Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fairy tale birds

my first Illinois scissor-tailed flycatcher

Ever since I returned from my U.P. Adventure, I have been tantalized by reports of a scissor-tailed flycatcher and a western kingbird hanging out at the Ameren power substation outside of Havana. These are both rare species for Illinois, and the western kingbird would be a life bird for me. Greenturtle and I went looking for them on Saturday, but as soon as we arrived, a thunderclap sounded above us, and the skies began to pour. In addition, several men were working on the station, so between the rain and the workers, we came up empty-handed.

Everybody hates to "dip out," and to make it even worse, these two species are really special birds. I have been wanting to find a scissor-tailed flycatcher in Illinois for years, and who knows when another western kingbird will show up? (And what's up with all these rare birds showing up in Havana, such as my "lifer" black-bellied whistling ducks a couple of months ago?)

I don't think anyone could forget their first scissor-tailed flycatcher. I almost drove off the road when mine flew overhead, as I was leaving Pedernales State Park in Texas. A year later, Sunwiggy and I went to Corpus Christi, where she espied her first scissor-tail at the botanical gardens. "I can't believe something like that really exists!" she exclaimed. "It's like a bird in a fairy tale."

My photo doesn't really do the bird's tail justice. It's incredibly long, and fans out in two scissor-shaped streamers when it flies. (And no, it doesn't actually catch flies with its tail. Apparently some people wonder about that.)

Seeing more reports of these two species on the Illinois Birder's Forum, I made up my mind that I was going to try my luck again. I probably shouldn't. I have so much to do, and gas is expensive. But as Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist anything except temptation," so I decided to take a day off from procrastinating and chase them again.

I had a hard time falling asleep last night from the anticipation. Would they still be there? Would I dip out again? Would I sit for five hours waiting for them to show, only to give up at last, and have someone else come along and see them a mere five minutes later? I don't know if other birders feel like a kid before Christmas the night before chasing something good, or if it's just one of my many quirks.

In any case, I did not have to suffer the pangs of disappointment twice. I spotted the flycatcher perched on a wire at the back of the power station a couple of minutes after I got there. The station itself is enclosed with a wired-topped fence. The surrounding area wasn't marked "No Trespassing," so I stepped over the rail blocking the gravel driveway next to the station, and almost immediately found the western kingbird.

western kingbird

Meanwhile, the flycatcher had flown off, and I realized why they had chosen to hang out here for the summer. It was swarming with bugs. Big fat gnats pinged off my face as I snapped photos.

The morning was still young, and I'd already driven all this way. Time for a trip to Emiquon, where last summer I had a bonanza of shorebirds--black-necked stilts, Wilson's phalarope, Hudsonian godwit, short-billed dowitchers.

None of that this year. I don't think I've ever seen the Illinois River Valley so flooded. This is the area where the phalarope, godwit and dowitchers were seen. Last year most of that was mud flats! And do you see that little structure poking up? That's the top of the information kiosk. Beside it is the parking area.

Luckily, the Nature Conservancy's Emiquon Observatory area was not flooded, although the water was too deep to attract wading birds. It sure was a hit with red-winged blackbirds, though. A chorus of conk-la-ree followed me as I strolled around. I saw a lone coot on a nest, and a pair of pied-billed grebes ran over the water towards me, slapping their feet on the surface. They paused when they saw me, and they sunk beneath the water like a pair of stones.

I think my favorite Emiquon sighting, though, was of cliff swallows going in and out of their nests. The lack of cliffs doesn't seem to bother them at all.

If you look closely, there's a swallow's head peeking out of each one:

A good morning's bird all around!

1 comment:

  1. OMG! A scissor-tailed flycatcher! AND a Western kingbird! I am pea-green with envy. The scissor-tailed flycatchers do look like a picture in a book of fairy tales; you certainly had a magical morning. Would have loved to see the cliff swallows peeking out of their nests, and the pb grebes running on the water, too. Good for you! MOM PS That's the most I've ever seen the Illinois river flooded, too. Wow.