Monday, April 27, 2015

April Weekend Trip - Part 1

It was a completely normal birding trip. If you're familiar with normal birding trips, you'll know that means we had a number of rather odd and unexpected things happen.

Andrew, Scott, and I had been dreaming up an April trip to southern Illinois trip for a while, and the plans for this one really began materializing in the last month or so. The research was extensive. The emails tome-like. The anticipation through the roof.

Unfortunately, Scott had some stuff come up last minute and wasn't able to make it, which left Andrew and me to a trip of taking care of some gaps on the buddy list. The route was going to be ambitious, but doable. The year birds were sure to be coming in copious amounts.

The plan for day 1 had us taking off from Chicagoland and spending the night at Ferne Clyffe. That almost happened.

On our way out of town, we chose to swing by Killdeer Wetlands in Cook County real quick to see if we could rustle up some good birds. The place was filthy with Wilson's Snipe, though overall there wasn't a ton of activity. We did end up flushing an American Bittern though, which was a nice spark bird to begin the trip with. We had the mojo going already.

American Bittern
Killdeer Wetlands, Cook Co, IL
April 23, 2015

We hauled down to Champaign next. Andrew and I are all about birding in the boonies. We love the backroads and the places where cell service is less likely than a Scarlet Ibis. Miles from civilization is the norm for our birding adventures. Yet while all of this remains true, there is another fact we just can't get around: we are divas when it comes to our coffee. Champaign represented our last reasonable chance at Starbucks and a decent meal, so we had to take action. We entered the bustling college town - which stood in stark contrast to the ag fields and rural areas that extended for eternity in every direction from there - got our coffee and a Chipotle burrito, hoping it would be enough sustenance to get us through a few long days ahead.

Speaking of backroads, we soon found ourselves trolling through Douglas and Coles Counties in search of longspurs. It seemed they had all taken off and headed up to Chicago by the time we got there, but there were still some interesting things to be found. We had a little flock of American Pipits, and a couple juvenile Horned Larks that had our hearts stopped for a couple moments, that other pipit in the back of our minds.

American Pipit
Douglas County, IL
April 23, 2015

Horned Lark
Douglas County, IL
April 23, 2015

Other birds in the area included Vesper Sparrows, a random Solitary Sandpiper in a drainage ditch, a couple Chimney Swifts, and still no longspurs. But we kept at it, and eventually came across our first big highlight of the trip: an Upland Sandpiper that Andrew spotted just off the side of the road!

Upland Sandpiper
Douglas County, IL
April 23, 2015

This was our first buddy list bird of the trip, #285, and a rather unexpected one at that!

Then the golden plovers started happening. We wound up with about 300 by the end of the day, including a nice group chillin' in a Coles County field. A couple of the males were looking real fine.

American Golden-Plovers
Coles County, IL
April 23, 2015

Our next target was the state specialty Greater Prairie-Chicken, which was right where we had found it last year in Marion County. Not a great pic, but a pretty sweet bird.

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Marion Co, IL
April 23, 2015

From there we headed southeast through Wayne into Edwards County, both of which were new for me. The highlight of Wayne was a Loggerhead Shrike along 1840 East. We arrived at the Harris's Sparrow spot in Edwards as the daylight was dying. Bob Shelby was incredibly accommodating, giving us specific directions and a can of birdseed to see if we could lure the bird out. He warned that this bird had seemed like more of a "morning person," which indeed was the case. We got a lot of activity out of that one can of birdseed, but the Harris's didn't show. A Common Yellowthroat sang nearby, which was our first and only warbler of the day. A Barred Owl sounded off, and a Great-horned Owl on a telephone pole on the way out of town rounded out the day list at 71 species. Not too bad for a day that consisted mostly of driving.

And there was plenty of driving still to be done. The unsuccessful Harris's hunt had taken us quite a ways east, so the trip down to our final destination was a significant trek from there.

When we started planning this trip, the idea was to camp all three nights, thinking we could count on southern Illinois to be produce weather conducive to such a thing in late April. This trip was many things, but a camping trip it was not, and each night unfolded a unique adventure.

We got in to Ferne Clyffe around 10 pm, which was apparently too late for any of the nightjars. Last June when I was there they went off incessantly throughout the night so I was expecting more of the same, but we learned on this trip that when they first arrive, chucks and whips only sing briefly right after sundown. Bummer.

What to do? The nightjars weren't cooperating, and temperatures were descending into the low 40s. Not wanting to set up a tent and camp in such weather, we began thinking through our options and decided to drive up to Crab Orchard NWR and find a little nook where we could sleep in the car. In our minds, this would mean we would be a little warmer and have an easy, quick start to the next morning because we wouldn't be packing up camping gear, and we were already at the location we wanted to bird.

So, we found a good nook, layered up, reclined the car seats, and tried to get some rest. There was absolutely no part of the ensuing hours that either of us would consider even remotely restful.

The next morning, we found out what happens when you sleep overnight in the car...

Stay tuned for Part 2.