Category: Forgottonia

Spring Break Wanderings

AMKE
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Flickr and WordPress have conspired together to change up the formatting of my so that now photos form “blocks” in between text blocks, with the option for captions. I’m sure this change will be for the best, but I am change-adverse to some extent, except when it’s winter changing to spring. Speaking of which, I wrapped up my last-ever college spring break in a whirlwind of birding and other pursuits.

TUTI at LMG feeders
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

Recently, my good friend Kyle and I visited Lincoln Memorial Gardens, a local natural area on the shores of Lake Springfield in central Illinois. Having resided in Southern Illinois the last few months, I noticed immediately how much less green Central Illinois is in mid-March. Nevertheless, the birds were active, including…

PIWA in Cornus florida
Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)

… a Pine Warbler singing away in the center of the park. Pine Warblers are rare migrants in Sangamon county Illinois, and despite having lived there for many years this was only my second one ever. The lack of pine trees, introduced or otherwise, means most of Central Illinois lacks in Pine Warblers, especially compared to Southern Illinois.

RHWO
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythocephalus)

This immature, molting Red-headed Woodpecker foraged nearby. I suspect these woodpeckers of being religious birds. Their populations have dwindled out in the Northeast, which has seen an increase in secularism, while Red-headed Woodpecker populations remain stronger in the Bible Belt of the South and Midwest. I’m joking of course, but it is an amusing idea to consider.

Esox sp. with snail sp.
Pickerel (Esox sp.)

A flooded cornfield in my wanderings produced this mysterious fish, which appears to be some kind of Pickerel. Unfortunately I was lacking a net so it remained uncaptured. One of the great rules of exploring nature- ABAN:

Always Bring A Net.

Bidens
Spanish Needles (Bidens bipinnata)

As spring approaches, a few old seedheads stick around, like these Spanish Needles. This plant’s seeds have barbs designed to attach in clothing, fur or feathers and carry the seeds away for dispersal.

Veronica
Bird’s Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica)

It’ll be a bit before most flowers bloom, but this Bird’s Eye Speedwell, a local weed, has decided to get an early start. This is an introduced species of disturbed, rarely-mowed lawns. It has several siblings in the genus Veronica with smaller flowers and shorter flower stems (pedicels) that are even more common and are among the first flowers I find each year.

Sugarberry
Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)

This Sugarberry, found in lowland areas throughout the southern 2/3 of Illinois, may win the prize for strangest bark on a native Illinois tree.

Smilax tamnoides
Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax tamnoides)

The only prize Bristly Greenbriar is in the running for is “Most Painful Plant”, which it loses to Multiflora Rose and its curved prickles. Sorry, but those straight prickles on the greenbriar are just too easy to pull out to be truly insidious, even in the thousands. Still, there’s a harsh beauty to them.

Rathki's Woodlouse
Rathki’s Woodlouse (Trachelipus rathkii)

Thanks to iNaturalist, I found out this is an introduced woodlouse (roly-poly, pillbug, sowbug etc.) from Europe. According to iNaturalist, I’ve found this species throughout Illinois woodlands of all qualities, which given that it’s an invasive species is more than a little concerning. Some brief Google Scholar searches turned up very little information on this invasive species, leading me to question exactly what effects it does have on our ecosystems?

Augochlora aura?
Pure Green Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura)

Under the same log was this Pure Green Sweat Bee. I used to be briefly employed in a pollinator survey down in the Shawnee National Forest, although the only Augochlora I ever got to see were pinned. I presume they winter under rotten logs? Honestly, I need to learn much more about bees.

Blacklegged Tick
Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

Unfortunately, around the same time I obtained another year first, possibly my least favorite of the year. Tick populations are increasing across the US, and I got this one in a downtown, urban park in Springfield Illinois. I highly recommend tick checks at all times of the year, anymore.

To end on a happier note, as I drove back to school I was interrupted by a flock of 13 Sandhill Cranes passing over. South of the Chicago area, Sandhill Cranes can be quite infrequent to rare in Illinois, despite passing through Chicago and other portions of northern Illinois in the hundreds of thousands. Some do breed at a few local wetlands in northern and eastern Illinois- a massive conservation success story, given that as recently as the 1980s Sandhill Cranes were extirpated (gone) from the state of Illinois as a breeding species. Seeing crane flocks this far southwest in the state hopefully becomes less rare of an occurrence. At any rate, these cranes were a wonderful end to a great week off.

SACR
Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Havana Great Time, Emiquon-dn’t Ask For Better Birding!

How have those two puns slipped past my notice for this long?  I mean, it’s probably good that they have, but still, you would’ve thought I’d have caught something like that by now.

After the adventures of the last week,  I figure it’s worth refreshing people’s minds on Central Illinois’ premier natural areas, which I broadly refer to as “Glorious Mason County” even though it’s a bit broader than just that area  It could also be called the “Havana area” as that’s the name of the largest town in the region.

Random fields

I could go into a very deep discussion about the complex geology of this area, and because I wouldn’t understand any of it, I won’t.  However, I’ll try to pass on the limited, simplified view that I do understand, and illustrate this with a map:

Mason County Map

Basically, most of the area is covered in sand dumped there by glacial runoff- the Kankakee Torrent flooding that drained Lake Michigan down to its current water level and carved the canyons in Starved Rock State Park. The primary area of sand is surrounded by a yellow highlight on the map.  To the west, the Illinois River  runs in a valley carved by the former path of the Mississippi River in pre-glacial times.

Field in mist

The sand deposits encouraged the growth of more Western plant and animal populations.  Bullsnakes, Pocket Gophers, Silvery Bladderpod, Prickly Pear cactus, Western Kingbirds, and Lark Sparrows  comprise some of the many “Western” animals and plants found here.  More “Southern” plants and animals, like Pawpaw, Ozark Milkvetch, Prothonotary Warblers  and Northern Mockingbirds also dwell in Mason county and the surrounding regions.  Just across the river, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, usually restricted to the Gulf Coast, have been discovered breeding in Fulton county as of 2017 and 2018.

Indeed, the wetlands along the Illinois River attract millions of migrating ducks and geese every year, as well as rarer species like King and Black Rails, Least Bitterns and Black-necked Stilts.  Strange vagrant birds like Sabine’s Gull, Anhinga, and Ruff have appeared in this area on multiple occasions.The two red areas are the largest wetlands in the region- Chatauqua and Emiquon.  Emiquon is on the left, Chautaqua on the right.

Grasshopper Sparrow

More  common birds like Eastern Meadowlark, Indigo Bunting or the  Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)  above have hung on here in numbers exceeding those of surrounding areas.   In recent years (early 1900s) someone looked at the sand dunes and thought “You know what this needs?  A large pine plantation!”  Sand Ridge State Forest (the large area circled in blue, top center of the map), and a few other localized areas, are the result.  Another fun introduction about the same time was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a small bird imported from Europe and released in St. Louis.  It’s since made its way upriver slowly into this region.

Random field

I think that’s enough for background.  Of late I’ve been spending time in southern Mason county, which hasn’t  been explored enough compared to the Sand Ridge – Chautauqua – Emiquon area to the north.  However, it has its rewards.  For instance, abundant Grasshopper Sparrows:

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrows are vanishing across most of Illinois.  Sure, they’re a little brown bird of limited interest to someone not interested in birds, but if they disappear something will be lost from the world- a bird that both sounds like and eats grasshoppers.  Thankfully there’s still a healthy population of Grasshopper Sparrows in most of Mason county.

Random weed

Another advantage of wandering around the backroads of southern Mason county is the occasional population of Cannabis sativa.  Mind you, this isn’t the kind generally smoked (though it is a controlled substance).  This is more or less hemp.  (I also don’t smoke anything- I generally think human lung tissue is not designed to take in smoke of any kind.)  Wild Cannabis is an actual weed in moist areas throughout this part of the state, though fairly uncommon.

Five-lined Skink

Also uncommon is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), especially one of this considerable size (approximately eight inches long).  This female was sitting on a mattress dumped at the marijuana spot photographed above.  It then ran up a post to be photographed.  Five-lined Skinks have an unusual range- they are close to their northern edge in Illinois at this spot, but they also occur in eastern Wisconsin.  It was my first time seeing one this far north, at any rate.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Across the road, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)  sat in a bush quietly, in pursuit of caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in this area, probably because of all the caterpillars from the ever-present butterflies.  There are a lot of butterflies in Mason county- far more than in the surrounding agricultural wastelands.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are primarily caterpillar predators, devouring caterpillars in the hundreds, so they do well here.  Thankfully they miss enough caterpillars to leave plenty of butterflies.

Poppy Mallow sp?

Growing on the side of the road was Clustered Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe triangulata), a fairly uncommon plant of dry soil and sand prairie.  I’d never found it in the wild before!  We pressed on to Revis Hill Prairie, spotting Northern Mockingbirds, Henslow’s Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers on the way, as well as NINE American Kestrels in one field.

Revis Hill Prarie

Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve is the area on the map circled in blue EAST of Kilbourne.  This contains the region’s highest hills, rising about 250 feet above the Sangamon River Valley.  I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation as to why there are hills here, but there are.  On top of these hills are multiple old hill prairies which have grown here since presettlement times.  Less common birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, White-eyed Vireo and Baltimore Oriole are abundant here.  However, Revis is very little-known for birds- most people come here for insects.  There’s a species of walkingstick and a species of leafhopper only known from here in Illinois.

Tiger Beetle

A number of burrowing wasps and tiger beetles (Cicindelidia spp.) take up residence in the sand and/or loess prarire sections of the preserve.  I don’t think I’ve ever stopped here and not found a new species of insect to me (except in the winter, of course).

Fowler's Toad

All of these insects serve as excellent food for Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri).  Growing above it was this unusual flower, the Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella), one of the hundreds of species of plants present at this incredibly biodiverse site.

Asclepias viridiflora

After driving through Revis, I drove my friend Kyle to see his first Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) in Illinois.  Birds of the Great Plains and further west, Western Kingbirds expanded into St. Louis (where dozens can be seen in industrial areas!) and upriver into Havana, Illinois, showing a strangely consistent fascination with power substations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Western Kingbird in Illinois on a natural perch- they have done well with manmade structures.

Western Kingbird

The Havana power substation where these Western Kingbirds nest also has a population of Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), and I managed to get both in a photo together.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows resemble the much more common House Sparrow, but they have an all-brown cap and black dot on their cheek that differs from the House Sparrow (unspotted cheek, gray cap with brown sides).  Eurasian Tree Sparrows also tend to be found on the edges of town in scrubby areas, and I find it rare to see them in backyards.

EUTS and WEKI

A levee at Chautaqua National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, is the perfect spot to find Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and that’s where I went on the previous day with a different friend.

Eagle Bluffs

Hundreds of  American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and some shorebirds were present here.  Most of the shorebirds were far out- it’s been a bad breeding season up in the Canadian Tundra from whence they come,  so the numbers of shorebirds migrating this year are likely to be uncomfortably low.

Pelicans and Gulls

Thankfully, not all is going horribly in the bird world because the pelicans are doing well.  Large flocks like this are becoming more and more common, and they are a delight to watch, gliding nd whirling about in the air.  Pelicans aren’t particularly graceful, but their colossal size makes them readily watchable. While not as long-winged as Bald Eagles, tall as Whooping Cranes, or heavy as Trumpeter Swans, American White Pelicans overall seem to me to be Illinois’ biggest bird.

AMWP flock

The wetlands here and across the river at Emiquon are being drained to allow seed plants to grow on them, providing food for ducks in the winter and mudflats for migratory birds.  Both Chautauqua and Emiquon are carefully managed by pumping water in or out at the right times of year to maximize the benefit for animals, especially waterfowl.

This Chautauqua-Emiquon area has become a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, one of several Ramsar Wetlands Illinois has.  (The others are Chiwaukee Illinois Beach up in Lake county (seen here)  Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (seen here) the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands (not seen yet, but definitely on my list for later) and the Cache River-Cypress Creek Wetlands (seen here). Hey, I’ve been to all but one of those this year!  A Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designation is basically like winning a conservation Oscar, and it’s great that Illinois has five of them- among US states, only California has more than Illinois does.

Emiquon North Globe Units

Over at Emiquon, we found many Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and other shorebirds wading around in the mudflats looking for insects and worms, and squabbling with each other.  Black-necked Stilts are particularly quarrelsome.

Black-necked Stilt

By contrast, these Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were content to work together and hunt down prey.  They’ve recently arrived from far northern Canada, so I imagine they’re fairly hungry.  The Greater Yellowlegs still have far to go- all the way to South America!

Greater Yellowlegs

Just as Illinois is a flyover state for many people, so it is a flyover state for birds on their way to other places.  Still, sometimes they stop in and visit, and we’re glad when they do.  Especially when, for instance it’s a Sanderling (Calidris alba) and I haven’t seen one since 2016.  The pale fuzzy bird on the left is, I believe, a Sanderling.  They like sandy beaches and as a result are uncommon inland, away from the Great Lakes (which DO have sandy beaches).  This is one of the world’s longest-distance migrants, traveling from the High Arctic (think top of Greenland) all the way to southern South America or Australia in the winter.

Not bad for a bird seven inches long!

Sanderling I think

We spent two days and saw over a hundred bird species in Glorious Mason County- not easy to do in late July, when many of them have stopped singing and many more have yet to migrate south.  Despite moving to ostensibly a better spot for nature (southern Illinois)- which IS really good despite what certain Ryans who’ve never been there may say about it – I always end up missing this area when I’m away from it.  It’s the first area I really explored away from my hometown when I got into birding, and it’s a place I can’t help but return to time and again.

I really am Havana great time.

Thompson Lake

Back to Mason County!

I decided to spend all day of the Ides of March exploring my old stomping grounds in Mason and Fulton counties and ended up having one of the better birding days of the year so far.  I’d hoped to find Red Crossbills, Smith’s Longspurs, and a Northern Saw-whet Owl or two, as well as several more common birds I hadn’t found yet this year like Western Meadowlark, Wilson’s Snipe, Tree Swallow etc.  It’d been rather cold and unpleasant much of the week, and I wanted desperately to get outside. So I did.

Map of Route on March 15, 2018

As usual for a birding trip, I woke up at 4 AM, decided I didn’t want to get up and slept in for two hours, then woke up and decided I really needed to get going, and left an hour later.   I’m not a morning person.  Most birds are.

I started in  Sand Ridge State Forest (1) at 8 AM and explored it for about two hours.  The warmer conditions certainly made the birds extremely active.   Driving in  from Forest City I had a Northern Harrier and Western Meadowlark (I had the windows rolled down and would stop every time I heard something interesting).  Flocks of American Goldfinches, Blue Jays and more flew across the road.  It seemed like every bush had its own birds. I’ve only ever had birds bouncing around in such numbers at one other time, the Carlyle Lake Pelagic, and at that time there weren’t as many, especially on the road itself.  I had several species (Wild Turkey, Eastern Phoebe, Horned Lark) just sitting on or alongside the road.  I also got out and walked in attempts to find Red Crossbills, which was a swing and a miss.  This did get me Winter Wren and Red-breasted Nuthatch, both good for this time of year.

By the end of two hours and about ten miles driving/walking, I had 36 species, which I considered a promising start to the day.  I wasn’t really going for numbers, and Sand Ridge can be hit or miss. This was the best I’d ever done in Sand Ridge, so I was happy about that.

Bufflehead Display 2

I checked through Chautauqua (2) and found close to nothing other than a few robins.  Apparently all the birds were at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge and Preserve (3), my next stop on the other side of the river.   All of them.  I’d never had so many except in coot season, and at that time it’s just coots.  It’s close to coot season, but that’s a still a couple weeks away. The Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola, above) were fighting, which was adorable.

Emiquon Boardwalk

Emiquon is almost never not a great place for birds, but it’s so great in March.  Hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese are there through the first part of March, and by the end of March the shorebirds are showing up in the hundreds.  In between the ducks move through en masse.  Emiquon does nothing small when it comes to birds.  This was, however, by far my best day at Emiquon ever in terms of bird numbers.  (It’s still not as fun as when I got to show my mom around Emiquon for the first time, but nonetheless amazing).

Tundra Swan

The best bird there was a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) on the south end of the visitor’s center walkway, but the newly-arrived Blue-winged Teal, Wilson’s Snipe, and Tree Swallows were also welcome.  The Tree Swallow was quite funny, actually.  While unintentionally chasing about twenty American Tree Sparrows around the boardwalk,  I spotted a couple of women with binoculars around my same age, and curious to see if there were actually other young birders in my area, I asked them if they’d seen anything good.

“We saw a crane stick its whole head under the water!”Pause. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes are ridiculously rare around Emiquon.

“D’you mean a heron?”  The only one around is the very common Great Blue Heron.

“Yeah!”  Internally I cringe, but I’m trying not to show how elitist I am and not say anything about how actually it’s fairly easy to tell a crane from a heron.

“Ok. Cool. There’s a Tundra Swan over there.”

“Oh, did it really fly all the way down from the tundra?”

“Yep, flew all the way down from Canada and it’s on its way back.”

“Awesome!”  Enthusiasm’s high, for sure.

“Alright, have a good day, I’m just looking for swallows, and ope, there’s one flying over your head right now!”  Ope is a Midwestern word used both in place of Oh and for when you bump into someone on accident, mostly the latter.

“Cool! (looks at swallow)  Goodbye!”

And we went on our separate ways.

American Tree Sparrow

I noticed a number of meadowlarks, sparrows and more here, which I wondered about.  It’s not usually to chase 20 American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) around the boardwalk.  And there was a plume of smoke on the horizon…

I then went to the Emiquon Globe Units (4) across the road, and the North Globe Unit was on fire. Quite literally.

Emiquon is lit

They were burning the prairie that day, which explained all the sparrows, meadowlarks, etc. over on the other side of the road.

Many Aythya

Also metaphorically, because there were thousands of ducks.  The dominant species were Canvasbacks(Aythya valisineria), Redheads (Aythya americana), Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), and Northern Pintail (Anas acuta).  It was just staggering to see them in such numbers.

Mixed Ducks and Swans

A lone Common Goldeneye flew overhead, and a lone Common Merganser was in the fish pond near Dixon Mounds.  There were also quite a few sparrows wandering about, I suspect having been temporarily displaced by the fire. I even saw some kind of longspur get stirred out of the brush, though I missed the call or facial features to ID it.  Partially due to the fire, I presume, everyone was very stirred up, making for a large amount of bird activity.   Red-tailed Hawks circled overhead, watching everything be driven out by the fire, waiting for a few mice to be scared out of the brush before diving down after them.

Northern Pintails

On a hunch I decided to check the often-productive fields along Bottom Road (5),
which were full of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator), Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Pintail, and two Pectoral Sandpipers.  It’s quite an odd sight seeing a Trumpeter Swan next to a Pectoral Sandpiper, with the vast size difference.  The swans are on their way back home, but they’re mostly gone from central Illinois, while the Pectoral Sandpipers are increasing.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swan

I then had lunch at Pizza Hut.  I  would recommend the Pizza Hut in Havana to those birding in this area. Because the buffet was closing, they gave away free dessert pizza, which is the best way to ensure continued loyalty to a restaurant.  Anyway this isn’t a food-reviewing blog, so after lunch I  decided to try a few spots for Smith’s Longspur.  An unreliable source had reported seeing them already, but no official sources had found them yet in Illinois.  I knew where the best fields were supposed to be, due east of me.  So I jumped back in the truck and headed out.  After an hour or so of searching, I finally found a few of my lifer Smith’s Longspurs in the well-known field at US 136 and County Road 3100 E in Mason County (6).
I was actually playing the call while sitting in the truck with the windows down, to remind myself of what they sound like.  The recording stopped and I heard their little… rattle is the word most people use to describe it, and I guess that works.  I double checked my phone to make sure it wasn’t playing, and I heard the call again after doing so, along with a Lapland Longspur call note for comparison.  I drove down the road a little ways, and several Smith’s Longspurs flew out in front of my truck and crossed the road into a field, where I lost them in the corn stubble.

Spring Lake

I then checked a few uneventful spots near Mason City (7) before deciding to visit Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area in Tazewell county (8).  (I should’ve gone for my towhee spot at Revis Hill Prairie instead.)  My 31 Mute Swans, single Bonaparte’s Gull, and 9 Tree Swallows were the only real finds of note at that location. Compared to the previous year, the bottomlands were pretty uneventful, so I just drove through and left.

Spring Lake Eagle Nest

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest here is one of the best in the state to see, though, so at least there’s that.  People always ask me “Have you see the eagles?” when I go birding, almost every time.  Along the rivers, Illinois has a bazillion Bald Eagles.  I’m tempted to ask them “Have you see the Song Sparrows?” but I don’t want to come across as a snob.  I am kind of a snob, though.  I spend all my time looking for little brown birds when there’s majestic eagles and swans everywhere (at least in this part of the world).  And Spring Lake is great, too:

South Bay of Spring Lake

I then went out and walked around the Goofy Ridge access at Chautauqua (9).  There wasn’t much, but calling lone Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers at least made the stop worthwhile.  I’d been hoping for a Red-headed, and the Pileated was an unexpected surprise from the nearby flooded forests to the northwest.

Horned Grebe

On a whim I went back to Emiquon (3) and checked around the visitor’s center. The Tundra Swan had departed, but I pulled my scope out this time (I’d only used binoculars at the visitor’s center the first time around, though I did get the scope out in the globe units). A close Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) showed off its molting, transitional plumage (it’s changing feathers for breeding season), but the Common Loons I was hoping for were not to be found.  Oh well.  Who cares, on a day like this?

Snow Goose Flocks Landing

The Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) were also considerably more stirred up, and extended in a line for a considerable distance.  I estimated 5000 roughly, but there were likely more.  This area can have half a million Snow Geese in the right season.

Lesser Scaup

The ducks (these are Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis) continued to amaze in their sheer numbers, and I stayed to admire them until the sun began dipping below the horizon.

Mason County Sunset

As it would soon be night, I decided to head back across the river and check for American Woodcocks and Northern Saw-whet Owls. As I drove back, the sun set over the river valley and it was spectacular.  More than one person pulled off at Chautauqua (2) to take pictures of it, including me.  As I was walking back, an American Woodcock gave its bzeent! call from the bush next to me.  It was VERY alarming, to be sure!

Sunset at Mud Lake

The sun had set by the time I reached Sand Ridge State Forest (1) and the owl spot.  I played call notes off my phone to see if the owl would respond.  It started screaming at me (quite literally) and so I was happy.  A Barred Owl called afterwards, which silenced the smaller, more timid Northern Saw-whet Owl.  It being after 8:00 PM with over an hour’s drive home, I departed.
I’d seen and/or heard 94 species over the course of the day.  Evidently that’s quite a bit for March, which is bad for me because it gets me in trouble again.  I was told by a friend that “hey, you kinda sound like a certain notorious Western Illinois birder in your post”- and I am so tempted to say who, because that person needs to stop- and that kind of scared me.  Said person in question has no credibility because they always go out and “beat” records, find the most ridiculous sightings, and never seem to have an “off” day.  I have people from Arizona text me and ask if said person’s sightings are legitimate.  It’s my goal to never have someone from Arizona text other Illinois birders and say “Is Jared on the level?  Is he not a good birder?”
I’m not out to beat records.  I don’t plan to submit this to Lister’s Corner, the keepers of “official” records, because I don’t want to and because I don’t have photos of everything.  I wasn’t going for a big day, I just had a good day.  Same with this year in general.  I wouldn’t have as high of a total  so far this year if I hadn’t been going for a county big year, but now that I’ve relaxed from doing that, I’m just going to see what I end up with by the end of the year.  I remain #3 on the Illinois Ebird 2018 list in terms of species as of this writing, but there’s no way whatsoever I retain that through April- I’ve just got too much going on and my knowledge of and ability to find warblers is insufficient.  And that’s a good thing.  I don’t want to be #1, or #2, or even in the top 10.  As I was discussing with some friends of mine tonight, being #1 always means people are jealous and envious of you.  I don’t want that.
All of this being said, I do plan to go back and refind my more “problematic” species ( LeConte’s Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows) at some point this year.  (I’ll mostly just wait around for Lincoln’s Sparrows to show up, and then actively pursue LeConte’s Sparrows at Pyramid.)
  And for a happier finale. This part of Illinois is my “first love” when it comes to birding- it’s where I visited every chance I could get when I lived in central Illinois.  I like southern IL quite a bit, but in my opinion there’s nothing better than the Illinois River Valley when it comes to birding here in IL.  I’m so glad I could return and see it yet again, in a perfect day of birdwatching.

 

We Three Men of Illinois Are… Searching for Birds, Near and Far…

IMG_7557

I’m going to start this post out with a prologue to explain how I figure out where to go to see birds I’m after, because that factors into how this particular day went.

First off, I pick a target species, depending on the season and if I’ve seen it (or not), or seen it recently (or not).  Often this is a rare species that just showed up in an area.  I find out that it showed up through IBET and MO Birders- two listservs- email groups that send emails about birds to all other members in the group.  These are collected at http://birding.aba.org/   Another way I find out is through checking Ebird reports on a regular basis.  For instance, if I want to look up a particular county, say Mason County, Illinois (home of Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Sand Ridge State Forest, and generally just a bunch of interesting birds), I can go here:

http://ebird.org/ebird/subnational2/US-IL-125/activity?yr=all&m=

Facebook groups mentioning rare birds have also been helpful, especially for out-of-state birds like the Red-necked Stint. Among these are the ABA Rare Bird Alert and the Illinois Rare Bird Alert. For some reason, Missouri lacks a “Rare Bird Alert” Facebook group, something I may have to rectify sooner or later.  That might be my Christmas gift to Missouri birders, haha…

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So, for the last few weeks I’ve been planning to go looking for Greater Prairie-Chickens on Veteran’s Day.  I roped in a couple of friends and we drove up, spotting a Short-eared Owl on the way at the Southern Illinois Veteran’s Airport.  However, our first spot of the day was Bartel Land and Water Reserve in Marion County, Illinois, which is NOT where Marion, Illinois, is located.  Bartel Land and Water Reserve provides habitat for one of the two populations of Greater Prairie-chickens in Illinois, one of the rarest birds in the state and our target for the day.

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Our second good bird of the day was another owl- a Barred Owl (Strix varia) perched on a power line!  Barred Owls are the most common species of owl in Southern Illinois, with Great Horned Owls a close second.  Barred Owls are a species of wetlands and the deep woods for the most part- finding one in the mixed cropfield–patchy grassland- scrubby forest that more ostensibly suits a Great Horned Owl was a bit of a surprise!

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Another surprise were the flocks of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), the first time I’ve ever encountered flocks of this species.  Ordinarily a bird of wet forests, Rusty Blackbirds were present along the edges of several yards and cropfields, flying overhead occasionally. Rusty Blackbirds are one of North America’s greatest mysteries.  By several estimates, Rusty Blackbird populations today are less than 10% (and possibly less than 1%) of what they used to be in the early 1900s.  Most other bird populations have declined significantly over that time period, but not to the same extent, and for more explicable causes (habitat loss, pesticide usage, etc.) In contrast, no one knows for sure why there are so few Rusty Blackbirds now.

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Under the same list of additional mysteries emerged three others.  First off, why on November 11 was Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) still in bloom?  Secondly, why were there no Prairie-Chickens? (We found none despite extensive searching.)  Third, why did three Bonaparte’s Gulls, another wetland species, decide to fly over the preserve?  This area’s birdlife somewhat resembles that of a wet forest bordering a lake, when in fact I saw little evidence of wetland conditions or large lakes.

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Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) flew overhead near Carlyle Lake.  As I took the photo, I could hear the gunshots of happy duck hunters- it was the first day of duck season.  I have mixed feelings about duck season- without it, most of Illinois’ wetlands would not exist.  However, it does make it unsafe to go birdwatching in my favorite habitats for about two months.  And, the wetlands that have no hunting also have no trespassing at this time of year, to provide shelter to the ducks.  Spring waterfowl birding is often better than fall for this reason, at least in my limited experience.

Since birdwatchers who are too obsessed call themselves birders, I’m going to call myself a ducker. (Currently, that’s not inappropriate slang, which really surprises me- I expect that will change.) If this ducker can’t look for wetland birds, what is he to do?

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Look for strange Red-tailed Hawks on the side of the road?  Sure!  This is a Northern Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis abieticola).  Abieticola means “Dweller of the Firs” in Latin, which is pretty awesome. Northern Red-tailed Hawks are a mysterious subspecies of the usual, everyday Red-tailed Hawk that lurks on one out of every five highway signs, posts, and poles (start counting).  They live in far northern Canada, among the firs (hence the name).   While they often look like regular Eastern Red-tailed Hawks (B. j. borealis), Northerns have a very thick dark “belly band”, a darker, cool-toned back with less white than an Eastern, and a strong band on the red tail, all features which this specimen had perfectly:

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This is the fifth definite subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk I’ve seen in Illinois, after Eastern (99.5% of all seen here), Western (solid brownish-dark with a red tail, though this varies a LOT) Krider’s (extremely pale with lots of white in the wings and tail), and Harlan’s (Cool dark tones, streaked chest with some white, mine was mostly dark).  Here’s a really bad photo of the Harlan’s (B. j. harlani), seen at Garden of the Gods recently:

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Our targets were in Missouri, at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, arguably Missouri’s best birding area.  Both a Snowy Owl and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks had been seen only the day before, and both were odd birds to find in Missouri.  One is a fierce predator of the frozen Arctic tundra – the other is the tropical answer to the temperate Mallard Duck.  Both are known to wander widely, but rarely do they wander to within a mile or two of each other.   And yet the record stands, with photos of each on display.

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As a bonus, there were American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).  Actually, we only saw the bonus- the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks gave us the slip, despite nearly everyone else finding them both before, during, and after our visit.  And the Snowy Owl left shortly after being seen Friday.  Oh well.

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Other large white birds proved a bonus bonus.  These were Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator), which began to appear in the few, then the dozens.  Before we knew it, we’d seen a hundred of what is North America’s heaviest bird, up to six feet long and weighing more than 25 pounds (which is a LOT for a bird!)  I’d never seen more than seven at once, and I could look out to see hundreds.  It’s quite a sight!

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With the Trumpeter Swans came a bonus- my lifer Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus).  In the photo above, the upper right bird is a Tundra Swan, smaller and with differing bill length and facial shape.  As with many birds, there’s two nearly-identical species, and figuring out which is which is a requirement of good birding.  Another example of paired species confusion is below:

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Sparrows!  Except, not exactly.  These are the rare Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), only found on every continent except Antarctica and South America. Easily confused with- well, any small brown bird by the average person, and with House Sparrows by the slightly-above-average-in-terms-of-bird-knowledge-only person, Eurasian Tree Sparrows differ by having a brown cap to their heads and black spots on their cheeks.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows were released in St. Louis by somebody or other in the early 1900s.  Cut to 100 years later, they’ve progressed up the Mississippi and Illinois River Valleys into southeastern Iowa, western Illinois, and northeastern Missouri.  Unlike the ubiquitous invasive House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrows remain somewhat localized.  This makes them “fun nonnatives” and not “pesky invaders”.

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Other sparrows of  a native persuasion hid out in the nearby brush.  This is my best photo of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)- I need to work on my Fox Sparrow photography, is what this image says.  Fox Sparrows are one of those birds I don’t see as often as I think I ought to.

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Thankfully the White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were much more photograph-friendly.  White-throated Sparrows are in genus Zonotrichia, as is one of the more interesting American sparrows- the Harris’ Sparrow.  On our second trip here, we encountered a Harris’ Sparrow while looking out at Heron Pond, the Trumpeter Swan pond.  While it decided to avoid pictures with skills that put Fox Sparrows to shame,  the Harris’ was an uncommon bird and a good find for us.

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We also made another interesting observation. Two girls were trespassing on the marsh trails, having walked straight past at least three signs warning them not to enter the protected waterfowl area.  They used the marsh as backdrop for several photos of each other- I’m not sure why.  As they were more oblivious than malicious, we directed them to the signs and let them take selfies someplace else.  I sound really old writing that, but it’s just… there are so many better spots to take selfies, which aren’t trespassing.  Leave the Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) alone- they’re too awesome to be disturbed.  Look at those mohawks!

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While looking at some ducks in Ellis Bay, another birder asked us if we were here for the Red-throated Loon.  What!  A Red-throated Loon is a bird I’ve never seen before.  We trained our scope on the bay and found what was a lifer for all of us, Red-throated Loon:

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A Red-throated Loon has three major features.   #1- It doesn’t have a red throat in the fall and winter.  #2- It is generally thinner in features and build than the more common Common Loon, the most common species of loon, commonly.  #3- It should be on an ocean or Great Lake, mostly the former, and definitely not in Missouri 200 feet or so away.

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I never promise good photos, and in this case- well, it’s a Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata).  That’s about as much as anyone can say.  At least it’s not in breeding plumage- that would have been sad to get grainy photos of what is a neat-looking bird some parts of the year.

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On this we departed to Fazoli’s.  Afterwards, a reported Red-necked Grebe the following day ensured that two of us returned to see it (and to get those pesky Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, who were still mocking us by being seen every day, as well as the not-uncommon Peregrine Falcons we missed the previous trip).

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The Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) was literally the second bird we saw on our second visit.  Like the Red-throated Loon, the red on the neck is easier to see other parts of the year.

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A more common grebe, the Horned Grebe, dove for fish near us.  We met other birders while looking for more interesting birds (Peregrine Falcon, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Sandhill Crane flyovers, etc.).  Nothing turned up, so we asked them to call us if they saw anything.  Evidently they forgot, because the stupid Black-bellied Whistling Ducks reappeared after we left a good while later, as did a Peregrine Falcon, and doubly irritatingly, a White-winged Scoter that  remained somewhat irregularly seen for a few weeks after, which would have been a good year bird for me.  I doubt we’d have been in a position to chase the birds, though.

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Driving north on the best road in Illinois (State Highway 100 between Alton and Hardin, worth a trip for Bald Eagles and bluffs), we took the Brussels Ferry over to Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, in search of White-faced Ibis and large geese flocks.  Our luck with previously-reported rarities continued- no White-faced Ibis (though they evidently continue as of December 6).  Two out of nine previously reported rarities chased?  That means I’m due for some good luck down the road.  The Harris’ Sparrow was a good find, though, but unfortunately no one else relocated it.   At any rate, we got the giant flocks of waterfowl we expected at Two Rivers:

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Most of these were Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), and Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), in the thousands.

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Among the more unusual species here were a few late Blue-winged Tea (Anas discors) which usually leave Illinois by the end of October:

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Did I mention that there were thousands of ducks and geese?  Several thousand?

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We drove over to Stump Lake to chase an improbable Mottled Duck that someone had reported. This was what we came to, with fifteen minutes of daylight left:

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Unsurprisingly, if a Mottled Duck had been in there (which I doubt), we didn’t have time to find it among the several thousand ducks.  The nearby bluffs glowed red in the setting sun.  Earlier this year, in February, I’d watched a Golden Eagle fly over those bluffs, and most of the same ducks were in the same spot.  It didn’t happen again, and the sun set over the red hills as we left.

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The sunset was spectacular.  Of late I’ve seen many good sunsets, including this one photographed further down the river.  Watching the light reflect over the river was even better.  As I was driving, however, there were no photos of this event.  We then went owling at Pyramid State Recreation Area, which was amazing with eighteen owls of three species but unphotographed.  Even better, a Bobcat ran out in front of the car, my first time ever seeing one- also unphotographed.

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After sunset, on our first trip, we found out about the Alton Crow Roost, which words cannot describe.  Suffice it to show this, and call this a blogpost:

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Year birds

Tundra Swan (lifer!)

Red-throated Loon (lifer!)

Red-necked Grebe (lifer!)

 

Selected Ebird Checklists:

Bartel LWR: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40511999

Northern Red-tailed Hawk: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40459347

Riverlands MBS- all checklists, in order of date:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512028

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512034

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512037

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512054

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40512057

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40630441

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40630495

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40630534

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40631122

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40631369

Alton Crow Roost: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40665124

Two Rivers NWR: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40619880

Stump Lake STFWA: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40620022

Pyramid SRA: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40614522