Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April Weekend Trip - Part 2

The sleeping was dismal at best. More like non-existent. We quickly learned that, on a 40 degree night, the car is no warmer than a tent. Both of us struggled to get to sleep, and even when we managed to doze off, it seemed like it was for no more than 10-15 minutes at a time, either the cold or uncomfortable position rousing us time and time again. Andrew would turn the car on intermittently so we could warm up a bit. Layers were added. But it was still pretty miserable.

Around 4:30 Andrew decided to let the car run for a little longer, and we both actually managed to fall asleep.

Until 5:00.

At 5:00 we were woken up again, though this time for a different reason. All of a sudden there was a flashlight shining in the car and a firm knock on the window.

Police officer. Of course.

Understandably, she was curious about the situation. Two guys sleeping in a running car in a gravel lot off the side of the road on National Wildlife Refuge property - she had cause for suspicion. Thankfully, she was quite kind and her questioning, though quite extensive, was amiable. We explained that we had intended to camp and why we chose to sleep in the car. She took our IDs and went back to her car - I still have a Washington State license so I was nervous that it would make us look even more suspicious.

She returned to our car, handed back our licenses, and explained that we really shouldn't be on National Wildlife Refuge property, but that at this point in the morning it was ok if we stayed. That was generous. And she joked that we probably wouldn't be going back to sleep anyway after being startled awake in such a peculiar way. She was right.

And she concluded with this gem: "Well, you don't seem like mass murderers, and I believe what you're saying. Right or wrong, I'm going to believe you." Quite the compliment.

This actually makes two decisive birding affirmations that I have received from cops in the past few years. One was a Walworth County, Wisconsin cop who explained to a disgruntled neighbor simply, "Nah, I think he's a legit birder." (I had been making the locals nervous by chasing Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings around some rural roads.)

So one officer has called me a legit birder, and now another has gone an extra step and declared that Andrew and I are not mass murderers. Really racking up the PD praise, wouldn't you say?

There wasn't a great deal of time for our non-arrested and un-ticketed selves to take in the fact that we had just been woken up by a cop, because we were about to get hit with a tidal wave of birdsong. We tried to get our wits about us as we prepared our cups of Starbucks Iced Via.

Then, the pre-dawn chorus erupted faster than you can say "Prothonotary," and the glories of birding southern Illinois in late April were upon us in a rather potent fashion. A couple Barred Owls - those caterwauling denizens of the south - sounded off. Our first Indigo Bunting of the year assured us we had come to the right place for new arrivals. This was followed by a nice surprise and our first buddy list bird of the day: a calling Eastern Whip-poor-will! After missing them the night before, this was a fantastic boost to begin the day. Not long after, the bold call of a Kentucky Warbler resounded through the forest. Another buddy lister! 

Great-crested Flycatcher. Northern Parula. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Wild Turkey. Prothonotary Warbler. We were over 20 species in a matter of minutes; hadn't even left the parking lot. The freight train of Spring bird activity was quickly picking up steam, so we got back in the car and slowly trolled through Crab Orchard, windows down, ears primed, coffee in hand.

The high-pitched, descending song of a Yellow-throated Warbler rang out, shortly accompanied by its lazier counterpart, the Louisiana Waterthrush. Pine Warbler was our third buddy list bird of the day, and the more expected species like Ovenbird, Yellow Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat were conspicuous. A Yellow-throated Vireo was singing, and White-eyed Vireos were all over the place. A Pileated Woodpecker was calling, too.

The year birds were flowing, we had already tallied 34 species, and the sun hadn't even risen yet. This was going to be a good day.

As the sun showed itself for the first time this day, we were pulling into the boat launch ramp off of Spillway Road. Bonaparte's were flying out over the lake, a large group of swallows gathered in nearby trees, and the chorus continued. A Baltimore Oriole sang atop a tree on one side of the parking lot, while an Orchard Oriole did the same on the other side. There was a Green Heron here, too. Tufted Titmouse and Northern Parula were the calls that provided the background noise pretty much everywhere we went. Carolina Wren and Prothonotary Warbler followed close behind.

Somewhere on the drive down the day before, it was as though we crossed an imaginary line and immediately everything turned a bright, fresh green color, which is evident from many of my photos from the trip. This morning was more of the same as birds popped out from the beautiful, lush vegetation.

I don't know just how many more chances I'll get to go back to southern Illinois, so I tried to put a little more effort into getting some decent pictures this time around.

This was the first Prothonotary I got to lay eyes on:


Prothonotary Warbler
Crab Orchard NWR, Williamson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Northern Parula
Crab Orchard NWR, Williamson Co, IL
April 24, 2015


Carolina Wren
Crab Orchard NWR, Williamson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Orchard Oriole
Crab Orchard NWR, Williamson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

There were a couple Forster's Terns and American White Pelicans on the other side of the lake, and all of a sudden we were pushing 60 species in the less than two hours we had been up since that rather unexpected awakening. It had been like drinking from a firehose. Even with all the stuff we ended up seeing over the course of the trip, that one stretch was the most intense flurry of birds we experienced. And we didn't even get a chance to process it because things we about to get even crazier.

A little after 7 am, we were pulling into Heron Flats, which Keith McMullen had suggested we check for shorebirds. The first pullout was pretty quiet, so we decided to keep moving. Less than a minute down the road we found a better pullout with a more substantial overlook, so we checked it out.

As the car came to rest in its parking spot, we noticed some white birds out in a field. We assumed they were egrets. Until we put up our binoculars.

Wait.

Are those?

No way.

Oh man.

No.

Whooping Cranes?

Whooping Cranes!

It's pretty much one of the most distinct birds in the states. There's essentially no way to misidentify them. But we still couldn't believe our eyes. We scrambled for our scopes, got the birds in our sights, and absolutely marveled at what we had just found - a flock of five Whooping Cranes (there's one Great Egret in the first pic).




Whooping Cranes
Crab Orchard NWR, Williamson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

While we watched them, a lady pulled up with a big antenna on top of her vehicle. She had helped raise the birds and was tracking them all the way from Florida to Wisconsin. Somehow in my time birding out in the midwest, I had not learned the proper Whooping Crane protocol, which basically includes not reporting them at all. Apparently there are too many absolute idiots out there who want to shoot one of these beauties, so any public word about their present whereabouts is a potential threat. I got a barrage of emails - some kinder than others - alerting me to just this fact. Lesson learned.

This was buddy list bird #289 for us, and my 320th bird for the state of Illinois. There was a nice assortment of waterfowl here, and the best shorebird was a pair of Semipalmated Plovers. We were pulling away by 7:30 to head south to Massac County, kinda in shock from an unforgettable morning.

But it was still early, and there were many birds yet to be seen. On a couple side roads in Massac we picked up our first Blue Grosbeaks of the year and got to watch a Northern Mockingbird put on quite the show.


Blue Grosbeak
Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015


Northern Mockingbird
Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Then it was on to Ft. Massac State Park, which is a good spot for migrants at the southern tip of the state. It borders the Mississippi so you can see Kentucky from the park grounds. For many birds, this is the first piece of Illinois they see each year.

Some of our additions here included Swainson's Thrush, Fish Crow, Summer Tanager, American Redstart, Tennessee Warbler, and Nashville Warbler. Surprisingly, the gnatcatchers were among the more cooperative birds here.


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ft. Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Red-headed Woodpeckers were in surprisingly low numbers in the far southern portion of the state during this trip. May have just been our timing, but it made seeing this one even more special. I have no ability to restrain myself from taking pictures of these birds.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Ft. Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

So. Many. Parulas.

Northern Parula
Ft. Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Carolina Wren
Ft. Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Great-crested Flycatcher
Ft. Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

And anytime you have the opportunity to photograph a White-eyed Vireo, you have to jump on it.

White-eyed Vireo
Ft. Massac State Park, Massac Co, IL
April 24, 2015

From there we worked our way back north to Mermet Lake, picking up our buddy list Black Vulture along the way. Our next stop was Heron Pond, which is one of my favorite birding locations in Illinois. It's an old cypress swamp that you'd typically associate more with Louisiana than Illinois, and for that reason I really appreciate it. The Shawnee region really adds a great deal to the diversity of landscape and habitat - and, consequently, the kind of birding - that Illinois has to offer.





There's also a freaking gigantic oak there:

Heron Pond, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

The bird life of this place only adds to its unique aesthetics. We had 49 species here, but as is always the case at Heron Pond, the Prothonotary Warblers stole the show. We had at least 11 of them in our time there. I can never get enough of these brilliant little birds! The first shot pretty well captures the standard Heron Pond vibe. You can click to enlarge.



This one was fanning its tail for us:



Prothonotary Warbler
Heron Pond, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

We finally got a decent look at a Nashville Warbler here too, and there were some Tennessee and Yellow-rumps moving through too, a nice accompaniment to the resident and vocal Yellow-throated, Kentucky, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, and Louisiana Waterthrush.

Nashville Warbler
Heron Pond, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Again with the cooperative gnatcatcher:

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Heron Pond, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

One of the other distinctive sounds of this place is the frequent "pickity-tuck" of the Summer Tanager, always as fun to hear as it is to see.

Summer Tanager
Heron Pond, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

It's just a short drive from here to the Little Black Slough, which is part of the same Cache River State Natural Area. On the way there I nearly scared Andrew off the road with my celebration at hearing a Prairie Warbler giving its little ascending buzzy trill as we drove along. My reaction may have been disproportionate. Probably not though.

It turned out this would be the first of a handful of Prairies we would get to see in the coming hours. At Little Black Slough, we had the nice combo of Prairie Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and our first Yellow-breasted Chat of the year sounding off simultaneously. And the Prairie here provided outstanding views. Any day you get to see and photograph the red streaks on the back of one is a good day! The combo of this little guy's plumage details and killer call has it on my top five list of favorite warblers.



Prairie Warbler
Little Black Slough, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

Louisiana Waterthrush
Little Black Slough, Johnson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

We took the always birdy Porter House Road on our route from Johnson to Pulaski County, picking up some nice birds along the way. At the Bellrose Tract of Cypress Creek NWR, we picked up Blue-headed Vireo and Purple Martin. And there was that great photo-op everyone dies to get down there: Black and Turkey Vultures together. Yes I'm kidding.

Black and Turkey Vultures
Cypress Creek NWR, Pulaski Co, IL
April 24, 2015

The next stop provided a bit of a milestone for me actually. As we picked through a few shorebirds at Easter Slough, my Pulaski County total rose into the 80s, and with that, I hit my 5000th county tick in the state of Illinois! Considering that most of that has happened in just over two years, I'm pretty happy with that number!

At this point in the afternoon, the bird life was dying down, and we weren't quite sure what to do. We crossed the county line into Jackson and took a brief drive through part of Giant City Park to get an idea of the area where we would be starting the next day. Next we drove over the north end of the Big Muddy River (nice) and headed to Oakwood Bottoms, hoping for a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. We didn't get one, but we did have a stunning Red-shouldered Hawk on the way there.




Red-shouldered Hawk
Jackson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

The rest of the daylight hours were spent at Oakwood Bottoms and the Union County Levees, where Andrew spotted our first pair of Northern Bobwhite for the trip. Other than that we didn't add a great deal to the trip list, though the county ticks kept adding up nicely.

This dramatic sunset lit up the sky and closed out a solid total of 120 species on an intense, involved, and quite unexpected day of birding southern Illinois. Like I said at the beginning of my last post: normal birding trip.

Jackson Co, IL
April 24, 2015

For the second night in a row temps dropped into the low 40s, this time with the promise of rain showers. We decided not to risk sleeping in the car again, and we were desperate for some decent rest, so we elected to go with a hotel for the night. Apparently the World's Fair had come to Carbondale, IL this very night, because the first five places I called were all filled up, which meant we wound up staying in the town's Econo Lodge Inn and Suites. Let's just say there's a reason our instincts kept this place at 6th on the list of places we wanted to stay. It wasn't great. But, it was far better than freezing our butts off and getting woken up by a police officer the next morning.

We needed rest, because we would be right back at it before dawn the next day. The rest paid off.