also breeds here. Perhaps we were too late in the day or the season.

At some point a flock of Canada Geese flew over.

Below, flying Yellow-Headed and Red-Winged Blackbirds.

One particular Tree Swallow kept flying around a distinctive dead tree, tempting me to try to capture it. The tree it perched on is a favorite stopping place.

Below, a Common Yellowthroat and a confusing young sparrow. It’s likely a Song Sparrow but this time of year is tricky with identifying the youngsters. I’d like to say Grasshopper but the head isn’t “flat.”

Not at all confusing were the distinctive sounds of singing Marsh Wrens, but it was getting hard to find one sitting up until we encountered this one close to a platform overlooking the marsh. Some of its song is at the link below (you will also hear Common Yellowthroat singing first).

The water level was exceptionally high, but the area was not flooded as were other parts of the county. We saw many Pied-Billed Grebes with young, although they were at quite a distance.

PBGR 07-16-17-6158

Pied-Billed Grebes

Nice to see a Monarch Butterfly. Would have been nicer to see several. I’m intrigued by the yellow flowering plant on the upper right, which I do not recognize, and the Purple Prairie Clover below it, which I later realized is also blooming in my front yard. Imagine that.

It was nice to see a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, even in lousy lighting, and a robin with food for young.

We met a very nice man who lives nearby and checks out the marsh regularly. He used to teach environmental science so he was full of good information and stories. He’s holding the crayfish below which he rescued from the gravel path. He encouraged us to come back at different times of the year. I think we should take him up on it.

More Yellow-Headed Blackbird photos. Missing are the distinctive white patches on the wings of adult males, which makes me think these are all juveniles.

YHBL 07-16-17-6279The little trio below leaves me stumped as to who the sparrow is, again. Since all juvenile sparrows tend to be on the streaky side no matter how they wind up as adults, I think this one has the look of a juvenile Field Sparrow but I’m not going to bet on it.

RWBL ET AL 07-16-17-6330Summer simmers on. I’ll be back soon.

Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail

YHBL 6-26-2016-3468

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.

Ring-Necked Pheasant on Hebron Trail 6-26-2016-3207

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

And birds drying off after the rain.

Grackle and Brown Thrasher 6-26-2016-3225

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.

Willow-Alder Flycatcher 6-26-2016-3214

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.

AMGO 6-26-2016-3273

American Goldfinch

EAKI 6-26-2016-3321

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.

SOSP 6-26-2016-3483

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.

YHBL 6-26-2016-3507

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.

Sandhill Crane 6-26-2016-3242

Another Goose Lake

YHBL Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7145

Yellow-Headed Blackbird, Goose Lake Conservation Area, McHenry County, Illinois

Somewhat ironically, shortly after I visited Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County, the local list-serve was on fire about another Goose Lake Conservation Area in McHenry County, not far from the Wisconsin border, where Yellow-Headed Blackbirds and Black Terns were easy to find. Both species are rare in this area. Reading constant reports about it all last week while at work, I decided if the threat of rain was not severe I would just have to drive to this Goose Lake Natural Area on Sunday morning. I had several days to talk myself into getting up no later than 3:30 AM so I could leave the house by 6:00, seeing as how it would take me over an hour and a half to get there.

I plugged a theoretical address into the GPS on my car and got within striking distance. After that it was easy enough to find and I parked in a tiny parking lot that fits about three small cars. No sooner did I park than I was joined by another Prius driver. Diane had her camera with her too and we birded the trail together.

YHBL Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7156

There is a Goose Lake on the map but as far as I can tell there is no public access. Thus I saw no lake and no geese. However there was more to explore (we perhaps went in 3/4 of a mile) on a 7-mile trail and some day I will have to make a return trip.

Hebron Trail MapThe Hebron Trail has been made from an abandoned railroad bed, specifically the Kenosha Division Railroad which made its last run in 1939. Just off the parking lot where the wide gravel trail starts is a wooded area that was brimming with hungry mosquitoes. We had been forewarned but it made stopping to look at anything we heard prohibitive. Perhaps after a quarter of a mile we were out of the woods and into the marshy area which was miraculously pretty bug-free. It was cloudy but it did not rain.

Ground Squirrel

Ground Squirrel – I’m not sure I’ve seen these before!

There were at least a dozen Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, and when they became active they made dramatic displays.

YHBL Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7157

The other species we were excited to see was Black Tern. Although not less visible, they were very difficult to photograph from far away, in the poor light, and they never sat still.

Black Tern

Black Tern

I never thought of Red-Winged Blackbirds as small before but compared to the Yellow-headed Blackbirds they are dainty looking.

RWBL Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7042Plenty going on with other breeders too. Like the Tree Swallow condominium tree below, and then when a Green Heron decided to sit on one of its branches the Tree Swallows started mobbing it.

TRSW Condo Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7108GRHE Harrassed Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7307GRHE Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7276

Song Sparrows were singing everywhere. Also many Marsh Wrens but I did not get a picture of one suitable to post.

SOSP Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-6888There were so many Common Yellowthroats they could have had a singing competition.

COYT Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-6912One Common Yellowthroat male was feeding its foster child, the Brown-Headed Cowbird juvenile below, but it was too hard to get the actual feeding shot with all the branches in the way.

BHCO and COYT Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-6951My only regret is that the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were not singing, because it would have been a wonderful sound to reproduce for you here. Maybe next year I can get up here when they’re setting up territories.

YHBL Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7130

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

It’s hard to believe but the Red-Winged Blackbirds were nearly silent as well. Definitely the juveniles below had nothing to say.

RWBL juveniles Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7407

It took me two hours to get back home. There is no easy way to get to this place, but I guess that’s what makes it a favorite for some birds we rarely see.

Goose Lake NA 7-12-15-7389