I like showing off our natural gems to people who are not familiar with them. It takes a day, but the Kankakee River country is so unlike the rest of the Chicago region it is high on my list of places to show-off. The Kankakee Fish and Game Area in Starke County is comprised of miles of dikes that meander the various banks of the Yellow and Kankakee Rivers close to where they converge. The swamp-like habitat is reminiscent of the south, minus cypress trees and alligators, of course. Thus it was a high priority for me to give Lindsay Wilkes, born, raised, and educated in the south, a glimpse of a northern bayou.
In homage to the alleged bird migration of the season, we first headed to the Hammond Bird Sanctuary. We had a few warblers at the entrance but our best bird- and a lifer for Lindsay- was a well marked female black-throated blue, the two little white marks on her wings well defined. It would be the first of several lifers for her. A late palm warbler was also new. Then off to Kankakee Sands where things were slow but the ever charming dickcissels put on a nice show and added to Ms. Wilkes’ life list.
Perhaps because it was late in the afternoon and Mother’s Day, but we had Kankakee Fish and Game virtually to ourselves. (We met one large oncoming vehicle on a portion of the dike that makes passing difficult) Low water levels left most of the forest floor dry except for sporadic depressions that held the last of the excess moisture. A pileated woodpecker called and made a brief appearance. One pond hosted a rim of open mud whereon a greater yellowlegs foraged peacefully. (New bird for Lindsay.) In years past, I have found numerous prothonotary warblers here, not surprising since trees growing in or next to water is ideal habitat. But the conditions being what they were, I figured there would be fewer of them. And Lindsay had a particular interest in seeing one: here only previous experience, literally first hand, was a dead one she found as a collision monitor. I managed to locate one working the edge of the pond and she was able to get a good view.
Birding with someone who is still adding new birds to their personal list offers the pleasure of seeing long-familiar species with a fresh pair of eyes. We saw a number of wood ducks (another lifer), including several hens with long lines of trailing babies. I quoted the great Sterling North for the proposition that the wood duck is the most beautiful bird in North America. Lindsay accepted their beauty but was skeptical that no others were their equal. Yep, I guess on an empirical basis such a claim is hard to prove. This was made clear when a male indigo bunting perched long enough for me to get it in the scope to show my friend. A 32x wide angle lens trained on a gentian-blue bird illuminated by a late afternoon sun was one of the highlights of the day. For both the newbie and the jaded old timer.
Markham Prairie calls loudest in mid May and late July-early August. This is another stunner I wanted to show Lindsay. The opportunity arose when Cindy and I arranged to meet Josh Engel, who lives in the city close to Lindsay, and Lindsay at the prairie. We arrived well after the vernal high point but at a time I rarely visit. The dominant blooming forb was spiderwort, a plant that fascinates me because it is a native species that can thrive in the most pristine of prairies as well as urban backyards (less so in the latter). Wild quinine was also starting to flower: by the time we arrive two months later to ogle the blazing stats, the quinine blooms have seriously shriveled. A few cream white indigo were also still flowering.
From Markham, we headed off to Calumet. Burnham Prairie yielded a female orchard oriole bathing in the road and a pectoral sandpiper, another first for Lindsay. But the birding apex was reached at the corporate wetland near Wolf Lake. Walter Marcisz had found white-rumped sandpipers in amongst the semi-palmated sandpipers but all we saw were the latter. Still, it was a new species for one of us. As Josh was working the sandpipers, I spotted two adult little-blue herons, which are real stunners. And Lindsay’s final lifer of the day.