Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Birding alone (being safe in nature)

"Be careful when you go walking," one of my co-workers once warned me. "Don't you know that dead bodies show up in parks all the time?"

"I'll be careful," I promised, as I knew her intentions were good. And then, because for some reason it's in my nature to try to set people straight about things, I added, "And actually, people aren't murdered in the woods all that often. Statistically speaking, it's really rare."

I'm used to being admonished for my solitary ways. Well-meaning people have been trying to scare me into staying home for pretty much my whole life. Long before I started birding, I didn't think twice about walking down town to a coffee shop or a bookstore, or strolling through a park, or wandering around on my college campus, entirely by myself.

But this culture of fear bothers me. Because we are all so worried about what might happen, as a society, we lock ourselves indoors, hurrying from building to car, and don't let our children out to play. And please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we are guaranteed to be safe if we do go out...but that's because there are no certainties in life. Sure, I could be accosted by an axe murderer out in the woods. But it's more likely that I'll die in a car wreck, or one of my co-workers or clients will "go postal" one day and go on a rampage. My point is, if we worry too much about everything that could possibly go wrong, and curtail our lives because of it...something already has gone very wrong.

And I have to say the taking solitary walks in nature is probably one of the most rewarding activities I can think of. For example, last Sunday as I strolled through the backpack trail at Weldon Springs by myself I felt, from time to time, absolutely transcendent. It was so beautiful back in that area, with the trees curving slightly towards the trail, and banks of yellow flowers, and the occasional sighting of a good bird -- Blackburnian warbler, yellow-billed cuckoo, redstarts, hairy woodpecker, catbirds, black-throated green warblers, white breasted nuthatches.

I don't know why I crave, not just solitude, but solitude in nature, but I do. My world isn't quite right if I can't find the time to immerse myself outdoors in steady doses. On a busy work day, sitting by my Work Place Pond for ten minutes or walking the dogs through the graveyard by my house does the trick; but when I have the chance to wander for hours, all the better. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a stroll with my family or a birding group too. But there's something different about having time to be alone.

I think one of the differences is that, when I'm by myself, I almost feel like I've developed extra senses, I'm so hyper-aware of my surroundings. Instead of feeling tempted to yak to a companion, I am forced to pay attention to everything. It can feel like a form of meditation--on one level, I experience all my thoughts and recollections, since there are so few distractions; and on another, for whole moments at a time, I am able to put all that to the side and just see and hear what is right before me.

Nine times out of ten, I lose all track of time (what I think of as the "birding zone," or perhaps just more proof that time flies when you're having fun); and at least that often, I feel, coming back to the crowds, that I have glimpsed something bigger than myself.

So why are so many people so fearful? I would hazard it's a combination of reasons. For one thing, I am not sure that being alone, either in the woods or out, is natural to the human condition. For what it's worth, we are social animals, and I understand that true introverts such as myself may be a bit of a rarity. And in today's fragmented world, a lot of people are already forced to be far more solitary than they might like.

It's easy for people like me, who feel more at home in nature than anywhere else, to scoff at those who are more timid, but the truth is, up until the last couple hundred years or so, being in the woods was considered frightening. In their un-Disneyfied form, fairy tales give a glimpse of this atavistic fear; and it seems mean to judge people for still carrying it. (In other words, I think the Big Bad Wolf goes deeper into the human psyche than Walden Pond, even though my own personal experience is Thoreau all the way. People still fear and hate wolves, as an example, far more than any objective stance justifies...but the whole wolf issue is beyond the scope of this post.)

But even if I didn't like to experience Nature as a form of meditation, there are good reasons to learn to be comfortable as a solitary birder. For one thing, if I didn't enjoy going out alone, I'd have to bird a lot less than I do! Unless one's spouse or best friend is also a birder, having someone to go out with you at the drop of a hat might not work out.

Even though I am not timid, I also do try to be sensible, and here on my thoughts on both being and feeling safe alone in the woods:

For starters, I try not to go out by myself before I've scoped out the area with a buddy first. This isn't always possible -- for example, when I went to Texas on my first birding trip, I didn't have a chance to do a preliminary run with someone else -- but locally, I like to take a buddy along first. If I feel at all uncomfortable about a location, then I won't go back alone. For example, Edgar Madigan Park in Logan County isn't a place I'd do solo.

And whether it's my first trip or my hundredth to a place, I always stay observant and trust my intuition. If I see someone who's acting strange, or who just gives me a bad vibe, I'm out of there. Nothing to prove by staying! A couple of times in the past (before I started birding even), my intuition was so strong, that even though I couldn't see anything amiss or hadn't even arrived yet, I got such a strong "Don't go there!" feeling that I turned around. Even if it feels silly, I always listen. And obviously if I ever felt like someone was following me or paying me undue attention...outta there!

I also try to pick places that have a solitary feeling without being completely off in the middle of nowhere. It's easy to find a spot where, for good stretches of the trail, I don't have to trip over other people, but in the surrounding area, there are actually plenty of others around, fishing on the lake or picnicking in a neighboring grove. And I always take my cell phone.

All of this advice would be beside the point if the local parks were actually dangerous places. But here's the thing that drives me crazy: they're not. People keep themselves cooped up, won't let their kids play in their own backyard, let alone the neighborhood, act like a walk through the park was a stroll in a war zone when, by and large, none of this is necessary!

For anyone who doubts me on this, I implore you to actually look into the statistics. Unless we are in the inner city or another dangerous area, our chances of being victims of a violent crime are actually pretty low. And if someone is going to attack you, statistically speaking, it will be a family member, or someone you invited along on your hike. Sad but true.

So if someone feels that they are in constant threat of danger, my first word of advice would be to turn off the TV (or other media source). Studies have shown that the more TV people watch, the more they over-estimate their chances of being victims of a crime, probably because that's all we see on TV. News reports of isolated crimes from all over the country can affect us as though the event happened right in our own neighborhood. Of course, something bad is always happening somewhere. But statistically that does not mean that it is likely to happen to us.

I think "entertainment" can be even more damaging than news. Movies like Deliverance or I Spit on Your Grave can create very strong images of violence and victimhood, but they're not true stories. I think that stories like those do help to create a culture of fear, even if on a subconscious level. Personally, I find that if I'm feeling nervous without good cause, when I think it over, it's usually because of some piece of fiction that I saw or read. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy movies, even horror stories, but I like to keep them supernatural or just so silly I can't take them seriously. Otherwise my mind ends up like a junk yard full of other people's crap, and who needs it?

Obviously, how cautious one feels in nature, or in life, is a very individual decision. For myself, if I never went out alone, I'd feel like I was in a prison. But a more timid or sociable person might find a solitary walk to be a torment.

But for people who don't mind it, I highly recommend a solitary stroll in nature. I think you might find, as I do, that it is one of the most rewarding experiences of all.

So, do you ever bird or hike alone? If so, have you ever had a scary experience? Do you think your nature is more social or solitary?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Weekend round-up

Last weekend, true to my experience over the past few years of seeing my first fall warbler on the third weekend of August, I spotted an American redstart at Mascoutin State Recreation Area by Clinton Lake. My original plan was to repeat last weekend by birding Weldon Springs on Saturday and Mascoutin on Sunday. I like to go back to the same place for several weeks in a row sometimes, to get a good understanding of exactly how the mix of species slowly shifts over the season.

Saturday I even got up early enough to hit the trails at Weldon Springs by seven o'clock. The day is so peaceful that early, the air still cool, the surface of the lake quiet and shimmering, a few traces of dew still clinging to the spiderwebs.... Which are, of course, everywhere in late summer, festooning the trees, dangling over the trails, some a mere trip-wire of a strand, others complicated dream-catcher concoctions complete with fat bulbous spider hunched in the center.

As I focused my binoculars over the lake, spying with my little eye a flock of Canada geese paddling across the surface, an older couple came into view, power-walking around the bend. I had a brilliant thought, definitely one of my better ones. Why not enjoy the Canada geese for a few extra minutes, allowing the morning exercisers to go first, and thus hit all the spiderwebs before I get to them?

It turned out that quite a few people were out and about, jogging, fishing, or just strolling around, so luckily the actual trail was mostly web-free, allowing me to look for warblers without getting a face-full of spiderweb.

Perhaps it is still a bit too early in the season to hit the warbler jackpot, for I only came across one good mixed flock of them, which contained a black and white, a chestnut-sided, and a Philadelphia vireo. As I did last weekend, I crossed the street to pick up the Schoolhouse trail, which proved to be an absolute bust, bird-wise.

Since the warbler action was rather weak, I decided to look for sandpipers instead, and headed across the county (luckily it's a small county, so not too far) for the Salt Creek wetland. It goes along with Murphy's law that if I bring my spotting scope with me, I won't see anything I need to use it for, but if I don't, I'll be jogging back to the car praying that whatever I've spotted just out of binoculars range doesn't vacate the premises before I can get my blankety-blank scope. That's just the way it has to be.

Since not having the scope felt like the worse of two evils, I brought it along. And since I was looking for sandpipers, I slung my tote bag with my Stokes Guide in it across my back, because sandpipers are even trickier than warblers in their fall plumage.

The wetland is not shaded, and the day had grown quite warm by then. When I got to the place I'd hoped to see some peeps, I discovered that the water had receded so far that the good mud flat action was well beyond range of even the scope, although I did see many sandpiper shaped blobs scurrying in the distance, between the larger silhouettes of great blue herons. At that distance, everything shimmered a bit with the heat of the morning.

Proof of the spotting scope axiom stated above! I'd lugged it along, and nothing to look at through it. (I did try...the birds were just too far away.) Well, might as well finish the loop.

I saw two spotted sandpipers in the channel beside the trail, bereft of spots at this time of year but still obligingly bobbing their bottoms so I could easily identify them. And then a tern came into view, swooping over the wetland and making a couple of elegant dives. So bringing along all my crap wasn't a total waste of lugging power, since I could sit down and leaf through my field guide until I'd identified the tern as a Forster's tern...and a life bird at that, hooray.

But mostly it was hot and I had to lug around all my crap which, though nothing to speak of when one embarks on the trail, becomes cumbersome and tiring by the end. But, yeah, Forster's tern, that was a good sighting.

Yesterday morning, I lay in bed thinking about where to bird and remembering all the spiderwebs that I'd encountered last weekend at Mascoutin. And then I recalled how the trails at Weldon Springs were pretty much cleared out before I got to them from all the true early birds strolling past. Since I'm moderately arachnophobic, thinking of the difference between the two decided the matter for me: back to Weldon Springs it was.

I'm actually a little embarrassed about the spider thing. I mean, I'm supposed to be this all around Nature Girl, into birds and plants and snakes and bugs. I like all the stuff that other people don't, such as skunks and bats and possums. I don't even mind seeing bears and alligators (which I really have, BTW -- bears in Michigan and alligators in Texas). But spiders? I really don't like them, in a scream like a girl when I walk into a web sort of way.

I walked the same loop around the lake at Weldon Springs that I had the day before. I haven't walked it enough to get bored with it, and if nothing else, it really is a good place to exercise. There were a few good birding moments, such as the increased amount of hummingbirds at the wetlands. Someone else must have been disappointed that there weren't more of them, because the remaining jewelweed has been supplemented by hummingbird feeders. Not too many warblers, though.

I crossed the street to the Schoolhouse Trail again, this time just taking a quick stroll behind the nature center, observing how their wetland area is definitely all dried out at this time of year. I noticed a path through the trees with a wood chip trail, and peeked inward. A wood thrush hopped across the ground, which was a good sighting not only because wood thrushes are precious, but also because earlier in the year, I'd put wood thrush and yellow-billed cuckoo on ebird, and felt slightly guilty about it ever since.

The reason for the guilt was because, although I did definitely hear those two species, I didn't actually lay eyes on them, and in my mind, heard only species just don't count. Especially since they were "county birds," or first sightings for DeWitt county. I'd added them to my checklist to make it more complete, but in the back of my mind, I'd been thinking "cheater cheater pumpkin eater." Well, now I had one of the two for reals.

I was curious about the trail, but decided to skip it, because I really wanted to get into the area around Salt Creek on the backpack trail, even though this was the spot I got horribly turned around in last June.

Once I embarked on the backpack trail, what I'd done wrong before became immediately -- and embarrassingly -- apparent. The trails back there are laid out in concentric rings -- prairie loop, woodland loop, and creek loop -- each with an access point leading to the next ring. The end of the prairie loop joins right back to the start point of the trail, but for some reason, I hadn't registered that to get there, I had walked down a fairly long gravel-paved hill. So when I'd seen the gravelly hill, I'd thought, "Not that way," and begun to wander the concentric circles of the trails.

Not only did I unlock the mystery of the backpack loop, but I saw some awesome warblers, including black-throated green and Blackburnian. And, as I walked along the trail lined in yellow flowers along the creek, I also saw a yellow-billed cuckoo! My other "cheater" heard only bird in the flesh!

I was feeling so hyped by the nice birds back there and the fact I hadn't gotten even the teensiest bit lost that, on my way back, I decided to explore a new trail branching off from the return loop. For one thing, there were three bird feeders off to one side, and it piqued my curiosity as to why someone had put bird feeders up in what appeared to be the remotest corner of the park.

But maybe not so remote...there was a wooden bridge, and then a fairly steep hill paved with wood chips. As a cacophony of blue jays cried around me, I hurried up, wondering where on earth this trail would end up? Well, I didn't see the wood thrush, but it was the same trail I'd wondered about behind the schoolhouse!

The most exciting moments of the weekend? The Forster's tern. The Blackburnian warbler. The wood thrush and the yellow-billed cuckoo. Wandering through the stands of yellow flowers along Salt Creek. And realizing that four separate trails at my next door park, Weldon Springs, can all be connected into one giant eight mile loop trail! Ah, the simple things in life....

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fall warbler confusion

Even though this post is about warblers, I've included a photo of a black-capped chickadee as a header. This is because one of the things that drives me crazy about warblers is that they won't stay still for a minute! I have a hard enough time getting a long enough look at them to try to identify them, let alone record them for posterity. But they frequently hang about in the same general vicinity as chickadees, and thus it was on Friday at Ewing Park, when I happened upon a nice mixed flock.

I'd already started reviewing my field guides, trying to memorize as many distinguishing features as possible in preparation for fall migration. For, as I described in the spring, I find the warblers to be downright crazy-making. And frustrating. And, they make me feel inadequate! I've been birding for several years now, and I still struggle with the warblers, what's up with that?

Case in point: I pause on the page of my Stokes' field guide devoted to the Tennessee warbler, trying to memorize the little bugger in his non-breeding plumage. A drab little guy, really. Kind of yellowy, olivey--but hey, this is good, he's got a bit of an eye-line. Then I come to the next page, which showcases the Nashville warbler, whose non-breeding plumage is also sort of drab and yellowy, olivey. But--his eye is different! It has a ring instead of a line. Very good, if only I can make sure I get a good look at the eyes...which almost never happens. I mean, they're up at the top of a tree, obscured by the foliage, moving continuously, how am I supposed to focus on the eyes??

But no problem, moving on: the orange crowned warbler. Guess what his non-breeding plumage looks like? Kind of drab, yellowy, olivey. And he has a faint sort of eye-line.

Well, that's OK, so what if three species are a little tricky in the fall? At least I can always nail the magnolia! With that yellow belly and black steaks along the sides, what else could it be? Nothing...except maybe a prairie warbler, which also has a yellow belly and black streaks along the sides, of course the head is different but not as distinguished in the fall and what if I don't get a really good look at the head? How many dozens of fall magnolias have I seen? What if one or two of them was really a prairie warbler, which would have been a life bird?

Very disturbing, moving on. The palm warbler! He's extremely drab in the fall, but luckily easy to distinguish because he pumps his tail, which the others don't do...except for the prairie, oh, and the Kirtland's. Which look similar by the way.

So there are perhaps six species of fall warblers that I can easily identify, and the rest of the time, I just make something up! Or, more likely, I scribble down a description in my notebook and later scour all of my field guides hoping to finally place that drab yellowy olivey one I saw high up in the trees, and never do, and end up feeling frustrated. Or else I have a moment of confidence, proclaim the Warbler to Self and ebird, and then spend the rest of eternity consumed by a nagging doubt: "At the time I thought it was...it really seemed like...but what if I'm wrong?"

Last Friday, as I strolled around Ewing Park in Bloomington, I happened upon a nice mixed flock of warblers. I identified an American redstart, magnolia warbler, black and white warbler, and blue-winged warbler. At the time, I was completely confident about each ID, feeling quite happy to have seen them. Yeah, warblers!

Then I got home and studied the field guide. I noticed the similarity between the magnolia and the prairie. The difference is in the head -- for one thing, the magnolia's is darker -- but how close a look did I get at the head? My ID was reduced from 100% to an 80% on the certainty scale. And the blue-winged, which was a county bird, is, I notice, rather similar to the fall plumage of the pine warbler. Not the same, obviously. But similar enough to make me question myself.

I kept both IDs as they were, because I felt sure at the time, they are "likely suspects," and well...because I always do this to myself. My life list frequently grows by several species, and then is reduced again, as I ponder and doubt and question my abilities. Am I a terrible birder or just pathologically lacking in self-confidence? Is this symptomatic of a greater problem? A sort of ontological crisis? How can I know, really absolutely know, what you are, little bird? And if I don't know, then how can I name you? Fairy tales are very specific about the power of names, and for a good reason. This momentary intersection between me and Bird is deprived of its mojo if I have no names!

A book I am reading on my kindle, Zen Birding by David White and Susan Guyette, has an excellent discussion of the perils of identification, and does not admonish us to forget about it and just enjoy seeing birds. On the contrary: "...To only appreciate birds for their beauty, or for how they make us feel, is being self-centered. We generally recognize that we cannot relate well to other people without some sense of who they are, and this applies to birds as well."

Knowing "who" the bird is can actually increase our sense of wonder about the species we see; more importantly, without a correct identification, we cannot keep track of which birds are abundant and which species are in decline. Apparently some people have assumed that house sparrows residing in the mission at San Juan Capistrano are instead the famous swallows.

When it comes to misidentification of a bird before one's gaze, White ties the problem to two of the "demons of disappointment" of Buddhist thought, one which could lead someone to identify a common bird as a rarity, and the other to identify a rare bird as something common. The former "demon" is the result of "desire for a big list," while the latter comes from "fear of being wrong."

As I suffer from both problems simultaneously, fall warbler season can be a bit nerve-wracking at times. How can we ever be certain, absolutely certain, that we saw what we thought we saw, that our experience truly is as we interpret it? This might be a giant personal issue, but in the meantime, I just want to look at birds. For the rest, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Until then, we can sit together and look for warblers.

And instead we'll see black-capped chickadees.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Angler's Pond at the end of summer

As I pulled up into my Work Place parking lot yesterday morning, the lawn by Angler's pond was full of robins and starlings seeking their breakfasts. (As I remarked last winter, it seems that robins and starlings like to hang out together. Am I the only one who's noticed that? Or who thinks it's a little weird?) I also saw an eastern kingbird and -- happy surprise! -- a Baltimore oriole, the latter being a first for my local "patch" list.

The starlings had their stars on, which is the way I describe their winter plumage. Yet another indication that the season is changing! That's one of the things that I like about birding. I have never been so acutely aware of the subtle shifts of the seasons before I started actively looking at birds. The temperature still feels like summer, but the activity of the birds is so different than it was in June or July!

All of this made me itch to get outside and start birding, but first I had to work my usual half-day Friday. Ah, work. The best that can be said about it is that it keeps me from having to pawn my binoculars. But by early afternoon, all of that was behind me, and I was ready to explore Angler's pond to see exactly what late summer has to offer.

As I described in my last post, I saw some disturbing signs on the trees and gate:

I've never noticed a particular glut of cats around Angler's Pond (although one of the residents suggested I check my shoes for "goose $hit and cat $hit" when I was returning to my car, so there must be some)...and as I stepped through the gate, another thing I didn't notice was any birds. I wondered if every winged creature in the area was taking a siesta.

Still, as I'd looked over the photos I'd taken of the pond last February earlier in the morning, I found the differences between late winter and late summer to be fascinating. And yet, the "bones" of the place, the winding path and bending trees enticing me forward, the tangles and brambles making this spot in the middle of town feel so wild and fey, and the expanse of the pond in the middle--all of that remains, winter or summer.

I found myself spending more time than usual in an open area that consists of a long, narrow pond with houses along one side and apartment building on the other. Normally, this is a fairly boring area, but today it was where all the bird action was.

Walking forward was like traversing a corridor with the pond and the bushes and shrubs along its banks on one side, and the trees and fences of the houses on the other, with the whole center area an explosion of squawking robins. Many of them were still splotchy-bellied with youth:

This is probably what drew them, doll's eye, also called white baneberry:

Do I have to point out that these berries are poisonous? But apparently birds can eat them, even though they cause (according to Illinois Wildflowers) "severe gastrointestinal inflammation and skin blisters" in humans. Well, birds can eat the berries of the poison ivy plant, too...and pokeweed. I wonder how they filter out the poisons, or if it's just a quirk of the human system that we can't eat these things?

I also saw a kingbird, although looking at the photo, it doesn't seem to have the white edging along the tail. The rest of it sure looks like a kingbird, though.

Perhaps a robin's nest?

Urban birding isn't always the most scenic experience.

The last bird sighting of my outing was the humble mourning dove.

It wasn't a very productive walk, bird-wise, and by the end of it I was feeling uncomfortably warm. But I left with the feeling that this observing and documenting of each shift of the season that I have done this year is a good thing, a way of truly looking, almost a form of walking meditation at times. We're at a cusp right now, neither summer nor fall, the breeding birds becoming scarcer and the migrants just starting to trickle through. It's a very interesting time of the year.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cat conundrum

A couple of weeks ago, I walked down to the trail to Angler's Pond on my lunch break, and as I stared out across the water, noticing how there was not one single bird swimming within view, not even a Canada goose, I noticed the most horrid reek in the air, and turned to see the corpse of a cat.

It didn't look like a stray, as the body was intact enough to show that the deceased had been quite portly; the cat was gray with black stripes across its back, and I could easily picture it (in life...for once I wasn't imagining zombie cats or the other bizarre stuff I come up with) curled up on someone's couch or draped across a lap. But I quickly took off, because the smell was absolutely nauseating and the dead cat was kind of weirding me out. I couldn't see any wounds on it. Exactly how had it died?

Today, as I strolled around the pond after work, I saw a few signs posted that cleared up the mystery. Apparently someone has been poisoning the local cats. Which brings me to a topic I've been wanting to address for several months now, but have been too timid to broach: the problem of stray and feral cats.

The rest of this discussion is a summary of what I've read on the topic, and my own opinions, but it's all off the top of my head. If you're interested in learning more, the positions of both sides of the debate are easily found with a quick Internet search, which is why (along with a bout of laziness), I'm only providing a limited number of links.

I first became aware of the issue after reading an opinion piece in Audubon magazine, which discussed the problems caused by the millions of feral cats that exist in America, and how initiatives to curb their numbers, such as an attempt by the state of Wisconsin to kill them, have largely been halted by the protests of those who feel compassion for the cats and object to the killing of an animal that is usually thought of as a beloved pet.

This issue is relevant to a birding blog because of the potential impact of feral, stray and free-roaming cats on bird populations. Defenders of feral cats state that the number of birds killed by them is overstated, and since most of their lives go unobserved, exact numbers of birds killed are impossible to state. But here's my take on it: cats kill birds. Some people state that their particular cat does not kill birds, and that I can't answer one way or the other. But in general, cats do kill birds; in fact, back in the day, before I knew better, the cat I had when I lived in Hawaii loved to stalk, and sometimes kill local birds...luckily for my conscience, they were all the introduced common myna. If she had been killing the native honeycreepers (which did not live in our neighborhood, absolutely no habitat for them there...another sad issue, but off the topic), I would never forgive myself. At the time, I shrugged it off, "Cats kill birds.... It's part of nature."

For the sake of argument, let's say that the millions of feral cats don't kill "that many" birds. Maybe they only kill one a day or one every other day or even one every week. If I do the math, that is still a potentially huge impact on bird populations, since there is no way to tell the cats to only go after house sparrows and starlings. I would imagine how deleterious the effect really is would depend on the location and status of local, migrating or breeding birds. Maybe in some areas it wouldn't be too bad, but in others it could be devastating to an endangered bird with a limited range.

Another argument against the feral cat and bird issue is that compared to other factors impacting bird populations, the number of kills by cats is negligible. And I would agree, pesticides, window strikes, loss of habitat, etc., are all probably worse for birds than the effects of feral cats. But that doesn't make a good argument for doing nothing. The effects of cats are all the more damaging because they are being inflicted on populations that are already on the brink because of all these other factors.

As I used to feel, many people insist that cats are just doing what comes naturally, and this is true. But that does not mean that feral domesticated cats are a "part of nature." I have become more and more aware of how damaging introduced, invasive species can be to our ecosystems, be they garlic mustard crowding out native wildflowers in the woods, European starlings forcing woodpeckers from nesting sites, or Asian carp muddying up our rivers.

So I guess I'm coming down on the environmentalist side of the equation here, and saying that domestic cats really don't belong outside (as the American Bird Conservancy explains in their Cats Indoors program). I know they like to be outside--I've had many a cat in my youth, some of which I was very fond of -- but there are just too many negative consequences to letting them roam (especially if they are not spayed or neutered!)

Just for the record, I would like to state that I am NOT a cat-hater. If I were, I'd try to convince people to let their cats out! Because cats that are allowed to roam die years earlier than those that are kept inside. Outside, they are subject to being hit by traffic, getting into fights, getting hurt by dogs or wild animals, becoming ill, wandering off and not returning home, or being hurt or killed by unscrupulous humans...the photo at the top of this post being just one example. All those cats I used to have as a kid? Either disappeared one day or died young. Meanwhile, the cat my parents currently have, an indoors-only feline, is approaching his twentieth birthday!

With pet cats, I think the issue is not too complicated. It's better for the cat and the birds if the cat is kept inside. But what about all the strays?

Here is where I stumble. What I would like to say is that all the feral cats should be trapped and taken to a shelter, either to find a loving home or to spend the rest of their lives safely taken care of. I know that is not possible. I also don't think that the well-intentioned Trap, Neuter, Return program, where volunteers neuter feral cats so they won't keep having more kittens and then return them to the outdoors, is feasible as a solution.

Overall, I would prefer that everyone err on the side of compassion if there are two sides to an issue. And I am a huge animal lover, not just of birds. In fact, I was a vegetarian for a decade because I couldn't stand to think of how animals suffer with factory farming. (Now I do eat meat again, but I try to get it from local farmers that raise the animals humanely. I'm not entirely comfortable with that either.) The sign that I saw today, imploring the poisoners to "please, please" stop, really struck a cord with me.

But compassion can be tricky. For example, the Buddha warned against "idiot compassion," which is basically enabling someone or making a situation worse because you feel sorry for them. Allowing large populations of feral cats to roam free is not really all that compassionate if it causes bird species to suffer, and if the cats are hungry, sickly or suffering themselves. (There are some excellent discussions of this on the Audubon magazine blog.)

And here's where I run into my conundrum. There are millions -- MILLIONS -- of feral cats. I don't advocate killing animals, and I could never poison one. I wish that all these cats could find a home. It makes me indignant that so many people treat pets as disposable, tossing them outside or abandoning them when it's no longer convenient to keep them. But for me, to paraphrase Mr. Spock, the good of the many has to come before the good of the few, or the one. And to me, the environment is "the many." No power on earth can bring an extinct species back. We'll never see another Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, or Bachman's warbler. I don't want any other bird species added to that list.

That's my priority. If we can balance it with compassion, all the better. In the meantime, I support keeping domestic cats indoors, faithfully spaying or neutering, and never abandoning an animal. If people had always done these steps, we wouldn't have a feral cat problem now.

I know this is an emotional topic for some people, and I'm sorry if I've offended. As usual, any respectfully stated disagreements are certainly welcome in the comments.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Late summer at Weldon Springs

The thing I notice most about late summer birding is everything that's missing. Breeding season is over, and the birds are preparing to leave. No dickcissels or yellowthroats call from the grasses, or meadowlarks from the trees and wires. Normally this is a very sad time for me, but since I have been hunkered inside for most of the summer, evading the terrible heat, this year it's not quite as poignant.

To all appearances, it's summer still, and although the temperature is much more reasonable, this weekend has been very muggy. Also, I'm getting to a certain phase of a woman's life where let's just say I produce enough heat all on my own; I don't need any help from Mother Nature!

So my zest for birding is not what it could be. I didn't get up at "stupid o'clock" (as David Lindo describes it in his book The Urban Birder), and once up, I loitered over my coffee for a while. I took the dogs for a walk before breakfast. All in all, I didn't get out to Weldon Springs until around nine fifteen, hardly the crack of dawn. The day was overcast and extremely humid. I knew my summer friends would be in the process of packing up their bags, so to speak.

But even so, I had to go out. You see, it's the the third weekend of August. And for the past three years, according to my Bird Journal, it was on this weekend that I saw my first fall warblers of the season.

One of the good things about Weldon Springs is that, if you walk the loop trail around the lake, even if you don't see a single feathered creature, you'll get a good workout. Stairs and hills, baby! And let's just say that after a summer spent indoors watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and drinking beers, ummm, I really feel the need of a good workout.

Another good thing about Weldon Springs is that, for an unsung local park (I don't think it is even an actual state park but instead the red-headed stepchild, funding-wise, "state recreation area"), it has quite a few hiking trails, and a nice mix of habitats, including woods, prairie, a couple of small wetlands, a lake, a creek, and that special favorite of so many birds: scrubby areas.

When I got out of my car, the word "silence" did not come to mind concerning the bird world. Eastern wood-pewees cried from all directions, and white-breasted nuthatches tried to out-do them. There was an abundance of nuthattage and pewee-ery all around. I also heard chickadees, and first heard, then saw, a representative of the crabbiest-sounding bird of all time: the tufted titmouse. Titmice have to be one of the cutest birds of the area, but they frequently sound like someone's just worked their last nerve and they're not going to put up with it anymore.

This was all so amusing that I was able to deal with the conspicuous lack of migrating warblers in good humor. However, I was a little disappointed to see that the jewelweed blooming in the wetland has been almost entirely crowded out by other plants, so the gathering of ruby-throated hummingbirds that used to occur here in late summer is now a thing of the past. Just one little hum-dinger feasted on the few remaining flowers. This process has been happening over the last few years, so it didn't surprise me. Still, I had been hoping to see a few more hummingbirds in the area.

My walk around the lake was rounded out by sightings of a red-bellied woodpecker, a northern flicker, an eastern phoebe, two robins and two kingbirds. I saw the robins and kingbirds in a picnic area across from the old schoolhouse trail, which winds through some different habitat -- prairie, scrubby areas, and a few groves of trees -- so I decided to head across the road and try my luck there.

Luckily, it was a bit birdier. Goldfinches and house wrens abounded, as well as indigo buntings. A saw a female bunting bringing late summer insects to a begging cowbird chick. A catbird, a couple of male cardinals, and a female common yellowthroat all made their appearances, along with a surprise guest, a belted kingfisher flying past. This was a surprise, indeed, as one doesn't normally see them flying over a prairie, but I suppose they have to get from Point A to Point B by means of their wings, so why not? I also heard some eastern towhees and a white-eyed vireo, but no sightings of them, alas.

Then there was my double-take olive-sided flycatcher, a bird I've been hoping to add to my year list for months now. It was perched at the dead top of a tree, as they like to do. I'd forgotten to put on my sun hat, so I held up my binoculars, squinted in its direction, and thought, "Yeah, whatever, giant pewee." Brain catching up with itself: way bigger than a pewee, dunderhead! I looked again, got a brief second look, and then it flew away. Still a year bird, though.

On my way back to the car, one last species made themselves known: one male and one female hairy woodpecker, working a tree trunk in tandem. Perhaps that would be a hairy pair?

Despite a cool year bird, nothing too exciting, but still...I definitely felt that anticipation of, "Even though I'm already birding right now, I still can't wait until the next time I get to bird!" Because even though it still feels like summer, appearances are deceiving. The very beginning of fall migration is upon us...and who knows what will turn up here in De Witt County?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Portrait of a birder as a young man (Urban Birder book review)

I have been a big fan of David Lindo, Britain's "Urban Birder," for about a year now, so when he mentioned on his blog that he had a book coming out in August, I couldn't wait to download it onto my Kindle. I am always interested in other people's stories, especially if they are birders, and The Urban Birder did not disappoint.

In the prologue, Lindo asks a few questions, such as: Do you love birds? Do you live in a city or town? Do you wake up most mornings wanting to go birding? Do you love it when you are surrounded by nature, wherever you are? Do you find yourself furtively searching the skies as you travel around? Do you ever bore your friends about birds?

OK, stop already, this is uncanny! We've never even met, and this man knows me inside and out! Which I guess is proof that, no matter where we live or what our backgrounds are, we birders all have quite a bit in common.

But it's what we don't have in common that makes each story special, and these parts of the book I found especially interesting. Like many birders, Lindo developed his fascination as a young child, captivated by house sparrows that he saw on the hospital grounds as his sister was coming into the world. The child of Jamaican immigrants, Lindo grew up in a working class neighborhood in London. Although he was not actively discouraged from his interest in birds and nature, it was also not something that his parents, schoolmates, or even teachers, really seemed to understand or know how to nuture.... Notwithstanding this indifference, as he grew up, he discovered field guides, binoculars, the importance of a "local patch," and also managed to entice a classmate into becoming his birding buddy! I found it especially interesting that he mentions Gerald Durrell as one of his influences...seriously, who wouldn't envy Durrell's childhood on Corfu? My Family and Other Animals has to to be one of the best books ever!

As he entered his late teens and early twenties, he began birding farther afield, going on trips to Scotland and even the Mediterranean area, and, like many of us, began to associate birding with seeking out different species in rural areas, and chasing after rarities (what the British call "twitching.")

He also describes, in a very matter of fact way, how his love of birding clashes with common stereotypes. Other black kids referred to him as a "coconut" (black on the outside, white on the inside) because of his interest in nature, and white birders seemed surprised to find a black guy so interested in birds, and frequently assumed that his white friend was the "real" birder. Although I would say that, at least here in Illinois, birders are friendlier towards each other and newcomers than some of the older folk that Lindo met in England, similar stereotypes occur here as well--namely, that being interested in nature and birds in a mainly white, middle class pursuit; and in the case of birding, I would say that at least 70% of the hard core birders I know are guys.

But the truth is that nature is everywhere around us, even in the midst of the inner city, and making people aware of that is David Lindo's mission. He discusses how surprised people are when he leads them on nature walks, never suspecting how much life is all around them. I would say that is true in central Illinois as much as it is in London.

Towards the end of the book, Lindo describes how his life takes him back to his beginnings, as he returns to London and urban birding, especially after he discovers a previously unbirded, but very rich, area known as the Wormwood Scrubs. As he birds, he discovers the unexpected, such as that these "Scrubs" are in the migration path of one of his favorite birds, the Ring Ouzel. He also, through a combination of serendipity and old-fashioned hard work, gets a chance to live his childhood dream and work for nature programs on TV, like one of his heroes, David Attenborough. (Only in a hip, well-dressed urban way!)

As I was reading about his trips and exploits, practically salivating with envy at all of the British birds that he sees (oh, to see a ring ouzel for myself...and all the different kinds of tits...and rooks!), along came his chapter about birding on trips to the USA, and how he has envied all of the North American birds that can be seen. (And yes, I have been grateful for that myself--despite the depredations to the environment, we still have a plethora of birds to enjoy here in the United States.) It was kind of weird reading about common birds here, like the least sandpiper and the American redstart, being discussed as rarities in England. (Which makes me wonder...can I introduce International Bird Swap Day? No? Why not?) Also, a couple of his stories about birding in New York City made me remember why I avoid cities as much as possible....

The take-home message of The Urban Birder is much the same of this blog: just go outside and look around, and you will be amazed by what you see. For anyone interested in appreciating nature or a birder's memoir, I would recommend this book...and not just because I like his blog!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Operation shorebird, part III: The new, improved Emiquon

The last time I'd been in the area, the Nature Conservancy's Emiquon Preseve--a lovely reclaimed wetland along the Illinois River Valley -- had been a very frustrating place to drive past. The reason for this was that, from the busy road, I could see what felt like miles and miles of fabulous habitat, and absolutely no way to pull off the road and actually bird it.

That frustration, I am pleased to report, seems to be a thing of the past, as there is now ample public access, with trails, boardwalks, informational signs and observation platforms. The new, improved Emiquon will probably become one of my favorite central Illinois birding destinations. What can I say? I love wetlands, and I'm a sucker for boardwalks.

Lovely wetlands:

Observation deck:

The deck is especially well-done, decorated with silver panels with cut-out silhouettes of different species of bird that can be seen there, which I thought was a nice touch. The signs showing the history of the river valley, from pristine wetland to farmland and now back to a state of reclamation, are also nicely done. From them, I learned, for example, that the seeds of the water lilies I admired as we drove past had actually lain dormant in the soil for all those years, as if waiting for their habitat to be re-established so they could bloom again. Call me a big environmental softy if you will, but I find that to be so beautiful.

Alas, the signs also showed that black-necked stilts could be found in the area, and the black-necked stilt is, like the yellow-headed blackbird, one of my state nemesis birds. It's gotten to the point where I want to say, Please don't even tell me about seeing stilts in Illinois. They don't exist here; there must be some sort of barrier that stops them as they try to cross the Mississippi.

And did I see stilts at Emiquon? No! I didn't see leprechauns, either, or the tooth fairy. Not that I'm bitter about never seeing stilts. Oh no, not me. Easy come, easy go, that's my birding motto.

Mostly what we saw were great egrets.

A tree full of swallows:

And several great blue herons.

As far as shorebirds go -- they were, after all, the point of this birding exercise -- I saw three noisy killdeer and one silent solitary sandpiper. No stilts or avocets. Still, I was thrilled to see the improvements at Emiquon and can't wait to come back later in the fall -- when the ducks should be coming through!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Operation shorebird, Part II: Few birds at Banner Marsh

After the frustrations of trying to distinguish one small, brown, undistinguished-looking bird from a multitude of similar small, brown, undistinguished-looking birds -- that would be my sandpiper experience -- I decided I wanted to look at some huge, obvious, can't-possibly-mistake-it-for-anything-else birds.

So I thought it over for a while. What birds are huge, obvious and unmistakable (ostriches? flamingos? emperor penguins?) and something I could see not far from Chatauqua NWR along the Illinois River in central Illinois in the middle of August. The answer to that would be...swans.

And the best place to see swans in the area is Banner Marsh, a reclaimed strip mine north of Havana and not too far from Peoria, a bit of a drive from Chatauqua but not that far.

Along the way we saw several red-headed woodpeckers on telephone poles; there seem to be a lot of those in Mason county. Red-headed woodpeckers, that is. I don't think the county has more telephone poles than other places.

Sunwiggy and I discovered Banner Marsh entirely by accident on an extremely frigid day in February several years ago. After finding it too cold to get out of the car and explore Sand Ridge State Forest for more than ten minutes at a time (we were looking for crossbills, as there is a cruel rumor that those birds enjoy wintering amongst the pines of Sand Ridge--I would like to state uncategorically that numerous winter trips have yet to yield a single sighting for this birder), we decided to explore the region by car, and thus stumbled across Banner Marsh.

Birding-wise, I find the marsh to be very hit or miss. Some trips (including one at the end of August in 2009) have produced great lists. Others, I feel lucky to get a great blue heron and a red-winged blackbird. But at least it is always an interesting place; there is its history, of a once-degraded location brought back to a state where it can harbor birds and other animals; there is the interesting mix of water, fields and scrubby habitat, ringed by a tall embankment, which Sunwiggy and I once walked along; and there is the fact that the place has an all-around weird "vibe" which makes me feel, on certain mist-shrouded mornings, that I have traveled much farther than an hour or two down the road.

But no matter what else I might find, there are always swans. Well, except for yesterday. Seriously, what's up with this place? We saw several people fishing but, except for a small flock of Canada geese, no birds at all!

Until, on the drive back out, I noticed a bird hovering kestral-like over the water.

This was exciting because the hovering bird was obviously a tern of some sort, which was a year bird. (Beneath the tern, the snake-like neck sticking up from the water is a double-crested cormorant.)

Now the question becomes, common or Caspian? From that distance, the only give-away would be the color of the feet, and Greenturtle was a good sport, waiting patiently as I held up my binoculars until the tern turned (ha ha) to an angle that allowed me to see---it had black legs and feet, so the winner is, Caspian tern!

Right before we left, secluded in an area mostly hidden by reeds, we finally did see some mute swans as well.

With so few birds, I wasn't tempted to stay, and decided to head for my final stop in search of shorebirds, Emiquon, which will be the subject of tomorrow's post.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Operation shorebird, Part I: A Stinky Beginning

Now that the weather has cooled off enough that stepping outside no longer feels like a tour of Satan's Sweatshop, the question becomes: where to bird? My favorite birds are all passerines, those that can be found perching in woodland glades or clinging to stems and weeds on the grasslands, but mid-August in Illinois is not a very good time for seeing those.

If I want something exciting at this point of the season, my best bet is migrating shorebirds--of which I've seen deplorably few this year--and according to ebird, Cornell University's on-line database of bird sightings, someone saw American avocets at Chatauqua recently, and since Chatauqua is supposedly good for shorebirds in general, Greenturtle and I headed there.

I say "supposedly" good for shorebirds, because in two years of birding the Illinois River Valley hotspots (Meredosia, Chatauqua, Emiquon) in late summer/early fall looking for "peeps," I've missed out on the magic more times than I can count. But hope springs eternal in a birder's heart.

The morning sunshine was mild, I was bursting with weeks worth of pent-up energy; if ever a day existed for shorebird sightings, this was it!

Greenturtle and I arrived at Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge around 9:30 and headed down to the levee at Eagle Bluff. As soon as we got out of the car, we were accosted by the most horrible stench of rotting fish-flesh, the likes of which I've never quite experienced before. But, the water by the levee had evaporated down to a mudflat that was absolutely teeming with birds, so olfactory assault notwithstanding, I wanted to see what was there.

The reason for the stench was soon apparent; piles of dead fish lay everywhere.

Some ring billed gulls were really enjoying it.

Personally, I was more interested in the "peeps" congregating around the mudflats. Not that I am especially drawn to sandpipers. They're just so hard to identify, especially in their fall plumage. I can safely say that these were all little ones -- "peeps" -- certainly smaller than a killdeer, as there were plenty of killdeer on hand for comparison. Besides least and pectoral sandpipers, there may have been a few semipalmated, but I wasn't sure.

I was still slowly moving my scope from peep to peep, looking for one which stood out from the others, when Greenturtle asked if we could move to our next stop, as the rotting fish stench was really starting to get to him. To be honest, I'd only dimly registered its true offensiveness -- birders encounter even worse from time to time. But for a non-birder, it was pretty thick. Besides, there wasn't an avocet in sight.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An unusual suspect

The weather has finally cooled off a bit. For the first time it what has seemed like weeks, we turned off our air conditioner. It's fun to take my dogs for a walk instead of being a horrible sweat-fest. I've begun to have fond memories of an odd little outdoorsy hobby I once had, called birding. And what good timing this is, as the fall warbler season is just around the corner.

Despite this improvement in the weather, to be honest, I wasn't really thinking about birding as I pulled into the parking lot at my Work Place. I was thinking work things and also ruminating about various personal issues as I tend to do.

I turned off the ignition, thus killing the song from my "North African Groove" CD, and glanced up, still wearing my sunglasses, to see a bird fly right in front of the car and perch in the tree directly in front of me. It was fairly big for a songbird, with a glossy black back and a white chest and belly, and even with my eyes artificially shaded, I could make out the white band on the edge of its tail. An eastern kingbird!

Despite the fact that kingbirds are fairly common summer breeders here in central Illinois, I was thrilled to see it. For one thing, I don't think I've seen one in over a month--common or not, if you don't go birding, they don't (usually) just fly right up and perch in front of you at work! And another, I'd just added a bird to a list. My first Work Place Kingbird!

I immediately took off my sunglasses and admired it for a while. I think it was the closest I've ever been to one, and as I was sitting still in my car, it had no reason to be scared, and stayed for several minutes. I could see the grayish smudges on its sides along the breast by the wings, which I'd never been close enough to notice before. Hooray! A kingbird! Which is, all at once, an improvement on my state of mind from a few minutes before, without kingbirds.

It then flew off, eventually stopping to perch for a while at the very top of a tree, but just having seen it inspired me to dig my spare pair of binoculars out and stroll around the lawn and pond area before heading into the building. I also saw: a black-capped chickadee, many juvenile robins with splotchy spotted bellies, a gray catbird, quite a few chimney swifts flying overhead, and later in the day, a green heron.

The morning was sunny but pleasant, the perfect temperature, in fact; besides the birds (so few species, but fun to see), I enjoyed inspecting some plants, including a yellow mystery flower (I wish I'd brought my camera -- the kingbird photo is actually from an earlier sighting at Sugar Grove Nature Center), and the sight of some chicory, which I've finally learned to correctly identify. As a child, I'd always been told it was called "cornflower," which is actually a different plant altogether.

As I made a list of birds I'd seen in my small notebook I keep just for Work Place Birds, I realized that I hadn't been enthusiastic enough by a sighting to log it since June 28. (I always try to convince myself to be a good amateur ornithologist and log everything on the ebird database for the sake of Science -- but then when it's just robins for a month straight...meh.... I think being equally excited about every bird you see must be what Enlightenment feels like. And trust me, I'm not enlightened!)

On that day, I'd been most excited about seeing some chimney swifts, but had also noted: robin; catbird; hairy woodpecker; great blue heron; cardinal and starling.

The note before that was from May 11: common yellowthroat; magnolia warbler; Wilson's warbler; eastern wood pewee; wood duck; mallard; Canada goose; starling; robin; house wren; BH cowbird; chickadee; coot; and catbird.

But going back even further, I see that last summer, on August 26, I saw a Wilson's warbler there. Oh, we're so close to fall migration, it's like I can feel it building up. Why else would a kingbird show up at my Work Place Pond? Things are starting to move again...and I can't wait.