Month: July 2018

Southern Fried Illinois- A Cache of Good Finds

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

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

Is there actually that much demand?

Let’s start this over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brilliant!

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

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

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

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

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Southward and westward I drove, reaching the farthest southwestest cornerest of Illinois-est.  That would be Dogtooth Bend.  Desolate and sand-covered, there’s few spots like it in Illinois.  The sand deposits here are recent, having been laid down during levee breaches in 1993, 2011, and 2016.  Abandoned houses in the area haven’t been reclaimed by many- still fearful of the floods.  Farmfields also lie abandoned, covered over in sand.  Some farmers still cling on and farm what they can, even up to the very edge of the restless Mississippi.  More information on the flooding here is available at this article: http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/6/140A.full.pdf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sand dune across the road?  Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I drove back to my apartment, spotting six species of herons (Great Blue, Little Blue, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green, and Cattle Egret) on the way back.  The following morning, I put my Carbondale affairs in order.  While I was doing that, another birder was exploring Kaskaskia Island (https://lostinnatureblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/two-down-nine-to-go-and-ironic-timing-too/) and discovered a White Ibis there.  I was less than an hour away…  But, hey, something for next time.  And there will be a next time.   plan to have someone tie that ibis down until I get back to Southern Illinois.  I will return!*

 

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

 

**Inside joke and also he’s wrong.

 

Fox Snake Delivery!

Revis Hill Prairie "Bowl"

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

Bad lighting BLGR

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

Revis Hill Prairie sunrise

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

Yellow-breasted Chat

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

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

Revis Hill Prairie overlook

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

Dickcissel

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

Western Kingbird and nest

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

Beautiful fields

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

Emiquon South Globe

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

Black-necked Stilt

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

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

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

Emiquon North Globe

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

RBGR Wutcha doin?

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

GCFL Wutcha doin?

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

RHWO Wutcha doin?

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

Vesper Sparrow

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

Why The Gallinule Is Distant

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

Distant Gallinule

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

Angry Gallinule

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

Blue Dasher?

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

Baby Catfish

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

Mink with Western Fox Snake 2

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

Mink with Western Fox Snake

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

Mink getaway

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

Dragonfly sp.

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

Upland Sandpiper (trust me)

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

Calhoun County Biggish Day!

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

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

Barred Owl

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

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

Stay Away From My Brains!

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

BWWA Spot

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

Red-winged Blackbird is always watching

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

Pond at McCully

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

Eastern Box Turtle

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

Northern Bobwhite

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

Crossing a Ford in a Honda

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

Orchard Oriole (Lake co.)

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

HESP habitat in Calhoun

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

NRWS

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

Backwaters

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

Prairie Racerunner

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

Calhoun co.

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

Dickcissel Reacting

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

Beautiful Calhoun co.

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

Obviously, I didn’t.

Levee There

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

So Many Ducklings!

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

Water Control Structures

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

Outflow

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

Ugly American White Pelicans

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

American White Pelicans

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

Levee Back

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

Ouachita Map Turtle