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).

 

California Gull! March 28, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Other People's Neighborhoods,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 10:28 pm
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On Saturday we left our neighborhood and headed north to Lake County, Illinois, in search of first-of-year birds for our burgeoning year lists. Our best find of the day was a California Gull at North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois (That’s on Lake Michigan, just south of the Wisconsin border.)

California Gulls are western birds that sometimes wander into Illinois. This was a rare and wonderful find for us, although we have seen them a couple of times before. We only found it because our birder friends reported it on IBET, the Illinois birders’ email list. With their help we knew that the gull was there and exactly how to recognize it.

Below are photos of what we saw, taken with our old Kodak C533 through our Vortex Skyline 80 spotting scope. In the first photo note the yellowish legs, dark eye, and irregular dark band on the bill. These features help distinguish California Gulls from the much more common Herring Gulls, which are about the same size:

California Gull. Note the yellowish legs, dark eye, and dark mark on the bill.

California Gull. Note the yellowish legs, dark eye, and irregular dark band on the bill.

Herring Gulls of the same age almost always have pinkish legs, yellow eyes, and just a red dot on the lower bill. The following close-up view of the California Gull’s head shows a reddish mark on the lower bill, behind the dark band — another diagnostic feature for California Gulls:

California Gull. Note the reddish mark behind the dark band on the bill.

California Gull. Note the reddish mark behind the dark band on the bill.

Many birders spent hours on a cold and wind-swept beach searching for this bird, and they sometimes came up empty handed. With good luck and the boys’ sharp eyes, we found the California Gull on the relatively protected Marina docks. Actually, Ethan found the Gull three separate times — it flew twice to different docks, yet still he picked it out by looking for the California Gull’s yellowish legs among the sea of pink-legged Herring Gulls.

As we left the Marina and headed home, we also found two other year birds for me and Ethan: Green-winged Teal in a pool along the Marina’s entrance road, and Blue-winged Teal at Almond Marsh. At the end of the day, I had 120 year birds on my list, and Aaron had 126. Go here to see my 2009 year list.

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And one more thing: We spent Saturday morning on a field trip with the Lake-Cook Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society. With about 40 other people, we watched loons and other migrating waterfowl on the inland lakes of Lake County. We learned some new places to go birding, and we got to hang out and talk birds with some great birders. Trips like this are a wonderful way for beginning birders to learn more about the birds in our area. Go here for a list of upcoming Lake-Cook Chapter field trips.

Our thanks to the trip leaders, Fred and Cheri Thompson, and to everyone else who helped organize the Loons of Lake County field trip!

 

Back in the Neighborhood March 23, 2009

Our family spent the weekend at a work bee at Circle Pines Center near Delton, Michigan. I suppose it was an escape to nature, since we made maple sugar, pruned apple trees, raked up last fall’s leaves, and found birds we won’t be seeing soon around here (like Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse).

But we also left a lot of nature behind. As we prepared to leave on Friday afternoon, the buds were opening on an American Elm one house north, attracting tiny bugs and four Golden-crowned Kinglets to eat them. Friday also saw the year’s first Song Sparrow and Brown-headed Cowbird in our yard. (The Cowbird was not good news — our closest Cardinal pair were tricked into raising one last summer.) While we were gone, a fellow Oak Park birder saw a Bald Eagle soaring high above our village, as reported on the Illinois birding list.

As sunrise approaches, I hear the songs and calls of Robins, Cardinals, and House Sparrows through our barely open back window. I just heard a Song Sparrow sing from the small Ash tree in our backyard. I also heard a song I don’t recognize — today’s birding challenge. Looking at my laptop screen, I see the echoes of bird migration on the Chicago Tribune weather radar, flocks riding southeast winds between the storms (image below). So, today I’ll keep track of backyard birds for Project FeederWatch and walk the neighborhood during dry spells to see what’s new

I’ll report the neighborhood nature news later today. Later this week I’ll post Ethan’s photos of life at Circle Pines.

The green around Springfield, Illinois, is migrating birds, coming in for a landing as sunrise approaches. The yellower areas are today's storms.

Chicago Tribune's Midwest weather radar from this morning. The green area around Springfield, Illinois, is flocks of migrating birds, coming in for a landing as sunrise approaches. The larger yellow/orange/green areas are today's storms.

Update added same morning at 7:50 a.m.:  A Cooper’s Hawk just landed on our back fence. As I edged closer to the window to see its age and gender, it took off and landed in a front yard tree. I stepped outside to get another look just in time to see a Common Grackle dive at the hawk, then take off before the hawk could retaliate. For a birder, that’s a pretty good start to a rainy day!

 

Walking with Crossbills March 8, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Other People's Neighborhoods,Plants,Seasons,Trees,Winter — saltthesandbox @ 7:27 am
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After days in the 60s, on Saturday the cold was back. But winter has its pleasures, especially when you’re watching birds. This winter, White-winged Crossbills — usually rare visitors — have been almost everywhere in the lower Great Lakes states. (Well, not in our neighborhood, but that’s another story.)

Most Crossbills had been seen far up in evergreens like spruce and hemlock, prying seeds from cones with their amazing bills. Then about a week ago we read reports of Crossbills feeding on the ground. White Pines are another favorite food of Crossbills, and the pines at Swallow Cliff Forest Preserve had littered the ground with their sticky cones.

On our third try, we finally saw them. First they were resting in the trees, then they dropped to the ground to feed:

The Crossbills were feeding on fallen cones under the White Pines.

The Crossbills were feeding on fallen cones under the White Pines. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

You could walk within a dozen feet of the birds -- or stand in their path and let them approach you.

We could walk within a dozen feet of the birds -- or stand in their path and let them approach us. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Ethan used his new camera to take this male's portrait.

Ethan used his new camera to take this male's portrait.

They just did not seem afraid of humans, as long as we stood still and stayed quiet. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

They showed little fear of humans, as long as we stood still and stayed quiet. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

By standing quietly, the boys had Crossbills forage within a foot of their shoes. Aaron says one flew right past his ear, about an inch away! It reminded me of when the boys first started birding, about four years ago. They wouldn’t use binoculars. They preferred to stalk their birds and then recount how closely they approached each kind.

Chris and Geoff Williamson had pointed out the Crossbills when we first arrived. Geoff took lots of photos, too, and he’s sharing them on this Web page. He got really close-up views of Crossbill beaks, plus photos of female Crossbills and other kinds of birds. (His photos of Aaron and Ethan are near the bottom of his page.)

For our family, walking with Crossbills was almost as exciting as swimming with dolphins! If you want to see them, too, you must be patient and persistent. Some folks haven’t seen them until their fifth visit to the park, and even then they had to wait for the birds to feed on the ground. Check the Illinois birding email list for the latest news on Swallow Cliff Crossbills.

 

Upcoming Events: Gulls, Pets, Dinosaurs, and Rocks February 18, 2009

Here are some events we will participate in during the next month:

Gull Frolic: Saturday, February 21. Starts 8:00 a.m. at the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club at the North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, IL.  We should see rare gulls and ducks, in addition to more common winter birds. The best part is that when we get cold, we can go inside the warm building to eat, drink hot chocolate, talk to other birders, and see the exhibits. Web address: http://www.lakecookaudubon.org/Gull_Frolic_Illinois.php

Baby Shower at the Animal Care League in Oak Park: Sunday, February 22. The ACL holds their 3rd Annual Baby Shower on Sunday February 22nd from noon until 3 pm at the shelter. This shower is for the kittens and puppies that will soon start showing up at ACL’s doorstep, needing shelter and care as they prepare for adoption. They ask for items to be donated off their wish list (like food, toys, and supplies), but also appreciate monetary donations. (Full disclosure: We adopted our kittens from ACL, and we volunteer there as a family once or twice a week.) Web address: http://www.animalcareleague.org/

Paleofest at Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois: Saturday and Sunday, March 7 and 8. OK, let it be known that Ethan and Dad still love dinosaurs, even the ones that didn’t evolve into birds. We’ll go for the lectures by paleontologists from around the country. Families with younger children will enjoy the workshops and museum exhibits. (We’ll look for Rough-legged Hawks and other living raptors as we drive I-290 to Rockford from Oak Park.) Web address: http://www.burpee.org/education/paleofest09.asp

ESCONI Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Show: Saturday and Sunday, March 14 and 15. ESCONI is the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois, and our annual show brings exhibitors and dealers from around the Midwest to the College of DuPage for two days. Dad and one or more of the boys will help run the ESCONI Juniors activities booth days. (We’ll probably go birding on our lunch breaks.) Web address: http://www.esconi.org/esconi_earth_science_club/esconi-gem-mineral-show/

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Will we see you at one of these events?

 

Updates: Our Lists for Great Backyard Bird Count February 13, 2009

To see Great Backyard Bird Count results so far for all of Illinois, go to this page.

There is even a page just for Oak Park, found here.

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On Monday, February 16, we submitted one more list:

We filed a GBBC report of birds seen near Morris, Illinois, including 5 very skittish Long-eared Owls. (They were so skittish that we won’t tell exactly where we found them.)

We also entered our GBBC data on eBird, so it’s now incorporated into the bird lists we keep for our neighborhood:

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We submitted six more lists on Sunday, February 15:

Five lists were from Sunday. Three were for Oak Park, which included a Cooper’s Hark and a Sharp-shinned Hawk (from my walks to and from Columbus Park). One was for Columbus Park in Chicago, where I saw 250 Canada Geese, but not much else of interest (6 species total). One was for Douglas Park in Chicago, where I saw a Red-tailed Hawk and 3 Robins (13 species total). And the final list was for Waukegan Harbor, Illinois, from Saturday. I reported birds we saw that had not yet been reported by other birders, including White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Ducks, and Red-throated Loon.

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Here’s the list we submitted for our backyard for Saturday morning, February 14:

Number of Species: 8
Rock Pigeon – 1
Mourning Dove – 1
Black-capped Chickadee – 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) – 4
Northern Cardinal – 1
House Finch – 20
American Goldfinch – 6
House Sparrow – 20

I counted in our yard on Saturday morning before leaving on a birding trip to Lake County, IL, with the boys. A Cardinal was singing a few backyards to the north before sunrise. House Finches were also singing a bit later. The Chickadee visited the feeders at 8 a.m., right before we left. (This is our first record of this species for Oak Park for this GBBC.)

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Here’s the list we submitted for our backyard on Friday, February 13:

Number of Species: 9
gull sp. – 1
Rock Pigeon – 8
Mourning Dove – 1
Downy Woodpecker – 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) – 14
Northern Cardinal – 2
House Finch – 2
American Goldfinch – 4
House Sparrow – 30

You can read more about our backyard eBird counts on this page.

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Here’s our original post from about noon on February 13:

We just submitted our first list for this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count! I counted birds in other people’s backyards during my morning walk through south Oak Park. (That’s the same area where we count for eBird).

The most exciting bird for me was a White-breasted Nuthatch. They’re pretty common a few miles west in the Des Plaines River floodplain forests. However, it’s only the third of its kind I’ve seen in south Oak Park. (I can also add it to my Bigby list.)

Here’s the full list:

Number of species: 10
Mourning Dove – 19
Downy Woodpecker – 1
American Crow – 1
White-breasted Nuthatch – 1
European Starling – 2
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) – 16
Northern Cardinal – 6
House Finch – 3
American Goldfinch – 1
House Sparrow – 50

I expected to see Pigeons and Chickadees as well, but somehow missed them. I’ll probably run this route at least one more time during the four day count period — maybe I’ll record those species then.

Entering bird lists in Great Backyard Bird Count was pretty easy. You should give it a try!

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Weekend Report: Wild Things and Birding Other People’s Neighborhoods February 9, 2009

On Saturday, February 7, I took the Blue Line to University of Illinois at Chicago and spent the day at the 2009 Wild Things conference. There were about a thousand attendees and more than a hundred presentations, posters, and booths to choose from.

I picked the sessions that would most support my interests in neighborhood nature and took down names of other speakers, so I could look up their work at a later date. I learned a lot about urban wildlife, like squirrels, cottontail rabbits, and Canada Geese. I also found out more about citizen science efforts to monitor local birds, mammals, and frogs, including some initial findings and recommendations from this research. I heard about people’s changing relationship with nature and discovered local grassroots groups dealing with environmental issues like one that south Oak Park faced in Barrie Park. And I made contacts in the Chicago Park District that may deepen my family’s involvement at Columbus Park.

I learned way too much to put in one post, plus I need to do more research — online and on the ground — before I write about what I learned. So, stay tuned.

On Sunday, the family split up: Aaron went to Starved Rock State Park with his friend, Matt, where he saw Bald Eagles and added five birds to his year list. Dad and Ethan headed to the Indiana shore in search of other year birds. And Mom stayed in the neighborhood to do her homework and work out at Pav YMCA. Go here to read more about the birding part of our adventures.