Specks in the mud, Chautauqua NWR

Bird buddy Steve and I missed out on a spring trip to southern Illinois so we settled on a late summer trip to Chautauqua NWR.  Chautauqua is one of the shining examples of restored wet prairie that has been cropping up around Illinois over the past couple of decades.  It’s big, the habitat is outstanding, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to bird.  The downside of being such a magnet for birds is that, in order to have the uninterrupted habitat they love, the trails and observation points are kept to a minimum; bring your scope.

As per usual, we left well before sunrise and hit the road.  Nearing the end of our drive, we got stuck behind a stopped train.  Luckily, the detour took us by some extraordinary flooded fields that were dotted with Killdeer as far as the eye could see.  On our way around this field 25 American-Golden Plovers were spotted, year bird for both of us!

Finally arriving at Chautauqua, we donned our rubber boots and slogged it across the dike at Goofy Ridge.  Stupidly, I left my scope in the car but, was compensated with point-blank views of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a pair of Prothonotary Warblers (state bird!).  Beyond that, I satisfied myself with watching the masses of pelicans and shorebirds shuffling about a hundred or so yards away.  Meanwhile, Steve would remain glued to his scope looking for the rare but, expected shorebirds.  Chautauqua is also one of the places in Illinois where you can get Eurasian Tree Sparrow and they are there in numbers.

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My Illinois Prothonotary Warbler, also the best views I’ve ever gotten of this bird.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo, sitting 5 feet above the Prothonotary

Slogging back to the car, we made a quick stop down the road for better views the distant birds but, found we couldn’t get any closer.  We did run in to some central-Illinois regulars who told us about the Red-necked Phalaropes hanging around another location.  They also had Buff-breasted Sandpipers, the only “expected” lifer for me on this trip.  Packing up, we went to the Eagle Bluff/Cross dike area.  Here the birds were much closer and I remembered to bring my scope.  Decent views of Black Tern, Marbled Godwit, and Black-necked stilts were nice but, off in the distance, the phalaropes were located.  We dutifully noted our year tick and continued to walk across the dike.

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Red-necked Phalaropes, stilts, & shovelers

About halfway, I went to set my tripod down and one of the legs half-collapsed inward sending my scope hurtling towards the ground, eyepiece first.  The eyepiece assembly cleanly snapped off and I was back to looking at distant specs in my binoculars.  Needing a walk to vent my anger at the fallen scope, I headed back to the car while Steve stayed at his post, looking for year-birds.  Even though I lost my scope at probably the worst spot to do so, I walked back out on the dike and tried to enjoy the peculiar mix of birds only a place like Chautauqua can offer.

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Only in Chautauqua… godwits, terns, sanderlings, stilts, teals, and gulls

Stomachs starting to grumble a bit, we made quick work of year-bird Ruddy Turnstone and found a few fall migrants near the park headquarters.  Still missing my lifer Buffy, we head to a local bar and grill for a burger, beer, and an escape from the sun.  We decided we’d stop by the flooded field that yielded the Golden plovers and then, if time allowed, an occasionally birded wastewater treatment plant that we may or may not have access to.

Returning to the flooded fields, the waters had subsided from the overnight rain but, the birds were still there.  After numerous scan, Steve was able to pick out 2 Buff-breasted Sandpipers about 75 yards away.  Scope-less he found the birds for me in his scope so I could get a rather unsatisfying lifer.  Lifers are great but, I will take drop-dead gorgeous views of a common bird over blurry, distant speck lifers most any day.  But, there it was, and after a Peregrine stirred up a bunch of commotion, we decided to make a run for the El Paso Wastewater Treatment Facility.

A place only a birder would think to visit, we were shocked to find the gates wide open.  In the ridiculous over-reaction to 9/11 many places of regional infrastructure that were regular stops on the birding circuit were closed.  I’m not really sure what a terrorist would do with a place that is, literally, shit sitting in a pool but, the fact that we were able to drive up onto the berms along the wastewater treatment pools took us by surprise.  We found one small, mostly dry pool that was absolutely loaded with shorebirds.  Even better, two Buff-breasted Sandpipers were quite brazenly hanging out about 25 feet from the edge.  So after all, I got my killer views even if it wasn’t my lifer.  We didn’t find any new birds for the day here but, we definitely took our time to appreciate looking through our binoculars or naked eye instead of squinting into our scopes.

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Sorta-lifer, Buff-breasted Sandpiper

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Considering how tame shorebirds can be, getting close views are possible and always satisfying.  Wilson’s Phalarope & Least Sandpiper

Tallying our checklists on the way home we pretty much got everything we came for except a Red Phalarope that had been spotted for several days leading up to our visit and Western Sandpiper, the rarest of the “regular” peeps that visit Illinois in the fall.  Our buddy list was added to quite nicely and our year lists for shorebirds were mostly rounded out.  Next effort will be tracking down those fall sparrows.

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