The Nerd: Chicago is a fantastic place to experience birds. But it is not the only place: near to the city are a variety of destinations that make for good birding day trips. When The Nerd and The Bird had several opportunities to get out of town, I was happy that we could together visit a few of my favorite spots for birding within a couple hours’ drive from Chicago. No matter where we ventured, Jen always steered us to great spots along the way for a bite or a brew.
The Bird: I’m always so excited when given the opportunity to leave Cook County! If the CTA doesn’t go there, then basically neither do I – so these trips made me very happy! Yes, these “Other Birding Adventures” are ultimately out-of-step with birding Chicago neighborhoods. BUT we decided to share them as their own unique adventures! May is peak spring migration and was A-MAY-ZING everywhere we explored birds. All of the colors, patterns and landscapes of our adventures were beautiful in their own unique way. Enjoy!
Total Species Count: 122
Adventure Log: 5 May 2017
The Nerd: A workshop on shorebird identification that I was to present at the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival was a good excuse to have a birding adventure away from Chicago. I’d borrowed study skins -- what’s left of a (dead) bird once everything inside the skin is removed -- from the Field Museum for the gig, so there was a mothball odor in the car on the drive down. But this soon gave way to the scent of industrial northwest Indiana. Humans beings have used the wetlands of the area for industrial purposes because you can’t farm them and living there is not attractive because of the mosquitos. However, mixed in with all the industry are remnants of high quality, very productive ecosystems.
Since my presentation didn’t start till mid-morning, Jen and I had time to explore a couple of birding sites. We first visited the Grant Street Marsh in Gary, Indiana. The vegetation in this expansive cattail marsh was just starting to grow in for the season. The strong north wind also reminded us that spring wasn’t quite in full swing; we couldn’t stay long on the exposed dike around the marsh because both of us were rather underdressed for the morning’s cold temperatures. But before we froze we managed to spot a Bald Eagle perched in a dead tree and a half dozen Sandhill Cranes flying over the marsh. Great Blue Herons and a lot of American Coots made up the majority of the other visible birds, but also there was a Trumpeter Swan that eBird flagged as a rarity. Trumpeter Swans were nearly extinct in the early part of the 1900s. Since then, conservation and introduction efforts have brought populations back to sustainable levels, and just in the last couple of decades they’ve gone from non-existent in the Midwest to being a regular part of the region’s bird life.
A second stop at the woods along a branch of the Little Calumet River in the Heron Rookery unit of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore let us sample a prime example of the area’s quality habitat. The Heron Rookery is spectacular for wildflowers, and it supports a nice assortment of nesting warblers. Here we watched a Louisiana Waterthrush sing his heart out to establish a breeding territory by the river. Among the wildflowers we saw were Mayapples and both Red and White Trillium. The Red Trillium is a favorite of mine, and I’m always excited to see it in bloom.
The Bird: Going to Indiana ended up being an unexpected surprise and opportunity. Geoffrey Williamson was telling me about how he was giving the shorebird presentation at the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival and I said it sounded cool. Then he invited me and I said, “Yes, please!” I was so happy that we were able to go birding before the presentation…despite the super cold weather and crazy gale winds! I saw my first ADULT Bald Eagle at Grant Street Marsh (high-five)! I’d seen plenty of juveniles (it was becoming a joke), but never the majestic “My country ‘tis of thee” adult. Stunning!
The Heron Rookery was like visiting an enchanted forest from a fairytale (completely free of the impending insect form of hypodermic needles). “Magic Ears” was deciphering and naming the calls of birds in the canopies high above as I was trying to navigate the swampy terrain below. As we made our way to the East Arm Little Calumet River, we heard a loud birdsong. Louisiana Waterthrush! Lifer #1 of a total of 18 for the month of May! In the Nerds masterful Jedi-bird-whisperer-juju way, he got the bird to come to us - where on a tree very close to us, it began to belt its tiny little heart out! It was just the three of us next to a ledge overlooking a sleepy Little Calumet while he sang us his song! How can something so tiny, become THE song of the forest?!
I ended up helping out with the presentation, so that was good…gotta earn that lifer! The lecture was 3 hours long…because the Nerd. As I was helping him set up I had no bloody clue what a “peep” even was, other than a friend or a disgusting marshmallow candy to avoid during Easter. I sure knew what a “peep” was after this lecture…and yes there was a quiz! My favorite part was learning about long fliers like the Bairds’ and White-rumped Sandpipers – how long wings are essential for such long-distance fliers. Wow.
Adventure Pairs Well With: The Nerd had never been to this 18th Street Brewery location before. We had been to the newer and WAY larger 18th Street Brewery location in Hammond to celebrate seeing thousands Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski back in November. Both locations are a perfect way to celebrate an awesome birding day!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Grant Street Marsh - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36558384
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Heron Rookery - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36560838
Adventure Log: 7 May 2017
Pembroke Township, Momence, and nearby areas:
The Nerd: One of my favorite places to bird near Chicago is the area south and east of Momence in Kankakee County. The roads are little traveled, so that you can readily pull your car to the roadside and hop out without worrying about getting hit or being in anyone’s way. And the ambient noise is minimal making listening to the bird songs and calls easier and more pleasurable.
The majority of our day was spent in two very different but both very picturesque habitats: the black oak sandy-soiled savannas of Pembroke Township and the riparian forest of the Momence Wetlands. The savannas are a habitat formed by the melt water of retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. There hasn’t been much human development in the area since, so that it has high environmental quality. And the birding is fantastic, with lots of Red-headed Woodpeckers, calling Northern Bobwhites (which sometimes you do see, though we didn’t this day), gaudily dressed Lark Sparrows, orioles and many other species. Less showy than the Lark Sparrow but not less beautiful was an accommodating Grasshopper Sparrow that sang his heart out only 10 feet from us.
Entering the riparian forest is like going into a completely different universe. Here we walked along a road that traversed backwaters and old oxbows of the Kankakee River, with tall trees sprouting out of the water and birds singing all around. Among the warblers that live here are American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, and the golden sun drop otherwise known as the Prothonotary Warbler. The mix of birds in the river bottomlands is so different from that of the oak savannas.
Along the way we visited some other “habitats”: grain elevators along the railroad tracks in town where you find Eurasian Collared-Doves, and sod fields that attract their own mix of species. The non-native Eurasian Collared-Dove got a foothold in Florida in the early 1980s and since expanded its range across the continent, with much of that happening quite rapidly during the 21st century’s first decade. The sod fields provided the day’s biggest avian surprise: a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds! Brewer’s are arguably the hardest to find of the blackbird species that occur regularly in northeast Illinois.
The Bird: Most people don’t want to get up at 3:30 in the morning to look for things that don’t particularly want to be seen…except for “birders”. With a 4:30 a.m. pick-up time to get to Pembroke Township by 5:30 a.m. – we were about to embark on a hardcore (for me) birding adventure. This is where you have to have the bladder of a camel and the stamina of marathon runner (I aspire to).
The landscape of this area has a simple, honest beauty. I had only "seen" it once before, back in February, in the pitch black of night, when we went owling…which was also a COMPLETELY different and AMAZING experience. Pembroke Township is decidedly rural. I love its unique character. Geoffrey Williamson’s knowledge of this area is pretty unbelievable. He knew exactly where to go for whatever birds we needed or wanted to see. This goes back to his deep well of kindness as a teacher, mentor and friend. The Kankakee is such a spiritual body of water. I’ve noticed that a feeling always stays with me as we explore the banks of the river. There were so many wonderful moments. I’ll never forget finally seeing the Blue Grosbeak lifer! The Grasshopper Sparrow that kept coming back to greet us, the insane amount of Red-headed Woodpeckers we kept seeing, a very cooperative Prothonotary Warbler and Carolina Wren, and the rare Brewer’s Blackbird pair. I recognize the fragility of it all, which makes me even more grateful for these kinds of experiences.
Ultimately this trip yielded 7 LIFERS for me! Eurasian Collared-Dove, Brewer’s Blackbird, Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Carolina Wren and a Forster’s Tern (as well as uncooperative “heard only” Bobwhites and a Pileated Woodpecker that did not reveal themselves. I’ve seen both before, but because of the timing/circumstances they don’t “count” for my “life-list”…bastards!) However, a big thank you and high-five to Geoffrey Williamson!!! Birding 13 places in one day begins to feel like a birdfog/bird-trance/bird-binge due the mass “consumption” of birds…BUT ultimately it was an amazing blur. There was no “afterparty”, but it worked out. My husband and I went and celebrated my lifers along with his “Half Century”/ 50 mile bike ride. Cheers to that!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Momence Grain Elevators - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36613052
Momence sod farms near CR 11270E/1000S - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36613501
Pembroke, CR 11000E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36615274
Pembroke, CR 4000S - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36615539
Pembroke, Manor/Colonial/Hill/Cypress - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36616780
Pembroke, CR 15000E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36617629
Pembroke, CR 13750E/14000E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36618626
H&E Sod Farm, Momence - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36618941
Momence town - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36621042
Momence Wetlands, 13350E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36624358
Momence Wetlands, Stateline Road - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36625227
LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36627555
Fluddle along IL-1, Beecher - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36630113
Adventure Log: 14 May 2017
The Nerd: Another of my favorite excursions away from Chicago is a run up the Wisconsin lakefront. Lake Michigan looks so beautiful up there, there are rolling hills, and the air has a freshness to it that makes it feel so good to breathe.
We started our adventure at Wind Point Lighthouse a little bit north of Racine, where flocks and flocks of migrating Blue Jays lumbered northward. The jays repeatedly landed in trees and circled the lighthouse in a lazy way that seemingly made little progress. Split oranges put at a feeding station by the lighthouse keeper attracted orioles sporting a range of plumages. Adult males, younger males, and females were all there, no two of them sharing the same amount of black feathering about the head. A female and young male Orchard Oriole favored flowers in a tree over the oranges.
At Port Washington, we were treated to a spectacle of terns. I love to watch terns. They’re so incredibly graceful and buoyant. Many of them are also a real bitch to identify to species; to do so you have to worry about age and feather wear and molt sequences and how the light and your viewing angle affect what you see. I guess I love terns for those reasons, too, because it makes their identification a challenge (I do like ID challenges!). But this day it was enough just to watch the terns. White and gray and black with sweeping and graceful body contours, so maneuverable in the air as they wheel and twist and hover and dive. The big ones of course were Caspian Terns, the largest terns in the whole world. But the smaller Common Terns were the ones that held my gaze. They pivot in tighter circles and beat their wings faster when hovering.
A walk through the woods at Harrington Beach State Park after lunch was peaceful. Jen had been here before, but I hadn’t. It was nice to be introduced to it by her. Warblers serenaded us here and there, and one of the Black-capped Chickadees took to Jen.
For one last birding stop on the way back, we went to Virmond Park on the southern Ozaukee County lakefront. Here you are up high on a lake side bluff, with expansive views out over big Lake Michigan. In mid-winter, you will find rafts of goldeneye ducks on the lake at this location. On this late spring day, there were still hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers, and hundreds of Herring Gulls trying to steal fish from them, all in groups stretching nearly as far as you could see.
Favorite moment on this adventure: seeing Jen’s excitement at scoring her targets of proper kringles and Colectivo coffee all in one stop.
The Bird: The Lake Michigan shoreline in Wisconsin is more natural and wild than the Lake Michigan I know. Wind Point Lighthouse felt like we were in Europe. It was so lovely with its idyllic lighthouse, adjacent caretaker’s home and beautiful land, next to the water's edge. Seeing hundreds of hovering Blue Jays with their bright white bellies twinkling in the early morning sunlight gave me goosebumps. I had to remind myself to breathe because they so were mesmerizing. There were so many birds greeting the day - it was a brilliant start to our adventures.
Next, we went to Port Washington and that was all about terns diving, hunting and fighting. It was so cool to see the physical difference between Caspian Terns and Common Terns, sitting on the break wall side by side, where it’s so much easier to see the size difference compared to when they’re flying. Common Terns almost look like baby Caspian Terns when they’re sitting next to each other. Hundreds were all around us along with gulls and swallows. Also, hello Lesser Black Backed Gull Lifer! How about we celebrate?!?!?!*
Then we went to Harrington Beach where I had a moment with a Black-capped Chickadee. I saw it and thought, I’ll just put my hand out and see if it lands, even though I had no seeds. It did. Twice! Chickadee nibbles are pretty great. There was also a White-breasted Nuthatch that seemed interested, in an angry bird kind of way. I looked it up later that chickadees, nuthatches and titmice will hand feed. This was an amazing experience that I’m so glad the Nerd captured!
The bluff at Virmond Park overlooking Lake Michigan was yet another magnificent view of this Great Lake; our ever-changing muse. The only thing we had to do next was celebrate our wonderful Wisconsin adventures!
Adventure Pairs Well With: *My search for an O&H Danish Bakery of Racine Wisconsin brought us to the new mecca location that was the one that I had hoped for…plus they also had Colectivo coffee!!! One stop shop!
Brenner Brewing Co.: The location of this brewery is in the very cool Walker’s Point area. It looked like most of the buildings were from the 1880’s. We were so happy to meet the owner and Brewmaster, Mike Brenner. Mike was a super nice guy and shared some great stories. We both enjoyed The Brenner Stout (perhaps The Bird had a bit more than The Nerd who had to Drive Miss Daisybird).
Honeypie: PORK FRIES = shredded BBQ pork, fries, cheese sauce, pickled jalapenos, green onions, bacon! It just kept tasting better! Their PIE!!! The Lemon-ginger. Wow. We shared everything and it was a delicious way to end a fantastic birding adventure!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Wind Point Lighthouse - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36831988
Port Washington - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36844396
Harrington Beach State Park - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36847329
Virmond Park - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36850997
Adventure Log: 19 May 2017
The Nerd: It was cold and rainy in Chicago. Jen and I had just braved the fierce northeast winds blowing over Montrose Beach in our (successful!) efforts to see a Black-bellied Plover and a few Dunlin. Rather than subject ourselves further to the elements on a day when migration was halted by the weather, we opted instead to try to see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that had been seen a few days before at a place called Foley’s Pond in Highland Park. Fueled by hot cups of coffee we made our way there to look for it.
Though our GPS system got us where we wanted to go, it was Jen’s noticing a sign at the end of a discreet chipped path that actually enabled us to find Foley’s Pond. Our walk to and around the pond didn’t end with us finding a night-heron, but we did enjoy a pleasant selection of spring migrants feeding in the vegetative understory. Cold, wet weather keeps birds low, and more confiding, and you get the impression that they’re inviting you into their personal space. We had nice views of Gray-cheeked Thrush along the path, and I really enjoyed watching a close Magnolia Warbler. I love how bright the yellow is on this warbler’s underparts.
The Bird: After a bit of confusion, somehow I saw the entrance to the pond peripherally. There was a light mist of cold rain that was on the edge of bearable...but because everything was so green it became enchanting. We ended up arriving to the hidden pond that had steam rising from it. It was just us and all kinds of different birds (alas no Yellow-crowned Night-Heron lifer). We were able to hike along the perimeter of the heavily tree-lined pond and that’s where we started to feel like we were in the trees with the birds. I had a magical encounter with a male American Redstart where time stood still. I was right next to him, looking through my binoculars, about 4 feet away as he danced up and down in the tree limbs. I could feel myself anticipating his moves, like a dance partner. I love that birding requires such a deep presence, awareness and connection. Moments like these are everything.
Adventure Pairs Well With:
Heritage Outpost (on Wilson): 2 large black coffees to go with no room for cream please!
Madame ZuZu’s Teahouse: (which inspired The Bird Cocktail: The Redstart Cocktail. Cheers to Billy Corgan/Smashing Pumpkins.) The Nerd: Cider Spice Noir. The Bird: Madam Zuzu’s 2010 Vintage Sicilian Blood Orange Pu-erh
Farmhouse: The local farms are listed in chalk as you enter. We shared a Ham and Gruyere sandwich and the Beets and Greens salad - which was arguably one of the best salads we both had ever had. We also got the last of the Half Acre Chocolate Camero on draft! All was right in the world!
eBird list of birds we saw: