Sunday, July 22, 2012

No shrikes, and I'm out

Yellow crowned night heron

This morning, I could put it off no longer. It was time to head north to Will County to look for some choice birds that had been sighted for the past few weeks in Wilmington and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: yellow-crowned night heron and loggerhead shrike, to be specific. I'd been meaning to go up there to look for them for the past few weekends, and each weekend I'd put it off. I had tons of reasons: the heat, the cost of gas, the squandering of resources to drive two hours just to see a couple species, neither of which were "lifers;" fatigue; a sudden fondness for the park right outside of town; a blister between my toes.

But the truth was, for someone whose motto is "bird to live, live to bird," none of these excuses were worth a dime. The fact of the matter is...I was nervous. My erstwhile birding buddy Sunwiggy has moved to northern climes, and the normally good-spirited Greenturtle has declared July to be a month off from birding. So I had to go alone.

Normally, that's not a problem for me. In many ways, I actually prefer solitude, and can stroll for hours around the countryside without seeing another human soul, wandering not lonely as a cloud, but happy as a clam. The operative word being the countryside. Whereas in my mind, Will County is getting awfully close to Chicagoland. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is within spitting distance of Joliet, for God's sake! Joliet!

To be honest, I have been in and around Chicago and other urban areas many times, and never had anything worse than getting lost or stuck in traffic happen. But I have a personal hang-up about the area. I could just imagine people hearing the horrible news that I had never come back from my trip to the prairie.

"What on earth was she doing," people would ask my husband, "wandering around all by herself so close to that godforsaken industrial corridor that is Joliet?" And he would shake his head sadly, as if secretly admitting that he had known all along that birding would be the death of me, and reply, "She was looking for a shrike."

But, I really wanted to see those birds! And I believe that life is way too short to stay trapped in your comfort zone, so off I went. Seeing the road signs informing me that I was getting closer and closer to Joliet was not fun, but luckily I arrived at Wilmington unscathed. (In my defense, I know several people from Chicago who state that they feel nervous out in nature, so I think it's mostly a matter of what you're used to.)

Finding the park where the yellow-crowned night heron was hanging out was a bit complicated, but once there, finding the heron was easy. Two other birders had already found it, and were taking photos.

Very photogenic

And seeing how pleasant the park was made me realize I'd been silly to be nervous. In my subconscious, I'd been picturing this:


And instead I found this:

Not scary

After "getting" the night heron, I didn't want to linger, since the shrike was still out there, and I wanted to get as many birds as possible before the day got too hot. So onwards to Midewin.

At the Iron Bridge Trailhead parking lot, I met two birders on their way out and asked about the shrike. They had just seen it, and gave me directions to the exact location. I quickly set off, thinking how friendly I have found most other birders to be. A shared love of birds seems to bestow instant membership in the club. (Although there is a password: "Have you seen anything interesting?")

As usual, I found the tallgrass prairie to be quite beautiful. The wildflowers were in exuberant bloom.

Yellow coneflower, bee balm and compass plant

These cornflowers and Queen Anne's lace aren't natives, but still very pretty.

Cornflowers and Queen Anne's Lace

I saw a lot of old favorites, such as eastern meadowlarks, barn swallows, field sparrows and dickcissels.


Snack time

The mockingbirds were throwing me off; something about their shape and coloration, from a distance, kept making me hope that they were a shrike, until I either got my binoculars on them, or they flew, revealing the white circles on their wings.

"I am not a shrike."

Despite the scenery, I have always found Midewin to be a bit...strange. I can't explain it, really; it's a "vibe." Perhaps it's something to do with the bunkers making the landscape look odd.

Bunkers at Midewin

And today I felt a bit disoriented from the weather: the escalating heat; the harsh summer light that makes colors seem blanched and flattens out perspective; the enduring dryness of the season. Insects droned monotonously, but as for bird song, there was almost none, just a few desultory trills from some field sparrows. Everything was touched with the stillness that overtakes the land right before the explosion of fall migration.

Despite all these good explanations, I can say that this was the fourth time I have gone to Midewin, and each time, I felt something a bit "off." Perhaps this particular landscape just doesn't resonate with me, or I with it. Some places feel so welcoming that even on my first visit I feel like I've arrived home. For me, Midewin is definitely not one of them. It's an interesting place, and a wonderful prairie restoration in progress, don't get me wrong. But I was feeling a bit weird there.

As an example of this feeling, when I saw a fellow birder slowly heading towards me down the path, I did not think (as, to be honest, I sometimes do when I'm on a solitary walk), "Darn...hope he's not a chit-chatter, I don't feel like talking." Instead, I felt, "Hooray, a fellow human being! And maybe he can spot the shrike."

When we got within speaking distance, he gave the password: "Seen anything interesting?"

"Not really," I said. "I'm looking for the loggerhead shrike that's supposed to be hanging out here."

It turned out that he was, too. I mentioned the night heron, and seeing it was already on his birding to-do list for the day as well. It's amusing to think of how these birds are just going about their daily lives, oblivious to the fact that people are coming from all over the place to pay their regards, almost as if on pilgrimage. Well, sometimes birding feels that way; when I'm chasing species for the Year List, it usually feels more like a scavenger hunt.

The other birder gave up before I did, and departed in search of the night heron. But I kept stalking up and down the gravel path for the better part of an hour. I really didn't want to "shrike out," not after driving so far. But all I could find were mockingbirds, which persisted in getting my hopes up, for that split second after I spotted them, that they might be shrikes.

"Yes, I'm making fun of you...after all, I'm a mockingbird!"

When it feels like the mockingbirds are mocking you, it's time to wrap it up. I finally had to admit defeat. It was hot. I was thirsty. And what little movement there had been was fast disappearing. But despite the lack of shrikes, it was good to shake out of my routine, and the yellow-crowned night heron wasn't bad at all either. I might not be getting that many species for my Ultimate Birding Year this summer, but I certainly am getting the birding adventures!


  1. Laughed out loud when I read the photo captions! How I would love to see a yellow-crowned night heron! Sorry you shriked out. At least we have the memory of our Texas loggerhead shrike. What a trip that was! (Although i was NOT thrilled to find myself tiptoeing past humongous alligators.) Midewin looks lovely in the photos, but I vastly prefer Goose Lake Prairie Park. Mom

  2. I just came across your blog - neat entry about Midewin. The organization I work for, the Wetlands Initiative, is a long-time partner there in the restoration work. I'm a birder also and on an off-the-clock hike at Midewin earlier this summer I, too, looked for the shrikes but "shriked out"! I did find my lifer Blue Grosbeak that day, though, singing near the Iron Bridge Trailhead... a "nemesis bird" for me for some time! Have you seen one?

    I saw in one of your other entries you write about a birding trip to our Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes. Thought I'd let you know about a special event the Wetlands Initiative is holding there on Wednesday, August 8th, from 2-5 pm. It will be a dedication to celebrate the site's recognition as a Wetland of International Importance--one of only 34 in the entire U.S.! There will be guided nature walks and other activities (including a presentation on birds by a Field Museum ornithologist) for people to discover more about the site. Here's a link to more info:

    Hope you can make it!

    Vera Leopold
    Grants Manager, the Wetlands Initiative

  3. I love the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge; it's one of my favorite spots for waterfowl, shorebirds and most of all, yellow-headed blackbirds. The special event sounds very exciting.

    I did not see any blue grosbeaks at Midewin, but I did get my first for the state (previously seen in Arkansas) much closer to home, a male and female at Weldon Springs in Dewitt county. There seem to be a lot of sightings around the state this year.