A Year at Eagle Slough Natural Area

Fishing has always been my first reaction to stress. Patience and calm has been rewarded with insights into fish species: subtle pieces to the ecological puzzle. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I have poured my heart and soul into that passion for years. 

But this year was different. My first fishing trip didn’t happen until February. A rather late start for me, it was one of my annual attempts at catching my old rival, the sauger, from the Ohio River. But the patience was gone. The wonder had turned into a grind. That must’ve been a fluke, right? It wasn’t. 

So there I was, at the start of lockdown and burnt out on my life-long hobby. What now? I’ve always enjoyed hiking in the woods, so I thought that would be a good place to start. With travel restrictions in place, I needed somewhere close by to explore. That’s when I remembered the marker on my map: a new place to check out. And that is where this story begins. 

On a chilly day in March, I leashed up my pup Biscuit and drove down to Eagle Slough Natural Area for a quick walk. The trail was short, but signs along the way boasted of the diversity and surrounding sights. We reached the boardwalk at the end of the trail and waited. If I’ve learned anything in my time outside, it’s that if you aren’t seeing anything, you aren’t being still enough. Soon, a small muskrat swam slowly by. That was a start. A friendly little Pied-billed Grebe rounded the corner. Nothing new, but a nice sight. As the chill started to set in, the slough’s namesake flew over, an immature Bald Eagle. We called the trip a success and hiked home.

I’m not really sure what pulled me back, but a month later, there I was again. This time, spring was on its way. A stealthier hike yielded the first of the songbirds and some cautious Wood Ducks. My camera became my companion on every hike, and with each photo I became more and more hooked.

From that point on, I became a regular at the slough. I slowly relearned how to walk silently down the trail and the art of being still. The familiar pull to nature had returned, but this time, to the woods. I began recognizing patterns, seeing what certain birds preferred, and listening to their calls. And every once in a while, I’d even find the bird I was looking for. 

As more species began migrating, I reached the point of no return. I was officially a birder. Water birds captivated me. Looking back, that seems fitting given my fishing background. And with Covid becoming ever worse, I learned the subtle art of bad-weather birding. These were the days I never crossed paths with another birder, but the best days to get close to the waterfowl.

Throughout the year, the woods of Eagle Slough became familiar. I honed in on the noises. I may not have known the owner of each sound, but they slowly joined together to become a familiar tune. Accustomed to that rhythm, I began noticing things that were offbeat. More often than not, it was an indication of a mammal: the crunching pattern of a beaver, the stealthy steps of a raccoon, the confident snacking of a muskrat, the fast sprint of an otter, or the alarmed run of a deer. I added them to the list of familiar friends. The raccoons became an indicator of how stealthy I was: a day without a raccoon meant my footsteps were too loud. A deer sighting usually meant I had stayed too late. Beavers and muskrats meant I had done a good job keeping still. And an otter… Well, an otter meant you were quiet, still, and quite lucky.

As the year developed and temperatures grew, I started keeping an eye out for more of my amphibious and reptilian friends. I have spent many nights in other woods looking for frogs and salamanders, so I hoped that skill would translate here. For frogs, at least, I was happy to see that it did. I have yet to see a salamander (though with how catastrophically the Ohio River floods here, I have a suspicion they are not a large population). What caused me problems were the reptiles. I just don’t understand snakes; I wish I did. I stumble across my share of watersnakes and the occasional garter, but I’ll be the first to admit finding them is more a feat of luck than anything else.

In the lull between fall migration and the start of duck migrations, I turned my focus to insects. Over the summer, I had purchased a cheap macro lens to photograph moths. With the change of seasons, the lens found a new use. I would photograph birds on the hike to the end of the trail. On the walk back to the car, I would switch lenses and keep an eye out for interesting bugs. As the year progressed, it was fascinating to see the bugs change: the sudden increase in caterpillars, the days when spiders ballooned, the butterfly species slowly disappearing, the heavenly day when you noticed you didn’t get bitten by a single mosquito. It was all a treat, to notice such minute details and how beautiful these little creatures could be. (On another note, bugs are still a new hobby for me and some of the identifications listed below may not be totally accurate).

With the year drawing to a close and the seasonal rush at work beginning, I found it harder and harder to make time for the slough. The times I went were a race against sunset and that rarely yielded much stealth. I started to accept that my year at the slough was coming to its natural end. 

Suddenly, there was an eruption in the local birding community. Someone had sighted a Varied Thrush at the slough. A rogue pacific bird in the Midwest. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of the work week, quite a bummer. I didn’t have a chance. But then, someone reported seeing it the next day. And the next. Then the stars aligned and a rare chance presented itself: I could take a half-day. I raced from my work to the slough, knowing it was a shot in the dark. No one had reported the daily sighting and it was supposed to rain soon. I worked my way down the path and found what could only be described as an unworldly amount of American Robins. At the pier, I took a break to watch the Pied-billed Grebe do his routine. Here, I met a Kentuckian birder who had also traveled up to find the Varied Thrush. We talked briefly and decided to work our way back to the cars together. I recalled someone had described the bird acting like a confused robin, so I spent extra time picking through each group. On a hunch, I focused my camera on what looked suspiciously like my target, snapped a picture, and looked at the result. It was as blurry as it could be. By now, the bird had flown off the path and into a tree. I aimed again, and snap! I looked at the picture…and it was a robin. Disappointed but resilient, I told myself I’d search the tree one last time. I scanned it again and froze, my heart racing. Camera shutter snapping, I quietly told my new friend, “I’ve got it.”

It was the most fitting end I could have for my year: a proper rare bird. I can’t help but be grateful for the sanity this place has provided throughout the year. Eagle Slough allowed me to rediscover my passion for the outdoors and helped me accept that my interests can evolve over time. It offered new challenges and discoveries during trying times, and I have no doubt I will find myself frequenting it again next year.

I hope you also found your “Eagle Slough” this year,

-Isaac 

Snake Road, Illinois 2019

Life has been moving fast this last year. There were moments where I found myself lost in the swift growth that is life. Then there were a few golden occasions where time slowed down and living in the moment was easy. If I’m honest, I neglected writing for so long because it required looking back at this year and facing all the things that are no longer what I became accustomed to. But maybe that is the beauty of writing these blogs, times past are painted back to life.

With all of my melancholy reminiscence out of the way, this story reflects one of those times where I was able to put life on hold and get lost in the wilderness.

This fall I finally made a trip to Snake Road in Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest to witness the snake migrating to their wintering grounds. After work on a surprisingly crisp Friday, I met with a friend and packed up his camper for the trip. Late that night we backed his teardrop camper in the only unoccupied site at the campground closest to the road.

Snake Road, IL

Pine Hills Campground

That night was the first proper freeze of the year, and teardrop campers (apparently) don’t have heaters. In all my excitement for the trip I made the critical mistake of not packing sufficiently warm sleeping gear. So most of that night was spent curled up in a ball tucked in a sleeping bag wearing most of the clothes I brought with me in attempt to stay warm.

Snake Road, IL

Sunrise at the campsite

I was up with the sun that morning, between the cold and my excitement to see snakes sleep just wasn’t going to happen. We cooked up a classic camp breakfast over the fire and tried to warm up until the sun broke the treeline. To my surprise the whole campsite was full of people who all traveled just to see the snakes and everyone seemed just as anxious as me for it to warm up!

Finally it was time to break camp (read: Isaac was overly excited and convinced my friend to go to Snake Road well before the temperatures were even close to warm enough)! As we drove down the gravel road to Snake Road’s north parking lot we were greeted by the bluffs breaking through the wetlands.

Snake Road, IL

Sandstone bluffs

What is amazing is just on the other side of the road from these bluffs is what I would consider a perfect wetland.

Snake Road, IL

LaRue Swamp

At this point I was ready to go find some snakes, so we started our way down the road.  Two things became apparent very quickly: 1. Everything looked ‘snakey’ to this novice and 2. It was still far to cold for anything to be moving.

Snake Road, IL

We made our way from the north parking lot all the way to the south without seeing a thing. We started our way back and I was starting to get a bit frustrated. A more experienced herper pointed out a small racer sunning in the grass, but it vanished before I could take a picture like racers seem to do. We decided to kill some time and hike up to Inspiration Point. While no snakes appeared, the view was spectacular and I found a moth that I hadn’t photographed yet.

Snake Road, IL

Inspiration Point

Melonworm Moth (Diaphania hyalinata)

Likely a Melonworm Moth

While this was all good fun, I really wasn’t satisfied with the trip yet. A few cliff bars later we were back walking Snake Road. This time the idea of being independent herpers was far gone and we took the opportunity to follow more experienced herpers. And oh boy was that the right choice!

Snake Road, IL

Green Treefrog

Snake Road, IL

Plain-bellied Watersnake

You should have seen me try to contain myself when I heard someone call out that they had found the snake I had planned the whole trip to photograph: the Cottonmouth.

Snake Road, IL

Cottonmouth

These creatures were so calm and confident. I really don’t know how to put the feeling I felt there in words. Sitting on the forest floor photographing them, it was so easy to be wholly connected to the wild. It was awe inspiring and humbling simultaneously. I don’t know what else to say, it felt like that was exactly where I needed to be.

Snake Road, IL

There it was. The feeling that keeps pulling me out of my apartment and on adventures. Sometimes it appears when tracking down uncommon fish, other times when I’m out in the wetlands photographing moths, in the spring walking in the cold rain chasing salamanders, or on this particular occasion sitting on the ground staring at a pit viper.

I used to feel rather guilty that things like this take up so much of my time. But the honest truth is life is short, and it sure isn’t worth being miserable. If places and moments like this make you feel alive, then chase that passion as far as it will take you. You’ll be amazed by the people you meet along the way and the places it’ll take you to. And if you’re as lucky as me, you’ll find that you are becoming happier and happier along the way.

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Until the next adventure,

-Isaac