Category Archives: Winter Bird Reports

December 1 – February 28/29, inclusive

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

Return of the Green Gunk

Algae mat with feeding gulls

Herring and Ring-billed Gulls feeding in the algae mat at Montrose Beach (click to see the larger version)

The title of this post sounds like the title of a horror or monster movie — “Return of the Green Gunk!” On December 14 I was pleasantly surprised to find an extensive algae* mat at the east end of Montrose Beach. This algae mat developed when a powerful early winter storm churned up Lake Michigan and dumped large amounts of the stuff on the beach. I also noticed a group of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls picking through the algae for food. From what I could tell, and from what I’ve seen in the past, the gulls were hunting crayfish that washed in with the algae. Why does this matter? Because groups of active, feeding gulls attract more gulls that could include something unusual. Now that winter is here, there are multiple, possible rare gulls to consider. The algae could also attract a rare shorebird like a Purple Sandpiper or Red Phalarope. So if you venture out to Montrose this winter don’t forget to check the beach, and if there’s an algae mat, check it too. Once the beach gets covered in ice the algae mat won’t be accessible to gulls and shorebirds.

Only a birder gets excited about algae mats, right?

December 8, 2020 – A Two Owl Day

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl and friends (click to see the larger version)

I tallied only 22 species on December 8 but two of those 22 were owls. Seeing more than one owl in a day at Montrose is unusual. A Great Horned Owl was flying around the Point trying to find a place to take a break but a Cooper’s Hawk had other ideas and harassed it relentlessly. When the Cooper’s Hawk gave up and moved on, a gang of American Crows found the owl and picked up where the hawk left off. The besieged owl kept moving around, trying to lose the crows and find a quiet place to rest. Montrose has little in the way of habitat where a large owl can hide. Throw in some American Crows and you’ve got an unhappy situation. The crows were still yammering at the Great Horned when I left.

The other owl was a Northern Saw-whet. This bird was in the same area as last winter’s Saw-whet and may be the same individual. The best way to find a Saw-whet is to listen for complaining Black-capped Chickadees and to look for whitewash (owl poop) in roosting habitat like dense stands of conifers. Link to myeBird checklist for the morning below.

eBird Checklist
December 8, 2020

Early December 2020 – Winter is Upon Us

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (click to see the larger version)

Avian activity has slowed considerably at Montrose. I’ve been topping out at about 20 species on my two hour morning visits since December 1. Things won’t improve much until late February when spring migration begins, and if the harbor and Lake Michigan freeze it will only get worse. Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, the two main wintering ducks, haven’t arrived yet in numbers because of the mild weather we’ve been experiencing. They’ll start to show up when it gets seriously cold. The big flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers from November have pulled out. Lake Michigan now feels lifeless and empty without them. Common Redpolls are still around but for how long is anyone’s guess. Most of the sparrows from mid-November have left, with only Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows remaining. Despite the doldrums, we have had a few interesting species. An adult light morph Snow Goose has been keeping company with Canada Geese. Scan any group of Canada Geese if you’re looking for it. You could also find other uncommon geese like Cackling or Greater White-fronted by looking through the Canadas. An American Black Duck, an unusual bird for Montrose, has been with Mallards, usually in the harbor. On December 4 I saw an immature Great Black-backed Gull on the public beach. As always, check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot for current sightings.

Suggestions for Winter Birding at Montrose

I have some suggestions for winter birding at Montrose. As long as the harbor remains open it’s worth checking for waterfowl, gulls, and grebes. Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, Red-necked and Western Grebes, and several unusual gulls have been seen in the harbor in early winter. Once the harbor freezes over this won’t be an option. The hawthorns near the restroom building on the south side of the harbor are full of berries as of early December. On December 4 I had American Robins, European Starlings, and a few House Finches gorging on these berries, and something rare like a Pine Grosbeak or Bohemian Waxwing is possible while the berry supply lasts. Finally, 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a flight year for Snowy Owls but a few could still show up. The best places to look for them are the beach, Dunes, and fishing pier.