Winter Waterfowl in Illinois

Nathan GoldbergBird Sightings, Birding, Chase, General News and Info, Listing, RaritiesLeave a Comment

Last Saturday (the 15th), Michael Retter and Matt Hale drove up from West Lafayette to stay at my house for the weekend (specifically for the Gull Frolic, more on that coming soon). They had to head out on Sunday, but before they left, we birded a bit looking for Scoters on the lakefront.

This winter has been quite unlike others due to the massive freeze occurring in northern clines. Lake Superior is over 90% frozen, and Lake Michigan is covered in ice as well. This has forced lots of usually deep water ducks inland in search of open areas of water, or at least that is one take on the situation. Lake Michigan has a few patches of open water right offshore at many of the harbor mouths, and almost all of them contain at least one White-winged Scoter. We are in the middle of an insane winter for White-winged Scoters, and they have been seen in at least 15 counties in Illinois alone between December 2013 and February 2014. Here is a link to a thread on the Illinois Birders’ Forum about the invasion.

I read on IBET that my friend Steve Huggins had loads of Scoters on the Lakefront on Saturday. Michael and Matt wanted a Black Scoter, so we headed out Sunday morning for Belmont Harbor to look for the two Steve had. Arriving, we could see a fairly large open pool with ducks right next to the breakwall. In this pool, there were some Greater Scaup, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, and of course, White-winged Scoters.
Adult male Common Merganser (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult male Common Merganser (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Scoping off shore, I finally picked out what we came for, an adult male Black Scoter, my first male ever. It was far out, but soon flew in slightly closer to us. It was really neat to be able to see the yellow knob on its bill, something I had hoped to see for a while.

Adult male Black Scoter (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult male Black Scoter (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

After Belmont, we heard about a Surf Scoter at Montrose, about a 5 minute drive north. Matt and Michael were willing to go look quickly, and right after we arrived, Matt picked out a bird that was sleeping but looked right for the Surf. After waiting a few minutes, the bird picked up its head and began to dive, revealing a very large, sloping bill and square head. Yes! A three scoter day, all before 11 AM.

Immature Surf Scoter (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Immature Surf Scoter (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

After Michael and Matt dropped me off at home, we said our goodbyes and they headed back, after a fantastic weekend of birding.

On Monday, I was keen on going birding as I had no school. Andy Sigler was able to go out and we went to Kane, DuPage, and Will counties to look for some hard to get waterfowl. He picked me up at 5:45 and we headed straight for Batavia, Kane County, which lies on the Fox River. A female Long-tailed Duck had been found on the river a few days ago, and I hoped to add it to my ever increasing Kane list. We looked for the duck from 7:00-7:20, but were unable to find her. If we wanted any hopes of making it to the other counties, we needed to move on. But not even five minutes after pulling away, I read a post from Joshua Little on IBET that he had the female Long-tailed Duck swimming in the river at 7:00. Impossible! We backtracked and once we arrived, Andy soon muttered, “There she is… Jeeze, we looked right past her.” So we had, as she was not even 100 yards off of the bridge. What was notable was how long she would go underwater during dives. She would be on the surface for under 10 seconds, and then dive for a minute or two. I was able to watch her dive a few times, and grabbed this record photo.

Female Long-tailed Duck in Kane County (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Female Long-tailed Duck in Kane County (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

We headed out next to the I and M Channel in Lemont. This is a hard area to bird as the county line between Cook and DuPage is very hazy. White-winged Scoters have been found throughout the area, but getting them in DuPage is a challenge. Andy and I found some Scoters that we thought were in DuPage, but on our way out, we met Andrew Aldrich and Joshua Little, and consulted about the county line. It wasn’t as easy as we had thought, and we turned around and went back to the birds (We wanted to ensure they were in the proper counties). Below is a map I constructed and put red dots where we had the Scoters. The top of the dotted line is DuPage and the bottom is Cook.

White-winged Scoters in DuPage and Cook County (Screenshot from http://gis.dupageco.org/dupagemaps/Viewer.aspx)

White-winged Scoters in DuPage and Cook County (Screenshot from http://gis.dupageco.org/dupagemaps/Viewer.aspx)

The two right-most dots were an adult male and an immature, which allowed for me to take some horrible record photos. A closer bird in DuPage as well was a bit more obliging.

Having succeeded in two of the four targets, we sped down to Lockport in Will County to bird the 9th St. bridge. There is a side access road that looks over the main channel, and we parked here to view the open water. Upon arriving, we had no trouble picking out White-winged Scoters. Andrew and Joshua had 29 earlier, and Andy and I estimated we had at least 20 birds. They consisted of many ages, but my favorites were the adult males.

Though I was pleased with a 7th White-winged Scoter county, I really wanted the Red-throated Loon that had been here for a few days. After scoping the channel for about 30 minutes, I finally found the Loon, though it was about as far out as it could be. Here is a horrible but probably identifiable image of the Loon.

A distant Red-throated Loon in Will County (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

A distant Red-throated Loon in Will County (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

This was a great trip to end a fantastic weekend, and I ended the day with seven county birds, Long-tailed Duck and House Sparrow in Kane (for 51), White-winged Scoter, Common Goldeneye, and Bald Eagle in DuPage (for 131), and White-winged Scoter and Red-throated Loon in Will (for 111). I will not be able to bird much next weekend, but these past few days surely make up for that!