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Off the Trail: May 9, 2019

May 10, 2019 GMT

This past Saturday, May 4, I joined up with a couple of different groups as part of the spring bird count for Kankakee County.

This count is a little different than the Christmas bird count because it covers the entire county (the Christmas does a circle with a 15-mile diameter centered in the city of Kankakee), and it occurs during peak spring migration. You find some crossover in both counts, but a large portion of the birds seen in spring are different species, which makes it exciting but more challenging when trying to make an identification.

I got a phone call the night before from Bronson Ratcliff with an invitation to join him at 5 a.m. in far Western Kankakee County. I agreed and set my coffee pot for 4 a.m.


Caffeine and camera in hand, I met Bronson and his dad, Gary Ratcliff, on a gravel road near Monster Lake just West of Essex. Still mostly dark, I opened my truck door to a loud chorus of bird songs and chaotic chatter. We were not the only ones awake this early.

The tally of species started immediately, as we saw wood ducks and a vibrant yellow warbler who swooped in about 15 feet away to check us out. Blue-winged teal flew off just above the lake and a pheasant squawked in the distance.

Bronson brought me here because he knew it was a good site to catch several migrants and some waterfowl inhabiting the lakes. He also knew that if we hiked a little down the road, there was a spot where the infrequent prairie warbler might be.

We set off through some brush and into an opening just as a great blue heron flew over our heads. There was a chill in the air that morning and while the birds were singing, they still were mostly under cover waiting for the sun to stir up some insects for breakfast.

Three deer grunted and snorted 100 yards away as we tried to tease out a sedge wren in a small phragmites patch. Eventually, we found it a foot off the ground dancing in the reed stems.

It wasn’t long after that we heard the prairie warbler for the first time just down the trail. Bronson’s ear picked it up right away. He knew it would be here. We also saw palm warblers, white throated sparrows and a cooper’s hawk.

When I left Bronson and his dad, we had more than 50 species seen or heard. They would jump around to different spots later, and when I checked in with them by text that afternoon, Bronson and Gary were well over 100 species.

From the Essex area, I went to join several others at Limestone Park. I teased them that I already had been birding for three hours, and with that, I took another gulp of coffee. The six of us divided up into two groups and headed off in different directions.


The group I was with went west and immediately saw three eastern bluebirds and some Canada geese honking overhead. Movement in the leaf litter to our left ended up being an eastern phoebe, and down the trail we saw cowbirds and white-throated sparrows picking through the gravel.

Unlike the Christmas bird count, the trees in the spring are full of leaves, and tracking birds through the foliage becomes more difficult. Our group moved slow with binoculars pointed in the canopy looking for any movement.

The occasional vulture fly-over and a turkey gobble in the distance added to our list. We located a scarlet tanager and a yellow-throated warbler in the canopy. Thank God for the merlin app on the phone to confirm to us amateurs what we were seeing by comparing pictures of several species.

As we ended our half of the park, we had a count in the high 20s. The other group did even better, bringing our park total to 62 species. We all agreed that was a good day. Group leader Mark Messerle would report our totals to the county coordinator.

The numbers for the total county count have not been released yet, but they should be by the end of the week. From the sound of it, I don’t think any records will be broken, but several unexpected species were encountered.

It was a great day to be outside and participating in a citizen science project about our own community.