A little ride on the winter prairie

Frigid sojourns out to the corn stubble usually yield some interesting finds

One of my favorite things to do in winter is to get up early and go for a drive on some Illinois back roads. Sometimes I head south. Other times due west. The idea is to exit the interstate and meander down whatever roads I find in search of birds. There’s no one out at that time, and the birds are just starting to move around for the day. And there’s a good chance of seeing some species that spend their summers much farther north.

Here’s a chronicle of a trip from Jan. 23. The big snows of the past week are going to need to be cleared before I can make another trek like this again.

My alarm went off at 6 a.m. at my home in Chicago. Actually, it didn’t. I was already awake at 5:50 and decided to get up for the day as is my sleepless wont in these pandemic times. The temperature was 12 degrees, and there was just barely a glint of light in the east. I was in the car by 6:10 with a couple of insulated mugs of coffee.

7:12 a.m.

I drove due west on I-90 and left the freeway somewhere between Chicago and Rockford, heading south and west. I was thinking about what would be my first birds of the day. I’d seen a group of ducks flying over the Fox River a little bit earlier, but they were all silhouetted in the dim light. 

The temperature quickly dropped as I went west, all the way down to 1 above zero. There was more snow out in this area, too—apparently there hadn’t been even a slight thaw as there had been in the city. 

7:18 a.m.

The landscape here is much more Great Plains than Great Lakes. It resembles what I think wintry Iowa must resemble across the Mississippi River about 90 miles away. 

The first birds weren’t just any birds, they were Horned Larks, one of my target species. These are year-round residents in rural Illinois and a treat any time they’re encountered. Not much bigger than a sparrow, Horned Larks are handsome birds of barren fields all across North America. They have a lilting flight and a pleasant call interrupting the absolute silence of snowy expanses. This was an agreeable group that would fly out into the corn stubble only to circle back around right in front of my car. 

7:25 a.m.

I pick up my second species, American Tree Sparrow, my first of this regular winter visitor for 2021. This group is in a very characteristic thicket right along the road.

7:33 a.m.

I was hoping for spots like this when I veered off the freeway. There are these little patches of woods out among the fields, usually along a creek, ditch or other waterway. These are good locations for juncos, sparrows, cardinals and woodpeckers. This one comes through with all of the above, including a pretty Red-bellied Woodpecker showing nicely for good measure. 

The woodlot is on the property of someone who’s lined their front yard with Trump flags. These aren’t just a few flags, but a veritable color guard stating things like “Make Liberals Cry Again.” One thing I should note, I’m in a Prius with a BIDEN sticker on the rear bumper. So I thought it was best to abbreviate the visit to the woods and move on.

8:11 a.m.

Now I start seeing more sparrows. But these aren’t what I was expecting—they’re Savannah Sparrows. They’re farther north than typical in winter, in with some juncos and Song Sparrows. 

8:42 a.m.

I’m on the far western end of my circuit now, thinking about circling back toward Chicago, when I hit a pretty little spot, an oak savanna on a bluff above the Kishwaukee River. Here’s where the land gives way to steeper slopes and faster moving watercourses on their way to the Rock River and eventually the Mississippi. Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker are all visible and calling in the single-digit temperatures. The skies are clear and the temperatures frigid enough to make my eyes water when I exit the car for a quick walk.

9:12 a.m.

I’d just crossed into Boone County when I saw a small group of birds in the road about a half-mile ahead. I paused and thought about taking an initial shot with my camera. The birds flit about, showing bright flashes of white when I realize they’re Snow Buntings, visitors from the high Arctic (is there any other Arctic?). I decide to take my chances and creep closer in my car, but this almost immediately flushes them, sending them high in the sky and off to the west, at least 35 or so birds. They settle on a slight rise about a quarter-mile away, but there’s no chance of getting a photo or video now. I wait and wait, but they don’t come back. 

I head back toward Chicago on I-90, reflecting on the morning’s events. In summary, there weren’t huge numbers of birds. I almost whiffed on raptors, only recording a pair of Red-tailed Hawks and a Cooper’s Hawk right at the end. But it was a pleasant ride to the hinterlands and a superb way to enjoy an otherwise mundane wintry morning. 

Five tips for birding wintry Illinois back roads

Here are a few things I’ve learned on these sojourns that have taken place on and off since about 2004.

  1. Look for gravel roads. They’re a lot less traveled and in my experience likelier to harbor some interesting species. Paved roads can be great, too, as all of the above locations suggest, but it’s likely another car will come along sooner or later and spook the birds.

  2. Expect hazardous weather. Even on sunny, clear days, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter icy and snowy roads. Drifting is a huge hazard here, and blizzard-like conditions can pick up most anywhere. This is a time to make sure your phone battery is charged and that you have a few provisions.

  3. Take care at road crossings. Local residents who know these roads tend to drive much faster than the average visiting birder. Make sure to slow down while crossing most any intersection, and take care to pause at two-way and four-way stops (of course).

TWiB Notes

A Gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in the world, stunned birders in Lake County, Ill., this weekend. Birds of the far reaches of Canada and Alaska, Gyrfalcons (pronounced JER-falcon) have on occasion been seen in more southern latitudes. This one, which appears to be a gray morph bird, was found on a tour presented by Red Hill Birding…..Chicago Ornithological Society will be presenting a conversation with local birding legend Greg Neise on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 6 p.m., as part of its Birds & Bytes series…..Audubon Climate Watch is taking place now through Feb. 15, sending volunteers into the field in search of species like the White-breasted Nuthatch and Eastern Bluebird. The data from volunteer observers is utilized to better understand how birds are responding to climate change.