Sunday, July 8, 2012

Emiquon again!

cattle egrets

This morning I woke to discover a freshness in the air that I love about summer mornings, when the day still feels quick and light before the heat sets in. As I was whining about in my last post, this feeling has been missing for the past week or so, as central Illinois sweltered in a triple-digit hell. But it seemed as if the heat wave had broken so...time to go birding!

Being a good sport as he usually is, Greenturtle agreed to make another trip with me to Emiquon, even though we have been there so often this year that it is becoming our home away from home. I was hoping that the trip would bring, in addition to the cooler temperature, a return of my birding mojo, as I'd had bad luck with that for the past week as well. First there was the matter of the debacle at Moraine View last Sunday, when I not only failed to see the yellow-throated vireos I was after, but managed to get lost in a park about the size of a postage stamp.

And then there was what happened on the fourth of July....

Sandpipers getting uppity

For the past couple of years, one of my longed-for life birds has been the upland sandpiper. I took a trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, hoping to find one there, only to discover that their numbers there had been steadily declining to the point that it was not so easy to find one. Then last month I went to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area south of Effingham on the heels of an upland sandpiper sighting, only to come back disappointed.

And then came reports of consistent sightings much closer to home; apparently a whole family group of the sandpipers were hanging out at M&M Turf Farm in McLean County. Greenturtle had announced that he just wanted to relax on the holiday, but I convinced him that this excursion would be simple and easy. All we had to do was drive by this turf farm, "get" the sandpipers, and then go into Bloomington to run a couple errands, and home by mid-morning!

It was already hot when we arrived at the turf farm around eight. I could see many shorebird shapes scuttling around on the turf, and eagerly set up my spotting scope to see...about a dozen killdeer. We waited. An eastern meadowlark made an appearance; so did a dickcissel.

We drove up and down the road a couple of times, then pulled off to the side again, scanning the neighboring soy field. Red-winged blackbirds called raucously, and barn swallows performed their aerial ballet. Every once in a while, we could heard the upland's trademark wolf-whistle from a distance, and this encouraged us to wait some more.

It got ever hotter. Occasionally someone would drive past us with a wave; country folk seem a lot less suspicious than suburbanites. In some places I've tried to bird, this sort of sandpiper stake-out would have the neighborhood watch in a tizzy. Here, we were free to sizzle by the side of the road as long as we wanted.

Finally, after it had been at least twenty minutes since I'd even heard the sandpipers, I...gave up. Greenturtle pointed out that since I'd clearly heard them, I could count them, but I didn't feel good about that. Not on a life bird. Sigh. Maybe next time.

Drive by birding

I didn't have many expectations for today's trip to Emiquon. Hopes, sure, hope springs eternal and all that. But there hadn't been any "good" sightings reported for the last week, so I told myself, "Just have fun being outside on a nice day; don't worry so much about the year list."

We were driving along Highway 136 ("the soporific highway") through the unremarkable county of Logan, and I was rambling on about watching puppies being born on You Tube when....

"UPLAND SANDPIPER!!" I hollered.

upland sandpiper

For there it was, in all its glory, perched on a telephone wire over a soybean field. What's up with these birds and the soybeans? They turn up their beaks at the tallgrass prairie being set aside for them and choose to hang out here? No accounting for taste, is there?

This was a splendid specimen of a Life Bird. It perched on the wire for a long time, occasionally giving a trilling call, then flew down to the other side of the road, then up to the wire again. Good looks were had by all.


And then on to Emiquon. Unfortunately, the expanse of mud and brackish water caused by our recent drought did not leave the preserve smelling like roses. Luckily the observatory area was less stinky than the South Globe, but even so, the water had retreated, and the birds were few. I saw a nice pair of horned larks, which are more often sulking in farmer's fields.

I caught a glimpse of a black bird with a yellow "skullcap" and did a double take--yes indeedy, three bobolinks were hanging out by the cat tail marsh, the last place I'd expect to see them. And then I got my second "prize" of the day, the cattle egret, a first sighting in Illinois.

Seriously, a good day all around.

A sand prairie to wrap things up

For our last stop, I suggested we head for the Henry Allan Gleason Preserve at Sand Ridge. There weren't any special birds I was looking for; I just really like the sand prairie.

The entrance was neglected and overgrown as it always is, and we tramped along the sandy path, stepping over cacti. Mason County has several sand prairies, and despite being a bit inhospitable (hot, buggy, filled with prickly plants, and a chore to walk through), I find them a fascinating ecosystem. Nor am I alone in this feeling: Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Willa Cather's My Antonina both contain paeans to the sand prairie. Like the oak savanna, it is one of the priceless, and now very rare, midwestern ecosystems. (For more about sand prairies, go here or here.)

The first bird we saw was a northern mockingbird, and a very vocal one. It took me a moment to realize that the cardinal I heard singing was not the cardinal I could see, but the mockingbird imitating his song.

I wonder whose skull this was? There was a pointy bit broken off, so the nose should be a bit longer. Those teeth look like they're all for grinding, so I'd guess a deer. (If you know, don't be shy...leave a comment!)

Alas, poor Yorick!

Before leaving, we sat in the shade for a while. Greenturtle noticed an eastern kingbird and a brown thrasher perched on a tree top, but mostly I sat and stared over the expanse of grasses, enjoying a moment completely free of other people. For the whole time we sat there, each in silence (mostly), I did not hear a single human noise. Not the sound of passing traffic, or an airplane overhead. No music from a blaring radio, or a motor, or the sound of other voices. As much as I loved seeing the upland sandpiper and the cattle egrets, and all the other good species at Emiquon, I wonder if that moment of total peace was not the most precious gift of the day.


  1. Oh, CONGRATULATIONS on your Upland Sandpiper and your Cattle Egrets! What fun! I fondly remember visiting the Preserve at Sand Ridge; I especially enjoyed the blue lizards and the bright yellow cactus flowers. Two of my favorite places to visit here aren't all that birdy, but they, too, are lovely and quiet, and I seldom see any other people there. So glad your heat wave has broken! Mom PS- Say "hi" to Yorick for me!

  2. I'm really enjoying the cattle egrets at Emiquon right now. They aren't as skittish as the other egrets. There have been many Great Egrets farther out on the newly forming mudflats, but the Cattle Egrets will come up close to the drive that runs through the visitor center. (P.S. You will find this posted on my blog soon. I've finally processed and uploaded some photos.)

  3. Great to hear you found an Upland Sandpiper and some Illinois Cattle Egrets!