Illinois is a long state. The distance from the northern border with Wisconsin to the southern border with Kentucky is just about 400 miles. To put that into perspective, the suburbs north of Chicago are about as far away from the southern tip of the state, as the southern tip of the state is from Shreveport, Louisiana. About the distance between New York City and the Outer Banks, or from Seattle to the California border, or Monterey Bay to Tijuana. In short, it’s long.
The very southern part of Illinois is the very northern part of the Ozarks. It’s totally different from the rest of our flat prairies, oak savannas and riverside woodlands. It’s hilly to the point of being mountainous.
She isn’t evil, or particularly bad even, but she don’t like outsiders. That basically means any birders who live north of St. Louis. If you’ve driven down from Chicago to see some of the specialties found there, like Anhinga, Worm-eating Warbler, Painted Bunting, Chuck-will’s-widow and so on, you’d better have your wits about you. Limnothlypis doesn’t want you to see them, and if you try, she’ll send hordes of mosquitos to rebuff you. Armies of ticks and chiggers to infest your socks and shorts. Throw rocks at your vehicle. Make trails disappear and render maps useless.
For 32 years I’ve done battle with Limnothlypis, camping in her aromatic swamps, working the back roads and hiking the trails many, many times to try to discover her secrets. And though I’ve been chased by cottonmouths, almost drowned, hopelessly lost, overheated, dehydrated and demoralized, I keep coming back for more.
Why? The birds of course. The birding can be simply phenomenal. But there’s one species that is emblematic of southern Illinois—Swainson’s Warbler. Lymnothlypis herself.
My quest to see a Swainson’s Warbler in Illinois began in late May of 1978. At that time they were known to breed mainly in two locations: the Cave Creek valley in Jackson county and Boss Island in the middle of Little Black Slough in Johnson county. In 1979 the species was “readily detected in all known southern Illinois breeding locations” (Vern Kleen – IAB 190:29). Habitat destruction in the 1980s caused a dramatic decline. In 1985, Kleen reports “one bird reported all season” (IBB 2:1:16). Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, Swainson’s Warblers in Illinois were a small handful of migrants showing up in the breeding locations, but apparently not finding the situation to their liking (or not finding a mate), and by mid-summer were gone.
In most places the species breeds, Swainson’s Warbler is tied to giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea)…although in the Smoky Mountains they also utilize rhododendron thickets. In a 1980 paper, W. Eddleman noted that the average song perch “…was in forest habitat with at least 80% canopy closure and an understory of giant cane averaging 20,267 stems/ha.” In other words, thick. Even if one is in there, it better be a singing male, or else your chance of seeing it is zip.
Recently however, the species seems to be reclaiming old territory and possibly trying out some new locations as well. A survey of the old haunts in Johnson county found males on territory, as well as a pair in Jackson county along with a probable nest. The exact locations of these birds are tightly guarded secrets. If you search eBird for sightings, they are all from farm fields in the exact center of each county.
Over the past three years, I’ve been keeping track of the cane stands and reports of Swainson’s…as well as making several attempts to locate one. Fellow NAB blogger, Amar Ayash and I decided to spend a day, or possibly two, visiting canebreaks to see what we might find. Though no birds had been reported yet this year, they were present in two or three locations between 2008–2010, and we were going to give those a shot. Mind you, I’ve been to all these locations—and others—many times in the past few years, and come up SWWA-less every time. Lymnothlypis guarding her own.
We made the 6 hour drive from Chicago without incident, but also without a necessary stop…and I don’t mean for gas. We arrived at the first of our three scheduled stops for the day ready to burst. Amar parked and we leapt from the car like Batman and Robin with one thought on our minds: osmoregulation. We had to go, and bad.
But as we bolted from the car, a loud clear song rang from the forest. Could it be?
The Swainson’s song is very similar to that of the Louisiana Waterthrush, which as a result of one of Lymnothlypis’ more evil twists, inhabits the very same forests. I have tracked down countless “Swainson’s”, only to get close enough to hear that it is in fact a waterthrush. But this sounded different. I think. But we didn’t know. Neither of us had ever heard an actual Swainson’s…only recordings.
Two times as we emptied our bladders the song rang out from the woods…and then silence. Shit. Or piss…whatever. We walked in to the cane-filled “clearing” where the song came from. Nothing. We waited.
Some 20 minutes later the song (was it the same song?) issued from the opposite direction. We practically ran towards it, swimming through clouds of mosquitos, and we discovered a…Louisiana Waterthrush. Shit, damn, piss. We walked the quarter mile back to the original clearing.
From far off in the woods the song rang out again…sort of in the same direction as the waterthrush. Or was it? We stood silent and waited and listened. And waited. And listened. The air was perfectly still, and under the dense hardwood canopy, the song seemed to come from more than one direction. Then silence…and more silence. Lymnothlypis again.
We began to quietly talk of a course action. Should we try our next location before too much of the morning got away from us? Our vigilance began to wane. What to do?
We were starting to shift back to the car when loud and clear, the unmistakable song of a Swainson’s Warbler issued from the cane not 30 feet in front of us.
If you ever wanted to see two grown men look like 11-year-old girls at a Jonas Brother’s concert, you should have been there. What little hair we have left was standing on end, and we quivered like a Jello Elvis at a redneck Thanksgiving.
The bird sang twice more from right in front of us, then once from farther away. We never saw a thing. No movement, no shadow and certainly no bird. We pished, and almost instantly the bird erupted from the cane, and if it’s eyes had been blasters…
…we’d a been dead men. To our everlasting delight, the bird moved to two or three different perches about the clearing and belted out his song. Double-dog daring the interloper to so much as utter a peep.
We spent the next few minutes with the bird as it moved around the clearing, singing from a high perch here, a low perch there. Then it zoomed off into the cane thicket and once more that sweet song rang out from the deep woods. We waited a little longer, but that was it.
Limnothlypis had given us the ultimate prize.
We spent the rest of the morning searching out breeding warblers and other birds in the Shawnee hills. It was just a magical morning, and everywhere the birds were out singing. As we slowly cruised the backroads we listened for the other highly sought-after southern Illinois specialty: Worm-eating Warbler. We stopped to listen near every steep, north-facing slope we encountered and found at least 4 Wormies. In between, we had a great time with Yellow-throated, Kentucky, Hooded, Prothonotary and Northern Parula Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes and Yellow-breasted Chats everywhere…and Mississippi Kites circling overhead the whole time. But soon the mercury was climbing over 100°, and we sealed up the car, turned on the air and headed for home.
I joke a lot about how rough it is to bird in southern Illinois—but it’s just that, humor. The Shawnee is a beautiful area with scenery and wildlife that is unmatched in the midwest. Here’s a few more birds from the morning…
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