Friday, April 3rd, was our seventh day of Big Break Birding. The boys and I were trying to see how many kinds of birds we could see during spring break, while also lengthening our year lists for 2009. We decided to leave our neighborhood and head south in search of rare sparrows and early shorebirds.
The shorebirds were a bust — Killdeer was the only kind we saw. However, we saw 15 different kinds of sparrows — including rare ones like Harris’s Sparrow and Le Conte’s Sparrow — at some unlikely sounding places, including a sod farm, an organic basil farm, a swine research facility, and a graveyard fencerow. (See the bottom of this post for details.)
Unfortunately, most sparrows don’t sit still to get their photos taken. Ethan was lucky to get this photo of a Vesper Sparrow out the car window:
Vesper Sparrow posing on a stalk of corn stubble in a field near Clinton Lake, Illinois. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
This Eastern Towhee was less cooperative — it’s partially blocked by twigs:
This Eastern Towhee was watching us from a small tree at the University of Illinois Swine Research Unit. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Eastern Meadowlarks are a kind of blackbird, not a sparrow, but they pose well for a camera:
Eastern Meadowlark in a sod farm field near Momence, Illinois. Photograph by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
By late afternoon we had reached Clinton Lake in central Illinois. We were running out of new birds to see, so we allowed ourselves to be distracted by other things, like plants and mammals. We found lots of beaver-chewed stumps and logs near the spillway:
Beavers cut this tree and then ate the bark off the fallen log. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
The beavers here cut down trees for food but live in the river banks below the human-built dam, rather than building a dam of their own.
One advantage of traveling south is you get to see spring flowers days or weeks before they bloom near our home. These Dutchman’s Breeches were particularly beautiful:
"Breeches" are pants -- whoever named this plant thought the flowers looked like a Dutchman's pants, hanging upside down. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
I taught the boys a trick with a woodland plant called Bedstraw — it sticks to almost anything:
Bedstraw stuck to Aaron's shirt. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Bedstraw stuck to Aaron's hair. (Aaron looks like he's deciding where to stick the Bedstraw next.) Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Tricks aside, sometimes all you need to enjoy the outdoors is a few dead leaves floating in a lake:
Leaves on Lake. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
We ended the day with 112 species on our Big Break Birding list and 145 species on Aaron’s 2009 year list.
Just for the record, here’s a post we submitted to IBET, the Illinois birders’ email list. It provides details about where we went and what we saw:
Subject: IBET HARRIS’S and LE CONTE’S SPARROWS still at the U of I swine farms
From: Eric Gyllenhaal
Date: Sat, 04 Apr 2009 14:04:08 -0000
The boys and I headed south from Oak Park in search of sparrows and early shorebirds. We got 15 species of sparrows, but no shorebirds other than Killdeer.
The fields near H & E Sod Farms, east of Momence, Illinois, held 3 VESPER SPARROWS (along 1250N) and a dozen LAPLAND LONGSPURS, plus a few AMERICAN PIPITS (in the bare field northeast of the intersection of 1250N and 13500E).
The Urbana Swine Research facility, on Hazelwood just east of 1st St., held the greatest diversity of sparrows. The HARRIS’S SPARROW was in a large brush pile just east of the buildings, and the LE CONTE’S was in a brushy field north of the road. Other sparrows here: Eastern Towhee, American Tree, Field, Savannah, Fox, Song, Swamp, plus lots of White-crowned and Dark-eyed Juncos, plus several Brown Thrashers. To get Chipping and White-throated Sparrows, we drove what Google Map’s calls Grffith Drive, south of St. Mary’s Rd. on the northwest side of the research park. There were also lots of other sparrows along this lane, including an Oregon-type Junco and more Towhees.
We then headed west for our first-ever visit to Clinton Lake. Best finds: First-of-year Rough-winged Swallows south of the spillway, and dozens of Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few Common Loons seen from westside access points. There were also a few hundred ducks seen in the far distance, along and east of the dam. They looked like mostly Scaup, with some Bufflehead, Redheads, and probably other species.
Our species count for Spring Break so far: 112 species.
Eric, Ethan, and Aaron Gyllenhaal
Oak Park, Cook County, Illinois