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.