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A morning birding southern Illinois: Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve

Wildlife biologist Karen Mangan scans a moist-soil area at Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve on Wednesday through a scope mounted on the front door window.
Credit: Dale Bowman

ULLIN, Ill. — The long-billed dowitcher drilled, drilled, drilled its bill into the moist soil, as the descriptions say, like a sewing machine. Memories bubbled of my late mother revving her Singer while patching my jeans.

Kim Rohling and Karen Mangan had taken turns looking through a spotting scope, which Mangan had mounted on the driver’s side window, before confirming the dowitcher.

It was one of many highlights Wednesday at the 1,000-acre Frank Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve, part of the 16,000-acre Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge that is located in four of the southernmost counties in Illinois: Alexander, Johnson, Pulaski and Union.

While the reserve is primarily for waterfowl, a side benefit includes shorebirds attracted by managed moist-soil areas. The viewing area on the edge has a scope.

“We started seeing them in March,’’ Mangan said. “This is definitely the peak right about now, late April or May.’’

Mangan, a wildlife biologist, and Rohling, an AmeriCorps volunteer who went to Fremd and still has family in the northwest suburbs, had not looked very hopeful when we met. An earlier scouting trip had not shown much.

But it turned into a good morning for shorebirds, migrating birds, residents and surprises.

First sightings included dickcissel, killdeer and prothonotary warblers.

One of many egrets at Bellrose Waterfowl Refuge.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
One of many egrets at Bellrose Waterfowl Refuge.
Credit: Dale Bowman

As we drove in, a wild turkey scurried toward a fencerow. At the first stop, Mangan and Rohling spotted greater and lesser yellowlegs. Then the dowitcher. Near us came a white-eyed vireo.

Three great egrets erupted beside us like sheets in the wind. Two wood ducks flew. Counted a common yellowthroat. Red-winged blackbirds trilled. Shovelers floated.

“There’s your problem, an eagle,’’ Mangan said.

“Yesterday, we had four eagles flushing the birds,’’ Rohling said.

irds, more like looking for carp and buffalo trapped in the leftover water.

The distinctive rising whistle of a red-shouldered hawk, ‘‘kee-ahh,’’ pierced the air in the wooded area next to us.

Check for a yellow-throated vireo. Pectoral sandpipers were confirmed with the yellowlegs. Crows cawed.

“Shorebirds are here one or two days, then they move on,’’ Mangan said. “It’s very fleeting.’’

A spooked great blue heron flew past. Mangan said an eagle nest, with eaglets, was just west of I-57. A solitary sandpiper was confirmed.

Kim Rohling checks a speckled kingsnake before releasing it at Bellrose Waterfowl Refuge.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Kim Rohling checks a speckled kingsnake before releasing it at Bellrose Waterfowl Refuge.
Credit: Dale Bowman

As we drove on, Byron Hetzler, photographer for The Southern, spotted a yellow-crowned night-heron, a first for me.

Suddenly, Mangan slammed on the brakes and swerved around a snake on the dirt path. It was a speckled kingsnake, another first for me. Rohling was very anxious to catch it and check it.

A belted kingfisher hovered as though targeting food. A pair of cormorants flew over.

Les Winkeler, The Southern’s sports editor and outdoors columnist who had invited me down, spotted the contrast of an indigo bunting and a yellow-breasted chat on a small tree.

Mangan wanted me to see the connection to the Cache River. On the way, she again slammed on the brakes, this time because she spotted a snake in a tree.

“Body looks like a cottonmouth,’’ she said.

“Can I check?’’ Rohling said with way too much enthusiasm. Upon examination, it was a diamondback water snake, very cool itself.

Finally, a wood thrush was confirmed, as was a parula above us. We saw Canada geese.

On the way back, Mangan slowed to show us a bat detector back a short trail.

It was time.

For more information on Cypress Creek NWR, click here.

Viewing platform for Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Viewing platform for Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve.
Credit: Dale Bowman

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