Chicago Birding

I was invited to give a presentation to a national cage bird convention: the National Finch and Softbill Society last weekend (3 Dec 2015). I’ll going to create a science thread where I will discuss the incredible resource for avian genomics that bird breeders have created. In this birding blog post, I want to talk about my quest for photographs of some new bird species while I was in the Chicago area.

I had a couple of hours to get out on Friday morning in the St. Charles, IL (western Chicago suburbs) area before I was due at the birds show, and my target was American Tree Sparrow. I had some photos of American Tree Sparrow from past trips (mostly to my boyhood home of Northern Kentucky) but I had yet to take what I thought was a decent photo of an AMTS. So my goal was a good photo. My wife Wendy was flying in from Auburn on Friday afternoon, and together we planned to bird the region north of Chicago on Saturday. Our target birds on Saturday were Common Redpoll, Thayer’s Gull, and Northern Shrike. I had no photographs any of these species and had not seen any of those species for about 20 years.

I got up early on Friday, Dec 4, the day after I gave a presentation to the cagebird group. Using eBird, I identified Nelson Lake Marsh as a place near my hotel where American Tree Sparrows were being regularly seen in good numbers. Unfortunately it was one of those cold foggy dark Midwest mornings that had nearly forgotten about in my twenty years in the Deep South. Sunrise was at 7am, but as I hiked around the trails at Nelson Lake Marsh, it was still too dark for photos by 745. There were AMTS around, though. In the foggy dim light, I was flusing them from the trail and hearing them in the bushes and trees. As it began to brighten up around 830, I found a group of about 5 American Tree Sparrows in a dense patch of grass and waited until a bird posed for a photo. I ended up getting some nice AMTS shots.

An American Tree Sparrow at a park near my hotel. This was not a life photo species but it is the first time I managed to get what I considered a good photo. The photo seems slightly grainy because it was still foggy when I took the shot.

Saturday dawned a bit clearer than Friday. Our birding plan had us starting at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which didn’t open until 8am, and our hotel for Friday night was right next to it. So we didn’t rush in the morning. We were in the parking lot by about 815 and the weather was great with high haze and nice morning light—much better for photography than the previous day. As we got out of our car and started to unload gear, a flock of 30 Common Redpolls flew over the car. 30 seconds into our quest, and we already had our target bird. But it was a photo, not a tick on a checklist, that I wanted. From eBird, I knew that the redpoll flock was hanging out at the footbridge in the middle of the garden and a quick check with the information desk people had us walking toward the footbridge as the morning continued to brighten. As we arrived at the area circled on the map, I looked at a few cardueline finches in the top of some small birch trees along the path ahead—bingo, Common Redpoll. I began taking photos of the birds from a distance, just to make sure that I wouldn’t miss the species on the day, but it soon become apparent that there were quite a few birds and that they were not shy. Over the next 45 minutes, I shot a few hundred frames of redpolls and got some ok shots. The birds stayed toward the tops of the trees and they were usually backlit so it wasn’t a perfect photography setup, but overall it was more than I hoped for. Here are a few of the shots that I got.

Common Redpolls were easy to find at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

One of the birds was noticeably light, but I was focused just on getting shots of any redpoll that moved to an exposed perch. No Hoary Redpolls had been reported from the entire region on eBird, so I was not thinking that there was a chance for Hoary Redpoll. Nevertheless, when I was going through my photos at the end of the day, one of the redpolls in the photos was clearly very pale with a very small bill. It also had no, or almost no, melanin streaking on the undertail. It was phenotypically a Hoary Redpoll.

Among the Common Redpolls at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I picked out a Hoary Redpoll.

I was really elated to get an unexpected, rare bird from the day’s quest, but Hoary Redpoll is a taxon under siege (if interested, take a look at this excellent blog by Andy Boyce http://blog.aba.org/2013/01/open-mic-redpolls.html). Hoary Redpoll may not remain an ABA tick for very long, but for now, my bird was as good a “Hoary Redpoll” as I was ever likely to see or photograph.

By 930 as we drove away from the Botanic Garden we were 1/1 for target bird (we were actually 2 out of one because of the Hoary Redpoll but I didn’t know that yet). Our next stop was to get what I hoped to be the easiest tick of the day—Thayer’s Gull. Now, Thayer’s Gull is a bird with a small population and a small range, so it is generally a tough bird. But Ebirders had been finding up to 3 Thayer’s Gulls regularly loafing in a parking lot near Grayslake, 30 minutes drive from the Botanic Garden. I figured we would just drive in, find the dark-eyed Herring Gull in the standing flock, photograph it and be done. The disappointment was crushing when we got the parking lot and there were zero gulls. There were several dozen cars in the lot so apparently something was going on and that seemed to be enough the spook the gulls. We saw lots of feathers and poop to testify to the fact that gulls had hung out there before, but not so much as a Ring-billed Gull on this day.

Several eBird posts recorded a few hundred gulls including Thayer's and Lesser Black-backed in this parking lot. On this Saturday, all we found was poop and a few feathers.

We had one more try for Thayer’s Gull at North Point Marina, but it was an impossible task. There were about 80 Herring-type gulls on the docks of one section of the marina, but the closest bird was 100 m away and I didn’t have a spotting scope. (Traveling with a 20 lb camera with a special graphite tripod dampens enthusiasm for also bringing along a spotting scope and another tripod.) There was no way to pick out a bird as subtly different as a Thayer’s Gull. We gave up after 15 minutes and went to find lunch.

We spent the rest of the day looking for Northern Shrike. For about 90 minutes, we hiked around Rollins Prairie Preserve, where the species had been reported on eBird several times in November. We got to see a Rough-legged Hawk flying away from us (no photos), but we saw no shrikes. I ran into a nice couple, who were casual birders and bird photographers, and who visit Rollins Prairie every week. They told me they had never seen a shrike along the trail. We ended the day driving around the dune areas in Illinois Beach State Park. We found no shrikes but it was a beautiful area.

Overall, it was a fun couple of days of Midwestern birding. I was frustrated to miss the Northern Shrike and Thayer’s Gull, but neither is an easy bird We had a flock of Common Redpolls and even a Hoary Redpoll in front of us for 45 minutes. Birding in the cold weather (even though it was a warm spell for that part of the country) reminded me how nice it is to live in the Deep South.