Seek Out Savanna
The key to exceptional birding while traveling, by which I mean encountering more than the grackles and pigeons outside your hotel room window, requires extensive research. My recent visit to Chicago proves the point. My goal for the few available hours I had to spare for my own interests rather than those of my employer was to visit some of those sweet temperate grasslands for which the Prairie State is named. Of course, I wasn’t just interested in native grasses and forbs with evocative names like spiked lobelia, and rattlesnake master. No, I was after grassland birds not likely to be found in the NYC area, good Midwestern species like Dickcissels and Sedge Wrens along with lots and lots of sparrows.
Most Chicago birding seems to revolve around the Magic Hedge at Montrose Point and radiate out to hot spots in the surrounding counties. On paper, awesome swathes of prairie locates far outside Chicago city limits like Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area sounded perfect. Thankfully, Mariya of Migrateblog, a helpful, well-informed fellow birder, straightened me out quickly about how realistic a 150-mile round trip is to a visitor with limited time to spare. With her able input, I arrived at Rollins Savanna as the potentially perfect spot to spy my target Illinois birds.
Rollins Savanna is located north of Chicago in central Lake County. Illinois’ Lake County seems to have a number of inviting Forest Preserves, and Rollins Savanna with its 1,225 uninterrupted acres of prairie, woodland, and wetlands seems among the best. The summer bird list for this site is phenomenal, boasting all the expected grasslands birds as well as dynamite marsh species like Yellow-headed Blackbird and Virginia Rail. On a good day, even cranes are possible.
Research, as I said, may be essential to a successful birding trip on the road, but weather plays a fairly significant role as well. I took the red-eye from Oakland to Chicago, hopped in a rental, and drove through buckets of rain to arrive at Rollins Savanna at daybreak. My fervent hopes that the thunderstorm would abate on my arrival were dashed as I sat in the parking lot of the rear entrance eyeing Song Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds through my rain-splattered windshield. My only consolation was an intrepid Alder Flycatcher, my first ever, singing “reba” from a telephone line.
I pulled around to the front entrance (neither entrance is easy to find so get good directions before you visit) but found no respite. The storm, blowing through the area in booming waves, had me pinned down in an amazingly uninformative informational kiosk. From my tiny shelter, I observed common birds like Barn Swallow, American Goldfinch, Northern Mockingbird, Mourning Dove, and Killdeer. The only specialty I spotted was, what else, Savannah Sparrow, so much easier to identify when it’s the dominant little brown job in the area. Rain kept falling but still I waited, as this was my only shot at good prairie birding for the foreseeable future. Finally, I’m happy to report, the downpour tapered to a drizzle, not perfect but certainly good enough for my purposes.
My long wait was, unlike so many others, rewarded in spades. Almost immediately upon my entry into the sweet-smelling prairie, a trio of male Bobolinks popped up. Then came the Eastern Meadowlark, and next, some absolutely amazing Dickcissels. Having never seen dickcissels before, I knew to expect vivid gold, gray, and rufous, but pictures hardly do these fantastic birds justice.
Boldly patterned birds like bobolinks and dickcissels are especially welcome on the prairie, where so many birds aspire to the title of “Most Boring Plumage Ever.” Perhaps “Most Subtly Attractive” would be a more charitable description, but then again, on some days, the competition seems more like “Most Likely to Be Identified as a Similar Species.” My remaining two target grassland species were strong contenders for any of these titles. The first, Henslow’s Sparrow, is among the shyest, most subtle sparrow species around but, fortunately, its frequent call, a short “tsik,” precedes it. The other, the sneaky Sedge Wren, maintains a lower profile than Henslow’s, if that’s even possible. But after the initial inclement weather, my luck had turned golden; both birds popped out to greet me before I left.
I didn’t have time to hit the marshes for those awesome blackbirds and rails, but I consider my time in Rollins Savanna very well spent indeed. As I mentioned to Mariya as we compared notes over lunch later that morning, this tract of authentic Illinois grassland provides the perfect summer birding experience for visitors and locals alike. For prairie specialties, seek out Savanna!