Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #10 – Roseau (extreme North-Western Minnesota) – January 3, 2015

The excellent weather that prevailed over the first two Christmas Bird Counts in northern Minnesota disappeared beginning on the evening of January 2nd as continuous light snow began falling and temperatures dropped to a low of -20 F overnight, with 15-20 mph winds picking up throughout the night and well into the morning, gusting to between 20-30 mph causing near-blizzard conditions in the early morning hours.  At one point Sheryl and I decided it wasn’t worth going out, as we had a sixty mile drive west just to get into the count circle and with the winds, the snow already on the ground, and the snow falling, would the roads even be passable to get to Roseau, or could we even drive the country roads once we got there?

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A white-out on a previous Roseau CBC. Luckily we didn’t have to experience this on this years CBC!

Photo by Dan Williams.

Finally, even Dan and Martin conceded there would probably be no birds to count in these conditions, even if we could make it to Roseau… but, gradually throughout the morning, the wind died down a bit, the snow stopped and the skies cleared… and it even warmed up with the sunshine to a toasty +10 degrees!  So with Martin’s encouragement, we arrived within the count circle and began counting what birds we were out and about in the still less than ideal conditions, by a little past 10:30 AM…pretty late to just be getting started on a CBC. However, we eventually did begin to see a few good birds, at least for this count.   Surprisingly, probably one of the best species we spotted was one of the most common birds of the corn & soybean desert  of Central Illinois where I’m from, the Horned Lark.  We had three of them,  but only a single Horned Lark had ever been tallied in the previous 26 year history of this CBC! Since much of our coverage area was large, open agricultural fields, we also had two of the barely more common Lapland Longspur and 178 Snow Buntings, the common open field bird in the winter in Northern Minnesota.

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Snow Buntings, a common sight on this Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Carl Greiner.

Of the paltry 13 species that we were able to muster in the 4 ½ hours that we had to look for birds on this abbreviated CBC day, the predatory birds stole the show. Although we had a quick, flyover Northern Goshawk, it wasn’t much of a look for me but we did have a nice long look at a close, perched Northern Shrike, one of my favorite winter birds back home.

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Northern Shrike with his prey, an impaled vole. Photo by Steve Huggins.

And by now, you can likely tell that the owls… just about any owl, are probably my favorite family of birds. So, as we neared the Canadian border on Highway 310 north of Roseau, Martin pulled over to what appeared to be a long, somewhat narrow area of rather low vegetation stretching  off between two large areas of boreal forest on either side. Not long after Martin said, “this will probably be the area where we will get a Hawk-Owl if we are going to get one”… sure enough, we shortly spotted not one, but two NORTHERN HAWK-OWLS perched atop a couple of dead tree stubs on either side of Hwy 310, hunting the open edge of the woods!

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A heavily-cropped shot of our first Northern Hawk-Owl. Photo by Steve Bailey.

Soon after we spotted these owls, a call from Dan & Barbara relayed the information that they had just spotted two SNOWY OWLS within a mile or so of one another, not far away! Within a matter of moments, our day on this CBC had improved considerably!

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The two Snowy Owls found by Dan & Barbara, re-found by us a few minutes later. Photos by Steve Bailey.

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To complete the owl trifecta, this was a Great Gray Owl (on an apropos perch!) found on the Roseau CBC a few years earlier, a short distance north of the three No. Hawk-Owls that we found on this year’s CBC. Photo by Martin Kehoe.

A return trip back to the area where we had located the 2 Hawk-Owls netted us yet a THIRD No. Hawk-Owl!

The rest of the few other species that we tallied on the day were 9 Common Redpolls, 4 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 Blue Jays and flocks of the three introduced species, Rock Pigeon, European Starling and House Sparrow. Not a bad day considering the extremely late start, very short birding day, and virtually all of our birding was from the inside of our vehicle. Definitely worth making a return visit to see the true character of this CBC another year.  I would especially like to hike back into the one large chunk of remaining boreal forest left in the CBC circle off of Highway 310 near the Canada border where we saw the Hawk-Owls. I know there will be Three-toed Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeaks  and Boreal Chickadees waiting there for me in the coming years!

Total species for the day: 13

Total species for the three Minnesota CBCs: 30

Illinois & Minnesota 10-CBC Species Total : 120

As we headed south for home, but still in Beltrami County, I spotted yet another No. Hawk-Owl for a quick but much closer look of a favorite bird.

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Northern Hawk-Owl. Photo by John Kelsey.

Hopefully many of you will get a chance to see some of these enchanting and often very beautiful birds of the North Woods someday!  I will return soon, as big pink birds are hard if not impossible to find in Illinois, so I will journey north even if there is three feet of snow and the temperature is – 30F to see birds like this…

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as often as I can.

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Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #9 – Baudette (extreme North-Central Minnesota) – January 2, 2015

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Today’s Baudette Christmas Bird Count would be in and just outside of the border town of Baudette, which proclaims itself the “Walleye capital of the World”. Rosalie’s Restaurant does have a tasty walleye dinner!  Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

The high temperature for today would not break into double-digits (9 degrees), but with the cloudy skies  there was also no full radiational cooling, so the low wasn’t too bad, one degree above zero!

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Sheryl ready for another day of warm birding! Almost as cute as a red squirrel… I wonder if it eats pine nuts too? Photo by Steve Bailey.

Although our coverage area for today was mostly in more open habitats, there were still plenty of patches of woodland and bog to keep things interesting.

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The Baudette CBC circle coverage area.

But before Dan, Barbara, &  and Sheryl and I would split and go our separate ways for the morning’s birding, we had to make one detour to see some birds that would already be getting counted at the Baudette compilation host’s (& fellow CBC participant) rural home just outside Baudette. Why look at birds that were already going to be seen and counted by others? The answer is because these birds were one of the more highly sought-after bird-species in the Midwest, Evening Grosbeaks! The flock had been coming to the large platform feeder in their yard for some time already. Although there were a few chickadees and a Downy Woodpecker coming to their feeder when we arrived… no grosbeaks. Though we waited for a while, there were new birds to be counted so we left and came back in a few hours… and were very glad we did! For when we arrived back, a small flock of grosbeaks were perched in the front yard casually munching on one of their favorite native foods, Box Elder seed pods!  But wait, what’s that big flock of birds that just landed in the big Box Elder tree in the back yard?  All told there was a minimum of 65 beautiful Evening Grosbeaks perched close-by, giving Sheryl and I some of the best looks we’d had in many years, especially of so many of these gorgeous finches!

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A flock of Evening Grosbeaks.

Today would be Sheryl and I in the morning covering a couple of rural areas plus areas in the town of Baudette, then Kevin Kaltenbach (who had ridden up with Dan & Barbara from Rockford) and I covering other rural areas including some boggy fragments outside of town.  It would be a good day for corvids (a 5 corvid day!) as my parties would see 79 American Crows, 38 Common Ravens (Yeah!), 7 Blue Jays, 2 Gray Jays and 4 Black-billed Magpies (one right behind our motel!), another new bird for the trip. In town we missed a species almost never missed on this CBC, House Sparrow, though I can’t say that was a bad thing, since we did see 10 Rock Pigeons and 16 European Starlings that we were lucky enough to miss yesterday in the bog. Another exciting and new species for the trip today were eleven Sharp-tailed Grouse, including 4 birds perched ten feet up in some small saplings feeding on buds! We also tallied 31 Bohemian Waxwings though one was simply heard and the other 30 were a flock of quick flybys in town heading out over the Rainy River. The Rainy River forms the International boundary line with Ontario, Canada flowing west out of Rainy Lake near International Falls and dumping into Lake-of-the-Woods several miles west of Baudette. Other good birds on the day were a Rough-legged Hawk, 3 Barred Owls,

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One of the three very cooperative Barred Owls I called in on the day. Photo by Steve Bailey.

4 Pine Grosbeaks (a 2-grosbeak day!), 3 Golden-crowned Kinglets and 87 Common Redpolls.  Normally I wouldn’t consider Barred Owls and Golden-crowned Kinglets to be such good birds, but the kinglets had never been recorded before in the 33-year history of this Christmas Bird Count! There had also been a grand total of six Barred Owls found on this CBC in the first 32 years… I had three by myself this year! My Barred Owl imitation called in a number of other good birds on these two counts including most/many of the corvids I recorded, the Pine Grosbeaks on both today’s and yesterday’s CBC, the White-winged Crossbills yesterday, and today’s only Golden-crowned Kinglets, who were coming in with a flock of chickadees, nuthatches, redpolls, Blue Jays and woodpeckers.

Due to this years increased participation, species totals were some of the best on record for both of Martin’s CBCs! Baudette had reached 30 species twice in previous years as well as 31 species twice. This year we recorded a new all-time record of 32 species… even missing House Sparrow (even though Martin checked a known roosting spot for them in the nighttime hours of count day with a flashlight! That’s dedication). The Beltrami Island CBC yesterday tied for its third highest total species ever recorded with 24 species, having recorded 24 one other year and 26 & 27 species in two other years. The difference in the two counts (though they almost abut one another) is the total lack of introduced species including Rock Pigeon, European Starling and House Sparrows having ever been recorded on the Beltrami Island CBC (I’ll take the fewer species!). However, the Beltrami Island CBC has recorded three species of grouse (Spruce, Ruffed & Sharp-tailed) and six species of owl (including Great Gray, No. Hawk, Boreal & No. Saw-whet!), as well as several other highly sought-after bird species including Northern Goshawk, Golden and Bald Eagles, Three-toed & Black-backed Woodpeckers,

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Three-toed Woodpecker, an uncommon but distinct possibility on Martin’s two northern Minnesota CBCs. Photo by Carl Greiner.

Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Shrike, Gray Jay, Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie, Boreal Chickadee, both Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, both crossbill species, & Common & Hoary Redpolls.

White-winged Crossbills on the Baudette Christmas Bird Count

A male White-winged Crossbill feeding on a white spruce cone in the bog, a regular feature of the two CBCs begun by Martin Kehoe in northern Minnesota.  Photo by Carl Greiner.

That’s about the whole suite of boreal forest and other interesting northern bird species! The only species that I missed on these two CBCs that I was hoping to see on at least one of them was the Boreal Chickadee… but that’s what future trips to help on northern Minnesota CBCs are for!

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The Boreal Chickadee that will be waiting for me on these two Christmas Bird Counts next winter. Photo by John Kelsey.

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Beltrami Island all-time CBC results.

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Baudette all-time CBC results.

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Sunset in the bog. Photo by Steve Bailey.

Species found by my parties today: 21

Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #8 – Beltrami Island (extreme north-central Minnesota): January 1, 2015

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Passing over the Mighty… er mousy Mississippi River outside of Jacobson, Minnesota, still ~ 100 miles east of the headwaters of the river @ Itasca S.P., on our drive to Baudette, Minnesota.  Photo by Steve Bailey.

I had been wanting to help on this and the following other two northern Minnesota Christmas Bird Counts for many years. I have always loved the North Country, including the boreal forest and tundra areas all the way to Alaska (Sheryl & I honeymooned there), including their associated birds, animals and ecology. I’ve even had a long-time longing to build and/or live in a cabin in Alaska or the North Woods, for decades, though at this point, the chance of that actually happening are likely gone with the passage of time, but… I WILL go and stay at Martin’s cabin in the North Woods! Martin Kehoe is the compiler that started both the Beltrami Island and Baudette CBCs that I helped on this winter.

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Martin Kehoe at this years Beltrami Island CBC compilation dinner. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

Martin in an earlier day feeding an obliging “Whiskey Jack” or Gray Jay for you young folk.

He has a simple cabin on an in-holding in the very large Beltrami Island State Forest south of the town of Baudette.

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Martin’s cabin by day and by night. Day photo of Martin & Dan Williams on an earlier year’s CBC morning. Night photo taken the night of this winter’s Beltrami Island CBC by David Harrington. David cross-country skied in his coverage area on count day.

You should check out some of the neat YouTube videos that Martin has crafted about his wilderness cabin and the interesting birds and other animals that can be found right around the cabin (including Gray Wolves, Moose, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Owls, Three-toed Woodpeckers & the Gray Jays (to name a few interesting species) that he feeds peanuts to in his first cabin video ( https://www.youtube.com/user/TheNorthwoodsman1 ).

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This wolf was only about a mile from Martin’s cabin one winter. Photo by Martin Kehoe.

Spruce Grouse at Martin Kehoe's cabin in Beltrami Island State Forest

A Spruce Grouse coming for the grit at Martin’s cabin that he puts down for them, which is inside the Beltrami Island CBC. Photo by Carl Greiner.

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Boreal Owl found by Martin Kehoe near his cabin on a past Beltrami Island CBC. Photo by Martin Kehoe.

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A pretty neat photo of a Gray Jay perched near a Black-backed Woodpecker on this winter’s Beltrami Island CBC! Photo by David Harrington.

So exactly where is Baudette and the Beltrami Island State Forest you ask? Warroad is just to the west… and one of the first towns of any size to the east (~40-50 miles away) is International Falls… you know, that city that often regularly has some of THE coldest winter temperatures in the Lower 48 states! Baudette also sets right on the border with Canada just south of the huge and sprawling Lake of the Woods… THE Lake of the Woods. This lake is over 70 miles wide and long, contains over 14,000 islands and has over 65,000 miles of shoreline… WOW!  No wonder the main thing going on in the small town of Baudette is fishing… and of course, that means ice-fishing in the winter. With normal temperatures well below freezing  (often well-below zero!), it is nothing to see a fisherman taking his bucket of live fishing-bait into his motel room with him at night.

Leading up to these three CBCs my friends Dan & Barbara Williams had been giving Sheryl & I the BIG build up… but with good reason, as they had experienced many of both the highest birding highs for North Woods birds, and literally some of the lowest lows of winter temperatures (& deepest snows)! Dan’s great weather stories: Anecdote #1 –   About ten years ago, we brought a birding friend to Baudette with us.  While we were counting birds, a bunch of snow was getting tracked into the floor of the back seat of the car, because our friend had not been knocking as much loose snow as possible off his boots when entering the car.  By the time we had returned to Rockford, three days later, the snow on the floor of the back seat had NOT melted, despite the fact that the heater was on the entire time we were driving the 600 miles home. Anecdote #2 –  One year, the temperature at 7 AM was -28F.  It was pretty windy, maybe 15-20 mph.  You figure the wind chill yourself.  We were doing Beltrami Island State Forest that day. We could not find any birds.  At one point, we managed 3 corvid species-Raven, Gray and Blue Jays.  We were so glad to see them that we threw pieces of peanut butter sandwiches at them.  By noon, we had 9 species and fewer than 50 individuals, total, for our efforts.  We decided to give up. On the way back to the cabin, we spotted a brown Gyrfalcon.  We had to look into the wind with scopes.  Our tears froze on our cheeks.  It wasn’t pretty. Afterward, we packed up and headed for Rockford.  Fiftenn to twenty miles south of the cabin (and out of the Baudette count circle), we spotted another raptor in a tree over the road.  Gray Gyr.  Anecdote #3 – One year, in the late afternoon following the Roseau CBC, it started to rain and freeze on the road.  60 miles of black ice all the way back to Baudette.  Cars in every ditch.  We stopped at Warroad (1/2 way) and got the last two motel rooms.  Martin Kehoe slept in the back of his truck behind a gas station.

Dan’s bird/animal anecdotes, #1 – 10,000 Snow Buntings in one flock in Baudette. Anecdote #2 – 7 Hawk Owls inside the Baudette circle one year; Anecdote #3 – SIX Black-backed Woodpeckers (all by me in 6 miles of walking) on one Beltrami Island CBC-highest of any CBC in North America that year; Anecdote #4 – Wolves in the middle of the road on the Beltrami Island CBC several times.

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As you can see, there are few roads within the Beltrami Island CBC circle!

With these accounts by Dan to prepare us, our first Minnesota CBC this year was an extremely fun and pleasing experience! We were all betting that the Common Raven would be the first bird of the 2015 New Year, but believe it or not, on the drive down the Pitt Grade Road through nothing but boreal forest for many miles, a large bird flushed from the side of the road just after sunrise was lighting up the eastern sky and heavily wooded road edge… a GREAT GRAY OWL, flew out in front of the car, then quickly dipped back inside the trees!  Not the best look I’ve ever had of a Great Gray, but a stunning bird for your 1st bird of the New Year!

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NOT the kind of look we had of our Jan. 1st, 2015 Great Gray Owl, but I’ll take it!  Photo by John Kelsey.

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The Pitt Grade or Bankton Road through the large bogs in Beltrami Island S.F that Sheryl and I would be walking today. Photo by Steve Bailey.

As Sheryl and I prepared for our most-of-the-day hike down the Pitt Grade Rd. through the boreal forest, a logging truck passed next to us on the somewhat narrow road… Martin reminded us to pull our vehicle over as far as possible to the edge of the road to let the big trucks by… or they would move it for us if we were not around! The few trucks we saw had actually been cutting down relatively small birch trees!

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A Beltrami Island S.F. logging truck going down the Bankton Rd. on count day. Photo by Steve Bailey.

Temperatures were pretty mild for this time of year, with highs in the 20’s!  Sheryl and I were very warm all day, though we had prepared for our “North Woods Experience” by purchasing new Sorel boots and basically entire outfits guaranteed to keep you warm at temperatures anywhere between -20 to -40, depending on the clothing.

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Sheryl preparing for our hike down the Bankton Rd. through the bog. Photo by Steve Bailey.

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Open area of the bog. Photo by Steve Bailey.

There was a beautiful clear blue sky, virtually no wind, and best of all, plenty of birds to see! And the birds!! The Pitt Grade Rd. through the boreal forest was beautiful, with no other people around, and only the occasional hunting camp to let you know that there were other folks using the area at times (though the area has obviously been logged over quite a bit over the years).

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One of the 3-4 hunting camps we saw along the Pitt Grade Rd on count day. Photo by Steve Bailey.

Occasionally, a winding arm of the North Branch of the Rapid River would come into view and part of me wanted to follow it instead of the road.

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North Branch of the Rapid River in the Beltrami Island S.F. Photo by Steve Bailey.

This was followed by flocks of Common Redpolls (totaling 56 birds on the day) right in the road as Sheryl and I began our walking route for the day, small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks (29), Gray (5) & Blue Jays (2) flying in close to investigate my Barred Owl imitation,

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Common Redpolls. Photo by Carl Greiner.

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Female Pine Grosbeak that came in close to Sheryl along the Pitt Grade or Bankton Rd. through Beltrami Island S.F. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

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The Whiskey Jack or Camp Robber. Photo by John Kelsey.

and adorable little Red Squirrels, their chatter sort of the main voice of the North Woods.

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A cute little Red Squirrel (an endangered species back home in Illinois, only found at/near Kankakee River S.P.). Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

There had not been much snow yet this winter, unlike years when you can’t walk off the road without stepping into snow up to your waist or drive down the road without pushing 2-3 feet of snow with the front bumper of your car (if you’re lucky enough to have four/front wheel drive). However, there was enough snow to see lots of animal tracks everywhere you went, including many Snowshoe Hare prints and some likely Gray Wolf tracks!

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Small mammal & some possible Gray Wolf tracks (?) Photos by Steve Bailey

Our list for the day also included a heard only Black-backed Woodpecker & 2 Pileated, 4 Hairy & 5 Downy Woodpeckers, the “common” bird of the day most places, Black-capped Chickadee (25), 2 White-breasted & 3 Red-breasted Nuthatches, a couple groups of White-winged Crossbills (19 including several bright males!; who knew they would come in close to investigate Barred Owl calls?!) & 7 Common Ravens (a favorite bird, though of course I never see them in Illinois). (Two of the best books I’ve ever read on birds were about ravens, and they were both by the same author Bernd Heinrich [see http://blog.adampaul.com/2007/06/02/mind-of-the-raven-by-bernd-heinrich/ & http://www.forestsformainesfuture.org/fresh-from-the-woods-journal/bernd-heinrich-writer-academic-maine-forestland-owner.html ]. I would recommend any of Bernd Heinrich’s many books to bird or nature lovers!)  A Ruffed Grouse silhouetted against a setting sun at dusk, eating tree buds next to the road, made for a fitting and beautiful end to the day!

At the compilation after the count at two local wildlife biologists home, we talked them (including their young daughter!) into trying to call in a/some of the local wolves. They had done this many times in the course of their studies of the wolves, and even their young daughter had become very proficient at making very realistic wolf calls… and sure enough right after their first set of calls, a wolf howled back in the distance!  However hearing the biologists making realistic wolf howls was probably more interesting than hearing the real deal. Not the same as seeing a wolf, but possibly even better!  Two count participants also saw a cow Moose & calf on count day, and I saw a Pine Marten run across the road. A great first day… and I’m sure Sheryl was glad that we neither got lost in the forest or froze to death! Before we head out tomorrow, maybe we’ll get to see Dan eat some of the pancakes as big as your head at Alice’s Restaurant near our motel in Baudette, Dan & Barbara’s favorite place to eat!

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Dan getting ready to chow down on some pancakes “as big as your head” at the diner now known as Alice’s Restaurant prior to beginning an earlier year’s Minnesota CBC, conveniently located near our motel. Photo by Barbara Williams.

Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC # 6 – Horseshoe Lake (far Southern Illinois) – December 28, 2014

Sorry, don’t know what happened to this post as it was on my screen last night… technology.   Anyway, since I have been helping on this Christmas Bird Count (1st time on Dec. 22nd, 1981) almost as long as I have been helping on the Forest Glen and Union County CBCs, I have a lot of fond memories of birds, people & events centered around this Christmas Bird Count. Vern Kleen, former Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources Non-game Heritage Biologist started both this and the Union County CBC (& also started the annual Spring Bird Count and initiated the Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas… among many other things bird in Illinois). Vern started this count a couple of years after the Union County CBC, with the first Horseshoe Lake CBC occurring on Dec. 30, 1974. They have always been held back-to back. The first couple of years we had a neat, cozy little cabin-like building right on the Union County Conservation Area (now Union County State Fish & Wildlife Area). We even spent a year or two using a hunter check station on the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area (now the Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area) as our meeting & sleeping quarters. Though there were at least a dozen or more of us sleeping on the floor those years, there were easily more than twice that many mice running across the floor (and our sleeping bags!) at night. The light sleepers could hear the numerous mouse traps going off all night, that my friend Ivan Easton brought down with him one year to catch the mice with.

We currently are privileged to be able to use the friendly confines of the Wicker Club “Lodge” building right at Horseshoe Lake SF&WA, and have been using this two-story building for at least twenty years. Unfortunately, severe flooding of the Mississippi River ruined the downstairs floor which was deeply underwater for months and the IDNR’s budget has been stripped of money so many times so much in the past 15 years, that who knows if the downstairs floor will ever be refurbished. There is a recently re-modeled kitchen area upstairs, and the large meeting room and bedrooms complete with bunk beds are available for many of the early arrivals.

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The panoramic view over the large fields and forested nature preserve just a short distance from the lodge are inviting, and the fields can often be full of thousands of feeding Snow Geese some years (with dozens/hundreds of Canada, Greater White-fronted and even a few Ross’s Geese).

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For several years my friend Jim Smith from Vermilion County that I rode with to these southern Illinois CBCs, and I canoed the Cache River on the Horseshoe Lake CBC, from the town of Ullin to our take out point just before the mouth of the Cache at the Mississippi River. Jim figured it was a 23 mile run, which we made for several years.  As I often did my Barred Owl imitation to attract other birds (& the owls) as we canoed down the river. One year, at the end of our canoeing, I looked down to my tally/checklist and saw that we had recorded 23 Barred Owls, an average of one per mile! One year, the river was so high we couldn’t make it under some of the bridges, but luckily we could go out and around them via some of the flooded, bottomland “lakes” formed by the flood waters, a rather unique experience. Another year an American Woodcock was performing its spring display flight, on the December Christmas Bird Count, peenting in a bottomland field along the river.

One of the biggest changes in the birdlife since I first began helping on this (and the Union County) CBC is the disappearance of the 100-200,000 Canada Geese that we used to tally on each of these counts to the current 5-15,000 that we are currently getting.  Hand-in-hand with this dramatic decrease has been an even more dramatic increase in the numbers of Snow, Greater White-fronted Geese, & even the rare Ross’s Goose which have all gone from occurrences of single birds or very small flocks of ten to fifty birds to yearly wintering counts of 50-100,000 Snow Geese, 10-20,000 Greater White-fronted Geese and 10-50 Ross’s Geese (formerly even single birds were extremely rare!) on both of these southern Illinois CBCs!

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Other trends in both of these two CBCs are the virtual total disappearance of the once commonly detected Loggerhead Shrike (most parties would detect 1-3 shrikes on both counts), as well as the increase of Eastern Phoebes from occasional single birds every couple years to 5-10 phoebes on one or both counts most years currently!

One of the neat features of my coverage area on the Horseshoe Lake “Island”, a very large area of planted fields (to feed the geese) , as well as a forested state nature preserve, surrounded on all sides by the large U shaped body of water of Horseshoe Lake, is the large diversity of birds found here. It’s a loooong walk, but full of birds of all kinds! Formerly, the fields were planted in sorghum, which sparrows and many of the other small passerines loved (not just the geese that the sorghum was planted for). Many years while these fields were in sorghum, we would find one or two Indigo Buntings (yeah, on a CBC!), as well as Savannah Sparrows and other cool birds. The vine tangles all around the periphery of the field/forest border are full of species like Brown Thrashers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Towhees and the occasional Gray Catbird, Eastern Phoebe, Common Yellowthroat (and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the tree-lined border). Eastern Meadowlarks, Lapland Longspurs, various blackbirds, and LeConte’s Sparrows (yearly), (and the occasional flock of American Pipits) are found most years in the nearby fields near where the large flocks of Snow, Canada, Greater White-fronted and Ross’s Geese are feeding. Bald Eagles regularly soar low over the fields stirring up the duck & goose flocks or can be seen perched all around the edges of the very large field.  It’s a pretty heady experience for a Central or Northern Illinois birder on their first visit!

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Show & other Geese grazing on the “Island” within Horseshoe Lake. It is easy to pick out the noticeably smaller Ross’s Geese when they fly over with the large numbers of Snow Geese that are flying over all day while on the Island. Photos by Pete Moxon.

This year, just in my party on the Horseshoe Lake count, which included Jude Vickery, Pete Moxon & myself, we tallied 1,956 Greater White-fronted Geese, 12,021 Snow Geese, 11 Ross’s Geese, 14 Trumpeter Swans, 116, Northern Pintail, 648 Ring-necked Ducks, 5 Black & 9 Turkey Vultures, 401 American Coot, 87 Killdeer, 14 Barred Owls, 8 Red-headed and 25 Pileated Woodpeckers, 30 Carolina & 9 Winter Wrens, 17 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, 7 Hermit Thrush, 4 Northern Mockingbirds, 15 Savannah, 2 LeConte’s, 21 Fox, 79 Song, 87 Swamp & 210 White-throated Sparrows, & flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. Sound like a fun CBC? And these are just the highlights of the species that just our party found on the count. One thing that makes these counts so fun are that there are soooo many more birds around on these Christmas Bird Counts than there are on any CBCs farther north, even just 50 miles farther north. The other thing is that the potential bird species that could turn up on these CBCs almost seems endless, so the chance of rarities are always a very real possibility.

This CBC has a pretty amazing species list all time, and the numbers found for many of the species are likely surprisingly high for birders that help on CBCs only in Central & Northern Illinois, especially considering we usually only have somewhere between 12-15 observers on these counts. Look here for past results of this CBC:  http://netapp.audubon.org/CBCObservation/Historical/ResultsByCount.aspx#                 & type in count code – ILHL.   Most years on this CBC in the last 15-20 years, we tally in the low 90’s as a species total but we have broken the century mark on a few occasions, and even had the state high count one year! .

Number of species I tallied for the day: 73

Total species for this CBC season: 104 (+ 1 Count Week Species)

Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #7 – Union County (far Southern Illinois) – December 29, 2014

Even though quite a long ride from my hometown of Danville in Central Illinois, this was the second Christmas Bird Count that I started helping on other than the Forest Glen Preserve CBC, beginning with the December 29, 1979 count. Though I would often make the long drive south with my friend Jim Smith who I canoed with on the Horseshoe Lake CBC, it wasn’t long before I was making an annual “pilgrimage” of walking the 4.25 mile stretch of the Clear Creek levee road bottomlands which form the eastern border of the Union County Refuge, by myself and many times with a variety of other folks who would occasionally come down to help on the CBC.

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Jude Vickery (along with Pete Moxon) provided me with some better eyes & ears along the 4+ mile walk down the Clear Creek levee road this winter. Photo by Pete Moxon.

There are several bottomland ponds, sloughs & swamps along this stretch with a lot of prime bottomland forest with large trees. The picturesque bluffs of the Shawnee Hills rise at between 300-350 feet above the levee road and low-lying fields and bottomland forests that I walk through along this route. The neat thing about walking the levee is that you have birds all morning long flying over you, many coming down from their night time roosting areas in the Shawnee Hills uplands, to feed down in the lowland fields and forests of Union County Refuge… so practically anything can fly right over you no matter what habitat any of the species utilize.

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The Shawnee Hills behind and shadowing the Clear Creek levee road & bottomland fields, wetlands and forests adjacent to them. If you look close you may be able to see some of this winters flock of Trumpeter Swans. Photo by Pete Moxon.

Starting just before sunrise, I usually make it back to my car, which has been left where I end the hike further inside the refuge, between noon and 1 PM. The rest of the short day is spent driving various roads outside the refuge covering other habitats to pick up new species. However, we are within sight and sound for the entire day, of flocks of hundreds and sometimes thousands of Snow Geese sometimes filling the sky from horizon to horizon, especially at and just before dusk as they go to roost for the evening.

The cozy Wicker Club Lodge on Horseshoe Lake Refuge has been our meeting place and sleeping quarters for quite a few years for the two nights previous to the Union County CBC, so there are many fond memories of the fun discussions shared by some of the more experienced birders in the state like Vern Kleen, Pat Ward, Dave Bohlen and numerous other birders who drop in some years. Just having the bull sessions and birding stories over the main lodge table before and between counts, sometimes well into the night, has been more than enough payment for having made the long ride down, even if no “good” birds were had.

As with the Horseshoe Lake CBC, the potential variety and chance of seeing a rarity on the Union County CBC are two of the big reasons that I continue to make the long drive down to Union County, even though I now live another three hours farther north than what I used to, making it between a 6-7 hour drive, one way. Some of the rare birds that I have seen over the years on the Union County CBC include such rarities as Brant & Barnacle Geese (as well as getting all six species of countable geese on the same day!), all three swan species, Surf Scoter, Great Egret, Golden Eagle, Sandhill Crane, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Sora, Virginia & King Rails, Barn Owl, BOTH species of shrike, Barn Swallow, Gray Catbird, American Pipit, Marsh (several years), Sedge and House Wrens (I once had 5 species of wrens one year on the two so. Illinois counts!), Fish Crow, Snow Bunting, Palm, Pine, & Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroat (several years), Harris’s, Vesper and LeConte’s (virtually every year) Sparrows, Indigo Bunting, Western Meadowlark & Red Crossbill… and those are just the good birds that I have seen. Several of these I have seen on both the Union County & Horseshoe Lake CBCs! On this year’s Union County count, I added my 171st bird species seen all time on all of the CBCs I have ever helped on, a group of 6 American White Pelicans. We almost passed them off as Trumpeter Swans since they were standing with their heads entirely tucked into their bodies… and were surrounded by 96 other big white birds (Trumpeter Swans)!

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A few of the White Pelicans “hiding” amidst the flock of 96 Trumpeter Swans. Photos by Pete Moxon.

Red-shouldered Hawks can often outnumber Red-tailed Hawks on your day list, as they did for me this year on the Union County count, seeing 12 Red-shouldered and just 10 Red-tailed Hawks. Ever have a hard time finding or seeing rare winter species like Winter Wren, Brown Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Hermit Thrush? Not on this CBC, as our party alone tallied 5 Winter Wrens, 8 Brown Thrashers, 12 Ruby-crowned Kinglets and 9 Hermit Thrushes on this years count! Some of the other great birds that have been found by others on this or the Horseshoe Lake CBC over the years include Long-tailed Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tree Swallow, Rock Wren, Wilson’s, Black-and-white & Orange-crowned Warblers, Green-tailed & Spotted Towhees, Chipping & Lincoln’s Sparrows, Brewer’s Blackbird, White-winged Crossbill & Evening Grosbeak… to name those that I can remember.

If any of this sounds appealing, you should try making the long trip down some winter. Besides all of the birds, several years of late we have had bats, butterflies, frogs and turtles out and about on the two CBCs down south. And the company is almost as good as the birds, though dinner at the “greasy spoon” restaurant in downtown Olive Branch does leave a little to be desired!
To see the all time results for this CBC, go to http://netapp.audubon.org/CBCObservation/Historical/ResultsByCount.aspx# & type in count code – ILUC.

Number of species for the day: 75
Total species for this CBC season in Illinois: 106 (+ 1 Count Week Species)

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The seven Christmas Bird Counts (count circle locations highlighted in yellow) that I helped on in Illinois in 2014.

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CBC birding pal Pete Moxon and I heading back to the car after a long day of hiking on the Shelbyville Reservoir CBC a few years ago. Photo by Greg Lambeth.

And next, it’s off to Baudette, Minnesota on the Canadian border for a few new and exciting birds and Christmas Bird Counts with a set of old & new birding friends!

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Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #5 – Clinton Lake (East-Central Illinois) – December 21, 2014

Quite the opposite of the Champaign County CBC held yesterday, this Christmas Bird Count often holds the promise of being able to find a diversity and sometimes good numbers of a variety of waterfowl. Unfortunately this winter, we really had to search hard for much in the way of variety or numbers when it came to waterfowl. Seven Cackling Geese were nice and the flock of 121 Hooded Mergansers was a pleasant surprise, though we thought that “big flock of ducks” would be holding more than a couple of species. We did find 3 Pied-billed Grebes and a lone Horned Grebe, but no Common Loons which we have often recorded on this CBC. New birds for my yearly Christmas Bird Count species list (that I mentioned earlier) included 4 American Coots and 11 Bonaparte’s Gulls. What has become an annual addition to my CBC list here at Clinton Lake, we also re-located the only No. Saw-whet Owl I would SEE (did hear another) on this winters ten CBCs. It had been located earlier by others before the CBC.

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No. Saw-whet Owl found at its annual roosting location on the Clinton Lake CBC. Photo by Greg Lambeth.

Also new for my list were 3 Savannah Sparrows, but much more delightful, two different Winter Wrens, which both came in for close portrait photographs by both Greg & Rob, and both wrens even gave some wonderful snatches of their bright, energetic and very musical summer song which you can sometimes hear this species give on even the coldest of winter days! How can even the most dreadful CBC not be considered a fun and worthwhile winter day’s effort if you can look upon two of nature’s cutest two birds, the diminutive Saw-whet Owl and the even more tiny, bright, bubbly & energetic little Winter Wren. When I see a Winter Wren bobbing up and down on a fallen log in the forest, they always appear to me to be doing their daily round of push-ups, while giving their diagnostic little call notes, dit-dit….dit-dit…..dit-dit.

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One of the two Winter Wrens found by Rob on this winter’s Clinton Lake CBC, singing its bubbly, energetic and complicated summer song. Photo by Rob Kanter.

Some of the few other good birds that we were able to locate on this rather dull and dreary day consisted of a nice Merlin chasing a Horned Lark (our only lark of the day!) out over some ag fields, a single Belted Kingfisher, 3 Eurasian Collared-Doves, 3 Golden-crowned Kinglets (took a ton of effort for these guys!), 7 Yellow-rumped Warblers and a lone Purple Finch, but I could not have been more pleased getting to have good, long views of two different Winter Wrens and the sleepy Saw-whet Owl!

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“The Team” comprised of myself, Rob Kanter and Greg Lambeth. Rob took this selfie. Do you like our matching orange attire?

I started doing this Christmas Bird Count back in the early 1980’s and helped on it as a team with Bob Chapel for many years. Even before Bob tragically was killed in a car accident several years ago, I went several years where I didn’t help on this CBC, though I was doing Christmas Bird Counts in several other areas of the state then and earlier that I occasionally or often helped on like the Newton CBC (includes the Greater Prairie Chicken Refuge), Cypress Creek (Johnson/Pulaski Co.s), Warbluff Valley Sanctuary (Pope Co.), Rend Lake (Franklin & Jefferson Co.s), Carlyle Lake (Clinton, Fayette & Bond Co.s), Springfield (Sangamon Co.), Shelbyville Reservoir (Moultrie & Shelby Co.s), Kankakee Valley (Kankakee Co.), Lisle Arboretum (DuPage, Will, & Cook (?) Co.s), and Meredosia Island (Brown, Cass, Morgan, Pike & Scott Co.s). I would like to help on several other Illinois CBCs some day including the Mermet Lake, Chautauqua N.W.R. and Jackson County CBCs to name a few.

Bob and I had some neat finds over the years with two of the more memorable being a Eurasian Tree Sparrow that Bob first spotted at the “Magic Feeder” in the tiny town of DeWitt, and a female Yellow-headed Blackbird also found at the “Magic feeder”. I guess you can see why I call it the Magic Feeder?! A Prairie Falcon also spent several winter’s just northwest of Clinton Lake in the count circle, entailing a special trip out into the corn & bean fields to look for it… even after it no longer returned in succeeding winters. Some of the many other good birds found by Bob & I on this CBC included Short-eared Owl, Northern Shrike, House Wren, Common Redpolls, & Snow Bunting. Rarities found by “The Team” more recently include Trumpeter Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Common Loon, Spotted Sandpiper, American Pipit, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler and LeConte’s Sparrow to name a few.

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Rarities found on recent Clinton Lake CBCs by “The Team” include these Trumpeter Swans and Spotted Sandpiper (photos by Greg Lambeth) and American Pipit and LeConte’s Sparrow (photos by Rob Kanter). The LeConte’s was particularly photogenic after it flushed into willows near a huge field of it’s favored habitat, a large field of nothing but foxtail (Setaria sp.).

One of the main property holders in the Clinton Lake count circle has always been the owners of the Nuclear Power Station there, currently the Exelon Corp. After the 911 disaster, special permission had to be requested from Exelon, if not before then, to gain access to some of the areas we cover on the count. I remember going to the plant to gain permission for us to hike some of the better areas behind the nuclear power plant, from the plant manager and having the guard at the main entrance gate meet me with a machine gun strapped to their body!

Number of species I tallied for the day: 60
Total species for this CBC season: 92 (+ 1 Count Week Species)

Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #4 – Champaign County (East-Central Illinois) – December 20, 2014

Unfortunately, each year the Lost Mound CBC is scheduled the day before the Champaign County CBC, which entails a long drive down to Urbana after hiking around all day on the Lost Mound CBC. I guess that is to be expected given I was doing ten Christmas Bird Counts this winter, but at least I was heading for the warm and cozy home of fellow birding friend Greg Lambeth. Greg has been nice enough to put me up at his place the two nights before and between the back-to-back CBCs we have been doing together for the last several years, and this year would be no different. Having some friendly conversation with Greg, his wife Marybeth and their two kids Ben & Claire… and who could forget energetic little Baxter, their dog!

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Greg Lambeth and I on an earlier Champaign County CBC, east of the Swine Ponds at the marshy area near the Cattle feedlot where an ibis, shorebirds and other good birds can often be found. This year we found a group of cowbirds here mixed in with the House Sparrows & starlings on the CBC.

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A snow-covered Champaign CBC day from a couple years ago, with our extra help for the day, Evan. Photo by Rob Kanter.

Greg and I usually begin the Champaign Co. CBC by doing some owling for an hour or two, before meeting up with our third partner in crime for the day, Rob Kanter at one of our main coverage areas, Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park.

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A “daytime” owl we found a couple years ago in the Arboretum on count day, a very rare “Arctic” Great Horned Owl. The 1st one I’d ever seen in 40+ years of birding!! One way that you can tell that it is the Arctic subspecies, besides the very pale orangish facial disks and overall whitish cast, especially to the upperparts, is how close it let us approach for photos…right underneath it, something a local owl would never let you do. photo by Bob Schifo.

Rob has a blog on environmental issues (http://environmentalalmanac.blogspot.com/ ) and also hosts a radio program on the environment called Environmental Almanac on WILL-AM 580 on Thursdays at 4:45 & 6:45 PM. He and Greg are also really good photographers and always have their cameras and big lenses with them on both CBCs that we do together, and usually get good/great photos of most of the better birds that we find on the CBCs… saves time having to write out a documentation form when you have close, often stunning photos of the birds!

Two of the reasons I really like doing this CBC, which I did NOT help on for many years are the good camarderie between Greg, Rob & I and we get to cover some of the best habitat in the circle (and because of the latter we often find some of the better birds!). Although I often don’t bother with having much of a lunch while helping on a CBC, having lunch at the Campustown Potbelly’s Sandwich Shop is one of the fun exceptions! Every year, one of our “jobs” is to go and get the Peregrine Falcon which roosts on one of the taller buildings in Champaign, and we do this on our way to having lunch at Potbellys! A couple of years ago, we had a four-falcon day, also finding a Merlin near a major road intersection in town and finishing the day finding a big surprise PRAIRIE FALCON at our traditional last stop of the day at the privately owned Barnhart Prairie state nature preserve.

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The Merlin found at a busy Champaign, town intersection on our 4-falcon CBC day! Photo by Rob Kanter.

It is amazing what you can find in the patchwork group of small areas of restored habitat, but often times small patches of a little grass here, a few trees there, a small amount of idle habitat not being used around there. Other than the Homer Lake Forest Preserve (which has become badly overgrown with dense stands of bush honeysuckle), a couple of relatively small (but one large) University of Illinois research plots, and a few well managed city parks, there isn’t a whole lot of habitat in the Champaign County CBC circle… but it is sort of like a Chicago city “migrant trap”, in that the Champaign-Urbana area is surrounded on all sides by mostly hundreds/thousands of square miles of corn and soybeans. However, our team is often able to scrape up 45-55 species of birds in our area by getting one or two species here and three or four species there, and due to Greg’s scouting have often turned up some great bird species on past Champaign County CBCs in our coverage area like Orange-crowned Warbler, Harris’s & LeConte’s Sparrows, Dickcissel, Gray Catbird, and many other “goodies”.

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All of the above past year’s CBC goodies were found by Greg’s pre-CBC scouting efforts (except for the Saw-whet Owl and American Pipit which were found on count day), and then relocated on the CBC by our team. Both the Long-eared and Saw-whet Owls used to be yearly or near-yearly birds tallied by “The Team” on count day at the U of I Forestry area where the above Saw-whet was photographed by Greg Lambeth, as was the Orange-crowned Warbler which was found in the U of I Arboretum area. The rufous-morph “Western” Red-tailed Hawk returned to the same South Farms fields and was tallied by us on the CBC for 6-8 years running, photographed here by Greg. The Dickcissel was located in the same weed patch as the Harris’s AND LeConte’s Sparrow (all on the same year’s CBC!!) & also photographed here by Greg. The American Pipit was photographed by Rob Kanter on the South Farms. The above Long-eared Owl and Harris’s Sparrow were photographed by Ivan Petrov, at the U of I Arboretum & at the South Farms weed patch (after Greg had found them on or just before the CBC), respectively… great shots guys!

This winter, Rob even found a YELLOW WARBLER in early December in a very tiny… I hesitate to even call it a… park. Unfortunately, it was not to be found on count day. As we also get to cover one of the few bodies of water within the count circle, the First Street Pond, we turned up a few of the better birds found on this winter’s Champaign County CBC, including a single Snow Goose, a lone American Wigeon, two American Black Ducks and a lone Green-winged Teal… and of course the regularly wintering Peregrine Falcon. About the only other good birds worth mentioning that we located included 32 Ring-necked Pheasants (this species has quickly taken a nose-dive in overall numbers in east-central Illinois), a single Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (formerly a pretty rare bird in Illinois in winter outside of far southern Illinois), two Red-breasted Nuthatches (not a big flight year this winter in Illinois), a Tufted Titmouse (a rare bird in Champaign County… thanks for watching the feeder Marybeth!) and 40 Pine Siskins… kind of an off year for us. We did turn up our usual large numbers of White-crowned Sparrows in what remains of the former U of I South Farms study plots, an incredible 167 White-crowned Sparrows which will probably be the highest count in the entire state… from one relatively tiny area. We have had even more in previous years! These exceptional numbers beg the question, WHY SO MANY???

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A White-crowned Sparrow photo from the Swine Pond area on this year’s Champaign Co. CBC. Photo by Greg Lambeth.

Number of species I tallied for the day: 45
Total species for this CBC season: 84 (+ 1 Count Week Species)

Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #3 – Green Island – Lost Mound (NW Illinois/East Central Iowa) – December 19, 2014

Despite the long drive from the northeast corner of Illinois to the northwest corner of Illinois, this has become a fixture in the Christmas Bird Count schedule that I keep each winter. And despite the anthropogenic nature of the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge

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Here you can see the large amount of buildings, roads and other manmade features still left over from when the site was the Savanna Army Depot.

(http://www.fws.gov/midwest/Planning/LostMound/index.html & http://stewardsumrr.org/tours-and-events/lost-mound-birding-tours/ ), it is still a pretty cool place to view some of the more interesting sand prairie habitat and accompanying wildlife at any season in Illinois. I started helping on this CBC several years ago. If one can get past the detracting presence of the numerous railcars and old military weapons & ammunition bunkers that remain at the former Savanna Army Depot (as well as the annoying video which must be watched each and every year concerning possible unexploded ordinance, before one is allowed into the closed portion of the refuge), the huge, sprawling preserve can be a very inviting place to spend a winter day, no matter what you may or may not see in the way of birds.

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An old weapons ammunition bunker on Lost Mound Refuge… one such bunker blew up many years ago and the extremely heavy door to the structure was never found.

Upon joining the regular “crew” of yearly participants on the Illinois side of the count circle, I soon discovered that there was often a series of friendly banter via e-mail about whether or not we had a chance to beat the Iowa side of the CBC circle in the number of species each side was able to tally. On the Iowa side, a wonderful and apparently very large marsh complex often has helped the Iowa side come out on top in the species # race most every year. However, in years when everything is frozen in the marsh, we are on more equal footing in holding our own and because we often have more teams out, we have a chance to win the species competition… which we finally did for one of the first times last winter. The Illinois “crew” is made up each year mostly by a stalwart crowd of professional biologists, long-time big-name conservationists and a few experienced, hard-core birders. In reality though, the true ingredient in any success we might have is biologist Randy Nyboer’s homemade chilli that we all chow down on at lunch-time in the Lost Mound NWR headquarters building! Although I’ve asked Randy for his recipe, he’s told me it changes each year!

Green Island Christmas count Illinois Map

Not the best CBC circle map but the #3 is the Lost Mound Refuge area and the blue line is the Mississippi River which divides the Illinois from the Iowa sides of the circle.

I often have teamed up with fellow birding friend Dan Williams most of the year’s I’ve helped on the count, and often there is one or two other birders on our team as well. We get a nice chunk of the preserve along the river, in the more wooded areas adjacent to the open, sand-prairie areas. Getting to check for waterfowl at sometimes the only open water at Lock & Dam 12 across from Bellevue, Iowa, looking for Golden Eagles cruising the cedar-covered bluffs east of the refuge (where we’ve recorded them a couple times on this CBC!), and helping check the main Long-eared Owl roosts in the various red cedar groves at Lost Mound are just some of the perks of helping on this CBC.

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One of the Long-eared Owls found at the sand “blow-out” where the Mountain Bluebird was found on last year’s CBC. Photo by Anne Straight.

An over-abundance of red cedar trees is one of the reasons there are routinely good numbers of Long-eared Owls at Lost Mound, though they are beginning to take over the native sand prairie and need to be severely thinned out.

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Here you can see the large number of red cedar saplings coming up and replacing the native sand prairie.

Speaking of those cedar-covered bluffs, on this year’s count, I had no sooner mentioned to the other two birders helping Dan & I in our area this year, that those cedars should produce a Townsend’s Solitaire one of these winters, as that is the exact same kind of habitat where they often turn up most winters in Wisconsin. Less than five minutes after saying this, I began hearing the clear, flute like piping call made by a Townsend’s Solitaire! Finding it hard to believe that I could actually be hearing a Townsend’s Solitaire calling just minutes after speaking about the bird, not wanting my fellow birding friends to think that I had just slipped off the deep-end, I began looking for the possible location from where the bird could be calling from. As this species will often perch and call from the tip top of a conifer in its native habitat, I noticed a “right-sized” bird at the tip-top of a large deciduous tree 50-75 yards or more away. Cedars (& cedar berries) at which this bird often feeds from were numerous within a stone’s throw of that tree. I finally turned to Dan and said, “I’m pretty sure I’m hearing a Townsend’s Solitaire calling, and I think it might be that bird at the top of that big tree.” Dan quickly got his scope on the bird and loudly proclaimed, “It’s a Townsend’s Solitaire!” The bird responded immediately to a taped call of the species on Dan’s cell phone, and eventually gave all of us nice, protracted scope views of itself.

Although it was a beautiful, still day, birdlife was not particularly abundant, but our party never-the-less turned up several good species including 30 Trumpeter AND two Tundra Swans, 3 Greater White-fronted Geese, 7 Canvasbacks, 3 Redhead & 1 Ring-necked Duck along with over 800 Common Mergansers which were everywhere on the Mississippi River and its backwaters. Our party alone tallied 94 Bald Eagles, two Northern Harriers, one Rough-legged Hawk and one Red-shouldered Hawk, as well as two Barred Owls, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, 6 Pileated Woodpeckers, and a Northern Shrike. A few other birds of note by our group included two Tufted Titmice, 23 Eastern Bluebirds, 41 Cedar Waxwings, 4 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 14 Common Grackles and 4 Purple Finch.

Last year on this count, another party turned up a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD which wound up hanging around for most of the rest of the winter. This year, the good bird was the TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE… what will we find next winter?! Below are links to the last three years results for the Green Island/Lost Mound CBC, conveniently divided into the Iowa results and the Illinois results (even by party area!) by compiler Ed Anderson. Maybe you’d like to join us some year!

2014 LM CBC Team Totals
2013 LM CBC Team Totals
2012 LM CBC Team Totals

Number of species I tallied for the day: 48
Total species for this CBC season: 78 (+ 1 Count Week Species)

Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #2 – Forest Glen Preserve (East-Central Illinois) – 17 December, 2014

The second CBC that I helped on this winter was the Forest Glen Preserve Christmas Bird Count. I covered the Langley Bottoms area along the eastern edge of Vermilion County, just outside of Danville, Illinois to the southeast, near the Indiana border. It was fortuitous that my coverage area is inside the Forest Glen CBC circle as the area had been an area I had been exploring for several years as a teenager before I ever helped on a Christmas Bird Count. I could walk to my CBC coverage area from my Grandma’s & first cousin Jim’s homes nearby. Other than the several county and state parks in Vermilion County, this was and still is one of the wilder tracts of habitat left in the county. Gus Carlson owned a large chunk of it including a wonderful 15 acre oxbow pond and slough known as Langley or “Carlson’s” Pond and he was always great about letting me walk around the entire property (100+ acres), including the wetlands that come in about a mile from the Big Vermilion River (a major tributary of the Wabash River). The other major land owner in my CBC coverage area was/still is the University of Illinois. Information on this 477 acre U of I VRO (Vermilion River Observatory) site that I cover on the Forest Glen CBC can be found here:
(http://research.illinois.edu/cna/areas.cfm (scroll down to the Vermilion River Observatory); and http://archives.library.illinois.edu/archon/?p=digitallibrary/getfile&id=3480
& map:
http://wikimapia.org/11882883/Vermilion-River-Observatory-University-of-Illinois

VRO-dish'60 photo

This amazing man-altered, forested, stream valley about the length of a football field would wind up being one of the country’s more amazing radio astronomy sites for twenty years, before newer technologies would make this site obsolete. What I thought was cool though was that this whole, huge structure had to be mostly made of wood, even the basketball-sized wooden bolts that held the thing together! And the ground altered, formerly forested hillsides were removed of their trees and the ground on the hillsides all around the VRO structure were covered with a black rubber, and then that was covered with a fine, wire mesh (hard to walk on in winter with the steep terrain and snow on the ground!). This area abuts Gus Carlson’s, Langley Pond area, and along with a few other property owners in the general Langley Bottoms area comprises close to a thousand acres of mature upland forest, shrublands, wetlands and scattered fields, pastureland & ag fields… and more depending on how far you want to wander.

Though this CBC annually gets the lowest species total of the three local CBCs (Forest Glen Preserve, Middle Fork River Valley and Champaign County) of my native homeland of East-Central Illinois, it is the one I probably enjoy the best, since nowadays I spend all day hiking some great habitat on this CBC, that for the most part hasn’t been developed or destroyed… plus it is the first Christmas Bird Count that I ever helped on. You still see/hear cool birds like Wild Turkeys, Barred Owls, Pileated (7 this year!) & Red-headed Woodpeckers and nowadays Bald Eagles are even regularly found. Plus, it is just great walking up and down steep, wooded ravines with lots of big oak and American beech trees, and walking alongside the Big Vermilion River, especially with a few inches of snow on the ground. The Beech tree reaches the western extent of its range in Illinois and the U.S. this far north in the state in this general area and is a common species in many forests in the eastern part of the county.

My best bird find ever on this CBC was just this winter! While standing at a place that I call the “Magic Bend” (in the Vermilion River) where I’ve had many hard-to-come-by birds on this CBC over the years (Bald Eagle, ducks, Killdeer, Belted Kingfisher, Winter Wren, Fox & Field Sparrows, etc.), I looked up to what I initially thought was just a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring over the wooded bluffs a couple hundred yards away, but heading my way. The first of the two birds that I got on with my bins was too big to be a hawk, and I quickly realized it was an eagle… but it had bold, roundish white panels in the wings and a white base to the tail… an immature GOLDEN EAGLE!!

GOEA_imm

Only my 2nd sighting of this species ever for Vermilion County, which I have been birding for 40+ years! The other bird with it I then realized was an equally large, immature Bald Eagle, which have become regular for the past five or more years for me in this area. Funny how nothing to give you size context can initially make you think that a bird is a much smaller (or larger) bird than what you are looking at… at least for me. Though they didn’t appear to be having a squabble, one of the birds did appear to be escorting the other out of their territory, though I can’t say who was escorting who. On the way out of the area this year, I noticed that a large beaver was really doing a job on the dense willow thicket beginning to cover part of the sandy dune and gravel-covered river-edge that is the “Magic Bend”.

I didn’t find any Saw-whet or Long-eared Owls in the two pine and red cedar groves where I have found them in past years on this CBC but I still looked, as each area is also usually good for other conifer-loving species like Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Fox Sparrows and Purple Finches. One of these is a long, narrow stand of planted white cedar and red and white pines at the entrance to the VRO site mentioned above. One year that I did find a Saw-whet Owl here, I didn’t want to take the time to retrieve my camera back at the car and make the long walk back, so I came out the next day to photograph the owl. Unfortunately, all I found when I got to the owl roost site was its feathers.

SWOW feathers_VRO site_S.Bailey

I had also flushed a Cooper’s Hawk from the same stand of pines. I wonder how many of these owls are eaten by accipiters every winter?

One non-bird related story happened many years ago when my cousin Jim and good friend Don Stine decided to accompany me on this CBC. We were hiking at the base of a tall, steeply forested hillside next to the Big Vermilion River (three smaller rivers, the Middle Fork, North Fork and Salt Fork come together near Danville to form the “Big” Vermilion), and were temporarily resting from this strenuous part of the hike near the base of the hill. All of a sudden, a man with a machete strapped to his belt came running down the steep hillside at us to find out what we were doing on his property (except for his “weekend” cabin, there are no houses out in this area near the U of I Vermilion River Observatory site, for miles). When he found out we were helping on a Christmas Bird Count, he welcomed us up to his wonderfully nice cabin made of sturdy, old, salvaged, barn timbers (and with a metal, spiral staircase up to the upstairs loft!), for some hot chocolate. Our initial impression of this person as a madman soon softened, and in later years this man would go on to be the mayor of Champaign! This teacher, turned mayor and Illinois historian would later go on to write a very interesting book on the natural & human history of the Big Vermilion River system with my birding pal Jim Smith called, “A Guide to the Big Vermilion River System”.

jimsmithbook

Another story was told to me of how he climbed to the top of an old, iron bridge that was scheduled to be torn down, and sawed off (with a hand, metal saw!!) the old year/date plate often affixed to old bridges, in the middle of the night! Hope he had earplugs!! Though this person thought of themselves as a conservationist (described themselves as such on the above book’s back cover), he later would clear-cut a large and beautiful old swath of second-growth oak-hickory-beech forest near the above cabin, something that the property manager for the U of I trying to buy the property will likely never forgive him for.

Purple Finches are also a regular feature for me on this CBC, and they once highly outnumbered House Finches on the Christmas Bird Counts I helped on. A couple years ago on this CBC, I followed a decent-sized flock of Purple Finches traveling from ash tree to ash tree, feeding on the seeds which hang on the trees long into/through the winter. Interestingly, all of the Purple Finches that I noticed this winter in various parts of Illinois were all feeding on Sycamore tree seed-balls. I didn’t think anything really ate these seed balls, but recently discovered that Sycamore seeds were also a common food of the extinct Carolina Parakeet. Other good birds that I have found on this CBC have included Trumpeter/Tundra Swans (also this winter… too high up to ID)!, Long-eared Owl, No. Saw-whet Owl, Northern Mockingbird (formerly regular) and Winter Wren (several times). I also had a Black-billed Magpie once in this area on a Spring Bird Count! Other good birds (for various reasons) that I had on this year’s Forest Glen CBC included a single Green-winged Teal (waterfowl are very scarce on this CBC with few bodies of water to attract them), 6,050 American Crows (part of the huge roosting group from Danville & one of my favorite bird species), 31 Carolina Chickadees (Vermilion Co. is on the “dividing line” between the two chickadee species), 10 Eastern Bluebirds and 3 Fox Sparrows. Carolina Wrens are also a common species on this CBC but though I heard a few, numbers appeared to be way down this winter on this and other Central Illinois CBCs.

Forest Glen_CBC_Jim and Suzanne Smith_Salt Fork_01_2014-12-17 (800x600)

Jim Smith and daughter-in-law Sue Smith along the Salt Fork River on the Forest Glen CBC.

Forest Glen_CBC_Suzanne Smith_Coyote den_01_2014-12-17 (600x800)

Sue Smith looking into a coyote den along the roadside on the Forest Glen CBC.

Number of species I tallied for the day: 42
Total species for this CBC season: 62 (+ 1 Count Week Species)