I first started helping on Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the winter of 1978-79. My cousin Jim Bailey and I helped on Marilyn Campbell’s Forest Glen CBC which she had been running for about ten years. Gradually I tacked on helping on a count here and a count there. Then in 1984, I decided that there was a lot of great land in the northern part of my home county of Vermilion that would make for a great 2nd Christmas Bird Count circle in the county. So, after an initial strategy meeting with fellow birding friends from Vermilion County Dave Watson and Jim Smith in a Danville restaurant, it was decided to come up with a new count circle.
Longtime birding pal Jim Smith and I at the 2009 Middlefork CBC compilation.
The Forest Glen CBC circle came north to the southern edge of Danville, right about where I-74 passes east-west through Vermilion county. This made it easy for me to include the Middlefork State Fish and Wildlife Area, Kickapoo State Park (now Kickapoo State Recreation Area), Kennekuk Cove County Park (now Kennekuk C.P.) all within the new CBC circle… almost 10,000 acres of parkland! Additionally all of Lake Vermilion, a good chunk of northwest Danville, as well as several smaller cities and private land holdings made for lots of areas for as many people as I could find to help cover all of the great habitat. It was easy recruiting a bunch of help from members of both the Vermilion County Audubon Society (now the Middlefork Audubon chapter) as well as from the nearby Champaign County Audubon Society chapter. Enough with the history, though there is a lot of cool stuff to talk about involving past birds, like the 59 species recorded on the very first Middlefork CBC (our lowest total ever), though we had five(!) Northern Goshawks (one of the last big Illinois Goshawk invasion years) and fifteen species of raptor (more than 1/4 of the species found!!) that first year.
This year’s Middlefork River Valley CBC was held on the first day of the Christmas Bird Count time period, Dec. 14th. As compiler for this CBC since its beginning, I have often held the count on January 1st, as that has often been the best date to ensure that most/all of my main helpers each year are off from work or finished with holiday obligations. However, for many years now, I had been wanting to help on 2-3 CBCs up in far northern Minnesota that a couple of my birding friends over in Rockford have been helping on for many years. The dates for those CBCs never seemed to work out with the other CBCs I had been helping on for years, including my (often) January 1st Middlefork River Valley CBC. Finally, this year I decided to set the date for my Middlefork count on the first day of the count period and run up to northern Minnesota the first few days of January to help on the three back-to-back- to back CBCs up there.
We wound up recording 82 species on the Middlefork CBC this winter, tied for the third best ever total behind our two best years where we tallied 85 and 88 species… still pretty darn good. The average species total for the last fifteen to twenty years of this CBC has been somewhere around 75 species. Like many CBCs in Illinois, a good CBC species total is made or broken by how many species of waterfowl you can turn up, and in the case of the Middlefork CBC, that often means how many ducks and geese we can find on Lake Vermilion… if it isn’t totally frozen over. This year was pretty good with 15 species of waterfowl, which included the now regular Mute Swan, which started breeding in the area just 5-10 years ago.
One really nice addition to this CBC the last several years has been the presence in most years of a breeding pair of Sandhill Cranes (one of the most southerly breeding pairs in Illinois!), which have also tried to spend the winter at Heron County Park each winter as well, since their arrival! Although my CBC partner this year on this count, Pete Moxon and I had the pair of Sandhills fly directly & low right over our heads at their breeding marsh at Heron County Park the day before the CBC, they could not be located the next day on count day, so they could only be tallied as a Count Week species (along with Cackling Goose). Another stop always work checking on the Middlefork CBC is Chris Carr’s aerated pond which always has 1-200 or more ducks and geese on it… and ALWAYS 10-15 American Black Ducks in with all the Mallards! Chris even feeds them daily in the winter… but they are all wild birds! Chris’s bonsai plantings, home built with a sod roof covered in plants and goldfish ponds in front of the living room window are just as interesting to see as any of the birds coming to his feeders or pond!
A couple of surprise additions to this winter’s CBC total were a few other “waterfowl” in the way of a loon and two species of grebe! And not just any Loon… but a RED-THROATED LOON, as well as one Pied-billed and one Horned Grebe! The amazing thing is that it wasn’t even the first time that a Red-throated Loon had been recorded on this Central Illinois CBC with no large lakes! However, likely the best bird species ever found on the Middlefork CBC was the NORTHERN PARULA warbler that two of the more experienced birders that have helped on this CBC, Dick Palmer and Myrna Deaton saw (& photographed!) hanging out with a small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers in a white pine plantation on some private property. There have been 139 species (+ a Count Week Golden Eagle!) found on this CBC in the 31 year history of the count!
The really cool addition to the count list total this winter though was the first sighting ever for this CBC of a SNOWY OWL… although the sad ending to the story was that the owl was found dead the next day, having been hit and killed by a car along busy U.S. Highway 136 where it was seen perched alive on a highway sign the day before.
With the Snowy Owl, we tallied seven species of owl on count day… not many Illinois Christmas Bird Counts can say that they have ever done that! And with the hawk species that we also tallied, there were 14 species of raptor on count day as well… not our record, but pretty close. With this year’s sightings of one No. Saw-whet Owl and two Long-eared Owls, that also makes for 25 out of 31 years of the Middlefork CBC where at least one Long-eared Owl has been recorded (as well as once seen on Count Week only!) and 20 years out of 31 where at least one Saw-whet Owl was tallied! Except for one, lone year where we missed a Great Horned Owl on this CBC, we have recorded at least one (usually many more) of the three year-round resident owls, to also include Barred and Eastern Screech! As you can tell, besides owls being probably my favorite family group of birds, several of the other birders that help on this CBC also actively search for owls both night and day. I used to start owling at midnight but have been sleeping in of late and Pete and I did not begin on this winter’s CBC until pretty late in the morning… 3 AM. 🙂
Some of the other good species and totals found on the Middlefork River Valley CBC this winter included 17 American Black Ducks, 1 Northern Shoveler, 18 Hooded Mergansers, 19 Wild Turkeys,
12 Great Blue Herons, 17 Bald Eagles, 4 Red-shouldered Hawks, 1 Merlin, 6 Eurasian Collared-Doves, 15 Barred Owls, 12 Belted Kingfishers, 53 Red-headed Woodpeckers, 1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 28 Pileated Woodpeckers, 60,700 American Crows (very low numbers compared to most years; usually we have the high count for the U.S. for this species on CBCs!), 113 Carolina Chickadees, 110 Tufted Titmice, 8 Red-breasted Nuthatch, 24 Brown Creepers, 23 Carolina Wrens, 1 Winter Wren, 15 Golden-crowned Kinglets (very low numbers statewide for this species this winter), 7!! Ruby-crowned Kinglets (usually if we even get any, it is 1 or 2; both parties that saw them also got photos!), 39 Eastern Bluebirds, 2 Hermit Thrushes, 5 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 3 Eastern Towhees, 1 Fox Sparrow, 3 Rusty Blackbirds, 70! Purple Finches, & 62 Pine Siskins. Getting to hear a Saw-whet Owl do its breeding season “song” and seeing the Red-throated Loon (saw the other one too!) and seeing the Count Week Sandhill Cranes were the highlights of this CBC for me… and likely Pete Moxon as well, as he found and ID’ed the loon.
Since I began this Christmas Bird Count, probably unlike many/most compilers on Christmas Bird Counts, I have always given the best areas, in the case of the Middlefork River Valley CBC all of the public parklands within the count circle, to all of the many folks who help on this CBC year-in and year-out. I have managed to piece together a bunch of privately owned properties for me or my team to visit. I start every Middlefork CBC (after owling) at daybreak at a pretty cool piece of property just outside and east of the small town of Potomac, which used to be referred to as the “Artesian City” for all of the clear spring water and wells located all around and just outside of this town. The towns high school sports teams were even called the Potomac Artesians until the late 1980s. The relatively large property where I start the morning on the Middlefork CBC has at least one artesian well… right next to the current owners house, where they no doubt still draw clear drinking water from. I was informed of one of the early, original owners of this property shortly after beginning to cover the property on the CBC, but after I had already started roaming its grounds for several years. This owner was a somewhat well-known author, David K. Malcolmson (who also apparently co-wrote the book, “The Man Who Killed Hitler”) who had moved to the Potomac area from California (with his wife Esther & dog Yipe [whom he also wrote a children’s book about]) in the 1950’s or 60’s (??) after being a literature (??) professor at a California university for a while. The thing that I really liked about the property, other than the relative wildness of it, was that it had a nice mix of habitats which included the small Bean Creek and a stretch of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River which it fed into, as well as a couple of small ponds. Also on the relatively small 50+ acre property were a small marshy area, both upland and bottomland woods, various weedy fields and especially a variety of coniferous tree & shrub plantings which also included quite a number of planted Bald Cypress trees. Malcolmson had planted hundreds of trees on the property while he owned it,( likely all of the coniferous stuff and Bald Cypress trees) which he talks about in his neat little book about living on this property, “A Small Piece of Land”, published in 1981, a few years after his death. Nothing like walking a property that you’ve read about some of the earlier history of, in a book written by an early landowner of the property! In the 10-15 years or so that I have been covering this property on the CBC, I’ve recorded such winter rarities as an Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, White-winged Crossbills, Fox Sparrow and other cool birds and animals like Wild Turkeys, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches. On this winter’s CBC, little could Malcolmson have known that I would record a flock of about 45 Pine Siskins feeding in the tops of some, large, tall, old alder trees… solely due to the fact that he had planted several of the siskins favorite seed trees along the edges of the ponds on the property, so many years ago! One thing I won’t forget for a while which happened on the CBC on this property just a couple of years ago was finally getting to see a family of river otters in Vermilion County (my first there in my home county!) swimming down a small open lead in an otherwise frozen Middlefork River, then hauling out onto a snow-covered shelf of ice for a while of rest & play! That topped just about any bird I could have found that day!
One of the more fun aspects of helping on a CBC for me is what the compilation dinner is like and for the first 25 or so years on the Middlefork CBC, that meant driving over to longtime birding friends Eleanor & Jim Smith’s cozy home nestled at the edge of a wooded area near the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River in Homer. Eleanor always made the best homemade soup, which I always had at least three bowls of before the compilation was over. Both Jim & sometimes Eleanor would count birds all or most of the day, then Eleanor would come home a little early to get the soup and other goodies going for everyone to warm up and fill-up on. There is always a lot of good conversation, especially about past years CBC recollections. Fortunately, with Eleanor’s too soon passing a few years ago, fellow CBCers Connie and Grant Cunningham
and Bob Schifo helped by Jessica Runner have taken up the big hole left by Eleanor’s passing, as hosts for our yearly compilation dinner. Grant’s wild game stews and chilli’s and Bob & Jessica’s banquets are giving Eleanor a run for her money, but I wish I would have given Eleanor some kind of award for 25+ years of great soup and hospitality!
And while I’m thinking of it, I’d like to give a special big, hug of thanks out to our three most dedicated Champaign County Audubon members who have always made it a point to participle in the Middlefork CBC from year one, including Bob Chapel who always helped until his unfortunate death several years ago, Beth Chato and Helen Parker both of whom continue to trudge out across the snowy backroads and fields, even when Helen’s car has slid off the snow-covered roads (sorry Helen 🙂 ).
BTW, at the end of each CBC account I do for each of the seven Illinois Christmas Bird Counts I helped on this year (sometimes I do a couple less or more), I’ll list how many species I saw on the count, as well as how far along I am in getting to a hundred species for all of the counts… sort of a yearly tradition I’ve had in trying to see if I can get to at least the 100 species mark for all of the counts that I help on.
Number of species I tallied for today: 58 (+ one Count Week Species)