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.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Glacial Park & Volo Bog finds us Sandhills, Northern Harriers, Northern PIntails, but no Northern Shrikes!

Glacial Park, Wonderlake, Illinois

North of Harts Road, east of 31

Volo Bog, Lakemoor, Illinois
South of Brandenberg Road, west of US12

Saturday, March 3rd, 2006, 815am-3pm

Friday night it was Boy's Poker Night at my friend John's place in Prairie Crossing. It would be the typical cards, beer and really good single malt scotch. There would be no driving the 47 miles home at 1am. Darn, I guess I would just have to stay overnight, and as long as I was that far north, I guess I should just do some birding at Glacial Park and Volo Bog, first thing in the morning, right?

Lynne was fine with this plan, so I shot an email to fellow
IBET birder Matt Fletcher who I met last Sunday at North Point Marina, which is part of the Illinois Beach State Park. I love Matt's bird photos, and he seemed like a guy who I could learn from in the field. He lives near Volo Bog and he was willing to take a rookie like myself into the field near his home turf.

It was a bright sunny morning, and before I even left Prairie Crossing I had seen a Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Doves, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Juncos, and House Finches in John's backyard. On the way out of Prairie Crossing I had to stop at Lake Leopold in Prairie Crossing, where I saw the usual Canada Geese, Mallards, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and one 2nd winter Thayer's Gull, the first Thayer's Gull I had ever spotted on my own and the first 2nd winter juvenile I had ever seen. 10 species before I had gone a mile. I was confident I would find the Northern Shrike I had targeted for the day.

On the drive to Glacial Park I spotted a large Red-tailed Hawk on the side of the road having breakfast. I had to pull over and watch for a few minutes. Of course that made me late, and then I got lost in Glacial Park, which may have bummed out Matt, but getting lost there allowed me to find a new bird for my life list, a male RING-NECKED PHEASANT (photo Matt Fletcher). I never knew how fast they could run. By the time I jumped out of the car to get a better look, it was 40 feet away and moving fast. But you can't mistake Ring-necked Pheasants for much else with his red face, green neck and head, white colar and that tail. He was bird #87 for the year, and #69 for Illinois.

I finally met Matt at the main parking lot at 820am, and he had already spotted an interesting looking white bird mixed in with the Canada Geese and Mallards on the marsh pond. As we were walking down to the marsh for a closer look at this mystery bird, Matt casually mentioned that he saw three SANDHILL CRANES (photo Matt Fletcher) on the far side of the marsh. Whoa, wait, stop right there Matt, WHERE? Sure, I had seen these birds before many times, including a day in November of 2004 at Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana where we saw an estimated 11,000 Sandhills during one sunset. But that was before I was a birder, and I had to see these first. They became life birds #88 and Illinois bird #70.

We got down to the marsh, and just couldn't figure out what the white necked bird with the dark head was. Before we could, either us, or one of the many raptors in the area sent the lot of the geese and ducks flying to the northwest. We would not ID that bird for now. We decided to walk through an oak savanna on the north of the marsh and then over toward the kames on the east of the Nippersink River, I was keen on seeing that Northern Shrike.

On the way to the kames we saw numerous Red-winged Blackbirds. At the kames we saw at least one (juvenile?) Northern Harrier, who disappeared as quickly as we saw him. From the kames we walked north across the marshy area around the Nippersink to a bridge near the campground at the north of Glacial Park. On the way we had Tree Sparrows, Red-tailed Hawks, Sandhills, with one doing a short mating dance for us (photo Matt Fletcher). At the campground

we heard some more sparrows that we never found, and were startled by BLUE JAY (photo Matt Fletcher) that instead of its harsh shrill call, actually whistled a sharp song that neither of us had remembered hearing before. Though I had seen many Blue Jays before being a birder, this was a new bird for this new avocation, and it was bird #89 for the year, #71 for Illinois. But no Northern Shrikes.

On the way south, we IDed a American Tree Sparrow, were surprised to see another pair of Sandhills, were

impressed with a pair of Northern Harriers (photo Matt

Fletcher), startled to see a Great Blue Heron that was north this early, as it was flushed by a woman walking her dog, spotted a lone American Coot, heard and then saw a Downy Woodpecker, saw several Red-tailed Hawks, had a close flyby of yet another pair of Sandhills, saw numerous Red-winged Blackbirds, watched American Crows in a one large flock at the oak savanna, where we also encountered a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a few European Starlings, and then found ourselves in the midst of several Black-capped Chickadees as we tried to get down to the marsh again to find that mystery bird, but no Northern Shrikes.

Could we find that mystery bird from the morning? Eventually, Matt did. We decided it was a duck of some sort when the whole group of Mallards was flushed into the sky. This time it wasn't us, we just weren't close enough. Why did only the Mallards flush, and not the geese? It was because a large hawk we could not ID flushed them. As quickly as it appeared though, it was gone. As it flushed the ducks, Matt, who is one of the best field spotters I have been out birding with, picked up those two ducks among hundreds of Mallards, one had a long tail, white neck, dark head, it had to be the NORTHERN PINTAIL (photo Matt Fletcher) that we thought it might be.

It was indeed. The flock came back, and we got to look at both the male and female Northern Pintail (photo Mike Powell) from both sides of the marsh. Matt even got a few photos of them, including at least one in flight (see above). We went around to the other side of the marsh and got to get a better look, but not before noticing three Red-tailed Hawks on a thermal to our south, a pair of which did the falling mating dance thing, I think it is a mating ritual anyway, I was excited because this was the first time I had ever witnessed this. With a new view on the other west side of the marsh, we were now sure of Matt's ID of the pair of Northern Pintails. He got me yet another bird, number 90 for the year, #72 for Illinois. It was new bird for us both.

Unfortunately, the flock was flushed yet again, this time I got to see both Northern Pintails in flight, and Matt also noticed a pair of
Americn Black Ducks, which I did not see. We had a good ID, we decided to head off to Matt's backyard nature area, Volo Bog. Maybe I could find my Northern Shrikes there. But before we left, we saw an American Kestrel make a catch, and watched a pair of American Kestrels at the railroad tracks on the way out of Glacial Park. What a treat this visit had been. We saw 19 species here, 4 of which were new birds for my list. But now it was off Volo Bog for Northern Shikes we go.

On the way, Matt pulled over to watch and listen to a female Horned Lark on Harts road, always a treat. Once at Volo Bog, it just seemed quiet. They had just done an extensive burn there, and the smell of stale burn still hung in the air. It didn't take long for us to hear some Tree Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, and a treo of American Crows (photo Matt Fletcher), two preening each other, something I had never seen in the wild.

As we continued walking we spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraging in the recently burned bog, heard and then spotted an Eastern Bluebird, hear and then Matted spotted more Tree Sparrows, followed by some Black-capped Chickadees. As we rounded the back side of the bog, we saw yet another Red-tailed Hawk. Coming back around the floating bog path we found a White-breasted Nuthatch near some pines, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and then heard some very loud Sandhill Cranes. But there wasn't a Northern Shrike to be found. Ugh! Time was running short!

We were just about back to the parking lot, on the very short elevated path, when I spotted those loud Sandhills. They were 30-40 feet from the path, in an open area where a burn had recently been done, and they were all but posing for us. It was so wonderful to see right into their eyes from that close distance. As we were getting done watching them, we spotted another hawk of some sort, but did not ID it, nor could we find it again.

Matt had to head home to get ready for a wedding, I wanted to take a quick tour on the inside bog walk, and then I had to head home too. I didn't see those pesky to find Northern Shrikes, but I did see 30 species for the day between Prairie Crossing, Glacial Park and Volo Bog, including 4 new life birds:

#87 Ring-billed Pheasant
#88 Sandhill Cranes

#89 Blue Jay

#90 Northern Pintails
male & female


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