It was Kyle Wiktor and I, the”Look Here, It’s Cranes”, versus the “Grumpy Old Men” (their team name, not insulting them here) in a showdown for the highest number of species in Hardin County on April 28, 2018, as part of the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, a competition to see the most birds and raise the most money for charity. (The charity in question is the restoration of the Cache River watershed.) The “Grumpy Old Men” were the dominant champions, with three of the best birders in Illinois (Mark Seiffert, Andy Sigler, and Craig Taylor) competing against me and Kyle, two of the birders in Illinois. Actually, at present Kyle’s not even in Illinois- he’s the migratory bird counter at Indiana Dunes. To see what he does, check out this blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/. The “Grumpy Old Men” had access to a secret wetland spot, and we had no idea where it was. We assumed it was a quarry pond. They’d scouted out the area to a limited extent, and so we followed their notes, having no time or money to do any of our own scouting. As a result, we knew it’d be hard for us to beat them, and so therefore we were just doing what we were doing for fun.
The day started off with indecision over vehicles, but we eventually chose Kyle’s minivan. At 4:30 AM we were stopped in Harrisburg, getting gas. First two birds of the day were American Robin and Song Sparrow at the gas station while I filled up the tank. Kyle missed the Song Sparrow. We were off to a great start.
We turned down some road west of Hicks (Yes, there’s a town called Hicks in southern Illinois.) about 5:00 AM. Immediately we were greeted by calling Eastern Towhees. Barred Owls, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, a Field Sparrow, and a few Northern Cardinals joined in. The Whip-poor-wills got louder and became one of the loudest birds present. Whip-poor-wills are strange birds known as nightjars, with large eyes, mottled gray bodies and stubby bills. They’re rapidly declining throughout their range, so hearing lots of them is a great sign. Pictures of Whip-poor-wills can be found here: https://lakecountynature.com/2013/07/29/campfire-serenade/
We spotted eyeshine on the road, and stopped to see what it was. The eyes rose up and started flying- it was a pair of Whip-poor-wills on the road! They flew right over our heads. It’s rare to see such a well-hidden bird in flight.
The day only got better and better as we drove into our dawn spot. Every Big Day requires a great dawn spot, and we chose Illinois Iron Furnace Park based on our hopes that it would be good. We’d driven past the area back in February and noticed that it had a good mix of woodland habitats. It proved to be ideal- we had about 40 species immediately. The best were three Cerulean Warblers, calling from high up in the treetops. I got to see one, but it flew off before photos. In addition to Cerulean, for the warblers we had Hooded, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Northern Parula (Setophaga americana, pictured):
The Cerulean Warblers were lifer birds, so I was happy. The day had started well, and it continued as we backtracked slightly towards a road we’d seen branching off from ours. Google began to panic, and I checked… this road wasn’t on Google at all. Yet it was well maintained and clearly had been here for awhile. What on earth was going on?
Despite the oddity of the road, it proved great. We added Worm-eating Warbler, Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager as we drove along through one of the finest woodlands I’ve ever seen in Illinois. Eventually we came to a road that Google recognized, part of Kyle’s original route. This netted us several more birds, including Blue Grosbeak, Barn Swallow, and a slightly unexpected Dickcissel. Lots of breeding birds had shown up… very few migrants had, however. The cold had kept them away for the most part.
Breeders everywhere, migrants nowhere. I spotted a Nashville Warbler, a migrant, but it eluded Kyle. The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) were blooming abundantly along the roadsides, as were many other flowers. Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) were moving through in flocks:
We drove 225 E south to Peters Creek Tower Road down to Rock Creek Road, cutting through small farms and thick woods, with Louisiana Waterthrushes and Northern Parulas calling everywhere. This Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) posed in a tree as we drove past:
On 225 E, we had the windows down listening for birds. “Te-slick” something called. Kyle went “That’s a Henslow’s Sparrow!” We stopped, and found not only five Henslow’s Sparrows but also a Yellow-breasted Chat. Elated at our luck, we continued onwards, stopping by a set of sinkhole ponds adjacent to Rock Creek Road that looked good to us previously. Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Boring Swallows, would be a better name) and this glowing Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) greeted us, as did many other species:
The sinkhole ponds got us Wood Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Orchard Oriole, House Wren, Palm Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and more. It’s a good migrant trap to remember for later. Southern Hardin County is dotted with ponds like these, formed by sinkholes in the limestone bedrock underlying the area. This particular one is directly adjacent to the road, so it’s somewhat publicly accessible, unlike the vast majority of sinkhole ponds.
We got Cliff Swallow a few minutes later down the road, at a spot where we missed Wilson’s Snipe and a Pectoral Sandpiper. With that, Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Purple Martin, we were only missing one swallow… and Bank Swallow came just a few minutes later at a wetland called the Big Sink that we’d stopped by briefly (more on that later). We had a Swallow Shutout! We drove into Cave-in-Rock happy about this, and saw House Finch, House Sparrow, and Chimney Swift upon entering. Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) were quite abundant in the area, still “blue-ing” up for spring:
Cave-in-Rock is a cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River, accessible when the Ohio lets it be. It wasn’t feeling generous today, so we contented ourselves with Red-headed Woodpecker, Nashville Warbler (heard by both), and a couple lunches at the eponymous state park.
We did see a Black Vulture flying over Kentucky from the park’s cliffs. I have now seen two species in Kentucky this year- both vultures. Other wildlife was to be had, also, including this Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) enjoying the sun at the restaurant.
Down the road, we turned east and kept going. A small marshy spot was our reward, with Swamp Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria):
The spot wasn’t much to look at, but it’s hard to find this type of wetlands in Hardin county:
We drove down more backroads. Afternoon had set in and it was slow going, with a Gray Catbird and Swainson’s Thrush on one particularly difficult road. We had to rebuild that road using rocks before we could keep going. The lovely flowers of Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) rewarded our trip, though our efforts didn’t.
We drove back and forth along the river, picking up Blue-winged Teal and Summer Tanager at one stop, but no Mallards. No Mallards, no Ruby-crowned Kinglets, no Northern Flickers, and no Fish Crows. Where were they? Those should be easy birds to find.
A stop at a fish farm got us an unexpected Osprey, Double-crested Cormorants, an Eastern Meadowlark, and the overdue Northern Flicker, at about 1 PM.
We drove northeast to find that the shorebird habitat we’d hoped for had dried up, with only a few Solitary Sandpipers remaining. Oh well. We then decided to check a spot that looked like open pine trees, in hopes of Brown-headed Nuthatches expanding their range into Illinois. Apparently last year the Shawnee National Forest people did logging here, so there wasn’t much to see… but it got us our Ruby-crowned Kinglet! This is state land, to be clear, and it wasn’t marked with any obvious No Trespassing signs, nor were there any signs of recent activity.
Saline Landing was our next stop, which proved to be a very unique riverside town that Kyle said reminded him of Alaska. It only had one road in and out, and was likely an hour from the nearest Walmart. I’ve never seen a more isolated community anywhere in the US. And yet, unlike many southern Illinois river towns, it was fairly clean and well-maintained, despite the flooding of part of the town by the Ohio River. However, it had no new birds and the drive there took about an hour out of our day.
After this, we decided to take a slight break because Kyle wanted to see Garden of the Gods, just over the border in Saline co. We did that, got ice cream in Hardin, and sat out eating it while we planned out our night. We’d given up hope on Mallard and Fish Crow. We hadn’t added any new birds in hours, and had basically wasted about three or four hours of time, something to not do on a Big Day.
To make up for lost time, we decided to try seeing the Big Sink again, a spot we’d popped in and out of earlier to get Bank Swallow. It’s the largest wetland in Hardin county, and the only water lost from it is through evaporation- it flows nowhere. The only access was down a narrow dead-end road between farmfields, which we assumed was public because there were multiple houses and a church connected to it. As we arrived, we spotted the “Grumpy Old Men” scoping out things, as pictured below. We realized that large flocks of ducks were on the opposite bank, just a bit too far off for us to identify with 100% certainty. I did manage to pick out a Pied-billed Grebe. The “Grumpy Old Men” came back up the road and told us we were trespassing.
Trespassing? There wasn’t any purple paint, signs, or gates that we saw. What?
The owners of the property came out and confirmed this. We were trespassing! Apparently this was a private lane, though neither Kyle or I had seen any signs of this. Well, we got out of there, but it didn’t leave a good impression on the other birders and we weren’t thrilled about not being able to see the ducks well enough for ID. For a bit, we even thought the other birders had called up the owner and had us kicked us out just to keep us from seeing what they were seeing. Of course, it did kick in that we’d actually been doing something massively illegal, and we could’ve been fined, arrested or shot. Thankfully the owners did none of those things, and just escorted us off their property. We found out the next day that the “Grumpy Old Men” had taken time to get to know the owners well, but since the owners were private people dealing with their own issues they didn’t want a bunch of birders they didn’t know all over their land. And then we showed up… twice…
Next time, we won’t assume! Our sincerest apologies, again, to both the “Grumpy Old Men” for jeopardizing their access to the spot and giving birding a bad name, and to the owners of the “Big Sink” for trespassing on their property and causing them a hassle they definitely didn’t need.
Our next plan was to go get American Woodcocks, but instead of going to the spot where the other team had definitely had woodcocks on scouting trips, we instead decided to try for them at the Henslow’s Sparrow spot and avoid any further interactions for a bit. This proved to be a costly mistake, since we missed American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-Widow at the other spot, birds the other team had recorded there that morning. Since they’d gotten all three of those nocturnal birds in the wee hours of the morning, the “Grumpy Old Men” felt no compulsion to return. We would have been alone and had three species, one of which, Chuck-wills-Widow, would have been a lifer for me at the time, though I’ve head one since at Cedar Lake. Oh, well. We also got lost a bit on the way to the Henslow’s Sparrow field, which didn’t help us any.
We added nothing new, but the sheer numbers of Eastern Whip-poor-wills in this region are impressive. I’ve never had anything like them. We tried for Chuck-wills-Widow at a few spots, but none were calling, at least not for certain. We thought about trying harder, but I had a rough week ahead so we stopped and went home. Our final list was 110 species.
Yeah, we didn’t win. The “Grumpy Old Men” did, with 122 species. That being said, we pulled 110 species out of a difficult county, with close to no preparation and with <10 species added after lunch. If we’d exerted a lot more effort in the afternoon, who knows… we might’ve pulled ahead. That being said, without more migrants and with limited wetlands, I doubt it. There’s so many birds I’m sure we could have tried for with more effort, but we did a decent job and it was mostly for fun and charity anyway.
Our best finds were Cerulean Warbler (lifer!) and Henslow’s Sparrow, as well as the numbers of Whip-poor-wills and warblers in the area. Our biggest misses were Mallard and Fish Crow.
Speaking of charity, several people donated to the GoFundMe campaign I’d done for this event. Thanks to Steve Bailey, Cynthia Gorrell, Shawn Gossman, Ava Alford, and Ted Wolff for their generous contributions to conserving the Cache River Watershed. Further credit goes to Rhonda Rothrock for running the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois. And hats off to Craig Taylor, Andy Sigler, and Mark Seiffert for being excellent opponents. Until next year, gentlemen.