Monday, July 26, 2010

Pelicans and cormorants at Emiquon

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went to the Illinois River Valley area in Fulton County to look for black-necked stilts. I knew that some had been seen in the area, and that would be an Illinois State Bird for me (I have seen them in Texas and Hawaii, never in Illinois), which seemed like a good enough excuse to go on a Bird Trip. Especially at this time of year, when breeding season is winding down but migration is still a good month away, I love to find ways to keep the birding spirit alive.

We went to Emiquon, which is a lovely restored wetland north of the town of Havana. Some of it is owned by the Nature Conservancy and part of it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Since we weren't sure if we needed permits to explore the privately owned, Nature Conservancy part, we concentrated our efforts on the NWR portion, namely, the part along the road leading to the Dickson Mound Museum.

At our first stop, Greenturtle decided to try some fishing, while I walked around and looked for birds. I saw a pileated woodpecker flying past, which was exciting, as it was the first time I saw one in Illinois this year. (A Year State bird, for those who share my listing sickness. Not a Year Bird, saw one in Arkansas, and not a State Bird...but the first time I saw one in Illinois in 2010. Plus, I love pileated woodpeckers. I think I'd get excited even if I saw one every week.)

There were also some dickcissels and meadowlarks, indigo buntings. After the pileated, the birding wasn't that great, and Greenturtle wasn't having much luck fishing, so we traveled on down the road.

The next area where the wetlands spread out in a lovely, shimmering expanse, we saw American white pelicans and double-crested cormorants, maybe 100 and 200 respectively. I set up my spotting scope and felt that I could have watched them forever... (Also got a good view of a belted kingfisher.)

I really love pelicans, and these were nice and healthy. I wish they didn't have to migrate because I'm so worried about what will happen when/if they get to the Gulf...but for the time being, it was just enchanting to see them in such numbers.

Behind all the action was a nice mudflat, with several great egrets in the water and at least fifty killdeer, interspersed with some solitary sandpipers and other peeps, feeding on the muddy shore. Unfortunately, they were just too far away to identify them all! I so need a better spotting scope!

By this time, it was around 11:30, and starting to get uncomfortably hot and humid again. Greenturtle and I had planned on making a whole day of our trip, but the cool morning had made me overly optimistic, and I had left the air conditioner off. With the heat rising, I was worrying about the comfort and safety of my cockatiels at home, so it was time to turn back....

Plus, it was just getting too hot to bird. If only I were rich, I'd spend the summer birding the Arctic Circle. Last summer was so perfect, only a few uncomfortably hot days...but this one! How ironic, as winter dragged on and I shivered through ten degree Fahrenheit trips to Starved Rock to see the eagles, I kept thinking, If only it were warm...if only it were summer...I wouldn't complain about the heat, honest, all I want in life is to be able to feel my toes.... And now it's summer, and am I happy? NO, I want fall.

Well, warm or cool, in just one month the warblers will be coming through. Hooray!

Too hot to bird

Last week, after my qualified success in Suburban Birding around Tipton Park and the Constitution Trail, I decided to expand my horizons in Green Birding by checking out the accessibility and birdability of some other local places.

Tuesday I rode my bike along the Constitution Trail, the biking/running, etc., rails-to-trails effort that winds through the Bloomington-Normal area. Normally I consider the Trail to be one of the finer points of the area. My goal was to ride out to the end of the line, so to speak, where the trail peters out in the cornfields between Normal and Hudson, and then do mini-bird surveys at regular intervals going back. I thought I would get a nice mix of habitats, such as they are: agricultural fields, city parks, the downtown area. There's a tree nursery along the trail where large quantities of crows frequently hang out, and then I would be back in the area that I enjoyed birding the previous Saturday. I knew that after work on a hot summer's day was hardly ideal timing, but I was feeling restless, so I decided to consider it a dry run.

The best laid plans of mice and men aft ang agley, or however Bobby Burns put it. First off, the trail wasn't just busy. It was jam packed! True, some quite athletic, scantily clad people were busy jogging and roller-blading, so I got a few nice sightings...but as far as birds go, zip. I did hear some catbirds and cardinals. When I got to the end of the line, it was closed off, so I couldn't go out to survey the fields, as I'd intended. And along the trail proper, I didn't know what kinds of birds would pop out with the crowds and commotion.

Also, it was hot. Very, very hot. Not good birding weather. I did check out a little park on my way back, Hidden Creek, and it looked like it would hold potential during migration, but all there was to see or hear in the humid dankness of the early evening were some crows.

I don't want to speak badly of green birding/urban birding...but I would have seen more, and had a nicer time, if I'd used the fossil fuels to go out of town. I did realize a couple of important things: with urban birding, timing will be even more important than out in "nature"--after work, when everyone else is out enjoying their free time and the birds are less active to start with, is not the time to try it. Also, birds are only part of the reason I go birding---I also like--no, make that need for my mental health--periodic trips to places where I am free of crowds and traffic. Where I might see a few other people, but I'm hardly dodging them every few feet. Where I can close my eyes and not hear the constant noise of passing cars, voices, the thrum of the bass from someone's radio. So if I want to be "green," I need to get in much better shape, invest in a better bike, and plan it for the right time.


Saturday I decided to go slightly out of town the non-green way, in my car, to the local Sewer Plant, where last year Sunwiggy and I saw some awesome shorebirds: a pair of Wilson's snipes bathing themselves, a stilt sandpiper, many least and solitary sandpipers. We also saw a positively enormous snapping turtle with green muck plastered all over his shell. I figured, okay, it's not the best time of year to bird, but the peeps are coming through!

Well, there must have been more rain this year because the water was much higher...the muddy margins of the lagoons where we'd seen all the shorebirds was completely underwater. I didn't even find any of the killdeer I saw a couple weeks ago. Just some red-winged blackbirds, dickcissels and barn swallows.

Plus, it was hot. Not just felt like a sauna. I was drenched from head to toe in my own sweat within ten minutes. The birds weren't active. They were probably too busy not getting heatstroke. I was disappointed, of course...a wasted trip, and no sandpipers at all.

It was officially Too Hot to Bird.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Suburban Birding

Inspired once more to try to lessen my use of oil and explore the world of birds living right around me, today, as I had promised myself, I walked around looking at birds in town. At first the day was kind of moody and it looked like a storm was blowing in; gusts of wind were a pleasant relief from the otherwise general mugginess. There were a few sprinkles but then it just got hot. And humid.

In my previous post "Little Green Birding Challenge" I stated my goal of finding as many species here in town as I did walking around Evergreen Lake/Comlara Park last weekend, 35. I gave myself about the same distance (around four miles) and length of time (around four hours) to see them in. Despite this goal, I didn't really expect to see that much. Not in the middle of summer in the middle of town.

Habitat: suburban park with ponds and cattails (Tipton Park), a walking/biking trail with a stream running alongside it and scrubby, weedy banks hiding the road and businesses right beside (part of the Constitution Trail), then back across some vacant lots and McMansion subdivisions. I like to call it Urban Birding because that sounds a little more hip, but this is really more like suburbia, a little path wandering amidst the big box stores and chain restaurants to one side and the sprawling new subdivisions to the other. (Didn't I read this description in Dante?)

I have to say it turned out better than I'd anticipated. At Tipton Park, in addition to the red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows that make it their summer home, I saw an American coot and a green heron. Then walking past a very weedy/scrubby area along the trail -- by Jumer's hotel, which also has a pond behind it, for those who know the area -- I heard common yellowthroats (saw one briefly), and saw a chipping sparrow and a pair of house wrens. This was all very nice.

Beyond this area is an underpass I call, for obvious reasons, the Swallow Bridge, then several gardens maintained by the local Audubon chapter and Sister Cities organizations. This area was full of catbirds and robins. Ever since the Sand County Death March last weekend, my sciatica has been acting up, so I plopped down at a picnic table and rested my twinging back. Between my hobbling around and counting up robins, I really felt like the eccentric middle-aged person I am becoming, although secretly I think I really am just like I was in my twenties, except for the back pain and the robin-counting, of course.

Behind me, I heard scolding wrens, and was pleased to discover, when I turned around and spotted them in the underbrush, that they were Carolina wrens, the first I've seen in McLean county since last fall. We had such a harsh winter that I was afraid they'd all died.

After that, I swung away from the Constitution Trail and walked back along some fields. All of them had a sign up, "Commercial Property, Build to Suit" or similar. I swear, this town's motto really is "No Green Space Left Behind." In just the eight years I've been here, I've seen so many fields and lots being turned into yet another eyesore. The recession has slowed down the pace a little, but it's just a matter of time until it's all gone.

I ended up seeing 24 species, which is not too bad for the time of year. I do like the idea presented in the Birder's World article "Big Green Birding Challenge" of exploring on bike and foot, finding all the "micro-habitats" in a non-driving distance. I would still rather be out in "Nature," away from people and traffic noise, but I can certainly continue to balance those trips with green birding jaunts in town.

The photos above are from an assignment Greenturtle did for a class. The topic was Urban Sprawl. The park is Tipton Park and the other photos are quite near to where I was birding today.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hennepin-Hopper Lakes, Part IV

I saw a purple martin house that had been taken over by house sparrows...but then I noticed there were purple martins there as well. Both sets of birds had young birds exhibiting begging it possible they are actually sharing the house?

Hennepin-Hopper Lakes, Part III

The most plentiful birds (besides the red-winged blackbirds)were double-crested cormorants and great blue herons. I did see a common moorhen, an Illinois State Bird for me. I wish we could have gotten a photo but it was one of those now-you-see-me, now-you-don't moments, the moorhen scurrying into the reeds and weeds as quickly as I noticed it. There was also a nice statue in the boat dock area.

Hennepin-Hopper Lakes, Part II

There was a great blue heron being harassed by red-winged blackbirds.

Hennepin-Hopper Lakes

This morning Greenturtle and I went to the Hennepin and Hopper Lakes, a restored wetland in Putnam County. I had not been back there since 2004, when I went with the JWP Audubon Group, on my second-ever birding trip. I liked it but the birding itself was a little confusing. One the group members set up his spotting scope and I squinted in the direction indicated, while being told that the little blob I was looking at was an American wigeon or a northern pintail, etc. Today I brought my own spotting scope, and thought that with six years' of practice in the interim, obviously the birding would be easier. But most of the ducks on the water still looked like confusing little blobs, they were so far away. Perhaps I just need a better scope!

In the intervening years the wetland had come upon some hard times, according to the Internet, being invaded by nasty carp which turned everything into a big mud puddle and destroyed the cattail marshes. But last year the Wetlands people drained the marsh, disposed of the carp, and now everything is beautiful once more.

The reason I went today was in pursuit of a nemesis bird, the yellow-headed blackbird, which was spotted there just last weekend. As with the nature of all true nemesis birds, I could not find one today, no matter how hard I scoured the marshes. I did see many interesting things, though...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Little Green Birding Challege

This morning as I was flipping through the August 2010 issue of Birder's World, I saw an article that both piqued my interest and filled me with guilt for how quickly my good intentions of last month went to naught: "The Big Green Birding Challenge" by Diana Doyle. The author, who lives in Minneapolis, was feeling guilty about the wastefulness of a hard-birding lifestyle -- "The irony was hard to ignore: I'd drive my husband Mark's SUV in order to enjoy birds threatened by habitat fragmentation and global warming. What was I doing?" So, she decided to do a BGBY (pronounced Bigby), a Big Green Birding Year. A BGBY involves doing all one's birding on foot or bicycle. (Some people will allow public transportation on their Bigby, but pleading with a friend to drive you is definitely out.)In the process of her green birding year, she saw tons of good stuff. Owls, pelicans, phalaropes, bitterns, warblers, you name it, all within a non-driving distance of her house. I seriously need to think about moving to Minneapolis!

Perhaps, if you have been to this blog before, you remember how last month I was so disgusted and distraught over the Oil Spill that I went for two weeks without a car, not even to bird...not even to go to work in the pouring show it could be done. I had intended to seriously scale back my use of gasoline even after the two weeks was over, because it is the right thing to do. But instead I went into serious birding withdrawal--I may have even experienced some birding DT's--and subsequently went on a Birding Binge that took me all the way up to northern Michigan and back. (Although, in my defense, my old Birding Buddy Sunwiggy was struggling to identify a bird up there--it was my duty as a Birding Buddy to help her out!)

I squinted at the article for a while (it was early in the morning) and sternly asked myself how I fell off the No Oil Wagon so quickly. If the author could do it, why can't I? After all, I'm just as disgusted and distraught about the Oil Spill now as I was a month ago.

Excuse #1: There are no cool birding spots close enough to where I live. Green Birding for me would involve a long-term relationship counting house sparrows and starlings. Rebuttal: How would I know, I haven't seriously tried. There are nice ponds, and little woods, fields and meadows, streams, all here in town. Some are very close to me indeed.

Excuse #2: There are so many cars and people drive like maniacs. Trying to BGBY would be like a death wish. Rebuttal: Am I really trying to convince myself that there are more cars in Bloomington, IL than in MINNEAPOLIS? Nice try!

Excuse #3: I'm a lister and putting new birds on my list is, like, my only hobby and why do I subscribe to e-bird alerts if I'm not going to chase down the birds I need for my list? Rebuttal: Sounds like a personal problem to me....

Excuse #4: I'm awfully lazy! OK, that one can't be rebutted, but I can strive to do better.

I can't promise myself a whole Green Birding Year or even a month--but the article did rekindle my interest in doing more to conserve resources. So, I will start out with a Little Green Birding Challenge. To start it off, Sunday instead of driving hither and yon in search of birds (Excuse #5: I have pre-made plans for Saturday!), I will use my feet, and only my feet. Last weekend at Comlara I saw 35 species. I challenge myself to find at least that many here in town!

P.S., check out the new blog on my blogroll, Green Birding. Very inspirational!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sand County Death March

Today I took the day off from work and Greenturtle and I headed out for Mason County, so I could look for lark sparrows and blue grosbeaks in the sand. Mason County is very sandy. There is Sand Ridge State Forest, which has the interesting Henry Allan Gleason Preserve, a "quiver prairie" made of sand. Recently I discovered that there are a couple of other sand prairies, and I wanted to check them out.

What is a sand prairie, you may be wondering. Well, it is a prairie--grassland or savanna (the difference between those two and woods is the percentage of trees versus open spaces. Prairies are mostly open, savannas are beautiful park-like areas that have about 30%-40% tree cover, and woods have very little open space) -- with sandy soil. This is a different habitat even than what I can find here, two counties over, supporting different plants, animals and, most importantly, birds! For example, in Mason County you can find cactus, yes, here in Illinois.

We stopped first at Scrub Oak Sand Prairie nature preserve, just south of Havana, outside the town of Bath. From the road it looked quite exciting, and I could hear a lovely symphony of bird-calls, including a bobwhite. We drove down the road about a mile to the parking area, and set out to explore.

There isn't really a trail as such. There's something vaguely resembling a trail, with red tape posted here and there to keep one on track. We walked into the woodsy scrub oak area and were immediately swarmed by dense clouds of mosquitoes.

Occasionally we would come to an open area, and I would scan excitedly for birds, not finding many...then on through the scrub again. At one point we left the trail and were trudging along a sandy road paralleling the preserve.

I forgot to bring water. I was dying of thirst. My sciatica was flaring up from trudging in the sand. Meanwhile, Eastern towhees kept mocking me by singing out, "Drink your tea!" As if I had any tea with me to drink! And don't tell me they didn't know that!

Finally, we popped out onto the Sand Prairie, and it was a wonder to behold. We saw a mockingbird, singing and singing, bank swallows, brown thrashers, dickcissels galore. No lark sparrows, as I'd been hoping for, but I did see a lovely grasshopper sparrow, and got to hear his buzzy song. But, the sun was beating down, and it was very hot. Satisfied with my small round-up of birds, we set off for the road, thinking to walk down the pavement to where we'd parked the car.

First, we had to traverse a wooded area. Does that sound nice and shady, a peaceful forest? Oh no, it was the Scrub Patch from hell!! No trails for us (I sometimes suspect that Greenturtle's motto is "trails are for wimps," with the crazy stuff he gets us into); we had to stagger over fallen logs and through brambles and spiderwebs, with our merry crowd of friends, the mosquitoes, back to keep us company. I did see a nice red-bellied woodpecker...but mostly I saw mosquitoes. Greenturtle was soon dripping with spiderwebs. I tried to follow directly in his footsteps to avoid that fate, since when I walk into a spiderweb I always scream like a girl. OK, I am a girl, but it's still undignified. This went on...and on...and on...until I was accusing Greenturtle of forcing us into the Sand County Death March and pointing out that the only thing missing was his personal specialty, the large patch of nettles. He tried to point out that I was the one who wanted to see the sand prairie but oh no, I wasn't going to take the blame for this one. We could easily have admired the prairie from THE SIDE OF THE ROAD!!

By now my ire was starting to fade as we had cleared the hellish Scrub Patch and were back on the pavement. Greenturtle held up his arm, from which three spiders dangled like a grotesque charm bracelet, and asked if I would mind removing them. I have to confess that he is a really good sport, subjecting himself to all of this and my tirade on top of it, when he could have stayed home in the air-conditioning playing a computer game. But much as I love him, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to state: yes, this was the Sand County Death March!

We regrouped with a picnic lunch at Chatauqua, a nice nature preserve along the Illinois River, while a blue-gray gnatcatcher squawled incessantly over our heads and a family group of blackbirds took umbrage at our presence and made quite a racket. By now it was early afternoon and getting very hot, so we decided to head somewhere indoors for a change, and went to the Dickson Mounds Museum, as Greenturtle had never been there. It is small but has a nice multi-media installation that I certainly did not mind seeing again.

After that cool interlude, we agreed that we were rather tired so we only made brief stops at Emiquon Nature Preserve and Banner Marsh on the way home. But good stops they were -- a huge flock of white pelicans at Emiquon and mute swans with cygnets at Banner Marsh.

And now we are home! Greenturtle's legs are all scratched up and I found a tick on my hindquarters, but it was all in the Pursuit of Birds.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The birds of summer

On my last day in the U.P., I discovered a neat place to bird in Houghton, the Nara nature trail and boardwalk, where my parents and I were treated to the sight of a peregrine falcon terrorizing a flock of tree swallows, amongst other good sightings. Then we went out to my parents' land where we saw a black-billed cuckoo, a life bird for me, thus vindicating my father, who has had a long-standing disputed cuckoo sighting, the controversy being that he only saw the back end of the bird and not its bill so how could he be SURE? This cuckoo sat calmly for us to admire it, bill and all, before taking off into the long northern twilight. It was weird with the light lasting until ten. Between the long twilight and the lichen-sprinkled ground, my last trip finally felt like I had gone North--before then, the heat and crowds had contradicted the solitude and summer chills I associate with Northern birding. As we drove back, the sunset against the bay spread over the water like a flame.

It was very beautiful and I still had not seen any grouse, so I was reluctant to leave so quickly. But then there was the holiday traffic all the way back. Things were almost gridlocked from thirty miles north of Madison, WI all the way to the Illinois State line; what should have been an eight hour trip took ten. It took me days to recover from that.

But this weekend I finally felt able to resume my quest for birds, going to Sugar Grove Nature Center, the Sewer Plant and Comlara Park. Of course everyone likes spring and fall birding best, with the flocks of migrants coming through and the usually milder weather. But I have a secret soft spot for the Birds of Summer. It's easy to write them off as "the usual suspects," and avoid the challenges of summer birding -- blazing sun beating down on the prairies, swarms of mosquitoes dogging one in the woods. But then I remind myself that summer is over so quickly--and the birds stop their lovely songs by early to mid-August.

So off I went, seeing lovely red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, dickcissels, kingbirds, common yellowthroats, swallows, all my summer "friends." At Sugar Grove, I also saw (for the first time that I really paid attention, at least) a new flower, the plains coreopsis (photo above), very beautiful plant.

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went to the Sewer Plant (out of town on Route 51, for those who may be local birders wanting to check it out). I wanted to see if any "peeps" were passing through yet. Last summer Sunwiggy and I saw some really nice ones there, including a stilt sandpiper at the end of July and least and solitary sandpipers and Wilson's snipes in August. Perhaps it is still too early for peeps, as the only similar bird we saw were killdeer. There was a nice wood duck family on the pond and I heard a bobwhite calling in the distance.

This morning I took a solitary walk around Comlara State Park. Part of me was thinking, "Not Comlara's so boring...I won't see anything new!" I was half-tempted to go farther afield, like to LaSalle county, where I know I could see scarlet tanagers and pileated woodpeckers at Matheson State Park. But in the interest of saving gas and avoiding the crowds, I went to Comlara.

It turned out to be a good birding walk. I saw 35 species, my favorites being Baltimore and orchard orioles, double-crested cormorants, two male rose-breasted grosbeaks, a great-crested flycatcher and a savannah sparrow. I saw and heard at least forty house wrens, scolding me from every direction, and gray catbirds, northern cardinals, red-winged blackbirds and American robins were all abundant. I've been complaining about the park lately only because I've gone there at least two or three times a month for the past year and I feel like I have every shrub and incline along the paths memorized. But really, it is a good park for birding because of the lake, and the long trail traversing a good birding habitat--fields, water and trees and shrubs, a lot of "edge" habitat that many birds like. Usually it's not too crowded either.

When I got back to my car, I realized that I had entered the Birding Zone---four and a half hours had passed and I thought I had been gone for three maximum! Well, you know what they say: time flies when you're seeing fun birds.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Gray jays, and not much else

It seems to be a pattern, that some of the nicest walks in terms of scenery, historical interest or similar are the least birdy, and many areas that look like waste-spaces, scrubby and neglected, are simply bursting with birds. This trend has certainly proved to be true for my Weekend of Northern Birding. The best spot has been the scrubby ATV trail by my parents' house. In the other places we have been--a trail dropping down the the Sturgeon River, ruins of old mines, lovely views of the lake--the birds have been few and far between.

Yesterday morning I wanted to go to the Baraga Plains to see gray jays. Along the way, we saw a mother common merganser and her adorable chicks in the Keweenaw Bay. Three of the chicks at a time would climb upon the mother's back, with the others scurrying behind her as quickly as they could. At the plains, we did find a pair of gray jays, which was very nice. Not much else, though. The scenery was pretty. We saw a handmade sign that said "Tibbett's Falls" and went off the beaten path, finding a trail down to the river. It was more like rapids than falls, but nice, with the dramatic sound of rushing water.

In the evening we headed for the Central Mine in Keweenaw County to look for grouse. Three kinds of grouse live up here; none could be found. We did see a black bear, ambling across the road as we walked up it. My first sighting of a bear--luckily, the bear showed no interest in us whatsoever.

Today another trip to Keweenaw County turned up no grouses. The area was busy with people enjoying the long weekend, and very hot -- not what I expect from the U.P. -- so we turned back after lunch.

In the evening I will take a last stroll down the ATV trail. So far that's where I've had the best luck. Sorry no pictures from this trip--Greenturtle couldn't come and I'm not much of a photographer.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Peripatetic birder

June was a pretty boring month for birds. I only saw 62 species, no lifers (one Illinois State Bird), which was partly because I did not bird for the first two weeks of the month, and partly because, without migration to stir things up, I am starting to feel that, as Greenturtle has said, I have "birded out" central Illinois. (Although one glance at what others have seen on ebird shows me that there are plenty more new birds to see in Illinois.)

Meanwhile, Sunwiggy, my old birding buddy who moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was bragging about all the grouses she's seeing and also complaining of a bird by her house which she has been unable to ID. And so, despite my loathing of car trips, I braved the eight hour drive (roads jam-packed with Illinoisians migrating north for the long holiday weekend) and am going to spend the week-end birding the Keweenau peninsula of Michigan's UP. (One good thing about long car trips: they make me grateful for the simple things in life. Like not being in the car any more when they're over.)

Yesterday started out well with warblers. OMG, warblers in their beautiful breeding costumes, just like a second chance at spring migration. I have gone far enough north to catch them on their breeding grounds! I saw a redstart, a black and white, and the biggest treat, a chestnut-sided warbler in the scrubby area of an ATV path not far from where Sunwiggy now resides. Also identified Sunwiggy's mystery bird...definitely a veery.

Today I am heading for the Baraga Plains with hopes of spotting the gray jay. Greenturtle couldn't come along so no photos on this trip...but hopefully plenty of birds!