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Big Day (Bird Race)

20 May 1997

by Sheryl De Vore

Big Day Statistics:


The IOS REDS (Renee Baade, Eric Walters, Dave Johnson, and me, Sheryl De Vore) astounded themselves when they broke the Lake County, Illinois Big Day record on 17 May 1996.  Our only hope for 1997 was to tie or add one more species to the record we created last year.  Instead, the IOS REDS (minus Eric Walters who could not attend due to a leg injury) astounded themselves even more when they produced 163 species in one county within 22 hours on 20 May 1997.  Mr. "Glib" David Johnson now insists we could get 170 next year!

Here's what it took for us to break the record.  We made a plan and a schedule and vowed to stick to it (at the most we were only one hour behind).  We phoned people in advance to learn what was around.  We scouted the day before.  We skipped meal time-outs, and brought snacks and Gatorade.  We kept our thoughts to ourselves unless they were going to get us another bird.  We had a good working knowledge of the area, including the back roads.

And we prayed for good luck and good weather.

We started at 3 a.m. at Wright Woods in Lake County, where a Barred Owl had responded to a tape in mere seconds on Spring Bird Count Day about a week and a half earlier.  It was cool that morning, necessitating wearing layers, even a hat and gloves, but the wind was calm and the sun was supposed to shine.

One hour later, the Barred Owl succeeded in eluding us.  So we settled for Dave's duet with an Eastern Screech-Owl and a Great Horned Owl interjecting its hoots from afar just to let us know who was king of the forest.  As impending daybreak threatened to rain our owl parade, we left for Waukegan Beach along Lake Michigan.  Our hoped-for Franklin's Gull never showed, nor did any other rare gull species.  But we did add Willet, Black-crowned Night-Heron, a very late Common Goldeneye (with a little help from Eric who had tagged along to get the Barred Owl, which he never got),  21 gorgeous Ruddy Turnstones, and a first-year Summer Tanager (summer teenager as Dave calls it).

If you're planning a Lake County Big Day, this is the place you have to be at sunrise.  Here's where you can get all your swallow species, many shorebirds, gulls, and migrants.  It's imperative here to have one pair of eyes looking up, while others are looking forward or to the lake. I glimpsed our only Green Heron of the day, a flyby while Dave and Renee were ticking off swallows.   The most exciting find, however, was the federally endangered Piping Plover, which posed for a few moments on the sand, just as we walked north toward it, then flitted behind the swales, escaping the scope of any other birder who happened by that day.   We heard it had been there, so we were looking for it, and that helped.

Our next stop were the ravine bottoms at Bowen Park in Waukegan, where my prediction of finding our only Black-throated Blue Warbler of the day came true.  It was there just as it had been last year.  Next, we headed to Lyons Woods, a former conifer nursery owned by the forest preserve.  White firs, spruces and pines, 15 to 20 feet tall, attract some rare birds here, including a nesting Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Probably our only chance for getting these species in late May in Lake County is at Lyons Woods.  When we arrived, we witnessed an amazing sight.  Warblers, loads of them —  bay-breasteds, Nashvilles, redstarts, Magnolias — many species fed on the ground beneath the pines, firs and spruces.  We could almost kick them out of our way as we walked off the path and into the conifers, urged on by this magical forest.  It was difficult to break away — but on a Big Day, you don't relish the moments, you chalk up the birds, and get on with it.  Besides, Dave reminded me we could get warblers anywhere during migration — we were there to find the kinglet and nuthatch.  OK. OK.  So Renee and I found him the kinglet.  We heard the sibilant "see, see, see, see" sound and followed it to the  male declaring its territory just as Dave was coming around the other side.  No nuthatch, though.

Time to leave.  On to Illinois Beach State Park — where we were nearly arrested.  I will say no more about that because Dave and Renee won't let me.  But suffice it to say, that sweet-talking Renee, saved the day!  Here was the most gruelling part of our adventure.  We were there for Western Meadowlark, Upland Sandpiper, and Brewer's Blackbird, possibly Grasshopper Sparrow.  We had those species there last year, and this is the most reliable spot in Lake County  to get them this time of year.  We hiked thigh-high in marshy, wet sedges, and cattails to get to where the blackbirds were.  Had we not seen that gorgeous blackbird with a yellow eye (and had I been forced to fork over $75 to the guy who almost arrested us), I would have been utterly miserable in my wet clothes the rest of the day.  But finally after dozens of insect larvae swished in our boots (maybe even a couple of crayfish), we saw the blackbird and its mate.  Then we dashed (well, swished), back to the car to get a clothes change and more Gatorade.  We kept drinking that Gatorade through the day.  Renee insisted that's what kept our energy levels high.  I think the birds had something to do with it, too — and our pride.

Each of us had to swallow pride at least once that day.  It's a requirement for a Big Day.  For instance,  Dave and I were reminded of a lesson birders seem to forget many times: don't assume anything.   We walked by what Dave and I tossed off as just another Song Sparrow, but Renee insisted we check it out, and it turned out to be a Lincoln's, the only one we had that day.   I shouted Common Loon at a bird that turned out to be a cormorant and Dave saw some rare duck that turned out to be some other rare duck.  Not to mention the Willet he insisted was a Whimbrel (Actually, I made many more mistakes than he did, but who's writing this article anyway?)

Next it was on to the Des Plaines River Wetlands Project on Wadsworth Road and Route 141 to get our Yellow-headed Blackbird and Pied-billed Grebe.  We didn't get the Common Moorhen, though.  And we should have.  Renee next led the way to Redwing Slough and Deer Lake, where she and Joel Greenberg do Spring Bird Count Day.  What a beautiful place filled with marshes and woods.  It was quite and protected.  Here we had Forster's Terns, Black Terns, and an American Bittern responding to our tape right where Renee said it would be.  Even a Green-winged Teal.

Off to Chain O Lakes State Park.  Renee and I had staked the park out the previous day and had an Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Cerulean Warbler.  Today, we heard none of them, but I suggested we play the warbler tape and by golly, the little guy, sang right back at us.  We also enjoyed a Hairy Woodpecker feeding young.   Then it was that time of the day — my mid-afternoon slump and the Dave Johnson Shorebird Trek. Renee got behind the wheel while Dave shouted out directions, where to go, where to stop, what we would find where.   We drove.  We saw.  We counted.   Hudsonian Godwit in this little spot.  White-rumped Sandpiper over there.  Semi-palmated Plovers and Semi-palmated Sandpipers in that little spit.  Greater Yellowlegs over there.

We had to get to Ryerson Woods by 6 (the plan was 5:30 — but since it was already 5:30, we obviously weren't going to make it).  The Pileated Woodpecker would be there.  The naturalist there said  the woodpecker hung out at the preserve entrance in the flatwoods drumming on the same tree about 5 or 6 p.m. — and I had just seen it a week earlier at Big Day.  Pileated Woodpecker is a very rare bird in Lake County, and getting it on a big day is not an easy feat.  And, we got it!  Pulled right into the entrance, and it was drumming.

I reminded Dave and Renee that we hadn't had Indigo Bunting yet, so we listened for its singing, and got that one, too.  And Dave found a very strange-looking bird that turned out to be a Black-billed Cuckoo.  By this time, it was nearly sunset and we still didn't have a Field Sparrow.  "I know where we can get one," said Dave.  Renee drove through the gruelling Buffalo Grove traffic to Buffalo Grove Forest Preserve; we hopped out of the car to listen for the bouncing ping pong ball, heard it, checked it off, and sped on over to Almond Marsh where a Ring-necked Duck was supposed to be hanging out.  In the near darkness, Renee not only found the ring-neck, but a pair of Ruddy Ducks.  We were laughing like school kids as we got back into the cars.  "I can't believe it.  Ruddy Ducks," Renee kept saying.

Then we were off to our final trek (well, penultimate trek - there was the little matter we had to settle with the Barred Owl before midnight).  Nine p.m. ish, we arrived at Route 173 in Zion near Illinois Beach State Park and walked the long old concrete path toward the lake with our tapes.  This is my absolutely favourite part of Lake County Big Day.  It was calm, clear, silent.  One by one we played the tapes.  Whip-poor-will.  King Rail.  Virginia Rail.  Least Bittern.  They all responded.  Snipes winnowed.  Woodcocks peented.  Last year we missed the King Rail and Least Bittern and three of us didn't hear the Whip-poor-will.  But this time, we heard everything loudly and clearly.  The Virginia Rails, in fact, clucked across the marshes for several minutes after we had played the ape.  It was nearly too much to believe — that we had the honor of ending our day with some of the rarest Lake County birds.

But we weren't done yet.  It was a good half hour back to Wright Woods.  We had our 162 species, we broke the record from last year's 158.  But wanted that owl!  We could taste that owl!  So we went.  We played the tape.  And it called right back at us.  163 species.  11 p.m.  We might have even had time to dig up a moorhen tape and play it somewhere and get 164.  But it seemed only fitting to end the day with the Barred Owl.  We missed Belted Kingfisher and Common Moorhen, after all.  And we should have gotten at least one unusual gull.  And we missed Vesper Sparrow even though we knew they were there.

But can we produce another Piping Plover and all those shorebirds and late migrating ducks  next year? Will the Pileated Woodpecker be there waiting for us?  How far can the IOS Reds go? All I can say is this —  no way will I ever attempt to do what the Illinois Big Day birders did.  If anyone knows Illinois and birding, it's those guys!