Sunday, January 30, 2011

An introspective weekend, part two: Comlara Park

As I mentioned in my last post, the sun has been in short supply lately, but I went out anyway to combat the winter doldrums, and had a wonderful time. So today I headed out again, this time to Comlara park, hoping for some nice year birds or at least a peaceful stroll by Evergreen Lake. The weather was, if anything, even gloomier, with visibility somewhat limited by fog.

My first stop was the Pumphouse, because this is the one place where I can find some open water even in the midst of winter:

Open water is great, because it attracts waterfowl and gulls, which can be cool winter sightings. In fact, it has occurred to me, as Sunwiggy and I drove all over the state last winter looking for open water along the Mississippi and Illinois River Valleys (Sunwiggy is a good sport about birding but asthma and other lung ailments make walking any distance in the cold weather challenging for her), and this year as the local ponds and creeks slowly iced over...that there's something rather symbolic for me, anyway, about the disappearing open water. As winter draws in, and the landscape is encased in a film of ice and snow, as the days shrink into darkness---so goes my mood. Although I've done a bit better this year, thanks to my self-imposed birding challenges!

At the pumphouse, human intervention keeps it open, so I was hoping for some wintering waterfowl, perhaps some nice ducks, snow geese or greater white-fronted geese.

Alas, though the area was packed with waterfowl, they were all Canada geese -- now I love the Canada goose, but it they are hardly an unusual sighting at any time of year.

I also saw a belted kingfisher, which is always a good thing to spot!

I snapped some photos, although with the poor light I didn't have many hopes for how they would turn out, and then got back in the car to check out the feeders around the visitor center. I was hoping for a red-breasted nuthatch, which I haven't gotten yet in 2011, since they hung out in the area last winter. No red-breasted ones, but there was one white-breasted one who flew down right in front of me, as if begging for its photo to be taken. We'll call it Supermodel Nuthatch:

Other good birds at the feeders included a tufted titmouse;

A song sparrow (seen here in the company of a male house sparrow;

And many beautiful cardinals, their flame-red a beacon even in the terminal grayness of the morning:

A young man stopped to ask about the bird I was photographing, and told me about seeing the Canada geese in the open area by the pumphouse. Despite the gray weather, I was really enjoying myself, and thinking how birding has brought so many benefits to my life. I have met new people, learned new skills -- both blogging and photography spring from my love of birds -- and find a reason to go out and do what I love in all seasons.

I decided to drive over to the area by the Shady Hollow trail on the opposite side of the lake and do some hiking; on the way over, I found a murder of crows hanging out by one of the areas popular with fisherman, and pulled over to try for some photos. I love crows, so much so that my nom de blog pays tribute to them, but they are hard to photograph! (If anyone reading this shares my love of corvids, I highly recommend the Aves Noir website, for some great crow art and photography.) Unlike the feeder birds shown above who paid me little mind, crows seem to sense when you're paying attention to them, and they don't care for it.

Indeed, the flock took off shortly after I pulled up, allowing me only a few photos as they cawed in indignation from the trees:

After catching as many crows as I could on camera, I proceeded down the road, to discover that the wind farms I saw going up on my last trip have now encroached to the very boundary of the park.

I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. It's hard to explain why -- wind farms are "green," renewable energy and all that, and so I should be all for them. And I admit, compared to oil rigs and tar sands mining and blowing up mountaintops in West Virginia, windmills are pretty benign. They kill some birds and many bats, it's true, and I'm not sure how much good they really do...but if it turns out they're bad, at least they can be taken down again, which is more than can be said for a lot of what we are doing to the earth. they need to be erected so close to the park? One of the things I like about Illinois is the sense of space...the limitless interplay between earth and sky...the incredibly vast distance to the horizon. Granted, objecting to wind farms on the basis that they ruin my appreciation of the landscape might be a bit trivial, but I can't deny how I feel. In fact, the sight bummed me out so much I went home early.

If anyone has any info on windfarms, pro or con, I'd love to hear your input! In the meantime, I hope my posts are an inspiration, wherever you are, to go out and look for what surrounds you...

An introspective weekend: Part One, Sugar Grove Nature Center

Remember the sun? I think it came out for an hour or two last weekend--since then, the weather has been consistently overcast, gray, dreary, guaranteed to send anyone with even the slightest predisposition to seasonal depression over the edge. Or I could call the winter light muted, quiet, subtle, an invitation to introspection.

I decided to go for a stroll at Sugar Grove Nature Center yesterday afternoon. I'd spent the morning cleaning house and running errands, so I felt that I needed a nice nature break -- I didn't take the camera because I planned on scrambling around in the woods, I didn't expect to see much because of the time of day, and the light was really poor for photos anyway. (Since I didn't bring the camera, all photos are from Greenturtle's wonderful achives--though they do all come from Sugar Grove Nature Center in the winter.)

It was a nice walk. After chatting with the nature center guy and seeing who was at the feeders (just the usual winter suspects, including a bazillion house sparrows), I headed for the trails. I saw a nice Cooper's hawk and a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers on the trail, then headed off the beaten path to a wild, tangly area of scrubby woods and the meandering oxbows of Timber Creek--despite the fact that McLean County is very much in the heart of the "agricultural wasteland," back in this area one can easily become turned around. I know because it's happened to me more than once! In fact, a few years ago there was even a rumor that Big Foot had been seen in the area -- which is rather silly, but it's probably one of the largest expanses of real woods in the county, so if Big Foot were traveling through the area, where else could he go?

I made certain not to get turned around this time by shuffling through the snow as I followed the meandering deer trails back into the trees. I saw a wild turkey running away from me, which was one of the species I'd been hoping for, year bird number 52! (Not that I'm a lister or anything. Nope, not me. I just take life and birds as they come with complete equanimity, ha ha.) I wandered over to the bank overlooking Timber Creek, seeing a red tailed hawk and a belted kingfisher. While I was watching, the kingfisher swooped towards the water, grabbed a fish, and whopped it on a branch a few times before eating it.

Moments like this are why I go out. I can't possibly explain it, but I think that anyone who loves nature, who loves spending time outdoors, will understand what I mean. What I felt, in those moments by the creek, was something deeper than happiness: a sense of peace. A spontaneous upswelling of gratitude. A feeling of belonging, of being a participant as much as a witness. I can honestly say that my moments outside, whether in a vast forest or in a scrubby patch of trees by my workplace, are the only times when everything truly makes sense. When I feel that I am truly whole and at peace, just as I am. The rest of my days are just filler, what I have to do so I can go back out under the trees or by the creek. And this is why I bird.

Transcendence is ephemeral. If it weren't, we'd probably all be mystics! As I wandered further, my sense of curiosity soon took over; this was the farthest I'd ever gone into the "back woods," my worry about getting lost taken care of by the tracks in the snow I was leaving.

Before I'd gone much farther, I came to the end of the line: a rusted old wire fence (collapsing for much of its length) and signs declaring "NO TRESPASSING." My bad angel wanted to keep pressing forward to see just how far these woods went, but for once my good angel won out, and I turned back. Not that doing the right thing was my ONLY motive. For all I knew, the people who'd posted the sign were trigger-happy Deliverance types...or more to the point, since one of the signs stated that I was about to enter a university biology research area, what if there were unspeakable mutants hidden in the woods? (Have I mentioned that I love horror movies? And I have a very active imagination? Thanks to which I was actually a little "weirded out" by the time I decided it was time to retrace my steps? OK, solo walks in the woods are fun but can be a little intense at times...)

As I turned back, there were a couple of places where it took me a moment to look for my tracks. (But I was excited to realize I can recognize my own boot prints!) The snow was churned up from multiple deer paths, plus other hikers. I thought of the TV show Lost, which I did enjoy most of the time, but how realistic is it that all of those characters were so endowed with tracking skills and other backwoods survival techniques? I spend more time outdoors than most people I know, and I still suck!

I hate to ruin the suspense, but I did find my way back with no problems, and even stopped to notice that the Eurasian tree sparrows are still hanging out in the feeder area:

Overall, a great nature walk! And since I've rambled on for so long, I will have to make today's adventures a separate post....

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

...Can spring be far behind?

Despite my enthusiasm about my winter birding projects, and the excitement of seeing so many "year birds," the winter doldrums have slowly been creeping up on me. It's not the cold, exactly -- I can handle cold better than heat and humidity. But I do get sick of having to bundle up in so many layers every time I go outside. There's always that moment, stepping out, before I've walked around enough, where I'm bracing myself for the chill.

But more to the point is the darkness. I love going for a walk after work, but it's dark as Satan's bowels by the time I get home. I stopped riding my bike to and from work after the first couple of snowfalls -- I just don't trust these crazy Bloomington drivers not to hit me in the darkness, when I can't even take refuge on the sidewalks because of the snow. So I'm starting to feel just a wee bit cooped up right about now.

The lack of sunshine probably plays a factor, too. It's been overcast for days, to the point where the ground and the sky seem almost to be reflections of each other, two shades of pearly gray.

Still, there are a few consolations, such as the fact that the pond by my workplace is completely frozen over, allowing me to cut across to the scrubby far side with ease on my lunch break. That tangly, wild-seeming area, which felt so mysterious and distant when I could only stare at it from the far shore, seems considerably smaller now. I can easily walk its entire circumference in my half hour lunch break.

But: it's still filled with birds! Today, for example, I saw a cardinals, a red-tailed hawk, a downy woodpecker, dark-eyed juncos, a Carolina wren, mourning doves, house finches, goldfinches and chickadees--and once I start looking, it's hard to drag myself back inside at the end of the half hour.

Best of all, one of the cardinals was singing. The crystal tones of "what cheer! what cheer! what cheer!" rang through the air. I haven't heard that sound in months. It still looks like winter, and feels like winter, but the cardinal's song shows that something else is starting to stir underneath. As the poet said...if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Restoring the oak savannas

Several years ago, when Sunwiggy and I had just recently gotten into birding and were still exploring all the "birdable" areas in McLean and surrounding counties, someone told us about Parklands Foundation Merwin Preserve.

So one day we drove up to the North Gate, and saw a flock of northern flickers flying away from us -- I didn't know at the time what they were, and was tantalized by the white circle on their rumps as they quickly disappeared.

We got out of the car and walked into what seemed to be an enchanted glade--tall oaks dotted the landscape, with a park-like expanse of grasses underneath. The air smelled like warm grasses, and the sounds of birdsong filled the air. I have been to a variety of beautiful landscapes over the years, but this one just seemed to beckon us further and further along the trail. It was late in the day and we had little time to explore, but there was something so wonderful about this place, we didn't want to leave. To this day, we don't call it Parklands North Gate -- we say it's "The Beautiful Place."

Later I learned that this marvelous spot of the county is a remnant of a once widespread habitat known as the oak savanna. Savannas once filled a large part of the midwest, and were known by other names such as "oak openings" and "oak barrens" -- a landscape that was neither woods nor prairie. Prairies are open grasslands, and woods have a closed canopy -- think thick tree cover in the summer. Savannas, on the other hand, have from 10% to 60% tree cover, with huge oak and some other species growing so large that they create open areas in between. (The picture above is of me standing by a burr oak, a common component of the savanna habitat here in central Illinois -- although the photo was taken at Funks Grove, which does not have an intact savanna.)

I have been fascinated with oak savannas for several years now (the best on-line resource I have found is out of Wisconsin, the Savanna Oak Foundation -- check it out for great info on restoration, lists of plants and animals, etc.) So the other day when I was at the used book store in Champaign, I was delighted to find a book called Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America, by William K. Stevens (Pocket Books, 1995), about the restoration of an oak savanna north of Chicago, called Vestal Grove.

The book describes how a 1960s activist, Steve Packard, found a neglected area of the Cook County Forest Preserve and used his experience to create a solid network of volunteers to restore it to its original state. At first, they focused on the surrounding prairie, gathering seeds, planning controlled burns, etc., until he realized that part of the area was something different, something special -- although choked by buckthorn, invasive honeysuckles, and other plants, the remnants of an oak savanna were there.

Packard realized that he had found something rare and worth preserving, but it took some effort to convince others of what was there. Many academic ecologists did not think highly of restoration, and even dismissed the idea of the savanna as a separate habitat -- but Packard continued in his efforts, both in the field and in the library, until he prevailed.

I found the first part of the book to be fascinating -- since I love savannas, I really enjoyed learning about how he discovered exactly what they are, largely by trail and error. His was real labor of love! The middle section discusses other restoration activities around the country. The last section describes several obstacles to this kind of work -- in-fighting amongst the people involved and other political issues, such as the need for controlling deer populations and also placating the animal rights activists who are opposed to harming the deer.

Although the book is fifteen years old now, besides the tale of finding and restoring the savanna, there were many points that I found to be very interesting--such as the idea that conservation is no longer sufficient; if we leave an ecosystem to its own devices, it may be completely degraded by invasive species. Restoration is the wave of the future, trying to approximate what the habitat used to be. Also the idea that one of the obstacles involved is that well-meaning people may have a very simplistic view of "nature," and thus oppose some activities (chopping down trees to free the savannas, sacrificing deer so they won't eat everything in sight as their natural predators are gone, etc.), so education is imperative. Finally, I loved the concept that people can be a natural part of the habitat -- the savanna evolved in concert with many influences, including the native Americans who periodically burned the landscape. Responsible restoration activities can involve humans once again as a natural part of the environment, an idea that I personally welcome.

Since this book was written quite a while ago, I don't know if there is still debate that the oak savanna is a separate ecosystem that needs protecting -- all I can say is that once you experience them, it's hard not to fall in love. In addition to the huge list of plants and insects that love the savanna, many species of birds call it home, including the red-headed woodpecker:

This species is sadly in decline, but they love savanna-like habitats--two places that I can almost always see them are at Parklands and Humiston Woods in Livingston county, which also has a small oak savanna.

Other species that thrive in the semi-open woodlands include American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, northern flicker, eastern bluebird, blue-gray gnatcatchers, blue-winged warblers, cedar waxwings, great-crested flycatchers, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and eastern wood-pewees and other flycatchers:

If you are looking for a nice savanna to visit, other examples that I have been to are can be found at the Morton Arboretum, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and the Hooper Branch Savanna in Iroquois County.

Finally, with some trepidation (what if it was turned into a subdivision since the book was written??) I looked up the Vestal Grove savanna on the Internet--it appears that it is still flourishing! Maybe this year I'll make a trip to see it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Eagles in the snow (Starved Rock State Park)

This weekend for my "tiny twitch" campaign of visiting different counties so as not to grow bored with winter birding, Greenturtle and I went to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County to see the bald eagles that congregate around the lock every winter. It's hard to think of this twitch as "tiny," though, because first of all, bald eagles are awesome, and second, the canyons of the park are rather challenging to hike. So our annual January trip feels hefty in both import and exertion.

One of the things I love about bald eagles is that, to me, they represent not only our country but the potential this country has to value the environment. Many people know that, thanks to DDT, the bald eagle's numbers were once dwindling, but now they have made a real comeback. In fact, according to Sheryl de Vore's book, Birding Illinois, in winter Illinois plays host to more bald eagles than any other state except Alaska.

On a more local level, the place where the eagles were roosting, Plum Island, was recently in danger of being sold for development of luxury condos. After a concerted effort, the land was sold instead to the Illinois Audubon Society. And the eagles love it here:

When we arrived, it was quite cold (about 10 degrees), overcast, and snowing -- thus the gloomy aspect of the photos. First we went to the lock to look for eagles, and they were there, many perching in the trees, and others soaring over the water in search of fish. Greenturtle was hoping to see one catch a fish, as we have in previous years, but this year, we just saw them flying. We also saw a pileated woodpecker in the picnic area outside the visitor's center, which was really cool.

To be honest, although I loved seeing the eagles, I probably spent more time scrutinizing the vast numbers of gulls that were also present, because someone reported seeing Iceland gulls and lesser black-backed gulls on Cornell's ebird database, and I really wanted to see them. Alas, all the gulls I saw were of the common ring billed variety, as those seen here in the company of some juvenile bald eagles:

By this point, we were getting quite cold from standing still watching the birds, so it was time to say goodbye to the lock and dam and head for our other destination: the frozen waterfalls of the canyons.

On the way, of course I had to see who was at the feeders.

There were a lot of dark-eyed juncos, house finches, house sparrows, a pair of tufted titmice, some cardinals, a blue jay, a chickadee, starlings and some brown-headed cowbirds. Nothing so exciting as to hold me back from the trails.

Starved Rock is Illinois' most popular state park, receiving a couple of million visitors every year, and is often packed to the point that it's hard just to navigate that trails without tripping over people. It's not surprising, really: the park is close to Chicago, and the scenery is wonderful -- as in, "Are you sure this is in Illinois?" So I can't blame people for flocking here. Still, Greenturtle and I tend to avoid it except in winter, because neither one of us is fond of crowds.

Once we got free of a group of boy scouts, today we had the trails practically to ourselves, the silence punctuated only by the sound of white-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, and a red-bellied woodpecker. Unfortunately, due to a temporary rise in temperature and some ice storms earlier in the week, the trails were very, very slick. Both Greenturtle and I slipped and landed on our @$$ at least once thanks to the ice beneath the snow. Also, on the way out, he lost his hat, which was a bummer due to the sentimental value it had for him: a couple years ago, I crocheted matching hats for us with anarchy symbols, due to our mutual love of punk music (the pattern is in The Happy Hooker: Stitch N Bitch Crochet, in case you're interested.)

We made it to LaSalle canyon in one piece. This is me, creeping along ahead of Greenturtle and hoping that I am not about to plunge to an icy death -- or more likely, since the drop is not that far, an icy plunge to broken bones and expensive optical equipment:

The slick walk, with lots of stairs in between, was worth it, for once again, the frozen waterfall had formed:

This waterfall is not just a static curtain of ice. Fresh droplets drip and jangle around it, forming stalactites and lacy curtains of ice. The color of the ice itself varies, from pearly white as seen from the front, to a lovely translucent blue from behind:

Behind the LaSalle canyon is the Tonty canyon, which also boasts a frozen waterfall, although this one is more static: no new droplets forming, and the colors are white and yellowish, rather than white and blue. It's also higher--for perspective, I am showing the photo with me standing beside it:

By now, the sun had come out, and the temperature warmed by about ten degrees, so on our way back, it felt like the perfect winter day. (Except all the slipping and sliding on the ice. That got old fast!) As it turned out, someone had even found Greenturtle's missing hat and left it for us to find.

Back by the parking lot, Greenturtle went into the visitor center to buy some fudge, taking his camera with him, so the best part of the day went unphotographed. I stopped at the feeders again, seeing the same birds as before, plus a downy woodpecker and a life bird--pine siskin! The perfect end to the day!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Living on the edge (urban birds in photos)

This January I've taken a two-pronged approach to keep the birding enthusiasm alive: one, my "tiny twitches" of birding in different counties; and two, the opposite approach--birding very close to home. Yesterday I had a great time (see "Tiny Twitches: Piatt County") but was a bit appalled by how much gasoline we squandered, so today I decided to bird by foot.

My route took me along the Constitution Trail here in town all the way to Normal (Bloomington and Normal are so close they meld into each other so seamlessly that occasionally I'm not sure which town I'm in) and back. Greenturtle lent me his camera (yes! all photos taken by me!)and off I went.

Ever since I became more interested in urban birding last summer, the question of habitat has fascinated me. Thankfully, the urban landscape is not just a desert of buildings, but a series of micro-habitats. The trail that I was following today seems typical of an "edge habitat" that is actually quite appealing to many birds --open space on one hand, tangly trees, shrubs and vines in between. There is also water in the form of Sugar Creek gurgling close to much of the trail.

"I wish I could learn more about habitat," I thought to myself...and then I realized that, I can! By observing and identifying! Yeah, hands-on learning, my favorite kind.

The first birds I saw were Canada geese overhead, and then nothing much...until I was surprised by the sight of another yellow-bellied sapsucker:

According to my newest field guide, the awesome Stokes omnibus, the coloration makes it a juvenile. In the same general area I also saw a red-tailed hawk, dark-eyed juncos, and mourning doves.

I was seeing some nice birds, but to be sure, it's urban birding. First there was the whuckah whucka whucka sound of passing traffic, and then once the Trail twisted away from the road a bit, if I glanced up from the tangled edge habitat, the view was not that pretty.

After a while I came to the underpass that I call the Swallow Bridge for the obvious reason that barn swallows breed here during the summer--none today obviously, but I could see evidence that they'd been there--and hopefully a promise of a return.

After I walked under, I heard the sussurus of wings and found myself in the middle of a mixed flock of starlings and robins. There are two things that I've noticed this winter: one, that for whatever reason, robins don't seem to have migrated this year. I'm seeing huge flocks of them all over the place. Not that I'm complaining--common as they are, their splash of orange belly is nice in the winter, but seriously, is this weird? Is this normal? I'm not just asking, I'd love to know!

And two, starlings and robins, though not exactly birds of a feather, seem to be flocking together. Again, I'm not sure if the mixed starling-robin flock is weird or what, but I've been noticing it.

Today, they seemed to have congregated here in order to bathe in the running water of Sugar Creek. Starlings by the dozens were descending for a dip, then flying up and shaking their tail feathers!

As I walked on, under another underpass -- this I call, less poetically, the Gnat Bridge (luckily none of those today!) -- to the area of the Gardens. There is the sisters cities Russian garden, the sister cities Japanese garden, and the Audubon garden. In the bare bones of winter time, only the Japanese garden truly passes muster.

In this area, I saw more dark-eyed juncos, a male house finch, some black-capped chickadees, and a surprise for me, a Cooper's hawk! Based on the stubby tail, I'd reckon it's another juvenile:

I also had an incredibly cute view of some song sparrows.

This was quite a productive area, and there were some more poignant reminders of summers past:

After this, it was time to cross a busy road and say goodbye to Sugar Creek.

The next leg of the Trail was much more residential. I was hoping for some nice year birds, perhaps attracted to a back yard bird feeder, though I did not get any of those. I saw more juncos, more chickadees, also some blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, and northern cardinals.

I tried to be discreet about my birding and photo-taking though, as this was a residential area and some people seemed a little paranoid.

In any case, the birding was become less satisfying, and as the trail forked and turned towards downtown Normal, the only other species I found was a downy woodpecker.

Another block or two after that, and there I was, in Normal, where I stopped at the Coffeehouse for some chocolate cake and tea to revive myself before the walk home.

The infusion of caffeine and carbs really did wonders, for I made the return walk in no time at all. Being later in the day, there were fewer birds, which also helped in my progress. The only new species I netted on the return trip were a red-bellied woodpecker and a northern flicker.

For those who might be wondering if I saw anything of note besides birds, there were several squirrels, two rabbits, and a muskrat.

I never thought they were cute until I saw the photo.... After that, I finished up my Urban Birding walk. I would like to thank everyone who has vicariously gone on this Walk with me until the end...and I hope it inspires you, wherever you are, to step out your door and look for what surrounds you.