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.


  1. I greatly enjoyed this posting! May I add: Two Birders As Laurel and Hardy (I'm Hardy). This scene plays out with the bird, shall we say a nice duck, minding its own business and bobbing along 2 feet in front of the birders. Laurel is trying to use a scope, sans a tripod, and getting a nice view of the sky, while pronouncing "I think it's a Harlequin Duck!" Hardy, who would love to see a Harlequin Duck, is commencing to beat Laurel over the head with "Birds of Michigan." In their defense, let it be said that neither Laurel nor Hardy are imagining blowing the poor duck out of the water!

  2. Well, Hardy, I am remembering another classic birding day, when you fell face-first off the boardwalk into the cat tails at Moraine Hills, overcome with excitement at seeing a Song Sparrow. Now that was a good sighting!