Big Year in Review: Waukegan Beach 2013

As I’m sitting writing, cardinals, chickadees, and House Sparrows are trying their best to survive in what will be one of the coldest days in Chicago’s history.  Bring back the clock to this time last year, and I was marching through snow drifts and ticking off birds for what was my first attempt of any kind at a Big Year.  Now, as I’m checking off year birds from my yard (an American Crow just flew over),  I’m taking the time to remember what this year has taught me about birding, listing, and myself.

I won’t leave you in suspense.  I did a local patch Big Year at Waukegan Beach, a migrant trap in the North suburbs of Chicago.  With a beach, open dune habitat and some good stands of trees, I knew I had the opportunity to bust the record open.  In 2009, Eric Walters recorded 164 birds at Waukegan Beach.  This year, I had 190.  I broke the record on June 1st, and my last year bird was found on November 14th.  I had plenty of unexpected species and some misses that make me want to hang up the binoculars in shame.  Most of all, I had a lot of fun!  That’s what it’s about, folks.

Tackling a local patch big year has an advantage that keeps most Big Year birder’s up at night.  While the Hayward’s and Komito’s wonder what bird to chase, and where to be during a particular season, I always knew where I was headed when I rolled out of bed before dawn.  I was going to Waukegan Beach.  A warm front in May?  Waukegan Beach.  Ninety degrees in August? Waukegan Beach.  Northeast winds in November?  Waukegan Beach.  Pacific Loon at Illinois Beach State Park?  I hope it shows up at Waukegan Beach.  In January,  I wondered if I would get tired of the monotony.  Turns out, my disposition is about 80 years old.  I loved it!  The routine was calming to me, and I felt discovery within the familiar to be exhilarating.  Every new bird, especially the uncommon ones, had me glowing with pride like a birder with a rarity showing at their feeder.

Up until I broke the record in June, I felt like an unstoppable force.  Every weekend and spare minute during the week, I tried to spend at Waukegan Beach.  Considering I was going through the early parts of the year and the first migration, I was racking ‘em up.  January and February gave me most of the local diving ducks and a lot of White-winged Scoters.  It was a good year for White-winged Scoter, and reports were pouring in from all over the lakeshore!

Besides the ducks, and the ubiquitous American Tree Sparrows, I was after some elusive larus species. I ended up with 9 species of gull on the year, which I think is quite good.  Highlights include a Great Black-backed Gull in early March, and a surprise gull that broke the record for me on June 1st.  More on that to come…

March and April were extremely exciting for me.  Each FOY bird seemed to mean all the more to me.  I felt more in tune to the change of the seasons, as well.  Seeing the same tree change from dead, to budding over the span of weeks kept me closer to the earth.  In early March and April, I tried focusing on seeing raptors moving.  It was cold, but on days I hoped for raptors, it was always warmer, with SE winds being the best in spring.  I never did see much in spring, save a few migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks.  No sign of Red-shouldered Hawks in March, or ever during the year for that matter.  However, this early season was a fine time to enjoy the more common raptors.  I enjoyed watching a pair of American Kestrel’s through the course of the year.

This pair was a thrill to watch.  They terrorized the abandoned plots to the east of the southern harbor.  I take pity on any small mammals in my patch.  It must have been hell in 2013.

Mrs. Kestrel

Closer to the harbor, I had a resident Cooper’s Hawk, that kept the House Sparrows and Mourning Dove’s in check.  The biggest surprise of the early months was finding a Great-Horned Owl.  This was one of my first birds that was both a good year bird and a lifer for Waukegan Beach.  Unfortunately, I have no photos of this bubo.  He was extremely skittish and I was lucky to get within 30 yards of the bird.  Most of the time, he scared the crap out of me by bursting out of the pines when I was unaware of his presence.  Though I never got a good photo of him, I got plenty of looks at what he was eating. It looked a Herring Gull serial killer was on the loose.   Closer to the beach, the only resident raptor I saw regularly was the Gray Ghost dipping in and out of view in the dune swales.

As March continued, a slow shift to passerines began.  April 7th was my first day that felt like spring.  Fox Sparrows were singing, and I got numerous first of year birds.  The stand outs were 2 Short-eared Owls, my first swallows (Tree and Barn), 55 Green-winged Teal, an Osprey hunting over the lake and my first Eastern Phoebe of the year.  There’s something about here that phoebe singing that gives me a jolt of energy.  They are the harbingers of Spring, and they seem to sing defiantly at a winter that’s losing grip.  The phoebe was #82 for the year.

The next two weeks continued to produce FOY birds.  Each outing seemed to yield at least 5.  White-throated Sparrows began to flush from the bushes, a walk in the reeds would scare up a snipe, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets began to scold from newly budding maples.  On April 15th, I got to listen to a Brown Thrasher break the dawn and on April 23th, I got my first bird that really took me by surprise.  I was getting ready to go to work, when my phone began to ring.  It was Lake County workhorse Beau Schaefer.  A call from Beau on a weekday?  Shouldn’t he be teaching, too?

“I’ve got an Eared Grebe hanging out just off the pier, Adam.”

Breakfast was cut short.  I got to the beach by 5:45, and began “running” down to the beach as best you can in professional dress.  The bird was farther out when I got there, but the crest and steep sloping head profile down to the bill was obvious.  My colleagues were confused how a drive to work could lead to sand in my shoes.  Needless to say, they began following my Big Year that day.

April continued it’s torrent of year birds, including an unexpected Northern Mockingbird getting escorted out by my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Kestrel.  Other good birds in the first busy month included Vesper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow and  #100: a leg-bobbing Winter Wren.

May, of course, was May.  Waukegan was loaded down with passerines in the trees and shorebirds on the beach.  I picked up most of the regular warblers, but for the first time I began to feel the pressure to pick up some birds that slipped by.  I was missing Blackburnian Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo.  At the time, I wasn’t worried.  I hadn’t missed them in the fall at Waukegan in previous years.  The same went for Bay-breasted Warbler and Cape May Warbler.  Certainly they’d be gimmies!  Though I was loving the warblers passing through my small migrant trap attempting to imitate Montrose’s Magic Hedge, the highlight was the beach.  Shorebirds have a special place in my heart, and I picked up some good ones for the Midwest.  Highlights were both Piping Plover and White-rumped Sandpiper.

White-rumped Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper

The East coast would’ve rolled their eyes at my excitement with this White-rumped.  It’s only the second time I’ve seen one in the county.

May also produced some oddities on the lakefront.  My favorite involved a trip to with my dad.  As the man who introduced me to birds and birding, I’m forever in debt to my dad for my passion and I treasure every trip I get to go birding with him.  It was May 5th and the warblers were slim.  In fact, it was a rather slow day over all.  We started at 6:00, and by 7:00 it was clear that there wasn’t much on the lakefront.  We scanned the beach and lake, and the best warbler we had was a lone Orange-crowned Warbler.  Paltry, to say the least.  The most disappointing aspect was I hoped to show him how great Waukegan was for picking up rarities.  We decided to leave, and I planned to salvage the day by hitting up some other spots in hopes of improving on the day.

“Hey, what’s that yellow bird in that shrub.”

I was focused.  No time to look at a yellow warbler, goldfinch, blah blah.  I quickly glanced up.

“I don’t see anything, Dad.  Let’s go, there a spot I want to…”

“No, Adam, the big one above where you’re looking!”

That sounds intriguing…

Well, that’s the last time I try to hurry out of Waukegan Beach.  My dad was satisfied with the morning having added this Yellow-headed Blackbird to my total for the year.  As migration began to wane, I left May with 163 birds.  One more to go…

June 1st came and, as on every Saturday morning I could, I made my way to Waukegan.  I woke up a little late that day, as I hadn’t really given myself much of a break on Saturday mornings during spring.  Pulling into the parking lot, my mind was on the fact that I was one away from evening it up.  I knew the record was mine, as I had plenty of birds I could still see, but I was already thinking towards August and the return of shorebirds.  A Baird’s was still at large.  Lost in my thoughts, I started towards the pier.  It barely registered that Al Stokie, a veteran Northern Illinois birder and companion on many beach walks, was waving excitedly at me as I casually walked down the pier.  He gave me some great news.  His constant birding companion Bob Erickson had just found a Laughing Gull at the end of the swimming beach pier.  I almost ran over Al as I made my way down to Bob who was  still in his scope.

A quick look in the scope and the record is tied.  Sweet.

As I was walking up the pier, I was just hoping to soak in a good day at my patch.  Bob and Al reminded me that not a day should go by that I’m not on high alert.  With the record tied, I enjoyed a walk down the beach with Al and Bob, while we discussed what bird would break the record.  We decided to head to a small patch of reeds halfway down the beach to check for Least Bittern.  I’d tried for them numerous times with no luck, but why not.  We weren’t even to reed bed yet, and I was paying attention to the water, looking for any shorebirds that might fly in.

“LEAST BITTERN!” Bob screamed.

“Where?!”

“Look up!”

I couldn’t believe it.  I’ve seen Least Bitterns before, but always on the edge of reed beds moving an inch every 5 minutes.  Once in the Rio Grande Valley I saw one fly a solid 30 ft just above the water.  Yet, here was my reed skulker flying overhead!  165!  The record breaker continued his flight until he dropped out of the sky like rock into the reeds.  The rest of the walk was a conversation on what to do now.  The record was broken, but could it be smashed?  What birds are left?  I knew I had plenty to see, and fall migration was just around the corner.

Another new bird didn’t make an appearance until July when a Least Sandpiper landed on the fishing pier.  Soon to follow in August were single checks of Pectoral Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Black-bellied Plover.  August came to an end, and my work got busy again, but fall migration kept me out.  This was make or break for the passerines.  Spring was easy, as I had September as a fall back for what I missed.  Now I was running around like a madman.  Early September gave up much needed Cape May, Bay-breasted and Tennessee Warblers.  Blackburnian was still a no show, and my hands were starting to get clammy.  No time to fret Adam, and take heart, October is nigh!  With that in mind, I continued to bird with a certain calm in late September.  Walking along the dune grass on the 22nd, I scared up a small, spike-tailed sparrow.  My initial thought was it had to be my long lost Henslow’s Sparrow.  A couple of pishes later and my sparrow came up for a quick investigation.  I got the genus right, but this ammodramus was a Le Conte’s!  I envisioned this in October as a pipe dream.  This was a lifer for me at Waukegan Beach!

October came and found me walking the whole length of the beach in the early morning hours hoping to get a Whimbrel.   I was often joined in commiseration by Al and Bob.  A Whimbrel never did come.  However, I treasured those crisp fall morning with the sun rising over the lake.  One morning while hiking, I picked up 4 Sharp-shinned Hawks migrating along the beach dunes.  With the Illinois Beach Hawk Watch only 9 miles up the road, I wondered if I could pick up some good hawks.  I chose a slightly higher spot at the northern end of beach to conduct my watches.

Hawk watching is my all time favorite kind of birding.  I’ll make no excuses for it.  I love the thrill of discovery and waiting to see what might pass by.  Some people have a hard time sitting for that long, and feel the need to move on.  I guess I’m one of those who likes to see what will come to pass.  I caught the bug in 2010 and have been counting ever since.  Not only do I get to watch the spectacle of hawk migration, but who knows what might else might pass on through.

My first attempt at a hawk watch came on October 7th after work.  I settled in with a light NW wind and picked up 11 Merlin, 3 Peregrine Falcon, a handful of accips and 21 Red-tailed Hawk.  It wasn’t bad, but I new I needed to put in more time.  My schedule was making it hard to get out*, but I made a quick hour long run on 10/19.  It pained me to leave, as I had an amazing hour!  From 10:00-11:00, I picked up 91 raptors, including 36 sharpies and 79 red-tails.  The sharpies were moving low along the beach and if I squinted, I could pretend I was at Cape May.  Illinois Beach ended with 461 raptors on the day, so it was certainly a good push hawks.

*I asked my wonderfully supportive fiancée to marry me that day!  She knew what she was getting into and still said yes!

I was still missing a Red-shouldered Hawk, Northern Goshawk and Golden Eagle, so my hawk watching days weren’t over.  October 21st had a strong NW winds following a cold front.  At work I pined, watching the trees bend with arctic air.  I finished my work quick, and was at my spot by 3:00.  When I looked up, a kettle of 7 Red-tailed Hawk told me I was in for a show.  Raptors were streaming by and I wished I had clicker.  It was later and in the day, so buteos were the stars.  Near the end of the count, I found a raptor straight out from me streaming in.  Getting it in the binoculars, I noticed it’s long wings and slim profile as it came head on.  My first thought was harrier, but something wasn’t right.  These are the birds you stay on.  It kept on course, staying on it’s trajectory.

“Do something, hawk!  Just bank!”

I guess it heard me.  The raptor caught an updraft and began to soar to get some height.  My mind was racing.  Black flight feathers, white underwing coverts, pointed wings, white belly, brown head…..holy $#@!, it’s a Swainson’s Hawk!  I had never found my own in Illinois.  They are regular at Illinois Beach, with one or two coming by every year.  However, they put in 234 hours in October.  Me?  I had only 5 hours hawk watching.  What luck!  The bird came in quite close and I was able to get enough detail to determine it was an adult light morph.  The Swainson’s Hawk was #181.  Other birds picked up at the Waukegan Beach Hawk Watch include two Rough-legged Hawks and a Northern Shrike found by my dad when I was distracted.  I never did get that Northern Goshawk or Golden Eagle.  Such is birding!

November rolled in and I saw my chances for numerous species slipping away.  I never did see that Blackburnian Warbler or Blue-headed Vireo.  A lake watch did give me an elusive (for Lake Michigan), Black Scoter and a much overdue Common Loon.  I picked up Red-throated Loon in February and was beginning to laugh at the prospect of only having the rarer loon.  Other good pick ups include Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs.  One day near the end of the week, I got a message from Lake County expert Jim Solum.  Looks like there was a Harlequin Duck hanging out off the pier!  I picked up this irregular visitor to Waukegan.  Later in December, I would find that our lone Harlequin had a friend.

Late November also began what would be the now widely known Snowy Owl invasion.  Having seen numerous Snowy Owls at Waukegan in the past and looking at what was going to be a banner year, I wasn’t concerned about picking one up.  Early December rolled in and I got a call from Beau that he had one at the end of the pier.  However, I was busy and not dressed properly to drop what I was doing to get the bird.  I decided that I would head out the next morning for the owl.  Well, I went out looking ad never found the owl.  In fact, I never found a Snowy Owl at Waukegan!  I trudged along on the beach, combed the dunes and looked at the end of every pier for weeks, while suffering the reports of up to 8 individuals showing up on a single beach in Chicago!  It was maddening, and all I could think of was that moment when I decided not get on the one that Beau found.  I learned my most important lesson at the end of my Big Year: Always chase the bird when the chasing’s good.  There is no such thing as a guarantee the next day.  Statistics told me an owl would be at Waukegan.  Now experience tells me that no invasion promises a bird at your local patch.

December continued and I picked up stragglers, like an American Black Duck Jim picked out from a raft of mallards off the south harbor.  Save my frantic Snowy Owl search, the Big Year ended quietly.  I spent the majority of it soaking in the last days.  The Big Year was almost over and my mind often wandered to the experiences I had and the lessons I learned.  I never broke 200, but ended the Big Year with 190.  It was a wild ride and I feel blessed to have such a location 10 minutes from my house.  My last day out for the year was December 29th.  It was freezing, but I picked up a first cycle Great Black-backed Gull and late Field Sparrow hanging out with the tree sparrows.  Driving out of the beach, I looked back and watched a kestrel hovering over an abandoned lot.  For me, a year was ending, but for the birds it was another day to stay alive.

The Numbers:

Biggest Misses:

  1. Canvasback
  2. Surf Scoter
  3. American Bittern
  4. Red-shouldered Hawk
  5. Whimbrel
  6. Purple Sandpiper – uncommon visitor to Waukegan Beach
  7. Franklin’s Gull
  8. Hairy Woodpecker – difficult on lakefront
  9. White-breasted Nuthatch – also difficult on lakefront…but I DON’T want to talk about it.
  10. Philadelphia & Blue-headed Vireos
  11. Veery
  12. Scarlet Tanager
  13. Blackburnian Warbler

Before I forget, I have some people to thank.  I couldn’t have gotten this far without the help of Beau Schaefer and Jim Solum.  These two always kept me in the loop when I couldn’t make it to the beach.  I have to thank Al Stokie and Bob Erickson for joining me on many walks down the beach and helping break the record.  Lastly, I have to thank the everyone who did a big year in 2012.  Watching your progress, whether through the ABA blog or via Facebook, motivated me to do a patch big year.   If you’re still reading, here’s the full list.

THE LIST:

  1. Cackling Goose
  2. Canada Goose
  3. Mute Swan
  4. Wood Duck
  5. Gadwall
  6. American Wigeon
  7. American Black Duck
  8. Mallard
  9. Blue-winged teal
  10. Northern Shoveler
  11. Northern Pintail
  12. Green-winged Teal
  13. Redhead
  14. Ring-necked Duck
  15. Greater Scaup
  16. Lesser Scaup
  17. Harlequin Duck
  18. White-winged Scoter
  19. Black Scoter
  20. Long-tailed Duck
  21. Bufflehead
  22. Common Goldeneye
  23. Hooded Merganser
  24. Common Merganser
  25. Red-breasted Merganser
  26. Ruddy Duck
  27. Red-throated Loon
  28. Common Loon
  29. Pied-billed Grebe
  30. Horned Grebe
  31. Eared Grebe
  32. Aechmophoros sp. – originally thought to be a Western, but photos revealed it is likely a Clark’s.  Waiting on the records committee for this one
  33. Double-crested Cormorant
  34. Least Bittern
  35. Great Blue Heron
  36. Great Egret
  37. Green Heron
  38. Turkey Vulture
  39. Osprey
  40. Bald Eagle
  41. Northern Harrier
  42. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  43. Cooper’s Hawk
  44. Swainson’s Hawk
  45. Red-tailed Hawk
  46. Rough-legged Hawk
  47. American Kestrel
  48. Merlin
  49. Peregrine Falcon
  50. Virginia Rail
  51. American Coot
  52. Sandhill Crane
  53. Black-bellied Plover
  54. Semipalmated Plover
  55. Piping Plover
  56. Killdeer
  57. Greater Yellowlegs
  58. Willet
  59. Spotted Sandpiper
  60. Ruddy Turnstone
  61. Sanderling
  62. Semipalmated Sandpiper
  63. Least Sandpiper
  64. White-rumped Sandpiper
  65. Baird’s Sandpiper
  66. Pectoral Sandpiper
  67. Dunlin
  68. Wilson’s Snipe
  69. American Woodcock
  70. Laughing Gull
  71. Bonaparte’s Gull
  72. Ring-billed Gull
  73. Herring Gull
  74. Thayer’s Gull
  75. Iceland Gull
  76. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  77. Glaucous Gull
  78. Great Black-backed Gull
  79. Caspian Tern
  80. Common Tern
  81. Forster’s Tern
  82. Rock Pigeon
  83. Mourning Dove
  84. Great Horned Owl
  85. Short-eared Owl
  86. Chimney Swift
  87. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  88. Belted Kingfisher
  89. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  90. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  91. Downy Woodpecker
  92. Northern Flicker
  93. Eastern Wood-Pewee
  94. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
  95. Alder Flycatcher
  96. Willow Flycatcher
  97. Least Flycatcher
  98. Eastern Phoebe
  99. Eastern Kingbird
  100. Northern Shrike
  101. Warbling Vireo
  102. Red-eyed Vireo
  103. Blue Jay
  104. American Crow
  105. Horned Lark
  106. Purple Martin
  107. Tree Swallow
  108. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  109. Bank Swallow
  110. Cliff Swallow
  111. Barn Swallow
  112. Black-capped Chickadee
  113. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  114. Brown Creeper
  115. Carolina Wren
  116. House Wren
  117. Winter Wren
  118. Marsh Wren
  119. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  120. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  121. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  122. Eastern Bluebird
  123. Swainson’s Thrush
  124. Hermit Thrush
  125. American Robin
  126. Gray Catbird
  127. Northern Mockingbird
  128. Brown Thrasher
  129. European Starling
  130. American Pipit
  131. Cedar Waxwing
  132. Tennessee Warbler
  133. Orange-crowned Warbler
  134. Nashville Warbler
  135. Yellow Warbler
  136. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  137. Magnolia Warbler
  138. Cape May Warbler
  139. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  140. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  141. Black-throated Green Warbler
  142. Pine Warbler
  143. Palm Warbler
  144. Bay-breasted Warbler
  145. Blackpoll Warbler
  146. Black-and-White Warbler
  147. American Redstart
  148. Northern Waterthrush
  149. Mourning Warbler
  150. Common Yellowthroat
  151. Wilson’s Warbler
  152. Canada Warbler
  153. Eastern Towhee
  154. American Tree Sparrow
  155. Chipping Sparrow
  156. Clay-colored Sparrow
  157. Field Sparrow
  158. Vesper Sparrow
  159. Lark Sparrow
  160. Savannah Sparrow
  161. Le Conte’s Sparrow
  162. Nelson’s Sparrow
  163. Fox Sparrow
  164. Song Sparrow
  165. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  166. Swamp Sparrow
  167. White-throated Sparrow
  168. White-crowned Sparrow
  169. Dark-eyed Junco
  170. Lapland Longspur
  171. Snow Bunting
  172. Northern Cardinal
  173. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  174. Indigo Bunting
  175. Dickcissel
  176. Bobolink
  177. Red-winged Blackbird
  178. Eastern Meadowlark
  179. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  180. Rusty Blackbird
  181. Brewer’s Blackbird
  182. Common Grackle
  183. Brown-headed Cowbird
  184. Orchard Oriole
  185. Baltimore Oriole
  186. Purple Finch
  187. House Finch
  188. Pine Siskin
  189. American Goldfinch
  190. House Sparrow
Good Birding in 2014!!
Adam

 

 

  • http://www.nemesisbird.com/ Alex Lamoreaux

    Awesome story, Adam…thanks!

  • Amar Ayyash

    Good stuff, Adam. Waukegan is yours!
    I hope “Bob” Erickson got a soda or something, for the tie-bird and tie-breaker!

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