Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Illinois River Valley: Birds on Ice
You know how they say not to reinvent the wheel? That's kind of how I am approaching my Ultimate Illinois Bird Year. Normally I just pick a spot that I have enjoyed in the past, or that is especially scenic, or has for some other reason captured my imagination, and off I go. I have had a lot of fun with this approach, but the birding can be hit or miss.
So this year, I am using Internet resources to go where the birds are actively being seen. Today, for example, Greenturtle and I took off work to start the New Year out with an extra day of birding. The only constraint is that it had to be within a reasonable driving distance of Bloomington, as we had some errands to run in town. Beyond that, I didn't really know where the birdiest spot would be. Enter ebird's new feature, the year alert, which informed me that some nice waterfowl had been seen at Emiquon over in Fulton County. Seriously, it sounded like a duck-o-rama was taking place along the Illinois River. I was so excited thinking about it I had trouble falling asleep last night, just like a kid before Christmas.
But first, the Soporific Highway.
That would be highway 136 heading from Heyworth to Havana. I noticed that Greenturtle was yawning and squirming in the driver's seat, and asked if he was OK. "This road always makes me sleepy," he said. Sunwiggy and I had already noticed the soporific quality of this particular stretch of road. You know what people say about driving through, say, Nebraska? Condense that essence of sameness into a fifty mile stretch, and you might be getting close.
Normally I try to keep myself alert by looking for birds along the roadside. Today, even that tactic failed me, as what I saw was: starling, starling, starling, starling, blue jay, starling, starling, starling, blue jay, starling, starling. Zzzzzzz....
The iceman came and went, apparently.
Since it was on the way to Emiquon, we decided to check out the Eagle Bluff access at Chatauqua in Mason County first. I was amazed that the river had already iced over. It's been cold for, what, twenty-four hours? And already the water is covered in ice? My heart sank. No open water means no ducks. Was I a day too late for all the fun?
Chatauqua wasn't entirely a loss, though, as I got a year bird, greater-white fronted goose, and we got to see some bald eagles eating something dead on the ice.
We stopped for gas in Havana (sadly, serious birding can be a wasteful hobby that way), and while Greenturtle went inside to pay, I perused the signs at the edge of the parking lot. A restaurant was advertising "All You Can Eat Livers and Gizzards Every Thursday" (uh, darn, it's only Tuesday!), while on the wires overhead perched some...starlings.
I was worried that my special Birding Day was going to be a bust, not to mention a waste of time and gas, but trying to stay positive. How much ice could there be?
We drove on to Emiquon. Ice...ice everywhere! Except what's that? One open area far from any convenient place to park? No matter, time to pull over to the side of the road.
The couple that birds together...squabbles
I set up my spotting scope and began surveying the tiny open area along the river. It was crammed full of ducks. Tail to beak, cheek by jowl, dozens and dozens of ducks, and more flying in every minute.
Normally, I'm a pretty jaded person. Tearjerker movies make me roll my eyes. And don't even try to hug me. But something about seeing huge flocks of birds always makes me want to cry, because the birds are beautiful and their lives are so difficult and fragile and I'm always conscious of how precarious their continued existence is, and how much more abundance I could have seen just a couple hundred years ago.
Luckily, this is my Ultimate Illinois Birding Year, so no time for tears today. Instead, I spent a good half hour squinting at the ducks through my scope, trying to make out who was who in the incredible avian jumble. Hooded merganser, common merganser, bufflehead, redhead, ruddy duck, northern pintail. More greater white-fronted geese, plus coots, ring-billed gulls, and more common goldeneyes than you could shake a stick at.
Meanwhile, Greenturtle was checking out some eagles and wanted the assistance of myself and my spotting scope.
Crow: "I'm checking out the ducks!"
Greenturtle: "You've already seen the ducks."
C: "Not all of them, they're so close together. Plus, more are coming in all the time."
G: "They're the same ducks."
C: "No, they're not. Look at that hooded merganser!"
G: "You already said hooded merganser."
C: "Yeah, but I'm admiring him. He just put up his hood."
G: "You're not here to admire the ducks! This might be a golden eagle."
C: "Fine, show me the eagle."
Stepping away from the scope to let him focus it on his bird. But as I approach....
C: "I don't see it."
G: "You kicked the scope!"
C: "I did not!"
Finally, the eagle was brought into view.
Said I, "That's not a golden eagle. It's a juvenile bald eagle."
"How do you know?"
"Errr....ummmm..." I didn't dare say that the "jizz" wasn't right. Never mind that's a perfectly acceptable birding term, it sets Greenturtle off like Beavis and Butthead when they hear the words "wood" or "erect." So instead, we spent several minutes with the Stokes guide and lengthy discussions before we agreed...no golden eagles in sight. But many juvenile bald eagles!
I like a good bird buzz, early in the morning....
So further on down the road. We pulled off at the Duck Lake road, which never has anything worth seeing...except that today it did! Many Canada geese and mallards, plus more common goldeneyes, hooded and common mergansers, and some more year birds, canvasback and ring-necked duck. Wow, this really is a duck-o-rama. It's nice to be high on birds!
For our last stop of the day, we swung through Banner Marsh, where we saw many mute swans. That's all I ever see there, but they're reliable. If you need some mute swans, just go to Banner Marsh.
No, I lied...but really, last stop
After our errands, I went to White Oak Park in Bloomington because a couple of weeks ago I saw some cackling geese there. As I explained to Greenturtle, they look exactly like Canada geese, only about half as big. And YES, still there!!
Year List so far, 44 species in three days. OK, I'm not breaking any records (except my own), but even so...not too shabby!
And if you want to know every species that's on there, check out my new page, Year List 2012. I don't think I'll have any problems keeping it up to date.
And happy birding to you, wherever you are!