The great thing about Chicago's weather is the drama. Of course standing on an icy corner in a howling gale waiting endlessly for a bus from the ZTA ("Zeno's Transit Authority: We're always almost there"), you might be pardoned for thinking "Drama, schmama, I'm moving to San Diego."
But think for a moment of what has happened in the past two weeks. Think of a vast depression in the ocean of air that blankets the planet, a depression that pulls in water from the fogs and mists of the north Pacific, sucks up cold from the Mackenzie delta and the tundra around Great Bear Lake and Bathurst Inlet, and, drawing energy from every side, sweeps across the plains to dump two feet of snow on Minneapolis, blow down trees in Chicago--and bring us all sorts of rare and wonderful birds.
Birds are creatures of the air, and when the air moves--especially during spring and fall--they move with it. And bird-watchers, notoriously indifferent to weather, are out staring into the teeth of the gale, recording what the tempest delivers. Birders in common mythology are little old ladies, but they are tough little old ladies: little old ladies who laugh at windchills, little old ladies who stand on the lakefront at Gillson Park in Wilmette, or Waukegan Harbor, or Montrose Beach and count the riches the winds blow in.
If you had been standing on the beach at Gillson Park just north of the Baha'i Temple on Halloween you could have counted Franklin's, Sabine's, and little gulls; jaegers; peregrine falcons; over 300 common loons and at least one red-throated loon; 27 tundra swans; all three species of scoters; snow buntings; and 4,500 dunlins.
We need to run all those names by slowly to get a feel for the significance of this. The three gulls, for example, range in rarity from the Franklin's, a bird of the prairie potholes that shows up here every fall in small numbers, to the Sabine's, a bird that nests around ponds and marshes along the shores of the Bering Sea. Most of the population winters off the coast of Peru, but once in a great while a Sabine's gull wanders into the Great Lakes on its way south.
This gull was not even named until the late 19th century. A Dr. E..W. Nelson provided early information on the bird's nesting habits, and, incidentally, gave us a lovely view of the 19th-century gentleman scientist at work.
"On June 13, 1880," he reports, "about 20 miles from St. Michael [an Alaskan town on the Bering Sea], while egging in company with some Eskimo, we found a pond, some 200 yards across, in the middle of which were two small islands....The smallest island lay nearest, and sending one of my men out to it he found a set of two eggs....of Sabine's gull. Proceeding to the next island...he stepped ashore, and a moment later cried out that the ground was covered with gulls' eggs. At the same time he answered with chattering teeth that the water in the lake was very cold. Having never seen the nest of this gull I called my man back and he transported me upon his back to the island after narrowly escaping several falls on the way." It is tough to get help like that these days.
The little gull is a Eurasian bird with a tiny population in the Western Hemisphere. However, it has bred near Green Bay, so a bird or two around here is not unheard of. I got my lifer little gull at Belmont Harbor about 15 years ago.
Imagine seeing 300 common loons in one day! This is another feature of dramatic weather. It blows in rarities, birds far outside their normal ranges, but it also blows in expected birds in numbers far beyond what we would normally see. A milder fall might produce 300 common loons along the lakefront, but you would see them in small numbers, a few each day over several weeks. When a weather system with 50-mile-an-hour tail winds arrives, it seems like every loon in the north woods figures it's time to get moving, and they all arrive here together.
We see red-throated loons on Lake Michigan almost every year, but the sightings are scattered and unpredictable. I have never seen the bird here. My lifer red-throated loons are from LA's Venice Beach, where I found them numerous and very cooperative--they were fishing in the surf just a few yards offshore on a warm, sunny December day.
Common loons nest on lakes all over the north country, from central Wisconsin and Michigan to the Arctic Ocean. Red-throated loons are tundra birds, nesting only north of the boreal forests. They winter on salt water off both coasts. They are the smallest of the loons, and the only ones that can leap directly into flight from water or land. The others can take off only from water and only after a long run across the surface. The quick takeoff makes it possible for red-throated loons to use smaller lakes than the heavier loons.
We had a dozen species of birds of prey pass through during the heavy weather. Two golden eagles passed over La Bagh Woods, at Cicero and Foster, and bald eagles were reported from several locations. Three "large accipiters" were reported from the lakefront at Addison. This is a case of using extreme caution in reporting sightings.
Accipiters are hawks with short, broad wings and long tails. The body design is ideal for quick, explosive starts and agile maneuvers. They don't soar over open country in search of prey or capture it with high-speed flight. They are birds of the woodlands that sit quietly on branches waiting for something--either birds or small mammals--to get close. Then they leap into furious motion, hitting top speed with a few quick wing beats, and twisting and turning as they follow their frantic prey through the trees.
We have three accipiters in North America. One small, the sharp-shinned hawk; one medium, the Cooper's hawk; and one large, the goshawk. So large accipiters are probably goshawks, the birds that would be the most exciting sightings of the three, the big hawks of the north woods that appear here only in winter.
Sandhill cranes came through in numbers. There were reports from the Chicago Botanic Garden and elsewhere. I can add my own report of two flocks totaling about 80 birds that I saw heading south over California Avenue at Montrose on the afternoon of Sunday, November 3.
We had other rare gulls around during the big weather. Black-legged kittiwakes appeared at 130th and Indiana Avenue. A lesser black-backed gull was at O'Brien Lock and Dam on the Calumet River, and another was at Gillson Park. The lesser black-backed was formerly considered very rare here. There were only five records through the early 80s, but it is expanding its range now and changing its status to rare but regular.
Red-necked grebes showed up at a couple of lakefront locations. This species may have nested in Cook County 150 years ago, but it is a rare migrant now.
Tundra swans came through in large numbers. In addition to the birds at Gillson Park, there were 113 birds at Mallard Lake in Du Page County on Halloween. This bird of the high arctic passes through the Great Lakes every year, but we don't usually see 100 birds at a time. Sightings like those at Mallard Lake provide a glimpse of the sort of natural abundance we don't get to see much anymore.
And how about those dunlins? Forty-five hundred birds at Gillson Park, another 1,000 reported at Illinois Beach. Dunlins are sandpipers that nest in the high arctic in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Come fall, they fly south to winter along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja, along the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Florida, and on the gulf coast of Texas. In the Old World you can find them on the Mediterranean coast, the coasts of southern Asia, and the Cape Verde islands.
Dunlins still sometimes pass in such huge flocks that people mistake them for clouds of insects. There was a time when many species of shorebirds--sandpipers and plovers--passed through the mid latitudes in similar numbers. Market hunting that began in the late 19th century made the first major dent in their numbers. Now they are losing habitat. Long-distance migrants typically depend on a number of way stations along their routes from nesting ground to wintering area. They may occupy a tidal flat or a coastal marsh for only a few days, but take that link out of the chain of migration stops and the birds may not be able to complete their flight. Instead of arriving at their winter home tired and hungry but otherwise fit, they perish along the way. When we think about conservation, we need to recognize the many birds that require whole continents to live out the drama of their lives.