Sunday, May 26, 2013

DeWitt County Birding Guide: Mascoutin State Recreation Area

the tufted titmouse is a reliable Mascoutin sighting

Mascoutin State Recreation Area is a large park a few miles east of the town of Clinton in DeWitt County. Although it seems most popular for fishing, the birding is not too shabby, either.

My Personal Birding History

Though I stopped at Mascoutin a couple of times prior to 2011 as part of a DeWitt County birding jaunt, it wasn't until that year, when I moved to Clinton, that I really started to get to know the area. One of my first good sightings was a singing yellow-breasted chat in June, 2011. Since then, I have visited Mascoutin at least a couple of times per season. It is my second favorite DeWitt County birding spot (after Weldon Springs).

General Description

As a focal point of the long, squashed finger that is Clinton Lake, Mascoutin is a fairly large park. If you are coming from the direction of Highway 10, your first sight is going to be the long causeway with Clinton Lake sprawling away in both directions. (One of my first Mascoutin memories is of stopping here on a frigid January morning to see a pair of bald eagles on the ice.) Feel free to join the fishermen parking at either end of the waterway, and tote your scope to view the lake. You can also park alongside the road a ways down in either direction, and hike into the scrubby grassland areas. This is a good way to get different views of the water, and sometimes a few other interesting birds will pop up as well.

Driving past the Mascoutin entrance towards DeWitt (and highway 54), more open scrubby land is available for exploring, plus the steamy flume of the power plant. Signs will tell you not to get too close, but I've never had a problem casting my spotting scope over the misty water to look for birds. A northern shrike was seen this past winter in this area; but, as shrikes are my Illinois nemesis, I was not able to locate it!


The warm water from the power plant creates some interesting effects

Turning in at the Mascoutin entrance takes you to a long drive along the grassland. At the end of the road, a turn to the left leads to the beach area, where interesting gulls and terns can be found, and a purple sandpiper was seen a couple of years back along the rocks (alas, during a busy time when I was not checking the birding alerts, and I missed it!)

A turn to the right will take you to the Houseboat Cove Trail, a three to five mile (you can turn back at different points) trail leading through open scrub lands, fields, small ponds, windbreaks of Osage orange, some overgrown woodsy areas, plus many views of the lake and some hidden coves. It's not an especially scenic trail, but the birding can be good, especially (in my experience) in late fall to early spring.

Other features/points of interest:

Hiking:

Although not especially scenic, Mascoutin is a decent place to hike in central Illinois. The Houseboat Cove trail, which is anywhere between three and five miles, depending on where you turn back, is a fairly interesting, and not too strenuous, walk. (Some gentle slopes and mildly uneven ground occur...I would give it "three boots"...in other words, not bad for an adult in average, but not athletic, conditioning (myself), and would be challenging, but not impossible, for an older person with COPD and a wonky knee (my mother). There is also a short paved section for those with disabilities. And for those who would enjoy a longer walk on more even ground, a long trail also runs alongside the road to the entrance.

Fishing:

I don't fish myself, but judging from the crowds the congregate along the shores in all seasons, this must be one of DeWitt County's #1 spots. The DNR website indicates that it is particularly good for catfish.

Other activities:

Camping is available at the park, as is a restaurant which is open in the summer months. There is also a beach area, again open in the summer. There are toilets open year-round, which are no more nor less disgusting than your typical park toilet experience.

Caveats:

This park seems safe and is generally well-maintained. I have been here dozens of times over the past couple of years, and never had a bad experience.

The Houseboat Cove Trail does have a fall and winter archery season, but I've never encountered trail closures or felt awkward hiking there. Likewise, you might not want to look too close over the water in fall waterfowl season, but it's not something that closes down the trails.

In the summer months, the trail tends to be rather buggy, and noise from motor boats and/or music blaring from boats might be intrusive.

white breasted nuthatch

Birding highlights:

I like birding here from late fall to early spring the best. It's less crowded, and there's usually a more interesting mix of birds. Typically, I begin by parking at the end of the bridge and looking for water birds. The water is usually open here all winter, due to the warm water from the power plant; only one frigid January did I find it frozen, with a pair of bald eagles perching on the ice.

In my experience, this isn't the best spot along the lake for waterfowl, but I can usually find wintering American coot, pied-billed grebe and great blue herons; and occasionally common goldeneye and common mergansers.


Late fall through early spring I will also sometimes explore the scrubby areas along the lakeshore, finding different views of the water and your typical mix of Illinois winter passerines. (Late spring through early fall I skip this part, as there are no trails.)

Next, you will turn in at the Mascoutin entry road, a long road that takes you past several grassy fields to a T intersection at the end. This area is full of ring-necked pheasant (year round), northern harrier and sometimes rough-legged hawk in the winter, and a good mix of grassland birds in summer. Yesterday I strolled down a ways, surrounded by the sounds of eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, brown thrasher, field sparrows, and goldfinches. I also thought I heard a Bell's vireo cheedling in the distance. Bobwhite is also possible.

This road flanks the camping areas, so weekends in the summertime, RVs are a reliable sighting as well; but even so, I plan to explore this part more thoroughly in the next season, as I've normally just driven past. There is also a dirt road paralleling this entry road that you could walk down. Again, I plan to do a bit more exploring to see just who's breeding here.

At the end of the road, a turn to the left takes you to the boat launch and beach area, which is also where the restaurant is. I've never eaten here, but I've heard the food is good. If the beach is empty of people, it's probably one of the best spots in DeWitt County to look for gulls and sometimes terns, as there is a regular colony that hangs out here. Ring billed is a given, Bonaparte's and herring in winter or migration, and yesterday I saw a Laughing Gull. Killdeer and spotted sandpiper are also possible. In winter time, resting waterfowl sometimes joins them, like greater white-fronted geese.

If it's not too crowded, I usually check out the general area around the restaurant and walk down along the water towards the picnic area further down. This is the only spot in the park where I've seen eastern bluebird. In winter, you can find a good mix of American tree sparrow, white-throated sparrow, dark-eyed juncos and the like, along with year-round tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees.

If I'm birding in the summer months, at this point my trip to Mascoutin usually includes one more spot--returning to the T intersection, keep going right and park down by the Houseboat Cove Trail. I like to check out the fields (sedge wren possible), the scrubby area along the playground (willow flycatcher), and the open areas along the closed road, just past the trail head (indigo bunting, great-crested flycatcher, rose-breasted grosbeak, blue-gray gnatcatcher, and once a chat).


Then there is the Houseboat Cove Trail, a three-to-five mile loop (depending on where you turn back) that rounds a point by the lake and takes you to a hidden cove, with open fields, windbreaks of Osage orange, and a couple of ponds along the way. Most of the year I will walk it. Sometimes it's not at all productive, but then every once in a while is a nice surprise. It's the spot in Dewitt County where I'm most likely to find wintering pine siskins, for example, and I have also found wintering hermit thrush. I have also found great horned owls and wild turkey at any time of the year. It can be good for migrating and wintering sparrows, and brown creeper, and not bad for migrating flycatchers, but for some reason I haven't found a lot of warblers here yet. Future excursions will tell me if that's just a fluke or a regular pattern.

In summer, I rarely walk this trail because it's so dank and buggy. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but in my opinion, while this trail can be visually interesting in winter when you can see the "bones" of the land, it is mostly just an overgrown, tangled mess of prickly invasive plants and bird-obscuring vines and undergrowth. Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard and the like have pretty much taken over. Between that and the motor boat noise, it's not my favorite summer trail. But the rest of the year, it's worth checking out.

Highlights along the trail: a small pond about a quarter mile in, which in dry weather is mostly gone, but the area still seems to attract birds. I'll usually find good flocks of whatever species is "in season" here -- rusty blackbird, fox sparrow, white-throated sparrow, cedar waxwing, etc. Wood duck like it here in the spring, and if the ratio of water to mud is just right in the fall, so do solitary sandpiper.

Looking out over the lake at various points, you are most likely to see people boating and fishing, but coots love to hug the shoreline, belted kingfisher can be found at any point along the trail by the water, and swallows and gulls can be seen flitting over the surface.

If you are feeling up to a longer walk, it's fun to take the long route back and check out the cove area that I call the "drowned trees." In winter, if the water's open, mallards hang out here in the hundreds, and if you can look them over without flushing them all, other species are quite likely to be hanging out with them. In migration, northern shoveler, blue winged teal, green winged teal, wood duck and gadwall also like it here. One spring I found about a hundred double-crested cormorant perching in the drowned trees.


In the trees along the trail here, I often find pine siskin, brown creeper, and migrating thrushes.

The next good spot is a large pond in a clearing. In spring, it's likely to be full of ducks, including ring-necked duck, shoveler, green and blue winged teal, and redhead.


From here, you can either take the final loop of the trail, which winds past more of the hidden cove (and, as it is more open, is actually my favorite part of the trail for hiking), and then along the windbreak and fields to your starting point, or you can skip it and just head back.

The windbreak/field area is often interesting. Woodpeckers and great horned owl like to hang out here, and in the fields, I've seen eastern kingbirds perching on stalks of corn stubble. Once I also saw a merlin flying in this area.

And now we are back to the trailhead, and done with our birding tour of Mascoutin. In two weeks, more or less, I will give my next installment on birding in Dewitt County with a trip to the Salt Creek Wetland Project.


Species checklists:

This is a list of the birds that I have personally seen at this location, and when I have seen them. It is, therefore, limited in scope, and not to be taken as the final word on birds to be seen in the area. As I continue to bird in the region, I will regularly update all my checklists.

In the interests of simplicity, I have categorized species as YEAR ROUND RESIDENTS/ SUMMER RESIDENTS / WINTER RESIDENTS / and MOSTLY IN MIGRATION. I think these categories are self-explanatory, but there is a degree of overlap. For example, on a particular spring day, I might see a lingering American tree sparrow (winter resident), an early red-winged blackbird (summer resident), and a fox sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet, and ring-necked ducks (mostly migrants). Birders are encouraged to use their general knowledge to pinpoint the best times to look for a particular species. I am also always happy to answer any questions as to exactly when and where I saw a particular bird. Feel free to leave a comment, as I check them regularly.

"Common/abundant" means a species that I see every time or almost every time I go birding at this location, at the appropriate time of year and habitat; "occasional/somewhat common" means a species that I see often in the appropriate time of year and habitat, but can't count on finding on any given excursion; and "uncommon/rare" refers to species I have only seen once or twice a year, or less often.

YEAR ROUND RESIDENTS:

Common/abundant: Canada goose; mallard; ring-necked pheasant; red-tailed hawk; ring-billed gull; mourning dove; belted kingfisher; red-bellied woodpecker; downy woodpecker; hairy woodpecker; northern flicker; black-capped chickadee; blue jay; northern cardinal; tufted titmouse; American crow; white-breasted nuthatch; American goldfinch.

Occasional/somewhat common: great blue heron; great horned owl; European starling; cedar waxwing; song sparrow; house sparrow; house finch.

Uncommon/rare: wild turkey; Cooper's hawk; horned lark; eastern bluebird.


SUMMER RESIDENTS:

Common/abundant: turkey vulture; eastern wood pewee; eastern phoebe; eastern kingbird; tree swallow; house wren; blue-gray gnatcatcher; American robin; gray catbird; field sparrow; indigo bunting; dickcissel; brown-headed cowbird; red-winged blackbird; eastern meadowlark; common grackle; Baltimore oriole.

Occasional/somewhat common: northern bobwhite; yellow-billed cuckoo; barred owl; great crested flycatcher; warbling vireo; Carolina wren; brown thrasher; common yellowthroat; eastern towhee; chipping sparrow; rose-breasted grosbeak; barn swallow.

Uncommon/rare: chimney swift; yellow-breasted chat; wood thrush; vesper sparrow.


WINTER RESIDENTS:

Common/abundant: pied-billed grebe; northern harrier; American tree sparrow; dark-eyed junco.

Occasional/somewhat common: greater white-fronted goose; cackling goose; bald eagle; brown creeper; American robin; pine siskin

Uncommon/rare: sharp-shinned hawk; rough-legged hawk; American kestrel; hermit thrush


MOSTLY IN MIGRATION:

Common/abundant: wood duck; blue-winged teal; northern shoveler; American coot; killdeer; golden-crowned kinglet; ruby-crowned kinglet; Swainson's thrush; hermit thrush

Occasional/somewhat common: gadwall; green-winged teal; redhead; ring-necked duck; bufflehead; hooded merganser; pied-billed grebe; double-crested cormorant; Bonaparte's gull; least flycatcher; northern rough-winged swallow; Nashville warbler; American redstart; yellow-rumped warbler; fox sparrow

Uncommon/rare: solitary sandpiper; spotted sandpiper; Laughing gull; common tern; yellow-bellied sapsucker; merlin; yellow-bellied flycatcher; willow flycatcher; Philadelphia vireo; sedge wren; blackpoll warbler; palm warbler; pine warbler; black-throated green warbler; Lincoln's sparrow; rusty blackbird




Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sisyphus with a pair of shears

a robin's nest

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like lately. There are a few reasons for this, and one of them is the state of my back yard. Those of you who have been dropping by for a while might recall how excited I was when Greenturtle and I first bought our house two years ago. Finally, after dreaming for years about the lovely, bird-friendly garden I wanted to create, at last I had my chance! Sure, as it was, the yard was pretty neglected, and it was full of bamboo--which I did not want--but I figured I'd just roll up my sleeves and get to work and soon have it all set to right.

two years ago...the bamboo jungle

Soon I learned of my naivete. In the proper environment (such as China, where it belongs), bamboo is doubtless a wonderful thing. In a small backyard in central Illinois, it is the spawn of Satan. You think I jest? Alas, no.

For those who were not reading during my summary of the Bamboo Wars, let me recap. There are two main types of bamboo available for landscaping: clumping and running bamboo. Both types of bamboo are actually a grass, and, in a bizarre space-alien sort of way, the entire grove is actually one single organism, which spreads by means of underground rhizomes.

The difference between the two types is the force of their invasiveness. Clumping bamboo spreads relatively slowly, giving one time to prune it back before it takes over your entire town. Running bamboo, on the other hand, can spread up to twenty feet in one year. It sends out underground runners far and wide, tangling up your yard underground as well as where you can see it, and absolutely ruining any other sort of plantings or landscaping you had in mind. And my bamboo? Well, it runs. And it runs fast. (If you would like to read my whole Bamboo Diatribe, check out the guest post I did for Beautiful Wildlife Gardens.)

So for the past couple of years, I've been cutting the bamboo down, and it's been growing back. And I've cut it down, and it's grown back. I can't even dig in one part of the yard because the underground runners are so prevalent, criss-crossing beneath the earth and completely impervious to my shovel. (We can use shears to cut it, then pull out a few inches, then cut again, but that's painstaking labor, and takes forever.)

Despite these tales of woe, I still know a couple of people who say they'd love to have some of my bamboo...for the privacy. That's like saying you want to try crystal meth for a bit of afternoon energy. Bad idea!! Friends, don't let friends plant bamboo!

Because of the futility of this labor, I've been rather silent on the bamboo issue for a while. But now we're ready to get serious. This time, it's full out war. We're going to rent a backhoe, and tear up the whole back yard, if that's what it takes!!

So in preparation for Operation Avenging Angel, I've cut down all the bamboo. All of it. And, within two days, it started to shoot up again. Just two days! I wanted to weep. Or buy some napalm. It's literally coming back quicker than I can keep up with it.


The futility of my labors puts me in mind of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, about the dude condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain every day, then have it roll down the mountain each night. And then, in the morning, what did he have to do? That's right...push the boulder back up the mountain. It could be about a midwestern gardener with a bad case of bamboo. Just give poor Sisyphus a pair of shears.

But this is getting depressing. So I will wrap up with a nicer topic of things I find in my yard: bird's nests. (NB: no birds, eggs or nestlings were disturbed in any way for the photographing of these nests. All nests were collected only after they had been vacated or abandoned.)

This is -- I think! -- a grackle's nest, found in the bamboo when I first started clearing it out. Notice the plastic interwoven with the natural materials.


This is another robin's nest. I know for a fact that it's a robin's, as we watched the bird build it on our drain spout and sit in in for a week or so. Then one day the wind blew the nest to the ground. There did not appear to be any eggs or baby birds, however.


This bird also took advantage of some human made nesting material...Easter grass!


Finally, in the bamboo, I found what I think is another grackle's nest. I'm just basing this on some photos I found on the Internet, plus the fact that the only species of birds who really seem to love the bamboo are grackles (in the summer) and house sparrows and starlings (in the winter). Also, a Cooper's hawk, who dropped by frequently one winter to feast on the sparrows and starlings. Hey, it's nature.

In any event, this nest, attached to two culms of bamboo, is pretty massive.


But so intricate! Look how it's attached to the bamboo, with what looks like a borrowed piece of twine!


The other side is just made of grasses looped around. I guess they only found one piece of twine.


Just as I think I'm getting better at bird identification, I stumble across a whole new field of study--bird nests!

Well, hopefully, this time next year, the bamboo will be gone for good, and I'll have a wider variety of birds nesting in my yard. (Come on, house wrens!)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Birding on borrowed time

red winged blackbird

Spring migration is the best time of the whole year. And it's gone so quickly. It seems like there was never enough time, and I barely got outside as much as I wanted, and I still have a half dozen warblers I didn't see, every year.

This spring, it felt like it rained every single weekend. I was starting to feel like nature had a grudge against me. As if there were some spiteful weather spirit perched atop an enormous black rain cloud, following me everywhere I went, muttering, "You think you're going to go out and see any warblers? Well, only if you want to see them in a thunderstorm! Mwa-ha-ha!" A bit extreme, perhaps, but such is the strength of the feeling that spring migration brings.

The icing on the cake was supposed to be the first weekend of May, when my parents came to visit. I had promised them a spring warblerama the likes of which they had never before witnessed. I told my mother, Sunwiggy, that with me as her birding guide, we could possibly see one hundred species on one day. The original plan was to take them for a quick stroll on Thursday evening when they arrived, then head over to Vermilion County on Sunday for an all day birding blast. Friday morning she wanted to go to the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin-Hopper lakes in Putnum County, where last year we'd finally seen yellow-headed blackbirds, just when I was suspecting they were swiftly becoming a nemesis bird.

As it turned out, Thursday, after a day of sunshine, it started to pour as soon as they got to town. Friday morning I awoke to further downpour. Instead of birding, we went out for breakfast at a local restaurant, and I stared sullenly out the window as new raindrops made pockmarks in the puddles.

I decided to go to Bloomington with them for a spot of shopping instead, when just as we were reaching the McLean County line, the rain slowed to a drizzle, and then ceased. Given a choice between shopping and birding, it's obvious what I'm going to do.

"Let's check out Centennial Park [in Heyworth]," I suggested. "It's a small park, but sometimes the birding's good. Last year there was a prothonotary."

We parked by the short, woodsy trail that runs along the back of the park. "Welcome to Warbler Alley," I said jokingly. But it was no joke! The storms must have created fall-out condition, for the trees were practically dripping with spring migrants. Ninety percent of these were yellow-rumped warblers. But in the other ten percent, we got some sweet species, such as black and white, Cape May, palm, yellow and blackpoll warblers, plus warbling vireos.

A fellow walking his dog stopped to tell us about the nesting bald eagles. I had heard of these frequently, but had yet to see them. He also told us how he had rescued his dog a couple of years ago after his wife found it lying by a ditch, practically starving and wounded by gunshot. The dog seemed in good health and spirits, however, and truly lived up to its name, Lucky.

As we walked back towards the car, one of the eagles of local fame flew overhead, carrying such long branches in its talons that at first glance, I assumed it was a great blue heron.

After that, of course, it rained. In between running errands with Greenturtle I did manage to squelch into Ewing Park in Bloomington, where I enjoyed the sight of a hooded warbler in the rain.

Saturday, rain. Every time I thought I'd caught a lull in the drizzle, I raced outside, only to be foiled by the weather once again.

So by Sunday, the last day of their visit, I was starting to feel a bit desperate. Luckily, the weather cooperated for us at last.

As our Friday morning trip to Hennepin-Hopper had been cancelled due to weather, and Sunwiggy insisted that, out of every spot in all of central Illinois, that was the one she wanted to visit the most, we were heading for Putnam County. As I was mostly lusting for warblers, I convinced them to stop at Funks Grove in McLean County along the way.

I have long thought that being a birding guide would be an awesome job, so it was great fun to play that role with my parents. And luckily, the birds cooperated. Once again, we found ourselves surrounded by a giant mixed feeding flock. We added indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, Swainson's thrush, wood thrush, Tennessee warbler, eastern wood pewee, gray-cheeked thrush and blue winged warbler to our year lists in short order.

And what could be better than seeing a scarlet tanager? Why, that would be seeing it in the company of a summer tanager, which was perching in the trees directly over my head.

"Summer tanager!" I called out.

"Where?" they cried. "Where's the summer tanager?"

"It's right over my head here." I pointed skyward. "Right directly over my head."

"But where, where is it? I can't see it."

I clarified, "If it took a dump right this minute, it would land in my eye!" So much for being a birding guide...but they did see the tanager.

As we headed down the road to Sugar Grove Nature Center, the birding just kept on being fabulous. A flock of rose-breasted grosbeaks were feeding in the middle of the road. By the nature center, white-crowned sparrows clustered around the feeders, while Baltimore orioles flocked to the oranges.

Mindful of my boast that we could see up to one hundred species, I suggested we walk the prairie to try for some grassland species, but gray clouds and a biting wind were rolling in. My dad was cold, and it truly did look like more rain, we decided to head northward, where the forecast was kinder.

the observation tower at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

Hennepin-Hopper was as beautiful as ever, but alas, the stars of the show, the yellow-headed blackbirds, had not chosen to make an appearance. I wonder if the water level was too high for them (last year was much dryer), if we arrived too late in the day, or if some other happenstance or fickle mood had kept them away. There were also no great egrets or double-crested cormorants, which surprised me, as they have always been "regulars" in the past.

The species we did see were also surprising: ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks and bufflehead. Shouldn't they have moved north already? And yet there they were. Someone said that the lakes had just been restocked with small fish; maybe that was was kept them around. Joining them were the more expected blue winged teal and wood duck, plus an American white pelican (just one?!?) and a pair of mute swans.

At the other end of the prairie/wetland trail, we heard the uncanny noise of a sora, and as my parents seemed interested in finding it, I took my responsibilities of bird guide seriously and stared into the reeds until I found it. Several more minutes passed until everyone had had a satisfactory look, as the bird was so well camouflaged that even when I was staring right at it, the sora would somehow manage to blend in with the surrounding cattails in a kind of reverse "magic eye" trick.

Now you see it, now you don't...sora

As we stopped to eat the sandwiches we'd brought, we watched a sad and vicious spectacle. A thuggish house sparrow was in the process of evicting a tree swallow from a tree cavity it had chosen for a nest. The swallow made a couple of attempts to reclaim the lost territory, but the sparrow, a ruffian through and through, bullied it mercilessly until it gave up. I found myself identifying with the poor tree swallow, imaging someone barging in and evicting me from my home.

There was one last spot to explore, the mile-long "seep trail" that follows a series of springs and puddles--seeps---where at this time of year I would normally expect to see red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore orioles and a sprinkling of warblers. I was not disappointed. All of these, plus yellow-bellied flycatcher, great crested flycatcher, marsh wren, and about a dozen yellow warblers made an appearance. I have never seen so many yellow warblers in one spot; that might be the "best bird" of the day just for their quantity.

We also saw some plants that had been uprooted and tossed by the trail. Sunwiggy wondered who was pulling out plants, so I explained that it was garlic mustard, a horribly invasive species that is attempting world domination. It spreads like wildfire, crowding out native plants such as spring wildflowers, and changing the habitat -- and the scenery -- for the worse. Yanking this crap out is a good thing.

garlic mustard--bad, bad, bad

Both of my parents were so inspired by my speech that we all began removing clumps of it up and down the trail, until we realized that it was a never-ending task and meanwhile, the birds weren't going to wait for us to finish. Along the way, we met the couple who'd been removing it; it's always nice to meet another avenger of native plants.

My parents got tired before we reached the end of the trail, and turned back early, although they said they were entertained in the meantime by watching a mute swan terrorizing a Canada goose. I'm starting to sense a pattern here -- the house sparrow, the garlic mustard, the mute swan, all showing up from distant parts to bully the locals. Don't get me wrong; I like mute swans. And I hear that garlic mustard is good to eat. And as for house sparrows, well, it's not their fault they don't belong here. It was like a mini-environmental lesson, with examples, there at Hennepin Hopper.

The day kind of wound down after that, and we finished out at a respectable, but not spectacular, seventy-seven species.

And then balmy, sunny day followed upon balmy, sunny day, and I had to work. Since I have an hour and a half of commute on top of my nine-hour work days, there's little time for birding in between. It's hard enough for me to be cooped up inside all day at any time of the year...but during spring migration! It feels like being stuck in prison all day, then let out at night for good behavior.

The imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo trying to catch a glimpse of a Blackburnian warbler

And then, on the weekends...rain!! There were some good moments--a couple of hours at Mettler woods under gloomy skies, where the scarlet of the tanager and the yellow throat of the vireo and the orange on the Blackburnian warbler still shimmered, despite the gray weather.

Or after doing the same double take several times, when I realized that real difference between a thrush and an ovenbird (which look similar on first glance) is not the ovenbird's smaller size or subtle orange cap, but its look of perpetual alarm. Every ovenbird I've seen has looked like it's getting ready for the apocalypse. Thrushes, on the other hand, are quite laid back.

As the spring warbler season winds down, I've been thinking of how the famous birder Phoebe Snetsinger -- the first person to get more than 8,000 species on her life list -- called her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time. I always assumed that she chose that title because she had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer (which went into remission; twenty years later she was killed in a bus accident).

Obviously, having a disease like that, even if one has successfully dodged it, would make one more aware of the brevity of warblers in migration. But more to the point, none of us has an infinite supply of years. And the birds themselves, depending on the species, might not be here in a decade or a century. We're all on borrowed time.

Or, with apologies to A.E. Housman:

Of my three-score years and ten
Forty will not come again
And thirty years will never do
To watch the warblers going through.



Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Each death is a tiny crime scene"

wind turbines outside of Moraine View State Park

Originally I had mentally prepared a long rant on this topic, but on consideration, I think the facts speak for themselves. For the past decade or so, I have watched as many counties in central Illinois have been blanketed in wind farms. Even worse, two local parks -- bird magnets each, Moraine View and Comlara Park in McLean County -- have had these monsters erected right along theirs perimeters. It seems that the famous birding Mecca, Magee Marsh in Ohio, is also threatened by encroaching wind farms.

I'm an environmentalist, so I must love wind energy, right? Not always. I think it definitely has its place. And I think that, on average, the damage done to birds by wind turbines is less than that done by mountaintop removal mining or BP-sized oil spills. But that's like comparing the victims of a serial killer to those of a holocaust.

What has always annoyed me is how these wind farms have been slapped together as quickly as possible, before the tax credits run out, without any sort of consideration for their placement or the impact on local and migrating birds. Why would you place these things right outside of one of the few green areas in the county, for example?

Recently, someone posted a link on the Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts (IBET) listserv, about some of the damage that these turbines do, especially to some of our most beloved birds of prey. It's not a happy topic, but one that is definitely worth knowing about.

And now I'm done. See? No ranting!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A poem...about scarlet tanagers


Today on my lunch break, I took a short walk at Sportsman's Park and saw a scarlet tanager. For some reason, I've been seeing tons of them this year, not that I'm complaining! The beginning of a poem started percolating through my head. As soon as I got home, I grabbed my notebook and tried to tease the rest of it out. This is what I came up with. I hope you enjoy it.

The Tanager

At lunch time, as I walked the short path
at Sportman's Park, by Lake Decatur, suddenly,
I saw a scarlet tanager,
a bird so insanely, incandescently red,
compared to which, all other shades
of red are mere approximations,
perching there, like the heart of flames,
the Platonic messenger of pure color;
shimmering as if the sun itself can
barely stand to witness such intensity.

Seeing this bird, I knew at last what
my eyes are for, and was devastated to think of
the three decades in which I never saw, or sought,
a tanager's profound and world-altering scarletness
hiding in the branches. Now, that lapse
is unthinkable, a closely averted catastrophe.

Some wonder if you can miss
something you never knew. In that moment,
of myself and the tanager, I understood beyond
a doubt: the answer is yes.
Long before I knew to miss them, a
tanager-sized hole perched inside me,
a gap in my soul that only
the sight of a scarlet tanager could fill.

If someday it comes to pass, that these
incandescent birds depart, whether due to loss of
habitat, or congenial climate, or some other form
of human carelessness, that tanager-sized gap
will only grow until it fills the universe
with its emptiness, a wound that tears
through all of us,
through everything, a wound that
nothing but a scarlet tanager
could heal.

Friday, May 10, 2013

DeWitt County Birding Guide: Weldon Springs State Park

dickcissel at Weldon Springs


Weldon Springs is a 550 acre park not too far from Clinton, IL. This park is very special to me. Not only was it the first place I ever birded (on a walk with the JWP Audubon Society back in September 2004), but has since become my personal birding "patch," as it is only a five minute drive from my house.

My Personal Birding History:

For the past two years, I have stopped at Weldon Springs to bird at least once a month, if not more often. At least once a season, I try to do an all day "birding census" of every inch of the park.

General description:

The park contains a variety of habitats, attracting a surprising number of birds. There are two prairie trails. The Old Farmhouse Loop is a two mile trail that winds past an old cemetery and small grove of trees and a farmstead and its outbuildings (now falling down...picturesque, but you can't enter them), with a small stream and marshy area. The second prairie, the Old Union Schoolhouse Trail, takes you to a seasonal pond, the eponymous schoolhouse, and a mile or so of open scrubby area.

The backpack loop takes you through a lowland forest, with some of the tallest trees in DeWitt County, which runs along Salt Creek. Past the backpack loop is another trail, taking one past fields and more wooded areas. One can either loop back to the backpack parking area, along an unused blacktop, or walk up a short, steep wooded trail alongside a creek to connect with the Union Schoolhouse Prairie.

Another two-mile trail loops around the man made Weldon Spring Lake, taking one to various vantage points around the lake, through a small wetland, and across an open area where the concession stand and the Springs of yore can be found.

Other birdable areas can be found by walking the circular road crossing the park and following the various turn-offs to the Sledding Hill/backpack loop, the Meadowlark shelter, and the camping area. I have yet to find a spot in this park that is not good for birding.

The park office has a bird feeder which is also worth taking a look at, especially in the winter months.


Other features/points of interest:

Hiking: This is a great park for hiking, with over seven miles of trails, most of which connect to each other sooner or later. The trails are generally easy to moderate, although there are a couple of steep hills, and the loop around the lake has several staircases to help keep you in shape! All of these areas seem to be popular with trail runners as well. (For those who wish to avoid stairs and hills, the two prairie loops keep one on level ground. The Old Union Schoolhouse Loop is probably the easiest of the lot.) Cross-country skiing is also allowed on the backpack loop. Cyclists can traverse the roads, but there are no biking trails.

Fishing: Fishing is allowed in the park. I don't fish myself, so I can't give any details. Boats are available for rent during the summer months as well.

Family activities: The Old Union Schoolhouse has an interpretive, "hands on" learning center which should be fun for nature-loving families and kids. There is also a sledding hill and horseshoe pits, plus many areas where one can gather the family for a big BBQ or picnic. There is also at least one playground area, although it seems fairly basic.

Historical interest: There aren't any historical sites per se, but Weldon Springs does have an interesting backstory. From 1901-1921, the park was part of the famous "Chatauqua" circuit, in which speakers came for the education, entertainment and "moral elevation" of up to 325 families who camped out in the area to attend. Some of these speakers included William Jennings Bryant, Helen Keller, Carrie Nation, president William Howard Taft, the reverend Billy Sunday, and the evangelist Sam Jones. The springs themselves were considered to have healing properties.

Food and camping: Both RV and backpack camping is available at the park, and there is a restaurant on site as well. As I have never camped or eaten here, I can't vouch for either experience. However, I do commend the park's toilets as being the least disgusting in the county!

Caveats: This park seems very safe and is generally well maintained. As hunting is not allowed, birders and hikers don't have to contend with random closure dates due to hunting season. However, the park, especially the lake loop trail, tends to get very crowded on nice days, spring through fall, especially on the weekends. Birders may wish to plan on arriving early to beat the crowds. The other trails are usually not too crowded, as long as you don't mind the occasional trail runner or dog walker.

Also, the backpack loop tends to flood if there has been a lot of recent rain.

Birding highlights:

My favorite trail is probably the "Old Farmhouse" Loop. For one thing, I love me a nice prairie, and this one is great. In the summer months, eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, house wren, common yellowthroat and field sparrow, plus a ton of barn and field swallows, are all "shoo-ins." Red-headed woodpecker (rare in the county), northern flicker, orchard oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak, vesper sparrow, and most exciting of all, a pair of blue grosbeak, have all been seen by yours truly. (I am extremely curious to see if the blue grosbeak was a one-off from last summer, or if they will return this year. Here's hoping!)

Also, if you're pining to see a bobwhite, they are pretty easy to see and hear for most of the season.

Fall migration has also been good to me on this trail. Last year, I had sparrows galore, including LeConte's, as well as upland sandpiper and bobolink.

As for the winter months, American tree sparrow and northern harrier are "regulars."

American tree sparrow


My second favorite is the "Backpack Loop," which you can get to by turning at the sign for the Sledding Hill. This part can be a little confusing; the entry point features a wooden bench, and from there, you can either follow one big loop or cut back at various points along shorter trails in between. I once wandered aimlessly round and round before I figured it out, so don't feel bad if you are momentarily discombobulated. Just keep telling yourself...it's a small park; I can't get lost!

This trail is my number one recommendation for spring and fall migration. Warblers love the tall trees. I have also seen bank sparrows nesting in the banks of Salt Creek, and wood duck seem to like this area in the spring, as do rusty blackbirds. And last summer, I saw northern parula and American redstart, in their breeding plumage, in July. Again, so curious to see if this is a pattern! And I'm pretty sure that wood thrush and yellow billed cuckoo set up shop here for the summer. Just bring some bug spray if you want to test my theory, as the mosquitoes are usually horrible.

The loop around the Lake is also good, although it can be crowded on weekends when the weather is nice. Still, there is a small wetland area where ruby-throated hummingbirds gather by the dozen in the fall, to feast upon the jewelweed. Green heron, great blue heron, and belted kingfisher are pretty easy. Late fall through early spring can produce some interesting waterfowl (greater white-fronted geese, Canada geese, cackling geese, mallards, bufflehead, green-winged teal, ruddy duck, pied-billed grebe, northern shoveler), although the water is pretty shallow, so that leaves out a bunch of species.

great blue heron in wetland at Weldon Springs

I have also had really awesome warbler days on this loop in the fall. Not so much in the spring...I will be interested to see if this is a pattern or just chance. Though I have seen yellow warbler and bay-breasted warbler (in or near the wetland) in the spring, so it's always worth checking out.

In my experience, the Union School Trail loop is the least interesting, although it is the only place I have seen olive-sided flycatcher (in the fall). Blue winged teal seem to like the ephemeral wetland in the spring, and red-winged blackbirds stay through early summer. This is also a good place to see summering Baltimore orioles. And the shrubby/scrubby areas along this trail are promising for summer vireo. I have definitely heard white-eyed, and heard rumors of Bell's. If you're here for a summer's day, it's worth checking out.


Finally, the back pack loop and school house loop are connected by a short trail which can be good for migrants or summer species. There used to be some bird feeders in this area, but for some reason (probably budgetary), they were taken down last winter.

The remaining feeders, by the park office, are interesting for purple finches in winter and red-breasted nuthatch in the fall.


Species checklist:

This is a list of the birds that I have personally seen at this location, and when I have seen them. It is, therefore, limited in scope, and not to be taken as the final word on birds to be seen in the area. As I continue to bird in the region, I will regularly update all my checklists.

In the interests of simplicity, I have categorized species as YEAR ROUND RESIDENTS/ SUMMER RESIDENTS / WINTER RESIDENTS / and MOSTLY IN MIGRATION. I think these categories are self-explanatory, but there is a degree of overlap. For example, on a particular spring day, I might see a lingering American tree sparrow (winter resident), an early red-winged blackbird (summer resident), and a fox sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet, and ring-necked ducks (mostly migrants). Birders are encouraged to use their general knowledge to pinpoint the best times to look for a particular species. I am also always happy to answer any questions as to exactly when and where I saw a particular bird. Feel free to leave a comment, as I check them regularly.

"Common/abundant" means a species that I see every time or almost every time I go birding at this location, at the appropriate time of year and habitat; "occasional/somewhat common" means a species that I see often in the appropriate time of year and habitat, but can't count on finding on any given excursion; and "uncommon/rare" refers to species I have only seen once or twice a year, or less often.

YEAR ROUND RESIDENTS

Common/abundant: black-capped chickadee; tufted titmouse; American goldfinch; Canada goose; mourning dove; red-bellied woodpecker; downy woodpecker; blue jay; American crow; white-breasted nuthatch; northern cardinal; house sparrow; European starling

Occasional/somewhat common: hairy woodpecker; Cooper's hawk; ring-billed gull; barred owl; cedar waxwing; red-tailed hawk; northern flicker; eastern bluebird; belted kingfisher (in winter only if there is open water); Carolina wren; house finch; American kestrel; ring-necked pheasant

Uncommon/rare: wild turkey; red-headed woodpecker

SUMMER RESIDENTS

Common/abundant: ruby-throated hummingbird; Eastern wood pewee; warbling vireo; great blue heron; turkey vulture; eastern phoebe; eastern kingbird; eastern meadowlark; dickcissel; tree swallow; barn swallow; red-winged blackbird; indigo bunting; common yellowthroat; house wren; song sparrow; American robin; gray catbird; field sparrow; brown-headed cowbird; brown thrasher; common grackle; chipping sparrow; eastern towhee

Occasional/somewhat common: green heron; great crested flycatcher; cliff swallow; rose-breasted grosbeak; Baltimore oriole; northern bobwhite; yellow-billed cuckoo; wood thrush; blue-gray gnatcatcher; wood duck; bank swallow; killdeer; chimney swift

Uncommon/rare: Orchard oriole; white-eyed vireo; yellow warbler; blue grosbeak; willow flycatcher;northern parula; American redstart

common yellowthroat


WINTER RESIDENTS

Common/abundant: American tree sparrow; dark-eyed junco

Occasional/somewhat common: purple finch; song sparrow; white-throated sparrow; great blue heron (if there is open water); northern harrier; greater white-fronted goose; cackling goose; bald eagle; American coot

Uncommon/rare: sharp-shinned hawk; rough-legged hawk; red-winged blackbird

MOSTLY IN MIGRATION:

Common/abundant: red-eyed vireo; pied-billed grebe; Swainson's thrush; Magnolia warbler; yellow-rumped warbler; white-throated sparrow; golden crowned kinglet; ruby crowned kinglet; northern shoveler; fox sparrow; wood duck; palm warbler

Occasional/somewhat common: least flycatcher; black and white warbler; black-throated green warbler; Wilson's warbler; Canada warbler; blue-winged warbler; northern parula; American redstart; golden-winged warbler; chestnut-sided warbler; Blackburnian warbler; ovenbird; Tennessee warbler; Nashville warbler; bay-breasted warbler; white-eyed vireo; Philadelphia vireo; yellow-bellied sapsucker; swamp sparrow; Lincoln's sparrow; white-crowned sparrow; scarlet tanager; snow goose; green-winged teal; blue-winged teal; ring-necked duck; bufflehead; ruddy duck; lesser scaup; hooded merganser; brown creeper; American woodcock; broad-winged hawk; hermit thrush

Uncommon/rare: yellow-bellied flycatcher; olive-sided flycatcher; Acadian flycatcher; bobolink; American bittern; upland sandpiper; veery; yellow warbler; sedge wren; red-breasted nuthatch; Le Conte's sparrow; rusty blackbird

I am planning on doing my "Birding Guides" in bimonthly installments...next up, Mascoutin State Recreation Area (DeWitt County).