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Sports editor

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

The sounds of nature of underappreciated.

The incredible visual elements of the natural world are omnipresent. If you spend any time in a vehicle in Southern Illinois you’ll see some amazing things. I spotted a bald eagle perched above Crab Orchard Lake while driving 60 miles per hour earlier this week.

The audible world is another story. You have to work at it.

We recently vacationed at Yellowstone National Park. I was amazed at the number of people in the woods and boardwalks with earbuds. Granted, most of the otherwise engaged tourists were sullen-looking teenagers, but when making an effort to observe nature it’s best to engage all the senses.

A recent walk to Heron Pond drove that point home.

First, there was just the sound of the running water. The path to Heron Pond is adjacent to the Cache River. During the summer months the Cache River lazily cuts a path across Southern Illinois, its current barely discernible.

Recent rains gave the river some force. The sound of water rolling across deadfalls and over rocky outcroppings filled the air. And, it’s probably an olfactory illusion, but the sound of running water always makes the air feel a bit cooler and smell a bit fresher.

One of the best things about the walk to Heron Pond is the lack of auditory distractions. There are no nearby farms, no highways to provide background noise. The only sounds are what Mother Nature brings to the table.

Even deer, generally retiring creatures, added to the soundtrack last week.

We apparently startled some deer as we walked along the path. Although they were never seen, the sounds of deer crashing through the woods drew our attention. A few minutes later, another unseen deer squalled from a dense thicket.

Then, there were the birds.

Woodpeckers seemed to be everywhere. There was the incessant chattering of red-headed woodpeckers and the squawking of the red-bellied variety. And, when things got really quiet, there was the unmistakable sound of woodpeckers pounding away against the trees.

The raspy sounds of tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees greeted us at every turn, but at times it was so quiet the hurried fluttering of wings was clearly audible. Hearing, sometimes even feeling the beat of the wings, may be my favorite outdoor experience.

There’s something inherently thrilling about a critter being so close, yet invisible. It’s an experience I typically associate with turkey hunting.

The Heron Pond hike was followed by a short drive through Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. We pulled off the highway just south of the viewing platform on Route 148. Hundreds of mallards and white-fronted geese gathered in the flooded fields.

The view was spectacular, but in the few moments there was no oncoming traffic I closed my eyes. The muttering of the geese mixed with the soft quacking of the mallards in a colorful cacophony. The sound emanating from the fields before me completed the picture.

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

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