Even though quite a long ride from my hometown of Danville in Central Illinois, this was the second Christmas Bird Count that I started helping on other than the Forest Glen Preserve CBC, beginning with the December 29, 1979 count. Though I would often make the long drive south with my friend Jim Smith who I canoed with on the Horseshoe Lake CBC, it wasn’t long before I was making an annual “pilgrimage” of walking the 4.25 mile stretch of the Clear Creek levee road bottomlands which form the eastern border of the Union County Refuge, by myself and many times with a variety of other folks who would occasionally come down to help on the CBC.
There are several bottomland ponds, sloughs & swamps along this stretch with a lot of prime bottomland forest with large trees. The picturesque bluffs of the Shawnee Hills rise at between 300-350 feet above the levee road and low-lying fields and bottomland forests that I walk through along this route. The neat thing about walking the levee is that you have birds all morning long flying over you, many coming down from their night time roosting areas in the Shawnee Hills uplands, to feed down in the lowland fields and forests of Union County Refuge… so practically anything can fly right over you no matter what habitat any of the species utilize.
The Shawnee Hills behind and shadowing the Clear Creek levee road & bottomland fields, wetlands and forests adjacent to them. If you look close you may be able to see some of this winters flock of Trumpeter Swans. Photo by Pete Moxon.
Starting just before sunrise, I usually make it back to my car, which has been left where I end the hike further inside the refuge, between noon and 1 PM. The rest of the short day is spent driving various roads outside the refuge covering other habitats to pick up new species. However, we are within sight and sound for the entire day, of flocks of hundreds and sometimes thousands of Snow Geese sometimes filling the sky from horizon to horizon, especially at and just before dusk as they go to roost for the evening.
The cozy Wicker Club Lodge on Horseshoe Lake Refuge has been our meeting place and sleeping quarters for quite a few years for the two nights previous to the Union County CBC, so there are many fond memories of the fun discussions shared by some of the more experienced birders in the state like Vern Kleen, Pat Ward, Dave Bohlen and numerous other birders who drop in some years. Just having the bull sessions and birding stories over the main lodge table before and between counts, sometimes well into the night, has been more than enough payment for having made the long ride down, even if no “good” birds were had.
As with the Horseshoe Lake CBC, the potential variety and chance of seeing a rarity on the Union County CBC are two of the big reasons that I continue to make the long drive down to Union County, even though I now live another three hours farther north than what I used to, making it between a 6-7 hour drive, one way. Some of the rare birds that I have seen over the years on the Union County CBC include such rarities as Brant & Barnacle Geese (as well as getting all six species of countable geese on the same day!), all three swan species, Surf Scoter, Great Egret, Golden Eagle, Sandhill Crane, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Sora, Virginia & King Rails, Barn Owl, BOTH species of shrike, Barn Swallow, Gray Catbird, American Pipit, Marsh (several years), Sedge and House Wrens (I once had 5 species of wrens one year on the two so. Illinois counts!), Fish Crow, Snow Bunting, Palm, Pine, & Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroat (several years), Harris’s, Vesper and LeConte’s (virtually every year) Sparrows, Indigo Bunting, Western Meadowlark & Red Crossbill… and those are just the good birds that I have seen. Several of these I have seen on both the Union County & Horseshoe Lake CBCs! On this year’s Union County count, I added my 171st bird species seen all time on all of the CBCs I have ever helped on, a group of 6 American White Pelicans. We almost passed them off as Trumpeter Swans since they were standing with their heads entirely tucked into their bodies… and were surrounded by 96 other big white birds (Trumpeter Swans)!
A few of the White Pelicans “hiding” amidst the flock of 96 Trumpeter Swans. Photos by Pete Moxon.
Red-shouldered Hawks can often outnumber Red-tailed Hawks on your day list, as they did for me this year on the Union County count, seeing 12 Red-shouldered and just 10 Red-tailed Hawks. Ever have a hard time finding or seeing rare winter species like Winter Wren, Brown Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Hermit Thrush? Not on this CBC, as our party alone tallied 5 Winter Wrens, 8 Brown Thrashers, 12 Ruby-crowned Kinglets and 9 Hermit Thrushes on this years count! Some of the other great birds that have been found by others on this or the Horseshoe Lake CBC over the years include Long-tailed Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tree Swallow, Rock Wren, Wilson’s, Black-and-white & Orange-crowned Warblers, Green-tailed & Spotted Towhees, Chipping & Lincoln’s Sparrows, Brewer’s Blackbird, White-winged Crossbill & Evening Grosbeak… to name those that I can remember.
If any of this sounds appealing, you should try making the long trip down some winter. Besides all of the birds, several years of late we have had bats, butterflies, frogs and turtles out and about on the two CBCs down south. And the company is almost as good as the birds, though dinner at the “greasy spoon” restaurant in downtown Olive Branch does leave a little to be desired!
To see the all time results for this CBC, go to http://netapp.audubon.org/CBCObservation/Historical/ResultsByCount.aspx# & type in count code – ILUC.
Number of species for the day: 75
Total species for this CBC season in Illinois: 106 (+ 1 Count Week Species)
The seven Christmas Bird Counts (count circle locations highlighted in yellow) that I helped on in Illinois in 2014.
CBC birding pal Pete Moxon and I heading back to the car after a long day of hiking on the Shelbyville Reservoir CBC a few years ago. Photo by Greg Lambeth.
And next, it’s off to Baudette, Minnesota on the Canadian border for a few new and exciting birds and Christmas Bird Counts with a set of old & new birding friends!