A new Illinois Big Day record and FIRST time ever at least 200 species were seen by a group in one day in Illinois; Friday the 13th was very good to us for once.
After last year’s run of seeing two species short of the record that was set in 2013 and tied in 2016 by the “Mighty Mighty Jizz Masters”, which started in Northwestern Illinois and finished in Central Illinois on both of their runs, we wanted another try. In 2021, a group of us (mostly from Champaign) set out to break that record, and came up two species short with 189, with many misses that were almost laughable. We wanted our chance at redemption, so time to make another run at it, right?
We have been in discussion since our run, mostly Mike Ward, a professor within NRES at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and myself throughout this year trying to come up with a better route in hoping to break the long standing record of 191 and POSSIBLY a 200+ number in a day in Illinois. Most of this planning came within the last couple of weeks, after waiting for the river levels, bird reports, and seeing where birds were lingering at. Just like the United States Big Day, I was looking at ebird nearly every day, making different itineraries to see which plan would work the best, and making a tiered list and making changes to it often.
Thankfully, two of our team members from last year were back, Mike Avara, also from the university as well as Mark Vukovich, from Southern Illinois, were ready to try and attempt this again! Months ahead of time, we planned on running this May 13th based on the timing of when to do this and our availabilities. I was a little skeptical about running this ON Friday the 13thh, but I was ready to try it out!
Throughout the week leading up to the day, and coming out of running two Spring Bird Counts, I was planning the whole week as information continued to flood in. Unlike last year, I only did one whole scouting day unlike going multiple days last year, but thankfully Mike Ward also went and scouted Havana on Tuesday, which helped planning and helped me along my scouting day. Our early thoughts on the itinerary were that last year we spent too much time driving which in return may have cost us some missed birds due to the lack of birding time. We were first thinking of starting in Jersey/Calhoun counties OR Monroe County, then to East St Louis, and up to Havana to finish the rest of the day. By doing this, we are much more north which equaled less driving time, but also south enough to see MOST of the southern species.
During the week I picked the Pere Marquette route to be done, based off Bill Atwood’s findings on the SBC in Calhoun. But, during the week, with how warm it was and so many birds migrating every night, I started to get worried about a south route and going north. Starting south may mean missing some earlier migrants and even warblers that will move on earlier than expected because of four unseasonably warm days around 90 degrees with ample winds for migration. I was also worried about lingering waterfowl with these factors but alas this all worked out. Because of this, I figured to start at Sand Ridge State Forest and work our way south for the day. Based off this route, and hopefully making it to far southern Illinois based on timing, I came up with 195 tier A species, 39 tied B, and 28 tier C species for the day, over 250 species possible!
The day leading up to my scouting day, I was going through and making changes to the route to try and scout the most spots before the day, to make sure we were doing the right and making sure that some spots on the route were worth going to. I went out all day, leaving at 12:30 am and getting back at 10:20 pm, seeing 180 just by myself on the route, a new individual big day record in Illinois (I saw 176 species by myself on a scouting day for last year’s route which was the record), and missed MANY birds, even Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, among others. But I even found plenty of great birds as well, most notably two out of season scoters at Chautauqua amongst the lingering diving ducks on the north pool, a female BLACK, and a female WHITE-WINGED SCOTER! I knew based on what I saw on the scouting day, I knew a record number was likely for the next day!
11:00 pm: Champaign County
We all met at the south side of Champaign at 11:00pm on Thursday Night to leave and start the day. I had just returned about thirty minutes prior from my scouting day, so I was hot on the heels of all of the information I figured out from the day before and so excited for the day to come knowing how well the day before went. We left at 11:00 on the dot, and not even a minute after leaving, we ran into a train that already led us to be five minutes behind leaving Champaign. In my mind, I hoped this was not a sign that the big day would be a flop.
12:10 am: Shelby County
We pulled into Guzy Pothole Prairie in Shelby County at 12:10, surprisingly on time after the train situation. As we pulled in, Killdeer in the parking lot was our first bird of the day, which Mike Ward was correct in guessing what our first bird of the day would be. Not even a minute after leaving the lot, the marsh was loud with King Rails and Marsh Wrens calling already! Throughout our time here, we added many species that were key at getting at night, like Great Horned Owl, Virginia Rail, and Henslow’s Sparrow, along with a couple that would require some time to see in the daytime, like the Ring-necked Pheasant. Besides American Bittern, we were able to get all our targets here including a couple of extras like a flyover Yellow-billed Cuckoo calling at night and left with 17 species by 12:50 am.
3:00 am: Brown County
We reached our first spot by 3:00 am in hopes of adding Barn Owls which Mike and Tony Ward found on the Spring Bird Count the weekend prior. Despite dipping on these, we heard our first flyover thrushes of the day, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked. We did some more owling along the bluffs here and added the two others expected owls for the day, Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl.
3:50 am: Cass County
We reached our next night birding location at 3:50 am, Beardstown Marsh, and slightly ahead of schedule at 3:50! We cruised up and down the road, adding many new species for the day that I staked out the day prior. These included Common Gallinule, Least Bittern, Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. We also added some other birds including a Common Nighthawk and a surprisingly Willow Flycatcher that was singing most of our time here, a bird I missed the day prior!
We reached our last night birding spot at 4:40, to try for the remaining goatsuckers and American Woodcock. When we pulled up, many Whip-poor-wills were already calling. The day before, the Chuck’s did not start calling until 4:50 when I was there, so that is why we hit this spot so late. Sure enough, around 4:50 the Chuck-wills-widow did start to call! After this, we pulled up a little more and heard two woodcocks peenting, great! We were leaving for Havana with around 45 species!
5:45 am: Mason County
We made it to Mason County just before 5:30 after crossing the Sangamon River on Highway 78. Our first spot was on 2600E just south of the entrance of Sand Ridge State Forest. The day before I went to scout to see if Horned Larks and Vesper and Savannah Sparrows were easy to pick up here early, along with checking to see if a Western Meadowlark or two was around. I was successful with all and was surprised to find at least 4 singing Western Meadowlarks, a C bird on my tiered list, so this was a must-stop before going into the park! We did just this at 5:50 and were able to add all our targets, including MULTIPLE Western Meadowlarks!!! We left here to enter Sand Ridge State Forest by 6:00 am!
Sand Ridge was thankfully not lacking birds but was not great by any means and we had to try hard for some of the birds. Many species, we only saw one or two of, but that was good enough for the big day of course! We drove on the south road out of Bishop, around areas to the east and west of Pine Campground, then north to the pumphouse road, and lastly into the fish hatchery. Despite missing many birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Blue-winged Warbler, we were able to see most to find most of the expected migrants, which included some better ones such as Alder Flycatcher, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Mourning Warbler. We were leaving the park with around 120 species, ten more than I thought we would be at, and it was only 7:45, and had seen very little in terms of water birds, which was our next stop!
The day before I figured it was only worth covering Chautauqua from the Eagle Bluff parking lot, and not doing both Goofy Ridge and Eagle Bluff. We got there a few minutes late and were ready to pick out all the lingering ducks and shorebirds that have been there. Unfortunately, the Black Scoter from the day before did not appear to be around, but the White-winged Scoter WAS there, a great pick up for a May Big Day! We added other lingering ducks, such as Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, and Bufflehead, among others. Mike Ward pointed out two Ruddy Turnstones flying off of the close shore, which was also there the day prior, along with a stunning breeding plumaged, Black-bellied Plover on the far shore. Other goodies included Bonaparte’s Gull, Black Tern, and most of the swallows. Mike Avara was focused on the woods, and we picked up our first Northern Waterthrush, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warblers of the day. After an amazing stop, we were leaving Chautauqua at 8:40 with 149 species, and we hadn’t even been to Emiquon yet!
Before reaching Emiquon, we needed to cover areas just south of Havana, between a fluddle adding our first Solitary Sandpiper and peeps of the day, and the Western Kingbirds at the usual location, and Mike Avara pointed out our first Rock Pigeon of the day, we were leaving Mason County at 9:15 with 158 species!
Downed Tree at Sand Ridge that was frightening at first, luckily we could go around it!
Very distant gulls and terns at Chautauqua, with the Black Tern being middle right, two Ruddy Turnstones on the far left, and Black-necked Stilts behind.
9:30am: Fulton County
Emiquon was amazing, thankfully we had access (through both Mike’s) to the back levee at Emiquon, which is restricted to the public. We made a brief stop on the south side when Mark found a CLAY-COLORED SPARROW!!! A bird I was not expecting to see (tier C). Through Mike Ward’s scouting on Tuesday, he scouted out which parts to stop at. We were starting to see more ducks at the south end already, such as Gadwall and Redhead, and new shorebirds like Short-billed Dowitchers and Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Common Terns out on a stump. We continued north with seeing more and more shorebirds up ahead. Mike A. picked out our first Green Heron, Mike W. picked out our first Osprey and White-crowned Sparrow, among many others! Our next shorebird stop included our first White-rumped Sandpipers of the day in a flock of 300+ of mostly Dunlin!
The north side was even better for us, between a mud spit with many species of ducks and a shallow water pool with over 500 shorebirds, we were adding even more. We were adding around 5 species at every spot, and I began to lose the count of where we were for the day since we were adding so many, some unexpected! As Mike W. said, “I’d rather be stopping and adding five at every spot than running on time”, as we were starting to get behind schedule, but still adding many birds! At the first stop, we added our first Greater White-fronted Geese, Green-Winged Teal, Hooded Merganser for the day. At the second spot, I was hot on the shorebirds, picking out our first American Golden-Plover Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and another surprise, a stunning breeding plumaged AMERICAN AVOCET of the day! Mike W. quickly picked out a male American Wigeon flying in, and we were off to the Observation tower for a quick look.
Our quick look turned into a very excited spot, when I saw that long-necked bird in my scope and yelled “I HAVE A WESTERN GREBE” after only looking for a minute. We added our first Great Egret, Franklin’s Gull, and Caspian Tern of the day. On the way over I entered all the species in and saw we were at “173” for the day. I thought something was off as we were at 158 coming into Emiquon, but after Mike A said we were at 183 when we were leaving the observation tower, I realized I did not enter the birds south of Havana into ebird. WOW! 183 species, already??? We quickly went to Prairie Road and added White-eyed and Bell’s Vireo to the list. We were leaving Emiquon with 185 species, at 11:45am. Yes, we were only 6 species from the record BEFORE NOON. WOW! I was still in shock!
As I mentioned before, I was not sure about the timing and how far south we would go. Despite being a little behind, we were still determined to go to Southern Illinois based on how high our species total was, and there were many more birds to add down there.
Distant Clay-colored Sparrow, Mark has much better pictures than I do!
American Golden Plover
2:20 pm: Madison County
Horseshoe Lake was the next stop, upon arrival we added Snowy Egret in a nearby marsh for 186. After a quick drive around, I was able to pick out two continuing NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS for our 187 for the day, along with Carolina Chickadee for 188, and Bank Swallow for 189, only missing Black-crowned Night Heron.
Neotropic Cormorant on top!
2:50 pm St. Clair County:
Time to head south, straight to Oakwood Bottoms. On the way through Belleville, we added a Red-shouldered Hawk flying over for 190, one from the record and beating our total from last year. Then I saw a group of cattle near the road and joking about Cattle Egrets being with them, and sure enough FIVE Cattle Egrets were there for our tying bird.
We made a quick stop at Baldwin Lake, which I planned on possibly doing based off of Common Loon, Franklin’s Gull, and Glossy Ibis being found on the SBC. We pulled in and at 3:52 we did it, a flyover calling Fish Crow was our record-breaking bird for 192! Mike W. picked out a breeding plumaged Common Loon on the lake, and a Belted Kingfisher flew over, up to 194 with plenty of birds to be added over the next four hours! Was 200+ possible, what we have dreamed about this whole time?
Distant Cattle Egrets, we ended up seeing another one at Baldwin Lake!
Common Loon, Mike W also found a pair at the end of the day at Mermet as well!
Snow Geese, we saw around 50 during the day!
5:00 pm Jackson County
On the way into Oakwood Bottoms, just to the north we added our first Black Vultures of the day, 195. The day prior, I found dozens of Little Blue Herons in the lowering moist soil units, and sure enough they were still there, 196. On a past blitz, I remembered seeing a roosting, Black-crowned Night Heron at a nearby pond just south of the road, and sure enough I walked in and one was there, 197!
We then went to Grand Tower but DIPPED on the two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that were there the day prior. There is a much easier species in Union County but required more time.
Great and Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons
5:45pm: Union County
The day before I scouted out all of the summering warblers I thought we would need by this time since Sand Ridge does not have most of them. We made a quick stop for Hooded and Yellow-throated Warblers while entering, and we were at 199. The Cerulean Warbler spot was on up a ways, but someone was like, what if that was our 200th for the day, and I agreed, so we went right to that spot. It took a while, but eventually I saw that small white and blue bird with that neckless just above my head and yelled “I HAVE THE CERULEAN” for our 200th species of the day, HOLY COW! We then added Worm-eating Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush for 202!
We missed Mississippi Kite in the bottoms and Mark had a spot scouted out in Jonesboro from previous years and I quickly picked out a distant one on top of a tree while driving through the town for 203. We then and checked the BBWD spot near Cobden and sure enough saw the continuing few dozen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, mostly starting to roost in the trees above the house for 204! It was around 7:00pm now.
We then hit a staked-out spot for Prairie Warbler for 205, then charged to Mermet Lake in hopes of adding a duck or Yellow-crowned Night Heron for the day with no luck.
THE 200th, the Cerulean Warbler! What an special bird for our 200th!
Distant Mississippi Kite
The group (minus me) at one of our last stops of the day
So, 205 species it was, we were all very excited and extremely satisfied with our efforts. We did have some missed species, but luckily saw 96% of our tier A list. Our missed A birds include:
We saw 20 species of waterfowl, 21 shorebirds, 8 waders, 9 flycatchers, 13 sparrows, and 30 warbler species!
Our list from the day is below! Thanks for reading!
The route! Around 750 miles!