Not too far from where I live, between an hour and two hour's drive away (depending on the starting point), is a very different ecosystem and a chance to shake things up, birding wise: the Illinois River valley. I love water, and so do many birds, so these river birding trips should be a sure thing. However, I am still learning my way around what is quite a large area, getting a feel for all the habitats involved (including some interesting human habitats). Frequently, these Illinois River Valley birding days turn out to be more maddening than productive, especially as my birding buddy on these trips, my mom, is a great sport but the world's worst navigator.
We made a couple trips in February, because I was really hoping to find some open water, and thus a chance to see some ducks and geese (all the lakes and ponds in my own county being frozen solid), and because by that time of the year I am so sick of being cold that the thought of driving up and down the river and looking at birds from the car window is actually kind of appealing.
On February 21 we had actually intended to start out with a stroll at Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area, north of Peoria. I had never been there but "Birding Illinois," by Sheryl De Vore, my bird-trip Bible,states that it is a good place to see pileated woodpeckers and wintering creepers, gulls and bald eagles. We arrived via a convoluted series of back roads (this, to avoid having to drive through East Peoria)only to find the gate closed. It seemed like a nice place for birds, too. We saw horned larks dodging off into the fields on our way in, and both a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch were exploring a tree right outside the gate. We stared at the gate for a while as if it would spontaneously open. It was already a cold, damp, gray, drizzly day, and I felt as if any additional problems would send me right over the edge. (I sometimes suffer from "birder's rage" when I feel that things really aren't going my way. I tend to take it personally. This is part of the reason I say my mom is a good sport). I consulted the birding book. "If this area is flooded, the gates are locked..." I read.
We discussed the situation for a minute. "Maybe it's flooded." "It doesn't look flooded." "Why else would they lock the gate?" "Maybe they just forgot to open it?" As we debated whether walking around the gate would be a good idea, the sky proceeded to engage in a fresh bout of drizzling, and we decided instead to continue driving north along the river to see if anything interesting came up.
We found our birding bliss in Henry, where the marina had some open water and, first thing as we drove into the parking area, a nice flock of snow geese and one greater white-fronted goose waddling around on the grass. In the water was a pair of ruddy ducks (I had not seen one so close since 2007) and some common mergansers. Perhaps the most entertaining item was a trio of bald eagles -- two adults and a juvenile -- fighting over a fish. Some people can go out in all seasons and weathers and see dozen of birds, but for me, in February, this constituted a pretty good birding moment.
On our way home (we didn't see anything interesting after Henry)it started to sleet. But by that point, I had convinced myself that it had been a pretty good day: we saw SOME birds, and in addition, we saw Henry, or at least its marina. That is one of the great "side effects" of birding -- I have probably seen more of Illinois than any other state I've lived in, because the birds give me a reason to explore. I would never think, "Today I want to drive around and see a bunch of small towns, and fields, and obscure county parks..." but the birds get me out there, and, in retrospect, all that other stuff was half the fun of it.