Monday, July 22, 2013

At loggerheads no more!

You can kind of see a shrike in there. Maybe.

I think I should begin by expressing my shock and dismay at how long it has been since I have posted anything here. It's not that I haven't been birding (I have), or writing (I have), I just haven't been putting it on my blog. In my defense, I've been busy with a lot of other projects, including working on some non-blogging writing projects, reading, trying to get back in shape, trying to get my dogs into shape, and spending time with out-of-town company. So, although I am only posting this now, the events described actually took place on July seventh.

It all started with loggerhead shrikes. Shrikes in general were becoming Illinois nemesis birds for me, and I had dipped out more than once seeking them at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. This year I had pretty much resolved to ignore the Midewin shrikes, as it is a long trip up there, and much as I enjoy the prairie, it's not really one of my favorite places.

My good intentions lasted until I read on the Internet that someone had seen the shrikes with fledglings. It was simply beyond my power to pass up a chance to see baby shrikes. My Pomeranian must have sensed how much I wanted to see them, as he woke me up at 3:30 with his incessant barking. So then, since I was up so early and everything, I might as well go take a look....

I left slightly before dawn. It's a long drive, about two hours. My "career" as an insane bird chaser is tempered by the fact that I really loathe being in the car. I've heard of birders who will drive four or five hours for a really good bird, get out of their car, see it, and then get back in and drive four or five hours home. I say, more power to them. Alas, for me, a two hour drive feels like an epic journey, especially when I'm on my own.

There was still some freshness to the morning when I got there, and only one other car in the parking lot by the Iron Bridge Trailhead, home of the shrikes. There were the usual mix of birds -- field sparrow, dickcissel, house wren, mockingbird, meadowlark. I thought of Einstein's remark that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And here I was again, doing the exact same thing in my Quest for the Shrike.

Before long, I met the other birder (of course, the other car belonged to a birder!), who asked me if I was familiar with the area.

"A little bit," I said, fully expecting him to bring up the shrikes.

"Do you know the best place to see Henslow's sparrows?" he asked. Well, that was a stumper. I knew Henslow's sparrows frequented the Prairie, and had seen them there once a few years back, but I sure couldn't remember the location. I mentioned that Goose Lake Prairie, not too far from Midewin, is a reliable place to find them, but he insisted they'd been spotted recently.

"I'm looking for loggerhead shrikes," I mentioned.

"Are they rare in Illinois?"

Unfortunately, they are rather rare, on the state endangered list in fact. I am sure there are other breeding pairs somewhere in Illinois, but the Midewin shrikes are the only ones I know of.

As we walked along, me looking for shrikes, him for sparrows, I felt that we were getting in each other's way a bit, so I turned to the right when another road presented itself. I was actually in the process of giving myself a little lecture about accepting the fact that I would not see shrikes and to enjoy the birds I did see, when I looked up, and there, perched on the wire before me, was a loggerhead shrike.

I crept up slowly, trying not to scare it, as I wanted a good picture to mark this, my day of triumph. The shrike flew across the road to a tree, where it was joined by another. They seemed like young birds to me--their markings not quite as crisp, and their behavior rather goofy. A meadowlark landed on the tree above them, causing both to take cover in the foliage, and then, realizing the other bird was not a threat, they both popped up again. It was quite a treat to see.

Finally, I turned back, shrikes seen at last. I wondered where the other birder came from; obviously a place where shrikes were common but Henslow's sparrows were not. I was also wondering if I should explore Midewin a bit since I was already up here, or head somewhere else, perhaps Goose Lake Prairie.

But since I was on a lucky streak, I decided to be really crazy and go to Hennepin-Hopper wetlands--which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, except perhaps to the type of person who will drive four hours to get their bird, close to Midewin. Hennepin-Hopper was the the site of a potential life bird, a neotropic cormorant, and I'd been meaning to get up and see it for the past week or so. (It's lovely when a life bird sticks around long enough that I can still see it a week or two later when I finally decide to.)

On my way back to the trailhead, I saw one of my favorite grassland birds, the grasshopper sparrow:

grasshopper sparrow

Sparrows might not be the showiest of birds, but I find them endearing, and the grasshopper sparrow makes a particularly cute buzzing noise.

The other birder's car was still there, and I satisfied my curiosity with a peek at his license plate. California. (Oh, the birds I could see in California! Although not Henslow's sparrows, apparently.)

I saw a bit more of central Illinois as I drove to Hennepin on the back roads (the great cornfield tour), and there, my luck held, for I soon saw the cormorant about halfway down the seep trail, perching, from what I understand, on the exact same stump that he'd first been seen on.

Normally, I like to spend an extra hour or so checking out all the other birds in the area, but it was about noon at this point, hot and humid, and I was tired. Yellow-headed blackbird, which I knew to be in the wetland? Not a life bird, I'm going home. The only explanation I have for this behavior is that I'd been up since three thirty in the morning and was not thinking straight!

When I got home, I realized that none of my photos turned out, as I had joggled the focus button and not realized it. (The grasshopper sparrow pic is from a different trip.) The shrikes strike again!


  1. I'm so glad that you were able to break your Shrike Curse! It's such a great feeling. This Spring, Dad (is his blog name Big Tree? I forget), and I were delighted to finally see a Northern parula this Spring, after trying for YEARS! Then, about a week later, we saw another. Once you break the curse, you start seeing your bird all of the time...and then along comes the new curse bird! MOM

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