Category: Big Day

Indiana Dunes Almost Birding Festival (Chicago Trip, Part 3)

Dunes Parking Lot

Indiana Dunes  State Park was the last day of my Chicago trip. After hearing a Prairie Warbler from this parking lot,  I met up with Kyle around 10:30 AM  (no early rising!) and we immediately stumbled across an Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platirhinos):

Eastern Hognose #1

This is easily the best snake I’ve seen this year.  I love Hognoses and their goofy-grinning faces.  The “Hognose” refers to the upturned scale on the top of their upper jaw that they use to dig though sand in search of toads.  Pretty much all a Hognose eats is toads.  Feeling threatened, the snake flattened out and pretended to be a cobra for a bit.

Eastern Hognose #2

We let it be and wandered over to some trails.  Along one of them, a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nests in a little box, putting on a good show for us and a couple other birdwatchers. Thislocation is fairly far north for a Prothonotary, which is primarily a southern bird that creeps north in Illinois along the river valleys.  Pretty much everyone else had binoculars, because that afternoon was the start of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.  It was like Montrose all over again, except fewer giant cameras and ridiculous clothes.

PROW

Above the Prothonotary Warbler, a little Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sat up in a tree.  I’ve not seen very many hummingbirds this year, so it’s a joy to see.  I don’t know if my lack of hummingbirds is a personal coincidence or just an actual lack of them.  Time will tell.

Ruby-throated Hummer

Into the woods, and the late spring plants were in full flower.  My first Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) bloomed along a creek- hundreds of small white flowerheads.  This plant somehow doesn’t grow wild in Illinois, so it’s a treat to see here.

Dwarf Ginseng

Also a treat was Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) another lifer plant:

Rue Anemone

The woods here resembled late April back in Southern Illinois, right down to the Cerulean Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes calling from the trees above:

Stream, Indiana Dunes

However, the plants proved it to be distinct… this Great White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) doesn’t grow wild in southern Illinois, for instance.  It’s more of an Appalachian plant.

Great White Trillium

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were abundant, migrating back to the tundra from which they came.  One was enjoying the picnic area:

White-crowned Sparrow

Kyle had to go to a lecture, so I went off and explore by myself.  Several migrant warblers were calling and seen as I went down one of the longer trails, stumbling across Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) on the way.  This is another calling-card of this area’s biodiversity- Wild Lupine is a plant of the Atlantic Coast and sandy sections of the Great Lakes area.

Wild Lupine

The sand dunes and their environs have over 1400 species of plants, making them some of the most biodiverse habitat in the Midwest.  It’s a joy to walk here- you never know what’s around the next bend, and it can be wildly different from what came before!

Dunes Oak Savanna

For me, around the next bend was a Golden-winged Warbler pair, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and this Bird’s Foot Violet (Viola pedata), a plant of the Great Plains and open dry areas in the South.

Birds-foot Violet

Just behind the dunes, a wet area held many Swainson’s Thrushes, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and multiple tall trees sandwiched between a full wetland and the dryer landscape of the sand dunes themselves.  I love the golden look of trees leafing out- it’s Lothlorien in the real world. (I haven’t referenced J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings in awhile… it’s been too long.)

Forest- Indiana Dunes

Up on the sand dunes again, and a Least Flycatcher called.  Lowbrush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) covered a dune, their little white bells sweet-smelling and everywhere.

Blueberry

Alongside the blueberries, Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bloomed, also one of the most abundant plants in the dryer sandy woods of the dunes.

False Solomon's Seal

Back down in the woodlands, and I met up with Kyle. Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) bloomed abundantly- a sign of the woods in late spring.  Tennessee and Blackburnian Warblers called above us, not caring that it was one in the afternoon.

Wild Geranium

Alongside the geraniums, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) bloomed, something I’d seen two weeks before in equally full flower down in Southern Illinois, and which didn’t seem to be up yet at Illinois Beach State Park. Acadian Flycatchers called above us as we flipped a couple logs…

Wood Phlox

The log-flipping proved successful, as Red-backed Salamanders (well, lead-phase ones) stumbled out into the sunlight.  We carefully replaced their logs- the herping was going well!

Lead-phase Red-backed Salamander

All too soon, it was time to return to home, and so I stopped by the visitor’s center to watch their feeders briefly.  Another Ruby-throated Hummingbird fed as I watched from the window:

Hummer at feeder

Below the seed birdfeeders, my first Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) in the eastern United States foraged about.  Indiana Dunes has a bit of everything (East- Wild Lupine.  West- cactus.  North- Red Squirrels.  South- Prothonotary Warblers).  It’s a meeting ground for Western prairies, northern boreal forest, southern swamps and eastern hardwood forests.

Red Squirrel

I could tell you how Red Squirrels differ from Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), but why not just show you instead?

Red and Gray Squirrels

Behind the observation window, a map shows why this area has a birding festival, and to a lesser extent, birds to see.  I didn’t really get a great photo of this map, so I’ll explain- basically, birds don’t want to fly over the middle of Lake Michigan because there’s nothing there except water.  So they stick to the edges, east and west, that meet up at Indiana Dunes.  Birds then go north and south from Indiana Dunes, often using this spot to rest and refuel on their journey north.

Blurry- How Birds Migrate Indiana Dunes

After this, we went to the Observation Tower, where my friend Kyle worked as a bird counter.  He would take note of all the birds passing by the observation tower, which could be in the thousands and often was, on many days.  To learn more about this, read the official blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/

Behind the tower

Here’s Kyle in position, waiting for something to fly by.  Not much did at that time- it was 2 in the afternoon, which is basically nature’s siesta time.  It gets much more active at dawn and dusk.

Tower

Below the tower, a sign shows all the birds counted from the tower this season (mid-March to the end of May, though this sign was photographed in mid-May).  After saying goodbyes, I then booked it out of town, as I had a four-hour drive home.  By the time I’d left, I’d seen 81 species- it’d been a great several hours!  Now, I could do the same thing at Montrose, probably, but to see all the plants and life- this is by far the best birdwatching or nature-anything location near Chicago.  I will not be moved on that.  Indiana Dunes is a glorious spot, and I look forwards to my next visit here.

I had intended to stay a further two days and go on a big day of birding with some friends of mine.  However, work got in the way.  That being said, here’s their blogpost about that big day, which I did help to plan slightly:

https://whimbrelbirders.org/2018/05/20/2nd-annual-wbc-big-day/

Tower bird list- 2018

Ebird Checklist:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45783464

 

 

 

 

Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.

Hardin County Showdown

It was Kyle Wiktor and I, the”Look Here, It’s Cranes”, versus the “Grumpy Old Men” (their team name, not insulting them here)  in a showdown for the highest number of species in Hardin County on April 28, 2018, as part of the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, a competition to see the most birds and raise the most money for charity.  (The charity in question is the restoration of  the Cache River watershed.)  The “Grumpy Old Men” were the dominant champions, with three of the best birders in Illinois (Mark Seiffert, Andy Sigler, and Craig Taylor) competing against me and Kyle, two of the birders in Illinois.  Actually, at present Kyle’s not even in Illinois- he’s the migratory bird counter at Indiana Dunes.  To see what he does, check out this blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/. The “Grumpy Old Men” had access to a secret wetland spot, and we had no idea where it was.  We assumed it was a quarry pond.  They’d scouted out the area to a limited extent, and so we followed their notes, having no time or money to do any of our own scouting.  As a result, we knew it’d be hard for us to beat them, and so therefore we were just doing what we were doing for fun.

The day started off with indecision over vehicles, but we eventually chose Kyle’s minivan.  At 4:30 AM we were stopped in Harrisburg, getting gas.  First two birds of the day were American Robin and Song Sparrow at the gas station while I filled up the tank.  Kyle missed the Song Sparrow.  We were off to a great start.

We turned down some road west of Hicks (Yes, there’s a town called Hicks in southern Illinois.) about 5:00 AM.  Immediately we were greeted by calling Eastern Towhees.   Barred Owls, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, a Field Sparrow, and a few Northern Cardinals joined in.  The Whip-poor-wills got louder and became one of the loudest birds present.  Whip-poor-wills are strange birds known as nightjars, with large eyes, mottled gray bodies and stubby bills.  They’re rapidly declining throughout their range, so hearing lots of them is a great sign.  Pictures of Whip-poor-wills can be found here:  https://lakecountynature.com/2013/07/29/campfire-serenade/

We spotted eyeshine on the road, and stopped to see what it was.  The eyes rose up and started flying- it was a pair of Whip-poor-wills on the road!  They flew right over our heads.  It’s rare to see such a well-hidden bird in flight.

The day only got better and better as we drove into our dawn spot.  Every Big Day requires a great dawn spot, and we chose Illinois Iron Furnace Park based on our hopes that it would be good.  We’d driven past the area back in February and noticed that it had a good mix of woodland habitats.  It proved to be ideal- we had about 40 species immediately.  The best were three Cerulean Warblers, calling from high up in the treetops.  I got to see one, but it flew off before photos.  In addition to Cerulean,  for the warblers we had Hooded, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Northern Parula (Setophaga americana, pictured):

Northern Parula

The Cerulean Warblers were lifer birds, so I was happy.  The day had started well, and it continued as we backtracked slightly towards a road we’d seen branching off from ours.  Google began to panic, and I checked… this road wasn’t on Google at all.  Yet it was well maintained and clearly had been here for awhile.  What on earth was going on?

This road doesn't exist, according to Google.

Despite the oddity of the road, it proved great.  We added Worm-eating Warbler,  Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager as we drove along through one of the finest woodlands I’ve ever seen in Illinois. Eventually we came to a road that Google recognized, part of Kyle’s original route.  This netted us several more birds, including Blue Grosbeak, Barn Swallow,  and a slightly unexpected Dickcissel.  Lots of breeding birds had shown up… very few migrants had, however. The cold had kept them away for the most part.

Dodecatheon (IDC about taxonomy)

Breeders everywhere, migrants nowhere.  I spotted a Nashville Warbler, a migrant, but it eluded Kyle.  The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) were blooming abundantly along the roadsides, as were many other flowers. Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) were moving through in flocks:

Indigo Bunting

We drove 225 E south to Peters Creek Tower Road down to Rock Creek Road, cutting through small farms and thick woods, with Louisiana Waterthrushes and Northern Parulas calling everywhere. This Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) posed in a tree as we drove past:

Broad-winged Hawk

On 225 E, we had the windows down listening for birds.  “Te-slick” something called. Kyle went “That’s a Henslow’s Sparrow!” We stopped, and found not only five Henslow’s Sparrows but also a Yellow-breasted Chat. Elated at our luck, we continued onwards, stopping by a set of sinkhole ponds adjacent to Rock Creek Road that looked good to us previously.   Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Boring Swallows, would be a better name) and this glowing Prothonotary Warbler  (Protonotaria citrea) greeted us, as did many other species:

Prothonotary Warbler

The sinkhole ponds got us Wood Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Orchard Oriole, House Wren,  Palm Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and more.  It’s a good migrant trap to remember for later.   Southern Hardin County is dotted with ponds like these, formed by sinkholes in the limestone bedrock underlying the area.  This particular one is directly adjacent to the road, so it’s somewhat publicly accessible, unlike the vast majority of sinkhole ponds.

We got Cliff Swallow a few minutes later down the road, at a spot where we missed Wilson’s Snipe and a Pectoral Sandpiper.  With that, Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Purple Martin, we were only missing one swallow… and Bank Swallow came just a few minutes later at a wetland called the Big Sink that we’d stopped by briefly (more on that later).  We had a Swallow Shutout!   We drove into Cave-in-Rock happy about this, and saw House Finch, House Sparrow, and Chimney Swift upon entering. Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) were quite abundant in the area, still “blue-ing” up for spring:

Blue Grosbeak

Cave-in-Rock is a cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River, accessible when the Ohio lets it be.  It wasn’t feeling generous today, so we contented ourselves with Red-headed Woodpecker, Nashville Warbler (heard by both), and a couple lunches at the eponymous state park.

Cave-in-Rock

We did see a Black Vulture flying over Kentucky from the park’s cliffs.  I have now seen two species in Kentucky this year- both vultures.  Other wildlife was to be had, also, including this Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) enjoying the sun at the restaurant.

Five-lined Skink

Down the road, we turned east and kept going.  A small marshy spot was our reward, with Swamp Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria):

Solitary Sandpiper

The spot wasn’t much to look at, but it’s hard to find this type of wetlands in Hardin county:

Small Wetlands in Hardin

We drove down more backroads.  Afternoon had set in and it was slow going, with a  Gray Catbird and Swainson’s Thrush on one particularly difficult road.  We had to rebuild that road using rocks before we could keep going.  The lovely flowers of Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) rewarded our trip, though our efforts didn’t.

Hoary Puccoon

We drove back and forth along the river, picking up Blue-winged Teal and Summer Tanager at one stop, but no Mallards.  No Mallards, no Ruby-crowned Kinglets, no Northern Flickers, and no Fish Crows.  Where were they?  Those should be easy birds to find.

A stop at a fish farm got us an unexpected Osprey, Double-crested Cormorants, an Eastern Meadowlark, and the overdue Northern Flicker, at about 1 PM.

We drove northeast to find that the shorebird habitat we’d hoped for had dried up, with only a few Solitary Sandpipers remaining.  Oh well.  We then decided to check a spot that looked like open pine trees, in hopes of Brown-headed Nuthatches expanding their range into Illinois.  Apparently last year the Shawnee National Forest people did logging here, so there wasn’t much to see… but it got us our Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  This is state land, to be clear, and it wasn’t marked with any obvious No Trespassing signs, nor were there any signs of recent activity.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Spot

Saline Landing was our next stop, which proved to be a very unique riverside town that Kyle said reminded him of Alaska. It only had one road in and out, and was likely an hour from the nearest Walmart.  I’ve never seen a more isolated community anywhere in the US.  And yet, unlike many southern Illinois river towns, it was fairly clean and well-maintained, despite the flooding of part of the town by the Ohio River.   However, it had no new birds  and the drive there took about an hour out of our day.

After this, we decided to take a slight break because Kyle wanted to see Garden of the Gods, just over the border in Saline co. We did that, got ice cream in Hardin, and sat out eating it while we planned out our night. We’d given up hope on Mallard and Fish Crow.  We hadn’t added any new birds in hours, and had basically wasted about three or four hours of time, something to not do on a Big Day.

To make up for lost time, we decided to try seeing the Big Sink again, a spot we’d popped in and out of earlier to get Bank Swallow.  It’s the largest wetland in Hardin county, and the only water lost from it is through evaporation- it flows nowhere.  The only access was down a narrow dead-end road between farmfields, which we assumed was public because there were multiple houses and a church connected to it.   As we arrived, we spotted the “Grumpy Old Men” scoping out things, as pictured below.  We realized that large flocks of ducks were on the opposite bank, just a bit too far off for us to identify with 100% certainty.  I did manage to pick out a Pied-billed Grebe.  The “Grumpy Old Men” came back up the road and told us we were trespassing.

Trespassing?  There wasn’t any purple paint, signs, or gates that we saw. What?

Big Sink + "Grumpy Old Men"

The owners of the property came out and confirmed this. We were trespassing!  Apparently this was a private lane, though neither Kyle or I had seen any signs of this.  Well, we got out of there, but it didn’t leave a good impression on the other birders and we weren’t thrilled about not being able to see the ducks well enough for ID. For a bit, we even thought the other birders had called up the owner and had us kicked us out just to keep us from seeing what they were seeing.  Of course, it did kick in that we’d actually been doing something massively illegal, and we could’ve been fined, arrested or shot. Thankfully the owners did none of those things, and just escorted us off their property.  We found out the next day that the “Grumpy Old Men” had taken time to get to know the owners well, but since the owners were private people dealing with their own issues they didn’t want a bunch of birders they didn’t know all over their land.  And then we showed up… twice…

Next time,  we won’t assume!  Our sincerest apologies, again, to both the “Grumpy Old Men” for jeopardizing their access to the spot and giving birding a bad name, and to the owners of the “Big Sink” for trespassing on their property and causing them a hassle they definitely didn’t need.

Our next plan was to go get American Woodcocks, but instead of going to the spot where the other team had definitely had woodcocks on scouting trips, we instead decided to try for them at the Henslow’s Sparrow spot and avoid any further interactions for a bit.  This proved to be a costly mistake, since we missed American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-Widow at the other spot, birds the other team had recorded there that morning.  Since they’d gotten all three of those nocturnal birds in the wee hours of the morning, the “Grumpy Old Men” felt no compulsion to return. We would have been alone and had three species, one of which, Chuck-wills-Widow, would have been a lifer for me at the time, though I’ve head one since at Cedar Lake.  Oh, well. We also got lost a bit on the way to the Henslow’s Sparrow field, which didn’t help us any.

We added nothing new, but the sheer numbers of Eastern Whip-poor-wills in this region are impressive.  I’ve never had anything like them. We tried for Chuck-wills-Widow at a few spots, but none were calling, at least not for certain.  We thought about trying harder,  but I had a rough week ahead so we stopped and went home. Our final list was 110 species.

Yeah, we didn’t win.   The “Grumpy Old Men” did, with 122 species.  That being said, we pulled 110 species out of a difficult county, with close to no preparation and with <10 species added after lunch. If we’d exerted a lot more effort in the afternoon, who knows… we might’ve pulled ahead. That being said, without more migrants and with limited wetlands, I doubt it.  There’s so many birds I’m sure we could have tried for with more effort, but we did a decent job and it was mostly for fun and charity anyway.

Our best finds were Cerulean Warbler (lifer!) and Henslow’s Sparrow, as well as the numbers of Whip-poor-wills and warblers in the area.  Our biggest misses were Mallard and Fish Crow.

Speaking of charity, several people donated to the GoFundMe campaign I’d done for this event. Thanks to Steve Bailey, Cynthia Gorrell,  Shawn Gossman, Ava Alford, and Ted Wolff for their generous contributions to conserving the Cache River Watershed.  Further credit goes to Rhonda Rothrock for running the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois.  And hats off to Craig Taylor, Andy Sigler, and Mark Seiffert for being excellent opponents.  Until next year, gentlemen.