Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Eye of the Ibis

Emiquon, IL River Valley
Once again, time has gotten away from me and three weeks have passed since the events in this post. So let's all get in our imaginary time machines and go back to the first weekend of the month, when I went with the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalist class to the Dickson Mounds Museum and  Emiquon Preserve along the Illinois River Valley.

I've been to this area to look for life birds so many times over the last couple of years that it's practically my home away from home, so I arrived a bit early in order to do a spot of birding before class began. It didn't feel like October, that's for certain. As I wandered around the boardwalk area, the heat and humidity made me wonder if I'd accidentally ended up in Florida instead.

Well, not really--in Florida, I'd be expecting some exciting new birds, and fall migration has been rather low-key for me this year. I guess I saw too many species in the spring and summer--not that I'm complaining! But since I wasn't expecting anything new, I left my camera and spotting scope in my truck and simply wandered with my binoculars.

blue-winged teal...beautiful, but not exciting
Note to all other birders here: Never do this at a wetland along a prime migration corridor. I know, I know--it's hot and humid, there's nothing out there but coots and blue-winged teal, it's a pain to drag all that stuff around and you don't want to be sweaty when you show up for your meeting. It all sounds good at the moment. But just wait until you round the corner and find a small flock of dark ibis back against the reeds by the boardwalk. Then you'll be sorry.

This is exactly what happened to me. Lulled by the predictable flocks of early fall waterfowl, I wasn't even thinking about the chance of a rarity. Maybe I was hoping, just a little bitty bit, that a new (to me) sparrow might pop out of the reeds, but ibis was the last thing on my mind. Still, there's no mistaking an ibis when you see one. That long, decurved bill, and that ancient Egyptian profile. Seeing the ibis made me feel, momentarily, that I'd somehow traveled far out of my way indeed.

So I knew they were dark ibis, and in the fall these are one of those mission-impossible ID challenges, like non-singing drab flycatchers or second-year gulls. Should I keep looking through my bins, or hope they stayed in place long enough for me to grab my scope and camera? I decided to go with the latter, even if the trip to the parking lot and back made me late for class (priorities, right?). And just as I rounded the bend again, staggering under the weight of all my gear (yes, I am out of shape...I'll admit it), the ibis all flew off. I drove the wetland loop a couple of times hoping to relocate them, but time was running short.

Luckily, our class in the archaeological record of the native peoples of Illinois was interesting enough that I could almost forget about the ibis. If you're ever in central Illinois, I do recommend the Dickson Mounds Museum...and it's free! Finally, in the evening, we all returned to the wetland observatory for a lesson in duck identification, and I set up my spotting scope so everyone could see the beauty of wood ducks, American white pelicans, coots and teal, plus a surprise snowy egret, up close and personal.

one white pelican with many coots
I actually did forget about the ibis for a while, as I was having so much fun sharing the wonder of birds with everyone. Over the years, so many other birders have lined up their scopes on something routine to them, but amazing to me, that it felt good finally to pass the favor forward. At one point, someone asked if I would focus the scope on a great blue heron, because she had never seen one up close. I was happy to comply, and the way she thanked me afterwards, stating that she had never realized how beautiful they were, made me remember why I am doing the Master Naturalist thing in the first place. I really do believe that if people actually learn to see nature, they will want to protect it...and in my case, what I can share best is birds.

Then another birder showed up and the touchy-feely moment was over. As everyone else headed off for dinner, we looked for ibis. We saw some snipe, pied-billed grebes, and a horned grebe, and an ibis fly-by, but still not a good look. After some consultation with my field guide, I had decided on white-faced ibis, as there appeared to be no markings at all on their faces (as to be expected at this time of year), and that species is statistically more likely for Illinois.

Eventually, it was time to turn in (after some fun with astronomy), and some people were camping, and others were staying at a B&B. To be honest, I hate camping. Maybe as a self-proclaimed "nature girl," I shouldn't admit this...but I really like a nice, cozy bed and hot running water. I also hate spending money, so this was a dilemma. Originally, my husband had planned to join us, but at the last minute, he didn't want to leave our dogs alone for the first time since we've adopted them. (And who can blame him? Look at this piteous little face):

"How could you leave me alone all night??"
So I decided to be Nature Girl Times Ten, and simply unrolled my sleeping bag in the bed of my pick-up truck, in order to slumber beneath the stars...hoping that the rain in the forecast would hold off until morning. I actually fell asleep rather quickly, doubtless because of the extra glass of wine I'd had with dinner. This extra glass also led to some bragging about my awesome birding and nature blog, now that I think about it. Which might explain three weeks worth of blogger's block. I'm proud of my blog, but it is possible I might have exaggerated a bit. (What can I say? Birders like to party! Really, it's an actual fact backed up by statistics and everything...or I'm sure it would be, if anyone did a study.)

I woke up at some point on the wrong side of midnight. There were some stars, but a lot more light pollution from Peoria than I had expected, giving a milky wash to the horizons. Barred owls were hooting. A dog was barking, somewhere distant. A mosquito (in October! This is so wrong!) was whining, altogether too near. At first I thought it must have rained, but sleeping bag was just wet with dew. You know, that stuff that makes your shoes wet in the morning, and films over your windshield? Yeah, all over me....

For a while, I tossed and turned, thinking those weird middle of the night thoughts. Like, how weird is it to think of sleeping out in the open? Because of all the naturalists around me, I wasn't worried about human predators. But what happened to all the others? (Answer: extirpated.) At least up North, where my parents live, there are still bears, and wolves. Not here. In Illinois, I am the Top Mammal, sleeping undisturbed (save by mosquitoes.)

Then it was morning. We studied wetlands, and I was tired and crabby. On the far side of forty, the body is not as forgiving of these sorts of experiences! Luckily, we were all on the far side of forty, so I was not alone in deciding to call it a day around two o'clock in the afternoon. Once home, I triumphantly logged my ibis onto Cornell's ebird database.

The birding expert must have dashed off his reply immediately: Did I see the eyes of the ibis? According to Ken Kaufman's advanced birding guide, unless I saw the eye color, there is no way to decide glossy or white-faced. More recently, a response on the Illinois Birder's Forum has been more ambiguous still--Fall ibis? No way to know!

My Illinois State List still has "white-faced ibis" as the latest entry. Should I change it? Is it dishonest to go by my "impression," and statistics? Probably. And I promise I will modify my spring, when I have a better ibis sighting, one way or the other....

So...does anyone else have a bird on their Life (or Other) Lists they're not really 100% about? Anyone else hate (or love) camping?


  1. Aw, man! (In the whiniest voice you can imagine) I was happily clinging to your ID of white-faced. I think you are right and the person who says you can't tell for sure is just being difficult. Or jealous. Hee hee, maybe I'll pretend I didn't read this :) Susy

    1. I still think they were white-faced, but it seems that there is room for debate. People always have to make things complicated!

  2. I have no opinion on your ibis; I'd be tickled pink to see any ibis at all, but I'd probably ID the poor bird as a snowy egret! I keep trying to improve my ID skills, but I'll admit they have plenty of room for improvement. Love the picture of Trevor! If I ever go camping again (unlikely, I want a comfy bed and a flush toilet and a hot shower), I'll borrow all of the dogs to keep me warm and safe from the bears. MOM