Category: Mason County

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.

 

Top Ten Birds, Herps, Plants, Trips, and Photos of 2017

I did several top tens as separate blogposts last year. This year I’m going to restrict it to one somewhat longer post.  Let’s get into it, and start off with birds!  (Caution, Snakes at end)

 

Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

I do have three honorable mentions, a lost Cinnamon Teal (Illinois),  two American Dippers (Colorado), and one Hurricane Irma-blown Sooty Tern (Kentucky).

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#10 Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)-  I saw these both in Illinois and in Colorado this year.  The Illinois one was on an extremely fun trip, and I’m hoping to get a couple more this winter.

Whooping Crane #2

#9 Whooping Crane (Grus americana), southern IL -Easily the rarest worldwide of the birds I saw this year (with 600 or so in the wild), the Whooper is North America’s tallest bird.

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#8 Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), CO- It’s a Burrowing Owl.  Need I say more?

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#7 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), IL, KS- Not only is it a bird with an insanely long tail, I saw several over the course of the year.

#6 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (no photo), IL – Sure, I didn’t get photos, but I set a county record when they flew over my apartment in Jackson County.  What better way to see  new birds?

#5 Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), IL (photo by Colin Dobson, computer destroyed quality) -A Eurasian gull that often wanders to the Northeast, this was my first mega rarity of the year, and a fun one to find.  Unfortunately I have no photo, so I borrowed this one.

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#4 Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) central IL- The second of the two Eurasian wanderers, this one is a little more in doubt (though I’m 99% sure it’s wild).  If accepted, it will be the state’s first or second official record (though there’s plenty of unofficial records).

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#3 Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis), western KY- This bird is the rarest- it’s supposed to migrate from Siberia to Australia twice yearly, and how it ended up in a flooded cornfield in western Kentucky no one knows. It did- on Eclipse Day- and I chased it at 7:00 AM.  It is probably the best bird I’ve seen this year, easily a first state record (of any kind) for Kentucky, but it isn’t my favorite, because there’s two birds just a little higher on the scale…

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#2 Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), KY/TN/IL- I’ve spent so much time looking for these, that in November I drove 7 hours round-trip to see a few in far southwestern Kentucky/far northwestern Tennessee.  This one posed ten feet from my car.  And then, driving back home in December- a Loggerhead Shrike flies across the highway in southern Illinois.  Shrikes are unusual, rare, and charismatic birds with the tendency to impale other, smaller animals on thorns.

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#1 Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) MO/IL – My 300th US bird of the year (debatably- I’m not sure when I first saw Broad-winged Hawks) and my 100th or 101st lifer of the year (again, Broad-winged Hawk- I probably saw them in September 2015, but I can’t say for sure.)  The timing- just after finals- couldn’t have been better!  I then went on to find one in IL.

Top Ten Lifer Plants

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#10 Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), central IL- It’s pretty.

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#9  Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera), southern IL- It’s an orchid.

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#8  Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii ), CO –  Other than two following plants, this was the most interesting plant I found in Colorado.  It looked like something someone might grow in a garden, instead of on a talus slope in the Rocky Mountains.

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#7 Silvery Bladderpod (Lesquerella ludoviciana),central IL-  It only grows on one sand dune in Illinois, which I checked a couple of times until I found it in bloom.

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#6 Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda)(IL state champion tree), southern IL- This is the biggest tree I’ve seen this year.  It’s absolutely massive, which you can see with my hat as a comparison.

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#5 Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus),central IL – Another rare plant in Illinois, this one I had the distinction of discovering exactly where it grew by using a website.  It’s at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, one of my favorite spots to visit.  That’s honestly why I put it so high on the list.

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#4  Spring Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), Missouri Ozarks- This is an orchid that steals nutrients from fungi. It was a somewhat unexpected find in the Ozarks.

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#3 Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), CO- Even more unexpected was this orchid in Colorado, which also steals nutrients from fungi and is much prettier than its cousin.

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#2 Orange-fringed Orchid (Platanthera cillaris), northern IL – The most beautiful and rare plant I’ve found in Illinois this year, the Orange-fringed Orchid grows in a spot guarded by giant mosquitoes and hidden from the world.  In that spot, there are thousands.  It was fascinating, and I got to see it with the Fenelon, one of my close friends.  That’s not easy to top… is it?

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#1 Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis), CO  Evidently it is.  I got to see this with my family.  One of the most unexpected finds of the year, this unusual, somewhat rare orchid is widely praised in nearly every guide to orchids. Much of this praise is for the rarer Eastern form, but the Western form, while less rare, is still the best plant of 2017 for me.

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

#10 Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge/Four Corners, May 31… I almost put the trip with the Illinois Golden Eagle in southwestern central Illinois on as #10, but this trip, also with V.S., had a lot of unexpected species.  I went for Red-necked Phalaropes, an oceanic vagrant, and ended up finding a state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoo.  It got me over 200 species-wise for the year.

#9 Southern IL/Riverlands, November 11- On this trip I saw my first Red-throated Loon and had a blast birding all day with Chris Smaga and Kyle Wiktor.  I’ve been to Riverlands three times between November 11 and December 15.  The last trip got me the Snowy Owl, but the first trip was probably the most fun, even if the first half of that trip was an unsuccessful Greater Prairie-Chicken search.

#8 Snake Road, September 15- This is the trip where I found the Mud Snake.

#7 Southern IL, August 17-20- When I first moved down to Southern Illinois, I got to see so many unusual plants, animals, and natural areas in that first weekend, culminating in my trip to see the Red-necked Stint and the eclipse.  It’s unforgettable- and it was really hot!

#6  Three Weekend Days in Emiquon, April 10, 16, and 23- One of these was with the Lincoln Land  Environmental Club, one was with Mom, and one was by myself.  I saw a lot of unusual species on all three days, and it was interesting to see all the changes week-to-week.

#5  Lake Carlyle Pelagic Trip, September 30- I met many birders and got to see four lifer birds, as well as the most bird species I’ve ever seen in one day (88?).

#4  Kankakee Trip  with the Fenelon, August 1- Orange-fringed Orchids!  Thousand-acre prairies! Philosophical discussions in the car!  It was perfect.

#3Snake Road, October 13-14-  I saw 80 snakes over these two days.  That’s pretty awesome.  I also got to meet a LOT of herpers.

#2 Ozarks Trip, May 17-19- The Lincoln Land Environmental Club trip- that was so much fun.  We had skinks, a nesting Eastern Phoebe, and a Luna Moth on our front porch.  The ticks were a little annoying, but everything else- weather, sightings, lodging, people- couldn’t be topped… well, I guess it could, by #1…

#1 Colorado, June 5- 14- Family vacation in Colorado.  Snow-capped mountains, family, orchids, all kinds of animals (including 30 lifer birds)- I had so much fun here. I’ve had a great year.

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

Honorable Mention- the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an elusive bird and I finally got one good photo:

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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————————————CAUTION, SNAKES BELOW THIS LINE!!!——————————————

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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#10 Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), southeastern Missouri- This was an unexpected find on a fun trip to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (that’s not an exact location).  Since Broad-banded Watersnakes are almost certainly extirpated from Illinois, Missouri is the closest I’m going to get to seeing one locally.

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#9 Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca), Snake Road, Illinois-  A State-Threatened species of treefrog in Illinois, the Bird-voiced has been a species I’ve wanted to find for a long time.

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#8 Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), southern Illinois-  Another amphibian I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this salamander was even on its nest.  Bonus points to you if you find the Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) hiding in the photo.

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#7 Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), Missouri – My only rare lizard of the year, this was one of the highlights of one of my Missouri trips. Overcollected for the pet trade, Eastern Collared Lizards are uncommon to find.

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#6 Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri Ozarks-  This was in a parking lot, about ten minutes after we got to the location where we found it.

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#5 Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), Missouri Ozarks- About fifteen minutes after finding the Eastern Hognose, this slithered across our path about three feet from my foot. Some people would freak out- I did, but exclusively from joy.

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#4 Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), central Illinois- This is a snake I’ve always wanted to see, and I found it at a special spot to me, which I cannot state because collectors.  It was also up a tree, which I did not expect and which proved a photographic obstacle.

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#3 Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Snake Road, Illinois- My long-standing nemesis snake decided to randomly crawl out in front of me one fine October day. 58 snakes later, that was still the best snake of the day.

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#2 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), southern Illinois- I’ve managed to see three of these this year in Illinois.  The photographed one was the best of the three.

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#1 Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Snake Road, Illinois- It was a slow day at Snake Road, on September 15, the day after a nice rain… Suddenly, I spot a snake crossing the road at the first marshy spot on the north end.  I figured it was a Cottonmouth… but the red was a giveaway.  This is a snake that people at Snake Road who’ve been looking for 20 years haven’t found. (Don’t judge that sentence’s verbiage too harshly.)

Back To Central Illinois! No Snakes This Time!

Hey, I’m going to write a post without herps in it for once!  (There was a snake, but it was moved to a previous blogpost so the ophidiophobes [people afraid of snakes] could enjoy these again.  If you’re one of those people, just don’t go to prior posts from the last two months.) So, a couple weeks ago, I went up to visit my family in Central Illinois.  While there, I decided to talk both my parents into visiting Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve.  A prior expedition up there didn’t end well with Mom and I… we got lost for about 2-3 hours in brush and grasses well over our heads.  By comparison, scaling the loess (windblown sediment) cliffs below was a walk in the park.

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Oh, and last time Mom and I visited, which I didn’t write about because I took less than 20 photos and there wasn’t much to write about, we never ended up where the scenic views were.  Here, we did, and this is why I come back to such a challenging place time and time again:

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In a remote spot near this preserve, Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) bloomed a little, defying my attempts to get a photo.  My last flowering orchid of the year, I figured it would be my last orchid in Illinois for the year.  I was wrong, more on that in the future.

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As we walked back to our car, on a route not back down the cliff, a route rather reminiscent of all the brush, vines and thorns Mom and I’d visited previously, we stumbled across one of my favorite Illinois invertebrates, an American Giant  Millipede (Narceus americanus), usually found in nicer-quality woodlands (at least, that’s where I find it).  Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve also has some old-growth ravine forests, which while not as interesting as the prairies visually, do contain a wide variety of birds and other animals.

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Speaking of great woodland birds, here’s a new one for the fall, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  These birds migrate south to overwinter in Illinois, because for them, Illinois is warm.  I suspect I’ll be seeing more of these as the year goes on.

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Sapsuckers are a type of woodpecker, just like this Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens):

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I’m sure people are wondering why this bird is being handled- it is, after all, illegal to pursue, hunt, take (which legally includes handle), capture, kill, or sell one of these birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act…. and without a waiver or permit that act applies to all but three of the United States of America’s birds.  (Those three are Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow and European Starling.)  However, in this case, the holder has a wavier- it’s bird banding!

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Bird banding involves the permitted legal capture of birds like this Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) using safe methods by well-trained volunteers, who then tag every bird they capture with a loose-fitting metal or plastic band (like the one above, tight enough to remain on the bird and loose enough to not impede it or cause discomfort).  Very quickly afterwards, they release it.  If  the banded bird is recaptured, they write down the band number and learn from that where the bird was last captured, how long ago it was captured, etc. Much of what we know about bird migration comes from bird banding operations.

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For instance, the first White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) of the fall 2017 season was banded the day I arrived.  The banding station is at Lincoln Land Community College, open roughly 7 to 11 AM Monday- Saturday,  late August- early November and late March- May.

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Not all the interesting birds were banded- a migrating Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) flew over and fished at the lake.  That was likely the best bird of the day.

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The bird fished for awhile at the pond- I believe it was still in the area when I left, but that was two weeks or more ago.  Ospreys aren’t common birds in Illinois, but they become more common during migration.

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Speaking of migration and data, this American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) was running a bit later than usual for migrating out of Illinois.  After it was banded, under careful instruction and the watchful eyes of the banders, I was allowed to hold and release the bird.   Releasing a bird is a very satisfying and enjoyable thing to do, and it’d been awhile since I’d been able to do it.

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My dad got to release a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) before we left, his first time doing so.  It was one of my favorite moments of the year… I’m glad he had the day off to do so.  I’m back in Southern Illinois now, getting into trouble… more on that in a future post also!

Ebird Checklists:

Revis Hill Prairie: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39691586

Lincoln Land Community College: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39788030