Short-eared Owls are regular mid and late fall visitors to Montrose. We usually see them on days with brisk west winds following the passage of a cold front. Most of the time they flush from the Dunes and fly over Lake Michigan where they hang out and wait until people have left. They then drift back to the Dunes to settle in. On November 19 I saw a Short-eared perched high in a Honey Locust near the Magic Hedge. This is uncommon behavior for Short-eareds at Montrose. The bird had been flying around the Point, looking for a place to come down, and decided a tree would suffice. It didn’t stay long and continued its search for a quiet spot to roost for the day. Link to my eBird checklist for the morning below.
Cassin’s Sparrow. Photo by Geoff Williamson. (click to see the larger version)
November is one of the most exciting months for birders. We look forward to it with the same sense of anticipation and excitement as we do for May, and with good reason. The annals of Illinois ornithology are filled with November rarities and vagrants.
On the morning of November 13 I was walking the outside of the boat storage lot at Montrose as I have been since a Harris’s Sparrow showed up there in October. I never birded it much in the past and usually just walked by it on my way to the rest of the Point. I didn’t see the October Harris’s Sparrow but I was finding other sparrows, so I had enough incentive to keep checking. At about 8:30 a.m. I kicked up a small bird near a spruce tree on the northeast side of the lot. I thought at first it was a wren but the thick bill ruled out a wren and ruled in a sparrow. The bird was plain to the point of being non-descript and had a long tail. Several possibilities came to mind. I suspected Cassin’s Sparrow based on probability, and when I saw the flank streaking I knew that’s what it was. The bird was decidedly uncooperative for me and played a frustrating game of hide and seek that made seeing plumage details almost impossible. Others had better luck viewing it after I left. Close-up photos show diagnostic field marks for this species that weren’t apparent in the field, including white tips to the outer tail feathers and horizontal barring on the tail. This is the first Cassin’s Sparrow for Montrose, number 347.
Cassin’s Sparrow is a bird of the American Southwest, but they do wander and occur far out of their normal range. eBird has records for the East Coast, New England, and the Canadian Maritimes. Illinois has three previous records, all within the last 40 years. It is a species if not to be expected than to at least consider seriously as a possibility.
Purple Finch, one of the winter finches (click to see the larger version)
Winter Finch – A collective term that refers to Arctic, subarctic, and boreal forest breeding members of the family Fringillidae. This includes redpolls, Pine Siskin, crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, and Purple Finch.
This continues to be an excellent fall for winter finches in the Midwest. Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches are being seen almost daily at Montrose. Even more exciting were reports of two of the rarer winter finches. On November 3, I found 10 White-winged Crossbills in a spruce tree near the Park Bait Shop (at the corner of W. Montrose Avenue and W. Montrose Harbor Drive), and several observers saw an Evening Grosbeak on November 5. According to eBird, the last White-winged Crossbills from Montrose were in 2012. The last Evening Grosbeak record was about 20 years ago. The rest of the fall should see more of these birds. The Montrose Map page has an interactive map that shows the road system at Montrose.
How to Look for Winter Finches at Montrose
There are a couple of ways to look for winter finches at Montrose. We don’t have a lot of finch habitat but we have some. The pine and spruce trees south of the main entrance of the Sanctuary on W. Montrose Harbor Drive have cones that could attract crossbills. The hawthorns on the service road to the beach house are laden with berries. We’ve been seeing Purple Finches in these hawthorns and they could attract Pine and Evening Grosbeaks. The pine and spruce trees next to the Park Bait Shop don’t have many cones but could attract crossbills and are easy check. Redpolls like weedy areas such as the native planting areas at the south and east end of the Point and north of the Marovitz Golf Course.
I didn’t have great expectations for October 31. The forecast called for south winds and south winds in late October never produce many birds at Montrose. Despite the unfavorable weather conditions, I was pleasantly surprised by what I did see. A couple of dead salmon washed up on Montrose Beach that attracted the attention of some Herring Gulls, which attracted the attention of a juvenile Iceland Gull. This was my first Iceland Gull of the season. Another birder alerted me to a scoter on Lake Michigan off the beach that turned out to be a Surf Scoter, another first of the season. The biggest surprise was a late Wood Thrush, the latest Wood Thrush I’ve had at Montrose, and probably anywhere else. Rounding out the list were four Common Redpolls and a couple of Snow Buntings. I tallied 37 species in three hours of birding. My eBird checklist for the morning has photos of the Iceland Gull and Surf Scoter. Follow the URL below to see it.
Two Common Redpolls were at Montrose on October 30. These were the first of hopefully what will be many more this season. Both were feeding in weeds on the side of the path between the Golf Course Pond and harbor. This is forecast to be an excellent fall and winter for finches. We’ve already had record numbers of Pine Siskins and good numbers of Purple Finches. To see redpolls at Montrose, check any weedy area, such as the native planting areas at the east end of the Point or north of the Golf Course. Link to my eBird checklist for the day below.
Long-tailed Duck (click to see the larger version)
A female Long-tailed Duck has been hanging around the fishing pier at Montrose for the last few days. On October 28 I saw her near the end of the pier on the Lake Michigan side. Long-tailed Ducks are uncommon but regular late fall through early spring visitors to Montrose.
October 28 was an interesting day with a nice mix of birds. I ended up with 49 species for about 2 hours of effort, and 60 species were reported to eBird for the day. Some of my highlights include