Lake County Beachcombing-ish (Chicago Trip, Part 2)

Waukegan Beach

After getting lost in Evanston because I listened to my GPS (one of the better towns to end up lost  in the Chicagoland area, I might add), I ended up in Waukegan Beach.  The rarities that had been here ( Hudsonian Godwit and Glossy Ibis) moved on the evening before were gone (the Hudsonian Godwit to a spot only a couple of miles away that I didn’t know about).  So I contented myself with Spotted Sandpipers and  Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia):

Yellow Warbler

I decided to venture next over to Illinois Beach State Park, where a Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) had crawled up and onto the Dead River Trail:

Red-eared Slider

I rounded a bend, to discover my first Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in Illinois in years ahead of me on the path.  Hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly through Illinois, and dozens remain to breed.  A few even winter here.  However, the vast majority of Sandhill Cranes in Illinois are seen only in the northeastern counties.  As I rarely visit those counties, it was a treat to do so, and to catch up and see this bird  I haven’t observed  since December 2016.

Sandhill Crane

There were two here, feeding in a small wet area between dunes.  Standing as tall as a deer, Sandhill Cranes are surprisingly tame, or at least this pair were.  I watched them forage for a bit in the open woods, before moving on.

Sandhill Cranes

I walked out into the sandy dunes of the beach, looking at the bizarre vegitation.  Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), Bearberry (Arctostaphyos uva-ursi), Marram Grasses(not pictured)… this is the vegetation of the New England coast, not Illinois!   Those first two are state-listed and only found in this limited habitat, as abundant as they are otherwise.

Illinois Beach Dunes

A strange white butterfly flew along, feeding on some white flowers.  Any suggestions as to its identification would be welcome.  I’m thinking of getting into butterflies more.

? Butterfly?

Of course, where there is a beach there are waves- the waves of Lake Michigan, the great inland ocean bordering Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and (duh) Michigan.  And the inland ocean has inland ocean birds, in the form of  Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia):

Dead River Gulls and Terns

Here, a Caspian Tern brings back a shad it has caught.  (I presume this is a shad… it could be a red herring and turn out to be something entirely different.)

Caspian Tern

Behind the gulls, on the far side of the creek known ominously as the Dead River, pines grew in a natural forest, something quite out of place in Illinois.  This pines dune forest is considered a very sensitive ecosystem and as such, almost no one is permitted to cross the Dead River and venture into this restricted area.  Of course, I really want to go there now after knowing this.  Illinois’ only record of Red-cockaded Woodpecker comes from this forest, one of the few open pine savannas in all of Illinois.  The habitat is so bizarre to find here that it attracts birds hundreds of miles out of place, and contains plants and animals so sensitive that people aren’t allowed.  I will go there someday, legally, but for now it remains the forbidden zone.

Dead River Pines

However, the existence of the forbidden zone and its open, grassy pine woods does mean that certain species of birds are present here that would otherwise be found further north or west.  The most obvious of those is the Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus), a roly-poly Western fellow, mostly likely to be portrayed by Jeff Bridges or John Goodman in a movie about the blackbirds.  I digress, considerably.  Brewer’s Blackbirds, for the most part, are only found here in the summertime in Illinois, combing the beaches of Lake Michigan.

Brewer's Blackbird

In the dunes themselves, other Westerners like this Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) grow:

Prickly Pear

Alongside the cactus, this migrating Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) felt out of place.  Though it was mid-May, few leaves were on the trees- one of the cooling effects of the lake.  As a result, the Magnolia Warbler was forced downwards to find cover and food.

Magnolia Warbler

The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) felt the most Illinois-ian, of anything- dull, the extremities are the most colorful parts, and it’s found in transitional habitats.  Illinois is a big transitional habitat- East meets West, North meets South- but for all that it’s a bit dull- no flashy scenery like mountains or canyons, for the most part, and most of the more interesting “colorful” parts are the edges of Illinois. So the Field Sparrow is, and so it is a great symbol of Illinois.

Field Sparrow

Speaking of small, dull birds, the Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) were about.  I probably saw hundreds of them, but this is the best picture I got of one, at the southern end of North Point Marina, just north of Illinois Beach State Park and my nest stop afterwards.  Palm Warblers are so named for their wintering grounds- the palms of Florida have Palm Warblers in January.  In May, they were heading back to the taiga bogs to nest, moving by the hundreds. I found my lifer Clay-colored Sparrow in with them, but it failed to reappear for a photo after I’d gotten my camera out of its bag.  So I took this bird’s photo instead… a blurry photo of my second pick for a photography subject.  Well, it is at least more colorful than a terracotta-hued sparrow.

Blurry Palm Warbler

But enough of this.  I ventured up to the north end of North Point Marina, curious to see what was about.  North Point Marina is the furthest northeast one can walk in Illinois- further north and you end up in Wisconsin, further east and it gets considerably wet.   Caspian Terns, Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and a lone Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) sat on the beach, watching me take photos of them and occasionally diving after the occasional lunch wrapper or stray small fish in the surf.  Bonaparte’s was a surprise, the rest weren’t.

RBGU, CATE, BOGU

As I was walking up to the beach, I spotted a small shorebird wandering about north of the gulls, nearly on the Wisconsin state line…  It was a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)!  Hallelujah!  I’d finally found one!  This has been a nemesis of mine for a very long time, and it took driving virtually into Michigan for me to find one.  The Ruddy Turnstone is uncommon away from the lakeshore in Illinois, and living downstate away from its habitat makes them difficult to find.

Ruddy Turnstone #1

I spent about the next fifteen minutes photographing this one bird as it pecked along the shoreline and pretended I didn’t exist.  I love the indifference that shorebirds along a beach give to people.  Put the same birds on a mudflat and they would freak out  with me 100 feet away.  Here I could virtually step on it before it would acknowledge my presence.

Ruddy Turnstone #2

So, I could see the Wisconsin border and a Ruddy Turnstone in the same view- that was fun!  Past the breakwater, it’s all Wisconsin.  So, all those trees- Wisconsin.

State Line Beach

Due to general stupidity, I forgot to drive into Wisconsin so that I was actually in Wisconsin sometime this year and could claim it as a state I’d visited.  Instead, I drove through Lake county, finding bizarre local attractions like the Gold Pyramid House along the way:

Golden Pyramid "House"

I ended up, after a cursory, unsuccessful search for Yellow-headed Blackbirds at Moraine Hills State Park, driving over to Mchenry Dam to see the Fox River.  At this point, I was driving half-asleep, and decided to walk about and wake myself up.  The river, some ten feet over  or so, was a good wake-up call.  That post in midground right side is supposed to be on the EDGE of the water:

Fox River Flooding

In the flooded forest adjacent to the dam, a surprise Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica) called.  I had no idea at the time that this Southern species of bird breeds here and has done so for many years.   I got to show it off to a novice with binoculars, and see it in close proximity to three Sandhill Cranes- something I never expected to do!  It was a fun send-off to a day spent along the beach, to find something that reminded me of home.  I would drive home the following afternoon, but I still had Indiana Dunes to see with Kyle.  Though half-asleep, I made it back to the place I was staying with no casualties or damages.  The following day- Indiana Dunes!

Yellow-throated Warbler

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Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.

From Scorpions to Shorebirds in Southwest Illinois… (Shorter Post)

School was finally over!  I had a nice farewell dinner with a few friends at my apartment, and the following day I decided to take the scenic route home.

For those not familiar with the scenic route in question, I drove up Route 3 through Chester and along Bluff Road adjacent to the bluffs along the Mississippi River.  My  lifer (heard-only) Alder Flycatcher, state lifer (heard-only) Least Bittern,  and state-lifer Three-toed Box Turtle  went unphotographed along the way.  If that seems like quite a bit to leave out, you’re right!  I have since seen an Alder Flycatcher and Least Bittern in this state (with a witness on the latter, rarer bird).  The Three-toed was moved quickly across Route 3 and I forgot to take my phone or camera when I ran out to grab it.  It’s assumed to be an escapee on this side of the river, anyway, so not a huge loss.   I’ll find one again, I suspect, and if nothing else I can go see more of them “naturally” on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.

Of course, I could be making all this up, but what’s the fun in lying?

Anyway, it was high time that day to actually get a photo of something notable.   I stopped by Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve to see, and photograph, the view:

Fults Hill Prairie, SW

Yeah, that view doesn’t get old, ever.  It’s like being on top of the rest of the state.  Wood Thrushes called behind me, deep in the ravines even as the clock approached 11:00 AM.  Overhead, Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura)  soared past, so close I could count every feather as they flew by (though I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t think of it):

Turkey Vulture

Further overhead, I noticed a small flock of raptors that looked odd.  A high, distant photo of one showed it to be a Black Vulture flock (Coragyps atratus).  While these are all over the Shawnee Hills southward, up this far “north” is unusual for this species, so I took a few record photos, reveling in the fact that I actually got pictures of something notable on this trip:

Black Vulture

You have to be careful looking up here, as I was near a drop of some hundreds of feet down to the river valley below. Despite that risk, this would be a spectacular hawkwatch.  I understand why it isn’t- it would need to be closer to some city and not a slightly difficult hike up. (By slightly difficult, I mean that I was gasping for breath at the top and may have swallowed a few flies in consequence.  I’m a bit out of shape, but it’s still not an easy hike; just a short, steep one.)

Fults Hill Prairie, NW (2)

The hike here isn’t for the unprepared, but it’s certainly worth it.  Ignoring the view (and it’s hard to) there’s plenty of unique flowers and animals atop this hill prairie.  These Rose Verbena (Glandularia canadensis), bloom here in good numbers, just like their annual bedding cousins:

Rose Verbena

Fults Hill Prairie is basically a section of the Great Plains or Ozarks in terms of its flora and fauna (indeed, the hills on the other side of the river valley ARE the Ozarks), so it’s full of unique plants and animals like this Splendid Tiger Beetle (Cicindela splendida):

Splendid Tiger Beetle

A spot in this county held two other species of interest, the quick-running Prairie Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata), one of my favorite lizards:

Prairie Racerunner

Under a nearby rock, I happened to stumble across quite a unique creature for Illinois.  This Striped Bark Scorpion (Centruroides vittatus) is native to only a thin strip of bluffs in far southwestern Illinois- that is, within the state of Illinois.  Across the river, Striped Bark Scorpions are fairly common, and with their extensive range in the Great Plains this is probably the most commonly encountered scorpion species in the US.  In Illinois, it’s a protected species.  I’ve never seen a scorpion in the wild before, so this was a novel experience.  The sting of this species is roughly equivalent to a wasp sting, according to the literature. I didn’t make any effort to find out.

Striped Bark Scorpion

After the scorpion, I knew the time was going, but I had one last spot to check, up on Herbst Road.  Two sections of field flood here regularly, providing habitat for unique shorebirds migrating from the Gulf Coast to the Arctic to stop and find some food on the mudflats.  I noticed two particularly large, black-and-white plovers on the edge, and began debating whether or not they were Black-bellied Plovers.  I wanted them to be, but I don’t trust my instincts much when I “want” it to be a certain species.  So after looking them over,  I put them down as the more common American Golden-Plovers, probably more likely, and looked around at the Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) feeding and running around the mudflats nearby:

Black-bellied Plovers and Least Sandpipers

A flock of (mostly) Pectoral Sandpipers (Calidris melanotos) and White-rumped Sandpipers (Calidris fuscicollis) suddenly came in and landed, before flying off again:

Mixed Shorebirds

After submitting an eBird checklist for this spot, I went back and checked over the photos again.  With white undertail feathers, thicker patterning, larger bills and no dark “cap” on the head, these were in fact Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola).  I’d messed up, but hey, my first self-found Black-bellied Plovers are a great consolation prize:

Black-bellied Plover

I then noticed an email saying that several Ruddy Turnstones were seen at Riverlands. This lifer bird species would add an hour to my route home… and my brother whom I hadn’t seen in months was going in to work fairly soon and I wouldn’t see him for several hours more.  As much as I wanted to see Ruddy Turnstones, I made it home just in time to see him off.  A fun little day, and I was finally home… for a bit.  Restless as usual, I decided to go on and visit the far opposite end of Illinois from the one described in this blogpost- I was off to Chicagoland!

Fults Hill Prairie, NW

Ebird Checklists:

Fults Hill Prairie: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45614562

Herbst Road Pond: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45847220

Snake Road in Recap (Part 2) (Herpers are weird)

Baby Cottonmouth

This is the spring snake post, if you hadn’t figured that out by now.  I’d recommend leaving if you don’t like snakes, salamanders or Scarlet Tanagers.

Above is a baby Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). As usual, I have to make the disclaimer that I have a camera with fairly good zoom. If you tried to get that same photo with a cell phone, you’d be an idiot. Baby Cottonmouths are just as venomous as regular Cottonmouths, only smaller and sneakier.  (More on that topic later).

Broad-headed Skink

Much less sneaky is this Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps).  It was a cooler April day when I found him, and everyone was up on logs or walls trying to catch a bit of heat.

Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

Rat Snakes (Whateveritisnow changeswaytoofrequentli) love to be in odd spots, so of course one was hanging on the side of a cliff.  It’s seriously impressive how they manage to do so with no arms and legs.  Also, I have no idea how it got there.

Green Watersnake

More obvious in its mobility was this on-the-ground Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion), my first state-endangered herp of the year. “First” implies that I’ll find more.  I don’t actually know that, but I assume I will.  This is one of the rarest snakes in Illinois, only found at Snake Road.  It certainly looks boring enough to be rare, that’s for sure.

Angry Cottonmouth

Less boring and more alarming was this Cottonmouth, a few days later, which decided to show off as a number of them usually do.  You basically have to pick one up for them to bite you, however.  I don’t know that from personal experience, so take that with a mild grain of salt and give them a bit of space (body length of the snake, is the bare minimum for me).

Whatever Rat Snake

This same day, we found a Rat Snake up in a tree. These are very good climbers- I see them up on something as often as I see them on the ground.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) crawled around on the rocks nearby.

Western Ribbon Snake

A Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) crossed the road nearby.  This is one of my favorite snakes.  It’s like an Eastern Garter Snake, but…better.  I’d say some random fact about why it is, but it just is, and that’s all there is to it.

Northern Parula

I am, of course, continually distracted by other things than snakes at Snake Road.  Those distractions usually have either chlorophyll or feathers.  In this case it was feathers, belonging to a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana).  Warblers at Snake Road this year seemed to be closer to the ground than usual, probably due to the colder-than-average temperatures.  This of course means better-than-usual viewing.  In one notable case, a herper friend of mine photographed the reclusive, canopy-dwelling, state-threatened Cerulean Warbler ON THE GROUND- and it’s a good photo, too!  The most irritating thing is that he doesn’t really care, because “it’s just a bird”.

No, it’s a feathered reptile that’s flown thousands of miles for you to see it and enjoy it, and even more rarely, it’s at a height where you actually CAN enjoy it.

Doubly irritatingly, one was seen at a low height on my Spring Bird Count at Snake Road by a herper, while I was looking the wrong direction.  It then flew away, and I saw it fly, but not well enough to be sure of the species for personal counting.

Cave Salamander, lost.

In the meantime, near Snake Road I found a couple of interesting salamanders, including this Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) that apparently had no problem hiding out in the middle of a brook several yards from anything resembling a cave.

Nearby, I located a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). Yes, they’re very slimy.

N. Slimy Salamander

On Saturday, May 5, I undertook a Spring Bird Count at Snake Road.  Along the way, a friend and I were treated to a plethora of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) we helped  cross the road:

Eastern Box Turtle- Wow!

Eastern Box Turtles are not graceful.

Get out of the road, you idiot!

We then met up with several herpers from across the state- all certifiably insane, of course.   (I mean, with all due respect, anyone who goes looking for venomous snakes for fun usually has a few wires crossed.)  For starters, I was instructed to call anything I saw a Copperhead, as a running inside joke, the origins of which I do not recall, a month later.   It’s hard to remember other specific examples- it’s been a busy month. They were enjoyably mad, however, so it was a fun trip in one of the best nature preserves in the Midwest- in a word, glorious!

Prothonotary Warbler

As it was May, the herping was slower, so I focused on things with feathers, to the mild amusement and/or irritation of the other herpers.  Woe to anyone who attempts to approach this Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), for it is well-guarded by Poison Ivy (Toxidendron radicans).  It didn’t elect to pop out for a better photo, unfortunately.

Beware

It was a slower day, but that didn’t mean nothing was out, and one of the “Copperheads” we saw was this juvenile Cottonmouth, carefully concealed in a tuft of grass about seven feet away from the path. Unfortunately for me, a blade of grass decided to photobomb in front of the snake.

Plain-bellied Watersnake

Along the path, we discovered this Plain-bellied Watersnake about ready to shed its skin, something snakes do every so often because their skin doesn’t grow with them as they grow.  The reason I know this snake is about to shed is that it has blue on its eyes- a traditional snake

Scarlet Tanager

The snakes were few and far between, and the birds were abundant, at least in voice, one of which was my lifer Golden-winged Warbler.  So I slowed down the group by stopping and calling them out every so often  (every five feet on a 2.5 mile walk).  Whatever. Birds are cool. There’s more of them to see, they’re easier to see, and they do more interesting things.  Sometimes they even let you almost get a good photo of them, like this Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) decided to do.  Oddly, the more common tanager was Summer, but I have no good or even mediocre photos of them from this trip.

Two-Hander

We flipped over a log and uncovered this large Northern Slimy Salamander, which, after some consideration, I think might actually be my first Northern Slimy Salamander at Snake Road.  It was a “two-hander”- if it had been legal to handle it, and if hypothetically we had done so, it would have required two hands to hold it.

Jack-in-the Pulpit

Distractions of the chlorophyte kind prevailed- this Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a species of which I am indubitably fond.  I haven’t used the word indubitably in awhile, and it feels good to try it out again.

We walked down the road, and collectively looked at a number of rocks.  As one group, we all decided without much speaking that we should flip the rocks, and we let the Canadian in our group go first.  He flipped this and we flipped out.  It’s a Midwestern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus helenae) – a lifer for me, and the Canadian guy, and my friend I’d driven there with, and a fun snake to find generally!  These are actually one of the more common snakes within their range, but they tend to be underground hunting and living like worms, so they’re rarely seen.

Worm Snake

Even more abundant are Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus) like the one below: Interestingly, at this location, three subspecies mix (Mississippi, Prairie, and Northern) resulting in unusual intergrades with patterning matching all three subspecies on the same snake.  This patterning is on the underside and is therefore not visible in the photo below:

Ring-necked Snake

Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) crawled about on old cut stumps (as seen below).

We also scared up a less-than-photogenic Broad-headed Skink that was a three-hander- nearly a foot long!  None of us had ever seen one so large at Snake Road before, and considering how often Snake Road gets visited by this crowd, that’s a surprise!

Five-lined Skink

I was technically supposed to count birds as part of the official Spring Bird Count, and I was the only one who never discovered a reptile first, as a result. Furthermore, I found flowers distracting on occasion. Larue-Pine Hills has about 1,200 species of plants recorded from it, which is a LOT:

Phlacia?

The other herpers, somewhat tired of having to wait for me while I counted birds and photographed flowers, moved on ahead.  I fell behind. My friend who’d ridden with me had stuck with me, and another herper had joined us- one of the original gang who’d arrived later and seen less of the road. I checked my phone and notices a message:

“We found a Rough Green Snake.”  A Rough Green Snake is arguably the best snake. Note the period after that sentence.

“Ok”- My traditional response to everything, which I have been informed is sometimes not helpful to the person on the other end.

“Do you want to see it or should we move on?”- The friend I’d brought along had never seen a Rough Green Snake, and I hadn’t seen one this year.  This was a no-brainer.

“See it”- I typed back.

“Run”- was the reply.

So we ran.  It was at that moment I discovered how out of shape I am.  But we did see it:

The Best Snake (Rough Green Snake)

It turns out that that last hour was apparently idea for Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)- we ended up seeing FOUR of them, which made my friend and I and virtually everyone there very happy.  This snake is a brilliant green, eats mostly bugs, and is completely docile and harmless. Therefore it is in a population decline (pesticide-induced lack of bugs, habitat destruction and overcollection are the big three.)  Indeed, if you ever see a snake in the wild, don’t give its exact location, especially if it’s colorful or venomous, as someone’s likely to either kill or capture it.

The Best Snake

I noticed my lifer Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) along the path as I walked.  It’s an overdue species for me, and I was glad to finally see one in the wild:

Zebra Swallowtail

While walking along the path, having caught up to the other herpers, we looked down and saw a young Ring-necked Snake, not much longer than my middle finger, hiding among the gravel:

The Cutest Snake

One last Rough Green Snake saw us off nearby.  They are called Rough Green Snakes because their scales have a “keel” or ridge on them, which makes their scales feel “rougher”.

The Best Snake

I took one last look at a flower, Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii, named for the Miami tribe of the Shawnee, not Miami, Florida), and then we prepared to leave.

Miami Mist

Snake Road wasn’t done with us just yet.  One Cottonmouth decided to sit in the middle of the road and block conscientious traffic (though many people would’ve just run it over).  Attempts to get it to shift, using the traditional implements of hats and sticks, resulted in it going under a car and disappearing.

Looking under the car, all we found was a toad we hadn’t noticed was there before.  The whole thing seemed like a bizarre magic trick, and we didn’t find the Cottonmouth despite extensive searching. The grass on the side of the road was therefore off-limits (venomous snake + tall grass = dumb idea to walk through it) and we gave up.

The guy whose car it went under later found the Cottonmouth’s remains crushed in his tire- apparently it had crawled up in the tire from underneath the car. When he’d started to move his car again, it had been killed, unfortunately.

So, this post is in dedication to this unfortunate Cottonmouth, whose persistent violation of road safety laws led to its demise.  Don’t be like this Cottonmouth- don’t crawl into a stranger’s tire.

Tragedy of the Cottons

As of this writing, I still haven’t seen an Eastern Garter Snake, Illinois’ most common snake.  For some reason, I’m not disappointed by this.

The final results of the Spring Bird Count: I had 79 bird species, my then-highest ever one-location total.  Ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45312902

Spring in Recap (Part 1)

Spring is pretty much over. Well, technically it doesn’t end for a month, but the spring flowers are mostly done and the spring birds are pretty much north for now (a few shorebirds and flycatchers are still passing through, of course.)

Pectoral Sandpiper

Speaking of shorebirds, I’ll begin with Santa Fe Bottoms.  This section of flooded fields just a bit southwest of Carlyle Lake, was a brief stop on multiple drives north and south.  I didn’t see much rare there, but lots of sandpipers like the Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) are welcome.

Sunset at Santa Fe Bottoms

The sunset over those flooded fields isn’t half-bad, either!

American White Pelicans

On Carlyle Lake itself, the American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) had gathered in numbers, sitting on the flooded breakwater.  There was quite a bit of excessive rainfall early this spring, so the lake was over its banks.  This provided habitat for a rare bird I chased:

Cinnamon Teal

The rusty-red duck is a Cinnamon Teal (Spatula cyanoptera) that’s wandered a bit too far east from the western Great Plains, moving in with a flock of Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) like the female at left. This was one of the rarer birds I was able to see this spring, and one of my personal favorite ducks.  After spotting it, over a hundred feet away, I watched it for a bit, before checking out some of the rest of the park… where I encountered a bird from even further away:

Ring-necked Pheasant

Meet the Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus).  It’s a native of Asia that’s been imported to the US for hunting. This particular individual was up against the roadside due to the flooding, allowing for close photos. Those gorgeous patterns on its back are so easily observable under those conditions.  I was just plain flabbergasted by such a close view.

Flooding

Speaking of flabbergasting, the amount of rain this spring, at times, proved to be so.  Flooding was quite common and more than one trip involved a surprise turnaround to avoid water-covered roads.  This flooding even extended to Kinkaid Lake Spillway:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway, Flood Stage

This did turn it into a minor Niagara:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway

Delphinium tricorne

Spring was rather cold well into April, but most of the flowers came up regardless, including these Dwarf Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) at Snake Road.

Opossum

Also out and about in the cold was this Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). A few friends and I were visiting to look at all the wildflowers… I suggested that we climb all the way to the top and my friend Ava agreed to come along.  I’m not sure who was the bigger fool.   After climbing up 250+ feet to the top over steep slope and sliding gravel, we looked out over the view, with rare Shortleaf Pines (Pinus echinata) surrounding us. It was worth it, I think.

Shortleaf Pines

It’s rare in Illinois to be able to look at such a large expanse of unmodified habitat (aka a place that’s mostly the same as it’s always been):

Overlook from Pine Hills

We then hiked back down a slightly less steep grade (it still involved climbing down a small waterfall) and back to the vehicle, where it started to snow… this was mid-April in SOUTHERN Illinois. Despite fewer natural areas and the Midwest’s predictably unpredictable weather, somehow  the wildlife makes it work.

As an example, I went on to find tons of ducks in a flooded farm field in the Mississippi River Valley (mostly Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis).  This was the site of a former lake bed that farmers try to farm every year.  It’s been underwater for over a month and a half now as of this writing (5/23/18).  This flock of scaup, estimated at 325 birds (more to the left and right of this) is the new eBird high count for Jackson county, Illinois.

Mississippi River Valley in a photo

The snow shifted into summer over the course of a week, bringing with it the usual Deep South species on the edges of their range, like this Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula).  I’d like to blame all graininess in the photo on the humidity that came with that temperature increase:

Little Blue Heron- the REAL Blue Heron

Other birds, like this Sora (Porzana carolina), were just passing through:

Sora just out of focus

Joining the Sora in the same flooded field were these two sandpipers, a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), the former clearly much bigger than the latter:

Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper

My best find of late, however, was this lifer American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), one of a few I came to find at Oakwood Bottoms.  This ordinarily shy heron decided to wander up and take a look at me, allowing for great photos:

American Bittern, Round 1

It’s been a busy spring.  I made this post for people who don’t like snakes, to have a last breath of fresh air before recapping Snake Road. Beware, snake-fearing people, of my next post.  Then again, if you don’t like snakes, I’d question what you’re doing reading this blog in the first place.

Hardin County Showdown

It was Kyle Wiktor and I, the”Look Here, It’s Cranes”, versus the “Grumpy Old Men” (their team name, not insulting them here)  in a showdown for the highest number of species in Hardin County on April 28, 2018, as part of the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, a competition to see the most birds and raise the most money for charity.  (The charity in question is the restoration of  the Cache River watershed.)  The “Grumpy Old Men” were the dominant champions, with three of the best birders in Illinois (Mark Seiffert, Andy Sigler, and Craig Taylor) competing against me and Kyle, two of the birders in Illinois.  Actually, at present Kyle’s not even in Illinois- he’s the migratory bird counter at Indiana Dunes.  To see what he does, check out this blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/. The “Grumpy Old Men” had access to a secret wetland spot, and we had no idea where it was.  We assumed it was a quarry pond.  They’d scouted out the area to a limited extent, and so we followed their notes, having no time or money to do any of our own scouting.  As a result, we knew it’d be hard for us to beat them, and so therefore we were just doing what we were doing for fun.

The day started off with indecision over vehicles, but we eventually chose Kyle’s minivan.  At 4:30 AM we were stopped in Harrisburg, getting gas.  First two birds of the day were American Robin and Song Sparrow at the gas station while I filled up the tank.  Kyle missed the Song Sparrow.  We were off to a great start.

We turned down some road west of Hicks (Yes, there’s a town called Hicks in southern Illinois.) about 5:00 AM.  Immediately we were greeted by calling Eastern Towhees.   Barred Owls, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, a Field Sparrow, and a few Northern Cardinals joined in.  The Whip-poor-wills got louder and became one of the loudest birds present.  Whip-poor-wills are strange birds known as nightjars, with large eyes, mottled gray bodies and stubby bills.  They’re rapidly declining throughout their range, so hearing lots of them is a great sign.  Pictures of Whip-poor-wills can be found here:  https://lakecountynature.com/2013/07/29/campfire-serenade/

We spotted eyeshine on the road, and stopped to see what it was.  The eyes rose up and started flying- it was a pair of Whip-poor-wills on the road!  They flew right over our heads.  It’s rare to see such a well-hidden bird in flight.

The day only got better and better as we drove into our dawn spot.  Every Big Day requires a great dawn spot, and we chose Illinois Iron Furnace Park based on our hopes that it would be good.  We’d driven past the area back in February and noticed that it had a good mix of woodland habitats.  It proved to be ideal- we had about 40 species immediately.  The best were three Cerulean Warblers, calling from high up in the treetops.  I got to see one, but it flew off before photos.  In addition to Cerulean,  for the warblers we had Hooded, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Northern Parula (Setophaga americana, pictured):

Northern Parula

The Cerulean Warblers were lifer birds, so I was happy.  The day had started well, and it continued as we backtracked slightly towards a road we’d seen branching off from ours.  Google began to panic, and I checked… this road wasn’t on Google at all.  Yet it was well maintained and clearly had been here for awhile.  What on earth was going on?

This road doesn't exist, according to Google.

Despite the oddity of the road, it proved great.  We added Worm-eating Warbler,  Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager as we drove along through one of the finest woodlands I’ve ever seen in Illinois. Eventually we came to a road that Google recognized, part of Kyle’s original route.  This netted us several more birds, including Blue Grosbeak, Barn Swallow,  and a slightly unexpected Dickcissel.  Lots of breeding birds had shown up… very few migrants had, however. The cold had kept them away for the most part.

Dodecatheon (IDC about taxonomy)

Breeders everywhere, migrants nowhere.  I spotted a Nashville Warbler, a migrant, but it eluded Kyle.  The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) were blooming abundantly along the roadsides, as were many other flowers. Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) were moving through in flocks:

Indigo Bunting

We drove 225 E south to Peters Creek Tower Road down to Rock Creek Road, cutting through small farms and thick woods, with Louisiana Waterthrushes and Northern Parulas calling everywhere. This Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) posed in a tree as we drove past:

Broad-winged Hawk

On 225 E, we had the windows down listening for birds.  “Te-slick” something called. Kyle went “That’s a Henslow’s Sparrow!” We stopped, and found not only five Henslow’s Sparrows but also a Yellow-breasted Chat. Elated at our luck, we continued onwards, stopping by a set of sinkhole ponds adjacent to Rock Creek Road that looked good to us previously.   Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Boring Swallows, would be a better name) and this glowing Prothonotary Warbler  (Protonotaria citrea) greeted us, as did many other species:

Prothonotary Warbler

The sinkhole ponds got us Wood Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Orchard Oriole, House Wren,  Palm Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and more.  It’s a good migrant trap to remember for later.   Southern Hardin County is dotted with ponds like these, formed by sinkholes in the limestone bedrock underlying the area.  This particular one is directly adjacent to the road, so it’s somewhat publicly accessible, unlike the vast majority of sinkhole ponds.

We got Cliff Swallow a few minutes later down the road, at a spot where we missed Wilson’s Snipe and a Pectoral Sandpiper.  With that, Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Purple Martin, we were only missing one swallow… and Bank Swallow came just a few minutes later at a wetland called the Big Sink that we’d stopped by briefly (more on that later).  We had a Swallow Shutout!   We drove into Cave-in-Rock happy about this, and saw House Finch, House Sparrow, and Chimney Swift upon entering. Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) were quite abundant in the area, still “blue-ing” up for spring:

Blue Grosbeak

Cave-in-Rock is a cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River, accessible when the Ohio lets it be.  It wasn’t feeling generous today, so we contented ourselves with Red-headed Woodpecker, Nashville Warbler (heard by both), and a couple lunches at the eponymous state park.

Cave-in-Rock

We did see a Black Vulture flying over Kentucky from the park’s cliffs.  I have now seen two species in Kentucky this year- both vultures.  Other wildlife was to be had, also, including this Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) enjoying the sun at the restaurant.

Five-lined Skink

Down the road, we turned east and kept going.  A small marshy spot was our reward, with Swamp Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria):

Solitary Sandpiper

The spot wasn’t much to look at, but it’s hard to find this type of wetlands in Hardin county:

Small Wetlands in Hardin

We drove down more backroads.  Afternoon had set in and it was slow going, with a  Gray Catbird and Swainson’s Thrush on one particularly difficult road.  We had to rebuild that road using rocks before we could keep going.  The lovely flowers of Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) rewarded our trip, though our efforts didn’t.

Hoary Puccoon

We drove back and forth along the river, picking up Blue-winged Teal and Summer Tanager at one stop, but no Mallards.  No Mallards, no Ruby-crowned Kinglets, no Northern Flickers, and no Fish Crows.  Where were they?  Those should be easy birds to find.

A stop at a fish farm got us an unexpected Osprey, Double-crested Cormorants, an Eastern Meadowlark, and the overdue Northern Flicker, at about 1 PM.

We drove northeast to find that the shorebird habitat we’d hoped for had dried up, with only a few Solitary Sandpipers remaining.  Oh well.  We then decided to check a spot that looked like open pine trees, in hopes of Brown-headed Nuthatches expanding their range into Illinois.  Apparently last year the Shawnee National Forest people did logging here, so there wasn’t much to see… but it got us our Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  This is state land, to be clear, and it wasn’t marked with any obvious No Trespassing signs, nor were there any signs of recent activity.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Spot

Saline Landing was our next stop, which proved to be a very unique riverside town that Kyle said reminded him of Alaska. It only had one road in and out, and was likely an hour from the nearest Walmart.  I’ve never seen a more isolated community anywhere in the US.  And yet, unlike many southern Illinois river towns, it was fairly clean and well-maintained, despite the flooding of part of the town by the Ohio River.   However, it had no new birds  and the drive there took about an hour out of our day.

After this, we decided to take a slight break because Kyle wanted to see Garden of the Gods, just over the border in Saline co. We did that, got ice cream in Hardin, and sat out eating it while we planned out our night. We’d given up hope on Mallard and Fish Crow.  We hadn’t added any new birds in hours, and had basically wasted about three or four hours of time, something to not do on a Big Day.

To make up for lost time, we decided to try seeing the Big Sink again, a spot we’d popped in and out of earlier to get Bank Swallow.  It’s the largest wetland in Hardin county, and the only water lost from it is through evaporation- it flows nowhere.  The only access was down a narrow dead-end road between farmfields, which we assumed was public because there were multiple houses and a church connected to it.   As we arrived, we spotted the “Grumpy Old Men” scoping out things, as pictured below.  We realized that large flocks of ducks were on the opposite bank, just a bit too far off for us to identify with 100% certainty.  I did manage to pick out a Pied-billed Grebe.  The “Grumpy Old Men” came back up the road and told us we were trespassing.

Trespassing?  There wasn’t any purple paint, signs, or gates that we saw. What?

Big Sink + "Grumpy Old Men"

The owners of the property came out and confirmed this. We were trespassing!  Apparently this was a private lane, though neither Kyle or I had seen any signs of this.  Well, we got out of there, but it didn’t leave a good impression on the other birders and we weren’t thrilled about not being able to see the ducks well enough for ID. For a bit, we even thought the other birders had called up the owner and had us kicked us out just to keep us from seeing what they were seeing.  Of course, it did kick in that we’d actually been doing something massively illegal, and we could’ve been fined, arrested or shot. Thankfully the owners did none of those things, and just escorted us off their property.  We found out the next day that the “Grumpy Old Men” had taken time to get to know the owners well, but since the owners were private people dealing with their own issues they didn’t want a bunch of birders they didn’t know all over their land.  And then we showed up… twice…

Next time,  we won’t assume!  Our sincerest apologies, again, to both the “Grumpy Old Men” for jeopardizing their access to the spot and giving birding a bad name, and to the owners of the “Big Sink” for trespassing on their property and causing them a hassle they definitely didn’t need.

Our next plan was to go get American Woodcocks, but instead of going to the spot where the other team had definitely had woodcocks on scouting trips, we instead decided to try for them at the Henslow’s Sparrow spot and avoid any further interactions for a bit.  This proved to be a costly mistake, since we missed American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-Widow at the other spot, birds the other team had recorded there that morning.  Since they’d gotten all three of those nocturnal birds in the wee hours of the morning, the “Grumpy Old Men” felt no compulsion to return. We would have been alone and had three species, one of which, Chuck-wills-Widow, would have been a lifer for me at the time, though I’ve head one since at Cedar Lake.  Oh, well. We also got lost a bit on the way to the Henslow’s Sparrow field, which didn’t help us any.

We added nothing new, but the sheer numbers of Eastern Whip-poor-wills in this region are impressive.  I’ve never had anything like them. We tried for Chuck-wills-Widow at a few spots, but none were calling, at least not for certain.  We thought about trying harder,  but I had a rough week ahead so we stopped and went home. Our final list was 110 species.

Yeah, we didn’t win.   The “Grumpy Old Men” did, with 122 species.  That being said, we pulled 110 species out of a difficult county, with close to no preparation and with <10 species added after lunch. If we’d exerted a lot more effort in the afternoon, who knows… we might’ve pulled ahead. That being said, without more migrants and with limited wetlands, I doubt it.  There’s so many birds I’m sure we could have tried for with more effort, but we did a decent job and it was mostly for fun and charity anyway.

Our best finds were Cerulean Warbler (lifer!) and Henslow’s Sparrow, as well as the numbers of Whip-poor-wills and warblers in the area.  Our biggest misses were Mallard and Fish Crow.

Speaking of charity, several people donated to the GoFundMe campaign I’d done for this event. Thanks to Steve Bailey, Cynthia Gorrell,  Shawn Gossman, Ava Alford, and Ted Wolff for their generous contributions to conserving the Cache River Watershed.  Further credit goes to Rhonda Rothrock for running the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois.  And hats off to Craig Taylor, Andy Sigler, and Mark Seiffert for being excellent opponents.  Until next year, gentlemen.

 

Hardin County Showdown- Prelude

My friend Kyle and I have been planning a Hardin County Big Day pretty much since the day we met in person.  And so, that’s what we’re doing this Saturday.

What’s a Big Day?  It’s a competition to see as many species as you can in a limited geographic area, in this case Hardin County Illinois (far southeastern corner).  Hardin county is virtually unexplored, so Kyle and I wanted to find unrecorded species there.  We’ve gotten 40 species there together back in February, sort of scouting out what we might find in April (ok, there’s a major species turnover between then and now, but we just wanted to see what we could find and what habitat might be good).

After some consideration, we decided to sign up for the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, being run the same weekend.  It’s basically a competition to see as many birds as possible within southern Illinois, and there’s separate one-county completions, multi-county competitions, etc. where we raise money to participate. The money goes to supporting restoration efforts in the Cache River watershed, one of the greatest wetlands in the world (and I say that with no exaggeration, it’s internationally recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar convention (basically the international group that decides these sort of things.)

We’ve named our team “Hey Look, It’s Cranes” because- insomnia, mostly, and a slight lack of more relevant creative names. Also because Kyle and I met for the first time to go look at a Whooping Crane.

Unbeknownst to us, Craig Taylor, one of the best birders in Illinois (tied for highest state lifelist on eBird) has been planning the same for, what is in my understanding, years.  He’s set up a rival team and we’re doing Big Days, on the same day, in Hardin county.  And, this actually matters, because both of our teams are competing for the County Big Day top spot in the Birding Blitz- in the same county.   I’ll be like one of those sports movies where we’re the underdogs and he’s the defending champion.  Head to head, binoculars to binoculars.

Just to be clear, Craig’s a great guy.  I’m still indebted to him for driving me around on the Carlyle Lake Pelagic trip last September. So I don’t mind losing to him.  I’m certainly not to the level to bird with him yet as part of a competition, and having the competition will be fun.

I’m definitely the weak link here.  Kyle’s got considerably more experience than I do. I’m listening to warbler calls like a madman trying to memorize all the ones we *might* need to know… should be fun.  I did find an American Redstart today by listening for one (and then seeing it), so it’s working out so far.  Half of the birds I’m learning aren’t even in Illinois yet because spring was rather slow to start this year.  Cerulean Warblers finally showed up in numbers only today (4/25/18) to my knowledge.  It will be hard to determine what might be at what spot.  All we can do is try for everything. We’ve got a couple spots up our sleeves.  Kyle and I don’t have the time or resources to do much scouting, so instead we’re just delving into Google Maps and reading over all reports we see of the area.

Hardin is mostly hilly forest, which is good for some things but will be a struggle for many others. Waterfowl and waders are going to be hard.  Grassland birds will be a bit difficult.  Currently the weather looks great, even if the winds could be better directionally (a south breeze would bring more species north).  I look forwards to the challenge (and to seeing Avengers: Infinity War just beforehand!)

If you want to donate to the Birding Blitz,  I’ve set up a GoFundMe to raise our portion of the funds. We’d appreciate every penny, and it all goes to bird conservation in the Cache River Watershed.

https://www.gofundme.com/birding-blitz-of-southern-il