Category: REALLY RARE

Winter 2019 Sort of Recapped

Right, I’m a wee bit behind here.

Last actual post I did on here was of the Carlyle Lake Trip.   I’m going to pass over Fall 2018- a lot happened but it’ll take too long to recap. Let’s move into January and February 2019.

I stayed up in central Illinois and spent early January 2019 with my parents, with very few plans of what I would do this year besides studying for the GRE, graduating college, finding a job, etc.  On January 7 I decided to get out and about on a warmer day and go looking around a nearby marsh in the Lick Creek Wildlife Area.  This resulted in my finding two unusual records.

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First up was a turtle- in particular, one of Illinois’ more common turtles, the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  I’ve never had a reptile before an amphibian in January.  This turtle, however, can be winter-active when it wants, and as this day exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature the turtle, one of a few, was out basking in the sun.

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The second and far more ridiculous of my two finds was a wintering Common Yellowthroat (Geoythypis trichas).  This warbler species is supposed to be down on the Gulf Coast at this time of year- not hanging out by the side of a creek in central Illinois!  This was one of TWO I found in January, the second down at Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area in Union co. Illinois, both in marshy grasslands with open water.

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After a couple of weeks, I went south for my last semester of college, to the Shawnee Hills.  I’ve earned a reputation in certain corners of the internet for praising Southern Illinois a lot, and this isn’t unearned.  As the landscape above shows (taken from Grand Tower Island) the Snow Geese wander around this area in January, and in great numbers, and with great scenery as a backdrop, and everything is “great” and I’m overusing that word now and this is a run-on sentence and I don’t know how to end it.  Ope, there we go.

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Here’s those Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens), along with a few Greater White-fronted Geese (foreground, orange bills and brown bodies, Anser albifrons), hanging out in a nearby shallow wetland just off Route 3 in Jackson co Illinois.  They’ve all mostly migrated out of here by now, but for two months the air was thick with Snow Geese down here.

Snow Geese aren’t the only large, mostly white birds to pass through this area…

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WHOOPING CRANES!  A pair of these incredibly rare, endangered birds (Grus americana) overwinter in a secret location in Southern Illinois.  This pair will fly back to Wisconsin in the summertime, where they’ve been reintroduced. Note that they were photographed from inside a car and we used a decent amount of zoom.  Don’t approach Whooping Cranes too closely, as there are less than a thousand of them in the world and scaring them could potentially do considerable harm.

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Another quite rare bird I found (this one personally) in January was a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) , one of which is photographed.  I found a third one at Larue-Pine Hills a month later, in late February. These birds are uncommon migrants through southern Illinois.  Back in the 1970s, Golden Eagles were recorded annually in parts of southern Illinois, following massive flocks of Canada Geese as they made their way south to forage here.  However, more recently farmers have started plowing their fields in the spring, leaving some corn remaining in their fields overwinter, and geese distributions shifted.  Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese came in and now feed upon the remains of corn in the area, while Canada Geese remain much further north. (This is potentially oversimplifying the shift in geese, to see some more causes read this article linked here) The Golden Eagles shifted their range also, although some still come down this far south after ducks and geese.

GHOW on nest

In addition to the rarer birds, I found this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) occupying a nest somewhere in the Mississippi River Valley.  Unlike many bird species, Great Horned Owls nest during the winter and typically take over other bird’s former nests.

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While driving around looking for salamanders the other night, some friends and I came across this Barred Owl (Strix varia) sitting on a road side and quite willing to pose for photos.

Little Gull

One of the rarest birds I’ve gotten to see of late, and the only new one (lifer!) for me was this Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), the bird with the black underwing in the blurry photo above.  A predominately Eurasian species that rarely nests in the US and Canada, Little Gulls sometimes tag along with large flocks of other gull species and migrate through Illinois.  I’ve tried and failed to find several over the years, and I finally found this one at Carlyle Lake with a friend last week.

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Alright, after spamming all those rarer birds, let’s cool off with some ice formations from Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park, before moving on to small and cute birds.

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Over this winter, an unprecedented irruption (winter movement) of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) occurred in the Eastern United States.  This species of bird lives in the boreal forests of Canada and feeds upon pine and spruce seeds.  In years of a poor seed crop (like this year) they move south in numbers to feed on pine seeds.  As the Shawnee Hills have many pine plantations and naturalized pines, Red-breasted Nuthatches thrive here during the winter.  Coming from the Canadian wilderness, Red-breasted Nuthatches have limited fear of people.

PIWA

Unlike the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) are found predominantly in the Southern US and up until the last few years they did not winter in Illinois regularly.  However as the climate warms just a bit and the pine plantations grow up and age, Pine Warblers become more and more frequent in Southern Illinois over the winter.

Birds are not my sole interest in life, however, and while they’re one of the few things to look at in January that will look back at you and show signs of life, I have looked for

On iNaturalist, I’ve joined the Illinois Botanists Big Year.  This is a competition to see who can observe the most plant species in Illinois over the course of this year.   I have a decent start going, mostly due to the fact that in residing near the Shawnee Hills I have access to a wide swath of biodiversity and far less snow cover than Northern Illinois.  Actually,  I might be downplaying my lead a little too much.  As of 3/4/19, I have 299 plant observations of 143 species.  The second highest observer in the competition is at 95 observations of 87 species.  I don’t expect to win overall- there’s a lot of time left and far more experienced botanists participating- but it definitely feels great to be #1 for now.  For more information visit this link here to go to the project’s homepage.

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Arguably the best plant I’ve seen this year was the Appalachian Filmy Fern above (Vandenboschia boschiana).  This bizarre fern with fronts one cell layer thick only grows in fully shaded, south-facing sandstone or other acidic rocks, with constant high humidity. It’s a VERY specific microhabitat, and as a result this fern is state-endangered in Illinois and only found in a few locations. I took a walk back to one of the locations in February and found it hiding there.

Cypressknee Sedge

Another rare plant in Illinois is Cypressknee Sedge (Carex decomposita) which grows on stumps, fallen logs, cypress “knees”, the sides of dead trees, and other dead masses of wood in slow-moving waters.   Plants can grow in some bizarre locations.

Asplenium pinnatifidum

This Asplenium pinnatifidum was a wonderful find, an uncommon fern growing in sandstone in Giant City State Park.  Half the leaves in that photo belong to an unrelated plant.

Harbinger-of-Spring

While many people semi-seriously use the prognostications of “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog to predict the end of winter, a far better sign of spring is the so-called Harbinger-of-Spring (Eregenia bulbosa), an early-flowering woodland plant shown above.  That being said, I went out and found this plant in late February.  It’s early March and there’s currently snow on the ground.   Plants and groundhogs say what they will, winter doesn’t end until it wants to.

In all seriousness, I was quite glad to find this plant, and while it might be cold now winter does come to an end soon and it will be spring.  The woods along Hutchins Creek (below) will be green before long, and I look forwards to it!

Hutchins Creek

Many people are not aware of the number of salamanders that can move on warm, rainy nights in the late winter.   This causes mass deaths of salamanders when they reach a road and have to cross it on a rainy night.  Thus, friends and I go out and move the salamanders across the road in the direction they’re trying to go, in order that they may survive to reproduce.

Spotted Sal

One of the first salamanders of the year is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), found in high-quality woods locally.  A friend and I spent a night moving a half-dozen of these from a busy state highway, including the gorgeous individual shown above.  Salamanders require fishless wetlands, typically large vernal (springtime-only) pools in woodlands, in order to reproduce.  Many die each year during their trek to the pools, and I’m glad we helped a few.

Crawfish Frog

Another specialist of fishless wetlands is the Crawfish Frog (Lithobates areolatus).  This species gets its name from its residence inside crayfish burrows, from which hundreds emerge every February-March in order to spend a week reproducing out in flooded fields.  Crawfish Frogs are extremely light sensitive and will retreat underwater or underground at the approach of light.  Thus, the only way to see one is to drive along a road slowly in an area where the Crawfish Frogs breed and hope for a “dumb” one to remain on the road for a minute when it sees lights.  Thankfully the lights it saw were ours and we got it off the road before it was run over.

Marbled Sal

In lowland swamps, another salamander that moves on warm rainy nights is the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), perhaps the most beautiful of Illinois salamanders.

PSA, if you can’t tell by now, don’t go driving on warm (40s-50s), rainy nights in wooded or lowland areas, or if you do, keep an eye out for salamanders and other amphibians crossing the road.  If you encounter a salamander on the road, wear plastic gloves (preferentially) and move it across the road in the direction it was initially facing when you first encountered it.

Northern Dusky Salamander

To switch up, here’s a couple individuals of the Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus).  These salamanders originated in Tennessee, but they are used as fishing bait and as a result were transported to Illinois.  They have since taken over a couple hundred feet of a spring-fed stream and now live there in an isolated colony, the only Northern Dusky Salamander population in the state.  An older one below shows how good they are at hiding on the creekbed.

Hidden N. Dusky Sal

While looking for other salamanders in another spot, a friend accidentally flipped this Blackspotted Topminnow (Fundulus olivaceus) out from under a rock.  I grabbed it and after a quick photo released it straight back into the creek.  This is, so far, the most interesting fish I’ve seen this year, and a first state record on iNaturalist.  It’s nice to get that database in agreement with official data, and it’s nice to get a new fish species I’ve not encountered before.

Blackspotted Topminnow

Is this shorter? Probably not. It’s recap of two months worth of observations, however.  Considering that I’ve left out much of what I’ve seen (which y’all can view on my iNaturalist page at this link here) I feel it’s a good length.  That being said, I will try to keep it shorter from now on. Until then, have a good week!

Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.

Racing Rains, Chasing Cranes

Hey, let’s try doing a shorter blogpost for once, instead of these two-week-long megaposts that I finish at 1:13 AM!

Friday:  I find my first-ever Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa), one of our earliest native spring wildflowers.  It’s remarkably pretty for being related to carrots:

Harbinger-of-Spring

Saturday:  I spent most of the afternoon showing a British guy from my apartment around southern Illinois. We stopped at Kinkaid Lake Spillway, among other spots:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway

I found several yearbirds and introduced the guy to Snake Road.  Oh, and by the way, here’s the first Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster) of the year:

Plain-bellied Watersnake

A Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) also posed for us, a new and happy occurrence for this hider-in-tree-stumps.  Seriously, I’ve never seen a Winter Wren away from dead wood:

Winter Wren

As we left, I played Neil Diamond’s “America” and drove down a bumpy pothole-covered levee road in a Ford Ranger pickup truck. Felt pretty American to me.  For all the problems our country has, I’m still glad to live here.

Sunday:  I decided to venture up to Carlyle Lake and it’s OK-ish.  I missed one of the rarest bird finds in Illinois so far this year in Mottled Duck, which was fifteen minute’s drive away from me at the time.   I also missed out on a breeding-plumaged Laughing Gull ten minutes’s drive away.  I did get several yearbirds, including my first ever photos of a Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus).  To be clear, that’s a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the background.

Brewer's Blackbird and Killdeer

And this lovely Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus)- yes, that’s it, sitting on top of the concrete structure WAYYY out there in the middle of Carlyle Lake:

Osprey

I came down through Washington County, spotting my lifer Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) on the way.  If I’d counted dead ones, I’d have seen one many years ago, but somehow the live ones always eluded me.  Skunks aren’t that rare.  Thankfully this one was distant:

Striped Skunk

I then ended up birding the fish farms in Jackson County, which ended the day well with my first of the year Barn Swallow an hour before sunset and American Golden-Plovers half an hour before sunset.  The Gorham fish farms were productive as well, with many dabbling ducks like these:

Gorham Duck Ponds

Monday: Rage and screams of agony in the morning when I found out about the Mottled Duck (from the Missouri email group MObirds, the last place I expect reports of Illinois rare birds to reach me.) An internet acquaintance of mine and fellow birder discovered a pair of Whooping Cranes near him.  The forecast looked like rain the following day.  I called off an appointment for reasons unrelated to birds, leaving me free after 11:30 AM on Tuesday.

Tuesday- I finished class at 11:15 AM, a bit early.   The Whooping Cranes are an hour from me, and the Mottled Ducks and Laughing Gull are an hour and a half away.  I will get hit by the rain one way or the other, and it looks like about 1:00 PM is when it will hit the Whooping Crane spot, whereas it’s already beginning to rain at Carlyle Lake.  This makes it unfortunately easy to decide- it’s the Whooping Cranes.  I throw everything in a car and drive off in pursuit.

It began misting as I crossed the county line, but the hard rain held off and I got to the spot.  And:

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Whoop Whoop.  Grus americana.  There’s 600 or so of these birds in the entire world.  It’s such a special feeling to see something so rare, so close.  I used my truck as a blind to not disturb the birds as they foraged and even cleaned their feathers (preened).  The cranes had set up shop next to a fairly busy road, so evidently they weren’t too concerned, barely looking at me twice.

Whooping Crane Preening

I’ve now seen four Whooping Cranes since January 1, 2017, and zero Sandhill Cranes.  (That would be the continuing Randolph County birds and these new ones.)  This is either great or sad, considering hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes pass through Illinois- northern Illinois.  I plan to change my Sandhill Crane luck in May.

Whoop Whoop

Wednesday- I find out that the Mottled Ducks were in fact not rediscovered on Tuesday when someone checked before the rain, so the drive would have been for nothing if I’d pursued them.  Well, that was fun.  Time to go back and do school.

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:

TV

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.