Saturday, July 16, 2011
Sweating at Sanganois
Last year, in late February, my birding buddy (and mother) Sunwiggy and I decided to look for ducks along the Illinois River Valley. The winter had seemed particularly long and harsh, the lakes and rivers locked in ice, and as soon as the thaw began, we hopped into her Jeep and took off for watery parts in hopes of seeing migrating ducks and geese by the truck-load. With the Illinois Atlas and Gazateer map and my battered copy of Sheryl de Vore's book Birding Illinois, we headed for the soggiest, and hopefully birdiest, spots we could find.
This turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation. With spring thaw in progress, the backwaters had all flooded, the gravel access roads turned to mush, and access to our favorite spots was severely limited. The roads at Meredosia, Rice Lake, Banner Marsh -- all flooded. And so our birding excursion turned out to be a day long exercise in frustration, and a lesson learned.
Probably the most frustrating part was our aborted attempt to enter the Sanganois Conservation Area in Mason County, because it seemed so mysterious and remote and it was really, really flooded. Entrance to the road had been partially barred by a pick-up truck parked crosswise across the path; slow on the uptake, we scooted around it and almost got stuck in the river-like flood waters gushing across the road, four-wheel drive or no. This was a little humbling, as we were a very long way from the nearest town, or even the nearest run down convenience store from which to purchase a stale sandwich wrapped in plastic and a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to revive us from the very long walk which would have awaited us. Granted, this was hardly a "life or death" situation even if we had gotten stuck, but it was akin to the sort of impetuous disregard of circumstance and common sense that has gotten many another birder or traveler into trouble.
So of course, ever since then, I've wanted to go back and see what lies beyond the flooded channel that stopped us in our tracks at Sanganois. And when I found out that Sunwiggy was coming down for a long weekend, and bringing her Jeep no less, I suggested, "How about seeing what's at Sanganois?"
"Sanganois?" Sunwiggy paused on the other end of the phone when I suggested it. "Where is that again? Someplace watery?"
"Yeah, the place where we almost got stuck that one time, where the road was almost completely washed out and there was this sort of river rushing all around us."
"Was that the place with the pick-up truck? Yeah, I'll go back there!"
And so it was decided. I'm not sure if it's good or bad to have a birding buddy equally crazy as oneself, but it sure makes for some interesting trips.
Our challenge this time was not flooded roads but sultry summer heat. Neither Sunwiggy nor I likes it hot, and as I mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, this past month has been very hot indeed.
Still, since Sunwiggy has moved to the farthest reaches of northern Michigan, it was now or never, so off we went.
To start off with, the day was quite pleasant, and I called out all the birds I could see perched on the wires of each county as we drove through: grackles, robins, red-winged blackbirds, dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks, and even, once we got into Mason County, a couple of northern mockingbirds. Several of these were Year Birds for Sunwiggy (as the mockingbird was for me), so it was with a sense of pleasant anticipation that we raced closer to Sanganois.
Along the way we passed a flooded field that was full of sandpipers.
Of all the lapses of judgment I have made on birding trips, surely this is the worst: not being prepared for a muddy field full of sandpipers. Since it has been so long that I've gone out for more than a short walk, I forgot to bring any field guides, and I'd also left my spotting scope at home. So sandpipers galore, and no way to see or ID them! Maybe a really high-speed birder could have figured them out, but for me, as I find sandpipers to be very challenging, and these were flushed to the farthest edge of the field every time a car passed (which was often)--well, let's just say they were sandpipers. I bet there were pectoral and solitary sandpipers in there, also some greater and/or lesser yellowlegs. But all I could call for certain were killdeer and some least sandpipers. So frustrating! But at least I know they are coming through now, so I can keep looking for them--although I had absolutely zero luck finding any in the spring!
Shortly after that, we were at Sanganois, slowly driving down the gravel road which was, in fact, nice and dry and not at all impassable. There were a lot of nice birds, including some more Year Birds for Sunwiggy: eastern phoebe, eastern wood pewee, brown thrasher, indigo bunting, mostly the usual suspects.
The end of the line did not really "feel" much like anywhere in Illinois:
We got out of the vehicle and surveyed our surroundings. Besides a woman and her grandson fishing, there was no one else in sight. It should have felt peaceful, but it was getting hot and muggy, and to be honest, the place reeked of dead fish.
"Wow," said Sunwiggy, "this looks kind of...low country, doesn't it?"
"You mean banjos, don't you?" I said, which is kind of shorthand for scary redneck Deliverance type places in our lexicon. Before anyone accuses me of snobbery, let me point out that I am married (for the past fifteen years, no less) to a Southerner, and you can't accuse me of anything that he hasn't already mentioned first.
"Well...it's kind of cool, though. Why don't we walk down the levee a ways?"
We walked for a while, until we could see: a fisherman, several probable ring-billed gulls, four great blue herons, and one great egret in the distance. We both took a look and agreed on our sightings.
Said I, "I don't want to disturb those herons--you know how twitchy they are. Maybe we should head back?"
"You're right," said Sunwiggy, "I don't want to scare them."
Translation: "It's really blazing hot out here in the sun and I don't see anything that exciting out there. I don't really want to trudge all the way out there. What about you?" "Ditto."
This is the advantage of having a longstanding Birding Buddy: you don't need to spell these things out.
On the way back, Sunwiggy drove so I could take over the task of looking for interesting birds. I did find one.
In the sky:
We agreed: juvenile bald eagle. Which is a pretty cool bird sighting, IMHO.
After our jaunt in Sanganois, we got some sandwiches from the Subway in Havana, then ate them in the peaceful shade of the picnic grounds at the picnic area by the Dickson Mounds Museum, while chipping sparrows buzzed all around us.
For a last "hurrah" of our Illinois River Valley birding excursion, I wanted to show her the area of the Emiquon Preserve off of Clark Road that Greenturtle and I found last spring, but it was overgrown at this time of the year, and Sunwiggy picked up several ticks. (Not me. Ticks don't like me much. Perhaps because a summer diet of margaritas and fast food has rendered my blood unappealing and/or downright toxic?)
It was another full-sun area, and by this time of the day the heat and humidity was going full-force, and Sunwiggy started wheezing. She has some respiratory issues that are set off by either heat or cold, caused by decades of smoking. Luckily she stopped before it got too bad, and I only point this out as a public service announcement...all you smokers out there, stop before it's too late! You don't want to end up wheezing like Sunwiggy! Or worse!
We saw a kingfisher flying past, and a common yellowthroat, but the birds don't like it when it gets real hot either, so we decided to call it a day.
At least the peeps are back!