A unusual tern of events.

Greg Neise has written another inside look at the life of a twitcher. He’s a guy who doesn’t just have a life list. He’s got a state list, too. After exploring the Amazon, running around Illinois should be a piece of cake. Or maybe it’s more like a sandwich. Which brings us to Greg’s latest adventure. If this gets you up for hard-core birding news, take a look at the web forums that he created. Locally, there’s Illinois Birders’ Forum, and nationally, the North American Birders’ Forum. Or you could check out Greg’s July 6 guest essay. Meanwhile, there’s an unusual tern in town…

“Running Out for a Sandwich.”

By Greg Neise

On September 12, a photograph floated onto the Illinois Birders’ Forum. It was of a most unexpected visitor, a Sandwich Tern. The bird was seen briefly on a beach in Evanston, and the photographer sent it to the Illinois Rare Bird Alert.

There’s one other record of a Sandwich Tern in Illinois, April, 1989. The species is strictly coastal, and rare even in Florida. This was a very rare vagrant indeed. Every birder in Illinois needed this bird for their state list.

Later that day birders checked the Evanston beach and no Sandwich Tern was to be seen. But lo and behold, one of Lake Michigan’s most heralded migrant traps—Montrose Point—was about to produce.

On Tuesday, Bob Hughes located the tern at 6:45 am on Montrose beach and called the alarm. Being both fanatical about twitching and car-less, I called for a transportation hook-up. Craig Taylor arrived at 7:40 and we were off.

While en-route, we learned that the bird had been seen flying north. Knowing that there were eyes and cell-phones on the ground at Montrose, we headed for the beaches north of there.

By 1:30 pm we’d checked every beach, lakefront access or park, up to suburban Wilmette. The bird was somewhere along a 10-mile stretch of urban lakefront. It was up to us to find it. Being a strong flier, it could move along the shore faster than we could in mid-day traffic (what the hell are all these people doing driving around? Shouldn’t they be at work, or something?).

By 1:45 we had decided to call off the search. We made plans to reconvene at Montrose the following dawn. Back at home, I was thinking about dinner, when the Illinois Rare Bird Alert texted out an alert:

“Sep 14, 2010 4:01 PM: sandwich tern present at Montrose at 4 pm with two Forster’s.”

20 minutes later, I’m out the door, this time with Bruce Heimer, who birded with Craig and me earlier in the day. We got to Montrose in record time, battling rush-hour traffic. We stood on the beach with a handful of other hopefuls. Nothing but a pair of Black-bellied Plovers (which were entertaining).

blk bellied plovers

We headed home tired and deflated. Bruce had to work the next morning. Craig and I confirmed plans to be at Montrose again at dawn.

A dozen birders stood around on the beach, and as the magic hour passed we realized the bird wasn’t going to show. We worked out our frustrations by confronting dog walkers who were scaring birds off the beach (dogs are not allowed on Chicago beaches, ever—on-leash or not—except for designated, fenced in areas. Yeah, right.).

Dejected, we disbanded at 7:30am and headed to our offices. But the birding gods were not done with us. At 9:53 am a new message went out from Illinois Birders’ Rare Bird Alert:

“The adult SANDWICH TERN was loafing with a couple hundred Ring-billed Gulls…at the 63rd St. beach in Jackson Park at 9:05 this morning. Still there…at 9:20.”

The bird had been rediscovered 15 miles south of where it had been seen yesterday! From space it looked like this:


1 is the first sighting on 9/11. 2 is the second and third sightings on 9/14, and 3 is the latest on 9/15

I called my partner in crime, Jeff Skrentny. We tore down Lakeshore Drive. I saw another twitcher zoom ahead of us, and figured if there were cops on this road they’d have gone after him, so we were safe.

We arrived at 63rd St. Beach to find a scope line set up. As I started to unfold my spotting scope and tripod, a twitcher said, “hey, you know the drill…” and pointed to his Questar.

I did know the drill: grab a look through the first available scope to get your bird, then set up your own gear and worry about pictures. And so, I nailed my Illinois State Bird #352.

And pictures I did get. Here’s one….of this slippery, ephemeral ocean-waif. Enjoy:

sandwich tern neise

One Response to “A unusual tern of events.”

  1. Birdiegirlie says:

    What a fantastic photo, he’s beautiful! Ps: good job on the beachdog walkers/poopers