I’ve had few better birding days than Saturday, 10/28/17. A guy I’d never met in person before, Kyle W., and I joined forces about 8:15 AM and birded much of the southwestern Mississippi River Valley, from Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County north to Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in Monroe County and then back south again until 7:00 PM. I’ve not birded Randolph or Monroe Counties much before. Above is Kinkaid Lake Spillway, an “artificial” waterfall.
At Kinkaid Lake Spillway, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and one migrant Northern Harrier, as well as about eighty Greater White-fronted Geese, flew overhead, in a good start to a great day. Our first Cooper’s Hawk of the day flew past us while driving through Chester, IL.
The greatest bird of the trip was our one lifer Whooping Crane (Grus americana)! Kyle W. had actually seen it the day before, and I’d decided off the back of his sighting “Why not?” He agreed to go, and we went. One of the rarest and certainly the tallest bird in North America, It was a joy to see such an amazingly rare and large bird- it dwarfed the Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) around it, and those are not small birds.
It’s funny- I’ve now seen Whooping Crane before Sandhill Crane in Illinois this year, despite there being ~650,000 wild Sandhill Cranes, compared to ~500 wild Whooping Cranes. So using overly simplified mathematics, I had a 1300:1 chance to find a Sandhill Crane over a Whooping Crane. However, despite several searches, I’ve found only the one (Whooping) Crane this year.
Of course, this is a spot for Whooping Cranes, which mitigates all overly simplified mathematical ratios. Bird reporting is both a blessing and a curse for Whooping Cranes- people occasionally shoot them just for the heck of it (and, being the tallest bird in North America, standing in an open slough, it’s not like it’d be easy to miss). Property owners near where rare birds like Whooping Cranes arrive, irritated by the inundation of occasionally rude and disobedient birders, have also been known to shoot said rare birds (illegally) to keep people from trespassing.
By not reporting the exact location of this find, people don’t chase it and the bird isn’t hunted or in as much danger. However, one concerning thing was our observation that a duck blind was being built in the same slough where the Whooping Crane was. It’s on private property and the landowner is well within his legal rights to hunt there. Hopefully the crane moves on before that becomes a problem, though I suspect it won’t.
Seen throughout the day were hundreds of Eastern Bluebirds- in some spots there were dozens, with about fifty on one set of wires near Ellis Grove, IL being our largest flock. (Of course, it wasn’t till later that I realized I have no pictures of any bluebirds from the trip.) Equally in the hundreds were Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) and Savannah Sparrows, and approaching them in numbers were Swamp Sparrows in nearly every habitat.
Among the large flocks of Horned Larks (immature above) and sparrows, there were three American Pipits and a Vesper Sparrow in the fields near and on Kaskaskia Island. Kaskaskia Island could be very productive for larks, sparrows, longspurs etc. in the winter- there’s a lot of weedy fields and good habitat. I suspect I’ll be asking local landowners if I can bird the fields there a couple times this winter, although the roadside birding was good enough on its own.
In a single large slough at Kaskaskia Island were three Dunlin, a Pectoral Sandpiper, two Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) (including the one pictured above), a Wilson’s Snipe, a Lesser Yellowlegs,as well as a couple Killdeer- six shorebird species, and it was almost November!
Also on Kaskaskia Island in a dried-up slough was one Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), seen at a quarter to noon- a bit odd for this usually crepuscular (dawn/dusk) species. This was probably my third-favorite find of the day.
About 40-50 American Kestrels, 35-odd Red-tailed Hawks (including a couple of unusually pale ones and a couple that wouldn’t be bad for subsp. abieticola), and about 25-30 Red-shouldered Hawks were seen throughout the day. Unfortunately, we saw no Merlin or Peregrine Falcons, but other than those and Black Vulture, we saw at least two or more of all the expected or likely species of raptors.
Other numbers for raptors include 18 Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) throughout the day, the majority near or on Kaskaskia Island and in the brushy areas behind Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. A few were seen high up, migrating, including one at Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County. Northern Harriers are my favorite raptor (excluding owls)- I love watching them skim feet above the ground as they hunt for mice:
Many Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) including an unusually tail-less one, a dozen-odd Bald Eagles, three Sharp-shinned Hawks and two Cooper’s Hawks represented the rest of the raptors.
Several of the migrating raptors were at Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve- this spot could be a good hawkwatch, although unfortunately it’s an hour or more from any significant towns.
I still think this is the best scenic overlook in all of Illinois. I’m willing to give Garden of the Gods, Mississippi Palisades, Grandview Drive, or Inspiration Point some room for competing with it, but I really do like this spot. Someday I’ll get here in the summer and find a scorpion, but it wasn’t to be this day. The cold breeze- I was shivering- proved that.
Fults Hill Prairie is probably my favorite because you look out at what appears to be Illinois. It’s not like some beautiful forest- it’s actually the farmland of Illinois. It feels more honestly Illinoisian than Garden of the Gods, for instance (the Illinois one, not the Scottish or Coloradoan ones). That, combined with the lack of crowds and the fact that you’re standing in a prairie, for “the Prairie State”, endears it to me.
Here’s one of the Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) that flew past us, this one actually flying northwards below the bluffs, slightly protected from the strongest winds. There may be some hawkwatching here done in the future -you can see so far around here:
79 Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew over as we prepared to hike back down Fults Hill Prairie’s steep slopes (not recommended for beginners). These were migrating, one of the last flocks I expect to see this year:
Large flocks of Gadwall and some Wood Ducks were pursued by Bald Eagles at Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. There were clearly more birds, but due to the thick lotus cover and lack of viewing areas at Kidd Lake Marsh we couldn’t see them. A couple of Wilson’s Snipe and many Swamp Sparrows were present here. Perhaps most interesting, however, was the Smeared Dagger Moth (Acronicta oblinita) caterpillar:
A single Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) was spotted among about twenty decoys at a private hunting area (which we birded from the road) in southern Monroe County. It was being watched closely by a Coyote (Canis latrans) behind it as you can see below:
The last and one of the best finds of the day was a lost male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher where the train bridge crosses Lock and Dam Road in Randolph County near the mouth of the Kaskaskia River- Kyle missed it, unfortunately, as it flew off when I drove past, I only comprehended what I saw once I’d driven past it. While searching for it unsuccessfully, hundreds of American Robins flew past. This capped our day, and we then went to a Halloween Party- dressed as birdwatchers. The costumes were remarkably easy to find… we didn’t have to change clothes at all!
The sky looked very Stranger Things-y to me as we went away. This was a splendid Saturday and with the Whooping Crane (Species #290 for the year, lifer #309 for the US and #263 for Illinois), I was 10 birds away. In an entertaining series of events, Sunday night, October 29, I was saying to a few Chicagoland birders on Discord (like Skype, but better) that I’d trade my recent Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sighting for any scoter- preferably Black. I’ve seen White-winged and Surf Scoters before, in 2016, but Black Scoter, in Illinois the rarest away from Lake Michigan, has eluded me.
Monday morning, October 30, a Black Scoter showed up at Crab Orchard NWR, 20 minutes away from me. Kyle W. and I chased it, spotting a few Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) along the way:
The Black Scoter was far out- we had to scope for it, and no photos were taken. As a result, the reviewers on Ebird have decided, despite there being four witnesses, that the bird was not there. Either that or they just haven’t gotten around to updating it. Irritating, but ultimately- it’s my word that I saw it, and I did see it (#291).
A large flock of mixed ducks swam in the middle of the lake behind it. Forster’s Terns (Sterna fosteri) continued at the campground beach, though no rare gulls joined them:
In the perfect finale to the great Illinois bird exchange, on Tuesday, October 31, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher showed up at Montrose Point in downtown Chicago. The guys I was talking to got to see their Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I don’t know what happened, but the timing’s hilarious. Hopefully we can do that again sometime!
In the meantime, I’ve seen two lifers, so whoop whoop!
Year Birds for 2017
#290 Whooping Crane
#291 Black Scoter