Monday, May 2, 2011

Migration madness


I am sitting in the company of my cockatiels, laptop open, having just entered my day's sightings into ebird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology database, and feeling a sense of satisfaction at how much my year list has grown since Friday. Spring migration is upon us, and it is such a narrow window to enjoy it, two weeks or so for the really good birding, in my experience.

There's still over an hour of daylight left (granted, chilly, gloomy daylight), and yet...how did this happen? I just can't bring myself to get up. Much as I'd love to see more warblers, birding exhaustion has settled in.

The madness all started Friday afternoon, after I got off work. I quickly ate some lunch and then dashed off to Ewing Park here in town. The sun was out, it was actually even a little warm for a change, and who knows what species might be hanging out? That's one of the things I love about birding, especially during migration...I could see just about anything! (Well, within reason.)

My first "year bird" of the day was one of my favorites, the rose-breasted grosbeak, a male. (Sunwiggy and I call them "cherry pies" because the red mark on their breast looks sort of like a big, juicy cherry got smashed against their feathers.) The grosbeak appeared to be feasting on pink flowers at the top of a tree. Was he eating the petals, or little bugs contained therein, or perhaps the pollen or nectar? I don't know, but he was adorable.

I stared for a while and found a sort of poem spontaneously coming to mind. I thought:

Grosbeak,
you are not a "year bird" for my list,
you are perfection in feathers,
a moment where nothing is wanting,
beauty in microcosm,
a miracle with wings and a beating heart.


The grosbeak continued to plunge its beak into the pink blossoms, and thought: Yum!

Despite this great start, the birding was a bit slow in the park so I wandered across the field to the bluebird house. Earlier in the week, a fellow birder had alerted me to the fact that some pine warblers had stopped over in that vicinity, even telling me which tree they'd been spotted in, but when I'd gone looking for them the following day, they weren't there. I assumed they'd moved on.

So I was mostly going back to this area to see the bluebirds again, and as I approached the tree, I saw some movement in the leaves.... The pine warblers! They were still there! Not only a year bird but a first sighting in the county, hooray!

My next stop was White Oak Park, which is not as promising as Ewing for passerines, as it is basically a mile loop around a big pond (or small lake, depending on how you see it), surrounded by condos, but someone had seen purple martins there, and they would be another year bird. I walked the mile around the pond, seeing no martins. I saw martin houses, but these were all occupied by house sparrows, so I wasn't sure if the martins had been evicted and left in a sulk.

This park is close to where Greenturtle works, and I had forty-five more minutes before it was time to pick him up, so I decided to walk the loop again, and on the second pass, I found the martins, four dark purple swallows swooping overhead. I also saw a belted kingfisher perched at the pointy top of a very skinny tree, seemingly unperturbed by the music blaring his way from the sports field.

For my final walk of the day, Greenturtle and I strolled around Tipton Park, where I had my complete surprise--a common moorhen lurking in the grasses by the water. Moorhens are not at all common here in central Illinois, so it was not only a year bird, but also another first sighting in the county.

My excursion on Saturday has already been covered in my two previous posts, and despite all the hiking and running up and down stairs at Starved Rock, I only slept in a little bit on Sunday and was ready for more birding.

Greenturtle was using the car, so I walked to Ewing (it's about two miles one-way), ready for a warbler-rama! It was another beautiful sunny day (but windy...Saturday and Sunday both), and despite the fact that everyone else in town had also gone to Ewing, I saw some good year birds right off the bat: Nashville warblers, a least flycatcher, and a black-throated green warbler.

An older couple who were birding there told me that they'd seen a chestnut-sided warbler by the bridge, so after alerting them to the warblers I'd just seen, I took off in that direction, and there it was. A fellow birder of my acquaintance was trying to take its picture, but the foot traffic across the bridge was so heavy that he wasn't able to get a good shot. In fact, he expressed impatience at how crowded the park was, especially with people letting their dogs run off leash, and how just as he'd been about to take a wonderful snap of the bird, a woman walking a bloodhound and talking on her cell phone had tripped and fallen right in the middle of the bridge, flushing the bird. I pointed out that it had returned, but just as he was raising his camera more dog-walkers strode past, and he gave up and went into the field to look for sparrows.

I had a couple more good sightings, including my first blue-headed vireo of the year, a common yellowthroat, and a pair of brown thrashers skulking in the leaves (I include a picture of a thrasher above so you can see why I think they look devious!) but the as the park was growing ever more crowded, I left soon afterwards.

After lunch, I decided to try my luck at Sugar Grove nature center--being out of town and much more spacious, it would probably be easier to escape the crowds there. As soon as I arrived, the sun disappeared, the day grew downright cold, and the light was terrible for warbler sightings. This was a shame because I happened upon a magical feeding flock of warblers -- yellow rumps, black and whites, another black-throated green, Tennessee, more Nashvilles, palms, and what looked (in the ten seconds I saw it) like it might have been a northern parula! Which would have been a life bird, but in the gray light, it was so hard to make out colors, and I saw it so briefly, that I can't in good conscience add it to my life list. Curses!

In case you have never looked for warblers, I should explain that, although winsome and colorful little birds, they are a bit of a challenge to see. They're very small, move quickly and continuously, and prefer to hang out high in the trees, thus contributing to that affliction known as "warbler neck," which is what you'll get if you stare upwards through your binoculars long enough.

This morning I woke up feeling quite tired, but got in some birding before work and on every break, scouring the tree-lined edges of my Work Place Pond. And there were more year birds to be had! Warblers: magnolia, blackburnian and redstart, a red-eyed vireo, and a marsh wren, plus another chestnut sided warbler, a yellow warbler, more black and whites and common yellowthroats.

(This was my mental dialogue as I wandered the pond: Oh my God! Blackburnian! I can't believe it! Blackburnian! What's that? Oh my God! Magnolia! Magnolia! Chestnut-sided! Warblers make my brain incoherent, but in a good way).

Once again, a sunny morning gave way to clouds and chilly temperatures...and here I sit. Ever greedy, I want more migrants, especially warblers. But all this migration madness has tired me out.

Well, there's always tomorrow!

1 comment:

  1. "A miracle with wings and a beating heart"...I love your poem! I'm usually thinking something like, "My ears are freezing off!," when I'm birding in chilly weather. Please send some warblers my way; I'm ready for some madness. Sounds like great fun in central Illinois. Mom

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