Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tiny twitches: De Witt County

Where to bird today? I mentioned in my last post that it was staring to feel like spring; well, over the weekend, the temperatures dipped down into the low thirties again, and yesterday it even snowed for a while. Being from Michigan, I can deal with these sudden changes (and much later in the year than March, believe me!), but my husband Greenturtle (a Southerner), declared that I was on my own for the weekend's outdoor ventures (he seemed downright offended by our cold front, as though Mother Nature were trying to screw with his mind or something), so I decided to resume my "tiny twitches" campaign, and head for Clinton Lake in De Witt county.

Clinton Lake is a birding hot spot for central Illinois birders -- Sheryl Devore sings its praises in Birding Illinois (btw--love that book, Ms. Devore, if you happen to read this, please consider a second edition!), and at least one birder I know goes there regularly and sees tons of great stuff. In my case...meh.

In birding circles, there is something known as the Nemesis Bird: a species that many other people see, and for whatever reason, you can't find no matter what you do. I was starting to wonder if Clinton Lake might be my Nemesis Place. I always imagine the waters bobbing with rafts upon rafts of ducks, with rarities by the truck-load soaring overhead (based on what other people apparently have seen there...not me!), and when I arrive, it's just in time for sighting a mallard and a flock of starlings. has not been that bad...but whenever Sunwiggy and I went, it always seemed like the weather was awful and/or hunters were blowing away any ducks before we could spot them. (And I am not categorically opposed to hunting, don't get me wrong -- here in central Illinois if no one hunted the deer they would eat everything in sight. Plus, if people are going to eat meat, responsibly hunting it oneself seems less cruel than going to the store and getting it direct from the Factory Farm...but I love ducks, so I don't want to WATCH them die).

It also didn't help that Clinton Lake is a little hard to navigate the first couple times around. We were expecting a circular or oval type body of water that we could drive around. After I finally broke down and purchased DeLorme's Illinois Atlas and Gazateer, I realized that the lake is shaped more like a big squashed finger, with various access points to drive in and out of. If you're not from the area and want to check out the lake, I recommend opening up Birding Illinois on one side and the Gazateer on the other and plotting out the points with a least that's how I finally figured it out.

At first, I thought that today the curse was going to continue. I stopped off first at the Clinton Lake Marina, and then a bit down the road to Mascoutin Recreation Area, scanning any open water I could find for ducks, and this is what I saw:

Do you see any ducks in that photo? Or even a Canada goose? Yeah, me neither.... So I fumed for a while, wondering why on earth I kept hoping to change my Clinton Lake luck and regretting the expense of driving out there.

But, I remembered a hiking trail that Sunwiggy and I had seen before, and decided would be nice to try if the weather were better (the Houseboat Cove trail at Mascoutin), and I figured, if I can't see birds, I can at least have a good walk.

My mood improved as soon as I got out of the car and started walking. That's why I love -- no, make that NEED -- as many "nature breaks" as I can get for my sanity. Just a few minutes strolling across a field or into a woods, and I feel like a whole different person.

I noticed animal tracks in the snow, maybe a raccoon?

There were a few birds along the path--robins, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, a northern flicker, plus a cool sighting of a rough-legged hawk--but mostly I was just enjoying being in nature.

The snow clinging to the long grasses looked really cool:

Sorry all the pictures are so dark--it was a really gray and moody day, perfect for a Long Solitary Walk. Not so perfect for photography, which is why I decided against using the telephoto lens and so you're getting nice landscape pictures instead of bird close ups. (And trust me, I like bird close-ups better too!)

The trail bordered the lake for much of its length. Despite the lack of water birds, it was fun to be so close to the water, plus I got to see things like this:

Is it just me, or is that funny? It's like...sshh, be quiet...the fish are spawning! (Just for the record, whatever it takes for fish to spawn--I did not disturb them!)

Then I came to a fork in the road:

At first, I decided to be lazy and take the short way back, a fortuitous choice, as I saw downy woodpeckers and a tufted titmouse (singing peter peter peter), but I could hear ducks quacking not too far off, and the short way was heading away from the lake, so I backtracked and took the longer route.

There were ducks--mostly mallards, from the quick glimpses I got, although I also saw some hooded mergansers and two pairs of (year birds) blue winged teals. It turns out that the ducks were avoiding the open water in favor of this:

This was a frustrating length of trail, for as soon as I came within eye-shot of them, the ducks took off in a quacking panic. And yet...on Friday I saw tons of them bobbing around on the pond in front of State Farm, in the middle of town, in front of God and everybody, and not a care in the world. Are ducks smart enough to realize they'll never be hunted in the middle of a city, and yet to be wary out here in the boondocks? In any case, I felt bad, both because I couldn't get a good look at them, and because I hate to disturb them. The life of a bird is so very, very hard---they need their rest!

Before too long, the trail forked away from the lake again, cutting across a couple of fields with an old-fashioned sort of edge habitat bisecting them:

Perhaps originally, these trees were planted as a windbreak, back when farms were on more of a human scale. Whatever their origin, the line of trees was not only surprisingly charming, but a veritable habitat for cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, and white-breasted nuthatches...with crows gleaning the fields.

Before the trail wound back to the parking area, there was a vista that struck me as being the epitome of what I love about Illinois--the sense of space and sky, the eternal vastness of the landscape. It takes a very particular person to fall in love with the prairie, but I am one of them.

It was only half past noon, and I was nowhere near calling my birding day over, so on the way home, I stopped at Weldon Springs State Recreation Area outside of Clinton, IL. There's really not a lot to Weldon Springs, and it hasn't gotten mentioned in any birding guides that I know of, but I will always have a soft spot for it because the very first birding trip Sunwiggy and I ever went on, back in 2004, was to Weldon Springs to see the ruby-throated hummingbirds feasting upon jewelweed. Besides, this small park has a lake and a prairie, and has yet to be surrounded by windfarms, so what more could I ask for?

Well, for starters...a new body. Mine definitely protested as I got myself back out of the car, reminding me that not only had I just walked a five mile loop, but yesterday, in an attempt to get back into shape, I did the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque Dance workout video--not only potentially embarrassing, but also more than my muscles bargained for. (Some reviewers on Amazon complained that it was not a good workout. Well, they are not 40 years old and out of shape!)

I parked by Veteran's Point, an area commemorating those who have served our country. Since both Greenturtle and I are in that category, this seems like a fine idea to me, but some of the artwork is beyond me:

Yeah, a bit weird, right? Also, the two-mile (I believe) walk around the trail involves a lot of stairs and hills, and my muscles were already saying, "No thanks!" I clearly remembered how last summer, on a very hot and humid day, I became dizzy with dehydration and stumbled on one particular staircase, banging my shin so hard that I had a huge bruised knot on it for two weeks. This is the scene of that debacle:

This is where we get into Mind Over Matter: my body wanted to call it quits, but my mind wanted more birds, more fun, more photos, so on I went. I was a little skeptical, wondering how many new species I would get that day. Along the lake trail, a pair of buffleheads (I know! Years in between sightings and then two in one weekend! They were just as precious this time around!), and also more ring-billed gulls, cardinals, blue jays, and downy woodpeckers, but mostly I saw Canada geese:

So when I had a chance to veer off onto the prairie, I did so. Have I mentioned lately how much I love prairies?

This turned out to be a good choice! I got a lot of new species for the day, including Cooper's hawk, white-throated sparrow, goldfinch, house sparrow (not usually exciting, but a "county bird" for me) and American tree sparrow.

I also got some cool views of old milkweed pods. Maybe you have to be a plant nerd to appreciate this:

After my jaunt across the prairie (due to the season, I did not do the whole loop), I made myself finish the lake trail, despite the number of stairs involved...and in the end, was glad I did, as I got three more new species: a hairy woodpecker, a pair of ruddy ducks, and a swamp sparrow in the wetlands where, in the fall, the hummingbirds congregate.

No hummingbirds today:

So although I do not consider my "Clinton Lake Curse" to be broken, it was a good birding day overall, and I will leave you with a final piece of advice, courtesy of Weldon Springs:


  1. What a lovely birding outing you had! I wish I could have been with you (although I probably would have collapsed on a set of stairs; you think YOU need a new body!). Is it too early for the turkey vultures to be back? For me, they will always be the stars of Clinton Lake. Mom

  2. Some people have seen turkey vultures already this year, but not me. Also, the house boat they used to sit on isn't there anymore. You know, the one we thought might have dead bodies in it....