Monday, May 31, 2010

Announcing urban birding

As I was searching the Net looking for resources or inspiration for Urban Birding, I found Cornell's Celebrate Urban birds project. I really like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as they publish one of my favorite magazines, "Living Bird," and also have great Internet resources for birders like All About Birds and ebird. I also found a great website and blog by a guy in England, David Lindo, the Urban Birder; it's on my blogroll and I invite you to check it out, it's great!

What I like about Celebrate Urban Birds is that they want to know if you're seeing some really, really common, unexciting birds. When I was trying to get myself excited about birding very close to home, secretly I kept thinking...except during migration, what would I see? The same old boring birds every day! But the Urban Birds project focuses on those same (mostly) boring birds: house finch, house sparrow, barn swallow, cedar waxwing, brown-headed cowbird, European starling, Oriole (Baltimore or Bullock's), American robin, killdeer, mourning dove, rock pigeon, peregrine falcon, American crow, mallard and black-crowned night-heron. It's like someone told me, "I want you to go out and find some mourning doves and house sparrows," which makes me WANT to find them, at least for now. I printed off the checklist and couldn't wait to get started.

The project is basically, you decide on a time and place, then go sit there for ten minutes and notice if you find any of the birds on the list. I live fairly close to Tipton Park, which has some ponds and prairie grasses between the roads and (really, egregiously big)'s really not a bad little bird habitat. The local Audubon chapter had a lot of input into the park, if I recall correctly.

So I grabbed my binoculars and floppy hat and strolled down to the park, sitting under the pavilion and looking out at the pond and grasses. I saw six of the the target birds: house sparrow, barn swallow, crow, robin, mourning dove, and mallard. I also saw song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and a goldfinch. After the ten minutes observation was up, I strolled around the ponds and saw a female ruby-throated hummingbird feasting on some white flowers -- I think foxglove beardtongue -- a cardinal, Canada geese, a starling and a gray catbird, sixteen species in all.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sugar Grove in early summer

For one of my last out-of-town birding trips before the Car-Less Adventure, Greenturtle and I went to Sugar Grove, one of my favorite spots in the county. I actually missed it while I was away for a week, wondering what birds were at the feeders and whether the dickcissels had returned to the prairie yet.... (Answer to questions: goldfinches, starlings and a blue jay at the feeders, and yes, the dickcissels are back!)

The bird walk was kind of a let-down though. Perhaps we got there a little too late or perhaps there just wasn't a lot of action, 'cause I didn't see much. Heard towhees and red-bellied woodpeckers, saw a house wren, a common yellowthroat, a meadowlark, dickcissels and red-winged blackbirds. That's just about it. Plus my mood wasn't very calm since Greenturtle and I had been talking about the Oil Spill and he loves to play devil's advocate, a bad idea under the circumstances. Plus it was hot and very sticky. My hiking pants weren't wicking away the moisture as advertised... I was just kind of simmering in my own sweat. Welcome, summer! Last year we really lucked out with a mild one. This year I'm just going to get my attitude right, because even a hot day, I find, can be enjoyable if I can get myself just to ACCEPT the heat and not mentally fight with it. Because all winter long I kept thinking, I wish it was warm, and now it's warm. Hey, I got my wish!

Once we got into the tall trees of the Thaddeus Stubblefield trail there were baby robins all over with their speckly bellies. They'd run around by the trail making startled noises before taking off and flying as best as their stubby fledgling wings could carry them. I think even Sunwiggy, the robin-hater, would have found that cute.

Greenturtle also thought he saw the pileated woodpecker of the grove flying away. I did not see it, but I heard some loud maybe it's still there.

Images of summer in central Illinois

This past week it's really been starting to feel like summer--bright, hot, humid. Today on my bird walk I had the moment of realization: spring migration is over, the birds of summer are here. So to get myself in the mood for some summer birding, I went through our(Greenturtle's) old photo archives and found some that kind of symbolize the season for me. I think it's going to be a hot one, 90 degrees already and not even June!

Baby birds are cute

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dickcissels are back! And planning my car-less adventure

Today I was going to be very green and bike downtown to the farmer's market but at the last minute I realized that I had forgotten an essential ingredient: cash. So, alas, we had to take the car and swing by the bank on our way to the market, and then the morning turned into errand day. Well, at least I got some fresh local produce. Next week I will have to plan it better because our Car Less Adventure is scheduled for June 1-June 15. It will suck not being able to drive out of town for my birding fun for those two weeks, but I have already limited my trips to save the gas.

Today as we were driving past a field along College Ave by Meijer's (one of the few natural spaces left in Bloomington--I swear the city motto is No Green Space Left Behind)I heard dickcissels calling from the grasses! How I love the Birds of Summer. It made me want to run out that very minute binoculars in hand but at least I am going out tomorrow and Monday. Only a week or so without any birding and I start to feel deprived.

I think that will be my greatest challenge during the Car Less fortnight, no driving out to bird. I will have to challenge myself to be an Urban (or suburban--where I live is in town, almost equidistant between the downtown area on one side and the start of the sprawl on the other, so I can easily observe both "habitats") and at least there are some places within walking/biking distance with some trees and/or water.

The other big challenge is that I will have to bike to work -- it's three miles, so not quite in timely walking distance -- and I have two choices of route. The fast route takes me along a couple of busy roads, especially so at rush hour, and makes me cross one of the city's busiest: Veteran's parkway, the dividing line between city and sprawlsville. And I am not brave in heavy traffic. Cars whizzing right by me, turning in and out of parking lots, everyone so impatient to hurry home (the traffic's much worse going home than to work, I find), all of this makes me a nervous wreck, kind of the opposite effect than what exercise is supposed to have. The other route is much more relaxing, because if I go out of my way (doubling the distance) I can take the Constitution Trail most of the way, which is a recreational walking/running/rollerblading/biking venue that goes through a lot of Bloomington and Normal. That is much preferable, only fighting with cars at a few crossings, and the trail goes under or over the busier roads. This is only an option during the warmer months -- the downtown portion of the trail is not somewhere I'd feel safe after dark -- and like I said, it doubles the time it takes to get there.

I read with envy about green, progressive cities that make it easier for bikers, because I don't feel that Bloomington makes it especially easy. The Constitution trail is great, one of the best things about the town, but it is limited, and away from it the cyclist is on her own: no bike lanes, few bike racks (no place I've worked here has one -- at my current office, I chain my bike to a tree); downtown is relatively easy to get to (along C. Trail) and then chain the bike and stroll around, but the majority of shopping places are big box style stores with huge parking lots, lots of traffic, no bike lanes, and no bike racks.

The June issue of Body + Soul Magazine has an article about "swapping your car for a bike every once in a while," in which a woman from San Francisco is quoted as saying, "It wasn't long ago that a woman who showed up at work with a bicycle would be looked at as a total weirdo. That's no longer the case." I would say that here in Bloomington the reaction I get when I bike is semi-weirdo...a step up from total weirdo, I guess. That reaction is achieved whenever I WALK somewhere.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

--Chief Seattle

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adieu, birding buddy!

This morning, Sunwiggy, my mother and birding buddy, took off for Michigan's upper peninsula to relocate for her later years...well, I wish her and my father well, but from now on I will be a solo birder...and I'll see tons of good birds, Sunwiggy, all without you!! Also, who will I hang out with at the bookstore, looking at books about birds and planning fantasy birding extravaganzas? And who will walk in Humiston Woods with me and then eat lunch at La Mex and help me search for Livingston County pigeons? Just have to say it...things won't be the same without you! Look at all the good times we've had! What kind of birding buddy are you?

Anyway, hope you made it up to the Great White North okay... And please, if I hear about that spruce grouse ONE MORE TIME!

Saint Louis and environs

I'm a little behind with my posts, due to the fact that complete EXHAUSTION hit the last couple of days. Plus the temperatures soared...hard to believe that just a couple of months ago I was bemoaning the cold. And now it's HOT!

The last couple of days of the trip I was really dragging ass...but I saw some neat stuff nonetheless. Saturday Greenturtle and I went to the Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, MO, close to Saint Louis. I'd been wanting to get back there for years, ever since Sunwiggy and I went there in October 2005, when we were still quite new at birding...I was stumped for the longest time on the "dark morph" of the white-throated sparrow. But that day, several autumns ago, resounds in the memory as the perfect day. The weather was sunny yet just a bit crisp, the birds were nice if frustrating (that old dark morph)...we walked down to the gravel bar along the Meramac River and then toured the wetlands, glimpsing a pileated woodpecker from the observation blind. I also brought us the best picnic lunch, potato soup and roasted beet salad. When I put my mind to it, I can really make some good (healthy, whole foods, mostly vegan) chow!

The only kicker was...the drive was SOOO long! I hadn't calculated in the extra time and effort to get to the far side of Saint in all the intervening years, I did not return to the Shaw Nature Reserve, and I kept thinking that someday, when the opportunity presented itself, I would.

And thus Greenturtle and I went on Saturday. Was it the same, the perfect magical day? Well, you know what Heraclitus said about not stepping into the same river twice. Of course it wasn't the same. Nice...but different. For one thing, Sunwiggy and I went in the fall, and this muggy spring day was the first scorcher of the season. The park was crowded. The loop road was closed off (as it is on weekends...who knew?)so we had to trek it even though we were exhausted. The Meramac was flooded so we couldn't go down to the gravel bar. Not the same at all!

But still, there were some pleasant moments. The wetlands were completely covered with water lilies, and I saw a red-shouldered hawk flying by. Turtles were resting on a log in the sunshine, their back legs stretched out blissfully behind sweet. I saw Carolina wrens and chats and a common yellowthroat -- how Sunwiggy and I both love the "witchedy witchedy bird," it's a shame she couldn't come, but the heat would have killed her. Sunwiggy does not do the elements well. Also, by having to walk more, we discovered a cool Serpentine Wall, a brick windbreak which is only one brick thick but still strong because of its undulating shape.

The next morning we decided to check out the World Bird Sanctuary we saw a sign for passing by on the highway. The sanctuary's mission is to help birds by educational displays, mostly...they have a lot of birds of prey. I'm always torn by displays like this. On the one hand, injured birds need a place to live out their days...and captive raised birds might be very educational and thus help their wild relatives...but seeing caged birds always gives me a pang. But I am not sorry I went, and give you the link so you can check it out for yourself and form your own opinions.

After that, we went on to a new type of habitat...the urban environment, in the form of downtown Saint Louis. I have to say, I prefer being right in the city to endless (horrible) suburban sprawl, and it was birdier than I expected. In addition to the expected pigeons, grackles, starlings and house sparrows, I found Eastern wood pewees and warbling vireos in the park around the Arch...and barn swallows swooping over the stadium at the Cardinals game.

It was quite hot...and then, thank God, the Cards won (for Greenturtle's sake...I'm a Mets fan and they weren't playing) and we got to GO HOME!

P.S., Even if you've read my earlier posts before, I invite you to go back and take another I've now added photos, all taken by Greenturtle. It was hard limiting myself to just a sampling...I tried to show how I felt about my experiences by my selections, rather than just going for "the best" compositions... Hope you enjoy!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bison & Civil War (plus a life bird)

AGGGHHH! Another day trailing into the hotel completely exhausted. I think that Greenturtle and I have made this trip a bit too action packed for my advanced years! Plus, no trip to southern parts would be complete without my collection of insect and arachnid bites: ticks, mosquitoes and my all time favorite, the chigger! With chigger bites, I can actually feel the lump squirming a little as the chigger is ready to exit, and then with one scratch, the whole thing breaks open in a painful/itchy mound of oozing pus. SO GROSS! Ah yes, the joys of nature.

First thing this morning, we went to Prairie State Park by Liberal, MO, very close to the Kansas state line, in search of free-roaming bison and grassland birds. It's true, there are plenty of grasslands right in my backyard so to speak, but what can I say, I like them. And Greenturtle has some thing going with bison, so I knew he would love the fact that this park has a herd roaming freely.

We saw some bison right away, which was a good start to the day, as well as the usual mix of prairie birds: meadowlark, dickcissel, brown thrasher, barn swallow, etc. In the visitor center, I learned that they have had greater prairie chickens at the park, but in the last few years, their numbers dwindled until there were only one or two on the booming grounds, and this year they didn't see any. I also learned that in nearby Kansas they still HUNT THEM! Seriously, that should be a crime. If they have prairie chickens to spare in Kansas, they should send them to states in need instead of blowing them to kingdom come. Really!

Despite this bummer, we set out on the prairie, surrounded by the calls of dickcissels and bobwhites. Before very long I heard a call that was VAGUELY familiar, though I knew I hadn't heard it in person. And it was a life bird...not only a life bird, but a nemesis bird. Last year, every time I set out for a grassland, I announced I was in pursuit of three birds: the sedge wren, the Henslow's sparrow, and the Bell's vireo. These three eluded me for so long that I began to call them the Triumvirate of Evil. Finally, I got the wren and the sparrow last July at Goose Lake Prairie, but Bell's vireo continued to elude me. UNTIL TODAY!!!! Gotcha, Bell's vireo! Ha ha ha ha ha!! Also got a couple more Henslow's sparrows. Greenturtle wondered how on earth anyone could tell sparrows apart, and I said in my case, memorizing their songs. Henslow's goes "tsi-lick." Apparently Le Conte's sparrows had recently been seen on the prairie, and that would have been another life bird, but these sparrows persistently proclaimed "tsi-lick." Despite not being life birds, they were really cute.

Then we traveled on to Wilson's Creek, a Cival War battlefield and the site of a Confederate victory. Greenturtle, being a southerner, was starting to gloat a little, so I had to remind him: Pea Ridge, baby. PEA RIDGE!! The battlefield was well worth seeing, as I found two pileated woodpeckers and a common nighthawk, among others. I think I shall nominate the tufted titmouse as the official Cival War battlefield bird, as I think I have seen them at every one so far.

After leaving the battlefield, alas, we got sucked up into the maw of the greater Springfield, MO suburban sprawl, and I don't know when I've seen anything that ghastly. It's true that Russelville, AR is probably UGLIER, street by street and building by building, but Springfield goes on for much longer!

We finally escaped and have retired for the night at Lebanon, having been checked in to our hotel by a very stoned desk clerk. And tomorrow... on to Shaw Nature Preserve!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Goodbye to Arkansas

I am now in a Super Eight hotel room in Lamar, MO, the nearest hotel we could find to Prairie State Park. When we woke up this morning on Mount Magazine, it was very rainy -- we were woken in the night by thunder booming through the valley -- and as we left, a thick fog was rolling over the mountain.

Luckily this bad weather did not last long, and by the time we got to Fayetteville, there were blue skies and warm weather. We stopped at Prairie Grove battlefield outside of Fayetteville, mostly for Greenturtle, who is a Civil War buff. I SHOULD find this Civil War stuff more interesting -- I do have a BA in history -- but the Civil War has just never been my thing, and to me "history" does not mean pondering where the artillery was located or which troop charged up which hill. Just tell me who won. However, I certainly don't object to stopping at battlefields, because birds generally like them. I remember seeing some very nice tufted titmice at Antietam and a red-headed woodpecker at Gettysburg, and that was before I started listing. (On a travel, non-birding note, unless you absolutely NEED to go to Gettysburg for research or something, my advice is, avoid it, unless you like being swarmed by tour bus after tour bus and elbowing other tourists every step of the way -- and I went in the off season!)

This battlefield was not particularly exciting -- neither Greenturtle or I had ever heard of the battle before -- but there were some nice birds. I got a couple more state birds, the yellow-billed cuckoo and the Baltimore oriole, and enjoyed watching a huge flock of waxwings flying from tree to tree, and I also saw three of my favorite wren, the Carolina, two of them singing at great volume. In the large fields, the buzzing of dozens of dickcissels filled the air.

After this stop, we ate lunch in town and stocked up on some picnic supplies at a natural foods co-op -- hooray, I got more Lara bars at last, there IS civilization in Arkansas -- and headed back for the highway. Greenturtle seemed quite taken with Fayetteville, probably because it's the first town we've seen yet that doesn't seem...well...I don't want to be flamed by irate Arkansans should any of them read this, so I'll just say it's more like what we're used to. In both a good and a bad way: this is the first area during our visit that's been blighted by McMansion sprawl.

Just as we were leaving I saw a sign that said Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, so of course I had to stop. At first I was bummed out because we only had an hour before it closed but it was quite small, so that turned out OK. I was glad we stopped because of the adorable chickens they had, brown ones with black speckles and extremely cute little chicks. One of my dreams is to live somewhere that I can keep chickens.

After that, OMG, the traffic!! It was "rush hour," and there was way more traffic than I would have expected between Fayetteville and Bentonville. We did not stop to see the Wal-Mart visitor center, even though the highway sign proclaimed it an area attraction. Even though Sunwiggy works at Wal-Mart, I hate that store.

Finally...finally...we got close to the Prairie Park. By this point I felt grimy and tired and crabby and not fit for anything but a shower and then sitting on a bed communing with my laptop. As the last of the Ozarks dropped away, we came to...wide open spaces. The evening light, the play of colors and shadows on the vast open sky, the green fields (not as much corn as Illinois, quite attractive) stretching from horizon to horizon.... It was not dramatic and wild and craggy like the mountains, but it was so pretty and restful and calm. Looking across the fields I peace. At home. I guess, in the past eight years, despite having to get acclimated to it, I really have become a flatlander, because I looked across the open fields, and found them good.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Birds of the Ozarks

Today I am writing my blog from the Lodge at Mount Magazine, where Greenturtle and I decided to splurge and spend the night. The view is wonderful and I can see northern rough-winged swallows flying in front the beautiful view of the valley. It's been windy and partly cloudy most of the day -- storms are supposed to be heading in. This is probably our last full day in Arkansas, so it's nice to make it memorable.

Did not see many birds today -- added two to my state bird count, the eastern wood pewee and the swainson's thrush, but no life birds. I suppose I can't be greedy. I heard a lot of scarlet tanagers and red-eyed vireos singing, but didn't see much of anything. Maybe because I was getting really tired after two previous days scrambling around in the Ozarks like a mountain goat. The Crow is getting old, and has sciatica. Sad but true.

To make up for the lack of birds, we saw a family of armadillos, the mother and three babies following behind her. ADORABLE! Seriously, it's hard to think of anything cuter -- can't wait until I put the pictures on the blog. I never would have thought that baby armadillos would be SO CUTE!

Thinking back over my Ozark birding trip -- tomorrow we are heading back north into Missouri, with a planned stop at Prairie State Park and then at the Shaw Nature Preserve before Sunday, when Greenturtle has tickets to a Cardinals game -- I have to say that I am pleased with the total of eight life birds I found. I wasn't really expecting any of them.

My favorite place was definitely Petit Jean State Park -- great birds and the most beautiful, too. After that would be Holla Bend NWR, even though it wasn't especially pretty to look at, it was very birdy. Mount Magazine is nice but for some reason I'm just not seeing the birds here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Petit Jean State Park -- four life birds today!

Today Greenturtle and I went to Petit Jean State Park in Conway County, AR, which is in the Ozarks. The road to the park is narrow and steep. Greenturtle commented, "They love these crooked roads in Arkansas." "Just like their politicians," I quipped.

First off, I have to say that Petit Jean is FANTASTIC, beyond the scope of superlatives to describe. The first trail we walked, Seven Hollows, started in an open plain type landscape, with pines and dead trees scattered around the rocks. On top of one of the trees, singing, was a BEWICK'S WREN (life bird!), which I just know will make Sunwiggy jealous because we both love wrens. And let me say for the record...the Bewick's Wren is extra cute (though still not as cute as my favorite, the Carolina wren).

Before long, the trail meandered into a canyon, kind of like what Starved Rock would be without the crowds of people (although Petit Jean is very popular, nothing like the crowds that throng to Starved Rock), very peaceful...and I saw a pair of summer tanagers, very beautiful birds.

After a while in the canyon, the trail opened up again to a sunny ledge with a fabulous view...and a blue grosbeak (life bird!) flew by. Greenturtle was geo-caching, so I sat on a rock and just admired the view, and the birdsong. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

This was a four and a half mile loop, and the entire trail was just stunning, scenery-wise: a grotto with a waterfall (two pigeons were perching on the rocks of the grotto, looking quite at home there and very lovely, their feathers shimmering with purple iridescence. They looked like they belonged right there...but I confess I've always had a secret soft spot for pigeons), an arch of rock forming a "natural bridge," lots of weird rock formations that look a lot like the topography of southern Illinois. I'll post some pictures once Greenturtle and I get home and I can pull them off his computer.

Normally I would just be completely enthralled by all of this, but my mind kept going back to the tragedy in the Gulf. I kept it to myself, not wanting to be like the ancient mariner, bumming out dinner guests with the tale of how he got stuck with an albatross around his neck, but as I admired the beauty around me, I could not help visualizing a black stain the size of Connecticut. Vast plumes of oil fanning the water. Dead sea turtles. Pelicans and gannets diving into that poison, dolphins playing in it.... Several times I had to blink back tears. It's such a cliche but the only way I can express it is to say my heart is breaking. I feel like the legions of Sauron are invading this beautiful world and what's worse, sooner or later they're gonna win.

I think what's bothering me is not only the horror of that oil spill, but also that the spill has reified the worldwide devastation that humans are wreaking on the planet for me. It's the tragedy of itself, and also symbolic of all the other tragedies, which I'd always been aware of, which upset me...and now this is the straw that broke the camel's heart.

But there were whole half hour stretches at a time that I could just enjoy myself before remembering that again. We had lunch at the lodge, and just like yesterday at Mount Magazine, the food was good. The staff had put leftover biscuits from breakfast out on the bird feeders, and a crow kept cramming his beak full of the pieces and flying off with them. I know that leftover biscuits are not very nutritious for birds, but it was fun to watch.

Then, after lunch, we took the trail behind the lodge down to see the waterfall, and on the way I saw a Louisiana waterthrush (life bird!). The waterfall was beautiful, though the trip back up was an ass-kicker! We also walked to the Bear's Den, a huge rock formation that forms corridors between the boulders, kind of like at Giant City State Park in Illinois.

I had a bad experience with Arkansas several years ago. I lived in Russelvile for six was not good. Ever since then, when I go to visit my in-laws, Arkansas has had a "blech" factor for me. But that was before I discovered birding! This trip, I'm delighted with the state. It's nice to see green fields and pasture-land instead of cornfields and subdivisions, for example. I've found the people to be very friendly. The Ozarks are quite beautiful. Still don't like Russellville, though. And replacing the factory hog farms that stink up the landscape back home are...factory chicken farms. They don't smell anywhere near as bad but the misery inside those warehouses is just as horrible.

When we returned to my in-laws--after watching my niece Alex, a very talented young lady, sing in a school program--three whip-poor-wills scattered in front the the headlights. They sing every evening around the house, but I don't count heard-only birds so...fourth life bird of the day!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The pine warbler incident at Mount Magazine

Today Greenturtle and I went further into the Ozarks to try a spot of birding there. My goal was the rufuous crowned sparrow and the brown-headed nuthatch, although both are really long-shots. The sparrow is a secretive little bastard that likes to creep around in the brush, and I'm not sure the nuthatch is even there now. I'll spare you the suspense and say right off that I did not find either one--nor the rock wren, which the bird checklist for Mount Magazine State Park claims is possible.

When we started it was quite foggy. The fog was so thick that I could barely see the pileated woodpecker in my mother-in-law's backyard -- but I did see it, and thought it boded well for my day of birding.

By our first stop at Cove Lake about ten miles from Mount Magazine State Park, the fog was already burning off. The lake was beautiful. First off I saw a singing Carolina wren -- such sweet birds, and then a fish crow (life bird!), identifying it by its call. The hike was pleasant, the scenery interesting and the slope more of a challenge than I've had in a while, living in the flatlands as I do. But it was hard to see birds. I could hear them singing all around, but between the height of the trees and the thickness of the foliage, good luck seeing them.

When we reached the top of the slope, I heard buzzy songs from all around me in the tops of the pine trees. But I couldn't see the bird. Greenturtle kept infuriating me by seeing them, claiming they were RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF ME, and at one point even pushing my head in that direction and using the "f" word at the obviousness of these birds. By the time I saw them, they were already flying off. Harsh words exchanged between Greenturtle and myself. I couldn't even get that excited about the scarlet tanager I did see because of how I kept dipping out on my mystery buzzy birds.

After I'd given up, I heard the call a bit later and actually spotted a couple.
"Did you see them?" asked Greenturtle, and when I said I had: "Thank God!" Then he asked, "So, do you know what they are? Have you seen them before?" "Yes...they're pine warblers." His sentiment seemed to be...pine warblers in the pines, no shit! In my defense, I had never heard them sing before.

However, relations between us were restored, since much can be forgiven once one has seen one's bird, and we finished the trail and proceeded to Mount Magazine State Park,which was beautiful. Didn't see much...several flocks of waxwings, a lot of indigo buntings, an eastern bluebird; but the views did make up for the lack of bird sightings. Lunch at the lodge was quite nice too.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Holla Bend NWR (Mosquitoes & Mississippi Kites)

Today the central Illinois birder is still in Arkansas, so Greenturtle and I went to Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge outside of Dardanelle. I had run across it described as a birding hot spot on the Internet, and although its chief claim to fame seems to be wintering waterfowl, since I'm in the area anyway, why not check it out?

The refuge is quite large -- a ten mile drive around, with an observation tower and several short hiking trails along the way. I had imagined it would be a very watery place, what with all the waterfowl that winter there, and there is water, especially with all the rain that's been happening, although I wouldn't really describe it as swampy. Mosquitoes love it there. Our trail-walking was cut short by the blood-sucking hordes, which Greenturtle thought was as bad as those in Monticello, IL (see previous post), although I reassured him that our sufferings were nothing compared to those of Sunwiggy and myself at the Aransas NWR in Texas.

Despite the mosquitoes, Holla Bend lived up to its birdy reputation. Due to laziness, we weren't there early in the morning -- it was more like mid-morning when we arrived -- and there was still a lot going on. I saw trumpeter swans, more scissor-tailed flycatchers, a northern bobwhite (also heard the call), three great-crested flycatchers, white-eyed vireos (quite proud of Self, confirmed sighting of confusing vireos flitting around the trees by remembering song long enough to look it up on All About Birds when I got back), and lots of dickcissels in the fields. Best sighting of all: A PAIR OF MISSISSIPPI KITES, such lovely birds swooping and soaring over the fields.

Greenturtle, by the way, is turning into something of a birder himself, although he acted offended by the very suggestion. It's not only that he's starting to identify birds himself, and recognize their songs (almost keeled over when he said he just heard a meadowlark), but it's like he's starting to actually WANT to see the birds. Although, when Mississippi kites are in the vicinity, who wouldn't want to see them?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Road trip, and scissor-tailed flycatchers

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went down to Arkansas for the obligatory family visit (his, not mine) and of course I am hoping to squeeze in as much birding as possible. But first: the drive from hell. Yes, hell. It's a TEN HOUR CAR TRIP! And I am someone who put off driving from Bloomington to Effingham for two years to see the prairie chickens because it seemed like such a long trip. I enjoy seeing different places, but I DON'T enjoy getting there.

By the time we arrived yesterday, it was midnight, pouring rain, and I had the taste of diesel fumes in my mouth from the back-to-back trucks on highway 40. Egads! And at the end of it...the obligatory family visit. Don't get me wrong, my in-laws are nice. But this morning it was still pouring rain and I already felt like I'd been a house guest way too long.

Luckily around noon the rain stopped and we decided to go into town--town being Russellville, outside of which the in-laws reside. I accidentally typed "Russellvile" in the preceding sentence, which was clearly a Freudian slip. There MAY be an uglier landscape somewhere in this world than Russellville, but if so, I have thus far been spared. And have I mentioned the smell of the rendering plant? Yes, there is a rendering plant.

But, on the way into town, I was peering out of the car window hoping to see a roadrunner, as I have a couple of times in the past, when instead I saw: scissor-tailed flycatchers! I've only ever seen them in Texas, and they are one of my favorite birds. The first sighting, the flycatcher was perching on a fence rail and I made Greenturtle stop the car so I could get a better look, while saying my Good Bird Sighting mantra under my breath: Ho. Lee. Shit!! As in: I can't believe my good fortune! I can't believe I was lucky enough to see this.

After endless delays getting lunch at Taco Bell, doing some shopping, visiting with more relatives, finally we were able to stroll for a couple of hours at Bona Dea Park in Russellville. I didn't have huge hopes, because of the time of day and the fact that I've never seen anything terribly exciting there before. I remembered there was some sort of pond in the middle.

Due to recent rains, it wasn't exactly a pond. It was more like a swamp. Cool bird habitat! I saw kingbirds, an acadian flycatcher (I think my collection of empidonax flycatchers is almost complete now), a green heron, a common yellowthroat, and nicest of all...a prothonatary warbler! Haven't seen one of those since my trip to Southern Illinois a couple of years ago.

Turned out to be a good birding day after all, even with as little birding as I could manage. I haven't forgotten about the oil spill, but at least one good thing about the change of scene here is that I am too busy to sit around dwelling on it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Finally, warblers, and a poem

While I wasn't birding, by looking at ebird's top 100 list, it seems that everyone else was.... I've slipped in both state and county rankings, even while birding two days in a row and getting two life birds... So vexing!

Today was my last birding trip with my mom before she moves up north, at least for a while. Our original plan was to start out at the Mackinaw State Natural Area by Mackinaw, IL, in Tazewell county, where we have seen good warblers in the past, and where I've been told one can find worm-eating warblers in the spring. But, alas, today our entry was blocked, by a sign stating that all but turkey hunters were forbidden. OMG, that park has more hunting seasons than any other place I know -- they hunt doves, squirrel, deer, and now turkey. OK, it's true I don't hunt, I don't even eat meat, but SQUIRREL??

So, we decided to head on to Banner Marsh, since it was our last birding day and all. I'll never forget my first "Banner Marsh day." It was a few years ago, in February, a bitterly cold day that we had decided to go birding. After very brief stops at Sand Ridge State Forest and Chatauqua, my mom and I decided to explore a bit and stumbled upon Banner Marsh, in Peoria and Fulton counties, entirely by accident. We drove up to the Bell's Landing entrance, and at first we thought we were seeing chunks of snow and ice on the pond. But on second glance, no...they were swans. Mute swans, huddling against the cold.

We saw mute swans today as well--they're a reliable sighting at the Marsh--but not much else. The wind was terrible. We did see a sora, after hearing it announce itself with its cry, the second time for me and the first time for my mom, so it was a worthwhile stop.

Then we tried exploring for a bit, looking for the "Copperas Creek Road" which is recommended by both Sheryl DeVore's "Birding Illinois" and the Peoria County's Audubon chapter website. We had been unable to find it, and here's why: if you're driving through the town of Banner, it doesn't say "Copperas Creek Road," it's "Fulton County Rd." There is a separate sign that says "Copperas Creek Landing." That's where to go.

Well, we went, and it was worth the while, since we got life-bird ALDER FLYCATCHER, identifying him by his song (I had to check it when I got home, but definitely alder flycatcher). Did not see a pileated woodpecker, as we'd been hoping for. And we agreed...what is it about these Illinois River Valley places? I don't want to be the snotty urbanite (not sure what I am, really, having lived such a variety of places in my life), but the twang of the invisible banjo always seems to be lingering in the air in those river valley towns. I suggested that perhaps that's just prejudice because they seem so poor, they could be lovely people. But I'll admit, I am NOT a timid person, and I would feel a little strange birding alone there.

The wind picked up, the skies got grayer, and we decided to cut our trip short. At the last minute, as we were heading back to Bloomington along Route 66, we decided to stroll around Sugar Grove Nature Center/Funk's Grove, and good thing we did. Warbler heaven! I saw a yellow-breasted chat, an ovenbird, black-throated green and golden-winged warblers, plus my first ruby-throated hummingbird and Swainson's thrushes of the year. Still not enough to be number one in the county on ebird, a place I held until recently.... But a lovely, fortuitous walk.

Now, it is gray and cloudy outside, I am pleased with the birds I saw today and yesterday...who can complain about two life birds in one weekend? And meanwhile the tragedy in the Gulf continues. I don't want to think about it. I don't, I don't. I just want to see warblers and be at peace. It doesn't matter what I think.

I am reminded of W.H. Auden's poem "Leap Before You Look" (he's my second favorite poet, after William Butler Yeats). The actual line goes, "A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep/Disturbs the bed on which we lie, my dear."

Today, I thought:

A sadness ten thousand fathoms deep
Disturbs the bed on which we lie, my dear
Cry if you must
But we have to leap

Pleasures we find too trivial to name
While sea and earth is poisoned there
Bird if you must
But we have to care

A dark and oily toxin from below
The spoonbills and pelicans and egrets kill
Drive if you must
But we need the will....

The beaches and marshes slowly dying now
The gannet that has dived its last
Live if you must, for surely we must
But our laughter has forever passed.

Thank you W.H. Auden, for that inspiration... And I had a nice day, but now, Lord, give me vodka or give me strength. It's too much to live with, really, it is...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Grasslands & woods

Today was the penultimate birding trip with my mom. For Mother's Day, I packed us a nice picnic and we headed off for the Nachusa grasslands, a restored prairie owned by the Nature Conservancy in Lee County, IL. We went last year, in July, and it was one of the best birding trips of the year. The prairie was blooming with wildflowers, especially the lovely purple spiderworts, and we saw, for the first time, BOBOLINKS.

Although the prairie flowers were not yet in bloom, it was a lovely trip today. Not only did we see bobolinks, we saw them flying and giving their wonderful bubbling song, all over the grasslands. They are such beautiful, precious birds. We also had a couple of excellent views of yellow warblers, and heard their lovely "sweet sweet" songs...a quick view of a grasshopper sparrow...some nice flickers and orioles. I like flickers so much that I invented a word to describe them, "flummacious." You won't find that word in any dictionary, but as far as I'm concerned, it means, flicker-like, embodying the essence and wonderment of flickerhood. Usage: "What a flummacious flicker!" Or: "That flicker was particularly flummacious."

I was also quite pleased to see some mockingbirds, almost first thing. I have only seen mockingbirds in Illinois once before, and that was a few years ago. Even though when I go to Arkansas next week to visit my in-laws I am almost certain to see mockingbirds all over the place....

The grasslands were so beautiful today. Perhaps I am becoming attuned to the open space beauty of Illinois, but over time, I appreciate grasslands more and more. The common yellowthroats, the meadowlarks, the blackbirds...not to mention the BOBOLINKS. And the sense of space, of openness. But today, there was an emptiness to it all. No matter how hard I try, that damn oil-stain colors everything I do. I remembered last year, our trip to Nachusa grasslands. Sure, I had problems then, I had my "issues." I hated my job (nb: Esmerelda Crow is a pseudonym for my job-hating self), I was stressed-out and what-not. But when I saw birds, any birds, I forgot it all. Now I cannot forget. Remembering last year is so bittersweet...the happy memories, but it feels like a lost era, a vanished innocence. Last year was before IT happened. Even last month...before the disaster. Before my heart broke. Before the empty bubble of death started spreading.

Last night I woke at 2:00, and could not fall back to sleep. The oil spill would not leave my mind, and in addition to scenes that may, someday, form the basis of a horrific novel, in my hypnagogic visions, I thought of a recent Doctor Who episode. In that story, in the future, the citizens of England are able to survive on a spaceship propelled by a tortured, enslaved creature...but at a terrible cost. Every election day, they are told the truth, the real cost of their survival, and given a choice: FORGET or PROTEST. Almost everyone chooses to forget.

That is what we are doing, our whole society: FORGET FORGET FORGET. I don't exempt anyone, least of all myself: the cute pajamas I bought a couple weeks ago: FORGET the sweatshop labor that enabled me to get them so cheap. The trip to the grasslands today: FORGET the cost in oil, to the environment, to other people (look up the history of Shell oil in Nigeria, FYI): FORGET. The waste I create, every time I get bottled juice, a microwave lunch: FORGET FORGET FORGET. And I am someone who wants to do the right thing!

So it's really kind of hard to have a carefree day, with all that in the back of one's mind. Sorry birding buddy...happy Mother's Day and here's your dose of doom and gloom.

Before I could get too depressed, we decided, after the grasslands, to skip local forests -- despite seeing some nice thrushes in the area, the midges/gnats (not sure the actual term for this pestilence) were SO BAD we decided to head on to Matthiessen State Park, even though my Birding Buddy can barely breathe going uphill, and there are plenty of hills there, because of a lifelong smoking habit contributing to asthma and COPD. So if anyone else reads this blog, take note: if you smoke, and want to keep birding into your middle years (providing there are any birds left when you reach them---ooh, so exciting, house sparrow and rock pigeon again!!) DON'T SMOKE!! I quit and so did my mom -- it's gross, it's expensive, so bad for you, and you can quit, too!

Nice walk at Matthiesen, the River area 'cause the Dells were just too crowded, plus my wheezing mom was afraid of the stairs. It was peaceful, very pretty. We saw a LIFE BIRD -- veery -- and my mom got her first rose-breasted grosbeak of the season.

I feel kind of scattered today -- up and down, hope and despair, tolerance and rage -- now it's late and my birds (and I) are ready for sleep.

Good birding, all! And please -- don't smoke and just say NO to offshore oil.

From, the Crow

P.S., the photos in this post were actually taken last fall at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie--I didn't have any from this trip and I wanted to show some grasslands.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


"Let him not destroy or cause to be destroyed, any life at all, nor sanction the acts of those who do. Let him refrain from even hurting any creature, both those that are strong and those that tremble in the world."

From the Sutta-Nipata, part of the Pali Canon, a Buddhist scripture from the first century BCE.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

No yellow-headed blackbirds

Saturday my husband wanted to go to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, WI, and even though I have no real interest in astronomy, I volunteered to come along for a chance to see some birds, hopefully yellow-headed blackbirds, there at the far eastern edge of their territories in the marshes. Last year my mom and I went to Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County (IL) to look for them. I had a good time watching my mom fall face first off a boardwalk into some cattails while pointing out a song sparrow, but no yellow-headed blackbirds to be found....

Williams Bay is a very pleasant looking town, and I enjoyed strolling the grounds around the observatory. I'd been stewing over the oil leak in the Gulf on the way up, and felt a little lighter as soon as I stepped out of the car (yes, the irony, we drove to Wisconsin and back, I know) and started strolling around the trees. The morning was bright and fresh and the land itself just felt more peaceful than I've experienced in a while. Does that sound weird? I can't explain it....

There were chipping sparrows--I watched one moving his beak as he made his buzzy, insect-like trill--cardinals singing, a least flycatcher, a ruby-crowned kinglet: nothing unusual, but it was such a pleasant stroll around the grounds, I didn't mind. I saw a red fox skulking in the trees; it ran off as soon as it saw me.

The observatory itself was much more interesting than I expected. There were carvings and architectural flourishes -- winged lions, owls, Phaedrus in his chariot, the signs of the zodiac engraved on pillars. When my husband get the photos on the computer, I'll be sure to share. Even the ginormous telescope itself was fairly interesting.

After the tour of the observatory, we happened upon a marsh while looking for a place to eat, and strolled along the boardwalk. Sandhill cranes flew overhead. I saw a singing rose-breasted grosbeak and a common yellowthroat. Close by, the small lake glittered with the sun reflecting from the water. I do love Wisconsin.

We had a tolerable lunch in Lake Geneva, a tourist town which was already packed with visitors, and then returned to Illinois and Chain O Lakes State Park, where I was hoping to see some Illinois sandhill cranes. I found my first gray catbird of the year, my first yellow warblers (have to be one of my favorite birds!) and enjoyed a pleasant and non-strenuous walk along the Goldfinch Trail.

Finally, we stopped at the McHenry Dam portion of Moraine Hills and strolled the two-mile loop around Black Tern Marsh. I did not see any black terns. More to the point, I did not see any yellow-headed blackbirds!! I did see a nice pair of wood ducks, and some double-crested cormorants, and a nice array of the usual suspects, and watched the drama of a pair of Canada geese chasing a great blue heron right out of their pond. But no YH blackbirds.

Both parks--Chain O Lakes and Moraine Hills--are quite nice if you want to see some marshes, but if I wasn't looking for specific kinds of birds, I wouldn't drive all the way up there to see them. There are some perfectly nice marshes closer to home. I think my "objection" too them -- besides the fact that last year I got bitten by chiggers at Moraine Hills -- is that the parks are so, so tame. The trails are flat, level and paved or graveled! They are filled with bikers and joggers. This is not a wilderness experience, or even pretend wilderness. It feels more like suburbia. Also, the marsh in Wisconsin was prettier.

But probably I'm just bitter than I can't ever find Yellow-headed blackbirds there.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Robert Allerton Park

As I mentioned earlier, Friday my mom and I went to Robert Allerton Park in Monticello. The park contains the manor (usually not open to the public) and the formal gardens of the late Mr. Allerton (my mom tells me he had quite the life, but I will let those interested do their own research on that), and quite a few hiking trails along the Sangamon River and its floodplain. It's owned by the University of Illinois, and should you want to visit, admission is free. I should warn you first: October to April is the best time to visit. Summer months a trip to the park feels more like donating blood to the bazillions of voracious mosquitoes that frequent the area. I think if you applied enough DEET to keep those hordes off, it might actually be fatal....

I've seen some nice birds there, including: pileated woodpecker, a whole family group of red-headed woodpeckers, nice mix of warblers during migration, several dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds feasting on jewelweed. But the attraction is not just the birds themselves. It's also the grounds.

There are a series of formal gardens, all a little off-beat in my opinion: a sunken garden with fish sculptures and a big wall, an avenue of statues of "Chinese musicians" that look a little diabolic to me; the dying centaur, a statue in the woods, and further down the road, the Sunsinger, a statue of Apollo, and a fu dog garden, with brilliant blue fu dogs, which were considered guardian spirits in the Orient. On the other side of the park is the Lost Garden, which contains a column of trees leading to---just a platform. Whatever may have been there is, I guess, lost....

The appeal of the garden is not what it is so much as what it evokes. Despite the fact that it is maintained by the University, and certainly not left to go to ruin, it has a lost or secret garden sort of feel -- a little weedy and forgotten, despite the crowds of visitors that belie this impression. Maybe it's just me, but sometimes the fu dogs seem a little...weird. And I could easily imagine those Chinese musicians getting up to no good in the night---the statues, in some way, coming to life. On our last trip, my mom was weirded out the the Lost Garden, perhaps because I'd been teasing her by suggesting that the empty platform used to hold scenes from a debauched Satyricon, with Priapus presiding over all. My mom claims that this image gave her nightmares. You're welcome, birding buddy!

The Allerton park inspires my creativity; I always feel like there's a story there, just out of reach.... But this is my Birding Blog, not my wacky creativity blog, so I'll end with this: the area behind the fu dog garden, a woody place leading down to the Sangamon River, is a very attractive walk and GREAT FOR WARBLERS in spring and fall; around the visitor center and the formal gardens I have seen chipping sparrows,titmice, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and Carolina wrens; and definitely, in the fall, seek out the marshy area in between the visitor center and the manor...I once saw dozens of hummingbirds there.

And in the summer...bring bug spray.