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?


  1. I'm so glad you got a life duck today! I want to see canvasbacks, too! Sorry Comlara is being walled in by those ugly windmills. I do know just how you feel; I avoid revisiting the places I loved as a child, because they're either just plain gone (the people, too!), or they've changed, and not one for the better. But, who can be sad where there's ducks? And I have at least a month to wait. Sunwiggy

  2. Hmm... I do not have a favorite duck but that's mostly because I had no idea there were so many kinds! I loved reading your descriptions - your love of birding shines through in every word!

  3. I had no idea there were different kinds of ducks either until just a few years ago. Once I found out, then of course I began my quest to see them all! To quote from a book I read, "You know you're a birder if...when someone yells 'Duck!', you say, 'Where'? Thanks for checking out my blog...I love it when birders and non-birders alike stumble across my random musings.