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:


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" 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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

1 comment:

  1. What an impressively detailed account of Mascoutin this is! I have not recalled it with any particular fondness (I seem to remember being very cold when I was there), but reading this account makes me long to go back and check out some of these places, in the hopes of seeing some of these wonderful birds! Really a great job. MOM