Amar Ayyash: A Birder You Should Know

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Amar Ayyash is the man behind the IOS Annual Gull Frolic, which he organized this year and persuaded Birding editor and author Ted Floyd to speak. As you likely know, Amar is “crazy” about gulls, and indeed very knowledgeable about this difficult-to-identify group of birds. In honor of the upcoming Gull Frolic, we invite you to read more about Amar. He also serves on the IOS Board of Directors, and we thank him for his dedication to our mission to educate others about and document the birds of Illinois. 

Background:  I was born in Chicago in the summer of 1978 and have lived in Illinois almost my entire life. I’m married and have four lively children (two sets of twins) – 7 years old and 4 years old. I teach high school math in Oak Lawn, IL.

What hooked you on birding?  My first memory of actively watching birds is rather unusual. It wasn’t the song of a thrush or the bright yellow of a warbler that hooked me. I was a freshman in college at the time and would regularly sneak away between classes to feed the gulls at a local park.  At the time, I didn’t know what species of gulls they were (probably Western Gulls) and never made it a point to find out.  After returning home from college, I again found myself pitching french-fries in parking lots and marveling over the local gulls. I quickly realized the gulls in Illinois looked different than those out West and so I decided to go to my local library to get some answers. I discovered dozens of field guides and books that introduced me to a pastime called “birding”. At first, I didn’t know if this word was a verb or a noun. In short, I’m the first “birder” I ever met.

What’s best about birding?  The thing I like most about birding is that it could be done practically anywhere (although I’ve learned never to bird near an airport again). Birding has taught me much more than how to identify birds. I’ve been indirectly forced to learn about weather systems, plants, insects, species’ concepts and various habitats and ecosystems.

Listing?  I do keep a few personal lists that hold some value to me, but I’m very selective when it comes to updating my ABA list. For instance, I’ve driven overnight a few times to see some of my “most-wanted” species such as Ross’s and Ivory Gull, and even caught a red-eye flight to New York a few years ago to observe North America’s 2nd Gray-hooded Gull. I once drove to Ashtabula, Ohio to see their first state Black-tailed Gull, and drove back the next weekend to see the same bird again.

Favorite locations:  My favorite birding locations seem to revolve around gulls – shocking I’m sure. It’s this reason why most of my local birding is usually along the southern rim of Lake Michigan. My top four sites from each state that borders Lake Michigan (in no particular order) is North Point in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois; Michigan City Harbor in Indiana; and New Buffalo Beach in Michigan.

 

Best birding memories:  My most memorable birding experience is my first trip to southern California. I spent a few days birding the Salton Sea with the godfather of California Birding, Guy McCaskie. During our long car rides, I was briefed on 40 years of birding in the Golden State with some of the most entertaining birding stories one could ever hear! Another memorable birding experience for me is the 2010 Slaty-backed Gull that was glued to the ice in Indiana waters while birders desperately watched from Calumet Park in Illinois. I had seen the bird the previous evening in Indiana just after its discovery but wanted to lure it into Illinois for a Cook County record. I was able to chum it in from a considerable distance, only to have it land within 100 feet from me.

 

Birding activities:  Besides serving on the Board of Directors for IOS, and specifically taking on the role of Gull Frolic coordinator, I maintain perhaps the most well-known gull weblog in North America, anythinglarus.com. I also administer the Facebook Group “North American Gulls” and currently happen to be working on a Thayer’s Gull webpage for Gull-Research.Org (hopefully to be launched, early 2014).

Favorite books:  My favorite book is, hands down, “The Long-Shadowed Forest”, by Helen Hoover. I enjoy winter birding more than any other season and have curious thoughts of one day living in the “North Woods”. Any time I need to escape to the land of boreal species, I pick up Hoover’s book and read a few chapters. It helps to know that Helen and her husband left their careers and the big-city life of Chicago to move to a small cabin in the north woods of Minnesota.

And when not birding?  When not birding, or doing bird-related work, I’m folding laundry, helping my children with their homework or trying to earn brownie points with my wife.

 

I take a whole lot of joy in what seems like a narrow-minded obsession to some people, but my outlook on life is pretty simple: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time”.

Jeff Sanders featured in Chicago Tribune article

For at least three days in December and early January over the past 50 years, Jeff Sanders has gone outside in the predawn cold to count birds in and around Chicago.

In 2015, Sanders will celebrate a half-century since he began helping with the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, just a few miles from his Glenview home. Since then, he has made it to nearly every count. And Sanders doesn’t even like cold weather.

“I hate winter birding,” he admitted.jeffsanders2

But there’s something about the annual Christmas bird count that get him out of the house when it’s cold outside.

“There’s a purpose to this. And it’s historical,” Sanders said

For the rest of the story written by Sheryl DeVore, click here.

Trip Report: Carlyle Lake Pelagic

September 27, 2014

43 birders participated in the annual IOS Carlyle Lake field trip that was held on September 27. The day started very well as a visit to the Dam West Beach just after sunrise yielded a beach full of gulls, mainly Ring-billed, but with a few Franklin’s Gulls sprinkled in as well as about 40 Forster’s Terns. The youthful eyes of Colin Dobson picked out a juvenile Laughing Gull, a bird that had been seen most of the fall, as well as a 1st year California Gull that quickly became the groups’ main focus. Several observers obtained excellent, definitive photos. This was a life bird for several and an Illinois life bird for many. Not to be outdone, the group located a single Common Tern, a couple of Semipalmated Sandpipers and several Least Sandpipers as well.

The group moved on to Hazlet State Park for a chance at observing a wished for large movement of neotropical migrants. Unfortunately, the large movements witnessed the previous 3 days did not materialize. The group still managed to find 14 species of warblers, but most were singles and many in the group did not see every species. We did find a nice Yellow-throated Warbler, had great looks at a Pine Warbler which is rather uncommon at Carlyle in fall, and a few got to see the trips only Blackburnian Warbler. A Yellow-throated Vireo and single Summer and Scarlet Tanagers added to the list of notables for the morning. Notably absent were flycatchers and thrushes and this years’ group did not get to witness any Broad-winged Hawk movements as in previous years.

A short walk to the Hazlet Brood/Fish Ponds did provide several waterfowl species including a lone Ring-necked Duck that had been present for a couple of weeks, both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler and a pair of Northern Pintail. A few shorebirds were present, too, including a Solitary Sandpiper and a Wilson’s Snipe. The group tallied both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs at the parks entrance while also scanning the 1000+ Double-crested Cormorants perched in the dead trees.

After a fast-food picnic lunch at the Dam West Picnic area, the group traveled east to the Whitetail Access Area, with hopes of finding more gulls, terns and shorebirds.  Several of the more adventurous in the group donned the mudboots and joined the leader in sloshing through some shallow water and slightly muddy grass.  Our efforts were rewarded with 3 Sora, several Savannah Sparrows, an American Pipit, a Marsh Wren and an excellent look at a LeConte’s Sparrow. Another Ammodramus flushed, posed briefly, but wouldn’t provide an identifiable look to nail down it down to species. Several in the group that saw the bird leaned toward Nelson’s, but we left it as a better view desired.

At 3:30, we boarded the 4 pontoon boats and traversed Carlyle Lake for 3 hours, searching through the groups of gulls enticed by our expert chumming. Several Bonaparte’s and Franklin’s Gulls offered close views. Despite slight disappointment in not locating any sought after species like Sabine’s Gulls and Jaeger species, the group was more than thrilled to get excellent views of at least 4 Red-necked Phalaropes and a very cooperative Eared Grebe.

A beautiful day was capped off by a Peregrine Falcon zipping over the Marina as the last 2 groups were deporting. Unfortunately, many in the group were likely already in their cars and probably missed this last sighting of the day.

By my count, we tallied 108 species. The weather was great which made for an enjoyable lake “cruise”. Hope to see you all next year!

Keith McMullen
Field Trip Leader

14th Annual Gull Frolic

14th Annual Gull Frolic
February 14, 2015

Start Time – 9:30 a.m. (please note the later start time).

The Gull Frolic is a unique winter event at Illinois’ premier gull-watching hotspot: North Point Marina. Bring your binoculars, scope and cold weather gear, and join birders outside of the yacht club to enjoy close study of some of our harder-to-find winter species such as Thayer’s, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls!  A variety of waterfowl typically make an appearance too (scoters and other diving ducks), along with the occasional raptor, owl, or winter finch. Birders wearing bright orange hats will be available to help answer questions along the “boardwalk”.

Whenever you need a break from the cold, retreat indoors to the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club that’s just a few feet away from the shore. Birders from all corners of our state come to mingle, relax and drive away the winter doldrums. Coffee, tea and hot-chocolate will be available all day to help us warm up. There will be a presentation in the conference room that’s offered twice (Session A & Session B).

Our speaker this year will be Ted Floyd who is traveling here from Colorado. Ted is a well-known writer and speaker on North American birds and birding (author of the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America and Editor of ABA’s Birding magazine). His talk promises to be entertaining and informative: “Gulls and the Meaning of Life in the Posthuman Age”. Ted’s presentation will be followed by a hearty lunch!

The $15 registration fee includes a continental breakfast, lunch (including “Sea Gull” stew,) vegetarian chili and more. The registration fee helps defray facility expenses. Any surplus raised will go to the IOS Grant Program which provides money to local researchers and projects that benefit Illinois birds and birding.

REGISTRATION:

This year’s Gull Frolic is SOLD OUT.

SPONSORS:  The Gull Frolic is hosted by the Illinois Ornithological Society, with sponsorship help from many local bird clubs, organizations and individuals.  If your organization or club is interested in sponsoring, please contact Amar.  There are a limited number of information tables for sponsoring organizations.

DIRECTIONS:  To reach the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club take the I-94 toll road north toward Milwaukee. Exit east (turn right) at Route 173. Continue east and turn left on Sheridan Road (Rt. 137). Proceed north and turn right on 7th Street. Follow the North Point Marina signs to the yacht club. There is plenty of parking and parking is always free!
Registration fills fast so don’t delay. All are invited. We look forward to seeing you at this fun and enjoyable annual event!

Winter finch forecast: What will we see this year in Illinois?

Red Crossbill female. Photo by Ron Bradley.

Red Crossbill female. Photo by Ron Bradley.

 

This winter’s theme is a “mixed bag” of finch movements. For example, some species such as Purple Finch will go south while White-winged Crossbills will likely stay in the boreal forest in widely separated areas where spruces are laden with cones. Sure would have been nice to have another great White-winged Crossbill irruption this winter.

To read Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch forecast, click here. Let us know what you see this winter season by posting on our Facebook page.  And send photos to sdbailey@illinois.edu. They may get printed in a future issue of Meadowlark.

How to have a GR-EIGHT Owling Day

Snowy Owl in Illinois

Snowy Owl at Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area in Grundy County. 5 January 2012. Photo by Jim Tezak.

 

By Jeff Smith

The winter of 2011/2012 saw a record, major irruption of Snowy Owls into Illinois. Double-digit numbers were observed along Chicago’s lakefront and well inland, even extending to the far reaches of southern Illinois. These owls garnered much attention from the media, birders, and anyone with a camera. Not to be overlooked though, were the good numbers of Northern Saw-whet Owls reported on some of the northern Illinois Christmas Bird Counts. Short-eared Owls were also plentiful in the larger grassland preserves. Of the winter visitors, only Long-eared Owls were difficult to find on a regular basis. However, when I located a Barn Owl in northern Illinois on its winter roost, I began to think of attempting an eight owl big day.

Eight owl species either breed or are mostly regular, winter residents within Illinois. The Illinois record for number of owl species found in a single day had been seven since 1994 when Alan Welby located that many in northern Illinois. This number was duplicated in central Illinois by Bob Chapel in 1995 and in southern Illinois by Dan Kassebaum in 2004. Barn Owl was missed in the central and northern regions, and Snowy Owl was missed in the southern region. I’m sure the thought of an eight owl day has crossed the minds of others several times in the past. I first heard of the possibility of having an Eight Owl Big Day when a Burrowing Owl was found at Pyramid State Park during the winter of 2006/2007. This year was the first time I’d have a reasonable chance to successfully attempt to record eight owls in a single day. Considering the extensive experience that all of our team members have had in locating and calling in owls, as well as the unique experience of having many of the uncommon to rare owls present and waiting for us to find them this winter, I felt our chances were very good for locating all of the owls that we would be searching for.

To find out if the eight owl big day was achieved, read Meadowlark: A Journal of Illinois Birds, Volume 21 No. 3, which was mailed to members in early October 2014.

Click here to join IOS and receive four annual issues of Meadowlark.

IOS Spontaneous Shorebirding Field Trip Results - August 23, 2014

Despite the predicted insane heat and humidity, the weather was actually much better than expected for the Illinois Ornithological Society’s spontaneous shorebirding field trip on Saturday, August 23rd.  Beginning around the 7:00 AM meeting time, our group of 10 (eventually) made our way out across the cross-dike at Chautauqua to find AMERICAN AVOCETS and WILSON’S and RED-NECKED PHALAROPES out in the shallows of the north pool.  A lone LITTLE BLUE HERON was found in the wetland vegetation next to the parking area.  Some BAIRD’S SANDPIPERS were also in good showing from the cross-dike among many other common shorebirds.  The more than 100 BLACK TERNS roosting on the flats and feeding over the water was a neat sight in the foggy morning light.  A group of the HUDSONIAN GODWITS were visible from the cross-dike but only as a group of large distant shorebirds.  Being perhaps a mile or more away in haze, yeah, we decided to save those for later.  Continue reading IOS Spontaneous Shorebirding Field Trip Results – August 23, 2014

Rusty Blackbird Blitz

The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) has been studying this species for a number of years, trying to determine why Rustys have declined 85-95% since the mid 1900’s, according to the best available estimates! Quoting from their website, “The Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) is a widespread North American species that has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines, based both on breeding season and wintering ground surveys.”

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Continue reading Rusty Blackbird Blitz