In an effort to avoid the Winter Birding Blahs, I devised a little project for myself before the New Year started: each weekend I will devote my out of town trips to a different county, so even if I'm seeing the same old birds again and again, at least I'll be seeing them in different places. And, to try to conserve resources and assuage my guilty conscience (it will be many years before the horror of the Oil Spill begins to fade, either from the Gulf of Mexico or my mind), for the other day and a half of each weekend (I get Friday afternoons off), I will restrict my birding to what I can see in town.
Thus far I haven't really been following that rule because it was the first of the year and I wanted to get as many species for McLean county up front. By the end of the day yesterday, I felt that had gotten as many as I could without becoming tedious and repetitive. I am still missing some -- wild turkey, ring necked pheasant, horned lark, and several others -- but I don't want to drive myself crazy in the pursuit, so today I decided to do my first Tiny County Twitch.
The name of my project is inspired by the book I am reading, The Biggest Twitch, in which the authors, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, recount the year they spent criss-crossing the globe in an attempt to surpass the record for most species seen in one year. Well, they are hard-core birders and there is no way I could try to imitate their reach in central Illinois in the middle of winter. Thus, tiny twitches: a few birds per county.
My destination was Humiston Woods, a very nice nature preserve outside the town of Pontiac in Livingston county. Most of the preserve consists of upland and bottomland deciduous forest, with Wolf Creek running through and connecting to the Vermilion River. There is also a tallgrass prairie and a small oak savanna.
To get there, you have to go by a mountain of trash. I do not jest. American Disposal Services has a large dump on the road leading to the preserve, the highest thing around for miles in any direction. This is Chicagoland's garbage. Sometimes it really stinks, but regardless, one is soon past it, and you won't even know it's there once you get to the woods.
Today was another cold, clear, sunny day. The tawny prairie grasses were covered with frost, and the air rang with the tappings and bangings of woodpeckers, all downies and red-bellies that I could see. The area around the savanna was especially beautiful.
I don't know if this happens to other people, or if I'm just weird, but most of the time I'm just strolling around, minding my own business, looking for birds, maybe lost in a pleasant daydream or wrestling with the eternal junkyard of unwanted thoughts...and then sometimes I'll really SEE things. Especially trees. It's like I'm looking at the tree and there's an added depth or presence or all of a sudden I'm seeing it in 3-D instead of living in Flatland. And it's perfectly ordinary when it happens, not mystical or woo-woo feeling in any way. I just, all of a sudden, truly see it. And thus it was in the savanna, although I had attention to spare to admire the northern harrier I saw, another "year bird."
I walked on, into the woods. Most of Wolf Creek was covered with ice, but in places the water was open and gurgling, such as around the Stepping Stones that take one across the creek in lieu of a bridge. Listening to the water, hearing the woodpeckers banging away, and also the yank-yank-yank of white-breasted nuthatches, I felt like it was the perfect day.
Then I walked on. It was cold. I stuffed my hands in my pockets for extra warmth. The woodpeckers and nuthatches were joined by chickadees, and there were a lot of these species in residence, but variety was sorely lacking. A saw dozens of those...and nothing else.
One nice thing about Humiston Woods, in contrast to most nature preserves and parks in McLean county, is that you can't hear passing traffic. So if you're alone in the woods, you can really hear the woods. And nature can be pretty noisy. Several deer roamed across the path, their breath trailing white in the cold. Countless amorous squirrels made quite a ruckus. There were the birds, rapping and tapping and yank-yanking and chickadee-dee'ing. A red-tailed hawk cried overhead. A blue jay flew down to the ice and made angry noises, as if it was upset not to find flowing water. The ice itself cracked and crackled. Though solitary, I certainly did not feel alone!
The highlight of the walk was seeing a barred owl--another year bird! I saw it flying silently away from me, then perch in a distant tree. I put my binoculars up to look at it -- while it was looking back at me!
By the time of the owl sighting, I was cold, and it was still a long walk back to the car. The only additional species I saw were two Canada geese lying on the ice of the Vermilion River. As I watched them, I had a horrible thought: what if the ice formed around them while they rested, and they're stuck? I walked forward until each raised itself to its feet -- OK, not stuck! And thank goodness, how would I ever get them out if they were?
Today's Tiny County twitch tally -- not good! Only 13 species. But two were "year birds" and I had a nice walk, so it turned out pretty good, I think.