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McLean County breaks bird species count record

Spotted Towhee.jpg
A Spotted Towhee is an extremely rare bird to find in McLean County. Ben Guo said this one is the third ever spotted in the county and, remarkably, the second in 2021. It is probably the rarest bird he found this year.

A 20-year-old web developer has broken the single-year record for bird species counted in McLean County. Ben Guo recorded 264 species in 2021. The old record was 259.

Guo said his most thrilling day came at Comlara Park during horrible January weather.

“There is this very tiny owl. They like to sit in pine trees. They just sort of hunker down and they don't move. They are really really hard to find. And no one had seen one in McLean County in more than a decade. It's called a Northern Saw Whet Owl. They make these series of toots that sound like a saw being whetted," said Guo.

Northern Saw Whet Owl.jpg
Ben Guo
The Northern Saw Whet Owl is likely more common than realized in McLean County but is hard to detect. This is the first recorded in almost a decade, said Ben Guo

The Saw Whet Owl is a buff-colored bird with bright yellow eyes and dark streaks down the breast.

“I mean, every time I see a new bird for the year, it's just a huge shot of adrenaline," said Guo. "And there's a huge amount of excitement. But especially when you find a bird that I've been looking for in the county, and I've really wanted to see in this county for a long time. And one that's so rare, it was just even though the weather was terrible, it was just really rewarding.”

Yellow Headed Blackbird.jpg
Ben Guo
There are only a handful of sightings of a Yellow-headed Blackbird in McLean County,. It is probably a 1 in 5 years bird, said Ben Guo

Guo said the pandemic prompted him to try for the record. He had never done anything like it before and thought it would be fun to try.

“Also, there are some really eruptive birds that came down last winter. There are a few species of winter finches. They're just small little birds (that) eat seeds, brightly colored birds, and they live real far up north. They're really hardy. There are a few species called Crossbills. There's a white-winged Crosbilll and the Red Crossbill. Their bills help them pry apart pine cones and get the seeds,” said Guo.

He said COVID played a role in those birds coming much further south than usual.

“There is what's called the spruce budworm. Usually in Canada, they spray for it, but because of COVID they really weren't able to. That produced a huge amount of these winter boreal birds that breed up there. But then when winter came there were very bad food crops. They came down in numbers that I don't think have been seen since the ‘80s,” said Guo.

Guo said he is not the first to use the pandemic to get out more.

"2020 was really a historic year. I think COVID played a big role. There were just more people out birding and more people that had time to be out and enjoy nature. And so, a lot of records were broken. The overall record for the state was broken. That is just an insane accomplishment," said Guo, who broke the McLean County record in late August. After that, things slowed down.

“My biggest month was definitely May. That's when you have all the all these brightly colored birds are called warblers. They're real brightly colored, they have different patterns of blue or, or yellow or red, orange,” said Guo.

In addition to northern birds ranging further south than usual, Guo said some southern birds flew further north more regularly than their usual range would indicate, probably because of climate change.

Harris's Sparrow 2.jpg
Harris's Sparrows are uncommon in McLean County, perhaps recorded about every other year, said Ben Guo.

“An example of that is a bird that I got this year and was actually seen for the first time in the county last year. It's called the Black Bellied Whistling Duck. It's this real funny-looking duck. It's tall, has a long neck and long legs. They usually live in the south along the Gulf Coast, in Texas. They do come up into southern Illinois, but this year, there are quite a few sightings in the central area of the state,” said Guo.

Guo began birding at age 8. For him, the precipitating event was a bird called a Rose Breasted Grosbeak that he saw near a window to his back yard.

“It's a real pretty bird. It's black and white, sort of looks like (it has) a tuxedo on, but the male has sort of raspberry colored triangle on its breast. It was May so that's when all of these birds are making these incredible journeys from South America up to their breeding grounds in Illinois,” said Guo. “And I had no idea what it was. And I really wanted to know. I spent that day, I spent like an hour just trying to figure out what it was and when I finally figured out what ... there was the rush of finding something that was really cool to me.”

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