Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bird-tastic fiction: novels about birders, ornithologists and other avian obsessed folk

                      

I've been meaning to tackle this post for a while, highlighting some examples I've found that combine my two favorite hobbies: birding and reading. All of these represent enjoyable works of fiction in which birds and/or birders are strongly featured. (A passing mention is not enough to qualify for this post.) So here are some books to read when the weather is too horrid to bird...or when you're on a plane headed for a fantastic birding destination!


Mystery and suspense (this is my favorite genre, so I'll start here):

Christine Goff has a series of five "bird-watcher's mysteries": A Rant of Ravens, Death of a Songbird, A Nest in the Ashes, Death Takes a Gander and Death of a Birdie. These are in the "cozy" mystery subgenre, featuring amateur detectives who are either birdwatchers or work for the park district; as such, they are rather gentle, fun books for those who enjoy (in the words of a coworker) "a good clean mystery." Each has a particular bird- or enviroment-related theme, such as shade grown coffee and Colorado birding in Death of a Songbird, and protecting a southeastern swamp from development in Death of a Birdie.

Ann Cleeves is a British writer who clearly knows her birds...and birders. A Bird in the Hand is a mystery about a birder who is found dead at a famous marsh in Norfolk. As a mystery, it is a bit uneven (I understand that this is one of her earlier works), but the depiction of the birding community is spot-on. And...I really want to bird in that marsh! One of her later books, Raven Black, is a superior mystery with a minor character who is an environmentalist/ornithologist. I haven't yet been able to track down a copy of The Crow Trap, but it is definitely on my to-read list.

Speaking of British authors writing about murder in the Norfolk marshes, I really enjoyed Steve Burrows's A Siege of Bitterns: A Birder Murder Mystery. a police procedural (the policeman is a birder) who is drawn into an investigation of murder, birders, and an endangered ecosystem. A Pitying of Doves, the second book in the series is coming out soon, and I can't wait to read it.

Whoo? by Richard Hoyt is an extremely fun--and funny!--mystery about a private investigator and his Native American partner who are trying to look into the murder of an ornithologist in the Pacific northwest. The book was written during the height of the logging controversy, and there are, of course, spotted owls galore. Since I went to high school in Eureka, CA, a lot of the dialogue (pro and con) about logging and clear-cutting brought back some flashbacks. Of course I have always been on the side of the owls (sorry, I just can't resist a chance to use one of my favorite GIFS):



Jan Dunlap has written a series of mysteries featuring a birder/high school counselor named Bob White. (Cute, right?) I have only read one of them, Murder on Warbler Weekend, with the usual (and all-too-relevant) theme of birds vs development, and while it was not one of my favorites, the birding aspect was fun.

Honorable mention:

These books had less of a birding focus (or were less enjoyable for me), but enough to get on the list:

Parrot Blues by Judith van Gieson: southwestern mystery involving parrot smugglers.
The Devil's Hawk by Ray Sipherd: southwestern mystery about immigrant smugglers, but the protagonist is a birder
Beware the Butcher Bird by Lydia Adamson: set in New York City, with a group of bird-watchers investigating the death of a famous bird guide author. I didn't much like this one, but it does have the bird-theme going on, and someone else might enjoy it more than I did.
Strange Bird by Anna Jansson is a Scandinavian mystery/medical thriller about bird flu. Only slightly about birds, although there are some pigeons.


              
Literary/mainstream fiction:

Here is another good category of books, in which I include everything which doesn't fall into a clear-cut genre. But birds and birders abound!

William Cobb's The Bird Saviors is set in the near future, in a society beset by a bird flu pandemic and widespread instability, with a lonely ornithologist as one of the protagonists.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson is a hilarious account of a birding competition to win the heart of the local bird-club leader. This was probably one of my favorites, as it has not only plenty of African birds, but also an incredibly funny account of all the contretemps the narrator gets into in his quest for them.

The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis features a mixed-race girl  trying to win her Korean mother's affections (and make up for all the pet birds she accidentally killed in her youth) by helping with a bird rescue attempt in California's Salton Sea. This one gets points for an exquisitely detailed setting, but a warning that there are, indeed, a lot of dead birds in these pages.

The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway is the story of a World War II veteran/amateur ornithologist in his damaged old age, with alternating chapters dedicated to his war years in the Pacific and his present elder years and the young girl who makes a connection to him. Not as strong on the "birds" as some other books mentioned here, but a good read.

Sparrow Migrations by Cari Noga is a beautiful novel about several characters learning how to be true to themselves, including an autistic boy whose love of birds serves as bridge to the larger world. Added bonus: a wonderful scene involving piping plovers nesting in the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.

Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler is an exquisite exploration of grief and healing amongst the family members of those lost in a plane crash, one of whom is an ornithologist. Just a bit about the birds, but I loved this book too much to leave it off the list.

Another favorite, Quick Fall of Light by Sherrida Woodley is another near-future bird-flu pandemic story, but with the added twist of passenger pigeons! Yes, you heard me right, passenger pigeons! After his mysterious death, a researcher's wife discovers that her husband was involved in top-secret studies with the last surviving flock of these ill-fated birds, and that he might have had his own agenda apart from the medical corporation he worked for. I loved this book, and wish it had more of an audience...



Honorable mention:

On the other hand, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom certainly needs no introduction, as it is a best-seller that has won all sorts of awards. It is the story of a decaying marriage, and the decay of the protagonist's ideals, as an idealist young environmentalist/bird lover sells out to big coal companies, and then perhaps redeems himself. Not one of my favorites (perhaps a tad too "literary" for my tastes?), but I would be remiss in leaving it out.

I really enjoyed Birdbrain by Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo, about a rather insufferable young couple hiking off the beaten path in Australia. Concern for the environment and social decay converge in a weird sort of metaphor involving the inquisitive and at times destructive kea parrot. Not a lot about birds, really, but great food for thought on environmental themes.

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott is a mannered short novel about a visit between two couples. One of the members in a falconer, and the book has a lot of great descriptions of her "pilgrim hawk" (peregrine falcon). Read this one because it's great fiction; the bird aspect is just a bonus.


Women's Fiction/Romance

I have to admit, this is not my favorite genre, but since so many people do enjoy it, I say...if there be birds and birding, bring it on! And it's not that I hate a good love story, I would just rather have corpses than kisses in my fiction. In any case...

Bird After Bird by Leslea Tash is a very sweet an enjoyable love story about a young businesswoman, Wren, (who also loves birds) and a shy and damaged veteran/bird artist, Laurie, set (mostly) in Indiana. If you are thinking you don't like romance...well, there are some great birding scenes. And if you do like romance, these are two endearing characters that I, for one, really wanted to get together.

Laws of Migration by Suzanne Frank is another romance that won me over by its birdiness and awesome setting. Elize is an ornithologist who has just been passed over for a promotion, who travels to Morocco to look for some rare bald ibis,,,and also finds a hot love interest while she's there. I especially enjoyed this one for the setting, as I lived in Morocco for two years, and really enjoyed bringing back the memories.

Virginia Arthur's Birdbrain is an interesting and occasionally hilarious novel about a lonely young housewife who ditches her husband and discovers birds...and the never-ending quest to save their habitats. I especially enjoyed the portions about her attempt to save a patch of coastal sage habitat in southern California, although as I am originally from Michigan, those scenes resonated with me as well. For everyone who has ever had to explain to others that yes, snipe really do exist...

Honorable mention:

Catherine Gaskin's Gothic romance A Falcon For a Queen gets honorable mention for a character whose a falconer. The rest of the story isn't bad either.

Miscellaneous


One Bird by Kyoko Mori (young adult): story of a high school girl who finds new purpose in life as a bird rehabilitator. Loved the descriptions of the Japanese waxwings!

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (children's):  historical novel about a scrappy young girl who goes looking for her sister, added to this list for its wonderful descriptions of passenger pigeons.

The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory (horror): a young man and his family appear to be under an evil curse after inheriting a cottage and a captive cormorant from his uncle. There are some really good (and warning to bird lovers: DISTURBING) scenes with the cormorant.

So, these are the birdy titles that come to mind. Do you have any favorites that I have neglected to mention? Or any comments about the books I've posted here? As a book-loving birder (or bird-loving bookworm, take your pick), I'd love to read your comments or suggestions!


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My summer birding project

Cerulean warbler-image from Wikipedia

In birding or other parts of life, I'm always happiest when I have a project. Something concrete, with measurable results. Many birders like to do a "big year" and attempt to see the most birds in their particular area, and I've done that in the past, but tallying up species doesn't really interest me this year. Instead, I want to find as many different species of warbler as I can over the summer breeding season, say, from now till the beginning of August. Maybe I can find ten different species? With a bonus for each one I can locate in my home county of Dewitt (Illinois).

To prepare for this venture, I have consulted one of my favorite books, The Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas (Editor: Thomas Rice, Illinois Natural History Survey). How I love to spend a relaxing evening at home, curled up on the couch looking at maps and tables of breeding birds. (I know this pushes me firmly into "nerd" territory, and I don't care.)

So, possible warblers I could find include:

Blue-winged warbler: prefers to nest in brushy hillsides, successional  fields, and second growth woods. Builds nests in grass or vines on or near the ground. Chances: unlikely but possible. There are a few records on ebird in June for this species, with one sighting (from 2013) occurring at the Parkland Foundation's Merwin Preserve, which is in the county just north of mine. There is a lot of this warbler's favorite habitat to be found in the area.

Northern parula: preferred habitat deciduous bottomlands and along streams in upland ravines. This one's almost guaranteed, as they breed right here in my county (seen in previous years at Weldon Springs and along the North Fork Access trail.)

Yellow warbler: preferred habitat wet second growth woodlands, scrub and riparian thickets. Another easy one, as they are quite common in the area. I know I can find them at the Salt Creek Wetland in Dewitt county or the Schroeder Nature Preserve in McLean county.

Yellow-throated warbler: preferred habitat pine-oak woodlands and river corridors. Chances: pretty good, as I have seen them in July in Macon and Logan counties. I don't find them very often, though, and it would be a new bird for my Dewitt County list, so fingers crossed!

Prairie warbler: preferred habitat dry brushy clearings, second-growth forests and abandoned upland fields. Chances: very slim, although there have been sightings in Coles and Vermilion counties. There's a lot of the habitat they like here in Dewitt county, though, so I can always hope!

my "lifer"...and so far only...prairie warbler
Cerulean warbler: preferred habitat mature deciduous bottomland forest. Chances: not that good, although this is my most-hoped for warbler, both because it would be a "life bird" and because their numbers are dropping so quickly. I can think of several parks/woods with likely habitat, and there are a couple records on ebird for some surrounding counties.

American redstart: preferred habitat open deciduous and mixed forests. Chances: very likely, as I've seen them in the backpack loop of Weldon Springs over the summer in past years, and I just found one hanging out there and singing last weekend, so hopefully they will hang around.

Prothonotary warbler: preferred habitat swamps and flooded bottomland. Chances: would be excellent if I were planning a trip to southern Illinois. Since I'm not, unlikely but possible. A couple years ago there was one that appeared to be nesting at Centennial Park in Heyworth, which is not that far from me.

prothonotary warbler...this one was seen during migration
Worm-eating warbler: preferred habitat extensive mature deciduous forest with hillsides and ravines. Oh, how I would love to find a "wormy." I know they nest at Siloam Springs and Forest Glen, both a bit of a drive from me but not impossible. Closer to home, I've heard rumors they've been seen at the Mackinaw preserve in Tazewell County. Unlikely to be found in Dewitt due to habitat requirements...if they were to be found here, I would guess along the North Fork Access Trail would be the most likely spot.

Ovenbird: preferred habitat large, mature deciduous forests. Chances: I'm not holding my breath for an ovenbird, but a trip to one of the "wormy" places might turn one up.

Louisiana waterthrush: preferred habitat forested streamsides. Chances: I think pretty good, considering the fact I found one in early July two years ago along the North Fork Access Trail here in Dewitt county.

Kentucky and Hooded warblers: two more deciduous forest breeders, like the ovenbird and the worm-eating, my chances are limited to a couple of locations quite a drive from home. Possible but not likely.

Common yellowthroat: preferred habitat overgrown fields, hedges, marshes and forest edges. Bless their cheerful little hearts, these adorable warblers are everywhere during the summer.

the common yellowthroat is both cute and abundant
Yellow-breasted chat: preferred habitat dense brush or scrub. A very bizarre warbler that I am quite likely to find, as I've seen them nesting in both Dewitt and Macon counties in years past.

So here's hoping for a "warbler-iffic" summer!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When inspiration fails



So I started the new year with so many good intentions...one of them being to start posting regularly again on my bird blog! And now it's May already and...nothing. Honestly, if anyone is still out there paying attention...thank you so much for wondering what's going on in the realm of Grand Prairie birding! Because, yes, I still go out at least once a week, and look for birds. There are some really nice ones, too.

The thing is, I've learned (about myself), that while I enjoy walking my local patches week after week, that doesn't really inspire me to write about it. Nothing much changes, after all. The scenery is the same, the birds are predictable. Last weekend, for example, I had my first spring warblers (yah!), out at Weldon Springs, including blue-winged and blackpoll, which are a bit harder to find for me. And there was a vulture perching on a branch over a path. which I saw right before the reek of something dead and decaying slapped me in the face...so I turned back, to let the vulture enjoy its find. Really, better him than me, eh? But I haven't had a life bird in over a year.... Money and time, you know, with neither one being abundant.

On a bigger level, for the past year or so, I've been stuck in a routine...commute/work/go home...commute/work/go home. And on and on. I really need to connect, not just with exciting new life birds, but with my own creativity and sense of exploration. So let this be a lesson to everyone stuck in the nine to five (or eight to six, or even longer) pattern...don't lose sense of yourself! There is so much more to life! Birds and all!

Yes, I am aware of the "birds and more," hopefully soon to revive myself (and this blog). For anyone else out there, what can I say? I don't know your circumstances, what you had to do to get through your day. But it can't hurt to spend a few moments in nature. And maybe look at a bird while you're out there. Here in central Illinois, in the middle of my work week, I'm doing the same thing. (Saw a robin, some Canada geese, and a magnificent male northern cardinal on my lunch break).

Happy birding!


Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year, More birds


I do look forward to New Year's Day. No, I don't mean partying the night before and staying up late to watch the ball drop; those things would interfere with getting up before the dawn the following morning and going out to see some birds. Symbolically, this is a time of year for renewal and fresh starts--the solstice has passed, the days will get longer, and it's time to put the old year to rest and focus on new beginnings. Being a birder, I celebrate by starting my new year list and trying to see as many species as possible.

The new start is also a much-needed kick in the pants, to get me back outside to appreciate the small miracles all around us, even the ones that aren't all that exciting the rest of the year, like starlings and house sparrows. Otherwise, I hate winter and its cold, dark days and sloppy weather so much that I would probably hibernate until the beginning of April, which wouldn't be good for me at all. Besides, fair weather birders miss out on all the owls, finches, raptors, gulls and waterfowl that come here on winter holiday, and take off before the weather gets decent again.

So I was all set for a full day of birding. My plan was to walk around Weldon Springs, the park closest to my house, where a couple of hours in the woods and fields and along the lake usually nets me 30 or so of the usual winter suspects. Then, with a respectable start to my list, I would spend the afternoon scoping Clinton Lake, a bit farther afield, for gulls and waterfowl...and maybe finding some cute winter owls along the way. The weather report was predicting a partly sunny day with highs around 30--very reasonable for winter birding.

Alas, they left out the part about the wind, which made being anywhere near the water (or on the prairie, or in a field, or just about anywhere except deep in the woods) fairly miserable. There are birders whose stamina and dedication fills me with awe, to whom I mentally tip my cap in acknowledgement that I will never join their number. Likewise, I will never become an endurance athlete or the sort of person who hikes up Mt Everest, with or without supplemental oxygen. I know this attitude deprives me of greater glory, but I would rather appreciate the little things in life, such as having extremities that free of frostbite.

My New Year's birding was, therefore, somewhat abbreviated, as I got chilled to the bone shortly after arriving at the park, and didn't warm up again until I was snug in bed again that night. Chattering teeth and shivering limbs do tend to scare the birds away, as does my whining about the cold.

Even so, I did manage to get in a few good birds, including:

* Two golden-crowned kinglets squabbling with each other, hanging out in a mixed flock of black-capped chickadees and titmice
* Eastern bluebirds--I don't care how many times I see them, they are one of my favorites each and every time.
* Ditto northern cardinals.
* Ditto cedar waxwings.
* Ditto pied-billed grebes.
* At the spot along the IL 48 bridge over Clinton Lake, where hooded and common mergansers usually winter, there were also a dozen or so Bonaparte's gulls--the first time I've seen them here in January.
* A disgruntled-looking great blue heron, hunched up and scowling into the water
* And BEST OF ALL, a pair of northern saw-whet owls, located with the help of my birding buddy, Ben. If I could just keep the owls coming, winter probably wouldn't be so bad.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Winter of Discontent

Common goldeneyes never whine about the cold...unlike me

Today's discontent is freezing rain. I've spent the day reading on the couch, occasionally glancing out the window, where I can see cars splashing grayish slush along the curb as they pass. I pay attention to the windshield wipers, to see if it's still raining. And it is. Even my humble plans for birding today--walking around town a bit in the hopes that a Cooper's hawk or Eurasian collared dove flies past--will not work out.

This winter sucks. To start with, it's the coldest winter in the past couple of decades, at least here in Illinois. Single digits, sub-zero real temperatures, and wind chill factors that make me an instant human popsicle. I've been out to Clinton Lake a couple of times, watching hardy goldeneyes bobbing on the icy waves as I struggled to keep my spotting scope steady in the gale. The goldeneyes take this sort of thing in better spirits than I can muster.

To add slippery white stuff to my list of woes, it also keeps on snowing, not in a glorious, winter-wonderland way, but just enough to make the roads a death trap, with an inch or two of snow hiding random patches of black ice. I haven't gone off the road yet, but I've slithered around enough to give myself a temporary, but debilitating, phobia about it. For about a week, my commute to work involved a death-grip on the steering wheel and a struggle to maintain the speed limit, even when the roads were clear. This is how it starts, I thought. I'm well on the way to becoming an agoraphobic old lady with an animal hoarding problem. Luckily this phobia disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and I am not back to zipping down the highway like I'm practicing for the Indy 500.

I have had a few good birding moments here and there, such as finding three trumpeter swans hanging out in the stubble of a cornfield by Dewitt last Sunday, along with some of my other favorite winter species--a brown creeper in the woods, a small flock of hooded mergansers along the IL 48 bridge. And it is nice to have plenty of time to curl up and read, with dogs snoozing on my lap. Even so, winter is not my friend, and I am fighting off more cabin fevered crabbiness each day. (Next week's forecast includes snow and cold!)

Some people, when they are feeling sorry for themselves, find it helpful to think of those even less fortunate as an antidote to self-pity, and now I shall do the same. At least I am not living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with my parents. Talk about a dreadful winter! My mom's lucky to get a dozen birds on an outing right now. Although if she can find a patch of open water, there will probably be goldeneyes, a bird apparently completely impervious to the cold. How do they do it?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dr Evil Stole My Mojo


I woke up late today, surprised by an unusual sight coming from my bedroom window. Is it...could it possibly be?? It is!! The sun was out! I'd almost forgotten what it looked like....

The reason I give myself challenges like my DeWitt County Big Year is for times like this: I hate winter, I don't want to go out, and I would much rather stay curled up on my sofa, dogs in lap, reading mysteries and drinking hot chocolate. But I get really crabby if I'm deprived of nature outings for too long, and since birding is the only exercise I ever do...well, let's just say that I had a bad surprise in the fitting room at Target yesterday.

Despite my hatred of cold temps, snow drifts and Arctic winds, last year I made a birding trip to northern Minnesota, in search of owls, gulls and winter finches. Having seen them all, I had decided to stay put in Illinois this year (since vacations to warmer climes is not, alas, an option). Even so, I haven't missed out (except in the owl department), for Minnesota weather came to me. Last week, we had sub-zero real temperatures and a snowstorm, followed by everybody's favorite: freezing rain. A perfect excuse to stay inside, reading and making languid trips to the kitchen!

But today abolished my excuses--we're back in the 40s, and sunny. So I decided to "clean up" the birds I'd missed on New Year's, with another trip to my usual places in search of the usual suspects.

First stop: Weldon Springs. Targets: eastern bluebird, northern harrier, song sparrow, house finch, red-breasted nuthatch. The shallow lake was completely frozen, so the only water birds on offer were Canada geese. I strolled around a bit, but I wasn't really into it. For one thing, I was slipping over lingering patches of ice, and the birds were few and far between. Despite the warmer temps, the wind was still unpleasantly cold.

It occurred to me that I haven't been this unenthusiastic about birding in several years. Normally January finds me reinvigorated with the thrill of a new list for a new year, but this year...ho hum. Someone has stolen my mojo, and I've got to get it back! It must be...Dr. Evil! (Apologies to anyone who hasn't seen the Austin Powers movies.)


A quick stroll across the prairie gave me one of my "targets": a pair of eastern bluebirds, so beautiful that I almost got my mojo back while I was admiring them. I also had a happy surprise, a glimpse of a red-shouldered hawk, shoulders ablaze in the winter sunlight. Despite these nice species, I wasn't tempted to linger--the wind kept reminding me it was winter, and the prairie was otherwise completely devoid of birds. Even my usual American tree sparrows weren't making an appearance.

Next stop: Peninsula Day Use Area. Targets: American robin, white-throated sparrow. I got my white-throated sparrows right away; for some reason, they are reliable winter visitors here. So if you are in central Illinois and looking for this species right now, make a quick detour to Clinton Lake. I can almost guarantee you will find them at this spot. I also got the northern harrier I'd missed at Weldon Springs, and a flyover flock of cedar waxwings.

I wrapped my day up with a few more stops along the lake. There were lots of Canada geese, common goldeneyes and common mergansers, but the only other "new" species for the year I found was a herring gull. I wouldn't say that I quite have my mojo back, but a day with birds is always better than a day without.


Total for the Dewitt County Big Year: 50 species! Not bad for a nasty-tempered January!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Let's Round Up the Usual Suspects!


Maybe it's a personal flaw, but I'm the sort of person who craves novelty and adventure. In birding terms, that means that a trip to the same locations, to see the same species, as I've done over and over the past few years, is not that exciting. Some people claim to be enchanted with every single mourning dove or blue jay they see, as though it were their "lifer."

I envy these people. I'm not sure I really believe them, but even so, I envy them. It's not as if I don't like mourning doves and blue jays. I'd miss them if they were gone. But I just need a bit more. Which is why I like to give myself challenges. This year's challenge is:

My DeWitt County, IL Big Year!! Since there's only one other serious birder who birds here, I'm adding an extra challenge: not only do I need to see more species than anyone else for 2014, I also need to beat the high total ever recorded (by that other birder) on ebird. That means, this year's challenge is to see 211 species or more in my home county.

This was all the incentive I needed to get me out the door on a crisp winter morning on New Year's Day. I was hoping for a good mix of passerines and waterfowl, and hopefully some good raptors, and thanks to the previous couple of years birding the area, I knew exactly where I was most likely to find them.

First stop: Mascoutin State Recreation Area, where Clinton Lake was shrouded in thick clouds of fog, due to the warming effect of the nuclear power plant. I like the power plant because it keeps the water relatively open even during the coldest days, and open water in winter means birds! (I still haven't seen a three-eyed fish, though.)


Peering through the mist, which was thicker than ever and created a real horror-movie sort of effect, I was able to make out all my usual winter suspects: a couple of great blue herons, a pied-billed grebe, a large flock of coots, and some Canada geese. The even foggier flume revealed mallards, northern shovelers and gadwall.

Time for the passerines, my favorites. I was especially hoping for: brown creeper, pine siskin, golden-crowned kinglet, cedar waxwing, white-throated sparrow and red-breasted nuthatch, none of which would be rare for this time of year, but not guaranteed, either. To maximize my chances, I'd need to hike for a bit. There are patches along the Houseboat Cove trail at Mascoutin that often have active feeding flocks in the winter, but these areas are spaced out over three miles of trail.

It wasn't the best day for a winter walk: cloudy and damp, not horribly cold but the kind that settles into the bones. The wind over the lake was quite nasty. I don't mind a glittering, ice palace sort of winter day, when the sky is almost painfully blue and the whole world sparkles. This wasn't that sort of day. It was dreary, and to be honest, I'd rather be somewhere tropical, looking for motmots and quetzels. But as I'm in Illinois, it's prairie birds I'm after, and some of them are, after all, quite special.

I got some of my favorites, and even a couple of surprises: white-crowned sparrow, tufted titmouse, golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, and yellow-rumped warblers were some of the highlights.

By the time I'd finished my walk, I was getting cold, but I still had enough spunk for a quick drive around the lake. Common goldeneye were at the Marina, and some cackling geese, greater white-fronted geese and common mergansers at the IDNR station. The causeway along the IL 48 bridge revealed one of my favorites (that I can't possibly tire of, no matter how many times I see them): hooded mergansers.

A couple days later, I took to the country roads to look for birds wintering in the fields, lured in close enough to view to get grit or seeds from the roadsides, and got some Lapland longspurs and horned larks.

So I am starting my Big Year with 42 species, which is not bad at all for me at this time of year. I'm missing some that should be here--bald eagle, white-throated sparrow, northern harrier, ring-necked pheasant. Hopefully this will lure me out into the cold for another round of birding this coming weekend.

So how has winter birding been treating you?