April 20th, 2019: It’s definitely spring in northern Illinois
I was happy to be visiting family in Illinois this weekend. I got to drive across Wisconsin twice and stop for some birding along the way. I stopped at Goose Pond both times to scope out the waterfowl. And this time I also stopped at Sandy Beach Park (along the Glacial Drumlin State Trail), Winthrop Harbor, Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park, and Lake Tomah on my way through Wisconsin and northern Illinois. I was happy to see some mammals gearing up for spring. But the best birding of this trip was in Lake County, IL.
It’s amazing how much warmer and springier it was along Lake Michigan and a little south, compared to the Minneapolis area. Many spring migrants had started to show up in force here and I took the opportunity to head out to a nearby spot I hadn’t been before: Independence Grove Forest Preserve.
Don’t let the name fool you: there’s not much “Forest” about it. That’s just how they name a lot of public outdoor spaces in IL, since the “Forest Preserves of Lake County” are in charge. This particular park also seemed more about grass, lounging, and dog-walking than birding, except for in a few places.
I started with some scoping over the large pond/lake, where I found some expected waterfowl: Canada Goose, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mallard, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, and a Common Loon. I even found a Spotted Sandpiper on one of the pond edges. I was also happy to find 15 Caspian Tern in mixed flock with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. There were some nice (if small) woodlots and a creek past the Des Plaines River in the northwestern part of the preserve, so I headed that way next.
As soon as I crossed the Des Plaines I was away from the manicured lawn areas. I entered fresh riparian habitat and was greeted immediately by the chips of my first migratory passerine flock of the year!! My heartbeat accelerated and I had a dumb grin on my face. The birds were working their way along a small creek that split from the river, with new buds and bugs down near the water. Spring was finally here and the birds were heralding its return!
Chief among them were Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers–I counted 32 in the area–that flitted from shore to shore across the creek like little flycatchers, nabbing insects on the way.
Then there was a harsher chip nearby from a single Palm Warbler mixed in with the Yellow-rumps…
Also salient in the flock were the buzzes of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. I counted 6 in the area. I love watching these hyperactive foragers flit from branch to branch, flashing their white outer tail feathers and translucent primaries, and snagging insects out of the air as their go.
I also love how the males’ black eyebrows always make them appear recently aggravated, while being wholly unintimidating. Only Ruby-crowned Kinglets rival the frenetic pace and sheer dynamism of these little Blue-gray bundles of energy.
In my walk around the natural area, the migratory highlights were four swallow species (some very recently arrived, no doubt), two Eastern Phoebe, a Hermit Thrush, and a few Swamp Sparrows. I was happy with 39 species at a relatively small park that was new to me. Especially since there were obviously a lot of migrants that were still on their way!
Independence Grove was a really nice find and great place to witness the beginnings of spring. Sure, there might be “better” (read: potential for more bird species/individuals) birding spots nearby. But what’s more fun than birding in a great new spot at the beginning of spring?