Our apologies for the lack of posts lately. Things have been hectic, as per usual, but we are making our way across the country, seeing some beautiful sights, talking to a lot of great people, and of course, seeing and hearing a lot of awesome birds!
We’ve slowly gained in elevation and left the bottomlands behind us and entered our 4th ecosystem, the upland deciduous forest. This has been a real treat because this ecosystem is most familiar to me (Jacob here) since I grew up surrounded by these woods/forests. It was good to be “home” so-to-speak.
The plant community may look similar to that of the bottomland forest at first glance, but the two are very different. Here we’ve seen more maple, various oaks, Redbud, Ironwood, etc. I saw many smaller, familiar plants as well such as mayapple, trillium, bloodroot, and jack-in-the–pulpit that are indicators of healthy forests. In general, things are denser and more green here. It’s like staring into a green wall that almost feels impenetrable, but so welcoming at the same time because of the soft, mystical feel.
We started in Kentucky in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, which is the country’s largest inland peninsula. This place was once home to many 18th century settlers before several presidential administrations forced them from their land in order to dam the rivers and establish better shipping channels and create a place for Americans to come and recreate.
However, the story of how this happened is tragic and worth the time to investigate on your own. We spoke to one resident who was forced from his family property in the 1960s and got an insider’s perspective about the issue and even got to tour his family’s old farm and visit his ancestors in the family cemetery. It was quite an honor.
This area was also full of migratory birds! We were up to our knees in warblers from the onset, including many Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Prairie, Kentucky, Worm-eating warblers, American Redstarts, and Northern Parulas. We also heard and saw many Acadian Flycatchers, White-eyed Vireos, and our focal species, the Wood Thrush. Our last night there, we wandered out to record a nighttime chorus and were treated with the sounds of Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-widows, and Barred Owls. Jacqueline even deftly dodged a Whip-poor-will which seemed hellbent on landing on her head. We can’ t wait to share with you all of the pictures and sounds!
After Land Between the Lakes, we quickly stopped at Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge to take part in some bird banding with a group of 3rd graders from a nearby elementary school. The bird banders Hap and Stacey were so generous with their time and energy in coordinating this effort and allowing us to visit and take part. Thank you ladies!
It was a treat to see some of our favorite birds up close and to be able to hold a few of them. It was also so uplifting to see how excited the kids were to be part of this opportunity. They oo’ed and ah’ed at seeing the birds up close and even got to flash their knowledge of migration and habitat with us. I think we all left feeling a little bit more positive about the future with these little stewards of the land on board.
Later that same day we made our way to the Touch of Nature Environmental Center near Carbondale, Illinois. This great facility tucked away in the hills of southern Illinois acted as our home base for five days of work.
The Center serves as a hub for many different outreach, education, and scientific endeavors and works to be as accessible for as many people as posssible. We spoke to a young woman who has spina bifida which limits her mobility and requires the frequent use of a wheelchair. She has attended camps at Touch of Nature for 20 years and has found these experiences to provide a sense of peace, wonder, and connection to the outdoors and other people facing various disabilities. This speaks to the great work the Center is doing.
While stationed at Touch of Nature, we explored the Shawnee National Forest and Giant City State Park, both of which offered spectacular access to the forests and flora/fauna that inhabited them. We saw so many migratory songbirds that we were often overwhelmed at which way to turn our attention!
Our favorite place however was a little known hollow in an extremely isolated portion of the National Forest. It was a somewhat grueling hike through poison ivy, mosquitoes, mud, and steep hills, but so worth it. It was clear not many people go into this area as the trail was very overgrown at times.
The hollow had been spared of the clear cutting that had devastated the forests a century ago and had massive Beech trees that formed a magical canopy above us. Because of this old growth, the bird community lacked many edge species such as Blue-winged warbler, White-eyed Vireo, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, and instead was filled with Wood Thrushes, Ovenbirds, Acadian Flycatchers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Hooded Warblers, and Yellow-throated Warblers. We have some exciting audio and video to share!
After leaving southern Illinois, we made our way to the gateway city of St. Louis to check out a couple of city parks and learn about light pollution and bird migration.
Gateway Arch National Park lights the famous Arch at night for visitors and residents to enjoy, however, during the peak of migration, they turn the lights off to prevent birds from being disoriented and running into the arch. Light pollution across the world leads to the death of an untold number of birds each year, so raising awareness about this and encouraging residents and businesses to limit their use of unneccessary lighting during migration certainly helps make this journey measureably easier.
We visited Forest and Carondolet Parks, both of which are excellent bird watching destinations. We spoke to young conservationists working to restore healthy ecosystems for urban wildlife to reside within and for people to enjoy. These efforts are challenging to say the least, but immensely rewarding for them, personally and professionally. The restored habitats are coming along nicely so be sure to check them out!
We also met a highly accomplished birder/photographer, who also happens to be a black man from Trinidad. He has spent a great deal of his life birdwatching and traveling to far flung places to see birds in their natural habitats. He also thoroughly enjoys sharing his passion with his family, especially his niece and nephew. He spoke to the challenges of what it’s like to be a bird watcher when almost no one else looks like you, but also offered that even though he may catch people off guard because he’s a tall, broad-shouldered black man, that just by saying hi and sharing his love for the birds with people, he’s made numerous life-long connections facilitated by his outdoor adventures.
We now take off for the tallgrass prairies of Iowa and Minnesota. We are so excited to get a chance to explore this nearly extinct ecosytem and the birds it contains!