Monday, October 15, 2012

A rainy day at Clinton Lake

The turkey vulture gets my vote for the fugliest bird in Illinois

It was early Saturday morning. I had just checked my e-mail and noticed that a potential year bird, the common loon, and a cool "county bird," the surf scoter, had been reported just the day before at the Overlook/Peninsula Day Use area of Clinton Lake. This was exciting news indeed.

During the workday, I had used my vicinity to Lake Decatur's mud flats and Sportsman's Park to get four more year birds -- the black bellied plover (life bird!), the orange crowned warbler, the American pipit (life bird!) and the dunlin, a lunch time round-up almost good enough to make me stop pining for my former Work Place Pond. And just as the old saying "you can never be too rich or too thin" goes, you can never see too many "year birds." Even if you're so skinny people think you're anorexic and so rich you can't trust anyone to like you just for yourself, another year bird is always an unmitigated joy.

So I waited impatiently for the sun to come out. It did not. The sky remained gray, the daylight feeble. Finally I began to suspect that Mother Nature was up to something, and checked the weather report. Rain all weekend long, that's what it said. Arrgh!

But it wasn't raining yet, so I decided to try my luck and go out in search of the loon. Drizzle splatted on my windshield as I drove out of town, but I decided to try to be optimistic. Maybe the full deluge would hold off for a while. Maybe the meteorologist would be proven so wrong he'd have to resign, and a full day of sunshine would commence. Maybe pigs would fly and people in hell would get their longed-for ice water. You never know.

I decided to start with the Peninsula Day Use Area.

Suffice to say that this particular corner of the Lake has been officially closed for a while. I don't think anyone minds if you park at the gate and wander in to bird, although I don't come here very often because it creeps me out a little bit.

The first time I came here, it made me think of Planet of the Apes, a movie I have not seen since grade school, but somehow associate with images of ruined, overgrown cities. Perhaps this is why I find it creepy, a subconscious fear of confronting a talking primate able to subjugate the human race into slavery. Images seen in childhood have the power to stick around long after we are old enough to know better, which is why I blame Hitchcock for a lot of grown-up ornithophobes.

The day was so gray that passerines had to be identified by sound or shape alone, as otherwise they just appeared as gray shapes against the foliage. I saw a nice abundance of robins, goldfinches, blue jays and crows. But no matter. I was looking for loons! Also scoters, but if I had to pick only one, I'd go with the "year bird," the loon.

I passed the old playground and picnic area and headed for the lake, noticing that someone had cleaned up considerably since my last visit. The piles of garbage, beer cans, stray bits of clothing (ugghh...don't want to imagine how that got left behind), and even a frying pan were gone.

I did not see a single loon over the water. Or a scoter. Or anything at all. The water level was so low from our dry summer that I realized I could probably walk quite a ways along the shoreline, as it curved around into a relatively sheltered cove, so I decided to explore a bit.

Due to the drizzly weather, the roar of motor boats was thankfully absent, and I felt agreeably solitary. It was rather attractive in an austere, autumnal way. Sky, water, and shore were all variations on a theme, sending my mind scrambling for synonyms for "gray." Gun-metal, slate, pewter, ash, shale, mother of pearl. The weather might be bad for birding, but was not without its charms.

I startled a belted kingfisher and a great blue heron. A flock of double-crested cormorants flew past, further into the cove. The shore wound around until I could see the berm of the spillway. Behind this was the elusive "Clinton Marsh," the best place in the county to see Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows, or so say my birding buddies. I have yet to explore the marsh, or even pinpoint the exact way to get to it.

The drizzle seemed a bit more earnest, so I decided to keep walking along the shoreline. I startled a small flock of pied-billed grebes, and noticed a group of gulls on the far shore by the berm. I put up my scope, and identified ring-billed, herring and Bonaparte's. And on I walked.

I had just gotten to the base of the berm, with still nary a loon in sight, when two things occurred. One, I got slapped with a good-sized rain drop. And two, my feeling of "a bit creepy" turned into "downright weird." Despite my usual nonchalance about hiking alone, occasionally I do start of feel a bit unnerved by my solitude. Perhaps it was just how isolated the location seemed. It's times like this I wish I had my mother, "Sunwiggy," along, not just for company, but so I can ask her, "Is it just me, or is this place weird?"

I began heading back, with the rain ever more insistent, until finally I was back at my car, flinging camera and spotting scope into the trunk. I sat down behind the wheel and made a list of the birds I'd seen, a poor round-up of species indeed. Just as I was debating trying my luck at the Overlook, the heavens opened, and lo! the rain came down.

Sunday morning, I got to repeat my routine: early rising, coffee, more coffee, check my e-mail for bird sightings, another cup of coffee, and go. The loon had been seen again, this time at the Marina. At the time the bird was seen, I knew for a fact it had been raining ropes, as the French would say, so I wasn't sure how it had been seen, but who am I to doubt other birders? Besides, I love checking my morning bird alerts. Sometimes it's the highlight of my whole day.

After mid-morning or so, the rain clouds scudded away, chased by winds that gusted up to forty miles per hour, or so said my trusty Internet weather report. I'm not sure who hates these windy days more, birds or birders, but the Marina's not too far from my home, so I thought, what's the harm in looking?

Leaves were blown at my windshield the whole way, and every glimpse of the lake I had showed a choppy, birdless expanse. Crows were tossed about willy-nilly on the gusts, and everywhere I looked, the fields were filled with turkey vultures. The vultures must be migrating through; it seems that, all of a sudden each fall, I see them everywhere.

Indeed, I saw them at the Marina. There were at least a couple dozen of them, circling overhead, perched on utility poles, hanging out in the parking lot. Not a loon in sight, but vultures everywhere!

I drove around the lake a bit more, but everywhere I could see water, it was too rough and choppy for good bird sightings. The way the trees and grasses were shaking, I didn't think it would be a good day for passerines, either. So I decided that the whole venture was just "loonacy," and headed home with no year birds to show for it.


  1. How I long to be with you, seeing so many turkey vultures all at once! I just love turkey vultures! My best sighting this year was of a nice pair, sitting on the leaning chimney of an abandoned farmhouse. So cute! I would probably have found your weird place weird, too. Weirdness just seems to be in a lot of places...especially in Illinois, I've noticed. That's okay; weirdness is interesting! As for gray, rainy, windy days, my weather forecast calls for 14 days' worth. Sigh. MOM

    1. Sunwiggy, only you would call vultures "cute"....

  2. I shall get the last word: vultures ARE cute, and you must admit that they are very useful birds. Would you enjoy wading through festering corpses as you hiked around birding? Three cheers for the vultures! MOM