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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: An element of wonder to any day

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Some things can alter the trajectory of your day … an unexpected call from an old friend, your dog sidling next to your bed as you wake up, or seeing something special in the outdoors.

Although they have become common throughout Southern Illinois, seeing an eagle always adds an element of wonder to any day. Spotting a flock of turkey pecking away at insects as they move through a field remains a source of wonder.

That feeling is intensified when you spot a bird or animal that is endangered, incredibly secretive or out of their range.

Finding and photographing the wood stork that recently visited Mermet Lake is such an occurrence. I’ve seen dozens of wood storks in Florida, but had never seen on in Illinois until the past couple weeks. And, there is always a personal element of excitement when a Sora rail is spotted or a whippoorwill serenades you into the heart of the night.

It was that feeling that made last Tuesday at Carlyle Lake a red-letter day.

Roger Hayes, who served as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ranger at Carlyle Lake for years and was also my next-door neighbor about 30 years ago, served as my personal guide.

We visited the James Hawn Area, Hazlet State Park and Coles Creek. It was a pretty amazing day. We saw hundreds of Caspian terns, dozens of great egrets and white pelicans, and thanks to Roger’s sharp eye and spotting scope, several pectoral sandpipers, yellowlegs and even a semi-palmated plover.

However, it was a least tern we spotted at the White Tail Area, located on the northeast corner of the lake, that was the star of the day.

The White Tail Area consists of a series of small ponds and sub impoundments. It is a haven for waterfowl in the fall and winter. When the lake is low, it is an outstanding place to see pelicans and shorebirds. A word to the wise, if you’re targeting shorebirds, you’re probably going to need a spotting scope.

We walked the levees separating the ponds, looking for the best angles to view the terns, egrets and shorebirds. It was while standing at the edge of one of the small ponds that we spotted a small white bird circling overhead then diving face first into the water.

The bird was at the far end of the pond, flying so quickly and erratically it was difficult to get a sustained look through our binoculars. However, the size of the bird already had us speculating that we might be watching a least tern, a bird whose population is decreasing because of loss of nesting habitat.

Fortunately for us, the bird eventually worked its way to our side of the pond. In fact, it flew directly overhead a couple times, allowing us to check off several markers – the black-tipped wings, white and black mask and yellow bills.

It was just the fourth time I can ever remember identifying the least terns. The other sightings occurred near Horseshoe Lake, the Alexander County variety, the Mississippi River mud flats near Cape Girardeau and the Riverlands Audubon Center in West Alton, Mo.

That sighting shed an entirely new light on the day.

Yeah, the osprey, great egrets, pelicans and Caspian terns were amazing. But, it is that tern is burned into my memory, it’s a small packages thing.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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