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.

Swan Song

Hooded Mergansers

Saturday’s weather was perfect. For December you couldn’t ask for any better. It had a sunny, cloudless sky, with no wind, not even a ripple on the water and a high into the fifties. I actually felt overdressed at times, in only shirtsleeves. We headed up to the Riverlands to do some birding and I bought the drone along.

I had high hopes for getting good shots with it. Unfortunately, a setting that I had made prevented me from being able to do that. When I first got the gadget, I had dialed down the range that I would allow it to fly away from me. At the time, I viewed this as a prudent safety measure. I didn’t want the thing to fly away from me. As I’ve become more experienced with it, I realize now that this was a mistake. Any mishap half-a-mile out across the Mississippi would be just as deadly to the drone as one only a quarter-mile away. On the two occasions that I flew, I almost got to where I wanted to go, when I hit a wall. The drone would not fly any further. After the second outing. I finally realized that this was the issue, but I was unwilling to adjust any settings while the drone was in the air. 

Trumpeter Swans Taking-Off

Returning to terrestrial cameras, I got the above photo of a mating pair of Hooded mergansers. How do I know that they are a mating pair? Three of their chicks were still in tow. We have mergansers at the cabin, but those are the Common merganser. Their broods can start as great as twenty tiny chicks, but as the summer wears on those numbers dwindle. Still having three chicks in December is doing pretty well.

There were lots of other birds about, but for the main event there were the Trumpeter swans. At this time of year hundreds congregate at the Riverlands. There were about a hundred or so swimming is the Alton Slough and I photographed them, but the main event came at sunset. Then hundreds more return to the Riverlands after having spent the day foraging in the many surrounding cornfields. By sunset their numbers were trying to blot out the setting sun. Not too successfully, but you have to give them an A for effort.

This display was appreciated by the line of birders who had parked along the causeway into the Riverlands. This line was even longer than the line of Illinois drivers who for a Saturday night had come across the river to buy cheap Missouri gas at the station that acts as a gatekeeper to the wildlife preserve. With all of these giant birds hovering to-and-fro, even I could get a picture or two. Flying in from out of the sun, I really appreciated their honk-honk-honking that announced their imminent arrival. Normally white, the pictured ones above had been yellowed by the setting sun as they circled around us. 

Breaking Quarentine

We are adjusting to the new normal. i.e. keeping to ourselves. We did leave the house today and drive up to the Riverlands for some bird watching. Pictured are the two most notable sightings. We did converse with a few other birders, but at a safe social distance. While the Riverlands were relatively quiet, it being a cold and somewhat dreary Sunday, the other drivers, both to and fro, were crazy. It was good to get out though, if only for a little bit.

Every time we visit the Riverlands, it is interesting to see what the rivers are doing. This time, it looked like the Mississippi was down considerably, but I noticed that the road to Ted Jones State Park was closed for flooding. I can only assume that the Missouri is in flood. Ted Jones is at the Confluence of these two major rivers and if one is not flooding, then the other one must be. Checking the USGS hydrological data, indicated that the Missouri is in flood and was earlier this week high enough to be “actionable”, whatever that means.

Escapes to the great outdoors are relatively risk free from the epidemic and do so much to restore sanity. Trips like today’s may eventually become prohibited, but I hope not. That would be most unfortunate.