Chasing the 'big grackle' gives local birders a thrill this winter
Winter is a slower time for birding. There isn't as much to see. So, when rare birds pay a visit, they get a royal welcome.
Thankfully, birders with cabin fever had some interesting options as we rolled into 2022. A Townsend's solitaire at Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County drew our attention in January, followed by another Townsend's in Kane County at Hampshire Forest Preserve.
Several snowy owls posted up along the Chicago lakefront, and another appeared at DuPage Airport in West Chicago. The latter was a new tick on the county list for some observers.
Some lucky watchers enjoyed special visitors without leaving home. Common redpolls and white-winged crossbills invaded the region this winter, many congregating at backyard feeders and atop seed-rich conifers. In a typical winter we see few (if any) of these birds.
Yet another winter oddity, and the focus of today's column, was a great-tailed grackle in Monee. Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, discovered the bird, a native of the southern Great Plains and Southwest.
The Monee Miracle, still present in late February, was a convenient rarity, making itself at home just off an I-57 exit ramp. If it's not at Thorntons gas station, the chat rooms said, check the nearby Amazon warehouse, or the Pilot Truck Stop across the interstate. Day after day, dozens of birders followed the drill.
Bird-watchers love a good stakeout, and this one offered excellent odds of success. The grackle's general location was reliable, confined, and searchable from inside a warm car. This wasn't a little gray bird in the woods, or an obscure gull standing on a frozen lake among 100 look-alikes. Instead, the target was a large blackbird with a massive caboose and a thing for salty snacks.
I went to Monee on Jan. 30, two weeks after Stotz's exciting find. The "big grackle," as birders were calling it, had been reported the day before, so I wasn't too worried about striking out.
But there's a downside to being late to a stakeout: You might be the only birder present, potentially adding time and stress to the search. Locating the quarry is a snap when you arrive on the scene and spot a cluster of humans looking through binoculars and spotting scopes. Find the birders and you usually find the bird.
In any case, off I went to Monee, a 48-mile drive from Glen Ellyn in light Sunday traffic. First stop: Thorntons. Nothing but European starlings. The latter, I knew from reports, were buddies with the great-tailed grackle, whose tail alone is longer than they are.
Next stop: Amazon Fulfillment Center, visible just down the road. My strategy was simple, drive around the parking lot and find the grackle. Once again, plenty of starlings, and worse: annoying speed bumps about every 25 feet.
I'm thinking, this could get old really fast. The parking lot was busy and huge, with Amazonians coming and going. I detected no other cruising birders.
Thankfully, after 15 minutes, the big grackle appeared. Wow, that tail! I watched it land on a light fixture mounted on the east wall of the warehouse. It was eating something orange. For a bird far out of range, in a cold Chicago winter, it's about survival.
The scene reminded me of a locally famous bird on the Southeast Side of Chicago -- a laughing gull/ring-billed gull hybrid that dined regularly in a KFC parking lot in 2004 and for years thereafter. You could look it up.
Grackles of all kinds -- including the one we know best, the common grackle -- are comfortable around people and human-altered landscapes. They are opportunistic. In the fall, packs of noisy grackles will sometimes descend upon my backyard, depleting my feeders in a ravenous frenzy. I don't mind when it happens because they are cool-looking birds.
Common grackles are scarce here in the winter; finding just one is a challenge. But in early spring they return in force from their southern hideouts. Watch for them now.
I suppose we should keep an eye out for more great-tailed grackles, too. Their population is increasing, studies show, and so is their range. The species is already established in parts of Iowa. As noted in my recent recap of the 2021 birding year, a great-tailed turned up last April in Cook County. Lake County hosted one in 2018.
Now Will County is on the board. Maybe DuPage or Kane will be next.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.