Saturday, December 25, 2010

Winter walk

Another snowy day. Greenturtle and I decided to go for a walk at Parklands Merwin Preserve, on the road between Lexington and Gridley in McLean County.

At first, the woods seemed almost devoid of birds, and everything seemed so austere. I could hear the sound of my feet squelching along in the snow, occasional traffic noises. The Mackinaw River was almost entirely iced over.

Snow lay heavily on the tree branches. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang."

Then, we heard tapping, rap-rap-rap against the tree trunk. The sound carried well without any foliage to muffle it -- as if it were coming from a huge woodpecker. In that same area, I also saw some chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, proof that the woods weren't really blighted. And the woodpecker, once spotted, turned out to be of completely modest proportions: a juvenile red-headed woodpecker. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you will see his head is transitioning from brown to red.(Juvenile red-headeds have brown heads, which can be confusing to new birders!)

A bit further down the trail, while I was looking at some tufted titmice, Greenturtle decided to photograph the birder rather than the birds. Just as well, in the dim winter light, all we would have caught would probably be gray blobs on dark branches.

The most exciting part of our walk, unfortunately, went entirely unphotographed. I saw a large bird fly away over the treetops as we approached. I had a very quick look, but it had a rounded shape that made me think, "Owl!" We stood for a few minutes, listening to two unseen great horned owls hoot a duet from the evergreens. We were able to creep slowly off the trail and into the trees, stopping every few feet to listen for them. Finally, we got too close, and I just caught a glimpse of the nearer owl flying away again. Luckily owl calls are quite distinctive, because really all I saw was his tail end soaring away as quickly as he (or she) could -- not even a good look at the "horns."

We finished the walk with a stroll to the oak savanna, a remnant of the beautiful ecosystem that once was prevalent across the mid-west and is now perhaps the most endangered habitat on earth. Oak savannas are open woodlands that have a park-like feel, because the huge trees prevent a thick understory from forming. Savannas are important for species like eastern wood-pewees and red-headed woodpeckers like the one we'd seen earlier.

When Sunwiggy and I first saw the Merwin Preserve's savanna, we were so impressed with it that we named it "the Beautiful Place." Even in the heart of winter, there's something special about it....

Friday, December 24, 2010

Eurasian tree sparrows are back!

Today Greenturtle and I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center here in McLean County for a winter walk. It was snowing, but not too cold, and we were the only people in evidence, making it very peaceful. I hadn't been to Sugar Grove in a while -- I've barely been out of Bloomington all month, except for my trip to Allerton Park last weekend -- and I was hoping that the regular winter visitors would be back at the feeders again.

These visitors are Eurasian tree sparrows. The species is similar looking to the house sparrow, and is also not native to the continent--they were introduced to the Saint Louis area around 1970. Unlike the more aggressive house sparrow, they have not wandered far from their release point, and it is quite a treat to see them in central Illinois. For some reason, they only seem to come here during the winter. (Rumor has it that they can be found along the Illinois River Valley, but I have yet to see them anywhere else besides the feeders at Sugar Grove Nature Center.)

The top two photos, above, were taken last February--it was a cloudy day and the pictures were taken through the glass of the bird viewing room, but I think you can see the black cheek patch and all brown head that distinguish the Eurasian tree sparrow from the house sparrow. The last photo was taken at the bonsai display at the Japanese festival in Saint Louis--another sighting, albeit artistic, of the elusive little bird.

"That's our golden bird!"

My birthday was earlier this month (doesn't everyone just love to commemorate getting older?) and Sunwiggy was kind enough to buy me the first season of Birding Adventures, a birding-focused television program hosted by a guy named James Currie.

In the program, Currie, an amiable enough host (I think he said, at different points in the series, that he currently lives on the East Coast of the U.S. but is originally from South Africa)visits Florida, Guyana, Panama and California, each time specifying the "golden bird" that he is looking for, usually a rare or endangered one such as the Florida scrub jay, red-cockaded woodpecker, harpy eagle, California condor, etc. Along the way, he interacts with the local people, promotes local attractions, interviews birding guides and conservationists, and enjoys pointing out other wildlife as well as birds.

I like bird-related DVDs to watch in the winter time, when it's dark by the time I get home and the weather frequently sucks, so I can at least enjoy some birds vicariously. My two standbys are David Attenborough's wonderful The Life of Birds, and the full-length feature, Winged Migration, but I have watched those over and over, so it was nice to see something new.

For Birding Adventures, first, the minuses: it is clearly a television program, and sometimes reminded me that although channels such as Animal Planet sound really fun, I've yet to see anything on them that makes me want to spring for the cost of cable TV. The program seems aimed at a general TV audience, that is, there's a lot of filler (despite the fact that the segments are fairly short to start with), repeats of the same shots over and over, the need to "balance" out the birdy stuff with more general interest items, and lots of mildly annoying catchphrases. Also, except for the catchy theme, "Now Is the Time of Your Life" (which is, after all, how one feels on a great day of birding!), the music was pretty cheesy.

I state these things in the spirit of complete honesty, because overall the "plusses" came out slightly ahead. I liked the locations they chose, and the interviews with the conservation experts. It was nice that the program stressed the need for protecting habitat with a consistently positive spin, such as pointing out success stories and that having these wonderful birds should be a source of pride for a community. I did enjoy seeing some of the other animals he stopped to admire too, especially the extra cute silky anteater (I think that was in Panama). Overall, the series met my criteria for the perfect birding book (although this was TV): wacky adventures, birding emphasis, and a person I'd enjoy birding with. James Currie comes across as a fun birding buddy. I just wish the segments had been a bit more in depth, but I guess that's the nature of the medium.

If they release a second season, I will happily add that to my next holiday wish list. And in the meantime, as Currie says frequently in the series, "Let's go birding!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Statues in the snow

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went to the Robert Allerton Park outside of Monticello, IL. As you approach, a banner announces that the Illinois tourism board has designated the park as one of the wonders of Illinois, and actually, I have to agree. Currently owned by the University of Illinois, the park contains the manor and gardens of the later Mr. Robert Allerton, along with several miles of hiking trails along the floodplain of the Sangamon River.

And winter is probably my favorite time to visit it. The gardens and statues seem particularly appealing in the snow. Spring is also lovely, of course...the woods are carpeted with wildflowers. And when the warblers are coming through, that's just magic! Fall is also nice. But you know how some places are advertised as being all season attractions. Let me just say that Allerton Park is definitely a three season attraction. In the summer the mosquitoes are so bad I practically needed a blood transfusion afterward. I've only been one other place where I felt so persecuted by insect life, and that was a swamp. In Texas.

But winter is wonderful. I have included a larger sampling of photos than usual (my photographer Greenturtle is back, now that he's done with school for the time being) because the place was just so moody and lovely. Even though the day was overcast, and there were some snow flurries, it felt perfect. The turquoise color of the Sunsinger statue practically glowed in the strange, overcast light.

Since this blog is called Bird Ephemera, you may be wondering what birds I saw. Well, it's winter, and I suffer from the winter birding curse, so not too many species. Mostly woodpeckers were in evidence, including two red-headed woodpeckers and two pileateds. They were all quite noisy, calling to each other and banging away like crazy at the trees. I also saw a nice tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, some chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, and a large flock of robins. Unfortunately overcast moody days lend themselves much better to photos of statuary than of birds, so I will have to ask you to use your imagination on those.

I think my favorite part of Allerton is the Fu Dog garden (the Fu Dog is the one at the bottom). There are actually two whole rows of them; in Chinese folklore, the Fu Dogs protected against demons.

And, personally, I think they have their work cut out for them, because take a look at the photos of the Chinese musicians. I've always thought those little statues look positively diabolical. "Can't you picture them coming to life after dark, and running around looking for people to terrorize in the woods?" I asked Greenturtle.

"Now that I've taken their pictures," he said, "they can escape the gardens through their images and terrorize us in our house!"

OK, as anyone who has taken a look at my other blog, Crow's Nest Reviews, knows, I have quite a fondness for horror movies. When I'm not looking for birds, I'm thinking up creepy stories. But seriously, Robert Allerton Park, great fun, great birds, check it out!

And just food for that you've looked on the images and let the Musicians into your home...well, just don't be surprised if you hear them creeping around at night, that's all I'm saying.

Central Illinois in winter

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Winter is here!

A mere two days after I did my last post, announcing that there was no snow started to snow. We didn't get that much, maybe three to four inches, but it has been quite cold ever since.

Sunday I went for a walk through Ewing Park, an urban park here in Bloomington, IL. It's not far from where I live, maybe a couple of miles...although the parking lot was very icy. The sounds of children squealing with delight carried through the air from the field, where they were sledding down the hill. In the "Hedge Apple Woods" area, where I was, I think I experienced the most solitude I ever have at that park, which is normally overrun with dog walkers.

Once again, I took Greenturtle's camera (he was home studying, as usual), with the goal of getting some nice snaps of crows. I love crows, and had an image of a post called "Crow Patrol" or "Crows in snow," something clever like that, featuring brilliant photos of crows. Well, there were crows, quite noisy crows at that, but they didn't fancy having their pictures taken. Either they stayed in the trees, behind lots of tangling branches and/or evergreen fronds...or they were flying to and fro...or they were in really poor light. I have a couple of smudgy charcoal-looking crow shapes as photographic evidence for all these crows, nothing more. I think Sunwiggy may be right. She stated in a recent e-mail that crows don't like to have their pictures taken.

What I did find, in abundance, was a flock of robins. I'm not sure if they were on their way south or if they had decided to stay put for the season (not all robins migrate, and I guess the numbers that linger through the winters are increasing), but there sure were a lot of them. I also saw: downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers; blue jays; cardinals; black-capped chickadees; and one cedar waxwing. my list of usual winter suspects, posted previously, I can see that the curse of winter birding is upon me!

It was pretty in the park, with all the new-fallen snow. Cold, but pretty. Meanwhile, the new winter weather has proven quite a challenge to my workplace commute, since I am still biking it several times a week. I would love to say I'm suffering for the sake of the earth, but the truth is, I just can't afford a second car right now. I mean, I probably could if I really wanted to, but what a waste of money I don't have! I refuse to bow down to convention! I can get by with my bike!

Meanwhile, is it admiration or just shock that my co-workers expressed today, as I pulled on my balaclava (as in above photo!) and assorted winter gear and announced, 15 degrees be damned, I'm riding my bike! I'm from Michigan, after all, where we know a thing or two about winter. The truth is, the cold doesn't really bother me that much for short spurts. Less than an hour outside and I'm fine in all but the most Arctic of weather. It's the traffic I mind, especially in the dark (yes, five o'clock and already dark as midnight, alas), and especially when the ice on the sides of the road forces me out closer to the traffic. Well, what can I say, winter is here, and it's just arrived, so I might as well get used to it....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Winter birds

I have no luck with winter birds. I have yet to see a snow bunting, Lapland longspur or pine siskin. Visiting owls, winter finches, redpolls, crossbills: all are safe from being seen by me. Last year I had a theory; my lack of winter bird sightings was because I don't like to go out in the winter. So I went out, no matter the weather, risking frostbite, hypothermia, and death from listening to Sunwiggy whining about the cold.

Was I rewarded by a slew of winter bird sightings? No. My Bird Journal reveals a consistent pattern: 15-20 species per outing, and all of them a variation of: American goldfinch, house finch, white and red-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadee, American crow, northern cardinal, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, American tree sparrow, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, house sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, Canada goose, European starling, blue jay, tufted titmouse. Wondrous as all of these species are to see, the monotony of it for week after week became a bit tiring. Still, I had a project, to witness and document the full panorama of McLean County birding in every month and season.

I have been reviewing my notes from last winter, and just in time. At the moment central Illinois is experiencing its first snap of cold weather of the season. This morning, I wheeled my bike out to go to work, and was immediately slapped silly by an Arctic blast of wind. I decided to go back inside for more winter gear (luckily a fit of knitting a couple years ago has supplied me with a variety of hats, scarves, cowls, etc.), which gave the wind an opportunity to knock my bike over. Having added another couple of layers, I hoisted my bike back up and took off...fighting valiantly to make headway into the wind. I mean, I understand I'm no Lance Armstrong, but with all my bike riding over the past few months shouldn't I be in better shape??

On the way to work, my bird sightings have consisted of: large flocks of starlings; pigeons; crows (this morning they were poking holes in trash bags looking for goodies); and Canada geese. Oh, the curse of winter birding!

So, this winter will I persevere in my quest for the Lapland longspur and the snow bunting, and all their wintry friends? Or will I stay nice and warm inside as much as possible? I'd like to think I'll be going out.... (I've signed up to go to the Sax Zim Bog birding festival in northern Minnesota in February, so hopefully I can break my winter bird curse then!) In the meantime, I've been looking over some winter snaps from the past couple of years.... Hopefully they will inspire me. (We don't have snow yet...these are from last January at Starved Rock State Park.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Missed opportunities

The picture above is of me, age 17 (that was a long time ago! Check out those ugly earrings! Ah, the 1980s, at least I was too lazy to do the big hair thing), on a boat off the coast of Japan. I had the wonderful fortune to win a Rotary Club International scholarship and spent my senior year of high school as an exchange student in Maizuru, Japan. It was overall a very positive experience (I later spent a summer studying in Hakodate, Japan--on the northernmost island of Hokkaido--and I would go back for a third visit in a heartbeat if I could afford the trip right now) and the cultural experiences I had are, sadly, beyond the scope of this blog.

But this is what really gets me. I remember this boat trip quite clearly, and I remember that I enjoyed it. I had recently arrived in Maizuru, still did not speak the language beyond a few greetings, and was feeling so overwhelmed by it all...but the chance to just sit on the boat, watching the water, doubtless listening to the cries of the sea birds (I actually don't remember the birds), completely relaxed me. I have always been happiest when I can spend time in nature. I was so enchanted by the sight of the island that I asked my Rotary translator/chaperon how one could get there. He said maybe ask a fisherman to drop you off, but since I didn't speak Japanese at the time, I didn't try it. (Later I did learn Japanese well enough to be fairly fluent--few people in Maizuru spoke much English, at least in the 1980s, and the Crow MUST communicate!--but I never did go to the island.)

So there I am, as you can see in the photo, looking DOWN at the water. I was not especially into birds at the time. I liked birds well enough, was always happy if someone pointed them out to me, but it never would have occurred to me to go looking for them.

And overhead were flying...well, as I can see in these photos, there are clearly some gulls or terns, and what looks to me like it might be an ALBATROSS! I almost cried when I saw it in my photo album. But look at the beak, and the pattern of the wings--an albatross? Right above me? And I didn't even LOOK UP??????

Sadly, Japan is not the only missed birding opportunity I can think of. I also lived in Morocco for two years (I did see and identify white storks and a Levaillant's woodpecker there, and heard a European cuckoo, but that was just a decade ago and the "birder" in me was starting to stir, I think--sadly, still no binoculars, guide book or wherewithal to look for birds) and have been to Spain and Gibraltar. Not to mention having been a Navy brat and then spending four years in the Army, I have been to a lot of places! And not until I moved to Illinois did I stop to look for birds!

I try not to think about how long my Life List could be if I'd been paying attention all those years. The purpose of all this is not to kick myself with pointless regrets, but to illustrate the point: birding is learning to pay attention. To stop and look, to listen, to engage all one's senses, to be open and present. I do feel that now, as a birder, just strolling down the street, I notice more than I ever used to.

The question is, what else is there that I am not paying attention to, that's happening right now somewhere around me? Learning to wake up and really see what's all around us is such a gift. At least with birds I'm making progress.

And if anyone looking at these pictures can give me a positive ID on these birds, many thanks! Not that I could add them to the life list...but it would be nice to know what was flying overhead that day.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Canada Goose Illustrated!

The semester is almost done which means that Greenturtle is once again stuck at home studying like a fiend. As those who have been reading about my rambles know, when we go on nature strolls together, Greenturtle and I are a team: he takes the photos, and I write about the outing in deathless prose, a sample of which you are reading right now. (Yes, that's a stab at humor!) Since he has been unable to accompany me for the last few months, my poor blog has been mostly unillustrated. Today I was fed up with that situation, so I borrowed Greenturtle's camera and drove down the street to State Farm Corporate South. So all photos accompanying today's posts were taken by me, hooray!

That is one of the things I like about birding. Because of my love of birding, I am continuously challenging myself, not only to learn more about birds (namely, where to find them and how to identify them, most important birding skills!), but also I have explored so many new places, learned about different ecosystems and plants, met new people. Working from birds out, I just keep learning. The only reason I ever would have started a blog is to share my love of birds. And now I seriously intend to become a better photographer, starting today....

Mostly I had an opportunity to look at, and photograph, Canada geese, which were numerous on and around the State Farm pond. As I walked up, they were lying on the grass around the sidewalk, probably happy to have the place to themselves on the weekend. As I approached, they hurried for the pond, giving me the opportunity to take photos of them in flight (see below).

I spent a lot of time gazing over the pond, switching back and forth from binoculars to camera (which was a little awkward -- not used to having so many straps around my neck!) In addition to the geese, there were mallards, pied-billed grebes, ring necked ducks, and an American wigeon. I also learned today that ring necked ducks have an uncanny ability to always stay as far from the observer as possible! Also, that they are diving ducks, not dabbling ducks like mallards.

It was a lot of fun snapping the photos, until I got home and had Greenturtle download them-- "You took over a hundred photos of CANADA GEESE??" What can I say, they kept DOING things!

The miracle of flight

What is it about birds that makes them so captivating? I think it is flight...combined with their beauty and the contradiction of strength and fragility. Even birds which are ungainly on land, like Canada geese -- don't get me wrong, I like them, especially in the spring time when they have such cute little fuzzball goslings following them around -- but no one seeing their butt-waggling walk on land would gaze at them and think, "Ah, that's like poetry, isn't it?" But just wait till they take flight....

Friday, November 26, 2010

Quiet Friday

Today begins the consumerist frenzy that will drag on for the next month or so. The Crow will not be partaking. Since I hate both crowds and shopping, I participated in Quiet Friday (am I the only one who finds it a bit disturbing that our Cult of the Consumer now has a de facto holiday in its honor?)by spending the morning working on my novel and then, entranced by the sunshine I could see pouring through the windows, went out for a nature walk in the afternoon.

I have not been birding in a couple of weeks because a couple of weeks ago I got the flu, which passed quickly but left a host of secondary infections in its wake, first some sinus deal and then some phlemgy coughing thing, which is still hanging on, in fact, but not acutely enough to make me go to the doctor. Luckily I now feel better, and also felt like getting some exercise outdoors in the sunshine would do miracles for my mental state.

It was sunny but extremely windy, so I decided to drive out of town a bit to Parklands Merwin Preserve, hoping that the trees would block the wind. And I realized that, while I stayed inside coughing and feeling sorry for myself, the seasons had changed.

The trees were bare of leaves, the woods a study in shades of brown and gray. The corn has all been harvested, the fields stretching bare to the horizon. The golden hues of the prairie grasses are fading. A thin film of ice coated the surface of the ponds....

The woods always seem a little unsettled on a windy day. The wind doesn't just create one sound as it shakes the tree tops but many, and other sounds carry oddly. The wind is like a presence, seeming to travel from one grove of trees to the next in progression.

I followed the trail to the river, where a mixed flock of starlings and robins were bathing and drinking water, flying back and forth from a small sandbar in the river to the nearby trees. Although they are both common birds (it wasn't like I was seeing any others to intrigue me!) I stopped and watched them for a while, enjoying seeing their behavior. It was clear from watching them, for example, that there was a flock of starlings and a flock of robins that both happened to enjoy the same moment at the river, rather than a true "mixed flock." They would stand side by side to get their drink, but then each flew back to its own kind.

I could see some people hiking on the other side of the river (the Preserve has trails on both sides of the Mackinaw River, but no bridge connecting them--to get from one side to another you have to drive around, unless the water's VERY low and you can wade), but my side seemed to be entirely solitary.

I had left the trail to stand by the edge of the bluff overlooking the river, and somehow, walking back, I couldn't find it again. For those who have never been to Parklands Merwin Preserve, let me explain that losing the trail is actually hard to do. Where I was consists of a narrow strip of woods with the river bluff on one side and an open field on the other. As I wandered back, I could see both the river and the field at all times, and I knew that the trail went right alongside the field.

There's no possible way to get lost, so I wasn't alarmed. But it was disorienting. Part of it was that even though I have been to Parklands many dozens of times over the past few years, and have seen it in all moods and seasons, the sudden change of season just made it "look wrong" to me. And the continuous whooshing of the wind provided an auditory confusion of its own. I thought of how in the movie The Blair Witch Project, the students end up going in circles and can't get out of the woods no matter what they do. I thought of the old faery myth of "stray sod," a clump of grass enchanted by the faeries so if you step on it, you'll get lost even if you're in your own back yard.

And still, where was the trail! I walked by a deer hunting contraption (a ladder with a camouflaged seat at the top, looking quite new) that I hadn't seen on the way to the river. I stepped over a dead raccoon. OK, I was just joking about the Blair Witch and the pixie grass, but where the flip is the trail?

And I found it. I had crossed right over it, and was skirting the other side. The thick ground cover of fallen leaves must have obscured it. Luckily the strip of land between the field and the river was so narrow that I was bound to find it fairly soon.

I kept walking, and even though I did not lose the trail again, everything still looked a bit "weird" to me. As I walked past the grove of pines, I realized that the wind sounded different blowing here than it had in the oaks... Just before the loop to swing back to where I'd parked, I found a nice flock of chickadees, and enjoyed all the different sounds they make; there were also a lot of cardinals, a red-bellied woodpecker, and a white-breasted nuthatch. (Which brings me to the sum total of all species seen on my walk, not impressive, I know.)

By this point, the clouds had blown in and it felt like the temperature was dropping, so I was glad enough to head back to the car (even though doing so was straight into the wind! OMG, life in the flatlands!) Although a little strange, and not very birdy, the walk surely did me good. For one thing, the story I am working on involves a strange woods, and it never hurts to have inspiration!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The perfect birding book...

Do you have in your mind the image of the perfect book? The one that reading it would bring unmitigated pleasure, that would satisfy your every need as a reader? Consider it the Platonic ideal of the Book, the one that can never exist in the mere pallid imitations of real life.

I have such a book. Actually, depending on my mood and the genre, I have several such books. The inability to actually find them more than once a decade is probably what inspires me as a writer—then, if the book falls short of the dream, I only have myself to blame.

In regards to this blog, my perfect book would be one of those vivid, rollicking travelogues, the kind that make you imagine the place so vividly you could almost be there yourself – not that you’re entirely sure you’d want to go, because the narrative presents the locale dust, beggars, warts and all, not some prettified fluff piece – but the writer seems so engaging, offbeat and funny that you’d sign up for any trip on the globe with him or her—well, except maybe to Guam. I have nothing against Guam, except for the fact that an invasive tree snake has eradicated almost all of the birds on the island, and who wants to visit a place with no birds? I can think of a variety of travel books that meet these criterion—but by and large, they do not mention any birds. My ideal book has all of that AND birding.

To be honest, although I have read many interesting books on birding and birdwatching (the differences are subtle but they exist), some of them discussing the philosophical/spiritual aspect of birding that fascinates me as well, some relaying an individual’s experiences seeking different birds, some biographical, some factual, etc. – I feel that the travel/birding merger is still a consummation devoutly to be wished. (Perhaps one day I will write it.)

The closest I have found is “A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All” by Luke Dempsey (Bloomsbury USA: 2009). In this book, Dempsey and two friends, Don and Donna (who are probably composite characters, if they exist at all) travel to various birding hotspots, including Michigan (to see the Kirtland’s warbler), Texas, Arizona and Florida. The love of birding shines through for most of the narrative, and yes, they do have some madcap adventures.

So how does this stack against my Platonic vision of the perfect birding book? Birding emphasis—yes, that was satisfactory. They went looking for birds, and they saw lots of them. Vividness of description? On the one hand, yes—I could picture the places they went to fairly well, but I have been to several of them myself, and Dempsey’s description did not “jive” with my own memories at all. For example, Pedernales Falls State Park in Texas, home of the golden-cheeked warbler. I actually went there just a month or so before he did, and our experiences could not have been more different. He describes it as being hard to find (I suspect the trio are directionally challenged, let my just put it that way) and overrun with RVs and white-water rafters. I found it easy-peasy to get to, not too crowded – it had just the right ratio of hikers/campers to a solo birder like myself, enough that you don’t feel like you could be murdered by a psycho with no one the wiser, but not so many that the trails felt crowded. And everyone I met was super-friendly. As for the birding – Pedernales Falls will always stand out as one of the best moments of my birding history. Not only did I find the endangered warblers, singing sweetly from the tops of the pines, but I also spend an enchanted hour or so sitting in a bird blind by a feeding station just watching the life birds fly in. Black chinned hummingbird! Pyrrhuloxia! Spotted towhee! Western scrub jay! Every time I wanted to move on, some other wonder flew in, detaining me for another few minutes to admire it.

True, people can have different experiences of the same place. Maybe when Dempsey and Company went there the variables were different than at my visit. (Except for the location – it is NOT HARD to find!) But this seems to happen more than once. For example, I am a native Michigander before I migrated a bit south to Illinois, and I didn’t really think he had a feel for my home state (except for the mosquitoes—that was totally plausible!) It seemed like everywhere he went he met rude, weird people and ended up in a shouting match—well, I am widely traveled myself, and have NEVER gone off on people the way he relates in his book.

This brings me to my last criterion—did the book make me wish I could kick about with the author and his friends? Here is where the narrative fails. It is birdy, and the descriptions are vivid (although I would disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel that way), but I would NOT want Luke Dempsey as a birding companion. He would probably embarrass me before we got three steps into the woods. Anyone who has traveled much, if honest, will admit to the occasional meltdown—but that seemed to be his modus operandi.

So all in all, I would recommend the book as a fun read – maybe from the library, though. And in the meantime, I’m still waiting for the perfect blend of birding and travel to read.

The dark is falling

I knew that from here on out I would start experiencing diminishing returns for my birding jaunts. Yesterday I went to one of my favorite local birding locales, Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake, as always with high hopes and visions of life birds dancing in my head.

It was sunny but windy, a bit chillier than I’d like, but winter’s around the corner now, so I’ll just have to suck it up because the alternative is to stop birding and that is NOT going to happen.

As for the birds—well, I saw some of the usual suspects. The only really “good” sighting was of a pair of Bald Eagles flying over Deer Island, and I had a nice chat with some other birders I saw in the park. They were the ones who keyed me in to looking for the eagles, in fact; on my way out, I’d only given a cursory look over the lake, due to the fact that the wind was blowing so strong and cold across the water that I was afraid my eyes would freeze shut!

In case anyone is wondering what are the “usual suspects” for mid-November in Central Illinois, I saw: blue jays; black-capped chickadees (it always trips me out how tiny they are); white-breasted nuthatches (red-breasted are also possible this time of year but I didn’t see any this outing); golden-crowned kinglets (even smaller than chickadees! Seriously, how do they survive?); ring-billed gulls; crows; downy woodpeckers; Canada geese; northern cardinals; one killdeer (I was a bit surprised it was still hanging around); American tree sparrows; robins; tufted titmice; mallards; belted kingfisher; and red-bellied woodpecker. Maybe someone far away, in a different climate, might have their interest piqued by some of these species – and to those people, I would say, come to Illinois! If you’re not a wackadoodle I will happily show you where to go to see them! – but to me, they were distinctly ho-hum. Does that make me a bad person? Shouldn’t I be happy to admire their beauty instead of lusting for the potential of spring and fall migration? If so—“should” is such a negative word.

It is what it is. And although I try to make a spiritual practice of staying open and appreciative of the world, and the birds, before me, I can’t help how I feel. I always miss the birds of summer so much. It’s not just that I admire them so. It’s as the days get colder and shorter, as the birds I love have fled, I always feel that the dark is falling in more ways than one. I can live with winter as long as there’s a promise of return. But I just don’t believe that they will return year after year for much longer. I think the world will just keep getting darker.

Hennepin Hopper Wetlands in the fall

At the beginning of the month Sunwiggy and I went to the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands in Putnam county to look for ducks. As taken by the beauty of the wetlands as I was last July, I found that, in fall, it was perhaps even more striking. The shades of gold of the wetland grasses, the sun glittering off the water, the freshness of the crisp autumn air—not to mention the enormous quantity of waterfowl that we saw resting in the water—all of this made the outing almost magical. We saw northern pintail, American black duck, American wigeon, northern shoveler, American white pelican, mallards, Canada geese, ring-necked ducks, gadwall—not to mention American coots by the thousands.

Along with Emiquon, the Hennepin Hopper lakes (a project of the Wetlands Initiative) is one of the crown jewels on the Illinois River Valley. We watched a young harrier gliding over the grasses for at least half an hour, getting good views of him or her from every angle. After a while, the harrier caught a mouse – and then found more appetizing pickings with the flock of pigeons that had been sitting on top of a nearby barn. Suffice to say, the flock shot upwards in an absolute panic as soon as they were spotted. When it’s a matter of bird versus bird, it’s hard to know who to “root for”—but seeing these moments of birds behaving naturally is one of the things that keeps the wonders of birding alive.

After exploring the wetlands for a couple of hours (it felt more like a half hour – I swear, time goes into this weird dimension whenever I’m birding because I can never believe how long it’s been), we stopped for lunch at a Chinese buffet in Peru – I think it was called House of Hunan. It was pretty good. I tend to stick to vegetarian food, so there weren’t a lot of options, but the veggie fried rice wasn’t bad at all. I picked out all the broccoli from a nearby seafood option to round out the meal.

I had planned a day heading slowly west along the river, ending at Morris with time for a stop at Heideicke Lake. With the shortened daylight hours, of course that didn’t happen. We had a brief stop at the LaSalle lock and dam – herring and ring-billed gulls and more Canada Geese, and then stopped at Buffalo Rock State Park, a first for me.

The weather was beautiful, and we saw a lot of nice birds before even heading onto the trail: a bald eagle, cedar waxwings, tufted titmice, a fox sparrow, a white-breasted nuthatch. There was a trail leading to some “effigy” that we thought sounded really cool, but unfortunately, it was blocked off a bit down the line, probably for hunting season. Maybe I’ll go back in the spring to look for the effigy again.

By the time we got to Morris the sunlight was fading, so it was time to sum up with dinner and the drive home.

I feel rather sad because, judging by last year’s Bird Journal reports, that will probably be my last really birdy outing of the season. Last year on November 9 Sunwiggy and I went to Banner Marsh, Emiquon and Chatauqua—some other really worthwhile stops along the Illinois River Valley – and saw an amazing selection of birds, including the plenitude of coots. My Bird Journal entry for that day states: “First stop, Banner Marsh East Point entrance – very peaceful and otherworldly, the water shining with reflections from the cloudy sky and dotted with waterfowl (mostly coots)—seemed like my idea of something from some Artic land, Scandinavia or similar. Perfect start to the day. Kingfisher making quite a racket, and great blue heron perching on a post.... Then on to Emiquon, must have seen at least 1,000 coots, probably many thousands more, overwhelming and even humbling by sheer multitude... EXCELLENT BIRDING DAY.”

That first November trip is like a gift, before the cold sets in, the days get shorter, and hunting season ruins everything. (I have nothing against responsible hunters as individuals but the season does put a real crimp to my birding adventures.) Last year I had no luck with winter birds. Maybe this year will be different? In the meantime, I will try to remember that River Valley Magic and keep my spirits up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More mystical birder

In an earlier post, I described how sometimes birding for me borders on a sense of mysticism. I also mentioned how the book I am reading, "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature" by Jonathan Rosen (I am still reading it -- it's interesting but I'm not making fast progress, I'm afraid) discusses humanity's relationship with birds, and nature, over the past hundred years or so--a relationship that, sadly, mostly goes badly for nature, though it is our loss, too. We are part of nature and how much of ourselves do we lose as we destroy it? Being an essayist and a novelist, Rosen frequently uses poetry and literature as springboards for his discussion. There is a lot of food for thought here but as I alluded to earlier, I find myself a bit disgusted by the almost romanticized descriptions of killing, such as the way the settlers killed passenger pigeons and other birds by the thousands and hundreds of thousands; or how one "naturalist," knowing full well that the Carolina parakeet was almost extinct, somehow could not help himself from slaughtering a whole flock for his "collection." Even though this is historical fact, Rosen seems a bit too enamored of these figures for my tastes.

But I keep reading, and he redeems himself as a writer for me by capturing so eloquently the feeling I tried to convey in my earlier post:

...The descendants of the Baal Shem Tov--like the romantic poets, rebels against the Enlightenment--believed that when God created the world something got broken in the process; the vessels intended to hold God's glory shattered, and the world was strewn with holy shards, scattered in the act of creation. In this kabbalistic system, each person has a sacred task to gather up the divine sparks and thus repair the world. This for me is a very beautiful metaphor for birdwatching. Or perhaps birdwatching is a living metaphor for this mystical process.
There is certainly the purely physical thrill of seeing a trembling leaf suddenly detach itself and turn into a redstart or a chestnut-sided warbler. But there is the other unspoken longing as well--that the bird itself will give way to something that lives beyond birds. And that the broken puzzle will someday be complete. (page 164)

I think that is such a beautiful passage. And perhaps, too, I am searching for some sort of hope that this broken and ugly world we are making might somehow be salvaged. I was still reeling from the Gulf Oil Spill when I read about the tar sands mining (perhaps rapine would be more to the point) in the boreal forests, and the nearly 2000 ducks that died in the toxic waste water; and then just yesterday I read how the lights on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico trap migrating birds into flying around and around all night, until they are too exhausted to resume their journeys. Every day I find more bad news.

Dylan Thomas wrote, in one of his brilliant poems, "After the first death, there is no other." I disagree. My heart is perfectly capable of dying, in increments, with every fragile and beautiful creature that dies. I wish it had an "off" button. But maybe that would be even worse.

Jonathan Rosen (who is Jewish) presents conservation as an obligation: "I believe that there is a divine spark in us that binds us to the rest of creation, not merely as fellow creatures but as caretakers, with an earthly responsibility like the one we imagine for God. I'm not saying you can't be a conservationist without this feeling -- it's just harder for me to understand what we owe the ivory-billed woodpecker without it." (page 162)

Although I tend to agree with him, and I love the image of each bird as part of the broken puzzle of creation, in a way that just makes it worse. If this metaphor were true, how would we ever discover that beautiful pattern when so many of the pieces are being destroyed by our own carelessness and greed?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Great day for urban birds

Today I overslept (ah, blissful sleep--every year when the days grow shorter, I find myself wanting to hibernate. The joy with which I can leap from my bed to bird on a beautiful June morning is definitely in short supply) and when I finally yanked myself out of bed -- the morning whoopings of my cockatiels certainly helping -- and sat with my first cup of coffee, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to go birding. I was tired, bored with all my usual routines, and would I even see any "year birds" if I went? I felt presented with two choices: drive out of town, using precious resources (tar sands! oil spills!) and maybe not enjoy myself that much, or try to do "green birding" in town, and almost definitely not enjoy myself that much.

Sometimes I feel like I'm talking out both sides of my mouth, both in real life and on this blog, one moment swearing to be "greener" and lamenting the devastation to our precious Earth, and the next driving three counties away to look for birds. Although I'm tempted just to trot out my favorite Walt Whitman quote, the one I use whenever someone catches me doing a 180 -- "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." -- but the truth is, the personal sense of disconnect does bother me. I want to be kind to the Earth, to not squander its resources AND to indulge my restless, nature-seeking impulses. And Friday afternoon I had quite a nice time riding my bike and walking around town, as you can read below.

But yesterday, when I tried to bird by bike, I turned back after about a half mile. The wind was vicious; I felt like no matter how my feet pedaled, I was getting nowhere; my eyes dried out and started to sting and water. I wondered how on earth it was possible to be simultaneously hot and cold. It was no fun.

Thus my dilemma this morning. But I have a saying. It's like that quote by Cicero, that one can find on free bookmarks sometimes: "A room without books is like a body without a soul." Only my saying is less poetic: "A day without birding sucks."

So I compromised. I decided to stay in town, but to go ahead and drive there, since the pond I wanted to visit, White Oak Pond, is several miles away along busy roads, and once again the day was chilly and windy. So off to White Oak Pond I went. I'd only been there once before, last November, with Sunwiggy, and it was not inspiring: a very cold day, the wind-chopped water the same dingy gray as the sky above, and not one single bird anywhere in sight. Not a Canada goose. Nor a starling. Nothing.

Today was less cold, although there was a definite bite in the air (at last!) and when the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds, I wished I'd brought my jacket. (I was dressed for a typical summer's day in Sunwiggy's new homeland of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, that is, jeans and a thick hoodie sweatshirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt, but no jacket. Also, I discovered, after I got there, that the hoodie was encrusted with bird droppings from when I was letting my cockatiels perch on my chest while I watched TV yesterday. To top it off, I stuffed the pouch of the hoodie with my wallet, keys, field guide and little notebook before I strolled around, thus making myself look like a marsupial who has mistaken a bookbag for its baby. And I wonder why Greenturtle thinks that birders have no sense of style.)

But, despite these sartorial and temperature shortcomings, there were birds! Most obvious, the Canada geese, about 100 of them. Second most obvious, a lovely mute swan (year-county bird!) I had just started on looking for everything that was not Canada goose, when I noticed a big bird of prey soaring overhead. My first thought was a red-tailed hawk...but it didn't have a red tail. And it wasn't flying like a red-tail. It was an OSPREY! I couldn't believe it, but I got a very good look at the face markings. (How I wish Greenturtle and his camera had come along, but he is stuck at home studying every weekend.) It flew across the pond a couple of times, such a beautiful bird, and then flew away.... What a privilege to see it. It's moments like that, when I wonder was it Fate or serendipity that made me sleep in and decide to drive to this pond, for the second time ever, at just this I could see this beautiful bird?

Before I could wax too poetic, I caught a glimpse of some medium-sized white birds in the water. My heart went pitter-pat, wondering , "Ross' goose?" but no, it was just a trio of domestic white ducks, trumpeting their identity with loud QUACK QUACK QUACKS. Fair enough, they were still cute, and I'd just seen as osprey!

Continuing to scan the throngs of water birds, I saw a pied-billed grebe...and a gadwall!!! The gadwall has been, for me, a state nemesis bird. Every other Illinois birder, it seems, has seen one...but not me. I saw one once, on the magical mystery birding tour that Sunwiggy and I took of the King Ranch in Texas, but since then--a gadwall free life. Until today! Hooray!

As I was strolling to get a better view of some coots, Fate confirmed that yes, this was my day, because I found, lying unattended on the grass (and I do wish to stress the UNATTENDED part)...a ten dollar bill. There was no one in the vicinity, and indeed the bill looked a little weathered...a clear example of finder's keepers.

Some days Urban Birding is truly rewarding!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Urban Birding, Pond Crawl, Part One

This weekend, being short of cash and still appalled at the devastation to the environment by the Oil Companies, I have decided to engage in green birding/urban birding. Since it is the season when the water birds will be starting to move through, I decided to try to hit as many ponds in town as possible on foot or bike. I thought the term "pond crawl" sounded sufficiently urban and grubby to describe the endeavor.

As a preface, I would also like to mention an idea from the book I am currently reading, "The Life of the Skies" by Jonathan Rosen. The author, an essayist, novelist and cosmopolite (he lives in New York City) ponders the philosophy and poetry of the human-bird relationship; it is not a work of natural history but an extended discussion of what birds, and the natural world, have symbolized from the time of Audubon to the present day, especially in the light of the knowledge that the world of nature, already degraded and fragmented, is fast disappearing: hence the subtitle, "Birding at the End of Nature."

I am about halfway through; the book is well written, and the more literary emphasis is fun for readers such as myself, former humanities students, and I would say I am enjoying it -- if only because I find myself thinking about, and mentally disagreeing with, some of the author's points.

In particular, that he seems to feel that birding is a form of "hunting"--he states several times that he understands the impulse to kill the birds as specimens or for conquest -- and that in this way he is getting in touch with the wilder aspects of human nature, his primitive side. OK, since he's not actually blowing songbirds from the sky, if he wants to feel like he's getting in touch with his inner Teddy Roosevelt (one of the historic figures discussed in the book) when he goes birding, that's his business. I wonder if a lot of this has to do with his urban upbringing and almost total lack of contact with nature before he began birding; he mentions several times that his bookish nature and lack of "manly skills" (finding one's way in the woods, reading a map and compass -- heck, I'm a girl and I can do all this, but then, I spent my childhood roaming freely through the countryside) left him feeling inadequate and now, through birds, he is connecting to the wild man inside. Great. I am really limiting what he covers with this summary, but it is this point I will address during the Pond Crawl; perhaps the rest will surface as a topic at a later point.

POND CRAWL, I : ANGLER'S POND (The Mystical Birder)

I am fortunate to work right by one of the larger ponds in Bloomington, Angler's Pond (or Lake), a scrubby pond popular with fishermen and surrounded by houses and apartment buildings. Since I only work half-days on Friday, I biked the few blocks to the main trail that winds about half-way around the pond (right by my building, unfortunately, the public access is very limited). Despite being smack dab in the middle of town, the trail has a wild feeling; the trees encroach across it, views of neighboring buildings are limited (at least until the leaves fall), and because of the restricted view, the pond itself feel quite large. I saw: mallards, a belted kingfisher, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, a crow, one Canada goose, an American tree sparrow, and a whole flock of white throated sparrows. The WT sparrows were scratching through the leaf litter, creating a rustling sound that drifted through the air.

I felt like I was close, very close, to stumbling onto another realm, just around the next bend, or perhaps to see a glimpse reflected in the water. The scratching sparrows, especially, were precious. I felt that I was privileged to be witnesses an ancient ritual, something older than I could ever fathom. It would never have occurred to me (as it has to Mr. Rosen) to imagine killing the birds. On the contrary, doing so, disturbing them in any way, would have felt like a blasphemy. Not that the birds, in and of themselves, are sacred, but I really felt, in that moment, at the threshold of the sacred, in the presence of a true mystery of Creation: the white-throated sparrow. So perfect, just as it is. Unimaginable. As soon as one describes the feeling, it vanishes, for it is beyond words. Unlike Mr. Rosen, I have never felt inadequate in regards to my nature skills -- at heart, I have always been more Wild Child with brambles in her hair than a member of society -- but I have longed, so passionately, for a re-enchantment of a world which we, with our shopping complexes, regimented institutions, hurried pace and "virtual" entertainment, have rendered so bleak and banal. I want the world to sing again. I want to be a mystic, a seer, a shaman. And at its best, for me, birding is not just about birds. It is a meditation, or a form of prayer.


My next stop, another large pond, this one by a large complex of corporate building, those of State Farm Insurance Company. Though I was birding from the sidewalk, I felt like an intruder here. The grounds were so well-manicured -- geez, so corporate looking -- I kept waiting for someone with a briefcase and a business suit to inquire what, exactly, I was doing, peering over the shrubbery with a pair of binoculars. A couple members of another urban species, the Jogger, ran past me, in fancy looking exercise gear (heck, when I used to run, I'd pull on any old pair of sweats and a T-shirt), but no one bothered me.

I was a birder on a mission: to find, out of the hundreds of Canada geese across the pond and the grass, to find at least one Cackling Goose. I didn't even know such a thing existed until recently. A cackling goose is a smaller version of the Canada goose, recently declared a separate species. And...I found some! Not only were they smaller, but their proportions looked a little different: necks shorter, bills stubbier. Loath to create a List of Lies, I spent several minutes verifying, to my satisfaction, that what I saw were, indeed, representatives of the Cackling Goose.

And thus I visited a foreign land, a bit uncomfortable the while, until I could tick off "been there, seen that" and move on--happy to have stopped, but ultimately happier to be going home again. The Birder as Tourist.

POND CRAWL, III: TIPTON PARK (The Birder as Detective)

For my last stop, I went to Tipton Park, which I have mentioned before: a pair of ponds, surrounded by grasses, and all that surrounded by very huge McMansions, the park is popular with joggers, bikers, and dog-walkers. All summer long, it is filled with red-winged blackbirds and barn swallows, but those, of course, were absent today.

My first impression was: there are no birds at all! It seemed so bleak. But then I heard some rustling and chirpings in the grasses, and saw juncos and white-throated sparrows. I heard quackings, and there were mallards--and a pied-billed grebe. A warbler flew by, and gave me a good look. I didn't have my field guide with me, so I wasn't completely sure it was an orange-crowned warbler, but I thought it might be. I scribbled down the field markings in my moleskine notebook for later verification. And thus it went--I heard a sound like goldfinches make, and located them in the grasses. A dog-walker described a bird that sounded like a coot, and I walked further down and yes, it was a coot... This was a more intellectual form of birding, listening, observing, taking notes, talking to witnesses. This time, I was mentally engaged: the birder as detective.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Starlings, with their stars on

As fall progresses, riding my bike around town, I have been hearing the thin chitterings of starlings perched on wires and branches overhead. Are there more starlings in the fall and winter or are they just more noticeable because of the absence or silence of the other birds? (I wonder the same thing about blue jays, too.) Apparently starling song is quite euphonious. I read in a book called "Bird Song" that Mozart had a pet starling and its warblings inspired some of his melodies. He was quite fond of the bird and made his friends attend its funeral when it passed. Like parrots, they can also mimic human speech; some really cool examples of talking starlings can be found on YouTube.

If I could go back in time and see the mid-West with the French explorers (this is actually a long-standing wish, to be able to experience history and also see the landscape when it was still wild--and full of passenger pigeons--where is Doctor Who and his Tardis when you need him?) I wouldn't find any starlings. One hundred of them were released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, and they quickly spread across the land, becoming one of the most abundant species, with around 200 million of them alive today.

Lots of people hate starlings. The conservation-minded dislike them because they are not native to North America and compete for nesting sites with native species. In fact, my Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior has a drawing of starlings evicting red-headed woodpeckers from their nest cavity. Other people just consider them to be pests because they are so numerous and seemingly enjoy living alongside humans in our cities and towns.

Personally, I have never found a bird I couldn't admire, so I see many good qualities in starlings. I like their winter plumage especially, when their iridescent purply black plumage fades a little, revealing their "stars"--silvery speckles in their feathers. And I love the way they form mesmerizing flocks of hundreds or even thousands flying together in the evening, weaving around each other as if trying to braid the air. There are lots of examples of this phenomenon on YouTube as well, one of the best being this video.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

More urban birding

We are finally getting some nice fall weather, although the autumn foliage is less than impressive due to the warm weather. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe that the lovely colors are caused by the lack of chlorophyll once the crisp temperatures signal to the trees it's time to go into winter mode. Despite this bummer, yesterday was a perfect fall day, so after work I decided to sling my binoculars over my shoulder, toss a notebook and field guide into the basket on my bike, and see what kind of birds I could find in town.

I decided to take the Constitution Trail, the biking/jogging/dog-walking etc. trail that winds around the Bloomington/Normal area, through Normal and then as far as it goes. It's a fairly long trip, winding past the highway (55) and then petering out in at a country road (1850N) not far from the small town of Hudson. My plan was to check for birds periodically on my way back.

The terminus of the trail is not particularly attractive (I have been reading the trip schedules of several birding tour companies just to torment myself: instead of Caribbean islands, South American cloud forests or pelagic vistas, this is what I get??)-- on the left side is a gravel company, with trucks pulling up and dusty clouds drifting from the mounds, on the right side, an FS Evergreen station with several noisy silos. I looked up FS Evergreen on the internet out of curiosity. I think they are processing corn into something else (biodiesel?)there. Anyway, it's pretty noisy.

Ever willing to do my part for the ebird scientists (surely, they want to know what I saw, or didn't), I pulled out my binoculars. And...I saw birds. Well, pigeons; those are birds. They were resting side by side, a group of about ten of them, on top of the FS Evergreen silos, seemingly impervious to the noise and dust around them. And that is what I like about pigeons! No other birds in sight -- and I certainly wouldn't want to live there -- and there they are, snuggled up together as if they had found an island paradise.

A little further from the terminus, I found a flock of blackbirds in some shrubs by a cornfield, some crows and robins, and a golden-crowned kinglet, so it's not just pigeons. Even micro-habitats will bring in the birds.

Riding back towards Normal, I got off my bike at the Hidden Creek park, which is a small urban park/nature sanctuary. I've always found it a little off-putting for some reason. Was it the Smirnoff bottle on the trail, showing that the party birds had recently been in evidence? Or the garbage tossed into the creek? I've just never really liked that park.

Regardless, I saw a pair of yellow-rumped warblers, a downy woodpecker, a phoebe, a chickadee and some cardinals right off the bat. Then I heard a rustling noise beneath the trees...white-throated sparrows and a fox sparrow were digging in the leaves, looking for their supper. I've always loved this particular behavior of birds. It's totally endearing, and it makes me think of the first time I saw/heard eastern towhees rustling in the leaves at Parklands Merwin preserve.

Rounding up the day, I stopped at the pond behind the Jumer's motel, which can attract some surprises during the right season. Yesterday I saw many mallards and Canada geese, plus a crow flying overhead.

Today I continued the urban birding spirit, waking up early and biking to Ewing Park, a small urban park here in Bloomington. The first thing I heard was a cacophony of robins. I think there were at least fifty of them in the park. I walked around for an hour or so and saw more of the usual fall suspects, including a Swainson's thrush, a cedar waxwing, and a northern flicker.

It's heartening to know that so many birds can utilize our urban spaces, especially parks, ponds and shrubby areas. And I saw a lot of species, probably as many as I would have seen out of town. Alas, I am just not an urbanite (or, as a co-worker of mine likes to say, cosmopolite) ... so tomorrow I will check out the birds out of town. But at least I can feel good that I conserved resources and got some exercise this weekend, and saw a few birds in the process.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What kind of spider is this?

Does anyone know? I've been seeing them all over the place -- I'm not a big fan of spiders in general and these are particularly ugly!

On the topic of spiders, while Sunwiggy was visiting last weekend, she commented that where she now lives, in the U.P., people are selling hedge apples to get rid of spiders. There are hedge apples (the unsightly fruit of the Osage orange tree) all over the place in central Illinois in the fall, but I had never heard that they were good for anything.

Curious, I did a little Internet research on the topic. The Osage orange tree is native to eastern Texas, and parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas. It was brought to the mid-west by settlers to use as a wind break and as a hedge to keep livestock in (this use falling out of favor after barbed wire was invented), and the wood is very tough. Except as a shelter for birds and wildlife in its tangles, the Osage orange is not a very useful addition to the landscape. (Although I did not read that it is a nuisance out of its traditional ecosystem, like the autumn olive.) And its fruit, big green balls known as hedge apples, are not eaten by most wildlife. There is, however, a persistent claim that placing them around your house or in your basement will deter spiders.

Any truth to this? As with many folk traditions, the science-oriented sites scoffed at the claim, stating that no spider-repelling compound has been found in the fruit, and spiders don't smell things anyway; meanwhile, there are some testimonials from people swearing it has worked for them.

I guess if I had a spider infestation, I would try it. The hedge apples are just lying around anyway, so what could it hurt? But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it to work, either.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Starting to feel like fall, finally

Today I went back to the birdiest spot in McLean county (in my opinion), Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake, and just like last Sunday got a good-sized species list without too much effort. (Effort in finding the birds that is. As far as effort in walking around the park goes...damn that sciatica!)

It is starting to feel like fall. The weather was cool, and the first thing I noticed was that the summer residents of the pines behind the visitor center, the chipping sparrows, have been replaced by red-breasted nuthatches. (Sorry to see the chippers go...but I love the nuthatches!) The day was mostly cloudy with occasional brilliant flashes of sunlight. My mood was mostly melancholy with occasional brilliant flashes of transcendence.

There is a wonderful overlapping of species at this time of year: lingering summer residents (gray catbirds, double-crested cormorants, common yellowthroats, field sparrows), the last wave of the early fall migrants (warblers and vireos), and the first wave of the late fall migrants, a few of which might overwinter: kinglets, brown creepers, red-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows).

I felt like I could see just about anything. In addition to the usual suspects were three great surprises: a bald eagle perched on a dead tree by the lake (I'm thinking: no way? A bald eagle? Yup, that's definitely a bald eagle!), a black-billed cuckoo in a shrub, a northern mockingbird flying past. Three "county birds" in one trip. Any one of them would have made me happy; seeing all three feels down-right greedy.

Frequently I have noticed a pattern: if there is a species I am looking for and cannot find, no matter how common it may be (a nemesis bird), once I finally see one (much exaltation), it's like the curse is broken and then I see them everywhere (whatever, there's another one....) In this instance, the blue-headed vireo. Saw one for the first time (it'd been on my wish list forever) last weekend, then again Friday, and now again today! This morning I heard a sample of his odd, yet still euphonious, song.

There were no swallows at the "Swallow Bridge," and none of the sandpipers I saw a month ago, but a plethora of great blue herons and great egrets, for sure, the egrets almost glowing white against the gray-wash of the cloudy day. All of them so still, as if posing for an Oriental painting.

If only this lovely abundance of bird-life could last forever. (Warned you I was melancholy). If only we could stop everything that we're doing to ruin their habitats right now, and save them all....

P.S., I invite everyone to check out the most recent addition to my Blog Roll, Bird Chick. I found her while I was looking for info on the Sax Zim Bog festival (held each winter in northern Minnesota, if at all possible I am going to go next year) and already this has become one of my favorite birding blogs. The author, Sharon Stitler, might even be tied with David Lindo the Urban Birder as my birding hero. Check it out!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Late summer sadness

It was Sunwiggy, my most faithful reader (and my mother, which might explain the fidelity) who pointed out the lapse of time between my last post and this one. Two weeks already and the ever-loquacious Crow still has nothing to say? But all will be rectified now...the Birds of the Heartland brought up to date.

I have had some incredible birding experiences over the past couple of weeks, since Greenturtle and I went to Saint Louis and the Cahokia Mounds, so I'm not sure why I didn't dash away about it as soon as I could. Perhaps because Greenturtle is back in school now, and I have no photographs to accompany. Perhaps, even more to the point, because I don't really like late summer. It depresses me.

September fifth I went to Parklands Merwin Preserve, here in McLean County, in search of warblers. And did I ever find them! Mixed flocks of warblers everywhere, including my first sighting of a Canada warbler, and also a black-throated green warbler bathing in a stream...northern waterthrush, ovenbird, Wilson's warbler, American redstarts, golden-winged warblers, black and white warblers. As I wrote in my Bird Journal, "Probably the most warbler-iffic trip of my entire birding life, a true warberama. At one point admiring mixed warbler flock while all around me the Wren Philharmonic Orchestra performed the Symphony of Scolding."

Yesterday was another superb birding day. I went to Comlara Park and strolled the whole walk from the Visitor's Center, along the shores of Evergreen Lake, across several fields and a couple wooded areas, to the place I call the Swallow Bridge, in honor of the swallows that summer there. I kept walking down to the area I call Cormorant Point (because guess what perches in the trees along the lake at the end of it...hmmm...could it be double-crested cormorants?) Again, there were several nice mixed flocks of warblers, and the lingering summer birds: field sparrows, catbirds (still squalling!), house wrens (still scolding), etc. I got a total of 44 species, a real birding triumph.

And yet.... No dickcissels. No red-winged blackbirds. No meadowlarks. Summer is drawing to a close.

Since I cannot wax eloquent about the birds I've seen, despite how happy they made me at the time, I will instead share some haiku I've composed. Hope you like them.

The blackbirds are gone
And still we did not notice
The moment they left.

Rattling of traffic
Exhaust, motors whining, noise:
Above, pastel skies.

Grasslands in autumn:
A study in yellow, gold--
But no birds singing.

Great blue heron, poised
Mirrored by the lake below:
Finally, a fish!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cahokia Mounds

After leaving the Japanese Festival (see below) Greenturtle and I stopped at the Cahokia Mounds. Way back when, I used to study history, and I still think that archaeological/historical stuff is interesting. From 700-1400 A.D., there used to be a city of up to 20,000 people at the site, the biggest city north of Mexico at the time. Since they left no written record, there are plenty of questions about their civilization...the most interesting one (for me anyway), being, Why did they build the mounds? The Mississippian culture built mounds across the southeast and midwest, and so little is known about them.

Another thing which is still a mystery is why the civilization vanished after flourishing for so long. At the visitor's center is a display stating several reasons and inviting the viewer to speculate which one might be true. "Where's dependence of fossil fuels and destruction of their habitat by offshore oil drilling?" I demanded. Greenturtle pointed to the choice that stated Over-exploitation of natural resources. "Yeah, I guess that covers it," I conceded.

Besides all of this, I really wanted to check out the pond in front of the visitor's center, because once I found a little blue heron in it. Today, there was no little blue...but I did see a yellow-crowned night heron in it! I think I shall re-name it Life Bird Pond.

It was nice seeing lots of families out enjoying the day, taking their kids to do something educational. Going up the mound was kind of a trudge after walking around the Botanical Gardens all day...but the view was great. So hazy, though... Is that pollution over the city?

Japanese Festival at Saint Louis Botanical Gardens

Every year on Labor Day weekend Greenturtle and I try to hit the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I've enjoyed Japanese culture ever since I spent my senior year of high school in Maizuru, Japan as an exchange student, during which I learned to enjoy sushi and other Japanese foods, joined the high school kendo team, became fairly fluent in Japanese, and, as the only American in the whole town, enjoyed a mild celebrity that grew tiresome pretty quickly. As one of the less annoying examples, on numerous occasions complete strangers wanted to take my picture, sometimes with them standing beside me goofily making peace signs. Greenturtle likes different things about Japan: Godzilla, manga and anime are probably at the top of his list. And he adores sushi. So the festival is good times for all.

Due to the very mild temperatures, it was an even better experience than usual. We got there in time for Greenturtle to watch the bonsai demonstration (bonsai is on his "someday" list to take up as a hobby), then we strolled the grounds wearing yukata (cotton kimonos) and this was a real "blast from the past" experience for me...because several people wanted to take our photograph! (Yes, we let them.)

Unfortunately, because of the crowds, I saw almost no birds. There was a nice male wood duck hanging out with a flock of mallards in the pond, but since he refused to come out of the shade, we didn't get a good photo. And I could kick myself for not being into birds when I was eighteen! Maybe some day I will get a chance to go back to Japan, this time with binoculars and a field guide in hand....