Monday, March 29, 2010

Who put the F in Effingham? (a travelogue with some prairie chickens)

Yesterday my mom and I headed south to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area with the goal of seeing some greater prairie chickens. That is pretty much the only area left in the state where the once-numerous prairie chickens still reside, and after talking about going to see them for several years, we finally decided to do it. Prior to yesterday, my only experience with that corner of the state had been driving by Effingham on the freeway when heading further south.

Effingham's claim to fame is probably that it is home to the World's Largest Cross, a 198 foot white behemoth that towers over the freeway. I would always forget about it until it whizzed into view, and then I'd groan, "Oh no, it's the big tacky cross." Suffice to say, we did not stop to see this wonder on our trip. In fact, once again I'd forgotten all about it until spotting it while driving around the town...and this is the last you'll hear of it in this post.

We began our trip in good spirits, even though it was pouring rain. We stopped for breakfast in Arcola, decided to skip the Arcola Marsh due to the rain, and kept heading south to Effingham. There, we picked up highway 33 and continued south, passing a couple of signs for the prairie. It was still raining, and I had made the mistake of telling my mom that we would be near the town of Olney, whose claim to fame is the white squirrels that inhabit the town. In Olney, they are so proud of these squirrels that it costs $500 in fines if you run over one accidentally. I should have known that she would actually want to SEE these squirrels. (Personally, I had no desire to see them. I am not very fond of squirrels).

On the way there -- we picked up highway 130 at Newton -- our noses were assaulted with the most vile stench of pig shit. It seemed like every mile or so was a confinement barn stuffed full of unfortunate pigs, and the aroma of their excrement lingered in the air long before and after the actual "farm" came in view. It's the kind of smell that seems like it's clinging to your nose hairs. (I will skip the diatribe on why factory "farming" is terrible for many more reasons than the stench it creates -- but please, read "Eating Animals" by Johnathan Safran Foer. He tells it much better than I could.) Interspersed with these were small towns, Bible-belt style churches, and the occasional incongruous sign for a winery.

We got to Olney and found a park where the squirrels hang out. By this time, the rain had slowed down to a drizzle. Even having had few expectations about the squirrels, I was still disappointed. They are not snowy white, as pictured on the town's website and the "Welcome to Olney" sign at the town limits. They aren't really white at all. They're just ordinary squirrels that are a little paler than usual.

By now it was time to check out the prairie. I wasn't expecting to see any of the chickens, since it was now early afternoon and my "Birding Illinois" book says that they display at first light in the morning, but we wanted to get a preview of the area so we didn't get lost the following morning.

We found the park office and wandered around the yard until I found the corner of the fence covered with plywood where visitors could put up a spotting scope to look for the chickens. I looked out over the prairie. It wasn't very pretty at this time of year, and although the rain had stopped, a fierce wind was whipping over the flatlands. As I stood there, I heard an eerie humming noise, quite low. At first I wondered if the wind was blowing over the metal sign informing me that I could go no further on the prairie, catching it at some weird angle. I had never heard anything like that before. I raised my binoculars and could make out some chicken-sized shapes on the ridge across from me.

PRAIRIE CHICKENS!!! I sprinted across the parking lot to get my spotting scope. There were seven of them in view, and a couple were inflating their air sacs, creating that eerie blowing noise. I have read it described as someone blowing over the mouth of a jug, and it does kind of sound like that. We watched until the chickens had wandered off, and then decided to drive around the rest of the prairie.

It started to rain again. Periodically, it would slow down to a drizzle, and every time my mom would say, "It looks like it's slowing up now. It was only supposed to rain in the morning!" Then the skies would open up with a fresh downpour. My mom is an optimist about the weather. I pointed out that if she'd been on Noah's Arc, she would have kept saying, "I think it's getting lighter over there in the west" until the final deluge. But eventually, both our spirits were getting rather sodden by all the rain.

So we went back to Effingham, where we were to spend the night, and the town did not look very pleasant or welcoming in the drizzle. Then there was a mix-up at the hotel when we checked in. And finally, at the very end of the day, when it was too late to drive anywhere to bird...the sun came out. The wind stopped. It was a beautiful day.

I try to be a good sport when I travel, but finally I just had to ask it: Who put the "F" in Effingham?

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