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…
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):
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.
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 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).
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).
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…
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 😉
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:
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.
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…
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:
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.