Thursday, April 29, 2010

Might as well face it, you're addicted to birds



Drugs, alcohol, gambling...birds??

I just finished reading "Life List" by Olivia Gentile, a biography of big-listing birder Phoebe Snetsinger, who was the first person to see over 8,000 species of birds. The book describes how Phoebe, who had been an intelligent student hoping for a science career, changed course (it was the 1950s) and went for marriage and motherhood instead. The dreariness of being a stay-at-home mom was alleviated when she discovered birding, enchanted by a Blackburnian warbler that a birding friend pointed out.

Phoebe soon took to the pasttime, accruing a nice local life list where the Snetsingers settled in Saint Louis and becoming an active member of a local nature studies club. Her restlessness was not completely cured, however; she felt trapped by her daily life, wrote depressing poetry, and dreamed of running away to the jungle.

Then a cancer scare, in which she was told that she only had a few months to live, propelled her to accelerate her birding travel. She began going on trips all over the world, even as her cancer went into remission. She saw more and more birds, and other people from the trips remember her enthusiasm and helpfulness to other birders.

Just when she had announced that she would slow her pace again, she was attacked and raped by a gang of thugs in Papua New Guinea. Although Phoebe consistently downplayed the effect this had on her, the author of the biography sees this is a turning point in Phoebe's life: instead of scaling back the birding, she accelerated it, putting herself through grueling physical ordeals,going to places that were known to be dangerous or politically unstable, alienating her family, missing her mother's funeral and her daughter's wedding in the pursuit of more birds. Birding friends reported that as her obsession progressed, she became more critical and seemed to enjoy herself less. If she didn't get her "target birds" on a trip, she couldn't be happy. Finally, almost twenty years after she was supposed to have died of cancer, she was killed in a bus accident on a birding trip to Madagascar.

It's hard to know exactly what to make of Phoebe Snetsinger. The author makes the case that women's limited opportunities in Phoebe's generation probably turned a wholesome hobby into an obsession, stating that if Phoebe had been able to pursue a career, she wouldn't have needed to overcompensate so much with birding. But the author is not a birder.

I think that sexism does enter the picture in some ways -- a lot of people would probably find Phoebe's quest weird, even off-putting, in a way that they might not in big-listing male birders. It's more accepted for men to pursue adventure, dedicate themselves to only one goal, put themselves in physical danger and neglect their family. Women who do this are often judged more harshly, even now. And women who chose to do this are less well known than their adventurous male counterparts -- Lawrence of Arabia and David Livingstone being much better known than Gertrude Bell and Alexandra David-Neel, for example.

So although there was definitely sexism in Phoebe's era (and our own), and she may have resented it, I don't think that is what drove her to bird. As a birder myself, I think it's safe to say that the pleasures of birding drove her to bird.

Birding, you see, is like other addictive behaviors: it makes you feel better. It helps you forget your troubles. When a birder is birding -- looking for birds, listening to them, getting them in the binoculars -- all the problems of life seem further behind. But it doesn't last. Once you get home, tally your list for the day, add your life birds to your life list, the "high" wears off, and you're back where you started -- just like drugs or alcohol or all the other things that can get people into trouble. And just like drug users build up a tolerance, so do birders -- you saw 56 species today? Then you want to see more tomorrow! And you know you're really addicted when you risk your well-being to get your "high," be it by hanging out in an alley in the hood to get your crack, or going to a war-torn country to get an endemic species.

Does that make birding bad? Well, I don't think so -- but then I'm also addicted to birds, without Phoebe Snetsinger's inheritance to support my "habit." The important thing is to keep it fun -- if you don't see the birds you want, enjoy the birds you see.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bad bird, bad bird...whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

Everywhere I go here in central Illinois, one of the easy-peasy species I'm bound to see is the brown-headed cowbird. Often, I hear it first--giving a short, bubbling, burbling song that I've heard described as it's "water call." At Sugar Grove Nature Center over the winter, I would frequently see flocks of up to 100 cowbirds, hanging out around the feeders.

The male cowbird is not unattractive: a shiny black body with a glossy brown head. Their behavior, however, is notorious: like the more famous European cuckoo, the cowbird is a brood parasite, recruiting other species as unwitting nannies by depositing their eggs in other bird's nests. In the days of Yore, this wasn't really a problem: cowbirds are grassland birds, who traditionally followed the bison. Since following bison and incubating eggs aren't really compatible, they developed their habit of foisting their young on others.

Now that humans have fragmented forest habitat, creating a lot more open and edge environments, the cowbirds are flourishing, even though the bison are gone. I love birds, but seeing so many cowbirds bugs me: I can't help but think of all the unhatched songbirds they represent, and they have become kind of symbolic for me, of what we humans have done wrong. I mean, it's not the cowbirds fault.

Today I decided to look up cowbirds on the Internet and see just how bad they are. I learned some interesting cowbird factoids: for example, that individual female cowbirds will have preferences for parasitizing certain hosts. Cowbirds have parasitized over 200 different species, so they can't be called choosy birds, although sometimes they make bad decisions. House finches feed their young diets that baby cowbirds cannot thrive on, for example, so young birds raised by house finches rarely survive. Some birds get savvy to the cowbird's ways, and have different defenses against them: yellow warblers will build a new nest over the top of a nest with a cowbird egg, gnatcatchers will abandon their nests, and brown thrashers will destroy the cowbird eggs. Most species, however, are oblivious to the fact that their young have been switched at birth, so to speak, and will happily raise the young cowbird as their own. Even those species who have caught on are not safe: the "cowbird mafia" will actually check the nests they have left eggs in, and retaliate if their egg is gone. For all of these reasons, cowbirds have a bad reputation, and have been blamed for declining songbird populations.

With all these cowbird prejudices in mind, I was surprised to read on the Audubon website that, with the exception of a few endangered species, such as the Kirtland's warbler and the black-capped vireo, cowbirds are not largely to blame for songbird declines (sadly, the blame would lie, once again, with us humans). In fact, cowbird populations are even declining slightly, and most species who unwittingly raise a cowbird can go on to re-nest later in the year. Even species that are heavily parasitized by cowbirds, such as song sparrows, only lose a small percentage of their chicks because of them.

To control cowbirds (again, information is from the Audubon website), wildlife managers rely on methods such as trapping them, removing their eggs from nests, and shooting them at their roosting sites. (In Luke Dempsey's book "A Supremely Bad Idea," he describes how up to 4,000 cowbirds a year are trapped and then squeezed to death to protect the endangered Kirkland's warbler.) However, with the exception of cowbird murder to protect endangered species (sorry if my pro-animal rights bias is creeping out), these actions are controversial--for one thing, they are expensive and time-consuming, they don't necessarily improve nesting success for other birds, and they are merely a stop-gap measure that does not address the underlying problem: the reason that cowbirds are able to do this is because of the changes in habitat that we are creating. Until we restore woodland habitats, we are doing nothing to solve the real problem.

Last summer, I felt privileged to witness a couple of real-life cowbird moments. One was at the McKee Marsh in the Blackwell Forest Preserve (by Warrenville, IL), where a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers had caught a pair of cowbirds skulking around their nests. The gnatcatchers were clearly upset over this, jumping and diving at the female cowbird until she flew away (egg laid or not? That I could not tell.) The male was observing all this from a branch higher up in the tree. Meanwhile, the gnatchatchers were so upset that they attacked an unwitting white-breasted nuthatch who had the bad luck to land on that tree trunk just then.

The second instance was at the Morton Arboretum, where I saw a cowbird chick being fed by its adoptive parent, a song sparrow. The cowbird looked so different from its "parent" -- for one thing, it was huge, much bigger than the little sparrow ferrying insects to its hungry beak -- that it was hard to believe that the song sparrow hadn't caught on. Well, who's to say it hadn't? I don't know what birds are thinking. The song sparrow left, after depositing the meal it the cowbird's beak, and then the baby cowbird gave a tiny chirp and settled down on its branch in the sunlight to rest. Honestly, that little chick is one of the "cutest" things I've ever seen....

Kind of hard to hate cowbirds after that. (After all, I don't hate humans, and it's really our fault about the habitat...)

A trip to Humiston Woods


Last Sunday, my mother and I went to Humiston Woods Nature Center, which is just outside of Pontiac in Livingston County, off route 23 past a very stinky and scary-looking landfill. (I looked up the Pontiac landfill on the Internet, and read that it is for non-hazardous waste. That may be. But it still looks really yucky.)

Humiston Woods is a worthy addition for central Illinois birders; it has a nice mix of habitat, including tallgrass prairie, savanna, and woods, with both Wolf Creek and the Vermilion River crossing through it, it has some nice hiking trails, and it's quite pretty -- for pleasant surroundings, I think it might come in ahead of my favorite McLean County birding spots, although it still doesn't have the mix of birds of my favorite, Evergreen Lake.

Spring is a lovely time to visit Humiston Woods. The wildflowers are gorgeous. Bluebells carpeted the floor of the woods, making everything a wash of blue; there were also spring beauties, violets, and shooting stars. Every so often my mom would stop and say, "I keep having to stop and remind myself how pretty this is."

The park is best for warblers in spring and fall, and we were still a bit too early for the big spring warbler invasion. We saw some nice yellow rumps (one of them scratching and preening himself like crazy), blue-gray gnatcatchers, and ruby-crowned kinglets, but I don't think the spring migrants have really hit yet.

The crowning moment of the trip was seeing the heron rookery in the large sycamore along the Vermilion River -- a good dozen huge nests high up in the tree, each with a great blue heron head sticking out as the parent bird sits on the eggs.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Giving Moraine View a chance


Moraine View State Park is supposed to be one of the best birding locations in McLean county. The McLean County birding website (link at right) says so. Sheryl DeVore's excellent and informative book "Birding Illinois" says so. And yet...I have to disagree. I go there periodically, once or twice a month, just for variety, and I never see the quantity and variety of birds that I do at my favorite county spots: Comlara Park, Funk's Grove...even the sewer plant.

That doesn't mean I don't see ANY nice birds there. It is the only place in the county I have seen black-crowned night herons, osprey or soras, for instance. But usually, I only see a few birds. I went there yesterday for my Friday afternoon birding (I know that Friday morning birding would be better, but I get the afternoon, not the morning, off). The weather was nice, the wildflowers were blooming, and I had a nice walk. I saw some lovely golden-crowned kinglets. Kinglets always trip me out. How can anything be THAT TINY? That was really the only interesting bird sighting. Really, there were few birds of any kind.

Besides the birding being more rewarding elsewhere, there are several other reasons why, despite being mentioned as one of the county's best spots, I am not all that fond of Moraine View:

One, it's quite small and not very good for hiking. The best habitat -- the Tanglewood Trail/Willow Marsh area -- has a tiny hiking trail; even on a great birding day, it takes very little time to go through it. The longer hiking trail -- in the Tall Trees backpack camp area -- is not very good for birding. So usually, I go to Moraine View if I don't have a lot to time to bird, so I won't have to pull myself away before I've seen everything I want to. I like to hike AND bird.

Two, it's more crowded than other area parks. Probably because it's so small, it feels really crowded, a definite minus for misanthropes like myself. Because of the small area and the large number of people, I often have to listen to people's radios, boat motors, or loud potty mouths yelling to their buddies as I bird.

Three, it's not very pretty. And I hate the windmills that have been erected all around the park. Not even taking into consideration that damage they may be doing to migrating birds heading for one of the few green areas in the county...they're ugly and noisy. When I close my eyes and listen for birdsong, I can hear those damn windmills grinding around. Hey, I'm all for alternative energy and I don't even pretend to know what the best solution is, but if Illinois is not careful, it will be a state filled with nothing but fields of ethanol corn studded with big eyesore noisy windmills...not good for birds...and not good for me! In other words, just like the area immediately surrounding Moraine View State Park.

Four, I have never had a single bad experience in any McLean county natural area...except for Moraine View. Last Memorial Day weekend, while my husband and I were camping in the backpacker area, some assholes snuck into our campsite in the night and stole a bunch of our stuff. It wasn't even valuable...our lamp, our water jugs, a small cooler with my breakfast bagel in it. And last December I was actually HIT by stray buckshot while walking in an area that was supposed to be off-limits to hunters. (Luckily I was not hurt. The buckshot was falling from the sky after the hunters took aim at a pheasant, not coming to me directly from the gun. But still!) I am not a fan of hunting season to start with -- I don't care so much about the deer, but I hate the idea of people killing birds -- plus it makes it dangerous for non-hunters, even if they are in an area that is supposed to be okay. And Moraine View's hunting season drags on forever! Those are the only two REALLY negative experiences, but there have been other times when the caliber of people around -- cursing, intoxicated-looking, etc. -- has made me a little uncomfortable. All of this stands out because I have NEVER had such negative experiences anywhere else!

Despite these minuses, I don't HATE Moraine View and I want to see it prosper -- the more natural areas in the county, the better! And to be fair, most trips I've made there, and most of the people I've encountered, have been fine. So I keep giving Moraine View a chance to live up to its reputation...plus it's the only place in the county I've seen black-crowned night herons, and if they like it, it can't be that bad.

Birding slump ended by sandpipers!

The excitement of last month spoiled me -- all those ducks, and then the grand finale with a horned grebe and the greater prairie chickens. So the last week or so, despite seeing American white pelicans for the first time in McLean County, and a barred owl for the first time this year, I was starting to feel like I was in a birding slump.

This morning I actually got up at a decent time for birding, and went out to the sewer plant off of route 51 to see what was there. This isn't as weird as it sounds--there's a nature sanctuary attached, and even a trail to walk around. Birds love mud and water, so sewer plants are a popular spot to bird the world over. It does smell a bit -- although, to be honest, nothing anywhere near as gross as being in the vicinity of a factory hog farm.

It felt a little weird to be there by myself -- for some reason, I've never gone without a birding buddy to the sewer plant. But the sun was out, the day felt fresh and new, and the smell wasn't too bad, so I lugged my scope to the ponds to check out who was there. A nice flock of shovelers and blue-winged teal--and in the back pond, there were several green-winged teal, which was quite a treat, since I hadn't seen them since 2007. (I didn't bird much in 2008 or early 2009--I was too busy working on the first few drafts of my novel, which is almost ready now, but proceeding much more slowly than it would if I hadn't gotten back into birding. But that's okay. I NEED to bird.)

Tree swallows have already staked out their boxes for nesting, and were swooping and sailing overhead as I moved my scope over the ponds. The sound of red-winged blackbirds announcing their territories filled the air. And then I spotted something even more interesting...two greater yellowlegs and a pectoral sandpiper. I admired them for quite some time, my faith in birding and, indeed, of a sense of a benevolent deity, restored. I had started feeling sorry for myself, going out and not seeing much of note, while the ebird database showed that other Illinois birders were seeing cool things all over the place.

After that, I decided to drive over to Sugar Grove Nature Center, just to see what was going on there, bird-wise. I am starting to give up on seeing the pileated woodpecker. At least that meant that not seeing it today didn't disappoint me too much...because it didn't show up today either. Still, it was a lovely walk. In the "swale" area -- a low-lying area that fills up with water in the spring -- a blanket of bright yellow marsh marigolds was in bloom. They are so pretty in and of themselves, and also make me think of my long-ago undergraduate days, when I did not bird and knew very little about nature, but loved seeing those yellow flowers every April, when I walked to the small park a mile or so from campus. (How could I have gone to that park so often, and not looked at birds? I'm sure there WERE birds, but I didn't even notice one. I could kick myself now for all my lost opportunities.)

I saw a couple of nice yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and a male ring-necked pheasant dodging away from me in the long grass. And the area behind the cemetery is covered with bluebells.

I felt a little melancholy on the walk, but it was still nice...the sense of solitude, of wandering the trails however I pleased, enjoying the birds and flowers.

Now, back at my apartment: my neighbors being so noisy, and earlier the racket of lawnmowers circling the building. I wish that all of life could be the sense of looking at a sandpiper...or at the yellow wash of a carpet of spring flowers...or that freedom of walking, so quietly and purposelessly, through the April sunshine.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not everyone likes to see an owl


Yesterday I went back to Funk's Grove with my husband after work, still hoping to see that pileated woodpecker. You wouldn't think that a big bird that pounds at tree trunks like a jackhammer would be that elusive, but once again, I had nary a glimpse of it.

I didn't see all that many species; it was late in the day, and although the rain (did it ever RAIN earlier in the day!--the trail was more like a creek in some places) had stopped, it was still wet and windy. There was a nice meadowlark on the prairie, and a handsome pair of flickers--and A LOT of robins.

Still, I could admire the wildflowers. The bluebells are starting to bloom, and I also saw some yellow bellwort--at least flowers stay in one place, giving you all the time in the world to admire them.

Before we left, a barred owl flew silently across the path. I had heard it several times before, in that area of the Grove, but it was the first time this year that I actually saw one. I love owls. Once, many years ago, before I got into birding, I saw a barn owl flying across the night sky in Hawaii. I felt like it was some sort of personal message -- although if it was an omen, I was sure that it was good. And back in 2007, on a guided tour of the King Ranch in Texas, I was very pleased to see a ferruginous pygmy owl. (True, I only saw it through a spotting scope, where it was glaring at us for bothering it with owl recordings to make it appear, but still--I saw it! And it was nice!) More recently, I have had a couple of nice sightings of great horned owls...although the northern saw-whet owl I was hoping to find over the winter never did appear.

Who would not love an owl? As it turns out, a lot of people. Today, I looked up owl superstitions on the internet, and most superstitions associated with owls all over the world are negative.

Perhaps because they are nocturnal, and drift across one's path so swiftly and silently, like a specter, in many cultures owls are associated with death, witchcraft and ghosts. I found references to similar beliefs in cultures as varied as ancient Rome, Britain, several African and native American tribes, the Middle East... Poor owls!

Some more interesting superstitions include: an owl nesting in an abandoned building is proof that it is haunted; if an owl hoots during a funeral, the deceased will rise from the grave to haunt the living; looking into an owl's nest will curse you with melancholia; and if you walk around a tree that an owl is perching in, it will strangle itself trying to swivel its head all the way around in a circle. Some superstitions were downright harmful to the owl: in England, it used to be thought that nailing an owl's corpse to a barn door would ward off evil, and owls or owl eggs were thought to treat alcoholism, epilepsy, whooping cough, and poor eyesight.

The ancient Greeks were kinder in their beliefs about owls. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, chose an owl as her favorite companion; and Aesop depicted the bird as being quite wise in his fables.

In ancient Rome, witches were thought to be able to turn into owls, and, in a couple of myths, people (or rather deities) were changed into owls as punishment: Ascalpus in the Greek/Roman myth was turned into an owl for ratting on Hades after he kidnapped Persephone and dragged her down into the underworld; and in the more poetic but less comprehensible realm of Celtic myth, the Welsh goddess Blodeuwedd, who was created from flowers to be Lleu's wife, was turned into an owl for attempting to kill her husband so she could run off with another guy. (On a non-birding note: Alan Garner's young adult fantasy novel "The Owl Service" is an intriguing take on this myth.)

Personally, I think it would be kind of cool to be changed into an owl...at least for a day or two!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Search for the woodpecker


No, not the ivorybill -- although I might actually get a chance to do that in May, when I'm going down to Arkansas to visit my in-laws. Wouldn't it be the coolest thing ever if I did find it, and got some photographic evidence?

But the woodpecker in question today is the pileated woodpecker of Funk's Grove, here in McLean County. Although in many areas of Illinois it is not unusual to see pileateds, here in McLean county it is something of a big deal. The county birding checklist (see links at right) has them as accidental/rare species, and although there have been rumors of pileated sightings, as far as I can gather from experienced county birders, most of them were unconfirmed.

Until November 14, 2009, when I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center for the first of my ebird "site surveys" (I am trying to get there at least once a week to tally all the birds I see in the interest of science) when I saw...a PILEATED WOODPECKER! From my bird journal: "I almost didn't believe it, since McLean County birding website claims last confirmed pileated sighting was 30 years ago!! Followed bird off the trail and got an excellent look. For that moment, felt that greater happiness could not be possible. Proof of phenomenon already noted (e.g, sandhill cranes at Goose Lake Prairie): the Spontaneous Joy of an Unexpected Bird Sighting. A different emotion than the Well-earned Satisfaction of a Worked-for Bird Sighting (e.g., first sight of bobolinks.) Let me revisit my joy with an all-caps reiteration: I SAW A PILEATED WOODPECKER IN MCLEAN COUNTY!!"

So, for me, it was quite the big deal, and I got the satisfaction of reporting a rare bird sighting, and also the satisfaction of having my sighting confirmed based on my description, and even circulated amongst the local birders a bit.

It helps that pileated woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds. I love to see them, and do so infrequently enough that it's always exciting. And a rare pileated sighting! Even better!

But then, I did not see the woodpecker again. Week after week, I walked all around the Grove, and saw red-bellies, downies and hairies galore, but no pileated. I didn't know if the bird had merely been passing through...if it was still alive...if it had stayed to take up permanent residence and I just didn't happen on it again.

And then last week, another central Illinois birder saw a pileated at the Grove. (Is it the same bird -- "my" pileated? I would like to think so.) And, I went to look for it last Saturday, and did not find it.

On Monday, my mom talked to the Sugar Grove nature lady and got more specific directions as to where it was seen, and the two of us went out again Monday evening for another shot at it. (What a terrible expression! So many idioms have such violent origins.) If anyone else is interested -- it was seen along the road between the Thaddeus Stubblefield grove and Funk's Grove cemetery.

We parked at the cemetery and strolled around for a bit, enjoying the spring weather (and respite from the rain), the wild flowers, and the sound of birdsong all around us -- mostly robins, starlings, grackles and chickadees. We saw a beautiful pair of bluebirds, a male and female. On the way home from the grove, we even saw a wild turkey crossing the road, bobbing its head with each strut.

What we did not see was a pileated woodpecker. We did not hear any tapping or calls that would indicate its presence. Nada. Zip.

Disappointing -- but also hopeful, and now I AM talking about the ivory billed woodpecker. So many sightings of it, contested or poorly documented, with such long stretches in between. People doubt whether it's even still alive, speculating that everyone who thought they saw it was mistaken...by pileateds. But I look at it this way: Funk's Grove/Sugar Grove Nature Center is not very big. I personally think that "my" pileated has been there all along, and the recent sighting is the same bird I saw in November. But there were months, in that small area, of a not uncommon (in other areas) and not contested bird, between sightings. And now that I'm actively searching for it again, I've had two trips with nary a sign. If a pileated can hide so well in a tiny grove...don't you think ivory bills can hide in a huge swamp?

(PS...the pileated woodpecker in the photo was taken in southern Illinois, not here in McLean county.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Weird and scary



Sometimes, when I tell people about my passion for birding, I have been told that they personally find nature to be a little scary. Their concern usually is either that: A, the woods are full of psychos or B: nature itself is kind of scary.

These are both genuine concerns, up to a point -- and only up to a point -- in that, if you watch the news, you will hear tales of hikers murdered in the woods, attacked by grizzly bears, or otherwise coming to a bad end. In central Illinois, we can certainly rule out the chances of a bear attack; I have met people who insist that coyotes will attack people, but as far as I can tell, this slander is entirely false. Yes, it's true there is a CHANCE something bad could happen at any moment -- but statistically, unless you are in a very bad urban neighborhood, or stuck in the movie "Deliverance," this chance is pretty low. Studies have demonstrated that heavy TV watchers far over-estimate their chances of being the victim of a crime, doubtless because crime is a mainstay of television programming. Another good reason to turn off the TV and go for a walk!

I have been mulling over these two fears, of killers and nature itself. The first I can certainly sympathize with. There are nasty people out there; and again, if you watch the news, you'd think there were hundreds of thousands of them. It's a fear that runs deep in the zeitgeist -- how many times have I heard people express concern about traveling, walking in a public park, walking around in their own (suburban) neighborhoods -- even letting their children play outside on a lovely spring day -- because of all the killers, rapists, muggers, psychos and child molesters running around. I don't know -- maybe if I lived in Chicago or Detroit I'd worry more. And I'm certainly not advocating that anyone take foolish risks. But I honestly believe that, here in central Illinois, the farmers and fishermen and hikers and birders I meet on my rambles are mostly a decent sort -- I'm hardly prone to warm and fuzzy feelings about my fellow humans, but I do think that most people are probably OK. Anyone who's worried should do what I do -- go birding with someone who runs slower than they do. Then the psycho will kill your birding buddy and you will escape. (Sorry, Mom!)

The fear of nature itself is mostly from ignorance. I don't mean a fear of bears or rattlesnakes -- seriously, I know someone who was afraid that rabbits would attack her child. Another person told me how her brother was frightened by the sight of a groundhog. And I once saw a whole office building terrorized by a house sparrow--people hiding in their offices until they could be reassured that the poor trapped bird was GONE. Anyone can have an irrational phobia, sure, but a real fear of nature is a serious cultural problem. As more and more people are divorced from the natural world, they will not only not want to preserve, but they might even advocate exterminating what little remains for the public good.

On occasion, however, I have had some weird and scary moments. Once was out at Parklands Merwin Nature Preserve. It was early summer, and I was walking by myself.
It was a very windy day. The noise of the wind in the branches made it sound like someone else was walking up behind me, but no matter how many times I looked around, it was just me. Finally, I'd had enough of the wooded area and cut out into the fields, which are usually less "weird" feeling, probably because they're so open. I hadn't been walking long when I heard this really loud CLOPPETY CLOP!! in the grasses right beside me. What on earth? I had visions of the goat god Pan clopping along...when a deer jumped right out in front of me, almost giving me a heart attack. OK, so it wasn't Pan... Bummer, THAT would have been a good sighting!

Another time my mom and I were at a park by Danville, which was hardly deserted or wild feeling. We were walking along, admiring a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers, when a clump of grasses by the side of the trail started shaking. It looked like something was standing in the middle of them, shaking vigorously, but we couldn't see a thing. Then the grasses on the other side of the trail starting shaking, as if the creature had run across the path. But we didn't see anything that could be causing it. Nothing. This incident is still unexplained. The truth is, no place in nature is entirely devoid of a feeling of mystery for me. That's one of the attractions.

The scariest moment? My mom would probably say it was when we went to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and ran into an alligator sunning itself by the side of the trail. My observation that all the news of alligator attacks had come from Florida, not Texas, did not seem to reassure her.

As for myself, I would vote for the time that we were driving along the Illinois River Valley Road south of Havana, and my mom just had to take a detour down a side road to see if it led to the water. At first, we passed broken shells of tractors and refrigerators, toilets and washing machines. I commented that we had, haplessly, stumbled upon the graveyard of unwanted appliances. There was a bend in the road, and a collection of trailers on wooden stilts. They weren't nice looking trailers, either. They were old and rusted out. And the septic systems and propane tanks were also hoisted up on stilts. A scruffy looking man rounded the corner and...

"Turn around, turn around now!" I shouted. We left as quickly as we came. For all I know, the stilt trailer people are nice as can be...but in my mind, the sound of phantom banjos is still twanging.

The hounds of spring


This morning I went out to Evergreen Lake again. Do I get tired of visiting the same places, the same walks, week after week? Of course I do. I could never be a one-county birder...or one-county anything else. I am restlessness incarnate; wherever I am NOT is where I want to be. As Emerson said (paraphrase), The traveler's prayer is anywhere but here.

Which is what's so great about birding. The place may be the same...but the birds won't be. I stopped first at the Swallow Bridge (where the John English Nature Trail comes out) and saw...tree swallows darting and swooping over the water. The first I've seen of them this year. I had barely gotten out of my car and already I was grinning like a fool. There were maybe a dozen, with their beautiful iridescent blue backs and snowy white bellies. Swallows are so abundant over the summer -- swooping over fields and ponds and lakes, everywhere I go -- that I start to take them for granted. And then, for the season, they are gone.

And now, back again! There should be a festival, like at San Juan Capistrano, for the return of the swallows is equally beautiful and miraculous everywhere they go.

I lugged my spotting scope over to the lake and scanned for what I might find...a small flock of blue-winged teal and three northern shovelers, along with a great blue heron and some Canada geese. Just as I was getting ready to pack it up, I saw a big, white bird flying in. Could it really be a great egret already? I pulled my binoculars up...AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN! It landed on the water, and I got a very good look at it bobbing about. Of course I've seen white pelicans before, and many of them here in Illinois, but never at Lake Evergreen.

It's that element of surprise, of the unexpected, that makes even the old and predictable so exciting. I wasn't expecting pelicans, but pelicans there were. (My very words, as I saw it flying in, were: Ho. Lee. Shit!)

But that's not all. Everywhere I looked was evidence that the signs of spring are on winter's traces...the fresh green buds of leaves, the first gnats and filaments of spiderweb over the trail...the swallows.

It is the same old boring park I've been going to, and writing about, weekend after weekend. And yet, it's also something new.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The extraordinary beauty of ordinary birds



I have not been on any birding adventures since last weekend. Yesterday my husband and I went walking at Parklands (Merwin Nature Preserve) after work. I didn't really see many birds -- perhaps the time of day was wrong. I did see my first eastern towhee of the year (and hear him cry drink-your-tea!).

This morning I THOUGHT I saw a warbler when I pulled up into the parking lot at work -- little bird, flitting all over the tree; for a minute I thought it was a yellow-rumped warbler. But I didn't get that good a look, alas.

In any case, it would be hard to surpass the excitement of the prairie chickens last Monday. So to satisfy my bird-impulse for the day I thought of the quiet happiness of average bird encounters.

From last July 23 in my bird journal: "A little disappointed in how few species I saw--so many robins, wrens, mourning doves! -- but I was also struck by the extraordinary beauty of ordinary birds: the flame-red of a cardinal, the contrasting black around his beak, and goldfinches, surely the color of happiness. Who could not want to admire them, no matter how common they might be?"