I got home late last night from a weekend trip to Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Lesa. It was a somewhat last-minute, spur-of-the-moment, why-not trip which means we did not plan ahead too well, but the spirit of adventure overtook us and we went to see what is perhaps the premier shorebird viewing spot in the state of Illinois during fall shorebird migration. We drove down Saturday night, stayed at a motel another 45 minutes away, and got up early Sunday morning to thick fog and cloud cover. Not exactly ideal conditions for viewing anything, let alone shorebirds which are always distant unless you are on a beach. I have been nodding off for a couple hours going through fuzzy far away pictures I took anyway to see if there were perhaps any species we missed or if anything came out clear enough to reproduce here, but the consensus is generally negative. Below is perhaps the best shorebird picture, such as it is.
The light was so poor in the morning, even birds a tad bit closer were hard to photograph. We stopped first at Goofy Ridge but the water levels were too high, so we spent most of our time further south at Eagle Bluff which features a cross-dike you can walk out on to view the birds. There were perhaps eight more birders off and on. A bit closer to the dike were some dead trees, where we encountered a noisy family of Red-Headed Woodpeckers.
As the fog began to wane I managed a few pictures of birds in flight, albeit none too sharp.
More and more American White Pelicans took to the air. They are regular visitors to the Illinois River in migration and make flying look like a lot of fun. In bright sunlight when they turn away from the sun, they became almost invisible as the black tips to their wings only show underneath. They looked like stars on a light blue sky.
The sun finally came out at midday and it became too hot to stand around behind our scopes out on the open dike, so we decided to leave. We were almost at the car when we encountered a couple of venerated birders we know. They had just identified a Ruff. But we were hot, a bit tired and hungry, so we decided to let it go rather than stay and have them point the bird out to us. One reason for this trip was to figure out the birds ourselves, because we decided that we would otherwise never learn to distinguish them. So we took off for a fairly leisurely drive around the area, crossing the river and back again, stopping and getting out here and there, looking for camping and/or birding spots for future trips. The idea of making this trip every year to sharpen our shorebird identification skills was in our minds. One early stop was at the Chautauqua Nature Trail which starts off the back of the headquarters building and winds through black oak sand forest, where I took the snail and butterfly images below.
We also made a stop at Emiquon, more restored habitat along the Illinois River basin. There wasn’t much to see this time of year, but one shaded area afforded space for perhaps a dozen or more Barn Swallow nests.
We went back to Eagle Bluff at Chautauqua late in the afternoon, after the heat had begun to dissipate and the light was still good, to find the Ruff mentioned earlier. I had seen Ruffs in East Africa last November, where they commonly spend the winter, but they are a rarity around here. As we approached the dike for viewing, I improvised a dream conversation for our encounter: “Hi. I’m Joe Ruff. Didn’t I see you in Tanzania last winter?”
There were a lot fewer shorebirds than were present earlier in the day, which likely helped the Ruff stand out that much more. We are confident that we did see it, after studying our field guides while eating a leisurely, late lunch. Unfortunately it was not possible to photograph more than a pinkish blob on legs. But it was worth sharing a high-five to find it, identify it and study it. Thus fortified, we pronounced our impromptu shorebird expedition a success. This will inspire us to plan better next year and maybe spend a few days, as the weather is never reliable. Plus every day different birds come in, so chances are if we visited the refuge for two or three days we would see many more species.
In addition to the Ruff we had nice looks at a Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semi-Palmated Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, American Avocet, a Least Sandpiper, Short-Billed Dowitcher and many, many Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Semi-Palmated Plover. We had one Greater Yellowlegs when we returned to see the Ruff. I think I probably saw a Hudsonian Godwit too but may not have realized it at the time. Then there were many Blue-Winged Teal and Black Terns. I’m sure I’m forgetting something; we decided to leave the listing and counting to those more experienced. But I am not forgetting that the most common shorebirds we normally see, Solitary and Spotted, were not present. And I can remember seeing only a couple Least Sandpipers, which is a bit unusual. As luck would have it, the last reports from today counted 26 species, so that’s a definite incentive to extend the next trip another day at least.
I am still figuring out the insect pictures from last weekend’s outing to Kane County where the idea for this trip was hatched. With the swimming pool being closed this week for maintenance, there’s a possibility I’ll manage another post featuring my six-legged friends. In the meantime here is the most cooperative subject on the way out from our second stop at Eagle Ridge. One of those unidentified but interesting grasshoppers.
I got over to the Chicago Portage this morning before the predicted rain, which turned out to be nothing substantial, to see if there were any more hummingbirds present. I encountered only two, a female from the flash of white tail feathers, and later what was probably a beautiful male on my way out, but both left too quickly to study, there were hardly any other birds, and I got tired of being the primary food source for the local mosquitos. I’ll likely try again next weekend. I cleaned and refilled my hummer feeders at home, but no action there either. I keep trying to tell myself I will have great looks at Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds in November in Costa Rica and I should just wait. But it will take something like an influx of warblers to make me get over this.
It’s great that you’re out on the field learning more about birds and nature in general. Sounds great! It’s tough but very rewarding. 🙂
You worked hard. I envy you the different woodpeckers that you have. They are among my most favourite birds.
I too love the Red-Headed Woodpeckers and it’s probably the most I have ever seen at one time. Pileated Woodpeckers still elude my lens. As for work, after driving 3 hours to reach Chautauqua it seemed only logical to persist.
Nice woodpecker pic. I had never heard of Chautaqua – didn’t even know it was there.
Thanks, Jason. Believe me, the IDNR doesn’t want you to know it’s there. It’s not easy to find. If you dig for the directions and have a fairly decent map of the Illinois River basin you can find it, but I think one reason why they made it somewhat low-profile and inaccessible is to keep people who aren’t serious out – meaning to keep the habitat unspoiled for the birds. Habitat for migrating birds being entirely as critical as breeding habitat, if for different reasons.