Despite the long drive from the northeast corner of Illinois to the northwest corner of Illinois, this has become a fixture in the Christmas Bird Count schedule that I keep each winter. And despite the anthropogenic nature of the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge
(http://www.fws.gov/midwest/Planning/LostMound/index.html & http://stewardsumrr.org/tours-and-events/lost-mound-birding-tours/ ), it is still a pretty cool place to view some of the more interesting sand prairie habitat and accompanying wildlife at any season in Illinois. I started helping on this CBC several years ago. If one can get past the detracting presence of the numerous railcars and old military weapons & ammunition bunkers that remain at the former Savanna Army Depot (as well as the annoying video which must be watched each and every year concerning possible unexploded ordinance, before one is allowed into the closed portion of the refuge), the huge, sprawling preserve can be a very inviting place to spend a winter day, no matter what you may or may not see in the way of birds.
Upon joining the regular “crew” of yearly participants on the Illinois side of the count circle, I soon discovered that there was often a series of friendly banter via e-mail about whether or not we had a chance to beat the Iowa side of the CBC circle in the number of species each side was able to tally. On the Iowa side, a wonderful and apparently very large marsh complex often has helped the Iowa side come out on top in the species # race most every year. However, in years when everything is frozen in the marsh, we are on more equal footing in holding our own and because we often have more teams out, we have a chance to win the species competition… which we finally did for one of the first times last winter. The Illinois “crew” is made up each year mostly by a stalwart crowd of professional biologists, long-time big-name conservationists and a few experienced, hard-core birders. In reality though, the true ingredient in any success we might have is biologist Randy Nyboer’s homemade chilli that we all chow down on at lunch-time in the Lost Mound NWR headquarters building! Although I’ve asked Randy for his recipe, he’s told me it changes each year!
Not the best CBC circle map but the #3 is the Lost Mound Refuge area and the blue line is the Mississippi River which divides the Illinois from the Iowa sides of the circle.
I often have teamed up with fellow birding friend Dan Williams most of the year’s I’ve helped on the count, and often there is one or two other birders on our team as well. We get a nice chunk of the preserve along the river, in the more wooded areas adjacent to the open, sand-prairie areas. Getting to check for waterfowl at sometimes the only open water at Lock & Dam 12 across from Bellevue, Iowa, looking for Golden Eagles cruising the cedar-covered bluffs east of the refuge (where we’ve recorded them a couple times on this CBC!), and helping check the main Long-eared Owl roosts in the various red cedar groves at Lost Mound are just some of the perks of helping on this CBC.
An over-abundance of red cedar trees is one of the reasons there are routinely good numbers of Long-eared Owls at Lost Mound, though they are beginning to take over the native sand prairie and need to be severely thinned out.
Speaking of those cedar-covered bluffs, on this year’s count, I had no sooner mentioned to the other two birders helping Dan & I in our area this year, that those cedars should produce a Townsend’s Solitaire one of these winters, as that is the exact same kind of habitat where they often turn up most winters in Wisconsin. Less than five minutes after saying this, I began hearing the clear, flute like piping call made by a Townsend’s Solitaire! Finding it hard to believe that I could actually be hearing a Townsend’s Solitaire calling just minutes after speaking about the bird, not wanting my fellow birding friends to think that I had just slipped off the deep-end, I began looking for the possible location from where the bird could be calling from. As this species will often perch and call from the tip top of a conifer in its native habitat, I noticed a “right-sized” bird at the tip-top of a large deciduous tree 50-75 yards or more away. Cedars (& cedar berries) at which this bird often feeds from were numerous within a stone’s throw of that tree. I finally turned to Dan and said, “I’m pretty sure I’m hearing a Townsend’s Solitaire calling, and I think it might be that bird at the top of that big tree.” Dan quickly got his scope on the bird and loudly proclaimed, “It’s a Townsend’s Solitaire!” The bird responded immediately to a taped call of the species on Dan’s cell phone, and eventually gave all of us nice, protracted scope views of itself.
Although it was a beautiful, still day, birdlife was not particularly abundant, but our party never-the-less turned up several good species including 30 Trumpeter AND two Tundra Swans, 3 Greater White-fronted Geese, 7 Canvasbacks, 3 Redhead & 1 Ring-necked Duck along with over 800 Common Mergansers which were everywhere on the Mississippi River and its backwaters. Our party alone tallied 94 Bald Eagles, two Northern Harriers, one Rough-legged Hawk and one Red-shouldered Hawk, as well as two Barred Owls, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, 6 Pileated Woodpeckers, and a Northern Shrike. A few other birds of note by our group included two Tufted Titmice, 23 Eastern Bluebirds, 41 Cedar Waxwings, 4 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 14 Common Grackles and 4 Purple Finch.
Last year on this count, another party turned up a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD which wound up hanging around for most of the rest of the winter. This year, the good bird was the TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE… what will we find next winter?! Below are links to the last three years results for the Green Island/Lost Mound CBC, conveniently divided into the Iowa results and the Illinois results (even by party area!) by compiler Ed Anderson. Maybe you’d like to join us some year!
Number of species I tallied for the day: 48
Total species for this CBC season: 78 (+ 1 Count Week Species)