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.