Sunday, April 14, 2013

Chasing the "Havana Five"

black bellied whistling ducks

As I was checking the birding forums Friday evening, I saw that an Illinois rarity has been sighted right outside Havana: five black-bellied whistling ducks! As it turned out, Greenturtle and I had already planned a trip to the area, to go to Chatauqua and Emiquon so I could play with the new Swarovski spotting scope that my awesome mother-in-law sent me as a surprise.

I was on pins and needles all the way there...what if the "Havana Five" (as one birder called them) had departed before I could get there? I am not always so anxious about seeing a bird, but I really wanted to see black-bellied whistling ducks! Since their normal range is in the southern Texas, if I missed out on these, it might be a long time before I had another chance.

Luckily, they were still there, and the people in the house beside "their" pond had been very considerate of traveling birders:

In fact, a lady came out as were admiring them and snapping their photos, inviting us to come for a closer look and asking where we were from. She said that she had had visitors from as far away as Chicago and Rock Island, which does not surprise me. As I told Greenturtle, bird alerts are obviously what the Internet was invented for. It doesn't take long for a rare bird sighting to go "viral" in the birding community.

Most of the photos we took show the ducks busily feeding.

But every once in a while, a few would pop their heads up.

We declined to go any closer, as we were afraid of scaring them off, and ruining the trip for the next birder who came by. As we left, we speculated what brought them so far out of their normal range.

Greenturtle suggested that someone had gone to Texas in order to purchase or capture some ducks and bring them to Illinois, either as a prank on all the bird nerds such as myself, or in order to stimulate the local economy. I, on the other hand, preferred a more romantic explanation--that the "Havana Five" were a gang of outlaws on the run from the law (I picture "the Law" in the bird world to be represented by a hawk or falcon, perhaps in their case, a white-tailed hawk? Or maybe even a crested caracara?

In any case, I was very happy to have seen them, but for a rare life bird, it felt a bit too easy. Really, we just put the grid coordinates from the Internet in Greenturtle's smart phone, and went right to them, and there they were. Not that I'm complaining; they were great birds...and a life bird. But still, I do think that the experience is even sweeter when the "rare life bird" is a complete surprise.

After that, we headed for Chatauqua, which had more ducks on the water than I've ever seen there before, including northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, canvasbacks, bufflehead and ruddy ducks. I also saw many snow geese in a field.

Here I am with my new spotting scope...thanks, Norma!!

I also noticed another sign of spring, the first dutchman's breeches of the year:

Emiquon was lovely as usual, but did not have any shorebirds at all. Is it still too early, or is the water too high? Instead we found ducks, ducks, and more ducks, everything we'd seen at Chatauqua, plus green-winged teal as well.

For a final stop, we went to Sand Ridge State Forest, where I found a singing pine warbler. I didn't do this on purpose, but after the bird had flown off, I asked Greenturtle to get out his phone and play the warbler's song, just so I could confirm the identification.

Well, let's say it certainly did confirm it! The bird flew back in to confront what he thought was a rival's song, perching right overhead and flying from tree to tree. I felt bad for inadvertently messing with his head, but we really got a good look!

Another good day of birding in the Prairie State....


  1. Now, along with screech owl envy, I'm also suffering from black-bellied whistling duck envy! Check out those snazzy bills! What a beautiful scope your mom-in-law gave you. Bet you could spot ducks on Mars with it! Can't wait to take a peek through it in May...and, maybe, see a screech owl, too, while I'm there. MOM

  2. Great post!! I think I may have been the birder who referenced the "Havana Five" on Glad you got to see this band of outlaws on the run! Based on reports, that Sunday was the last day they were reported.

    When I first read about the sighting on Friday morning I had a big decision to make on whether to make the 3.5 hour drive from the North. I was going just to see these guys and then immediately drive back the same day. Awful thoughts kept running through my head on the way down of a colossal potential miss. But I was so relieved when I got to see them. My experience was surreal. Not a soul in sight other than the 5 ducks during my 20 minutes with them. Albeit short, it was one of my favorite birding experiences to date.

    Hopefully the Havana Five successfully outran the Law!!

    1. Thanks for the comment! And thanks also for your posting about the "Havana Five" on the IL Birder's Forum...I think that might have been my inspiration to go search for them.

      And I know what you mean about making a long trip just to look for one species. Usually, even if I "dip out" on the bird I'm looking for (loggerhead shrike at Midewin Nat'l Tallgrass Prairie, that means you!), I usually have a nice time, and see some really good birds, regardless.

      Except in February. I don't even want to think about February trips gone bad!

      In any case, I'm glad we both got to see the "Havana Five" before they absconded to parts unknown.