For years Jeff Skrentny and I have been working on an Illinois Big Day route that might beat the (then) standing one-day total of 184 species set on May 17, 1997. We tried west-to-east. South-to-north. North-to-south. The Illinois River valley. Our first attempt went so badly, that by 6pm, our team found itself drowning sorrows in beer and whiskey at an outdoor café on the Fox River. Our next two attempts got into the 150s and 160s, but there’s a huge canyon between that and the rarefied air of the 170s. Last year in June, we tried a new route starting in the far NW corner of our state on the Mississippi River, and finishing south of Peoria…
Great success! This route had some spunk … and an amazing array of breeding birds. Our tally of 163 blew the previous June record out of the water by a clean 20 species—and I knew that with some modification, this route would take the gold. We just needed the right day, and a little magic.
Then, a week before our plans were to meet action, the down-state Big Day Boys: Keith McMullen, Travis Mahan, Tyler Funk and Leroy Harrison raised the bar: they had 187 species on May 6. This was a serious challenge. There have only been 3 efforts that have been in 170s in the past 13 years, and none in the 180s until last week. The heat was on!
The last couple of years taught us a hard lesson: you cannot schedule a big day. It happens to you. Or not. So, in the weeks running up to the “sweet spot” of May 10—15, we put together a plan to have that week open, and be able to make two runs if needed. We chose one date, May 12, and were leaning heavily on May 15 as a back-up date.
That day was good, but not great. Jeff and I, along with Adam Sell, Larry Krutulis, Josh Engel and Karen Mansfield finished with 175 species, and immediately began talking about Wednesday. But Sunday was a hard, raw, cold day that took a toll on us. After birding nearly 24 hours, Monday was shot. We have families, jobs, kids and other obligations. Adam slept through his alarm and didn’t make it to work Monday. He took himself off the team for Wednesday, fearing he might his lose job as an elementary school teacher if he took the day off. Josh couldn’t make it work with his work schedule, and neither could Karen. Jeff and I were getting serious pushback from our families.
Meanwhile, I was watching the weather.
The birding gods were taunting us. Migrants were piled up to the south. Galveston and High Island were still overrun. The massive cold front that made Sunday so miserable went all the way into the Caribbean…but it was being quickly bullied out of the way by a hot, dry system that would result in the most dramatic May warmup (55° temperature increase in 48 hours) Chicago has ever recorded. BUT THEN … but then, another, weaker cold front was to enter the area from the northwest in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. It looked like this when it actually occurred:
Look at how the winds coming from the northwest push into the stronger flow from the southwest. Birds hitting this while migrating at night will not continue. They’ll put down more or less where they hit the cold, oncoming winds. This was to occur right where we were planning to start our Wednesday effort. Here is what is actually looked like, Tuesday night at 10pm:
…see how the blue and green blobs, indicating migrating birds, stops right where the NW wind meets the SW wind? This is the recipe for a great birding day, if those two systems happen to meet over your head in the early morning—which they would. Jeff was putting together a team, while I worked on tweaking the route based upon what we learned Sunday, and new intel coming my way. Monday morning we had a 4-top: Bob Hughes and Larry Krutulis would join us.
But then Adam had spoken with his supervisor at the school where he teaches and was suddenly back in the game! To make renting a van affordable, we had to have a 6th … and, a 6-person team, I think is the perfect number. Big enough to catch most everything, but still operate within the 95% rule. Early in the spring I had asked my ABA colleague Michael Retter if he was interested in joining us if we had a slot open. He was. I called Monday afternoon and asked if he was ready and able to do the run Wednesday … and a new team was born. The Mighty Mighty Jizz Masters would take to the road once again.
While Jeff carried out the logistics of renting the van, I continued tweaking …well no, let’s be honest: making dramatic, untested last-minute changes to our route. Based on what we learned Sunday, and the intel that came to me Monday, that route would not do the job. Our afternoon and evening would be uncharted territory for us…
11:30 pm, Tuesday May 14 The team assembled at my house in Berwyn. We loaded up the Chrysler Town & Country, grabbed a cup of coffee at the Dunkin’ and head east on the Eisenhower Expressway to Lincoln Park, just north of downtown Chicago. We arrived at the Promenade south of South Pond at 11:54pm, and were watching a Cooper’s Hawk sitting tight on a nest, and several Black-crowned Night Herons, by the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps.
12:00:02 am, Wednesday May 15 We have our first two species of the day, and head west. As was the case on Sunday, these would be the only Night Herons and Cooper’s Hawk we would see that day.
2:35am We arrive at the marshes near Lock & Dam 13 on the Mississippi River. I broadcast a Sora call, and nothing answers. Nothing would continue to answer while we were there. I tried Virginia Rail, but they were with the Soras. I tried Common Gallinule, and a Coot responded. But then the Gallinules, as they are wont to do, couldn’t restrain themselves and started calling back. A flyover Dickcissel was our first dirty bird of the day … two of our team didn’t hear it. Time to go.
Our Screech Owl was on-station, and 4am found us trolling the backroads north of Mississippi Palisades State Park listening for Barred Owl. We soon found an obliging pair caterwauling from a steep hillside, and were off for the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi NWR.
The Lost Mound unit of the Upper Mississippi NWR is an eerie place in the dark. It’s an abandoned Army depot, and crazy-shaped buildings lurk in the overgrown landscape. It’s also an amazing place to find birds. We arrived at 4:30 and trolled the area listening for a Great Horned Owl. Silence.
The wind was near calm, and the temp was hovering just below 70°. As the eastern sky began to color up, the first Whip-poor-wills began calling and that set off the morning chorus. Our list grew rapidly with goodies like Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Western Meadowlark and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Alder, Willow and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.
By 6:30am we had ticked over 100 species. An hour later we began working the ravines at Mississippi Palisades State Park. Birds were singing everywhere, and our total continued to climb. Kentucky Warblers and Ovenbirds rang out every hundred yards or so. The place was full of warblers and thrushes. Cerulean, Yellow-throated, Hooded, Prothonotary, Pine, Northern Parula and Louisiana Waterthrush were all on-territory and singing loudly. I spotted a small bird in a brush pile by a stream that I expected to be a waterthrush, but score! It was a Mourning Warbler that teed up beautifully for us. By the time we left the park, we had 131 species, including 28 warblers.
After a few quick stops on the big river (where Adam plucked a couple of Canvasback out of thin air), we headed south. A short stop in Henry county netted a few species, and lunch time found us at Hennepin-Hopper Lakes in Putnam county. The mid-afternoon doldrums had begun, the temps were rising into the 80s and birds were quiet. But the specialty species we came for: Yellow-headed Blackbird and Prairie Warbler were there to meet us. Gotta fly.
2:00pm We stopped quickly at Banner Marsh in Fulton county to scope an Osprey nest there (tick), and headed south to Clark Rd. and Emiquon NWR. On the way, Adam yells, “hang on .. hold it!” We were zooming down Rte. 24 when he said he saw “white things by the side of the marsh … they were either Cattle Egrets, or trash washed up.” We turned around. They were Cattle Egrets.
Birding with this team was humbling and exhilarating. Adam can pick out a Blue-winged warbler song from the woods while bombing down a back-road at 30mph. Bob’s eyes never seem to leave the skies, and no soaring raptor can escape. Retter’s a professional birding guide, and it showed. Nothing could escape us. If it was there, we’d see or hear it.
Emiquon was hot and slow. But we picked up a breeding plumaged Horned Grebe, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Snow Goose, Marsh Wren and Eurasian Tree Sparrows that Larry was able to coax out of the scrub near the observation deck.
4:00pm Now we faced another long haul … but this was into unknown territory for us. The drive to Meredosia was quiet. We were in the mid-170s, the day was running out and we couldn’t see a clear path to 188. Jeff was becoming irritated. It’s the unspoken part of doing a big day. We hear all about the awesome sightings, the strategy and so on … but the grunt-work: the driving (especially, and Jeff is an especially gifted driver), and staying on-your-game when you’ve been up and going at it for 18 hours—with another day’s-worth of work ahead of you—takes a toll. Spirit begins to crash. Jokes aren’t as funny, and you have no idea how important having good jokes is when you’re trapped in a van with 5 guys for 27 hours. As we arrived at Meredosia, we were an hour behind schedule, tired and losing power.
We came over a rise on Toe Head Road and there spread out before us, was hundreds of acres of flooded ag fields. We immediately picked out a pair of White-faced Ibis, then a Willet … and Northern Bobwhite called! A Dickcissel was singing nearby, cleaning up that dirty bird. But it was obvious that the hoards of shorebirds reported here Monday had left. We had one more stop for possible shorebirds a mile to the east … but that was it, and then it was back into the woods. We drove down Route 100, looking for a spot described to me by Kevin Richmond and Andy Sigler the day before. We came to what I thought was it, and … empty. The tension radiating from Jeff was palpable. He was hot, tired, and we weren’t going to make it. The back seats were quiet. We started south to cross the river again and head to where we would finish our daylight hours: Siloam Springs State Park. Again, we came over a rise, and saw another flooded ag field, and Bob, sitting behind me, calls out “AVOCETS!!”.
The birding gods appreciate grit, turmoil and angst. They threw us a bone. That stop netted us not just American Avocet, but also Wilson’s Phalarope, White-rumped Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs.
6:00pm We were at 184 and hauling ass across Pike county. We had 3 target species: Worm-eating Warbler, Bewick’s Wren and Chuck-wills-widow. But even if we scored all 3, that only left us tied. Which was not an option.
We arrived at Siloam Springs at 6:40, and went straight for the old picnic area where the Wormies live—and is also great habitat for migrants, with a happy little bouncing stream. Safely exceeding the speed limit, we cruised through the park to the spot…
…and found the road closed. A mile away from the warblers. Jeff’s frustration was now at a rapid simmer. The birding gods chuckled from their perches, “Can’t make it too easy on them can we? Respect is everything“, they mused.
We turned around and went back to the HQ buildings where a pair of Bewick’s Wren lives. We stood. We waited. We listened. We waited. We paced. We searched. Jeff was about to snap. The team was losing juice. We were hot, sticky-sweaty, very very tired and losing focus. Failure was staring us in the face.
A small bird flew past, and a second later, the ringing song of a Bewick’s Wren erased the heaviness! The birding gods were back on our side, the fickle bastards. Then a Black-billed Cuckoo flew past! We had to find some more migrants. We were still missing Blackburnian, Wilson’s and Canada Warblers, as well as Belted Kingfisher, Sedge Wren, Virginia Rail, Blue-headed and Philadelphia Vireos … there was still hope, but we HAD to find a pocket of migrants, and fast. The clock was ticking, it was 7:15pm and we had to be at our Chuck-will’s-widow location by 8:10pm. We pished until we nearly passed out. We screeched. We found birds, but nothing new. Time was up. Gotta go.
Assuming the Chuck came out to play, that would put us at a tie, and then maybe a Virgina Rail in the dark would put us over the top. Maybe. We cruised down Co. Rd. 950N, through a gallery of planted pines on one side, and rich oak forest on the other. A large brown bird launched out of the trees ahead of us, and swooped low to a landing across the road. As it did, the pale crescents on the wing-tips flashed out: RED-SHOULDERED HAWK!! We glassed it briefly before it took off down the road again, and then flew up and out to the right. We TIED. Now if only that Chuck will…
…while we were high-fiving, the high piercing whistle of a BROAD-WINGED HAWK came from overhead to the left! Then again, just to make sure we heard it. 188 … we did it. We *&!!*?##ing did it!!! We laughed and cheered like the inmates at Wrigley Field when the Cubs make a base hit.
8:02pm We arrived at Buckhorn in Brown County and settled in to wait for Chuck. We were happy to the point of giddiness. Adam started a pool: what time would the Chuck-will’s-widow start singing? We all put in our bets, and while mindlessly rubbing the bag of lucky charms my wife gave me to carry on my big days, I blurted “8:27.”
We stood around swatting at midges, talking about how tired we were, our allergies … and we took a picture:
The Mighty Mighty Jizz Masters (v2). Left to right: Bob Hughes, Jeff Skrentny, Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis, Adam Sell, Greg Neise, Michael Retter. Note that I am pointing to our mascots, Fluffer and Ms. Thatcher, on the dash. (iPhone photo by Jeff Skrentny)
…soon the sky was deep blue-violet, the woods were dark and ringing from the green depths:
“Hey Adam, what time is it??” “8:27″ <sweet>
There was a lot of snuffly snoozing in the back of the van as we made the two-and-a-half hour trip back to Hennepin-Hopper.
11:25pm We arrived at the Urnikis Rd. access, opened the doors of the van, and were flabbergasted: all you could hear were Gray Treefrogs. They overpowered everything in the marsh … what a change from Sunday night’s 39° where all we could hear were bitterns and rails. But speaking of bitterns, he would have none of that, and sub-woofering from the marsh came:
UUMP a BLOONK! UUMP a BLOONK! UUMP a BLOONK! (190)
…and a Great Horned Owl hooted off in the near distance (191).
Time to go home.
The 1997 record mentioned in the first paragraph was the effort of a team that included Bob Hughes. It was especially good to have him on the team that recaptured the title.
Our day total was 94.5% of our total tier 1+2 species. I had speculated that to set a record, we had to hit at least 93%.
We had 30 species of warblers. The only real “miss” there was Blackburnian, though I would have thought we might see a Wilson’s, too.
We had 17 species of waterfowl, which is about par for the course. Good, but nothing really outstanding, and we missed Trumpeter Swan.
We had 18 species of shorebirds, which like the waterfowl, is par for the course. With all the habitat at Toehead, I would have expected more diversity.
We had 9 flycatchers, which I thought was very good for May 15.
Of the expected breeding birds (there’s ~140 possible on this route) we only missed 3: Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, and Sandhill Crane.
I had predicted 36 Tier 2 species (relatively common, but cannot be counted on): we found 55.5% of those. I had predicted 36 Tier 3 species (present, but scarce and difficult to find): we found 33% of those. We had 5 “off the radar” species: Snow Goose, White-faced Ibis, American Avocet, Chuck-will’s-widow and Bewick’s Wren.
Lastly, we wouldn’t have had a chance if not for the incredible scouting efforts by Andy Sigler and Kevin Richmond.
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world’s tropical rainforests. Greg is Web Master for the ABA, helps manage social media, sits in on the ABA Podcast on occasion, and of course, is a fanatical birder.