Nikon Monarch 7

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Episode V: A New Hope (or Unhinged for Anhingas)

Jeff Skrentny and I decided a while back that we would be making one more trip down to Little Egypt and the Trail of Tears in hopes that we might finally be able to track down what may be Illinois’ most elusive summer resident: Anhinga. It would be my 5th attempt.

As the day that we had decided upon approached, Limnothlypis, chief of the Southern Illinois Birding Gods somehow became aware of my plans and put her lesser gods, minions and slaves to work. Additionally, she used up some hard earned currency and gained a temporary alliance with the volatile Weather god, Skillingus.

So it was that when we arrived south of I-70 (Illinois’ version of the Mason-Dixon line) in the early morning, the temperatures were in the 90s and climbing fast. Heat index warnings of 115 had been posted and the general populace had been told to stay indoors if at all possible. With the dew point in the 70s, the Prius was pretty much a four-wheeled submarine.

As we approached the spaghetti tangle where highways 55, 70, 40, 255, 50 and 64 all meet outside St. Louis, Jeff mentioned that maybe we should stop at Cahokia Mounds State Park. It’s right off the highway, and is a favorite place for wandering ibis, which was our target bird for the morning…White Ibis, to be exact. One had been seen in the area for the past week, and it would be a state bird for me.

It was 8:25 am. The Ibis we were on our way to try to locate, just a few miles to the south in Monroe county, was seen the day before at 8:30 am. To me this suggested a pattern (I don’t know why), and I thought we should be at the Monroe county location as close to 8:30 as possible. So we kept going, passing Cahokia and headed down to the levee roads near Columbia IL.

When we got to the magic Ibis spot, we found great habitat, but no ibis. One was in there, I was sure of it, but hidden (as they like to be) in the tall grass. Every time it was just about to wander out into the open, Limnothlypis would toss a crayfish behind it, taking it further into the grass. We slowly patrolled the levee roads for the next few hours, checking all of the flooded fields and marshes along the way.

No Ibis…hardly any birds at all. The temps were now well into the mid-90s and the late morning sun was bubbling the tar on the road. Our shoes would stick and come free with a “gliiiitch” at every step. We continued south, checking a few more favorite wetland areas like Kidd Lake, and then after a quick lunch at Fort de Chartres we pulled the plug on ibis and headed for the highway that would take us down to Limnothlypis’ lair: the Cache River, to search again for what had become my “grail bird”, Anhinga.

About an hour and a half into the drive, as we approached Jonesboro, my cell phone rang. It was Andy Sigler…

“Hello, Greg?”
“Hi Andy…what’s up?”
“I just wanted to let you know that Dan found two White Ibis at Cahokia Mounds at about 8:30 this morning.”
“…”
“Ummm, hello Greg?”
“…”
“hello???”
“AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!! $$#!!$#!!!”
“…”
“Thanks, Andy.”

Jeff had an “I told ya so” that died on its way out. We were too far to turn back.

Limnothlypis tripped the light fantastic in the top of her gnarled bald cypress (a State Champion, you know), and was feeling so good…so pleased with herself that she kicked an armadillo out into traffic on Perks Road, so that her favorites—the Black Vultures—would have a nice lunch.

The next hour was a quiet one in the speeding Prius, and we arrived in the late afternoon at our first spot to check for Anhingas: Snake Hole Road.

The heat was hot and the skies were blue and I was feeling kinda seasick. Really, I wasn’t feeling well at all. We walked down a short trail to where we hoped to be able to scan a small lake, which constituted the nearest open water to the heron colony where the Anhingas nest. The lake was on private property, completely screened by tall trees and surrounded by barbed wire. We bushwhacked our way in to a spot where we could get a somewhat decent view of the water: no birds at all. I did find a deer skull, however, which made Jeff very happy because he likes that sort of thing.

We left Snake Hole after drinking 5 gallons of water and Gatoraide and headed for the Michael Wolf Memorial Wetlands. This spot has great significance to us, as it is where we began last years’ 6-hour tick-infested death march out to Boss Island in search of Anhinga. It was also where Matt Mckim-Louder (discoverer of the Anhingas on the Cache) had seen 3 Anhingas just a few days before.

There is a wonderful overlook with a view of the 3 ponds that make up the wetland, and we perched ourselves there, scanning the skies for Anhingas that were sure to fly over. By this point I was really not feeling well at all—my head felt like it was in a vice, and I was under a hot wet blanket—and it was all I could do to simply sit there and scan the skies.

So, we decided to hike back into the farthest pond, which was drying up, but still had some water and we could see some egrets and herons back there as well.

We walked the most direct route to the pond, which took us across a small grassy area between the ponds. We quickly realized that the grass was some form of sawgrass. Brilliantly, we were wearing shorts, and after about 50 yards our legs were criss-crossed with red slashes dripping blood. My life energy was leaking away, my midichlorians dying. My aura in The Force was fading.

Now, every birder has his or her handicap. For some people its gulls. For others its weather…some just can’t stand the cold, or the heat. Jeff is a stout birder. Nothing really gets to him. He can drive insane distances, hike for miles, laugh at the cold or sweat out the hottest summer days. But he can’t abide flying insects—at all.

So as we stumbled bleeding through the sawgrass and blackberry brambles, Jeff would occasionally launch an offensive aimed at the Volkswagen-sized horseflies that were dive-bombing us: an explosive interpretive dance incorporating both jazz-hands and kung-fu moves that would leave Twyla Tharpe wondering how she could weave it into her next production.

I have to admit that at this point I was done. Toast. The magic was gone. My juju had left me and my mojo just wadn’t workin’ no more. Jeff wanted to walk completely around the pond, the back half of which I was sure involved bushwhacking. I just couldn’t do it. I suggested that we walk to the halfway point, where I thought we could view the whole area. I just didn’t see any point in continuing. The situation just seemed all wrong…the water was stagnant, it was too hot.

I was standing there slowly bleeding to death, with horseflies eating my ears and I didn’t care. I had reached The End. At this point Limnothlypis grudgingly approved. My act of self flagellation had caught her attention. My utter despair lifted her spirits and she decided I had paid the price. She would throw us a bone.

“I got it!!” Jeff whispered shoutingly. I didn’t believe him. I thought it would turn out to be another Little Blue Heron.

“I can see a pale band on the tip of it’s tail!!” he continued. That got me out of my funk. I saw a dark shape move where he was pointing, and with a surge of adrenaline I hefted  the 10X50 Ultravids to my face and saw…a Little Blue Heron.

“I see a heron.”
“No no no…above the heron and to the right.”

And like a Rorschach test, when the blob turns into a lamp, I finally saw a flippin’ Anhinga in Illinois!

Limnothlypis was feeling generous…she doesn’t have an evil heart, really. She just don’t like outsiders. I had proved myself worthy. She tossed a cypress cone at the Anhinga, and it launched into flight. But rather than fly away through the trees as all the herons were doing, it soared and circled directly above our heads and set down high in a dead tree back by where we had parked the Prius. Elated and giddy, we walked back that way…now laughing at the saw grass and blackberry brambles.

We got more great views of the bird. Then it gave a repeat performance, soaring directly over our heads like an airborne crucifix, settling back into the trees where Jeff originally spotted it.

Back at the car, Jeff grabbed a couple of Mike’s Hard Lemonades out of the cooler, and we toasted Mike Wolf and his Memorial Wetlands. Still being bothered by flying and crawling bugs, Jeff sprayed 100% DEET on his bleeding legs and said, “hey…you ought’ta try this! It feels pretty good on the cuts.” I took the spray can he offered and applied liberally…

“AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!! ##!!@&&%$!!!”

He was laughing his ass off—like I said, Jeff’s a stout guy.

Epilog: we easily snatched up the two White Ibis at Cahokia the next morning.

###

For those unfamiliar with the SI birding gods, it might be useful to know that Limnothlypis is the genus name for Swainson’s Warbler…oh, and Tom Skilling is a TV weatherman in Chicago.

This post was originally published at the North American Birding Blog.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
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