Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Lost & Found: the Travails of Birding
Here's an impediment to birding: I often get hopelessly turned around on country roads. Also in the suburbs. Cities are confusing too. Let's face it; I tend to get lost! It's even worse when my birding buddy Sunwiggy is along, as she is the world's worst navigator. I think that Sunwiggy's motto must be, "I don't know where we're going either, but I'm pretty sure you're going the wrong way." And because she has phobias about both driving over bridges and on freeways, navigating oneself while Sunwiggy drives is not always an option.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm hopeless. On foot, out in nature, I rarely have troubles retracing my steps. And once I've found a place the first time, once I have the lay of the land, so to speak, I'm like a homing pigeon on subsequent trips. It's just brand-new places that give me this trouble. Well, most of the time....
Speaking of homing pigeons, in the book Superdove: How the Pigeon took Manhattan...and the World, author Courtney Humphries discusses many different abilities of pigeons, including their exceptional sense of direction. In fact, it seems that they have learned to use man-made landmarks, such as highway off-ramps, as landmarks. Seriously, how cool is that?
But enough about pigeons. Back to me and Sunwiggy. In our usual modus operandi, we end up criss-crossing the roads around our destination over and over, somehow managing to circle the park or nature area or other potentially birdy space, recognizing the same landmarks whizzing by again and again, and yet failing to find our destination.
Tensions mount. I start cursing like a sailor. In fact, under stress, I'll drop the f-bomb and all it's four-letter friends so frequently that my birding adventures swiftly become rated "R" for language. Sunwiggy doesn't like to curse so much, but she's a champion sulker. She'll actually develop a grudge against the place we are going, for being so difficult to locate.
All time hardest place to find: Moraine Hills State Park in northern Illinois. It's lucky my first bird sighting when we did finally happen upon it was of a common yellowthroat bathing in a puddle, because that was about the only thing that would have cheered me up at that point. Not that we saw any yellow-headed blackbirds, the species we came to see. Not that I have ever managed to see one of those! Well, better luck this year....
All time place not even worth finding: Illinois Beach State Park in February. It's known as an Illinois birding hotspot, and I'm sure it is...but not for us. We were hoping to see northern shrikes and rafts of wintering ducks, and all we actually saw were distant gulls bobbing beyond an ice-encrusted beachfront. Then on the way back we went the wrong direction and ended up in Wisconsin. Really and truly not worth the trip.
All time worst directional cluster-f*@&!--the time that, after a lovely walk around the Iroquois Conservation Area and savanna in eastern Illinois, a birding location I would recommend to anyone, we got turned around looking for our next destination on the similar-looking country roads. Finally, we found a state park and went into the visitor center to ask for directions.
The young man at the desk was very pleasant, but had never heard of the highway we were looking for...or the park we'd just left...or the small town nearest the park. We couldn't have gone more than twenty miles down the road so what kind of Twilight Zone situation could this be? As I glanced around the Visitor Center, taking in the state flag, and the local map, I figured it out.
"We're in Indiana!" How had that happened? There had been no signs...no "Welcome to Indiana" warning...and quite frankly the birds and the landscape looked exactly the same. Yet unbeknownst to us, we had strayed into a different state.
The young man took this all in stride. "Just get on this highway," he informed us, marking it on a map, "and it'll take you right back to Chicago."
As we slunk back to the car, Sunwiggy was mortified...and not because we'd accidentally ended up in the wrong state. "He thinks we're from Chicago! We are not from Chicago!" And so I wrote in my bird journal for that trip, Mistaken for Chicagans....
In this manner, I have explored more parts of Illinois than any other state I have lived in. I've seen a lot of great birds. I'll probably continue to get lost, but I do believe it has all been worth it.
And getting back to Superdove, did you know that pigeons were originally brought to this continent as a food source? They went out of favor because, since young pigeons have to be reared by their parents, they could never be intensively "factory farm" raised like chickens and turkeys. Most people I polled in my workplace stated that they would not eat a pigeon, mostly because they are perceived as being "dirty." For the record, I have never tried pigeon, but Greenturtle has, in Morocco. He said it tasted good.
So, do you ever get lost on your birding adventures? And would you (or have you) eaten a pigeon?