Photo credits: Stephanie Beilke (landscapes and people) // Libby Keyes (birds)
By Stephanie Beilke
Many bird enthusiasts are familiar with the renowned Christmas Bird Count (CBC), an annual event where people gather to count the most wintering birds they can find in a single day. I have looked forward to it every year since participating for the first time back in 2007.
In Illinois, we have another annual tradition that takes place the first weekend of May: the Spring Bird Count, or SBC. The rules are basically the same as the Christmas Count: count as many birds as you can find in 24 hours, don’t stray from your designated “count circle,” and travel in a pack of other people who love to tally birds as much as you do. On top of all this though, the SBC has an added perk when compared to the CBC: there are warblers!
In 2017, I was recruited by Walter Marcisz to participate in the Spring Bird Count in southeast Cook County, which is part of an area known as the Calumet Count Circle. The best part about birding the Calumet area is that it tends to be full of surprises. The natural areas are diverse (marsh, open water, mud flats, woodland) and are relatively expansive for being in an urban-industrial setting. The area has also been targeted for conservation and is receiving some revitalization efforts after local park districts have purchased lands previously owned by industrial plants. Thus, the area tends to attract a diverse set of bird life, and pretty much anything might show up during migration.
Count day fell on May 4th this year and Walter had an impressive line-up of birders to help out including four COS board members: Aerin Tedesco, Amanda Tichacek, Dan Lory and me, plus returning counters Margaret Baker, Libby Keyes and a new recruit, Axel Rutter. To cover the most ground, we split up at dawn so we could all tackle the birdiest sites simultaneously.
Aerin and I started at sunrise at Indian Ridge Marsh, a thin strip of savanna and marsh land off of Torrence Avenue. From the road, this site is easy to overlook, but its wetland pools tend to attract ducks and the savanna is a good spot for finding Red-headed Woodpeckers and Orchard Orioles. Last year, the site was packed with shorebirds, so there was some excitement leading up to this year being another good year. However, the heavy rains the prior week crushed all our hopes and dreams of finding another Wilson’s Phalarope.
Regardless of our luck with shorebirds though, we still scoured all 150 acres of IRM and turned up 56 species, including a rare glimpse at a Virginia Rail that briefly flushed near the trail. Meanwhile, other team members birded Beaubien Woods, Hegewisch Marsh, Big Marsh Park and Burnham Prairie, getting pumped up for our exciting visit to the sewage treatment plant!
The Calumet Water Reclamation Water Plant is not typically open to the public, but Walter had made specific arrangements for a brief tour. Sewage ponds tend to be a goldmine for migrating shorebirds. As we made our way around the giant rectangular pools, we really weren’t finding much this time though. There was some head shaking and downcast looks in the group, it just wasn’t going to be our year for shorebirds. But again, Calumet is full of surprises. A flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes caught my eye flying over the facility. A new one for the group’s list and a rare one, since many sandhills had already finished migrating! Although conditions were poor for shorebirds, the south winds were a gift. As we pushed through the slow noon hour, the south winds stirred in a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks and a surprise Sharp-shinned Hawk.
After finishing up with a few more species at the sewage ponds, we stopped for lunch. Walter pored over the list, tallying species from the separate groups. We had cracked 100 species and had many more hours of daylight left!
Afternoon birding is always tough though. Birds get quiet and it becomes much harder to add new species. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the early afternoon was pure luck. Most of these early migrants had already left.
The team made its way to Deadstick Pond, which consists of mostly road birding an area that is behind a chainlink fence. Somehow, this spot always seems to churn out at least a few waterbirds and warblers that we haven’t had before. Luckily, we did find our first Black-crowned Night-Heron and one Black-throated Green Warbler in a sea of Yellow Warblers. The warblers just had not arrived in big numbers yet so that lovely Black-throated Green Warbler got its full dose of attention from the group.
By late afternoon, our team dwindled to just three birders: Walter, Amanda and me. We had one last place to check, which is the open water, also known as Square Marsh, that is visible from Harborside Golf Course. Luckily, Walter had also gotten permission to this spot even though we’re more interested in being there for the birds than making birdies. Just as he predicted, Walter got us several more species at Harborside, including Redhead and Ruddy Ducks.
The evening was looming, the birders were tired and the temperature had dropped. I was especially ready to go home and go straight to bed. But you know if you leave too soon, you’re going to miss something, so I waited it out as Walter continued to scope the water from the golf club balcony. Then, all of a sudden, we spotted a large shape in the sky. A Bald Eagle, finally, which put our tally at 117 species! Not bad for a slow migration year with hardly any shorebirds or warblers!
In Walter’s re-cap to the group, one of the highlights was an all-time high count for Sora (40 individuals counted). Walter reported how this number compared to past years, “Starting in 2017, each year has yielded a new high count for this species (36 in 2018, 29 in 2017, but both of those counts are easily eclipsed by this year's total). Prior to 2017, the previous high count was 12 in 2009. It is also definitely worth noting that the Calumet SBC team recorded low counts of 2 Soras on a few SBC dates in the 1990s & early 2000s. It is very difficult to wrap my head around those very low counts within today's context - talk about habitat improvements!”
The Spring Bird Count has happened every year since 1972, so not only is it fun, but we also are able to add to an incredible dataset that can also tell us a lot about how birds that breed and migrate through our area are doing. I can’t wait to participate again next year and make some more discoveries in the ever-fascinating, “underbirded” urban-industrial wilderness of the Calumet region!
To learn more about the Spring Bird Count and find out how you can participate, visit the SBC website, hosted by the Illinois Natural History Survey here! And we invite you to learn even more about the exciting conservation work that is bringing back birds to Calumet wetlands over at Audubon Great Lakes’ website here!