Monthly Archives: January 2021

Urban Birding Tip – Watch Those Pigeons

Have you ever seen a group of pigeons explode into flight or flying back and forth in a panic? When I’m walking around or driving through Chicago, I sometimes see pigeons launch into flight for no obvious reason. More often than not the source of their disturbance turns out to be a bird of prey, like a Cooper’s Hawk or Peregrine Falcon. The pigeons are smart enough to recognize the threat a hawk presents and they respond to that threat by getting up and flying around. This predator response is the same for other birds, like shorebirds or gulls that flush at the sight of a hawk, falcon, or other large bird of prey. So the next time you see a flock of pigeons explode into flight, look around, there might be a Peregrine Falcon or Red-tailed Hawk behind or above them.

Whoever said pigeons were useless was wrong.

Kankakee Sands, January 9, 2021 – Bison, Buteos, and More

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk (click to see the larger version)

I took a break from Chicago birding and headed down to the Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana on January 9. The Kankakee Sands is a complex of prairie and wetland habitat owned and managed by the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy. I visit the Sands several times each year, usually in summer and winter to look for birds and butterflies. Birding is excellent all year round. Summer is the season to see the grassland specialties like Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels, which are hard to miss and fill the air with their songs. Winter brings a different set of visitors, most notably raptors like Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, and Short-eared Owl. These birds of prey were my avian targets on my January 9 visit. I saw a dozen Rough-legged Hawks and seven Northern Harriers, all coursing the fields for rodents or perching on the tip tops of trees for a better vantage. I missed Short-eared Owls, probably because I was there too late in the morning, but they are there and in numbers. I also had a couple of Bald Eagles and American Kestrels, a Cooper’s Hawk, and a lone Red-tailed Hawk. The Sands is one of the few places where Rough-legged Hawks outnumber the usually more common Red-tailed Hawk. The main mammal claim to fame at the Sands is a herd of about 70 American Bison. These Bison were introduced to a section of the Sands in 2016 and play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the grasslands. They’re hard to miss and I didn’t have any problem finding them.

How to Bird The Kankakee Sands (and look for Bison)

The Kankakee Sands is about an hour and a half due south of Chicago off of US41 in eastern Newton County, Indiana. Morocco is the nearest large town and lies about six miles to the south. When I bird the Sands I drive back and forth slowly on the gravel roads east of US41, looking and listening for birds and other wildlife. These roads don’t get a lot of traffic, especially in winter, and are safe to bird while driving. Note that in winter the roads might not be drivable because of heavy snow. County roads 500N and 400N are both excellent roads to drive and look for birds of prey.

American Bison

American Bison (click to see the larger version)

The Bison are best viewed from the Bison Viewing Area west of US41. To reach it, take 400W south from 400N for about half a mile. Look for a gravel road that goes east and take it to the parking lot. Walk up to the top of the rise and start scanning. The Bison are usually to the south, east, or northeast. They can be seen with your eyes but binoculars make the experience more enjoyable. This is also an excellent place and vantage point to look for Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, and other birds of prey. I’ve included a link to my eBird checklist for my January 9 visit below. The checklist includes more photos of the birds I saw.

To read more about The Nature Conservancy’s efforts at Kankakee Sands, go to this site – Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands.

eBird Checklist
January 9, 2021

Brant, January 5, 2020

Brant

Brant (click to see the larger version)

By far the most exciting bird of this early winter rarity season is the adult Brant that showed up on January 4. The bird has been associating with Canada Geese at the harbor, and that’s where I saw it on January 5. This is likely the same Brant that was seen along the Wisconsin Lake Michigan lakefront last fall. Brant are rare as far west as the western Great Lakes, as witnessed by the number of previous records for Montrose. It’s also rare enough in Illinois to be on the review list of birds requiring documentation. If you want to see this bird, check the flocks of Canada Geese that frequent the harbor. More photos of the Brant are at my eBird checklist for the morning, URL below.

Previous Montrose Brant Records

  • October 15, 1947
  • December 2-4, 1990
  • September 27, 2001
  • October 29, 2008

eBird Checklist
January 5, 2021

December 31, 2020

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk (click to see the larger version)

I walked over to Montrose on December 31 for some end of year birding. It looked and felt like winter, with an inch of crusty snow on the ground and icy paths that made walking challenging in places. The winds were light and it wasn’t too cold, however, so the experience was pleasant for the season. I ended up with a respectable 22 species, the best being the continuing Lincoln’s Sparrow in the Magic Hedge. This is significant because Lincoln’s Sparrows don’t usually winter in Chicago. A thin veneer of ice was developing in Montrose Harbor, a portent of things to come. Lake Michigan was still ice-free, and on it were numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, two of our common wintering waterfowl (Common Merganser is the other). The local band of Black-capped Chickadees are in full begging mode; if you offer crushed peanuts or birdseed, the bolder ones will come in and take the morsels from your open hand. I also saw a couple of Cooper’s Hawks, including a close encounter with a perched adult.

Note that Montrose is closed to entry by car; if you drive you’ll have to park west of Lake Shore Drive and walk in. This won’t be onerous if the weather is decent but watch your footing. See the Montrose FAQ page for updated information about visiting the park.

eBird Checklist
December 31, 2020