Carlyle Lake IOS Trip-2018

I’d gone back and forth on coming to the Carlyle Lake trip.  It was supposed to rain locally, and I didn’t know if it would be worth it.  I knew a good front have moved in overnight, and I  had hopes of some warblers and sparrows.  After a sleepless night, I got up at 5 AM, already running behind.  We were all supposed to meet up in Carlyle at 6:30 AM.  It was an hour and twenty minute’s drive, and that didn’t include breakfast before or parking afterwards.   Hurriedly grabbing almost everything I needed for the day (camera, binoculars, scope, tripod, water, etc.-  y’all know the list)  I left my snacks behind.  The rain outside was a slight deterrent, but I assumed that it would lessen as I drove north to Carlyle.  I was initially wrong about this.

The rain only picked up, and by Pinckneyville it was quite steady, forcing me to slow down for safety.  As I drove through the dark, occasionally rolling down the window and letting the raindrops splash me to keep myself awake, listening to Paul Simon sing away on his Graceland album, my cruise control quit working and the check engine light came on.

Birding has always been escapism for me.  If I don’t know what to do with myself, I just jump in the car and go looking for birds.   I’m not always sure what to do to escape from birding- how do you go about escaping from escapism?  My instincts were screaming at me to turn around, to turn back before I ended up breaking down on the side of the road.  I was already running late- it was 5:50 AM- I’d slept only a few hours- surely it was too early in the morning for me to be safely driving in the rain?

Paul Simon’s song “Gumboots” came over the Bluetooth speaker:

“It was in the early morning hours
When I fell into a phone call
Believing I had supernatural powers
I slammed into a brick wall
I said hey, is this my problem?
Is this my fault?
If that’s the way it’s going to be
I’m going to call the whole thing to a halt.”

Then, as it often did, my stubborn streak overcame my anxiety.  I turned off the music to listen for any weird noises, heard none, and put it back on.  The car would pull through, or else.  I was going to be late, but I wasn’t about to be VERY late. I’d paid to go on this trip, and I’d go on this trip. There was a good chance of a lifer Parasitic Jaeger or Brown Pelican out on the boat trip, after all, and I’d be furious with myself if I gave up then.

The rain broke near Carlyle, though as a reminder, gray clouds hung overhead, in the cool light of dawn.  I pulled into the McDonalds parking lot where we’d agreed to meet up,  at 6:40 AM.  Everyone was already outside and I hurried over to join the group, spotting the familiar face of  trip leader Keith McMullen as I did so.  Keith drove at the head of the line of six or seven cars. Carpooling with him were Scott Latimer, Susan Miller-Zelek, and I.

Our first stop of the day was at the Dam West Boat Ramp,  where a flock of Forster’s Terns greeted us.  One of the terns in the flock was quite a bit darker and smaller- a Black Tern.  Scopes were immediately trained on the flock of gulls on the breakwater, and further out where the terns foraged among the waves of the lake.   If you turn 15 birdwatchers loose with scopes on any flock of birds, a rarity is almost certain to appear.  This proved to be the case, as a Franklin’s Gull and two Herring Gulls materialized out of the flock of Ring-billed Gulls  on the breakwater.   Our most hoped-for bird, a Sabine’s Gull Keith McMullen had spotted the night before, failed to appear.  However, eleven Little Blue Herons flying out over the lake proved a significant bonus.

Also, I’m going to give a shout-out to the Great Blue Heron that thinks he’s a gull and keeps landing on the breakwater and hunkering down with the gulls.  I’ve seen him a few times now, and he never fails to amuse.

Having dissected the flock on the breakwater (visually, not literally) we got back in our cars and drove down the road to Eldon Hazlet State Park.  Thousands of Tree Swallows swarmed over the fields on our way there, flying low due to the winds.  It was a spectacle to behold, but it also indicated our biggest problem of the day- the weather.  First came this wind-  the warblers hid out in the bushes to avoid it instead of popping up to see us, though we did have a Blackburnian Warbler along the entrance road.

We found passerines in pockets out of the wind along the road, and soon we’d gotten great looks at Chestnut-sided Warblers, Black-and-White Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, Magnolia Warblers, and many Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (about 30 at Eldon Hazlet!)  Ospreys were constantly flying over the lake, and we noted one Canada Goose and Bald Eagle that seemed to follow us in the air.  We hit upon one pocket that produced a Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-eyed Vireos, a Philadelphia  Vireo, several American Redstarts,  and more.  We also got to hear a Barred Owl call, though we never saw it as it was hidden in the trees.  On our way out, we had thousands of swallows fly low alongside the car- mostly Tree Swallows, although a couple of Barn Swallows and even a Cliff Swallow were noted.

The rains came in as we crossed over to South Shore State Park and looked at a couple of Cape May Warblers.  We took a break for lunch and grabbed some fast food while it rained. After the rain passed, the wind picked up yet again as we went off to Keysport to look for the Brown Pelican.  This was likely to be unsuccessful, as the Brown Pelican in question was about half a mile out, if it was there at all.   While unsuccessfully staring into a mass of pelicans and cormorants on the islands half a mile out, Keith got a phone call from the boat rental.  While not forbidding us to go out, they recommended that we stay onshore, as the high winds had stirred up up considerable waves that would leave us soaked and tossed about on the pontoon boats.  Looking out at the comparatively shallow water in front of us, we could see whitecaps- and in the deeper waters we’d planned to boat on, the waves would only be stronger.  A gust of wind sent a collective chill down our spines.

This was the point at which the Carlyle Lake Pelagic Trip became the Carlyle Lake Bi-State Trip.  It was a fairly unanimous decision among the birders present to go over to Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Missouri and see some of the shorebirds there, rather than grow wet and seasick on a pelagic trip.  I ended up in the front seat, as Scott Latimer had to leave.  We spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk on the drive over, and talked about how we first became interested in birding as the sun broke out of the clouds.

Riverlands was all we hoped for- the shorebirds were out and about, the sun was shining and it was in the 70s- absolutely perfect conditions.  The long-staying Willet, Marbled Godwit, and pair of Ruddy Turnstones were clearly visible, if slightly distant.  We talked to some of the local birders and scoped out the mudflats.   Some of the group walked down along the edge of the fields and found a Sedge Wren.  We also found three Baird’s Sandpipers sitting on the mudflats near the edge of the road, which provided excellent views of this species.  A Peregrine Falcon flew down along the mudflat in front of us, and the Baird’s Sandpipers crouched down into the mud instead of flying.  It worked, because the Peregrine missed them and continued on southwards.

We found an American Golden-Plover associating with some Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, as well as a few Caspian Terns.  Riverlands as usual was a joy to birdwatch, and going there was far preferable to being tossed about on a boat in the middle of Carlyle Lake.

Some of our group left us at this point, and the remainder drove back, yet again, to Carlyle Lake, looking out for that Sabine’s Gull again.  The winds and rain had departed, and with the sun to our backs we scoped out the lake one last time. Unfortunately, the Sabine’s Gull refused to show itself, and so we went off to supper.  Perhaps the day hadn’t gone as planned, but it was still a fun adventure and I had absolutely no regrets about going on the trip.

PS- I ended up getting my lifer Brown Pelican at Crab Orchard Lake in Williamson county,  Illinois, a couple of weeks later.  I didn’t expect to get that as a lifer in the Midwest, but after missing all of the previous five seen this year in Illinois, I was pretty thrilled to finally get a good look at one.

PSS- My check engine light has not turned back on since that trip.  Fingers crossed!



The Strangest Bird Records of All US States and Canadian Provinces

I feel uninspired to write about my adventures of late.  I’d rather write about other people’s.  So I am.

Alabama- Black Swift?

Alaska- The Big One- Gray Nightjar

Alberta- Crested Caracara?

Arizona- Juan Fernandez Petrel

Arkansas- Tundra Bean-Goose

British Columbia- Xantus’ Hummingbird

California- California has had so many uncommon and bizarre birds that picking just one is extremely difficult.  There’s over a dozen species that California and only California has had among all 50 US states.  Going by global rarity and size of population, I incline to say that the Chatham Albatross is the rarest bird recorded in California, because there are only about 11,000 of them in the world and none had been recorded in the Northern Hemisphere before.

Colorado- Variable Hawk (not accepted but it might be today)

Connecticut- Brown-chested Martin?

Delaware- Whiskered Tern

District of Columbia- Prairie Falcon?

Florida- Red-legged Thrush?

Georgia- Green-breasted Mango

Hawaii- Snowy Owl

Idaho- Siberian Accenator

Illinois- Large-billed Tern, but elania sp. is technically better

Indiana- Spotted Redshank

Iowa- Bar-tailed Godwit

Kansas- Brown Booby (perched on windmill)

Kentucky- Red-necked Stint- this is entirely personal bias because this is also the only bird on this list I’ve personally seen.

Louisiana- Crowned Slaty Flycatcher

Maine- Great Black Hawk

Maryland- Shiny Cowbird

Massachusetts- Red-footed Falcon

Manitoba- Eurasian Siskin

Michigan- Beryline Hummingbird?

Minnesota- Northern Fulmar?

Mississippi- Citrine Wagtail

Missouri- Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Montana- Manx Shearwater

Nebraska- Hooded Crane

Nevada- Olive-backed Pipit

New Brunswick- Mistle Thrush

Newfoundland- Eurasian Curlew

New Hampshire- Western Reef-Heron

New Jersey- Buller’s Shearwater

New Mexico- Rufous-necked Wood Rail

New York- Azure Gallinule

North Carolina- Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel

North Dakota – Garganey?

Northwestern Territories- Cattle Egret?

Nova Scotia- Brown Shrike

Nunavut- Purple Gallinule

Ohio- Atlantic Puffin?

Oklahoma- Great Frigatebird

Ontario- Siberian Rubythroat

Oregon- Common Scoter

Pennsylvania- Black-backed Oriole (since it was accepted by the ABA, I have to accept it…)

Prince Edward Island- Black-tailed Godwit

Quebec- Amethyst-throated Hummingbird

Rhode Island- Black-whiskered Vireo

Saskatchewan- Fieldfare

South Carolina- House Crow

South Dakota- Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush


Utah- Yellow-footed Gull?

Vermont- White-tailed Tropicbird

Virginia- Western Marsh- Harrier

Washington- Swallow-tailed Gull

West Virginia – Great Knot

Wisconsin- Smew

Wyoming- Whooper Swan

Yukon Territory- Far Eastern Curlew

Havana Great Time, Emiquon-dn’t Ask For Better Birding!

How have those two puns slipped past my notice for this long?  I mean, it’s probably good that they have, but still, you would’ve thought I’d have caught something like that by now.

After the adventures of the last week,  I figure it’s worth refreshing people’s minds on Central Illinois’ premier natural areas, which I broadly refer to as “Glorious Mason County” even though it’s a bit broader than just that area  It could also be called the “Havana area” as that’s the name of the largest town in the region.

Random fields

I could go into a very deep discussion about the complex geology of this area, and because I wouldn’t understand any of it, I won’t.  However, I’ll try to pass on the limited, simplified view that I do understand, and illustrate this with a map:

Mason County Map

Basically, most of the area is covered in sand dumped there by glacial runoff- the Kankakee Torrent flooding that drained Lake Michigan down to its current water level and carved the canyons in Starved Rock State Park. The primary area of sand is surrounded by a yellow highlight on the map.  To the west, the Illinois River  runs in a valley carved by the former path of the Mississippi River in pre-glacial times.

Field in mist

The sand deposits encouraged the growth of more Western plant and animal populations.  Bullsnakes, Pocket Gophers, Silvery Bladderpod, Prickly Pear cactus, Western Kingbirds, and Lark Sparrows  comprise some of the many “Western” animals and plants found here.  More “Southern” plants and animals, like Pawpaw, Ozark Milkvetch, Prothonotary Warblers  and Northern Mockingbirds also dwell in Mason county and the surrounding regions.  Just across the river, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, usually restricted to the Gulf Coast, have been discovered breeding in Fulton county as of 2017 and 2018.

Indeed, the wetlands along the Illinois River attract millions of migrating ducks and geese every year, as well as rarer species like King and Black Rails, Least Bitterns and Black-necked Stilts.  Strange vagrant birds like Sabine’s Gull, Anhinga, and Ruff have appeared in this area on multiple occasions.The two red areas are the largest wetlands in the region- Chatauqua and Emiquon.  Emiquon is on the left, Chautaqua on the right.

Grasshopper Sparrow

More  common birds like Eastern Meadowlark, Indigo Bunting or the  Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)  above have hung on here in numbers exceeding those of surrounding areas.   In recent years (early 1900s) someone looked at the sand dunes and thought “You know what this needs?  A large pine plantation!”  Sand Ridge State Forest (the large area circled in blue, top center of the map), and a few other localized areas, are the result.  Another fun introduction about the same time was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a small bird imported from Europe and released in St. Louis.  It’s since made its way upriver slowly into this region.

Random field

I think that’s enough for background.  Of late I’ve been spending time in southern Mason county, which hasn’t  been explored enough compared to the Sand Ridge – Chautauqua – Emiquon area to the north.  However, it has its rewards.  For instance, abundant Grasshopper Sparrows:

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrows are vanishing across most of Illinois.  Sure, they’re a little brown bird of limited interest to someone not interested in birds, but if they disappear something will be lost from the world- a bird that both sounds like and eats grasshoppers.  Thankfully there’s still a healthy population of Grasshopper Sparrows in most of Mason county.

Random weed

Another advantage of wandering around the backroads of southern Mason county is the occasional population of Cannabis sativa.  Mind you, this isn’t the kind generally smoked (though it is a controlled substance).  This is more or less hemp.  (I also don’t smoke anything- I generally think human lung tissue is not designed to take in smoke of any kind.)  Wild Cannabis is an actual weed in moist areas throughout this part of the state, though fairly uncommon.

Five-lined Skink

Also uncommon is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), especially one of this considerable size (approximately eight inches long).  This female was sitting on a mattress dumped at the marijuana spot photographed above.  It then ran up a post to be photographed.  Five-lined Skinks have an unusual range- they are close to their northern edge in Illinois at this spot, but they also occur in eastern Wisconsin.  It was my first time seeing one this far north, at any rate.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Across the road, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)  sat in a bush quietly, in pursuit of caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in this area, probably because of all the caterpillars from the ever-present butterflies.  There are a lot of butterflies in Mason county- far more than in the surrounding agricultural wastelands.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are primarily caterpillar predators, devouring caterpillars in the hundreds, so they do well here.  Thankfully they miss enough caterpillars to leave plenty of butterflies.

Poppy Mallow sp?

Growing on the side of the road was Clustered Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe triangulata), a fairly uncommon plant of dry soil and sand prairie.  I’d never found it in the wild before!  We pressed on to Revis Hill Prairie, spotting Northern Mockingbirds, Henslow’s Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers on the way, as well as NINE American Kestrels in one field.

Revis Hill Prarie

Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve is the area on the map circled in blue EAST of Kilbourne.  This contains the region’s highest hills, rising about 250 feet above the Sangamon River Valley.  I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation as to why there are hills here, but there are.  On top of these hills are multiple old hill prairies which have grown here since presettlement times.  Less common birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, White-eyed Vireo and Baltimore Oriole are abundant here.  However, Revis is very little-known for birds- most people come here for insects.  There’s a species of walkingstick and a species of leafhopper only known from here in Illinois.

Tiger Beetle

A number of burrowing wasps and tiger beetles (Cicindelidia spp.) take up residence in the sand and/or loess prarire sections of the preserve.  I don’t think I’ve ever stopped here and not found a new species of insect to me (except in the winter, of course).

Fowler's Toad

All of these insects serve as excellent food for Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri).  Growing above it was this unusual flower, the Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella), one of the hundreds of species of plants present at this incredibly biodiverse site.

Asclepias viridiflora

After driving through Revis, I drove my friend Kyle to see his first Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) in Illinois.  Birds of the Great Plains and further west, Western Kingbirds expanded into St. Louis (where dozens can be seen in industrial areas!) and upriver into Havana, Illinois, showing a strangely consistent fascination with power substations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Western Kingbird in Illinois on a natural perch- they have done well with manmade structures.

Western Kingbird

The Havana power substation where these Western Kingbirds nest also has a population of Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), and I managed to get both in a photo together.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows resemble the much more common House Sparrow, but they have an all-brown cap and black dot on their cheek that differs from the House Sparrow (unspotted cheek, gray cap with brown sides).  Eurasian Tree Sparrows also tend to be found on the edges of town in scrubby areas, and I find it rare to see them in backyards.


A levee at Chautaqua National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, is the perfect spot to find Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and that’s where I went on the previous day with a different friend.

Eagle Bluffs

Hundreds of  American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and some shorebirds were present here.  Most of the shorebirds were far out- it’s been a bad breeding season up in the Canadian Tundra from whence they come,  so the numbers of shorebirds migrating this year are likely to be uncomfortably low.

Pelicans and Gulls

Thankfully, not all is going horribly in the bird world because the pelicans are doing well.  Large flocks like this are becoming more and more common, and they are a delight to watch, gliding nd whirling about in the air.  Pelicans aren’t particularly graceful, but their colossal size makes them readily watchable. While not as long-winged as Bald Eagles, tall as Whooping Cranes, or heavy as Trumpeter Swans, American White Pelicans overall seem to me to be Illinois’ biggest bird.

AMWP flock

The wetlands here and across the river at Emiquon are being drained to allow seed plants to grow on them, providing food for ducks in the winter and mudflats for migratory birds.  Both Chautauqua and Emiquon are carefully managed by pumping water in or out at the right times of year to maximize the benefit for animals, especially waterfowl.

This Chautauqua-Emiquon area has become a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, one of several Ramsar Wetlands Illinois has.  (The others are Chiwaukee Illinois Beach up in Lake county (seen here)  Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (seen here) the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands (not seen yet, but definitely on my list for later) and the Cache River-Cypress Creek Wetlands (seen here). Hey, I’ve been to all but one of those this year!  A Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designation is basically like winning a conservation Oscar, and it’s great that Illinois has five of them- among US states, only California has more than Illinois does.

Emiquon North Globe Units

Over at Emiquon, we found many Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and other shorebirds wading around in the mudflats looking for insects and worms, and squabbling with each other.  Black-necked Stilts are particularly quarrelsome.

Black-necked Stilt

By contrast, these Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were content to work together and hunt down prey.  They’ve recently arrived from far northern Canada, so I imagine they’re fairly hungry.  The Greater Yellowlegs still have far to go- all the way to South America!

Greater Yellowlegs

Just as Illinois is a flyover state for many people, so it is a flyover state for birds on their way to other places.  Still, sometimes they stop in and visit, and we’re glad when they do.  Especially when, for instance it’s a Sanderling (Calidris alba) and I haven’t seen one since 2016.  The pale fuzzy bird on the left is, I believe, a Sanderling.  They like sandy beaches and as a result are uncommon inland, away from the Great Lakes (which DO have sandy beaches).  This is one of the world’s longest-distance migrants, traveling from the High Arctic (think top of Greenland) all the way to southern South America or Australia in the winter.

Not bad for a bird seven inches long!

Sanderling I think

We spent two days and saw over a hundred bird species in Glorious Mason County- not easy to do in late July, when many of them have stopped singing and many more have yet to migrate south.  Despite moving to ostensibly a better spot for nature (southern Illinois)- which IS really good despite what certain Ryans who’ve never been there may say about it – I always end up missing this area when I’m away from it.  It’s the first area I really explored away from my hometown when I got into birding, and it’s a place I can’t help but return to time and again.

I really am Havana great time.

Thompson Lake

Southern Fried Illinois- A Cache of Good Finds

The eyes of Doctor Zahoor A. Makhdoom (Affordable Colonosopy) stared out from the billboard over the sweltering pavements of Southern Illinois in the heat of mid-July as the Beigemobile II drove past.  That’s the opening sentence to this story if  I was writing a thriller .  But I’m not.

Seriously, though, why does that guy have so many signs advertising affordable colonoscopies?

Is there actually that much demand?

Let’s start this over.

I was driving back south at the best and worst of times.  It was the best of times, because there were several rarities.  It was the worst of times, because the heat exceeded 90° Fahrenheit and the humidity exceeded 85%.  If I so much as thought about going outside, I’d start sweating.  Considering this is a nature blog (“nature” is one of the words in the title), and nature is generally found in greatest abundance outside, I was sweating a LOT.


A quick pulloff in Pyramid State Park (which, as usual, contained no pyramids- you have to go to the other end of the state for those) turned up a Grasshopper Sparrow and Bell’s Vireo, both singing from concealed perches some slight distance away.  An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) was much more willing to pose for a photo, lording over its terrain.


I drove from the Captain Unit over to the Denmark Unit.  The strange names (Pyramid, Captain, Denmark) come from old strip mines that tore up the earth here, throwing it into strange hills and lakes that make a fairly good wildlife refuge.  These American Lotus (Nelumbo americana) were blooming abundantly in this pond, helping to filter out pollutants from mining.


Across from them, a Loggerhead Shrike (bottom, Lanius ludovicianus) and an Eastern Meadowlark (top, Sturnella magna) were in an argument.  It’s good to see a Loggerhead Shrike here.  In addition to being one of my favorite birds, they’re declining rather rapidly in Illinois.


As I drove south out of Pyramid and back on Route 127, the familiar signs came back to me- the yard with 20+ Honda Odyssey minivans, the already-discussed “Affordable Colonoscopy” signs, the Confederate flags (people in this part of the state forget that they belonged to the Union back in the 1860s) and best of all, signs for Carbondale.  After checking in at my apartment, I drove out to look for a plant.  No, not a bird, an actual photosynthesizing plant.


This is the Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena) in a bad photo.  It’s been awhile since I saw any orchids of note, so finding this one made for a red-letter day.  I’m not sure where that expression comes from- if I learned anything from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter, it’s that a red letter isn’t a good thing.  But this orchid was a good thing and I was happy to find it.  Thanks to CB for the location, which I am not authorized to disclose.


Nearby at this spot, a bit out in the open perched a Pileated Woodpecker (Hylatomus pileatus).  It’s rare for me to get a good look at one of these shy forest giants (okay, they’re like crow-sized, but that’s a giant for woodpeckers).


Up on a bluff, False Aloe (Manfreda virginica) bloomed its strange green flowers, a last respite.  Two American Redstarts chased each other around the bluff before I departed for my apartment.


The following morning, I almost woke up before dawn.  However, I didn’t, so skipping breakfast I rushed out to the car, and belatedly remembered that I’d forgotten to fill up the tank the night before.  A gas station doughnut and bottle of milk were breakfast for me, and twelve gallons of gas were breakfast for the Beigemobile II.   I raced through the Shawnee Hills, and down into the Coastal Plain Natural Division of Illinois.  The actual Gulf Coast is only 600 miles away.  (The landforms, flora, and fauna in that stretch of six hundred miles are remarkably similar, thus the name).  I arrived at Section Eight Woods Nature Preserve and found my very first Yellow-crowned Night Heron had given up waiting for me and flown away… but not entirely.

I got to see it just as it dipped over the trees.  After a dozen tries for this species, I got to see its back  as it flew away.  Both contented and discontented at my view of my longstanding nemesis heron, I drove back up the road to look for the Anhingas reported at the Junker 37 access:


Stepping out of the car, all of my lenses fogged up for a good fifteen minutes. Green Darners (Anax junius) and Chimney Swifts flew around overhead, but I couldn’t see them for at least ten minutes because my binoculars and glasses were unusuable.  Complicating matters further, foot-high grasses grew over the levee. This alarmed me because I knew that Cottonmouths could lurk underneath.  I don’t have a strong fear of snakes, but I do have a strong fear of hefty medical expenses and stepping on a Cottonmouth could provoke those expenses to attack.


However, between the temperatures in the 90s and the humidity in the 90% range, I think it’s safe to say that no sensible animals like Cottonmouths were out and about.  After looking over the same trees for awhile and finding nothing, I decided to walk along the roadside in hopes of spotting the Anhinga. And, I did!  Obviously, this Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) isn’t sensible- it decided to come to Illinois.  Or it’s very sensible- it left the Deep South in the summer.


Two for two on birds, I decided to see if I could find a Yellow-crowned Night Heron and get a better view at either Heron Pond or Mermet Lake.  I figured I would check Heron Pond, given that I knew it better and that it had Heron in its name.   You’d think that would be a sign of good things to come, but it wasn’t.    Strolling through Heron Pond involved crashing through a fog of humidity and mosquitoes, with the added bonus of almost no birds calling.


Hey, at least the forests of Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) were there.  I enjoyed those, and the Robber Flies like the one below enjoyed that I was attracting the mosquitoes, flying at me on occasion to pick a mosquito or two out of the swarm.  As I was leaving, I ran into a group of ladies out hiking.  One of them had put a beekeeper’s hat on her head, the netting covering her face.



Fed up with that swamp, I decided to drive west, away from Mermet Lake and Heron Pond.  Here, Buttonbushes (Cephalanthus occidentalis) sprouted their small strange balls of blooms:


An overlook into the swamp gave Prothonotary Warblers a scenic spot to sing.


On the trail at the nearby Bellrose Observation Deck, a Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) soaked up the sun.  I’m not sure why, because there was plenty without having to gather it.


The Beigemobile II pushed further west, me at the helm.  Great Egrets (Ardea alba) fed in numbers at Easter Slough, with a Bell’s Vireo singing in the background, reminding everyone that, hey, yes, this is still the Midwest and not the Deep South, no matter how much the herons, plantlife, and weather conspire to appear deeply Southern.  I could show you a photo of a Bell’s Vireo, but A. it would bore you to tears with its plainness and B. it wouldn’t be mine, so I won’t.


Southward and westward I drove, reaching the farthest southwestest cornerest of Illinois-est.  That would be Dogtooth Bend.  Desolate and sand-covered, there’s few spots like it in Illinois.  The sand deposits here are recent, having been laid down during levee breaches in 1993, 2011, and 2016.  Abandoned houses in the area haven’t been reclaimed by many- still fearful of the floods.  Farmfields also lie abandoned, covered over in sand.  Some farmers still cling on and farm what they can, even up to the very edge of the restless Mississippi.  More information on the flooding here is available at this article:


The mix of farms and sand-covered areas does make for entertaining birding, with federally-threatened Interior Least Terns (Sterna antillarum athalassos) sitting around near wet areas in the sandy fields.  Least Terns aren’t the easiest birds to find in Illinois, with a population of around eight thousand worldwide and only a few of those found in this state. However, they are cute.


Much easier to find was this Dickcissel (Spiza americana), of which I had seen quite a few already.  One of the most common birds in Illinois, the Dickcissel has adapted to live in soybean and corn fields, so it does very well throughout most of the state.  While the Northern Cardinal is our state bird, I am personally of the opinion that the Dickcissel should be the state bird of Illinois.  The problem, of course, lies in the name.  Called a Dickcissel after its song, the bird’s name provokes some immature laughs every time it is spoken, especially by people far less grim and old than the average birder.  Perhaps it would be best to stick with the Northern Cardinal.


Bank Swallows (Riparia riparia) and Cliff Swalllows(Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) have started to migrate south for the winter, forming large flocks on power lines near water.  Dogtooth Bend, being mostly surrounded by river water, is such a place.  I don’t know what swallows would’ve sat on before power lines- they’ve taken to them so well it’s hard to see them any other place.


Yes, I know, they would use dead trees.  Anyway, there were a LOT of Bank Swallows (smaller, black and white with collars) and Cliff Swallows (larger, blue and orange, white spot above bill)


Suprisingly, most of the Cliff Swallows were on the ground.  Despite their fondness for power lines, swallows spend the majority of their time in the air- moreso than most birds.   It’s odd to see  them in large numbers on the ground, but it was a scorcher of a day and perhaps being lower to the ground was beneficial in some way for alleviating heat.

I drove through this area and came to a sand dune across the road rather unexpectedly.  I should have expected it.  I mean, it IS Southern Illinois.  Only three things should be expected; those are Red-shouldered Hawks, Affordable Colonoscopy signs, and the unexpected.

Sand dune across the road?  Why not?

Anyway, I drove into the sand further than I intended.  My front wheels began spinning in the loose sand, so I slammed it into reverse and backed up.  I’ve yet to get my car stuck.  I’ve also yet to find out what damage I did to the transmission by slamming the car into reverse.  Fun times.


After that escapade, I came across a mother Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and her- what is it you call a bunch of young Raccoons? (Apparently, a group of raccoons is called a “gaze”, so I guess it’s a “young gaze”?)   She put the young gaze up a tree and then gazed at me, daring me to attack.  I gazed back, took a quick photo before she got too defensive and drove off a bit down the road.  It was a surprise to see anything moving in the heat, but I guess the young gaze is hungry all the time.  They wandered over into a field across the road.


On a side note, I think calling a group of raccoons a herd, a flock, anything is better than calling them a gaze. Even if they are very good at gazing, it doesn’t make a ton of sense.


I drove over the river and through the woods to some random pond where several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) had set up camp, about a mile from the Illinois border of Missouri.  While not seen in Illinois, the ducks looked like they’d thought about visiting it.


Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are a weird species.  Typically found only in tropical and subtropical regions (like the Gulf Coast), these ducks nevertheless find it amusing from time to time to fly far inland and far north.  This species has been to Canada on several occasions, and they are found more and more often in Illinois and Missouri.


This group has been here since May, and it’s likely they’ll remain until the weather freezes them out.  A group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks  appeared in September 2017 and hung out at Riverlands near St. Louis for a number of months until they vanished in late December.

I drove back to my apartment, spotting six species of herons (Great Blue, Little Blue, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green, and Cattle Egret) on the way back.  The following morning, I put my Carbondale affairs in order.  While I was doing that, another birder was exploring Kaskaskia Island ( and discovered a White Ibis there.  I was less than an hour away…  But, hey, something for next time.  And there will be a next time.   plan to have someone tie that ibis down until I get back to Southern Illinois.  I will return!*


*Even if Ryan objects and says Southern Illinois is terrible**.


**Inside joke and also he’s wrong.


Fox Snake Delivery!

Revis Hill Prairie "Bowl"

It wouldn’t be this blog without me going back to Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve at some point.  I love this spot, even if it does have an uncomfortably high number of ticks, briars, and cliffs.  They just add to the fun of the place. Some excellent early morning birding just east of Revis netted me multiple Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) including the one below.  Blue Grosbeaks are like Indigo Buntings on steroids, with reddish-brown shoulder pads.

Bad lighting BLGR

I climbed up to the top of the prairie, and the sun was there to meet me.  I’m not sure if there’s names for the individual prairie sections within the complex of hill prairies that is Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve , but I’d like to name this one Going-to-the-Sun Prairie.

Revis Hill Prairie sunrise

Blue Grosbeaks, Eastern Towhees, Field Sparrows and Yellow-breasted Chats (Icteria virens) called all around me, reminding me how different a place this was from the cornfields below.

Yellow-breasted Chat

This Yellow-breasted Chat was one of three singing away in the thickets at Revis Hill Prairie.  Chats aren’t the most common bird in central Illinois, but at certain locations like this one with lots of native shrubbery there’s a healthy population.

I’d found 48 species of birds in or around Revis Hill Prairie that morning.  Considering the variety and quality of the habitats present, I’m not entirely surprised.  This is one of the best underbirded spots in central Illinois.  It’s well known for plants- it deserves that same reputation for birds.

Revis Hill Prairie overlook

After leaving Revis Hill Prairie, I kept my windows rolled down and listened for birds.   As I was driving past a field, I heard the “t-slick” calls of Henslow’s Sparrows in the grass, in a population that to my knowledge no one else had discovered (which is pretty cool, considering their uncommonness).  This population is just NE of the Crane Creek Golf Course. The Henslow’s Sparrows remained out of sight, so I photographed a Dickcissel (Spiza americana) instead.


Further down the road,  “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”playing over the stereo, I came to the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) areas at Havana.  Right away I spotted the lemon-bellied birds, launching themselves out after insects.  According to online sources there are approximately six populations of Western Kingbirds in Havana.  I only know of two, both at power substations, so I went and saw both sets of my favorite kingbird species:

Western Kingbird and nest

Fields nearby held hundreds of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in bloom- one of the better features of Mason is the random little pockets of prairie scattered here and there.

Beautiful fields

Some random thing happened to me in Havana, and I was going to put it into the blogpost, but it’s been too long and I’ve forgotten what it was.  Anyway, I went to Emiquon.

Emiquon South Globe

Ah, the South Globe Unit parking lot.  I’ve seen it five feet underwater, I’ve seen it with the water several feet lower than this.  However, I’ve rarely seen it so… dull.  While I found a number of good birds around the Emiquon area (Henslow’s Sparrows, American White Pelicans, and this Black-necked Stilt[Himantopus mexicanus]) I was left somewhat unsatisfied.

Black-necked Stilt

It’s hard to understand my discontentment with such an elegantly awkward bird.  Perhaps it was in comparison to the great time I’d had at Revis Hill Prairie.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) were present, too.  These birds were introduced to St. Louis and have since spread upriver, and out along the river valleys.  They’re like fancy House Sparrows, and most people could probably care less about a little brown bird like this.

Emiquon North Globe

Much more dramatic, to most people’s minds, would be the large section of regenerating prairie I drove through in Emiquon’s North Globe Unit.  Yet even this was somewhat unsatisfying, despite the Henslow’s Sparrows and Dickcissels calling abundantly.  I think I’m spoiled. Familiarity breeds contempt, so  I decided to try a new area- Dixon Wildlife Refuge, less than two hours upriver.  However, I refuse to leave the area without at least trying to find something of interest at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.  And I did- a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) decided to give me a look as if I had worms crawling out of my ears:

RBGR Wutcha doin?

So did this Great-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus):

GCFL Wutcha doin?

And so did this Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus).  At that point, I began to wonder if something was wrong with me, but I guess they were all just inquisitive.

RHWO Wutcha doin?

I stopped briefly in the parking lot (actually just a single parking space) of Henry Allan Gleason Nature Preserve (of Bladderpod fame).  A Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus, below) was waiting for me.  It’s so rare that I see this species, which seems locally rare in the areas that I live, and it was a good way to end my time in Mason county for the day.  In Tazewell county, just north of this,  I watched a man mow his steep lawn by tying his mower to a rope, tying the rope to a tree, and pulling the rope back and forth to mow the hill.  This was certainly creative, but at some point I feel like something would’ve gone terribly wrong- the rope snapping, for instance.  However, I didn’t say anything, left and stopped for lunch a half-hour later.

Vesper Sparrow

My birding time was far from done- Dixon Wildlife Refuge awaited me:

Why The Gallinule Is Distant

This spectacular restored marsh holds rare and unusual animals rarely found in most of Illinois, especially of the avian variety.  Among those is the Yellow-headed Blackbird, a species I have never seen.  Friends of mine told me “You can’t miss Yellow-headed Blackbirds at this spot!  They’re abundant!”  So of course I didn’t find a single one. They hate me.  However, as compensation I did find a yearbird, the state-threatened Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata):

Distant Gallinule

Common Gallinules, as seen above, sort of look like ducks, but they’re not ducks.  They’re also extremely rare in Illinois, only present in large cattail marshes like this one.

Angry Gallinule

While shy towards people, they apparently don’t like their cousins, the American Coots (Fulica americana), one of which is being chased behind these reeds by an irate Common Gallinule.

Blue Dasher?

As with most of the wetland habitats, dragonflies abounded.  This one is a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis), an extremely common species of dragonfly.  While some dragonfly species are very finely tuned to specific environments and can be used to tell what kind of and what the quality is of a habitat, Blue Dashers basically indicate “Hey! There’s still water here!”

Baby Catfish

Far more interesting was this small school of juvenile catfish at the canoe launch.  I believe these are some species of Bullhead from a bit of research.  After sitting here and watching a couple of Least Bitterns fly past (hey! another rare bird!) I turned around and went on the trail.

Mink with Western Fox Snake 2

Popping out of the reeds suddenly was a delivery- my lifer Fox Snake (Pantherophis gloydi )!  Attached to it was a Mink (Neovison vison), an animal I was equally glad to see.  Minks are adorable, but ferocious; common, but seldom seen, especially at two in the afternoon.

Mink with Western Fox Snake

The snake twitched a couple times- it was alive, but barely.  The Mink trotted a couple of steps closer out of curiosity, before diving into the brush:

Mink getaway

I waited for a second, and then let out a whoop of joy.  Sure, the birds were cool, but this was way better.  A female Blue Dasher nodded as if in agreement, before taking off after one of the flies following me on the warm June day afternoon.

Dragonfly sp.

I stopped off for ice cream on the way home, taking note of some localized flooding nearby.  There was one bird left I wanted to stop and see, and that was the Upland Sandpipers just off the interstate about an hour south of here.  I drove to the spot, and looked out upon nothing but Killdeer.  Far back in a field, a brown bird flew up, and up, and up, into the sky.  I guess that’s why they call it an “Up”-land Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda):

Upland Sandpiper (trust me)

The Western Kingbird, Common Gallinule and Upland Sandpiper were a fun set of birds to find (and all new for the year), but even more so, I’d enjoyed the new Henslow’s Sparrow spot, all the Blue Grosbeaks, and the Mink and its prey.  It’s days like this one that give me such joy to be lost in nature (hey! that’s the blog’s name!)

Calhoun County Biggish Day!

As much as I love finding new species, I also strongly enjoy going to new areas.  One of those areas is Calhoun county, Illinois.  Some of the best remaining habitat in Illinois persists here, due to the rugged hills and multiple wildlife refuges. It’s also not explored much, because there are no major cities  and it’s far from Chicago.  St. Louis is a little over an hour away, but that involves crossing a paid ferry.  Otherwise, it’s a drive closer to two hours, so few people check Calhoun county.  Considering it lies between  and connects two of the best flyways in Illinois (the Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys), it has tons of habitats from open grassland to steep cliffs to swampy forest, and it has a large number of winding backroads through diverse mixes of habitats, it REALLY needs to be birded more often!

So, of course, that’s what I did… on a 95 degree F day.  So I got up and out and was in Calhoun county by 5:30 AM- early enough to get the last of the Barred Owls (Strix varia):

Barred Owl

I started out just above Hardin, on the Dividing Ridge (so-named) between the two river valleys.  Calhoun county is mostly unglaciated, and as a result is very eroded, resulting in deep “hollows” and high ridges between.  The Shawnee Hills is similar, but in their case the hills go on for miles and miles.   However, since Calhoun county had two massive river valleys carved out of its sides,  this results in a narrow line of steep hills (the Lincoln Hills), unusual habitat for central Illinois and very difficult to farm.  While unlike the Shawnee Hills there’s zero state parks in Calhoun county (making it almost illegal to hike any distance in the wooded uplands, with one major exception), it does have backroads winding through much of it- and being on a road is perfectly legal.

So I was on the road.  Dickcissels and Indigo Buntings lined the sides of nearly every road, calling in the early morning.  Indeed, it was fairly “birdy” early on, with many birds active and calling.  The heat of the day was already making itself apparent, and there was a rush of activity in the early morning as a result.  I had a Prairie Warbler call from a ridgetop field, with a Wood Thrush behind me and a Chipping Sparrow buzzing in from the side.  Within fifteen minutes I had found 11 Indigo Buntings travelling one-way.  I’m not sure how many other spots in Illinois that can be done, but here the open fields adjacent to trees are perfect habitat.  If Calhoun county was visited in peak warbler season, the results could be spectacular.

Stay Away From My Brains!

After dozens of miles of birds calling everywhere, I ended up at McCully Heritage Project, a private preserve of 940 acres and the only place to hike in the uplands of Calhoun county.  Alongside the road, House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) dived at this Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) constantly.  Now, this may appear to be an innocent-looking woodpecker, but some woodpeckers (Red-bellied Woodpeckers, for instance) are known to eat baby birds.  I wouldn’t trust this Northern Flicker with my children, if I ever have any, and neither did the House Finch.


Acadian Flycatchers called everywhere in the woods, while Northern Bobwhites called from down below in the fields.  A Louisiana Waterthrush opened up in song only ten feet from me- that was fun! (There was a horsefly bothering me, so no photo). I eventually outran the horsefly, and ascended to a small opening where I could look out over the terrain slightly.  Arguably the best bird of the day, a Blue-winged Warbler called from the trees next to me. I’m not used to finding them in the middle of June. The heat quickly became too much and I descended.

Red-winged Blackbird is always watching

Angry Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) glared at me as I approached their nesting sites, and gave me looks of pure hatred as I left.  The woods began to quiet as I descended. The distant songs of Ovenbirds and Song Sparrows terminated and didn’t start up again.

Pond at McCully

After walking along the wetlands and spooking a beaver, I left McCully Heritage Preserve, having seen 45 species there in about an hour.  That spot is truly a gem when it comes to birds, and I hope someday it’s appreciated as much as it ought to be.  Then again, that goes for Calhoun county as a whole- a great county for both birding and pleasant driving, just a bit too far away from the cities to be explored as much as it deserves.

Eastern Box Turtle

Nearby, I found this spectacular-looking Eastern Box Turtle, which I was surprised to see out and about even in the early morning on such a hot day.  Hey, I’m never going to turn down the opportunity to see a Box Turtle, they’re awesome.

Northern Bobwhite

Driving around more, I noticed diminishing returns on bird calls. I did finally find my one and only House Wren of the day- that was bizarre, only finding one House Wren. If I’d been thinking about it, that does present a good possibility of finding Bewick’s Wrens, thought to be extirpated from Illinois.  They’ve generally trended westward as they’ve been outcompeted by House Wrens (among other causes), but they persist in Missouri roughly about fifty miles away.  The lack of House Wrens I detected makes me wonder if they could still be around or if I was just there on a bad morning for singing House Wrens.  Also along the road, a few Northern Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) like the one above posed for me before moving off into a field.

Crossing a Ford in a Honda

I crossed several fords like this, thankful that the area wasn’t under a flash flood warning.  Louisiana Waterthrushes, while late in the season, occasionally called out from the rocky streams here.  Along the banks, Orchard Orioles (Icterus spurius) gleaned foliage for caterpillars:

Orchard Oriole (Lake co.)

I eventually found my way to Hoot Owl Hollow Road, where I found some habitat that looked decent for Henslow’s Sparrow and where at least one had been found before.  I did find one calling after a bit but the heat got to me and I withdrew up the road.  A local flushed a Turkey, so I stopped to look at it and ended up talking to the guy. He seemed quite proud to hear that I’d driven over just to see his county for all its birdlife. We parted ways and I continued over to Rip Rap Landing in the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge.

HESP habitat in Calhoun

This Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) panted on a wire as I drove past- clearly it was feeling the heat, too!


The wildlife refuge is mostly comprised of lowland forest, full of Prothonotary Warblers, Tree Swallows, and Red-headed Woodpeckers.  I also ended up seeing the Mississippi River itself.


Along a levee near this site (by near I mean within the county) I discovered some Six-lined Racerunners (Aspidoscelis sexlineata), using the manmade dry ground instead of the usual glades or dry prairies I typically find them occupying.

Prairie Racerunner

Deciding to wrap up my time in Calhoun county, I went south along backroads to the main section of Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, taking in the hills as I went:

Calhoun co.

Dickcissels (Spiza americana) were a constant presence along the road, as they are in much of the Midwest. Named for their song, and abundant throughout Illinois in summer, these birds should be Illinois’ state bird, considering cardinals are more abundant in more forested states.  Still, with a name like Dickcissel, you can’t blame the state legislature for not enacting that.

Dickcissel Reacting

Further south still, past fields and orchards aplenty, I ended up in the sinkhole plains of southern Calhoun county, a section of Illinois that certainly feels nothing like the rest of the state, save perhaps southern Hardin county and some parts of the Driftless region in northwestern Illinois.  Fruit orchards are as common as corn, and the roads go up and down gently over rolling hills.  In the distance you can see the Illinois River Valley winding its way downstream.  This section of Illinois is perhaps not spectacular, but it is certainly one of the more pleasant.

Beautiful Calhoun co.

Far less pleasant was what I put myself through at Two Rivers. I decided to walk the levee down to the water control structure and back at high noon in the heat. This was about a mile or so of walking, and the only shade was thick with mosqutoes avoiding the heat.  Red-winged Blackbirds crashed out of the brush to squawk bird-profanities at me for getting too close to their hidden nests.  Strange rustles from the brush never came into view.  The eerie sounds of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo only added to my sense that perhaps I was doing something irrational and about to meet some kind of  forbidding end.

Obviously, I didn’t.

Levee There

Indeed, my sense of impending doom terminated as soon as I saw this family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa). There’s 19 chicks.  Usually, a Wood Duck will have 7-15 eggs and often a few don’t hatch, so I suspect that momma Wood Duck is doing a bit of daycare for another mother.

So Many Ducklings!

I then reached the water control structure, which held more Wood Ducks feeding in the shade underneath.  This device maintains the water levels for the refuge, which are carefully calculated to provide maximum habitat and food for migrating birds like ducks and waders.

Water Control Structures

The outflow is released into the Illinois River.  I looked around for a bit, scared up a Yellow Warbler and Willow Flycatcher, and departed.


Along the way back, I strolled under a cloud’s shadow.  Both I and the nearby American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) appreciated the shade immensely.

Ugly American White Pelicans

Ragged from molting, the flock of pelicans worked together to scare up fish into their massive bills.  Trumpeter Swans may be heavier and Bald Eagles may have a longer wingspan, but there’s nothing in the Illinois bird world as impressive as an American White Pelican, even mangy ones.

American White Pelicans

I walked back down the levee,  under the growing clouds, looking forwards to the beautiful drive past Grafton down to Alton and to Pizza Hut before wandering home. (I would end up stopping in Grafton for ice cream).  I’d had a wonderful day and seen or heard dozens of species of birds, more than I had hoped for in one county and on such a sweltering morning/midday.

Levee Back

I used to use a term for a last-second discovery that was one of the highlights of the day- “Fifth Orchid”.  In this case, the “Fifth Orchid” of the trip was these Ouachita Map Turtles (Graptemys ouachitensis).  These seem abundant in Calhoun county in various places along the big rivers, and they’re a bonus to a great day of birding, driving, and fudge brownie ice cream cone eating (in Grafton).  Since this is not a food blog, I’ll leave you with a pair of cute turtles:

Ouachita Map Turtle

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.


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