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Off the Trail: Christmas Bird Count connects people with common interests

January 3, 2019

Without spoiling too much of the results, I can say I had a great time participating in my first ever Kankakee Christmas Bird Count this past Saturday. To me, it was less about any bird we saw and more about connecting with local people who have common interests.

You hear of people through the grapevine, and you see their checklists on eBird, but it’s not until an event like this you get to see a glimpse of the community altogether. You can expect a full write-up of the data from the count by Jed Hertz soon.

I started my morning just before 7 a.m., with four others at hunting area 2 of the Kankakee River State Park just off Illinois Route 113. Our group already was playing catch-up because as I rolled out of bed at 5:53 a.m.

Twitter alerted me Douglas Stotz already had got his first bird for the Kankakee count — an Eastern screech owl. Doug had seven more owls by 9 a.m. We had to be quick at the park, as pheasant hunters would arrive to go hunting in a couple hours.

The trees and shrubs were very hushed amid the overcast sky, and it took a long time to see or hear much. We walked the tree lines and trampled through the “prairies” hoping to flush out anything.

We finally did come across several cardinals and a few red-bellied woodpeckers that began to stir. The big haul, the others told me, was, hopefully, down by the river where we could spot some waterfowl. There, too, we came up mostly dry.

The highlight was a pair of goldeneye ducks that flew past just over the treetops as we approached. With the relatively mild winter so far, many of the expected waterfowl have stayed up North waiting to come down only after their open water holes have frozen over. On a good cold winter day, you can sort of predict where they might be gathered by where the ice openings are. Today was not that type of day.

We left the state park with just more than a dozen species of birds and headed to Limestone Park where we added a few species, but the slow day continued. We were hoping that other people around the county were having better luck.

We headed home to warm up some lunch and check our feeders. The feeders did indeed boost our total into the upper 20s, which made me feel better knowing, as the new guy, I wasn’t a jinx to our group.

After a couple more hours of birding with another group near Heiland Road, all the teams came back together to swap stories and share results. We met at Hertz’s home in Kankakee (pictured here).

It was finally time to see the faces of the Kankakee birding vommunity. You had my friend, Bronson Ratcliff, who, while younger than me, is one of the best birders in the region thanks to it being a focus of his homeschooling by his parents. Mike King was there, a junior at Olivet Nazarene University, who saw and photographed one of the rarest birds of the day.

Then you have Douglas Stotz, of early owl fame, he is one of the foremost birders in the world who works at the Chicago Field Museum and has written the book on the birds of Peru … literally. Stotz gave us all a tip, “stay with the birds once you find some.”

By that, he means if you see some chickadees or sparrows in a bush, hang out with them and other birds are soon to come join the party. It is easy just to keep walking and dismiss flocks of the more common species.

Hertz sitting middle right is the foremost birder in the Kankakee area. He has completed more than 10,000 bird checklists for Kankakee County. The No. 2 on that list has only 228 (not that it is a competition). Hertz has been doing bird inventories here since the 1970s, and we owe him a debt for that incredible data.

In total, there were 14 birders in the house that night with several others who participated but couldn’t make it. All of them contributed in some way and had a story from the day.

No matter what we saw or didn’t see, it was refreshing to be around passionate people of all ability levels. It turned out to be about an average year with 71 species at last count, including a few unexpected birds.

For me, it was an exciting, learning experience, and one I hope to build upon for the more diverse spring bird count. I hope you consider joining the flock.

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