Sunday, March 21, 2010

Floodlands -- Illinois River Valley birding part II

Despite all the bad luck I experienced on my last Illinois River Valley birding day (as described in my last post, "Birding bliss in Henry"), two weeks later, I convinced my mom that we should go back for more. It had been getting a bit warmer in the intervening fortnight,and a lot of the snow had melted, so I was once again certain that we would surely find huge patches of open water, positively filled with migrating or still-wintering ducks and geese. I told my mom (my erstwhile birding buddy) that this time we would head south instead of north and we would check out a bunch of new places that I had found with the help of the Internet.

The day started out well. We stopped at Powerton Lake in Tazewell County, just south of Pekin, which is actually a cooling pond for the power plant, and thus free of ice. In fact, the warm water and cold air created a misty effect that made me think of some archetypal pristine wilderness, the watery plumes of underground hot springs drifting across a plain.... That was just a fleeting impression, however, because Powerton Lake is anything put pristine: we were looking right across at the power plant, while traffic roared by on the busy road behind us. And the area smelled rather bad, of rotting fish.

While my mom was eating her breakfast and changing her shoes in the Jeep, I wandered out and saw a belted kingfisher with a fish in its mouth land on a post right in front of me. It whacked the fish against the post a few times and then proceeded to eat it. It was one of those moments I could point to when people wonder how I can spend so much of my free time looking at birds. Because I get to see cool stuff like this! But that was really all there was to see at Powerton, except for some fishermen (who were quite friendly, but not what we were looking for).

We then went to Spring Lake (mute swans, common mergansers, but the lake was still almost completely iced over), then down to Chatauqua (some bald eagles), and then we continued south of IL highway 78 to what was to be the crowning moment of a whole month of birding: the Sanganois Conservation Area. We had never been there, but "Birding Illinois" described it as the most diverse area of the Illinois River Valley, with "backwater lakes, a deepwater marsh" and "tens of thousands of ducks."
I was probably getting a little obsessed with ducks because the waterfowl section of my life list is not very impressive, and I knew from looking on-line that other birders were seeing ducks all over the place, and yet I could barely find a mallard!

Just getting to the Sanganois area seemed arduous -- the towns along the way seemed very small, and then driving along through fields, just fields...we seemed to be heading for the proverbial middle of nowhere, which is fun and exciting, but at the back (OK, more toward the middle) of my mind is always the thought: what if we get stranded? Cell phones are nice and everything, but this looked like a long way from anywhere! (Just for the record, I want to state that I am NOT one of those city people who is afraid of squirrels or gets creeped out walking in the woods. But there is something about the Illinois River Valley that pushes at my comfort zone, in a good way. It's not just the birds that keep me going back. I find the whole area to be fascinating.)

And then, finally! We had arrived! There was a nice brown sign announcing it. No one else was around, but we headed down the dirt road into the heart of the wilderness. Or rather, we squelched down it. The road was a soggy, sodden mess. And then, a ways down, was a pick-up truck parked halfway across the road. We did wonder, briefly, why someone had abandoned a truck out there in the middle of the road, but there were deep tracks where someone else had gone around it, and so, urged onward by visions of ducks, we followed suit.

At that point, we were starting to realize that the truck had probably been put there on PURPOSE, to keep us out, because the road stopped being sodden and squelchy and started being underwater and completely eroded. (A sawhorse with a sign saying "Road closed" might have been too obvious?) Perhaps my fear of being stranded in the middle of nowhere was not quite so irrational. I had to get out and ground-guide my mom so she could turn the Jeep around without driving it into a ditch and, once again foiled in our pursuit of ducks, we continued on our way.

Note to Self -- also, note to others who might be reading this post and perhaps be as misguided and clueless as Self: Spring thaw is NOT a good time to try backwater birding. The backwaters flood. Everywhere else we tried to go that day was the same: Meredosia (flooded), Banner Marsh (flooded).

On the way back, however, we did see the spectacle of thousands upon thousands of Canada geese lining the banks and margins of the Illinois River. Whenever there was a bend in the road or a gap in the trees allowing us to look down at the water, there they were, in humbling multitude.

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