Riverlands Rendezvous

Pelican Landing

Yesterday, we took advantage of the warming (note not warm) weather and journeyed north to the Riverlands, our go to winter destination. We saw Bald eagles, Trumpeter swans, Snow geese and White pelicans. We saw many other birds too, but still need to key them. The ground was snow covered and the water iced over, except below the dam. The Corps had left one of the sluice gates open and the roaring water kept the downstream river ice free. The open gate was on the far side of the river, closest to the lock. This caused the pelicans to congregate close to us, on our side of the river. This made photography much easier. The eagles seemed to prefer the rushing far side. They kept diving on fish in the river, but inevitably stopped just short of the river. The pelicans who simply floated on the water seemed to have more luck, but there were many more of them too. The swans and geese mainly kept to very small pools of open water or simply sat on the ice. After the Riverlands, we crossed into Illinois and headed north along the River Road to Grafton. The river was frozen, but we saw a few more eagles sitting out on the ice, plus a couple cold Great Blue herons.

Winter Birding

Trio of Trumpeter Swans

Just like almost everywhere else, it has been cold here, very cold. The mercury has not seen the high side of freezing in a week. This morning, I awoke to 4 ºF (feels like -13 ºF) and some more of that white fluffy cloud poop was raining down upon us. We’ve hardly seen the sun in days, but yesterday it was out. The roads were dry too. So, field trip time! I brushed off the car and we drove up to the Riverlands for some quality bird watching, where now it is peak season.

The cold has made this year’s winter birding season even better than most. As I said, we are a week into this cold snap and there is another even colder week yet to go. Crossing the Missouri, I noticed that it, with its nine knot current was still pretty much ice free, but I later discovered that the Mississippi, with its slower moving current was mostly iced over. At the Riverlands, the slough was mostly ice covered, as were the inland pools, except where there was water fowl.

Congregating in these ice free oases were hundred, nay thousands of birds. They were so tightly packed in them that it was a wonder to watch when any new birds arrived to land on the ever diminishing, but remaining open water. “Out of my way!” We did most of our bird watching from the confines of our running vehicle, with the heated seats set for butt blistering hot. So, not very many steps, but the floodplain was wide open and exposed and very, very cold. We did walk a little around the visitor’s center, where the pictured swans swiftly glided by.

That was a fortunate occurrence, because most of the open water oases were too far away for any very good photography. The one exception to this was just below the lock & dam. There with the sluice gates still open the river was still ice free. The rushing water passing through these gates also tends to stun the fish, making them easier prey for all of the birds gathered in the dam’s wake. Hundreds of white pelicans had gathered there. Battling the current, these birds would swim upstream as close to the open sluice gates as they could manage, before tiring and then giving up to float back downstream again.

I never saw any of the pelicans doing any fishing during their processions, but they did devote much energy to scaring away any and all impertinent gulls who happened to land on the water near any of them. Then occasionally a Bald eagle would sweep by. There were three or four of them below the dam and we saw a total of maybe six. All in all it was a good expedition. 

Down, Down, Down

Trumpeter Swans – One Is Not Like the Others

Or birds, birds, birds, as in down covered birds. Wednesday was the pick day of the week and taking advantage of February’s meager bounties, we headed up to the Riverlands. Initially, we didn’t see all that many birds, but that all kind of changed when we met this guy. You might call him an uber-birder. After speaking with him for a while, I got the distinct impression that he spent all day, every day at the Riverlands. He did have an impressive list of sightings though. Apparently, far more species than I ever imagined visit the Riverlands. This shouldn’t be all that surprising though since it is at the confluence of the continent’s two greatest flyways. He identified a Greater White-fronted goose when it flew overhead. A first sighting for us. Later we found hundreds floating in one of the ponds. I managed to snap a few before we flushed them all away.

Greater White-fronted Geese

Another first for us was the pictured Snow goose, one of a pair that we saw. Both of these two more exotic types of geese were hanging with the more ubiquitous Canada goose. The Snow goose looks very similar to the Ross’s goose, but I was able to convince myself of its identity. These two rarities are supposed to frequently hangout together, reminding me of the old saying, birds of a feather flock together. We also saw a couple of Kestrels, a few Bald eagles, White pelicans and gulls, hundreds of gulls. The gulls were roosting on the slough’s thin ice and as the day warmed and the ice melted, they kept moving closer and closer to shore. There was enough wind to make ripples on the water. These ripples caused the ice to make a twittering sound. At first, I thought that the noise was from little birds hiding in the brush, until I figured it out. Speaking of bird sounds, the expert birder that we met taught us to identify Goldeneyes by the whistling sound that their wings make, when they are flying.

Snow Goose

I almost forgot to mention the Trumpeter swans, who got lost among all of the newbies. That certainly wouldn’t do, because they are the representative bird for the Riverlands, its main draw. This is peak season at the wildlife preserve, as many more species than normal are transitioning through the area.

Birdwatching Goes Both Ways

Clark Bridge Over the Mississippi

Lewis and Clark, Tom and Huck, Anne and I, we have all roamed along its banks. It is the Mighty Miss, the fabled Old Man River, the Mother of Waters. We’ve now lived along its banks for most of our lives. We rarely see it though. Days pass. Then, fifty degrees arrived today and we had to bust out of our own little house on the prairie. Four hours in the sun! Anne has the sunburn to show for it. Dan, unbeknownst to him, in a series of t-shirt posts, shared with us a shirt that read, “Birdwatching Goes Both Ways.” At the time, we were preparing to head to the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Before this blog, I would have never guessed that birdwatching would become an advocation for me. But this blog’s thirst for ever more photos drove me to that. What began as an avocation for me, has became a passion for Anne. “Oh look, a squirrel!”, has long been eclipsed by, “Mark, did you see that bird?”

I was surprised that the slough was almost completely iced over. It’s been cold, but I didn’t think that it had been that cold. The main channel, with its current was still clear, but all of the little ponds were also covered. The ice pushed the birds away from us. Either just sitting on the ice or keeping their diminishing ice-free holes open by swimming, they clustered together by the hundreds. There were swans, pelicans, geese and ducks of many different varieties. There were also gulls, thousands of gulls. It was fun to get out and enjoy the sun and the relative warmth that it brought. Sitting inside day-after-day had gotten old.