As thrilling as it is, I know there are a couple of "normal life" adjustments I'm looking forward to. If this were last year, you can bet that I'd be out in the freezing weather relentlessly searching for a Glaucous Gull or Long Eared Owl for my year list, something that I would never normally be doing. In 2021 I decided I'm striving for balance; less driving and gas money spent, more time sleeping and being social, and believe it or not, maybe even some birding outside the county. But rather than focusing on my goals for the new year, this post will act as one final wrap up for 2020. This will be a fun one as it's jam-packed with photos, highlights, and any statistic you can possibly imagine from the past year. I hope you'll stay along for the ride!
In 2020, I set a new Cook County big year record of 288 species! I broke the previous record of 281 on October 30th with a Common Redpoll at Montrose Point. This is also tops the Lake County record of 282 species, making it the highest county big year total for the state of Illinois. You can view my entire year list with dates, species, and locations here:
The History of The Cook County Big Year Record:
Cook County has one of the largest birding communities in the country, and as a result, a long history of big years. Before I get into the analytics of my own year, lets go back in time...
In 1990, Eric Walters became the first person to do an official Cook County big year. He set the record at 274 species, an incredible total for a time and age when rare sightings were only communicated through hotlines and payphones. Nobody came close to touching his record for a number of years.
Later in the 90s, 4 birders broke the 260 barrier, something that had only been previously achieved by Walters. Those 4 people were Al Stokie (268), Dave Mandell (267), Bob Hughes (264), and Sue Friscia (260). Much of these efforts came from a group Cook County big year competition in 1992. As birding has become more popular and communication methods have improved, 260 is now achieved fairly frequently. In the last decade, this number has been broken by at least one person in eight of the 10 years.
Twenty-three years later, Walters's long standing record had finally fallen. In 2013, Aaron Gyllenhaal and Jeff Skrentny battled for the title as Cook County's new big year record holder. Both crushed the record, but Gyllenhaal secured the throne at 281 species, with Skrentny coming in close behind at 279.
In 2018, Ben Sanders did his Cook County big year and ended with 278 species, awarding him 3rd place for all time Cook big years. On the same year, Andrew Aldrich put up 270 species, making him just the 5th person to ever reach the 270 mark.
In 2020, I was lucky enough to set a new record at 288 species, but was just one of three people to break the previous one. A huge congrats go to Jeff Skrentney and Simon Tolzmann on their big years, totaling 282 and 283 species respectively. Prior to this point, the thought of 3 birders breaking the 280 barrier in the same year felt like an event that would never happen in the history of Cook County birding.
I often refer to birding as a real life scavenger hunt. Both commodities share similar aspects: patience, luck, deliberation, searching, and most of all, strategy. There are a handful of reasons why I chose to do a big year, but the strategic concept of a county big year is specifically what appealed to me. On wider ranging big years, such as state and ABA, there is a much heavier reliance on chasing other people's finds. It's inevitable, and simply the nature of focusing on a larger area; there's more space for others to find birds for you. I wanted to narrow my search, look for my own rarities, and master the boundaries and habitats of the Chicago area. Like any sort of big year, the number or rare birds you see is what will separate your list from the others. Almost all of my birding was centered around tracking down rare species while letting the expected ones come in naturally. I did this by visiting areas I knew had the greatest potential to harbor the specific targets I was looking for. After gaining the bulk of the common species by the end of spring migration, I also avoided heavily birded areas as much as possible. If someone was already covering an area that had potential for year birds, my ideology was to always go elsewhere; there is no point in covering an area if someone is already covering it for you. I ended up discovering most of my good birds at under-birded locations.
When people ask me about my big year, there are always two questions I receive more then any other: How did you plan for your big year? And what was your strategy? The truth is, unlike more sizeable big years, there is very little planning that goes into a county big year. I didn't code my birds based on their likelihood of appearing, or even organize my possibilities on a spreadsheet. Most of my preparation came naturally from countless hours of research and time in the field, giving me the opportunity to really understand the ins and outs of the Cook County. I also spent a LOT of time analyzing everything from Aaron's 2013 big year. Before 2020 even started, I had every single species on his year list memorized by heart. I also kept note of his biggest misses, total number of rarities, and species count by the end of each month so I could make sure I was on track. No wonder my parents call me an obsessive person.
Aaron's 2013 big year blog: http://birdingbynumber.blogspot.com/2013/
Long before 2020 even began, I knew that I was doing a big year. In 2018, I took my first serious effort at a county year list, ending with a respectable 261 species. It was the best I could do without a drivers license, which is pretty good, but I wasn't breaking any records. I knew I wanted to push myself harder, and after 2019, knew I had the experience and determination for a full on big year. The previous record of 281 was daunting, and I was afraid that not enough birds would appear throughout the year to make it breakable. As a result, I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment, and announced that 270+ as my goal. But I knew the record was what I truly wanted. On January 1st, I set out with the mindset that I'd set a new Cook County big year record, and I never looked back.
The winter of 2019-2020 was a slow one here in Chicago. It certainly didn't look like the ideal set up for a big year; winter finches were absent, rare gulls were few and far between, and there were no rare birds hanging around for me to chase. There seemed to be a general lack of avian diversity across the entire area. Naturally, I still went for the hardest to find species right off the bat, and had plenty of time to nail down the usual suspects. Here are some of the highlights.
June was pretty low-key and I enjoyed spending some quality time with the breeding birds of the area, including Monty and Rose, an endangered pair of Piping Plovers that had returned to breed at Montrose Beach for the second year in a row. I was fortunate enough to be granted permission to help monitor their well-being throughout the month, protecting them from predators or the errant dog off a leash. July and August, however, were arguably my biggest grinds of the entire year; from mid July through August, I spent nearly every morning at Montrose waiting for rare shorebirds to drop in. By the end July, I had made 27 "pointless" visits to Montrose Beach. Most of the time, this routine felt extremely tedious, but was absolutely worth the reward. By the end of August, I had successfully ticked off almost all the species on my summer wish list.
Disadvantages: I think like many others, COVID certainly wasn't a curveball I was prepared for. In late March, Mayor Lightfoot shut down the entire Chicago lakefront, which remained closed for the entirety of spring migration. I was devastated by the decision, and almost called off my big year completely. Winter hadn't lived up to my expectations, and I went into April with very few notable birds on my list. I was already down about my current situation, and I thought the lakefront closure might be the straw that broke the camel's back. But I decided to stick with it, and I never slowed down. However, I knew that at this point I had a huge disadvantage, and had to re-evaluate my expectations. The idea of breaking the record seemed nearly impossible without spring migration on the lakefront parks. I knew that I was missing rarities, especially without access to Montrose Beach. I needed to find alternatives. I wasn't worried about picking up the expected migrants elsewhere, but knew that I now faced a whole new challenge: where could I find my shorebirds? Cook County is notoriously devoid of shorebird habitat away from the lakefront, and I was at a loss. I needed to get creative. In early April I spent hours scouting remote agricultural areas in the southern part of the county that may be prone to flooding. Come early May, I came up with 4 solid locations that I knew had potential, and spread the word throughout the birding community. The plan worked like a charm; with the help of other birders, we found over 20 shorebird species between the 4 locations, including some rare ones! It was my favorite success story from the year.
Advantages: COVID certainly imposed its fair share of disadvantages, but there were a few good things that came out of this crazy mess. For one, my schedule suddenly became WAY more flexible. In the spring, I did not have zoom classes to attend (though that changed in the fall), giving me a great range of flexibility to be out whenever I needed. Going into my big year, I knew there was the potential for me to miss birds while at school, so not having to worry about that was a luxury. The lakefront closure also forced other birders to find alternative hotspots, which meant that good birds were being found in areas that would not have been covered on a regular year. I'm not sure if it compensated for the misses on the lakefront, but I definitely faired better then I was expecting.
Alas, we'll never know what great birds were missed on the lakefront. It still pains me to think about it sometimes. However, given the sheer number of rarities the second half of the year delivered, I'm sure I missed fewer species then I was originally expecting.
Total Number Of Species Seen: 288
Top 20 Best Birds:
1. Cassin's Sparrow
2. Purple Gallinule
3. Long Tailed Jaeger
4. Townsend's Warbler
5. Sabine's Gull
6. Little Gull
7. Evening Grosbeak
8. White Faced Ibis
9. Black Bellied Whistling Duck
10. Spotted Towhee
11. Western Sandpiper
12. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
13. White Winged Crossbill
14. Hoary Redpoll
15. Smith's Longspur
16. Buff Breasted Sandpiper
17. Neotropic Cormorant
18. Northern Bobwhite
19. Wilson's Phalarope
20. Western Grebe
The following statistics DO NOT include yard or neighborhood birding. Only designated birding efforts where I visited a location are taken into account.
Number Of Days I Went Birding For At Least 15 Minutes: 267 days
Number Of Days I Went Birding For At Least 15 Minutes During Each Month:
January: 15/31 days
February: 14/29 days
March: 18/31 days
April: 24/30 days
May: 30/31 days
June: 16/30 days
July: 26/31 days
August: 29/31 days
September: 21/30 days
October: 25/31 days
November: 28/30 days
December: 21/31 days
Number Of Different Designated Birding Locations Visited: 163
Check out this map to see all 163 places I went birding last year!
Number Of Species Seen Per Month:
* indicates a new month record. January was a tie.
January: 86 species*
February: 75 species
March: 101 species
April: 141 species*
May: 201 species*
June: 113 species
July: 121 species*
August: 123 species
September: 152 species
October: 156 species*
November: 99 species
December: 94 species*
May, October, and December had the highest totals relative to number of species present while November, June, and February were the lowest. My 201 species in May was a new all time month record for the county! Here's a representation of the number of species I saw by month relative to the number of locations I visited -- it looks like I hit over 60 different locations in May!
1. Montrose Point: 87 visits
2. Helmick Nature Preserve: 37 visits
3. McGinnis Slough: 25 visits
4. Northwestern University: 24 visits
5. Jackson Park: 20 visits
6. Saganashkee Slough: 20 visits
7. Bartel Grassland: 17 visits
8. Ridgeland Ave Fluddle: 17 visits
9. Orland Grasslands South: 16 visits
10. Rainbow Beach: 16 visits
Top 5 Locations Where I Saw The Most Species:
1. Montrose Point: 177 species
2. Helmick Nature Preserve: 143 species
3. Northwestern University: 135 species
4. McGinnis Slough: 135 species
5. Jackson Park: 134 species
Number Of Complete eBird Checklists Submitted: 782
Here's a representation of the number of checklists I was submitting relative to the number of species I saw each month:
I estimated this statistic based on my number of complete checklists, and it should be pretty accurate give or take a few. Last year, I submitted a total of 782 complete checklists. Twenty yard checklists (birding from my house/yard) were subtracted since yard lists do not count. I estimate that I made at least 15 designated birding stops where I did not make a checklist. I know that all of my complete checklists came from my yard or designated birding stops because I intentionally left anything else as an incidental. As a result, I feel that 780 is pretty accurate. That averages a stop at 2.13 birding locations per day.
Most Observed Species:
It's crazy to believe that some of these species were seen in over half of my 782 checklists submitted last year!
During 2020, I kept constant tabs on Aaron's numbers throughout his 2013 big year to help me assess whether I was on track to break the record. It was interesting to compare the rates at which our big years progressed; I definitely struggled to keep up through the lakefront closure, but gained back some ground in the fall. Here were our totals by the end of each month:
January: 86 January: 86
February: 101 February: 106
March: 122 March: 129
April: 173 April: 175
May: 253 May: 255
June: 255 June: 261
July: 262 July: 267
August: 266 August: 268
September: 273 September: 271
October: 282 October: 278
November: 286 November: 281
December: 288 December: 281
Number Of Miles Driven: 24,500
Estimated Expenses Spent On Birding: $1,000
Both of the pelagics together cost me $330. The rest of the expenses were on gas. If you include the financial help I received from my parents, this probably equates to more like $1,400
Number Of County Birds Gained: 19 (!!!) 284-303
Number Of Days Spent Entirely Outside Of Cook County: 3
Top 10 Best Self Found Rarities:
1. Black Bellied Whistling Duck
2. Smith's Longspur
3. Buff Breasted Sandpiper
4. Western Grebe
5. White Winged Crossbill
6. Neotropic Cormorant
7. Northern Bobwhite
8. Evening Grosbeak
9. Red Necked Grebe (x2)
10. Ring Necked Pheasant
Honorable mentions go to Red Knot, Wild Turkey, Whimbrel, and two roosting Northern Saw Whet Owls!
Most Attempts For a Single Bird: Hoary Redpoll (19)
Every big year birder has their nemesis bird. It took me 19 attempts before I finally got the Hoary Redpoll at Chicago Botanic Garden. This was particularly frustrating because I'm sure I saw this bird every time I visited, but knew I couldn't count it until I was absolutely positively 100% certain of my identification. Given the subtleness of this particular individual and general complexity of redpoll identification, that took me quite awhile. I was finally able to confirm and photograph the bird on December 28th, just in the nick of time!
Documentation Efforts: Last year, I made it my goal to obtain photo documentation or a second witness for every notable species I saw. I was successful in photographing all notable species but two (Parasitic and Long Tailed Jaegers), both of which I had multiple witnesses for. "Notable" can be roughly classified as the rarest 50 species on my list.
Top 5 Biggest Misses:
No matter how hard you try, you simply can't get every bird. Doing a big year in a massive county with a ton of birders and locations makes it seemingly even more inevitable. Although I didn't have any really big misses, these were the next 5 most likely birds I could have added to my list. None of these were expected species, but all doable with the proper timing, luck and decision making.
1. Laughing Gull - My chances at this species were greatly skewed by the spring lakefront closure. The only sighting of this bird in Cook was a brief touch-and-go encounter on Montrose Beach, which I missed. It was particularly painful though, because I happened to be at Montrose during the time of the sighting. I'm sure I would have had a chance at others if the lakefront had opened this spring.
2. Northern Goshawk - this is a species that migrates through Cook County in extremely low numbers every fall. Most sightings in the state are seen migrating past hawk watches in Lake County, but even with constant coverage at those sites, only a couple are reported each year. I failed to find any while hawk watching on my own, and was unable to locate the one time sighting of a perched bird at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington. This species is seen less than annually in the county, but is possible every fall with some effort.
3. Golden Eagle - this species follows the same scenario as the Goshawk, just slightly less painful to miss since a Goshawk actually perched somewhere in the county. Similarly, Golden Eagles are also seen less then annually in Cook, but are possible every fall with some effort.
4. Black Legged Kittiwake - this bird moves through Lake Michigan in extremely small numbers each winter and fall. The best time to see a Kittiwake in Chicago is migrating over the lake on days with strong northeast winds when birds are pushed up against the shoreline. I missed two flyby sightings, one because my school schedule didn't allow me to get out that morning. The other was a lot more frustrating; a kittiwake was spotted flying out over the lake heading south from Gillson Park. Myself and a few other birders were stationed 20 miles to the south waiting for the bird to show as it flew in our direction...we never saw it. With 20 miles between us, the bird had plenty of time to put down on the water or fly farther out over the lake. This species is seen less then annually in the county.
5. Red Crossbill - this bird was present throughout the state in fair numbers given the invasion year, but is extremely difficult in Cook County due to the lack of habitat (mature white pine stands). However, they absolutely passed through, and I could have possibly picked up a flyover somewhere. None were reported to have touched down in the county, but there were 3 sightings of flyover birds. I could have been in a better place at a better time, but at the end of the day, this would have been an very lucky bird to pickup.
Top 3 Highlight Moments:
#1. In mid November, a Western Grebe made brief appearance at Rainbow Beach. Painfully enough, I seemingly missed the bird by no longer then 3 minutes. I searched constantly through the remainder of the day and week, hoping the bird would make another appearance, but alas it seemed to have vanished. The window for this species to appear on Lake Michigan is typically mid-late fall, and when winter settled in, I had officially written it off as a miss for the year.
Flash forward to new years eve, in the final few hours of 2020. I decided to spend my last day enjoying some leisurely birding along the Chicago lakefront. My objective wasn't to find anything new, as I was put out of reasonable possibilities. Rather, my intent was to enjoy the final day of my big year, to enjoy the birds and take it all in before it was over. I made a quick stop at a pine stand in Burnham Park to check for owls, but there weren't any. However, I noticed that there seemed to be a particularly high levels of waterfowl on the lake that morning...why not just give it a quick scan? The second I glanced out at the lake, I stopped dead in my tracks. I had just caught a *brief* glimpse at a bird before it dove under the water, and it sure looked interesting. I had an idea of what it was, but my look was simply too quick to confirm. My heart pounded as I waited for the bird to resurface. When it finally did, it was a speck in the distance, so I zoomed in and snapped a photo.
WESTERN GREBE!!! Words can't describe the amount of excitement that rushed through my body during that moment. It was one more bird, but not just any bird, my NEMESIS bird! What an awesome way to end the year!
#2. It was a regular early September afternoon. I was standing in my living room having a conversation with my dad when I felt my phone buzz. I opened it to see it was a message from my friend Jake Cvetas. "Two Black Terns heading south past Dempster St. Beach right now." Without saying a word, or even looking at my dad, I sprinted out the front door.
For reference, I live about 3 1/2 blocks from the lake. Dempster Street Beach, where Jake saw the terns, is 0.7 miles north of my house. As soon as I saw the alert, I knew that even if I moved as fast as possible there was only a slim chance I could make it in time to intercept the terns as they continued south. I decided I was gonna go for it.
To say I moved quickly was an understatement. I threw on my little sister's flip flops, the only pair of shoes at the door, and sprinted down the block at full speed towards my car. Thankfully, I had left my camera and bins in there from the night before. I drove 3 blocks to my local beach (probably much faster then I should have), and immediately whipped out my binoculars to look out at the lake. I had the terns! I snapped a few photos, and the birds were gone. The time that had passed by from receiving the alert to seeing the birds lasted no longer then a minute and 30 seconds. Boom, Cook County year bird #267.
#3. The day after my encounter with the Black Terns, I went on a Lake Michigan Pelagic with Geoff Williamson, Nathan Goldberg, Steve Huggins, Ryan Jones, and Glenn Giacinto. Our targets were big ticket seabirds that are rarely seen from shore; Jaegers, Phalaropes, Gulls, you name it. The trip was going pretty well, and we had just been treated to killer looks at a Parasitic Jaeger harassing gulls in the wake of out boat. We started making our way back towards the harbor, keeping a consistent chum line off the back of the boat in attempt to attract the attention of anything else that might be lurking out there. Steve pointed out a pair of smaller birds heading in out direction. "Black Terns!" someone called out. As the birds approached us, we determined that they weren't terns, but rather Bonaparte's Gulls. After a moment, the thought had all hit us. "Wait, were those Little Gulls???" Geoff whipped out his camera and showed us the photos. They were. We celebrated, practically jumping up and down while exchanging high fives. The gulls reappeared and put on quite a show, circling over our boat while we fired away with our cameras. It's funny to think that the night before I almost backed out of this pelagic due to the rough waters...good thing I didn't!
A Few Last Words
When I set myself upon this task 10 months ago, neither I nor anyone else could have imagined the obstacles that we'd face and the tragedy of so many lives lost. Last year, I felt incredibly fortunate to have had this amazing passion and goal to pursue during these hard times. This big year gave me a sense of purpose, serving as a happy oasis when all else felt hopeless. Although I may have seen the most birds, this was a team effort involving the entire birding community. This goal would have been unachievable without the help of others. A huge thanks goes to many in the Chicago birding community for their help and support. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and that it serves as an inspiration for others to do their own big years!