Sunday, April 24, 2011

Flood lands

Perhaps you recall my mentioning, in recent posts, that central Illinois has been experiencing an excess of April showers lately? Suffice to say that Friday I was starting to wonder if it was time to build another Ark. And because I have no common sense, yesterday, when confronted with a gloriously rain free day, I decided to go to Humiston Woods in Livingston County.

This was a lapse in judgment because of all of the birding hot-spots that I like to visit, Humiston woods is probably the muddiest, floodiest, soggiest, boggiest location. The trail along the Vermilion River becomes submerged, the trails on higher ground turn into little creeks, and even the savanna and tallgrass prairie become distinctly squelchy.

I wasn't thinking of any of that. I just didn't want to miss my spring trip to Humiston woods. Over the past few years, it's become a sort of tradition that I go there at least once in early spring and then once again in late summer, to look for the earliest migrating warblers. Poor Greenturltle wanted to spend some quality couple's time and volunteered to come with me, which is extra nice considering the fact that the natural phenomenon he hates most is mud. He reminds me of a cat dabbing its paws along the trail, trying to keep clean and tidy. So I took his coming along as the loving gesture that it was. (Me? Mud, schmud, that's what hiking clothes and hot showers afterwards are for!)

When we pulled up, the woods spread out before us in a carpet of bluebells.

Oh, yes, this is going to be a good walk, with warblers and wildflowers galore, thought I. I hurried to the overlook of the Vermilion River, to see how high it was.

Very impressive!

With the river that high, I knew we'd be unable to take the "low road," the trail that descends to its banks, so we walked on the higher ground. Squelch, squelch, squelch. The trail was pretty much underwater. We passed the picnic area.

You know that joke, "Here's your sign?" Well, this was my sign that the flooding was outta control. The picnic area is quite a ways up from the river. On my many trips to Humiston woods -- some of them quite muddy -- I had never seen it under water.

We pressed on. The trail itself became submerged.

Including all the wildflowers:

We got to a point where we could either ford the flooded area, or turn back. We decided to do some wading. After all, we would soon be on higher ground. (Famous last words.)

By the way, the water was quite chilly. In fact, my ankles felt a blast of incipient rheumatism. Still, it was fun, as if I were the rugged early explorer I'd like to be, even though the only birds I'd seen for my troubles up to this point were robins.

We passed the heron rookery, and saw some great blue herons flying to and from their scraggly nests. I also saw a yellow-rumped warbler in the flooded area. The trail rose upwards for a while, until we got to the junction of the Vermilion River trail and Wolf Creek.

Hoo boy, this is not good! Normally, the banks along Wolf Creek where it joins the Vermilion are quite high up. I don't know how many feet exactly--suffice to say that I usually look DOWN at the creek -- and now the two were joined together into one indistinguishable body of muddy water.

In this area, we flushed a pair of wood ducks, and I also saw a couple of belted kingfishers flying past.

Greenturtle, seeing the high ground on the other side of Wolf Creek, wondered if we could wade over to it. I protested that the creek bed lay in between us and the point of dryness, and that furthermore, even if we did succeed in getting there (which we wouldn't), there's no way in H-E-double hockeysticks we'd manage to cross back to the main trail. He was insistent upon checking it out, so I finally just shrugged and asked, "Can you swim?" Reassured on that count, I took the camera and his smart phone just in case he plunged over his head precipitously.

Realizing that the water was getting too deep, he headed back, and we continued along our way. I noticed some movement in the branches above me, raised my binoculars, and saw...a few chickadees and a blue-winged warbler. The latter was a life bird for me (though I recognized it on sight, having studied its photo for many seasons in hopes of spotting one), and as I was horsing around in my birding triumph, I stumbled too close to the drop-off point, and for a moment felt nothing but water beneath my feet. Ironic that after admonishing Greenturtle for getting too close to the creek bed, I almost fell face forward into it myself! There was no current to speak of, and I can swim, but it would have done nothing good for my binoculars.

Luckily, I managed to stagger back before submerging, although wetter and muddier than ever. Finally, we staggered up for high ground although it was away from any trail. What trail? The whole area along Wolf Creek was completely flooded.

Squelch, splash, squelch...across the oak savanna. Squelch, splash, squelch...along the tallgrass prairie. By this point, it had stopped being fun anymore. To be honest I was so grateful to get back to our car and out of my wet hiking boots!

But would I do it again? For a life bird? Of course! Because once dried off and snug in one's home again, it's just a wacky adventure with a life bird thrown in for good measure!

So what's the craziest thing you've ever done to get a good bird? Or, if you're not a birder, have you ever gone to extremes in pursuit of your hobby?


  1. Well, I wasn't looking for birds, but Crysta, Joseph, Martin and I made it out to the woods today. I saw the same thing -- a very high river, a lot of water. It was good to get out though :) The kids really needed the exercise. Next time I will be sure to take the Panda Bear (Amanda) as well, though for the first trip with the kids I didn't want to many of them to track.

    Happy Easter :)

  2. Oh, my! Of course it was worth it to see your life bird, but as Dad and I were admiring your photos, I was thinking CANOE. The silliest thing I ever did birding was go to Sugar Grove- with you!-when it was 110 degrees, with 99% humidity, and I nearly became vulture food. Mom