Most days I drive to Peoria for work, but carefully view wildlife on the way to and from teaching at the hospital in Peoria. Had I been born a hundred years before, I would have lived a very different life. I like to think that I would had had a passion for nature then as now; however, unlike a Renaissance of rebirth in many ways such as we see today, I would have witnessed the decimation of nature in the Illinois River Valley in the early 1900's.
The most significant harms to the river's ecosystem resulted from (1.)the reversal of the Chicago River's flow. The Chicago River naturally emptied into Lake Michigan, but construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal caused the river to reverse its flow, and empty into the Illinois River across downstate Illinois; and with it, came Chicago's sewage and wastewater. Drainage of the Illinois River's marshes so the fertile soils could be farmed is the second major change that impacted the Illinois River's ecosystem. Third, the construction of levees tobseparate the main channel from its backwater marshes effectively eliminated the ability of most fish to reproduce. Finally, the construction of dams the artificial rise of the water levels to increase navigation channels for barges and boats finalized the four-prong process that inadvertently destroyed the original ecosystem of thenRiver. If I had a choice, I would much prefer to live now than then, so I could witness the many improvements to the watershed today, instead of its decimation.
This slow-moving river carries the runoff of almost the entire State of Illinois. Historically, if was paradise for the Illini, Kickapoo, Fox and Potawatomi. The Illinois River's surrounding timber provided unlimited forest resources, and not far beyond the forests, you could experience the vastness of the great prairies. Central Illinois was a place where the great forests of the East met Great Plains of the west. Here you could find bison, bobcats, elk, black bear, white tailed deer, and panthers, which are more commonly known as mountain lions. The land beneath our feet would have been in shade by enormous flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons, which numbered in the billions. And in the waters of the river we could have seen enormous, 10-feet long alligator gar, 300 pound lake sturgeon and blue catfish hunting the substrate. In fact, the Illinois River was once known as the most prolific freshwater body in terms of fish production in the entire world.
Oftentimes I will stop to photograph what I see. For many years I have been passionate about photography, but this past year I finally purchased a 600 mm telephoto lens (a “Christmas present” for my wife) for wildlife photography.
I have always tried to pay attention to the world around me, but sometimes it is difficult due to our fast moving society. I have found that photography has greatly increased how I see and interact with the natural world. Whenever I am in the car I scan the roadsides, trees and fields for wildlife. I am fortunate to live in an area with ponds, swamps, fields, creeks, and forest. Further, my family and I reside along the Illinois River, which is a major migratory route along the Central Flyway. Throughout the year we are able to witness the annual migration of millions of birds and butterflies.
In late December I noticed fewer animals and birds. The deer were likely still hiding after shotgun season, and many birds are still enjoying their warm weather migration. Although our Central Illinois winter has been mild overall, the first week of January brought number of days of ocld weather. Our highs and lows in Lacon on January 2, 2022 were 19 degrees fahrenheit and +1 degree. January 3 brought a high of 24 degrees and a low of -3. January 7 the high was 13 degrees and a low of -6.
The daytime highs from January 8 through12 were 35, 34, 20, 38, and 42; however, we continued to have frigid nighttime lows between 4 and 13 degrees.
Interestingly, after a few warmer days also noticed an increase of wildlife. On January 9, I viewed two pairs of bald eagles, with one pair in Woodford County, and the second pair in Tazewell County. As bald eagles mate for life these two groups were hunting fish from the abundant fish living in the Illinois River backwaters. Unfortunately, up to 60 percent of the Illinois River biota is represented by invasive bighead carp and silver carp, which have spread northward over the last couple of decades.
During the early morning of January 10, I witnessed approximately 250 migrating Canada geese in the Lacon Marsh. The geese were preening themselves and then taking off and landing in a patch of open water. I also witnessed another pair of bald eagles today.
The morning of January 11 ushered in a sunny, chilly morning at the Lacon Marsh, which still contained the resident flock seen the day before. Several other large flocks of Canada geese were seen this morning in crop fields between Lacon and Peoria. The largest flocks were feeding on crop residue in fields which in years past were swamp instead of drained farm fields. One flock was located in a field owned by my grandparents and great grandparents many years ago at 40.905733404399236, -89.43109446221496. A second large flock was feeding in Partridge Township at 40.866597233569, -89.45038491546856; only a few miles from where I lived as a child.
On January 12 the Lacon Marsh again hosted the large flock of Canada geese, and many early migrating ducks were flying above the river from the south towards the north.
The geese had moved on by January 13, as the Marsh had no sign of the flock, except for refuse left behind on the melting ice where they rested. Hundreds of migrating ducks including mallards were taking off and landing this foggy morning in the swampland of the Marshall County Conservation Area. As I drove north I observed a small herd of whitetail deer feeding to the east.