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.


  1. Oh, how I wish I could have joined you in your Urban Walk! The photos are great! I would have especially enjoyed seeing the sapsucker, the cardinal, the Cooper's Hawk, and the muskrat. That chocolate cake sounds pretty good, too. I'm very curious how tiny birds like chickadees are surviving the winter here in the UP; finding out will be my next project. Mom

  2. Nice job on all those sightings! Thanks for taking us on your walk. :)