|Great-tailed Grackle by Jake Cvetas
A shiny blackbird with a very long tail gave area 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, 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
Birdwatchers 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
I went to Monee on January 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.
|Common Grackle by Jeff Reiter
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
Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.