January 17, 2013


At first, we were second guessing ourselves.

"Play it again, but just the ending," I whispered.  

With stiff, cold fingers, Andy played the call again off his Ipod.  Reverberating off the cold oak ravine walls, the eerie wail belted out.  We stopped.  We listened.


It was the same whine, but this time closer.  The routine repeated twice, and twice more we got the same response.  

"I really can't think of it being anything else."
Andy nodded in agreement and we moved on.  Shaking of the near sub zero temps we crunched through the ice laden grass alongside the ravine edge, happy with the first bird of 2013 -- a calling Northern Saw-whet Owl.  

Not only was this CBC bird a first for the year, it was a first for the county.  As we stood in silence attempting to solicit a response from the resident pair screech-owls (thankfully they called back), my mind drifted into thoughts of avian resolutions.

Outside of birding, this is proving to be a busy year in my life.  This will most likely be my first year of having my own classroom, leading to weekends spent grading, not lake watching.  I had originally planned on making this my time to tackle a Lake County Big Year, but my schedule is taking me in another direction.

It is impossible, however, for me to start a new year of birding without specific goals in mind.  Being so busy, it has led me to become more creative in my goals and will keep my closer to home.  If you're a birder who keeps lists, I encourage to make goals for the new year that go beyond lifers.  I enjoy being competitive with myself and I find that I end up spending more time in the field studying birds if I have fun challenges for myself.   Also, making them public on a blog keeps me honest in my ventures forward...

1. Local Patch Big Year: I've decided that, if I can't see as many species as possible in Lake County, why not try to set a record for a location?  I've chosen to try and see as many species as possible at Waukegan Beach.  This lakefront site has a previous year high of 164 species set by Eric Walters in 2009.  I believe this location, if birded regularly and scrupulously,  could yield close to 200 species.  The combination of lakefront, dunes, and "park" habitat lend it to be a great migration hot spot.  Breeding species is lacking, but most of the regular breeders can be picked up during migration.  My life list for the park is currently 165.  I have my work cut out for me :)

2. County Ticks to 1,000:  County listing is new territory.  Biring with some of the best in Illinois has given me the bug for county listing.  This is the one goal that will take effort and time.  I'm currently sitting at 749 county ticks.  I know this is inaccurate, as I just didn't take as detailed notes in the past of birds seen.  However, I'd rather start clean and go from here.  I believe I can easily reach 1,000 ticks by birding McHenry and Cook county in the right seasons this year.

3. 350 Year List:  This year list is including the entire ABA region.  I have a few trips I know I'm taking that could boost me to this level.  Without trying for most of the year, I reached 301 in 2012.  It was thrilling to reach that milestone, so I'd love to get farther with a more concerted effort.

I have other minor goals that include state lifers to 315 and adding ten new county lifers, but these would just be added bonus to my 3 goals for the year.  Even writing this, I can feel my mind drifting out into the field.  I'll post my progress here.

What are your goals for the year?

Good Birding,


June 28, 2012

Westward, Ho!

Colorado.  It might be my favorite state to visit.  As a youngster, my family would make yearly trips in the summer to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southeastern CO.  Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve me gallivanting through the chaparral and open pine woods of the foothills in search of feathered montane specialties.

Once again, I feel that Westward tug in my gut.  My dad and I are making a run out to Colorado for some fly fishing.  I've never fly fished, but always thought it looked inexplicably manly, so I welcome some added chest hair.  However, this is but the guise.  We all really know why I'm going to Colorado......

It's birds, by the way...

Though I'll be fishing in the highlands of Clear Creek County, my eyes are fixed upon the vast expanses of Weld County.  For birders, Weld County can mean only one thing: The Pawnee National Grassland.  It is here that some of the most sought after prairie species can be found with relative ease.  This is a mostly untouched habitat of Colorado for me and many species will be lifers.

This is no small patch of grass, people.  The Pawnee (as it will be called from now on) is a prodigious tract of private and federally owned land.  The federally managed land alone totals 193,060 acres.  I love big skys and endless land, so this my Disney World.  I spent a total of twenty minutes in The Pawnee this past Thanksgiving and had just enough time to snag my lifer Ferruginous Hawk. That quick foray into The Pawnee did nothing but whet my appetite for seeing this place in breeding season glory.
Ferruginous Hawk - Weld Co.
During the breeding season, this windswept landscape harbors such grassland jewels as Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, Lark Bunting, McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.  Oh, and let's not forget about the open country raptors!  Any given county road in The Pawnee can produce Prairie Falcon, Swainson's Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk and, my favorite, the Golden Eagle.  To someone not in tune with the natural world, The Pawnee would look void of life.  However, for the naturalist and birder (naturalist birder?), nothing could be farther from the truth.  The Pawnee is alive!  Praire Dog towns dot the landscape, and are utilized by the Burrowing Owl.  You didn't think they actually made their own burrows, did you?  Pronghorn Antelope, the fastest land animal in the new world, tear through the land with no regard to man-made boundaries.  There are snakes, lizards, foxes, coyotes....you get the point.  It's not dead.  It's not just pastureland.  This place is wild.

This isn't the only wild place I'll be vistiting.  Though The Pawnee is unchartered territory for me, there other species I'd like to spot; some of them are old friends and some are just a shot in the dark.  

I've generated a list of my target species, but first a shameless plug for eBird.  I cannot even begin to write to you how great of a tool eBird is.  I've spent the past few days combing eBird data to find recent sightings of the birds I'm looking for.  The data is accurate and can give me specific locations sometimes not available in the literature!  Not only is eBird useful to find up-to-date and historical sightings, but the effort of individuals uploading their sightings to eBird adds to our collective knowledge of the birds we love.  Keep your lists, become a better birder, add to science...what's not to love?  So, do you eBird?

Westward, Ho! July 1-5 2012

Cinnamon Teal (State/Year) 
Though, this beautiful dabbler is not on the top of my list of must-sees, I certainly plan on searching a few lakes and ponds in the Boulder County area for this species.  

Eared Grebe (State/Year)
Same as the Cinnamon Teal.  I've seen them in New Mexico and Illinois, but never in full breeding plumage.  I've always thought they looked quite dapper.  I'll be checking Lower Church Lake near Broomfield for them.  

Ferruginous Hawk (Year)
I can't get enough of this bird and seeing it briefly last year has left me craving more.  This is a Pawnee speciality and could show up anywhere in that area.  Of course, I'd love to find a dark morph!  

Prairie Falcon (Year)
It's been years since I've seen this bird.  I saw one last at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, where I saw one on a nest.  Again, this is a Pawnee species that isn't tied down to a specific location.  This is an effort bird.  I'll be especially looking for land with rock faces or other formations where this species can perch before launching after it's prey like a bat out of hell.  

Mountain Plover (Lifer)
A denizen of the sparse grasslands found in The Pawnee.  I'll be checking "Murphy's Pasture" along CR 96 for this plover.  This species will take some work, that's for sure.  I've heard they can associate with prairie dog towns, as well.   It's speculation, but I'd imagine that many are already done breeding, which might make them more dispersed?   I'm thinking that could make the species even harder to find.

Upland Sandpiper (State/Year)
I haven't seen one in years.  School has made it difficult for me to take the time to find this "grass" piper in Illinois.  I have a few spots west of Kearny, Nebraska I'll be checking for Uppies.  In Colorado, there are long stretches of Highway 138 in Sedgwick County that support them.

Flammulated Owl (Lifer)
 A total shot in the dark. I have a few spots like Gregory Canyon in the foothills outside of Boulder to check, but they're most likely already be done calling.  I know they prefer mature ponderosa forest and sometimes pure aspen/mixed confier.  Anyone know of a nest?

Northern Pygmy Owl (Lifer)
See above statements about the Flamm.  Yeah, I have low expectations.  

Burrowing Owl (Lifer)
Now here's an owl I stand a chance of seeing!  This is a bird I should have seen a while back.  However, circumstance and bad luck have let this black sheep of a Strigidae slip through my fingers.  I'll be keeping a keen eye out for this species in The Pawnee, where they daily repose in praire dog towns and fence posts.

American Three-toed Woodpecker (Lifer)
This boreal beauty is a species I've long pined after, but have had little chance to search for.  I'll be checking Brainard Lake for this Picoides.  Someone reported this species on eBird and included some great photos.  I can't wait to have my heart skip a beat every time I see/hear a Hairy Woodpecker on this trip!

Chestnut-collared Longspur (Lifer)
Here's the big one.  These longspurs are absolutely stunning with a their rufous napes and buttery colored throats.  They prefer prefer longer, wetter grass.  I have a feeling it'll be hard to come by wet habitat in The Pawnee this year.  The McCown's Longspur greatly outnumber their smaller relatives, but they genrally do not associate together and are found in different habitat.  The males of both species are distintive, but the drabber females are similar. 

McCown's Longspur (Lifer)
Beautiful shades of gray and auburn median wing coverts make this species distinctive as it floats over the shortgrass prairie, singing as it goes.  It'll be hard to miss this bird on the back roads of The Pawnee.  I'm hoping to get some good photos!

Brewer's Sparrow (Lifer)
Another lifer I should have seen years ago.  I'm hoping to pick up this bird in The Pawnee.  I'll need to be there early to here this birding singing it's trill song from a lowly perch. 

So, there you have it.  

For the listers... ABA: 505; Colorado: 100; Year: 247.  I have 8 possible lifers, with 4 that I have confidence in finding.  I would love to hit 510 for the ABA list and 300 for the year. 

Bring it on.  

February 29, 2012

The New Digs

 This is a beautiful ridge site in the heart of Pennsylvania.  Stretching 80 miles SW/NE and reaching down to the border of Maryland, Tussey Mountain is a critical flight path.  The length of this mountain is one reason I get to see one of the most majestic creatures to ever take flight: The Golden Eagle.

Now, I knew going into this count that I'd get to see Golden Eagles.  However, I always am pessimistic in my mind regarding birds, especially legendary ones.  "This will be the low year," I tell my self.  Or, "Maybe I just can't pick them out."  However, on my first day, a day I wasn't supposed to count, I found 2.  One came from the NE and kited in front of me before heading up ridge again.  The other was soaring far South in Stone Valley.  That's all it took.  A measly 3 hours on the ridge and I was hooked.  I knew I was here for the long haul and was ready.

Spring hawk watches different from their brothers in the fall.   Birds are in a hurry to get North and establish territories.  They don't linger.  In the fall after a cold front, you could have days of great numbers.  In this spring, it could be a day or maybe even a few hours.  During the fall migration, many raptors specifically follow ridges, using them as guidelines to their wintering grounds and benefitting from the lift the winds provide.  However, in the spring, many birds aren't as dependent on the ridges and will cut straight north.  All of this means that spring hawk watchers like myself have to be vigilant.  We have to be ready at all times, because some days will make or break the count.    There won't be as constant a stream, and weather can lead to great flights and many sensory depriving lulls.  The numbers at Tussey will never compare to some of the famed fall watches and some spring lake watches.

But the Golden Eagles.

Nick Bolgiano, a regular counter on the weekends, and an excellent naturalist, said it best.  "Any day you see a Golden Eagle is a good day."  I found myself cleaving to those words.  My first day on the job, which I'll post on later, never saw temperatures above freezing.  Winds were blowing hard, and snow squalls throughout the day brought the visibility down to under a half mile at times.  Sitting on my duff on a cold rock, with the right side of my face going numb, I felt myself begin to internally murmur.  Nick casually called out a bird.

"What?!" I screamed over the howling wind.  Nick, again in his casual tone, repeated himself.

"Golden coming over Stone Valley."

There it was.  In full glory.  Right in the midst of blizzard-like conditions it glided past the ridge, seemingly undeterred in it's goal of reaching the breeding grounds.

It might as well have been spring break in Miami at that point.  All the wind and snow melted away as he cruised over.  That's why I'm out here.  I'm counting Golden Eagles.  (Don't worry...I love all the other ones, too!)

At Tussey Mountain, the Golden Eagle numbers are high and it is critical that a count is held here full-time   This data is giving us new knowledge of what these mysterious high country birds are doing during spring migration.  Hopefully, it will help us protect them, as many energy companies are hoping utilize wind power on the ridge tops. We are finding Golden Eagles still use them to migrate North.

So, get ready for plenty of updates from the ridge.

P.S.  I'm at 18 Golden Eagles for the season.  Not too shabby for late February!