Thursday, March 16, 2006

East Central Illinois Is an Active Place in Early Spring (But It's Not Florida)

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The past couple of years I’ve spent spring break with my wife and children at state parks on the Florida Gulf Coast. There we’ve enjoyed fantastic birding, pretty good fishing, and the opportunity to explore the seemingly infinite life of tidal areas. This year, however, we’ll be sticking closer to home, which has gotten me thinking about the outdoor attractions our part of the world has to offer at this time of year. When you stop consider it, early spring really is an active time here.

It is the time of year to find members of the mole salamander family above ground. These are creatures that live most of their lives farther down in the soil, but that travel overland in early spring, to and from the seasonal ponds where they breed. You can often find such salamanders by rolling over decaying logs in the vicinity of vernal pools, like the ones at Busey Woods in Urbana, or Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County.

Vernal pools, which are defined by the fact that they dry up completely later in the year and thus do not hold fish, are also home to quite a bit of other activity in March. This activity is signalled by the calls of spring peepers, wood frogs, and other amphibians out to reproduce. And it’s evident in the graceful movement of fairy shrimp, inch-long crustaceans that row themselves along with eleven delicate pairs of legs. A dip net and a plastic pan are all the equipment you need to spend an afternoon exploring a vernal pool.

A mid-March walk in the woods provides a great opportunity to witness the early development of spring wildflowers, which have to make the most of this time before the trees leaf out and block the sunlight. Bluebells and spring beauties have already begun to emerge, as has bloodroot, which may even be blooming next week. Perhaps a hike along the Sangamon River at Allerton Park near Monticello is in order.

March means “move” for a lot of birds, and that opens up myriad possibilities for birdwatchers. You can see more waterfowl than you can count along the Illinois River right now, but you may also see a surprising variety of ducks and geese on just about any body of water at this time of year. Large impoundments like Clinton Lake, Lake Decatur and Lake Vermilion offer great possibilities. But so do subdivision detention ponds, farm ponds, and flooded fields. If you’re up for a day trip, there are still some seven to eight thousand northbound sandhill cranes stopping over at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana. The sight of these magnificent birds coming in to roost can be well worth the two-and-a-half hour drive from Champaign-Urbana.

March is also the time to witness the mating display of the male American woodcock, a long-billed, stout-bodied oddity of a bird who performs twice a day, at dawn and dusk. You can see his highly choreographed mix of strutting, sound and flight at any natural area with the right mix of open ground and brush, including Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve, near Homer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, even with all of the spring activity there is to enjoy in our part of the world, I still wouldn’t mind a March trip to Florida. But with a break or two in the weather, we’ll get by here, won’t we?