Month: March 2018

Racing Rains, Chasing Cranes

Hey, let’s try doing a shorter blogpost for once, instead of these two-week-long megaposts that I finish at 1:13 AM!

Friday:  I find my first-ever Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa), one of our earliest native spring wildflowers.  It’s remarkably pretty for being related to carrots:

Harbinger-of-Spring

Saturday:  I spent most of the afternoon showing a British guy from my apartment around southern Illinois. We stopped at Kinkaid Lake Spillway, among other spots:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway

I found several yearbirds and introduced the guy to Snake Road.  Oh, and by the way, here’s the first Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster) of the year:

Plain-bellied Watersnake

A Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) also posed for us, a new and happy occurrence for this hider-in-tree-stumps.  Seriously, I’ve never seen a Winter Wren away from dead wood:

Winter Wren

As we left, I played Neil Diamond’s “America” and drove down a bumpy pothole-covered levee road in a Ford Ranger pickup truck. Felt pretty American to me.  For all the problems our country has, I’m still glad to live here.

Sunday:  I decided to venture up to Carlyle Lake and it’s OK-ish.  I missed one of the rarest bird finds in Illinois so far this year in Mottled Duck, which was fifteen minute’s drive away from me at the time.   I also missed out on a breeding-plumaged Laughing Gull ten minutes’s drive away.  I did get several yearbirds, including my first ever photos of a Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus).  To be clear, that’s a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the background.

Brewer's Blackbird and Killdeer

And this lovely Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus)- yes, that’s it, sitting on top of the concrete structure WAYYY out there in the middle of Carlyle Lake:

Osprey

I came down through Washington County, spotting my lifer Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) on the way.  If I’d counted dead ones, I’d have seen one many years ago, but somehow the live ones always eluded me.  Skunks aren’t that rare.  Thankfully this one was distant:

Striped Skunk

I then ended up birding the fish farms in Jackson County, which ended the day well with my first of the year Barn Swallow an hour before sunset and American Golden-Plovers half an hour before sunset.  The Gorham fish farms were productive as well, with many dabbling ducks like these:

Gorham Duck Ponds

Monday: Rage and screams of agony in the morning when I found out about the Mottled Duck (from the Missouri email group MObirds, the last place I expect reports of Illinois rare birds to reach me.) An internet acquaintance of mine and fellow birder discovered a pair of Whooping Cranes near him.  The forecast looked like rain the following day.  I called off an appointment for reasons unrelated to birds, leaving me free after 11:30 AM on Tuesday.

Tuesday- I finished class at 11:15 AM, a bit early.   The Whooping Cranes are an hour from me, and the Mottled Ducks and Laughing Gull are an hour and a half away.  I will get hit by the rain one way or the other, and it looks like about 1:00 PM is when it will hit the Whooping Crane spot, whereas it’s already beginning to rain at Carlyle Lake.  This makes it unfortunately easy to decide- it’s the Whooping Cranes.  I throw everything in a car and drive off in pursuit.

It began misting as I crossed the county line, but the hard rain held off and I got to the spot.  And:

IMG_1188

Whoop Whoop.  Grus americana.  There’s 600 or so of these birds in the entire world.  It’s such a special feeling to see something so rare, so close.  I used my truck as a blind to not disturb the birds as they foraged and even cleaned their feathers (preened).  The cranes had set up shop next to a fairly busy road, so evidently they weren’t too concerned, barely looking at me twice.

Whooping Crane Preening

I’ve now seen four Whooping Cranes since January 1, 2017, and zero Sandhill Cranes.  (That would be the continuing Randolph County birds and these new ones.)  This is either great or sad, considering hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes pass through Illinois- northern Illinois.  I plan to change my Sandhill Crane luck in May.

Whoop Whoop

Wednesday- I find out that the Mottled Ducks were in fact not rediscovered on Tuesday when someone checked before the rain, so the drive would have been for nothing if I’d pursued them.  Well, that was fun.  Time to go back and do school.

Back to Mason County!

I decided to spend all day of the Ides of March exploring my old stomping grounds in Mason and Fulton counties and ended up having one of the better birding days of the year so far.  I’d hoped to find Red Crossbills, Smith’s Longspurs, and a Northern Saw-whet Owl or two, as well as several more common birds I hadn’t found yet this year like Western Meadowlark, Wilson’s Snipe, Tree Swallow etc.  It’d been rather cold and unpleasant much of the week, and I wanted desperately to get outside. So I did.

Map of Route on March 15, 2018

As usual for a birding trip, I woke up at 4 AM, decided I didn’t want to get up and slept in for two hours, then woke up and decided I really needed to get going, and left an hour later.   I’m not a morning person.  Most birds are.

I started in  Sand Ridge State Forest (1) at 8 AM and explored it for about two hours.  The warmer conditions certainly made the birds extremely active.   Driving in  from Forest City I had a Northern Harrier and Western Meadowlark (I had the windows rolled down and would stop every time I heard something interesting).  Flocks of American Goldfinches, Blue Jays and more flew across the road.  It seemed like every bush had its own birds. I’ve only ever had birds bouncing around in such numbers at one other time, the Carlyle Lake Pelagic, and at that time there weren’t as many, especially on the road itself.  I had several species (Wild Turkey, Eastern Phoebe, Horned Lark) just sitting on or alongside the road.  I also got out and walked in attempts to find Red Crossbills, which was a swing and a miss.  This did get me Winter Wren and Red-breasted Nuthatch, both good for this time of year.

By the end of two hours and about ten miles driving/walking, I had 36 species, which I considered a promising start to the day.  I wasn’t really going for numbers, and Sand Ridge can be hit or miss. This was the best I’d ever done in Sand Ridge, so I was happy about that.

Bufflehead Display 2

I checked through Chautauqua (2) and found close to nothing other than a few robins.  Apparently all the birds were at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge and Preserve (3), my next stop on the other side of the river.   All of them.  I’d never had so many except in coot season, and at that time it’s just coots.  It’s close to coot season, but that’s a still a couple weeks away. The Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola, above) were fighting, which was adorable.

Emiquon Boardwalk

Emiquon is almost never not a great place for birds, but it’s so great in March.  Hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese are there through the first part of March, and by the end of March the shorebirds are showing up in the hundreds.  In between the ducks move through en masse.  Emiquon does nothing small when it comes to birds.  This was, however, by far my best day at Emiquon ever in terms of bird numbers.  (It’s still not as fun as when I got to show my mom around Emiquon for the first time, but nonetheless amazing).

Tundra Swan

The best bird there was a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) on the south end of the visitor’s center walkway, but the newly-arrived Blue-winged Teal, Wilson’s Snipe, and Tree Swallows were also welcome.  The Tree Swallow was quite funny, actually.  While unintentionally chasing about twenty American Tree Sparrows around the boardwalk,  I spotted a couple of women with binoculars around my same age, and curious to see if there were actually other young birders in my area, I asked them if they’d seen anything good.

“We saw a crane stick its whole head under the water!”Pause. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes are ridiculously rare around Emiquon.

“D’you mean a heron?”  The only one around is the very common Great Blue Heron.

“Yeah!”  Internally I cringe, but I’m trying not to show how elitist I am and not say anything about how actually it’s fairly easy to tell a crane from a heron.

“Ok. Cool. There’s a Tundra Swan over there.”

“Oh, did it really fly all the way down from the tundra?”

“Yep, flew all the way down from Canada and it’s on its way back.”

“Awesome!”  Enthusiasm’s high, for sure.

“Alright, have a good day, I’m just looking for swallows, and ope, there’s one flying over your head right now!”  Ope is a Midwestern word used both in place of Oh and for when you bump into someone on accident, mostly the latter.

“Cool! (looks at swallow)  Goodbye!”

And we went on our separate ways.

American Tree Sparrow

I noticed a number of meadowlarks, sparrows and more here, which I wondered about.  It’s not usually to chase 20 American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) around the boardwalk.  And there was a plume of smoke on the horizon…

I then went to the Emiquon Globe Units (4) across the road, and the North Globe Unit was on fire. Quite literally.

Emiquon is lit

They were burning the prairie that day, which explained all the sparrows, meadowlarks, etc. over on the other side of the road.

Many Aythya

Also metaphorically, because there were thousands of ducks.  The dominant species were Canvasbacks(Aythya valisineria), Redheads (Aythya americana), Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), and Northern Pintail (Anas acuta).  It was just staggering to see them in such numbers.

Mixed Ducks and Swans

A lone Common Goldeneye flew overhead, and a lone Common Merganser was in the fish pond near Dixon Mounds.  There were also quite a few sparrows wandering about, I suspect having been temporarily displaced by the fire. I even saw some kind of longspur get stirred out of the brush, though I missed the call or facial features to ID it.  Partially due to the fire, I presume, everyone was very stirred up, making for a large amount of bird activity.   Red-tailed Hawks circled overhead, watching everything be driven out by the fire, waiting for a few mice to be scared out of the brush before diving down after them.

Northern Pintails

On a hunch I decided to check the often-productive fields along Bottom Road (5),
which were full of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator), Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Pintail, and two Pectoral Sandpipers.  It’s quite an odd sight seeing a Trumpeter Swan next to a Pectoral Sandpiper, with the vast size difference.  The swans are on their way back home, but they’re mostly gone from central Illinois, while the Pectoral Sandpipers are increasing.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swan

I then had lunch at Pizza Hut.  I  would recommend the Pizza Hut in Havana to those birding in this area. Because the buffet was closing, they gave away free dessert pizza, which is the best way to ensure continued loyalty to a restaurant.  Anyway this isn’t a food-reviewing blog, so after lunch I  decided to try a few spots for Smith’s Longspur.  An unreliable source had reported seeing them already, but no official sources had found them yet in Illinois.  I knew where the best fields were supposed to be, due east of me.  So I jumped back in the truck and headed out.  After an hour or so of searching, I finally found a few of my lifer Smith’s Longspurs in the well-known field at US 136 and County Road 3100 E in Mason County (6).
I was actually playing the call while sitting in the truck with the windows down, to remind myself of what they sound like.  The recording stopped and I heard their little… rattle is the word most people use to describe it, and I guess that works.  I double checked my phone to make sure it wasn’t playing, and I heard the call again after doing so, along with a Lapland Longspur call note for comparison.  I drove down the road a little ways, and several Smith’s Longspurs flew out in front of my truck and crossed the road into a field, where I lost them in the corn stubble.

Spring Lake

I then checked a few uneventful spots near Mason City (7) before deciding to visit Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area in Tazewell county (8).  (I should’ve gone for my towhee spot at Revis Hill Prairie instead.)  My 31 Mute Swans, single Bonaparte’s Gull, and 9 Tree Swallows were the only real finds of note at that location. Compared to the previous year, the bottomlands were pretty uneventful, so I just drove through and left.

Spring Lake Eagle Nest

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest here is one of the best in the state to see, though, so at least there’s that.  People always ask me “Have you see the eagles?” when I go birding, almost every time.  Along the rivers, Illinois has a bazillion Bald Eagles.  I’m tempted to ask them “Have you see the Song Sparrows?” but I don’t want to come across as a snob.  I am kind of a snob, though.  I spend all my time looking for little brown birds when there’s majestic eagles and swans everywhere (at least in this part of the world).  And Spring Lake is great, too:

South Bay of Spring Lake

I then went out and walked around the Goofy Ridge access at Chautauqua (9).  There wasn’t much, but calling lone Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers at least made the stop worthwhile.  I’d been hoping for a Red-headed, and the Pileated was an unexpected surprise from the nearby flooded forests to the northwest.

Horned Grebe

On a whim I went back to Emiquon (3) and checked around the visitor’s center. The Tundra Swan had departed, but I pulled my scope out this time (I’d only used binoculars at the visitor’s center the first time around, though I did get the scope out in the globe units). A close Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) showed off its molting, transitional plumage (it’s changing feathers for breeding season), but the Common Loons I was hoping for were not to be found.  Oh well.  Who cares, on a day like this?

Snow Goose Flocks Landing

The Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) were also considerably more stirred up, and extended in a line for a considerable distance.  I estimated 5000 roughly, but there were likely more.  This area can have half a million Snow Geese in the right season.

Lesser Scaup

The ducks (these are Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis) continued to amaze in their sheer numbers, and I stayed to admire them until the sun began dipping below the horizon.

Mason County Sunset

As it would soon be night, I decided to head back across the river and check for American Woodcocks and Northern Saw-whet Owls. As I drove back, the sun set over the river valley and it was spectacular.  More than one person pulled off at Chautauqua (2) to take pictures of it, including me.  As I was walking back, an American Woodcock gave its bzeent! call from the bush next to me.  It was VERY alarming, to be sure!

Sunset at Mud Lake

The sun had set by the time I reached Sand Ridge State Forest (1) and the owl spot.  I played call notes off my phone to see if the owl would respond.  It started screaming at me (quite literally) and so I was happy.  A Barred Owl called afterwards, which silenced the smaller, more timid Northern Saw-whet Owl.  It being after 8:00 PM with over an hour’s drive home, I departed.
I’d seen and/or heard 94 species over the course of the day.  Evidently that’s quite a bit for March, which is bad for me because it gets me in trouble again.  I was told by a friend that “hey, you kinda sound like a certain notorious Western Illinois birder in your post”- and I am so tempted to say who, because that person needs to stop- and that kind of scared me.  Said person in question has no credibility because they always go out and “beat” records, find the most ridiculous sightings, and never seem to have an “off” day.  I have people from Arizona text me and ask if said person’s sightings are legitimate.  It’s my goal to never have someone from Arizona text other Illinois birders and say “Is Jared on the level?  Is he not a good birder?”
I’m not out to beat records.  I don’t plan to submit this to Lister’s Corner, the keepers of “official” records, because I don’t want to and because I don’t have photos of everything.  I wasn’t going for a big day, I just had a good day.  Same with this year in general.  I wouldn’t have as high of a total  so far this year if I hadn’t been going for a county big year, but now that I’ve relaxed from doing that, I’m just going to see what I end up with by the end of the year.  I remain #3 on the Illinois Ebird 2018 list in terms of species as of this writing, but there’s no way whatsoever I retain that through April- I’ve just got too much going on and my knowledge of and ability to find warblers is insufficient.  And that’s a good thing.  I don’t want to be #1, or #2, or even in the top 10.  As I was discussing with some friends of mine tonight, being #1 always means people are jealous and envious of you.  I don’t want that.
All of this being said, I do plan to go back and refind my more “problematic” species ( LeConte’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows) at some point this year.  (I’ll mostly just wait around for Lincoln’s Sparrows to show up, and then actively pursue LeConte’s Sparrows at Pyramid.)
  And for a happier finale. This part of Illinois is my “first love” when it comes to birding- it’s where I visited every chance I could get when I lived in central Illinois.  I like southern IL quite a bit, but in my opinion there’s nothing better than the Illinois River Valley when it comes to birding here in IL.  I’m so glad I could return and see it yet again, in a perfect day of birdwatching.

 

What Might Live Here?

I enjoy finding new species, but what I most enjoy is finding new populations in surprising spots.  What might live here?  What species aren’t known from this region that could be here?

Part of what I look at is,  what are similar regions that have certain species Southern IL doesn’t have, and then go from there.  If there’s prior records, I also use those in factoring how likely it is that X species lives here.  I’m limiting this speculation to birds and herps- plants  would take too long and the rest I don’t know well enough to speculate on.  I’ve started these from one to five, five being most likely and one being least likely, to be refound or found for the first time in IL.

Birds- I derive much of my information on birds from W. Douglas Robinson (https://sites.google.com/view/birds-of-southern-illinois/home)

Ruffed Grouse – This one provokes the most speculation among people I know.  One of them even provided me this information:   “When I started hunting, at age 9, my dad and I heard what sounded like one drumming on our farm. It’s about 6-8 miles from where most of the birds were released near the Lusk Creek Canyon area. Plus, both my folks saw what they described as a large game bird flush one time. That would have been mid to late ’70s. I started hunting in 1984. They had selectively timbered their property, which would have been conducive to that species. Not saying that’s what we experienced, but it’s within the realm of possibility.  I read an article from 2006, and I think the year before, the biologist who was involved said that was the last year he heard them drumming.”

This roughly lines up with the literature I have read on the subject. There’s also reports of grouse being seen in the Union County- Alexander County border in the Shawnee Hills.  Ruffed Grouse depend on the occasional clearing of trees in large tracts of forest habitat.  Since there’s been very little logging in the Shawnee National Forest, this hasn’t happened.  For more context on why I doubt there will be any more Ruffed Grouse releases in the future:

http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=cwrl_fr

**

Neotropic Cormorant- One or two were present on Grand Tower Island in summer 2017, as part of a range expansion of this species and there’s a few other additional reports. My expectation is that breeding Neotropic Cormorants may occur fairly soon in Illinois, probably central or northern Illinois where there’s more observers.  We’ll see if the predicted range expansion occurs.

***

Black-bellied Whistling Duck- Several records from Oakwood Bottoms and a few other areas match the growing number of reports throughout the Midwest of this Southern species’ expansion.  I fully expect breeding in Oakwood Bottoms within 20 years, as this species is making its way up the Mississippi River Valley.

****

Trumpeter Swan (breeding) I have heard of Trumpeter Swans breeding somewhere near Desoto in a private strip mine pond, but don’t have any confirmation of that.  Is the habitat somewhat correct for this species to breed? Yes.  Is it hundreds of miles south of all known breeding locations?  Also yes.  My suspicion is that my informant or his source confused this species with Mute Swan.  In a hundred years, maybe Trumpeter Swans will come and breed  in southern IL in the strip mine ponds.  But I doubt it’ll be anytime soon, if ever.

*

Mute Swan (breeding)- Mute Swans, an invasive species, are expanding their range across the Midwest.  Multiple records this winter and the continued expansion of Mute Swan ranges seems likely that they’ll make it to the strip mine ponds down here at some point.  However, there are no summering records as of yet.  There’s also that sketchy report of swans breeding near Desoto.

***

Northern Saw-whet Owl (wintering only)  Considering they range well south of this area in winter, based on migration records obtained from banding stations, I presume Northern Saw-whet Owls have come down here, and no one’s looked hard enough to find them everywhere and every year. There’s also a record from Giant City campground.

*****

Anhinga-   Anhingas have been intermittently seen and even bred in the Cache River swamps.  They haven’t done so of late, but there were three observed in the Grand Tower / Big Muddy River area of Illinois in July-August of 2017.  I suspect there may be others present in some of the swamps of southern Illinois, and probably breeding.

*****

Sharp-shinned Hawk (breeding) This hawk species breeds in the Ozarks and have been encountered in the southern Indiana hills throughout summer.  There are also prior breeding records.  I haven’t seen as much of late about these, but I also suspect more work needs to be done.  Many of the summer records are from the eastern Shawnee, which is little-explored.

****

Purple Gallinule- There are breeding records of this Southern species at Mermet Lake.  Away from Mermet Lake it might be difficult to find habitat for this marsh bird. None have been seen since 2006, the last record being at Mermet Lake.

***

King Rail-  These have been found summering in Pyramid State Park and migrating through Oakwood Bottoms.  They could potentially breed at Mermet Lake, Pyramid State Park, and possibly other habitats in the Mississippi River Valley.  Easily overlooked and secretive bird, and I suspect heavily under-reported in this area.

****

Brown Creeper (breeding)- Brown Creepers are encountered occasionally during the summertime in the swamps of the Cache River, particularly at Heron Pond.  Easily overlooked, and their high pitched call is also not readily observed. Considering how secretive they are, the amount of territory in the Shawnee National Forest, and the lack of birders,  it’s a surprise that there’s as many summer records as there are.  W. Douglas Robinson suspected breeding, as do I.

****

Brown-headed Nuthatch- There’s a colony of these Southeastern pine lovers in Kentucky ten miles from the Illinois border.  They require open pine savanna, however, and most of the pine forests in southern Illinois are too dense for its liking.   Yet again this is a species that would do well with selective logging.  On Google Maps there are some southern Illinois open pine forests, particularly on private land in Pope County and in private sections of Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.  Access would be difficult, but I suspect this species could be present, given enough habitat. There’s currently no records down here, however.

***

Black-throated Green Warbler (breeding)- This one’s pretty unlikely, but they do breed in the hills of southern Indiana and in the Ozarks in both Arkansas and Missouri.  There have been no nesting records in this part of Illinois, however.

*

Chestnut-sided Warbler (breeding)-  The lack of logging in the Shawnee National Forest may be detrimental to finding this species of secondary growth as a breeding species.  However, there are a few breeding records from the eastern Ozarks and the eastern Shawnee National Forest, mostly from old logging days in secondary-growth brush.

**

Swainson’s Warbler-  This one was in the Shawnee fairly recently, until 2011.  They used to be known for nesting in the Pomona area at Cave Creek and at Rock Springs Hollow in Alexander county. Swainson’s Warblers require large, dense stands of Giant Cane bamboo (canebrakes).  This is a limited habitat in Illinois.  They also use dense rhododendron scrub in the Appalachians, and it’s possible but unlikely that dense scrubby areas in the Shawnee National Forest, especially in conjunction with large canebrakes, might hold a few individuals of this probably-extirpated warbler.  It’s likely that a few still persist in unknown corners of  southern Illinois, but their habitat specificity and general population decline is likely to make them harder to find.

****

Bachman’s Sparrow- These bred in Illinois as recently as 1975.  This species, unsuprisingly at this point, requires shrubby second growth in which to breed.  In pioneer days Bachman’s Sparrows thrived well up into central Illinois and even further north.  Based on their dramatic range decline, I strongly doubt that more will be found anytime soon.

*

Western Kingbird- Having expanded its range into the lower Illinois River Valley and East St. Louis area, Western Kingbirds could appear in the strip mine areas of Pyramid State Park or other spots similar in habitat in the southern till plain.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see them crop up in the floodplains along the Mississippi, particularly in association with the….

***

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher-  Having bred in the Mississippi River Floodplain in the western part of this area, it seems not unlikely that Scissor-taileds will do so again, particularly with the range expansion this species has had into central Illinois of late. This is a distinctive and showy bird, and one that even non-birders will stop to notice (sometimes). I suspect there’s a higher chance of it getting reported due to this fact.

****

Painted Bunting- With one nesting site in East St. Louis, Painted Buntings may be present in other portions of the “Illinois Ozarks”.  I suspect if any were to be located it would be in Randolph, Monroe, or Jackson counties.

**

Herps (This is much less informed than birds):

Eastern Red-backed Salamander- There’s at least one old record (pre-1980) in Hardin county. Considering how often people visit Hardin county, especially looking for a very secretive salamander, and that much of the habitat has survived in that area, I’d say it could be reasonably possible to encounter this species in the eastern Shawnee. That being said, it also could have been accidentally brought down in mining equipment from another area.  Even if that’s the case, they might have persisted, provided they found the right habitat and weren’t outcompeted by the Zigzag Salamanders supposed to be present in this area.

**

Hellbender- Declining species almost certainly extirpated from Illinois. That being said, with the limited amount of observations of this secretive species in the  Saline River area (most recent being 1985) it seems unlikely any have persisted. It might be worth confirming that there are none by doing some surveys, but it’s not likely that any remain anywhere near here.

*

Three-toed Box Turtle- Multiple individuals, presumed escapes or introductions from Missouri (a notable individual with a shell painted purple was an obvious released individual).  These are long-lived turtles, however, and do seem to be found occasionally in the western Shawnee.  I suspect that a few could potentially swim over (they CAN swim) from the other side of the Mississippi.  That being said, it’s not likely there would be enough to form a breeding population.

*

Alligator Snapping Turtle- A few individuals have been found in the state, one a few years ago in Clear Creek. https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/578177  I doubt there’s much of a population left, but it’s still worth looking for this large but secretive animal.

**

Eastern Collared Lizard- These were released at  a spot in Johnson County but they seem to have disappeared.  Some may remain, but I doubt it.

*

Mediterranean Gecko- An adventative population is present in Carbondale.  It would be worth checking other southern Illinois cities to see if more of this nonnative gecko are present.  I suspect there will be more populations found in the next ten years.

*****

Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata)- Formerly present at Horseshoe Lake, none have been found since the 1970s. I strongly doubt any remain in Illinois, but a population could persist in the swamps of the Illinois coastal plain  away from most explored sites.  Yes, I said coastal plain, as that’s what the habitat south of the Shawnee Hills along the Mississippi and Ohio is considered. Broad-banded Watersnakes persist in Missouri and Kentucky.

*

Coachwhip- Despite a shed skin of this species being found some years back in Randolph County, I strongly doubt these large, active, diurnal snakes persist in Illinois unnoticed.  I could be completely wrong about this, however.

**

Scarletsnake-  A single record of this species at Larue-Pine Hills is the only time this elusive southern species was found in the wild in Illinois.  Considering the number of visitors to that spot, it seems EXTREMELY unlikely that this species persists in Illinois.

0 stars.  It’s that unlikely.

 

And on that terrible disappointment it’s time to rip off the Grand Tour and say goodnight.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I called off the big year at a good time- tests have set in, and I realized that my focus on birds in January doesn’t help me to pass tests (which I have done, thankfully).  Also, it’s a good time to call it off for another reason…

Garden of the Gods

Southern Illinois is beautiful.    I’m sure Garden of the Gods is but one example of this.  I drove over into that region in pursuit of a Golden Eagle, but I was a few days late- it had moved on.  Still there were some unusually-patterned Red-tailed Hawks to see (Buteo jamaicensis):

Northern? Eastern Red-tailed Hawk

Large flocks of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) roamed the isolated fields along the few creeks between the hills.  The eastern Shawnee National Forest is one of the most remote parts of Illinois, and also one of the most beautiful.

Grackle Flock

A few days later, I returned to this area (Saline county) in pursuit of a rarity discovered just as I was driving back from my Golden Eagle search.  Three White-winged Scoters (Melanitta deglandi), a duck species I hadn’t seen in two years, were on a small highway borrow pond near Muddy, Illinois.  The White-winged Scoter is a beautiful duck, and is one of a few birds I can blame for getting me into birding as much as I do.  This was my best-ever look at one:

White-winged Scoters

White-winged Scoters are “sea ducks” meaning that they are usually present on saltwater, at least in winter.  These were migrating back north- in February spring bird migration begins (heck, sometimes the end of January is sufficient).

Trumpeter Swans

Companions of the scoters, these Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) are one of the first birds to migrate north in “spring” (usually they begin going north at the end of January).   I submitted the information on that neck band to the US Geological Survey (in charge of banding birds) and found out it was banded as a juvenile in 2001 in Wood County, Wisconsin.  (Trumpeter Swans are very close to adult size when banded).

Horseshoe Lake (Alexander co.)

A few days later, I wandered down to Horseshoe Lake in hopes of discovering a Golden Eagle, in a long shot that didn’t pay off.  Ah well.  That’s how it goes.  At least the lake was beautiful.  An internet friend of mine was complaining that he lives in one of the few regions in the world without many Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and that if they were rarer, they’d be much more appreciated for their beauty.  I noticed this large flock…

Mallards at Horseshoe Lake

And I’m inclined to think he was right.  It’s so easy to take things like this for granted until that one day they’re not around or they look much worse because they’re molting.  I drove back home, noticing the dry fields and wondering what they would look like when covered with water- it is the floodplain of the Mississippi River, after all. Remember that fact for a while later on.

That night my friend Kyle came to town. Kyle and I make a great birding team.  He hears ’em and I see ’em.  We went out owling, which would ordinarily go better for Kyle but I’m somehow much better at hearing Barred Owls than he is (though when it comes to warbler season, I expect he’ll have to put up with my inability to hear and ignorance of warbler calls).  Of course, when a Barred Owl decided to start calling directly in front of us, and another one decide to fly in and land on a tree 30 feet away, that does help.  After that we decided to stop by a local park and try for screech owls. (At this point you should realize there are no pics.)  As we walked in, having played no calls, a Barn Owl screamed right over our heads.  Lifer for me, and WOW was that a great end to that day.  Nothing else was heard that night owl-wise, but, just, WOW.  I’ve linked a brief video of their call, and yes, I do mean brief:

Monday I had school.  Tuesday I also had school, but for only one class.  Kyle and I decided to go out and explore that day.  The downside of doing a longer day like Tuesday with a friend, where I’m driving all day, is that I tend not to get many photos.  We went off to Hardin County, stopping off briefly to get my first Common Loon of the year at Crab Orchard Lake.

Hardin County is the most unexplored county in all of Illinois.  A decent amount of it is actually accessible due to the Shawnee National Forest.  Most of the area is woodlands, but the creeks are some of the finest I’ve seen in Illinois, and the area’s birds, while mostly common species, were still far more abundant than what you might see in the cornfields back home.  No one had posted any eBird checklists in Hardin County IL since October 8, 2017.  135 days without any birds being recorded on eBird.  Four months and 12 days is a crazy lack of records for any county in the US (outside of Mississippi and Kentucky, which are eBird dead zones).

Pine Siskin

One of the first and more interesting birds of the day were a few Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), migratory winter finches from Canada.  This was the first time anyone had recorded them on eBird in Hardin County, but they were quite expected, especially this year since they’re present in good numbers throughout Illinois.

When we called out Turkey Vultures flying overhead (of which there were many, 91 over the whole day), we’d just call them TVs because it was shorter and because we assumed, being in the Shawnee National Forest, there were no actual TVs around.  That assumption was a mistake:

TV

Crossing a creek in the Shawnee National Forest (and watching our only Great Blue Heron in Hardin County fly down the creek) I noticed some turtles and took some photos.  Looking back through the photos on Sunday, I realized we’d missed something- regular old Red-eared Sliders (turtle on top) don’t have pink lips.  This was a MAP TURTLE.

Common Map Turtle

This Northern/Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica) wasn’t on the Illinois Natural History Survey maps:  http://wwx.inhs.illinois.edu/collections/herps/data/ilspecies/gr_geograph/

So, after asking the state biologist, it turns out that this turtle is a first record for Hardin County. It’s much harder to get first records of reptiles, because there’s fewer species and they don’t migrate.  Big win for me, and best overall find of the day.

Whoopie Cat Mountain creek

The creeks of Hardin County were lovely (this one is at Whoopie Cat Mountain- yeah, that’s a weird name), and we spent much of the day there, finding forty species of birds.  Four of these (Pine Siskin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Rock Pigeon) were new for eBird in the county.  During this time, someone messaged me that there was a White-winged Scoter on Crab Orchard Lake.  Obviously, I’d seen the three earlier, but that’s a bird which isn’t easy to get in Southern Illinois reliably, making this perhaps my only chance to get one at Crab Orchard.  We took the Ohio River Road south out of Hardin county, past the flood-stage Ohio River (which is currently EVEN HIGHER), stopping for a burger and ice cream  at Golconda. We also saw our first butterfly of the year, a Mourning Cloak.

We drove through the back of Dixon Springs State Park, which had this lovely waterfall (although, when is a waterfall not?).  Near a large pine grove, we heard a call, and Kyle said “Oh, it’s a Junco.”  I said, “Are you sure it’s not a Pine Warbler?”  We listened again, realized it WAS a Pine Warbler, and Kyle and I jumped out of the car.  Kyle saw the warbler for a bit, and I saw it as it flew, before I could get photos (of course, the best bird of the day flies away unphotographed.)

Dixon Springs Waterfall

We then drove to Mermet Lake, which was disappointingly not full of birds. I’d heard much about it, and the hype seems unfounded at present.  I’m sure it’s better than first appearances make it seem- Snake Road seemed dully devoid of reptiles on my first, second, and third visits.  Evidently we missed Tree Swallows at Mermet, extremely early for Illinois, seen three days earlier.

However, we did go back and find the White-winged Scoter at Crab Orchard Lake, before the sun set.  We listened to American Woodcocks peenting and watched a Barred Owl fly off the top of a tree.  As the sun set, we’d found 78 species of bird that day- not bad!

We picked up another friend and drove to the Wood Frog spot, spotting a Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), a Raccoon, two bats, and many deer on the way.  Yes, an armadillo in Illinois in February.  I’m fairly sure you can’t find a Wood Frog, Pine Warbler, Nine-banded Armadillo, and White-winged Scoter all in the same day most places.  That’s why I love living here.

Nine-banded Armadillo

We arrived at the site and heard plenty of frogs calling, but initially heard no Wood Frogs.  We walked a little into the woods to see if we could find them, and were pleasantly surprised by the calls of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in the still air.  A massive rainstorm was imminent, and clearly they wanted to get breeding done.  A few drizzles fooled me into not taking my camera, which was unfortunate.  I did take my phone, so I did manage to capture some of the frogness:

Wood Frog Amplexus

These Wood Frogs were lifers for me, my first lifer herps of the year. (Herp is reptile/amphibian excluding birds).  Oh, and yes, these frogs are doing exactly what you think they are.

Wood Frog

This male hadn’t found a female (he’s basically me, except with more interesting legs).  However, like all the frogs in the pond, he was so focused on breeding that it allowed extremely close approaches.  The noise was deafening, quite literally, as my ears were in considerable pain.  I’ve never been exposed to such pure frogness before.  They all shut up at once when they realized our presence.

Then one Barred Owl called, followed by another, doing all of their barking, “who-cooks-for-you?” ing, and even a few other calls I’ve never heard before.  The five Barred Owls present just blew us away with how great their calls were.  I’d never heard anything like it, and I’ve heard many a Barred Owl.  I regret that I had no recording device, but sometimes you just need to be there to really get it.  It was one of the best moments of my life, just listening to them.  Then, of course, it started to rain, so we got out of there.

The rain kept coming, and coming, and coming.  It wasn’t bad until we’d gotten back to the main roads, but it became one of the worst storms I’ve ever driven in.  Cats and dogs wouldn’t suffice to describe it, let’s say elephants and rhinos.  Because of the massive temperature drop (75 down to 35 over the course of about six hours)  the widows fogged up, even with the fan going full blast.   I had the other two on defogging duty. Of course Kyle said that it wasn’t that bad. I would’ve caused him serious physical injury for saying that, but I needed to drive.

And I did drive us, right into Carbondale, and right into trouble.  I looked at a parking lot, thought about pulling off, and since we weren’t far from my apartment decided against it. That was one of the worst decisions of my entire life.   Thirty seconds later I drove us right into a break in the curb of Route 13 at 30 miles per hour.   When the tires hit the curb- two flat tires, immediately. The airbags didn’t go off.  We were in a car on the side of the busiest road in Southern IL in one of the worst storms I’ve ever driven in, and we were minutes from my apartment by car, and we couldn’t go ANYWHERE.  There was a Denny’s across the road.  We grabbed our most valuable belongings and high-tailed it across the road… into a four-foot wide creek down a eight-foot-deep ditch covered in slick mud and rocks on both sides.

Flat Tire

Two of us, after some indecision, ran all the way around it, soaked completely through by the time we got in Denny’s. The third guy, Cody, jumped the creek- mostly.  He did end up getting one foot fairly wet, but considering how much less time he spent in the rain, it was a worthy sacrifice.

We ordered hot chocolates immediately, and I called the police.  They towed my car away and a friend of ours, Chris, picked us up and drove us back to our apartments.

Three days later, I received the bill, worth more than the value of my car + prior repairs.  So, I now have no car.  RIP Beigmobile.  I put about 30,000 miles on that car in the two years I owned it, it’d been all the way from Chicago to Reelfoot Lake TN, and pretty much everywhere in between.  I still haven’t forgiven myself for not pulling off.

RIP BEIGEMOBILE

Anyway, to get out of the house, I joined Jeremy, one of the best herpers in southern IL, and Chris (the guy who drove us home before) on a trip looking for Illinois Chorus Frogs, the rarest frog in the Midwest.  Jeremy’s wife Jill called him just before we were supposed to leave, and told him “I think I just saw a Crawfish Frog”.  Then she said “And there’s another one!”  Jeremy responded, “Are you sure they’re not leopard frogs?”  She replied, “Babe, that’s the biggest leopard frog I’ve ever seen!”  This was told to me by Jeremy, I’m not stalking their conversations, I swear.

So, about Crawfish Frogs- they live in crawfish burrows and come out on rainy nights in early spring to breed.  Here’s one of their house-builders, a Painted Devil Crayfish (Cambarus ludovicianus) (ID’d by Jeremy, not by me.  I don’t know my crayfish/crawfish/crawdads/freshwater lobster things.  And yes, Jeremy, I’m making you the fall guy on this ID.  This is what you get for your Facebook post saying I’m scared of crayfish 😉

Painted Devil Crayfish

Anyway… Crawfish Frogs (Lithobates areolatus) are hard to photograph, because, owing to their extreme sensitivity to light, they hide underwater and/or in their burrows at the approach of light.  The only way to find Crayfish Frogs is to go out on a rainy night and catch them crossing the road. This requires a combination of time of day, weather, and schedule coordination that simply doesn’t happen every year.  Before this night, Jeremy had only managed to photograph three Crawfish Frogs.  This night was something crazy, though.  We caught twelve and saw at least twenty, as well as several horribly mangled by car tires.  It was the perfect night to get photos of them.  So, of course, I took a photo with something horribly wrong in it, the leaf petiole:

Crawfish Frog

Almost all of the frogs we found were males, which cross over to the flooded fields where they breed ahead of the females.  There were a couple of females found, so there’s probably some little Crawfish Frogs in the works.  The rain tapered off, and behind it came wind that dried off the pavement, which caused very few amphibians to emerge (except, oddly, on the busiest roads, where I saw my lifer Eastern Tiger Salamander).  The rain also caused severe flooding.  Remember those fields I told you about seeing as I went back home from Horseshoe Lake earlier?  They were covered in 2-3 feet of water. We turned around because the highway was covered in water.  Not much, but considering how raised the highway is, that’s not a good sign.  The Illinois Chorus Frogs have survived many a flood, we would go to see them another time.

Rocky Bluff Falls

My parents were in town, so they did drive me over to Rocky Bluff Falls, which was excellent after the rain. Southern Illinois has few high waterfalls- most of our hills are pretty well eroded. This is one of the best.  Hopefully on Sunday I’ll get to some even better ones…

Horned Grebe

A Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) on Little Grassy Lake watched as I showed off Little Grassy Lake and the parking lot it has in the middle of the lake. That’s high on my list of places to take fall foliage pics in southern Illinois.  The sun was at the wrong angle, so I didn’t get a photo otherwise it would just have been, well, this:

Crab Orchard Lake Spillway

This is below the Crab Orchard Spillway (and I’m on a bridge).  Even if I did have a car… so much is underwater or muddy that it’d be hard to get to some of my favorite places.  That’s what happens when you live between two of the world’s largest rivers (Ohio and Mississippi) with ravines in the middle that drain out much of the water they receive.  I’ll get a new car soon (I hope).   In the meantime, I’m stuck inside.  No big year for me, just water, water everywhere, and not a car for to go to see it.