Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

It was a near miss.

No, not the doe standing defiantly on the center line of Route 34 at about 9 p.m. Sunday night, but rather the dozen or so trumpeter swans feeding just east of Route 3 on Thursday afternoon.

It had been a “busy” day of photographing wildlife.

There was the loon at Crab Orchard Lake. The northern shovelers and green-winged teal on a pond in Pulaski County. And, of course the thousands of mallards currently calling Horseshoe Lake home.

The final leg of the journey was to look for snow or white-fronted geese at Union County Refuge.

As the turn signal was blinking for an anticipated right turn onto Refuge Drive, several large white birds caught my eye in the distance.

“Pelicans,” was my first thought.

And, I wasn’t particularly interested. I spent an hour of so photographing pelicans at Crab Orchard Lake about 10 days earlier. The thought of the squawking geese I’d heard, but failed to locate, at Horseshoe Lake was still haunting me.

As the car slowed to make the right turn into Union County Refuge, I had second thoughts.

The large white birds were stationed close to Route 3. Pelicans or not, this was too good of a photo op to pass up.

Indifference turned to anticipation as the car edged closer. These weren’t pelicans, they were trumpeter swans, and the proximity was amazing. The adrenaline was surging — it doesn’t take much to excite me these days.

I drove up the road and turned around, positioning myself on the same side of the road as the swans.

But, a new problem presented itself. The swans were surrounded by hundreds of shovelers and teal. If I got out of the car, the ducks would flush and it’s likely the swans would follow suit. And, I have issues keeping photos in focus shooting through the interior of a car.

Eyeing the space between the seats, I wondered if I were still nimble enough to crawl into the back seat.

It took some effort, several grunts and a possibly a pulled muscle, but it was a successful maneuver. Now, squatting on the backseat, the car served as a blind.

The ducks were a bit unnerved and swam slowly away, but the swans were oblivious.

I’m not sure how many minutes passed, or how many frames were taken, but suddenly I felt my thighs and back tightening — a “middle-aged” body isn’t built for maintaining the lotus position in the back seat of a car while toting a camera for an indefinite period.

Now, there was another mild dilemma.

The burning muscles and stiff back weren’t going to allow me to crawl back into the front seat, yet I didn’t want to flush the swans.

The physical reality of the situation won out. After opening the door slowly, I sat still for a moment. Again, the swans were oblivious. They were totally indifferent even as I walked to the other side of the car.

My back ached for an hour of so, but it was a small price to pay.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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