The Birding Chronicles

My brother Ron and I have decided to do what what we are referring to as an “Average Year”. This is essentially a scaled down version of what birders commonly refer to as a “Big Year” where the objective is to find as many unique bird species in a calendar year. The “Big” adjective is a bit daunting as neither of us have the extra funds or spare time to chase birds anywhere close to the 650+ low water mark of the upper echelons in the birding community – not to mention my own life list just made it to only the 300 mark last December. I am not sure yet what kind of numbers we will be able to put up, but I think we would be very happy if we could hit around the 250 range (update – I am at 249 at the end of May – what a complete surprise). I can tell you we got off to a great start each putting up over 130 in the first week in January alone. The problem is the effort over time looks like an exponential graph – easier to rack up numbers at the beginning of the year, but as the species count goes up, the harder it becomes to find ones that will ding the new bird bell. This should be a lot of fun and siblings pitted against each other usually generates some great stories along the way. To be honest, when we are together in the field the competition part drops away and our efforts become joined – on our own though… well that is a different story hehehe.

We have tried to set up some rules for our friendly competition. First off all, almost all the rules from our previously established “Field Guide for Competitive Birder Rules of Engagement” (link here) still hold. For Ron’s sake, we did suspend rule 6 requiring a featured blog post to get the bird added to the count. After some initial debate, a photograph of the bird sufficient to confirm the ID is still required (rule 4), although now a web gallery is not required (rule 20). Note, if we are both at the same place, see the same bird, but only one of us accomplishes a photograph, then the other person can use that other individual’s shot for the count. This gets rid of the caveats of one getting penalized for being at a bad angle or missed the shot due to pointing out the location to the other person etc. etc.. Unlike politics, we still strive to be civilized.

Thanks to Ron’s Sliver program (link here), we are now able to provide a Google Earth based video of the places we bird throughout the year – super cool! I’ll update this periodically when he is able to generate a new video for us. This video covers my Texas outings and several places we caught on our return trip.

To help chronicle the journey and allow my readers to watch our progress, I’ll be putting up monthly totals along with graphs and details throughout the year. We’ve created quite the elaborate spreadsheet so we can monitor the competition – figure I’ll just grab screen shots of those counts and graphs and put them here for convenience. Looking forward to seeing how this plays out. What I can say is it has added a lot more stress when we are out in the field, especially when traveling to various birding venues – we cannot afford to miss the target birds if we are going to get anywhere near the 250 range – based on the current number we definitely need to up this goal!

Now how about some current metrics!

Here are the snapshot metrics.

Our cumulative species count.

As we now have finished the 5th month, this graph is more interesting. You can definitely see the slowdown in the cold months and now picking up as we warm back up.

I actually like the daily graph the best as it adds that spirit of competition ha! It is a bit unfair as I am still reaping the benefits of the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and now Mississippi birding, Ron is holding his own with some nice adds since he has been back. There is also a big bump in May for both us thanks to some outings we did together.

Here is a recap of the various outings I’ve been on so far.

Update 05/26/2022: Ron managed to pick up like three birds on me this week. Since our dogs were being groomed in Pekin, asked Linda if she would drive me over to Havana, IL after we picked them up. Ron had mentioned there was a report the Western Kingbirds were back at the substation. Figured while I was there I’d pick up the Eurasian Tree Sparrow that hangs out there as well. Took me about 5 minutes to locate both those targets. The Kingbirds were busy flying between their nest on the substation beams some large trees by the road. The Eurasian flew up and sat on the fencing less than 50 feet from the car. That was an easy +2 and ones Ron didn’t have. Since Emiquon was on the way home, popped into their visitor center. Not much happening there, but did get some shots of the Swallows that nest in the pavilions. These happen to be Cliff’s and again an easy pick up for the year .. and on Ron again. As we turned onto our Road we were surprised with a young Barred Owl just sitting on a street sign several car lengths from the intersection. FINALLY can check that species off – I’ve hear it several times and even seen it fly past the car at least 4 times prior, but never could get a shot of one. Nothing like going +4 for the year simply taking a detour on our way from running an errand.

Update 05/20/2022: After the previous day’s great birding haul, Ron and I were not overly optimistic we would be able to add a lot of new checks to our counts, especially since it was suppose to rain all day. That was nixed with the first 10 minutes of hanging out at Chain O’ Lakes SP. There we added the Eastern Wood-Pewee and the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. The Rubies had recently shown up at our house, but I had not officially taken the +1 yet. We had to make a decision on rather to brave the Mosquito gauntlet at Goose Lake, Hebron, IL. There were reports the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were back there. Decided to do and we were extremely glad we did. Thanks to the Red-Winged Blackbirds harassing them, we did tin the Yellow-Heads and I picked up the House Wren and Song Sparrow. More shocking was Ron tinned a Prothonotary Warbler – that was a great catch up on me. From there we went to Glacial Park Conservation Area in Ringwood, IL. We really like that place and have always had success in getting target birds. Today was no exception. As soon as I stepped out of the car we got the Bobolink (not, we didn’t see another one the entire time we were there). Plenty of Sandhill Cranes around, but we were more surprised with the Orchard Oriole and the Henslow’s Sparrow we found there. Before heading out, we decided to see if we could find a House Sparrow (for the day’s overall count). Ron noted the barn they had there and drove down the lane to check it out. Once there I saw a pair of Mute Swans in a distant pond – clawed that +1 back from Ron ha. On our way out I was keeping an eye on the powerlines hoping for a Dickcissel – sure enough we found one singing away on the wire. The exciting element of the day is Ron and I broke our single day bird count record. Thanks to some late adds at the state park we came in a 62 beating our previous record of 60… which ironically was a previous birding trip to the same sites. I must say, we still left a lot of common birds on the table like a Titmouse and if I remember correctly a Belted Kingfisher. I think there is plenty of meat left on the bone for us to top it next year!

Update 05/19/2022: Today was a massive birding day for Ron and I. Ron met me down at Chain ‘O Lakes SP (early!) and we drove to Montrose Beach to hopefully get some migration checks. Before that we did do some quick birding in the park as we drove out. Managed to finally see an European Starling and capped it of with an Eastern Kingbird and a Tree Swallow. Nothing great, but just good checks to get out of the way. Being a great brother, I also got Ron the Black-Billed Cuckoo spotted the previous night. From there Ron drove us up to the beach – for the record, I hate Chicago traffic! Although slightly late on the true migration, Montrose served up some nice additions to this year’s count and some lifers as well! Right off the bat we got the Barn Swallow and Baltimore Oriole out of the way followed by the fantastic Blackburnian Warbler. That bird is a beauty. It was absolutely shocking how many American Redstarts were hanging around there. I managed to go +11 there for the year and 4 lifers (Blackburnian, Golden-Winged Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo and finally took credit for the Warbling Vireo although that has been in the tin for a while. Rounded out the beach with a Caspian Tern, Chestnut-Sided Warbler, Gray-Cheeked Thrush (no idea they were up there), Magnolia Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, a White-Crowned Sparrow and surprise to me it wasn’t already checked, the Yellow Warbler. The Bay-Breasted Warbler was another good find along with the Adler Flycatcher and resident Bank Swallows. Met a lot of nice people there including Jane who I had run into at Quinta Mazaltan back in January (Grey Hawk) and Kenneth. the big miss for that place was the Connecticut Warbler. We tried hard, but never found it. From there we went to a new place called Labagh Woods. About 30 minutes west of Montrose. Ron had went to get the Broad-Tailed Hummer there last year. I must say, for a rather “interesting” take on how to groom trails and odd decisions regarding what trees they left across the trails, the woods produced some nice birding. At first it was rather weak, but picked up nicely as we made our way to the other side of the river and then our return which took us by the slough again. Found a Canada Warbler there – Ron got it in the tin quick – me not so quick. Luckily we found two of them again and I finally got a decent shot. Got the Hairy Woodpecker officially checked and then added a Sharp-Shinned Hawk in the trees above the slough. The Canada and the Sharp-Shinned were lifers for me. We also met a nice lady there that was birding the area for the Canada and then another young lady as we were returning from the other side of the river – she pointed out an extremely cute Racoon hanging out in a tree and a Doe and Fawn walking through the woods – she had really good eyes and told us about a Heron rookery not to far away. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go there. All in all a great day for the bird count – +23 for the year and +9 for lifers.

Update 05/18/2022: Mother passed away peacefully on Mother’s Day. Between my two brothers and I we were able to be with her every day and night for the 6 week duration since we learned about her cancer returning. We miss her, but take comfort knowing she has been reunited with Dad and no rid of her earthly sufferings. Decided to take a quick birding break to help relieve the stress and sadness of the ordeal. Made arrangements with Ron to meet us up at Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Spring Grove, IL. From there we planned to travel up to Montrose Beach to see if there were any Warblers still hanging around and then do some birding at some spots around the state park. As we were heading out of the park to pick up some dinner the night before I looked in the trees to the right of the exist and spotted a Black-Billed Cuckoo. Now that was surprise. Only had my cell phone camera with me, but managed to get good enough shots to get the check. We come upon the Yellow-Billed variety from time to time, but this was a treat. A good check for the day!

Update 05/09/2022: Chalk another one up on the bird feeder surprise list. The Roe-Breasted Grosbeaks are annual visitors to the lot. Linda and I were outside on our porch checking out the various birds when something caught my eye. Immediately told Linda that I thought that was a Red-Breasted Nuthatch!! This is the first time I have every seen one on my lot .. in fact in Illinois. I’ve heard reports of people seeing them up further north, but never expected one to be 15 feet away from me. Told Linda to keep an eye on it while I dashed into the house to get the camera (have to get that check ha). When I came out Linda informed me it had flown away over the house. Drats! Decided to hang out a while and see if it would come back. The White-Breasted regulars will stop by, grab a sunflower seed and scamper off to wedge it in some tree bark for later before repeating the process. Sure enough, 30 minutes later the Red-Breasted showed up and I was able to tin it. Had a bit of a scare a later in the week as my digital card with the images went bad. Downloaded an SD Card recovery program and managed to recover the files… and more importantly the check. That was a close call.

Update 04/29/22: Home from the St. Louis trip now, I was busy getting ready to head down to Forsyth to spend a couple of nights with Mom. Looked out the window and to my complete noticed several Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks on my feeder. Those are such beautiful birds. Grabbed my camera and managed to get a few shots in the tin. An easy +1 one. The Grosbeaks do not tend to hang around long and glad I didn’t miss them on their journey…guessing north.

Update 04/25/22: After Raven’s run at Purina Farms, Linda suggested we go to the Shaw Nature Reserve nearby (Gray Summit, MO). They have a really nice auto-loop with opportunities to park and walk their many trails. Managed to photograph a lot of birds – only one addition to the list and that was a Palm Warbler. Was hoping to get a few more ducks and such at their marsh/pond, but that ended up being a bust. Still enjoyed birding that place and would definitely put that on the list for the next time we are down there. There was a small fee that I can’t remember at the moment. Not as productive as Robertsville State Park, but Shaw is a lot bigger and Linda enjoyed the Wildflower trail walk.

Update 04/24/2022: As we were already down in St. Louis for a memorial service and Raven was running the Poodle Nationals event at Purina Farms, Linda took me over to a new place called Robertsville State Park in Robertsville, MO. It was raining that day, but managed to get some birding in between soakings. Stopped first at a picnic pavilion and photographed the usual field fare – Sparrows, Cowbirds and Common Yellowthroats. All birds I already had. From there we went to their boat launch. Wow, that stop was extremely productive netting me the Indigo Bunting, Red-Eyed Vireo and a Yellow-Throated Vireo. The big surprise of the day was Prothonotary Warbler flew right up onto a branch about 5 feet away from me. I was stunned assuming this was going to be a missed check thanks to the Dauphin trip being canceled. Not sure I would purposely visit this place beyond getting these specific birds. Had some Parulas and it did have a Fish Crow which was already in the tin thanks to the earlier MS trip. Pretty happy getting these checks – Ron would probably pick up the Indigo Bunting and Vireo, but the Prothonotary will likely be pretty hard as I’ve never seen them outside of the April 2021 Dauphin trip.

Update 04/23/2022: Before heading out to St. Louis, did one more pass in an attempt to get the Purple Martin checked off at Weldon Springs. Ron had found them there a few days earlier along with a Solitary Sandpiper. Lucked out and was able to photograph the Purple Martins, but the Sandpiper was nowhere to be found. He went one up on me, but at least the Purples were still there.

Update 04/16/2022: Was staying at Weldon Springs to be closer to Mom. Decided to take the opportunity to see if I could get any birds checked off and let Ron know if there was anything hanging out there that he needed as well. Birded a short part of the trail that wraps around the northern part of the lake there (just off the campground area). Highlight was getting the Northern Rough-Winged Swallow checked off. Ron met me later that day and we headed back out to get him some of the checks he needed – turned out beneficial for both of us. Ron found us a couple of Brown Creepers and although I already had it, ended up being the first recorded sighting of a Spotted Sandpiper there. Following the lake path I also added a Northern Parula, Field Sparrow (in meadow by cemetery) and a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker – +5 for me. Ron went +6 thanks to the addition of the Yellow-Throated Warbler I already had. A bit bummed there were no Purple Martins in their houses.

Update 03/08/2022: Noticed a local birding organization was having an American Woodcock outing at the Tawny Oaks Field Station. Had a lot of fun doing this last year, so headed over there to see if I could get the Timberdoodle checked off for this year. Sure enough, as the sun was going down we started hearing the “peents” of the males trying to impress their prospective mates. Managed to get a couple of silhouette shots in the near darkness – good enough for the check as it showed the identifying profile and had the confirmations of the rest of the group there that night. Realized how similar the setting was to the big meadow at Jubilee State Park. Decided to check that out on the 16th and sure enough heard them calling and got some really awful shots. Linda came out with me the second night and helped me spot a couple more that allowed me to get a few shots with the help of a flash. Think this is first time I’ve actually ever seen what these Doodles really look like.

Update 02/28/22: Headed down to Springfield to see Mom and thought it would be worth a shot to get the Wood Duck at Washington Park. Failed the last time we dropped by there, but I have seen them there before and one was reported several weeks back. Linda parked in the lot next to the ponds and I jumped out in search of the brightly colored duck. Tons of Mallards, an American Widgeon pair that didn’t mind me getting close to them and the expected invasion of Canada Geese – no Woods to be found. Frustrated, headed back to the SUV to share the disappointment. A quick discussion on where else we could try was quickly cut short when I made a final glance at the pond as we came up to the parking lot entrance – THERE IT WAS! more technically there they were as a drake and its mate were cruising by right where I had been standing not 10 minutes ago. Leaped out and got plenty of shots for the days target – sometimes life gives you a wonderful surprise.

Update 02/2/822: Headed down to Springfield to see Mom and thought it would be worth a shot to get the Wood Duck at Washington Park. Failed the last time we dropped by there, but I have seen them there before and one was reported several weeks back. Linda parked in the lot next to the ponds and I jumped out in search of the brightly colored duck. Tons of Mallards, an American Widgeon pair that didn’t mind me getting close to them and the expected invasion of Canada Geese – no Woods to be found. Frustrated, headed back to the SUV to share the disappointment. A quick discussion on where else we could try was quickly cut short when I made a final glance at the pond as we came up to the parking lot entrance – THERE IT WAS! more technically there they were as a drake and its mate were cruising by right where I had been standing not 10 minutes ago. Leaped out and got plenty of shots for the days target – sometimes life gives you a wonderful surprise.

Update 02/25/22: While getting ready to take a quick trip up to the Quad Cities (time to play a belated Santa), I looked out the kitchen window and spotted a Northern Flicker on the side of nearby tree. Took me a couple of blinks to convince myself it was not a Red-Bellied Woodpecker and then immediately grabbed my camera – nothing like starting the day off with an easy +1. Not one to waste an opportunity, grabbed the camera as we headed out – never know what you are going to find along the Mighty Mississippi. Headed down to our standard eagle hunting grounds on Concord St to see what the Eagle population looked like. Last year was relatively light, however, there was a definitely a rebound with a rough guess around 30 specimens. Put a significant drain on a digital card watching an Eagle devour a fresh catch. Note 4 White Pelicans, an surprising number of Hooded Mergansers and the usual fair of Goldeneyes, Gulls and Canada Geese. From there we headed over to Credit Island. Was not as many Eagles over there. Spotted around 10 Tundra Swans in the waters to the east of the entrance road and then moved to the back part where the feeders are (and the very nice foot bridge). Scored a Brown-Headed Cowbird there – surprised it had taken me that long to find one of those. Spotted a few Common Mergansers pretty far into the water on our way out. Very happy with the +3 for the day!

Update 02/10/22: There has been some random adds and removals as Ron and I begin to process the pictures from our birding adventures in January. We had some IDs off causing us to remove some previous field IDs that were incorrect when we took a deeper look into them at home. Had some surprises as well when we determined we had tinned something we mistakenly took for a bird we already had – love it when that happens! This week a sighting showed up on e-Bird that caught my attention. Linda and I had a number of appointments in Peoria/East Peoria so took the camera in hopes of finding a White-Winged Scoter that was hanging out on the Illinois River near the Bob Michel Bridge. Found a bunch of Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and even Hooded Mergansers, but no Scoter. Others continued seeing it at different places along the river. Went down there for the 5th time this morning and I am glad to report SUCCESS. A new lifer for me! It was an immature or possibly adult female, but I’ll take it.

Update 02/05/22: Definitely seeing the expected slowdown of overall combined progress as we are both back at our homes in the tundra so pickens are definitely slimmer. I’ve been able to tin some of the easy winter fare around our house including the Dark-Eyed Junco which finally decided to show up a few days after we arrived. Was surprised they were not around when I first went out to look after returning home as they are always hanging out in our woods and under the feeders during the cold months, especially when there is snow on the ground. The White-Breasted Nuthatch and House Finch just required me to hop out on the porch for a quick snap before the fingers got cold. We will be gearing up to hunt down the Snowy Owl soon, Linda is already reviewing the nearby sightings. Ron managed to get some really nice adds as of late. The Common Redpoll he found at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL. He also ticked off both the Tundra and the Trumpeter Swans – usually I only come upon the Trumpeters, so will have to work a bit to catch up on that.

Update 01/28/22: Decided to start the day with better shots of the Bonaparte’s Gull. I took a look at the ones from the day before and many of them were blown out thanks to the constant changing lighting conditions. Since this was a +`1 it was worth investing a small amount of time to improve if I could. Once done with that, snapped a few Double-Crested Cormorants just to get that checked off the list for the year. A refreshing change from the Neotropic variety that dominated the Texas coast. From there we headed up to Marion, AR as the last stop before making the push for home. Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge sits just beyond the KOA there giving us a quick chance to catch some additional checks for the month. I have threatened numerous times to remove this site from my birding list. Prior to this stop it had rained every single time and their roads become a mucky mess when that happens. It is also a bit eerie as we are usually the only visitors there when we stop by. Good news, no rain, but they are also in a cold streak causing a lot of the shallow swamp water to freeze – translated no ducks or waders in any of the roadside waterways. In one last ditch effort Linda drove out to their levee area. More wildlife there including the largest flock of Mallards I’ve ever witnesses. No Wood Ducks which was a disappointment. Linda spotted a Pileated Woodpecker hanging out in trees which was a nice add. Snagged a Downy and then noticed a large number of Crows passing overhead. Took a bunch of shots and on a hunch, pulled out the Bird Net app and recorded their vocals as they passed. Surprise, Surprise, it identified it as a Fish Crow – score. Not much else there and called it a day. Time to go winterize the RV for the cold trip back home.

Update 01/27/22: As we head home, decided to stop back at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson, MS. I found several Hooded Mergansers there on our first visit, but that was technically December and didn’t count towards our Average Year. They have been there every time we’ve come and sure enough, they were enjoying the ponds/lakes in the park once again. Managed to get a new lifer with a Bonapart’s Gull that was hanging out with a small flock of the Hoods. Linda wasn’t feeling the greatest, so we opted to stay overnight giving me a chance to walk their very nice nature trail. Racked up several birds (over 20) along with a confirmed 9 for the Average Year list. May be able to add a couple of more once the Wren pictures are checked against the reference (Winter, House or both!). They have a ton of Red-Headed Woodpeckers here and a surprising number of Palm Warblers. White-Throated Sparrows were a nice add along with a brief visit from a Hermit Thrush. A small group of Cedar Waxwings decided to show themselves as well. Highly recommend this place to any birders. Nice campground and the trails are nicely cut and rocked with several boardwalks.

Update 01/25/22: Did some birding around Galveston Island. First stop was Galveston Island State Park. The rain had subsided finally. A lot of the park is shut down as they rebuild the camp grounds. Once again found a Clapper Rail on the Clapper Rail Trail at the first boardwalk. Little Blue Heron was hanging out at the end of that road. Managed to get two White Tailed Kites in a tree as we were exiting the park. So far, been able to get that species on every visit there. From there went down 8 Mile Road. Nice area to bird from the car with multiple ponds and the bay to hunt. Linda spotted a Falcon perched on a field across a field. Had to put the tele on to even have a chance of figuring it out. From the looks of it and some flight shots, guessing it was a Peregrine. Further down that road spotted a Merlin in a nearby tree. That was a lifer for me. That road provides a good chance of getting Sandhills if you need them.

From there went on to the Texas City Dike. Large amount of Gulls and Terns there. Will need to get the reference books out to figure out what they are. Saw three Loons while we were driving the dike, but the real find was the flock of Eared Grebes. Also found Turnstones, Willets and a Sparrow that still needs to be identified.

Busy day as we then headed to Anahuac NWR in hopes of getting better pictures of the Short-Eared Owl. Road to back part of refuge where we fond the Owls hunting previously was too mushy to take the RV and turned back for a quick run through the auto-tour. The usuals were there along with loads of Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks. While shooting a small flock by the boardwalk, noticed two of them were slightly different than the others. Remembered they had seen Fulvous Whistlers there – sure enough I was staring right at them which added another +1 to my lifer giving me 2 for the day! Shot a few Raptors, Hawks or Harriers as we made our way down the last loop of the tour. A busy day, but worth it for sure

Update 01/19/22: Today I managed to tin a new lifer thanks to a new State Park we visited called Guadalupe River State Park – considered the second prettiest river in Texas! Can’t wait to get back and start posting on all the new finds … wait.. scratch that.. I can wait a bit longer to go back into the Illinois ice box ha!