Recently, Jonathan Simms and I attended a field trip of the Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS), led by Keith McMullen, in the East St. Louis area. Both of us were able to take off from work on Friday and spend the entire weekend birding. For both of us this was an opportunity to see some western and southern strays, and Jonathan's goal was to finish his first year in Illinois with an ambitious 250 species, although his more realistic target was 240. My expectations were a handful of new state-birds and one realistic life-bird. We scheduled our itinerary around the many interesting birds that had recently been reported to IBET and the Springfield hotline.
Among the first birds were two Caspian Terns flying over I-55 in Bolingbrook (Will Co.). Quickly, we added the expected roadside birds. In Dwight, we left the interstate and headed straight west toward the Illinois River. A spot along Washburn Road west of Washburn (Woodford Co.) was quite productive for common species, plus several Cliff Swallows. We explored the Woodford Co. Conservation Area in an unsuccessful search of a Laughing Gull that had been reported several days earlier.
From there we followed the east bank of the Illinois River to Mason County. Outside Manito, a Blue Grosbeak sang just about in the same tree where one was seen a year earlier on an IOS field trip, and we had excellent views. At Chautauqua N.W.R., a Northern Bobwhite whistled from a tree tantalizingly close to the parking lot, but we were not able to see it. The shorebirds were numerous if distant. We found most of the common sandpipers, including two White-rumped Sandpipers, plus a Semipalmated Plover. Two adult Bald Eagles were noted in the dead trees across the mud flats. Just outside the refuge, the first Dickcissel of the trip sang from a wire.
A loop along some side road east of Havana (Mason Co.; same location as last year's IOS trip) yielded a quick view of the expected Lark Sparrow, and a Wild Turkey hen escaped from the road ditch into a corn field.
In Havana we crossed the river and drove for some time to our next stake-out site, Siloam Springs State Park (Brown and Adams Cos.). We approached the park on what looked like the most direct from the north-east, but better roads can be found on the west side. We quickly located the ranger residence, and the ranger told us where to look for the Bewick's Wren family. After a quick glance at a possible wren, it took us most of an hour to finally locate the birds for good looks. We noted two adults and at least two juveniles but the ranger said that there were as many as seven young in the second brood, and there might have been an earlier brood. At least two male Summer Tanagers were evident, at one time in the same tree. This was a life-bird for Jonathan and a state-bird for me.
We continued our drive through Pike and Calhoun Counties. Pittsfield (Pike Co.) bills itself as the Purple Martin capital of the world, and the number of martin houses along all the city streets was impressive. There were even a few martins visible! Near Michael (Calhoun Co.), Jonathan got his second life-bird of the day, an Eurasian Tree-Sparrow. We turned in for the night in Litchfield, the closest to the East St. Louis area that we were able to find lodging.
The next morning we had an early start to meet the group at 6:00am in O'Fallon. It took some time to form a 19-car caravan with the over 50 people attending the field trip. A police car took a good luck at us as we pulled into a back alley behind Frank Holton State Park (St. Clair Co.), where our target bird was a Glossy Ibis. Unfortunately, the ibis was not found, but the Cattle Egrets and Little Blue Herons were numerous. Some people were able to pull out a White-eyed Vireo out of the background noise, but I'm not familiar enough with the species to recognize it.
Our next target was the alleged Tricolored Heron in the burrowing pits behind Horseshoe Lake (St. Clair Co.). Alas, this bird didn't materialize either, and some doubts were cast as to such a bird (as opposed to a possible 'calico' Little Blue Heron) really having been there the week before. Two Little Bittern were seen by some, but the rest of us had to do with Snowy Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.
Fortunately, the next stake-out bird materialized: Keith had been able to secure permission for the group to enter the Melvin Price Army Supply Center in Granite City to look for the group of Western Kingbirds (state-bird). After some driving around the base, the kingbirds were located flycatching over a distant field. One was even pursued by a Ruby-tailed Hummingbird. A Grasshopper Sparrow was also heard (and seen by a few). Other birds of interest for the northerners were Eurasian Tree-Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, and a calling Northern Bobwhite.
Shorebirds, reported from the lower reaches of the Illinois River during the preceding days, were our next target, and the caravan (now down to 14 cars) relocated to Jersey County. However, the mud flats had filled up with water during the previous days' rain, and no shorebirds to speak of were present. A few Black Terns and a Black-crowned Night-Heron were a small consolation.
The caravan shrank a little more as it wound its way into Monroe County, on the other side of East St. Louis. An immature, very pale Common Loon was an incongruous sight on a small fishing pond near Waterloo. A few distant shorebirds were found along Bluff Road between Mayestown and Prairie du Rocher, including several Stilt Sandpiper. More interesting birds were found from the Levee Road on the return trip. First, there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher near Fort de Chartres (see my web page for a photo). A Blue Grosbeak was also heard in that location. Even more unusual were the two distant immature White Ibis (state-bird) which were located thanks to the scouting team of David Bohlen, Louise Augustine, Dan Kassebaum, among others. Two Orchard Orioles and a Dickcissel were easier to see from the same location.
American Avocet and a Ruddy Turnstone along with hundreds of other shorebirds had been found earlier in the day by some in a flooded field along I-255 near Collinsville (St. Clair Co.). The remainder of the group (now only 6 cars) decided to go and have a look, too. Some of us even found a legal way to observe the birds from the edge of a trailer park subdivision. No other unusual species were found although a number of birds remained obscured in the vegetation.
I still had my expected life-bird to find, thus on Sunday we headed again toward Calhoun County, specifically Red's Landing west of Hardin. Nearby we had our most interesting herpetological sighting of the trip, an Eastern Box-Turtle that tried to cross the road. At Red's Landing, we initially mainly heard birds, among them Acadian Flycatcher, Pileated Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, and high-pitched crows that we tried to turn into Fish Crows. Whether they really were or not will be impossible to tell, and I don't count them at this time (thanks for the comments that I received in IBET regarding these crows). Then suddenly our target bird appeared, an adult Mississippi Kite. A little ways down the road, Jonathan identified a flycatcher-like call as that of a young raptor, and I spotted the kite nest in a tree opposite the backwater slough. A pretty big juvenile kite, probably only days from fledging, stood in the nest calling incessantly. A second adult bird flew by, and a few miles further north, we saw yet another, very ratty-looking, Mississippi Kite.
Our next stop was Meredosia Lake (Morgan Co.), where our most interesting addition to the trip list was a flock of ca. 15 American White Pelican.
We had another shot (figuratively) at a staked-out Tricolored Heron, an immature bird that had been reported from Lake Springfield (Sangamon Co.). However, we were never able to find the correct location, and an American Coot was our only addition from that area before we returned to the Illinois River. We crossed it again at Havana to check out some sites in Fulton County. Rice Lake had a number of common shorebirds and a few Forster's Terns, whereas at Banner Marsh we heard a Sedge Wren, and a large flock of at least 100 Cattle Egret fed with some cows.
The rest of the evening was taken up by the drive back to Chicago's western suburbs. We covered 1280 miles during the three days, and we touched 30 counties. I recorded 105 species, including 1 life-bird (Mississippi Kite), 4 state-birds, and 14 year-birds. Jonathan with his keener ears picked up a few more trip species, two life-birds (Bewick's Wren and Eurasian Tree-Sparrow), and 16 state birds (enough to put him at 244 for his first year in the state).
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