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Champaign County Big Year, 2021

In 2021, I didn’t plan to do a big year right away. It felt like too much pressure to announce it and then have expectations to live up to. So my approach in the beginning was: just see as many birds in Champaign County as you can, mainly county lifers. I did tell a few select birders that I was unofficially doing a big year. This turned out to be a smart move, as these three were incredibly enthusiastic and helped me find a ton of birds!

I think it was probably near the end of February whenI had racked up most of the winter birds I needed, so I didn’t have to chase them in December and risk missing them! I had my ducks, geese and owls. And I was close to 100 species already.

All right, god damn it! I guess I’m doing a Big Year proper! I knew the record was set by Bob Chapel in 1995. 232 was the number to beat!

I still didn’t really talk about it too much until migration. But I chased everything I could chase, and I tried to find good habitat for the other birds I needed.

Thanks to Isoo O’brien, who wrote an amazingly detailed blog post about his Cook County big year, I knew that a county big year was NIGHT AND DAY different than a state big year! He talked about how you had to rely more on finding good habitat for the species you needed and to put yourself there. Sometimes you had to put yourself there to the point of monotony!! But if you finally got your bird because of this tenacity, it was all worth it!

But I also realized the differences between my and Isoo’s big years, the most obvious being that I was NOT in Cook County! I would no longer have the luxury of not only tons of other birders out there birding, but the fact that they were used to reporting them. I did start a Champaign and surrounding counties notable bird alert Group Me group in 2020. That proved to be a really big help. And I definitely chased my share of birds that were reported in our group and on other platforms. But I still knew I would not be able to rely on it as heavily and would need to find birds on my own. At the end of the year, 78% of my species were self-found!

Ducks can be hard to come by in Champaign County because it does not have any very large lakes like Clinton or Shelbyville. So whenever they turned up, I tried to get on them right away. I added many ducks to my Champaign life list in January and February, including Canvasback, Greater Scaup, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Bufflehead and Common and Red-breasted Merganser. I was happy to discover that Greater White-fronted, Snow and Cackling Geese are much easier to find here than in Cook County. The only goose I had to be patient and look for was Ross’ Goose, which I found on my own on March 13. I also had all the swans by 2/24, which is not easy to do. Swans can be tricky to find, again because of the lack of large bodies of water. I got lucky with a flyover Trumpeter near Dewey. Colin found a Tundra at First and Windsor Ponds, and someone else found a Mute Swan at River Bend (probably the most rare for the county!)

Clockwise from top left: Canvasback, Common and Red-breasted Merganser, American Wigeon, Greater Scaup

Owls were another family I could look for in the winter, when it was less birdy. Saw-whet was the easiest to get under my belt, as there was one that was reported at Homer Lake that many folks saw. I then went on a quest for a self-found Saw-whet, also hoping to find a Long-eared in the same general habitat. I did not find either, however, I found my Barred Owl for the year that way at Sangamon River Forest Preserve! This proved to be a pattern-- while out looking for Short-eared Owls in their usual spot in Sidney, I found my FOY Great Horned in some trees near a tiny cemetery!! I eventually did get a “wrap around” Short-eared Owl on January 18. ( I had probably seen these same birds on 12/31/2020). Another wrap around bird was the Snowy Owl that had been hanging around in Sidney. Colin and I found it on 12/10/2020 and I found it again on 1/10/2021. My Long-eared Owl for the year I found at a spot where it had been seen relatively often in past year. But I consider it self-found because no one had reported it yet when I got it (not even Colin! lol). So I was left with Eastern Screech-owl. These birds don’t show up much in early Winter, so I had to be patient. I noticed folks had had them at Middle Fork near the campground, so one night in early March I went with my partner and played for them. We were about to give up and pack it in when a distant screech owl finally called! I did end up getting amazingly close looks at a bird some folks spotted in a neighborhood in Urbana later in the year.

Clockwise from top left: Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Screech-owl, Snowy Owl, Long-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl hunting

Another species I wanted to make sure I got in January or February so I didn’t have to chase them late in the year was Lapland Longspur. It took me a couple tries, but I eventually found a flock in Sidney near where I had the Short-eared Owl. Snow Bunting proved to be a little tougher to find. Zak Sutton came through for me and was scanning in ag fields in Urbana every day on his way to work. On 2/12 he spotted some and I was able to get this somewhat tricky county lifer

Certain raptors were also good to try for in winter. I had some great luck and spotted a Merlin in a stubbly corn field on 1/17. And I successfully chased a county lifer Rough-legged Hawk near St Joseph on 1/17. I got great looks at a Sharp-shinned Hawk on the same day near the Long-eared Owl.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Rough-legged Hawk

Another great bird I chased on 3/7 was a Horned Grebe reported by Mike Ward. It was at Colbert Park, which has a small pond, so it was a drive-up bird and very easy to spot.

My luck continued when my partner and I were in some random parking lot in suburban Champaign. She looked up and said, “Are those pelicans?” I taught her well because she nailed it!! What a great species to secure for the year list on 3/20! It is a tricky species to find in the county and I did not see another that year!

I had discovered American Woodcocks displaying in a random cemetery in Rantoul back in March of 2020. So this was a slam dunk for my year list. However, when driving through Penfiled one day, I noticed a piece of restored prairie. What I did not realize before I moved to Champaign County was just how much of it was ag fields! So when I did happen upon a piece of prairie, I took note!! This particular piece reminded me of the one near the Rantoul cemetery. So I few days later, I went near dusk to look for Woodcocks. Sure enough, I found them and got some great footage of them walking around and peenting before it got too dark! Also got some video (well, mostly audio) of them taking off and making their twittering noises they make when displaying! I was thrilled and somewhat proud that I was able to identify this as good habitat and that my instincts were correct!

Through the end of March I continued to add quality birds to my year list: American Pipit and Vesper Sparrow (both of which I surprisingly did not have on my county life list yet!) and an early Louisiana Waterthrush

Vesper Sparrow

Also in late March, Tyler Funk reported a flock of Smith’s Longspurs just west of the city of Champaign. For the life of me, I could not find these birds there. But an eBird search showed me some spots where they had been reliably seen in the past. And on 4/1 I found a nice, close flock in Seymour.

Colin Dobson reported hearing a Fish Crow by his apartment on campus. Zak and I met there in the rain and got nice recordings of what would be a county lifer for us both! Later, Rob Kanter heard one (the same one?) in right his neighborhood, which is only a couple of blocks from my house. Sure enough, on 5/18 I walked out of my back door to fill my feeders and I heard the distinctive, nasal call of a Fish Crow! Amazing to count this as a YARD bird!!

My FOY Lincoln’s Sparrow was right in my own yard, which was quite excellent!

Mike Ward found yet another great bird on 4/10-- a Little Blue Heron at Homer Lake.

In early April I also added Sora and Virginia Rail to my county life list.

Sora (front) with Solitary Sandpiper photobombing

On 4/13 we got probably our best bird of the year so far! Sarah Winnicki-Smith was doing field work at a nursery when she spotted a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD!!!! She was kind enough to get permission from the owner for birders to come on the property. I got there as quickly as I could, heard it, and snapped a couple crappy photos before the bird took off. Others birders showed up but we could not refind it.

The next morning I headed to Heritage Park to look for bank swallows (which I did get and they were a county lifer!) However, this highlight was soon eclipsed by something much better. I heard a familiar shriek from the tall reeds in the pond– it was a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD!!! I don’t know which would be weirder– for the SAME bird to fly across town or for a SECOND bird to be seen a day later! In any case, I got the word out on the Group Me and birders started flocking! I was thrilled to have refound this species so local folks could get another county lifer on their lists!

Brock Price reported a Northern Mockingbird at Homer Lake on 4/15. I made the 18-mile trek as fast as I could, hoping to catch this county lifer that was a fairly tough bird to chase!! I got there and Brock was still around. We searched for it where he saw it last, but no luck. We birded together a bit more, looking for other stuff and assuming the bird had taken off. Then Brock pointed to the edge of the water and said, “Is that the mockingbird?” It TOTALLY WAS!!! I was so grateful to him for going out of his way to help me see this bird!!

Another great bird showed up at Homer lake about a week later– Forster’s Tern! I had learned quickly that the gulls and terns that were so common in Cook County were certainly not common here! In fact, I kind of took for granted how LUCKY I was to get a flyover Caspian Tern at Lake of the Woods on 5/15! I did not see another again all year! So these were a rare treat and awesome birds       Forster's Tern                                                          add to my year list!

In late April, I started racking up the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes and other songbirds, as expected. One rare bird that showed up last year, Worm-eating Warbler, was not spotted this year. However, I did find my own Black-throated Blue Warbler at Busey Woods, which felt really good. The three warblers I felt would be most challenging to find in the county were Connecticut, Kentucky and Prairie. I managed to snag Connecticut in mid May, when Sarah Winnicki-Smith found one at Busey and I found it the next day, after a good hour of searching! On 4/29, I decided to take a chance and leave the county to try for a hopefully drive-up state lifer– a RUFF in DuPage County. I kid you not, the minute I pulled into the parking lot, Colin popped up on the Group Me and reported a KENTUCKY WARBLER at the pollinatarium! I cursed, grabbed my scope, got the Ruff, and tore back to Champaign County! I did NOT find that bird, but the next day, I found my own, unchased bird at Busey Woods! Totally awesome, lucky find!

Kentucky Warbler

So now it was down to Prairie. I had gotten lucky, as far as I was concerned, when I saw one at Crystal Lake the year before. But they had torn out invasive plants at Crystal Lake, leaving that habitat completely devastated. So now I started to think about habitat. There is a beautiful, scrubby planting just outside Allerton Park in Piatt County that is extremely reliable for Prairie Warblers. I had passed a habitat that looked an awful lot like that one on my way to Middle Fork. It was private property, and I didn’t have nerve or time to figure out who owned it. But I did stop by there a few times and played for Prairie. Sure enough, on 5/2, one answered back! Again, it was a really satisfying feeling to have had a hunch about habitat and be right!

May 2nd was quite a busy day for adding amazing year birds! Before I scored the Prairie Warbler, I was heading toward Middle Fork when a report came in: Mike Ward (are you noticing a pattern here? Mike Ward finds good birds!) found a KING RAIL at Point

Pleasant Wetland! I hit the gas and TORE there! Mike was nice enough to wait for me (and you have to walk a mile in, so he waited a while!) The rail never showed itself, which is to be expected for this secretive species. But it was very vocal and that was enough to ID it for sure! I had just gotten a PHENOMENAL county lifer and a really unexpected year bird! I was just celebrating this achievement when another report came in: there were BLACK-NECKED STILTS at a random fluddle in Foosland! I was already up in the northeast part of the county, so I made the trek west as fast as I could. The stilts were the best kind of drive-up birds and I got some really nice shots. Another sweet bird for the list that is pretty rare in the county!

I mentioned all the ag fields in the county, and these make it hard to find a true grassland bird: the Bobolink. So when a small flock was reported near Fourth and Windsor, I jumped at the chance to get them. They wouldn’t come close enough for a photo, but I was psyched to add this to the year list, since it was by no means a given!

Zak came through for me again when he told me he had a Clay-colored Sparrow in his yard. I was happy to get this species, after having missed out on a Lark Sparrow at Crystal Lake at the end of April.

Just like in 2020, a Wilson’s Phalarope turned up again for the Champaign Spring Bird Count, this time at the Swine Ponds in Champaign. I got nice photos and video, and was grateful to add this species that is fairly rare in the county.

I was headed out to Middle Fork again on 5/12. I was kind of anxious to get there, though I don’t remember why. The reason I never go there is that I stopped at a random fluddle. I saw some birds that I thought were probably American Golden-Plover, which I had been seeing everywhere since April. But I thought I should check it out anyway. Boy, am I glad I did! They turned out to be the much less frequent BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER!! In fact, I don’t think any others were reported in the county in 2021. A really lucky find I am really grateful for!

At this point I was starting to feel like I was living at Middle Fork and Point Pleasant Wetland (which is actually part of Middle Fork River Forest Preserve). I was headed there when Mike Ward came through again! He had a LEAST BITTERN calling in the marsh! And again, he waited for me to make the drive and the long walk in. So grateful to him for helping me get on a really unexpected year bird and a county lifer! That day at Point Pleasant I also finally got a county lifer Grasshopper Sparrow and a surprise LeConte’s Sparrow, which I didn’t expect to find until October!

The next bird of note was pretty nuts. Someone reported hearing an EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILL in a fairly suburban neighborhood in Urbana. So I went to check it out, not really getting my hopes up. I pulled up, got out of the car, and listened. There were lots of cardinals and robins singing at dusk. I was about to chalk it up to someone mistaking a weird robin song for a EWPW when I HEARD IT! It was far away and faint, but unmistakable!! By the time I got my phone app ready to record, it stopped and didn’t call again. But I had just gotten another unexpected county lifer, just like that!

Busey and Crystal Lake came through again, with a nice Mourning Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Somehow on 5/19 I ended up at the Swine Ponds. I guess I was looking for shorebirds. I looked with my binoculars out into the pond and saw some baby ducks. Then I noticed the baby ducks were not following an adult at all. As I got closer, I realized they were so much better than ducks– PHALAROPES! The glare was in my face, but I thought they were most likely Wilson’s Phalaropes because we had seen them there earlier in the month. I went around to the other side so the sun wasn’t in my face. THEY WERE RED-NECKED PHALAROPES! IN FULL BREEDING PLUMAGE! They were one of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen and a fantastic county lifer! I got it on the Group Me, right away and the birders came a-runnin’, eager to get a county lifer for themselves as well! It always feels nice to be the one reporting instead of doing the chasing for a change.

Something else great showed up at the Swine Ponds on 5/23. The bad news is, the person who saw this bird didn’t know what it was and that it was rare. She did report it on a site called Bird Notes, (which I’ve tried to join three times and it never worked, so I gave up). Folks told me about it around 8pm, and it had been seen around 5pm. Had I known, I could have rushed over and got my county lifer BLACK TERNS! Don’t get me wrong– I’m not criticising the person who saw them. I actually met her later at Middle Fork and talked to her about birding. She’s a beginner and getting super into it, so I invited her to the Group Me. It was just a touch frustrating that the planets didn’t align for me to get the word about these birds in time, since I live literally 10 minutes away! I went in the morning, and a Common Nighthawk gave me a heart attack. But no BLTE.

When I found that scrubby spot in Rantoul, the one where I heard the Prairie Warbler, I said to myself, “This place looks great for three species: Prairie Warbler, Bell’s Vireo and Yellow-breasted Chat.” Well, I found two out of the three there! On 5/20, on my way to Middle Fork, I stopped and listened. I heard a Bell’s Vireo singing his heart out! This was a first of year bird, and one I was planning to chase! So it was a great feeling to just find it on my own in the appropriate habitat, and be able to report it to eBird as a spot where they might be breeding! I went on to find this species in another two places in Champaign County– Buffalo Trace Prairie in Mahomet and at First and Windsor Ponds. I was REALLY happy to find them at First and Windsor because the habitat we found them in in 2020 was literally BURNT to the ground!! (This made us all VERY ANGRY!!) So it was a joy and a relief to not only see them in the adjacent habitat, but to hear and see a singing male with a female right next to him!

Another bird I hoped to add to my year list was Henslow’s Sparrow. I had found them at Middle Fork near the campground the year before. So I went to search there around the end of May. I came up empty, but on 5/20 I tried again. I didn’t look near the campground, but rather the prairie habitat in the north west corner of the preserve. I tromped around, listening intently, but heard nothing. I got all the way over to the western edge of the grasses when I heard the familiar hiccup-y song! I literally fell on my knees, got out my phone and recorded it. Year bird #229 was one I felt I earned.

Oh, yeah. #229. So all the while I’m writing this I’m not thinking about how close I was getting to the record of 232!!

May 23rd proved to be one of the best days of birding in my whole big year! Zak had wanted to get to Middle Fork to try for the King Rail and Least Bittern and this was his first chance at it. He’d never been there so he asked me to come along to show him where to look. So we decided to meet in the parking lot. I left while it was still dark, hoping to listen for Northern Bobwhite in the parking lot. But I just couldn’t stop myself from stopping at my usual spots along 3300N. I saw and heard some Grasshopper Sparrows singing in a cow field on the north side of the road, just before the landfill. So as I pulled up to the intersection just past the landfill, I still had my windows rolled down, listening for them all along the way.

I HEARD A NORTHERN BOBWHITE CALL! What another brilliant stroke of luck that I got this county lifer just sitting at a random intersection in Rantoul! This brought my total to #230 before I even GOT to Middle Fork! {{{make VIDEO of voice memo}}}

By the time I got there the sun was up and Zak was there waiting. I will preface this part by saying that Zak and I had done the Champaign SBC in May at Homer Lake. One of the only times I strayed from the group was to chase an American Redstart, a bird we SHOULD have had for the count and did not, so it was bugging me. And it was then that Zak found a Black-billed Cuckoo. By the time I heard him yelling, it had already flown away and I was kicking myself! While this is not a super rare bird in Champaign County, it is certainly a tough bird to chase. It’s a species you kind of need to run into. So I was totally bummed to miss this one. That was May 6th and today was May 23rd! I was running out of migration days to find this bird! The main reason I wanted to go to Point Pleasant that day was that Steve Huggins, a birder friend from Chicago, had spotted a Black-billed Cuckoo there the day before! He gave me details about where to look, and Zak and I looked! Zak played a BBCU call on his phone. Almost immediately he looked into the trees and said, “That bird is cuckoo-shaped!” It was a cuckoo! But we needed a closer look! Yellow-billed Cuckoos are way more common, so we needed to rule it out. Then we saw the red eye and full black bill– IT WAS A BLACK-BILLED! This practically unchaseable bird had hung out for us and Zak was fittingly the one to find it! I was totally grateful for his help in finding year bird #231.

The next new bird would TIE THE RECORD. A Yellow-breasted Chat was reported there the day before as well. This bird is not especially hard to find in Champaign County. But the ones I tried to chase I just could not get on.

Zak and I moved forward towards the wetland proper. And we both heard it at once–

THE CHAT WAS SINGING!!! We jumped around and high-fived and made a quick recording! Then we headed towards the bird. He was easy to spot, high up in a clump of trees, singing like he owned the place. We got photos! We got video! We documented the SHIT out of this record-tying species, which was a county lifer for me!!!

With my goals achieved, I was happy to just relax and bird and try to get Zak on the birds he came to see. The King Rail was vocal as ever again! We heard it right away. And the Least Bittern was also singing away. Not only that, while scanning across the marsh, we saw something pop up– it was the BITTERN! So now I could document it as seen and not heard only! Very satisfying to EVER see this skulky species! It really capped off this truly AMAZING day of birding!

So here I was on May 23rd with a conundrum. Migration was winding down quick. I had missed Hooded Warbler and a couple other not easy but doable birds. The species I could still see at the end of May were dwindling. But there was one species I thought I had the best chance of getting: Black-crowned Night-Heron.

I had already been looking for it. It had been reported near Mattis Lake, but I did not find that bird. Folks who knew the county and eBird told me that Kaufman Lake was my best bet. I had been going there often to look since it was conveniently just a mile or so from my house. But I had been coming up empty each time. After almost two weeks of looking, I began to lose hope.

But I kept going, remembering what Isoo said about the monotony of county birding, and how going back to the same spots OVER and OVER was just part of the process.

And on May 27th, IT PAID OFF!

I had walked the entire length of Kaufman Lake and didn’t see anything. But on my way back, something had come out and perched on one of the dead branches sticking out into the water. It was the MOST BEAUTIFUL JUVENILE BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON I HAD EVER SEEN! Beautiful because birds are beautiful. But symbolically beautiful because in seeing it, i had just BROKEN THE CHAMPAIGN COUNTY BIG YEAR RECORD!!!

I took scads of photos! I took video of me thanking the bird! I called my partner and screamed into the phone! I had broken the record and it wasn’t even JUNE YET!

One of the reasons I was so happy about breaking the record in the Spring, was that if I didn’t I would likely have to wait until AUGUST to get another bird! I am really not the most patient person in the world, so that would have been no fun! LOL

Little did I know, that would not have been the case. On 6/4, someone reported an UPLAND SANDPIPER on the outskirts of Urbana! I rushed over and found a pair of birds easily, as the two of them were calling noisily to each other! Very nice county lifer indeed!

The feeling you get when you chase a bird and actually get it is great. But once in a while, you chase a bird, only to find it on your own later. Sometimes it makes it a little less fun. Stilt Sandpiper was one of these birds. I got a report of some at St Joseph Wetland and got them, though I got crappy looks. I later found them on my own in a random fluddle in Rantoul, just around the corner from my self-found BBPL. Not that I’m all about stats, but there were at least five birds that I chased that I later found on my own (including notables YHBL and FICR !). If I were to count these, my self-found total just might pop up over 80%. So, just putting that out there!

I realized that I had missed a lot of shorebirds in the Spring. Spring is tough because everything happens AT ONCE! You need to chase migrant songbirds and sometimes shorebirds are an afterthought. What I stupidly did not think about is that all those beautiful fluddles that formed in stubbly ag fields in the spring did not EXIST in the fall because the crops were growing in them! DUH! I tried to plan well for my big year, but I feel like that was a rookie mistake I regret.

With fluddles a no-go, I had to switch gears to get the shorebirds I needed. And guess who came through? A-GAIN? Yep, MIKE WARD!!! He was birding at a place I didn’t know existed (it just became an eBird hotspot in December 2021, so that makes sense) It was the Middle Fork River SOUTH Waterfowl Area! I knew about the North Waterfowl Area. It had been great in the past but right then the water levels were WAY too high for shorebirds. Mike and Ian Souza-Cole were birding at said South Waterfowl Area and reported not one but THREE shorebirds I needed for the year: Baird’s Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher, all of which were also county lifers! I frantically messaged Mike, “WHERE are you talking about!?” He gave me great directions and I flew up there as fast as I could! I got ALL THREE species easily! I couldn’t believe my luck!

But my luck continued. That pesky Hooded Warbler that I couldn’t find in the Spring miraculously showed up for me– IN MY OWN YARD!!! I just COULD NOT believe it! This bird is MUCH less likely to be seen in the Fall than the Spring. And it was a lifer yard bird for me! Truly amazing!

So was my luck going to continue??! Um, maybe not.

On 9/4, Michelle and I were heading to Chicago for a very special occasion. It would take a very special occasion to make me leave the county! I had learnt my lesson after the Kentucky Warbler incident. However, this was the premier of the full-length film Monty and Rose, which featured an original song I had written for the film and lots of others. So I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! But my heart sank when a report came in of COMMON TERNS at Homer Lake! Then more Common Terns at Middle Fork!! There was just no way to be in two places at once.

Granted, both Homer and Middle Fork are far enough away that it could have proven to be a wild goose chase anyway. Terns aren’t known to stick around so I may have missed them. But it kind of stung after all the luck I was having.

I thought my luck had changed when the next day at Middle Fork I spotted what I REALLY thought was an immature SNOWY EGRET! I sent Mike Ward photos, and he was pretty it was, too. He came and looked at it, and we both decided, yep, SNEG! What a great county bird!

Except it WASN’T!!! Upon further review, most agreed it was a young Little Blue Heron. Is that a sick bird to find in Champaign County? Yup. Did I already have it for the year? Yup. I try not to let counting and listing birds get in the way of the ENJOYMENT of the birds and the birding. But I have to admit, to have it TALLIED and then have to take it back was hard to swallow! !

And wouldn’t you know- it happened AGAIN! September 9th (which is historically a VERY unlucky day for me, as it is a double 9, and I cannot STAND the number 9! Or rather, it cannot stand ME!) I went back to Middle Fork South Waterfowl Area, my new home, to look for any shorebirds I still needed. And I thought I had one! What looked to be a RED PHALAROPE turned out to be a Red-NECKED Phalarope! Again, sick bird? Absolutely! Did I already find it in May? Yup. I was happy that Colin still needed it and was able to see it because of me (and it is always nice to return the favor, since I have chased countless birds Colin has found!) But again, a bit of a knife in the heart.

Another knife came when I left the county again to do the IOS Big Sit. It was a big deal because I was on the committee that was organizing it and we were trying to break a Big Sit record. So when a report of a drive-up, slam dunk AMERICAN AVOCET came through, it was a real pisser! Mike Ward heard it first and he said something like, “I don’t even know if I should tell you this.” I considered driving two and a half hours back to get it, but I didn’t want to let my team down. So I sucked it up and tried not to pout. Missing a county lifer and a super rare bird was rough though!!

I found out shortly, that when doing a big year, this was the part of the year that DRAGGED ON!! You’ve gotten most of the migratory birds you can get, in Spring and Fall. Now, you really have to wait until OCTOBER to get anything else you haven’t seen!

Early to midOctober is the time to see a very specific and special bird: Nelson’s Sparrow. And there are two spots in Champaign County that are RIDICULOUSLY PERFECT for this bird, in terms of habitat. One is Point Pleasant Wetland, of course. But much closer and with more records of sightings of this bird is Weaver Park in Urbana, just 15 minutes from my house.

So in early to mid October, I LIVED at Weaver Park. In fact, I made FOURTEEN trips to Weaver Park, the first on 10/2 and the last on 10/31 (though it was over a week later than the latest date NESP was ever seen there). I found LeConte’s Sparrow on two occasions, which was nice. But also a real tease because each time I thought I had my target and each time my heart sank when I didn’t. It was SO FRUSTRATING because this bird had been seen multiple times around this time of year. But it either wasn’t here, or I just couldn’t find it. Either way, it was one of the biggest misses toward the end of my big year.

Though I wished it was a Nelson's, I did get the best looks ever at this LeContes Sparrow

This late in the year, the number of species I had even a remote chance of seeing was dwindling. I could count them on one hand: Dunlin, Northern Shrike, any Scoter, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

But one thing that gave me hope was that November was approaching. And I learned from the best birders, NOVEMBER IS FOR RARITIES!

So this is where the Cook County phenomenon really helps, and not having it hinders. Because it was fucking November and there was not a lot to see, and the weather was getting colder (okay, that is kind of a lame excuse because we had unseasonably WARM weather in November! But I digress…) My point is, my trusty Champaign birders were NOT OUT BIRDING! (That's not a criticism, folks! Just an observation! And I could be totally wrong!) Or if they were, they had nothing to report that I needed for my year list. So I waited.

Oh, and I kept checking fluddles. Because the irony was, as dry as it was in October when the shorebirds came through, it was WET AS FUCK in November. But shorebird season was winding down so it was too late! The only shorebirds I could hope to see now were a miraculous Godwit or a more probable DUNLIN. So i kept looking in fluddles. One of the fluddles that was reliable was the Black-bellied Plover spot. And finally on 11/8, there were three DUNLIN there! Self-found at a self-found location, this felt REALLY good! Finally another species to add, after the disappointment of the NESP and dragging of September and October!

I only had to wait another week when FINALLY our first (and I think only!) November rarity showed up in Champaign County! Tara Beveroth reported seven CATTLE EGRETS in a really random spot! A kind of retention pond right near the highway and this little subdivision. (Zak has a theory that good birds show up way too often in shitty little pieces of water along the highways. He thinks they fly ALONG the highways because of this. I tend to agree with him, and this could be the case for these pretty rare CAEG!) I tore over there, found these little beauties, and chatted with Deanna Uphoff, who was also getting a county lifer right then! #244 was a pretty sweet one!

Ok, so I got Dunlin. With that checked off, now it was time to focus on the other three targets.

So, in other words, it was time to LIVE at Middle Fork again and try for a Northern Shrike.

And that’s what I did. At first I looked mostly in the northwest corner, where Mike Ward had had them in the past. But then I noticed the habitat adjacent to the campground looked SUPER good for shrike! Scrubby with lots of honey locust trees with big-ass thorns! Shrike heaven, really!

So I started looking there… And I made SEVEN trips up there, thirty minutes each way. And I scanned that scrubby area like crazy. Until finally on 12/1, I GOT MY SHRIKE! County lifer and year bird #245!! The monotony and tenacity pays off again!

Ok, so really, at this point, realistically I did not really expect to see any more year birds. I wasn’t giving up or anything, but I just said to myself, if this is my last bird, a self-found county lifer I worked my ass off to get, so be it! That’s a good way to end an amazing year.

Nope. Not done yet!

Champaign County Christmas Bird Count happened on 12/18. I birded Busey with Zak before it got light, listening for owls. We walked Crystal Lake and then he had to go. I then headed to Woodlawn Cemetery, on a whim. Colin hadn’t assigned me to it, but I thought I’d look for some good finches. And I managed to turn up a Common Redpoll! Not an easy bird to find in Champaign County, and I was proud to have found it for the count!

My last stop was Colbert Park. I will preface this by saying that I was making fairly frequent stops at Colbert because if something I needed was going to turn up, it might be there. Remember, the Horned Grebe was seen there, and deep water ducks like Ring-necked and Bufflehead liked to hang there, too. On November 17, I almost lost my shit. Upon closer inspection, I saw that I had a Ruddy Duck in my scope. But, man! Did that ever make me think it was a Black Scoter.

Ruddy Duck I almost thought was a Black

Scoter back on 11/17!

Was it foreshadowing? Because when I looked through my scope on 12/18, at first I thought it was just another tease of a Ruddy Duck. Then I looked closer–


I immediately sent a photo to Colin. I was 99% sure, but I didn’t want to send it to the group and be wrong and feel like the ass who cried wolf! Colin confirmed and cried and said he was cursed because he was out of town! I told him sorry and I knew how he felt! (He was with me when we heard about the AMAV so he knew what I meant!)

I then told the Champaign area birders. And then I told the state because, hey, it is a rare bird in Illinois proper! And then I discovered that this was the FIRST TIME this species was EVER reported in the county! Everyone who came by for this drive-up, close view was going to get a county lifer! That made me feel really good for sure!

Ok, so would the year end with this historic county record?!

Not yet!!

Deanna Uphoff had heard that I still needed Eurasian Tree Sparrow. She got them at her feeders from time to time, so she promised to tell me if they showed up. On 12/21, they did!!

I went over after work, hoping they’d be flocking to the feeders before it got dark. But no luck. So I headed over the next morning. I waited, and waited, and looked at EVERY SINGLE House Sparrow until my eyes bled! I was literally about to give up hope and pack it in, when I saw two small birds land in the top of the willow at the edge of the property. They were EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS!!! County lifer and year bird #247!!!

So that had to be it, right? I was leaving on a trip to Florida on 12/27. I literally had four more days left to bird in the county.

And on that last day, 12/26, a report came in from EJ. ( I had met her at Middle Fork and got her on the Group Me. She was a new birder but was out there a lot, having discovered a new passion. So when I told her to report anything, even if i turned out not to be rare, it paid off!)

She reported a SURF SCOTER at River Bend!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Not one but TWO scoter species in the county in the same month?! On the last day of my county big year?!

I flew to River Bend and found it easily, as it was the only bird in the water!

What an UNREAL way to end an INCREDIBLE year of county birding! With another super rarity and a county lifer!!!

So there it is, the story of my Champaign County Big Year in some probably unnecessarily ridiculous detail! LOL

How did I do it? I have done two big years so far, and this is one thing I’ve learned. You need four things to have a successful big year:





And pretty much in that order. The COVID situation gave me more time to bird than I could ever hope for. I think a state big year requires more skill and planning because it spans a wider scope, but county birding is a bit more simple in that regard. I feel incredibly lucky that some of these birds popped up for me. As for the misses, they just give me a goal for 2022– to add more lifers to my county list!

As for those who helped me, I’d like to especially thank Mike Ward, Colin Dobson and Zak Sutton for their enthusiasm and huge amount of help they gave me in finding birds. Other Champaign (and Piatt!) birders were a BIG help, too: Brock Price, Rob Kanter, Rachel Vinsel, Eric Freyfogle, Ian Souza-Cole, Sarah Winnicki-Smith, Tyler Funk, Deanna Uphoff, EJ, Mike Avara, Evan Smith and Nate Beccue. (And I’m sorry if I’m leaving anyone out! If you reported anything I chased, THANK YOU!!!)

Here are some stats:

Total species for year: 248

Former record from 1995: 232

County lifers seen this year: 50!

New county life bird total: 253

Chased: 54 (22%)

Self-found: 194 (78%)

Link to full list in eBird:

Up to this point, I've really only talked about the most special and rare birds I've seen. I'll end, then, with some photos of some typical migrants and year-round birds-- not hard to find but beautiful and incredible just the same. After all, it is these "every-day" birds that make up the bulk of that 248 species list! They should definitely be celebrated, too!

Red-headed Woodpecker, Orchard Oriole, Summer Tanager, Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Meadowlark            Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Rusty Blackbird Carolina Chickadee

American Goldfinch Northern Cardinal

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Wood Thrush Blue Grosbeak

Mourning Warbler Carolina Wren Purple Finch, Pine Siskin

Cackling Goose, Mallard Wilson's Snipe Dickcissel

Red Fox Common Raccoon Brood X 17-year Cicada

North American River Otter American Mink

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