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.


  1. Oh, this post makes me feel so homesick! I love the photos, especially the one of the common yellowthroat. The problem is that you're such an excellent birder! If you were a stumble-into-the-bushes, whazzit? birder like me, you'd be so thrilled when you saw/IDed any bird at all, that you'd never be bored! Scratched up and bug bitten and lost maybe, but not bored. Mom

  2. Excellent birder? Seriously, I wish!