Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC # 6 – Horseshoe Lake (far Southern Illinois) – December 28, 2014

Sorry, don’t know what happened to this post as it was on my screen last night… technology.   Anyway, since I have been helping on this Christmas Bird Count (1st time on Dec. 22nd, 1981) almost as long as I have been helping on the Forest Glen and Union County CBCs, I have a lot of fond memories of birds, people & events centered around this Christmas Bird Count. Vern Kleen, former Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources Non-game Heritage Biologist started both this and the Union County CBC (& also started the annual Spring Bird Count and initiated the Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas… among many other things bird in Illinois). Vern started this count a couple of years after the Union County CBC, with the first Horseshoe Lake CBC occurring on Dec. 30, 1974. They have always been held back-to back. The first couple of years we had a neat, cozy little cabin-like building right on the Union County Conservation Area (now Union County State Fish & Wildlife Area). We even spent a year or two using a hunter check station on the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area (now the Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area) as our meeting & sleeping quarters. Though there were at least a dozen or more of us sleeping on the floor those years, there were easily more than twice that many mice running across the floor (and our sleeping bags!) at night. The light sleepers could hear the numerous mouse traps going off all night, that my friend Ivan Easton brought down with him one year to catch the mice with.

We currently are privileged to be able to use the friendly confines of the Wicker Club “Lodge” building right at Horseshoe Lake SF&WA, and have been using this two-story building for at least twenty years. Unfortunately, severe flooding of the Mississippi River ruined the downstairs floor which was deeply underwater for months and the IDNR’s budget has been stripped of money so many times so much in the past 15 years, that who knows if the downstairs floor will ever be refurbished. There is a recently re-modeled kitchen area upstairs, and the large meeting room and bedrooms complete with bunk beds are available for many of the early arrivals.

Wicker Club Lodge Horseshoe Lk SF&WA_12-27-14_P.Moxon

insideWickerClubLodge_HorseshoeLakeSF&WA_12-27-14_P.Moxon1

WickerClubLodge kitchen_HorseshoeLakeSF&WA_12-27-14_P.Moxon1

WickerClubLodge bedroom_HorseshoeLakeSF&WA_12-27-14_P.Moxon1

The panoramic view over the large fields and forested nature preserve just a short distance from the lodge are inviting, and the fields can often be full of thousands of feeding Snow Geese some years (with dozens/hundreds of Canada, Greater White-fronted and even a few Ross’s Geese).

view from Wicker Club LodgeHorseshoeLake SF&WA_12-28-14_P.Moxon5

For several years my friend Jim Smith from Vermilion County that I rode with to these southern Illinois CBCs, and I canoed the Cache River on the Horseshoe Lake CBC, from the town of Ullin to our take out point just before the mouth of the Cache at the Mississippi River. Jim figured it was a 23 mile run, which we made for several years.  As I often did my Barred Owl imitation to attract other birds (& the owls) as we canoed down the river. One year, at the end of our canoeing, I looked down to my tally/checklist and saw that we had recorded 23 Barred Owls, an average of one per mile! One year, the river was so high we couldn’t make it under some of the bridges, but luckily we could go out and around them via some of the flooded, bottomland “lakes” formed by the flood waters, a rather unique experience. Another year an American Woodcock was performing its spring display flight, on the December Christmas Bird Count, peenting in a bottomland field along the river.

One of the biggest changes in the birdlife since I first began helping on this (and the Union County) CBC is the disappearance of the 100-200,000 Canada Geese that we used to tally on each of these counts to the current 5-15,000 that we are currently getting.  Hand-in-hand with this dramatic decrease has been an even more dramatic increase in the numbers of Snow, Greater White-fronted Geese, & even the rare Ross’s Goose which have all gone from occurrences of single birds or very small flocks of ten to fifty birds to yearly wintering counts of 50-100,000 Snow Geese, 10-20,000 Greater White-fronted Geese and 10-50 Ross’s Geese (formerly even single birds were extremely rare!) on both of these southern Illinois CBCs!

SNGO flying over Union Co. on CBC_12-29-14_P.Moxon Crop

Other trends in both of these two CBCs are the virtual total disappearance of the once commonly detected Loggerhead Shrike (most parties would detect 1-3 shrikes on both counts), as well as the increase of Eastern Phoebes from occasional single birds every couple years to 5-10 phoebes on one or both counts most years currently!

One of the neat features of my coverage area on the Horseshoe Lake “Island”, a very large area of planted fields (to feed the geese) , as well as a forested state nature preserve, surrounded on all sides by the large U shaped body of water of Horseshoe Lake, is the large diversity of birds found here. It’s a loooong walk, but full of birds of all kinds! Formerly, the fields were planted in sorghum, which sparrows and many of the other small passerines loved (not just the geese that the sorghum was planted for). Many years while these fields were in sorghum, we would find one or two Indigo Buntings (yeah, on a CBC!), as well as Savannah Sparrows and other cool birds. The vine tangles all around the periphery of the field/forest border are full of species like Brown Thrashers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Towhees and the occasional Gray Catbird, Eastern Phoebe, Common Yellowthroat (and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the tree-lined border). Eastern Meadowlarks, Lapland Longspurs, various blackbirds, and LeConte’s Sparrows (yearly), (and the occasional flock of American Pipits) are found most years in the nearby fields near where the large flocks of Snow, Canada, Greater White-fronted and Ross’s Geese are feeding. Bald Eagles regularly soar low over the fields stirring up the duck & goose flocks or can be seen perched all around the edges of the very large field.  It’s a pretty heady experience for a Central or Northern Illinois birder on their first visit!

SNGO taking flight on island@HorseshoeLk SF&WA_12-28-14_P.Moxon1

SNGO taking flight on island@HorseshoeLk SF&WA_12-28-14_P.Moxon2 Pshop Crop

Show & other Geese grazing on the “Island” within Horseshoe Lake. It is easy to pick out the noticeably smaller Ross’s Geese when they fly over with the large numbers of Snow Geese that are flying over all day while on the Island. Photos by Pete Moxon.

This year, just in my party on the Horseshoe Lake count, which included Jude Vickery, Pete Moxon & myself, we tallied 1,956 Greater White-fronted Geese, 12,021 Snow Geese, 11 Ross’s Geese, 14 Trumpeter Swans, 116, Northern Pintail, 648 Ring-necked Ducks, 5 Black & 9 Turkey Vultures, 401 American Coot, 87 Killdeer, 14 Barred Owls, 8 Red-headed and 25 Pileated Woodpeckers, 30 Carolina & 9 Winter Wrens, 17 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, 7 Hermit Thrush, 4 Northern Mockingbirds, 15 Savannah, 2 LeConte’s, 21 Fox, 79 Song, 87 Swamp & 210 White-throated Sparrows, & flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. Sound like a fun CBC? And these are just the highlights of the species that just our party found on the count. One thing that makes these counts so fun are that there are soooo many more birds around on these Christmas Bird Counts than there are on any CBCs farther north, even just 50 miles farther north. The other thing is that the potential bird species that could turn up on these CBCs almost seems endless, so the chance of rarities are always a very real possibility.

This CBC has a pretty amazing species list all time, and the numbers found for many of the species are likely surprisingly high for birders that help on CBCs only in Central & Northern Illinois, especially considering we usually only have somewhere between 12-15 observers on these counts. Look here for past results of this CBC:  http://netapp.audubon.org/CBCObservation/Historical/ResultsByCount.aspx#                 & type in count code – ILHL.   Most years on this CBC in the last 15-20 years, we tally in the low 90’s as a species total but we have broken the century mark on a few occasions, and even had the state high count one year! .

Number of species I tallied for the day: 73

Total species for this CBC season: 104 (+ 1 Count Week Species)

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