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U.S.A.  -- ILLINOIS: South

10 - 12 March 1995

by Jim Frazier

The Illinois Audubon Society sponsored a trip to Southern Illinois, near Effingham, in Jasper County to observe Greater Prairie Chickens, Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls and Woodcock. The leaders were Vern Kleen and Scott Simpson.

We met up with Vern and the rest of the group at 4 pm in the parking lot of the Effingham Hampton Inn and the whole group drove over to the sanctuary. We met Scott Simpson, the refuge manager, there. We were kind of early and stood around and waited for a while until sunset. We watched about 10 harriers (including a couple of beautiful males) flying around and then, just about the time the harriers vanished, the short-eared owls (at least 5) came up. It was pretty spectacular. We speculated on what it must be like being a vole in the field we were watching. They must lead lives of constant terror. There was always something up there that wanted them for lunch. During the day, it's Harriers. At night, it's Short-eared Owls. When one predator shuts down, the other one starts up...nothing more than a shift change.

Since we still had some light, we hustled over to a spot where there were several Woodcock and we got to hear them in action, both "peenting" and doing their flight display.

We all met again on Saturday at 4:30 am, causing a very unexpected rush at the front desk of the hotel and were off again. We parked about 1 mile north of the refuge and set our scopes up focusing on the area that Scott indicated, about a quarter of a mile away in a farmer's field.

The sun had not risen yet and all we could see were brown spots moving and a sound similar to what you get when you blow across the top of a bottle. Then, the sun rose, at our backs. As the light got better, we started seeing more and more. There were about 8 cocks stomping around the lek, each in his own roughly 100 sq. yd. courting territory. They kept displaying at each other, rushing back and forth, raising their pinnae and inflating their yellow sacks. There was one spot, where 3 territories came together where these guys just kept stomping around and trying to intimidate each other. At one point, an early hen showed up and she seemed somewhat indifferent to the attention being focused on her by at least 3 different males. She eventually flew away.

This was not a bad way to watch prairie chickens. The traditional method is to hike out to a blind at 4 am and sit there until the chickens leave, as late as 8 or 9 am. While you get great looks, you also are confined to the blind for a long time. However, driving up, putting up some scopes, listening and watching from afar ain't too bad. You don't get the full experience, but you get to sleep in and do some other stuff when you've had your fill.

I learned some interesting natural history about Greater Prairie Chickens while we were standing around out there:

1.The leks are not necessarily on sanctuary property. The lek we were at was actually on a farmers field, primarily in a hay field. They seem to like short grass, a lack of nearby trees and a high spot for their leks.

2.We also heard some cackling. This happens sometimes because a hen will appear and the birds will immediately cackle and fly from one side of their territory to the other so that the hen will know which cock has the biggest territory. This lucky fellow actually winds up with more than half of the pairings.

3.The population in Illinois is terribly low, only about 100 individuals. There appear to be several reasons, including, of course, habitat loss and a lack of genetic diversity. But also apparently a high contributing factor is the presence of Ring-necked Pheasant. They engage in egg dumping and their eggs hatch a day or so before the chickens'. And since the chickens abandon the nest almost immediately after the young hatch, the chicken eggs are abandoned.

4.The pheasants are not too choosy about where they dump their eggs. The refuge experimented with making fake nests with plain old golf balls. In a few days, they found pheasant eggs.
After a period of very intensive control of the pheasants, involving fake nests and taking both pheasant cocks and hens, they have virtually eliminated the pheasants as a problem. And they have now imported a few Kansas chickens to give the Illinois population a little new blood. They feel that things are improving.

We exhausted ourselves watching the chickens and drove back to the field where we saw the owls the night before. We took a walk and almost immediately, at least 5 flushed and flew around. It was spectacular. It was full daylight by this time and we were able to really study the owls, see the wrist marks and watch the flight.

We joked about the fact that we were all pretty much sated and it wasn't even 8 am yet.
We spent the rest of the day looking for ducks at Newton Lake and at the ash pit of the nearby power station.

Total birds for the trip...60; Total lifers, 1; Total RSLWTT - 4 (RSLWTT = Really spectacular looks, worth the trip)

Jim Frazier
Batavia, IL