Brother Nature         by Lynn McKeown 


Spring on the Mississippi


I like to take a drive along the Mississippi River in Henderson County each year in early spring. The best time is when the ice is just starting to break up and there will still be many wintering bald eagles and small patches of open water where early migrating ducks congregate. This year it was a little later, March 20th, before I made the trip with my sack lunch (junk food and an apple), and the river was completely ice-free – just a few small patches of ice in backwaters. It was a nice, sunny day, temperatures in the fifties and only a few clouds.

As I drive west toward the river through the crossroads village of Bald Bluff, I notice a large bird soaring overhead. Stopping and focusing my binoculars, I see it is an adult bald eagle. I don’t suspect at the time that it is the only eagle I’ll see for the day. Usually at least a few stay around along the northern Illinois stretch of the Mississippi through March, but on this day I only see one.

I drive a short distance south of Bald Bluff to a bridge where I sometimes see my first phoebe of the spring, but it isn’t there today. This is the first of the flycatcher group of birds to arrive in spring, but it may still be a bit early. I’ve been seeing a few robins in my neighborhood and a few red-winged blackbirds staking out their nesting territories along the roads.

I drive on over to the river at Big River State Forest. Along the way, a small bird flits from the wire to a treetop – a bluebird – always nice to see. At the state forest, the road to the lower campground is closed off because of “high water,” though in fact the river isn’t high. Maybe the Forest staff is just thinking ahead to when the snow-melt will arrive from further north. After parking my car, I walk down the closed road to the water’s edge. There in the slough are a great blue heron, a hooded merganser and several common mergansers. Mergansers are beautiful birds, with striking, dark and light patterns. It’s the waterfowl – early spring migrants – that make these trips enjoyable at this time of the year.  There is a flock of juncos here too – the “snowbirds” that are plentiful in Illinois during the winter and that will be vanishing in mid-April.

Leaving the state forest, I drive on north to Keithsburg and stop to eat my sack lunch along the road that curves up along the levee on the west side of town. Gazing at the collapsed railroad bridge just upstream, I eat my lunch (except the apple) and watch a few ring-billed gulls that fly by, headed north. One circles back, almost looking in my car window – maybe it spotted my sandwich or more likely a dead fish carried along in the swift current – then it’s on its way again.

After my lunch I drive over to the Louisa Wildlife Refuge just north of town. Here is the real jackpot. Hundreds of lesser scaup (“blue-bills,” to the hunter) scattered over a large area of backwater inside the levee. There must be at least 300, probably more, as I can’t see very well into some of the interconnected ponds. Among the scaup are a few other species of “diving ducks” – the very handsome ring-necked ducks and canvasback, ruddy ducks, and, along the pond edge in one spot, shovellers (colorful ducks with very large bills). There are also a few bufflehead – a very pretty, little duck. The drake is black and white with a large white patch on the top of its black head.

Leaving the refuge, I drive back south, through the state forest and down to Oquawka, then on to Gladstone and Lock and Dam #18. Along the way I spot turkey vultures in several places. They have probably just arrived from further south within the last week, though a few stay in the state forest in winter. There are also a few red-tailed hawks and American kestrels (formerly, “sparrow hawks”) along the roads. Also along the roads are a few horned larks – amazing little birds that come north in February and start to establish their nesting territories in open fields when everything still seems frozen.

The area around the dam, a state wildlife refuge, is a great place to see a variety of birds, though it was better before 9/11 when the levee upstream from the dam was open to the public; now it has “no trespassing” signs. The area around the parking lot is still a good spot though. During winter, this is where large numbers of bald eagles gather to feed on dead or stunned fish in the open water below the spillway. Today, there are no eagles to be seen; apparently most have gone north toward their nesting grounds in north-woods lake country. There are a few other birds in evidence, however. Besides the ever-present ring-billed gulls, there are a few white pelicans circling around and occasionally landing to grab a fish. And upstream I can see a large flock of the same species on a sandbar. (Later I spot two more small flocks along a stream east of the dam.) There are a few cormorants perched near the pelicans, too.

I occasionally spot a great blue heron flying downstream over the river, and looking to the south, I can barely see a nesting colony of these herons in the distance. This colony has been in evidence for several years in early spring. The large nests, with the herons perched on many of them, can be seen in the very tops of the still-leafless trees.

Leaving the Dam #18 parking lot, I head down to the picnic and boat launch area nearby, sit on a log by the water’s edge, and eat the apple I had left from my lunch. Over above the far shore, a flock of ducks, probably more lesser scaup, are flying north, upstream. When I’ve finished my apple, I throw the (biodegradable) core in the water and watch it float away with the dead fish and other flotsam on the muddy Mississippi. A few white pelicans and gulls are flying around and occasionally alighting on the river. It’s been a pleasant day.