North with the spring
There they were again — the raucous troublemakers, taking over the neighborhood, or at least our backyard. Loud and demanding in their black coats, like an rowdy motorcycle gang. Grackles. Back from their winter home down south. For those not familiar with backyard birds, these are the shiny, long-tailed blackbirds, plentiful in the countryside but also in many urban neighborhoods, that arrive in early spring.
These birds were taking over our bird feeder, forcing out the smaller birds. Later in the spring theyÕll be nesting in our shrubbery or the neighborÕs spruce tree, and we may see them robbing the nest of a smaller bird for food for their chicks.
Some of the other visitors to our yard are more welcome, of course. The robins have appeared. The other day, after the snowstorm, there were many robins in the streets — the only place not snow-covered — searching for anything to eat.
We've also had juncos at our feeder — the winter resident ŌsnowbirdsĶ that will be heading north soon. But there was also a fox sparrow, with its reddish tail, scratching in the dirt under the feeder — stopping momentarily on its northbound journey. And then there was the hawk I saw circling overhead the other day — a CooperÕs hawk, I think — probably also heading north. ItÕs that time of year.
Today, March 23rd, I decide to take a little ride to see some of the other spring visitors. I like to go to the Mississippi in February or March to see the migrant waterfowl. Today, though, I have an errand in Canton, so I think IÕll go on down to Banner Marsh along the Illinois River to see what I can find.
Along the highway on my way south I see red-tailed hawks perched near the road, probably migratory birds on the way north. And there are a few turkey vultures circling overhead — they're also probably spring arrivals. When I drive into Banner Marsh, I donÕt see much at first, then I begin to see the big, white shapes.
Banner Marsh is a fish and wildlife area operated by the State of Illinois. It is along the Illinois River about 10 miles southeast of Canton. As I drive in on the gravel roads that circle the many small ponds in the area, I see more and more of the large, white birds. As I get closer I can see, after a quick check of my bird guide, that they are mute swans. This is a species not native to North America but one that has escaped from captivity and breeds in the wild in some places, becoming something of a pest (though a picturesque one) in some eastern states. I have seen a few of the birds in this location before, but today they are all over the place, at least a couple dozen. Most are in pairs, and probably they will be nesting here this summer. In fact, I see one swan sitting on what looks very much like a nest.
I donÕt see many other birds until I get over a ways to the east and come to a small pond with a few birds and another larger one on the other side of the road with many more. In the smaller pond I spot a water bird with a dark head and crest — with a closer look through binoculars and then spotting scope I see that it is a red-breasted merganser. These are somewhat uncommon water birds, more often seen in spring than in fall. Then, a short ways away, near the far shore, I see several birds of one of my favorite species — hooded mergansers.
It turns out there are three males and one female. The males of this small species are black, brown and white, with a very attractive black and white crest. One of the males is sticking very close to the side of the female, while the other two circle a short distance away, looking to cut in on the dance, so to speak. There are also a pair of gadwall, somewhat more drab in color, and two turkey vultures eating a fish on the far shore.
In the pond there is a much larger group of waterfowl — mallards, shovelers, bufflehead, green-winged teal and possibly other species. Unfortunately, it is somewhat cloudy, and what sunlight there is comes from behind the birds, so itÕs a little difficult to distinguish colors and identify the species.
I drive around some of the other roads, seeing more ducks and swans — some of the latter are very close to the road and appear rather tame as I pass by. There are white feathers scattered on the grass in one spot. Apparently one of the swans has met its end — probably during the night in the jaws of a hungry coyote or raccoon.
I leave Banner Marsh and drive down the road a short ways to Rice Lake. This is another state-owned fish and wildlife area, a large lake surrounded by woods. Near the boat-launch area I see a small flock of water birds that turn out to be mostly ring-necked ducks. This is a very handsome species of diving ducks that are found in deeper water. The males are black and white with an identifying white stripe along the side. A few pied-billed grebe are bobbing up and down like gray, feathered corks near the shore too.
After leaving Rice Lake, I decide that, since IÕm in the area, IÕll drive on down to Lake Chautauqua, across the river near the town of Havana. (How did it happen that there are two towns named Havana and Cuba, near each other, in central Illinois?) Lake Chautauqua is a national wildlife refuge near the Illinois River — one of the best places to see water and shore birds during migration seasons.
Along the highway near Havana I pass signs for the new Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge. From the road I can see that most of the farm buildings that had stood here have been removed. This is a low-lying area that had been drained and used for farming for many years, but now it is apparently going to be returned to something like its original marshland condition. It was an area that sometimes flooded in wet springs anyway, and IÕve seen big flocks of waterfowl here in past years. This new development is all to the good.
I pull into one of the parking lots at Lake Chautauqua and see a billboard that has pictures of some of the species of birds to be found here, and I notice they indicate you might find nesting bald eagles. This is something relatively new. Now a protected species, apparently more and more of the eagles are nesting around here after becoming extinct as a nesting species in Illinois in the early 20th century. (TheyÕve always been fairly common as a winter visitor along major rivers.) There hasnÕt been much publicity about the location of eagle nests in the state because of the morally challenged persons who, in spite of the risk of heavy fines, might think it an accomplishment of sorts to shoot the big, easy targets.
There is a cross-dike across the middle part of the lake, with a shallow part on the left and deeper water on the right. One the left, weedy side there are a few mallards and coots and a multitude of shovellers. The males of the latter species are a very attractive, if faintly comical type of duck, with their green heads, white chests and reddish brown sides, preceded by an over-sized bill.
As IÕm looking out over the water, I notice a flock of white birds circling high overhead. My first thought is of snow geese, but on a closer look they turn out to be a flock of about 40 white pelicans. This species, that nests in the northern Great Plains, was once rare in Illinois, but since around the time of the Mississippi flood of 1993, when it apparently changed its migratory path, itÕs almost a common species in these parts.
On the other side of the dike, as I scan around with my scope, I see hundreds and hundreds of ruddy ducks. This species is small, with a short tail that tends to stick up in the air. The males are mostly reddish brown with a white patch on the face. There are also a few ring-billed gulls flying around, and I spot the large, wide-winged shape of a great blue heron, possibly just arrived on migration, flying away from me along the shoreline.
The skies are beginning to fill with bluish-gray clouds, and I decide it's time to head for home. The weatherman has said there could be rain, or even snow. Along the road I see a huge migratory flock of birds that, on a closer approach, look like mostly grackles. They could be headed for your neighborhood, if they're not there already — with their bad manners and raucous voices. Still, itÕs been a pleasant day greeting the migrating birds on their northbound journey. Time for me also to fly on home.
The title of this article was borrowed from an old but still very enjoyable book by naturalist Edwin Way Teale. It is available at the Galesburg Public Library.