Category: Crab Orchard NWR

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:

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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.

 

Two Down, Nine to Go, and Ironic Timing, Too!

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I’ve had few better birding days than Saturday, 10/28/17.  A guy I’d never met in person before, Kyle W., and I joined forces  about 8:15 AM and birded much of the southwestern Mississippi River Valley, from Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County north to Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in Monroe County and then back south again until 7:00 PM. I’ve not birded Randolph or Monroe Counties much before.  Above is Kinkaid Lake Spillway, an “artificial” waterfall.

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At Kinkaid Lake Spillway, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and one migrant Northern Harrier, as well as about eighty Greater White-fronted Geese, flew overhead, in a good start to a great day.   Our first Cooper’s Hawk of the day flew past us while driving through Chester, IL.

Whooping Crane #1

The greatest bird of the trip was our one lifer Whooping Crane (Grus americana)!  Kyle W. had actually seen it the day before, and I’d decided off the back of his sighting “Why not?”  He agreed to go, and we went. One of the rarest and certainly the tallest bird in North America,  It was a joy to see such an amazingly rare and large bird- it dwarfed the Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) around it, and those are not small birds.

Whooping Crane #2

It’s funny- I’ve now seen Whooping Crane before Sandhill Crane in Illinois this year, despite there being ~650,000 wild Sandhill Cranes, compared to ~500 wild Whooping Cranes.  So using overly simplified mathematics, I had a 1300:1 chance to find a Sandhill Crane over a Whooping Crane.  However, despite several searches, I’ve found only the one (Whooping) Crane this year.

Whooping Crane #3

Of course, this is a spot for Whooping Cranes, which mitigates all overly simplified mathematical ratios. Bird reporting is both a blessing and a curse for Whooping Cranes- people occasionally shoot them just for the heck of it (and, being the tallest bird in North America, standing in an open slough, it’s not like it’d be easy to miss).   Property owners near where rare birds like Whooping Cranes arrive, irritated by the inundation of  occasionally rude and disobedient birders, have also been known to shoot said rare birds (illegally) to keep people from trespassing.

By not reporting the exact location of this find, people don’t chase it and the bird isn’t hunted or in as much danger.  However, one concerning thing was our observation that a duck blind was being built in the same slough where the Whooping Crane was.  It’s on private property and the landowner is well within his legal rights to hunt there. Hopefully the crane moves on before that becomes a problem, though I suspect it won’t.

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Seen throughout the day were hundreds of Eastern Bluebirds- in some spots there were dozens, with about fifty on one set of wires near Ellis Grove, IL being our largest flock.   (Of course, it wasn’t till later that I realized I have no pictures of any bluebirds from the trip.) Equally in the hundreds were Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) and Savannah Sparrows, and approaching them in numbers were Swamp Sparrows in nearly every habitat.

Among the large flocks of Horned Larks (immature above)  and sparrows, there were three American Pipits and a Vesper Sparrow in the fields near and on Kaskaskia Island. Kaskaskia Island could be very productive for larks, sparrows, longspurs etc. in the winter- there’s a lot of weedy fields and good habitat. I suspect I’ll be asking local landowners if I can bird the fields there a couple times this winter, although the roadside birding was good enough on its own.

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In a single large slough at Kaskaskia Island were three Dunlin, a Pectoral Sandpiper, two Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) (including the one pictured above), a Wilson’s Snipe, a Lesser Yellowlegs,as well as a couple Killdeer- six shorebird species, and it was almost November!

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Also on Kaskaskia Island in a dried-up slough was one Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), seen at a quarter to noon- a bit odd for this usually crepuscular (dawn/dusk) species. This was probably my third-favorite find of the day.

About 40-50 American Kestrels, 35-odd Red-tailed Hawks (including a couple of unusually pale ones and a couple that wouldn’t be bad for subsp. abieticola), and about 25-30 Red-shouldered Hawks were seen throughout the day.  Unfortunately, we saw no Merlin or Peregrine Falcons, but other than those and Black Vulture, we saw at least two or more of all the expected or likely species of raptors.

Other numbers for raptors include 18 Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) throughout the day, the majority near or on Kaskaskia Island and in the brushy areas behind Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. A few were seen high up, migrating, including one at Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County.  Northern Harriers are my favorite raptor (excluding owls)- I love watching them skim feet above the ground as they hunt for mice:

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Many Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) including an unusually tail-less one, a dozen-odd Bald Eagles, three Sharp-shinned Hawks and two Cooper’s Hawks represented the rest of the raptors.

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Several of the migrating raptors were at Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve- this spot could be a good hawkwatch, although unfortunately it’s an hour or more from any significant towns.

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I still think this is the best scenic overlook in all of Illinois.  I’m willing to give Garden of the Gods, Mississippi Palisades, Grandview Drive,  or Inspiration Point some room for competing with it, but I really do like this spot.  Someday I’ll get here in the summer and find a scorpion, but it wasn’t to be this day.  The cold breeze- I was shivering- proved that.

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Fults Hill Prairie is probably my favorite because you look out at what appears to be Illinois.  It’s not like some beautiful forest- it’s actually the farmland of Illinois.  It feels more honestly Illinoisian than Garden of the Gods, for instance (the Illinois one, not the Scottish or Coloradoan ones). That, combined with the lack of crowds and the fact that you’re standing in a prairie, for “the Prairie State”, endears it to me.

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Here’s one of the Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) that flew past us, this one actually flying northwards below the bluffs, slightly protected from the  strongest winds. There may be some hawkwatching here done in the future -you can see so far around here:

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79 Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew over as we prepared to hike back down Fults Hill Prairie’s steep slopes (not recommended for beginners).  These were migrating, one of the last flocks I expect to see this year:

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Large flocks of Gadwall and some Wood Ducks were pursued by Bald Eagles at Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. There were clearly more birds, but due to the thick lotus cover and lack of viewing areas at Kidd Lake Marsh we couldn’t see them. A couple of Wilson’s Snipe and many Swamp Sparrows were present here.  Perhaps most interesting, however, was the Smeared Dagger Moth (Acronicta oblinita) caterpillar:

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A single Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) was spotted among about twenty decoys at a private hunting area (which we birded from the road) in southern Monroe County. It was being watched closely by a Coyote (Canis latrans) behind it as you can see below:

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The last and one of the best finds of the day was a lost male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher where the train bridge crosses Lock and Dam Road in Randolph County near the mouth of the Kaskaskia River- Kyle missed it, unfortunately, as it flew off when I drove past, I only comprehended what I saw once I’d driven past it. While searching for it unsuccessfully, hundreds of American Robins flew past. This capped our day, and we then went to a Halloween Party- dressed as birdwatchers. The costumes were remarkably easy to find… we didn’t have to change clothes at all!

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The sky looked very Stranger Things-y to me as we went away.  This was a splendid Saturday and with the Whooping Crane (Species #290 for the year, lifer #309 for the US and #263 for Illinois), I was 10 birds away. In an entertaining series of events, Sunday night, October 29,  I was saying to a few Chicagoland birders on Discord (like Skype, but better) that I’d trade my recent Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sighting for any scoter- preferably Black. I’ve seen White-winged and Surf Scoters before, in 2016, but Black Scoter, in Illinois the rarest away from Lake Michigan, has eluded me.

Monday morning, October 30, a Black Scoter showed up at Crab Orchard NWR, 20 minutes away from me.  Kyle W. and I chased it, spotting a few Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) along the way:

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The Black Scoter was far out- we had to scope for it, and no photos were taken.  As a result, the reviewers on Ebird have decided, despite there being four witnesses, that the bird was not there.  Either that or they just haven’t gotten around to updating it.  Irritating, but ultimately- it’s my word that I saw it, and I did see it (#291).

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A large flock of mixed ducks swam in the middle of the lake behind it.  Forster’s Terns (Sterna fosteri) continued at the campground beach, though no rare gulls joined them:

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In the perfect finale to the great Illinois bird exchange,  on Tuesday, October 31, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher showed up at Montrose Point in downtown Chicago. The guys I was talking to got to see their Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  I don’t know what happened, but the timing’s hilarious.  Hopefully we can do that again sometime!

In the meantime,  I’ve seen two lifers, so whoop whoop!

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Year Birds for 2017

#290 Whooping Crane

#291 Black Scoter

 

The Police and I… and Some Weird Bug, Too!

I’ve had a series of run-ins with the law before, but this was the worst…. because this time, I actually did something illegal.

Where did I go wrong?

It all started with a bird. Well, two birds.  Actually, it started with a different bird- one I saw.

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This is my lifer Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla).  Laughing Gulls are birds of the oceanic coasts- especially Florida.  I’ve almost certainly seen them before, but that was back in the dark ages before I became a birder.  So, this is my lifer- first one I’ve officially seen in the wild.

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It joined a number of other unusual species at the Crab Orchard Lake Campground beach… including one very unusual species that WASN’T the Laughing Gull.

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Black Terns (Chlidonas niger) should have migrated out of Illinois a month or more ago.  This one was very late, though it’s gone now.  Ironically, I found one a few days before at Lake Springfield:

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Perhaps it enjoyed all the other terns present.  An unusually large flock here probably assembled to eat all the biting flies present, of which there were many.  A few Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), like the one on the tall buoy, also joined in the fly-hunting.

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The odd, buzzing calls of Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) can be heard all over this beach.

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Here, one’s squawking about my presence.  Note that the leg and bill color are black- in the spring and summer, these will be orange, and the bird will have a black cap on its head instead of eye patches.  Forster’s Terns look like an entirely different species in winter and summer.

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Tired of being analyzed, this tern took off, and flew right over my head on the way back out over the lake.  These terns are probably going to be here well into November, until all the bugs die.

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Also present here for several days were Franklin’s Gulls (Leucophaeus pipixcan) (the bird with wings raised).  These are similar to Laughing Gulls, but they have shorter bills, whiter eye rings and whiter tips around their feathers.  Franklin’s Gulls migrate inland, living alongside ducks in the summertime up in North Dakota and Canada- the Prairie Pothole region.  Franklin’s Gulls then migrate south and end up in Texas- they’re one of the few gull species easier to  find inland in North America.  They do end up on the South American coast for the winter.

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A late Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) tried to steal the show also, with its bright red bill remarkably unnoticed by me most of the time I was looking at these gulls and terns.  However, the Ring-billed Gull in front of it decided to steal the show by doing whatever that face is.   People would ordinarily pass off a group of  birds like this as “seagulls” and even many birders would look past it.  However, I’ve grown to really like gulls as of late… which is why, when a little kid on a bicycle rode up, scared all the gulls away, and then rode away before I could say anything, I was a little bit irritated. I don’t even know where he went.

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Several days went by.  I bought a Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge pass, which I believed entitled me to go and visit most of the refuge, (I was wrong about this, as we shall see) including the  remote spot of Wolf Creek Bay.  A Praying Mantis waited in the grasslands there, as did a LeConte’s Sparrow (unphotographed), on a previous trip.   After another birder told me about hearing Pine Warblers in the woods along the Harmony Trail, (and also that it was probably ok to go back to Wolf Creek Bay)  I went over and heard Pine Warbler and Red-breasted Nuthatch, adding to my year and Illinois year lists respectively.  (A lot of birders keep lists of species they find- birding of this sort is basically a giant scavenger hunt.  I enjoy watching behaviors, but I do also fit into the “lister” mentality).

With the Pine Warbler and Laughing Gull, I was at 288 species for the year in the United States- 12 away from  In the meantime, reports of an Eared Grebe and Long-billed Dowitchers, both of which would be lifers for me, tempted me back to the Wolf Creek  Bay overlook.

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On the drive over after church, wearing full , I spotted a few Franklin’s Gulls flying around.  That short bill and the faint white spots at the wingtip help to distinguish this species.  I spotted an open gate- apparently, on this particular Sunday, visitors were allowed to drive around the restricted area.  If visitors were allowed back here on this day- great!  I could go legally see the Eared Grebe and Dowitchers!  I would totally not get in trouble!

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Illinois’ largest Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) grew along the roadside.

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After driving around, I walked down the old road, at the end of which was the spot for Long-billed Dowitchers and the Eared Grebe. The fall color brightened  the grayness of the day.

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Large flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and mixed sparrows contained among their ranks a late Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  This was a good bird, if not exactly the one I wanted.

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A Raccoon (Procyon lotor) sat by the edge of the road and took off as I approached.

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Here’s a few lifer Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus),  (YAY!  New bird!  Species 289!)  but Eared Grebes were not evident.  I walked back up the road, and scared a Copperbelly Water Snake  that crossed the lane. I also found something else:

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Meet, Pselliopus barberi, the Tiger Assassin Bug.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  It’s easily the strangest bug of the month.  Assassin Bugs roam around, biting and sucking out the insides of fellow insects.  They’ve got a painful bite even for humans.  I took photos from a slight distance and then went back to my car, where I found out I’d broken the law.

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Waiting back at the parking lot were two refuge marshals, and they asked what I was doing down there without a permit… apparently, despite what I’d been told, I wasn’t allowed back there.  I apologized profusely and got off with a written warning.  I did have a nice chat with one of the officers while the other one wrote up the warning and looked me up to make sure I’m not a dangerous criminal.   Despite my checkered past with being detained as a terrorist, (full story here), they decided I was fine and let me off.  A copy of the warning is on file at the refuge office- if I trespass again, I’m getting a ticket, which is fair.

However, something about this is really not fair. The Eared Grebes have returned to the same spot, in greater numbers.  There are now two of them… I don’t want to break the law, again.    I’m going to ignore the fact that I saw a lifer bird species and remain bitter about the injustices of not being able to see Eared Grebes. ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Year birds:

Laughing Gull (287)

Pine Warbler (288)

Long-billed Dowitcher (289)