Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Big Break Birding March 31, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Other People's Neighborhoods — saltthesandbox @ 2:21 pm
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It’s spring break — time for the Gyllenhaal boys to hit the road in search of birds for their year lists! Ethan and Aaron (ages 13 and 12) have declared this a week of Big Break Birding. On a Big Day, birders count all the birds they can find in one day. A Big Year is all the birds found in year. (We want our year lists to be as long as possible, but we don’t consider them serious enough to be Big Years.) I googled “Big Break Birding,” but only one result came close — a Big Day at a place called Big Break. So I guess the boys invented a new piece of birding terminology.

Go here to read about Saturday, when we went to Lake County, Illinois, to see a California Gull. Sunday it snowed — snowed!?! — and we spent the morning at home, looking at scenes like this:

A hungry Robin sits on our feeder, with a Junco and Goldfinch in the background.

A hungry Robin sits on our feeder, waiting for more raisins. A Junco and Goldfinch are at the thistle feeders in the background. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal

We made sure the birds all had things to eat while we waited for the snow to stop. When it did stop, we got back in the car and spent the afternoon exploring birding hotspots fairly close to home, in southwest Cook and southern DuPage Counties. The first year bird of the day was a Savannah Sparrow at Lemont Quarries, also know as the Heritage Quarries Recreation Area (large pdf brochure and map here). The second was a pair of Wilson’s Snipe at Whalon Lakes Forest Preserve. (Yes, when we go on a snipe hunt, we find a real bird!)

Monday was our biggest trip so far. We built our itinerary around reports of a Red-necked Grebe on Morse Reservoir in Indiana. We also made several other stops along the way and after, but we’ll cut to the chase — we found our target bird off Morse Park at the south end of the lake:

The Red-necked Grebe was newly transformed from its drab winter plummage to its summer breeding plummage.

The Red-necked Grebe was newly transformed from its drab winter plumage to its summer breeding plumage. Head turned slightly towards the camera. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Note the long bill on the Red-necked Grebe -- compare it to the shorter, thinner bill on its smaller kin, the Horned Grebe, below. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Same Red-necked Grebe, head in full profile view. Note the long bill -- compare it to the shorter, thinner bill on its smaller kin, the Horned Grebe, below. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We only saw one Red-necked Grebe on the lake, but we saw many smaller Horned Grebes before we found our target. Each time we saw a new Horned Grebe, we hoped for the best, but each time the bill was too small and the head and neck pattern wrong:

Horned Grebe, still in winter plummage. Note how much smaller the bill is than on the Red-necked Grebe. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Horned Grebe, still in winter plumage. Note how much smaller its bill is compared to the Red-necked Grebe, above. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Since we found our target, we would have been happy even if we went nowhere else on Monday. However, we made several other stops that turned our trip into a wonderful birding adventure.

On the way south from Oak Park to Morse Reservoir, we drove the roads around Kankakee Sands Nature Preserve in Newton County, Indiana, where we saw many birds that like open fields, including this Rough-legged Hawk:

The Rough-legged Hawk rested atop a pole between hunting flights over the open fields of Kankakee Sands Preserve. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The Rough-legged Hawk resting atop a pole between hunting flights over the open fields of Kankakee Sands Preserve. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Our year bird for this area was Brewer’s Blackbird, seen in a large flock of Common Grackles on a grassy lawn near the Preserve. (Sorry, no photos.)

Next we headed southwest a few miles to Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, near Morocco, Indiana. Our first year bird there was a huge flock of White Pelicans, seen from the Patrol Road:

White Pelicans resting on an island in the lake at Willow Slough. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

White Pelicans resting on shallow spot in the lake at Willow Slough. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

When I lived in Indiana more than 20 years ago, White Pelicans were rare sights in the state. Now you can count more than 130 in a day (as one birder reported on the Indiana birding e-mail list). Wild Turkeys have also become much more common over the past 20 years, so we weren’t surprised to see two flocks walking the Patrol Road ahead of us:

The Wild Turkeys let us get close enough for this photo -- I guess they aren't all that wild anymore! Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The Wild Turkeys let us get close enough for this photo -- I guess they aren't all that wild anymore! Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We had seen Wild Turkeys elsewhere this year, but we still enjoyed watching these birds. Elsewhere at Willow Slough, Ethan and Aaron walked ahead of me on a dike and saw another year bird, a Great Egret in flight. It was gone before I got there.

After leaving Willow Slough we headed towards Morse Reservoir, but made one stop along the way. There was a flooded field just north of the Newton County landfill that held another year bird, a sandpiper relative called the Greater Yellowlegs:

We called this a Greater Yellowlegs because it had yellowish legs and a long, slightly up-curved bill. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We called this a Greater Yellowlegs because it had yellowish legs and a long, slightly up-curved bill. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Our next stop after that was Morse Reservoir, where we found our trip target, as described above.

After Morse Reservoir we drove to Eagle Creek Park, a great place for birding on the northwest side of Indianapolis. It was getting late — 6:00 p.m. local time — so we got no usable photos. But we did get three more year birds: Carolina Chickadee, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Lesser Yellowlegs (a shorter-billed relative of the bird pictured just above). After sunset, we finally headed for home.

Overall, it was a 15 hour, 450 mile trip. It’s what I call Big Footprint Birding (because leaves a big carbon footprint). I feel much better about my Big Green Birding close to home, but I’m glad our big-footprint trips help keep the boys interested in birds.

By the end of the day I had 7 new year birds, and the boys had 8 to add to their year lists. Aaron’s year list had reached 136, and mine had 129 birds. (Go here to see my growing year list for 2009.)

Today we’re sticking close to home, with the last day of FeederWatch in our yard (11 species so far) and a short trip to Columbus Park (27 species in 50 minutes). Tomorrow we hit the road again, this time with Gail along to help with driving.

At the end of the day on March 31, our Big Break Bird total was 92.

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All the photos were taken with Ethan’s Sony DSC-H50 camera using its 15x optical zoom lens. All photos were enlarged through cropping. Most photos also were enhanced for clarity using Photoshop (but not the grebe photos).

 

2 Responses to “Big Break Birding”

  1. Great pictures of the grebe. My BIL want to see it. I hope he get to. This one is almost in full alternate plummage. It looks like it was close to you too.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa!
      It did get pretty close — maybe 60-80 feet — although the Horned Grebes got closer. And don’t you wish they had picked a better term than “alternate plumage”? I can never keep straight which is alternate, and why.
      I loved your blog at http://artsyendeavors.blogspot.com/ . I’ll make sure Gail and Ethan both see it, too — they’re the artsy ones in our family.
      Eric


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