Saturday, June 30, 2007

Seeing scarlet

It's not often you're disappointed to see a scarlet tanager, but today I was. Just a little bit.

I woke at dawn and drove to Iroquois County State Wildlife Area and the adjoining Hooper Branch Savanna Nature Preserve. I was looking for a nearby escape and hoping to see a breeding summer tanager at Hooper Branch. The ride to these places passes through the backroads of Kankakee County. Here ancient sand dunes stretch to Indiana. Much of the area has remained wooded or savanna-ed rather than cropland. Pembroke Township is a particularly fruitful birding area. The first notable sighting of the day was a northern bobwhite standing in the middle of a country road. I later heard the bobwhite's cheerful call several times from the road. The pavement begins to splinter into sandy, unpaved lanes in the southeastern part of the county. It definitely feels a lot farther than one hour south of the Loop.

Hooper Branch Savanna is located off one of these remote dirt roads. It took me about one hour to walk the loop trail at the savanna. I saw a lot of red-headed woodpeckers and blue jays. I also scared the crap out of an adult deer and a particularly miniscule fawn. I learned that deer do indeed have vocal chords, as the adult let out a couple of raspy barks as it bolted. Then, I had just passed a big oak when I heard commotion behind me, and a barred owl rose from its perch and made a beeline northeast. I had walked right under it without noticing it. In a previous post I mentioned that the tufted titmouse in particular seems less common. I was waiting near the car, hoping for a glimpse of a tanager, when I heard a titmouse for the first time in a long time.

As for the tanager, I heard a member of Family Thraupidae calling and did find the singer high in an oak. I looked hard at a bright red belly, hoping that the bird wouldn't have black wings (summer tanagers are uniformly scarlet). I caught a glimpse of black on the side. The bird eventually turned around, and it was unmistakably a male scarlet tanager with its jet-black wings.

I drove west toward Kankakee, scanning the roadside along the way. A grasshopper sparrow was singing in one overgrown area along with a few dickcissels. Also saw a covey of quail chicks next to a cornfield. In addition, the number of birds on electrical wires was overwhelming. It actually looked like the "Roadside Silhouettes" page of the Peterson guide, which shows about 20 different species on the same wire.

Next stop was Kankakee River State Park. I hadn't been before but wanted to scope it out for and future camping potential. In a quick drive-by, it appeared as a fairly typical Illinois state park: ballfields, pavilions, short trails. It's very wooded, and there are some modest bluffs along the river. The camping area I saw seemed OK: also wooded and fairly secluded. There is a full evaluation of the Potawatomi Campground here.

The final tally was 52 species. The final stop of the day was the Blain's Farm and Fleet in Bourbonnais.

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