Saturday, April 30, 2011

Curses, foiled again!


There is a thing called the nemesis bird. This is the species that you quest for relentlessly, like the Arthurian knights after the Holy Grail, and yet, like sinful Lancelot rather than the spotless Galahad, you just can't find.

I have such a species. It is officially called the yellow-headed blackbird. I have various other words for it, which I will not repeat here, for although I have too much of a potty-mouth to advertise myself as "family friendly," there are certain words I just don't want to attach to myself in print. I use them though. Frequently. Like whenever I go out looking for yellow-headed blackbirds.

This is the third year I have been searching for one. Today I decided to forgo my usual location, Moraine Hills State Park in northern Illinois, as: one, it is a very long drive from Bloomington; and two, I've never seen a yellow-headed blackbird there anyway. I once met a group of birders who bragged about the YH BBs they saw, and even played the calls of said YH BBs to me on their iphone for good measure, but as for the actual blackbird, no.

Instead, I talked Greenturtle into a trip to the Hennepin Hopper Lakes, an Important Bird Area managed by The Wetlands Initative in Putnum County, as the blackbirds have been seen there as well.


The rain that had been in the forecast all week did not materialize, but it was windy. So windy that I quickly left the observation tower and huddled below, checking out the double-crested cormorants and great egrets I'd glimpsed from above from ground level.

We then headed down the road a bit. There were tons of red-winged blackbirds, grackles and starlings, but not a single yellow-headed blackbird in sight. So frustrating! The most common species in residence seemed to be the American coot.


The height of duck migration appears to be well and truly past now. A month earlier, this place was probably thick with various species, but today, duck-wise, all we saw in this area were a few northern shovelers.

Before the Seep Trail, Greenturtle wandered out onto the dock for a while. I stayed back, avoiding the wind. He snapped a few photos, then came back, announcing that I had just missed a sandpiper.

"What'd it look like?" I said.

"Long legs, short yellow beak, walking around the grasses."

"That sounds like a SORA!" Elusive, skulker year bird alert! "Why didn't you tell me there was a sora out there????"

"Well, it's back in the grasses now."

I charged down the deck, at first seeing nothing...but eventually the sora did come out again, creeping furtively in the long grasses. This was lucky for all involved, for observing an exciting "year bird" all on your own, especially a species that is so elusive, and not sharing it...well, we won't even go into the consequences that might ensue.

If you look very closely, you might make out the sora in this photo.


There were also many American white pelicans in this area.


As we embarked along the trail, there were chipping, song, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows; yellow, yellow-rumped and palm warblers; an eastern towhee; black-capped chickadees; an eastern bluebird, and a barred owl. Again, if you search the photos carefully, you might spot it.



Even this early in the season, the "seep trail" was a little buggy, making me remember why we didn't follow it to its conclusion last July. But the bugs were still at a bearable level, and since I had never been all the way to the end of the trail, there was a bit of a "spirit of adventure," even though I have visited these wonderful wetlands several times.

As we walked along, I heard a bird singing witchety witchety witchety in the grasses, yet I couldn't spot it, much to my dismay, as this is the song of one of my favorite species, the common yellowthroat. I eventually did spot a pair of them through my binoculars, an extra-special year bird for me, as I await for their return so impatiently every spring.

We also saw, and heard, another one of my favorites (and I suspect a favorite of many), the Baltimore oriole. He wouldn't stay still long enough for Greenturtle to get a good "shot" at him, but here he is.


As it turns out, the trail ends at the levee between the Hennepin-Hopper lakes and the Illinois River, and we were able to walk along the ridge for a long ways...who knows how far it goes; we turned back before the end.

The Illinois River was extremely high, the water rough and muddy, although we did scare some hysterical wood ducks when we peered over the levee.


I wish that, 90% of the time I spot one, my view of a wood duck didn't involve it taking off immediately thereafter, which such piteous cries. Considering the delight that duck hunting season brings to many, I can't blame them, but for my sake, I wish ducks weren't so twitchy.

And speaking of twitchy birds, it was funny watching groups of coots scatter away from us by running across the top of the water with their wings flapping and their huge feet dashing across the surface...wish we had a picture of that. But if you really want to see it for yourself, go scare some coots and watch the spectacle.

We wandered along the levee for a long time, commenting on the height of the river and talking about life in general, the sort of conversation that is so much easier at a place like the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands--that is, a place of such peace and solitude, open skies and no sounds but the birds, and the wind over the grasses, and the lapping of the water. Such places are becoming increasingly rare in our world, and yet when I find them, I discover that stress disappears as if it had never existed, and it is so much easier to see through our false priorities to the true heart of the matter. This is probably one of the reasons I like these wetlands so much. True, they are extremely birdy, an important bird area indeed. But they are also so peaceful and secluded, probably the most so of all my central Illinois birding hot spots.

There was quite a bit of detritus washed along the shoreline by the recent storms, including one that fooled Greenturtle for a moment into thinking it was the real article:


To be honest, the birding along this stretch wasn't that good. Mostly I saw robins, mourning doves and starlings, not too exciting, though I did get a quick view of a waterthrush (I think northern, though I must stress that it was a very quick look).

Greenturtle found some turtles (red-eared sliders):


Just before we turned back, we saw a barge going by. As we watched it pass, one of the barge workers waved to us, and as we waved back, I said, "You know, I bet my dad would be more excited about seeing this than all the birds we saw today combined."

So, Dad, this barge is for you.


We saw few new species on our way back, just a red-tailed hawk and a belted kingfisher, but the peace of the day, and the joy at seeing so many of my favorites return, was such that I forgot to be incensed by the lack of yellow-headed blackbirds.

After this, we headed off for Starved Rock State Park...but as I've rambled on so long, that part will have to wait for tomorrow.

In the meantime, happy birding!

1 comment:

  1. You're right; Dad liked the barge! Now I smile when I read about all of the warblers you're seeing, 'cause I know that means I'll be seeing them in a couple of weeks! Sounds like you had a great day in one of my favorite Illinois birding spots. It's so lovely there. And soras are awesome; I love their feet. Mom

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