Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Colors of the Day

Let's just say my week sucked, shall we? I don't want to get too specific, but my workplace has been experiencing a lot of "changes" (which may or may not be related to the "restructuring" that the "consultant" who visited us over the winter recommended, need I say more?). And when the going gets tough...the Crow goes birding!

One of the blogs I follow, Walk With Me, has a wonderful post from last week on Ducks, Pelicans and Snow Geese at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge in Fulton County, IL, and I decided that seeing all that was just what I needed.

I really love Emiquon--the Nature Conservancy's area especially is a wonderful example of a restoration project here in central Illinois. The Illinois River and its flood plains were once crucial habitat for countless migrating waterfowl and shorebirds--and now, thanks to projects such as these, this lovely habitat is being restored for the benefit of all the wonderful birds that pass through-and the birders that look for them. Unfortunately for me, it's a couple of counties away from me, so I only make it there once every three or four months -- but with the waterbirds coming through, it was more than time for a trip! I convinced Greenturtle that a good time would be had by all, and off we went.

First stop, Banner Marsh (straddling the line between Peoria and Fulton counties). Banner Marsh is another restoration success story (it used to be a strip mine), and is frequently a very birdy place, but today not much was going on (a couple of mute swans, always a reliable Banner Marsh sighting, not much else) so we headed further south to Emiquon.

Greenturtle was geo-caching (a hobby involving a GPS-guided scavenger hunt is the best I can describe it), and fortuitously, his first cache was found along Clark Road in Fulton County, and I found a new -- and very productive -- place to bird (if anyone wants to find it, if you are heading south on highway 24, turn left and then park as soon as you see the mowed trail -- this is part of the Nature Conservancy's Emiquon tract).

As he looked for his cache, I held up my binoculars and saw tons of water birds bobbing on the river down below. "Catch up to me!" I yelled, and off I went. I wasn't hoping for exactly the same sights that the Walk With Me blog showed -- the coming and going of birds is so ephemeral (in case you ever wondered about the name of this blog!) -- I have seen, for example, a huge flock of American golden plovers come down in a flooded field, and when I came back an hour later, they were gone. There are no guarantees in birding.

And while there were not the huge numbers of snow geese that were shown from last week, I was not at all disappointed. On the walk down, I saw American tree sparrows, a fox sparrow (nice year bird), and, bringing a special smile to my face, a Eurasian tree sparrow. Sunwiggy and I looked for them fruitlessly on many an Illinois River Valley trip, finally finding them much closer to home at Sugar Grove Nature Center -- and now, when I was least expecting it, I found one.

As I arrived at the water, I saw a marvelous mix of birds: American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, trumpeter swan (very exciting for me, as it was a "state bird"--e.g., first sighting in Illinois), American coots, ring-necked ducks, northern shovelers, and yes, flying in overhead, several amazing flocks of snow geese. The sheer multitude of birds was humbling and beautiful, the very smallest glimmer of what it must have been like, so long ago, to stand in this river valley and watch the birds flying in. For a moment, tears even welled up in my eyes....

But then Greenturtle joined me, bringing his camera. Sometimes when I review his photos after our trips, I wonder, what was he thinking with THAT ONE??? (like a slo-mo series of a snail)--but today he found some poetry in a ring billed gull:

It was hard to tear myself away from this birding paradise, but we had a lot of ground to cover, so after a sighting of a year bird eastern phoebe and a red-bellied woodpecker, we headed down the road to the Dickson Mounds museum area...and to another hotbed of birds!

Greenturtle found some caches on the museum grounds, and then I stopped to scope the ducks on the road, finding another bonanza, including more shovelers, ring-necked ducks, and hooded mergansers, plus buffleheads and common goldeneyes. Really, Emiquon was producing the ducks and I recommend it highly to any other central Illinois birder or nature lover.

At this area, we met a young birder from the greater Chicago area who came down for the weekend, who asked for advice and directions to the birdiest areas in the region. (I happily told him about the Clark Road bonanaza.) I was happy to hear that he'd gotten his "lifer" Eurasian tree sparrow today. He asked about Sand Ridge State Forest, having heard that crossbills might be found in the area. "I've heard that too," I said, "but I've never seen any there." I might have added...I've never seen much of anything there, except at the Sand Prairie, but did not want to be too negative.

After this stop, we ate lunch in Havana, then continued our day at Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge, frequently birdy but today--zilch (probably due to the high winds and very choppy waters along the River) and then Sand Ridge State Forest in Mason County.

As usual, not only did I not see any crossbills...I saw pretty much NOTHING! Although walking in sand is a very good workout.

Despite the disappointing turnout of birds (one female cardinal, black-capped chickadees and that's about all!), it was very peaceful being so far away from towns and traffic noises, and I convinced Greenturtle to stop at the Henry Allan Gleason preserve (the sand prairie) before we left. The colors of the grasses, even this early in the year, were just breath-taking:

At the right time of the year -- and the right time of day (some birders say that the magic's over by eight o'clock, but as I love my sleep, I adjust the magic time to 10:00 a.m.) -- this area is fantastic (can we say grasshopper sparrow??) -- but today, all it yielded was a turkey vulture and a pair of song sparrows. Still, it was very beautiful, as I was observing all the different shades of the grasses, from palest blonde, to silver, to russet, to brown. Seriously, these tiny natural corners of the "Prairie State" (yeah right, Illinois, with less than 2% of your land still prairie, you can do a lot better!) are just breathtaking. It's a subtle beauty, certainly, but once you see it, how can you help falling in love?

As usual, Greenturtle took various photos of me as well, and I have chosen the one that makes me look, shall we say, the least middle-aged?

Yeah, a really windy day...and I don't FEEL like I'm forty. From the inside out, I'm just one sciatica twinge away from my prime...but then again, I am old enough to reference the lyrics of a Judy Collins song in the title of this post!

And I do hope that all of you, no matter your age, go out and look for the colors of your day...and the birds that surround you!


  1. What a beautiful day you had! I'm feeling quite homesick. Love Larry's photos, especially the one of you, and the gull series is great! We are totally iced in up here, bay-wise, so it will be weeks yet before your Illinois ducks splash down in the UP. Sigh. Mom

  2. I also liked the ring billed gull :) It sounds like it was fun.