Birding Trip to Southern Illinois, 6/7-6/8/2020
I am trying to beat my record of 350 birds seen in one year. It does not matter where I see them. So I decided to take a trip to southern Illinois and further south to get some birds I wouldn’t be able to get easily or at all around here. Besides Illinois, so far this year I have seen year birds in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York. When I planned this trip, my year total was at 330 birds.
Target birds on this trip: Barn Owl, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Little Blue Heron, Mississippi Kite, Least Tern, Chuck-will’s-widow and Swainson’s Warbler.
My friend Adam did a similar trip a few days before. He went looking for Prairie Chickens and instead found a BARN OWL! There are two birds on my bucket list that I want to see more than anything in my lifetime: American Dipper and Barn Owl. I got the dipper in Montana and South Dakota last year. So the news of a Barn Owl nesting nearby was incredible! Adam graciously told me exactly where to find the bird.
So on Sunday, June 7th, I got up at 4 am and started my adventure!
I drove two hours south to Marion County. I am withholding the exact location to protect the bird. I arrived around 6:45 am. When I opened the car door, I immediately heard a Northern Bobwhite call! I took it as a good sign and started the hike toward the pin for the Barn Owl. There was a trail, or rather a mowed path, through the grassland. But it didn’t seem like it was going toward the pin, so I went off trail. It was ROUGH walking through the tall grass and uneven terrain! Luckily it wasn’t super sunny and hot yet, but the humidity had me sweating like crazy anyway! As I got to higher ground, I could see the nest box in the distance. I took a deep breath and trudged on. The front of the nest box was facing away from me, so I went around and peered into the hole with my binoculars: nothing! I stepped a little further away to get a better angle. I looked in again.
There was the heart-shaped face of a Barn Owl staring back at me! It looked so calm and completely Zen! My knees were weak as I got my camera and snapped a few shots. The box was white and my camera can’t focus on white. It gets confused and blurs everything out. So I don’t have a single shot where you can see the bird. Still, it was a moment I treated with complete reverence. All owls are special, but this lifer Barn Owl was literally a dream come true!
I wanted to stare at it all morning, but I knew I needed to leave it alone and let it sleep. And I had lots of other stops to make and just 10 or so hours to find my targets. But I had to pause on my way out because I heard a Bell’s Vireo singing. Not only that, I saw it flitting low in the bushes. These birds are more often heard than seen, so I had to take this opportunity to try to get a photo. I got one where it has nesting material, and another where it has a fat worm, so I was happy about that.
And on my way back to the main road, I saw a Northern Mockingbird on the power lines. I had to pause and take video of its antics! Rapid-fire, dead-on imitations of at least 10 different birds, with a couple of gratuitous leaps into the air and back down to the line! Part of me wishes I saw Mockingbirds more often where I live, and part of me is thankful I don’t because I can’t imagine if one started doing that in my yard all the time!
My next stop was Granite City, IL, just east of St. Louis. My friend Keith told me about a nesting Yellow-crowned Night-heron there. He put me in touch with his friend Frank who lived around the corner. I texted Frank and he met me at the corner of Willow and Ash. I thought I’d need his help to find the nest, but when he pointed it out, I was like, “Oh, duh! Yeah!” It was right out in the open, high in a tree. When I got my bins on it, I could see two young herons poking their heads up! So ridiculous, like Muppet dinosaurs! The parent stood proudly and calmly above them. I snapped some shots of my Illinois state lifer and second target of the day and smiled.
Then Frank said, “Do you need Mississippi Kite?” I told him yes, for sure! I followed him in his truck around a few twists and turns in the suburban neighborhood. We parked and I looked up into the tree across the street. I immediately saw two silhouettes: Mississippi Kites! One was partly obscured and facing away, but the other was higher, preening. I snapped a few shots and noticed in one it is looking right at me! It was really great to see them perched as I had only ever seen them in flight.
Third target bird achieved! I thanked Frank for all his help and headed to my next spot, Horseshoe Lake State Park.
In 2018, Michelle and I went there and saw at least 3 or 4 Little Blue Herons. So I thought it would be a slam dunk. Not this time. I searched in the swampy area off the levee-- nothing! A Great Blue Heron and some Red-winged blackbirds but no Little Blue! I drove to other side, looking out over the lake proper. On my way, I was forced to stop for this hilarious scene!
I scoped the lake and saw a few cormorants and a few Great Egrets way across, but still no Little Blue. The visit was not a total let-down though. I saw a Snowy Egret right next to a Great Egret. It is amazing to see just how much smaller the Snowy is. I got some nice comparison shots.
Then I noticed some movement on the bank to the right of them. A SPINY SHOFTSHELL TURTLE was scratching in the ground and kicking dirt with her feet! I am pretty sure she was laying eggs! I snapped a few photos and videos, which were hard to get because she was so far away. I went to get my scope for a better look-- she was gone! She must have slipped back into the water.
I looked at eBird to see where else Little Blue Herons were seen recently. To my surprise, only a few spots and only one bird at each. I went to Arlington Wetlands next-- no bird. So I went further south to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. I pulled into the parking lot and scanned the wetland. All I saw were lots of Great Egrets again. Then I saw some shapes in the trees. Five Little Blue Herons, including one white form! I couldn’t get great shots because they were far away but I was thrilled to get my fourth target of the day! On to the next: Least Tern!
Keith told me about a place in Illinois where I could find them, but it was over 2 hours south. I didn’t want to run the risk of getting all the way down there and then missing them. So I headed across the river to Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Missouri. In July 2018, Michelle and I saw about 5 or 6 there. This time-- none! The water level was higher than last time, but there were white pelicans, Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns out there. I scanned the air and water but just couldn’t come up with a Least Tern! By then it was 1pm and I still had a bunch of places to get to. And it was hot as death up there on the jetty! The spot Keith recommended was 2 and a half hours from there. So I climbed back in the car and headed south.
It was a drag to have to drive so far, but I was really happy to be in the air conditioned car during the hottest part of the day! I just wanted to get there, so I took the fastest route which actually took me south through Missouri and then back across the river into Illinois. In retrospect, I really wish I had gone through Illinois so I could car bird in those counties along the way! Still, I did the same thing in Missouri, so I have a few more counties in that state under my belt.
The spot was called Len Small Levee Blowout. Keith told me it used to be farmland, but now was totally flooded with sandy spots where crops used to be. As I rounded the corner, my heart sank. A sign said, “Road Closed: Water in Road” or something like that. But it was off to the side, so I ventured forward. I could tell the road had recently been submerged, and there was flotsam and debris all over the place. But the road was not flooded now and I drove on. I got to the first spot on the narrow road where you could actually safely pull over, so I did. The minute I opened the door I heard a Prothonotary Warbler sing! I couldn’t locate him, but while I was looking, I heard a familiar squeak. LEAST TERNS were swooping and diving and making a lovely racket!
They were too fast for my photography skills, but I did get one shot when one perched and some video of their awesome antics! I think in one video, one gives a fish to the other but it’s hard to see for sure. So I got my fifth target and an Illinois state life bird!
The sun was blazing and frying me by then, so I got back in the car and headed to my next spot, Cache River Wetlands center.
By that time it was 20 to 5 and I unfortunately forgot to check their hours. As I got out of the car, a park ranger told me she was closing up as soon as some bicyclists got back. (She didn’t want to close the gate and trap them and their car in there. I thought about biking on this 92 degree, sunny, humid day and almost threw up!) But she was nice enough to get me a map and show me all the other spots that didn’t actually close. So I didn’t get to scope that area for an Anhinga. But with the heat, I think it was a blessing in disguise. I ended up going to section 8 woods, a spot that had a boardwalk that went into a straight-up cypress grove!
I felt like I was in the deep south! A swamp with HUGE cypress trees that were so high and thick, they completely blocked out the sun, creating a wonderful, dark, shady spot for me to take refuge in. I heard at least 6 Prothonotary Warblers singing, and caught sight of at least 4, tearing around their territory.
Shade or not, the humidity was starting to get to me, so I decided to head to my next spot, even though it was kind of early for what I was planning.
I wanted to go to Ferne Clyffe State Park to hear Chuck-will’s-widow, a nightjar closely related to the Whip-poor-will. The first time I heard one was way back in 2005, camping in Cape May, NJ! So I was psyched to get the opportunity now. The problem was, they didn’t start singing until at least dusk or later. When I arrived at Ferne Clyffe, it was only 6:30. So I had some time to kill. I picked a spot near a picnic area. When I got out of the car, I noticed it was already starting to get a bit cooler and there was some merciful shade there. (Also, a fucking BATHROOM, which was a godsend! With all the COVID stuff, it was quite difficult to find any open anywhere!) So with nature’s call finally satisfied, I could relax and try to find a few birds before dusk. I didn’t have to wait until dusk to hear a BARRED OWL! It started calling as I was sitting there at the picnic table! Then a White-eyed Vireo started making his hilarious, raspy song. And a Mississippi Kite flew overhead. A Pileated Woodpecker started making its ridiculous monkey noises somewhere in the woods. And somehow over that racket, I heard an Acadian Flycatcher calling. Also heard what was a lot like a Carolina Wren but different. So I got out my phone and gave a listen to Kentucky Warbler, to refresh my memory and compare. I did NOT play it through the speaker, mind you. Before I could decide if that’s what I heard, I heard the snap of wings low in the trees above my head: a KENTUCKY WARBLER had heard me and was coming to kick my ass! I swear, they are the most territorial birds ever! I apologized to him for freaking him out and he quickly went on his way.
Next I got in the car to scout the area for what I thought would be the best place to sit and listen for Chucks. I drove down a road which led to the campgrounds. I got to a spot where 3 roads diverged and there was plenty of room to park the car. I decided this looked like a good spot, with woods all around me. I got out my camping chair and sat and listened, and waited for it to get dark. (I got a few looks from folks coming in and going to the campground but I’m used to people looking at me like, “What the hell are you doing?” so whatevs.) Some Carolina Chickadees were chipping playfully. And a couple of Downy Woodpeckers seemed to be having some kind of drama. Somewhere a Mockingbird got fired up and started shooting his mouth off. And a Fish Crow had something to say as it flew over.
Finally, it started to get dark. I sat in my chair and listened intently. At 8:29, a lone Whip-poor-will started singing way off in the distance. Then at 8:36, I could just make out a Chuck-will’s-widow joining it in the far off woods. A few more started into the chorus and I smiled. I had achieved ALL SIX TARGETS FOR THE DAY!
Not only that, on my way out I had the windows rolled down and drove slowly back through the park to the main road. I soon heard a Chuck RIGHT OUTSIDE my car window! I got a great audio recording and was thrilled to get a much better listen to this “sophomore” bird I’d only heard once before in my life!
Now I had an hour and 45 minute drive to my hotel in Hayti, MO. (Pronounced, HAY- tai, with a long I at the end. Reminded me of Chili, NY, which is the same long I at the end.) About an hour into the journey, it REALLY hit me that I had gotten up at 4am! By the time I got to the hotel I was EXHAUSTED!
Before I happily crashed for the night, I checked the hours of my next stop, Reelfoot State Park in Tiptonville, TN. To my dismay, the park didn’t open until 8am. That would mean I would have an hour and a half or so less time to find my last and ultimate target bird: SWAINSON’S WARBLER!
There are 35 warblers species you can see in the area where I live. In 2018, I SAW all 35 warbler species. In 2019, I saw 38 warbler species. The 3 additional species were Kirtland’s Warbler and Townsend’s Warbler, which both showed up in Chicago that year, and MacGillivray’s Warbler, which I saw on a trip to Montana. This year I tied that record by late May. I was fortunate enough to see Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers in Arizona this January. And a trip to their breeding site in East Tawas, MI got me Kirtland’s on my list. I didn’t really think this record was breakable. Until my friend Adam said to me: “You should try for Swainson’s Warbler!” I looked at range maps and yes, this was actually possible this year! They breed much regularly further south, BUT they are not impossible to find in northern Tennessee, Kentucky and once in a while in southern Missouri or Illinois! I got stars in my eyes when he said this. Could I do it? Could I actually see 39 warbler species in one year?!
There were three spots on my list to try for Swainson’s. The first, as I mentioned, was at Reelfoot State Park in Tennessee. Here the bird had been seen most recently. But the intel was lacking. That is a BIG park and the guy didn’t really give good details about where he saw it. I decided to give it a shot anyway. I drove 45 minutes from my hotel to the park. I soon realized it was dumb to have waited until 8 am. It was completely deserted, no gate-- the kind of place where it is not a big deal to go in before it “opens”. (Unlike in the Chicago suburbs, where I was practically tarred and feathered and publicly humiliated in front of tweens for entering a forest preserve before it was officially open. But that is another story.) Oh, well-- the extra sleep was nice I guess. I tried to put this out of my mind and focus on the bird.
I drove down a long, narrow, dirt road with thick woods on both sides and some swampy areas in those woods. Really good habitat for Swainson’s, I thought. But I just didn’t hear them singing. This is another bird, like Bell’s, that is often heard, but seldom seen, due to its skulky behavior. I got to the end of the road, listening the whole way, and parked. When I got out of the car, I bug sprayed myself thoroughly. No matter-- the bugs weren’t biting me, but they were buzzing INCESSANTLY in my face and ears and annoying the living crap out of me! I had on a bandana, for COVID reasons, but it soon doubled as a bug guard. Still, wearing it over your nose, mouth and ears in the 80 degree heat and humidity soon gets old. I saw a trail I could take into the woods, but decided car birding was the way to go. I wasn’t completely thwarted by the bugs though. Some amazing and colorful dragonflies were kind enough to start perching all around my feet, posing for photos! I rarely get photos of dragonflies because they so seldom hold still. So I was thrilled! I also got a nice photo of a Hackberry Emperor butterfly.
I started back down the road and was almost to the end when I heard what I thought could be a Swainson’s!! My heart stopped and I got out of the car to check it out! I recorded the song while looking frantically for the bird. I finally saw movement high in the tree tops. Got my bins on the bird. It was backlit but I could just make it out-- an INDIGO BUNTING?! Why the hell was he singing like a Swainson’s?! I cursed his imposter song, got back in the car and headed to my next spot.
The place was in Hickman, Kentucky and was part of Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge. I was skeptical because there were no sightings of Swainson’s here this year, just last year around this time. Still, I don’t know how many or how often folks bird these places, so I decided I needed to give it a shot. It was my best chance at getting it and I had nothing to lose. But I wasn’t really hopeful either. After driving slowly down the road for a mile or so, I still wasn’t hearing anything.
I pulled over at one point to listen and looked out the passenger window. I then heard a rustle to my left. I looked down and my jaw LITERALLY dropped-- FOUR ARMADILLOS were foraging in the brush not 3 feet from the car! They were so intent on their nosing about in the leaves they barely noticed me! Jaw still open, trying not to shriek with glee, I grabbed the camera. I took tons of photos and videos and just watched these amazing, weird, adorable creatures do their thing! At one point, one of them reared up on its hind legs and sniffed the air! I just about died then! I feel unbelievably lucky and thrilled to have seen these absolutely unique creatures so close up!
Still reeling from this encounter with nature, I slowly drove further up the road. By this point I was almost in non-bird mode, stopping to photograph gorgeous wildflowers, plants and butterflies.
Then I saw something small in the road that wasn’t a rock. I stopped and got out and was privileged to get close to a Common Box Turtle! It didn’t try to run from me at all and I got excellent close shots of it. I then gently picked it up and got it out of the road, just in case another car came, or I was distracted by birds on my way back out.
At this point, I was actually looking for a place to turn around and head to my third stop, when I heard it. When I am intently listening for a much-desired target bird, I often don’t believe my ears when I actually hear it. Like, it just doesn’t register or something. Then I heard it again. It was close and clear but STILL my brain didn’t want to accept it, especially after the false alarm with the imposter Indigo Bunting! But when I heard it a third time, my brain finally started working! I HAD JUST HEARD MY FIRST SWAINSON’S WARBLER! Many birders will not count a “heard-only” for a bird they have never seen before. While I would not go that far and would count it, I REALLY wanted to see this bird! I got out of the car and immediately saw a flash low in the trees. I got my bins on it and said out loud, “Oh my god!” There, looking at me, probably a little pissed and surprised to see me on this deserted woodland road, was a Swainson’s Warbler! I didn’t get a long look-- he wouldn’t hold still. He was singing a lot now and making chip calls. I got one more quick look before he flew across the road. He was still chipping, flitting low in those trees, so I got the camera out. I almost got a shot off but no, he was just too quick. So I simply took some video of the trees while he sang, over and over, recording his voice, tears starting to come down my face now.
I had done it. I got a life bird and broke my record of 38 warblers in a year in one fell swoop! Lucky Kentucky, indeed!
I was looking at a 5 hour trip home, but nothing could dampen my spirits now. Not even the weird traffic jam I encountered in the small town of Wickliffe, KY. Just like the Hudson River in the Catskills of New York state, there are very few crossings of the Ohio River in that part of the state of Kentucky. I don’t know what was causing the hold up, but there was really no other close way for people to cross, so they just stayed in line and waited.
I waited for about 30 minutes. Google maps kept saying “5 minute delay” which I knew was a load of crap. My guess was there was an accident, not construction, and who knows how long that could take to clear up!? I decided to take my chances and try another crossing. I had to drive 30 minutes east, cross there, and then 20 minutes northeast back to I-57 north. So it added just under an hour to the trip. Still, after visiting 3 other states in 2 days, getting ALL SEVEN TARGET BIRDS, 2 lifers, (which incidentally were the first and last target birds I saw on the trip), 1 sophomore bird, 4 Illinois state lifers, and 7 great year birds I probably would never see in my neck of the woods, bringing my year total to 337 birds, I headed home a happy faun.