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Northern Leg of the Byway
The trees in Catlin County Park provide nest sites for woodpeckers, owls, squirrels, and other cavity nesters and offer food and shelter to migrating and resident songbirds. The open forest is great habitat for woodpeckers and raptors. Barred Owls, Great Horned Owls, Coopers Hawks, Sharp Shinned Hawks, Merlins, and the occasional Bald Eagle are seen along the bluff tops. Pileated, Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Downy Woodpeckers abound. One could drive the perimeter looking for birds, but a hike on any one of the trails will reveal more woodland warblers, Ovenbirds, and Northern Waterthrush.
With more than 225 species, Starved Rock State Park provides excellent birding year-round. Look for Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Pileated Woodpecker, and Brown Creeper. Bald Eagles congregate in the winter and fall warblers pass through in droves.
Central Leg of the Byway
Identified as an “Important Birding Area” (IBA) by the Audubon Society, Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area location includes about 6,000 acres spread over 3 different units along 10 miles of Illinois River shoreline. All three sites are worth a stop if touring the river for spring and fall migrations of waterfowl or shorebirds and wintering eagles. Hardwood forests are home to woodpeckers and woodland warblers while open water hosts good numbers of ducks and geese.
Moffit Park trails lead you to the beautiful Chillicothe Bottoms Wildlife Sanctuary. A total of 152 bird species have been identified at the site including many IWAP species of conservation concern. These include American black duck, great egret, lesser scaup, canvasback, brown creeper, northern harrier, marsh wren, yellow-billed cuckoo, northern flicker, bald eagle, wood thrush, yellow-breasted chat, short-billed dowitcher, hooded merganser, Connecticut warbler, Kentucky warbler, osprey, pied-billed grebe, prothonotary warbler, brown thrasher, greater yellowlegs and blue-winged warbler. Two of these species—the northern harrier and osprey—are state listed endangered species.
The abundance of birds at Singing Woods (more than 100 species have been identified) suggests the name Singing Woods. In the spring/fall look for woodland warblers; during the summer there are Red-headed & Pileated Woodpeckers, nesting owls, Cooper's Hawk, Worm-eating Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet and Summer Tanager; in winter watch/listen for owls.
Over 100 woodland bird species use the Forest Park Nature Center as migrants, winter visitors or year-round inhabitants. Hikers often encounter the resident Wild Turkeys or hear Barred Owls calling in the distance. The bird feeding/watering station with a viewing window is always busy with Chickadees, Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker, as well as warblers, vireos and other neotropical species, particularly during migrations.
For bird watchers, the most intriguing component of Robinson Park is its 151-acre nature preserve, which consists of glacial drift hill prairies, and oak woodlands along the ridges and valleys. An unusual array of woodpeckers and woodland warblers, owls and hawks, vireos and flycatchers, can all be seen and heard.
Significant species sightings at Wildlife Prairie Park include: Barred Owl, Great Blue Herons, Indigo Buntings, Orioles, Blue Jays, Coopers Hawk, Bald Eagle, Red-headed Woodpecker, Horned Lark, Whip-poor-will, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owls, American Kestrels, and many others. May also watch as species such as the Sandhill Crane migrate over the Bison Pasture.
Southern Leg of the Byway
Dirksen Park is an important site for deep-forest breeding neotropical songbirds such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Chestnut-sided Warbler (found in shrubland).
Common birds like Eastern Bluebird and American Goldfinch are often seen at McNaughton Park, as well as some of the less-common species like Black and White Warblers, Hermit Thrush and Brown Creepers. Because of its role in providing habitat for a wide diversity of neotropical songbirds, McNaughton Park (along with Dirksen Park) have been nominated for inclusion in the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Areas Program.
With a viewing platform, picnic and parking area, Riverfront Park is a small urban park that provides a great place for viewing winter eagles and host an annual Eagle Census Festival in January. In the spring and fall, it is worth a quick stop to scan the river for waves of migrating ducks, geese, grebes, or gulls.
A great year-round birding destination, there are spring migrants and a variety of summer residents at Spring Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area. Fall waterfowl-watchers will want to visit the numerous parking sites located along 18 miles of shoreline.
An officially recognized “Important Birding Area” (IBA) by the Audubon Society and purchased in the 1980’s by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Banner Marsh State Fish & Wildlife Area serves as a major holding area for migrating waterfowl, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Short-eared Owls, as well as many songbirds: Gray Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, and American Goldfinch. American lotus, a striking native water lily, shows pastel-yellow blooms all summer long. Belted Kingfishers and nesting Wood Ducks are common. Look for the shy American Bittern migrating through along with Sandhill Cranes, terns, and gulls. The Least Bittern has been known to nest here, as has the King Rail.
Rice Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area is an officially recognized “Important Birding Area” (IBA) by the Audubon Society. Birders should check the expansive mudflat near the north boat launch for Great Blue Herons, egrets, gulls, and assorted plovers and sandpipers.
With Banner Marsh, Rice Lake and Spring Lake so close, Copperas Creek gives you easy access to a wild portion of the river in the midst of three large wild patches. There are no hiking trails, but if you are visiting these other sites, then Copperas Creek is a short detour, well worth the drive, to scan the river for migratory shorebirds, waders and waterfowl, as well as wintering eagles.
The Nature Conservancy Emiquon Preserve is another officially recognized “Important Birding Area” (IBA) by the Audubon Society. During spring and fall migrations the water is covered with tens of thousands of waterfowl, gulls, and terns. The prairie hosts Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, and the upland forests provides habitat to a range of woodpeckers and warblers. Rare Black-necked Stilts also nest here.
At Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, an officially recognized “Important Birding Area” (IBA) by the Audubon Society, Bald Eagles hunt the wetlands with a nesting pair returning most every year. Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Green Heron are common wading species. Woodland songbirds haunt the forests. For dedicated birders, the shorebird migration is a must see event. The pools are often managed to attract migrating plovers, sandpipers, godwits, other shorebirds and waterfowl during their biannual migration. Also look for Wood ducks, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Loon, grebes, swans, American White Pelicans, and Doublecrested Cormorants. Parts of the refuge are closed during the fall-winter waterfowl season. Three observation decks (one with a mounted scope) are accessible from the Chautauqua Nature Trail, which winds through a black oak sand forest. The cross levee at Eagle Bluff Access area provides the most expansive view of the entire 4,488 acre refuge, another IBA.
Anderson Lake State Conservation Area is yet another officially recognized “Important Birding Area” (IBA) by the Audubon Society. The complex is known for its waterfowl population, primarily Mallard and Wood Duck, which are especially numerous during the fall months. During winter, substantial numbers of Bald Eagles utilize the site; and large numbers of American White Pelicans can be seen here each spring during the annual northward trek to their summer breeding grounds. The bottomland forest attracts songbirds such as American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, and Chipping Sparrow. In addition to waterfowl, the lake itself hosts raptors such as Osprey and Red-tailed Hawk, as well as a large colony of Purple Martins (summer).