I was initially planning on a solo trip because I really didn't think anyone would want to be trapped in a car with me for 3 days, but Nat Carmichael stepped up and said he was ready for an adventure. Thus began our Southern Illinois Experience.
I'm a pretty fervent (some would say "obsessive" and not be totally wrong) researcher of bird distribution, weather, and all things birding-trip-related, so I spent countless hours searching ebird records, researching sleeping arrangements, and consulting Joshua Little, Matthew Winks, and Keith McMullen about various birds and places. By the way, countless thanks to those three for their help. Trouble with ebird records, though, is that they're only useful when lots of people are reporting sightings. Southern Illinois doesn't have lots of people. So.....some sightings were a month or more old. Not really helpful. Consequently, I had to use habitat and past experience to try and find some birds. That was fine, just not as efficient as what I'm used to. My best research find, however, BY FAR, was that almost all (except basically those in the Chicago area for some reason) Walmart Supercenters allow free RV and car parking overnight in their lots. WHAT?! Are you kidding me? For someone as cheap as I am, sleeping for free was too amazing to pass up. If you don't care about sleeping with your seat folded back and head on a pillow, this is for you! It was great...especially the Sat. night after we completed an exhausting Big Day in S. IL. We popped Nat's sun/moonroof open and fell asleep being serenaded by the peenting of 2-3 COMMON NIGHTHAWKS
Yes, we are definitely birding geeks. One piece of advice, though. Don't park next to any RV's or leave space for them to park near YOU. We made the latter mistake and had an RV air conditioner blaring in my ear for the entire night. Not good. Otherwise, the experience was top-notch, though.
The itinerary for the weekend was basically to start early Fri morning and drive to Hennepin for first light, then head to all the spots at Emiquon/Lake Chautauqua, finish the day looking for anything at Lake Springfield then do a Southern Illinois Big Day on Saturday. Sunday.....breathe.....and drive home.
Hennepin gave us sweet looks at about 5 COMMON GALLINULES but that was it.
We heard a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD but we couldn't find any at all. No rails, bitterns, or interesting waterfowl other than RUDDY DUCKS. Was expecting a little more, maybe unrealistically, but Hennepin has always been amazing in the past.
Next we headed to Double T, a place I have never been, to find an UPLAND SANDPIPER. Getting an Uppie in Lake County is pretty unheard of, so I was looking forward to a chance to find one of these guys. We got to the corner of Cypress Rd. and Co. Rd 21 in lovely Canton, IL, and some guy with really white legs (that's actually me) was scanning the soybean fields:
As we got out of the car, we heard a calling NORTHERN BOBWHITE bobwhite call. Then scanning of the field found a lone sandpiper sitting still in a dirt hole. Not a great look and pretty distant, so it was a great relief when the bird decided to fly in pretty close to us.
For some nice looks:
Eventually we had 2 of them!
Nice stop #2! Continuing on with Nat at the controls and me eating a lot and playing some great 80's tunes, we headed to Emiquon. Unfortunately, we didn't have the same luck that others had with some of the rarities here, and I was woefully ill-prepared for the swarms of biting flies and gnats on the South Globe trail, so that little walk was cut short. We did manage to find the SNOWY EGRET at the North Globe tract, but that was about it.
Our journey to the flycatcher was a little longer than anticipated because we forgot how to count and went the wrong way on 1500N. S we turned around and thanks to info on location of the nest at the top of the north tree we were able to spot the birds. Eventually one of them flew to the wire for some nice photo ops:
Our search for the WESTERN KINGBIRDS was equally satisfying. We had great looks at 3 kingbirds at the Havana substation.
Maybe the best birds of the day we saw on a random roadside on our way out of the Havana area. I saw some white waterfowl in a grassy area which I originally thought were barnyard ducks but we pulled over to check them out and saw 5 SNOW GEESE! Not exactly the bird you expect to see in June.
Lake Springfield was next but this was before the latest BB Whistling Duck sighting so we knew nothing of it. All we found at Lake Springfield was a lot of boats and repaving/road construction at least 1/2 the way around the lake. Not thrilled by that. This was also the first stop where we really found out that the most common swallow in southern Illinois is CLIFF SWALLOW. We saw probably hundreds of them over the course of the weekend. By contrast, we saw 1 TREE SWALLOW. Pretty amazing.
We decided to overnight at the Four-star Marion Walmart Supercenter parking lot, which was actually incredibly packed with cars and RV's at 9:00pm. It was here that we discovered the preferred habitat for COMMON NIGHTHAWKS as they called continuously through the night until early morning. We slept pretty well in the folded back front seats of Nat's luxurious Toyota Highlander, and awoke at 2:00am to begin our Southern IL Big Day at Fern Clyffe State Park. We got to the park around 2:30ish and were promptly greeted by a loudly barking dog (at 2:30am?) and a loudly calling CHUCK-WILLS-WIDOW about 20 ft. away from the road. We also had a WHIPPOORWILL and a calling EASTERN SCREECH OWL here. Our best best birds of the night, though, were three juvenile BARN OWLS all calling within the same area around a known nest site.
The route for the rest of the day went like this:
1. Mermet Lake- disappointing; got virtually none of the marsh birds I was hoping for other than a distant grunting VIRGINIA RAIL that was one of 2 dirty birds that we had.
2. A couple of failed attempts for Swainson's Warbler but a couple of nicely chuckling YELLOW-BREASTED CHATS and a singing PRAIRIE WARBLER were next. Best birds as we searched for the Swainson's were a couple of lounging MISSISSIPPI KITES:
3. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The complete lack of waders. We scanned Little lake Rd. and saw nothing but dry fields. One fluddle had 15 GREAT EGRETS and some AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS. I may have given up too early in that I didn't check Neunert Rd., but everything looked SOOOO dry that I thought time would be better spent checking Monroe County...that was even drier, so LITTLE BLUE HERON was the only other wader we had on the entire day. Huge bummer.
MOST ENTERTAINING BIRD SIGHTING:
On our way to Monroe Co., Nat spotted a group of vultures over the road. We pulled over to check them out and had 7 TURKEY VULTURES and our only BLACK VULTURE of the day:
The entertainment came as we were watching the vultures. All of sudden we heard GUNFIRE! Hit the deck! So we got down and were looking around while the gunshots continued. And then we saw that we were parked in front of a gun club. Hilarious. I thought that Black Vulture was gonna be our last bird of the day....and year...or life. Yikes.
4. BEST SPOT OF THE DAY: Hands down was the campground road leading up to and past the Pine Hills Campground at Pine Hills - Larue. It was loaded with singing warblers at 10:00am. Incredible. We also had a LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH land on the road right in front of us to give us nice looks at his overall whiteness in underparts and bold eyeline. The drive gave us 5 KENTUCKY WARBLERS, 3 HOODED WARBLERS, 2 WORM-EATING WARBLERS, 3 YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS, 2 CERULEAN WARBLERS. and our only PILEATED WOODPECKER of the day (really?!). What a great place. You have to go there if you're in SW IL.
5. MOST VOCAL BIRDS OF THE DAY: NORTHERN PARULA and ACADIAN FLYCATCHER. Seemingly every stop with a wooded area had multiples of these birds singing.
6. NUMBER OF FARM VEHICLES PASSED ON ROADS: 9. I just made that number up but it seemed like more. Every stretch of road had these huge farm vehicles that looked like AT-AT walkers from Star Wars.
7. BEST MISSED PHOTO OP: Driving down Bluff Rd. we had a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK grab a snake and literally fly right alongside the car as it passed us going the other way. It was too cool.
8. STRANGEST TRAFFIC SLOWDOWN AND BIG DAY OBSTACLE: These two trucks were coming off a freeway ramp with enormous, make that GARGANTUAN, cylinders that looked like they belonged on a spaceship. The trucks carrying them couldn't make the turn off the ramp without taking out the median, so they had to go backward a little, then forward, then backward......for 5 MINUTES....EACH TRUCK. Amazing. The stress caused Nat's nose to start bleeding.
9. 2nd BEST SPOT: The birding mecca of Front St. in East St. Louis. We finally found the PAINTED BUNTING after missing it the night before. It was pure luck that we found it, also. It wasn't singing, but as I was scanning the trees, a small bird that looked red flew from one cottonwood to another. Only problem was that it was buried in the leaves. It finally made its way to the outer leaves, though, where we were able to get a fleeting but decent look at the red belly and purple head before it flew back into the trees. Great bird! On the way out we passed by a pair of WESTERN KINGBIRDS for the 4th and 5th westerns of the trip. Definitely a record high for me for 1 year, not to mention 1 weekend.
From here we went over to Monsanto Ave. for only our 2nd shorebird of the day, a BLACK-NECKED STILT.
We also had our only EURASIAN COLLARED DOVES of the day in this area.
So our day had pretty much come to an end with only 2 stops left, Carlyle Lake and Prairie Ridge. At Carlyle we had OSPREY, BALD EAGLE our only HOUSE WRENS of the day, and this Sterna tern that I didn't have my scope to look at:
I think it looks more like COMMON TERN since the wings look longer than the tail to me and the primaries are real dark. The head looks like it's more black toward the back of the head, I think, but the chest is really white and first year Forster's can have darker primaries, so I'm leaving it as Sterna sp.
10. LAST SPOT: Jasper Co Prairie Chicken area- No prairie chickens but we did have our only HENSLOW'S SPARROWS and our only TREE SWALLOW of the day.
I thought I would try and call in a Bell's Vireo as it was getting dark, but instead I was able to call in this:
That pretty much shot down our Bell's Vireo attempt, so we ended the day with 110 sp. after getting the COMMON NIGHTHAWKS at the Effingham Walmart where we spent a peaceful night #2.
THE MISSES: These were pretty laughable by N. IL standards. but the habitat in the south is different, and I didn't give us enough open land in our route so we missed the following:
HOUSE FINCH (whatever...), HERRING GULL (never thought it would happen), GREEN HERON, EASTERN BLUEBIRD !?!?!?, SEDGE and MARSH WREN, SWAMP SPARROW, SORA, etc. Those were just some of the notables. Need to tweak the route a bit for next time.
Not too bad for a pretty new area, though. It was loads of fun with some great birds and great company. Thanks to Nat for absorbing the burden of most of the driving and for the awesome photos.
Here's the list: