Sunday, August 29, 2010

Migration has started!!

It's been a successful birding weekend here in the heartland. My first surprise, Thursday morning, was when I went out on my morning break at work and saw a Wilson's warbler flitting around the trees by the pond. Sunwiggy and I saw a Wilson's back in 2005 at Parklands, and I'd just been wondering when I would ever see one again. And there it was! It really made my day, especially since I work in a "customer service" type position, and I'd just dealt with a very unpleasant person moments before. There was a time, back in the day, when I'd go smoke a cigarette after such encounters. Seeing a cool warbler is a much nicer way to de-stress. Unfortunately, they won't appear on command!

Yesterday morning I joined the JWP Audubon group for a bird walk in Ewing Park. For those who don't know Bloomington that well (or at all), the park is a small urban park, with trees, fields and a stream, which is known as one of the best birding locations in town. Being an introvert, I'd don't join in group activities very often, even though birders on the whole are very friendly people. But I've decided, this fall, to make more of an effort to go on the group walks, for several reasons: one, to be a more ecologically conscious birder, since the walks are in-town; two, to help take my birding skills to the next level by listening to veteran birders; and three, since no birder is an island.

The walk was nice. I met some old "friends" in the McLean County birding community, and some new friendly people; and I also confirmed my IDs of some warblers in their confusing fall plumage. We saw black-throated green, magnolia and chestnut sided warblers, plus a red-eyed vireo.

Afterwards I went through a stroll through Tipton Park, since that has been my urban birding spot for the summer. The emptiness and quiet was so striking.... I did see three green herons, which was cool, but after a summer of hearing and seeing song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds, their absence was striking. It might still seem like summer...but the seasons are changing.

Today I went to Comlara, for a lovely solitary bird walk. I saw most of my birds in the first half hour, right around the visitor center, including a Baltimore oriole stuffing its beak with pokeweed (poisonous to humans) and several Philadelphia vireos. It was not a very scenic location...some of the birdiest spots I've seen have been the least attractive, and some of the most memorable places have had so few birds. I also saw downy woodpeckers, a red-eyed vireo, black-capped chickadees, chipping sparrows, an ovenbird, and another black-throated green warbler, all in that general area.

The length of the walk I'd intended was cut short by the soaring temperatures, another hot summer day. But before I left, I stopped and checked the mudflats exposed by our very dry month for "peeps." Bingo! It was like a sandpiper workshop. I was sweating a bucket whilst staring through my spotting scope under the noon-day sun (a ninety degree sun at that): killdeer, solitary sandpipers, least sandpipers, semipalmated plovers, pectoral sandpipers and semipalmated sandpipers. Occasionally I'd think, WTF sandpipers, do you HAVE to look so similar??? But I sweated it out and moved my scope slowly from bird to bird, until satisfied I'd ID'ed each one. Someone else was there with a scope, but he left before our paths crossed. I always wonder when I see another birder in passing: do they ebird? Would I recognize the name? Whoever it was, alas, will remain anonymous....

A good birding weekend!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

First fall warblers!

I was out and about a few times this week, seeing some cool stuff but nothing so exciting that I just had to blog about it. Also, Greenturtle, my photographer, has been laid up with the painful aftermath of wisdom teeth extraction, so there's no new pictures. (The ones above are from our archives. They were all taken at Sugar Grove Nature Center.)

In addition to this blog, I keep a Bird Journal in which I write the complete list of species I've seen, place, time, anything noteworthy, etc., which goes back two years, so I've been trying to go back to the same places on approximately the same date to compare birds now with birds then.

Wednesday after work I went to Moraine View because a year ago on that date I saw two black-crowned night herons on the pond behind the boy scout camp, perched on treetops and crying loudly to each other before they both flew off. I knew that the chances of seeing them there again a year later, in the same place, was very slim indeed, but since I log all my observations onto Cornell Lab of Ornithology's ebird database (I love ebird!) I like to think it's making a contribution to science. Surely the scientists want to know if the night herons are there, right?

They were not there. It was pretty much the same mix of birds as last year, minus night herons, and with the addition of solitary sandpipers, since the water in the pond was down, exposing plenty of mud for them to feast in. Sandpipers are nice, but I was a little disappointed...until, right before I left, I looked up and saw a great horned owl, perched on the top of a dead tree. Worth the trip!

Yesterday I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center. I didn't see anything but the "usual suspects," although there's just something about goldfinches that makes me smile whenever I see one. I'm glad they're so common, and here year round (though they turn brownish in the winter), because they just make me happy. I'll always remember the first time I saw one, on my first birding walk with the JWP Audubon Group. Everyone was very nice even though they probably thought I was a nimrod for being in awe of such a common little bird. I mean, they're everywhere, how could I have gone over three decades and not noticed one?

I also saw a blue jay with a completely bald head. The poor thing... I could see his earholes and everything. (Wish I'd gotten a picture.) When I got home I looked on the Internet and read that bald blue jays, robins and cardinals are not uncommon, usually because of feather mites. The birds can't preen their own heads so the mites eat all the feathers off. Luckily, the next molt usually sets things right for the victim.

Today I went to Humiston Woods outside of Pontiac, full of anticipation because two years in a row I've seen my first fall warblers there on the third weekend of August. It was a little sad because before I always went with Sunwiggy, my old birding buddy, and as she is Up North, I had to check it out by myself. I hurried to the spot where I saw the flock two years running (black and white warblers mostly)...and they weren't there. Nothing was there. The woods were singularly unbirdy. I felt so disappointed.

But, it's a decent drive from Bloomington so I decided to make the best of it. It's a pretty walk regardless, with the Vermilion River crossing one part of the park and Wolf Creek zigzagging to join it, and banks of beautiful yellow flowers lining the trail along the creek. I walked quicker than I normally would because it was quite buggy. Slowly, I built up a list of birds: a red-bellied woodpecker by the savanna, four tufted titmice, two red-headed woodpeckers that appeared to be squabbling. And then: there they were. My First Fall Warblers. An American redstart and a Nashville warbler, one each. Fall migration has begun!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

August doldrums

I apologize to anyone who may have been wondering about the birds of Central Illinois this month, because I will be the first to admit, I've slacked off with my posting. This is because I've slacked off with my my birding. And THIS is because it's been so damn hot! I have lived in Illinois for eight years now, and I think this is the hottest it's been in all that time. Last week there was a heat advisory nearly every day, the heat index rising above 100 by mid-afternoon...absolutely horrid. I know, I complain about the weather a lot. It's one of my weaknesses.

Yesterday evening I did walk around Bloomington a bit, along the Constitution Trail, and noticed huge flocks of swallows swooping and chittering overhead. It's an end of summer feeling, a bit melancholy in a way. The young are all testing their wings now and before long, they'll be gone, the season will be over. It's so beautiful and yet it makes me want to cry. (The Japanese have a word for it [the feeling, not the swooping swallows]: mono no aware, a sensitivity to ephemera, a sense of poignancy at the passage of the seasons. I think it's ironic that the dude who invented the expression, a scholar named Motoori Norinaga, was trying to encapsulate what is uniquely Japanese about their artistic sensibility, because when I first heard the term, I was so happy that I finally knew there was a word for what I'd been feeling all along.)

This morning I went out to Comlara, more for my mental health (I really need periodic nature breaks, no matter how awful the elements) than because I expected to see many birds. And I had a nice (if quite muggy) nature walk and did not see that many birds. I didn't hear a single dickcissel, common yellowthroat, meadowlark or towhee. I would have said it was absolutely silent if it hadn't been for the ruckus of crows and blue jays, plus some lovely cardinals belting out, what cheer!

The best sightings were of a tufted titmouse (one of the cutest birds of the region) and a young house wren, who was trying to scold me but didn't quite have the noise down yet.

At least next week, the warblers might start coming through. That's right...fall migration is just around the corner!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Remembering Southern Illinois

Our long hot summer drags on.... The day before yesterday was, I heard rumor, 112 degrees with the heat index factored in. It certainly felt like it! Today was not nearly so monstrous but I still decided against an after-work birding trip in favor of staying home and working on a short story that I had an idea for last week...while I was out birding, of course. (I always feel more creative after spending time in nature.)

The story takes place in a setting similar to the one that Greenturtle and I experienced in the early summer of 2008, when we went to Southern Illinois for a week of camping and hiking. It was really, really hot then too. But we still saw some cool stuff at Fern Clyffe State Park, Giant City State Park, and my favorite from the trip...the Cache River State Natural Area. It's a beautiful swamp, what's left of a whole wetlands network that used to stretch across the lower portion of the state. Of course we know the rest of the story, how humans came along and just about ruined it, saving a little fragment of it at the eleventh hour. Even the little that's left is very intriguing, with features that seem more like what you'd expect much further South, such as Cypress and tupelo trees.

I was bound to like it anyway. I love swamps, bogs, wetlands, marshes, sloughs...whatever you name it, if it's watery and reedy, I think it's wonderful.

I was a pretty lazy birder in 2008. I didn't go out that much, and I only got one life bird...though it was a very special life bird, the prothonotary warbler (the yellow bird with gray wings in the above photos, for those who aren't that into birding). I was told that I just couldn't miss it down in the Cache River State Wildlife Area. Those are words I hate to hear...because nine times out of ten, if you "just can't miss" something, I do! But luckily the warblers were in evidence, calling sweet sweet sweet as they flew over the swampy area.

Other birds we saw include pileated woodpecker and eastern bluebird. And then there was the Mystery Bird. As I walked around the scrub and the swamps, I kept hearing this bird call, very loudly, "Whiz BANG!" This happened so much that I started to feel like it was mocking me, for although I could hear it whiz-banging all over the place, I never (knowingly) got a sight of it.

And then last year, when I was really, really into birding and studied the songs of birds I hoped to see, I heard the song again on Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website. It was the willow flycatcher, a member of a frustrating look-alike family distinguishable only by their songs. Apparently I am the only one who thinks he says "Whizz bang." Consensus in the birding world has it that he says "Fitz bew."

In any case, reviewing the photos that Greenturtle took from our trip, it looks like we saw one after all. I just didn't know what it was at the time.

We also saw a lot of snakes, including a copperhead -- which slithered away as soon as we saw it -- and the one above, one snake devouring another. Not sure what kind of snakes they are -- if anyone knows, I'd love to find out! Luckily I am not afraid of snakes. I actually think they're kind of fascinating.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Birding bummers/pesticide rant

One of the worst birding seasons is upon us now, the tail end of summer. It's almost as dreary as the tail end of winter. I have already noticed that my species counts have dropped quite a bit, even from two weeks ago. And even worse, I know that week by week all my summer favorites are going to stop singing and take leave of us for the season. I did a bit of urban birding and a bit of countryside birding over the weekend, and noticed this in both "habitats." Well, the red-winged blackbirds are still occupying Tipton Park in force...since they are one of the first migrants to leave, the blackbirds are my barometer of when the summer is wrapping up for good.

At least I can tell myself that in about three weeks, the fall migrants will start coming through! And three weeks isn't that long to wait.

I also told myself that at least I could notate my workweek birds that I see on lunch break. Last week had some nice surprises: a belted kingfisher, two young wood ducks, a pair of house wrens. Plus, a pair of catbirds has decided the lawn by the pond close to my office is a good place for raising their young.

Even with this incentive, Monday mornings are not the best of times, and I dragged my feet getting out the door, flipping through a book I bought over the weekend about attracting birds to the backyard. Absolutely, the book instructed, do not use pesticides. These poisons are directly responsible, according to some estimates, for 65 million dead birds every year. Even the natural ones should be used sparingly, for they kill bugs, after all, and what do birds eat?

As I pulled up in my workplace parking lot, it was clear that someone else did not get the memo, for the "lawn care" guys were there, carrying around hoses attached to a big tank of guess what? Pesticides. They were liberally spraying the crap across the grass and along all the bushes and grasses that line the property. The fumes stank to high heaven. And I fumed all day thinking about the wrens and catbirds.

The grass still stank of the stuff when I walked around at 4:00. I didn't see any birds at all, except for a crow flying overhead. Finally, off in the distance, I heard a catbird mewling. Hopefully the whole family will be okay.

I guess what annoys me the most is how unnecessary the whole thing was. It's not a garden, or a park. All that grows there is some shabby looking grass. It's not like anyone besides myself sits out there, and I'm not worried about the occasional ant that crawls on me. I don't see why spraying that poison was necessary at all...let alone in the huge quantities that were used.

Some people will argue that this is all a bunch of alarmist ranting and whatever was in that tank is perfectly safe. It may be (well, except to IS a poison.) I have no idea what they were using. Regardless, it made the whole area reek and I don't see what the purpose was.