Category Archives: Rare Birds

Posts about rare birds

Think Flycatchers

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird. Photo by M. Ferguson. (click to see the larger version)

We’re always trying to guess what the next new bird for Montrose will be. It’s a fun game to play, though we’re usually wrong with our predictions. Montrose has an impressive 15 species of flycatchers to its credit, including several rare and uncommon species – Western Kingbird (regular), Cassin’s Kingbird (first state record), Say’s Phoebe (several records), and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (several records). Montrose is clearly an excellent place for Tyrannids, and there are several excellent candidates we should be thinking about as fall approaches. These potentials include

  • Gray Kingbird (many extralimital records in the Eastern United States, including three for Illinois)
  • Tropical Kingbird (many extralimital records in the Eastern United States, including one for Illinois)
  • Fork-tailed Flycatcher (well established pattern of vagrancy in the eastern United States, with several records for Illinois)
  • Vermillion Flycatcher (multiple records for Illinois, including one from Lincoln Park)

These are the most likely Tyrannids to show up, but there are a few less likely, though possible species like Variegated Flycatcher (a handful of eastern US records), Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (a few eastern North American records), Thick-billed Kingbird (a few eastern North American records), and Hammond’s Flycatcher (multiple eastern North American records).

The best way to prepare for vagrants is to keep an open mind about what’s possible and to brush up on field marks for these birds.

White-faced Ibis, April 24, 2021 – First Site Record!

Virginia Rail

White-faced Ibis (click to see the larger version)

Clearly the highlight of an exceptional day of birding at Montrose on April 24 was a White-faced Ibis. The bird was on the protected beach early in the morning but flew off after about 10 minutes. It never returned. I managed to get one identifiable photo. This is a new species for Montrose, number 348 for the list I maintain. To see that list, refer to the Montrose List page on this blog.

Concepts – Relative vs. Absolute Rarities

Brant

A relatively rare but still exciting Brant at Montrose Point in Chicago, January 2021. (click to see the larger version)

Birders think a lot about rare birds. More than think about — we obsess over them, drive thousands of miles to chase them, and dream about finding them. But what is a rarity? There are a couple of ways to think about this. Most of the rare birds we see are only regionally unusual, that is, they are common someplace within their range but uncommon outside it. The Brant that showed up at Montrose in early January is a good example of this concept. The world population is in the hundreds of thousands, and they’re common on their wintering grounds from New Jersey to Massachusets on the East Coast. Illinois is outside of their main range and migration route, so it’s a big deal here; when one shows up it generates a lot of excitement in the birding community. Brant is rare enough in Illinois to be on the review list of birds requiring documentation, and Montrose has four or so previous records. Relative rareness doesn’t just include birds outside their normal range, it also includes birds outside of their normal timeframe. A Bay-breasted Warbler in Chicago in December is an example.

The other kind of rarity are birds whose entire population is low. The world population of Kirtland’s Warbler in 2020, for example, was a little under 5,000 birds. That’s not a lot. By comparison, the seating capacity of the bleachers at Wrigley Field is about 5,000. Such small populations are vulnerable to all sorts of disturbances. This class has a handful of species, most of which are on the Endangered Species List. Of these, a few have been recorded in Illinois, including Kirtland’s Warbler, and recent records of Whooping Crane and Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

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.

Addendum: The Brant was last reported on January 25.

Previous Montrose Brant Records

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

eBird Checklist
January 5, 2021

MEGA! Cassin’s Sparrow, November 13, 2020

Cassin's Sparrow

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.

To see a list of the birds that have been recorded at Montrose, refer to the Birds Recorded at Montrose Point in Chicago page.

Previous Illinois Cassin’s Sparrow Records

  • May 27 – June 6, 1983, Chicago, Cook County
  • May 3 – 6, 2011, Winthrop Harbor, Lake County
  • September 8, 2014, Chicago, Cook County