Big Day (Bird Race)
30 July 1998
by Jeff Sundberg
Big Day Statistics:
I received my 1997 Big Day Report in late July and noticed that there is no ABA record for July in Illinois. I had a total of three days in which to do a Big Day. Unfortunately, I had child care commitments from 730 to 1000 each of those three days. I wanted to do a Big Day anyway, and since the loss of time in the mornings meant I had virtually no chance of getting a respectable total for a traditional Day, I decided to do a Big Day using my home as a base and traveling only by foot or by bicycle. I spent the previous day scouting my route. Using a bicycle gave me some interesting issues to consider. I had to stay on roads that were appropriate for biking (the interstate seemed out of the question), and the area covered had to stay fairly compact. Fortunately, I live near an 11-mile bike path that follows the Des Plaines River, and there are a couple of lakes and wetlands located just a few miles on either side of the path. That made the route fairly straightforward; only the direction of travel and the amount of backtracking necessary remained in question.
A more interesting question involved the scope. I have a nice scope backpack, but it is not a particularly wonderful way to bike, especially for long distances in hot weather. There is one nearby wetlands where a scope can be useful; however, it is a mitigation area and the day before my Big Day there were several workers out in the marsh and most of the species had vanished (including Black-crowned Night Heron, Stilt Sandpiper, and Pectoral Sandpiper, all birds that were there before the work but absent after). That led me to go for maneuverability and endurance, leaving the scope at home.
The day begin at 0430 when I left my house on foot to do a loop through the nearby forest preserve before I had to return home. I tried for owls and Sora with no success; none were expected, but at that time of the morning on foot my options were few. I had a very successful trip, though, and got virtually all of my target species from that preserve by the time I returned at 0730. An Eastern Towhee was singing right where I had seen one two months previously, and I was happy to see at least a half dozen Indigo Buntings. I was walking home thinking that I had seen virtually everything I expected except a Cooper's Hawk, and just then a Cooper's came crashing through the foliage chasing something, with an immature following it along squawking.
I was able to begin birding again at 1000, and rode north along the river trail. I picked up a couple of species that I had been concerned about, Solitary Sandpiper and Green Heron, fairly early on. I spent quite a bit of time at a highway bridge checking the swallow flocks, but only Barn Swallows were in evidence. Tree and Rough-winged Swallows had already been reported migrating, but I still expected to pick up some late ones. I lucked into some Wood Ducks when I peeked over an embankment and found a pond I didn't know existed, but other than that the first leg of the bike trip was uneventful.
I biked through town toward a lake where I had seen Pied-billed Grebe, Mute Swan, and Rough-winged Swallow the day before. The grebe and swan were there, but no swallow. I did manage to pick up a Purple Martin near the martin houses, the only one I saw all day. I heard some Crows in a cemetery across the parking lot, so I went over to check it out. They had vanished by the time I got there, but I stayed around to look for activity. I had never birded the cemetery before, but it looked pretty good, and then I heard a commotion. I found a cherry tree of some type that had a House Wren, a Downy Woodpecker, a Hairy Woodpecker and a Barn Swallow in it. Wait a minute, what's a swallow doing sitting in the top of a cherry tree? A longer look showed that this was in a fact a very early Bay-breasted Warbler in slightly worn breeding plumage, certainly not a bird I had expected to see. While soaking up this find, the same tree hosted catbirds, robins, and a White-breasted Nuthatch. A Baltimore Oriole came by as well, but didn't actually land in the Magic Tree.
After this I biked out toward the wetland, stopping to rest near a trumpet vine just in case any hummingbirds were in the vicinity (no luck). The wetland had a few species, including Caspian Terns, but very few shorebirds. Without the scope, they were doomed to remain peeps. I probably only lost one or at most two species by not having the scope, and I'm confident I was able to bike farther and faster without it, so it was a good decision in retrospect.
After a quick stop at the house to rehydrate and work the kinks out of my legs, I continued south along the bike path. I took a quick look at a birding magazine that came in the mail that day and read that cherry trees can be good for birds. I fully concur. I took a brief respite after colliding with another biker coming around a blind corner. (I wasn't looking at the sky, I promise.) Neither bikers nor bikes were seriously damaged, but it definitely took a bit of the edge off my adrenalin for some time. It also gave me another reason to be glad I wasn't carrying a scope and tripod on my back. The next couple of hours were very quiet. I rode down various trails, picking up a few additional species like Tree Swallow (finally), Eastern Bluebird, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-eyed Vireo and Willow Flycatcher. Another cherry tree had robins, Blue Jays, wrens, catbirds, and a N. Flicker. If I ever do a Big Sit in late July I want to be near a cherry tree. On the way home I took a side trip to visit a children's farm exhibit for the staked-out Rock Dove, and sat on my patio waiting for and eventually seeing the final bird of the day, a Chimney Swift.
One of the most interesting themes to the day was watching young either being fed or pleading to be fed. Species in this category included Cooper's Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Green Heron, Field Sparrow, Blue Jay, Brown-headed Cowbird (from a Field Sparrow and from a Song Sparrow), White-tailed Deer, and Humans. This was a really rewarding and exhausting day. The bike aspect added some strategy as far as how far I could afford to bike and still be able to make it home. It also gave me far more birding time and let me go quite a bit more carefully through some areas than I would have done had I had more mileage to cover. I could have had a few more species, notably sparrows, with some luck, more scouting, and no disturbances in my one and only shorebird spot, but I felt like I got as many species as I had any right to expect in one short stretch of northern Illinois in late July.
Great Blue Heron