Friday, April 26, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Birding DeWitt County

the humble mourning dove can be seen everywhere

Birding DeWitt County is not for the faint of heart. Many of the best locations are in obscure places, or require some bushwhacking or stamina to get back to. The extremes of Illinois weather -- broiling under the summer heat, or being slapped silly by a vicious wind the rest of the year -- seem magnified along the lake. And perhaps the "county flower" should be the multifora rose, an invasive species whose vampiric thorns has turned much of the countryside into the kind of briar patch not known since the days of Sleeping Beauty's castle.

I should begin this post with a couple of confessions: I've lived here for two years, and I'm still constantly discovering new hidden recesses of the county. And also, it took me a while to warm up to the place. My first couple of visits were not very successful. If I hadn't bought a house in Clinton (the largest town in the county, with a population of around 6,000), I probably would not have persevered to find the county's hidden treasures. And now, in the spirit of birderly fellowship, I have chosen to write a series of posts to serve as a general guide to birding the county. Consider this post by way of introduction.

In general, I mentally divide birding here as Clinton Lake or Away from the Lake. (So far, I have explored two locations Away from the Lake, Weldon Springs State Park and Mettler Woods. I hope to stumble upon some others as I continue to explore. And for a fun, non-birding location, there is the allegedly haunted Old Union Cemetery.)

As for Clinton Lake, that body of water traverses most of the county in a long, skinny line like a big squashed finger. That was one of the things that most confused me when I first attempted to bird here. The word "lake" conjured up an image of an approximately spherical or otherwise contiguous body of water that one should be able to drive around. Instead, I would get a brief look at water as I whizzed over a bridge, and then spend the next several miles staring out over cornfields, demanding, "Where the bleep did the water go??" (For those whose anticipation is so great that you can't wait for me to get to all the fabulous places to bird here, many of the places I'll be describing are mentioned here.)

Before I actually begin my guide, I will describe my first, frustrating trip to the Lake. My sometime birding buddy (and mother) Sunwiggy and I decided to explore Clinton Lake based on the description given in Sheryl DeVore's book Birding Illinois, and from seeing all the great birds that other people had recently logged on ebird.

We set off one bright, sunny day in early October, 2009, to explore the wonders of Clinton Lake. With only the Birding Illinois book to guide us, we drove through Clinton and headed down highway 10, looking for likely spots to bird. Mostly I remember being frustrated. I had really just started birding on my own at the time (before that, I mostly enjoyed birding by going out on group walks with the JWP Audubon Society a few times in the spring and fall), and I had yet to learn some birding basics, such as the importance of refining one's search for certain species based on very specific habitat and season, and the necessity of a spotting scope if one wants to see waterfowl or shorebirds.

Other important items I've learned in the interim: the wealth of information provided by the birding community at large via the Internet, and the importance of really pinning down locations when heading out into the countryside. Though it embarrasses me to point out some of my old mistakes, well...we all have to start somewhere!

I finally turned at the sign for "Mascoutin State Recreation Area," giving a long-overdue glimpse of some water, and then we turned in to the park. We noted that there was a hiking trail, then found the beach area. My tally of species (I dusted off my old 2009 Bird Journal to get these details): American crow; Canada goose; great blue heron; ring-billed gull; belted kingfisher; killdeer; Bonaparte's gull; northern flicker; turkey vulture.

We then tried to find a spot described in the Devore book as being a trail "past the town square in DeWitt...." Multiple passes by the town square revealed nothing resembling a trail, and we finally turned around in disgust. (I now know where this spot is, and will share the details in a later post!)

Our next stop was the Clinton Marina, where a half a dozen turkey vultures perched on a houseboat with a "for sale" sign. The house boat is no longer there, although turkey vultures continue to gather at the marina in large numbers each fall. Still, this remains one of my favorite birding memories at the Lake.

turkey vultures are common at Clinton Lake Marina

Next, we drove further, to the bridge along Illinois 48, where we saw double-crested cormorants, black-capped chickadees, mallards, more crows, and more ring-billed gulls. On the advice of the book, we pulled up at the cemetery by the bridge, which was supposed to have a trail that lead to all sorts of interesting places. There was a short trail that petered out into nothing, and we added gray catbird, northern cardinal, least flycatcher, European starling, and eastern bluebird to our list.

By now I was getting disappointed. We weren't seeing much at the places we found, and two of the spots described in the book that sounded especially promising were either impossible to find or no longer maintained. Still undaunted, we decided to head for the Parnell Access, turning in the direction indicated by the sign on Highway 10. As no further sign told us to turn again, we kept on driving straight, until miles later it was clear that we were nowhere near the lake. We backtracked and did eventually find it, although I still have a bone to pick with the county for omitting the extra sign. (I will not make anyone wait for a further installment before giving this piece of advice: when heading towards the Parnell Access via Highway 48, turn the way the sign points you, and then take the first left. Do not keep driving straight. That only leads to tears.)

There wasn't much happening at Parnell, so for our final stop, we head over to Highway 54 and the Salt Creek Wetland Project. This looked more like it! A long gravel lane lead to a gate. Late fall migrants--yellow rumped and Tennessee warblers--fluttered in the branches overhead.

We walked down a slope towards a large marshy area, where we finally saw an expanse of water birds, including a large flock of American white pelicans. But when we got closer to the water, we encountered a most distressing sight. It turned out that we had arrived in waterfowl hunting season, and hunters in ungainly looking boats fringed with camouflage netting and festooned with leaves and branches bobbed in the water. The sound of gunshot rang through the air.

I have mixed feelings about duck hunting to start with, and have absolutely no desire to watch ducks being blown from the sky before my eyes. We decided to call it a day. We also decided we didn't care for Clinton Lake.

As is often the case, repeated excursions made me change my mind. Now I would say that birding in DeWitt County is, indeed, some of the finest that central Illinois has to offer. And so others can "cut to the chase," and the good birds, I will be doing a series of posts about the different places to bird, interspersed with my usual birding adventures and random musings you can find on this blog.

Is there anywhere in particular you would recommend be included for a guide to DeWitt County? Or anyplace that you would especially like to read about?


  1. How well I remember this day! The turkey vultures perched atop the houseboat is still my favorite turkey vulture sighting of all time, and I have still not completely recovered from the sight of that boat, which looked like a mutant bush with guns sticking out of it. The memory is both funny and disturbing! I'm glad you've figured out Clinton Lake, because now when I come, you can be my guide. I now feel inspired to write up some of the best birding spots in Houghton County. Since I don't have my own blog, may I post them via yours? MOM

  2. It has come to my attention that Sunwiggy has been slacking in the guest blogger department...what are those readers who are more interested in the North supposed to do?? In other words, you not only "may" post more Yooper Adventures here, but I actually insist on it!