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.

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