Birding in Illinois in February isn't always terribly exciting or productive, but I've had some great times in the past couple of weeks that could only be enjoyed in the middle of winter. Last Friday, Meghan and I headed to Clinton Lake. I read several blogs by people who bird Clinton Lake regularly. I emailed one of them and she sent me back a long, detailed report of good places to find birds. It was a cold, windy day and while most of the lake was open (meaning not covered with ice) the water was pretty choppy so the variety and numbers of waterfowl we were hoping to see were not there. We did see plenty of birds of prey, including a huge, beautiful kestrel and a great close-up look at a male northern harrier. We enjoyed the sights and the change of scenery and will definitely return in spring because the potential is amazing!
Saturday evening Logan wanted to look for owls. Winter is the best time to find owls because the trees are bare and the owls are much easier to spot. We headed north of town to Singing Woods, a completely undeveloped area owned by the park district. We bushwhacked back through the woods to the edge of a ravine. It was freezing cold and almost dark and we were both getting hungry. Logan tried a few barred owl calls with no success. The forest at Singing Woods is much different than Detweiller Park and Sand Ridge where we have previously found barred owls. I told him to try a great horned owl call instead. Within moments of his first call, he had two great horned owls answering. They were pretty far off, but we were able to locate both and watch them until we could no longer handle the cold. It was amazing! I'm pretty sure Logan is convinced that he is the Owl Whisperer. I believe that as well. :)
This Friday, Meghan and I did our usual Illinois River birding loop with a few major bonuses. Our coworker Alyssa had the day off and came along with us for the first time. Alyssa's big goal was to see bald eagles and we saw plenty. We also saw dozens of swans, thousands and thousands of snow geese, lots of ducks, snow buntings and a lovely selection of mammals including deer, a coyote and a RIVER OTTER!!!!!!!!!
The Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery is located close to Lake Chautauqua and on the edge of Sand Ridge State Forest. It's a good place to bird because of all the fish ponds and the fact that it's deep in the woods and not terribly far from the river. Still, Meghan and I usually skip it unless we want nice restrooms. Alyssa had never been there, wanted to see it and we couldn't possibly have been more happy with our visit! The hatchery has a very nice museum area with overlooks of the different hatchery areas and a wonderful overlook of some of the outdoor fish ponds. Most were frozen, but two were open and Meghan and I were concentrating on one that was filled with ducks and gulls. Alyssa isn't quite as into birding and was (fortunately) scanning the entire area when she spotted a river otter who had apparently found a way through the fence and was majorly raiding the other open pond. We watched for a good hour as he pulled fish after fish out of that pond. It got to the point where he brought a couple of fish to the shore and just left them for the waiting crows and eagles. He was definitely having fun. Otters can be very secretive, so it was AMAZING to get this incredible, long view of one in the middle of the day. It totally made my day! I tell my kids over and over, you never know what you might see- maybe nothing- but if you don't get outside and look around, you'll never see anything. Of all the times I've walked the levee at Banner Marsh at dusk and before dawn, of all the times I've been in the right places, I finally get my river otter at the freaking fish hatchery in the middle of the day. Wow.
Next weekend is the Park District/Peoria Audubon Illinois River duck tour. It's great because you have a dozen experts with spotting scopes pointing out everything they see. I'm hoping that my duck list for the year will grow considerably and I'm pretty excited. Oh, and I did tell the people at the fish hatchery about the otter and I do know what that possibly means. I like to pretend like they will live trap it and move it to a better location. I'm just glad they didn't go out and shoot it while we were watching...