Category: Bird Nest

Ending My Time In Central Illinois With Mud and Scissortails!

So, I’ve officially moved to Southern Illinois, just when I was starting to get to know Central Illinois.  However, before leaving, I took three trips through different parts of the area.


Trip #1 was taking my mom to the wildest part of Central Illinois, Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve.   This proved to be more of an adventure than I planned!


Within about ten minutes, we’d found a Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), the largest butterfly in the United States.  While it’s down in numbers from last June,  Revis Hill Prairie is one of the best butterfly spots I’ve ever visited.


Eventually, the butterfly allowed us a good look:


It was all downhill, uphill, downhill, really downhill, uphill, through thick briars, downhill, through thick prairie grass- OH NO, A TICK!- downhill, through stinging nettle, uphill, through spiderwebs, downhill from there.  We got lost for about two hours in the back 40 of the extensive preserve.  I did hear Kentucky and Prairie Warblers, both uncommon for this area, so it got me something at least.  Oh, and Mom and I ended up going straight down into a narrow ravine.  This area desperately needs a trail system.  At the end, we found a Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri )


My next major adventure, the longest, was a trip to Calhoun County that took several jarring shifts throughout the day.  I was after a Laughing Gull and the confluence of the Mississippi River.  I saw neither.  I took a brief stop in Jacksonville for sandpipers at Mauvais Terre Lake, though, and found a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) when I scared it away only five feet from me!


I did find a few sandpipers including this Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and then a Red-shouldered Hawk, the first one recorded here according to Ebird, an online birdwatching database, flew overhead and scared them off to the far side of the lake.


The shorebirds having flown far away from me, and nothing super-fascinating to be seen, I went over to Pike County and down to Calhoun County.  This area, southern Forgottonia, is very remote- these two counties are served by only one Walmart, and there is no cell phone reception for Verizon customers.  Despite being even more remote in spots, most of the Shawnee National Forest DOES have cell phone reception for me.  I don’t understand this.


I stopped in the little, well-designed archeological museum at Kampsville and was told of a place called the McCully Heritage Project, which basically feels like a little bit of Southern Illinois transplanted about three hours north. I had a Yellow-throated Vireo twenty feet above me within five minutes of stopping, though the lighting was too bad for a photo.  So, I photographed a Yellow Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) instead.


I also saw a vintage police car on the road.  I have a rule- drive two hours in the country, you will see something weird.  Sometimes the weird is a bird.  Sometimes it’s not.


I then walked over a wetland boardwalk, which had a few Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) on the other side.  They may be common, but I still quite like them.


Puddling Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) were found later down the road, along the banks of the Mississippi River.  There were far more butterflies in this area than I was used to, and I quite enjoyed that.  These butterflies are sucking moisture and minerals out of the mud.


Another fun find in the area was a lifer Ouachita Map Turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis), in the Mississippi River.  These shy turtles are not easy to find in most of Illinois.


On the drive back upland, I ran right over a long black thing in the road, and realized as I went over it- “Oh no! That’s a Black Rat Snake!” Thankfully it was unharmed- it must have gone just between my tires.  It’s been years since I’ve seen one of these, and this was the longest one (about four feet) that I’ve ever seen!   This snake has no scientific name, because it has about six different scientific names.  I think Pantherophis spiloides is the current one, but it really varies.


Abundant Southern and Plains Leopard frogs in the lowlands (in the hundreds) were quite welcome. I drove down through peach orchards, backwoods, and over stunning bluffs.  Calhoun County’s just a fun place to drive for the heck of it, and the occasional nature preserve, historic site, or fruit stand makes for a good place to stop.  I eventually got to the spot I wanted to get to,  Swan Lake at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, only to learn that it had been mostly emptied of water.  So, I went out on the mudflats.


I wandered out to a willow bar, which would have been an island when the lake was at “normal” levels.   I could see birds over another levee, so I decided to walk from the willow bar  to the levee.  About a third of the way there, I went down a foot into the mud, leading to considerable problems.  To begin with, I was carrying my spotting scope, tripod, camera, and camera case over my shoulders.  Furthermore, I was alone, with no cell phone reception.  I pulled one foot out of the ooze, and, swinging my body around, attempted to go back the way I had come.  However, upon taking a step in the muck, my feet pointing almost perfectly opposite, I realized I was stuck.  My feet could get no leverage- they were both stuck, but since I was basically doing the splits, I couldn’t use one as leverage to pull out the other.  It was about this time that the giant mosquitoes arrived.  Look up Shaggy-legged Gallinipper for reference, or look up Kankakee in the search bar on this blog.  Thankfully, there were only a few.  

There was but one solution- abandon the boots.  I slipped out of the boots with a sigh.  Wearing only socks on my feet, I crawled across the mud on forearms and ankles, spreading out my weight to avoid sinking further.  Ten feet away, the ground dried out sufficiently to allow me to stand up and walk to a nearby willow bar, where I dumped my scope, camera, and tripods- all carefully bagged and protected from mud.  I then crawled back the same way.  Over the next fifteen minutes, I proceeded to dig my shoes out using only my hands and a small rock I’d found on the willow bar. Here’s the results:


I then admired the hundreds of caterpillars among the vegetation:


I got back to the main office, sockless, with ten minutes until closing.  After washing up, I decided to continue onwards and go for my next target, the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  This resulted in my stopping at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and seeing Alton:


No, this isn’t a panoramic shot- it’s just cropped that way.  I drove down to the confluence, and it was closed due to temporary flooding.  Let me remind you- upriver the lake was mostly dry. Downriver, there’s flooding.  I contented myself with federally-threatened juvenile Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) at their breeding site behind a gas station at Riverlands, and headed home:


My last trip was to Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge, one of the best birding area in the Illinois River Valley, at least in my opinion, with a friend of mine.  After finding forty-two species on the refuge itself (a Great Horned Owl, several Willow Flycatchers, and 25+ Bobwhites being the best finds), we ventured south to a private duck club’s little lake.  Nothing much was there.  While on the way, my friend mentioned that a birder he knew had seen Western Kingbirds at the nearby Meredosia power plant.   I watched out the window for awhile, when suddenly, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!  What the heck!


According to Ebird, this female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) is a county first record for Morgan County, though it was my third time seeing this species, and second time for Illinois.  We watched it for a bit, and then we drove down the road… past the power plant we had discussed earlier… and two Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) were sitting on the fence.   A third one, a bit further down, proved to be a good photo opportunity:


This one flew back to the other two, and proceeded to feed them, proving that it was the parent to the two younger birds, and that they had bred someplace on the power plan’s grounds.


I thought this was the first breeding record for Morgan County, but there’s another one out on Ebird from two or three years ago.  Still, it’s new for 2017- these birds are rare here.  Since the 1900s, Western Kingbirds have been expanding eastwards, and they’ve nested regularly at a few different spots in Illinois.  More and more nests are being found in Illinois, especially near power plants and substations.  I think someday next June, if I have the time, I will search out all power stations and substations in the Illinois River sandlands between Morgan and Tazewell Counties to see how many Western Kingbirds I can find.


The day ended with me looking at Beardstown Marsh for Marsh Wrens, which did not appear or even sing.  I did photograph these Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a swamp-loving shrub. The next day was spent packing for the big move, and the following day we left.  Now I live in Southern Illinois, surrounded by nature preserves, state parks, and national forest, with everything from hill prairies to rocky canyons to Louisiana-style southern swamps, even roads closed twice a year for snake migration. I really love it here.  This is a big moment for me and this blog- there will be a lot of new stuff I haven’t seen before.

Spoiler for next post- google Anhinga.





Colorado 2017, Part 5- Walden Pond (Boulder, Colorado)/Estes Park!

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3- Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)


A lot of what we were doing in Colorado was NOT birding or hiking, mostly because at a certain point we ran out of energy in the high altitude.  However, I did manage to persuade my family into some incidental stops along the way to other places.  One of those was Legion Park in Boulder, Colorado, where you could look out over a nearby lake with Western Grebes:


Unfortunately, said Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) was extremely far away.  I obtained a record shot, but that was as close as I was able to get.  I was also a month late to see the mating dance of the Western Grebe, but I have a video link here that can show it.  Someday I’ll come back out here and see this, I hope.

Thankfully, Soapweed Yuccas (Yucca glauca), the default yucca species  in Eastern Colorado, were in bloom directly ahead of me.  Yuccas are often thought of as desert plants, but a number of them live in the Southeast as well as the Southwest.  This is one of the few species found in the Great Plains itself, and probably the only one north of Kansas.


I was then dropped off at Walden Ponds, Boulder’s #1 birding hotspot on Ebird, to explore.  This place is essentially a series of ponds- a welcome sight, no doubt, in semidesert shortgrass prairie, but not particularly exciting for someone from a land with more water.


Still, about five minutes in, an American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) appeared.


American Avocets are large shorebirds, with upturned bills that they use to strain small organisms out of the water.   It’s quite enjoyable to watch them feed, as it is with all shorebirds.


Striding through the water quickly, the Avocet flew back and forth every so often, never seeming satisfied with a spot.  Unfortunately, its continual motion made for a hard animal to photograph.  After several attempts, I sat there watching it and some Spotted Sandpipers for a bit, until I decided to look about and see what else might be present.


A young Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) begged for food from an adult nearby.  I’ve never photographed this before!  Warbling Vireos can look quite different depending on where you are.


Crested Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) is both covered in spikes AND poisonous.  As a result, nothing eats it and it becomes something of a weed.


Western Wood-Pewees called from nearby trees, relations of the Eastern Wood-Pewee found in my backyard.  Nearly-indistinguishable except by call, Western Wood-Pewees (Contopus sordidulus) here apparently enjoy posing for the camera while they sit and wait for flies.


They are flycatchers, after all, so after this one was done being photographed, it flew off and caught a fly, then landed further away from me.


A female Bullock’s Oriole flew past, just as it was time to go.  I ran back to the car, figuring that at least I got one lifer out of the day, and eager to go looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds nearby.


We did find some blackbirds, but they were Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  The Yellow-headed Blackbird remains unseen by me, which annoys me as they’re rather hard to find in Illinois- the closest breeding sites are two and a half hours away.  Furthermore, they’re endangered in Illinois, as they only breed in marshes.  As for the Great-tailed Grackle, they are considerably larger in all aspects than the regular Grackle (the plain black bird with a black bill that’s almost certainly in your backyard).  They range throughout the West into Iowa and Missouri, almost to Illinois but not quite.  I’d imagine there might be a few even in Illinois, possibly near some remote cow farm in Forgottonia.  They were extremely common once we got into Kansas, and remained so all the way through Colorado until we got into the mountains.


Speaking of the mountains, our last day in Colorado was spent driving up the highway into Estes Park, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  We did this mostly for shopping, but look at the view!  I had hoped for a Mountain Bluebird on the drive, my other “big miss” from the trip.  Ironically, both Mountain Bluebirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds are species that appear in Illinois on a regular basis, just usually in the far north of the state.


Among the many tourist oriented shops in Estes Park was a place selling fossils.  It was part museum, and part gift store, and all in all a lot of fun, even if I don’t know very much about fossils.  One fact I do know about fossils is that they are quite expensive, as seen above.


One of the nice features of Estes Park, that distinguishes the town from your average sprawling outdoor mall, is the Big Thompson River flowing through it.  The town of Estes Park has taken great care to give the river some room and make it a feature of the town, instead of an impediment to more shopping areas.


The river was high and incredibly cold, but not flooding.   Past flash floods along the Big Thompson River, in 1976 and 2013, have killed several people upriver of the town and caused damage to several highway bridges and the buildings along the edge of the river in town.


Even in the middle of what is, in fact, quite a nice shopping area that I’m probably slamming too much in this blogpost, wildlife still makes its appearance.  This Common Raven (Corvus corax) is an uncommon sight for me, if not rare here.  That giant bill is one of the main features to distinguish it from a crow, though the body size and wedge-shaped tail also help.  Ravens are one of the smartest of all birds, and they even engage in some forms of creative play, like sliding down snowbanks or using sticks to play with each other.  They can also remember the faces of people who wronged them in some way.  More on that here.  At any rare, I quite admire ravens.


Another favorite of mine is the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a tiny little bird that dives into rapids for food.  I mean that literally.   This bird dives into 33°F water, through churning, flood-stage rivers, pulling out small insect larvae and fish to eat.


In order to see underwater,  dippers use a nictitating membrane, visible as the white thing on the eye above.  Essentially, it’s an extra eyelid that act as googles for the bird.  Most birds have a nictitating membrane, but dippers, diving ducks, grebes, cormorants and loons, among other species, use theirs underwater as goggles.  To see how a Dipper swims underwater, watch the video below (I’m enjoying putting videos in this post!)

We drove down the canyon of the Big Thompson River further, spotting a lifer Bighorn Sheep on the way out.  Unfortunately, our glimpse was too brief for a photo.  We ended up back on the shortgrass praries once we were out of the canyon, and on those we will finish this trip next post.


Ebird Checklists

Legion Park:

Walden Ponds:

Sombrero Marsh:

Estes Park:

Big Thompson Canyon: