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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, Bald Eagles and Eastern Bluebirds

LaSalle County near Ransom, Illinois
SE corner of 27th and 19th

& Starved Rock State Park
looking on Plum & Leopold Islands & at Youth Campground

Sunday, February 12, 2006, 1030am to 6pm

We had maps, fed children, and warm clothes. Now we were off to see Snowy Owls in LaSalle County where they had been reported all winter. I wanted us to be on the road by 8am, we were only 30 minutes behind our schedule, and for us, that was great.

Our first significant sighting took place on while we were on I80. Right before Morris on the side of the road was a large hawk, but unlike the typical Red-tail, this one had a white blotchy head and was hopping around on the side of the interstate. Slowing down as much as I could, I noted an almost white breast with dark around the legs, and with a hop I could see feathers that went down to the bottom of the leg. The bill seemed smaller and the eye was very dark. When it took its hop, you could see the underwing was white except for a dark band on the end of the primaries and secondaries, the converts were the same patchy marked brown of the back of the neck.

I did not know what this hawk was, but thanks to the birders I’d meet in 40 minutes, I would learn it was probably a ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (photo DW Williams) that one of the others had seen on the drive down. It was not a bird I could count without a further look. Thankfully, I got that look on the way home at 445pm in about the same area. The second time I was able to pull over and watch it from the side of the interstate, much to Lynne's chagrin. I had a new hawk. By day's end it would be bird #73 for the year, #54 for Illinois.

Driving south on 6 toward Ransom, we first pulled over for a male American Kestrel on a telephone wire, and then a female a short bit later. Right after that treat we noticed a large dark bird casually flying from east to west at about the height of the tops of telephone poles. It was a juvenile BALD EAGLE in its Basic I plumage (Wheeler & Clark). It was bird #1 for my life list, it was now bird #50 for Illinois. Seemed like some kind of American symbolism to me!

When we got to just north of Ransom we immediately decided to stay north of town to start going point to point on a dot matrix map I had created of where all the Snowy Owl sightings had been reported. Our first stop was at the railroad tracks on 18th between 26th and 27th. As we drove up there was another van stopped looking up and down the tracks. It had to be a birder. It was, Tim Smith who told us to go to 27th, take a left and up at 19th we would see several other birders and the SNOWY OWL in the middle of the field there.

As we drove up we saw a man with a scope on 19th just east of 27th, two parked cars and a miniature snowman in the field about 100 yards from the corner of the road on a raised mound of ground that had not been plowed that season. It gave the SNOWY OWL (photo Jeff Skrentny) a slight height advantage over the whole field, and it gave us a great view of him. Both Lynne and I got a good look at the owl, and Tom, a leader for COS, allowed us each a view with his scope. Through it I was able to get this shot.

We had 30 minutes of watching when suddenly the very still Snowy Owl got very active looking every which way. He quietly raised his wings and took to flight toward the south west. Tom and I both watched him gracefully and easily move up and out of our sight. This owl in flight gave the impression of strength and ease as it moved out of view with lazy wing beats that allowed it to move quickly and rapidly away. What a treat. I was giddy with joy high-fiving Lynne once I got back into the car where she was dealing with two squirmy kids, one an 7 month old, the other almost three. We would need to stop somewhere and eat to get them out of the car, but I had found, thanks to IBET, bird #70 for the year, #51 for Illinois.

After lunch in Ottawa, we headed down 71 to Starved Rock State Park. After parking, we walked down to the river and saw half a dozen Bald Eagles (photo Matt Fletcher) immediately in the trees of Plum and also Leopold Islands. We viewed them from the river walk, and then from up at the Starved Rock observatory walk. That was where we had our best look at the adults and two juveniles in the trees of the two islands. Besides the eagles, we also saw more than 30 GREAT BLUE HERONS (photo Scott Linstead) on the tip of Leopold Island, all but one of them on the ground at the tip of the island facing the dam. Though I have seen this bird many times before I was a birder, this would become bird #71 for my life list, and bird #52 for Illinois. On the walk back I also saw a pair of Black-capped Chickadees for good measure. Not the Tufted Titmouse I was hoping for.

We spent a couple of hours at the park, inside and out. Eventually we needed to think about heading home. I had heard from one of the park rangers that a group of Wild Turkeys had recently been seen at the Youth Campground on the other side of 71, so we headed over there to see what we could see. It was quiet, but we did see a group of at least 4 EASTERN BLUEBIRDS (photo Paul Sansom). Both Lynne and I got an excellent look at two birds, and they became bird #72 for my list, #53 for Illinois.

The family was all sleepy, but I still wanted to stop at Buffalo Rock State Park on the other side of the river, just east of Starved Rock, and while they snozed in the car I took a short walk on the bluff where I saw another Bald Eagle, a Red-tailed Hawk, more Great Blue Herons that were chased out of the trees by the hawk, Common Goldeneye, gulls and a few Red-breasted Mergansers.

The drive home gave me the another view of that Rough-legged Hawk, and I also spotted an owl in a tree in late dusk while we were on I80 right before we joined up with I55 going back to Chicago. It was a cold day, but a good day, four new birds for my list, with one new Illinois bird to boot:

#70 Snowy Owl
#71 Great Blue Heron
#72 Eastern Bluebird
#73 Rough-legged Hawk


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