Sunday, October 31, 2010

Great day for urban birds

Today I overslept (ah, blissful sleep--every year when the days grow shorter, I find myself wanting to hibernate. The joy with which I can leap from my bed to bird on a beautiful June morning is definitely in short supply) and when I finally yanked myself out of bed -- the morning whoopings of my cockatiels certainly helping -- and sat with my first cup of coffee, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to go birding. I was tired, bored with all my usual routines, and would I even see any "year birds" if I went? I felt presented with two choices: drive out of town, using precious resources (tar sands! oil spills!) and maybe not enjoy myself that much, or try to do "green birding" in town, and almost definitely not enjoy myself that much.

Sometimes I feel like I'm talking out both sides of my mouth, both in real life and on this blog, one moment swearing to be "greener" and lamenting the devastation to our precious Earth, and the next driving three counties away to look for birds. Although I'm tempted just to trot out my favorite Walt Whitman quote, the one I use whenever someone catches me doing a 180 -- "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." -- but the truth is, the personal sense of disconnect does bother me. I want to be kind to the Earth, to not squander its resources AND to indulge my restless, nature-seeking impulses. And Friday afternoon I had quite a nice time riding my bike and walking around town, as you can read below.

But yesterday, when I tried to bird by bike, I turned back after about a half mile. The wind was vicious; I felt like no matter how my feet pedaled, I was getting nowhere; my eyes dried out and started to sting and water. I wondered how on earth it was possible to be simultaneously hot and cold. It was no fun.

Thus my dilemma this morning. But I have a saying. It's like that quote by Cicero, that one can find on free bookmarks sometimes: "A room without books is like a body without a soul." Only my saying is less poetic: "A day without birding sucks."

So I compromised. I decided to stay in town, but to go ahead and drive there, since the pond I wanted to visit, White Oak Pond, is several miles away along busy roads, and once again the day was chilly and windy. So off to White Oak Pond I went. I'd only been there once before, last November, with Sunwiggy, and it was not inspiring: a very cold day, the wind-chopped water the same dingy gray as the sky above, and not one single bird anywhere in sight. Not a Canada goose. Nor a starling. Nothing.

Today was less cold, although there was a definite bite in the air (at last!) and when the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds, I wished I'd brought my jacket. (I was dressed for a typical summer's day in Sunwiggy's new homeland of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, that is, jeans and a thick hoodie sweatshirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt, but no jacket. Also, I discovered, after I got there, that the hoodie was encrusted with bird droppings from when I was letting my cockatiels perch on my chest while I watched TV yesterday. To top it off, I stuffed the pouch of the hoodie with my wallet, keys, field guide and little notebook before I strolled around, thus making myself look like a marsupial who has mistaken a bookbag for its baby. And I wonder why Greenturtle thinks that birders have no sense of style.)

But, despite these sartorial and temperature shortcomings, there were birds! Most obvious, the Canada geese, about 100 of them. Second most obvious, a lovely mute swan (year-county bird!) I had just started on looking for everything that was not Canada goose, when I noticed a big bird of prey soaring overhead. My first thought was a red-tailed hawk...but it didn't have a red tail. And it wasn't flying like a red-tail. It was an OSPREY! I couldn't believe it, but I got a very good look at the face markings. (How I wish Greenturtle and his camera had come along, but he is stuck at home studying every weekend.) It flew across the pond a couple of times, such a beautiful bird, and then flew away.... What a privilege to see it. It's moments like that, when I wonder was it Fate or serendipity that made me sleep in and decide to drive to this pond, for the second time ever, at just this I could see this beautiful bird?

Before I could wax too poetic, I caught a glimpse of some medium-sized white birds in the water. My heart went pitter-pat, wondering , "Ross' goose?" but no, it was just a trio of domestic white ducks, trumpeting their identity with loud QUACK QUACK QUACKS. Fair enough, they were still cute, and I'd just seen as osprey!

Continuing to scan the throngs of water birds, I saw a pied-billed grebe...and a gadwall!!! The gadwall has been, for me, a state nemesis bird. Every other Illinois birder, it seems, has seen one...but not me. I saw one once, on the magical mystery birding tour that Sunwiggy and I took of the King Ranch in Texas, but since then--a gadwall free life. Until today! Hooray!

As I was strolling to get a better view of some coots, Fate confirmed that yes, this was my day, because I found, lying unattended on the grass (and I do wish to stress the UNATTENDED part)...a ten dollar bill. There was no one in the vicinity, and indeed the bill looked a little weathered...a clear example of finder's keepers.

Some days Urban Birding is truly rewarding!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Urban Birding, Pond Crawl, Part One

This weekend, being short of cash and still appalled at the devastation to the environment by the Oil Companies, I have decided to engage in green birding/urban birding. Since it is the season when the water birds will be starting to move through, I decided to try to hit as many ponds in town as possible on foot or bike. I thought the term "pond crawl" sounded sufficiently urban and grubby to describe the endeavor.

As a preface, I would also like to mention an idea from the book I am currently reading, "The Life of the Skies" by Jonathan Rosen. The author, an essayist, novelist and cosmopolite (he lives in New York City) ponders the philosophy and poetry of the human-bird relationship; it is not a work of natural history but an extended discussion of what birds, and the natural world, have symbolized from the time of Audubon to the present day, especially in the light of the knowledge that the world of nature, already degraded and fragmented, is fast disappearing: hence the subtitle, "Birding at the End of Nature."

I am about halfway through; the book is well written, and the more literary emphasis is fun for readers such as myself, former humanities students, and I would say I am enjoying it -- if only because I find myself thinking about, and mentally disagreeing with, some of the author's points.

In particular, that he seems to feel that birding is a form of "hunting"--he states several times that he understands the impulse to kill the birds as specimens or for conquest -- and that in this way he is getting in touch with the wilder aspects of human nature, his primitive side. OK, since he's not actually blowing songbirds from the sky, if he wants to feel like he's getting in touch with his inner Teddy Roosevelt (one of the historic figures discussed in the book) when he goes birding, that's his business. I wonder if a lot of this has to do with his urban upbringing and almost total lack of contact with nature before he began birding; he mentions several times that his bookish nature and lack of "manly skills" (finding one's way in the woods, reading a map and compass -- heck, I'm a girl and I can do all this, but then, I spent my childhood roaming freely through the countryside) left him feeling inadequate and now, through birds, he is connecting to the wild man inside. Great. I am really limiting what he covers with this summary, but it is this point I will address during the Pond Crawl; perhaps the rest will surface as a topic at a later point.

POND CRAWL, I : ANGLER'S POND (The Mystical Birder)

I am fortunate to work right by one of the larger ponds in Bloomington, Angler's Pond (or Lake), a scrubby pond popular with fishermen and surrounded by houses and apartment buildings. Since I only work half-days on Friday, I biked the few blocks to the main trail that winds about half-way around the pond (right by my building, unfortunately, the public access is very limited). Despite being smack dab in the middle of town, the trail has a wild feeling; the trees encroach across it, views of neighboring buildings are limited (at least until the leaves fall), and because of the restricted view, the pond itself feel quite large. I saw: mallards, a belted kingfisher, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, a crow, one Canada goose, an American tree sparrow, and a whole flock of white throated sparrows. The WT sparrows were scratching through the leaf litter, creating a rustling sound that drifted through the air.

I felt like I was close, very close, to stumbling onto another realm, just around the next bend, or perhaps to see a glimpse reflected in the water. The scratching sparrows, especially, were precious. I felt that I was privileged to be witnesses an ancient ritual, something older than I could ever fathom. It would never have occurred to me (as it has to Mr. Rosen) to imagine killing the birds. On the contrary, doing so, disturbing them in any way, would have felt like a blasphemy. Not that the birds, in and of themselves, are sacred, but I really felt, in that moment, at the threshold of the sacred, in the presence of a true mystery of Creation: the white-throated sparrow. So perfect, just as it is. Unimaginable. As soon as one describes the feeling, it vanishes, for it is beyond words. Unlike Mr. Rosen, I have never felt inadequate in regards to my nature skills -- at heart, I have always been more Wild Child with brambles in her hair than a member of society -- but I have longed, so passionately, for a re-enchantment of a world which we, with our shopping complexes, regimented institutions, hurried pace and "virtual" entertainment, have rendered so bleak and banal. I want the world to sing again. I want to be a mystic, a seer, a shaman. And at its best, for me, birding is not just about birds. It is a meditation, or a form of prayer.


My next stop, another large pond, this one by a large complex of corporate building, those of State Farm Insurance Company. Though I was birding from the sidewalk, I felt like an intruder here. The grounds were so well-manicured -- geez, so corporate looking -- I kept waiting for someone with a briefcase and a business suit to inquire what, exactly, I was doing, peering over the shrubbery with a pair of binoculars. A couple members of another urban species, the Jogger, ran past me, in fancy looking exercise gear (heck, when I used to run, I'd pull on any old pair of sweats and a T-shirt), but no one bothered me.

I was a birder on a mission: to find, out of the hundreds of Canada geese across the pond and the grass, to find at least one Cackling Goose. I didn't even know such a thing existed until recently. A cackling goose is a smaller version of the Canada goose, recently declared a separate species. And...I found some! Not only were they smaller, but their proportions looked a little different: necks shorter, bills stubbier. Loath to create a List of Lies, I spent several minutes verifying, to my satisfaction, that what I saw were, indeed, representatives of the Cackling Goose.

And thus I visited a foreign land, a bit uncomfortable the while, until I could tick off "been there, seen that" and move on--happy to have stopped, but ultimately happier to be going home again. The Birder as Tourist.

POND CRAWL, III: TIPTON PARK (The Birder as Detective)

For my last stop, I went to Tipton Park, which I have mentioned before: a pair of ponds, surrounded by grasses, and all that surrounded by very huge McMansions, the park is popular with joggers, bikers, and dog-walkers. All summer long, it is filled with red-winged blackbirds and barn swallows, but those, of course, were absent today.

My first impression was: there are no birds at all! It seemed so bleak. But then I heard some rustling and chirpings in the grasses, and saw juncos and white-throated sparrows. I heard quackings, and there were mallards--and a pied-billed grebe. A warbler flew by, and gave me a good look. I didn't have my field guide with me, so I wasn't completely sure it was an orange-crowned warbler, but I thought it might be. I scribbled down the field markings in my moleskine notebook for later verification. And thus it went--I heard a sound like goldfinches make, and located them in the grasses. A dog-walker described a bird that sounded like a coot, and I walked further down and yes, it was a coot... This was a more intellectual form of birding, listening, observing, taking notes, talking to witnesses. This time, I was mentally engaged: the birder as detective.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Starlings, with their stars on

As fall progresses, riding my bike around town, I have been hearing the thin chitterings of starlings perched on wires and branches overhead. Are there more starlings in the fall and winter or are they just more noticeable because of the absence or silence of the other birds? (I wonder the same thing about blue jays, too.) Apparently starling song is quite euphonious. I read in a book called "Bird Song" that Mozart had a pet starling and its warblings inspired some of his melodies. He was quite fond of the bird and made his friends attend its funeral when it passed. Like parrots, they can also mimic human speech; some really cool examples of talking starlings can be found on YouTube.

If I could go back in time and see the mid-West with the French explorers (this is actually a long-standing wish, to be able to experience history and also see the landscape when it was still wild--and full of passenger pigeons--where is Doctor Who and his Tardis when you need him?) I wouldn't find any starlings. One hundred of them were released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, and they quickly spread across the land, becoming one of the most abundant species, with around 200 million of them alive today.

Lots of people hate starlings. The conservation-minded dislike them because they are not native to North America and compete for nesting sites with native species. In fact, my Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior has a drawing of starlings evicting red-headed woodpeckers from their nest cavity. Other people just consider them to be pests because they are so numerous and seemingly enjoy living alongside humans in our cities and towns.

Personally, I have never found a bird I couldn't admire, so I see many good qualities in starlings. I like their winter plumage especially, when their iridescent purply black plumage fades a little, revealing their "stars"--silvery speckles in their feathers. And I love the way they form mesmerizing flocks of hundreds or even thousands flying together in the evening, weaving around each other as if trying to braid the air. There are lots of examples of this phenomenon on YouTube as well, one of the best being this video.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

More urban birding

We are finally getting some nice fall weather, although the autumn foliage is less than impressive due to the warm weather. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe that the lovely colors are caused by the lack of chlorophyll once the crisp temperatures signal to the trees it's time to go into winter mode. Despite this bummer, yesterday was a perfect fall day, so after work I decided to sling my binoculars over my shoulder, toss a notebook and field guide into the basket on my bike, and see what kind of birds I could find in town.

I decided to take the Constitution Trail, the biking/jogging/dog-walking etc. trail that winds around the Bloomington/Normal area, through Normal and then as far as it goes. It's a fairly long trip, winding past the highway (55) and then petering out in at a country road (1850N) not far from the small town of Hudson. My plan was to check for birds periodically on my way back.

The terminus of the trail is not particularly attractive (I have been reading the trip schedules of several birding tour companies just to torment myself: instead of Caribbean islands, South American cloud forests or pelagic vistas, this is what I get??)-- on the left side is a gravel company, with trucks pulling up and dusty clouds drifting from the mounds, on the right side, an FS Evergreen station with several noisy silos. I looked up FS Evergreen on the internet out of curiosity. I think they are processing corn into something else (biodiesel?)there. Anyway, it's pretty noisy.

Ever willing to do my part for the ebird scientists (surely, they want to know what I saw, or didn't), I pulled out my binoculars. And...I saw birds. Well, pigeons; those are birds. They were resting side by side, a group of about ten of them, on top of the FS Evergreen silos, seemingly impervious to the noise and dust around them. And that is what I like about pigeons! No other birds in sight -- and I certainly wouldn't want to live there -- and there they are, snuggled up together as if they had found an island paradise.

A little further from the terminus, I found a flock of blackbirds in some shrubs by a cornfield, some crows and robins, and a golden-crowned kinglet, so it's not just pigeons. Even micro-habitats will bring in the birds.

Riding back towards Normal, I got off my bike at the Hidden Creek park, which is a small urban park/nature sanctuary. I've always found it a little off-putting for some reason. Was it the Smirnoff bottle on the trail, showing that the party birds had recently been in evidence? Or the garbage tossed into the creek? I've just never really liked that park.

Regardless, I saw a pair of yellow-rumped warblers, a downy woodpecker, a phoebe, a chickadee and some cardinals right off the bat. Then I heard a rustling noise beneath the trees...white-throated sparrows and a fox sparrow were digging in the leaves, looking for their supper. I've always loved this particular behavior of birds. It's totally endearing, and it makes me think of the first time I saw/heard eastern towhees rustling in the leaves at Parklands Merwin preserve.

Rounding up the day, I stopped at the pond behind the Jumer's motel, which can attract some surprises during the right season. Yesterday I saw many mallards and Canada geese, plus a crow flying overhead.

Today I continued the urban birding spirit, waking up early and biking to Ewing Park, a small urban park here in Bloomington. The first thing I heard was a cacophony of robins. I think there were at least fifty of them in the park. I walked around for an hour or so and saw more of the usual fall suspects, including a Swainson's thrush, a cedar waxwing, and a northern flicker.

It's heartening to know that so many birds can utilize our urban spaces, especially parks, ponds and shrubby areas. And I saw a lot of species, probably as many as I would have seen out of town. Alas, I am just not an urbanite (or, as a co-worker of mine likes to say, cosmopolite) ... so tomorrow I will check out the birds out of town. But at least I can feel good that I conserved resources and got some exercise this weekend, and saw a few birds in the process.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What kind of spider is this?

Does anyone know? I've been seeing them all over the place -- I'm not a big fan of spiders in general and these are particularly ugly!

On the topic of spiders, while Sunwiggy was visiting last weekend, she commented that where she now lives, in the U.P., people are selling hedge apples to get rid of spiders. There are hedge apples (the unsightly fruit of the Osage orange tree) all over the place in central Illinois in the fall, but I had never heard that they were good for anything.

Curious, I did a little Internet research on the topic. The Osage orange tree is native to eastern Texas, and parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas. It was brought to the mid-west by settlers to use as a wind break and as a hedge to keep livestock in (this use falling out of favor after barbed wire was invented), and the wood is very tough. Except as a shelter for birds and wildlife in its tangles, the Osage orange is not a very useful addition to the landscape. (Although I did not read that it is a nuisance out of its traditional ecosystem, like the autumn olive.) And its fruit, big green balls known as hedge apples, are not eaten by most wildlife. There is, however, a persistent claim that placing them around your house or in your basement will deter spiders.

Any truth to this? As with many folk traditions, the science-oriented sites scoffed at the claim, stating that no spider-repelling compound has been found in the fruit, and spiders don't smell things anyway; meanwhile, there are some testimonials from people swearing it has worked for them.

I guess if I had a spider infestation, I would try it. The hedge apples are just lying around anyway, so what could it hurt? But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it to work, either.