Month: June 2017

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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I recently went up and visited Mason County, yet again, in pursuit of one of the rarer breeding birds in Illinois, a relative of the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) above, the titular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) below.  I like to call it the Oklahoma Quetzal, after the state for which it is the state bird and the Central American bird well-known for its incredibly long tail:

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This amazingly long-tailed bird is an unusual find in Illinois, as most of its population lives in the southern Great Plains.  I got lucky enough to find one in Kansas while on vacation, but that was a female and as we were driving by on the interstate when I saw it, I wasn’t able to photograph it.  For some reason, in the last few years a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers have bred at a power plant substation near Havana, Illinois,  with the closest breeding pairs in Missouri.

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This bird lingered just out of good photography range, but I got good enough looks at it to make it quite enjoyable!  A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flaps its wings like a moth, hunting flies and other insects over the nearby meadows and shrubby edges.  They land and eat their prey after catching it, (get it, fly-catcher?) and then wait until they see another fly to catch.

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This power substation also attracts a few more unusual species, including another Westerner, the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) , a close relative.  These Western Kingbirds nest  in at least one or two other power substations nearby, as well as in a few locations near East St. Louis and on the other side of the river in St. Louis proper.   There’s also one pair nesting in Indiana near Evansville, which is about as  far east as this species gets.  However, for the most part they live west of the Midwest.  It always fascinates me how a bird like this ends up where it does.  I saw so many of them out in Colorado and Kansas, and yet they’re still one I like a lot.

By the way, if you know me in real life,  you know I went to Colorado recently, and I’m planning to write about that.  However, I’d like to write about this first and inform people if they’re interested in seeing these local birds.  There’s several blogs I follow that use vacations as filler material in wintertime, and I’m thinking that might be a good idea.  I’m sure I’ll get impatient and post something about that amazing trip sometime before, much like the previous post, here.

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Anyway, in addition to the various flycatchers, the area was full of birds, including many great unphotographed ones like Blue Grosbeaks, Northern Mockingbirds, Orchard Orioles, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Indigo Buntings, etc.  All of these birds photographed were at a power substation just off Highway 97 south of Havana, including the Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) above and the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) below:

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Dickcissels  look like sparrows, but they’re actually related to cardinals (the birds, not the Roman Catholic officials).  They get their odd name from their song, which to my ears doesn’t sound like “dick-cissel”, but the name has stuck.  Their populations vary from year to year.  Currently, there is an invasion of Dickcissels in the East, in places such as Ohio, Ontario, and New York.  They do this every so often, before returning to their usual Midwestern meadows to live the following year.  No one’s really sure why this is, from what’ I’ve read.  A good article on it is on the ABA blog here.

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Another species that nests here and isn’t particularly common outside of the Illinois River and the Illinois sections of the Mississippi River floodplains (at least in the US) is the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus).  Introduced from Europe to St. Louis, this species has remained in the Midwest, outcompeted by its fellow Eurasian, the House Sparrow (the “sparrow” in your backyard).   Eurasian Tree Sparrows have a spot on their cheek and an all-brown cap as distinguishing features, and they tend to prefer brushy areas over houses.

I then went over to Emiquon, after a “Laughing Gull”, which resulted in the finding of a gull too far away to identify as either Franklin’s or Laughing, the two possibilities.  Instead, the June wildflowers lined up for photography:

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Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which,  by the way, is the best form of milkweed for gardens.  Don’t dig it up in the wild, but it’s available from plant nurseries.

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Winged Monkey Flower (Mimulus alatus)

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Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata)

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The main bird highlight here was the Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), another Westerner coming east.  However, this is a wetland species attracted by Emiquon’s lakes, mudflats and marshes.  Black-necked Stilts have the longest legs relative to their size of any bird in the world, and I consider them basically the “Illinois Flamingo”.

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It should be noted that despite the rarity of the aforementioned Western birds as breeding species in Illinois, they are not listed as threatened or endangered, and they are not likely to be.  Why?  It’s quite simple.  Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, and Black-necked Stilts are expanding their range into Illinois, not declining from a previously-larger population.  Hopefully all three expand further into Illinois, as I’d love to see them all more often.

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I spent much of the afternoon driving around looking at birds, and while I saw a lot of good ones (highlights included a Vesper Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, several Blue Grosbeaks, Northern Mockingbirds, both orioles, Red-headed Woodpeckers, an American Redstart, a Yellow-breasted Chat or two, and more Indigo Buntings than I could shake a stick at), I didn’t really bother to stop for photos.  I really only stopped at Meredosia Hill Prairie, much further south, which doesn’t really have birds.  It does have views, however, and I think they’re some of the best in Illinois, possibly even beating out my previous favorite of Revis Hill Prairie.

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This unusual Short Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) is one sign of a high-quality prairie, and thanks to the existance of the Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge it’s not the only prairie nearby.

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I wish this picture could accurately capture how stunning the views are from the top of this hill.  It might seem like I’m gushing a bit, but I assure you I’m praising this in moderation.  At any rate, this is where I ended the trip, and made my way back home, where I wait for the next Westerners.

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Ebird Checklists (incomplete):

 

Havana Power Substation:

https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37694718

https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37694873

https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37695032

https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37695214

 

 

Colorado, Part 1- Orchids? What Nonsense Is This?

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So, evidently there are orchids in Colorado.  I was somewhat aware of this, but I had zero expectations to find any on my recent visit.  They are getting a separate post from the rest of my Colorado findings, simply because I don’t want to disclose their location, and also because I’m figuring out how to do WordPress blogging.  I’m thinking there will be fewer images per post than before, simply because each image involves more work.

At any rate, the plant above and below is the Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata).  This is one of a group of specialized, leafless plants called myco-heterotrophs that steal nutrients from soil fungi called mycorrhizae, who in turn are trading nutrients such as carbon and water with nearby plants.  Think of this Coral-root Orchid as a bandit, taking goods from a merchant (the fungi).  The merchant may have goods formerly belonging to another person (the plants in the forest), but it traded for them.  The bandit takes, without giving back.  That is basically how myco-heterotrophs work, as parasites upon the forest.

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This bandit needs certain conditions in which to hide out, preferably a gentle slope with decaying leaves/needles in an old forest at certain temperatures.  These bandits have to have a large enough population of “merchants” (mycorrhizal fungi) in order to survive, which accounts for some of the specific requirements.  Furthermore, since they have no leaves and only have flowers at certain times of year, and many of them don’t bloom every year, Coral-root Orchids aren’t easy plants to find.  I’ve found two species this year, somehow, though neither was in Illinois.   For some reason, I find  orchids far more commonly outside Illinois, even on the brief vacations I take.

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The biggest suprise was a few days later finding the plant above, the Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis).  This is not a common plant, though the spot I visited had several hundred of them.  Some people call this the most beautiful terrestrial orchid in North America, and as a result, they try to grow it in their gardens.

This, however, is probably the worst plant to possibly try to grow in a garden.  For one, Calypso orchids are very short-lived, on the order of about five years.  Furthermore, they simply cannot be transplanted without dying.  They require mycorrhizal fungi to survive, and very specific light, soil and water conditions.  I’ve not read of them surviving more than six months and/or blooming in captivity, at least according to sources I would consider reliable.  Nevertheless, people take them from the wild all the time to try and grow them, so I’m not saying where I found these.

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One fascinating fact about these Calypso orchids is that they bait in bees to pollinate them by pretending to have nectar, when in fact they do not.  Bees learn this over time, so Calypso orchids vary their flower patterns slightly to continue tricking the bees.

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One of the reasons I specified the variety in the scientific name (var. occidentalis) is that there are basically two different kinds, and likely two species, of Calypso orchids in North America.  The other is Calypso bulbosa var. americana, the eastern species that is extremely rare, limited to a few states bordering eastern Canada (and eastern Canada, of course).  This grows singly, and does not form clumps, unlike var. occidentalis above.  I found several dozen clumps like the one shown above.

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Perhaps the rarest find of the entire trip was this white-flowered mutation of the Calypso orchid.  It’s rare to find flowers blooming in an entirely different color than they’re supposed to, but it seems, from my very limited viewpoint, that orchids are found with these sort of mutations a bit more often.  I suspect that’s only a personal view, and not supported by the facts, but I do think it’s worth investigating, and hopefully that’s something I get to do someday.  Orchids are my favorite group of plants, and I’m glad to have found these two, likely the best two plant finds of the year.

More Colorado content is coming, as soon as I figure out how to deal with photos more effectively.  This post may remain up for a bit, I’ve got a lot to learn!

Mammoth Cave Is Better Above Than Below (Kentucky!)

 I have a controversial statement to make for my very first new blogpost- I think Mammoth Cave National Park is better above than below.
 Below was just a bunch of rocks in dark, long passages.  I’m not a geologist, so  the rocks interested me little.
A few holes in the limestone allowed water to stream through. Most of Mammoth Cave is not like this, and has a layer of rock above the soluble limestone (shale, if I remember correctly) that keeps water from eroding the limestone on top and causing collapses or filled-in caves.  It’s due to this shale layer that Mammoth Cave is currently the longest measured cave in the world.
 We eventually ended up at the rock formation called Niagara Falls, one of the few areas where water does leak in through the shale layer to form stalagmites and stalactites, those columns so familiar from most caves, which Mammoth Cave mostly lacks.
 This hike was about three-quarters of a mile long, with 500 steps.  You tell me if that’s worth it or not.  Either way, about 405 miles of cave passages exist within about a few hundred foot deep layer of limestone, and at some point somebody’s been through most of those.
 Did I mention that I find caves creepy, dark, unpleasant, and not generally places I like to go?  I don’t like tight spaces, the dark, walking over large pits on bridges and looking down, or large cave insects, all of which were present.
 I so much prefer this overlook over the Green River.
Out in the sun, there were birds like this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), this one picking webs off a spiderweb, I presume either to eat the spider out of, build a nest with, or both.
Another bird was this lifer Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina), a bird mostly of southeastern forests that only nests in a few areas  in northern and central Illinois.
 A few Daddy Longlegs hid in a Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedantum), my favorite species of fern, right along the trail. 
Nearby, Monarda clinopodia, a new species of Monarda for me, bloomed with its white flowers.
 Rocky sinkholes were quite a feature of the landscape.
Also a feature was what appears to be my lifer Showy Orchid (Galearis spectrabilis), though it was unfortunately out of flower.  Still, that’s a good find for me!
 Downy Wood Mints (Blephila ciliata) bloomed here.  It was my first time seeing them in person.
 Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) bloomed along the cliffs of one sinkhole in particular, which was deep enough to take stairs down into its depths.
At the bottom of this sinkhole, groundwater emerged.  There are caves underneath this, of course, filled with water. These sinkholes fill with water depending on the amount of rain, and in this case they were up because of a recent rain
 
Underneath this edge is a cave.  I’m not from an area with caves, so that’s fascinating to me.
The area was quite beautiful, with the rocky cliffs, exposed underground river, and still forest around us, where only birds could be heard calling.
We walked up and under a ledge of rock, looking out on a drying-up waterfall flowing into the basin.  Then we left this sinkhole.
In an acidic area nearby, we found the second orchid of the trip, Downy Rattlesnake Plaintain (Goodyera pubescens), though only one plant of it was found.  The unique foliage makes this a favorite orchid of mine.  (They’re all my favorites, though!)
Nearby,  Striped Pipsessewa  (Chimaphila maculata) was far more common, a clear sign of acidic soil conditions unusual for a limestone area like this.  I consider this species an indicator plant for the presence of orchids.  This is a State-Endangered species in Illinois, but it becomes much more common in the East, as I’ve seen quite a bit of it in Georgia.
Another cool plant was the Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) , a species I’ve seen a couple time in Illinois.  This plant has pairs of two leaves, two flowers, and two berries, hence its other name Twinberry.  There are only two species in its genus, one in Eastern Asia  and this one in Eastern North America.  Sadly, it’s not common in Illinois, as I do love finding it!
 So, one lifer bird, two orchids, and lots of interesting plants… yeah, I know which part of Mammoth Cave National Park I preferred!

Finding Three Lifers in a Flooded Cornfield (Four Corners, Meredosia NWR)


The last day of May was one of the better days I’ve birded this year.  I was going to visit Emiquon and look for a vagrant White-faced Ibis and Western Kingbirds, but the Ibis had left and the Western Kingbirds will wait for now, since they’re a breeding species. Furthermore, I couldn’t find any birders to go along. So, after 17 Dunlin and two Red-necked Pharalopes were reported at Four Corners in Morgan County, I decided to go looking, as I’d never seen either species.  I started out ambling in the country, up towards Beardstown, a town to which surprisingly I’ve never been before.  Dickcissels (Spiza americana) (above) sang along as I went.
Evidently Beardstown has a marsh.  All I found in it was Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Wood Ducks, as well as a calling Sora, not seen but heard.  A Sora is a type of rail, little birds with  tendencies to hide in marshes and make weird sounds.  Ordinarily, a Sora would be the best bird of the day, but not on this particular day…

Four Corners was the next place I stopped.  This place, south of Beardstown near Meredosia, is a series of large fluddles, or flooded fields, around a four-way intersection of two county roads.  At the time of my visit, the flooded zones were the size of small lakes, and they had been there for at least a month or two, allowing much life to grow in them.  This mixture of insects, worms, and algae was the perfect stopover for migrating shorebirds, including…

 Dunlin!  These were the first lifers of the day.  Dunlin (Calidris alpina) are a fairly common shorebird, but one I’d continued to miss for some reason.  They are the long, thin-billed birds with gold backs and black bellies above.  Dunlin migrate from the edge of the Arctic Ocean, far above the Arctic Circle, all the way to the Florida Coast in the winter, and then back again.Enter a caption

 

Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) sat by, and a Common Tern flew off before I took this photo!  Both of those are State-endangered, because while they’re very common migrants, they only rarely breed in Northeastern Illinois.

Can you spot the Red-necked Pharalope?  It’s got a white belly and white cheek patch.

 

 

 I met up with Vaughn Suhling here, and we birded from about 4:45 to 7:15 PM.  These Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to birdwatching here.

About two dozen Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) roamed through the fields, often flying at other birds.  The Killdeer would chase off the Semipalmated Sandpipers, and the Black-necked Stilts would chase off the Killdeer.  I presume this aggression is a display of these birds defending their nests, as I’ve seen something similar at Emiquon.

One of my favorites were the thirty-two Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) flying overhead.  Black Terns are another Illinois State-endangered species, primarily because they nest in freshwater marshes in far Northestern Illinois- much like Forster’s Terns and Common Terns.

A few White-rumped Sandpipers (Calidris fuscicollis) hid among the terns on shore.  These are distingushed by having longer wings, slightly larger size, and white rumps when in flight.

Dunlin and White-rumped Sandpipers weren’t the only species present. The majority were Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), the small, pale, plain ones in the photo above.

A few Stilt Sandpipers (Calidris himantopus) also hung about, including this one cleaning its feathers. They were a nice side bonus to the day.

The highlights, however, were the Phalaropes.  Phalaropes are among the oddest birds in the world.  The Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)below in the center (Killdeer [Charadrius vociferus] on the left, Semipalmated Sandpiper on the right) is a female, and the females are more colorful than the males.  This is common among humans, but generally not among birds. Furthermore, Phalaropes are in the group called shorebirds, but the Red and the Red-necked Phalarope both winter out on the deep sea, eating plankton and swimming on the surface of the water, far out of sight of shore.  Odd for a SHOREbird!

Perhaps most fascinating about this group of shorebirds is how they feed- they spin in a circle to produce a current and stir up their food.  At any rate, this was my first Red-necked Phalarope, and these aren’t easy to find in Illinois during the spring, so I was quite happy!

A second one can be seen on the left side of this photo.  I watched them spin for a bit, among the many Semipalmated Sandpipers, before moving on.

 

Other odd birds included State-threatened Wilson’s Phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) (right, above) and  a pair of late Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).  Duckwise, I saw 5 Blue-winged Teal,  the 2 late Northern Shovelers, and 2 (breeding) Hooded Mergansers, which with Mallards and Wood Ducks makes 5 species- not bad for the end of May! The photos of these birds, so far away, were obscured due to the haze of humidity from water evaporating out of these ponds.

We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of a speeder getting pulled over, and this inspired us to go looking for Common Gallinules where they breed nearby.  We found one of these state-endangered birds, among a flooded marsh/prairie with breeding Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots calling, when a Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) showed up.  This State-endangered species is rare away from Northeastern Illinois and Emiquon, to my understanding.  I also saw a Green Heron, a Great Egret, and Great Blue Herons here.

Calling Dickcissels  were everywhere, as, deeper in the grasses, were Northern Bobwhites and Ring-necked Pheasants.  A few Indigo Buntings also sang, though I didn’t get any good photos.

We then went over to the nearby Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge, looking through prairies with the bluffs above the Illinois River in the background.

A few American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) hopped about in a field where the uncommon if uncomely Henslow’s Sparrows had been seen, though we heard and saw nothing more exciting than a Grasshopper Sparrow, another little brown bird non-birders don’t care about, here.

Next, we went looking for a Blue Grosbeak at another spot, just north of this.

This spot had my first Illinois Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), though I did recently see a few of these for the first time in Missouri, in this post here.

Last migrants, the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are flying north, and I’ve seen a few hundred in the last few weeks or so, mostly at times and places it’s inconvenient to record them.

 

Little Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) love grassy areas throughout the state, and they are one of the few warblers I can easily find in Illinois.  After finding a few more birds, but not our target Blue Grosbeak, we turned around, only to spot something…

My second-ever in Illinois Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea), a female, looked over at me from its perch and posed perfectly for the camera.  This is one of several bird species far more common at Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge than most other spots in Illinois.

Another bird in that same category is the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), and here’s one below.  This unique “thrasher-warbler” (it’s a warbler with the song and behavior of a thrasher/mockingbird) is one of the more common “rarities” in Illinois.  It seems to me that birds in Illinois sometimes have their rarity determined based on how many times they are seen in Chicago. Chats seem fairly easy to find in sandy, brushy areas downstate.

Just as we began to leave again, a state-threatened species, the Black-billed Cuckoo, a third lifer for me, flew across our path and into the bushes.  We stopped leaving once more, and began looking for it.  Black-billed Cuckoos are a nemesis of mine I’m glad to have conquered, albeit with a lack of a photo.

Though we didn’t refind it, I did see a Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii) and took its photo.  These rarely-seen birds were calling all over, but I hate to report them if I don’t see at least one.  This is usually about as much as you see of a Bell’s Vireo, and to be fair, it isn’t the most exciting bird in Illinois.  The fact that I found my first one only a week before is far more exciting to me, however.  Bell’s Vireos are a little gray Western bird that are locally abundant in Illinois.  Some spots have many, most have none.  They like shrubs on the edge of prairies in western Illinois.

I drove back home along the scenic bluffside roads an extremely happy man. Three lifers is a very good day, and with all the other birds on top, today was probably my best birding day of this spring. And I wasn’t even expecting to go to Meredosia as of that morning!

Bird of the day, among so many good birds, would have to be the Black-billed Cuckoo, followed by the show-stealing Black-crowned Night Heron and the Red-necked Pharalope. However, over half of the birds I saw today would be the highlights of any other average day. Heck, seven of these birds are state-listed as threatened or endangered. (To be fair, the Black, Common, and Forster’s Terns and the Wilson’s Pharalope are kind of cheating on that, since they’re fairly common migrants.) Seeing the state-listed Black-billed Cuckoo, Common Gallinule, and Black-crowned Night Heron made my day just as much as the lifer shorebirds. Thanks to Vaughn for showing me around!

(P. S. I had one last stop at Centennial Park, just a second or two late for the setting sun, but not too late to capture the Foxglove Beardtongue spectacle at the park’s prairie restoration)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ebird Checklists

Four Corners (I have 51 species- this may be my longest checklist ever!)

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37301701

Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37301834