Saturday, April 30, 2011

Curses, foiled again!

There is a thing called the nemesis bird. This is the species that you quest for relentlessly, like the Arthurian knights after the Holy Grail, and yet, like sinful Lancelot rather than the spotless Galahad, you just can't find.

I have such a species. It is officially called the yellow-headed blackbird. I have various other words for it, which I will not repeat here, for although I have too much of a potty-mouth to advertise myself as "family friendly," there are certain words I just don't want to attach to myself in print. I use them though. Frequently. Like whenever I go out looking for yellow-headed blackbirds.

This is the third year I have been searching for one. Today I decided to forgo my usual location, Moraine Hills State Park in northern Illinois, as: one, it is a very long drive from Bloomington; and two, I've never seen a yellow-headed blackbird there anyway. I once met a group of birders who bragged about the YH BBs they saw, and even played the calls of said YH BBs to me on their iphone for good measure, but as for the actual blackbird, no.

Instead, I talked Greenturtle into a trip to the Hennepin Hopper Lakes, an Important Bird Area managed by The Wetlands Initative in Putnum County, as the blackbirds have been seen there as well.

The rain that had been in the forecast all week did not materialize, but it was windy. So windy that I quickly left the observation tower and huddled below, checking out the double-crested cormorants and great egrets I'd glimpsed from above from ground level.

We then headed down the road a bit. There were tons of red-winged blackbirds, grackles and starlings, but not a single yellow-headed blackbird in sight. So frustrating! The most common species in residence seemed to be the American coot.

The height of duck migration appears to be well and truly past now. A month earlier, this place was probably thick with various species, but today, duck-wise, all we saw in this area were a few northern shovelers.

Before the Seep Trail, Greenturtle wandered out onto the dock for a while. I stayed back, avoiding the wind. He snapped a few photos, then came back, announcing that I had just missed a sandpiper.

"What'd it look like?" I said.

"Long legs, short yellow beak, walking around the grasses."

"That sounds like a SORA!" Elusive, skulker year bird alert! "Why didn't you tell me there was a sora out there????"

"Well, it's back in the grasses now."

I charged down the deck, at first seeing nothing...but eventually the sora did come out again, creeping furtively in the long grasses. This was lucky for all involved, for observing an exciting "year bird" all on your own, especially a species that is so elusive, and not sharing it...well, we won't even go into the consequences that might ensue.

If you look very closely, you might make out the sora in this photo.

There were also many American white pelicans in this area.

As we embarked along the trail, there were chipping, song, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows; yellow, yellow-rumped and palm warblers; an eastern towhee; black-capped chickadees; an eastern bluebird, and a barred owl. Again, if you search the photos carefully, you might spot it.

Even this early in the season, the "seep trail" was a little buggy, making me remember why we didn't follow it to its conclusion last July. But the bugs were still at a bearable level, and since I had never been all the way to the end of the trail, there was a bit of a "spirit of adventure," even though I have visited these wonderful wetlands several times.

As we walked along, I heard a bird singing witchety witchety witchety in the grasses, yet I couldn't spot it, much to my dismay, as this is the song of one of my favorite species, the common yellowthroat. I eventually did spot a pair of them through my binoculars, an extra-special year bird for me, as I await for their return so impatiently every spring.

We also saw, and heard, another one of my favorites (and I suspect a favorite of many), the Baltimore oriole. He wouldn't stay still long enough for Greenturtle to get a good "shot" at him, but here he is.

As it turns out, the trail ends at the levee between the Hennepin-Hopper lakes and the Illinois River, and we were able to walk along the ridge for a long ways...who knows how far it goes; we turned back before the end.

The Illinois River was extremely high, the water rough and muddy, although we did scare some hysterical wood ducks when we peered over the levee.

I wish that, 90% of the time I spot one, my view of a wood duck didn't involve it taking off immediately thereafter, which such piteous cries. Considering the delight that duck hunting season brings to many, I can't blame them, but for my sake, I wish ducks weren't so twitchy.

And speaking of twitchy birds, it was funny watching groups of coots scatter away from us by running across the top of the water with their wings flapping and their huge feet dashing across the surface...wish we had a picture of that. But if you really want to see it for yourself, go scare some coots and watch the spectacle.

We wandered along the levee for a long time, commenting on the height of the river and talking about life in general, the sort of conversation that is so much easier at a place like the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands--that is, a place of such peace and solitude, open skies and no sounds but the birds, and the wind over the grasses, and the lapping of the water. Such places are becoming increasingly rare in our world, and yet when I find them, I discover that stress disappears as if it had never existed, and it is so much easier to see through our false priorities to the true heart of the matter. This is probably one of the reasons I like these wetlands so much. True, they are extremely birdy, an important bird area indeed. But they are also so peaceful and secluded, probably the most so of all my central Illinois birding hot spots.

There was quite a bit of detritus washed along the shoreline by the recent storms, including one that fooled Greenturtle for a moment into thinking it was the real article:

To be honest, the birding along this stretch wasn't that good. Mostly I saw robins, mourning doves and starlings, not too exciting, though I did get a quick view of a waterthrush (I think northern, though I must stress that it was a very quick look).

Greenturtle found some turtles (red-eared sliders):

Just before we turned back, we saw a barge going by. As we watched it pass, one of the barge workers waved to us, and as we waved back, I said, "You know, I bet my dad would be more excited about seeing this than all the birds we saw today combined."

So, Dad, this barge is for you.

We saw few new species on our way back, just a red-tailed hawk and a belted kingfisher, but the peace of the day, and the joy at seeing so many of my favorites return, was such that I forgot to be incensed by the lack of yellow-headed blackbirds.

After this, we headed off for Starved Rock State Park...but as I've rambled on so long, that part will have to wait for tomorrow.

In the meantime, happy birding!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring in the U.P.: by Sunwiggy

Finally, Sunwiggy has consented to do another guest blog post detailing her birding adventures in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I think she was sulking about all the snow, but perhaps finally spring has traveled that far north?

I was going to title this guest blog, "Spring Has Sprung in the UP", but that would be misleading; in fact, it might even construed as a lie. Spring in the Far North is more like a sullen actress that has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the stage, and then, at the first opportunity, dives back behind the curtain. This past weekend, April the 23rd and April the 24th, will serve to illustrate my point. On Saturday, the 23rd, we woke to snow drifting down past the window. A peek from the window showed us a whole lot of cold and hungry tree sparrows and juncos and pigeons, and one truly hysterical blue jay, jostling for space at the feeders, while one chipmunk and one rabbit waited for spills down below.

I wasn't about to let this revolting development change my birding plans, though. We were going out to Rice Lake and look for ducks. I figured, correctly, that it hadn't gotten cold enough overnight to refreeze an entire lake. By the time we set out, the snow had been replaced by fog and mizzle (very light rain). By the time we reached the lake, the fog had lifted and it had mostly stopped mizzling, allowing us to set up the scope. And what feathered wonders awaited us! We saw a common loon, and both hooded and common mergansers, ring-necked ducks (although the ring is on their bill, not their neck), mallard ducks, common goldeneyes, and, on a telephone wire, a very handsome kingfisher. What bliss. Of course, there were lots of gulls, one of my husband's favorite birds. Farther down the road, we saw a nice grouse, and regrettably exchanged some heated words, debating as to whether it was a ruffed or spruce grouse. The words got a little more heated when we realized neither one of us had remembered to bring along even one of the dozen bird guides we own!

The very next day, Easter Sunday, was sunny and warm and clear and just about perfect in every way. It got into the 60s! We talked our younger son into accompanying us on a trip to the Nara Nature Center. James, our son, is not a fan of birds or birding. Living, as he does, with a spoiled and cranky and LOUD sun conure, plus having to listen to bird talk 24/7, has given him an aversion to anything with feathers on it. When we invite him to come with us, I plan to hike more and bird less. It helps to ask him to take photos, too, which he's good at. Nara is great for birding. We started on the 3/4-mile-long boardwalks that extend through a marsh into Portage Lake. About 10 days earlier, we'd seen a pair of sandhill cranes and a great blue heron there. The prize Easter Sunday was a coot! Ms. Crow, in Illinois, had been reporting tons of coots, lolling around in lakes and ponds. One had finally made an effort, and reached us here in the UP! I have a special fondness for coots, ever since watching one rearranging her nesting material, in Illinois. There were other recent arrivals, too, tree swallows and flickers and song sparrows, among others. Ah, Spring at last, I thought.

And today, Monday the 25th of April, was another warm, beautiful day, as my customers kept telling me as I rang them up on the register at work. Alas, the rest of the week is reportedly going to be rain...mixed with snow. That old "wintry mix". At least they're saying there won't be any accumulation of the white stuff! Still, I'm catching on. It snows in springtime, it melts, and the crocus don't really care, and the birds slowly keep coming North. The ice has melted from the lakes and (most likely) will stay gone. Barring a blizzard, my next day off will see me out there birding again! Now, if I could just get up to the top of Brockway Mountain to look for migrating hawks, I'd be really happy! Maybe the road up there will be able to be navigated by mid-May! ...Sunwiggy

Monday, April 25, 2011

Urban bird round-up

Yesterday, in defiance of the weatherman, it did not rain! To celebrate, I decided to go to Ewing Park here in town, hoping to get there early enough that most of the dog-walkers would still be at church. My goal was simple: warblers, warblers and more warblers. And other spring migrants of course. I knew it was still a little early in the season, but having just seen the blue-winged warbler on my watery excursion the day before, I was keen to see more of them.

It was one of those archetypal spring mornings, the faintest hint of chill in the air offset by the gentle sunshine, flowers blooming, the buds on the trees beginning to open into greenery. I wandered around as if awestruck by the light after the previous week of clouds and gloom.

But what I didn't see: birds. Everyone else sees birds at Ewing Park! Seriously, one could get a complex about things like that! There were crows cawing and cardinals singing and a pair of blue jays. I wandered for a while, adding ruby-crowned kinglets and chickadees. Humph.... Obviously ruby-crowned kinglets and chickadees are cute and everything--I mean, who wouldn't like them? And would you even want to meet that person?--but I think it goes without saying that they are just not on the same level as a mixed flock of spring warblers.

I continued to scour the park. I criss-crossed the scrubby area in the middle that is frequently birdy, skulked and lurked along every row of trees and shrubs -- pausing to wonder now and then if the Siberian husky has become the new "it" dog since every other dog-walker seemed to have one in tow (and yes, they are handsome dogs) -- and for my efforts, got another good handful of ruby-crowned kinglets. Also a brown thrasher and a pair of hermit thrushes.

It's strange how thrushes and thrashers, though very similar in coloration (brown on top, white and spotted underneath), have quite different "vibes." Thrushes always seem like such gentle, sweet birds. But thrashers have an attitude. This is partly because of the devious look in their eyes. Also perhaps because, unlike the haunting and melodious songs of the thrushes, brown thrashers sing insistently, repeating everything at least two some people we know, as Sunwiggy has pointed out.

I did hear the buzzy trilling of chipping sparrows, and the plaintive cry of white-throated sparrows (pining for Sam Peabody), and saw a Cooper's hawk soaring overhead. Just as I was getting ready to write Ewing Park off as a waste of time and effort, I saw an orange-crowned warbler on my way out of the park, right before another Siberian-husky walker ambled past. Which was a life bird of sorts. I think I saw one before, but I am always a little hesitant to add a new bird to my Life List unless 100% sure, and it was in its fall plumage. Sometimes I wish birds would carry around little nametags to make it all easier, though I suppose that might take away some of the fun.

Total count for Ewing: 14 species in one hour. Not so hot for a spring morning, so I decided to continue the Urban Bird Round-up with a trip to Angler's Pond, the tangled and overgrown pond by which I work. Though I look over the pond at least once a day (when not raining), I rarely have as much time as I would like, as I cram the birding into timed breaks or the half hour before work. Plus, according to ebird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology database, someone saw a black-crowned night heron there last week. Which kinda annoys me, actually, thinking about how I was mere yards away from said night heron, toiling away in front of my computer, and still missed it completely. (What can I say? It was RAINING!)

I took a good hour here too, prowling into the most tangled and inaccessible corners of the pond, but no night herons did I see. I did see two green herons, a couple of eastern towhees, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a variety of sparrows, as well as a slew of the usual suspects. I almost tripped over a Canada goose's nest--she lunged at me, hissing furiously. I stepped back quickly, but not before catching a glimpse of the precious eggs revealed in that moment she rose up.

I saw two other geese on their nests--and a pair of proud parents escorting their goslings across the pond. Hooray, the first of the season! Soon the lawn by my workplace will be a veritable nursery of young geese! I can't wait.

Total species for Angler's Pond, 20, again in about an hour.

The birding fury was still upon me, so my next stop was the Constitution Trail that runs along the State Farm Corporate South campus. The large pond was virtually deserted, in contrast to Angler's, which was absolutely crowded with Canada geese, American coots and pied-billed grebes. The State Farm pond is packed with all species of ducks at the peak of migration, so I wonder what the difference is now?

Maybe the grounds are just too manicured. My first impression is always, This is just too sanitary and sterile-looking! Give me some weeds and dandelions and a scrubby overgrown patch... There were some flowering trees, and more chipping sparrows buzzing away, but I did not have high hopes for the excursion. The most abundant birds were, in fact, our suburban friends: American robins, common grackles, European starlings, and mourning doves.

There were some great surprises, though. Flickers, yellow-rumped warblers, more ruby-crowns, more brown thrashers, a pair of eastern phoebes, an Eastern meadowlark (singing so plaintively...I love the purity of those tones), and perhaps my favorite: a Carolina wren! Again, in about an hour, I got 22 species.

By now it was lunchtime, so I went home to refresh myself, and then decided to take one final walk, down to Tipton Pond and back, which I could do on foot, even better. I debated for a moment if I should grab the camera. I hadn't earlier, because I've learned that peering in the treetops with the camera strap around me just increases that affliction known as "warbler neck," and I still have trouble getting good views of those quickly flitting birds with my binoculars, let alone taking their photo. But I wasn't expecting to see warblers at Tipton, and it's nice to have some photos for the Blog. Still, I decided just to wander freely and not worry about it.

As soon as I came in view of the pond, I could have kicked myself. No camera, what was I thinking? There were six mute swans floating around on the pond, an unusual sight here in town. One of them took flight while I was strolling about, and I could really appreciate what large, ponderous birds they are. The swan had to "taxi" along the water for a while, and when it hoisted itself aloft, the sound of its flapping wings was quite loud. For reasons only the swan can know, it flew across the heavily trafficked Airport Road and landed on someone's lawn, while the other five paddled around the pond, looking regal and swan-like.

I got more good sightings here, including blue-winged teal (they've been hanging out for the past two or three weeks), another green heron, and a year bird for me, rough-winged swallows. (As I did not bring a camera, the swallows in the photo above are there to represent swallows in general, not these in particular. The photo above was taken by Greenturtle at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, and feature a pair of bank swallows, not rough-winged swallows.)

Total for this park: 21 species.

It was a pretty good day for urban birds, with a combined total of 38 species and plenty of fresh air and exercise. The prize for the Ubiquitous Birds, the ones seen at every stop--American crow, mallard, northern cardinal, ruby-crowned kinglet, American robin, and European starling. If I repeat this project in a month, the kinglets will have moved on, but the rest should still be there.

Today, I would have loved to go back with my camera and hope the swans had lingered, but guess what? RAIN! In the morning, my pre-work bird walk...canceled due to rain! My hoped-for Swan Walk after work--guess what, more rain! And I won't even bother mentioning what's predicted in the forecast well into the weekend....

If you're a listing freak such as me, I invite you to give your town, wherever it may be, a similar experiment. After all, robins and starlings can be kinda dull (at least here in central Illinois), but not if you're wondering if you'll see at least one at every location you visit!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Flood lands

Perhaps you recall my mentioning, in recent posts, that central Illinois has been experiencing an excess of April showers lately? Suffice to say that Friday I was starting to wonder if it was time to build another Ark. And because I have no common sense, yesterday, when confronted with a gloriously rain free day, I decided to go to Humiston Woods in Livingston County.

This was a lapse in judgment because of all of the birding hot-spots that I like to visit, Humiston woods is probably the muddiest, floodiest, soggiest, boggiest location. The trail along the Vermilion River becomes submerged, the trails on higher ground turn into little creeks, and even the savanna and tallgrass prairie become distinctly squelchy.

I wasn't thinking of any of that. I just didn't want to miss my spring trip to Humiston woods. Over the past few years, it's become a sort of tradition that I go there at least once in early spring and then once again in late summer, to look for the earliest migrating warblers. Poor Greenturltle wanted to spend some quality couple's time and volunteered to come with me, which is extra nice considering the fact that the natural phenomenon he hates most is mud. He reminds me of a cat dabbing its paws along the trail, trying to keep clean and tidy. So I took his coming along as the loving gesture that it was. (Me? Mud, schmud, that's what hiking clothes and hot showers afterwards are for!)

When we pulled up, the woods spread out before us in a carpet of bluebells.

Oh, yes, this is going to be a good walk, with warblers and wildflowers galore, thought I. I hurried to the overlook of the Vermilion River, to see how high it was.

Very impressive!

With the river that high, I knew we'd be unable to take the "low road," the trail that descends to its banks, so we walked on the higher ground. Squelch, squelch, squelch. The trail was pretty much underwater. We passed the picnic area.

You know that joke, "Here's your sign?" Well, this was my sign that the flooding was outta control. The picnic area is quite a ways up from the river. On my many trips to Humiston woods -- some of them quite muddy -- I had never seen it under water.

We pressed on. The trail itself became submerged.

Including all the wildflowers:

We got to a point where we could either ford the flooded area, or turn back. We decided to do some wading. After all, we would soon be on higher ground. (Famous last words.)

By the way, the water was quite chilly. In fact, my ankles felt a blast of incipient rheumatism. Still, it was fun, as if I were the rugged early explorer I'd like to be, even though the only birds I'd seen for my troubles up to this point were robins.

We passed the heron rookery, and saw some great blue herons flying to and from their scraggly nests. I also saw a yellow-rumped warbler in the flooded area. The trail rose upwards for a while, until we got to the junction of the Vermilion River trail and Wolf Creek.

Hoo boy, this is not good! Normally, the banks along Wolf Creek where it joins the Vermilion are quite high up. I don't know how many feet exactly--suffice to say that I usually look DOWN at the creek -- and now the two were joined together into one indistinguishable body of muddy water.

In this area, we flushed a pair of wood ducks, and I also saw a couple of belted kingfishers flying past.

Greenturtle, seeing the high ground on the other side of Wolf Creek, wondered if we could wade over to it. I protested that the creek bed lay in between us and the point of dryness, and that furthermore, even if we did succeed in getting there (which we wouldn't), there's no way in H-E-double hockeysticks we'd manage to cross back to the main trail. He was insistent upon checking it out, so I finally just shrugged and asked, "Can you swim?" Reassured on that count, I took the camera and his smart phone just in case he plunged over his head precipitously.

Realizing that the water was getting too deep, he headed back, and we continued along our way. I noticed some movement in the branches above me, raised my binoculars, and saw...a few chickadees and a blue-winged warbler. The latter was a life bird for me (though I recognized it on sight, having studied its photo for many seasons in hopes of spotting one), and as I was horsing around in my birding triumph, I stumbled too close to the drop-off point, and for a moment felt nothing but water beneath my feet. Ironic that after admonishing Greenturtle for getting too close to the creek bed, I almost fell face forward into it myself! There was no current to speak of, and I can swim, but it would have done nothing good for my binoculars.

Luckily, I managed to stagger back before submerging, although wetter and muddier than ever. Finally, we staggered up for high ground although it was away from any trail. What trail? The whole area along Wolf Creek was completely flooded.

Squelch, splash, squelch...across the oak savanna. Squelch, splash, squelch...along the tallgrass prairie. By this point, it had stopped being fun anymore. To be honest I was so grateful to get back to our car and out of my wet hiking boots!

But would I do it again? For a life bird? Of course! Because once dried off and snug in one's home again, it's just a wacky adventure with a life bird thrown in for good measure!

So what's the craziest thing you've ever done to get a good bird? Or, if you're not a birder, have you ever gone to extremes in pursuit of your hobby?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mystical birds of the Middle East

Quick, off the top of your head, how many mythological or legendary birds can you think of? And what are they symbolic of?

If you're like me, the first thing that comes to mind is the phoenix, "the bird of fire," a symbol of rebirth and renewal, as the creature can literally rise again out of its own ashes. With a different twist, the phoenix is also an important symbol in Eastern imagery and legend. After that, maybe the roc? Which, as an imaginary beastie, is perhaps a symbol of mayhem against unsuspecting explorers?

Originally I had planned to go birding and looking at wildflowers today, having the good fortune to get Good Friday off work as a paid holiday. I'd been dreaming of it all month, an extra day to wander through woods and fields in the gentle spring sunshine, looking for more spring migrants.... Alas, the weather has been downright penitential, alternating between drizzle, heavy rain and ultimate downpour.

So, I decided to learn something new, opened up my laptop, and typed "mythological birds" into my search engine. And although there was lots of stuff on the phoenix, as expected, I was actually most taken with the story of the Persian variant of that creature, the Simurgh.

In the above photo, the man appears to be fighting the Simurgh, which I'm a bit puzzled by, as the bird is a benevolent creature. The Simurgh is an important figure in Persian legend, and its legend has spread throughout Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Central Asia. The Turks call it -- or rather she, as the Simurgh is definitely female-- the Anka Bird, and in the Kurdish tongue she is known as Simir.

In some depictions, she is presented as a griffin-like conglomeration of various animal parts, large enough to grab a whole elephant in her talons. She is so old that some legends claim that she has seen the destruction of the world three times, and thus has all the knowledge of the ages, and roosts in the Tree of Life. Phoenix-like, every couple of millenia, she plunges herself into fire in order to be reborn.

If this barrage of random Simurgh factoids sounds like I'm just cobbling together random notes taken while scanning Wikipedia articles on the Internet...well, guilty as charged! Consider this Mystical Birds 101. And if you're wondering about my sources...they're from the aforementioned Wikipedia and other sites that came up on the first page of my search, which in the spirit of academic honesty I should document, but sometimes I am a bit lazy. (I do believe all the pictures are common domain or not copyrighted, but if I've stolen yours, please let me know.)

One of the things I found most interesting is that in Sufi poetry and symbolism, the Simurgh can be seen as a metaphor for God and the spiritual quest. I fully intend to explore this in more detail, and read the twelfth-century work "Conference of the Birds" by the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, about a group of pilgrims questing for the bird, as this blend of birds/comparative religion/spirituality is right up my alley!

I was also intrigued by all the images of the Simurgh from modern artists, some of which are very beautiful, making me wonder how I can get ahold of good reproductions. It appears that, like all vibrant symbols from the past, this is an image that continues to speak to people.

Another mystical bird is the Melek Taus of the Yazidi, a Kurdish religious group. From my quick introduction, I understand that the Yazidi religion is a blend of traditional Kurdish beliefs and Sufism, and that they believe that God placed the care of the world under seven holy beings, the most important one being Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.

Jewish tradition also has a legendary bird, the Ziz, a giant, griffin-like creature that can block out the sun with its wingspan as it soars past. The Ziz is considered a symbol of air and space, as Behemoth represents the land and Leviathan the seas. Some legends state that the Ziz was created to protect all the small, helpless birds of the which case, it's definitely time for the Ziz to pay us a visit.

If all of these mystical birds sound a bit far-fetched to you (how I would love to add them to my life list, though), consider the fact that bird symbolism plays a part in the Western tradition as well, as my favorite painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti shows.

And now, the rain appears to have stopped for a while--there's even a hint of sunshine peeking through--so it's time for this birder to put down the computer and go for a walk!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The treadmill (and birds in the mist)

This post is not so much about birding as not birding. And as to why I haven't been birding, the answer to that would be: the weather. As far as I'm concerned, it's just about the worst of all possible combinations: gray, rainy, windy, damp and cold. You know, where the gloomy, dark skies incite depression and the combination of damp and cold ensures that the wind goes right to the bones. And it's supposed to be like this for the next week!

I know, it's like that joke...everybody complains about the weather, and nobody does anything about it! And I've only lived two places where the weather did not periodically make me miserable, Hawaii and California. If my favorite hobby didn't involve being outside, it wouldn't be so bad.

Yesterday after work, the terminal grayness of the afternoon had turned to a thick fog, but it wasn't too windy, so I decided that, since birding wasn't too feasible, I would try to get back in shape by going for a short run/walk along the Constitution Trail. It actually was a little fun, though I am woefully out of shape. Birding keeps me moving, but usually at quite a slow pace.

With the darkness and the fog, I didn't feel I was missing much. I saw a pair of mallards in a puddle, consummating their passion for each other. This is the second time I've seen mallards "doing it," and it never looks very fun for the female duck, that's all I can say. The other time I saw them was on a pond, and the poor female was actually being dunked under the water. Well, that's all I will say on the topic of mallard love, I promise.

I also saw some mourning-dove shaped blots against the sky, and I heard a male cardinal singing. The fog was so thick that even his brilliant redness was reduced to shades of gray.

As I shuffled along, I wondered if birding takes up too much of my mental space and energy. I love birding unapologetically, but whenever I'm birding there are so many other things I'm not doing. Such as, working out, reading, brushing up on my foreign languages (I have studied, with varying degrees of fluency, French, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish and Irish, and would like to learn German and Russian, if only I had the time!), working on my creative writing, experimenting with my art supplies, knitting, doing yoga.... The list of things I'd like to do goes on and on. (At least birding is a better use of one's time than vegging in front of the TV for hours.)

As I think about it, the answer becomes clear--the problem is not birding. I could bird and do other things with time to spare...if it weren't for my job. Work is the problem!

Now, with unemployment so high and the economy so bad, objectively speaking, I am glad to have a job. And it's not a terrible job. The pay isn't too bad, I have benefits, it's not horrible or degrading or anything. On one level, it's what lets me bird, instead of worrying about where my next meal is coming from. Intellectually, I see that, and am grateful for it.

On the other hand, it's the biggest waste of time ever. I feel like I'm on a treadmill, going nowhere at all as I put one foot in front of the other endlessly...and as far as exercise goes, I hate treadmills and all other exercise machines. Running or stepping endlessly in place, watching the depressing tally of calories burned flash before me, going nowhere until the allotted time is up.... Not for me! But, I can ramble around outside all day long, paying no attention whatsoever to the time.

I understand that the problem is not isolated to myself. So many people are unfulfilled at work, just existing weekend to weekend. Suffice to say that's not really a good life.

When I can squeeze in birding before and after work, and on my breaks, I get through the days okay. When the weather is bad for days on end on top of it, it's hard to keep one's spirits up. And why by three o'clock do I always feel like a zombie, yawning and dim-witted and dreaming of the vending machine? Let's just say that left to my own devices, I could never sit still, or in front of a computer, for so many hours a day.

My goal is to find a job that doesn't feel like a complete waste of time, besides the paycheck.... If only I could be paid to bird!

Meanwhile, the sun has to come out again, sooner or later. And I'll be ready for it, binoculars in hand!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The enchanted floodplain (spring ephemerals)

Summer and winter seem to last forever. Fall is a lovely season, but lately the close of the warm season, and the departure of the birds, a little death of sorts, has been depressing to me.

Spring is one of the best seasons for birding, and it is quick, that tiny window when everything bursts forth in perfection. You have to be really paying attention to catch it. A couple weeks' preoccupation and it is gone, the flowers faded, the leaves unfurled.

Ephemeral = lasting a very short time; transitory. As in, the wildflowers that bloom for a week or two, after the spring sunshine has arrived and fading with the closing of the canopy into leaves. Here in Illinois, these include: spring beauties, marsh marigold, Virginia bluebells, blue-eyed mary, dutchmen's breeches, red (and occasionally white) trillium, and shooting stars.

My reluctance to miss the wildflowers was part of what swayed me into going to Parklands Merwin Preserve this weekend, instead of the more local option of Ewing Park here in town. As I lay in bed this morning, my Green Angel and my Consuming Angel had a brief debate in my mind as I pondered where to bird today.

Green Angel
: Just go to Ewing Park; it's so close, you could even walk there and get some extra exercise on the way.

Consuming Angel: No way, that park is small and boring. You want a nice long hike in nature, right? Go to Parklands!

Green Angel: Sure, Parklands is nice, but with gas almost $4.00 a gallon and the new drilling in the Gulf to resume, wouldn't it be less self-indulgent to walk to Ewing? Besides, people have seen some warblers there!

Consuming Angel: There's warblers in Parklands, too, and it won't be full of noisy people walking their dogs! Besides, the bluebells are blooming....

DONE! And the winner is...Consuming Angel! Because who wouldn't want to see the bluebells?

It really was a lovely day for a nature walk, sunny and just a little chilly...especially when the wind picked up...and the wind is like, always blowing here in the flatlands! So, OK, a bit chilly and I will be so grateful when I can stop wearing an extra layer when I go out, but the sun was shining and I'll take what I can get, especially since the last two days were rainy and gray. (And since Sunwiggy has reported that, up in her new homeland of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, it is snowing with a vengeance this weekend!)

My first bird sighting, as I pulled up to Parklands' west gate, was of an eastern towhee singing "Your tea! Your tea!" from a wire.

I will warn you now, I had the worst time getting bird photos today. They were all either perching way up high in the treetops, or skulking in the shrubbery, or insistent upon staying in the shadows. Some days are like that.

There was also a brown thrasher in the parking area, and as I walked into the woods, a brown creeper and a slew of white-breasted nuthatches. I was a little disappointed not to see any red-headed woodpeckers or eastern bluebirds, which normally love the open, savanna-like area above the Mackinaw River, but none of those were apparent today.

The river was beautiful in the sunlight.

I thought, for a moment, how different it had looked in winter--for comparison, you can see the photos we took on our Winter Walk.

As the trail descended to the Mackinaw's floodplain, the true magic of the woods revealed itself, a carpet of bluebells stretching in every direction.

I turned the other way, and it was still all bluebells.

The only birds I could see were robins, but at least they were surrounded by bluebells.

There is something so utterly magical about being surrounded by vast swathes of bluebells. When people thought of fairies and enchantments, bluebells or similar wildflowers must have been nearby.

Parklands doesn't normally have a wide variety of spring ephemerals, but I also saw some red trillium:

And spring beauties:

And although they won't bloom for another couple of weeks, evidence that there will be many a mayapple:

And the Lord Voldemort of the plant kingdom, ready to spread out and do evil as soon as it gets its chance, garlic mustard:

Unfortunately, I saw plenty of those while I was walking around. Soon they will form delicate little white blossoms on top...and then they'll grow and grow like a straggly weed, and propagate themselves far and wide, and take over the whole forest...goodbye, bluebells and trilliums! If I were a Dalek (any other Doctor Who fans out there?), I would yell, "Exterminate! Exterminate!" at the very sight of them.

There was a lot of excitement in the plant world today, as you can see, but the birding remained disappointing. I did see a Canada goose along the river.

As soon as it saw me it starting honking for its mate.

And then the two of them started swimming along the river, honking in tandem.

And honking and honking. (OMG, a human, a human!) Has anyone ever tried to tell you how peaceful it is to be out in nature? Yeah, don't believe them. At least Canada geese don't (yet!) demand your wallet....

In a tangled, thorny area by the creek, I saw white-throated sparrows and more eastern towhees. They were all skulking in the underbrush, but this was their preferred habitat.

Shortly after this, I saw my first house wrens of the season, but they were skulking, too. The hermit thrush I tried to photograph also took off before I could the camera up. The only bird that would hold still for a moment was--guess what?--a robin.

I took a short walk onto the oak savanna, where a mammoth oak tree holds its court.

I have always loved oaks, be they white oaks, red oaks, bur oaks, chinquapin oaks, or the lovely dancing live oaks of Texas. Nothing like an oak to get your animistic spirits up! They are trees with such a presence.

Right before I left, I did see a red-headed woodpecker by the savanna area. What a relief! Since they are birds in decline, I always like to know they're happy and healthy in their known locations. I haven't seen any at Evergreen Lake for a couple of years now, for example, which kind of bothers me.

After this, I drove around to the South Gate for a quick walk, getting a few new species for the day: chipping sparrows in the pines, giving their buzzy songs; a blue-gray gnatcatcher, my first for the year (and the bird I was most hoping for today, hooray!), also a quick look at a wild turkey walking down the path. I was distracted from taking the turkey's photo by a cacophony of crows harassing a hawk, but here is the evidence of its passage.

And finally, I saw an eastern bluebird in the meadow before I left, so all hoped-for species accounted for.

In case you are ever in the area, I have a word of advice, which is to ignore this sign. Don't even bother panning for gold...or dollars. It's just a name.

I did see several lovely turkey vultures in this area, however. And speaking of vultures, today is the last day that our local Borders Books store is open. If you haven't heard, many of their stores are closing, which is sad, not only because I love bookstores, but because Greenturtle worked there for several years.

I wanted to stop by since the few remaining books were going at 90% off, and it turns out that I wasn't the only one to resist a bargain. The entire store was packed.

I had to elbow my way through the crowds just to look at the few remaining books (don't worry, I succeeded!), and I even found a few good titles at bargain prices, but the whole thing is rather sad. Not only for our friends who are losing their jobs, or because I love bookstores in general. But it all goes with what I have been feeling lately, that things are always changing, and never for the better. Sunwiggy and I spent many happy hours browsing through piles of books as we sat in the cafe...and Greenturtle worked here for so long...and now it's all gone.

Well, as the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, whether it's wind farms taking over your county, or beloved stores closing, or the ephemeral pace of the seasons, "Change alone is unchanging." And he said that, what? A couple millennia ago? That doesn't make it any easier to deal with!

In the meantime, do you have any favorite wildflowers, or places to see them? Or are any recent changes getting you down?