I have not been to the Illinois Beach State Park hawk watch yet this year. There was one terrific stretch of three or four straight days in October when the sharp-shins and falcons were almost non-stop. But November usually produces some good flights as well, dominated by red-tails with a smattering of rough-legs, harriers, and red-shoulders. And if you spend enough time looking, you will likely be treated to one or more golden eagles and goshawks, with the possibility of something really rare (like a certain northern falcon of hefty dimensions). All the raptor prognosticators pointed to the weather maps and indicated that Thursday would potentially be a very good day. Sulli Gibson called me to say he had Thursday off and was heading up there- we talked about doing some hawk or lakewatching on propitious days- and since I needed a break anyway I decided to make a visit.
As I was heading north on I-94, I encountered the season’s first noticeable snow fall. That petered out but was followed by a far heavier snow squall- it would make hawk watching challenging, even if there were birds moving. As I approached the picnic shelter from which the operation is maintained, I could see lots of people- another reason actually to have come: there are folks whose company I enjoy but rarely see any other time. (Indeed, given I spend most of the day in a small room staring at a screen, I rarely see anyone any time, save of course Dearest Cindy.) Walking towards me in the parking lot was Nathan Goldberg who was there with his mom Lynne Remington (I did not forget the “e” this time). It seems that every high school in northern Illinois was holding a teacher institute or conference day: all the high school birders I know, including Aaron and Ethan Gyllenhaal, were on site ready to see and photograph hawks. It was an impromptu meeting of the Young Birders Club. Twenty-three people were officially tabulated as having visited that day, although I would not be surprised if it was more.
Before I even left the car, Nathan told me that there had been a female mountain bluebird in the area since at least the night before. A number of briders, including Lynne, were scattered about looking for it. I headed to the hawk watchers and learned that hawk watching was slow, although it was only about 9am. Vic Berardi, the founder of the watch at Illinois Beach, said he would be satisfied if, by the end of the day, there were more hawks than observers. I suggested we might have to start sending people away but fortunately the hawks did pick up.
I am not sure who among us at the hawk watching site first noticed, but a group in the parking lot began staring at something. The something flew to the top of the outhouse and by golly it was the mountain bluebird. As we watched it, it flew directly towards us and perched on the shelter just feet away. From there, it sat for a while on the barbeque grill (I understand that some cultures really covet braised bluebirds doused with a sweet tomato based sauce- it also relieves the heartbreak of restless leg syndrome). Absolutely dynamite views were had by all. There were also lots of great pictures taken, not really surprising given all the watchers heavily armed with prodigious lenses. (And should there prove to be any curious high-tech types, Nathan collected some fecal matter: plenty of DNA to go around. I was running around having him show off the sample: further proof that the high school birders I know are probably all more mature than I am.) The bluebird eventually tired of the crowd- perhaps embarrassed- and flew off to the east, presumably to work her circuit.
The hawks, though overshadowed for a while, were not to be denied. Adult red-shouldered are simply stunning creatures and I see way too few of them for my taste. So it was a highlight seeing one slowly moving south. It veered to the west so it did not pass right overhead but he provided great scope views. The light rough-legged was my first of that species for the fall: it did fly right overhead. And later there was a dark bird. Josh Engel spotted an approaching Lapland longspur, always a treat.
I left just after noon, and by the day’s end 85 raptors of nine species migrated over the site. Highlights included osprey (1), bald eagle (1), northern harrier (10), red-shouldered (3), red-tailed (56), and rough-legged (4).