Sunday, April 3, 2011

Birdy Missouri

Yesterday, in honor of Greenturtle's birthday, we decided that he could pick the destination for our weekend excursion and this is where he wanted to go:

For anyone who is scratching their head over the import of "Hannibal, MO," it is the hometown of American author Mark Twain, which is located at a couple hours' drive distance from me, just over the Mississippi River and across the Missouri state line. We usually go once every year or so, because for some reason, Greenturtle loves Hannibal. Maybe it's because he's a Southerner so crossing the Missouri state line feels like he's getting a little closer to home. Or maybe it's because Mark Twain was such a character and remains an enduring presence in the American popular imagination.

As for myself, I never object to a trip to Hannibal, if only because the trip represents a chance to find birds in a new place--my motto truly has become, "All birds, all the time." I am grateful that Greenturtle accepts this twist of fate, because I do recognize that being the spouse of an obsessed birder can be a bit of a challenge. Also, I love the Mississippi River, so I never object to a trip that takes me across or alongside it; and I like the works of Twain myself. I guess he's my third favorite American author. (After Henry James--I know he moved to England but he was American first--and Edith Wharton.)

True to form, I requested a tour of Pike County, IL--the last county before crossing the river to Hannibal--to see what birds I could scrounge up on the back roads. I'd never birded this county before, so it was all new to me. Even without stopping much (we got out once at a "Park N Fish" recreation area by the Mississippi, which was just that--an opportunity to park by the river) I got a lot of nice birds, including belted kingfisher, eastern meadowlark, American kestrel, and my favorite, a bald eagle perched on an island in the river.

Here's the Mississippi:

One thing I particularly enjoy about my rambles (besides the birds) is the parts of Illinois that time forgot, like this old building. Was it an old power station, perhaps? Despite the depredations of "development" taking over the world, there is still a bit of poetry to be found in the landscape:

After that, it was over the river and into Missouri to Hannibal. We wandered through the exhibits, then up and down the main street into all the little shops (the arty places were OK, but OMG, why does Greenturtle have to visit every "Antique Shop" -- a.k.a. Kitsch Emporium -- in every tourist town we visit? Old crap never just gets recycled endlessly. Well, it WAS for his birthday), and then explored the park-like limits of the town so I could look for birds, ahem, soak up the local flavor. We also had a pretty decent pizza for lunch at a place that was called (I think) Brick Oven. Which was a huge improvement over the "breakfast" we had in the past at a "restaurant" which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty.

Because I'm sadistic, I also insisted we walk up the multiple steps to the lighthouse.

Maybe it's left over from my old "fitness girl" days, but when I see a bunch of steps...I have to go up them.

I would recommend a trip to Hannibal if: you're already in the area and/or: you really love Mark Twain; and/or you really enjoy this sort of tourist-trap Americana. If birds are your main thing, then sadly I must report that I have never had good luck birding there, and yesterday was no different. (There is a nice cave if you are into that, however---choose the "natural cave" tour and NOT the Tom Sawyer one unless you have kids along you really want to amuse. The natural cave is quite nice.)

After departing from Hannibal, we headed north through Missouri and stopped at Wakonda State Park, just out of curiosity to see what was there. Greenturtle had some "geo-caching" stuff he'd looked up (a GPS-led scavenger hunt, if you've never done it), and as for me...well, all birds, all the time!

At first I wasn't that impressed by the park; in fact, I was mentally writing a rough draft of this post called "Unbirdy Missouri," although we did see a Canada goose with an unusual nest site:

As Greenturtle looked for his first cache, I looked over the water for ducks. I saw a small flock of northern shovelers, scaring them off the "Sewage pond" they were swimming upon -- you're welcome, shovel-ducks!-- and then sighting a flock of ruddy ducks farther afield.

Greenturtle, not the birder, was taking photos of me instead. Searching for birds:

If you'd rather see the birds, check this out--Splish-Splash Goose:

After this, we drove to the "Agate Trail" agates in sight, however; if you want those, head to my mother's new home of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, although not at the moment, as it is still snowing up there! In fact, she just e-mailed me that they're having blizzard-style white-out conditions!

Meanwhile, in the milder lands of northern Missouri, huge flocks of double-crested cormorants were wheeling overhead.

It was Greenturtle who noticed that, unlike the crisp formations of Canada geese, flocks of cormorants frequently become rather sloppy.

As we walked the trail, I noticed that the soil was very sandy, the scenery scrubby -- perhaps as a result of being on the alluvial floodplain (my word for the day)? Due to the lack of birds, I almost called it quits, but luckily a scenic portion beside the lakes ensued, and we continued. Finding: sparrows! (savannah and song), American coots, ring-necked ducks, killdeer, and a whole flock of snow geese, in both white and blue morphs.

Of course they took off as soon as we saw them.

You might think that this was the highlight of the trip, but a bit later (we were walking at a pretty good pace, as the day was getting no younger, we had quite a bit of the 3.5 mile loop to cover, and I, for one, was getting hungry) we flushed an American bittern. This was a Major Event for me, as I have only seen one once before...and how cool is that? I got it in my binoculars (brown top, speckled underbody, heron-like feet trailing behind as it took off)...and watched it take a big dump to lighten its load. This did not in any way lessen my excitement at seeing the bittern.

And has this ever happened to you? Cool bird sighting...and this is the photographic evidence you get:

Other than that I do have to say that northern Missouri looks just like central Illinois.

On the way home, we nipped through Keokuk, Iowa, where in ten minutes I saw six species, including a flock of American white pelicans wheeling overhead (note to Self: some day do real birding trip of Iowa).

And then, heading east across Illinois, the endless expanse of sky, the golden twilight slowly many colors, so hard to describe the gradations from golden to darkness. But, that sense of space, of limitless horizon! I thought that, even with the once-perfect prairie gone, the vista over the open fields was still so beatiful...for now.

Lately, some of my favorite bloggers, such as Sharon Stiteler, the "Bird Chick," and Dave Lewis, who does the hilarious Birds from Behind blog, have done some angry posts about what our current Congressmen have proposed about abolishing the E.P.A. and logging state parks.

I am distressed about all of this, and wish I had something worthwhile to add... Alas, all that comes to mind is a quote from Mark Twain....

Imagine you're an idiot. Now imagine you're a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.


  1. Dad loved the Mark Twain quote. What a beautiful day; I loved the photos, especially the one of you, and the "splish-splash goose" series. Congrats on the American bittern sighting! Did you have to step on him to get him to reveal himself? Mom

  2. Just about squashed him! Luckily, did not!