Saturday, June 22, 2013

DeWitt County Birding Guide: Salt Creek Wetland Project


The Salt Creek Wetland Project is approximately sixty acres of wetland and wet meadows located on Highway 54 in DeWitt County. The entrance is about two or three miles west of Farmer City.

My Personal Birding History

Since moving to Clinton in 2011, I have tried to stop at the Salt Creek Wetland at least once a season. My personal observations consist of about two dozen visits in all, many of them clustered in the summer of 2011 and the spring of this year.

General description and birding highlights

A short, narrow gravel drive takes you to the parking area and the trailhead for both the Salt Creek Wetland and the adjacent equestrian trail, which leads past the lake and several fields and eventually connects to the Parnell Access site. A thorough description of that trail will be undertaken in a future post.

It's worth taking several minutes (or longer, if it's birdy) to check out the trees around the parking area and gravel drive and the entrance area to the equestrian trail. On some trips, the best birding might be found right here. Various warblers and other migrants might be hanging out here in spring and fall, and it's also known for alder flycatchers. Bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and eastern towhees like it here as well, and will stick around throughout the summer.

The entrance to the equestrian trail can also have some good surprises: a couple of years ago, a Bell's vireo bred there; more common are indigo buntings, eastern wood pewee, ruby-throated hummingbird, and a variety of sparrows, depending on the season. Last spring, walking in a short ways (about a quarter of a mile in and back) on the trail itself, I found American woodcock and winter wren.

After that, a short hill slopes down and takes you to the wetland area. The amount of water, and the birds you can expect to see, varies widely depending on season and weather conditions.

the wetland in summer

The trail takes you an a short (maybe half a mile to a mile) loop, with wet meadows and a channel on the left side, and trees, a portion of the lake, and more channels on the right side. Right before looping back to the observation tower and the parking area, there is a small wooded area.

Spring and fall are hands-down the best times to bird the Salt Creek Wetland. The place is sponsored, in part, by Ducks Unlimited, and is managed as a waterfowl hunting area, so it should not be a surprise that spring and fall get lots of ducks and geese. Some of the typical species to see include green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, northern pintail, American wigeon, bufflehead, ring-necked duck, wood duck, mallard, Canada goose, pied-billed grebe, gadwall, American coot, greater white-fronted goose, and snow goose. American white pelican also like to hang out here in large numbers in migration.

The catch is, although this can be a real duckapalooza, the geography of the wetland, with the trail sloping down into an open, basin-like area, means that they can see you as soon as you can see them. Within minutes of a birder's arriving, everything is apt to take off in a quacking panic, not fun for them or you. I find that the best way to deal with this is to slowly, slowly creep forward along the tree line beside the trail, inching just a few feet forward at a time, and peering through my spotting scope. (Unfortunately, this is one of those places where a spotting scope is really a requirement to get the best birding experience, at least in spring and fall.) Then I at least get to see the birds before they flush...and they will flush, so I usually end up feeling guilty.

If the weather is dry, the edge of the lake shrinks back to reveal mudflats, and we all know what mudflats mean...shorebirds. Unfortunately, I've found that, in this location, shorebirds can be hard to see even with a scope, but I've found solitary, spotted and pectoral sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, and Wilson's snipe to be "regulars" in the right conditions and at the right time of year. (This spring was so wet that there weren't any shorebirds to speak of.)

Spring and fall are also good times to look for gulls and terns; I saw Caspian terns this spring, and one late summer/early fall, I saw my "lifer" Forster's tern here.

One thing that keeps me coming back here is the hope of seeing rails and bittern. So far, I've seen one Virginia rail. I'm sure that more are in there!

"Check out my epaulettes!"

In summer, there's the mix of breeding birds that you might expect from this sort of habitat. Red-winged blackbirds love it here. Other common summer species include eastern kingbird, dickcissel, swallows (barn, tree, bank and cliff), common yellowthroat, field sparrow, song sparrow, American goldfinch, house wren, eastern towhee, northern flicker, gray catbird, etc. Yellow billed cuckoo sometimes likes it here, and so do great blue herons and great egrets.

great egrets

If the water's low enough (not this year), solitary and spotted sandpiper will spend the summer in the "channel" on the left-hand side of the trail, and one summer, we had a very unusual resident, a female common goldeneye. I wouldn't expect to see another one anytime soon, though.

A female common goldeneye

I keep hoping to find a really unusual species one day, like tricolored heron or an ibis...not so far.

In winter, I mostly see northern harrier and wintering sparrows, along with year-round residents like the woodpeckers. The water is fairly shallow, so it tends to freeze up, even when other parts of the lake are still open.

And now for the bad news...

Like many places in DeWitt County, the Salt Creek Wetland Project can be a difficult place to bird. I tend to associate it with great birds, but also physical discomfort. In summer, the sun beats down pitilessly across this mostly shadeless expanse, and the light is harsh, the view of birds distorted by heat shimmer. Distant points in the spotting scope tend to dissolve into a mirage-like haze. The rest of the year, it tends to be cold, scoured by winds off the lake flats that make the eyes water and spotting scopes wobble.

And then there is hunting season, which lasts forever, closes the place down at unpredictable intervals, and has traumatized me for life by the sight of camouflage festooned boats gliding back and forth over the water, as the hunters blasted away at waterfowl right before my eyes.

Even if none of the above happens, something else will. As an example, I went there today, as I wanted to refresh my memory before doing this post. I got there early, so it wasn't hot. It wasn't windy. It wasn't hunting season. For once I would have a relaxing trip to the Salt Creek Wetland!

But then I saw the "trail":

No, it's not the wrong photo...that's the "trail"

What happened? Budget cuts? Too wet to mow? For whatever reason, it looks like no one has mowed the trail at all this year.

I looked at the tall grasses, and I thought of ticks. I wanted to explore the wetland, I really did. But holy hypochondria, Batman! Who wants some Lyme disease?

I thought of this blog post. I thought of the ibis, rare herons, and black-necked stilts I hoped to find. I thought of all the other central Illinois birders who, completely ignorant of my dilemma, would nevertheless want to know if anything "good" was lurking here. So I decided to do it: for Art. For Science. And for Fellowship. I plunged in.

As it turned out, ticks were the least of my worries (I came home sporting a very manageable total of three bloodsuckers.) The height and thickness of the grasses gave me a touch of claustrophobia. I couldn't see where I was stepping, and at times it felt like the grass was actually trying to trip me, tangling around my feet and even somehow untying my double-knotted bootlaces not once, but twice. My pants were soon drenched from the thighs down as the grass was still wet from last night's storms. By the time I stumbled back out to the parking area, I was practically shouting, Thank God almighty, I'm free at last! But that's OK. It wouldn't be a trip to the Salt Creek Wetland otherwise.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from visiting this wetland, especially in the spring. It really is a great place. But if you don't live close by, and/or you want a more relaxing wetland experience, I would recommend the Emiquon refuge in Fulton County or the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands in Putnum County.

Species list

dickcissel

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.

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.

Spring/Fall

Waterfowl: blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, pied-billed grebe, gadwall, American wigeon, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, northern shoveler, Canada goose, greater white-fronted goose, snow goose, American coot, mallard, wood duck, northern pintail

Shorebirds: solitary sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs, greater yellowlegs, pectoral sandpiper, killdeer, Wilson's snipe

Passerines: blue jay, barn swallow, tree swallow, bank swallow, American robin, red-winged blackbird, palm warbler, yellow rumped warbler, American redstart, Tennessee warbler, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, field sparrow, Lincoln's sparrow, swamp sparrow, fox sparrow, American tree sparrow, eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, gray catbird, northern flicker, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, white-breasted nuthatch, eastern meadowlark, northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee, winter wren (on entrance area of equestrian trail), house wren, Carolina wren, ruby-crowned kinglet, golden-crowned kinglet, eastern bluebird, American crow, blue-gray gnatcatcher, brown thrasher

Other: great blue heron, great egret, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, American kestrel,  bald eagle,  ring billed gull, Caspian tern, Forster's tern, American white pelican, ring-necked pheasant, turkey vulture, belted kingfisher, Virginia rail

Summer

Passerines: common grackle, European starling, red-winged blackbird, blue jay, indigo bunting, eastern meadowlark, song sparrow, field sparrow, American crow, barn swallow, tree swallow, cliff swallow, eastern kingbird, brown-headed cowbird, ruby-throated hummingbird, common yellowthroat, northern cardinal, Bell's vireo, warbling vireo, dickcissel, eastern towhee, black-capped chickadee, house wren, American robin, gray catbird, American goldfinch, mourning dove, Eurasian collard dove, cedar waxwing, northern flicker, tufted titmouse, yellow-billed cuckoo, eastern phoebe, eastern wood-pewee, chimney swift, common nighthawk, blue-gray gnatcatcher, brown thrasher

Other: mallard, Canada goose, wood duck, common goldeneye (just one summer), great blue heron, great egret, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, ring-billed gull, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, killdeer

Winter

I've only birded here a couple of times in winter, and didn't keep a list. Will update this section as soon as I can remedy that.

***

Have you birded at the Salt Creek Wetland? What did you think of it?

My next DeWitt County Birding Guide post will describe the North Fork Access Area and Trail.


1 comment:

  1. I tried to pinpoint why I have rather negative feelings about the Salt Creek Wetland, and came up with 2 reasons: The first time I looked for it I got lost (of course!), and, a Fall visit turned up a birder's nightmare vision of ducks being blasted away at by rifles sticking out of branches piled up on a boat. For a Bell's vireo or a Virginia rail or a Forster's tern, though, I'd wade right in there, ticks and all! MOM

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