By Ken Bradbury
I don’t think I’ll ever make it as a birder, but I gave it a shot. It was a cool April morning when a handful of us met at the Western Illinois Youth Camp on what was billed as a nature walk. We were advised to bring our binoculars and walking shoes. I’ve never understood the term “walking shoes,” and have always wondered if they resembled “head hats” and “leg pants.” All my shoes were made for walking so I donned a pair and headed southeast out of Jacksonville in search of birds and perhaps a bit of education. It’s always my goal to hang around people smarter than me, and since I can find just such a group on practically every street corner, I figured I was in for a morning’s worth of education.
Our forest-bound group consisted of my friend Ed, just about the smartest woodsman I know, a former director with the National Park Service, a lady who seemed to be on a first-name basis with every bird in Morgan County, the camp caretaker, Jacksonville’s two finest photographers and their son Nicholas, Nick’s Chicago grandpa, and two lovely ladies who knew their woods stuff. Then there was me. I felt like Gilligan.
When we quickly introduced ourselves I discovered that I was the idiot among the group, and so my plan of attack was to “keep silent and try not to let them know how little I knew.” We began by dissecting the contents of some owl pellets that Ed had brought along. Ed Anderson is one of the few people I know who always carries a supply with him. He told us that owls regurgitate their food and by digging into the pellets you can tell what they’ve been eating. All morning long I kept wanting to ask dumb questions like, “Why did the owl eat it in the first place if he was just going to vomit it back up?” but I held my tongue. This was a group of sharp cookies, and even an innocent question would blow my cover.
Then off we took into the Youth Camp woods in search of whatever happened to be hanging around Lake Jacksonville that morning. These people were either amazing or very competent liars, since they seemed able to identify everything that sprouted, fell, flew, crept or slithered onto our path. One of the ladies was able to identify every bird in the woodlands and, in case we doubted her guess, she’d whip out her cell phone and play a recording of the bird she’d just named. I stood slack-jawed, both impressed and a bit afraid that we might witness the first case of a sex-starved nuthatch mating with a cell phone. At one point we stood silent among the camp’s White Pines, trying to discern what wildlife we could hear. My little group of castaways starting reeling off names of things that would have impressed Audubon, and when they looked at me I simply said, “McCullough.” They told me that the chainsaw working on the opposite side of the lake was not native to Illinois and I kept silent for the rest of the walk. They gave me that polite stare that you accord to your idiot cousin who keeps showing up at family reunions.
The main cause of the morning’s concern was the massive invasion of bush honeysuckles that has taken over our native woodlands, destroying about everything else in its path. Ed and his wife had cleared 70 acres of it from their property and the folks at the Youth Camp are giving it a shot, but the prospects don’t look promising. I asked how you cleared seventy acres. Ed said, “one bush at a time.” Ed has always been so kind in bringing me up.
At more than one point that morning I wondered why I’d come, since I was out of my league among these sequoias of botanical knowledge, then I turned my attention to the youngest member of our group, two-year-old Nicholas, who seemed to find a new adventure around every turn in the forest path. Nick was infatuated with long sticks, mesmerized by mud puddles, giddy with delight when his daddy showed him how to bounce up and down on some board planks, and completely taken by the sight of the geese on Lake Jacksonville. The little rascal wasn’t old enough to know the names and lineages of the flora and fauna, but he knew a good thing when he saw it, and on that beautiful spring morning, the woods was a very good thing.
Looking for a refreshing and no-cost way to delight yourself and your family just a few minutes from town? Take the jaunt out to the Western Illinois Youth Camp, park your car and stroll down the well-maintained paths through the woods. It’s a good time, and the owl pellets are free. If you need a further recommendation, just ask Nicholas.