What’s left of the Prairie State…

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Magnolia Warbler (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Magnolia Warbler migrating through central Illinois (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

After a very busy May, which included (winning!) the Birding Cup in central PA and then guiding at the Biggest Week in American Birding, I ventured out to central Illinois to help with some bird surveys on two proposed wind facilities. Other than spending a few half-days birding Illinois during cross-country trips, I have never really spent much time in the ‘prairie state’ so I was pretty excited to get out and explore during the three weeks of surveys I was scheduled to conduct. My surveys were centered around Bloomington, and were mostly out in the vast agricultural landscape. Slivers of forest still persist along narrow riparian corridors, along with scattered patches of grasslands where the earth is too wet for farmers to safely drive their tractors. Otherwise, it was a bit disheartening to see how much of the region has been converted to corn and soy fields…essentially a desert for wildlife. Nonetheless, late May and early June is the peak of spring migration for a lot of species, and so the area was fairly birdy and migrants were heavily concentrated in the small patches of habitat that they could find. I was even able to turn up 17 species of migrant warblers by searching city parks, cemeteries, and riparian corridors in the mornings and evenings.

The shorebirds were particularly exciting, and I encountered 18 species, with some in very high numbers. American Golden-Plovers were by far the most common shorebird species, and it wasn’t unusual to find 50-100+ in a flooded field or flying past during a survey. At one particularly good puddle, I even found a partially leucistic golden-plover which was unusual and interesting, as well as a pair of Black-necked Stilts.

Short-billed Dowitcher (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Short-billed Dowitcher (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Least Sandpiper (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Least Sandpiper (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Of course where there are shorebirds, there are bound to be Peregrines…and one afternoon I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time to watch a subadult Peregrine rip past me in hot pursuit of its next meal.

Immature Peregrine Falcon harassing pigeons and shorebirds (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Immature Peregrine Falcon harassing pigeons and shorebirds (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

After the migrant shorebirds moved through, there were still a few species that lingered in the region to breed in the farmland and patches of grassland – highlighted by the unique and always exciting Upland Sandpiper. These lanky shorebirds could be found in small numbers across our two surveys sites, and were often quite cooperative for photos. Killdeer were also very abundant, of course.

Upland Sandpiper (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Upland Sandpiper (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Close-up of an Upland Sandpiper (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Close-up of an Upland Sandpiper (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Molting Killdeer in flight (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Molting Killdeer in flight (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Coincidentally, I did manage to see one species that was a lifer for me! The Eurasian Tree Sparrow! This relative of the House Sparrow was introduced to the St Louis area in 1870, and since then has slowly spread throughout Missouri and Illinois. There is one very reliable spot for them that was very close to one of my survey areas, so I was happy to spend some time with them on two evenings.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow showing me the way (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Eurasian Tree Sparrow showing me the way (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

After the migrants had mostly moved through, there were plenty of local species setting up territories and breeding throughout our sites. Among them were the iconic Dickcissel – one of the more numerous species in the survey sites. Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, American Robins, Barn Swallows, and European Starlings were also insanely abundant, and it was common to find their little fledglings out exploring.

Dickcissel on a wire - there's really nothing more symbolic of central Illinois that that. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Dickcissel on a wire – there’s really nothing more symbolic of central Illinois that that. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fledgling Common Grackle (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fledgling Common Grackle (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fledgling American Robin (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fledgling American Robin (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fledgling European Starling (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fledgling European Starling (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

There were at least two Bald Eagle territories in the region, and Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and American Kestrels were also numerous. A few immature Red-tailed Hawks were also using the area to over-summer and molt into their adult plumages. Ring-necked Pheasants were making use of the agricultural habitat to raise their young, and small numbers of Wood Ducks could be found in the canals and riparian corridors in the area.

Molting immature Red-tailed Hawk (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Molting immature Red-tailed Hawk (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Female Wood Duck (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Female Wood Duck (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Overall, the experience was better than I anticipated and each day held something new to keep me interested. It was a bit sad to see how much of the region has been converted to relatively inhospitable farmland, but perhaps that’s for the better if it’s just going to be covered by wind turbines anyway. And now I can say I’ve worked in Illinois – the 15th state I’ve done bird-work in so far.