Saturday, March 20, 2010

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 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.

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