Monday, July 12, 2010

Sand County Death March

Today I took the day off from work and Greenturtle and I headed out for Mason County, so I could look for lark sparrows and blue grosbeaks in the sand. Mason County is very sandy. There is Sand Ridge State Forest, which has the interesting Henry Allan Gleason Preserve, a "quiver prairie" made of sand. Recently I discovered that there are a couple of other sand prairies, and I wanted to check them out.

What is a sand prairie, you may be wondering. Well, it is a prairie--grassland or savanna (the difference between those two and woods is the percentage of trees versus open spaces. Prairies are mostly open, savannas are beautiful park-like areas that have about 30%-40% tree cover, and woods have very little open space) -- with sandy soil. This is a different habitat even than what I can find here, two counties over, supporting different plants, animals and, most importantly, birds! For example, in Mason County you can find cactus, yes, here in Illinois.

We stopped first at Scrub Oak Sand Prairie nature preserve, just south of Havana, outside the town of Bath. From the road it looked quite exciting, and I could hear a lovely symphony of bird-calls, including a bobwhite. We drove down the road about a mile to the parking area, and set out to explore.

There isn't really a trail as such. There's something vaguely resembling a trail, with red tape posted here and there to keep one on track. We walked into the woodsy scrub oak area and were immediately swarmed by dense clouds of mosquitoes.

Occasionally we would come to an open area, and I would scan excitedly for birds, not finding many...then on through the scrub again. At one point we left the trail and were trudging along a sandy road paralleling the preserve.

I forgot to bring water. I was dying of thirst. My sciatica was flaring up from trudging in the sand. Meanwhile, Eastern towhees kept mocking me by singing out, "Drink your tea!" As if I had any tea with me to drink! And don't tell me they didn't know that!

Finally, we popped out onto the Sand Prairie, and it was a wonder to behold. We saw a mockingbird, singing and singing, bank swallows, brown thrashers, dickcissels galore. No lark sparrows, as I'd been hoping for, but I did see a lovely grasshopper sparrow, and got to hear his buzzy song. But, the sun was beating down, and it was very hot. Satisfied with my small round-up of birds, we set off for the road, thinking to walk down the pavement to where we'd parked the car.

First, we had to traverse a wooded area. Does that sound nice and shady, a peaceful forest? Oh no, it was the Scrub Patch from hell!! No trails for us (I sometimes suspect that Greenturtle's motto is "trails are for wimps," with the crazy stuff he gets us into); we had to stagger over fallen logs and through brambles and spiderwebs, with our merry crowd of friends, the mosquitoes, back to keep us company. I did see a nice red-bellied woodpecker...but mostly I saw mosquitoes. Greenturtle was soon dripping with spiderwebs. I tried to follow directly in his footsteps to avoid that fate, since when I walk into a spiderweb I always scream like a girl. OK, I am a girl, but it's still undignified. This went on...and on...and on...until I was accusing Greenturtle of forcing us into the Sand County Death March and pointing out that the only thing missing was his personal specialty, the large patch of nettles. He tried to point out that I was the one who wanted to see the sand prairie but oh no, I wasn't going to take the blame for this one. We could easily have admired the prairie from THE SIDE OF THE ROAD!!

By now my ire was starting to fade as we had cleared the hellish Scrub Patch and were back on the pavement. Greenturtle held up his arm, from which three spiders dangled like a grotesque charm bracelet, and asked if I would mind removing them. I have to confess that he is a really good sport, subjecting himself to all of this and my tirade on top of it, when he could have stayed home in the air-conditioning playing a computer game. But much as I love him, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to state: yes, this was the Sand County Death March!

We regrouped with a picnic lunch at Chatauqua, a nice nature preserve along the Illinois River, while a blue-gray gnatcatcher squawled incessantly over our heads and a family group of blackbirds took umbrage at our presence and made quite a racket. By now it was early afternoon and getting very hot, so we decided to head somewhere indoors for a change, and went to the Dickson Mounds Museum, as Greenturtle had never been there. It is small but has a nice multi-media installation that I certainly did not mind seeing again.

After that cool interlude, we agreed that we were rather tired so we only made brief stops at Emiquon Nature Preserve and Banner Marsh on the way home. But good stops they were -- a huge flock of white pelicans at Emiquon and mute swans with cygnets at Banner Marsh.

And now we are home! Greenturtle's legs are all scratched up and I found a tick on my hindquarters, but it was all in the Pursuit of Birds.


  1. OMG! I'd still be screaming, if I found spiders dangling off of my arm, like 3 fat charms from a charm bracelet! Gives me the crawlies! Sounds like all you needed was a nice turkey vulture lazily circling overhead, just waiting and hoping...(I'm just joking; remember me and my near-death experience on the prairie at Sugar Grove?) But, you saw pelicans and BABY SWANS! Lucky!

  2. Oh, there were vultures all right.... Just waiting for me to pass out from dehydration!