Sunday, July 24, 2011

Harbingers of fall

Today it rained. Not just a little: everything turned dark, lightning crackled, the skies poured forth. And then--it was cooler! It felt like a normal summer day instead of the taste of the Inferno we've been experiencing all week.

I shot off my couch as soon as the rain stopped, leaving Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the DVD player to resume her fights later, and called for my dogs who, unlike my husband, are always ready for a stroll. I was so excited at the reprieve from our steamy weather that, once the dogs had gotten some exercise, I thought I might actually go out and do a little birding!

But first: dogs. I walked them down to the graveyard (Am I morbid? It's my favorite place in town) beneath a blanket of bruised clouds. And when I arrived, there were swallows. Not just a dozen or so, as I'd been noticing throughout the summer.

It felt like hundreds, swooping and chittering, sometimes getting quite close to me as they passed by. I stared at them, utterly enchanted. I love birds--all birds, really: I will happily watch house sparrows or pigeons in a park downtown if nothing more exotic is around. But some birds are special; and for me, swallows are definitely in my top ten.

The dogs strained at their leashes, ready to move on, but I insisted on standing a few minutes longer. Combined with the moody crepuscule created by the overcast sky, the aerial dance of the swallows made me feel transported. It was almost otherwordly--although now I find it strange that I tend to use the word "other"worldly when what I really mean to describe is a moment when the beauty of this world has become inescapable.

I walked on in a daze. A chipping sparrow landed on the grass before me; in the distance, a kingbird perched on a gravestone. And overhead, the swallows! I hate to go all mystical on you, but it was one of those moments where I felt that the doors of perception had been opened to me. A hundred swallows overhead will do that to me, every time.

Then I heard a clap of thunder, and hurried back home as fast as I could with the dogs. And how quickly transcendence segues into farce: one dog would loiter behind me, sniffing intently at something, while the other pulled ahead. (Which dog did which varied.) Or, one dog (usually Raven, my cocker spaniel) would somehow wrap itself up in its leash, while the other ran circles around my legs. Or one dog (again, usually Raven) would stop dead in its tracks right before me, causing me to trip over it or (once--sorry!) step on its big galumphing feet! Meanwhile, incipient rain led to sprinkles which led to a downpour which led to three drenched mammals, two of which dried themselves off all over the furniture as soon as we got home while the third (that would be me) chased them around with a towel.

But back to the swallows. Thanks to the past few years of birding intently, I have come to recognize the Gathering of Swallows as the first harbinger of fall. It sure does look and feel like the middle of summer, but the season is actually already shifting ahead. The peeps are already coming through and the first fall warblers are only a month away. That's the good news. Across the fields and prairies, my summer friends are, over the next few weeks, going to fall silent and start to leave. That's the bad.

Normally this is a melancholy time for me. All the summer birds that I have come to love--some of them as individuals, as I learn where a particular eastern towhee can be found singing out, Drink your tea!, or a family of catbirds I have been enjoying by my work place pond. The blackbirds, the dickcissels, the meadowlarks and yellowthroats: all soon to depart. I just wish I could keep them all safe, somehow! Also, I'm the kind of person who cries whenever I watch Winged Migration -- and not at the sad parts, either. I cry because it's just so damn beautiful and so damn fragile and there's no way I can show my awe in the face of it except through tears. (Full disclosure--I'm tearing up a little right now, just thinking about it.)

This year, however, the hot weather has mitigated a lot of my summer sadness. Of course, I'll miss my nesting birds. But, with the heat, I didn't really get to enjoy them much. Instead of going out several times a week, I've averaged about every other weekend. To be honest, I'm really looking forward to fall. First the warblers, while it still feels like summer. Then the chilly mornings, and sparrows and kinglets coming through. Grackles and blackbirds in immense flocks. Finally the crispness of late autumn, and the juncos return.

No matter how old I get, I still find the turn of the seasons an endless source of wonder. As for now, it is still summer. But today I noticed the first harbinger of fall.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Horrible heat wave (or, I don't like it hot!)

The day of Sunwiggy and the Crow's Summer Birding Adventure began with dog crap and ended with an attack by bees. If you're wondering how the middle could have been any worse than the start and finish, well, read on....

I hadn't seen my erstwhile Birding Buddy Sunwiggy since our trip to Minnesota's famous Sax Zim Bog last February, so I was really looking forward to her visit. I must have started planning our birding trip a month in advance, piecing together an itinerary that would be sure to net us the most birds, the best scenery, and a stop at a restaurant that would serve the biggest margaritas. (The latter being for me. No drinking and driving for us, plus Sunwiggy gave up carrying on like that a while back.)

But you know what Bobby Burns wrote about the best laid plans of mice and birders. I saw the weather report a week in advance, and checked it again each day with an increasing sense of dread. Our big birding day, Sunday, was supposed to be hot. Really wicked stinking hot. As in: a taste of the afterlife for all the really bad birders out there. (Though one would have to be truly despicable to deserve temperatures like that. Like, crushing an endangered warbler's nest in one's haste to get a good photo or faking an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting.)

So as the Day grew closer and the weather forecast grew hotter, our itinerary had shrunk from a birding blitz of the several counties (I fondly recall daydreams of wandering Midewin National Tallgrass prairie in there somewhere) to something more appropriate to the season such as, just a suggestion, glancing out the back window to see if any robins were in the yard.... Have I mentioned how much I hate the heat?

With all this negative anticipation of the inferno to come, by the time I actually woke up Sunday morning, I wasn't even feeling that excited. And, a few seconds after opening my eyes, I was even less excited, for my newly adopted dachshund, Trevor, ate something disagreeable and developed a case of the $h!ts...all over the bedroom floor. Cleaning up dog crap before one has even had a sip of coffee, isn't that everyone's favorite morning treat? (It occurs to me that reading this blog might scare people away from adopting a dog. What can I say? It just comes with the territory.)

I was able to put that out of my mind as we headed off. I was hoping to show Sunwiggy as many points of interest in birding Dewitt county before the temperature became unbearable. We knew it was going to be awful, because even at seven thirty in the morning, the air was thick and viscous with a heat haze.

First stop: Salt Creek Wetland. We didn't walk the wetland, but I knew that the shrubs around the parking area tended to be birdy, and the location didn't disappoint. We got a juvenile bald eagle (two trips, two young eagles--that's good luck!), a warbling vireo, a common yellowthroat, some song sparrows and indigo buntings, a gray catbird, a cedar waxwing, some house wrens, and then my "target bird" starting singing--the odd, wheezing cry of the Bell's vireo. It even flew out of its bush, offering the quickest of glimpses, a lifer for Sunwiggy, as I knew it would be. After that, I suggested we head on to Mascoutin (the bugs were really bad, for one thing), where I hoped the chat I saw on my Midsummer's Bird Off might be singing once more.

By the time we got there, it was eight thirty and already hot, and the birds were less than energetic. More indigo buntings, some field sparrows, no chat.

I suggested that we could either call it a day or stop at Weldon Springs to do a bit of the prairie walk in hopes of finding a bobwhite (which would have been another lifer for Sunwiggy). After a few minutes' deliberation, she chose the prairie, and off we went.

And oh, was the summer sun blazing down over the grasses. We walked a few steps out into the open when Sunwiggy said, "Ummm, don't get upset, but I think I don't want to go very far."

We passed by the old cemetery, and tottered out to the old farmstead, which I thought summed up the highlights of the prairie. Along the way, we passed a group of lunatics who were actually jogging in this heat, with two black labs in tow. The poor dogs' tongues were hanging out so far that I was surprised they didn't trip on them.

In the shade by the edge of the farm buildings, I declared break time and sat down for a while. As I lolled around wondering if I would survive the return trip, a bobwhite burst out of the grasses and flew right in front of me across the trail. Unfortunately, Sunwiggy was looking the other way and missed the bobwhite entirely, which I must say she took with much more grace than I would have; had our positions been reversed, and I had missed a life bird so egregiously, say a spruce grouse up North, I would have started running through the grasses, oblivious to ticks or heat stroke, shrieking, "Come back, Life Bird!" until I collapsed in a quivering heap of despair. Sunwiggy did none of this. She didn't seem to mind it all. I suspect the heat had sapped her will to live; there is no other explanation.

By mutual consent, we decided to head home and pursue Part Two of our happy day, which would involve air conditioning, as we treated ourselves to a trip to Barnes and Noble and lunch at an Indian buffet in Bloomington. Greenturtle wanted to come along for that part, so we went home, freshened up...and locked ourselves out of the house.

Greenturtle had lent his keys (and both house and car keys were on the keychain) to my dad, who had his own plans for the day, and I had accidentally left my keys on the end table. Once we corralled the dogs and got outside, Greenturtle did something we never, ever do. He turned the lock from the inside instead of locking the door from the outside.

"Hey, where are your keys?" he said, a mere second after closing the door.

"Oh, I left them inside. Why? Where's yours?"

"Don't you remember? I gave them to your dad!"

Meanwhile, the dogs were howling and crying from the kitchen (they knew we were out there), the temperature had rocketed up to ninety degrees not including the considerable heat index, and we were locked out of both house and car. Luckily, after a couple of hours, we were able to get a hold of my dad, had a much belated trip to Barnes and Noble (the Indian buffet had long closed, alas), and in the relative coolness (meaning: still hot but at least the sun was going down) of the evening, Sunwiggy and I decided to walk the dogs.

During the course of which my cocker spaniel somehow got her nose into a nest of bees. Or hornets. Or yellow jackets. Something swarmy and buzzy with black and yellow stripes that nests in trees.

I would love to say my luck has changed, but today was the hottest day of the year so far (at one point, Weather Underground said 120 with the heat index...I couldn't even sit quietly in the shade on my lunch break and read. After fifteen minutes, I was drenched in sweat and retreated, dizzily, back into the building)...and now this evening, as I sit here blogging, my cocker spaniel chewed the band off my watch and took a whizz on the floor.

Oh well, this heat wave can't last forever, right? And if you think I've whined too much in this post...mea culpa. I really, really don't like it hot!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sweating at Sanganois

Last year, in late February, my birding buddy (and mother) Sunwiggy and I decided to look for ducks along the Illinois River Valley. The winter had seemed particularly long and harsh, the lakes and rivers locked in ice, and as soon as the thaw began, we hopped into her Jeep and took off for watery parts in hopes of seeing migrating ducks and geese by the truck-load. With the Illinois Atlas and Gazateer map and my battered copy of Sheryl de Vore's book Birding Illinois, we headed for the soggiest, and hopefully birdiest, spots we could find.

This turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation. With spring thaw in progress, the backwaters had all flooded, the gravel access roads turned to mush, and access to our favorite spots was severely limited. The roads at Meredosia, Rice Lake, Banner Marsh -- all flooded. And so our birding excursion turned out to be a day long exercise in frustration, and a lesson learned.

Probably the most frustrating part was our aborted attempt to enter the Sanganois Conservation Area in Mason County, because it seemed so mysterious and remote and it was really, really flooded. Entrance to the road had been partially barred by a pick-up truck parked crosswise across the path; slow on the uptake, we scooted around it and almost got stuck in the river-like flood waters gushing across the road, four-wheel drive or no. This was a little humbling, as we were a very long way from the nearest town, or even the nearest run down convenience store from which to purchase a stale sandwich wrapped in plastic and a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to revive us from the very long walk which would have awaited us. Granted, this was hardly a "life or death" situation even if we had gotten stuck, but it was akin to the sort of impetuous disregard of circumstance and common sense that has gotten many another birder or traveler into trouble.

So of course, ever since then, I've wanted to go back and see what lies beyond the flooded channel that stopped us in our tracks at Sanganois. And when I found out that Sunwiggy was coming down for a long weekend, and bringing her Jeep no less, I suggested, "How about seeing what's at Sanganois?"

"Sanganois?" Sunwiggy paused on the other end of the phone when I suggested it. "Where is that again? Someplace watery?"

"Yeah, the place where we almost got stuck that one time, where the road was almost completely washed out and there was this sort of river rushing all around us."

"Was that the place with the pick-up truck? Yeah, I'll go back there!"

And so it was decided. I'm not sure if it's good or bad to have a birding buddy equally crazy as oneself, but it sure makes for some interesting trips.

Our challenge this time was not flooded roads but sultry summer heat. Neither Sunwiggy nor I likes it hot, and as I mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, this past month has been very hot indeed.

Still, since Sunwiggy has moved to the farthest reaches of northern Michigan, it was now or never, so off we went.

To start off with, the day was quite pleasant, and I called out all the birds I could see perched on the wires of each county as we drove through: grackles, robins, red-winged blackbirds, dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks, and even, once we got into Mason County, a couple of northern mockingbirds. Several of these were Year Birds for Sunwiggy (as the mockingbird was for me), so it was with a sense of pleasant anticipation that we raced closer to Sanganois.

Along the way we passed a flooded field that was full of sandpipers.

Of all the lapses of judgment I have made on birding trips, surely this is the worst: not being prepared for a muddy field full of sandpipers. Since it has been so long that I've gone out for more than a short walk, I forgot to bring any field guides, and I'd also left my spotting scope at home. So sandpipers galore, and no way to see or ID them! Maybe a really high-speed birder could have figured them out, but for me, as I find sandpipers to be very challenging, and these were flushed to the farthest edge of the field every time a car passed (which was often)--well, let's just say they were sandpipers. I bet there were pectoral and solitary sandpipers in there, also some greater and/or lesser yellowlegs. But all I could call for certain were killdeer and some least sandpipers. So frustrating! But at least I know they are coming through now, so I can keep looking for them--although I had absolutely zero luck finding any in the spring!

Shortly after that, we were at Sanganois, slowly driving down the gravel road which was, in fact, nice and dry and not at all impassable. There were a lot of nice birds, including some more Year Birds for Sunwiggy: eastern phoebe, eastern wood pewee, brown thrasher, indigo bunting, mostly the usual suspects.

The end of the line did not really "feel" much like anywhere in Illinois:

We got out of the vehicle and surveyed our surroundings. Besides a woman and her grandson fishing, there was no one else in sight. It should have felt peaceful, but it was getting hot and muggy, and to be honest, the place reeked of dead fish.

"Wow," said Sunwiggy, "this looks kind of...low country, doesn't it?"

"You mean banjos, don't you?" I said, which is kind of shorthand for scary redneck Deliverance type places in our lexicon. Before anyone accuses me of snobbery, let me point out that I am married (for the past fifteen years, no less) to a Southerner, and you can't accuse me of anything that he hasn't already mentioned first.

"Sort of."

"'s kind of cool, though. Why don't we walk down the levee a ways?"

We walked for a while, until we could see: a fisherman, several probable ring-billed gulls, four great blue herons, and one great egret in the distance. We both took a look and agreed on our sightings.

Said I, "I don't want to disturb those herons--you know how twitchy they are. Maybe we should head back?"

"You're right," said Sunwiggy, "I don't want to scare them."

Translation: "It's really blazing hot out here in the sun and I don't see anything that exciting out there. I don't really want to trudge all the way out there. What about you?" "Ditto."

This is the advantage of having a longstanding Birding Buddy: you don't need to spell these things out.

On the way back, Sunwiggy drove so I could take over the task of looking for interesting birds. I did find one.

Back view:

In the sky:

We agreed: juvenile bald eagle. Which is a pretty cool bird sighting, IMHO.

After our jaunt in Sanganois, we got some sandwiches from the Subway in Havana, then ate them in the peaceful shade of the picnic grounds at the picnic area by the Dickson Mounds Museum, while chipping sparrows buzzed all around us.

For a last "hurrah" of our Illinois River Valley birding excursion, I wanted to show her the area of the Emiquon Preserve off of Clark Road that Greenturtle and I found last spring, but it was overgrown at this time of the year, and Sunwiggy picked up several ticks. (Not me. Ticks don't like me much. Perhaps because a summer diet of margaritas and fast food has rendered my blood unappealing and/or downright toxic?)

It was another full-sun area, and by this time of the day the heat and humidity was going full-force, and Sunwiggy started wheezing. She has some respiratory issues that are set off by either heat or cold, caused by decades of smoking. Luckily she stopped before it got too bad, and I only point this out as a public service announcement...all you smokers out there, stop before it's too late! You don't want to end up wheezing like Sunwiggy! Or worse!

We saw a kingfisher flying past, and a common yellowthroat, but the birds don't like it when it gets real hot either, so we decided to call it a day.

At least the peeps are back!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Who owns "nature"?

The heat wave continues. I don't want to whine about the weather, but to tell the truth, I've been pretty miserable. I haven't been birding. Heck, I've hardly even been outside.

Today's round up of birds: crows, wood ducks, robins, cardinals, mourning doves, house sparrows, common nighthawks.

Instead of birding, I have been attempting to teach my new dog, Raven, that she is not allowed to chew on: houseplants; furniture; electrical cords; books; my mouse (the one that goes with my laptop, that is; I am currently rodent-free). Since she wants to chew on everything, this is a bit of a challenge. Also, I've been reading more of The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, mostly during my breaks at work.

Since I haven't been birding, this post is more musings and ramblings -- if that's not your thing, feel free to skip this one. Hopefully I'll have some more wacky birding adventures to share over the weekend, with my birding buddy Sunwiggy, no less!

In my last post, I was a little critical of Louv for romanticizing nature and being a bit too fuzzy in his definitions, but overall it is an interesting book, and I keep running into some intriguing ideas (and references for further reading).

Something that captured my attention today was a discussion of whether or not we have a "right" to walk in the woods--or, I would paraphrase, if access to natural areas should be made available to everyone who wants them.

Louv points out a couple of objections to this idea, such as the fact that acute human suffering (abused children, etc.) should take precedence over the "right" to walk in the woods, or that people are already feel too entitled (thinking they have a "right" to absolutely everything.)But, considering how salutary exposure to nature can be for a variety of human ills, shouldn't access be freely available to all as a matter of course?

Another interesting topic that he brought up are different philosophies of those who try to preserve (and create more) natural spaces, often categorized as "conservationists" (those who wish to preserve nature for responsible human use, such as hunting or hiking) and "environmentalists" (those who wish to preserve nature for its own sake, often in an attempt to protect it from humans). Although he admits that these categories are over-simplifications, I would say that Louv comes across as a "conservationist," especially as his prior book, The Last Child in the Woods, occasionally criticized "environmentalists" for wishing to restrict use of natural habitats (such as not allowing children to build forts or dam up creeks).

Our wonderful park system -- on national, state and city levels -- has certainly done a lot to maintain green spaces that the public can use, and I admire the visionaries behind all these (John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt being just two of them); but as population grows, sprawl spreads across the land, and "development" ruins more and more ecosystems, obviously we will need to create even more natural spaces. A lot of these will need to be woven through the cities and suburbs, as Louv envisions, although this will supplement, not replace, more wilderness-type environments.

Unfortunately (and so far Louv has not addressed this much, focusing more on hopeful visionaries of change than the dismal status quo), the current political and economic climate is not very friendly to green spaces. In fact, I would say that a lot of public discourse on the matter (both from public figures and comments found from average readers across the Internet) is very disdainful of preserving, let alone expanding, natural areas. Sometimes this is clearly stated for the reason that maximum profits cannot be reached by conservation, and maximum profits are, of course, the raison d'etre of society--I like to paraphrase something that Derrick Jensen wrote--we are not a democracy, but a theocracy; and our god is money. (I am understating my feelings considerably here; any justification for "tar sands mining" or mountaintop removal mining, for example, makes me froth at the mouth.)

So a lot of people are obviously completely unaware that they might need nature, and this presents a challenge to many of Louv's ideas. Especially the "right" to walk in the woods. Some countries (such as the Scandinavian ones, from what I've read) already acknowledge this right, allowing all people to walk freely in the woods. As I understand it, Britain also has several ancient "right of ways" where anyone can walk; and here in the USA, all beaches in Hawaii (except for those controlled by the military) are free for all to enjoy unhindered. I don't anticipate this idea to spread across the United States any time soon, however.

My personal reaction is: yes, there should be parks and green spaces available to everyone; but I also see some complications here. One is that private property must be respected, and a lot of nature preserves (here in Illinois, anyway) are actually privately owned, such as the Parklands' Foundation Merwin Preserve in McLean County, Hennepin-Hopper Lakes (owned by the Wetlands Initiative) in Putnum County; and Nature Conservancy preserves across the state.

These areas are, by and large, open to the public -- for which I thank them! -- but they have a right to set some ground rules. For example, Parklands does not allow dogs, so I will not be trying to walk my dogs there; I respect that this is their preserve and I am a guest.

There are also many conflicts between how people wish to enjoy their natural spaces. Some want a quiet place to bird or look for plants, or just soak up the quiet; some want to drive ATVs through it; some want to let their kids build forts and dam up streams. My opinion: unless it's your personal property, you don't necessarily have the "right" to do what you want. You have to respect the wishes of the owner--and those wishes might be, keep out! (Especially in our litigious society--if I had a lot of land, I would not want people roaming uninvited for a variety of reasons, the specter of frivolous lawsuits being just one.) And I have read a few accounts of some individuals becoming down-right belligerent (even to the point of death threats) over their "right" to enjoy a space the way they want (such as motor boats in an area protected for manatees in Florida, as just one example).

Sadly, differing interests often create conflicts. What if I want to enjoy the bird song, and you want to ride your ATV? I think it is absolutely reasonable to designate different areas for different uses...and that must then be respected if the system is going to work. Also, with "rights" comes "responsibilities"--sometimes we have to admit that our own personal enjoyment cannot take precedence over the greater good. (Although the phrase "the greater good" always makes me think of the murderous villagers in the movie Hot Fuzz...anybody else enjoy that style of dark humor?)

Sometimes, I do believe that the welfare of fragile ecosystems and the animals and birds they harbor has to take precedence over my desire to walk in that particular woods. If a rare bird is nesting there, and my presence will disturb it, why do I need to walk that particular trail? There are other places I could go, but few other places for the bird. Doesn't it have a "right" to exist? Coming down firmly in the "environmentalist" camp, I say YES! And that right trumps my right to stroll through its habitat. Another controversial idea.

Another problem is stewardship, or maybe I just mean citizenship. Many places that could be quite nice are unsafe because of local crime (some parks in Chicago, for example), or the people who use them throw trash everywhere, or create problems for others. I have had belongings stolen in a state park here in central Illinois while I was camping, for example. Or in northern California some parks are used by marijuana growers for their illegal crops. Until society becomes more civil, conflicts will continue.

Finally, I would sum up my reaction by saying that although there should be green spaces and parks available to everyone, sometimes restricting use for the good of "nature" is the right thing to do. And since truly we humans are a part of nature, there really isn't a conflict there. What's good for "nature" is good for us to, even if we don't understand that yet.

Any other opinions are welcome, as always (as long as respectful, of course). This is a huge topic and I know I've barely skimmed the surface of it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cures for modern ailments? (On nature and dogs)

Right now I am reading The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. (I am about a third of the way through, so any comments I make are just my reactions so far.) In this book, Louv discusses the various ways that spending time in green spaces benefits humans--physically, psychologically, mentally, and socially. In some of the studies and anecdotes he cites, spending quality time outside or even remembering a time when you did can immediately reduce instances of stress, anxiety and depression.

Another book I recently finished, A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler, makes the same case for interaction with dogs; I think at one point the author cited a study showing that just a few minutes romping with Fido is more effective at raising mood than taking an antidepressant.

Both books are interesting, make some good points, and occasionally make me start rolling my eyes and muttering that the author has clearly gone off the deep end. (When talking about books, I consider that a compliment.) Both point out that for most of human history, people lived a certain way, aware of their connectedness to the natural world and its denizens, with an immediacy and vitality that is missing for many today. Small Furry Prayer, the book by the dog-rescuer, revolves around how dogs have taken the same evolutionary trip with us -- humans and dogs have been partners since before recorded history -- whereas Nature Principle, so far, has not mentioned dogs at all, and focuses instead on the myriad ways that getting outside is good for us.

If these authors are correct, I should be one of the most psychologically grounded people in Illinois, as I spend as much time as I can outside, seeking out nature wherever I can find it; and now I also have two dogs. Sometimes I even take them out in nature. Is anyone a good judge of their own sanity? Personally, I sometimes wonder if my near-atavistic attachment to wild spaces, and a "simpler" life style and concept of time, makes me MORE miserable, because it can be so hard for me to fit in with the modern workplace and urban environment.

As far as Small Furry Prayer goes, I do believe that forming a bond with another creature can be an extraordinary experience. It doesn't have to be a dog, though. People can also become incredibly bonded to cats, horses, birds, ferrets, rabbits, even tarantulas. (I am not joking about the tarantulas, either. The dark fantasy novel Silk by Caitlin Kiernan presents one character's affection for spiders in a touching, if also creepy, way.)

Steven Kotler brings up many interesting points showing that dogs (also some other animals; personally I would say ALL other animals) are much more complex than most people realize. He also makes a compelling case that even though they are one of the most domesticated of animals, they did bring the wildness of "nature" into his life. His affection for and gratitude to the dogs shines through on every page. (I say gratitude because, even though he's the dog rescuer, the attachment to dogs clearly rescued him as well -- from a mid-life crisis precipitated by the ennui and disconnectedness of modern life.)

So are dogs part of nature in Richard Louv's conception of things? As I said, I'm only about a third of the way through that book, so I can't give a final discussion. So far--and he freely admits this as a point of discussion/contention--his definition of "nature" is up for grabs. He talks about bears in the Alaskan wilderness at one moment, and hospital windows with a view of some trees in the next, and both are examples of the beneficial influence of "nature."

I read (actually kinda skimmed through) Louv's previous book, The Last Child in the Woods, and had a mixed reaction to that as well. On the one hand, yes, absolutely, children need to spend more time playing outside! But on the other hand, I felt that he was short-sighted by his nostalgia for his particular childhood, and while that is a powerful force, it is not necessarily a reliable one.

That nostalgia shines through in Nature Principle as well. When Louv, as a child, was happy, and his family was happy (or he was too young to be aware of their problems), this was also the period in his life when he roamed freely in the "natural" landscape of his neighborhood. As he got older, and they moved away, and the natural areas became harder to find, his family became unhappy and his father ended up taking his own life.

So there is a "trying to return to Eden" feel to Louv's book that makes me want to tell him that childhood is its own country and no one ever gets back there. Like Louv, I was the kind of child who loved being outside, and with a child's eye, the golf course behind my grandparent's house was a huge forest, the ponds were lakes, the rocks gigantic boulders. When I ran around back there, I felt that I was exploring a lost continent, unaware of the fact that my grandparents were keeping an eye on me the whole time. And when I came back to visit them a few years later -- Wow, how everything had shrunk! Still, those are happy memories, memories of feeling free and wild.

My husband Greenturtle, on the other hand, although he enjoys going hiking or camping, is not, and never has been, the nature freak that I am. His carefree childhood memories are of playing sports, watching cartoons, playing video games, and guess what? He remembers his suburban childhood as a carefree Eden, too! In fact, he has the same attachment for toys, gadgets and games that Louv and I have for fields and forests--they bring back, just a little, the happy memories.

The fact is that most people I know don't spend a lot of time in nature, and they don't know how to see it. I had a co-worker who spend months in the office and didn't realize that our building was right by a pond until I told her. In fact, I've noticed that I don't walk down the same street as the person beside me, in many instances. I hear chipping sparrows buzzing from the pines, goldfinches dipping overhead, the rattling of a kingfisher; I glimpse a green heron taking flight from a low branch. I see plants and flowers, and either name them mentally or wonder what they are. But my companion might be noticing the makes of passing cars, or paying more attention to passersby. If one of the cars going by has the radio blaring, they are more likely to know the name of the singer....

I would love to say I'm the observant one, but here's the catch: as human beings, we are both (me and my hypothetical walking buddy) equally natural. We are already a part of nature. Whether we live in Chicago or the Ozarks, this is just as true. Is Steven Kotler, the dog-rescuer, any more "natural" than Michael Vick, the dog fighter? Notice I did not say are they both equally decent or moral human beings. Nature is outside of morality but human spirituality is not. An interesting point to ponder.

I am not disputing that spending time in green spaces is good for us. I am sure it is, and I would welcome a society that emphasized this. I am sure that the time I spend under a tree on my breaks, or my walk around the pond before work, are good stress reducers. On a whole other level, that is also the time I feel most spiritual and "real" (not putting on a show for other people). And I would love to see more programs and policies to bring people and green spaces together. This is vital if we are going to protect habitats and give a rat's you know what about the earth. And since we are part of nature, if we soil our own nest, sooner or later we will feel the consequences.

But I still feel that Louv's definitions are fuzzy, and that urban parks and hospital healing gardens are NOT the same as truly wild places. We need both. But wild places are not "warm and fuzzy." In fact, for most of human history, we feared these spaces and tried to tame them. That is a far cry from "stress relief"; anyone who is truly in touch with their ancestral wildness, I believe, still feels a bit of that old fear.... And the wilderness can, and does, kill people who are not prepared. I think that's awesome, personally, that we still have a few wild places. But I don't romanticize them; and I think that Louv does.

Furthermore, have you ever been eaten alive by mosquitoes? Chiggers? Fire ants? Have you ever been feasted upon by a half dozen ticks? Have you shivered in sub-zero temperatures or felt dizzy when the mercury went up to one hundred? (I've suffered from all of these...and it's not pleasant. The fact that I'd do it again is part of what I refer to as my neuroses!)

As The Lost City of Z by David Grann points out, explorers found the Amazon to be a truly inhospitable place, so much so that they called in "the green hell." Not at all salutary for the health.... And small towns or rural communities are not any more likely to be healthy places than big cities, despite being closer to nature, as books from God's Little Acre to Methland have made clear.

I'll finish the book before I say any more. So far, interesting but flawed...well, aren't we all? In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts on this topic, I'd love to hear them, even if you think I'm full of $h!t!

Tipton Park in bloom

In yesterday's post, I described how hot it was and how I retreated to the air-conditioned embrace of Barnes and Noble after a brief stroll through Ewing Park. After an hour or so browsing the shelves, I decided to make one more stop before heading home for the day, and ventured a few blocks down the road to Tipton Park.

It was still hot. In fact, as Tipton has no shade whatsoever, the sun blazing down on my head (I forgot my hat) swiftly made me question the wisdom of the excursion.

On the up side, I have never seen so many wildflowers growing in the park. Whoever is in charge must have gone crazy with the native plantings this year, and the results are beautiful.

Lots and lots and lots of wild bergamot:

Compass plant:

I think this is vervain(?):

Plenty of red-winged blackbirds still in residence.

There were also several song sparrows, and barn swallows swooping quite low overhead and chittering as they flew. Besides the bird calls, the air rang with the sounds of new construction going up, which leads me to ponder one of the things about life which I don't really understand. The houses around Tipton Park are super-expensive. And yet they're crammed together cheek by jowl with pretty much no yards at all, certainly no privacy. True, they're huge. But if I could afford one of these, I could also afford a nice place in the country....

More flowers. So many prairie flowers look very similar that I hesitate to name these. I'm not so good with the plants.

Blackbird making good use of a compass plant.

I took a lot of photos of him; he's a cutie.

Butterfly weed, sans butterflies.

Purple coneflower, otherwise known as echinacea (this is what it looks like before it's ground up and put in a capsule!)

Seriously, Tipton Park is a great place to see native plants this year. Bravo to whoever's responsible. And if anyone knows some of the plants I sort of skimmed over in this post, please let me know what they are!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Making an effort

Another hot day. But since I had the afternoon free, I decided I might as well look around for some birds. I had very low expectations, just the hope of getting a couple good photos of some summer residents.

I decided to head for Ewing Park in Bloomington. Bird-wise, my low expectations were not even met--so few birds! A pair of cardinals, a lot of robins, a ruby-throated hummingbird, a brown thrasher, and some crows. No, I did not forget any species; that was it.

And it was so hot. I walked very slowly and felt a little nauseous. Even the crows were hot--the one in the photo below isn't cawing, it's just holding its beak open to cool off.

I caught a robin dust-bathing on the trail.

And a little further, another one was sunning itself.

It let me get so close, I was getting worried that something was wrong with it; maybe it was dazed by the heat. And when it did move, what happened, did its head fall off??

What a relief!

After this short stroll, I felt like I'd made enough of an effort, and headed for Barnes and Noble to look at books about birds instead.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Small town birds

Mostly I am glad to have moved from bustling Bloomington, IL, to the much smaller and sleepier town of Clinton, about a half hour's drive to the south. There are many advantages to relocating in a much smaller town in a more rural county: less traffic, more affordable homes, the proximity of super-birdy Clinton Lake.

But everything in life has a trade off. Overall, I think that Greenturtle and I made a good decision. For the price we paid for our house, in Bloomington, all we could have gotten was a fixer-upper in the 'hood. No, thanks! And I love walking my dogs along the quiet streets.... I so enjoy the peace and quiet here. I'm from a small town, as much as I'm from anywhere (I'm a Navy brat who continued a peripatetic lifestyle after college, but mostly I've chosen small to medium sized towns), so little Clinton feels just right.

But what about the birds? This is the part that I didn't really expect. For some reason, I would have expected a smaller town to have MORE birds. Luckily, I am closer to several birdy spots out of town than I was in Bloomington, but to see birds in town, I think that Bloomington (the larger city), actually has the advantage.

Score one for Urban Birding. Although actual Nature (parks and preserves) comes in ahead of birding in the Medium Sized Burg, the city is actually birdier than the small town. It shouldn't surprise me, really. And yet it does.

So far, my highest hopes for a Birding Hot Spot lies with the local cemetery, a mere few blocks from my house. I'm sure a lot more can be seen in migration, but today's round-up included:


TURKEY VULTURE (one flying overhead)

OK, partly it's the time of year. At least the scenery was interesting.

And there's an area dedicated to Civil War soldiers, which is kinda cool.

But overall, the variety of bird species is seriously lacking. For which, I think the reason is: habitat.

Case in point: Bloomington is chock full of ponds. There is Tipton Park (whose reedy expanses lure in red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows), Angler's Pond (currently Canada goose central, with a good chance of seeing green and great blue herons), White Oak Park, the State Farm ponds. A couple of nice creeks round it all out. Thus attracting: Canada goose, mallard, wood ducks, not to mention all the migrating ducks, grebes and coots, herons (including, though not yet seen by me, black-crowned night), and any other species attracted by a nice expanse of water. If Clinton (the town proper, not the Lake with the same name) has a decent sized pond, I've yet to find it.

How about woods? Clinton has the cemetery, which has some trees. But Bloomington has a couple of nice, tree-filled spaces, like Ewing Park. As far as fields go, they are about even.... I've found dickcissels, meadowlarks, and barn swallows in both. And the kingbird prize goes to...Clinton! I've yet to see a kingbird in the Bloomington city limits.

Overall, I would say that the most common summer bird in both just might be the American robin.

The weirdest thing? I rarely see crows here in Clinton. They're all over Bloomington. I thought crows lived everywhere. I wonder what the difference is? I'm sure, as I spend a few more seasons here...and improve my yard...I'll see notice more. In the meantime: cemeteries are good places to see birds, but cities are even better.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Looking for doves in all the wrong places

This is a short tale about paying attention, and also a bit of a primer on identifying two different types of doves: the common mourning dove, and the non-native (and spreading) Eurasian collared dove.

Earlier in the year, I was becoming annoyed by my inability to find a sample member of the Eurasian collared dove, for as I described in my post, "The 100th Year Bird," I was in the midst of a listing frenzy, and I knew that they should have been easy to find. I'd seen them twice before in central Illinois with no problem. Plus, everyone else was seeing them. Even one of my non-birding co-workers saw one in her yard in Deer Creek. "There was a weird bird at my feeder this morning," she said. "Maybe it was a type of pigeon. It was gray and had a sort of black band across its neck."

"Eurasian collared dove!" I cried. If Deer Creek were any closer, I would have departed work early, pleading food poisoning, and headed for her house, pronto, in hopes it would still be there. OK, not really. But that's the kind of behavior that listing can inspire.

Then, I sorta backed off from the listing. It's not like I decided, "Wow, I'm obsessed with birds, I need to get a little perspective." It's more like I got derailed by life circumstances, luckily good ones: buying a house and adopting two dogs. I missed the tail end of spring migration (and spring migration is only, like, the best time of the whole year, you know? Oops...I am old enough to remember the whole "Valley Girl" phase from the eighties, and sometimes it slips out a bit....), and if you miss that, what's the point? Might as well just enjoy the birds you see, and better luck next year. (Last year, I was similarly derailed, when I became so depressed over the BP Oil Spill that I barely birded for several weeks.)

So, although dipping out on the doves still bugged me, I wasn't actively looking for them anymore. For one thing, the extra commuting time and the fact that on most walks I have two dogs in tow has really cut down on my birding opportunities.

Then, earlier in the week, as I strolled around the streets of Clinton, IL, with two dogs and no binoculars, I saw a pair of doves fly up to a telephone wire. I probably wouldn't have glanced up if it weren't for the strange noise they made. It was a weird guttural sound, more like what I would expect to hear from a crow. But these were doves.... I peered upward, a bit confused, because they were bigger than a mourning dove but smaller than a pigeon and just what the heck sort of dove sounds kinda like a crow?

Then they cooed. Hoo HOO hoo, hoo HOO hoo. Three insistent syllables, with the emphasis on the second. OMG, Eurasian collard doves! (If I reverted to the slang of my youth, I'd call them bitchen!) Right on the streets of my new hometown! And I never even thought to look for them here.

Here's the part about paying attention. I highly doubt that those collared doves just appeared overnight. In fact, I'd probably glimpsed them at some point, as I was escorting my dogs around town, as I saw them a mere few blocks from my house. But because I wasn't expecting them, I probably thought, "mourning dove," and moved on...until the strange sound made me look twice. (Click on the links above to hear the different calls of these two types of doves; it's unmistakable.)

That's actually the second time this has happened to me---the first was in Texas, when I barely glanced at a white-winged dove (assuming it was the lowly mourning dove) until it took flight, and made such a different noise as it launched into the air.

So once again, I realized: the more I look (and listen), the more I see. And even when I would swear otherwise, more often than not, I haven't paid as close attention as I could.

This morning was the second hot, humid, horrid day of the Fourth of July weekend, so once again I shelved my plans to explore Clinton Lake some more (I really, really hate hot, humid weather...I know I said negative things about cold winters but now I take it back!), and decided instead to walk around town and look for photographic evidence of the two different doves.

Getting the mourning dove was easy peasy. I can barely walk a block without spying one. Note the black spots on the back (absent with the collared dove):

Also, check out the markings on the face. If you look at them closely, they really are kind of sweet.

Their call is really distinctive, too, a sort of absent-minded, plaintive cry. If I were transcribing it, it would go hoo-WOO-hoo-ooo-ooo. Five syllables. Unlike the collared dove's insistent three. (Luckily you are reading this and so I will not be tempted to embarrass myself by doing imitations....)

The more I compared, the more I realized that there is truly no reason for anyone to mix the two up. If you are strolling along and see this shape on a wire, think "mourning dove":

Another view:

As I was taking these photos, I heard the call of the collared dove, and found one perching high in a tree (with a starling and a house sparrow, so three non-natives at once!). Unfortunately, the representative of this species was less cooperative, and would not fly down for a close up, but even from this angle, I do think it's quite different than the mourning dove.

Besides the black ring on the neck (which I actually could not see from this angle), the collared dove is bigger, bulkier, and seems paler. I will keep trying to get a good photo of one...but in the meantime, it's a good lesson learned for me: always pay attention!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

UP Summer Bird Off: by Sunwiggy

My guest blogger, Sunwiggy, returns with the results of the Northern portion of our summer birding challenge. Way to go, Sunwiggy!

Sometimes you get a birding day that's just about perfect, and so it was on Wednesday, June the 29th, when my husband and I answered Ms. Crow's Bird-Off challenge. Weather? How about sunny, around 68 degrees F, with a very light breeze? Bugs? A hat and a longsleeved top will take care them. Company? Husband's slathering at the bit, and plotting out our day, with an eye to getting 44 birds, and beating Ms.Crow's count for her Bird-Off day. And the birds? We got 37, including some I was surprised to see, or doing surprising things. Others surprised us by their being a no-show, such as our neighborhood blue jay. We never did see a blue jay, and they're usually everywhere!

We started the day at this summer's birdiest spot: the Nara Nature Trails, in Houghton. We did both boardwalks, and the adjoining Peepsock Marsh and Trail, and then, across the road and up the hill, we walked the Pilgrim River Trail. I was thrilled to see that the Baltimore oriole couple were still in residence. We noticed that there seem to be fewer redwinged blackbirds- are they leaving us already? The marshes will be so silent without them. Well, not totally silent. There is the Bullfrog Band, especially in the Peepsock Marsh; it sounds like 10 to 15 one-string banjos playing, all out of tune! I was delighted to see a pair of rosebreasted grosbeaks on one of the boardwalks, once I figured out that the male's beak was covered in sticky pollen and petals, and not some horrible, disfiguring beak fungus, as I'd first feared! I noticed that several of the cedar waxwings had what appeared to be nesting material in their beaks, grasses, cattail fuzz, and such. Note to self: Look up when cedar waxwings start nesting. We only saw one American redstart and two yellow warblers, and the only little birds still singing a lot were the song sparrows. For most birds, anyway, it seems that nesting season is winding down. Some raise more than one brood, though. Which ones? Something else I want to look up!

The River Trail yielded a bald eagle sighting, actually, 2 immature bald eagles, spotlit in the sun. Our next stop was the Paavola Wetlands. What a difference 3 weeks make! I'd been avoiding Paavola because our incessant rains had turned the place into a real muddy challenge to navigate, plus brought out the bugs. After my last visit, I counted a dozen skeeter bites on the back of my neck. This time it was dryer, and very jungly-looking. The beaver pond was lovely, with waterlilies and ducks to admire. My husband finally called a wood duck that turned out to actually BE a wood duck, and became insufferable as a consequence! We saw at least 6 wood ducks throughout the day, the first we'd seen this year. Where have they been? Why are they all over the ponds now? We also "got" our first pintails of the year, and a mama mallard with 5 cute ducklings. She was bathing, wings stretching out, head dipping into the water and then flinging the drops back over her head, paddling in circles. She looked so happy to be alive!

On our way our of Paavola, I could hear (of course, you hear them everywhere up here) veerys, and I begin complaining that I never, ever actually SEE one of them. My husband stopped, pointed, and said, "Look." And there were 2 veerys, one on each side of the narrow trail. I had to laugh and say, "Thank you!" We were being escorted off of the property, so to speak, by a truly irate redwing blackbird and his helpful mate. I'm sure I don't know what we did to offend the pair so much, but they followed us a long way. I kept expecting a sneak attack, as I know redwing blackbirds will "stab you in the back" if you tick them off enough. My husband wondered, as we drove away, if the blackbird believed he'd succeeded in showing us who was The Big Bird.

Our next stop was Lake Calumet. I kept hoping all day for a great blue heron, but they are not very common in my area. Instead, we saw a merlin, and cedar waxwings, reminding me that merlins are especially fond of a nice cedar waxwing...for dinner. I finally saw a mama ringnecked duck with 10 or 11 babies; we'd been seeing childless, or is it ducklingless, couples but no mamas. The kingfisher was in residence, sounding like a big rattle. Our last stop was Lake Eliza in Eagle Harbor, where we've been seeing Blackburnian warblers. I love Blackburnian warblers; their colors just pop. Lake Eliza is very peaceful and lovely. I always feel good, just being there. Lately, every trip up towards Copper Harbor has involved at least two or three painted turtle rescues, as in, getting out of the car and carrying a painted turtle off the road. I always remember to carry the turtle in the direction it was already going! The turtles aren't in the least bit grateful for these kind attentions. It has to be egglaying time for painted turtles. Near Lake Eliza, all of the turtles have been heading into a quiet, historic cemetery to lay their eggs. We only saw one turtle, and no warblers, but, in the actual harbor we saw a common loon, our last bird counted on our Big Bird-Off day. It was a lot of fun, and luckily for my husband, I was well content with our 37 species. Otherwise, it would have been back to Paavola for some owling...and blood-letting, with all of the mosquitoes that come out at night!

We didn't see any grouse, but one memory I'll have of the ruffled grouse from an earlier walk is of a little mama grouse who flung herself out of the ferns, practically on our shoes, tail fanned, wings drooping, turning like a little top while she made the most piteous cries. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the point of this whole show, as a bunch of little fuzzballs scooted into the undergrowth. My husband called her a "brave little bird", and indeed she was.

As the birds wind up their nesting, and become quieter, and some start leaving us, I'll keep my spirits up by exploring new places. My husband found a big marshy area on a map of Nara's trails, so I think we'll try there next. With a can of Deep Woods Off, as even the UP is getting warm and buggy! Summer has truly arrived..........Sunwiggy