Environmental Almanac: A couple of exciting days counting birds

On the morning of the Champaign County Christmas Bird Count, I awoke at 5. But rather than hurrying out, I lay in bed for another hour. I had no enthusiasm for rushing into the rain and wind I could hear outside.

Meanwhile, the more energetic members of my party — Greg Lambeth, who is a clinical psychologist at the University of Illinois, and Steve Bailey, who is an ornithologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey — rose early and visited a couple of wooded areas northeast of Urbana to listen for owls in the dark.

I met them back at Lambeth's house shortly before dawn, and we sat drinking coffee for another half hour until the rain let up. For the rest of the day, we walked and drove the UI South Farms and surrounding areas counting every bird we saw or heard.

Our most interesting find of the morning was a barred owl that's been roosting by day in the UI Forestry Plantation on South Race Street, across from Meadowbrook Park. Unfortunately for the owl, a large mob of crows found it at about the same time we did. Many of them perched in nearby branches and tormented it with a maddening cacophony of cawing. Others flew in menacing circles, swooping in now and again for effect.

The owl sat tight, scanning up, down and side-to-side — miserable, but determined to wait out the onslaught. By day, crows have the advantage over barred owls and good reason to attack them, because under cover of darkness barred owls kill and eat them.

At lunch we headed to the center of campus, where we could grab a sandwich and check for the peregrine falcon that hangs out on the tall buildings near Fourth Street in Champaign. Sure enough, we spotted him perched on a ledge near the top of Sherman Hall as we parked.

After lunch it was back to the South Farms, where development has destroyed a great deal of bird habitat over the past year. In one of the weedy fields that remains we located a flock of white-crowned sparrows around a brush pile.

On their wings and bodies, white-crowns differ little from house sparrows, the Eurasian bird most North Americans think of as the generic "sparrow." (House sparrows are not really even members of the sparrow family, but that's a topic for another day.) But white-crowns' heads are marked with crisp, vibrant stripes of black and white, which remind me of the jerseys worn by NFL referees.

The white-crowns that occupy the Midwest in winter come from breeding territories in far northern Canada and Alaska. For some reason, the habitat on the South Farms has appealed to them, and the Champaign County Christmas Bird Count circle has sometimes tallied more than any other count circle in the state.

Where will they go once the remaining weedy fields have been graded and planted with turf grass? Maybe some other fortunate counters will find them next year and tell us.

My group always makes time to pop over and check for birds on the golf course at Stone Creek in Urbana, where the combination of water and wide-open spaces produces surprises sometimes: Wilson's snipe one year, short-eared owls another. This year the treats were small flocks of unexpected ducks, American wigeons and northern shovelers, which were hanging out with the mallards and Canada geese.

We typically end the count at Barnhart Prairie Nature Preserve on Old Church Road south of Urbana. It's a good spot for northern harriers, long-winged raptors that patrol low over the fields by day searching for rodents. At night, short-eared owls, which resemble harriers in appearance and habits, take over and do the same.

By watching appropriate habitat at dusk, birders can sometimes catch harriers and short-eared owls on the wing at the same time.

As it turned out, though, our most exciting bird of the count was sitting atop the telephone pole right where we pulled off the road to park. It was a prairie falcon, which took off as we put down our windows to get a look at it. From my vantage point in the back seat, all I could say for sure was that I saw a grayish-brown falcon that struck me as being smaller than a peregrine.

From the front, Lambeth and Bailey got clear looks at the dark markings on the underside of the wings to confirm the identification.

You might think an entire day spent counting birds in December would be enough for a person, but the three of us also took part in the count at Clinton Lake on the day after the Champaign County count (and Bailey was participating in a number of others, too). That count was a little slow because waterfowl have yet to be forced south by cold this year, and the low light seemed to suppress activity among other birds.

Of course, "a little slow" at Clinton Lake still includes looks at bald eagles and common loons, so I'm not complaining. And despite the low light, I was able to get a passable photo of a northern saw-whet owl, something I've been hoping to do for a long time.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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