I wasn’t planning on birding Montrose Point on Saturday, November 9. Saturday is my day to play and do whatever I want, whether it be birding or something else altogether (it is usually birding). I planned on spending the day at Indiana Dunes State Park, hiking, birding, and catching the last of the fall colors. When I woke up that morning I changed my mind and decided to stay closer to home and go to Montrose, my main patch and fallback for aborted longer birding trips. I live about a mile from Montrose so it’s quick and easy for me to get there. I would spend a couple of hours birding, come home, take a nap, watch a movie. Relax. An easy day.
If you’re not familiar with Montrose we like to check Lake Michigan from the fishing pier at the east end of the beach for waterfowl, loons, and other waterbirds, especially in November. November is an exciting month to bird the lakefront, maybe the most exciting month when it comes to rarity potential. The conditions on the Lake were excellent that morning – overcast skies, light winds, a little chop on the Lake but nothing terrible. Good visibility most of the way to the horizon. I made my way onto the pier and started scanning and scoping the Lake for anything on the water or flying by.
The fishing pier hosts 2 light towers, a taller one near the base and a smaller one near the tip (our local Peregrine Falcons like to roost on and hunt from the taller tower). Near the taller tower, I caught a glimpse of a small dark blob slipping under the water on the Lake Michigan side, very close to the edge of the pier. I had a strange sensation this was something different and my heart started to race. The bird popped back up a little further away but still close to the pier, and went under again just as quickly. By this time I could tell it was a small alcid. Now my heart was taking off and the cursing began, both out of excitement and frustration over not being able to pin the bird down, the kind of cursing your mother (or my mother at least) would pinch your ear if she heard. When the bird surfaced again I could see the white spot on the neck, so I knew it was either a Dovekie or Ancient Murrelet. More frustration as the bird dove and disappeared again. It seemed to be playing games with me, and when it got up and flew off my heart almost sank. Instead of flying away though it hung a sharp left at the end of the fishing pier, turned around, and started flying back, but more towards the beach, landing about 1/4 mile away. By this time Mike Carroll was there and we were both scanning the lake trying to refind the bird. After a couple of minutes it picked up and started flying RIGHT AT US, landing about 30 yards away and inside the hook part of the pier. We could see the plain gray back and pale tip to the bill, the distinguishing field marks of an Ancient Murrelet, one of the most prized and coveted of November rarities. Mike was taking photos of the bird like a madman, which is a good thing because I didn’t have my camera available. The Murrelet put on an amazing show right in front of us before flying off once again, this time well to the north. The bird flew back towards the pier and landed one more time before flying off to the east and disappearing over the Lake. Once word got out birders started showing up in droves but the Murrelet didn’t return this time, though 2 people reported it later that afternoon.
Ancient Murrelet is a seabird in the truest sense of the word – they breed around the northern Pacific Ocean in Alaska, Canada, and Asia and winter along the Pacific Coast down to California and Japan and China. A few go astray and occur far inland in the United States in late fall, like the Montrose bird. This is the fourth record for Illinois and a new addition for Montrose. Actually, it’s a whole new family (Alcidae) for Montrose too. More of Mike Carroll’s excellent photos are with my eBird checklist for the day, URL below.
November 9, 2019
Addendum: Isoo O’Brien refound the Ancient Murrelet the next day, November 10, off the south side of Montrose Point. Many birders enjoyed the bird, unlike the Saturday sighting.