The Kaskaskia River Bottoms

A flock of ducks and geese flushed a short distance by eagles before settling back to the shallow waters of the flooded field.

February 22, 2019 – There were many species of migratory birds to be seen during last weeks visit to Carlyle lake and the Kaskaskia river bottoms in Clinton county. Snow geese, Greater white-fronted geese and even a number of the smaller Ross’s snow geese could be found. On a foggy morning I observed both large and small rafts of ducks with a variety of species that were noted as they drifted in and out of view in the distance. Lesser scaup, Canvasback, Common goldeneye, Common and Red-breasted mergansers, Ring-necked, Ruddy and Bufflehead ducks were on the lake. There were also over 400 American white pelicans feeding, resting, and waiting for spring.

A juvenile bald eagle in close pursuit of an adult eagle that had just picked up a dead fish out the flooded corn stubble. The dead fish along with some pieces of corn stalk can be seen in the eagles talons.

Many thousands of Ring-billed gulls, some Herring gulls and a few Lesser black-backed gulls were also on the lake, notably in the harbors and inlets. Huge numbers of gulls could be seen and heard, flying in what appeared to be a chaotic flurry of white where they were vigorously hunting and feeding on gizzard shad. Large flocks of Ring-billed gulls could also be found foraging in the surrounding agricultural fields, where they looked a vivid white against dark fallow fields of late winter.

Juvenile bald eagles chase each other around over a snow goose kill

In the Kaskaskia river bottoms south of the town of Carlyle, the American bald eagles were an impressive sight. I counted around 35 in a stretch of about 7 miles. A quick glance as something caught my eye while driving, standing in close proximity in a muddy field near the river, were 10 adults and three juvenile Bald eagles. A few miles further south in flood plains of the Kaskaskia that still had standing water, Trumpeter and Tundra swans congregated. Many ducks and geese were using the area along with a number Ringed-billed gulls. Snow and Greater white-fronted geese were in the wet areas of the flooded corn stubble. Pintails, wigeons, scaups, mallards and mergansers stayed close together mixed in with the geese as eagles continued their repeated low flights just above the resting waterfowl looking for an opportunity.

Thousands of Snow Geese

Thousands of Snow Geese Carlyle lake Illinois

Thousands of Snow Geese

February 26, 2018 – On a recent visit to Carlyle lake in Clinton county, the largest man-made lake in Illinois, I experienced the deafening and somewhat hypnotic sounds of thousands of Snow Geese that seemed to overwhelm the senses. Looking up I observed a seemingly endless vortex of white and dark Snow Geese descending literally out of the clear blue sky. Soon thousands more geese were added to the extraordinary sight amassed before me in a crowded expanse of white and dark morph Snow Geese which included a number of the smaller Ross’s Snow Geese. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, a rolling wave of white lifted off the ice and into the sky in a domino effect like chain reaction in this beautiful expanding upheaval. The sounds from the geese increased in volume and pitch as the mass moved horizontally in a awe inspiring visual display resembling a giant shimmering electric animated sign, only to settle back to the ice and water a short distance away.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

Just days before my visit an official count for Snow Geese on the lake was completed showing a total of 90,750. Most certainly a remarkable site to see but in February 2014 the DNR reported an incredible 1.1 million Snow Geese on the lake. Looking out on the lake, on the huge floating sheets of ice, Bald Eagles, both juveniles and adults, could be seen feeding on the white geese. I counted 22 eagles at one time on the ice and in the trees near the Coals Creek access on the south east side of the lake not far from a large concentration of geese. On the far south side of the lake, east of the dam along the spillway, I witnessed 12 eagles on the ice with a few of them eating on the carcasses of Snow Geese. In the surrounding agricultural fields the Snow Goose hunter’s strategically placed decoys could be seen. The spring light goose conservation hunt, which began February 1st and ends March 31st in the this part of the State was in full swing. The extended spring hunt is part of the conservation efforts to reduce the numbers of Snow Geese and there are no daily bag limits on the white, blue, and Ross’s.

Snow Goose Hunt

Snow Goose Hunt

The Mid-Continent Snow Goose populations have exploded over the years and the Subarctic and Arctic nesting sites are being destroyed by the overpopulation of these light geese which is having a measurable and devastating impact on other species that nest in the Arctic. The habitat in the Arctic is being overgrazed by the Snow Geese which destroys the plants on the tundra when the geese dig up and eat the roots which eventually turns the tundra into an inhospitable ecosystem of mud. The impact of the geese could take decades to recover from, with some areas that may never recover after the destroyed grasslands become salty mudflats.

Thousands of Snow Geese in Illinois

Thousands of Snow Geese

There is some cautious optimism that the goose population is stabilizing and some areas around Hudson Bay may be showing signs of improvement. Humans extreme affects on nature are apparent and we have driven many species to the edge of extinction, some gone forever. It is a learning experiment of balance, science and conscience as we try to backpedal our impact on other life forms we share the planet with. It is not an easy task to understand the equilibrium of conservation and the Snow Geese appear to be a great example of the importance of science and the dedication to understanding.

Bonaparte’s gulls Kaskaskia River at Carlyle in Clinton county Illinois

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull

February 23-24, 2017 – While on a visit to Southern Illinois this past week I came across over 30 beautiful Bonaparte’s gulls in their winter plumage fishing in the Kaskaskia River at Carlyle in Clinton county. These gulls are small and can be seen over most of North America during the winter but breed in the remote coniferous forest of the high northern latitudes nesting mostly in spruce trees. It was amazing to watch these little gulls, which have been described as more tern like, fly in a tight formation, making quick turns and then hovering and diving head first into the swirling waters below the rapids. When a small fish was caught the gull would fly up and away from the action and quickly swallow the catch but would get right back to the business of fishing in less then five seconds. At recently as January 20th over 800 were reported on Carlyle Lake.

Bonaparte's gulls

Bonaparte’s gulls Kaskaskia River at Carlyle in Clinton county