Snow Buntings at Montrose Dunes, fall 2020. (click to see the larger version)
November is one of the most exciting months of the year at Montrose. The list of rarities found there in November is long and distinguished. As examples, an Ancient Murrelet, just the fourth record for Illinois, made an appearance in 2019, and in 2020 the fourth state record Cassin’s Sparrow delighted birders. General birding can be good too. Here are a few November birding tips:
Check the beach and Dunes for Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. The buntings favor the more open areas of the Dunes, and the longspurs are usually flying over. Both will sometimes feed out in the open on the beach or even in the algae that washes up on the beach.
On days with brisk west winds, Short-eared Owls are a good bet in the Dunes. They usually kick up out of the denser vegetation and fly out over Lake Michigan.
With a little effort and luck, Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls can be found in the peripheral plantings. Look for whitewash and listen for scolding, excited Black-capped Chickadees.
The fishing pier is an excellent place to scan Lake Michigan for loons, grebes, and waterfowl, either resting on the surface or in flight. Overcast days with light winds offer the best viewing conditions.
Northern Shrikes like the Dunes and more open areas of the Point. Look for them perched in the tops of trees or flying through, flashing their white wing and tail spots.
Black-legged Kittiwakes sometimes turn up, especially on days with northeast winds. They aren’t a sure bet but if you’re at Montrose on a day with easterly winds, pay attention to the gulls flying by. This applies for jaegers too.
Harris’s Sparrow at Montrose. Photo courtesy of Mike Ferguson. (click to see the larger version)
The middle of October is Harris’s Sparrow time in Chicago. We see a handful every year at Montrose, usually in fall. On October 15 Terry Walsh found an adult Harris’s at the Magic Clump, and Kevin Lin found an immature on October 17. The best way to look for Harris’s is to check groups of sparrows, especially White-throated and White-crowned, which can occur anywhere at Montrose at this time of the year.
Peregrine Falcon (click to see the larger version)
It was a Peregrine kind of day at Montrose on October 13. This juvenile perched obligingly in a snag long enough to have its picture taken. We also had an adult Peregrine, which knocked a poor migrating Winter Wren out of the sky and into Lake Michigan.
The Peregrine Falcons weren’t the only highlight. October 13 was one of the best days of the fall at Montrose for passerine migration, with lots of Swamp Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and kinglets. Bonus birds include American Avocet and three Franklin’s Gulls. I ended up with 52 species for the morning. Link to my eBird checklist below.
American Avocets (click to see the larger version)
American Avocets are strange birds. At Montrose, we see them from late April to early November and every month between. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this pattern – they show up when they show up. The only other shorebird with such a broad range of temporal occurrence is Killdeer. These four American Avocets graced Montrose Beach on October 11. Link to my eBird checklist for the day below.
Weather map showing a cold front approaching Chicago. Photo by Heart of Illinois ABC. (click to see the larger version)
We’ve been experiencing unseasonably mild conditions for most of October, with intermittent rain and south or east winds. It’s felt more like April or May and this pattern is forecast to continue into the middle of the month. These are poor conditions for fall migration. When October comes, birders look forward with eager anticipation to cold fronts and west winds, ideal conditions that bring large numbers of migrants south. A cold front is the leading edge of a colder air mass that originates to the north of us. The graphic illustrates what a cold front looks like on a weather map – a blue, curved line with small triangles that look like teeth. Migrants ride these cold fronts south out of Canada. If you’ve been to Montrose in the last week you’ve probably noticed how flat it feels. We are getting migrants, but not big numbers of birds we should be seeing now, like Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows. At some point this pattern will break and things will change. Being a birder means waiting a lot for something to happen.