Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sunrise on the praire (chickens)

Yesterday morning my mom and I got up ridiculously early (5:00!!) to drive to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Our goal: observing the mating ritual of the Greater Prairie Chicken. We had seen them the previous day (see my earlier post, Who put the F in Effingham?), but a quick look in the afternoon was not going to satisfy us. We wanted to see the whole performance.

When we arrived, it was around 6:00, and the morning had become washed with gray with that false dawn light, right before the sun rises. Another pair of birders was already in place, a nice couple from the Quad City area. I looked out over the ridge through my scope, and sure enough, there were some chickens, although they were mostly dark shapes in the pre-dawn light.

But even before they were really visible, I could hear them. The haunting, eerie sound is emitted from the orange air sacs on their necks, a three-note booming sound that has been described as someone blowing over a jug and that can be heard from up to a mile away. It does sound kind of like that. But it also sounds like a beautiful, plaintive humming. It resonates, evoking memories that the land still carries.... It is like the sound of the grassland itself. (On a science fiction note, it made me think of the Doctor Who story "The Song of the Ood," although that was about weird-looking squid-aliens, not prairie chickens.) Interspersed with the humming were bouts of cackling and clucking -- what my mom described as sounds right from the jungle.

The sun rose a little, and now we could see them: a group of greater prairie chickens displaying on their mating ground, called a lek. The males puffed up their air sacs, raised the feathers around their necks until they stuck up like horns, charged each other, jumped up and fluttered in the air, all to impress the female birds, who didn't really seem all that interested in their efforts. Every once in a while a northern harrier would swoop overhead, causing some of the chickens to scatter, but then they would return a few minutes later. Another birder from Missouri showed up, and the five of us watched the chickens for the better part of an hour, pointing out when we saw one doing something particularly interesting.

About an hour after the sun rose, the chickens seemed to be running out of steam, and we decided to head out and get some breakfast. We took another quick drive around the prairie, enjoying the peacefulness of the early morning. It is always such a treat to be away from traffic and crowds of people, and the grassland was quite attractive, even so early in the year. We had a nice look at a pair of flickers and some horned larks, too. Then, with some regret, we decided it was time to leave the prairie behind.

Today I decided to do some research on the Internet to learn a bit more about the wonderful spectacle that we witnessed. The greater prairie chicken is actually a kind of grouse, and it was once abundant from Canada all the way to Texas. At first, changes that the European settlers brought to the landscape benefited the chickens, and their numbers grew to 10 to 14 million birds in Illinois in the 1850s. Prairie chicken meat was considered delicious, and they were hunted by the trainload. Mark Twain considered them one of his favorite foods.

But destruction of their habitat, and the switch to intensive modern agriculture, severely reduced their numbers, almost eliminating them from the state. The prairie chickens could not survive in fields of corn. Across the land, their numbers dwindled. They are now virtually extinct in Canada, the Attwater's Prairie Chicken in Texas is barely holding on, and the eastern Heath Hen is extinct. In Illinois, the population lingered in Jasper and Marion counties because they liked to live in the fields of red top grass which used to be a main crop, used for dye. As artificial dyes reduced the demand for red top grass, this habitat also became scarce for the chickens.

By 1933, prairie chicken hunting was closed because of the falling population, and soon lands were set aside for their conservation: the Green River Conservation Area in 1939 and the Iroquois County Conservation Area in 1944. Despite these measures, by 1960, the area that my mom and I visited, Jasper and Marion counties, was the only place that the prairie chicken still survived.

Many groups worked valiantly to save the chickens and their habitat, purchasing and restoring grasslands in the counties. Despite these efforts, low genetic diversity was taking its toll, and by 1994, a mere 46 birds remained. In order to save the flock, birds were brought in from Minnesota and Kansas.

Today, a few hundred (I was unable to find a precise number) survive in this last hold-out at Prairie Ridge. The habitat is carefully managed, and the director, Scott Simpson, burns part of the prairie each year to clear away excess growth and add nutrients to the soil. Also, cattle from local farmers are hired to graze the fields, as the bison would have done in the past.

Knowing how precarious the survival of this magnificent bird is, and how many people have worked so hard to preserve its existence in Illinois, only adds to the enjoyment of my trip. Without all the work of those individuals, I would not have been able to see the spectacular dawn display of chickens. And there is something very humbling -- and wonderful (in the true meaning of the word, "full of wonder") to think how ancient that mating ritual is, and what a privilege my opportunity to see it.

With that, I would like to give a huge shout out to everyone who has worked to save the greater prairie chicken in Illinois, and the following bibliography for everyone who would like to learn more:

Prairie Ridge State Natural Area
Illinois Audubon Society
Prairie Hens of Illinois (Living Bird article)
Greater Prairie Chicken Appears on Comeback Trail in Illinois (article)

Monday, March 29, 2010

U R N our sights (that means you, horned grebe)

In our last installment, my mom and I had traveled to Richland and Jasper counties to see white squirrels and greater prairie chickens, and after having a glimpse of each, had been chased back to our home base for the night, Effingham, by rain. In the evening, the sun came out and the clouds floated away and it became the beautiful day that I'd been hoping for...when there was just about an hour left till sunset.

We decided that since we'd come all that way, we might as well try and squeeze a little birding in. I looked at the map. The only place that seemed close enough to get to before dark was a little body of water just outside the city, Lake Sara. Water means a chance to see water birds, so we decided to check it out.

There were some nice houses around the lake, especially if you like them ostentatious. I wasn't really paying much attention to the houses (things without wings or feathers are only of passing interest to me) but I couldn't help seeing the signs around the houses, not just the discreet "neighbor hood watch" and "no trespassing" signs that one frequently sees--I was starting to get the feeling that visitors really aren't welcome.

In fact, I was disliking the lake altogether when we came to an open stretch of water and saw a bird diving. "It's a grebe," I said. "Yeah, it's a grebe, but not a pied-billed grebe..." "Where, where, where?" "It just dove--OK, it came up over there. It's a life bird!" We were in the middle of the road, peering at the water with our binoculars, and there wasn't anywhere to park, so we had to turn around and make several passes at the grebe, which turned out to be a HORNED GREBE, until we had seen it to both our satisfactions. As we turned around, we couldn't help notice the very large sign: 'U R N in our sights." Above the writing was a scary looking pair of eyes, and between the eyes was a camera.

As we slowed up again for another pass at the grebe (this was on a public thoroughfare, I want to emphasize -- not a private drive, not down some hidden cul-de-sac), a man slowed down as he passed us, peering at us intently, as if trying to remark our features in case he needed to recognize us later in a lineup. Since we had now seen the grebe to our satisfaction, we continued on our way around the lake, not wanting to inspire the locals to a paroxysm of paranoia. We saw a pied-billed grebe, three ruddy ducks and a Canada goose, and finally passed a park -- hooray! At a park, perhaps we could get out and look at the lake without the entire neighborhood dialing 911. But the park was closed until April 1st.

We kept going, to a pull-out by the dam--and another sign, "U R N our sights," complete with the eyes and the camera. We continued our tour of the area (and refrained from making various rude gestures on camera for posterity) and got a nice sighting of a mute swan and a flock of American white pelicans flying overhead for our efforts.

But seriously! If I ever write a book called "America's Weirdest Neighborhoods," Lake Sara, you are going to be in it!

Who put the F in Effingham? (a travelogue with some prairie chickens)

Yesterday my mom and I headed south to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area with the goal of seeing some greater prairie chickens. That is pretty much the only area left in the state where the once-numerous prairie chickens still reside, and after talking about going to see them for several years, we finally decided to do it. Prior to yesterday, my only experience with that corner of the state had been driving by Effingham on the freeway when heading further south.

Effingham's claim to fame is probably that it is home to the World's Largest Cross, a 198 foot white behemoth that towers over the freeway. I would always forget about it until it whizzed into view, and then I'd groan, "Oh no, it's the big tacky cross." Suffice to say, we did not stop to see this wonder on our trip. In fact, once again I'd forgotten all about it until spotting it while driving around the town...and this is the last you'll hear of it in this post.

We began our trip in good spirits, even though it was pouring rain. We stopped for breakfast in Arcola, decided to skip the Arcola Marsh due to the rain, and kept heading south to Effingham. There, we picked up highway 33 and continued south, passing a couple of signs for the prairie. It was still raining, and I had made the mistake of telling my mom that we would be near the town of Olney, whose claim to fame is the white squirrels that inhabit the town. In Olney, they are so proud of these squirrels that it costs $500 in fines if you run over one accidentally. I should have known that she would actually want to SEE these squirrels. (Personally, I had no desire to see them. I am not very fond of squirrels).

On the way there -- we picked up highway 130 at Newton -- our noses were assaulted with the most vile stench of pig shit. It seemed like every mile or so was a confinement barn stuffed full of unfortunate pigs, and the aroma of their excrement lingered in the air long before and after the actual "farm" came in view. It's the kind of smell that seems like it's clinging to your nose hairs. (I will skip the diatribe on why factory "farming" is terrible for many more reasons than the stench it creates -- but please, read "Eating Animals" by Johnathan Safran Foer. He tells it much better than I could.) Interspersed with these were small towns, Bible-belt style churches, and the occasional incongruous sign for a winery.

We got to Olney and found a park where the squirrels hang out. By this time, the rain had slowed down to a drizzle. Even having had few expectations about the squirrels, I was still disappointed. They are not snowy white, as pictured on the town's website and the "Welcome to Olney" sign at the town limits. They aren't really white at all. They're just ordinary squirrels that are a little paler than usual.

By now it was time to check out the prairie. I wasn't expecting to see any of the chickens, since it was now early afternoon and my "Birding Illinois" book says that they display at first light in the morning, but we wanted to get a preview of the area so we didn't get lost the following morning.

We found the park office and wandered around the yard until I found the corner of the fence covered with plywood where visitors could put up a spotting scope to look for the chickens. I looked out over the prairie. It wasn't very pretty at this time of year, and although the rain had stopped, a fierce wind was whipping over the flatlands. As I stood there, I heard an eerie humming noise, quite low. At first I wondered if the wind was blowing over the metal sign informing me that I could go no further on the prairie, catching it at some weird angle. I had never heard anything like that before. I raised my binoculars and could make out some chicken-sized shapes on the ridge across from me.

PRAIRIE CHICKENS!!! I sprinted across the parking lot to get my spotting scope. There were seven of them in view, and a couple were inflating their air sacs, creating that eerie blowing noise. I have read it described as someone blowing over the mouth of a jug, and it does kind of sound like that. We watched until the chickens had wandered off, and then decided to drive around the rest of the prairie.

It started to rain again. Periodically, it would slow down to a drizzle, and every time my mom would say, "It looks like it's slowing up now. It was only supposed to rain in the morning!" Then the skies would open up with a fresh downpour. My mom is an optimist about the weather. I pointed out that if she'd been on Noah's Arc, she would have kept saying, "I think it's getting lighter over there in the west" until the final deluge. But eventually, both our spirits were getting rather sodden by all the rain.

So we went back to Effingham, where we were to spend the night, and the town did not look very pleasant or welcoming in the drizzle. Then there was a mix-up at the hotel when we checked in. And finally, at the very end of the day, when it was too late to drive anywhere to bird...the sun came out. The wind stopped. It was a beautiful day.

I try to be a good sport when I travel, but finally I just had to ask it: Who put the "F" in Effingham?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

House finch bathing

While going through our archives of old photos, I found this incredibly cute series of a house finch bathing that my husband took at the Chicago Botanical Gardens that I just had to share.

Burn, prairie, burn (and some woodcocks)

Today I had a serious problem getting out of bed, which happens to me sometimes, for although it's the early birder that gets the birds, I am, by nature, just NOT a morning person. But even though I did not have a lot of expectations by the time I got out to Sugar Grove Nature Center around 1:00, I wanted to see the prairie, post-fire, since those of you who read my post from earlier this week know, I saw some prairie-burning in action last Wednesday when I was looking for some woodcocks.

Since I did not get up in time to try for a dawn viewing of the woodcocks, I researched prairie restoration on the Internet instead. Illinois once held over 22 million acres of grasslands, of which only around 2,000 acres, or 0.01% of the original amount, remains. The rest has been taken over by agriculture or seemingly unstoppable suburban sprawl. For those who are trying to restore the land to its original state, periodic burning is, indeed, the most effective technique, once the prairie has had a few seasons to get started. Many invasive, non-native plants cannot withstand the fire, and some of the native plants depend on periodic burnings to help with growth and seed germination. In addition, fires help kill saplings, thus preventing the prairie from turning into woodland. (Some trees, such as burr oaks, can hold their own against a fire, creating a different, but equally beautiful, habitat known as the oak savanna. I will probably write more about savannas in the future, as they are one of my favorite ecosystems.) Before European settlers took over Illinois, native Americans and lightning strikes both helped with periodic fires.

I do not pretend to be an expert on prairies, although I have developed quite a fondness for them, especially since last year, when I became devoted to finding as many grassland birds as possible, and in the process, saw a lot of beautiful prairies. Funk's Grove (Sugar Grove Nature Center) in Mclean County and Humiston Woods in Livingston County both have very nice restored prairies. Venturing a little farther afield, I also recommend:

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Nachusa Grasslands
The Morton Arboretum
Goose Lake Prairie

Prairies, I have learned, consist of grasses and forbs. Typical prairie grasses include: big bluestem, indian grass, little bluestem, switch grass, and prairie dropseed. Forbs are in a category of their own. They are plants, but don't fit into the categories of grasses, shrubs or trees. Most prairie wildflowers fall into this category, although not all forbs are flowers. Some examples of common prairie forbs are: wild bergamot, yellow and purple coneflower, black and brown-eyed susan, compass plant, prairie dock, rattlesnake master, and wild indigo. I'll always remember prairie dock, because its leaves feel like sandpaper. If you want to learn to identify all these, a good place to start is the Prairie Parcel Restoration website.

Prairies are important, not only to vary the landscape, but because they help preserve topsoil from erosion, and attract native butterflies and, most important, BIRDS, including the bobolink, dickcissel, greater prairie chicken, Henslow's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, meadowlark and upland sandpiper, many of which are endangered in Illinois (and probably elsewhere).

Today, as I walked around Sugar Grove in the early afternoon, I saw the parcel that was burned: it was not the larger "back prairie" as I assumed from seeing the blaze, but the small field to the left of the visitor's center. The blackened, charred area still smelled strongly of ash and smoke, and attracted (for reasons that I am not sure of) large numbers of brown-headed cowbirds and robins.

I kept walking, with few expectations beyond a pleasant nature walk because of the time of day. Once in the woods, I heard some cardinals singing "what cheer, what cheer" and saw more robins. Then, I flushed a bird, which took off making hysterical noises. I cursed myself for looking up at the trees instead of at the ground. A few feet later, I flushed another, and got a wonderful look at it: long bill, coloration -- AMERICAN WOODCOCK!! Then, further down the trail, I flushed another. I might not have seen their evening courtship display, but still I saw them...

AMERICAN WOODCOCK, BABY!!! Overall, it was a very good day.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Birding without expectations (Evergreen Lake)

In my last post, I confessed to being a "lister" and even defended the practice. But, I will admit, sometimes I think that it would be nicer just to wander around the park, binoculars in hand, equally excited by an American goldfinch and a species that hasn't been seen in the county for a decade, as it was when I was first birding.

I am currently reading "How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher" by Simon Barnes. I am about halfway through; his central point seems to be that the most rewarding form of birdwatching is just about enjoying birds even if you can't identify all the ones you see...and certainly not chasing the rarities. In one part, he discusses how birding is a great form of stress-release, as long as one is not a twitcher (the British term for the hard-core lister type). Barnes writes, "A twitcher might be defined as someone who actively seeks stress in bird-watching. The very name came about because of the neurotic behavior on view when these people are close to a rarity and believe they might miss it."

That description made me reflect a bit. On the whole, I would say that the very reason I became addicted to birding is stress relief: the best moments are a form of meditation, just me seeing the bird, without any other thought in my mind--and even on a bad birding day, I am able to forget whatever is bothering me for at least a while. But, I have to admit, sometimes I do get a little upset when I don't see the birds I want to see, the birds that I know are around somewhere and that other birders, even as I speak, are probably seeing and adding to their lists. This is a real bummer! And then when I miss it, I have to wait a whole year or WHO KNOWS WHEN??? to have another chance. Seriously, that could have been my ONLY CHANCE to see that bird, and I will die or it will go extinct without my ever having found it. Being the competitive, type-A personality that I am, I tend to take it rather personally.

So this morning, looking forward to my afternoon birding, I kept telling myself, "no expectations...whatever I see is fine. No expectations!" I had a mental picture of myself in some Zen-mind state, letting birds drift in and out of my awareness without grasping or aversion.

As if. I wanted to see ducks! After a whole winter season being duck-disappointed, and then a fantastic month of duck luck, I was ready for more. So I went out to Evergreen Lake, where I have had the best sightings this year.

The first sight of open water I passed had pied-billed grebes and -- what's that? -- an impression of some snooty bird, swimming along with its bill in the air. I pulled over long enough to identify my first double-crested cormorant of the season. It wasn't anywhere near so happy to see me, taking off as soon as I got too close to the water--but that's OK, I saw it.

Next stop, at the boat launch...nothing. Seriously. NOTHING. I heard a woodpecker tapping, but I couldn't even find it. I told myself "No expectations" a few times, but my heart wasn't in it.

Further down the road, I saw a bird dive underwater out of the corner of my eye. (Corner of my eye? OK, full disclosure time here: I was weaving over the road like a drunken person because I kept craning my head out the window looking for ducks.) I pulled over and jumped out of the car, bins in hand. All I got was the impression of a dark shape as the bird dove under the water again. I swear, it seemed kind of smug about it--ha ha, just try to ID me!!

I set up my spotting scope and lugged it closer to the lake. My dark diving bird was nowhere in sight. I hauled the scope a bit farther down the road, then a bit farther...scanning the water periodically. Where had that bird disappeared to? A couple times, I was tempted to tell myself it had just flown off, but then I decided to scan the lake one more time...and I saw it, a very long distance from where I first sighted it. A common loon! I love to see loons (in fact, I was wearing a sweatshirt with a loon on it at that exact moment). I had a quick -- but good -- look at its checkerboard pattern before it dove under the water again. Wow, loons can stay under water for a long time. I watched it for a while, lugged my scope back to my car, and proceeded down the road.

Despite the happiness of the loon sighting, I noticed how few birds were on the lake, compared with just last week. Birding frequently makes me thing of the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, saying that you can't step into the same river twice. Some people might wonder what Heraclitus was all about, but I know. Every birding trip is different. Even if you just went out a week ago -- a day ago -- this trip will be different.

At my last stop, I finally found some interesting waterfowl (sorry, mallards and Canada geese) -- a norther shoveler, two hooded mergansers, and two American wigeons. I hadn't seen a wigeon in several years, so I let my scope linger on him for quite a while. As I drove home, I caught myself tallying how many "Year birds," "County birds" and "year county birds" I found...and I found my expectations had been happily met.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In defense of listing

I have noticed in several books on birding that there are derogatory comments made towards those members of the birding community known as "listers." A lister, in case you are wondering, is someone who not only enjoys going out and seeing birds, but feels the need to list them, perhaps somewhat fanatically. Many birders keep some sort of list, notably the "life list," which is a tally of all the species they have seen, or a "yard list," of all the species they have noticed in their yards.

But listers go one, or several, steps further. Either the number of lists grows into the dozens, or the desire to add a species to a list spurs one to a birding frenzy, or both. This is often considered to be a bad thing, as if listers were a deranged sub-category of birders, so obsessed with their lists that they are unable to stop and smell the roses--or rather, admire the birds--before them. A lister is, perhaps, a sort of collector, and even if they are not stockpiling the dead bodies of birds they have seen as they did in Audubon's time, as anyone who has read the novel by John Fowles of that title knows, being "a collector" is not a good thing. Or perhaps it is the snobbery of the process-over-product debate, the idea that life is a journey and not a destination. To the most hardcore of listers, the bird they have seen is irrelevant; it's the check before its name on their checklist that counts.

So it is in the sense of the confessional that I must admit, My name is Esmerelda, and I am a lister.... It's true. I have a whole binder devoted to my lists (not to mention that wonderful database by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology people, ebird, which allows one to help science and compare their ranking to all the other birders in the database simultaneously!) I have: my Life List, State Lists, County Lists, Year Lists (Year State and Year County), Park Lists. I once made my mom drive all over Livingston County until we saw rock pigeons (yes, pigeons) because I needed to add them to my Livingston County list. That was last year, so we'll probably end up on a wild pigeon chase again this year when I bird there. It's like a free-form scavenger hunt with unpredictable prizes.

Is all of this listing a sign of insanity or a coping mechanism to keep me sane? I'm probably not capable of judging that. All I can say for certain is: I was a lister before I was a birder, and listing birds does NOT mean I don't love to see them (even if they're already on every list I have).

Before I took up birding, I used to keep lists of books, a habit that I started in junior high. It was simple enough at first, just a tally of books I'd read and their authors, and a number of stars to show how much I'd enjoyed them on a scale of one to five. But then over the years I started more lists -- books I wanted to read, books by category, before I knew it I had over a dozen book lists going. So I guess it's not surprise that almost immediately after discovering the joys of birding, I added the joys of listing.

Besides being a personality quirk, listing has several good points. Most importantly, it keeps birding fresh and interesting. I love to see even the most common of birds, but sometimes it does get a little boring seeing the same old "usual suspects" day after day. Once spring or fall migration is over, I can usually predict the majority of birds I will see on any given trip: goldfinch, towhee, indigo bunting. Sometimes these birds will be doing something unusual or looking especially spiffy, but I hope it doesn't make me a bad person to admit that...all too often seeing a robin is not that exciting. So, I mix it up. I can't guarantee that I'll see a new species--but I can see that same old boring robin in a new place. Or I can see my first robin of the year, or the month.... And so I look forward to going out and seeing more robins, and goldfinches, and buntings, and in the process I stumble upon birds I hadn't even thought of seeing (such as the black-crowned night heron pictured above, caught snoozing over the I&M Canal last September).

On a philosophical level, one could argue that all these lists are a way of structuring experience, shaping chaos into order. But that would entail a lot of thinking and a hefty dose of BS, so I'll concentrate instead of finding pigeons in every county I go to....

Fire on the prairie (but no woodcocks)

Yesterday my husband and I went out for a stroll at Sugar Grove Nature Center after work. I was hoping to see an American woodcock doing his evening display, which is apparently quite impressive. I knew that woodcocks were in residence because the previous week the nature center had had an evening woodcock walk, which I missed, since I hadn't been on their web site in a month or so.

When we got there, instead of the empty parking lot we were expecting, we found a group of men (I think they were all men) wearing yellow suits and carting around containers of liquid. What was going on? Was the Grove being invaded by some particularly noxious weed, which required a whole pesticide SWAT team to eradicate? I didn't like the looks of this at all -- who wants their nature walk spoiled by poisonous fumes? The yellow-suited fellows were heading towards the trails to the left of the visitor center, so we headed to the right.

Sugar Grove Nature Center is one of the nicer places to bird in McLean County. I won't try to describe the entire place in one post; for the purposes of this walk, the relevant feature is the restored prairie. The largest field stretches for a ways to the right of and behind the visitor center, with a wooded section jutting out into the middle.

The evening was overcast, with a premonition of rains to come stirring the air--one of my favorite kinds of days for atmosphere; unfortunately, not that great for seeing birds, as they all looked kind of like dark shapes against a gray background. Even so, we had a very nice view of a harrier flying and I saw my first Eastern kingbird of the season, and the air was filled with the songs of meadowlarks. (We also saw the severed head of an opossum -- mostly skull, showing a ferocious line of teeth, with enough fur attached to the top of the head that we could identify the critter. Of the rest of the body, there was no sign.)

When we turned towards the trees to our left, we saw what the men in yellow were really up to -- the back prairie was ablaze. I know that prairie restoration involves periodic burning, to help control invasive plants and doubtless for other reasons as well, but I had never actually seen it being done before. As evening drew in, and the blaze grew larger, it started to look like the whole Grove was going to burn up in a hideous conflagration. My inner pyromaniac wanted to get a closer look at the fire -- for a moment, I even forgot to be disappointed about the lack of woodcocks.

By the time we got back to the parking lot, the fire had been put out. The expanse of prairie looked like nothing more than blackened, charred earth -- hardly more appealing than a parking lot. And yet in two or three months' time, it will be filled with waving grasses and wildflowers.

As we left, the birdsong was fading for the night...and three firetrucks were heading down the road. As usual, it was not the experience that I had expected; but, in its own way, was even better. And I will go out looking for woodcocks again!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Floodlands -- Illinois River Valley birding part II

Despite all the bad luck I experienced on my last Illinois River Valley birding day (as described in my last post, "Birding bliss in Henry"), two weeks later, I convinced my mom that we should go back for more. It had been getting a bit warmer in the intervening fortnight,and a lot of the snow had melted, so I was once again certain that we would surely find huge patches of open water, positively filled with migrating or still-wintering ducks and geese. I told my mom (my erstwhile birding buddy) that this time we would head south instead of north and we would check out a bunch of new places that I had found with the help of the Internet.

The day started out well. We stopped at Powerton Lake in Tazewell County, just south of Pekin, which is actually a cooling pond for the power plant, and thus free of ice. In fact, the warm water and cold air created a misty effect that made me think of some archetypal pristine wilderness, the watery plumes of underground hot springs drifting across a plain.... That was just a fleeting impression, however, because Powerton Lake is anything put pristine: we were looking right across at the power plant, while traffic roared by on the busy road behind us. And the area smelled rather bad, of rotting fish.

While my mom was eating her breakfast and changing her shoes in the Jeep, I wandered out and saw a belted kingfisher with a fish in its mouth land on a post right in front of me. It whacked the fish against the post a few times and then proceeded to eat it. It was one of those moments I could point to when people wonder how I can spend so much of my free time looking at birds. Because I get to see cool stuff like this! But that was really all there was to see at Powerton, except for some fishermen (who were quite friendly, but not what we were looking for).

We then went to Spring Lake (mute swans, common mergansers, but the lake was still almost completely iced over), then down to Chatauqua (some bald eagles), and then we continued south of IL highway 78 to what was to be the crowning moment of a whole month of birding: the Sanganois Conservation Area. We had never been there, but "Birding Illinois" described it as the most diverse area of the Illinois River Valley, with "backwater lakes, a deepwater marsh" and "tens of thousands of ducks."
I was probably getting a little obsessed with ducks because the waterfowl section of my life list is not very impressive, and I knew from looking on-line that other birders were seeing ducks all over the place, and yet I could barely find a mallard!

Just getting to the Sanganois area seemed arduous -- the towns along the way seemed very small, and then driving along through fields, just fields...we seemed to be heading for the proverbial middle of nowhere, which is fun and exciting, but at the back (OK, more toward the middle) of my mind is always the thought: what if we get stranded? Cell phones are nice and everything, but this looked like a long way from anywhere! (Just for the record, I want to state that I am NOT one of those city people who is afraid of squirrels or gets creeped out walking in the woods. But there is something about the Illinois River Valley that pushes at my comfort zone, in a good way. It's not just the birds that keep me going back. I find the whole area to be fascinating.)

And then, finally! We had arrived! There was a nice brown sign announcing it. No one else was around, but we headed down the dirt road into the heart of the wilderness. Or rather, we squelched down it. The road was a soggy, sodden mess. And then, a ways down, was a pick-up truck parked halfway across the road. We did wonder, briefly, why someone had abandoned a truck out there in the middle of the road, but there were deep tracks where someone else had gone around it, and so, urged onward by visions of ducks, we followed suit.

At that point, we were starting to realize that the truck had probably been put there on PURPOSE, to keep us out, because the road stopped being sodden and squelchy and started being underwater and completely eroded. (A sawhorse with a sign saying "Road closed" might have been too obvious?) Perhaps my fear of being stranded in the middle of nowhere was not quite so irrational. I had to get out and ground-guide my mom so she could turn the Jeep around without driving it into a ditch and, once again foiled in our pursuit of ducks, we continued on our way.

Note to Self -- also, note to others who might be reading this post and perhaps be as misguided and clueless as Self: Spring thaw is NOT a good time to try backwater birding. The backwaters flood. Everywhere else we tried to go that day was the same: Meredosia (flooded), Banner Marsh (flooded).

On the way back, however, we did see the spectacle of thousands upon thousands of Canada geese lining the banks and margins of the Illinois River. Whenever there was a bend in the road or a gap in the trees allowing us to look down at the water, there they were, in humbling multitude.

Birding bliss in Henry -- IL River Birding part one

Not too far from where I live, between an hour and two hour's drive away (depending on the starting point), is a very different ecosystem and a chance to shake things up, birding wise: the Illinois River valley. I love water, and so do many birds, so these river birding trips should be a sure thing. However, I am still learning my way around what is quite a large area, getting a feel for all the habitats involved (including some interesting human habitats). Frequently, these Illinois River Valley birding days turn out to be more maddening than productive, especially as my birding buddy on these trips, my mom, is a great sport but the world's worst navigator.

We made a couple trips in February, because I was really hoping to find some open water, and thus a chance to see some ducks and geese (all the lakes and ponds in my own county being frozen solid), and because by that time of the year I am so sick of being cold that the thought of driving up and down the river and looking at birds from the car window is actually kind of appealing.

On February 21 we had actually intended to start out with a stroll at Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area, north of Peoria. I had never been there but "Birding Illinois," by Sheryl De Vore, my bird-trip Bible,states that it is a good place to see pileated woodpeckers and wintering creepers, gulls and bald eagles. We arrived via a convoluted series of back roads (this, to avoid having to drive through East Peoria)only to find the gate closed. It seemed like a nice place for birds, too. We saw horned larks dodging off into the fields on our way in, and both a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch were exploring a tree right outside the gate. We stared at the gate for a while as if it would spontaneously open. It was already a cold, damp, gray, drizzly day, and I felt as if any additional problems would send me right over the edge. (I sometimes suffer from "birder's rage" when I feel that things really aren't going my way. I tend to take it personally. This is part of the reason I say my mom is a good sport). I consulted the birding book. "If this area is flooded, the gates are locked..." I read.

We discussed the situation for a minute. "Maybe it's flooded." "It doesn't look flooded." "Why else would they lock the gate?" "Maybe they just forgot to open it?" As we debated whether walking around the gate would be a good idea, the sky proceeded to engage in a fresh bout of drizzling, and we decided instead to continue driving north along the river to see if anything interesting came up.

We found our birding bliss in Henry, where the marina had some open water and, first thing as we drove into the parking area, a nice flock of snow geese and one greater white-fronted goose waddling around on the grass. In the water was a pair of ruddy ducks (I had not seen one so close since 2007) and some common mergansers. Perhaps the most entertaining item was a trio of bald eagles -- two adults and a juvenile -- fighting over a fish. Some people can go out in all seasons and weathers and see dozen of birds, but for me, in February, this constituted a pretty good birding moment.

On our way home (we didn't see anything interesting after Henry)it started to sleet. But by that point, I had convinced myself that it had been a pretty good day: we saw SOME birds, and in addition, we saw Henry, or at least its marina. That is one of the great "side effects" of birding -- I have probably seen more of Illinois than any other state I've lived in, because the birds give me a reason to explore. I would never think, "Today I want to drive around and see a bunch of small towns, and fields, and obscure county parks..." but the birds get me out there, and, in retrospect, all that other stuff was half the fun of it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Duck luck at Evergreen Lake

Yesterday I went birding at Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake. If someone asked my opinion for the best birding spot in McLean County, I would vote for Comlara -- it has the largest variety of habitats, a lot of hiking trails, and it is the place where I see the most birds, both per trip and on my overall Park List (111 species so far). It was unseasonably warm, which is unsettling, but I still enjoyed it. I don't handle cold weather well at all.

I walked the trail behind the visitor center to the bridge on the east side and back -- nothing too exciting. I got a very good look at a couple of song sparrows. They were so much scrawnier than I expected (in my mind, song sparrows are round, jolly-looking birds) that I did a double-take and, in the process, got a very good look at their markings: the black streaks around the chin area, the exact pattern of color on their heads. There were some fox sparrows, too, skulking and hiding in the tangled branches, and a nice group of red-breasted mergansers on the lake.

But overall, I was feeling disappointed. I know I can't expect to see new and exciting birds on EVERY outing, but I wanted at least some "year birds" or "county birds" or "year county birds" (I should confess right now that I have a bit of a listing problem)...something new. And March, despite the unseasonable warmth, is not a terribly beautiful month. No fresh green leaves, no wildflowers, everything still covered in winter starkness.

On the way back, the feeders by the visitor center were more active -- on one feeder, a red-bellied woodpecker and a tufted titmouse perched side by side. And there were a couple of white-breasted nuthatches. Nuthatches are among my favorite everyday birds, along with cedar waxwings, American goldfinches and common yellowthroats. I don't care how common they are. I feel happier just for seeing them, each and every time.

It's hard to explain just what's so appealing about the nuthatch. I recall the very first time I saw one -- it was at a park along the Illinois River, just south of the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands in Putnam County, in 2004. I had just begun birding the previous month, and was out with the JWP Audubon Society and my mom. At the wetlands, we saw many nice water birds -- green-winged teal, American wigeon, Northern pintail -- and the Audubon members pointed them all out and shared their scope, but although I enjoyed seeing the ducks, they didn't make that big of an impression on me. On the way back, we went for a short walk, and there was the nuthatch, flying back and forth across the path, running headfirst down a tree-trunk, and making that comical "yank-yank" noise. It was love at first sight.
First of all, they are such striking birds, visually -- I like contrasting black and white (downy woodpeckers, black and white warblers, common mergansers) -- and the way the black runs over their heads, so that they look like they're wearing skullcaps, is just adorable. And their noise, at once silly and endearing. Everything about a nuthatch makes me smile. (Sadly, the red-breasted nuthatches that hung out around the visitor's center all winter appear to have left, probably the only thing about winter that I'll miss).

On the drive home, I pulled over to the side of the road a couple of times and set up my spotting scope by the lake--the first stop revealed Northern shovelers, nice, but I've already seen plenty of them this month. The second stop showed -- a group of eight REDHEADS! Stop everything -- it's a LIFE BIRD! I took a good long look, soaking in all their details. This is the first spring I've had my spotting scope, and thus the first that I've actively looked for water birds, and the result has been a bonanza of ducks -- earlier in the month, first sighting ever of red-breasted mergansers, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaups and common goldeneyes -- and the first hooded mergansers since 2005 (one obligingly put his hood all the way up for my admiration) and the first pintail since 2007.

And now--redheads! My last stop revealed pied-billed grebes (the first this year) and, way off in the distance, a flock of scaups, which could be greater or lesser -- of course, I want to call them "greater" and get another bird, but from this distance, who can tell? Mystery scaups it is.

The day of the swallows

On August 4, 2009, in my bird journal I wrote: "Many broken and fallen tree limbs along road approaching nature center from storms earlier in the day. I could feel the season changing -- the mix of birds, the bird songs, quite different even than a month ago. Did not hear a single dickcissel or blackbird, but there were hundreds of swallows swooping overhead, the sound of their twitterings. Except for the aerial ballet of the swallows, everything felt very still."

It was late afternoon. I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center (a wonderful place to visit in McLean County, for birding excursions or nature walks) after work. In the morning, there had been incredible storms: the sky literally becoming dark, so that, looking out the window, it really did seem like night. And then the rain began, moving in like a wall, the winds tearing at trees and ripping off branches with steely abandon. I am not afraid of storms. It was exhilarating. I stood by the door of my work place, fascinated and unable to settle down to my daily routine. How could I? There was darkness at noon and a driving wall of rain!

By late afternoon, the storm had passed, and the sun appeared, so I went out for a stroll in nature, which is the best way to shake off the work day that I know of. It had been an incredible spring and summer, birding-wise. I had learned to recognize all the most common song-birds in the area: indigo buntings, song and field sparrows, common yellowthroats, catbirds, towhees, meadowlarks, dickcissels. Everywhere I went, they announced their presence.

And then on this day...silence. Stillness. Except for the barn swallows. I had never seen so many of them in one place, easily hundreds of them swooping overhead. It was beautiful but, combined with all that I wasn't seeing and hearing, also somehow ominous. There was a feeling of gathering energy, something inward and powerful, like the horizons when dusk is spilling out across the fields. The season was ending.

Of course, I saw many nice birds through the remainder of the the summer and the fall, including winter wrens (a life bird!), and two excellent views of black-throated blue warblers, and the wonderful fall flocks of sparrows and kinglets; but even all of that could only partially console me in the fact that each week, fewer of the summer birds sang: the buntings, the towhees, the catbirds,the dickcissels, all fell silent. And left.

Previously, I had always looked forward to fall, and even early winter (before the cold and snow just gets tiresome)-- in fact, these had been my favorite times of year: the lovely fall colors, the first crisp, cool days, the crunch of leaves underfoot, and then the first snow-fall, I had loved all of this, and resented whenever I lived in climates that did not have all "the seasons." But this time, I resented fall. I felt depressed. I wanted my birds back! It felt like they would never return.

I don't know what inspired this fit of melancholy--perhaps the realization that, as I get older, that each year, as it passes, really is over, that my life is finite, the summer chorus will not last. Or perhaps it is bigger than just me, and my trite intimations of mortality: the earth itself, the terrible damage being inflicted upon it, are also in my mind. For so many birds, not only the individuals with their grueling migrations ahead, but entire species, one after another, around the world...are falling silent. Are leaving the world. And I don't want them to go.

Birding the flatlands

In many ways, the story of my birding in central Illinois is a chronicle of learning to see, to appreciate -- if I can't quite bring myself to love -- a landscape that, initially, I found very unsympathetic. I am not from Illinois, and have had the good luck to witness, before arriving here, some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes that can be imagined: the Big Sur coastline and the redwood forests of California; the sparkling green-ridged volcanic mountains of Hawaii; the oceans, Atlantic and Pacific; the High Atlas mountains in Morocco; springtime in Nagano prefecture in Japan, awash with cherry blossoms....

And then, central Illinois. Flat, nearly treeless, without any dramatic bodies of water. Driving along back roads or highways: flat, flat, FLAT. Endless fields of corn and soy, then more corn, and more corn. And then Bloomington-Normal: ugly suburban sprawl, big box stores and chain restaurants, and not much real town in the midde.

But as I discovered birding, and spent more and more time engaged in the pursuit of birds, of necessity I spent more time exploring the habitats (what tiny fragmented bits exist in central Illinois, anyway) the birds live in. I found the little corners of woods and prairie and lake and march that still exist, here and there, and slowly, as I saw meadowlarks singing from trees and wires, and indigo buntings and dickcissels swayed on the grasses, and swallows darted overhead, and common yellowthroats popped up through the weeds for a moment's song...it began to be beautiful. Or rather, I learned to see the beauty that was already there.

The flatlands, their glory and impact, is all about a feeling of space and sky: this is especially true at dawn and dusk, or after a storm, or when sunlight filters through the clouds at just the right angle, or when the evening sky is a study of mauves and pinks and reds. The horizon stretches out so far, it hints at infinity: it is a moment of lightness, expansion, possibility. Sometimes it is a glorious feeling, that anything is possible, and even this degraded patchwork of landscape is fresh and new -- this especially in the morning, as the sunlight spreads so quickly across the fields and, of course, the birds of the day are all yet to be seen, and there could be dozens of them, with two or three "life birds" thrown in. And sometimes this expanse of sky and field is more melancholy, the day--and all its potential-- finished, drawing inward, and ending of sorts.