Birds (and birders) of various feathers flock to Southern Illinois
You may not even know what a dickcissel or loggerhead shrike is, but you’ll get a chance to see them this month on a spring drive to one of the most unusual places in the Midwest.
The Cache River Nature Fest will be held Sat. April 30 at the bottom tip of the state where the confluence of two of the nation’s great rivers, the Mississippi and Ohio, has created an area that will remind you of a Louisiana swamp, minus the gators.
The Cache River meanders through the flat, wet bottomland amid a forest of giant cypress and tupelo gum trees. There will be hikes, floats and other programs to get you out into the wilds to see the creatures that live there. “It’s a unique place within the state of Illinois, and it’s been named a wetland of international importance,” said Liz Jones, assistant manager of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. “We get species from the north, south, east and west. That doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s a very special place.”
The wildlife refuge and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are the largest landowners in the watershed of the Cache River, with 36,000 acres acquired, about half of the goal of protecting some 60,000 acres.
The serious fun begins at 12:01 a.m. Saturday when teams of hard-core birders head out for the Birding Blitz, a competition among teams for the highest tally of birds identified by sight or song during a 24-hour period. The team members raise pledges for each bird counted, with the money going to wetland restoration. “It’s usually about a buck a bird; some folks pledge more,” Jones said. “Some of these people are birding gurus who will get 150 species or more..”
The Cache River bottoms is an oasis for birds using the Mississippi River Flyway. Some rest and feed and move on, some stay and nest. The diversity of habitat — cypress swamps, upland forests, grasslands and big rivers — draws a diversity of birds, everything from ducks and geese, to bald eagles and dickcissels, a stocky bird like a meadowlark that is normally found on the farmlands of the Great Plains.
If you don’t want to search for birds, the festival has a number of other programs. You can take a hike to Heron Pond, paddle a canoe through the swamp, learn how to landscape your yard to draw hummingbirds and other wildlife or get a bird or insect tattoo, the short-lived kind. Everything is free.
“The Cache River canoe tours are always a big hit, getting people out into the swamp,” Jones said. “Buttonland Swamp is a National Natural Landmark and not only because it has the state champion bald cypress. It’s a true southern swamp.
“There’s a number of birding hikes including one to Heron Pond, the jewel of the Cache. It has a boardwalk that goes out into the swamp to see trees somewhere between 300 to 700 years old. You really get a sense of what the Cache used to be, and what we’re trying to restore it to.”
To contact the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge office, call 1-618-634-2231, or visit www.cacherivernaturefest.org . To find out about lodging in the area, call the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau at 1-800-248-4373, or visit www.southernmostillinois.com.