Sunday, August 14, 2011

Operation shorebird, Part I: A Stinky Beginning

Now that the weather has cooled off enough that stepping outside no longer feels like a tour of Satan's Sweatshop, the question becomes: where to bird? My favorite birds are all passerines, those that can be found perching in woodland glades or clinging to stems and weeds on the grasslands, but mid-August in Illinois is not a very good time for seeing those.

If I want something exciting at this point of the season, my best bet is migrating shorebirds--of which I've seen deplorably few this year--and according to ebird, Cornell University's on-line database of bird sightings, someone saw American avocets at Chatauqua recently, and since Chatauqua is supposedly good for shorebirds in general, Greenturtle and I headed there.

I say "supposedly" good for shorebirds, because in two years of birding the Illinois River Valley hotspots (Meredosia, Chatauqua, Emiquon) in late summer/early fall looking for "peeps," I've missed out on the magic more times than I can count. But hope springs eternal in a birder's heart.

The morning sunshine was mild, I was bursting with weeks worth of pent-up energy; if ever a day existed for shorebird sightings, this was it!

Greenturtle and I arrived at Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge around 9:30 and headed down to the levee at Eagle Bluff. As soon as we got out of the car, we were accosted by the most horrible stench of rotting fish-flesh, the likes of which I've never quite experienced before. But, the water by the levee had evaporated down to a mudflat that was absolutely teeming with birds, so olfactory assault notwithstanding, I wanted to see what was there.

The reason for the stench was soon apparent; piles of dead fish lay everywhere.

Some ring billed gulls were really enjoying it.

Personally, I was more interested in the "peeps" congregating around the mudflats. Not that I am especially drawn to sandpipers. They're just so hard to identify, especially in their fall plumage. I can safely say that these were all little ones -- "peeps" -- certainly smaller than a killdeer, as there were plenty of killdeer on hand for comparison. Besides least and pectoral sandpipers, there may have been a few semipalmated, but I wasn't sure.

I was still slowly moving my scope from peep to peep, looking for one which stood out from the others, when Greenturtle asked if we could move to our next stop, as the rotting fish stench was really starting to get to him. To be honest, I'd only dimly registered its true offensiveness -- birders encounter even worse from time to time. But for a non-birder, it was pretty thick. Besides, there wasn't an avocet in sight.


  1. Love this post! Sorry about the Big Stink. Birders really do get into it, don't they? Sewer plants are also great places to bird, and they don't exactly smell like roses, either. Wonder why so many dead fish? Mom

  2. I can't find anything on the internet about dead fish along the Illinois River. Apparently there has been a mysterious fish kill on the Sangamon River around Decatur, but no one's too upset about that one because those fish are mostly Asian carp.