Universal Mines, Indiana

Dan Leach, Bill Murphy
July 8, 2001

Universal Mines is a reclaimed strip mine area about 10 miles north of Terre Haute on the Illinois border (DeLorme 42,C4). In winter the area hosts large numbers of Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, and Rough-legged Hawks. We wanted to observe the summer birds of the area.

The hardest part was finding our way through the sleeping village of Universal in the 4:30 a.m. predawn darkness. (My digital camera compensated for the low light level, so this image looks brighter than it really was.) Dan is good with the DeLorme map book. Here he is deciphering road names somewhere north of our intended destination.

Here is a typical landscape in this rolling area. Other than many species of grasses, the dominant vegetation is cattail, royal vetch, some sort of tall parsley, corn and soybeans, and young trees (cottonwood, willow, wild cherry, and red maple, to name a few).

We birded for about three miles heading west, away from the sun, stopping every quarter mile or so. At almost every stop we heard or saw Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasant, Grasshopper Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Bell's Vireo, Horned Lark, Willow Flycatcher, Dickcissel, Killdeer, and Eastern Meadowlark.

Unevenly distributed throughout the area are borrow pits or water-filled trenches. Common birds in or near these ponds were Great Blue Heron and Canada Goose. We also observed a few Wood Duck, a Solitary Sandpiper, and an unidentified Calidris sandpiper (a "peep"). One of our most sought-after species was Upland Sandpiper. We found two pairs along the road. They were very curious and often landed over and over again atop wooden fenceposts not more than 50 feet from us. One especially curious individual walked across the road within about 30 feet of us. We left areas where the birds seemed agitated, suspecting that we were near nests or young.

The number of Killdeer was quite impressive. Dan has exact numbers of each species, but I would estimate that we saw more than 50 in all. Wet low spots like the one shown here often held multiple pairs of Killdeer and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Ponds like the one shown here were mostly devoid of birdlife on this visit, the exception being a lone Coot. A Belted Kingfisher flew over one pond as we approached. Dragonflies were abundant. Dan picked out Common White-tailed Dragonfly and I noticed a number of Twelve-spotted Dragonflies and numerous Amberwings. Butterflies were scarce, with only a few Red-spotted Purples and one Monarch, in addition to the hoards of Cabbage and Alfalfa Butterflies.

During the morning we saw most of the swallows -- Barn, Rough-winged, Tree, and Cliff -- as well as Purple Martin and Chimney Swift. We found Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge where CR 200 W crosses Brouillett's Creek. Incidentally, the South Hill Bridge, a historic covered bridge noted on the DeLorme map, is gone except for stonework that supported each end of the span.

With dark clouds moving in, we made a few brief stops at the north end of the area, where dead standing weeds were mixed in with new grass. This habitat is perfect for Henslow's Sparrow, of which we counted probably 25 and had excellent views of two. In the same area were Bobolink, a Red-tailed Hawk pair with a fledged young begging its parents for breakfast, many more Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels, and a surprisingly few Song Sparrows. Some areas cried out for Marsh or Sedge Wrens, but we found none of either species.

Heavy cloud cover moved in from the northwest, blocking out the sun. That made navigation a bit tricky. Here's Dan with his trusty DeLorme, figuring out the best way to get us to breakfast at 11:00 a.m. after 6-1/2 hours of birding.

Overall impressions: If you're wondering where all the Grasshopper Sparrows have gone, maybe they're all at Universal Mines. They may have tied with Eastern Meadowlark as the most abundant grassland species, easily surpassing numbers of Dickcissels and any other species of sparrow. After last winter's abundance of raptors, the lack thereof today was surprising -- two adult male American Kestrels and the above-mentioned trio of Red-tailed Hawks. We thought we might find Northern Harrier but didn't. The high number of Bell's Vireos was a pleasant surprise.

Did I mention that the 4:00 a.m. temperature was already 86° with 120% humidity? The high temperature, reached just before the dark clouds rolled in, was 92°. If you plan on visiting this area during the summer, I'd recommend taking plenty of water.

All the best,
    Bill Murphy