Saturday, December 25, 2010

Winter walk

Another snowy day. Greenturtle and I decided to go for a walk at Parklands Merwin Preserve, on the road between Lexington and Gridley in McLean County.

At first, the woods seemed almost devoid of birds, and everything seemed so austere. I could hear the sound of my feet squelching along in the snow, occasional traffic noises. The Mackinaw River was almost entirely iced over.

Snow lay heavily on the tree branches. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang."

Then, we heard tapping, rap-rap-rap against the tree trunk. The sound carried well without any foliage to muffle it -- as if it were coming from a huge woodpecker. In that same area, I also saw some chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, proof that the woods weren't really blighted. And the woodpecker, once spotted, turned out to be of completely modest proportions: a juvenile red-headed woodpecker. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you will see his head is transitioning from brown to red.(Juvenile red-headeds have brown heads, which can be confusing to new birders!)

A bit further down the trail, while I was looking at some tufted titmice, Greenturtle decided to photograph the birder rather than the birds. Just as well, in the dim winter light, all we would have caught would probably be gray blobs on dark branches.

The most exciting part of our walk, unfortunately, went entirely unphotographed. I saw a large bird fly away over the treetops as we approached. I had a very quick look, but it had a rounded shape that made me think, "Owl!" We stood for a few minutes, listening to two unseen great horned owls hoot a duet from the evergreens. We were able to creep slowly off the trail and into the trees, stopping every few feet to listen for them. Finally, we got too close, and I just caught a glimpse of the nearer owl flying away again. Luckily owl calls are quite distinctive, because really all I saw was his tail end soaring away as quickly as he (or she) could -- not even a good look at the "horns."

We finished the walk with a stroll to the oak savanna, a remnant of the beautiful ecosystem that once was prevalent across the mid-west and is now perhaps the most endangered habitat on earth. Oak savannas are open woodlands that have a park-like feel, because the huge trees prevent a thick understory from forming. Savannas are important for species like eastern wood-pewees and red-headed woodpeckers like the one we'd seen earlier.

When Sunwiggy and I first saw the Merwin Preserve's savanna, we were so impressed with it that we named it "the Beautiful Place." Even in the heart of winter, there's something special about it....

Friday, December 24, 2010

Eurasian tree sparrows are back!

Today Greenturtle and I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center here in McLean County for a winter walk. It was snowing, but not too cold, and we were the only people in evidence, making it very peaceful. I hadn't been to Sugar Grove in a while -- I've barely been out of Bloomington all month, except for my trip to Allerton Park last weekend -- and I was hoping that the regular winter visitors would be back at the feeders again.

These visitors are Eurasian tree sparrows. The species is similar looking to the house sparrow, and is also not native to the continent--they were introduced to the Saint Louis area around 1970. Unlike the more aggressive house sparrow, they have not wandered far from their release point, and it is quite a treat to see them in central Illinois. For some reason, they only seem to come here during the winter. (Rumor has it that they can be found along the Illinois River Valley, but I have yet to see them anywhere else besides the feeders at Sugar Grove Nature Center.)

The top two photos, above, were taken last February--it was a cloudy day and the pictures were taken through the glass of the bird viewing room, but I think you can see the black cheek patch and all brown head that distinguish the Eurasian tree sparrow from the house sparrow. The last photo was taken at the bonsai display at the Japanese festival in Saint Louis--another sighting, albeit artistic, of the elusive little bird.

"That's our golden bird!"

My birthday was earlier this month (doesn't everyone just love to commemorate getting older?) and Sunwiggy was kind enough to buy me the first season of Birding Adventures, a birding-focused television program hosted by a guy named James Currie.

In the program, Currie, an amiable enough host (I think he said, at different points in the series, that he currently lives on the East Coast of the U.S. but is originally from South Africa)visits Florida, Guyana, Panama and California, each time specifying the "golden bird" that he is looking for, usually a rare or endangered one such as the Florida scrub jay, red-cockaded woodpecker, harpy eagle, California condor, etc. Along the way, he interacts with the local people, promotes local attractions, interviews birding guides and conservationists, and enjoys pointing out other wildlife as well as birds.

I like bird-related DVDs to watch in the winter time, when it's dark by the time I get home and the weather frequently sucks, so I can at least enjoy some birds vicariously. My two standbys are David Attenborough's wonderful The Life of Birds, and the full-length feature, Winged Migration, but I have watched those over and over, so it was nice to see something new.

For Birding Adventures, first, the minuses: it is clearly a television program, and sometimes reminded me that although channels such as Animal Planet sound really fun, I've yet to see anything on them that makes me want to spring for the cost of cable TV. The program seems aimed at a general TV audience, that is, there's a lot of filler (despite the fact that the segments are fairly short to start with), repeats of the same shots over and over, the need to "balance" out the birdy stuff with more general interest items, and lots of mildly annoying catchphrases. Also, except for the catchy theme, "Now Is the Time of Your Life" (which is, after all, how one feels on a great day of birding!), the music was pretty cheesy.

I state these things in the spirit of complete honesty, because overall the "plusses" came out slightly ahead. I liked the locations they chose, and the interviews with the conservation experts. It was nice that the program stressed the need for protecting habitat with a consistently positive spin, such as pointing out success stories and that having these wonderful birds should be a source of pride for a community. I did enjoy seeing some of the other animals he stopped to admire too, especially the extra cute silky anteater (I think that was in Panama). Overall, the series met my criteria for the perfect birding book (although this was TV): wacky adventures, birding emphasis, and a person I'd enjoy birding with. James Currie comes across as a fun birding buddy. I just wish the segments had been a bit more in depth, but I guess that's the nature of the medium.

If they release a second season, I will happily add that to my next holiday wish list. And in the meantime, as Currie says frequently in the series, "Let's go birding!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Statues in the snow

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went to the Robert Allerton Park outside of Monticello, IL. As you approach, a banner announces that the Illinois tourism board has designated the park as one of the wonders of Illinois, and actually, I have to agree. Currently owned by the University of Illinois, the park contains the manor and gardens of the later Mr. Robert Allerton, along with several miles of hiking trails along the floodplain of the Sangamon River.

And winter is probably my favorite time to visit it. The gardens and statues seem particularly appealing in the snow. Spring is also lovely, of course...the woods are carpeted with wildflowers. And when the warblers are coming through, that's just magic! Fall is also nice. But you know how some places are advertised as being all season attractions. Let me just say that Allerton Park is definitely a three season attraction. In the summer the mosquitoes are so bad I practically needed a blood transfusion afterward. I've only been one other place where I felt so persecuted by insect life, and that was a swamp. In Texas.

But winter is wonderful. I have included a larger sampling of photos than usual (my photographer Greenturtle is back, now that he's done with school for the time being) because the place was just so moody and lovely. Even though the day was overcast, and there were some snow flurries, it felt perfect. The turquoise color of the Sunsinger statue practically glowed in the strange, overcast light.

Since this blog is called Bird Ephemera, you may be wondering what birds I saw. Well, it's winter, and I suffer from the winter birding curse, so not too many species. Mostly woodpeckers were in evidence, including two red-headed woodpeckers and two pileateds. They were all quite noisy, calling to each other and banging away like crazy at the trees. I also saw a nice tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, some chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, and a large flock of robins. Unfortunately overcast moody days lend themselves much better to photos of statuary than of birds, so I will have to ask you to use your imagination on those.

I think my favorite part of Allerton is the Fu Dog garden (the Fu Dog is the one at the bottom). There are actually two whole rows of them; in Chinese folklore, the Fu Dogs protected against demons.

And, personally, I think they have their work cut out for them, because take a look at the photos of the Chinese musicians. I've always thought those little statues look positively diabolical. "Can't you picture them coming to life after dark, and running around looking for people to terrorize in the woods?" I asked Greenturtle.

"Now that I've taken their pictures," he said, "they can escape the gardens through their images and terrorize us in our house!"

OK, as anyone who has taken a look at my other blog, Crow's Nest Reviews, knows, I have quite a fondness for horror movies. When I'm not looking for birds, I'm thinking up creepy stories. But seriously, Robert Allerton Park, great fun, great birds, check it out!

And just food for that you've looked on the images and let the Musicians into your home...well, just don't be surprised if you hear them creeping around at night, that's all I'm saying.

Central Illinois in winter

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Winter is here!

A mere two days after I did my last post, announcing that there was no snow started to snow. We didn't get that much, maybe three to four inches, but it has been quite cold ever since.

Sunday I went for a walk through Ewing Park, an urban park here in Bloomington, IL. It's not far from where I live, maybe a couple of miles...although the parking lot was very icy. The sounds of children squealing with delight carried through the air from the field, where they were sledding down the hill. In the "Hedge Apple Woods" area, where I was, I think I experienced the most solitude I ever have at that park, which is normally overrun with dog walkers.

Once again, I took Greenturtle's camera (he was home studying, as usual), with the goal of getting some nice snaps of crows. I love crows, and had an image of a post called "Crow Patrol" or "Crows in snow," something clever like that, featuring brilliant photos of crows. Well, there were crows, quite noisy crows at that, but they didn't fancy having their pictures taken. Either they stayed in the trees, behind lots of tangling branches and/or evergreen fronds...or they were flying to and fro...or they were in really poor light. I have a couple of smudgy charcoal-looking crow shapes as photographic evidence for all these crows, nothing more. I think Sunwiggy may be right. She stated in a recent e-mail that crows don't like to have their pictures taken.

What I did find, in abundance, was a flock of robins. I'm not sure if they were on their way south or if they had decided to stay put for the season (not all robins migrate, and I guess the numbers that linger through the winters are increasing), but there sure were a lot of them. I also saw: downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers; blue jays; cardinals; black-capped chickadees; and one cedar waxwing. my list of usual winter suspects, posted previously, I can see that the curse of winter birding is upon me!

It was pretty in the park, with all the new-fallen snow. Cold, but pretty. Meanwhile, the new winter weather has proven quite a challenge to my workplace commute, since I am still biking it several times a week. I would love to say I'm suffering for the sake of the earth, but the truth is, I just can't afford a second car right now. I mean, I probably could if I really wanted to, but what a waste of money I don't have! I refuse to bow down to convention! I can get by with my bike!

Meanwhile, is it admiration or just shock that my co-workers expressed today, as I pulled on my balaclava (as in above photo!) and assorted winter gear and announced, 15 degrees be damned, I'm riding my bike! I'm from Michigan, after all, where we know a thing or two about winter. The truth is, the cold doesn't really bother me that much for short spurts. Less than an hour outside and I'm fine in all but the most Arctic of weather. It's the traffic I mind, especially in the dark (yes, five o'clock and already dark as midnight, alas), and especially when the ice on the sides of the road forces me out closer to the traffic. Well, what can I say, winter is here, and it's just arrived, so I might as well get used to it....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Winter birds

I have no luck with winter birds. I have yet to see a snow bunting, Lapland longspur or pine siskin. Visiting owls, winter finches, redpolls, crossbills: all are safe from being seen by me. Last year I had a theory; my lack of winter bird sightings was because I don't like to go out in the winter. So I went out, no matter the weather, risking frostbite, hypothermia, and death from listening to Sunwiggy whining about the cold.

Was I rewarded by a slew of winter bird sightings? No. My Bird Journal reveals a consistent pattern: 15-20 species per outing, and all of them a variation of: American goldfinch, house finch, white and red-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadee, American crow, northern cardinal, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, American tree sparrow, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, house sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, Canada goose, European starling, blue jay, tufted titmouse. Wondrous as all of these species are to see, the monotony of it for week after week became a bit tiring. Still, I had a project, to witness and document the full panorama of McLean County birding in every month and season.

I have been reviewing my notes from last winter, and just in time. At the moment central Illinois is experiencing its first snap of cold weather of the season. This morning, I wheeled my bike out to go to work, and was immediately slapped silly by an Arctic blast of wind. I decided to go back inside for more winter gear (luckily a fit of knitting a couple years ago has supplied me with a variety of hats, scarves, cowls, etc.), which gave the wind an opportunity to knock my bike over. Having added another couple of layers, I hoisted my bike back up and took off...fighting valiantly to make headway into the wind. I mean, I understand I'm no Lance Armstrong, but with all my bike riding over the past few months shouldn't I be in better shape??

On the way to work, my bird sightings have consisted of: large flocks of starlings; pigeons; crows (this morning they were poking holes in trash bags looking for goodies); and Canada geese. Oh, the curse of winter birding!

So, this winter will I persevere in my quest for the Lapland longspur and the snow bunting, and all their wintry friends? Or will I stay nice and warm inside as much as possible? I'd like to think I'll be going out.... (I've signed up to go to the Sax Zim Bog birding festival in northern Minnesota in February, so hopefully I can break my winter bird curse then!) In the meantime, I've been looking over some winter snaps from the past couple of years.... Hopefully they will inspire me. (We don't have snow yet...these are from last January at Starved Rock State Park.)