Route 66 activities:  Winter bird watching on and off the route in Will County

Hello again, fellow roadies!  Are you enjoying your winter so far?  We know that most people simply assume there aren’t any activities worth noting along Route 66 this far north between November and May, but you’d be wrong.  Just as there are interesting winter festivals and things off the route, so there are fun winter activities on the route – even in the greater Chicago area.

My co-author and fellow blogger Joe Kubal is an avid birdwatcher.  Those of you who are into birding and/or nature walks know that many birdwatchers go out regardless of the season and, sometimes, regardless of the weather.  There’s much to see in Chicagoland where bird watching is concerned: try Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago; paths along the Des Plaines River and Salt Creek in suburban Lyons and Riverside; the forest preserves near the Chicago Portage National Historic Site in Forest View; or the trails in Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve surrounding Argonne National Laboratory near Darien.  Beyond the Chicago parks and the forest preserves of Cook and DuPage counties, however, there are many opportunities for birding in Will County, too.  I’ll let Joe tell you about his most recent trip.  And before I forget, special thanks to Joe’s birding colleague Sid Padgaonkar for most of the photos here; unless otherwise noted, they’re Sid’s copyright 2015 (all rights reserved).  Take it away, Joe!

 
Hi there, readers!  When I’m not working with my co-authors on our upcoming Route 66 book, I participate in a lot of clubs and organizations – the Illinois Geographical Society (IGS), the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois (ESCONI), the Knights of Columbus, and the Route 66 Association of Illinois (of course), just to name a few.  Occasionally, the interests of one group overlap with that of another. In this case, my love of birding coincides with my love of all things Route 66.

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On Sunday, January 5, 2015, the DuPage Birding Club (DBC) hosted a field trip along the Des Plaines River adjacent to Route 66/IL Route 53) between Romeoville and Joliet.  This particular trip is an annual winter event held by DBC that has been held for at least a decade.  Led by long-time DCB member Urs Geiser, I and several other members set out to search for local avian inhabitants and migrant visitors.  Our meeting time was 7:30 a.m. – a yawn-inducing hour that tested our group’s dedication to bird watching, aka birding.  There was snow on the ground, anywhere from ½ inch to 1½ inches, depending on where we were; and there were intermittent snow flurries that, luckily, didn’t amount to much at first and wouldn’t impede our outing.

Our first spot on that blustery morning was at Isle a la Cache, a noted Route 66 stopover.   Isle a la Cache, a Will County Forest Preserve and Nature Center, is a 101-acre tract of land situated on the Des Plaines River.  In fact, much of the preserve is on the mid-river island of the same name, which was used by French voyageurs during the late 1600s through the 1700s to ‘cache’ supplies (hence, the name).  The Isle a la Cache Museum, which was not open that day, has exhibits on the French in Illinois and on their fur trading heritage.

Isle a la Cache Museum, entrance, Lockport, IL - blog (JDKubal)As for birding at that spot, our efforts weren’t very productive on this particular occasion. Perhaps this winter’s on-again, off-again flirtation with the Polar Vortex had something to do with it.  We saw a few brown creepers in the woods and some other common winter species there, such as chickadees, goldfinches, and mallard ducks.  Nothing special, yet.  However, we did have a great view of about eight white-tailed deer commanded by two antlered bucks and, on the water, a sole black duck.  We decided to move downriver.

Black ducks in flight  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Black ducks in flight  (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Red-tailed hawk (Sid Padgaonkar) - blog

Red-tailed hawk  (Sid Padgaonkar)

Driving south down the original path of historic Route 66/IL Route 53 (aka Joliet Road/Independence Boulevard in Romeoville), we turned east at Renwick Road onto the IL Route 7 overpass that enters into Lockport.  Before crossing the river, we turned off onto what might best be called Powerhouse Road, the unremarkable access road that ducks under the prominent bridge across the Des Plaines River, the Sanitary & Ship Canal, and the antiquated Illinois & Michigan Canal, then heads south to the nearby Lockport Powerhouse.  The powerhouse was constructed in 1907, to serve as a lock, dam, and power generation station on the Sanitary & Ship Canal main channel and to help control the amount of water the canal diverted from Lake Michigan.  At this location, we were treated to the sight of numerous waterfowl, including common and hooded mergansers, gadwalls, and goldeneyes in addition to the omnipresent mallards and Canada geese.  A red-tailed hawk circled overhead, as well as herring gulls and ring-billed gulls.  We also heard, but never saw, tree sparrows in the nearby scrubland.

 

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Again, we decided to move along downstream and returned to IL 53 south, this time passing up the Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve at Division Street, which has hiking paths and is also suitable for bird watching (but don’t bring your dogs:  they’re not allowed).

Once in Joliet, we moved away from the path of Route 66/IL 53 and steered toward the southwest end of Joliet and the Rock Run Rookery Forest Preserve.  This 224-acre preserve, built on a former quarry, includes an 84-acre lake and a 13-acre lake as well as forest and wetland environments.  There is a well-located viewing station over the larger of the two lakes, where we set up a viewing ‘camp’ and a spotting scope.  Besides many of the aforementioned species seen at the previous locations, we espied cormorants, coots, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, and canvasback ducks.  This proved to be another wonderful place for winter birding.  Still, we continued ever onward down the Des Plaines waterway.

Cormorant in flight  (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Cormorant in flight  (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

We headed south on Interstate 55, which in places is built over remnants of Route 66 in Illinois, and took that to the IL Route 6 interchange.  We then took the frontage road to the river and began to follow it westward to Channahon.  Along that road, we paused to see more waterfowl and came along a commanding view of the river, which in that area harbors beaver and muskrat lodges.  Driving toward the town on Front Street, which is on the north bank of the Des Plaines along the southern edge of town, we came across two magnificent bald eagles, an adolescent and an adult, in the trees overlooking the river.

bald eagle, juvenile in flight 2015-01-04-030 SidP - blog

Juvenile bald eagle in flight  (Photo by Sid Padgaonkar)

Ending up at 525-acre McKinley Woods Forest Preserve just outside of Channahon, we walked – with falling temperatures and increasing winds – along the snow-covered trail for our last glimpses of the Des Plaines River.  Happily, we found our efforts were not in vain and observed a formidable group of tundra swans and mute swans, along with a solitary green-winged teal.  Concluding a satisfying journey, we strolled back to our vehicles as we observed song sparrows, savannah sparrows and a hairy woodpecker.  Our field trip had taken us through five different riverside locations in five hours, and we were done by half past noon, the temperature having dropped from a seasonable 31 degrees Fahrenheit in early morning to a windy 21 degrees.  We had seen 38 different bird species along the Des Plaines and Route 66 – all in all, a good day’s birding in Will County’s winter wonderland.

 

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I highly recommend that you try winter bird watching yourselves, either on a path you already know well or with a local birding group.  On a bright winter’s day, you’ll be well rewarded.

 
Happy birding!
Joe

 
Marie’s winter outdoor tip:  If you want your birding binoculars not to fog up in cold weather, there are two possible solutions.  The results are better if you use both.  First, the same kind of anti-fog spray or cream that you use on your eyeglasses or astronomical binoculars can be used on the large lenses of your birding binoculars (not the eyepieces but the other end).  To avoid scratching the lens surfaces, do this at home just before you leave and make sure you use only a soft microfiber cloth meant especially for use with fine optics.  Some people prefer a spray anti-fog preparation to clean the lenses, but I’ve also used a soft waxy cream from Eddie Bauer or REI that was meant for sports goggles and ski goggles.  Use a light touch in applying the spray or cream to one lens at a time and buff thoroughly with the clean microfiber cloth, until not a single trace of the anti-fog product is visible on the lenses (don’t worry, it’ll still have an effect).  Second, let your binoculars reach the outside ambient temperature by letting them sit on the seat next to you inside your unheated car, with the lens caps removed, to get that process started; then hang them around your neck on a sports cord once you exit the car and let them cool down to outside temp before you use them.  By the time you leave your car behind and hike down the trail far enough to start seeing birds, the binoculars should be cooled down enough.  And if you wear eyeglasses outdoors in the cold, don’t forget to treat those with the anti-fog stuff, too – on both sides of the lenses.  Have fun out there!

 
See you soon on the route,
Marie

 

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