I worked Saturday last week and got this Thursday off in return. That meant a 3 day weekend! I tried to talk the kids into going somewhere with me. They've been wanting to go to St. Louis forever, but they wanted to go to their last two days of Camp Zone. Fine, but I'm not going to hang around home. I'm gonna go look for some wildlife! Outside! In the wild!
Thursday I took the kids to camp at the usual time. I packed a few things in case I decided to spend the night somewhere and headed north on Route 29. I stopped at the Marshall County Conservation Area where I found a cool turtle shell and saw some turtles still in their shells. My goals were to follow the Illinois River Road until I got to Starved Rock and Matthieson State Parks and then head to Bloomington/Normal to Lake Evergreen and the zoo. Just before crossing the river near Hennepin, I saw about 30 turkey vultures circling. There were big power line towers next to the river that were just covered in vultures. I've never seen so many in one place (other than the safari ride at Disney World.) It was awesome!
I stopped at Starved Rock and went to the riverfront and to the visitor center. I walked around a little, but it was so crowded I just wasn't feeling it so I moved on to Matthieson. I'd never been there before and had big expectations. The canyons were amazingly beautiful, but they were also full of screaming camp children and lots and lots of garbage. I hiked around for a while, but wanted solitude and moved on to Lake Evergreen. Ahhhhhhh. Peace and quiet and nature. I took a long hike around part of the lake and saw lots of birds and butterflies. It was exactly what I needed. I then drove into town and went to Miller Park Zoo, the Gingerbread House toy store and Meier. After all that I was beat and couldn't think of any reason to stay in town so I headed home for the night.
I've been wanting to see wild river otters for a long time and have googled and googled different searches trying to figure out where to see them around Peoria. I've found blog postings and different mentions of sightings, but no definite locations. I finally thought to email a former coworker's husband who is a state fish biologist. He said that in all his years on the local rivers and lakes, he's only seen 3 live otters; they were all together and he was in an air boat at Emiquon. I want to see them while on foot. He told me to climb to the top of the levee at the Bell's Landing entrance at Banner Marsh and walk and look and best of luck. I got to Banner Marsh a little after 5am, at first light. At first I didn't quite understand where I was supposed to go so wasted a good half hour of first light hiking at lake level with 10 foot high grasses and foliage blocking my view. I then realized I was supposed to go ON TOP of the levee and look down. It was AMAZING!!! I saw an osprey hunting, all kinds of cool songbirds, lots of swans with their adorable mini-me cygnets. (The cygnets no longer look like babies, they look like miniature swans.) A great horned owl flew over. I walked and walked and walked. I was soaking wet from the high grass and the dew so I gave up on otters and headed back to the car. On my way back I saw a beaver dragging a big tree limb through the water back to its den. Very cool.
I moved on to Emiquon and was VERY impressed with their new area. I watched great egrets catching and eating fish and checked out some ducks and shorebirds before a huge van load of Japanese tourists pulled up with a guide and interpreter and I moved on. I couldn't decide whether to head back to Banner Marsh for some more birding in the other entrance areas or move on to Chautauqua. The last time I was at Lake Chautauqua it was windy and I saw nothing but some blackbirds and swallows. This time I was not disappointed. There was a huge migration of American White Pelicans. There were hundreds or maybe even thousands of pelicans. They were everywhere! The water level in the North Lake was way down and there were also dozens of great egrets and lots of sandpipers and other shorebirds. The drawback was that since the water level was low, there was a HUGE, stinky fish die-off. Dead Asian carp were EVERYWHERE. And they were covered with flies. It was pretty disgusting, but totally worth it for the zillion pelicans.
I drove through Sand Ridge State Forest and saw some indigo buntings and a pileated woodpecker and then headed to the Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery. I've been there before, but it was closed. I was shocked at how nice this place was and NOBODY else was there. Super-duper use of our tax dollars. I hope funding the public aspects of this place isn't taking money away from Wildlife Prairie State Park. That would be a shame! The final stop on my big adventure was at Spring Lake. The lake was so covered with lily pads there were no boats and only a few people fishing. I watched the swans for a few minutes and saw an interesting stilt bird I have yet to identify, but didn't bother looking for snakes or mammals because the lily pads were too thick. I was home before 1pm and so tired I took a nap.
It was an absolutely awesome two days of nature and wildlife! I spent less than $20 on food and used just under a tank of gas. I'm guessing my "mini vacation" cost just over $50. Totally worth it! And I still have another day off!