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Field & Street

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I decided to go in search of the gyrfalcons last Friday. I wrote a column about them in January. Two of them have been hanging around the cooling lake at Commonwealth Edison's LaSalle nuclear power station since Christmas. The obvious attraction is the waterfowl that spend the winter on the lake.

Gyrfalcons are a big deal in Illinois. We have had only 17 previous sightings in the state, and some of those are not terribly well documented. The possibility of seeing two gyrfalcons in one day is a literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a bonus, there was the chance to see a prairie falcon. This western falcon should be classified "rare but regular" in the winter in Illinois. We get them almost every year, but usually only one or two birds are reported.

We can be sure there are two gyrfalcons because gyrfalcons are a variable species with three color phases: dark, gray, and white. One of the birds at LaSalle is a dark phase; the other is a gray phase.

As a further bonus, the Chicago Audubon Society's Rare Bird Alert (708-671-1522) reported that a merlin had been seen near the cooling lake. It occurred to me that I could drive to LaSalle County and see the merlin, the prairie falcon, and the gyrfalcons. Then I could drive back to Chicago and find the peregrine falcon that lives along the lake near Montrose Harbor. Add a kestrel or two--you can find them almost anywhere--and I would have seen all but one of North America's native falcons in a single day. The only one I would be missing would be the Aplomado falcon, which is really a Mexican and Central American bird that shows up very rarely in south Texas and southern Arizona. I would also be picking up no less than three life birds. I have never seen a prairie falcon, a gyrfalcon, or a merlin. And if I did pick up those three species, my North American life list would reach 400 species.

The one thing that made me reluctant to undertake the trip was the fact that I never find any of the rare birds I go searching for. The Rare Bird Alert keeps announcing the presence of extraordinary species and provides very precise directions for finding them. I go out and tromp around all day through snow or mud and see nothing but crows, starlings, and the occasional junco. People who show up the day before me or the day after come back with stories about how the bird landed on a tree branch within 20 feet of them and posed for half an hour.

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that I'm really not very good at this game. The other is that the whole edifice of organized bird-watching, with its guidebooks and magazines, its national organizations and local clubs, is an enormous hoax, a huge practical joke being played on me. While I'm shivering on some windswept cornfield or slogging through ankle-deep mud in search of imaginary rarities, the jokesters who concocted this jape are sitting around laughing until their sides ache.

Or maybe the birds are real, but the stories they tell on the hot lines about where the birds are located are fictions. Last spring I decided not to drive all the way to Lake Calumet to see a brown pelican that had been reported there. Instead, I took the very short drive to Montrose Harbor, and there on the beach was the brown pelican. I felt for a moment like I had outsmarted the puppet masters who have been jerking me around all these years.

So I set out for LaSalle County with a general feeling of hopelessness. But it was a beautiful sunny day, and I could enjoy the scenery even if I didn't see any birds.

The LaSalle nuclear generator is just south of the town of Seneca, which is on the Illinois River about 30 miles southwest of Joliet. The countryside is typical Illinois farmland: flat, few trees, bare fields now covered with a thin layer of snow.

I drove down into the narrow Illinois River valley, where there were deeply cut ravines thick with trees and my first raptor of the morning: a red-tailed hawk sitting on a utility pole right next to the road. I stopped and looked him over and then drove on into Seneca.

Downtown Seneca is all north of the river. There are vacant stores and even some vacant lots on Main Street, but there is also a nice new public library and a bank building of recent vintage. Across the river the road climbs up out of the valley and returns the traveler to the sort of Illinois landscape I love: no hills, few trees. I feel at home in this kind of setting. Hills always seem unnecessary and inconvenient to me, and they also block the view. In Illinois the sky is a major component of the landscape, and the horizon is miles away.

The earthen berm that contains Com Ed's lake is just west of the road. Apparently, the warmth of the water in the lake has penetrated the soil enough to melt the snow on the berm. It is the only place in sight where the brown earth shows through the white.

Clouds of vapor rise from the water and hang over the top of the berm. In cold weather blowing vapors can produce localized fogs that affect visibility on adjoining roads.

The grid of roads that follow the section lines south and west of the lake is numbered, and the Rare Bird Alert supplied the numbers of intersections where the falcons have been seen. I spent the entire morning driving slowly over those township roads, checking a corncrib at 22 North and 25 East and utility poles around 18 North and 22 East. Along 23 East between 18 and 19 North a plantation of red pines borders the road for about a quarter mile. Central Illinois is not exactly prime country for red pines, and all the trees have a rather scruffy look, but the birds had been seen perched in the trees. Gyrfalcons are birds of open country--their nesting ground is the arctic tundra--and they are as likely to perch on the ground as on something tall, so I scanned the fields as I drove.

Early in the search I made out the distant shape of a large bird hovering over one spot. Gyrfalcons do hover, but that sort of behavior is more typical of rough-legged hawks, another tundra hunter that comes south in the winter. When I got close enough to see the wing shape, I could tell it was a roughleg. A rough-legged hawk is a good bird, but one you can see every winter if you get out birding much.

At the pine plantation I ran into three birders from Fort Wayne who were making the same fruitless search I was. They had been looking since the previous afternoon with no luck.

I scared up lots of kestrels. Each brought me a thrill of possibility that lasted a fraction of a second, just long enough for me to notice that the bird was far too small to be a gyrfalcon or prairie falcon and had all the wrong colors to be a merlin. And I was attended everywhere I went by horned larks. America's only native lark regards a windswept plowed field as an ideal spot to spend the winter. They are preeminent open-country birds. Even tall grass is too much ground cover for them.

Watching the small songbirds flying off into the fields as my car approached, I was looking for Lapland longspurs and snow buntings. Both species had been seen by birders in search of falcons, but I could not pick any out.

I began to realize that I shouldn't have come alone. I was moving slowly, and there was no traffic, but I still had to pay some attention to the road. I could have used another pair of eyes to help scan the fields.

Every time I saw something large flying in the distance--and in this kind of landscape you can see large flying birds a long way off--it resolved itself into a crow. Large birds out standing in the fields resolved themselves into pheasants.

At some point on a trip like this you have to decide how much longer you are going to search. For me the point came after nearly four hours. I had driven about 60 miles over the township roads and found none of the birds I was seeking. But it was a nice day, and it is good to get out in the country once in a while. I drove into Seneca for a cheeseburger and beer and ate while listening to another customer tell the bartender--at great length and at great volume--about a custody battle he and his ex-wife were having over their son.

As I drove out of Seneca and up the hill to the north of town I looked up and saw that same red-tailed hawk. It was still sitting on the utility pole just as it had been almost five hours ago when I entered the valley. My suspicion is that it is a sort of sentinel. Its job is to warn the rarities that birders are coming.

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