Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From the Field: Christmas Counting at the Little (Yellow) House on the Prairie.

I picked up John da Fisherman a bit early since I was able to leave work at about 2:30. John was apparently a bit surprised to see me, as he informed me when he got into the car that he had only had time to finish five of the six beers he had intended to drink before our journey began. Fully fortified with those five beers, John required no real food during our trip, surviving on a bag of pretzels, two Pepsis, and a couple gallons of coffee.

It was pitch-black when we arrived at the Little (Yellow) House on the Prairie at Nachusa Grasslands, located in Ogle and Lee Counties near the town of Oregon. The grasslands and the house are owned by the Nature Conservancy, and the compiler had arranged with the TNC (thank you, TNC!) for us to have use of the house for the CBC, which meant that we didn't have to make the two-hour drive from Chicago in the early morning. I think our compiler still had a bit of "birder's guilt" from the first time I did this count in about 2000.

You see, it was about 10 degrees out that year, very windy, with about a foot of snow on the ground. Walking the prairie was tough. We split into three parties. I walked a couple of miles through the snow, ice, and freezing wind, and saw very few birds. The second party did the same, and one of their members fell and seriously hurt his leg, he was out of commission for a couple of weeks and missed his other counts. The third party, lead by the compiler, started a bit after us and heard us report on the radios that we were not seeing many birds. They started their route at a farmhouse with some feeders. When they passed the house, the attractive young woman who resided there invited them in to warm up. When the first two parties found them 90 minutes later, they were "feeder watching" from a recliner in the living room, with a cup of hot cocoa in one hand, and homemade cookies in the other! Anyway, on to the count.

As usual, we started at the grasslands. I drove over to Lowden Miller State Forest to drop John off for his morning walk, but by the time we got there it was pouring rain, so we changed our plans and returned to Nachusa where the remaining parties were to walk the grasslands. The weather was better at Nachusa, and there were a couple of Harriers and a Rough-legged Hawk cruising the area. My walk was fairly uneventful, although I did find some nice birds along the creek line, including two flickers and a White-crowned Sparrow, both of which are good birds for this count.

After leaving the grasslands, I picked up John and we headed back to Lowden Miller. (Actually, John, who was assigned to do some pine trees, had decided to follow the creek, and when he saw me and started yelling he was way out of the area he was supposed to cover. If I hadn't heard him yelling, he'd probably still be walking that prairie.) On our way to Lowden Miller, we stopped to look at an odd bird that was feeding on the side of the road that turned out to be our "bird of the day." After much puzzlement we realized that it was a Vesper Sparrow, which is a great bird for any Northern Illinois CBC. Vespers are seen on CBCs in the extreme southern part of the state every now and then, but northern IL CBC records are almost unheard of.

I dropped John off for his 30 minute walk, which had been reduced to that short time period because of the weather and heavy snow pack. It was much tougher walking the forest trails than it had been walking the grasslands, probably because the snow in the open fields had melted more than the snow in the heavy forests. I next saw John about two hours later. Although he knows Lowden Miller well and birded there several times this summer, he got lost. He told me that he spent the last 45 minutes running back to the parking lot to make sure I wouldn't forget him. He told me that he was sweating so hard that the map he had in his back pocket was wet. He then pulled the map out and offered it to me as proof, but I told him it was his to keep.

I grabbed a Subway sandwich from town and we sat by the Oregon Dam on the Rock river for lunch. There were a bunch of Herring Gulls, and a couple of goodies, a Redhead and a female Bufflehead. Most of the river was frozen, so the "dam birds" would be pretty much the only waterfowl of the count.

We then headed to Lowden State Park (not to be confused with Lowden Miller) where the birding really picked up. We saw a couple of Tufted Titmice, three Red-headed Woodpeckers, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. There were plenty of common birds around as well.

We were losing our light, so we spent the rest of the day driving farm fields, looking for larks and longspurs and blackbirds. We struck out on the field birds, but did find a small flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a few more Ring-necked Pheasants.

We ended our day back at the Oregon Dam, where thousands of geese were flying in to roost, or were flying south down the river. Birds were still moving in the dark when we left at about 6:15 pm. New arrivals included 5 Common Goldeneye and a small flock of Common Mergansers. We must have missed the compiler who was supposed to meet us in the dam parking lot, so we started the long and uneventful drive back to Chicago.

1 comment:

Gwyn said...

Sounds like you had a lot more interesting birds on your count than mine. I blame it on my more northern location! (WI) ;)