Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Let's Round Up the Usual Suspects!

Maybe it's a personal flaw, but I'm the sort of person who craves novelty and adventure. In birding terms, that means that a trip to the same locations, to see the same species, as I've done over and over the past few years, is not that exciting. Some people claim to be enchanted with every single mourning dove or blue jay they see, as though it were their "lifer."

I envy these people. I'm not sure I really believe them, but even so, I envy them. It's not as if I don't like mourning doves and blue jays. I'd miss them if they were gone. But I just need a bit more. Which is why I like to give myself challenges. This year's challenge is:

My DeWitt County, IL Big Year!! Since there's only one other serious birder who birds here, I'm adding an extra challenge: not only do I need to see more species than anyone else for 2014, I also need to beat the high total ever recorded (by that other birder) on ebird. That means, this year's challenge is to see 211 species or more in my home county.

This was all the incentive I needed to get me out the door on a crisp winter morning on New Year's Day. I was hoping for a good mix of passerines and waterfowl, and hopefully some good raptors, and thanks to the previous couple of years birding the area, I knew exactly where I was most likely to find them.

First stop: Mascoutin State Recreation Area, where Clinton Lake was shrouded in thick clouds of fog, due to the warming effect of the nuclear power plant. I like the power plant because it keeps the water relatively open even during the coldest days, and open water in winter means birds! (I still haven't seen a three-eyed fish, though.)

Peering through the mist, which was thicker than ever and created a real horror-movie sort of effect, I was able to make out all my usual winter suspects: a couple of great blue herons, a pied-billed grebe, a large flock of coots, and some Canada geese. The even foggier flume revealed mallards, northern shovelers and gadwall.

Time for the passerines, my favorites. I was especially hoping for: brown creeper, pine siskin, golden-crowned kinglet, cedar waxwing, white-throated sparrow and red-breasted nuthatch, none of which would be rare for this time of year, but not guaranteed, either. To maximize my chances, I'd need to hike for a bit. There are patches along the Houseboat Cove trail at Mascoutin that often have active feeding flocks in the winter, but these areas are spaced out over three miles of trail.

It wasn't the best day for a winter walk: cloudy and damp, not horribly cold but the kind that settles into the bones. The wind over the lake was quite nasty. I don't mind a glittering, ice palace sort of winter day, when the sky is almost painfully blue and the whole world sparkles. This wasn't that sort of day. It was dreary, and to be honest, I'd rather be somewhere tropical, looking for motmots and quetzels. But as I'm in Illinois, it's prairie birds I'm after, and some of them are, after all, quite special.

I got some of my favorites, and even a couple of surprises: white-crowned sparrow, tufted titmouse, golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, and yellow-rumped warblers were some of the highlights.

By the time I'd finished my walk, I was getting cold, but I still had enough spunk for a quick drive around the lake. Common goldeneye were at the Marina, and some cackling geese, greater white-fronted geese and common mergansers at the IDNR station. The causeway along the IL 48 bridge revealed one of my favorites (that I can't possibly tire of, no matter how many times I see them): hooded mergansers.

A couple days later, I took to the country roads to look for birds wintering in the fields, lured in close enough to view to get grit or seeds from the roadsides, and got some Lapland longspurs and horned larks.

So I am starting my Big Year with 42 species, which is not bad at all for me at this time of year. I'm missing some that should be here--bald eagle, white-throated sparrow, northern harrier, ring-necked pheasant. Hopefully this will lure me out into the cold for another round of birding this coming weekend.

So how has winter birding been treating you?


  1. Oh, don't even get me started on how winter is treating me! It's hard to bird with frozen eyeballs. My main interaction with my wild feathered friends is running outside (or getting your father to run outside) with big pans of birdseed, as they stare piteously at the house, wanting "More! More!" I need to do a fundraiser to buy more birdseed. Still, I have a modest start (21 species) and hope to add more this Saturday. Enjoyed vicariously visiting some of my old birding sites via your post, and wish I'd been tagging along for real! MOM

  2. Hi Emily! Good luck with your big year. Have you checked for Saw-whet Owl near the West Access yet? I have not heard if anyone has seen any Saw-whets yet this year. That post I wrote about South Carolina was a catchup post from July 2012. So I am actually also in cold, wet Illinois, but enjoying Laplands and Snow Buntings on my way to work every day at least until today. I think the rain last night may have messed that up a bit.

    1. I just looked for the saw-whet owl about an hour ago. It didn't seem to be there, but maybe I just missed it. I'll certainly keep checking! And speaking of owls: snowy, long-eared and short-eared would all be welcome!

  3. You have my total admiration. I have no plans to become a more serious birder until my kids have left the nest, but I do relate to your musings about whether or not every common bird can always bring excitement. I included a line or two about that in Bird After Bird...I love the romanticism of every bird being special (and it is...otherwise I wouldn't fill my feeders!), so that's the tack I take, but I appreciate what your sense of needing more is leading you to do, too. Go, go, go!!!

    Actually, I stopped by to see if you wanted to be on my ARC review team for Bird After Bird, since you're bird-crazy like me and it's on your TBR. Let me know if you're interested. Just email me at Leslea.Tash@gmail.com

    1. Oh, every bird IS special! And I apologize that I haven't been checking the comments on my blog until now! Actually, I am reading "Bird After Bird" right now, and enjoying it on the whole.