Category: Bad Ideas

Hardin County Showdown- Prelude

My friend Kyle and I have been planning a Hardin County Big Day pretty much since the day we met in person.  And so, that’s what we’re doing this Saturday.

What’s a Big Day?  It’s a competition to see as many species as you can in a limited geographic area, in this case Hardin County Illinois (far southeastern corner).  Hardin county is virtually unexplored, so Kyle and I wanted to find unrecorded species there.  We’ve gotten 40 species there together back in February, sort of scouting out what we might find in April (ok, there’s a major species turnover between then and now, but we just wanted to see what we could find and what habitat might be good).

After some consideration, we decided to sign up for the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, being run the same weekend.  It’s basically a competition to see as many birds as possible within southern Illinois, and there’s separate one-county completions, multi-county competitions, etc. where we raise money to participate. The money goes to supporting restoration efforts in the Cache River watershed, one of the greatest wetlands in the world (and I say that with no exaggeration, it’s internationally recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar convention (basically the international group that decides these sort of things.)

We’ve named our team “Hey Look, It’s Cranes” because- insomnia, mostly, and a slight lack of more relevant creative names. Also because Kyle and I met for the first time to go look at a Whooping Crane.

Unbeknownst to us, Craig Taylor, one of the best birders in Illinois (tied for highest state lifelist on eBird) has been planning the same for, what is in my understanding, years.  He’s set up a rival team and we’re doing Big Days, on the same day, in Hardin county.  And, this actually matters, because both of our teams are competing for the County Big Day top spot in the Birding Blitz- in the same county.   I’ll be like one of those sports movies where we’re the underdogs and he’s the defending champion.  Head to head, binoculars to binoculars.

Just to be clear, Craig’s a great guy.  I’m still indebted to him for driving me around on the Carlyle Lake Pelagic trip last September. So I don’t mind losing to him.  I’m certainly not to the level to bird with him yet as part of a competition, and having the competition will be fun.

I’m definitely the weak link here.  Kyle’s got considerably more experience than I do. I’m listening to warbler calls like a madman trying to memorize all the ones we *might* need to know… should be fun.  I did find an American Redstart today by listening for one (and then seeing it), so it’s working out so far.  Half of the birds I’m learning aren’t even in Illinois yet because spring was rather slow to start this year.  Cerulean Warblers finally showed up in numbers only today (4/25/18) to my knowledge.  It will be hard to determine what might be at what spot.  All we can do is try for everything. We’ve got a couple spots up our sleeves.  Kyle and I don’t have the time or resources to do much scouting, so instead we’re just delving into Google Maps and reading over all reports we see of the area.

Hardin is mostly hilly forest, which is good for some things but will be a struggle for many others. Waterfowl and waders are going to be hard.  Grassland birds will be a bit difficult.  Currently the weather looks great, even if the winds could be better directionally (a south breeze would bring more species north).  I look forwards to the challenge (and to seeing Avengers: Infinity War just beforehand!)

If you want to donate to the Birding Blitz,  I’ve set up a GoFundMe to raise our portion of the funds. We’d appreciate every penny, and it all goes to bird conservation in the Cache River Watershed.

https://www.gofundme.com/birding-blitz-of-southern-il

 

 

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.

 

Why The Big Year Is Over

Alright, I think it’s fair to fully disclose why I stopped the Jackson County Big Year 2018 a month in. I’ve had two birders whom I respect considerably and whom have significant experience in birding Southern IL both question or received questions about my sightings of late.  I got an email from one of them:

“Just a word of caution. I’ve received several messages from birders across the state inquiring about ALL of your recent sightings. Dude, no offense, but people realize you’re fairly new to birding and finding something rare, every day or most every time you’re out, just doesn’t happen.  It doesn’t help your cause that you’ve admitted you are doing a Jackson County Big Year.   Just trying to offer you some advice. SLOW DOWN. Your list of questionable finds is growing leaps and bounds. That throws up flags in eBird but also in people’s minds.   Your best defense is get photos!  I know, sometimes that is quite difficult. But you could hush your naysayers with positive ID’s from photos you take.   I’ve had to do the same sort of thing back in my beginning days… (Trails off in an encouraging story)”.

Yeah, that was a terrifying thing to read at the beginning of the day. Birdwatching is my escapist hobby (other than writing).  If people don’t trust me… that’s not good. There’s another young birder in my state in whom no confidence is given, as he regularly reports the most unlikely birds.  It’s always been my goal to not end up like him, and today I realized how close I’m coming, in people’s minds, to ending up that way.

I’ve been doing this for two, three years.  I think that’s long enough to become overconfident in my ability to correctly identify a bird.  I’ve certainly been overconfident in my ability to correctly ID Red-tailed Hawk subspecies.  As a result, I’ve removed all records of those on eBird, except for the ones in which I have absolute confidence, witnesses, and/or photos.

I’ve made some mistakes, the most public of which was a Slaty-backed Gull retraction last month, twice, in the listserv, when I mistook two different gulls for the bird.   Back in December 2017 I also had to retract a Golden Eagle sighting, when a friend and I mistook an immature Bald Eagle for a Golden Eagle.  I’m sure neither of these retractions has helped my believability in any way.

There’s also a few records for which I have limited evidence- a recent, unusual LeConte’s Sparrow, a very early Lincoln’s Sparrow the day before the LeConte’s, a Greater Scaup a few days before that, and going back into last year, some of the more notable ones include Red Crossbills and Long-eared Owl in southern IL.  Now, I firmly believe that I saw all the aforementioned birds (or heard, in the case of the owl), but I can understand why people would doubt them.

Younger birders (those below the age of 30) are not generally trusted anyway.  That’s understandable- birdwatching is a hobby that is built on experience.  Those who are younger have less experience-even if they have sharper eyes and more acute hearing.  It’s a bit of stereotyping of which I’m not particularly fond.  That being said, I also make mistakes due to my lack of experience.  For instance, I reported a male Brewer’s Blackbird from a field with Rusty Blackbirds near one of the best spots for Rusty Blackbirds in the state (and a bad spot for Brewer’s Blackbird).  I forgot that midwinter-onwards, male Rusty Blackbirds can start to change into breeding plumage and resemble male Brewer’s Blackbirds.  (That sighting is now “blackbird sp.” on Ebird.)  I was told of this by another birder with much more experience.  Remembering when plumage changes occur is one of the thousands of little bits of information gained through experience (and extensive internet research).  While I’ve done much of the latter, I still need much of the former.

As of this writing, I was #3 on Ebird in Illinois for 2018.  I don’t know most of the people in the top 100, and they don’t know me.  I’ll be dropping ranks quickly when spring migration rolls around, but until then I’m this odd newer birder few people know up on the top.  (I’m up that high because I went from the top to the bottom of Illinois over winter break, and I’ve been out nearly every day in southern IL where there’s more wintering species than in most of the state.)

People trying to break records are also not trusted, since it’d be only too easy to lie about something in the on-your-honor system of bird records.

I tend to go birdwatching solo- this works best for me, as I don’t really have anyone to go with at present.  However, this also puts me in the position of being the only person witnessing what I see.  As a birder in my 20s, birding solo is a good way to be absolutely not trusted whatsoever.  Add to that a county big year, a few unusual sightings, and being #3 in number of species on Ebird in the state of Illinois for 2018 (so far), and you have the perfect combination for doubters.

To take the birder’s advice, I do plan to slow down.  I was tiring of the big year before all this blew up, as I like wandering around anywhere I want without regard to county lines and other political boundaries. Also, my school and work loads are only going to increase, and I won’t be able to handle trying to see every bird during migration, doing my job, and passing my classes at school at the same time.  This sudden development happening at the same time put several nails in a coffin that was already being built.

So- the steps I have taken/ plan to take.

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#1- Get more photos- I’m going to have a camera in hand more often, and get photos of more birds that I see.  It’s hard to argue with a photo. For instance, I saw a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a field in Randolph county recently.  I took a photo, and while it’s not a great photo, it shows that I saw the bird (one of my favorites, too!)

#2- End the Big Year- If I don’t have a reason to be constantly looking for new species, people might consider me more credible.

#3- Go birding with other birders- The more witnesses I have, the more trustworthy I am. Obviously these need to be witnesses with enough experience to correct me when I am wrong.  When, not if, because at some point I will be wrong.

#4- Avoid RTHA ssp.- This is a weak point for me, and I’m going to stop submitting them until I get more experience. I’ve gone back and removed a few of these, also.  I don’t think people realize this, but I do go back and remove records if I think I made a bad call after the fact.  I reported a Red-necked Grebe in December 2016 on Lake Springfield- I saw one November 2017 and realized the bird I’d seen was different enough that I couldn’t be sure of its identity.  So, I removed that record from Ebird, and from my life lists.  (Thankfully, I’ve seen Red-necked Grebes in Illinois since, albeit without a photo or witness… at least other birders saw them before and after I did!)

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#5- Publicize my correct ID’s with photos – In order to ensure that I rebuild my reputation, I need to show that I have one worthy of rebuilding.  So, any rare birds I see that I have photos of are going on Facebook.  I started this recently, with this photo of a Taiga ssp. Merlin (Falco columbarius) above. Merlins are an uncommon falcon, and I saw two of them on this day- with witnesses, to be sure, but by putting photos out, I’m directly counteracting people who think I’m making stuff up.  Here’s the other one, a less common Prairie ssp. Merlin:

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#6- Underestimate numbers of birds and use the “sp.” on Ebird-  If I’m not 100% sure of a bird, I need to put it as a vague species, like “sparrow sp.”  I do this on occasion, but not enough.  If it’s a flock of birds and the only ones I can see are X species, I tend to count them all as X species, even the ones that I didn’t look over as closely.   I also need to lower the numbers of birds I see.  I tend to count higher numbers than some people, because I have good eyes and ears and probably a bit of overconfidence in my ability to ID everything that flies my way.   However, if I lower my numbers so that they are in line with what’s expected (or even lower than that), I’ll still be reporting the birds I saw- just not all of them.  Think about it this way; there’s at least the lower number of birds that I put.  If I put a higher number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a lower number, they may believe that I overestimated the number in the first place.  If I put a lower number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a higher number, they know that I was right, plus extra.

I believe that if I do these six things for a considerable amount of time, people will trust me more.  Hopefully no more LeConte’s Sparrows come along and mess this up.  I really don’t want to find any rarities right now, for once in my life. That’s kind of a sad position to be in.