Friday, April 20, 2012

Birding Central Illinois: The Agricutural Wasteland, Part One, McLean County

One of my favorite books of all time is Sheryl De Vore's guide Birding Illinois. For the past decade, I have dipped into it again and again to find new places for a birding jaunt or just to get some vicarious birding done before I (reluctantly) crawl out of bed in the morning to face the work day. I discovered it shortly after I began birding, and with the naivete of the beginning birder, I'd show up at the place in question honestly hoping to see each species mentioned in the summary. Now I know better...but even if I'm a lot of birds shy of what was "promised," I found some really awesome places, such as the Middle Fork Conservation Area and the Nachusa Grasslands.

There's just one problem: the book is now twelve years old! It's really time for a new edition. With the ease of checking for sightings on the Internet, perhaps ink and paper guides are falling out of favor, but although I am slowly catching up to the times (I even have a Kindle, which I once swore I would never touch on principle), I still like, now and then, to be able to literally curl up with a good book.

I still hope that Ms. De Vore will come out with a second edition, but in the meantime I thought I would write an off the cuff guide to my own favorite birding, hiking and natural spots, focusing on the area that I know best: central Illinois, starting with my old stomping grounds, McLean County. And although I call this the "agricultural wasteland," due to the unappealing expanses of GMO corn and soy fields stretching as far as the eye can see, often with a hideous crop of wind turbines whirling overhead, I truly mean no disrespect. I have actually come to love central Illinois, and this is all because of the fragments of prairies and woods to be found here, and the rivers, lakes and ponds, and the phenomenal variety of birds one can find. People might dispute it, but I would hold up birding in central Illinois, at its best, to be some of the best in the mid-West.

No doubt thanks in part to an awesome chapter of the Audubon Society, JWP Audubon, McLean is a rather heavily birded county. There is even a website devoted to the topic. So with all this going for it, there may not be a lot of need for an additional guide, but for what it's worth, here's my two cents.

My favorite birding spot:

Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake. In all honesty, I never found this site much for natural beauty. To look at, the park and surrounding area is rather flat and blah, now even worse because of the huge wind farm adjacent. The only way that the sight doesn't bum me out is if I'm listening to Goldfrapp's "Strict Machine" as I drive past them. (Right click on the link to open a new tab to listen while you read.)

And yes, I know that "green types" such as myself are supposed to love wind energy. Well, I can't help it, I hate the bat-killing, bird-whapping, Godzilla-sized eye-sores. And at night it's just as bad, all those red lights blinking on and off like so many winking eyes of Sauron! But really, that's not where I was going with this post.... Oops, I hate it when a rant slips out. But it's OK, I'm all better now.

I like to park by the bridge at the west end of the park. I'm bad at directions, so I'll direct those who are curious to this handy park map. The area I am referring to is the John English trailhead off Road 2300 North.

I call this the Swallow Bridge, for the obvious reason that barn, cliff and tree swallows hang out here in multitudes in the breeding season. On a cool summer morning, when a thin mist forms along the surface of the water just before the heat of the day begins, this small piece of McLean county can feel almost otherworldy. Ghost-like great egrets and herons silently stalk fish in the shallows, and a small flock of double-crested cormorants begins to flap their wings to greet the day. Eastern phoebes perch beside the water, pumping their tails in anticipation of breakfast. Woodpeckers like the dying trees in the water; I have seen red-bellied, downy, hairy and, in the past, red-headed in this general area. Red-winged blackbirds line the swampy fringes.

A bit down the road, a small field takes you to a trail leading to a point along the water. (The map calls this the Barred Owl Trail, and I have indeed seen barred owls here. Still, I prefer my own personal moniker, Cormorant Point.) Here, I have seen a red-tailed hawk swooping overhead, and eastern bluebirds perching on the telephone wire. Field sparrows trill from the grasses, and eastern meadowlarks cry plaintively.

Across the street, there is the Shady Hollow Nature Trail (which Sunwiggy and I have named the Witchy Woods, due to the twisted trees and magical bluebells found within...bluebells ephemerally, of course, but so thick upon the ground that the very air above them seems to shimmer with blue). This trail is boggy in spring and a mess of nettles and mosquitoes in the summer, but I've seen some really nice warblers here during spring migration.

This general area is usually good for migrating waterfowl in the early spring, and if the weather has been hot and dry enough, at the end of summer the lake retreats, providing mudflats for sandpipers and other shorebirds. But don't stop here.

Venturing down the John English nature trail, one can find great summer birding. (The map states that the terrain of this trail is difficult, but apart from a couple of steep inclines, it is fine for most people. Sunwiggy has COPD and a wonky knee and she can do it!) Yellowthroats, meadowlarks and field sparrows are easy-peasy, and I have also found eastern towhees, both Baltimore and orchard orioles, Savannah sparrows, indigo buntings, and all the usual migrants. Wooded patches bring in warblers in spring and fall, and walking along the water, one can find a nice variety of gulls and terns in the appropriate seasons. Truly, I have seen birds ranging from ruby-throated hummingbird up to bald eagle at this park. In spring and fall, 50+ species lists are not hard to come by. Some of my favorite sightings include: northern mockingbird, black-billed cuckoo, black-throated blue warbler, Cape May warbler, Caspian tern, common loon...of course don't expect all these species on the same outing!

After the second wooded area, the trail winds towards the visitor's center, past some fields where dickcissels and ring-necked pheasants are fairly common...and a whole cavalcade of red-winged blackbirds. But my favorite summer residents are the yellow warblers, also not hard to find...and once I found a marsh wren in the spring. After a patch of pines, one comes to the visitor's center (a.k.a Bathroom Break!), and in the wintertime, the bird feeders can be quite productive. One year red-breasted nuthatches were quite reliable. At this point, I usually turn around and wander back to the car, congratulating myself on a great day of birding.

In late winter/early spring, I like to stop at the Pumphouse before I go, if the rest of the lake is still covered in ice, because the water is open here and attracts large numbers of migrating waterfowl desperate for a place to land.

But let's say you're not really in the mood for a big species list per se, and you'd rather have a stroll in a beautiful location. (Ha ha, who are these hypothetical people?) Then let me introduce you to another nice nature spot in McLean County...Parklands Foundation's Merwin Preserve. (For this location I would choose the much more mellow Trois Gymnopedies by Erik Satie for musical score--again, right click on the link if you'd like to listen while you read.)

A long and skinny tract of woods and fields on either side of the Mackinaw River, Parklands produces great warblers in migration, bluebells like crazy in the spring (see my previous post "The Enchanted Floodplain"), and a nice year-round round-up of the Usual Suspects. And if you go in through the West Gate, you are almost guaranteed to find red-headed woodpeckers. But summer the mosquitoes will drive you mad!

Being a bit too far to take a spur of the moment jaunt to Parklands is probably the thing I miss most about leaving McLean County, as there really is something special about this small park. As far as birding goes, my favorite sightings are all from the late summer: hooded warbler, Canada warbler, Wilson's warbler, summer tanager, a black-throated green warbler bathing in the stream. Oh, did I mention it's good for warblers?

Another favorite place is Sugar Grove Nature Center. Definitely stop in their visitor center, and check out the awesome bird viewing room, where in the winter months one can almost always see Eurasian tree sparrows. There are also plenty of great workshops and programs, which I would love to attend if I had more time and money, and some nice trails where I have seen a lot of nice migratory birds, plus American woodcock, a great blue heron rookery, an elusive pileated woodpecker, and an especially good panoply of summer prairie birds: eastern kingbirds, common yellowthroats, field sparrows, dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks, even sedge wrens. And some awesome prairie flowers to go with them.

Continuing down my list of favorite McLean County Birding Sites is the Sewer Plant on Route 51, a.k.a. the John Schroeder Nature Sanctuary. (See my previous post, "A Trip to the Sewage Plant?") Yes, it is a sewage plant...but it also has some nice trails and ponds, and has an unreliable yet nevertheless tantalizing mix of birds. Some of the highlights from past visits: marsh wren, Hudsonian godwit, bobwhite, stilt sandpiper, common snipe, and Bell's vireo. I haven't personally seen the vireo, but another birder has, and the territory is perfect for them.

Sheryl De Vore's book mentions, the sole listing in McLean County, Moraine View State Park. I would be curious to see if a second edition would still list this park as the crown jewel of birding in the county. Now, I would never tell someone not to visit a park, and I have seen some awesome birds there, including sora, osprey, and black-crowned night heron. Also, recent birding reports indicate that a pileated woodpecker has recently taken up residence. But for me, a series of bad experiences has turned me off the park, and so I rarely go there.

Finally, I must give a shout-out to all my old favorite Urban Birding haunts around Bloomington-Normal, especially beloved for all the great birds I saw when I was trying to be kinder to the earth and bike or walk instead of drive: Ewing Park, Tipton Park and my old work place pond, Angler's Pond. Even though they were often so crowded with dog walkers, joggers, noisy children, people fishing, roller bladers, young lovers, etc., and thus challenging to I miss you all!

Anyone else want to mention a good place to bird in McLean County? Despite first impressions, I really do think it's a special place.


  1. Oohhh, this post makes me feel so homesick! How I miss birding with you in all of these special spots. My personal favorite is Sugar Grove, and my 2nd is Parklands, with Tipton Park a close 3rd (because I see little green herons there). Ewing is really tied for 3rd. I've noticed that now I remember places by the birds I've seen there (as in, "I once saw a rose-breasted grosbeak in that very tree), fun for me if for no one else! I should send you a post of the best birding spots in Houghton Co., Michigan, in the great, if cold, UP! Mom

  2. I like birding at Gridley Wastewater Treatment Ponds. I stay in my car the whole time I bird there, but get close looks at waterfowl, sparrows, pipits, shorebirds, etc. that allow a vehicle a closer approach. In the last year and a half, I have seen about 58 species either inside the fence or on the road just beside the facility, many of which are difficult to find in the county including Peregrine Falcon, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Great Egret, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Ross's Goose, Snow Goose, Short-billed Dowitcher, Baird's Sandpiper, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.