Spring Break Wanderings

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Flickr and WordPress have conspired together to change up the formatting of my so that now photos form “blocks” in between text blocks, with the option for captions. I’m sure this change will be for the best, but I am change-adverse to some extent, except when it’s winter changing to spring. Speaking of which, I wrapped up my last-ever college spring break in a whirlwind of birding and other pursuits.

TUTI at LMG feeders
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

Recently, my good friend Kyle and I visited Lincoln Memorial Gardens, a local natural area on the shores of Lake Springfield in central Illinois. Having resided in Southern Illinois the last few months, I noticed immediately how much less green Central Illinois is in mid-March. Nevertheless, the birds were active, including…

PIWA in Cornus florida
Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)

… a Pine Warbler singing away in the center of the park. Pine Warblers are rare migrants in Sangamon county Illinois, and despite having lived there for many years this was only my second one ever. The lack of pine trees, introduced or otherwise, means most of Central Illinois lacks in Pine Warblers, especially compared to Southern Illinois.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythocephalus)

This immature, molting Red-headed Woodpecker foraged nearby. I suspect these woodpeckers of being religious birds. Their populations have dwindled out in the Northeast, which has seen an increase in secularism, while Red-headed Woodpecker populations remain stronger in the Bible Belt of the South and Midwest. I’m joking of course, but it is an amusing idea to consider.

Esox sp. with snail sp.
Pickerel (Esox sp.)

A flooded cornfield in my wanderings produced this mysterious fish, which appears to be some kind of Pickerel. Unfortunately I was lacking a net so it remained uncaptured. One of the great rules of exploring nature- ABAN:

Always Bring A Net.

Spanish Needles (Bidens bipinnata)

As spring approaches, a few old seedheads stick around, like these Spanish Needles. This plant’s seeds have barbs designed to attach in clothing, fur or feathers and carry the seeds away for dispersal.

Bird’s Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica)

It’ll be a bit before most flowers bloom, but this Bird’s Eye Speedwell, a local weed, has decided to get an early start. This is an introduced species of disturbed, rarely-mowed lawns. It has several siblings in the genus Veronica with smaller flowers and shorter flower stems (pedicels) that are even more common and are among the first flowers I find each year.

Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)

This Sugarberry, found in lowland areas throughout the southern 2/3 of Illinois, may win the prize for strangest bark on a native Illinois tree.

Smilax tamnoides
Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax tamnoides)

The only prize Bristly Greenbriar is in the running for is “Most Painful Plant”, which it loses to Multiflora Rose and its curved prickles. Sorry, but those straight prickles on the greenbriar are just too easy to pull out to be truly insidious, even in the thousands. Still, there’s a harsh beauty to them.

Rathki's Woodlouse
Rathki’s Woodlouse (Trachelipus rathkii)

Thanks to iNaturalist, I found out this is an introduced woodlouse (roly-poly, pillbug, sowbug etc.) from Europe. According to iNaturalist, I’ve found this species throughout Illinois woodlands of all qualities, which given that it’s an invasive species is more than a little concerning. Some brief Google Scholar searches turned up very little information on this invasive species, leading me to question exactly what effects it does have on our ecosystems?

Augochlora aura?
Pure Green Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura)

Under the same log was this Pure Green Sweat Bee. I used to be briefly employed in a pollinator survey down in the Shawnee National Forest, although the only Augochlora I ever got to see were pinned. I presume they winter under rotten logs? Honestly, I need to learn much more about bees.

Blacklegged Tick
Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

Unfortunately, around the same time I obtained another year first, possibly my least favorite of the year. Tick populations are increasing across the US, and I got this one in a downtown, urban park in Springfield Illinois. I highly recommend tick checks at all times of the year, anymore.

To end on a happier note, as I drove back to school I was interrupted by a flock of 13 Sandhill Cranes passing over. South of the Chicago area, Sandhill Cranes can be quite infrequent to rare in Illinois, despite passing through Chicago and other portions of northern Illinois in the hundreds of thousands. Some do breed at a few local wetlands in northern and eastern Illinois- a massive conservation success story, given that as recently as the 1980s Sandhill Cranes were extirpated (gone) from the state of Illinois as a breeding species. Seeing crane flocks this far southwest in the state hopefully becomes less rare of an occurrence. At any rate, these cranes were a wonderful end to a great week off.

Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Yes, Chicago, There Are Armadillos in Illinois

Black Vulture

On the second day of spring break, my good friend Cody and I went out a-wandering across the Mississippi floodplains, searching for whatever we could find.  We first stumbled across this Black Vulture feeding upon a Nine-banded Armadillo, in an image that demands y’all’s sweet tea, it’s so Southern.    For the heck of it, I posted the image to Illinois Birding Network on Facebook, where it blew up.  I recieved over 60 comments, mostly to the tune of “THERE’S ARMADILLOS IN ILLINOIS?!”  Now, most members of that group are from Chicago, and as with anything else in Illinois the rest of the state gets a bit forgotten in comparison to whatever’s going on in Chicago.   So, “Yes, Chicago, we do have Armadillos in Illinois.”

Nine-banded Armadillo

Indeed, Cody and I went on to find two more Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) out foraging in muddy fields.  Armadillos are a recent addition to Illinois’ mammals, the earliest specimens found in 2002 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  It’s part of a range expansion going on since the early 1800s, when the first Nine-banded Armadillos illegally immigrated into Texas from Mexico in 1849.  They’re thick on the ground along Route 3 and the nearby backroads here in southern Illinois, especially in floodplain areas.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

Thick in the trees- for now- are Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata), starting to move north for spring. By late May they’ll be gone, off  nesting in the North Woods of Canada.

Great Waterleaf

The springlike weather has encouraged the Great Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) to begin coloring up and producing a few more leaves.   Waterleaves get both their common and scientific names from their unique markings that somewhat resemble water stains.

Broad-headed Sharpshooter

The warming weather also encouraged a few overwintering insects to emerge, like this unique little Broad-headed Sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), a planthopper capable of jumping great distances to avoid photography.  Thankfully, it decided to sit mostly still for us instead.

Cave Salamander

A recent rainstorm had encouraged the Cave Salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) out of their usual crevices  and directly into view for us. These shy, light-avoiding salamanders were visibly present in the low hundreds at this location. They often are here, but they generally don’t like to leave their spring too much, until the water gets too high for them as it had lately.

Cave Salamander 2

In a hole off to the side of the salamander spring, a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) glowered at us, seemingly unwilling to leave its den. YAY!  First snake of the year.


Outside the cave, we noticed a few Cut-leafed Toothworts (Cardamine concatenata) just beginning to bloom, the first of a long series of flowering plants we’ll see over the coming weeks.

Cut-leaved Toothwort

Flipping a stone nearby yielded this pair of Northern Zigzag Salamanders (Plethodon dorsalis), cousins to the Eastern Red-backed Salamanders found in most of the eastern US far more widely and abundantly.  This species is seemingly localized to a handful of sites in Illinois, although as with most salamanders it’s hard to know the exact range thanks to their quiet and secretive ways.

N. Zigzag Salamanders

Cody and I just about stumbled over a few Cottonmouths sunning themselves next to a den site, a spot where they go into holes and hide to overwinter.  Thankfully, we backed away reasonably well.  Still, understandably they got a bit defensive, and here we see a Cottonmouth in defensive posture. This particular individual has gorgeous chin patterning compared to many I’ve seen.

When moving around a probable Cottonmouth (or other venomous snake) den site, there’s a few things to keep in mind.  Wear foot protection of some kind (thick socks and especially thicker shoes, don’t reach into any crevices you can’t see all the way into, and look before you move.  I prefer going with a friend and moving slowly through the area, watching out for each other as we go along.  This avoids unintended injuries to both the snakes and ourselves.  Cottonmouths are not particularly aggressive, and nearly all injuries are from trying to pick up or kill them.  That being said, Cottonmouths know what a wallop they can deliver and they’ll let you know about it ahead of time by showing off in a threat display.  Rattling tails, hissing, and open, upturned mouths are a good sign not to come closer!  Cottonmouths and most other snakes can strike within half of their body length, and I generally recommend keeping out of the full snake’s body length from an individual, just for extra buffer.   If you follow this advice, you’ll be quite safe.

Cottonmouth 2

After appreciating the Cottonmouths, we drove home, wrapping up a second wonderful day of spring break.  I’m writing this on the third day,  just about to head out and I’m about to see what I find today!  Have a safe Daylight Savings Time, everyone!

River Otter at Kinkaid Lake Spillway!


Kinkaid Lake Spillway

So, as I promised, here’s the first in a series of shorter blogs.  Yesterday (3/8/19) I went out to Kinkaid Lake Spillway, which is an artificial waterfall designed to drain a lake, with the side effect of being the best-looking tiered waterfall in southern Illinois. The road to Kinkaid Lake Spillway is narrow but contains wetlands on both sides, and I’ve gotten incredibly close to both Pileated Woodpeckers and American Beavers here.

River Otter 1

However, my best find yet was this River Otter (Lontra canadensis) hiding under the bank of one of the ponds.  In Illinois, River Otters became incredibly rare in the 1980s, the population dropping down to around 100 individuals, but today there’s River Otters present in all 102 Illinois counties.   It’s one of the best recoveries of a protected, non-bird species in this state.

River Otter 2

After a few minutes, this River Otter dropped out of sight and I moved on to look for seedpods.  As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m participating in the iNaturalist Illinois Botany Big Year (at least through mid-May, after that it’s up to whether or not I get a job in-state) and I’ve started keeping more of an eye out for odd plants.  This time of year, that’s mostly buds and seedpods.


One of those odd plants, growing at the top of Kinkaid Lake Spillway, is this Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia), which produces big yellow flowers in the summer and these gorgeous, ornate seed capsules from which the plants derive their name.  I’ve wanted to see these seed capsules for a few years now, so it was a fun treat, especially after finding that otter.

Porella sp.

I then ventured over across the dam into a wooded, rocky creekbed, where I discovered this unique leafy liverwort (presumably Porella sp.).  This may look just like a “moss” to some people but it is in fact a different type of nonvascular plant. The minute complexity of mosses and liverworts is charming, especially on a late winter day when nothing else is particularly active. I haven’t found Porella species down here in Southern Illinois yet so this was a pleasant surprise.

American Tree Moss

Another pleasant suprise was this American Tree Moss (Climacum americanum).  The shoots may resemble stems and leaves, and in a way they are, but like all mosses (and liverworts) this plant lacks the phloem and xylem veins that transport nutrients and water up and down stems (as found in “vascular” plants).  New shoots resemble little Christmas trees, thus “Tree Moss”.

Beech Sooty Mold

This bizarre, ash-like growth on the  American Beech (Fagus grandiflora) is a unique fungus known as Beech Sooty Mold (Scorias spongiosa).  It isn’t attacking the tree directly at all.   Instead the mold feeds upon the sugary waste of Beech Blight Aphids (Grylloprociphilus imbricator), a species of aphid that only eats American Beech sap.  Saps in trees are incredibly sugar-rich, so the aphid squirts out the extra sugars it doesn’t eat in its poop, and the Beech Sooty Mold eats the the sugars, in an excellent example of recycling.

Beech Blight Aphids are also sometimes referred to as “Dancing Aphids” and I’ll post a YouTube video showing why they get that name:  https://youtu.be/yxc4xWQrT6M

Once I’d wrapped up at Kinkaid Lake, I drove around the Mississippi River bottoms and saw hundreds of ducks, most at great distances.  If you want to see a few photos of them they’re on my iNat page but overall I was unhappy with how well those photos turned out, although quite thrilled to see such abundant migration.  So I went to Fountain Bluff instead to look at that waterfall, and unlike Kinkaid Lake Spillway it was frozen solid!

Fountain Bluff Waterfall, Frozen

After inspecting the frozen waterfall,  I wandered over to Oakwood Bottoms, where amid the twilight migration of 10,000 Mallards (I subtract not a single mallard)  I got to hear an early American Bittern doing its bizarre “water-dropping” call.  In order to learn more about this and hear the sound for yourelf, watch this YouTube video:  https://youtu.be/bAxAEoAVmuc

It was an excellent night to be out, and once it quits thunderstorming out today I look forwards to seeing what I find next!

Winter 2019 Sort of Recapped

Right, I’m a wee bit behind here.

Last actual post I did on here was of the Carlyle Lake Trip.   I’m going to pass over Fall 2018- a lot happened but it’ll take too long to recap. Let’s move into January and February 2019.

I stayed up in central Illinois and spent early January 2019 with my parents, with very few plans of what I would do this year besides studying for the GRE, graduating college, finding a job, etc.  On January 7 I decided to get out and about on a warmer day and go looking around a nearby marsh in the Lick Creek Wildlife Area.  This resulted in my finding two unusual records.


First up was a turtle- in particular, one of Illinois’ more common turtles, the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  I’ve never had a reptile before an amphibian in January.  This turtle, however, can be winter-active when it wants, and as this day exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature the turtle, one of a few, was out basking in the sun.


The second and far more ridiculous of my two finds was a wintering Common Yellowthroat (Geoythypis trichas).  This warbler species is supposed to be down on the Gulf Coast at this time of year- not hanging out by the side of a creek in central Illinois!  This was one of TWO I found in January, the second down at Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area in Union co. Illinois, both in marshy grasslands with open water.


After a couple of weeks, I went south for my last semester of college, to the Shawnee Hills.  I’ve earned a reputation in certain corners of the internet for praising Southern Illinois a lot, and this isn’t unearned.  As the landscape above shows (taken from Grand Tower Island) the Snow Geese wander around this area in January, and in great numbers, and with great scenery as a backdrop, and everything is “great” and I’m overusing that word now and this is a run-on sentence and I don’t know how to end it.  Ope, there we go.


Here’s those Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens), along with a few Greater White-fronted Geese (foreground, orange bills and brown bodies, Anser albifrons), hanging out in a nearby shallow wetland just off Route 3 in Jackson co Illinois.  They’ve all mostly migrated out of here by now, but for two months the air was thick with Snow Geese down here.

Snow Geese aren’t the only large, mostly white birds to pass through this area…


WHOOPING CRANES!  A pair of these incredibly rare, endangered birds (Grus americana) overwinter in a secret location in Southern Illinois.  This pair will fly back to Wisconsin in the summertime, where they’ve been reintroduced. Note that they were photographed from inside a car and we used a decent amount of zoom.  Don’t approach Whooping Cranes too closely, as there are less than a thousand of them in the world and scaring them could potentially do considerable harm.


Another quite rare bird I found (this one personally) in January was a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) , one of which is photographed.  I found a third one at Larue-Pine Hills a month later, in late February. These birds are uncommon migrants through southern Illinois.  Back in the 1970s, Golden Eagles were recorded annually in parts of southern Illinois, following massive flocks of Canada Geese as they made their way south to forage here.  However, more recently farmers have started plowing their fields in the spring, leaving some corn remaining in their fields overwinter, and geese distributions shifted.  Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese came in and now feed upon the remains of corn in the area, while Canada Geese remain much further north. (This is potentially oversimplifying the shift in geese, to see some more causes read this article linked here) The Golden Eagles shifted their range also, although some still come down this far south after ducks and geese.

GHOW on nest

In addition to the rarer birds, I found this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) occupying a nest somewhere in the Mississippi River Valley.  Unlike many bird species, Great Horned Owls nest during the winter and typically take over other bird’s former nests.


While driving around looking for salamanders the other night, some friends and I came across this Barred Owl (Strix varia) sitting on a road side and quite willing to pose for photos.

Little Gull

One of the rarest birds I’ve gotten to see of late, and the only new one (lifer!) for me was this Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), the bird with the black underwing in the blurry photo above.  A predominately Eurasian species that rarely nests in the US and Canada, Little Gulls sometimes tag along with large flocks of other gull species and migrate through Illinois.  I’ve tried and failed to find several over the years, and I finally found this one at Carlyle Lake with a friend last week.


Alright, after spamming all those rarer birds, let’s cool off with some ice formations from Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park, before moving on to small and cute birds.


Over this winter, an unprecedented irruption (winter movement) of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) occurred in the Eastern United States.  This species of bird lives in the boreal forests of Canada and feeds upon pine and spruce seeds.  In years of a poor seed crop (like this year) they move south in numbers to feed on pine seeds.  As the Shawnee Hills have many pine plantations and naturalized pines, Red-breasted Nuthatches thrive here during the winter.  Coming from the Canadian wilderness, Red-breasted Nuthatches have limited fear of people.


Unlike the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) are found predominantly in the Southern US and up until the last few years they did not winter in Illinois regularly.  However as the climate warms just a bit and the pine plantations grow up and age, Pine Warblers become more and more frequent in Southern Illinois over the winter.

Birds are not my sole interest in life, however, and while they’re one of the few things to look at in January that will look back at you and show signs of life, I have looked for

On iNaturalist, I’ve joined the Illinois Botanists Big Year.  This is a competition to see who can observe the most plant species in Illinois over the course of this year.   I have a decent start going, mostly due to the fact that in residing near the Shawnee Hills I have access to a wide swath of biodiversity and far less snow cover than Northern Illinois.  Actually,  I might be downplaying my lead a little too much.  As of 3/4/19, I have 299 plant observations of 143 species.  The second highest observer in the competition is at 95 observations of 87 species.  I don’t expect to win overall- there’s a lot of time left and far more experienced botanists participating- but it definitely feels great to be #1 for now.  For more information visit this link here to go to the project’s homepage.


Arguably the best plant I’ve seen this year was the Appalachian Filmy Fern above (Vandenboschia boschiana).  This bizarre fern with fronts one cell layer thick only grows in fully shaded, south-facing sandstone or other acidic rocks, with constant high humidity. It’s a VERY specific microhabitat, and as a result this fern is state-endangered in Illinois and only found in a few locations. I took a walk back to one of the locations in February and found it hiding there.

Cypressknee Sedge

Another rare plant in Illinois is Cypressknee Sedge (Carex decomposita) which grows on stumps, fallen logs, cypress “knees”, the sides of dead trees, and other dead masses of wood in slow-moving waters.   Plants can grow in some bizarre locations.

Asplenium pinnatifidum

This Asplenium pinnatifidum was a wonderful find, an uncommon fern growing in sandstone in Giant City State Park.  Half the leaves in that photo belong to an unrelated plant.


While many people semi-seriously use the prognostications of “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog to predict the end of winter, a far better sign of spring is the so-called Harbinger-of-Spring (Eregenia bulbosa), an early-flowering woodland plant shown above.  That being said, I went out and found this plant in late February.  It’s early March and there’s currently snow on the ground.   Plants and groundhogs say what they will, winter doesn’t end until it wants to.

In all seriousness, I was quite glad to find this plant, and while it might be cold now winter does come to an end soon and it will be spring.  The woods along Hutchins Creek (below) will be green before long, and I look forwards to it!

Hutchins Creek

Many people are not aware of the number of salamanders that can move on warm, rainy nights in the late winter.   This causes mass deaths of salamanders when they reach a road and have to cross it on a rainy night.  Thus, friends and I go out and move the salamanders across the road in the direction they’re trying to go, in order that they may survive to reproduce.

Spotted Sal

One of the first salamanders of the year is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), found in high-quality woods locally.  A friend and I spent a night moving a half-dozen of these from a busy state highway, including the gorgeous individual shown above.  Salamanders require fishless wetlands, typically large vernal (springtime-only) pools in woodlands, in order to reproduce.  Many die each year during their trek to the pools, and I’m glad we helped a few.

Crawfish Frog

Another specialist of fishless wetlands is the Crawfish Frog (Lithobates areolatus).  This species gets its name from its residence inside crayfish burrows, from which hundreds emerge every February-March in order to spend a week reproducing out in flooded fields.  Crawfish Frogs are extremely light sensitive and will retreat underwater or underground at the approach of light.  Thus, the only way to see one is to drive along a road slowly in an area where the Crawfish Frogs breed and hope for a “dumb” one to remain on the road for a minute when it sees lights.  Thankfully the lights it saw were ours and we got it off the road before it was run over.

Marbled Sal

In lowland swamps, another salamander that moves on warm rainy nights is the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), perhaps the most beautiful of Illinois salamanders.

PSA, if you can’t tell by now, don’t go driving on warm (40s-50s), rainy nights in wooded or lowland areas, or if you do, keep an eye out for salamanders and other amphibians crossing the road.  If you encounter a salamander on the road, wear plastic gloves (preferentially) and move it across the road in the direction it was initially facing when you first encountered it.

Northern Dusky Salamander

To switch up, here’s a couple individuals of the Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus).  These salamanders originated in Tennessee, but they are used as fishing bait and as a result were transported to Illinois.  They have since taken over a couple hundred feet of a spring-fed stream and now live there in an isolated colony, the only Northern Dusky Salamander population in the state.  An older one below shows how good they are at hiding on the creekbed.

Hidden N. Dusky Sal

While looking for other salamanders in another spot, a friend accidentally flipped this Blackspotted Topminnow (Fundulus olivaceus) out from under a rock.  I grabbed it and after a quick photo released it straight back into the creek.  This is, so far, the most interesting fish I’ve seen this year, and a first state record on iNaturalist.  It’s nice to get that database in agreement with official data, and it’s nice to get a new fish species I’ve not encountered before.

Blackspotted Topminnow

Is this shorter? Probably not. It’s recap of two months worth of observations, however.  Considering that I’ve left out much of what I’ve seen (which y’all can view on my iNaturalist page at this link here) I feel it’s a good length.  That being said, I will try to keep it shorter from now on. Until then, have a good week!

Right. No Blog Post For Months… Where Have I Been?

Red Eft

It’s been WAY too long.

Flickr, the software to which I upload photos for this blog, was downgrading its storage of my pics to the latest 1000 photos, unless I bought Pro.   So I bought Pro- not thrilled about it but I had to do something. This decision was only reached recently- I’ve had a lot going on in my personal life and needed a break from blogging.  That being said, I enjoyed it so I’m going right back to it, and purchasing Flickr Pro was a step forwards.

While I took a break from blogging, I started uploading to iNaturalist, sparked by a friend’s interest. For those who don’t know what iNaturalist is, it’s a citizen science database where anyone can upload their photos or sound recordings, along with a date and GPS location and get their organisms identified.  This data can then be used for research- indeed, I personally know a professor who uses it sparingly for his own research into plant systematics.

I uploaded most of my back catalog of  photos (some 6500+!) into iNaturalist, which got  SO MANY species I’ve photographed identified, far beyond my wildest dreams.  It also resparked my interest in plants, which had faded slightly while I focused on birds in 2017-2018, and sparked a new interest in odonata and lepidoptera- or in English, dragonflies and butterflies.

What does that mean for this blog?  Well, I’ll be shrinking the length of posts by cutting out some of the pictures, focusing on a broader range of species, and still try to present a similar informed, enjoyable commentary to what I have in the past.   Interspersed with that will be longer posts on differing topics as I have time to do them.   I look forwards to the coming spring of 2019!

PS. Photo is of a Central Newt eft taken last fall.

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