Thursday, July 9, 2015

My June breeding bird challenge

catbird went a-courting
My quest to find ten species of breeding warblers kind of fizzled out. There were reasons, which I will get into, but rather than abandon the project altogether I changed it to completing the June eBird challenge of submitting twenty checklists with a breeding code on them. (What is ebird?, you might ask. If so, please check it out and learn more; all birders should eBird!)

The breeding codes include:

Nest with young or eggs
Birds carrying food or nesting material
Birds feeding young
Recently fledged young
Agitated behavior or territorial defense
Display, courtship behavior or copulation
Pair in suitable habitat
Multiple (7+) singing males

With such a range of behaviors to choose from, this seemed like a more realistic goal than finding so many different warblers. Plus, if I succeeded, my name would go into the drawing for a free pair of binoculars.

I began the month with some trips to my local patches, Weldon Springs and Mascoutin Recreation Area here in Dewitt county, IL. Immediately, I ran into some challenges, one of which being swarms and swarms of extremely loud, ugly insects. They clustered on the leaves by the dozen, flied lazily in every direction, even landed on me and pinched me from time to time. The drone of them drowned out any birdsong, assuming the birds were persistent enough to keep nesting in such unpleasant conditions. I had never seen anything like it. It felt...apocalyptic.

Photo credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Sleuth
A bit of surfing the Internet showed this plague of insects to be cicadas, which do this sort of thing every 17 years. Also, I was not imagining the dearth of birds; avian numbers do seem to drop when cicadas have their seventeen-year-fling. I imagine that, like me, the birds just find them too repulsive to be around. (Although apparently, in some places of the world, they are considered a tasty treat. Despite my interest in the "paleo" style diet, I think I'll pass!)

My other challenge was a swarm of a different variety. I had never gone to bird at Mascoutin on a summer evening before...and it turned out that it was packed with people. I think half of central Illinois had descended upon the campground and Clinton Lake. But I got several checklists over the first week, and was off to a good start.

My breeding birds:

Red-winged blackbirds--pairs in suitable habitats
Wood duck--recently fledged young
Dickcissel--multiple singing males
Common grackle--recently fledged young
Canada geese--recently fledged young

young Canada geese
The next weekend, sick of the cicadas, I decided to head north a bit to McLean county, and stopped at Schroeder Nature Sanctuary (a.k.a. "the sewer plant"--but it's a very nice sewer plant, honest). Despite a weather forecast promising that the rain wouldn't start until noon, no sooner than I had arrived, but dark, ominous clouds rolled in, followed by copious thunder and lightning. I huddled in the bird blind for about an hour, annoying a pair of barn swallows that were nesting under the eaves, until I finally gave up and ran back to my car (getting soaked along the way).

Breeding birds:

Tree swallow--going in and out of nesting box
Barn swallow--going to and from nest
Purple martin--going in and out of martin house

My next trip was even farther afield, to the Emiquon preserve along the Illinois River Valley, one of my favorite spots to bird in central Illinois. I "dipped out" on my hoped for bird, a tricolored heron that someone had spotted a few days earlier, but there were still many good birds, including black-necked stilts, common gallinules (I do prefer the old name "moorhen"), Eurasian tree sparrows and a very quick look at some glossy ibis flying away.

Breeding birds:

Mute swan--recently fledged young
Cliff swallows--recently fledged young

cliff swallow peeking out of nest
One of the "reasons" my birding projects have been curtailed, along with insects and weather, has simply been lack of time. Normally I would take an extra day or two off during June to enjoy my favorite season (well, second favorite, after spring migration, of course), but this year work has been crazy and the boss has been hollering for everyone to work overtime. Although I never complain about overtime on payday, the other days it's fairly challenging to be stuck in a cubicle when so much birdy stuff is going on outside. But between one thing and another, I didn't get out again until the summer solstice, and I was running behind schedule if I wanted to complete my 20 checklists. (Even though I "cheated" once and threw in a list of backyard birds the evening I looked outside and saw a juvenile mourning dove on my fence.)

Before moving to Clinton, I used to bird all over McLean county, and for a change of pace, I decided to revisit some of my old favorite patches. Actually, Saturday morning I woke up exhausted, and it was only my desire to complete the challenge that got me out the door.

My first stop was at Centennial Park in Heyworth, which revealed a nice mixture of usual suspects, and made me remember why birding is just plain fun. Yellow warblers, noisy catbirds, and a family of Baltimore orioles were the "best" of the bunch.

After that, I went to Moraine View State Park, Schroeder Nature Sanctuary (the sewer plant again), and Sugar Grove Nature Center, kind of a whirlwind tour of McLean County birding sites south of Bloomington. I have described all these spots in more detail in earlier posts (searchable in the menu at right if you're curious), but on this day, I mostly remember being hot and sweaty and seeing all my favorite summer birds.

Breeding birds:

Wild turkey--recently fledged young (at Sugar Grove)
Baltimore oriole--recently fledged young
Mallard--recently fledged young
Field sparrow--recently fledged young
Barn swallow--recently fledged young (the ones previously in the nest at Schroeder--and did they ever leave a messy nest behind!)
American robin--recently fledged young

Another week passed, and I was down to the final weekend of June. If I was going to meet my goal, I had to spend another full day's worth of birding, and this time I decided to head to my old favorite spots north of Bloomington: Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake and Parklands Merwin Preserve. By now all the rain we'd been getting throughout the month had resulted in still more birding impediments--voracious hordes of mosquitoes and sodden, squelchy trails. Still, it was a good trip. I saw a pair of Caspian terns flying over Evergreen Lake and a ton of summer favorites, including an eastern kingbird that seemed to be doing some sort of courtship display.

eastern kingbird eating lunch
It was flying up, then fluttering down slowly while calling out continuously--I've never seen anything like it, but I assume he was trying to get the ladies' attention. Well, at least one lady was checking him out, but probably not the species he was hoping for!

Breeding birds:

Eastern kingbird--courtship display
House wren--multiple singing males

So yes, I (just barely) got my twenty checklists, and I had a lot of fun and accrued a good handful of those priceless birding memories. I don't think I'll win the free binoculars, but, honestly, the grand prize was seeing all those summer birds!

None of the photos used in this blog were actually taken during my June adventures, but except for the cicada photo, they were all taken in the past by my husband (the catbird) or myself (all others) in various locations around central Illinois.


  1. Maybe next summer, you will find more breeding warblers. This year has been a little irregular. I also always enjoy birding in early June. It can be a great time to see some nesting birds that are just arriving or getting started on territory. Do you have Western Meadowlark on your Illinois list? I know a couple of good spots in Woodford and McLean county though they might be a bit of a drive.

    1. I found some Western Meadowlarks a couple of years ago in Woodford County...not that I would mind seeing them again, of course! Right now I am mostly hoping to add to my DeWitt County list and waiting for the shorebirds to start moving south. It's always a bit sad for me when June is over and I know the breeding season is wrapping up.

  2. I really feel sad after July 4th; up here in the UP, May and June are THE best months for birding! I've noticed it's much quieter now on my birding walks, although the chipping sparrows are still going off sounding like little laser guns. The ebird breeding birds challenge sounds fun; I'm going to take it next year. And, it's good news for me that gallinules are moorhens, because that means I've seen them! Great post!