Tywappity Bottom: Horseshoe Lake, 1992
Alexander County, Illinois
I am not a wildlife photographer. Hence, the images of birds in this post are courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The images of Horseshoe Lake and the article were cut from The Mississippi: A Visual Biography for lack of space.
The Canada Geese are pairing off. Gone are the happy gaggles, where hundreds winter on the pond. As they pair off, the males become very territorial, going at each other with their necks and bills extended out straight, like lances. The other day a pair scoped out my pond, which sits between the first and ninth fairways of a golf course, not in the most private of locations, nor the most safe. A second pair swooped down. A great flap ensued. Then, they all took off. It was a lose, lose, lose situation. Neither pair found a nesting place; we lost the pleasure of watching them raise their young.
It’s hard to believe we almost lost the Canada Goose.
At 2,400 acres, Horseshoe Lake, just north of Cairo in southern Illinois, is the first of the great oxbows that lie along the modern channel of the Lower Mississippi. Until the late 1920s the Mississippi flooded Horseshoe Lake in the spring, carrying in silt, filling the lake, parts of which dried out in the summer. The Illinois Department of Conservation purchased the first forty-nine acres of the Horseshoe Lake Fish and Wildlife Area in 1927 and turned it into a refuge for the giant Canada goose, then a species on the wane. In 1930 the state built a stoplog structure that controlled the flooding and maintained the lake at four feet.
Overhunted and losing wetland habitat, the first Canada geese, a thousand of them, discovered the new refuge the following winter. By 1944 their numbers had grown to 40,000. As the state acquired more and more land, more and more geese wintered at Horseshoe Lake, 150,000 on 10,645 acres at last count. The geese feed on the green pasture and grain the state grows on 3,250 acres of cultivated or fallow fields. The hunters followed along with the researchers, who trapped, banded, and released over 50,000 geese over the years.
Canada geese mate for life. They nest from southern Canada north to the Arctic tundra, building a nest of a large mound of grass and cattail stems lined with down. The female lays a clutch of five to seven eggs, which the male defends from all predators. The goslings hatch in twenty-five to thirty days and are led to water within a day of hatching. Then, the male relaxes his attitude and will group together several clutches of goslings in crèches, which are monitored by all the adults.
Within a couple of months the goslings mature enough to look like their parents, but still they must learn to fly. To begin with they take a running start on dry, ground, flapping their wings, sometimes tripping and falling flat on their bills, sometimes lifting off into shallow flight. But, quickly they join their parents, following in a long line. Parents migrate great distances with the young of the year, staying together in family groups even though they may be part of a much larger flock. If a winter is mild, though, the geese may stay put where they bred the previous spring.
And stay put they did: on golf courses, where there was plenty of water and grass and good site lines between them; in city parks, where humans fed them; and in suburban subdivisions, where their only predators were stray dogs.
Beyond the Canada Goose, historically, trumpeter swans, the American swallow-tailed kite, Swainson’s warbler, Bachman’s warbler, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the passenger pigeon, and the Carolina parakeet bred within fifteen miles of Horseshoe Lake. Birders have sited the magnificent frigatebird, the neotropic cormorant, the anhinga, and the white ibis: birds seen more often near the mouth of the Mississippi than just north of its confluence with the Ohio. One lucky birder spotted a rock wren, which prefers the dry rocks of the southwest to the oxbows of southern swamps. In mid-summer bright yellow prothonotary warblers steak low between the cypress, tupelo, and swamp cottonwood that line the edge of the lake. The refuge also hosts bald eagles, owls, egrets, herons, bitterns, shorebirds, loons, grebes, rails, coots and moorhens, terns and gulls, and ducks on their fall and spring migrations.[i]
[i] Saucier, 100, 112-116, 114; Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/Landmgt/parks/r5/horshu.htm#Lake; DeVore, Sheryl, Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area, Trails.com, Falcon Publishing Company, http://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.asp?trailid=XFA040-074; Illinois Department of Conservation, Suggested Birding Field Trips, Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area, http://dnr.state.il.us/LANDS/EDUCATION/CLASSRM/birds/trips.pdf; Great Plains Nature Center, Canada Goose, http://www.gpnc.org/canada.htm.