Monday, August 29, 2011
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....