Nature Rambles: Signs of Spring



This year, February made us remember it is still a month of winter. Frequent snowfalls and cold arctic blasts have kept the landscape in a dormant state for much of the month. As February wanes towards March, that wintery grip lessens. Warm, southerly breezes are the first signs that invite you to shake off the cabin fever that can grip all of us towards winter’s end.

Already, large flocks of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese are coming back to the Illinois River backwaters in Fulton and Mason County. These flocks will be around for the next few weeks until spring takes full grasp of the landscape. At that time, the geese will feel the pull of the weather and head for their Arctic breeding grounds. March is always a good time to head to Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge just north of Havana in Mason County. While you are down there, cross the river into Fulton County and check out the Emiquon Preserve visitor access area not far from Dickson Mounds Museum. Your journey’s pay-off could be the sight of a flock of 50,000 (or more) geese all taking to the wing at once. It is a sight you will never forget.

While March might be best known for goose migration, other birds are taking to the wing and will be visiting our fields and forests. One of the most unique birding experiences you can witness in early spring is the courtship ritual of the American Woodcock. This odd looking bird is short, squat, and has a long bill used to probe soil for insects and worms. Male birds set up a courtship territory in open areas surrounded by forests. Just at dusk on March evenings, this plucky little bird will stomp around in the short grass and give a raspy “peent” call. Then in a gravity-defying move, he jumps into the air and twitters while spirally flying up several hundred feet into the sky. He then spirals back to the ground and lands in the spot where he left the earth, and the whole display starts over again. If he does everything just right, he will impress the ladies and find a mate. One of the best places to observe this is at the Peoria Park District’s Tawny Oaks Field Station at Singing Woods Nature Preserve. This is a heavily weather-dependent activity, so predicting what evening is best is difficult. Still, clear evenings are best. If you would like to join other birders to observe this, go to Facebook and “Like” Peoria Audubon Society’s page. The nights when people will be out to observe the “Sky Dance” will be posted on the site, and you are welcome to join them.

March is the month where spring takes its claim on the landscape. The first spring wildflowers will be emerging. Venturing out to our local natural areas is a sure-fire way of driving off cabin fever. Some areas to explore include the Valley Trail at The Peoria Park District’s Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria Heights. It has a great display of spring woodland wildflowers such as hepatica, wild ginger and Virginia Bluebells. Another place that is a must for early bloomers is in East Peoria, where a unique wetland is nestled along the foot of the bluff on Route 116. Take the access road east, near Burklund Distributors. Just a few hundred feet from where the access road joins Route 116, there is a Fondulac Park District property called Bennett’s Terraqueous Gardens Nature Preserve. This wetland seep is one of the best places to observe the yellow blooming marsh marigold along with another early wetland bloomer, skunk cabbage.

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