Monday, June 27, 2011

Bath time for a Canada goose

Here's a series of photos of a young goose preening and bathing that's just too cute to keep to myself.

Meanwhile, a great blue heron crashes the party.

Some of the geese are not happy with the interloper.

The heron says, "I'm just here to fish."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A midsummer's "bird off"

If you were reading this blog last January, you may recall the part where I challenged my old birding buddy (and mother), Sunwiggy, to a competition as to who could see the most birds over the weekend. Since she has moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and I am located in central Illinois, I thought this would make for an interesting comparison as well as livening up our winter birding. Since I usually don't see enough species in one outing to really call it a "Big Day," I called our friendly challenge a Bird Off instead.

We had a great time in January, and I've been trying to engage her in a second "Bird Off" ever since, but Sunwiggy has invariable trotted out the same excuse for declining: "It's not fair, all the birds are down South, and the only ones left up here are some chickadees and pigeons."

But as I extended forth the invitation for a Mid-Summer's Bird Off, I pointed out that right now, I think she is the one with the advantage. The UP has breeding warblers, loons and a variety of ducks. Many of Illinois' wonderful spring migrants are cavorting around up there even as I type this. And so the challenge was accepted, and the Illinois results are now in.

Since I'm tallying birds seen for the whole day, my Bird Off technically began around six, as I staggered around behind two dogs, as yet uncaffeinated and unwashed. What can I say, the dogs have to "go" as soon as they wake up. The whole procedure frequently makes me feel that I'm demonstrating what it would be like if Laurel and Hardy were dog-walkers, especially when one of the dogs is winding its leash around my legs as I try to remove the "souvenir" the other left in someone's front yard.

Despite these handicaps, I started the day with house sparrows, robins, grackles, starlings, pigeons, and chimney swifts.

A couple hours and cups of coffee later, I began my day properly at Mascoutin State Recreation Area (part of that body of water that resembles a big squashed finger traversing DeWitt county known as Clinton Lake).

The birding started with a bang--in the open fields along the Houseboat Cove trail, I got a "year bird" (also a county bird) yellow breasted chat, plus a Baltimore oriole, dickcissels, meadowlarks, common yellowthroats, a hairy woodpecker, goldfinches, flickers and field sparrows. I didn't get any good photos of the birds, but this was the area they were in.

As soon as I entered the wooded part of the trail, the birding tapered off to a trickle, though I did get a cool orange fungus sighting.

Bird-wise, I got great crested flycatcher, brown thrasher, tree swallow (over the lake), gray catbird (Why do they call it a "gray" catbird? Do they come in other colors?), black-capped chickadees (many), house wrens, and a white-breasted nuthatch.

The pleasant walk was marred only by having to listen to someone racing by in a motor boat, while blaring his music as loud as possible. I understand that people have different ideas about what's fun, but why must these ideas conflict so often? And why do people have to be so noisy? Well, that's a rant for a different day, but I do hate the constant flood of noise from televisions in waiting areas, music blaring in every store, people cranking up their radios in parks and along beaches, all examples of society's tactic agreement that no one shall ever have a quiet moment to be alone with their own thoughts, ever.

On the way out of the park, I spotted a turkey vulture, killdeer, and a mourning dove, and then I headed for the Salt Creek Wetland, as I'd enjoyed a good day of birding there a couple weeks ago.

Today it was mostly great blue herons and red-winged blackbirds, though I also saw song sparrows, an eastern towhee, Canada geese, barn swallows, an eastern kingbird, a crow, and some brown-headed cowbirds.

I also heard the Bell's vireo that was singing on my last visit (I'm assuming there's just one--or hopefully, one male and one female), but alas, it would not come out, and I don't count "heard only" birds for a Bird Off.

Some non-birding sights of note--I think this is black medic? My wildflower book tells me it's common in Illinois, introduced as livestock forage. (Are any of these plants I see natives??)

Another non-native, but pretty, sulfur cinquefoil. In folk medicine it was used as a tea or gargle for inflammation of the gums and throat, and for ulcers and diarrhea.

I also got up close and personal with a deer:

These moments never last long.

Beautiful butterfly.

My final stop was at Weldon Springs. It was getting close to lunch time, and the park was crowded, but I was missing a lot of "easy peasies" that I was hoping to clean up. There I got eastern wood pewee, eastern bluebird, cedar waxwing, blue jay, and chipping sparrow, bringing my day's total to 42.

I probably could have done better if I'd stayed out longer--I really should have picked up eastern phoebe, red-bellied woodpecker, mallard, and tufted titmouse, for example; and if I'd gone to Comlara for the afternoon I could have added ring billed gull, double-crested cormorant, green heron, great egret and belted kingfisher. But gas is expensive (and guilt-inducing to consume, at least for me),and those birds will still be there next weekend. At least with summer birding, there's a bit of time to find them all.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Juvenile crows and growing goslings

A couple weeks ago, as I strolled around my Work Place Pond, I heard the distinctive cries of juvenile crows. Looking around, I found two juveniles and two adults (mostly distinguishable by voice, somewhat by behavior), and happily watched their antics during my lunch break.

By a good stroke of luck, the two young crows were still hanging out by the pond last Wednesday, when I brought my camera in hopes of documenting the next stage of gosling growth. I got several good snaps before they flew away.

The goslings also made an appearance; as an added bonus, a mother wood duck and two ducklings also drifted by. The ducklings are right behind the geese to the left of the goose family.

As for the goslings themselves, they are starting to resemble their parents. They're still a little smaller and noticeably fuzzier, but pretty soon I won't be able to tell them apart at all.

In fact, if this year is like the previous two, in another week or so the geese will disappear from my Work Place Pond for the rest of the year -- I don't know why they leave or where they go, but I won't see them back in these numbers until next spring.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sugar Grove on a Summer's Day

Doesn't the phrase "on a summer's day" conjure up lovely associations? At least it does for me: long, magical evenings where the light slowly fades into the deepest and softest of twilights; fireflies winking in the gloaming; the fields, a riot of flowers; the songs of breeding birds in surround-sound; the feeling that all of this might last forever.

Sometimes there's even a day, a moment, a perfect morning where the world literally does feel brand new. Mostly not. Mostly I find summer to be plagued by the same dissatisfactions as the rest of the year, those splintery saboteurs of happiness: It's a beautiful day, but I have to work. Or, it's a weekend morning, but it's pouring rain, again. It looked like a nice day for a walk, but it's really too humid, or buggy, or there aren't any good birds. Or, I didn't go for a walk, and now I'm dwelling on all the birds I might be missing.

Thus it was on Sunday, when I decided to spend the afternoon birding even though my morning had been rained out, and after a short stroll through Centennial Park, headed for one of my old favorites: Sugar Grove Nature Center.

I had been looking forward to a chance to roam around in solitude for days; just as I've heard that some men enjoy fishing for the peacefulness as much as the chance to catch a fish, part of the reason I love to bird so much is that it gives me the chance to stroll around by myself for an hour or two. I enjoy birding with other people, too; but sometimes it's even better to be alone for a while.

And as I drove up to the Nature Center, I did feel a surge of contentment, almost as if I were returning to a place of "home." I love the long, winding drive surrounded by the large trees, at this time of year almost a tunnel of shade after the persistent openness of the fields, and then that moment where the trees fall away, and the small stretch of prairie begins.

The visitor's center has started opening on Sundays, so my first stop was to see which birds were at the feeders. It was just the usual suspects. House sparrows, goldfinches, grackles, mourning doves and brown-headed cowbirds.

Here's where the saboteur started to speak: I drove all this way for cowbirds? Maybe I should have gone to Weldon Springs. Maybe I should have just taken my dogs for another walk? And what about that new crop of weeds in my garden?

But I determined not to listen to it, and strolled out onto the prairie. Another dilemma--the woods were sure to be buggy (I'd just had my face feasted upon by mosquitoes at Centennial Park, after all); but the sun had come out, and the prairie would be hot.

I decided on the prairie, after a quick stroll by the garden area.

The prairie was nice. I saw robins, a song sparrow, a field sparrow. I could hear dickcissels singing. But, this is terrible to say -- almost like a deep dark confession on a birding blog -- I wasn't feeling it. The weather was humid, the birds were the same birds I've been seeing for weeks, the exact same birds. It was kind of boring. And this is coming from someone who believes that (at least out in nature) if you're bored, you're not really paying attention.

I took a few plant photos; here's one of my favorite prairie plants, white wild indigo.

There was also a lot of yellow sweet clover; since I've been paying attention to this plant, I've noticed that it's everywhere. In fields, meadows, vacant lots, along the highways, just about everywhere I look. It's not native to the region, of course. But at least it's pretty.

I also saw a lot of common milkweed, which is a local prairie plant. Native Americans used its roots as a laxative and to expel kidney stones, and early settlers used it as a remedy for asthma and rheumatism.

After this, despite my better judgment, I took a stroll through the woods. It wasn't as buggy as I'd feared; in fact, I was barely annoyed by insects at all. The foliage has grown in so exuberantly that the woods looked really different than my last visit. It almost didn't feel like the same place. I saw indigo buntings, a house wren, and a catbird, and then I heard, off in the tangled greenery, a call that sounded like "Quick, three beers" -- olive sided flycatcher!

As I floundered into the undergrowth, which was still wet from the morning rains and drenched my pants to the thighs, I felt a bit of the old excitement. As it turned out, I didn't see the flycatcher, but looking for it shook me out of the same old, same old birding rut.

By the time I exited the woods, I was muddy from the excursion to look for the flycatcher and sweaty from the humidity, but I didn't want to leave without getting a photo of this weird thing on the edge of the prairie I call "Woodhenge."

Yes, that is a circle of big wooden posts. No, I don't know what it's for. I like it, though. It's kind of quirky. I liked the pattern of the new crops coming up on the fields around it, too.

My final stroll back across the prairie finally produced the profusion of summer birds I'd been hoping for: meadowlarks, dickcissels from the top of every shrub and sturdy weed, a flicker, a kingbird, and some yellowthroats.

And now the solitude and peace of very early morning has been replaced by the hectic frenzy of regular workday morning, so I shall sum up my birding adventure...already I am looking forward to the next. It seems I never really register the frustrating moments, just the good ones.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Centennial Park

I was hoping to do a Real Birding Trip today, getting up early in the morning to scour the county for as many breeding and year-round birds as possible. Alas, when I woke up, it was pouring rain....

By lunchtime it had cleared up, so I walked my dogs (first Trevor and then Raven, as they have different paces and stamina and also drive me a little crazy when I try to walk them together), wondering what I might find on a muggy summer afternoon. I kept thinking, "I wish I were birding right now instead of either trying to get my dog to stop lunging (Trevor) or coaxing my dog to walk instead of stare at everything like a big nimrod (Raven)."

I was feeling like revisiting an old favorite spot, so I decided on Sugar Grove Nature Center. It's the closest to my new home, and used to be tied for favorite spot in McLean County with Comlara State Park -- but after the wind farm invasion around Evergreen Lake, I don't even like Comlara that much any more.

On the way there, I stopped at Centennial Park in Heyworth. Not much was going on there, but it's nice and watery, which I like. The only other time I visited it, everything was frozen solid. Sure does look different now. A lot of robins and grackles, and a whole flotilla of Canada geese.

The only exciting birds were a warbling vireo, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and a pair of green herons. I didn't get very good photos, alas.

There was a lot of mullein starting to bloom, a plant with some interesting traditions. Native to Europe, it's been used to treat all sorts of ailments...and also, in a pinch, is good as toilet paper.

Lots of berries for the birds to eat:

I saw a robin going to and from its nest--unfortunately, when she was actually on her nest (I don't think any babies yet), she was nearly impossible to see, let along photograph.

Getting decent photos was a bit of a challenge, not only because of the usual reasons like lighting, foliage and birds that won't sit still, but because every time I raised up my camera, mosquitoes took advantage of the moment and used to feast upon my face.

It was also very muggy. As soon as the sun came out, all the moisture in the air from the rain felt unpleasant. It's hard to say which is more uncomfortable, birding on a hot day in the summer or a cold day in the winter. My response usually depends on whichever I am currently suffering, and I'll say I want the opposite.

I'm like that. For example, I saw a man walking two beagles and wished I was walking my dogs!

I lingered about a half an hour, then headed down 136 to Sugar Grove--kinda weird coming at it from the opposite direction. But as I'm starting to feel sleepy now, I'll save Sugar Grove for a different post.

Happy birding!

"Evil bamboo"

I have found a use for the detestable, wildly invasive bamboo that's taken over part of my back yard: my dogs like to play with the cut culms (as long as there's a human dragging them around).

Yes, that's dogs, as in more than one. I was worried that my little dachshund, Trevor, that we adopted from the Humane Society, might be getting lonesome while we work, so Saturday Greenturtle and I adopted a friend for him, a seven month old cocker spaniel we have re-named Raven.

She is a very sweet girl, and she and Trevor get along great. She and her littermates were rescued from the backyard of a so-called backyard breeder. When they didn't sell as he'd been hoping, he lost interest in them. Unfortunately, as a puppy who's not too used to houses, she has her fair share of accidents. Meanwhile Trevor still has some anger management issues, such as barking, lunging and growling at every person he doesn't like when I take him for walks.

Individually I love them both but together they can be a bit of a trial. Which is why I like to wear them out with games such as Evil Bamboo. It's easy to play. You cut down a stalk (culm) of bamboo and then drag it around the yard for the dogs to chase and (in Trevor's case) viciously attack.

I apologize to the squeamish amongst you, but here is the final bamboo kill.

The victor resting triumphantly:

Aside from playtime, apart from trying to keep the yard from being overtaken by weeds and bamboo, this year I have decided to focus on container gardening. My herbs (basil, parsley, mint, lemon balm and rosemary) are doing great--in fact, I used my own parsley when I made dinner tonight -- and Friday I also put in some flowers. No butterflies have stopped by yet, but at they add a splash of color.

If dogs chasing bamboo around is not your thing, don't worry, I'll be back with more birding adventures later in the week.