I found big flocks of Snow Geese in Illinois on the second day of my waterfowl trip
I got up well before dawn on my second day, intending to look at a waterfowl at “Mermet Swamp Nature Preserve” in Illinois just north of the Paducah, KY metro area to start the morning. As I approached the entrance road, however, there was a barricade with a printed note saying the area was closed to allow for waterfowl hunting. Oh well, on to plan B, which was to start my day at Heron Pond, a cypress/tupelo swamp preserve. It was a nice morning walk, and I called in the only Brown Creeper that I would get for Illinois, but I wanted to see some waterfowl. After 45 minutes of woodland birding, I continued north to Crab Orchard NWR. This is one of the oddest NWRs I’ve visited. The refuge occupies essentially the entire shoreline of Crab Orchard reservoir, which is like a lot of modest-sized lakes in Alabama except that every such lake in Alabama is surrounded by lake houses. This lake was surrounded by refuge land. Unfortunately, there was little marsh habitat and no flooded corn fields; the ducks that were present were mostly in the shallow fingers of the reservoir. The numbers were modest, but the diversity was good. Because I didn’t have a single duck or goose (or gull or grebe or loon) species for my Illinois list when I started, it was a bonanza of state birds. The best bird of the trip was a species that I now see all of the time in the winter in Alabama (I literally just saw 5 today before I sat down to write up this blog)—Orange-crowned Warbler. I didn’t even need a screech owl tape. As I was looking for the best vantage point for waterfowl I was walking along the shore of the lake and a flock of feeding songbirds drew my attention. The first bird that I put my binos on was an Orange-crowned Warbler. That is no easy bird in December in Illinois, but it was sort of wasted on me.
No doubt, Orange-crowned Warbler was the rarest bird that I found in IL, but I was more impressed by the 30,000 Snow Geese.
It was a nice day of state listing but the waterfowling reminded me of my duck and goose wasteland back in Alabama. There were ducks around but only a few here and a few there. No big flocks. I wanted to see the skies filled with waterfowl.
My last hope for big waterfowl numbers in Illinois was to try some state game areas in the Mississippi River bottoms. Agricultural lowlands is where I expected the waterfowl to be and some old checklists showed tens of thousands of geese scattered around the bottomlands. Unfortunately, there were no recent eBird checklists with Snow Goose or any geese, and I was afraid that the lack of sightings was because the waterfowl spots were closed for hunting. I headed for Union County Conservation Area, which looked like a big shallow lake on Google Maps. Over the years, some huge waterfowl numbers had been reported, but again, nothing recently. As I was driving through the vast agricultural fields along Highway 3 approaching the town of Ware, I spotted a big white patch out in a field. A focused looked made me smile--Snow Geese. I pulled over and did a quick scan with binoculars. It was several hundred Snow Geese with some Canada Geese and Mallard. Something was weird about the birds however and as I focused my scope on the flock of birds I started cursing under my breadth. They were decoys. All decoys. Hundreds of decoys. I marveled at the expense and effort that had gone into setting up that many decoys as well as the expense and effort that had gone into my trip across the country to see big goose flocks only to end with me looking at a FAKE goose flock.
The first big flock of geese that I spotted on my great goose chase were...FAKE. This huge decoy layout fooled me for a few minutes then it just ticked me off.
The fake goose flock was right next to the turn off for the Union County Conservation Area and to my relief, the area wasn’t closed. The sign at the little two track that led into the area just said no hunting or off road vehicles. It did not say “closed” or “no trespassing”. And, I could hear geese. Lots and lots of geese.
I headed down the track toward the open lake and the uproar of geese got louder and louder. As I carefully moved so I could see the lake, I was finally looking at what anyone would call a lot of geese. I eventually estimated 30,000 Snow Geese and 1000 White-fronted Geese, but it could have been twice that many Snow Geese. It was a lot of geese. And twice while I watched, the whole flock lifted off the lake, flew around a bit, and then resettled. I was sure that I wasn’t the cause of the disturbance. They just seemed to get antsy every 30 minutes or so. There were more than a thousand ducks around the edge of the goose flock and perched in a tree on the far shore, a Rough-legged Hawk, the first I’ve seen in a few years. I stood for a long time and just breathed in the sights and sounds of a huge flock of waterfowl. It was the fix I needed.
I finally found my big flocks of geese, in this case mostly Snow Geese with a few White-fronted and Ross's mixed in, it was a lot of geese.
By the time I finished enjoying the huge flock of geese at Union County Conservation Area, it was only a couple of hours until sunset. I wanted to get to the Mississippi River before it was dark, so I drove toward Cape Girardeau, Missouri where I would spend the night.
A flock of 54 Trumpeter Swans feeding along the highway was a nice way to complete my Illinois birding.
I was zooming along Highway 146, which is a busy, high-speed divided highway, when another patch of white appeared out in the fields. I almost didn’t stop—I had just seen 30,000 snow geese and what else could these birds be. But there was a wide shoulder and it was safe to stop so I did. What a surprise when I raised my binoculars and realized that the birds were all swans, Trumpeter Swans so far as I could tell based on face pattern. I cast this trip as a waterfowl trip focused on ducks and geese. I really didn’t expect to see swans, but they were a welcome addition to the waterfowl of the trip.
I ended the day watching a pair of Peregrine Falcons playing over the Mississippi River.