Category: Year List

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

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.

 

Christmas Bird Count 2017! (And The END OF 2017)

Tis the Christmas season, and for bird obsessives that means Christmas Bird Counts.  Over a hundred years ago, people used to go on Christmas hunts, and some conservation-minded people decided to instead count the birds they could find within a circle of diameter 15 miles.   This has happened for over a hundred years, and while Christmas Bird Counts have been surpassed by Ebird and other forms of data collection, they still provide a hundred-year record of species shifts and changes across certain areas in the US.

Logically, I would go to a CBC near where I live.  However, I don’t.  I instead go to the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area CBC, one of the best ones in Illinois.  With a large, shallow lake usually packed to the banks with ducks, I figured if nothing else I’d see some waterfowl.

On the way, of course, I intended to see a very special duck.  If you recall my trip to Carlyle Lake in the past, I’ve mentioned that it’s a good spot for rarities.  I think I said that.  I may not have, but at any rate, it IS a good spot for weird things, mostly birds and bad drivers, to show up.  (I’m not kidding about the bad drivers.  I think I’ve had someone pull out in front of me every single time I’ve been around Carlyle.  I’m not sure what it is about that place- perhaps it’s the same person every time in different vehicles.)

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Anyway, on the way there I spotted a couple of Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus, above) and a Rough-legged Hawk, as well as a few Northern Harriers.

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The latest rare bird to show up at Carlyle Lake was a Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus).  This is a bird of rocky shores and rapid rivers, not usually placid Midwestern lakes.  It was up against a breakwater, with some small waves, so it wasn’t completely out of place.

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Twas a cute little duck, and not very shy. The male Harlequin Duck (link here) is all dressed up in orange, blue, and white- it’s a sight to behold.  This was a female, but still fun to see.

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Many American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) also lingered on Carlyle Lake, moving south as the ice froze them out up north.  Further out, some 15,000 Snow Geese flew up, looking like a mushroom cloud of white and black as they moved further out into the lake.

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Hundreds of gulls too flew about, stirred up by Bald Eagles.  Many of these are the common Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis), but a few dozen Herring Gulls, a  couple of Iceland Gulls and a Lesser Black-backed Gull hid among the flocks.

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Here’s a good look at a Ring-billed Gull, a rather tame one accustomed to stealing bread from the hands of babes at a park in central Illinois.

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Further down the road, a large flock of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) also held a few Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) (the two birds on the right in the photo above). These two species completed the trifecta of swans that are possible to find in Jackson County.

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Unlike last year, there were more than enough volunteers, so a friend and I were assigned to Sector #5, an area of low hills and brushy thickets with mixed woods,  at least five cemeteries, a few meth labs, and some farmfields.  There’s a topographical map above, and Google Maps below:

Of course, everything froze over due to temps in the 10s Fahrenheit at night.  That’s highly unpleasant and made for a significant lack of ducks.  However, my section wasn’t badly affected by this, since it was mostly woodland.  The day started by meeting up and assigning territories from the gas station in Olive Branch at 6:30 AM- close to the center of the count circle. From there, we drove along the levees in the southern portion of the CBC, where we watched a Coyote run across the road and two Hooded Mergansers fly overhead.  Those were the only ducks we saw and could identify all day long.

We had a few dozen species driving the levee roads in the southern part of our sector, mostly sparrows, juncos and cardinals.  One of our bigger surprises was a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), black-masked brown berry-munchers:

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We went up into the hills after this, where flock after flock of juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and cardinals grazed by the side of the road.  Less common birds like Hermit Thrushes, Fox Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees occasionally joined in.  Red-bellied, Downy, and Northern Flickers (woodpeckers) sat on the side of trees and flew as we passed.   Red-shouldered Hawks perched on trees at every second bend in the road.  We were up to about thirty species by the time we’d driven through Shiloh Road, including a surprise Chipping Sparrow and Oregon subspecies of Junco.  However, we had a few misses… where were the robins, the doves, the pigeons?  Bluebirds, too… those should be everywhere.  At the village of Villa Ridge we found House Sparrow.  We also learned that in the hills here “lane” indicates a private, dead-end road.

After a Pileated Woodpecker flew off a tree nearby, we’d gained four of the seven woodpeckers necessary for WOODPECKER SHUTOUT- finding all the woodpeckers usually present in Illinois.  WOODPECKER SHUTOUT is only achievable when the migratory Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius, below) is present.  My friend in the car hadn’t seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in five years.  We found five -one for each year that he’d missed them!

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We may or may not have accidentally witnessed what appeared to be a drug deal just north of Mounds, Illinois, the only town on our route and one of the saddest places I’ve ever visited.  Just under half the town is below the poverty line.  Symptoms of meth were apparent, including on one of those in the suspected drug deal.  I also smelled a smell that I’ve been told is the smell of a meth lab north of town.  Southern Pulaski County (and the adjacent city of Cairo)  is one of the poorest areas in Illinois, though the northern part is somewhat better off and contains many of the Cache River sites visited by tourists.  Bypassed by the highway, forgotten by industry, and too distant from tourism sites, this area is poor and in severe need of trade.  I suspect manufacturers don’t want to settle here because of the potential for flooding from the two nearby rivers, the Ohio and Mississippi, which converge at Cairo.  Anyway, I’m here to discuss birds, not socioeconomic problems.

The gas station in town had bars over the windows, multiple locks, and a sign saying “No ski masks, scarves, or sunglasses inside.”  Evidently they’d been robbed a few times.  We got our gas and left.  On the north end of town was a cemetary with our only kinglets.  Just below it was a refinery or factory of some kind, and I decided to drive in and see if I could drive around it and find a Rock Pigeon.  We were nearly to the end of the road when “Hallelujah!”  Rock Pigeon!  That’s the only time I’m ever going to say that about those birds!

Eastern Bluebirds began to emerge as the temps climbed, and so did Turkey Vultures- lots of Turkey Vultures.  Black Vultures should also be present… where were they?

I drove the whole day, down roads marginally better than this (though, yes, I drove down this road, and it was a decision that got us our first Killdeer and some of our few Bald Eagles):

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I got out to look for Wilson’s Snipe in a flowing ditch, and was startled to discover Killdeer.  We’d had one flyover Killdeer at this time, but these and another, larger flock down in the bottomlands helped to bring us to 47- the high count among all sectors on that day, if I remember correctly. Also present was a Hairy Woodpecker, the only one we found that day.  With two Red-headed Woodpeckers seen earlier in the day flying among oaks on the eastern side of our sector, that brought us to WOODPECKER SHUTOUT.

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We spotted an incredibly pale hawk in a tree, and hoped it was a Snowy Owl.  This proved incorrect, but it does appear to be a pigment-deficient Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis):

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A random Mourning Dove was seen while backtracking through old territory, and we found two robins by going down a dead-end road not marked as a lane. The Black Vultures still eluded us, while 36 Turkey Vultures had flown by over the course of the day.

We walked down the banks of the Cache River to the Mississippi River, spotting almost all of our Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Brown Creeper, and our only Tufted Titmouse.  We then went back and picked up Savannah Sparrows on the levee.

An hour before sunset,  I went up a road that I thought was just a lane, but it turned out to be more than that- for it brought us dark shapes huddled on a water tower- the Black Vultures we sought. Just down the road were seven Mourning Doves.

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We spent our sunset time watching Snow Geese fly overhead, while Northern Harriers danced in the fields and a Red-tailed Hawk watched from a perch.  Attempts to find Short-eared Owls in a large grassy field nearby were unsuccessful, but a Barred Owl called nearby.

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We looked into this Barred Owl, and saw another one only twenty feet from the roadside.  Playing owl calls provoked a response from three Eastern Screech-Owls and another Barred Owl.  We ended the day with 57 species, as you can see in the checklist below.  Our biggest misses were waterfowl- our CBC as a whole got most of the expected species, but it was a struggle and a few species were represented by only one individual.  Our rarest species in our sector were the Chipping Sparrow, the Oregon Junco, and the pigment-troubled Red-tailed Hawk, and the three rarest species found on the CBC were an Indigo Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Sandhill Crane.  The first two are quite frankly ridiculous- they should be well south of us by now!

We had dinner at a local greasy spoon, and since I’m back in central IL over winter break it was a long drive back home for me, broken up over two days.

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I did a little more birding New Year’s Eve, and found a lifer Glaucous Gull on Lake Springfield (above and below) as my last species (#304 for the year), though I don’t have photos of it.  I’m happy with 2017- over 100 lifer birds, many of them unusual, rare, and unexpected, several lifer snakes and I survived living on my own for four months.  That last one is the most impressive, even though everyone does it at some point.  As the sun has set on 2017, I look forwards to 2018 (five days in and I’ve seen 56 species so far!)

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Full list of birds seen on Christmas Bird Count: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41414553

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.)