Sunday, February 27, 2011

Testing my duck luck

(Note: I did not bring my camera this weekend; all photos on this post are from my trip to Comlara Park about a month ago--the weather is very similar, and the photos catch the mood of this post.)

Is it the weather? This tail end of winter -- clammy, damp, chilly, sloppy grayness, alternating between halfhearted wet snow and icy cold rain -- is enough to make anyone depressed. Is it post-road trip letdown? After the excitement of my Northern Adventure to the Sax-Zim Bog of Minnesota and the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, perhaps I don't want to return to the usual routine. Is it personal issues -- worrying about the crappy economy, wondering if central Illinois is really the place I want to be for the long haul (and if not, where would I go? Somewhere birdy, it goes without saying). Whatever the reason, I have found myself out of sorts this weekend, despite some good local birding efforts.

Friday afternoon I took a stroll around White Oak Park on my way to pick up Greenturtle after work. It is overall a rather boring park, just a big circle around a large pond, but waterfowl gather there in the right seasons, and judging by reports logged on ebird (Cornell Lab of Ornithology's birding database), the ducks started moving through right about the time I was in Minnesota.

I got three "year birds" -- ring-necked ducks, a pied-billed grebe, and very exciting since it was a personal first for McLean county, horned grebes. An older guy stopped to ask me what I was looking at. We talked about birds for a while (it seemed a very long while) and when he asked me what grebes look like, I invited him to take a look through my spotting scope. It's times like that when I wish I was more extroverted. It is fun and exciting to share birds with others -- I almost consider it a public service -- but for me, talking to strangers always feels so awkward. I wish I was a "people person," but I'm just not. Still, I felt like I did the right thing and maybe the older guy left the park feeling a little intrigued by the thought of sharing his world with grebes....

Yesterday morning I took a stroll down the street to one of my favorite local patches, Tipton Park, where I was hoping to see some coots bobbing around in the recently melted ponds, and hopefully some red-winged blackbirds staking out their territories in the long grasses. It was gray and cold and snowing, very lightly but persistently, and the only birds on the ponds were mallards and Canada geese. I did hear song sparrows singing, however. I have seen them consistently throughout the winter but have missed hearing their beautiful song. After this stroll, I briefly considered doing a "pond crawl" for the rest of the day, visiting different ponds and parks here in town, but since the weather was so awful I holed up at home watching horror movies all afternoon instead.

Perhaps this explains why I woke up this morning feeling utterly bleak and unmotivated and finally decided that, even though the weather forecast called for rain, the only thing that could possibly cheer me up were ducks. Not just mallards, but ducks in multitude and variety. Which meant...a trip out of town. And the "duckiest" place I could think of was Evergreen Lake/Comlara Park. But I wasn't sure if this would cheer me up or just make me feel worse, on account of having to look at the windmills that went up along the park's perimeter over the winter.

I've tried telling myself that this tilting at windmills is silly and pointless. Yes, they're eyesores...yes, they do kill some birds and many bats...but if I live in central Illinois, I just have to learn to live with them! And it could be much worse, like tar sands mining, mountaintop removal mining, or the park being shut down and turned into a subdivision. I think it's almost symbolic for me: things are always changing, and rarely for the better. How many times have you gone back to an old favorite place to find it covered with strip malls or cookie cutter McMansions? How many times have you heard someone say, "I remember when this just used to be fields..."? How often has a spot close to your heart been destroyed, degraded..."developed?" I don't want to bum anyone out, but that has been my mood recently, and it was in this frame of mind that I took off for Evergreen Lake.

My first stop was at the Pumphouse. I was hoping that there would still be a lot of ice on the lake, since that forces the ducks to congregate in the open water around the Pumphouse area, making it easy to see them all, but the thaw came earlier this year than last, and most of the lake was open water.

That's the thing about looking for ducks: unless they fly down into a small pond, it can be hard to get a good view. For the first few years after I started birding, I cursed my terrible "duck luck." With ducks, timing is important...and so is having a spotting scope. In 2009 I finally bought one and my duck luck has improved vastly ever since. Even so, it can be challenging--if you try to sneak up on them, most ducks will fly off in a quacking panic before you get a good look. Not that I can blame them....

At the pumphouse, I saw a nice flock of American coots, and a bit further off (spotting scope essential here), a flock of ruddy ducks (they all looked like females, though.) I could see more ducks in the distance, by one of the picnic areas, so I lugged myself and my equipment down the road, where I got some additional sightings: American black ducks, common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks, and redheads. I was really hoping for some canvasbacks, since they would have been "life ducks"--but no. Still, I did enjoy the ducks I saw. Blue jays provided raucous background music to my efforts. I could see a new crop of windmills on the horizon past Deer Island (ughh! eyesores!) but I fixed that: I just didn't look up. I didn't stay too long, though. The day was raw and damp, I'd seen all the ducks there were to see, and for some reason a sheriff's van kept slowing down and passing slowly behind me whenever I parked, which was creeping me out a little. Not that I have a guilty conscience or anything. (As I reminded myself, Looking at ducks is not a crime!)

I stopped briefly at the Visitor's Center to see who was coming to the feeders -- some dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees, and at least a half a dozen northern cardinals, so beautiful even in the gloomy light.

There was one more place I had to check--my favorite spot, by the "Swallow Bridge" and "Cormorant Point," where I saw my first swallows of the year last spring and so many lovely "peeps" and sandpipers last summer. This was the area I was really dreading -- not only was it my old favorite, but on my previous trip, it was most impacted by the new windmills. And there they were--huge, towering behemoths, flanking the road almost the entire way to my spot. There weren't even any ducks there, just a large number of Canada geese.

And as I was leaving, along came the sheriff! Yes, we birders are very suspicious sorts, I know!

On the way back, I decided to stop by neighboring Lake Bloomington, which is popular with some area birders but less so with me, since it is a very residential area with few places to get out and hike. But I wasn't here for hiking, I was here for ducks. And at Lake Bloomington, I found them! Scaups, redheads, hooded mergansers, red-breasted mergansers, ring-necked ducks, galdwalls, goldeneyes...and yes, canvasbacks! My "life duck" for the day! I admired them all for a good long while, as the clouds and haze grew ever thicker.

On my way home, the skies opened up to a cold winter rain. Just in time! My wonderful duck luck didn't quite cure my bad mood, but any day in which ducks are seen can't be all bad....

Do you have any favorite ducks? Or a favorite place to see them? As an alternate question: are there any once-favorite places you've stopped going to because they're just not the same anymore?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More northern birds: Upper Peninsula

After the Sax Zim Bog experience, the plan was to drop Sunwiggy off in Calumet and then head back to Illinois the next morning. Up to this last leg of the trip, I'd succeeded in escaping bad weather -- severe storms were reported to the south of us, but around Duluth, all I had to contend with were some heavy winds.

As soon as I hit the Michigan state line, my luck ran out. Strictly speaking, the weather wasn't that bad -- snow but certainly not a blizzard; blowing and gusting snow across the roads, but nothing slick or slippery. What made it awful was the darkness. The expanses of unpopulated space, with small towns sparsely scattered, that had pleased me so much in good weather created a nightmare landscape in the snow. It was so dark, with the snow swirling disconcertingly in the headlights, the road a rippling expanse of whiteness (lanes? What lanes?), and visibility was limited to a few feet in front of the car. Though I'm originally sorta from Michigan (as much as a former Navy brat can be said to be from anywhere), I hadn't experienced winter driving like that in a good decade.

The next morning I was still exhausted from the ordeal, and the weather report was calling for grim conditions all the way home, so I decided to delay my return by a day and see what sort of birds were lurking on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Sunwiggy hasn't been having much luck finding winter birds, and I thought that maybe I could help, so I suggested a drive to Copper Harbor and back.

This is what I saw during my whole time in the U.P.: ruffed grouse, starling, bald eagle, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, boreal chickadee, pine grosbeak, blue jay, pigeon, crow, red-breasted nuthatch, American goldfinch. That's right, thirteen species. Granted, if I hadn't just been to Minnesota, three of them would have been life birds but still, thirteen? I can get that strolling around central Illinois without even trying! There are more species than that even in the midst of winter, and we weren't birding that hard, but what a far cry from the breeding warblers I found here last July.

At least the scenery was good. Very different than the austere beauty of Minnesota -- for one thing, northern Minnesota is flat, and the western U.P. is hilly and rugged-looking. Also, the lake gives it a very different feel. Flatlander that I am, I admire hills but find a long expanse to the horizons more peaceful.

We stopped at the carcass feeder that Sunwiggy featured on her guest blog post. I'd seen a couple like that in Minnesota, too, but this sort of thing is new to me. Chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches seem to like it though.

On our way to Copper Harbor we drove though the town of Gay. This is not what you might expect. (I couldn't resist taking a photo!)

There was open water on the lake so I was hoping for gulls or wintering ducks (some long-tailed ducks would have been awesome), but as you see, nope. No birds at all.

Copper Harbor was roaring (actually, the sound is more of a high-pitched whine) with snowmobiles, but few birds. There were goldfinches at one feeder, black-capped chickadees at another, and one female hairy woodpecker along a ski trail. (That's my dad walking in the photo.)

I always check the area around the chapel, because the first time I ever saw pileated woodpeckers, it was here--a pair of them, flying in quite close so I got a wonderful view. I'd barely started birding then, and was so excited I announced to just about everyone, "I saw giant woodpeckers!" Alas, no pileateds today.

On the way back, I gave up hoping for birds and focused on trying to catch the essence of the wintry landscape instead. The lake was rough, with waves crashing up against the ice lining the shore.

I'm glad that photography has gone digital, since I usually end up taking two dozen photos that are pretty much of exactly the same thing. If anyone really likes icy lake photos, I've got 'em! On the other hand, maybe I'm a Luddite, but I think that no matter how much one plays with Photoshop, there was a certain depth or texture to the best of film photography that is somehow lacking with digital. But it's nice to be able to download them at once and not have to pay per photo, so I guess things even out.

On the way back, we got my pine grosbeak for the state, and by then it was starting to get dark. The next morning, when I left, was sunny and beautiful (even if the temperature was single digits) and the thought of going back to boring old Bloomington in the middle of central Illinois' "agricultural wasteland" was not appealing. But then I reminded myself that the ducks are coming through and the blackbirds will be back any day now and it wasn't so hard to go home after all.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sax Zim Bog!

Last weekend Sunwiggy and I traveled to northern Minnesota for the fourth annual Sax Zim Bog birding festival, which is hosted by the small town of Meadowlands and involves several bus tours of the Sax Zim Bog and surrounding areas, as well as dinners and guest speakers (and a photography workshop, although we did not attend that). I had originally heard of the festival in an article in Bird Watcher's Digest, and thought that it sounded like a good way to clean up a bunch of frustrating winter migrants I can't seem to get here in central Illinois, plus a nice road trip to break up the winter monotony of February. And luckily I managed to convince Sunwiggy (my mother) that it sounded like a fun time as well, so I didn't have to attend the festival by my lonesome.

Going into the event, I had a few reservations, to whit:

One, the ferocious amount of driving involved in going from my hometown of Bloomington, IL to pick up Sunwiggy in Calumet in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, then zipping across northern Wisconsin to Minnesota, and back again;

Two, the frigid -- potentially sub-zero REAL temperatures -- that occur in northern Minnesota at this time of year;

and Three, would I, an admitted introvert and mostly solitary birder, enjoy a festival that attracts up to 150 people? How many of us would be on the bus? How would I see the birds in a crowd?

Despite being a solitary curmudgeon who hates long car trips and cold weather, I went crazy and decided to check out the Sax Zim Bog birding festival. The trip there was fine -- well, despite the fact that I tend to drive like a rabid wolverine hyped up on crystal meth (What? Road rage? Moi?)and I hit the world's thickest fog on the way north... Seriously, Big Foot could have been dancing naked on the side of the road anywhere through Wisconsin, and I wouldn't have seen him through the Pea Soup. Despite this, I managed to get to the U.P. safely, pick up Sunwiggy, and head to Minnesota the next day.

Our trip was uneventful until we got to Duluth. The city looks really cool and I wish I'd had an extra day or two to explore, but it is criss-crossed by some really massive bridges on the highway going through. Personally, I love bridges, but Sunwiggy suffers from gephyrophobia, and as we were approaching this one, a sign announced, "Caution-- High winds."

"Caution?" yelled Sunwiggy. "What kind of sign is that? How on earth can you be cautious of high winds?"

"Think heavy thoughts," I advised. So as we crossed the bridge we mentioned boulders, and concrete, and mountains....

Luckily we were not blown off the bridge, and managed to find our motel in Floodwood and then on to the community center of Meadowlands to register for the festival with only our normal amount of difficulty. Since Sunwiggy is the world's worst navigator and I am usually driving like Mario Andretti while demanding where the bleep is the thing, this can be a challenge for us. But we did find it, and then off on the great gray owl trip.

We were on "Bus A," bouncing and jouncing through the gloaming in search of great gray owls (a couple of times we hit bumps in the road that made me think I'd need to get my spine adjusted as soon as the trip was over), the birds were few and far between, although I did get a couple of "lifers," a northern shrike and a ruffed grouse...and then...a great gray owl! Not only did we see a great gray owl, but we had a terrifically long look at it, peering from side to side, occasionally flying from one perch to another. This sighting alone was worth the trip! When the guide announced that we were, in fact, the first group to actually find one of these owls on the Great Gray Owl trip, we burst into a triumphant chant, "Bus A! Bus A! Bus A!"
(Unfortunately, my photos, taken through the bus window, did not turn out...oh well, I saw it, and that's the important thing!)

With this great start, I was happy to be on Bus A once more the following morning, for the Sax Zim Bog tour. The first feeder we stopped at had great views of black-capped chickadees, pine siskins, and a life bird for me, pine grosbeaks, male and female shown below (the male is red).

Further down the road, after a few views of rough-legged hawks, common ravens, and ruffed grouse eating buds from the trees, we stopped at another feeder, where we saw an adorable gray jay coming in to collect peanut butter, probably to "cache" it for his or her young, as gray jays nest very early and need a large larder to prepare for their family. I'd seen gray jays once before (see my previous post, "Gray Jays and not much else"), but this was an extra special view:

I also got a few more life birds, including common redpolls:

And a boreal chickadee:

Several old favorites also showed up at the feeders, including a red-breasted nuthatch:

And a hairy woodpecker. I especially love how she is using her tail as a prop while she is feeding:

You can tell males and females apart because the males have a red patch on the back of the head.

I love one of the terms used to describe these northern birds--enigmatic. An enigma is, of course, a mystery, something unknown, and the irruptive patterns of these irregular migrants of the north are, indeed, a bit of a mystery. More than that, the word "enigmatic" captures so beautifully my whole image of the north: rugged, snow-covered landscapes, vast lakes and boreal forests, an immense empty landscape, the sky above huge and studded with stars. It is an archetypal image, conjuring up not only personal memories but also something much vaster.

I am not sure where this image comes from, but I certainly touched upon in on my Minnesota adventure. There was an emptiness, a spaciousness, about the landscape I traveled through, an absolute quality to the darkness, that I have not experienced in a very long time. And make no mistake about it, I fell in love....

Meanwhile, the Sax Zim Bog trip continued, and I got another couple of life birds, including a black blacked woodpecker and a northern hawk owl. After brief glimpses of each, the group walked down a logging road, where longer looks at both species were to be had.

The next day, Sunwiggy and I boarded Bus A for the Aikin County bus tour. We saw sharp-tailed grouse dancing on their lek, not only a life bird but a precious sight, as the males puffed themselves out, raising their tails and charging at each other. This was lovely to see just for itself, and also reminded me of the prairie chickens that Sunwiggy and I saw last year (see previous posts Who Put the F in Effingham and "Sunrise on the prairie chickens").

Another exciting moment was crossing the Mississippi River, hardly anything to speak of this far north. It was, in fact, completely iced over, and in use as a snow mobile trail. It has been a dream of mine for several years to follow the Mississippi from its source to the delta, to do a travel piece involving experience, history and birds--and this was the closest I've ever gotten to the source. Since I wasn't expecting it, crossing the Mississippi was quite a pleasant surprise.

Other than these moments, the Aitkin County trip was just a lot of jostling along with nothing to show for it. We dipped out on the two species I was hoping for, black-billed magpie and bohemian waxwing, and nobody has seen evening grosbeaks this year. Well, you can't force the birds to appear.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the Sax Zim Bog birding festival, with the following caveats: yes, it is cold (and we never hit sub-zero on this trip), and there is a lack of flexibility--and a certain amount of putting up with annoying people--on any group tour--but overall, the guides were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and friendly, I got eleven life birds, and I really enjoyed the austere beauty of the North. If you really know your birds and feel comfortable finding them on your own, go for it... Otherwise, if you are intrigued by the enigma of the North, this festival is worth checking out.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Crows make all the difference

My Year List has come to a standstill. None of my usual birding haunts feel that compelling. It is a typical case of the Winter Birding Blahs. Still, the sun was out, the temperatures were creeping up into the 40s, causing the skyscrapers of snow piled up along the roads to start melting, and the gusts of wind that were in the forecast were nowhere in evidence. After running errands all morning, I decided that a walk in the late winter sunshine would do me some good.

I knew I wanted to stay in town, and chose Ewing Park here in Bloomington as it is frequently birdy and I hadn't been since the first weekend of the year. As I got out of my car, the sounds of a very noisy blue jay filled the air. He was perched by the parking lot, announcing something with great urgency and volume.

I really like blue jays; they are members of one of the smartest and most controversial bird families, the corvids. If you stop to observe them for any length of time, it's clear they have real personalities. Unlike some species, who don't seem to have that much going on upstairs (that's right, mourning doves, I mean you!), corvids are clever creatures. I have no idea what this one was going on about, but I sure there was a good reason in blue jay logic.

Despite this birdy beginning, Ewing Park was practically a bird-free zone today. The only other sighting I had was this juvenile sapsucker:

As I was trying to get a good photo (boy, can those things scoot up the tree fast, winding around the branches like a living corkscrew), a dog-walker stopped to ask me what I was looking at. Maybe it's my weird sense of humor, but I love to announce this species to non-birders: "A yellow-bellied sapsucker," said I. To prove I wasn't making it up, I gestured at the bird's direction. "It's a kind of woodpecker."

But overall, the park was boring, no birds at all, and in a fit of inspiration, I decided to photograph the area around my workplace, Angler's Pond. It is a scrubby, tangled, swampy place that's usually good for a species or two, and although I bird it frequently, due more to propinquity than affection, since I don't haul expensive equipment to the office with me, I've never taken photos.

This winter, I discovered that I can cross the iced-over surface of the pond and get to the real "good" spot and back during my lunch break, where I have found a pretty nice mix of birds, including hermit thrush, white-throated sparrow, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, a Carolina wren, chickadees, and more!

Most of the year, I can only stare across from the bank, like a fairy tale prisoner held in durance vile, wondering what wonders might be hiding in the trees across the way; but this year, I got brave enough to cross the ice. Despite the rise in temperature, it still looked pretty solid, and I walked across.

I don't know why, but I've always felt that this tiny scrap of Nature in the City feels particularly wild and fey. Whenever I stroll through this smallish area, not even a proper city park, I feel that something wonderful is hiding right around the next bend on the trail. It's probably a visual effect, due to the way the trees curve protectively over the trail, and the constant turnings make me feel like there's always more to see:

Once again, however, I was starting to wonder where all the birds had gotten to. Even in the midst of winter, I usually hear a symphony of bird noises: house finches cheeping, chickadees dee'ing, jays calling, woodpeckers tapping. But nothing.

I decided I could at least appreciate the bones of the area, since winter reveals the underlying features so well. I thought that the gate (the official entrance to Angler's Pond) looked evocative:

And then I saw a crow.

If I love blue jays (and I do), then suffice to say I am definitely a bit mad for crows. Crows seem to be a polarizing breed, love 'em or hate 'em. I've never heard anyone swear enmity to a robin or cardinal, but crow haters abound. (In fact, one of my favorite websites, Aves Noir, recently informed me that Britain is going to "cull" -- i.e., kill -- thousands of crows and magpies. If you are interested, here is the link.)

The crow I saw had a buddy, and the two of them flew to the pond, sipping water that was pooling on the surface. Well, alternately sipping and strutting. Crows exude "attitude."

Once I'd seen the crows, it was like the birding floodgates had opened, for the tangled area was filled with cardinals, juncos, chickadees, and white-throated sparrows. Unfortunately, all the scrubby shrubs did not make for easy photo-taking, although I did manage to catch a chickadee:

As I got back to the Cross Over point, I saw that the ice had been softening up even more since I'd left.

If I didn't cross the ice, it would have been several blocks to walk around, so I decided that I'm not that heavy...and the pond's not that deep.... Maybe this is one of those "don't try it at home" moments, but I did get back safely.

My last sighting was of a dark-eyed junco, giving a subtle chip call (didn't know they made that noise) before flying away from me and my camera.

Despite a slow start, and a scarcity of species, it turned out to be a pretty good day after all.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Waiting for the "firsts"

It's about this time of year that the winter season starts to feel like a waiting game -- as in, I'm waiting for it to be over! (One benefit of living in central Illinois instead of my more scenic native Michigan is that at least the snowy season wraps up about a month earlier). This year I had such a good time in January working on my Year List and alternating that with "tiny twitches" to different counties that I kinda forgot that I hate winter for a while. But then when the Mother Lode of Snow hit last week, it rendered walking anywhere such a chore that I am starting to feel quite cooped up (we don't get hit like that often enough here to make snowshoes worth the while -- if I were in the Upper Peninsula like Sunwiggy they'd be a must!), and more than ready to see the end of it. Let's just say that I make it a personal policy never to make big decisions in February -- my state of mind just can't be trusted!

I am in luck, for the weather is supposed to warm up slowly over the next few days and hopefully melt some of this blasted snow! In the meantime, with or without the snow, some of my favorite first sightings are just around the corner!

Many people anticipate the first American robin of the season with joy. But as I have commented several times over the past few months, I can't really wait for the robins to "return" since they never went away.

I just saw one this morning, in fact, flying across the parking lot as I pulled into my work place.

The list of "firsts" that I wait for is partly influenced by my favorite species, and partly a reflection of those birds which are iconic of a season or a memory or a splice in time when I truly noticed them.

They include, the red-winged blackbird, male and female shown below:

I love the red-winged blackbird for many reasons: his confident "conk-a-ree!" call that carries over fields and marshes, his cocky attitude, his habit of flashing those red epaulettes on his wings so that they seem like a flash of pure color. The blackbird is a fellow who has no doubt about his place in the grand scheme of things--and that place is quite high! In addition, this was one of the first species I learned to identify as a child, and I always thought of my dad when I saw one, because he was in the Navy and their red and yellow wing patches reminded me of the red and yellow ribbons on the Navy dress uniforms. And furthermore, they are one of the first species to return--last year I saw my "first" on February 28. Just around the corner!

After that, my next "first" that I wait for are probably swallows. I adore swallows, doesn't matter the kind (barn, bank, tree, cliff--if I saw other kinds here in central Illinois I'd love them too!) In fact, the second post I ever did for this blog involved swallows ("The day of the swallows"), as both physical creatures and metaphor.

I think that what I love about swallows is their grace and fluidity; they are true masters of the air, landing so infrequently that their feet are small and weak. And like the red-winged blackbird, they don't restrict their presence to only a few distant places--I can find them, in the right season, both out in the wilds of nature (such as they are in central Illinois) and very close to home, swooping over fields and ponds and lakes, filling the air with their chitterings. I don't have any childhood associations, but I know I am not alone in my love of them -- after all, the mission at San Juan Capistrano in California has a whole festival in honor of their return.

Last year I saw my first swallows (and they were tree swallows) on April 2.

Glancing through my Bird Journal from last year, I see several other candidates for my "firsts"-- the day that I noticed the American goldfinches become golden again (April 3), my first Eastern towhee (March 31), my first eastern Meadowlark (March 14). But I would have to say that the next one I am truly pining for is my first common yellowthroat of the season--not only one of my favorite species (they are so darn cute! That bold black mask across their tiny yellow faces!), but one that my mother, Sunwiggy, and I have in common -- when I think of yellowthroats, on some level, I am also conjuring up dozens of memories when these adorable creatures were sighted. And they will always be a symbol of my many wonderful birding trips with her (although not the next one, when we go to the Sax Zim bog in Minnesota next week -- will be shocked if a yellowthroat pops up there).
First sighting last year -- May 1.

Are there any species that you anticipate first sightings of each year? If so, which are they, and what makes them so special for you?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The search for the perfect birding book continues

As I stated in a previous post (Search for the perfect birding book), I love both travel and birding, and have yet to see these two interests fused seamlessly into a single book. (Someone left a comment recommending Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, I will definitely check it out before too long.)

In that pursuit, I recently read The Biggest Twitch by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, a British couple who decided to quit their jobs, sell their house, and use up their savings account in the pursuit of birds around the world. (Hey, count me in!) Then someone suggested to them, why not try to break the world record for most species seen in a year, which was slightly shy of 4,000 species? And they went for it... The Biggest Twitch is their resulting adventures as they zig-zagged across the globe in the pursuit. (If you are curious, this is their website.)

The tale begins in on New Year's Day in Arizona, where they see a variety of species that soon made me sick with envy, and then they were off, trying to hit the most glamorous birding hotspots of the world in the peak birding season. Some of their destinations include Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Canada, Texas, California, Ethiopia, Spain, Cyprus, Turkey, South Africa and India (among others), as well as periodic stops at their home in Britain.

Wow, do they ever see a lot of birds! They get, in one year, almost half of what it took record-breaking big lister Phoebe Snetsinger (see my previous post "Might As well Face It, You're Addicted to Birds" for more on her) a couple of decades to achieve. And though they were spared some of the more horrific experiences that Snetsinger faced, they did suffer from illness, altitude sickness, numerous scheduling hassles, leeches, scary locals, and other inconveniences.

Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. (It was the first one I read on my new Kindle, a Christmas gift, so it's hard to go back to my favorite passages, so this is all from memory.) Ruth and Alan seem like genuinely kind and friendly people, and even when, reading between the lines, I sense that they had a less-than-ideal experience, they rarely come right out and say so. They are also quite self-deprecating in that typical British way, although their passion for, and knowledge of, birds is actually quite amazing. The tone of the book is, overall, one of being quite pleased not only with the birds but their fellow birders and others they meet along the way, which is a nice contrast to the other birding/travel book I discussed, A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey (who is also British, so there go our easy generalizations!)

Some parts of the book really stood out. I especially enjoyed their experiences in Ethiopia and Malaysia, which stand out as being particularly vivid recountings. (Malaysia was the home of the leeches...I am quite the birder myself, willing to experience all sorts of minor suffering -- cold, heat, bad food, etc. -- to get new species--but those leeches! Ughh!) And since I have always wanted to visit some of the locations they visited, especially Cyprus and Peru, I read those parts with extra interest.

But would I want to embark on a similar quest? Frankly, I thought the authors were a little crazy. I'm the kind of person who would rather see (and bird) one or two places really well than rush around from place to place, and so their style of traveling (break-neck pace; no rest days, even if one of them felt sick; the only non-birding thing they stopped for was Machu Picchu)--well, that is why they are breaking world records and I am not, I guess. I wouldn't really enjoy that sort of travel (and at times, especially in the chapters that Ruth wrote, I didn't feel that they were really enjoying it either). I love to see new places, and new birds -- but I also love sufficient sleep, and would want to see non-birding attractions as well. They seem like very well-traveled people even before this adventure, so maybe they'd already seen the sights.

The biggest flaw of the book, in my opinion, is that the narration, like the travel, seemed a bit rushed at time. While certain segments were vivid and a joy to read, others seemed like a mere recounting of target species and then on to the next spot, all in such a blur...probably what it was like to hurtle through at such break-neck speeds, I guess.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes travel and birds. It's not quite the Perfect Birding Book, but getting closer! (Just for the record, my favorite non-bird oriented travel book is The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux...that one always makes me want to travel!)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A very long day (with few birds to show for it)

With the snow piled up high on every local hiking trail and park, I decided that I wanted to venture farther afield and see the Chicago Botanic Gardens in the wintertime. Sunwiggy and I stopped there briefly last year, on the first weekend in February in fact, on the way back from a disastrous trip to Illinois Beach State Park on the Lake Michigan shoreline north of Chicago. After a VERY long drive, we discovered that the beach was an impassible slick of ice, and instead of the rafts of wintering ducks we'd hoped to find, there was only a large flock of gulls bobbing on the water (watching them was a bit queasy-making in fact). On the way back, we got turned around and somehow found ourselves in Wisconsin. By the time we'd finally stopped at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I, for one, was not in the best of spirits, and barely glanced at the landscape around me.

And somehow...I decided I wanted to do it all again this year! Not the lake, just the Gardens. I kept thinking how pretty the Japanese garden, especially, would look against the snow. What can I say? February makes me want to do crazy things. (In another two weeks Sunwiggy and I are going to northern Minnesota for the Sax Zim Bog birding festival--northern Minnesota in February? I rest my case. The month drives me insane.)

On the way up, our car started to make some ominous noises (not good...not good at all!), and yet we arrived in one piece. I will spare you Greenturtle's diatribe about the cost of parking at the Gardens. Let's just say it was not at all polite. (For the record, it's $20 per vehicle--so if you're going, cram your car full of as many people as you can!)

The sun was out, and stayed out, despite the weatherman's prediction for clouds, so that the gardens did, indeed, appear as a snowy wonderland.

And to be honest, the Chicago Botanic Gardens are probably a must-see if you're in the area. The book 1000 Gardens to See Before You Die lists these as one of the 1,000, and from what I've seen of botanic gardens, I would have to agree. The Chicago Botanic Garden rocks! Sadly, one must travel to Chicagoland to see them...more on that later.

The first birds I saw were robins, probably attracted by the many fruiting trees, such as this one:

Greenturtle was in charge of the photography, and he didn't want to mess with the zoom lens today, so we have no pictures of the actual birds (and I do apologize for that---I would have gone for the birds), so I want anyone reading this to close his or her eyes and picture the American robin perching in the trees. Do you have a good mental image yet? Excellent! But seriously...why didn't they migrate this year? I am seeing them EVERYWHERE!

As we walked toward the Japanese gardens, I also saw many house sparrows and black capped chickadees, nothing else.

This is me thinking "Where the H-E-double hockeysticks are all the birds???" (Greenturtle told me to smile, but that's what I'm actually thinking.)

As we were leaving the Japanese Garden, we passed the Island of Eternal Happiness, which was originally inspired by the islands off the coast of China, where the Immortals were supposed to dwell:

Such islands were only meant to be viewed and contemplated from afar; if one actually went there, it would defeat the whole purpose. This conceit actually resonates with me deeply. Ever since childhood, I have longed for wild, fey, untamed places, where anything might happen, where we humans, and all our rules and banality, are not welcome, not even understood. Perhaps that is what attracts me to birding, really; I have sometimes thought that birds fulfill my childhood desire to find fairies -- beautiful, unknowable winged creatures; time warps mysteriously when you are in their presence (hours fly unnoticed when I am birding), and after you have known these joys, it is so difficult to be satisfied by mere human pursuits...

Regarding the Isle of Happiness, I thought on these things, and remembered a line from the song "Long Slow Slide" by Jewel, "The worst fear I can imagine/is for the mystery to be named."

As I was lost in these thoughts, Greenturtle was taking pictures of ripples in the snow.

On the way out, one crosses a zig-zag bridge, which is supposed to prevent demons from following (nice to know just in case, I guess):

On a more important note, on the way out, I saw a brown creeper (so adorable!), an American tree sparrow, and a flock of pine siskins. I even saw the siskins eating from the pinecones, and heard their weird, buzzy call. To me it sounds like they're saying, "Ziiiipppp!" But what do I know? I also think that the willow flycatcher says "Whiz bang" instead of the "fitzbew" which is agreed upon by bird enthusiasts.

The only other bird sighting I had, besides a solitary goldfinch flying overhead, was of the inanimate variety.

We had a nice lunch at the garden cafe, and then, the interminable drive home. First, Greenturtle wanted to find a gaming shop in Palatine (a Chicago suburb for all you non-Illinoisans), which we did eventually find, after the inevitable Chicagoland C.F. (trying to find stuff amidst the endless strip malls and McMansion subdivisions is maddening), and then he wanted to avoid the tollroads on the way home.... Which meant that the return trip took forever! Really, it made me wonder why I wanted to go there in the first place. And our car was making ever more horrible noises.

Later, over dinner back home in Bloomington, Greenturtle confessed that being stuck in the suburbs made him feel claustrophobic, like Frodo and Sam lost in the swamps wondering if they would ever escape. Exactly! I was pleased that our experience did some good, for Greenturtle is from the Washington DC area, and was raised in suburbs like that, and has always wondered why I refuse to move there. Because I'm a small-town girl from the mid-West at heart (I moved around a lot growing up but mostly small to medium sized towns) and big city sprawl makes me feel like I'm losing my mind, that's why! I was very happy to know that he can understand where I'm coming from now!

Two other important lessons learned:

One, our car needs attended to right away!
Two, don't go to Chicagoland. I mean, there's a lot of really cool stuff there, but by the time I get home, I always feel like I've been through the wringer. The unbearable traffic!!!!