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).

1 comment:

  1. What a great birding guide to Weldon Springs! I hope you'll take me on the Old Farmhouse Loop when I come to visit in August. I would love to see blue grosbeaks, and to get another chance to add a bobwhite to my life list! Wish someone up here was doing "Birding Guides"; what a help that would be! MOM

    ReplyDelete