the Rookie Birder

I have watched birds all my life, but after reading "The Big Year," "Grail Bird" and especially Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway," plus Santa's timely stocking stuffer of "Sibley's 2003 Eastern & Western Field Guides," I made the decision to become a rookie birder beginning January 1st, 2006.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Eastern Screech Owl at Morton Arboretum with a Northern Goshawk bonus!

Morton Arboretum
Thornhill area on Alternate Route near parking area P-20A

Saturday, February 25, 2006, 915am & again 1pm

Lynne and I had an appointment to test drive a new car in Elmhurst Saturday mid-morning. As Lynne at least has an interest in owls, I asked if we could head out early and attempt to find the EASTERN SCREECH OWL that had been noted at Morton Arboretum earlier this winter. She was game!!! So we got the
kids packed up and drove out to Morton.

Armed with a Morton map my birding neighbor Karen shared with me, we drove over to the Thornhill area to see what we could find. Karen's map and notes made it seem so obvious, but we found nothing. Red-bellied Woodpeckers calling and flitting about, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black Capped Chickadees, American Robins and the obligatory Canada Geese on the drive in, but no owl. I could even find the hole that she said was easy to find in the tree she indicated would have the owl 20 feet off the ground. Nothing.

As we drove away disappointed, we noticed some people with scopes and cameras near Sterling Pond, and I asked one of the gentlemen if he was a birder. He answered an enthusiastic yes. Hopeful, I asked him if he knew where the Screech Owl had been sighted, and again he said yes. Long pause. He offered no help. So I asked him if he could offer me any suggestions to find the owl, and he said he could not, as he promised not to tell anyone where the owl was so it would not be disturbed. How annoying. If you are going to be such an elitist, just lie to me and tell me you don't know. Don't take such an air of superiority, especially after telling me you were shown the bird and did not find it yourself, because you know something I want. What a jerk.

I told him, fine, but that I had a map, I was going to look for the bird, and he could either help me make a low impact sighting, or he could let me meander about and see what I could find, possibly disturbing the very owl he wanted to keep undisturbed. He simply responded by telling me my map looked accurate and that he had seen the owl the last three days after noon sunning itself. Lynne and I left for the car dealership determined to come back when we were done.

Once we left, we drove up 53 and turned right on Butterfield Road to drive east. As we approached a small creek and a bridge that crossed it, I noticed a raptor in a tree on the north side of the road in a large tree on the south end of the Western Acres Golf Course. It was just too big for a Red-tailed Hawk, and I couldn't see a red tail, this bird was gray. A Northern Harrier? Lynne commented that we had a few minutes before our appointment, let's turn around and look she said. I didn't need any more encouragement than that, we did a u-turn and headed back to an access road to a electric utility station and pulled over 50 yards from the subject bird's tree.

This was a big bird. Gray, faint, but distinct narrow barring on the chest and belly, distinct white stripe above the eye, the eye itself was deep red. We watched him in the tree, he watched us and the traffic going past. I grabbed my copy of "A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors," Lynne the "National Geographic Complete Guide of North American Birds." As we looked, debated, looked and debated, I remembered some IBET postings about a NORTHERN GOSHWAK in this area. Was this our treat for not seeing the owl? If only we could see this bird in flight. I no sooner thought it and my wish was granted as he lazily moved up and slowly moved south toward the Morton Arboretum area. The view in flight made us pretty sure I had seen bird #82 for my life list, and #64 for Illinois.

That was a great find, it almost seemed too easy to find, but it was difficult for a rookie like me to ID this bird with 20 minutes of time. Most raptors are still hard for me. At least I have learned to look for red tails, then for brown or gray coloring and general size, and ID from there. Don't know if that is the way I am suppose to do it, but so far it has been working fine for me. And though I will add this to my list, there is always that little bit of doubt because I have never seen this bird species before. Still, as we discussed what we saw, and compared that to our guide books, we felt 95% sure what we watched for 20 minutes was a Northern Goshawk (photo Cheryl Johnson). Hopefully I will see it again soon with someone who is a better birder than I, and I can feel 100% sure I IDed this bird correctly.

It was time to test drive that Prius.

We got done at the dealership by 1115am, then went to Lynne's cousin's house in Elmhurst to pick up the kids. After a short visit, we decided to head back over to Morton for one more try for the Screech Owl (photo Jeff Skrentny) before heading back into the city for an afternoon appointment Lynne had. Glad we did.

We went right back to where neighbor Karen told us to go at Thornhill, and this time, just like she said, the owl was visible from the car as we drove up. Amazing. It was sunning itself quietly in the hole of a big tree that I must have looked at 10 times earlier that morning. In fact it was the third tree I really examined first thing this morning. It simply must not have been out then. Even though I was still upset with Mr Know-It-All-But-I-Am-Not-Sharing-With-You-Birder, at least he shared the tip about being out after noon each of the last three days; that tidbit was probably what tipped the balance for us to go back and try one more time this afternoon. Because we did, we saw the EASTERN SCREECH OWL, bird # 83, and #65 for Illinois.

It was a fruitful morning and early afternoon; we bought a car, visited with family, and saw two great birds:



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