cbc 2015 4

Last Friday I finished the last of my three Christmas Bird Counts: Chicago Lakefront, Evanston North Shore, and Waukegan. These are the ones I organize and have been doing for decades. The time I spend on these counts- before, during, and after- largely define the holiday season for me. There are some who like to do counts on a more intermittent basis or prefer the allure of new places: counts for which they have no emotional connection and at the completion of the day there are few if any lingering attachments. To each his or her own.

Chicago Lakefront, on December 25, yielded several birds not ever seen before on the count. At La Rabida, the Gyllenhaals spotted a small white goose in with the Canadas. It indeed was a Ross’s. And as some went to get closer looks of the goose, Eric G. looked up and there perched above us was a merlin. We also had very close views of a one-eyed red-tailed hawk (pictured). Later we learned, the northern party (including the Williamsons and Josh Engel) found a palm and an orange-crowned warbler at Montrose and a gray catbird in a Navy Pier parking garage. Mid-morning, I was texted that Channel Two (WBBM) wanted to meet the group for an interview. We met by Shedd Aquarium as the camera whirred and Aaron and I answered questions.

I am not used to two CBCs in a row, but on the very next day I met my two companions, Jane and Dave Bunker, at my regular spot at 6:45. (My concern of being on two consecutive CBCs is rendered insignificant by Kelly McKay, whom I was with on Lakefront, famous for his CBC marathons that require full participation on 24 consecutive counts) Our first locations are a stream leaving a water treatment plant and the plant itself. With warm temperatures and open water everywhere, the paucity of waterfowl was not surprising, as they had no compunction to concentrate. We did wind up with one species that was missed by everyone else on the count: in amidst a flock of 250 Canada geese there were six cackling geese.

The Waukegan CBC, on January 1 as always, started at 5 am when I met Stefanie Altneu and Tim Wallace at Old School Forest Preserve for two hours of owling. The night air had a temperature reading in the teens, accentuated by a hearty wind. We usually find one or two screech owls at the parking lot by the gate but after an hour we failed to find a single one. It is bad for morale to put in that kind of effort without any results, but fortunately over the course of the final hour before dawn we wound up with three screechies (had nice views of one) and two great-horneds.

The Monday before the January 1 Waukegan CBC saw a heavy ice storm. That was followed by light snow and plunging temperatures that created a hazardous glaze over the ground. The Des Plaines River was also high, at places inundating the Des Plaines River trail we hike along during the first five or so hours of the count. Tim dropped Stefanie and me off at 176 (from which we start our walk north) and he met us at a canoe launch a half hour away. At one point, we encountered a bulging surface of untrammeled ice flanked by partially frozen water. I opted to wade and crunch my way through the shin deep water, preferring getting soaked over falling. Stef dropped to her hands and knees and crawled across the treacherous ice. (My pants froze, and so every time I took a step it sounded as if I was dragging something.) But the walk was productive, as we found golden-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers. In most years, when the Des Plaines is within its banks, we leave the trail and follow the river’s winding course. This usually produces a kingfisher or great-blue heron, but our inability to leave the trail caused us to miss these species, assuming the birds were even present. Land birds were also in low numbers, most notably hairy woodpecker which we failed to hear or see altogether.

The best birds, though, were in the afternoon. There is an open pine tract that we cover every year. One species that we almost always get there is red-breasted nuthatch. Despite playing screech owl calls, however, we missed it (indeed, no field party encountered one anywhere). But this year it yielded a real gem: Stef spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet flitting in low shrubbery. We all saw it well, and it is likely the first time the species has been seen on the count. We parked cars at Independence Grove, and thus scanned the lake several times over the day. There were lots of Canada geese, coots, and a nice variety of ducks. As late afternoon was about to segue into dusk, we made our last visit and I spied two swans not far off: two gorgeous trumpeters. Tim took some great photos.

One-eyed red tailed hawk.

One-eyed red tailed hawk.

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