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