Monday, August 17, 2015

August birding doldrums

Great blue herons seldom worry about their weight

Dear Winter, I know in the past I have said some hateful things about you, such as about the cold and ice and lack of birds and it being dark at five o'clock, etc., but upon further consideration, I take it back. No really, I owe you a big fat apology. You see, while I was freezing my @$$ off looking for ducks or black-backed gulls over the frigid lakes and rivers, unable to blink as my eyes had frozen and unable to adjust my scope because fingers ditto, what I forgot was...late summer is just as bad. In its own way. Because by mid-August I am drowning in my own sweat, anemic from being feasted upon by so many insects, and guess what? There are no birds!!

You can probably guess, by now, that I have spent the past couple of weeks or so sizzling in the sunshine and not seeing many birds. Late July through late August is really about the shorebirds here in central Illinois, and because the water level has been so high in the lakes and rivers, we haven't had a lot of mudflats to attract them. In July there were some good "fluddles" (field puddles), but those have mostly dried up by few shorebirds for me. (Although I can't really complain, as I've recently gotten two delightful life birds: PIPING PLOVER in a fluddle in Livingston County in late July, and BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER at a sod farm in Kankakee County a couple of weeks ago.)

But, I am only a week or two away from fall warblers! And hopefully some interesting birding adventures to write about. I know I keep promising (to myself, at any rate) to blog more, but since starting my hospital job, I always feel so crunched for time, and I haven't had much energy left over either. Especially as blogging falls below other goals and pursuits, such as:

1. birding (of course)!
2. reading (my other hobby)
3. pursuing fitness and healthy eating ('cause I am so out of shape, it's not even funny); and
4. non-blogging writing (even if I have to self-publish, someday I would like my volume of grand prairie birding adventures out there for the general public).

But mostly, I blame my job. Yes, I am grateful to have it, but does it ever suck up all my time! Still, no whining...not even about overtime and how I haven't even had a proper vacation since I've started. I'll just let Nellie McKay say it all for me.

And I hope you are having good birding, wherever you are. Because as they say, a bad day of birding is better than a good day at the office!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

My June breeding bird challenge

catbird went a-courting
My quest to find ten species of breeding warblers kind of fizzled out. There were reasons, which I will get into, but rather than abandon the project altogether I changed it to completing the June eBird challenge of submitting twenty checklists with a breeding code on them. (What is ebird?, you might ask. If so, please check it out and learn more; all birders should eBird!)

The breeding codes include:

Nest with young or eggs
Birds carrying food or nesting material
Birds feeding young
Recently fledged young
Agitated behavior or territorial defense
Display, courtship behavior or copulation
Pair in suitable habitat
Multiple (7+) singing males

With such a range of behaviors to choose from, this seemed like a more realistic goal than finding so many different warblers. Plus, if I succeeded, my name would go into the drawing for a free pair of binoculars.

I began the month with some trips to my local patches, Weldon Springs and Mascoutin Recreation Area here in Dewitt county, IL. Immediately, I ran into some challenges, one of which being swarms and swarms of extremely loud, ugly insects. They clustered on the leaves by the dozen, flied lazily in every direction, even landed on me and pinched me from time to time. The drone of them drowned out any birdsong, assuming the birds were persistent enough to keep nesting in such unpleasant conditions. I had never seen anything like it. It felt...apocalyptic.

Photo credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Sleuth
A bit of surfing the Internet showed this plague of insects to be cicadas, which do this sort of thing every 17 years. Also, I was not imagining the dearth of birds; avian numbers do seem to drop when cicadas have their seventeen-year-fling. I imagine that, like me, the birds just find them too repulsive to be around. (Although apparently, in some places of the world, they are considered a tasty treat. Despite my interest in the "paleo" style diet, I think I'll pass!)

My other challenge was a swarm of a different variety. I had never gone to bird at Mascoutin on a summer evening before...and it turned out that it was packed with people. I think half of central Illinois had descended upon the campground and Clinton Lake. But I got several checklists over the first week, and was off to a good start.

My breeding birds:

Red-winged blackbirds--pairs in suitable habitats
Wood duck--recently fledged young
Dickcissel--multiple singing males
Common grackle--recently fledged young
Canada geese--recently fledged young

young Canada geese
The next weekend, sick of the cicadas, I decided to head north a bit to McLean county, and stopped at Schroeder Nature Sanctuary (a.k.a. "the sewer plant"--but it's a very nice sewer plant, honest). Despite a weather forecast promising that the rain wouldn't start until noon, no sooner than I had arrived, but dark, ominous clouds rolled in, followed by copious thunder and lightning. I huddled in the bird blind for about an hour, annoying a pair of barn swallows that were nesting under the eaves, until I finally gave up and ran back to my car (getting soaked along the way).

Breeding birds:

Tree swallow--going in and out of nesting box
Barn swallow--going to and from nest
Purple martin--going in and out of martin house

My next trip was even farther afield, to the Emiquon preserve along the Illinois River Valley, one of my favorite spots to bird in central Illinois. I "dipped out" on my hoped for bird, a tricolored heron that someone had spotted a few days earlier, but there were still many good birds, including black-necked stilts, common gallinules (I do prefer the old name "moorhen"), Eurasian tree sparrows and a very quick look at some glossy ibis flying away.

Breeding birds:

Mute swan--recently fledged young
Cliff swallows--recently fledged young

cliff swallow peeking out of nest
One of the "reasons" my birding projects have been curtailed, along with insects and weather, has simply been lack of time. Normally I would take an extra day or two off during June to enjoy my favorite season (well, second favorite, after spring migration, of course), but this year work has been crazy and the boss has been hollering for everyone to work overtime. Although I never complain about overtime on payday, the other days it's fairly challenging to be stuck in a cubicle when so much birdy stuff is going on outside. But between one thing and another, I didn't get out again until the summer solstice, and I was running behind schedule if I wanted to complete my 20 checklists. (Even though I "cheated" once and threw in a list of backyard birds the evening I looked outside and saw a juvenile mourning dove on my fence.)

Before moving to Clinton, I used to bird all over McLean county, and for a change of pace, I decided to revisit some of my old favorite patches. Actually, Saturday morning I woke up exhausted, and it was only my desire to complete the challenge that got me out the door.

My first stop was at Centennial Park in Heyworth, which revealed a nice mixture of usual suspects, and made me remember why birding is just plain fun. Yellow warblers, noisy catbirds, and a family of Baltimore orioles were the "best" of the bunch.

After that, I went to Moraine View State Park, Schroeder Nature Sanctuary (the sewer plant again), and Sugar Grove Nature Center, kind of a whirlwind tour of McLean County birding sites south of Bloomington. I have described all these spots in more detail in earlier posts (searchable in the menu at right if you're curious), but on this day, I mostly remember being hot and sweaty and seeing all my favorite summer birds.

Breeding birds:

Wild turkey--recently fledged young (at Sugar Grove)
Baltimore oriole--recently fledged young
Mallard--recently fledged young
Field sparrow--recently fledged young
Barn swallow--recently fledged young (the ones previously in the nest at Schroeder--and did they ever leave a messy nest behind!)
American robin--recently fledged young

Another week passed, and I was down to the final weekend of June. If I was going to meet my goal, I had to spend another full day's worth of birding, and this time I decided to head to my old favorite spots north of Bloomington: Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake and Parklands Merwin Preserve. By now all the rain we'd been getting throughout the month had resulted in still more birding impediments--voracious hordes of mosquitoes and sodden, squelchy trails. Still, it was a good trip. I saw a pair of Caspian terns flying over Evergreen Lake and a ton of summer favorites, including an eastern kingbird that seemed to be doing some sort of courtship display.

eastern kingbird eating lunch
It was flying up, then fluttering down slowly while calling out continuously--I've never seen anything like it, but I assume he was trying to get the ladies' attention. Well, at least one lady was checking him out, but probably not the species he was hoping for!

Breeding birds:

Eastern kingbird--courtship display
House wren--multiple singing males

So yes, I (just barely) got my twenty checklists, and I had a lot of fun and accrued a good handful of those priceless birding memories. I don't think I'll win the free binoculars, but, honestly, the grand prize was seeing all those summer birds!

None of the photos used in this blog were actually taken during my June adventures, but except for the cicada photo, they were all taken in the past by my husband (the catbird) or myself (all others) in various locations around central Illinois.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Music for bird nerds

Well I promise I will have a real post coming soon; but in the meantime, here's something cute I found on You Tube. No, it doesn't make birding seem "cool"...but so what? I like birds!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Beautiful nature images

I'm a bit hesitant to link to anything on youtube, since these videos seem to disappear just as quickly as I find them, but this one is so lovely I just have to share it. Hope you enjoy it!

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.


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 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 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!