Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Birds in my dreams

More and more, I feel that birding has begun to punctuate my life. It began as a hobby, slowly morphed into an obsession (partly because I love to make lists, and birding and listing go together better than peanut butter and chocolate), and is now becoming part of who I am. I am always aware of the birds around me, and even the dreariest day is spangled with birding moments.

The walk around the pond before work, and I don't even need to raise my binoculars to recognize most of my old favorites: the white "V" on the tails of dark-eyed juncos, flying away from me; the difference in the shapes of coots and pied-billed grebes from a distance, as they dive; a quick glimpse of a brown creeper in profile, scuttling up a tree-trunk. I can recognize the sounds of the robins, cardinals, cowbirds, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds. It's not exciting because these are the Usual Suspects, but they have grown familiar and comforting.

Perhaps I will step outside a couple times during the day, to look for the unexpected or just hear the sounds of a goose's wings, flying low towards the water.

After work, there may be another walk, around a different pond; and always my mind is filled with anticipation for the weekend's birding adventures, whether it's a trip several counties away or a really thorough prowl of the urban landscape. Somewhere along the way, my motto became "Bird to Live -- Live to Bird." And I have no regrets. Despite all the jokes I've made about my mental state, I do believe that birds are good for me.

I suppose it should be no surprise that, since I think about birds all day, they also show up at night. In other words, I've started birding in my dreams. Sometimes this is just a pleasant dream about seeing nice birds (sadly, I don't think dream birds count on the Life List), but the most common dream motif is the Bird I Can't Identify.

Usually, this dream entails visiting a foreign country, usually with my old birding buddy Sunwiggy, and seeing all these fantastic, technicolor, almost surreally beautiful birds...and having no guidebook. I guess this is what happens when birders have nightmares. In one of these dreams, I was in Morocco, and ran from bookstore to bookstore seeking a field guide in French, since if I could at least get the French name of the bird, I could later translate it. But no luck. Finally I was sent to an antiquarian shop that only carried books in Arabic, and was told that the names of birds were in a particular book, but when I opened it, there were no pictures, only Arabic.

I sense some ontological issues here. I think that these dreams are telling me that, despite the compulsion that we listers have to name birds for our list, there is something deeper at stake. Naming is important: putting the world in order, learning how to truly see. Humans have an in-born need for nomenclature. Without names, my dream-birds are just images that I will forget upon waking. Without names, I don't know what I saw.

Recently, I had an even stranger dream, in which Sunwiggy and I were on a birding tour in Hawaii, and the guide stopped to point out a gull. Despite the ocean being all around, gulls are rarities in Hawaii (I hadn't known that before Greenturtle and I went there for our ten year anniversary a few years back -- I saw mynas, wandering tattlers, ruddy turnstones, Hawaiian coots and stilts, a whole range of lovely endemics, and a good many introduced species--but nary a gull.) It's just too far for them to fly.

In the dream, the guide picked up the exhausted bird, explaining that it was not only rare for the islands but a very rare species in general. As we watched, the gull exhaled a dark cloud, and went limp in the guide's hands. I woke up and understood the dream at once--my mind translating my continual awareness, sometimes a stabbing pain and sometimes a mere dull ache of distant thought, that what is rare and precious in our world is dying...expiring in a toxic black cloud.

So now, with me, it's birds morning, noon and night. At least I'm not fascinated by spiders! While I sleep, my mind uses birds as symbols for my subconscious mind...but while I'm awake, the birds are perfect just as they are, needing to represent nothing greater than their own feathered selves.

Have you ever dreamed of birds? Or has any other waking obsession found its way into your dreams?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tiny twitches: Logan County

Today, to liven up the birding experience, I decided to Go Where Few Birders Have Gone Before (according to ebird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's database), and see what species might be found in Logan county, which I have driven through many times, as it is between here and both Springfield and the Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge, but I'd never stopped to bird it.

I opened up the map and looked for a likely spot in the county to bird, choosing Edgar Madigan State Park (formerly, and on my map still, called Railsplitter State Park), right outside of the town of Lincoln. All this would be brand-new to me, hopefully injecting a bit of excitement into the waiting game of early spring birding. Since I usually prefer to explore a new location with a buddy in tow (in case it's filled with psychos), I invited Greenturtle to come along with me. After all, if it's filled with psychos, who wants to die alone?

Sometimes, if no one goes to a place, there's a good reason.... In this case, the reason might be that the park is right next to a prison. And when I say "right next to," I mean--for a good portion of the trail, you're looking right into the prison's back yard! I tried to get Greenturtle to snap some photos of it, but he wouldn't.

Still, since we'd come all this way, we might as well explore. We parked at the end of the road and took the trail winding alongside Salt Creek.

At the start of the walk, I was wondering if I'd even get enough material to blog about. Greenturtle seemed determined to walk along at a steady clip, and you know how it is with non-birders along. If the birds weren't obvious, I wasn't going to see them. And they weren't obvious. Striding along, I got: robins (I saw many many birds today, 90% of them robins), dark-eyed juncos, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, Canada geese, more robins, a great blue heron, still more robins. I hate to say things that might imply I'm one of those twitching lister types who can't enjoy the everyday birds, but suffice to say that none of this was exciting.

Also, the trail was a bit haphazardly maintained. We got some great views of the penitentiary, though.

Then we came to the bridge. It was out, kaput, not only collapsed over the creek but barricaded with mountains of downed trees to keep people like me and Greentutle from crossing it. I hope they didn't think that would stop us!

It was easy-peasy to jump from stone to stone across the creek, and without even getting my feet wet!

The birding picked up on the illicit side of the bridge: we flushed several wood ducks, saw a beautiful pair of bluebirds (I know, "beautiful bluebird" is redundant), there were song sparrows galore and dozens of robins. The whole area had a Forgotten Glade feeling about it -- open spaces between the trees showed areas where the woods had yet to reclaim its own, and there was a sagging old wooden bench by the creek, and a half a dozen BBQ grills almost sunken into the earth like decrepit gravestones. People used to come here...and now they don't.

We floundered about back there for a while, enjoying the solitude (no, this isn't the part of the story where we are beset upon by escaped convicts, thank you very much), finally picking our way back along the rubble in the creek again, and following the trail until it dumped us out on a road.

A pastoral scene of the type swiftly becoming a memory (replace fields with subdivisions, wind farms, add the stench of confinement hog farms, and there you have the Ghost of Illinois' Future):

There was a scrubby tangled area that many birds love: cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, song sparrows, flickers. Right beyond that was the prison. The air rang with the staccato cracklings of the prison personnel doing target practice -- I thought it would be more interesting if there was some sort of "Running Man" scenario in the works, but with a crush to my imagination, I could see them on the shooting range, clearly blowing away nothing more sinister than targets.

The noise did spook a large herd of deer, however, who dodged across the road with a clacking of hooves on pavement.

And I stand corrected, there might be some psychos in residence after all, because I think we found their handiwork:

Clearly I am not the only person who thinks that skulls are cool. Not that I would decorate a tree with them. Honestly, I would not.

After a while, we reconnected with the trail, where a male cardinal was singing his heart out. I could almost hear him filling his air sacs between rounds of his long, whooping, cheerful song. If there is any justice in this world, this fellow will populate the whole park with his offspring.

In this area, we also saw a crow harassing a red-tailed hawk. Frequently, one can see whole mobs and murders of crows in this pursuit, but this one was doing it solo. Perhaps there will be a Crow Legend for him or her -- the Ballad of the Suicide Crow. Despite the difference in sizes and talon equipment, the crow seemed to be the one prevailing.

On this final leg of the hike, I saw a golden-crowned kinglet, another white-breasted nuthatch, some black-capped chickadees and an eastern phoebe, summing up the day with quite a good list of the usual suspects. Just as we were heading for the car, a pair of youths on skateboards with one pit bull each was embarking on the trail.

So, would I go back? I hate to give a thumbs down to any natural area, but in this case, I don't think I would. The birding wasn't great, the scenery wasn't great, the whole park seems neglected, and the prison so close was definitely a bit off-putting.

For a final disappointment to my day, the "Lincoln Lakes" that I saw on the map and hoped to scan for waterfowl turned out to be part of a Private (e.g., Riffraff and Birders Keep Out!) "Community." Ughh...please people, you are NOT all that and a bag of chips and who wants to look at your pond anyway?

And thus ended one of the more bizarre "Tiny Twitch" adventures in a good long while.

So, where's the weirdest place that you've ever been? And would you go back to it?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The 100th Year Bird

As I sit here with my laptop, I can occasionally hear the wind gusting over the roof: another windy spring day. March blows. Literally.

Yesterday afternoon I became fixated on the fact that I had 99 Year Birds, which seemed a terrible and unsatisfactory number and I was anxious to see what the 100th would be. I was strolling through Ewing Park after work, hoping once again for a brown thrasher or a winter wren, and once again meeting disappointment, when I ran into a fellow birder and got onto the topic of looking for Eurasian collared doves. Namely the fact that I keep dipping out on them this year. He informed me that several of this species can be found right here in town, at the corner of Market and Hinshaw (not a very salubrious neighborhood, I might add), and since I was heading in that direction anyway to pick up Greenturtle, I dashed off as soon as I could politely draw our conversation to a close.

I perused birds around that location, driving back and forth from the public housing project to the second hand shop, peering through my windshield with my binoculars waiting for the light to turn, but to no avail. Robins, pigeons, starlings, grackles, all seen in silhouette against the graying sky, but no collared doves. A bit further down the road, I saw some doves perched on a wire -- were there spots on their backs? Yes? No? Hard to tell, the way their feathers ruffled in the wind. I ended up parking a bit down the road, then scrambling over a berm, dashing across the railroad tracks, scaring a pair of mallards paddling in a filthy runnel of water, until I got close enough to see.... How embarrassing! Stalking mourning doves in the hood.

So as I left this morning for Lake Evergreen/Comlara Park with a group of fellow birders from the local Audubon Society, I was still stuck at 99. On top of it all, one of the group had taken a friend to see the collared doves yesterday, and found them, at the exact location that I'd dipped out. And they're not even rare! C'mon, they're practically taking over the state!

Water birds were the target of the trip, mostly -- especially the American white pelicans that I saw flying overhead a couple of weeks ago. They'd come down on Lake Evergreen in multitude--one birder described the cove they preferred as almost white with them when he was there--and we were hoping they were still there. Also, everyone had their species of duck or several yet to be seen for the year or for the county this year, such as the American wigeon. When the Life List has stalled, and new species have become the merest trickle...enter the Year List, the County List or a mix thereof. Only in the company of fellow birders do I not have to explain all this. (And sometimes even then.)

Pelicans still in evidence, a good fifty or more, sheltering from the wind alongside an island; in the mix, several double-crested cormorants, which flushed as we approached down the spit of land I call Cormorant Point. (Because guess what you can almost always find there? The park people call it the Mallard Cove trail. I do wish someone would put me in charge of naming things.) But the wind, oh my God the wind! In a fit of defiance, though clad in flannel-lined cargo pants from Old Navy (I couldn't find a nice rugged pair for women so I wandered across the aisle and bought me a pair of Man Pants; Greenturtle calls them the not-fit-for-public-viewing pants, I suspect) and my "Arctic" level jacket, I had forgone gloves or hat. And now I was sorry. I didn't even really want to look at the pelicans. I just wanted someone to unfreeze my eyes.

I think others must have agreed, for we cut through the trees to a bend in the creek, an area I'd never really much explored before, as there isn't a trail; on the way another of my morbid interests took hold and I picked up a small skull that I'd seen in the leaves. It was the top portion only, about the size of my hand, with a sharp black zigzag where the bones came together and two little nubbins of bone on top. Luckily one of the group, a retired biology professor who Sunwiggy and I agree knows EVERYTHING about nature, identified it for me: a male fawn, the nubbins of bone where his antlers would have been.

I thought of the young dappled creature, how soft his fur must have been, how gentle his eyes, and wondered what he died of. But it wasn't sad. The bones were washed entirely clean by the elements; and besides, skulls are pretty freakin' cool. Let's just say I love to look at the vanitas paintings in art museums, and not because they make me contemplate the hereafter. (Although as Wikipedia points out, these paintings, showing skulls or decaying fruit in the midst of daily activity, symbolize the "brevity and ephemeral nature of life." I sense a theme here. I am obsessed with ephemera.)

We arrived at the creek. Here, we were sheltered from the wind, and the view was pleasant. The birds must have agreed, for we saw many: brown creeper, northern flicker, eastern bluebird, red-bellied woodpecker, a quick glimpse of a passing barred owl, and my favorite sighting, a lone male bufflehead, doing his odd head-bobbing swim in our direction, close enough that one of the group got an awesome, close photo, until he finally realized he was in the presence of humans and took flight, a black and white little bullet zooming down the water.

We continued our drive around the lake: a flock of red-breasted mergansers, their heads turned around, beaks buried in the feathers of the backs--cold, exhausted or both? Multitudinous coots. A pulchritudinous loon.

Stop everything, emerge from vehicles, set up scopes: a common loon in his mating checkerboard plumage, jazzy white collar, snazzy black and white back, his head shining greenly iridescent in the early spring sunshine, his eye a red marble. Loons know they're cool, and this one was bobbing along as if he owned not only this lake, but the one he'd wintered on and the one way up north he was heading for. My 100th year bird!

But: the wind, the wind! You know the wind was vicious when, after getting a good look through both scope and binoculars, I was thinking, "Very nice, I've seen the loon, now let's go!" I was actually starting to joggle up and down to try to work up some body heat. Even my hands were chapped and reddened from the wind, fingers puffed up rather alarmingly, so that as I scrawled the word "loon" in my little notebook, the writing looked as if I'd just come off of a three day bender. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate the wind? Didn't think so.

Driving further around the lake, I got year bird number 101 (the less exciting herring gull), and then we parked for another short walk. Now, I love birds. I love to walk. I really enjoy this group of people. But I was miserable. The wind was searing right through me and my nose was drizzling constantly and as far as my hands went, there was no way I was taking them out of my pockets. Because even if I wanted to, I couldn't feel them anyway. We saw golden-crowned kinglets (yeah, saw them yesterday), a white-breasted nuthatch (I could make out a nuthatch shape, no need for binoculars), black-capped chickadees (as if I'd take my hands out of my pockets for them!) and another brown creeper (That one I did make an effort for. I have since regained sensation in all but my pinkie.)

At this point, everyone agreed to call it a day. It was fun, it was nice, I got 30 species in all and two of them year birds. But seriously, March, I know you came in like a depressed lamb, but must you go out like a raging lion?

Home again, I pulled out last year's Bird Journal for comparison's sake, and saw that on March 26 I went to Evergreen Lake...and saw a common loon! Hmmm...I even blogged about it. Somehow I feel like it's been more than a year since then. A lot has happened in that year...Oil Spills...the landscape changing with the addition of the most ginormous windfarm I've seen since the one in the California desert (my fellow birders told me they don't kill that many birds, "just" bats...well, that's one consolation).

In the midst of loons and life and fellowship, it's always there: the tiny skull. The rotten fruit. The ephemeral nature of it all.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Urban Nature, Part II

Today, before work, I once again went for a walk around the Urban Birding Pond by my workplace. March has done another one of its sadistic switcheroos and dropped from a sunny and high sixties earlier in the week to cloudy and low forties today. So once again, out comes that hat and the winter jacket. Well, this sort of behavior is to be expected of March. I take it in a lot better spirits than my husband "Greenturtle," who is a Southerner. (I will never forget his accusation, the first winter we lived in Michigan together, "You brought me to this icy hell!")

The pond was still full of Canada geese, with a sprinkling of coots and the merest handful of pied-billed grebes. I could hear the drummings of woodpeckers and a chorus of northern cardinals at song--and the sounds of a dump truck, a passing train, and the endless rush of traffic.

Earlier in the week, I'd had such good luck, seeing some of my old favorites, like the brown creeper, Carolina wren, cedar waxwings and wood ducks, that my expectations for the morning were low. It was gray and chilly; surely, everything "good" had already been seen.

A sort of haze drifted over the surface of the water; along with the trees bending protectively over the trail, this created an otherworldly feeling that almost negated the cold wind. As I walked along, I got several nice surprises: a sapsucker, a great blue heron (first time seen on the pond for the season), and best of all, a year-bird, ruby-crowned kinglet. A house finch was singing, a surprisingly sweet song. Juncos still in residence--since they mean "winter," I don't really miss them too much when they head back north.

The Canada geese that rule the pond at this time of year (but at least in six weeks or so there will be cute!) sometimes hiss at me as I walk past, giving a literal demonstration of the phrase "hissy fit."

I was cutting it short to get to work on time, so instead of taking the long way back, I bush-whacked through the shrubbery, flushing another woodcock as I jumped across the ditch. One thing's for sure, I'm the only one of my co-workers who's apt to be seen stumbling out from the bushes. My final sighting: a Cooper's hawk, flying away silently through the crepuscule of the cloudy morning. Total birds for day 21, a record for this location, I think.

I pretty much covered this same topic on my post from yesterday, but I rambled on so much I had to cut myself short. On the topic of Urban Nature (and Birds), there is still more to say. For while I am grateful to have learned to look so close to home (and work) for my "nature moments," this alone would never suffice...not for me, not for the birds, not for the ecosystem as a whole. We need to bring as much "nature" into the cities as possible...but we still need wild spaces.

One of the things I learned last summer, as I tried to rein in my desire to drive over half the state in search of birds, was that restricting myself to town would never work for me. If I'm going to become a "green birder" I need a better bike and to get into a lot better shape, because I need (seriously, for my mental health, I NEED this) some things that I just can't find in town: spaces where I can go for a long time without running into any fellow humans. Where I don't constantly hear the sounds of the city -- sirens, traffic, construction, people on bikes yelling "On your left!" as they zoom past me.

Places like this are hard to find even within McLean County. I love Funk's Grove and Sugar Grove Nature Center, but the highway is so close, the background noise of traffic is always there. Parklands is a little better, but I can always hear traffic sounds. Moraine View State Park is always crowded. Comlara Park is a little better -- there are traffic sounds, occasionally a lot of people, and now the "sight pollution" (I don't care if that's a word, I just made it up if not) of the windmills along the park's perimeter. But all of these are better than any place in town.

So, I learned I could never solely be an urban birder. Fellow humans, I have nothing against (most of) you...but sometimes I don't want to hear loud voices, car noises, blaring radios, people yelling into their cell phones. I just want to hear birds, and the wind through the trees and grasses, perhaps a deer snorting and dashing through the bushes. A lot of people I know actually find the Total Natural Experience a bit scary. But I crave it.

And so do the birds. Sunwiggy e-mailed me, after I'd finished my post yesterday, that she'd just attended a talk by a young ornithologist, who had stated that a newly created urban sanctuary had fewer species of birds than a control area that had never been developed. So while we need as many urban sanctuaries as we can make, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that they will suffice. It's great that I saw so many species of birds this morning, but many are our common urban buddies (cardinals, blue jays, house finches, robins, Canada geese, crows, downy woodpecker) and most of the others are just passing through (fox sparrow, pied-billed grebe, American coot, ruby-crowned kinglet, American woodcock)...I highly doubt they could set up shop for the summer.

Finally, I would like to state that the evidence seems to show that, like it or not, we all need natural areas for our health. I would like to investigate this in more detail, but one study I ran into stated that as little as five minutes a day in nature improves mental health. So think how weird I'd be if I didn't get outside!

Do you feel better when you've spent time in nature? Do urban noises distract you...or is it just me?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Urban Nature

If you were reading this blog last summer, you might recall that one of my new interests involved exploring the environment immediately around me in search of birds and nature. Since I live in a medium sized city -- or rather, two cities smashed together, Bloomington-Normal in central Illinois -- this means: urban birding. Or trying to become an urban naturalist. This interest was originally fueled by guilt at using gasoline in the wake of the BP Oil Spill, but gently nudged by three different sources of inspiration (more on those below), it quickly became a genuine curiosity.

Truly, looking in my immediate vicinity was a piece of the puzzle I had been lacking. In my mind, nature always was (truth to tell, still is) something at odds with human presence. The more people around, the less natural it is. Ergo, hiking in the Porcupine Mountains of the Upper Peninsula: nature. Walking around town: no.

But then I decided I should not have to drive across the county in order to pursue my hobby, and I started really looking around. And yes, there is "nature" in the city too, imagine that!--birds, insects, mammals, plants--and not just dandelions crowding up through a crack in the sidewalk while a flock of starlings gathers overhead, either. There's real good stuff to be found in town!

In conjunction with this, my reading material was gently pushing me to some realizations, such as: there is no longer any such thing as "pristine" all natural landscapes anyway. The human touch--and the sounds of our machines--are just about everywhere. As population and "development" increases, there will be less and less semi-pristine wilderness. On the one hand, that means that nature-loving gals and guys such as myself will have to make the best of it. On the other, it is an invitation to bring as much nature as possible into our worlds as we go. We humans have a role to play in the ecosystem; it's only recently that things have gotten so out of whack. I love the idea that I already am a part of nature--I'm already "in" it just by being alive. We evolved in the landscapes around us,and they evolved because we were there. (Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America by William Stevens has some good points on this.) This is not to negate the horrible effect of current human activities, but a point of hope for future improvement. And finally, on a spiritual level, I always welcome the opportunity to pay attention--and am always amazed by what I have been missing.

The three sources I mentioned earlier, that have inspired me in my quest, are a website (The Urban Birder), a magazine article, "Big Green Birding Challenge" by Diana Doyle in Birder's World (my original discussion of that article is here), and a book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

It has been a while since I read Haupt's book, so don't quote me on the details, but what I enjoyed most about Crow Planet was how she came to terms with being depressed about living in the city by becoming an urban naturalist, actively striving to learn all she could about the environment around her (which included many crows).

I have been nudged along in my quest by an unexpected gift: my work place is adjacent to a nice pond with a scrubby, tangly trail winding halfway around it (if I speedwalk there and back I can even get to the trail on my lunch break -- unfortunately it does not connect to my area directly). There is a sort of ditch lined with trees on one side of the lawn, and a nice thicket of trees on the other. Just a couple of blocks away is Bloomington's major thoroughfare, and let me make it clear that this truly is in the middle of the city, and yet it is full of "nature."

In fact, though I find my current employment rather frustrating and unsatisfying (it is not a bad job, but it is definitely something I am doing just to pay the bills), I have always been able to step outside on my breaks and find solace in the unexpected: a red fox dashing across the lawn. Once, a deer. (Exactly how did a DEER get into the middle of town? I am still wondering about that one.) Yesterday, a muskrat. This week, turtles have been sunning themselves on logs lying across the water.

My bird list for the location is now up to 45 (ebird's new "Patch" lists makes this easy to calculate), including 35 species this year and 27 this month. Today, for example, on my afternoon break, in ten minutes I saw: 45 Canada geese, 2 American coots, 4 cedar waxwings, 1 fox sparrow, 1 brown creeper, 2 cardinals, 2 dark-eyed juncos, 3 American robins, 1 America crow and two northern flickers. Earlier this week I have also seen wood ducks, a Carolina wren, song sparrows, pied-billed grebes, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, an eastern phoebe surprise of the week...Monday morning I flushed an American woodcock which was skulking along the treeline! Seriously, this bounty is one of the reasons I stay at my job!

Which brings me to my final point: as I wandered through the scrubby tangle around the pond before work this morning (added bonus: a bit of exercise!), I thought of a criticism I read of Crow Planet from an Amazon reader, in which the dissatisfied customer questioned Haupt's definition of an "urban" environment because Haupt has access to both a huge park and a strip mall. The reviewer pretty much stated that the ability to "see some trees" made the book for a purely middle-class audience. This negative review has stayed in my mind ever since, because I seriously want to know where the reviewer lives! But more to the point, I think it illustrates a fallacy that many share: that nature is far away from the average Joe or Jane. It's a luxury, only for the middle class.

Although I do feel privileged to work right next door to one natural area, and within walking distance of two parks, plus my husband Greenturtle works right next to a huge pond and another two nature in the city really so exceptional? I have never lived anywhere without a park or natural space, and believe me, I have lived a lot of places: small towns (Alma, MI; Russellville, AR); big cities (Honolulu, HI); moderate sized towns (Monterey, CA; Newport, RI); other countries (Ifrane, Morocco; Maizuru, Japan), and I have wonderful memories of enjoying the natural bits of all of them. As an occasional visitor to Saint Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis--I can say, yes, they all have parks, too! In fact, some of the best birding in Illinois seems to happen in Cook County. (The county of Chicago, for all you non-Illinoisans.)

The only place I have truly been nature-deprived was a brief stint in a ginormous subdivision of Virginia Beach, VA--I was a teenager at the time, but I still remember the endless sprawl, block after block, mile after mile, no sidewalks, no parks, no trees, no ponds---finally, after a several mile trek, one would get to a busy road that had a Pizza Hut and a convenience store. But still no sidewalks. This landscape plunged me into the first serious depression of my life (shortly afterward, thank God, my parents moved to Eureka, CA and a more human scale), and resonates in my memory to this day as a tiny sliver of Hell. Perhaps negative reviewer lives there?

I end this post with two questions: one, do you know of any inspiration for urban birders/naturalists other than the ones I've listed above? And two, do you live or work within a short distance of a park, pond or other good natural area? Where do you find your urban birds?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Equinox at Humiston Woods

Many things going on today--for one thing, it's the vernal equinox, the official first day of spring! And although very windy again, the day was warmish and actually does feel like spring might be around the corner. It is also my brother Martin's birthday--so if you're reading this, bro, happy birthday! And by coincidence, it is also the anniversary of my first blog post.

Which means, of course, that I just had to go out and bird, despite the fact that the skies were gray again and the wind was just about strong enough to knock me flat. I decided on Humiston Woods in Livingston County, since I hadn't been there in a while (see "Tiny Twitches: Livingston County" for that trip), and there are some good hiking trails in the woods along Wolf Creek and the Vermilion River, although the birdiness of it is variable.

All photos accompanying this post were taken by Greenturtle on a walk that we took on March 15, 2009 at Humiston. I like having pictures to share, but some days I just don't feel like messing with the camera. It changes the quality of the experience if I'm looking for photos to take -- not bad, just different. I tried to get Greenturtle to come along with me as my photographer, but he declined.

The first thing I noticed was that the tallgrass prairie was recently burned. The field was black and charred, the ashy cinder smell still lingering in the air. It looks horrible, but periodic burning is actually good for the prairie, and March is when most people do it. Yesterday I saw the oak savanna at Parklands Merwin Preserve going up in flame -- but again, not to be alarmed, it's for the greater good. (Some previous posts where I discuss this include "Restoring the Oak Savannas," "Sunrise on the Prairie Chickens," and "Burn, Prairie, Burn.")

I hurried into the woods (between the charred ground and the strong wind, the prairie, usually one of my favorite spots, did not entice me to linger), hoping for some good birds despite the windy day. I've noticed that I rarely have a good birding trip when it's really windy. And for the first part of the walk, I saw just about nothing. It was shaping up to be an all-time low for Humiston Woods, and I thought that no way could I get any lower than my last trip, with just ten species.

Where the trail bends to meet the Vermilion River, however, things perked up. I saw white-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, a tufted titmouse, and a pair of downy woodpeckers.

More good sightings followed with an eastern bluebird, a pair of golden-crowned kinglets, and three turkey vultures circling overhead.

And then...the part I was especially looking forward to: the great blue heron rookery at the top of a tall sycamore.

And sure enough, they'd set up shop again, flying to and from the huge shaggy nests in the tree top, with their grunt-like cries. I've never actually made it back at the right time to look for young herons peering out of the nests (do young herons do this? I hope so--it sounds so cute), but now that I've found a rookery closer to home as well, maybe this year I'll see some fledglings.

Unfortunately, I didn't see the adorable groundhog that Greenturtle and I noticed on our previous walk, but it's so cute I have to share his photo anyway:

Did anyone else see any particularly good birds for the first day of spring? I hope so...birds make any day better.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The waiting game (also, Bog Suckers)

It was Tennyson, I believe, who wrote that "April is the cruelest month." (I think that comes from "Locksley Hall"?) Maybe in England that is true. Here in central Illinois, I would have to vote for March as the most sadistic. Almost, almost spring...but never quite there. One sunny day followed by four rainy ones...or a sunny day accompanied by strong winds. The temperatures are up...then down! All of this I could bear with good spirits in, say, late November, when a brisk wind and a chilly morning are still novelties of the season. But in March, I am just as apt to say, "Screw it," and retreat early, sick of feeling cold, sick of Not Quite Spring.

And thus, an average March week of a frustrated birder:

Monday. Chilly and windy. VERY windy, the way that the wind can only seem to whip across the prairie state. Birder is huddled inside workplace, until co-worker announces, "Did you see the swans on the pond?" Say what? Swans? By workplace? A sight worth seeing! Birder immediately declares break time, runs outside with binoculars (birder has cheap pair just to take to work and various other places not officially "birding" expeditions), and sees that yes, a pair of mute swans is paddling across the pond. Also a pair of wood ducks, which is a year bird. Hooray. Meanwhile wind is scissoring through Birder's body like a barrage of ninja stars, and swans or no swans, it is time to return inside. (But: year bird!)

Tuesday. Gray and drizzly. Depressing. Swans have left pond. Ditto wood ducks. Birder attempting to recover zest for life. Failing.

Wednesday. The sun is out! It's not even that cold! Also, after work Sugar Grove Nature Center is having a woodcock walk. Birder has even convinced husband "Greenturtle" to go, explaining how the American woodcock does an amazing mating display flying high into the air to impress his potential mates and who would not want to see such a thing?

"Is this the only day they do it?" asks Greenturtle.
"What? The woodcocks?"
"No, the Nature Center!"
"Oh, yeah, just today...."

First, there was a brief power point demonstration, in which Birder learned a few fun facts (such as, some people call woodcocks "Bog Suckers," due to their preference for marshy fields [although my all-time favorite folk name for a bird is still the "thunder-pumper," as the American bittern is sometimes called]...and they can eat their weight in earthworms each day...and the chicks are precocial, meaning they are more or less self-sufficient after hatching, like ducklings. A couple of years ago I twice saw a solitary chick of some sort dashing through the woods. Perhaps a woodcock?)...and then off to the fields.

After a few minutes of waiting, loud peenting sounds rose up from various points around our small group. Greenturtle recalled hearing these noises as a lad in Arkansas, and never realizing what sort of creature made them. As the twilight deepened, up flew...the woodcocks! And yes, they do fly up so far that they seem to be the merest speck against the sky (the nearly full moon helped us see them), then flapping down with an amazing susurrus of wings. Definitely a sight worth seeing! Also...a year bird!

Thursday: early to work, walked around pond. Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, juncos still in residence, robins, blue jays and cardinals. One turkey vulture flapping over the trees, first sighting in the county for the year. (When you get into the "year county birds" you know you're a serious lister.) And then work. In front of the computer, at a desk, expected to sit (yes, SIT! Indoors, for hours!), while the day outside, though once again windy, is full of sun. And, surely, birds. Birder becomes depressed...the longing to move, the conviction that Life, beautiful Life, is rushing by outside and meanwhile birder is missing all of it.

By lunch hour, Birder feels so depressed that only another walk down to the pond makes any sense at all. Birder says hello to a guy with a British accent, who mentions all the Canada geese. Some young fellows are fishing...and the fish splashing exuberantly against the pond's surface. A brief look at American tree sparrows. Blue jays calling raucously. Coots bobbing, a flock of mallards taking flight with hysterical quackings. The half hour passes so quickly. Almost over...and now it is. Clocking in three minutes late.

Friday: a half day. And then the weekend. Cleaning house after work, then a walk through Ewing Park. Hoping for a brown thrasher; instead, fox sparrows. Well, they were exciting LAST week.

Today: one day of freedom, and the sound of a meadowlark. In that moment, nothing was lacking. Other than that...errands. Chilly and windy once again, oh March! In a fit of spite, stayed inside most of the day, reading a biography of Anne Sexton instead of birding. Thought: if Sexton had been a birder, would she have needed poetry? Second thought: at least someone was clearly crazier than own self, birds or no!

But...tomorrow is a new day. It might rain...if not, the quest for birds to be continued....

Monday, March 14, 2011

Misery Bay: by Sunwiggy

Back by popular demand is my guest blogger Sunwiggy, describing more of her adventures in the frozen north. I think "Misery Bay" sounds very evocative. If there's one thing the U.P. has going for it, it's cool place names!

On Friday, March the 11th, my husband and I decided to bird a little farther afield, at Misery Bay, in Ontonagon County. I was hoping that Misery Bay would have a nice area of open water, caused by the Misery River flowing into it. This is a really beautiful and remote area of the UP. I've heard the Misery name came from either the miserable living conditions of the first white settlers in the area, or a fierce battle between two Native American tribes that turned the river red with their blood. I was in misery, too, when I saw that both the river and the bay were frozen solid! I mean, really! It's the middle of March! Areas of the bay that had open water just 2 weeks ago are now frozen over. My husband's guess is that the water in the bay just got cold enough, finally, to freeze.

So there I was, fuming over my crushed hopes for some nice duck sightings. A certain daughter in central Illinois has been seeing rafts, flotillas, whole navvies of ducks, but a duck would need ice skates to maneuver itself around a bay up here. We did spot a teeny black speck, waa-aay out there on the ice. After much adjusting of our new scope, we were able to bring into view a lone ice fisherman. I had an idea. It's hard to walk through the deep snow, but here we were, standing next to a river covered in ice. "Let's walk on the river, and see if we can see birds in the trees along the shore." My husband, ever the good sport, agreed, so off we went. Then, we heard an odd sound. It was loud, and deep, rather like Big Foot would sound if he had a bad bellyache, or so I imagined. My husband announced, "I don't like the sound of this! Let's get off the ice!" No arguments from me (for once). I'd forgotten that ice "talks", and this ice was telling us to get off! Back in the parking lot, we were treated to the taps and calls of a pair of downy woodpeckers. They seemed to feel Spring was near.

Driving back, we saw one of the weirdest sights I've yet seen in the UP. It was a tree, a large tree, decorated from the crown to the lowest branches with pairs of shoes and boots. They looked shiny and new, too. One bright purple flowered pair of little girls' boots stands out in memory, but there were dozens. I asked my husband, "Why would anyone do that?" His first theory was that it was the work of druids. "Druids! That's silly! Druids don't hang pairs of shoes and boots all over trees." He said that maybe UP druids did. His second theory was that it was an offering to Heikki Lunta, the Finnish snow god, a snow god totally made up by Yoopers, but, hey, when they sang a song to him, asking for snow for a snowmobile race 30 years or so ago, he obliged with so much snow, they wrote and sang another song to him, asking him to stop. I'm not sure what message the shoe-and-boot tree would send to Heikki Lunta, Take a hike? Let's give Winter the boot?

I goggled "trees decorated by shoes" when I got home, and actually got a hit: there's a famous one in Idaho. That one even has shoes nailed to its trunk.

Saturday the weather was just awful. It SNOWED again. Today was sunny and almost 30 degrees, and we enjoyed a lovely hike at Churning Rapids, staying on the road which has been groomed for Xcountry skiers. I try to stay on the side and not mess it up for the skiers, but a lot of them bring their dogs for a romp in the snow, so they probably don't mind. We saw lots of deer, bird, rabbit, squirrel, and dog tracks, lots and lots of chickadees, and one ruffed grouse. I always feel bad when we scare one up, they sound completely hysterical. On the way home we stopped at a little township park to view the open, but duckless, water of Lake Superior. I console myself with the thought that all of those lovely ducks a certain daughter is seeing now, in Illinois, are just resting up for their long flight to the UP!

Once again, thanks to Sunwiggy and my dad for contributing...and if anyone reading this has any theories about that Shoe Tree, I'd love to hear them!

Signs of spring

There are many little hints that spring is on its way, despite gray days and variable temperatures (yesterday was back down in the 30s again)--each one noticed, then anticipated, as I have begun to spend more time outdoors: the moment the ice begins to thaw on the water. The first time I hear a cardinal singing, What cheer! The day the red-winged blackbirds arrive. And one that I only see at Funk's Grove, the day the buckets go up on the maple trees to collect syrup. This is done each year in late winter, and since I know that spring is just around the corner when I see them, they always bring a smile to my face. (And what could be better than local maple syrup?)

Yesterday the weather was gray and gloomy again, and after the excitement of my River Valley Day on Saturday, I thought that any trip I made closer to home was bound to be disappointing, and so I planned to spend the day inside reading stories by Algernon Blackwood ("The Willows" gets my vote for creepiest story of all time).

But, I couldn't do it. By lunchtime I was literally squirming with pent up energy and the desire to go outside. And I realized I hadn't seen those maple syrup buckets yet this year, and I would be disappointed if I missed them. I don't know why, it's just turned into one of those little rituals for me.

So off I went to Funk's Grove/Sugar Grove Nature Center here in McLean county. Though considering the time of day, I told myself not to get too disappointed if I didn't see many birds.

The visitor's center was closed, as it usually is on Sunday, and almost no one was around. I checked out the birds flocking to the feeders--house sparrows, goldfinches, house finches, starlings, grackles, American tree sparrows, a red-bellied woodpecker, a white-breasted nuthatch, a couple Eurasian tree sparrows (they are foul weather friends and will soon take off for wherever they go for the other three seasons), dark-eyed juncos, and red-winged blackbirds. In the shrubs and trees not far off were also brown-headed cowbirds and song sparrows.

I really didn't expect the day to get much better than that as I headed off into the woods. I had my mind set on the area off the beaten path that I described on my post from late January, "An Introspective Weekend, Part One," where the bank forms a sort of bluff overlooking Timber Creek, with tall sycamores dotting the bank, their silvery bark almost shining against the gray day. I just had such a nice experience there, leading to a feeling of such peace -- and a wonderful sighting of a red-tailed hawk and a belted kingfisher -- that I really wanted to go back.

Just one hitch: though not large in any absolute sense, the woods back behind the creek are very tangly and confusing, and I have gotten frustratingly turned around there more than once. There isn't a trail, and in January I found my way back because of my tracks in the snow. With no snow on the ground today, I wasn't sure how easy it would be. Just remembering one time, when I got totally turned around, scratched by brambles, stung by nettles (not that I was in danger of a "nettle attack" yesterday), and finally popped out of the woods to walk back along the railroad tracks--jumping aside down the slope when the train rattled by, almost made me change my mind.

But, I kept thinking of how lovely it was by the creek. On the way, I caught a glimpse of a barred owl flying away from me, then perching in the treetops, which was really cool...highlight of the day, I thought.

I left the trail, crossed the creek, and scrambled up the ridge that leads to the woodsy area, and walked in as straight a line as I could, trying to look for truly distinguishing features. (I have learned that landmarks like, "that big tree" are never really that helpful--on the way back, it's all big trees!)

Before too long, I came to a barbed wire fence, marking the edge of the park, and gazed out into a field beyond. A robin bopped along in the grasses. In the distance, I could see the highway, and looking to the left, the railroad track. I knew I did not want to walk towards the tracks (oh no! Not again!), so turned to the right and followed the fence until I came to the other boundary of the park, the University of Illinois research area that made me think of mutants (why else have so many "no trespassing" signs? What sort of "research" are they doing there?), so I followed that boundary until I came to--the bluff overlooking Timber Creek! Voila! I now had a mental map of the whole area--the early French explorers had nothing on me! Of course, once the summer foliage is out, I'll probably get lost again, but for now, my moment of glory....

I saw a red-tailed hawk perching on a tree overlooking the creek, and wondered if it was the same one I saw in January. I could hear the water gurgling and it was very peaceful. And once again, I had one of those transcendent experiences that make me the nature addict that I am.

I'll try not to get too "woo-woo" on you. I always roll my eyes when people sound too New Age, even though I'm fairly open-minded. But this is what I felt:

It was so peaceful and lovely by the creek, I was spontaneously moved to offer up--not exactly a prayer, not quite a meditation. Just a feeling of gratitude for this spot of earth and the fact that I could visit it, and my humble intention to just appreciate it, to harm nothing. I didn't even really articulate any words, just the thought that I had come to see birds and hoped that I could somehow -- in words this sounds so lame -- be friends with the land.

No sooner had I semi-articulated the thought, but a belted kingfisher went barreling down the creek, making its rattling cry. I jumped, and then smiled, thinking what a great coincidence that was. Then some nuthatches and chickadees flew in. As I walked back towards the trail, I heard rustling in the leaves, and found an eastern towhee, my first sighting of of the year, scratching for his supper. Very sweet!

Then I saw three great blue herons flying past, which made me inspect the sycamore more closely--and sure enough, the upper branches were filled with their huge nests. I had found a rookery! By now I was grinning ear to ear at seeing so many old favorites, but after I crossed the creek and headed back on the trail, the birds just kept getting better.

A cacophony of crows announced the arrival of a flock--and they were harassing a great horned owl (two species of owl in one day is always something to blog about!) I got a wonderful view of the poor harried creature as it perched for a few minutes, hoping that the crows would leave it alone, before they all took flight again. Then, for some reason I can't quite fathom, a Cooper's hawk flew after them, crying sharply, Kik! Kik! Kik! Was it defending its territory? Also trying to drive the owl away? Just getting in on the fun? Who knows?

I had barely calmed down from all this, when I saw a huge flock of large birds flying overhead. At first I thought, Canada geese--but when I raised my binoculars--I saw it was a flock of American white pelicans, at least fifty of them. Yes, pelicans. No, I couldn't believe it either. In fact -- I swear, I am not making a word of this up -- the flock split into two directly over my head, and they wheeled around right above me for a few minutes, so close that I could see the bumps on their bills and hear the sounds of their wings beating against the air. They must have been on their way to Evergreen Lake (hope they didn't get whacked by the windmills), but I never in a million years would have expected to see them. And all I could feel was: gratitude, awe, amazement. How lucky we are to live in a world that has pelicans! How lucky I was to see them!

As I headed for the prairie, I saw a fox sparrow and a nice flock of song sparrows, and then I left the woods, and I thought, "That's it. It's over now." And so it was.

Almost all cultures have a tradition of sacred sites, animistic spirits, or spots of power. I have always thought there was something special about the area by Timber Creek. Of course, what I "feel" means nothing in any objective sense. It might just be the fact that this spot is especially scenic or somehow conducive to a reflective state. It might be a simply a matter of, after forming my intention to see, I began to pay attention--and there the birds were. That is fine too. I firmly believe that bird-watching, or any sort of active nature study, is valuable because it teaches us how to pay attention, to look at what is right before us, right now. And if there is one thing that our culture needs to learn, it is that.

Are there any spots in nature that make you feel more alive and aware? Have you ever had a spiritual experience in nature? What makes you grateful?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Colors of the Day

Let's just say my week sucked, shall we? I don't want to get too specific, but my workplace has been experiencing a lot of "changes" (which may or may not be related to the "restructuring" that the "consultant" who visited us over the winter recommended, need I say more?). And when the going gets tough...the Crow goes birding!

One of the blogs I follow, Walk With Me, has a wonderful post from last week on Ducks, Pelicans and Snow Geese at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge in Fulton County, IL, and I decided that seeing all that was just what I needed.

I really love Emiquon--the Nature Conservancy's area especially is a wonderful example of a restoration project here in central Illinois. The Illinois River and its flood plains were once crucial habitat for countless migrating waterfowl and shorebirds--and now, thanks to projects such as these, this lovely habitat is being restored for the benefit of all the wonderful birds that pass through-and the birders that look for them. Unfortunately for me, it's a couple of counties away from me, so I only make it there once every three or four months -- but with the waterbirds coming through, it was more than time for a trip! I convinced Greenturtle that a good time would be had by all, and off we went.

First stop, Banner Marsh (straddling the line between Peoria and Fulton counties). Banner Marsh is another restoration success story (it used to be a strip mine), and is frequently a very birdy place, but today not much was going on (a couple of mute swans, always a reliable Banner Marsh sighting, not much else) so we headed further south to Emiquon.

Greenturtle was geo-caching (a hobby involving a GPS-guided scavenger hunt is the best I can describe it), and fortuitously, his first cache was found along Clark Road in Fulton County, and I found a new -- and very productive -- place to bird (if anyone wants to find it, if you are heading south on highway 24, turn left and then park as soon as you see the mowed trail -- this is part of the Nature Conservancy's Emiquon tract).

As he looked for his cache, I held up my binoculars and saw tons of water birds bobbing on the river down below. "Catch up to me!" I yelled, and off I went. I wasn't hoping for exactly the same sights that the Walk With Me blog showed -- the coming and going of birds is so ephemeral (in case you ever wondered about the name of this blog!) -- I have seen, for example, a huge flock of American golden plovers come down in a flooded field, and when I came back an hour later, they were gone. There are no guarantees in birding.

And while there were not the huge numbers of snow geese that were shown from last week, I was not at all disappointed. On the walk down, I saw American tree sparrows, a fox sparrow (nice year bird), and, bringing a special smile to my face, a Eurasian tree sparrow. Sunwiggy and I looked for them fruitlessly on many an Illinois River Valley trip, finally finding them much closer to home at Sugar Grove Nature Center -- and now, when I was least expecting it, I found one.

As I arrived at the water, I saw a marvelous mix of birds: American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, trumpeter swan (very exciting for me, as it was a "state bird"--e.g., first sighting in Illinois), American coots, ring-necked ducks, northern shovelers, and yes, flying in overhead, several amazing flocks of snow geese. The sheer multitude of birds was humbling and beautiful, the very smallest glimmer of what it must have been like, so long ago, to stand in this river valley and watch the birds flying in. For a moment, tears even welled up in my eyes....

But then Greenturtle joined me, bringing his camera. Sometimes when I review his photos after our trips, I wonder, what was he thinking with THAT ONE??? (like a slo-mo series of a snail)--but today he found some poetry in a ring billed gull:

It was hard to tear myself away from this birding paradise, but we had a lot of ground to cover, so after a sighting of a year bird eastern phoebe and a red-bellied woodpecker, we headed down the road to the Dickson Mounds museum area...and to another hotbed of birds!

Greenturtle found some caches on the museum grounds, and then I stopped to scope the ducks on the road, finding another bonanza, including more shovelers, ring-necked ducks, and hooded mergansers, plus buffleheads and common goldeneyes. Really, Emiquon was producing the ducks and I recommend it highly to any other central Illinois birder or nature lover.

At this area, we met a young birder from the greater Chicago area who came down for the weekend, who asked for advice and directions to the birdiest areas in the region. (I happily told him about the Clark Road bonanaza.) I was happy to hear that he'd gotten his "lifer" Eurasian tree sparrow today. He asked about Sand Ridge State Forest, having heard that crossbills might be found in the area. "I've heard that too," I said, "but I've never seen any there." I might have added...I've never seen much of anything there, except at the Sand Prairie, but did not want to be too negative.

After this stop, we ate lunch in Havana, then continued our day at Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge, frequently birdy but today--zilch (probably due to the high winds and very choppy waters along the River) and then Sand Ridge State Forest in Mason County.

As usual, not only did I not see any crossbills...I saw pretty much NOTHING! Although walking in sand is a very good workout.

Despite the disappointing turnout of birds (one female cardinal, black-capped chickadees and that's about all!), it was very peaceful being so far away from towns and traffic noises, and I convinced Greenturtle to stop at the Henry Allan Gleason preserve (the sand prairie) before we left. The colors of the grasses, even this early in the year, were just breath-taking:

At the right time of the year -- and the right time of day (some birders say that the magic's over by eight o'clock, but as I love my sleep, I adjust the magic time to 10:00 a.m.) -- this area is fantastic (can we say grasshopper sparrow??) -- but today, all it yielded was a turkey vulture and a pair of song sparrows. Still, it was very beautiful, as I was observing all the different shades of the grasses, from palest blonde, to silver, to russet, to brown. Seriously, these tiny natural corners of the "Prairie State" (yeah right, Illinois, with less than 2% of your land still prairie, you can do a lot better!) are just breathtaking. It's a subtle beauty, certainly, but once you see it, how can you help falling in love?

As usual, Greenturtle took various photos of me as well, and I have chosen the one that makes me look, shall we say, the least middle-aged?

Yeah, a really windy day...and I don't FEEL like I'm forty. From the inside out, I'm just one sciatica twinge away from my prime...but then again, I am old enough to reference the lyrics of a Judy Collins song in the title of this post!

And I do hope that all of you, no matter your age, go out and look for the colors of your day...and the birds that surround you!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sled dogs and two lame ducks: More Upper Peninsula Adventures by Sunwiggy

Another post from my guest blogger Sunwiggy.

I have fallen in love with sled dogs! This was the weekend of the
Copper Dog 150, and even though I worked most of the weekend, I was
determined to see all I that I could. The race started in Calumet at
7:30 PM, so my husband and I bundled up and headed downtown. Snow had
been brought back in and piled up the length of 5th Street, and
despite the cold, people were lined up three and four deep. In hopes
of getting photos, we went as close as we could to the starting line.
What a racket! The sleds were scheduled to start two minutes apart,
and, as each sled was brought up, the dogs in that team went wild!
There were three or four handlers to keep the dogs and sled in place
until the starting signal was given, and they had their hands full.
The dogs leapt into the air, twisting and yowling and howling and
barking and snapping at each other (but not, I noticed, at the
handlers, who seemed completely unconcerned). Those dogs wanted to
RUN. If you heard a pack of canines sounding off like this while you
were hiking in the woods, you'd be climbing the nearest tree!

We didn't have time to go to the street party before the start of the
race, and, because my face was numb and I could no longer feel my
nose, we chose to watch the later fireworks from our bedroom window.
I was struck once again by how friendly Yoopers are, everyone talking
to whomever was standing next to them, sharing information and jokes.
We missed the Copper Harbor events Saturday, but got back to downtown
Calumet Sunday, to watch some of the teams racing back to the finish
line. On Sunday, the teams ran 50 miles, from Copper Harbor to
Calumet, and that included going over Brockway Mountain! The
announcers gave us some background information on the mushers as they
came into view. One musher was from Quebec (and very handsome). There
was a young lady musher, only 17 years old. The announcers urged the
crowd to cheer on another musher: "He's from the UP! Let's give him
a real Yooper welcome!" Everyone started to clap and hoot and cheer,
scaring his dogs half to death; the lead dogs tried to turn around to
flee back the way they had come, much to the confusion of the rest of
the team. The announcers barked: "Quiet! Quiet, folks! These dogs
were trained way back in the woods. They're shy of people." Everyone
shut up, but the dogs were having none of it. Their musher had to get
off and drag them over the finish line, but he was laughing as he did
so. All of the almost 40 teams had run 150 miles in three days. The
dogs were smaller than I had expected, but very beautiful. I would
love a ride on one of the sleds!

My husband and I followed that with a little birding. Hoping for open
water, we drove down US 41 towards L'anse. There was even more ice on
the bay than a month ago, lots of ice and lots of fishing shanties and
pick-up trucks. And there, in a little patch of open water near a
cluster of shanties, we saw 2 eagles, 4 crows, a dozen or so
quarreling herring gulls, mallard ducks, Northern pintail ducks, and
across the road, a lone Canada goose. On the way home, we drove past
a country field where, 2 weeks ago, we'd seen 3 eagles and some crows
dining on, presumably, a large dead animal. Today, there were TEN
eagles and a dozen crows, and I saw one of the eagles, neck stretched
out in rage, running across the snow, charging the cluster of crows,
which had the good sense to take wing. Eagles can be feisty! We
finished our day with a drive-by of the "dead deer feeders", which are
looking rather sad by this point. The rib cage is more bone than

Although, like most of us in Yooperland, I am very ready for Spring,
the Copper Dog was such a uniquely Far North kind of event, and so
much fun, that it's okay that winter stuck around for this weekend,
anyway. Now it can go! The sandhill cranes are coming back in
mid-April, according the Copper Country Audubon newsletter, and I
figure they should know. I can't wait!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tiny twitches: De Witt County

Where to bird today? I mentioned in my last post that it was staring to feel like spring; well, over the weekend, the temperatures dipped down into the low thirties again, and yesterday it even snowed for a while. Being from Michigan, I can deal with these sudden changes (and much later in the year than March, believe me!), but my husband Greenturtle (a Southerner), declared that I was on my own for the weekend's outdoor ventures (he seemed downright offended by our cold front, as though Mother Nature were trying to screw with his mind or something), so I decided to resume my "tiny twitches" campaign, and head for Clinton Lake in De Witt county.

Clinton Lake is a birding hot spot for central Illinois birders -- Sheryl Devore sings its praises in Birding Illinois (btw--love that book, Ms. Devore, if you happen to read this, please consider a second edition!), and at least one birder I know goes there regularly and sees tons of great stuff. In my case...meh.

In birding circles, there is something known as the Nemesis Bird: a species that many other people see, and for whatever reason, you can't find no matter what you do. I was starting to wonder if Clinton Lake might be my Nemesis Place. I always imagine the waters bobbing with rafts upon rafts of ducks, with rarities by the truck-load soaring overhead (based on what other people apparently have seen there...not me!), and when I arrive, it's just in time for sighting a mallard and a flock of starlings. has not been that bad...but whenever Sunwiggy and I went, it always seemed like the weather was awful and/or hunters were blowing away any ducks before we could spot them. (And I am not categorically opposed to hunting, don't get me wrong -- here in central Illinois if no one hunted the deer they would eat everything in sight. Plus, if people are going to eat meat, responsibly hunting it oneself seems less cruel than going to the store and getting it direct from the Factory Farm...but I love ducks, so I don't want to WATCH them die).

It also didn't help that Clinton Lake is a little hard to navigate the first couple times around. We were expecting a circular or oval type body of water that we could drive around. After I finally broke down and purchased DeLorme's Illinois Atlas and Gazateer, I realized that the lake is shaped more like a big squashed finger, with various access points to drive in and out of. If you're not from the area and want to check out the lake, I recommend opening up Birding Illinois on one side and the Gazateer on the other and plotting out the points with a least that's how I finally figured it out.

At first, I thought that today the curse was going to continue. I stopped off first at the Clinton Lake Marina, and then a bit down the road to Mascoutin Recreation Area, scanning any open water I could find for ducks, and this is what I saw:

Do you see any ducks in that photo? Or even a Canada goose? Yeah, me neither.... So I fumed for a while, wondering why on earth I kept hoping to change my Clinton Lake luck and regretting the expense of driving out there.

But, I remembered a hiking trail that Sunwiggy and I had seen before, and decided would be nice to try if the weather were better (the Houseboat Cove trail at Mascoutin), and I figured, if I can't see birds, I can at least have a good walk.

My mood improved as soon as I got out of the car and started walking. That's why I love -- no, make that NEED -- as many "nature breaks" as I can get for my sanity. Just a few minutes strolling across a field or into a woods, and I feel like a whole different person.

I noticed animal tracks in the snow, maybe a raccoon?

There were a few birds along the path--robins, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, a northern flicker, plus a cool sighting of a rough-legged hawk--but mostly I was just enjoying being in nature.

The snow clinging to the long grasses looked really cool:

Sorry all the pictures are so dark--it was a really gray and moody day, perfect for a Long Solitary Walk. Not so perfect for photography, which is why I decided against using the telephoto lens and so you're getting nice landscape pictures instead of bird close ups. (And trust me, I like bird close-ups better too!)

The trail bordered the lake for much of its length. Despite the lack of water birds, it was fun to be so close to the water, plus I got to see things like this:

Is it just me, or is that funny? It's like...sshh, be quiet...the fish are spawning! (Just for the record, whatever it takes for fish to spawn--I did not disturb them!)

Then I came to a fork in the road:

At first, I decided to be lazy and take the short way back, a fortuitous choice, as I saw downy woodpeckers and a tufted titmouse (singing peter peter peter), but I could hear ducks quacking not too far off, and the short way was heading away from the lake, so I backtracked and took the longer route.

There were ducks--mostly mallards, from the quick glimpses I got, although I also saw some hooded mergansers and two pairs of (year birds) blue winged teals. It turns out that the ducks were avoiding the open water in favor of this:

This was a frustrating length of trail, for as soon as I came within eye-shot of them, the ducks took off in a quacking panic. And yet...on Friday I saw tons of them bobbing around on the pond in front of State Farm, in the middle of town, in front of God and everybody, and not a care in the world. Are ducks smart enough to realize they'll never be hunted in the middle of a city, and yet to be wary out here in the boondocks? In any case, I felt bad, both because I couldn't get a good look at them, and because I hate to disturb them. The life of a bird is so very, very hard---they need their rest!

Before too long, the trail forked away from the lake again, cutting across a couple of fields with an old-fashioned sort of edge habitat bisecting them:

Perhaps originally, these trees were planted as a windbreak, back when farms were on more of a human scale. Whatever their origin, the line of trees was not only surprisingly charming, but a veritable habitat for cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, and white-breasted nuthatches...with crows gleaning the fields.

Before the trail wound back to the parking area, there was a vista that struck me as being the epitome of what I love about Illinois--the sense of space and sky, the eternal vastness of the landscape. It takes a very particular person to fall in love with the prairie, but I am one of them.

It was only half past noon, and I was nowhere near calling my birding day over, so on the way home, I stopped at Weldon Springs State Recreation Area outside of Clinton, IL. There's really not a lot to Weldon Springs, and it hasn't gotten mentioned in any birding guides that I know of, but I will always have a soft spot for it because the very first birding trip Sunwiggy and I ever went on, back in 2004, was to Weldon Springs to see the ruby-throated hummingbirds feasting upon jewelweed. Besides, this small park has a lake and a prairie, and has yet to be surrounded by windfarms, so what more could I ask for?

Well, for starters...a new body. Mine definitely protested as I got myself back out of the car, reminding me that not only had I just walked a five mile loop, but yesterday, in an attempt to get back into shape, I did the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque Dance workout video--not only potentially embarrassing, but also more than my muscles bargained for. (Some reviewers on Amazon complained that it was not a good workout. Well, they are not 40 years old and out of shape!)

I parked by Veteran's Point, an area commemorating those who have served our country. Since both Greenturtle and I are in that category, this seems like a fine idea to me, but some of the artwork is beyond me:

Yeah, a bit weird, right? Also, the two-mile (I believe) walk around the trail involves a lot of stairs and hills, and my muscles were already saying, "No thanks!" I clearly remembered how last summer, on a very hot and humid day, I became dizzy with dehydration and stumbled on one particular staircase, banging my shin so hard that I had a huge bruised knot on it for two weeks. This is the scene of that debacle:

This is where we get into Mind Over Matter: my body wanted to call it quits, but my mind wanted more birds, more fun, more photos, so on I went. I was a little skeptical, wondering how many new species I would get that day. Along the lake trail, a pair of buffleheads (I know! Years in between sightings and then two in one weekend! They were just as precious this time around!), and also more ring-billed gulls, cardinals, blue jays, and downy woodpeckers, but mostly I saw Canada geese:

So when I had a chance to veer off onto the prairie, I did so. Have I mentioned lately how much I love prairies?

This turned out to be a good choice! I got a lot of new species for the day, including Cooper's hawk, white-throated sparrow, goldfinch, house sparrow (not usually exciting, but a "county bird" for me) and American tree sparrow.

I also got some cool views of old milkweed pods. Maybe you have to be a plant nerd to appreciate this:

After my jaunt across the prairie (due to the season, I did not do the whole loop), I made myself finish the lake trail, despite the number of stairs involved...and in the end, was glad I did, as I got three more new species: a hairy woodpecker, a pair of ruddy ducks, and a swamp sparrow in the wetlands where, in the fall, the hummingbirds congregate.

No hummingbirds today:

So although I do not consider my "Clinton Lake Curse" to be broken, it was a good birding day overall, and I will leave you with a final piece of advice, courtesy of Weldon Springs: