Thursday, September 29, 2011

Crossed conditions and hapless doves

Do you ever have a week where you feel that life is simply, well...against you? Where you start to wonder what on earth you might have done to deserve such a string of bad luck? And where, additionally, you start to feel a bit superstitious, such as wondering if you have been, in the old-fashioned way of thinking..."crossed"?

In this post I will restrict myself to lamenting about extracurricular activities, as it were, and leave aside the special depths of Hell known as my job, as that is sure to bore everyone, and besides, in these uncertain times, surely the most acceptable statement, job-wise, is "I'm grateful to have one...." ??

But, paid employment beside: Saturday, my Audubon singing bird clock is knocked off the wall and breaks. Of course I immediately went to my nearest Wild Birds Unlimited and got a new one, which I like.'s not the same. "My" clock is dead.

Monday...I take my dachshund to obedience school. Not only is he the second to worst dog in the class, barking-wise, but...after the lessons, he shows what he thinks of being told what to do by lifting his leg and whizzing all over my shoe. In front of everyone.

Yesterday...while walking dogs at local Weldon Springs park, my husband Greenturtle twists his ankle, resulting in a sprain and lump the size of a golf ball on the side of his foot.

Today...we learn that our property taxes are past due and somehow not calculated into our escrow account and so Greenturtle has to run around transferring money in order to pay for the "surprise," instead of resting his foot like he should be.

And amidst all this, there are mourning doves in need of help.

Tuesday, one of my dogs, Raven the cocker spaniel, somehow managed to escape the confines of the back yard, and when she finally came in response to our increasingly frantic calls, she was carrying a young mourning dove in her mouth.

I saw Greenturtle walk up to her, yank the bird from her jaws and toss it aside, and asked, as he led Raven towards the house, "Is it dead?"

"It will be," he said.

Do you know the expression, "My blood ran cold?" That's how I felt at that moment. In a way, a soon-to-be-dead bird is worse than a dead one. Because one feels no obligation to something that's dead. But something alive and injured demands help.

I walked up, and saw that the poor little thing, a mourning dove so young it still had some pin feathers, was still breathing. It was frozen with shock, missing its tail, and had some scrapes or sores on its side and bottom, but it was still alive.

I called some random veterinary clinics until I found one that had the number for a local (or, in my case, since I have moved to the boondocks, semi-local) wildlife rehabilitator. This woman agreed to take care of the young dove, but I had to drive all the way back to Normal (about 20 miles one way) and back to deliver it.

There was no debate in my mind what I had to do. If I left the poor thing out all night, it would surely die. So I gently wrapped it in an old T-shirt for warmth and placed it in a shoebox and took off.

Just as I was getting into town, it revived itself, flapped its way out of the T-shirt, out of the shoebox (which I hadn't put a lid on--OK, live and learn, but when I picked the dove up it wasn't even moving, let alone flapping!), and into the space between the seat and the car door.

When I arrived, all I could see, when I opened the passenger side door, was its butt jammed under the seat. Well, we--by which I mean, Gail the Wildlife Rehabber-- got it out and took a look. She said that although it was definitely injured, it actually didn't look that bad, and she put it in a shoe box with another injured young mourning dove, expressing the hope that maybe the two would be able to comfort each other. In fact, Raven might have actually saved its life by bringing it to me. Since the dove didn't have any puncture type wounds, and Gail suggested that Raven probably found it already wounded and just picked it up as spaniels are wont to do, perhaps I can rest guilt free about the role my dog played in the Dove's Tale.

All the while I was ferrying the dove to its destination, I just wanted it to make it there. I wanted the little thing to live, no more, no less. Mission accomplished, I wondered if I had accumulated any good karma and told myself what an important spiritual lesson that was, pure compassion and all that. If only I could drum up those sorts of feelings more often.

And then today: Hapless Doves, the sequel. Sequels are never as good as the first one, right? As I was walking towards my front door after work, exhausted and crabby after another day at the office, looking forward to an evening watching videos checked out from the library and enjoying a Dos Equis or two...BLAM! A mourning dove flew away from me and hit the neighbor's window.

I ran over to check it out. It was another young dove, perhaps even a sibling to the one I'd helped earlier...and it was stunned, flopping helplessly on the ground. Full disclosure? I thought: shit, shit, shit, not ANOTHER one! And then I gently picked it up.

It clung on to my hand for dear life (see above photo)... About ten minutes later, I managed to coax it off my hand and onto the floor of my front porch. Then I called Gail the Rehabber, who promptly called me back and explained that window strikes can break a bird's collar bone, which would explain why the dove was able to hop and scurry away from me but not fly. She offered to take it in if I could deliver it, but when I asked if I could maybe help it along myself for a few days with fresh water, rest, and bird seed, she said absolutely, as long as I kept it safe and fed, it should heal on its own within two weeks.

What a relief! I really wasn't into another late night trip into town. So now I have an overnight guest, snug in a cardboard box on my porch. (I'd originally planned to put it into a spare cockatiel cage, but Gail explained that it might get its wing stuck in the bars and even tear it off in a no cages...I mean really, who wants to see that???)

Is this the beginning of a new phase of nursing injured birds back to health? I wouldn't mind becoming a bona fide wildlife rehabilitator at some point. In the meantime, if doves could stop hurting themselves in my yard, I'd be eternally grateful!

For anyone who finds this talk of bad weeks and wounded doves too heavy, I offer, as distraction, photos of my dachshund Trevor stylin' in his new sweater:

P.S., When I called Gail today, she said that Mourning Dove #1 is still alive, doing better, and even starting to grow back some tail feathers...hooray!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why birders bird and listers list

Between work, errands and a drizzly Sunday (although I did see a year bird vesper sparrow between bouts of drizzle!), I have been thinking about birding more than actually going out to see the birds.

More specifically, I have been dwelling on the perennial question -- what is it about birding that is so addictive? And why, for so many of us, myself included, does birding become so list-driven and competitive (though, in my case, I mostly compete against myself, as I lack the time, resources and possibly the peculiar drive to launch myself into Big League Birding. Maybe someday, I think wistfully to myself...although then I'd probably have to start caring about gulls.)

I have broached this topic a couple of times in the past, such as my previous post about big lister Phoebe Snetsinger and my response to my birding buddy Sunwiggy's question about how we can get so carried away by our lists that we forget to enjoy the birds. Perhaps the question keeps coming back to my mind because if I could unlock the reasons for the obsessive, addictive nature of birding, I'd probably be on to something really deep about human nature. Or at least be a little closer to the philosopher's maxim to "know thyself." Or maybe it's just because I like to think about things; it's a sort of personal weakness. (How many times have people chastised me for analyzing a book or movie or trip to the county fair by saying, "It's just for fun, you're not supposed to think about it!"?)

As with many issues, the answers people find to the Obsessive Birding question might very well show more about their personal foibles than the birds or birders in question. For example, the Wikipedia entry on birding states that "ethnologist Nikolaas Tinbergen considers birdwatching to be an expression of the male hunting instinct while Simon Baron-Cohen links it with the male tendency for 'systemizing.'"

As a definitely female mad birder (at least last time I took a shower, ha ha), my reaction to this statement is: huh? To be honest, I have never heard of either of the men mentioned above, and perhaps a thoughtful reading of their work would lend a more favorable opinion. But on the surface of it, I don't find either concept very useful in my quest to understand my lister's impulses, and not only because I'm not a man; I don't feel like I'm "hunting" the birds at all (although Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature admits to feeling that way at times, as I mention in my post about the different roles I take on as a birder) and I am not really sure what the "male tendency for 'systemizing' really means -- does it have anything to do with my inner meltdown if I can't figure out which warbler is which?

Closer to the answer, in my opinion, is a discussion of the drive to understand that Thelma Lavine mentions in a discussion of Hegel's philosophy:

"We are beings...who take mastery as our goal...such mastering actions (are) the examples of the principle of negation, at work in all human thought.... [T]he principle of negation and death is at work in the self's characteristic relation to objects, in its desire to negate them, to overcome them in some way, to destroy them, to incorporate them, to cancel them out of existence."

(Full disclosure: I encountered this quote while reading a collection of essays entitled Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. I wasn't actually just sitting around and reading about Hegel.)

To be honest, I'm still pondering that one. Is birding -- at least birding of the obsessive, list-driven kind -- part of a quest for mastery? Absolutely. And about the rest of it...obviously I don't want to cancel birds out of existence; in fact, I frequently get bummed out and weepy thinking about how precarious the survival of so many species is -- but to incorporate them? Into what, myself? The sum of my understanding of things? If so, yes. Perhaps to negate or cancel the division between "myself" and "other" (birds?) If so, maybe.

An essay or two later in the Buffy anthology, I got even closer to what I'm trying to put my finger on. In a discussion of the character of Willow, James B. South mentions the concept of "enigmatic signifiers," quoting Jonathan Lear: "We are, by our natures, susceptible to enigmatic signifiers--oracular utterances, if you will--which we can recognize as having a meaning--indeed, as having a special meaning for us--but whose content we do not understand." The desires represented by the enigmatic signifier cannot ever be truly fulfilled, because, despite the power that they have over us, we will never really be able to understand them. It's a hint, a glimpse of a greater longing, a tantalizing riddle to which we'll never have the key.

When I see a bird, especially a "good bird," such as a lifer or one I don't see very often, there is a lot going on in my range of reactions. Partly it's triumph, the sheer joy of having one more for the lists. Partly it is a sort of mastery, a moment of knowing and naming and just enjoying that space. And partly it is, no doubt, enigmatic, an intersection of Self and Bird that means all sorts of things that I'll never really express because I will never totally grasp it. And it might even be considered a sort of long as you put the word "scavenger" in front of it. Even symbolically, I could never hurt the birds.

But really, in the very best birding moments, I am not a scientist or philosopher or scavenger, or even really a birder. It's the opposite of the "male" (or, more likely, human) desire to "systemize." It's something mystical. It's the part of me that understands a quote like this, from Zen Birding by David White and Susan Guyette:

"An American Indian man, a Ute, offered his perspective about birding. Birding is an okay thing to do, he said, because it can help you get in touch with this great creation of which we are a small part. Using binoculars is okay, too, if it helps you find out who you are looking at. But once you've identified the bird, once you know who it is, put the binoculars away. 'Birds don't like it when you stare at them,' he said. 'They think you're being rude.'"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Late summer in the U.P. : by Sunwiggy

Another guest blog post from Sunwiggy, my northern correspondent.

Late summer in the UP is usually a melancholy time for me. Winter seems very near now, and more and more of my feathered friends are heading South. At the age of 62, one is aware that there are a limited number of new Springs and Summers one can expect to enjoy! So, to distract myself from all of this, I've been having a more-than-usual number of birding adventures.

First up was my sewer plant expedition, undertaken with a reluctant husband and birding partner. Having seen several nice peeps posted on ebird, by a fellow UP birder, at the Atlantic Mine sewer plant, I decided to go and see peeps, too. Finding the place was a trial and a tribulation, not very conducive to marital and birding harmony, but eventually we figured it out. An open gate, with a "Danger. Sewer Plant. Do Not Enter" sign gave my husband pause, but not me. How serious could they be, if the gate was open? We proceeded down the road and came to 2 of the 4 large "ponds" we'd seen on a google map at home. These were partially surrounded by a chain link fence and more "Keep Out" signs. The smell was horrific, even for a sewer plant. I could see crows investigating something along the muddy shore. There were puddle ducks in the first pond, tipping their bottoms up and eating away. My husband said his opinion of ducks had gone down a notch. The 2nd pond was empty, and my increasingly nervous spouse insisted on leaving "before anyone sees us." At this point, I started humming the tune to "Secret Agent Man." As we bounced down the road, we passed the biggest pickup truck I've ever seen, so I guess we got out just in time!

My next trip was to the Seney NWR, our 2nd time there. I was hoping to see trumpeter swans, and boy, did I, around 60 of the refuge's resident 250 birds. Seney is a really lovely place, with all of its pools. The place is well-laid out, too, easy to grasp and get around in. We noticed a big difference from our early summer trip; the long marsh walk was silent now, with all of the singing nesting birds gone, especially the redwinged blackbirds...if you can call what they do singing! Instead, the trees were full of migrating warblers, leading to a lovely, if frustrating, time complete with "warbler neck", and much paging through the bird guides and "discussion" of which birds, exactly, we were seeing. I was thrilled as we drove slowly by the ponds to see, not only all of the swans, but grebes, Canada geese, and sandhill cranes, and 3 bald eagles. We missed seeing the osprey and the mother loon with her baby that we'd heard about in the Visitors Center.

The swans were very protective of the almost-grown-up cygnets. We stopped to admire, from the Jeep, a mother swan and a cygnet, almost giving the father swan heart failure, or so it seemed. With much thrashing of wings, he got himself airborne, and flew to his little family, where the couple greeted each other with a lot of noise and synchronized neck-and-head bobbing. Then Father interposed his large body between us and his young one, and the 3 swam hastily away.

We also took a photo of a yellow rail, so we could tease Ms. Crow by saying we had seen one, and we did! Of course, the glass case in which the yellow rail is artfully displayed is visible in the photo. The best way to see one, I've read, is to go out with a guide in the middle of the night and endure being drained dry by mosquitoes while the guide knocks 2 rocks together. This sounds, to a male yellow rail, like a rival, and he will come out of the weeds to investigate. You turn a flashlight on, quickly, and there you go, you've seen a yellow rail!

This weekend, time constraints forced me to bird right here at home, which turned out to be lucky for me! The Scrub, an old railway line turned into an ATV trail, is full of warblers and sparrows flocked up to migrate. Lake Calumet is hosting, along with all of the Canada geese, a handsome gadwall. A rough-legged hawk is here, even though he's only supposed to be here in the wintertime. We got to watch a belted kingfisher catching and eating her fishy lunch. We rescued a very large painted turtle from the middle of the ATV trail, and put him gently in the mud by the beaver pond, although my husband refused to pull the leech off his tail (and I didn't, either, shame on us!). A short drive out of town gave us a ruffled grouse by the side of the road, near 2 male peacocks, the later presumably from the little hobby farm nearby.

Perhaps the best cure for Fall sadness is just to enjoy the birds we do see more than ever, and wish the departing ones a safe trip and a nice winter vacation down there in the South. Come January, I'll be trying to come up with a way to join them! Sunwiggy

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A few good birds

Fall birding can be so hit or miss. I've had wonderful birding days in September, warbleriffic outings, days where getting a big species count seems almost effortless. But that's only sometimes. The rest of the time, it's more like it was for me this weekend.

There were a few really good birds. But mostly not. Mostly it was just me walking along by my lonesome.

Yesterday I drove around the county a bit, hoping to find someplace with a different mix of species than I've been getting at Weldon Springs and Mascoutin. More specifically, still hoping for sandpipers, even though they've been eluding me all year.

I did find two semipalmated sandpipers and two solitary sandpipers in the muddy creek bed by Clinton Marina, keeping company with a killdeer, but beyond that, not a "peep" out of them.

On the other hand, the Peninsula Day Use Area was interesting. It used to be part of the park system, I'm assuming, but ever since I've been birding, the road has been closed, the area abandoned. But it doesn't say "Keep Out!," so every once in a while I stop there, usually in the winter.

This was the first time I'd been there while the grasses and foliage are still abundant. Weeds and scrubby yellow flowers pushed up through a long buckle in the pavement, that ran down the middle of the road like some shrubby backbone. It was really weird when I got to the area with the restrooms and the playground, like what sort of apocalypse made everybody leave? Yeah, I know, state funding, but it still felt like something out of Planet of the Apes.

From the area by the picnic shelter all along the trail to the beach, the amount of garbage made it clear that the place hasn't really been abandoned after all. And clearly the survivors of the Peninsula Day Use Area's armageddon enjoy Bud Light and Newport cigarettes. They also left behind many wadded up plastic bags and a frying pan. Ughh...

On the way back, I saw the bird that made the whole trip to Litter Central worthwhile: an osprey soaring overhead, carrying a large fish in its talons. Yes, it's moments like this that make me keep birding....

Today, I stuck closer to home, and walked around at Weldon Springs for most of the morning. Not much to see, a couple flocks of fall warblers but not as many as I'd like. I hope someone else is finding them. I did hear a white-eyed vireo calling from the shrubs, and even caught a glimpse of it. It's loud and discordant song inspired me to compose a small poem:

Vireo Songs

The white eyed vireo
is a noisy bird.
He is assured
that when he calls
across the fields
his voice is heard.

Other vireos
are more retiring.
Almost inquiring
is the warbling's warble,
while the Bell's cheedle-cheedle
sounds self admiring.


So, do birds ever inspire you to compose a verse or two? On a less pleasant note, have you ever happened upon a mountain of litter while you were strolling around?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pondering pesticides (and just saying no)

"I need to talk to you! Stop!" The man jumped out of a red car and started hurrying towards me. "I need to talk to you!"

I was walking my two dogs, Trevor the dachshund and Raven the cocker spaniel, through the cemetery in my neighborhood, and had just enjoyed seeing a belted kingfisher flying off down the stream that cuts through the middle of the graveyard.

I turned around apprehensively. The man sounded so insistent. There's no rules prohibiting walking dogs in this area, and neither of them had made a "deposit" on someone's grave site, so what was the big deal? Was I about to confront the town looney?

It turned out the man wanted to warn me against walking them along the creek area.

"I had a bulldog that I used to walk along there," he told me. "One day she ingested some pesticides that were sprayed along the creek. She came home and kept licking her paws. I loved her so much--she suffered for days, then she died. So don't walk your dogs along the creek!"

I thanked him for warning me -- at least, as best I could over Trevor's barking (he can be a very bad dog that way -- we are registering him for obedience class on Monday, and not a day too late!), and pondered his words as I finished the walk.

I've been taking the dogs along that area all summer, so I wasn't too freaked out. Plus, pesticides have a distinctive, awful smell, which I didn't detect even a whiff of. Still, I did take the man's warning to heart, and although I won't stop walking my dogs in the area, I will be careful to make sure nothing's been sprayed recently. And, since I love to be a public nuisance, I'll start pestering city and county officials about it -- not that it will do any good.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt the man's story, and I appreciate that he tried to spare my dogs the same horrible fate as his. My aunt had a collie who died suddenly after she'd had her yard sprayed. And if you do an Internet search of pets poisoned by pesticides, you'll find a lot of similar tales, such as this one from One Green Generation. (I highly encourage you to follow the link to a great post -- and don't worry, it has a happy ending.)

As the above post explains, according to the ASPCA, over 30,000 pet poisonings related to pesticides are reported to the poison control center each year. That's a really big number, and I was unable to verify it, but if you include cases of pets ingesting items left around the house or garden (such as roach hotels, rodent bait, poison granules, etc.) then perhaps.... (BTW, I was a bit annoyed by a line on the ASPCA website, along the lines of, "These products are necessary to keep your garden healthy, but keep your pets away." WTF?!?)

I guess that's what annoys me most about home use of pesticides: so much of it is completely unnecessary. It's really not a big deal to pull some weeds...and if your lawn in less than perfect, seriously, so what? In a previous post, I complained about the use of pesticides on the lawn by my work place pond because of the potential impact on birds, but now that I own dogs, I have even more reasons to object!

With all that said, I can understand the temptation. After walking the dogs, I worked on clearing out the raised beds in my garden, which have been completely overgrown all summer (I wanted to see if anything worth saving popped up. In a word, no), to get ready for planting native herbs and wildflowers next spring.

As I began pulling out plants and digging in one of the beds, a swarm of ants began seething across the dirt, rushing up my legs and arms, and -- ouch! -- biting me. And these are just normal ants, not fire ants like I encountered in Georgia. So my first thought was (as I decided to work on a different raised bed for the day), "How the bleep do I get rid of these ants?"

Reading advice on the Internet -- and skipping over anything that suggests using a pesticide, as I don't want to kill any birds or poison my soil -- I have run across suggestions to use boiling water, hot pepper sauce, cayenne pepper, orange oil, grits or corn meal, and human urine. I have also read that ants are not harmful to plants so why not let them be? (Well, I'd be happy to...if they'd stop biting me!)

My experience and research today has really helped confirm, once again, that I don't want to use any pesticides or herbicides in my garden as I create my Avian Haven. But in the meantime, does anyone have any thoughts or advice about the ants?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Signs of the seasons

Sometimes I like to check out the "stats" feature of blogger and see what kind of hits my blog is getting. It's especially interesting to see the query someone made that led them to my humble posts. I often find myself thinking, "That's a good one -- I wish I actually had that information on here!"

For example, one query recently asked, "What bird is a harbinger of fall?" Since I am always making notes to myself about the first time or the last time I see a particular species or hear their song or see a certain plant, I think that's an interesting question.

Obviously, my answer is entirely dependent upon my particular locale. All of the statements and observations I am about to make are applicable to my experience in central Illinois. It goes without saying that the birds of, say, Cyprus or Baja California or some Arctic land will probably be different!

Strangely enough, I don't have an exact species of bird that I would call the "harbinger of fall." Winter, yes--the dark-eyed junco. And spring--the red-winged blackbird. (A lot of people would probably root for the American robin, but since so many overwinter here, and the blackbirds show up a week or two earlier, I vote for the blackbird.) For summer, I would vote for the ruby-throated hummingbird.

But fall? Personally, I know that fall is on its way more from the behavior of birds than their arrival. Many species fall silent. The grackles and starlings form enormous flocks. Swallows group up, then disappear. All of this tells me, even if I lost my calendar, that the autumn is fast approaching

But more than anything else, the starlings put their stars on. They lose their shimmery summer plumage and put on a coat of shiny white flecks--the "star" in starling. Despite being invasive nuisance-birds in North America, starlings in winter can be a surprise if you look closely; some non-birders ask what lovely species it is.

That simple question got me thinking, and here is A Year in Birds According to the Crow; or how to know your season:

Mid-winter -- the bald eagles appear along the river ways in huge numbers. Also a great time to go look for wintering owls, not that I am ever lucky enough to see one of those!

Late winter -- if you find an open stretch of water, it's bound to have some ducks on it. Enjoy! And the cardinals start to sing.

Early spring -- the return of the red-winged blackbirds and grackles! Also, check out those migrating sparrows.

Mid-spring -- the swallows return.

The Height of Spring -- warblers, warbler everywhere. Also the hummingbirds appear, and all the breeding birds have arrived.

Early summer -- the woods and prairies burst with song as all the summer residents make their nests and sing for their territories. I especially love the grasslands, with the buzzy chorus of dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, sedge wrens, all overlaid with the plaintive song of the meadowlark. But deep in the woods, the ethereal cry of the wood thrush has to be the most beautiful sound on the planet.

Mid summer -- OK, it's hot and nasty now, but baby birds are everywhere.

Late summer -- the blackbirds are gone. Everyone else stops singing. For a while, the birding really sucks.

Early fall -- the starlings put their stars on. Fall warblers start to trickle though.

Late fall -- migrating sparrows. The juncos come down for the winter. The ducks come through on their way back south.

And back to winter. That's the good thing about birding. There's always something to look forward to.

What bird do you consider to be the harbinger of fall? Or any other season?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A sliver of place and time

Last weekend, Greenturtle and I went to Saint Charles, MO, for the day, as I am very interested in the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Saint Charles has a museum dedicated to the explorers. Overall, the trip was a bit of a letdown; perhaps I was just expecting too much. Or perhaps it was me: I have been more restless than usual lately, so that even when I am seeing one bird, or enjoying one trail, I automatically start feeling impatient for the next.

After wandering through the shops and having lunch, I wanted to check out the "Eco Park," which is part of a larger park along the Missouri River, the Jean Baptiste Point DuSable park.

It looked nice on the map...woods and wetlands, along the river. But in reality, as soon Greenturtle and I embarked on the trail, we were commenting how spoiled we are with living in central Illinois. Yes, the middle of the agricultural wasteland, so flat and unscenic, and I was feeling grateful! Because when I go for a walk's largely quiet. The people are few and far between, the traffic at a distance.

At the Saint Charles park, the vicinity to Interstate, train tracks, and flyway were all too apparent, not to mention the number of other people trying to enjoy the park. It was noisy and crowded, and made me grateful to be a "rural birder." (Which makes me think of the episode of the TV show 30 Rock where no one can figure out the name of the movie one of the characters is in -- The "Rural Juror." But what else is the opposite of Urban Birder?)

Before leaving, we drove to the edge of the park, where the off leash dog areas are, and the whole area was, not only noisy with the eternal traffic of the Interstate, but nauseating from the smell of the even-closer sewage plant. And the saddest thing is (or is it the most hopeful?), in with the noise and the stench, I saw chickadees, resilient and engaging little creatures.

I'm sure this is exactly how Lewis and Clark embarked on their expedition.... And yes, I do take my binoculars everywhere!

On the way home, construction on I-55 forced us onto the back roads around the town of New Douglas, which, on such a beautiful day, turned out to be fortuitous.

We passed through many small towns, tiny collections of houses on a street or two, surrounding a central grain elevator, and then back to fields and the most gentle rolling nature of the land. No one could call central Illinois anything but flat; but further south, perhaps the glaciers lingered longer over the moraines.

Most of the towns seemed almost deserted; in at least one, I did not see one single other person or even a passing car: the slow sad death of small town America.

Midway through Christian county, we passed a cemetery. As Greenturtle stopped to take a photo of the large crucifix over the grave of a priest who passed sometime in the 1940s, I watched the wind blowing ceaselessly over the bean fields, making it ripple and shimmer, mesmerizing as the sea.

It made me think of how I have wanted to explore and bird every county in Illinois, spending a good few days in each; how I would like to travel the Mississippi from its source to the delta; how badly I want to see the prairie chickens dancing on their leks in the springtime.

Since all around me was so peaceful, why do I get so melancholy in the fall, a time of year that used to mean new beginnings? Is it a symptom of my middle years or something that happened since I learned to love birds? Suddenly, just as spring represents new life and possibilities, it seems that the autumn means...death. There, I said it. The death of the season, the twilight of the year. Next comes extinct species, cold weather...and the eventual demise of everything I hold dear. Including, sooner or later, myself. I know that in our death-averse culture, early forties is nothing, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, the jig is up! Strangely enough, winter is OK by's just the end of summer that symbolizes all this depressing stuff.

Thoughts dancing with the wind -- the expansive dreams of constricted lives -- just a moment in time at a place I didn't expect to be, and that is always a dangerous sort of moment, because it almost feels like freedom. But then of course not, there is work, bills, duty: the routine.

And every once in a while, too, I am taken by surprise, a thought that, ten years ago when I moved here, I never expected:

Central Illinois is so beautiful. And I am grateful to live here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Labor Day Bird Off

Once again, I decided to keep the central Illinois birding interesting by challenging my mother and erstwhile birding buddy, Sunwiggy, to a competition. I would go out here in DeWitt county, Illinois, and she would go to a location or locations of her choice in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and we would see who can find the most species of birds. This what I call a "Bird Off."

It's been a little weird for me changing my mindset from "McLean County Birder" to "De Witt County Birder" -- even though I've only moved one county to the south, and I'd already birded the area and thus knew my way around, it still feels a bit like birding with a handicap to be that much farther away from my regular patches.

Normally, for a "Bird Off" at this time of year, I would have hit Parklands preserve to see what kind of warbler action was going on, then zoomed further down the road to Comlara Park, and then if there was any time remaining in the day, headed for some parks on town like Ewing or Anglers.

Luckily, to balance it out, I am really falling in love with my new local park, Weldon Springs. In fact, I'm in that early stages of infatuation where one wants to be with one's beloved all the time, and so I have gone there three days out of the past four (I took an extra day off to make my long holiday weekend even longer.)

On Saturday, it was too hot to do much birding, as I described earlier; then on Sunday, I went to Mascoutin and Weldon Springs and got a decent round-up of birds, but the parks were crowded and noisy.

Yesterday, I decided to hit Weldon Springs one more time, and it was blissfully peaceful on a workday morning; I almost had the whole park to myself. Also, we're getting our first taste of fall weather, so much so that I was shivering a bit when the wind blew, a delightful change of pace.

I began with a stroll past the cemetery to the old farmstead, getting a nice handful of birds on and around the prairie (mostly in the trees around the cemetery): field sparrow; blue jay; robin; downy woodpecker; black-throated green warbler; mourning dove; chickadees; goldfinches; and a Tennessee warbler.

It did feel a little melancholy to neither see nor hear the meadowlarks, dickcissels and barn swallows that were there all summer (yes, seasons change and for some reason this always bums me out a bit even though I also enjoy it and this is something I just have to learn to deal with!), but the prairie was so beautiful that I felt a spontaneous upswelling of gratitude, well, just that it exists. And I get to go there. And I found myself making some sort of inchoate promise that I will try to do whatever I can to protect it so that the birds can return again and again.

This was very nice and spiritual, but there's no time for enlightenment during a Bird Off, so I hurried back to the loop trail around the lake, where the wetland produced the ruby-throated hummingbirds I was counting on. A bit further on, I saw a Cooper's hawk flying up towards the trees, and a veery creeping down to the water' edge to get a drink. Overall, this area wasn't too active, so I was glad to cross the road at the Schoolhouse, getting a chipping sparrow, and then heading for the Wood Chip Trail to the backpack area.

The Wood Chip Trail was awesome, as usual--I'm so glad to have found it. Today it yielded chestnut sided warbler, magnolia warbler, cardinals, and a hairy woodpecker, and at the feeder area at the end, rose-breasted grosbeaks, house finches, and a Philadelphia vireo. The vireo wasn't partaking of the seeds, just in the area.

As an aside, I love grosbeaks. These were both females, and they seemed so placid and happy. Is there such a thing as an angry rose-breasted grosbeak? I don't think so.

The longest loop of my walk, down to the Backpack trail and along Salt Creek and back, was not very productive, but it was so beautiful and peaceful back there that I didn't much care about the scarcity of birds. The loop did net me catbird, turkey vulture, house wren, redstart, crow, and titmouse, but mostly I just enjoyed the complete solitude and quiet, and reflected how nice it was to be away from city crowds and traffic. (My posts from the weekend are a little out of order, but the day before that I'd been to Saint Charles, Missouri, and that was what I was comparing it to. More on the Saint Charles trip later.)

As I completed this loop, it was almost eleven, and I only had 26 birds for the Bird Off. I knew that Sunwiggy was doing better than that, so I decided to cut the loop around the lake short, as it hadn't been that productive, and try my luck elsewhere. On my way back to the car, I got several new species: eastern wood pewee, ovenbird, white-breasted nuthatch, flicker and house sparrow. But, by then it was noon -- heading up towards the worst time to bird in a day, and so few species on my list.

I decided to head for Clinton Lake, hoping for more water-loving birds -- the lake at Weldon Springs had been completely bird free, devoid of even the pied-billed grebes I'd seen a couple days earlier -- and got a ho-hum, but still one of the list, species along the way: European starling.

I stopped at the cemetery trail by the Illinois 48 bridge, which got me a wild turkey, the second sighting of the weekend, but little else. I also realized that the directions in Sheryl De Vore's book Birding Illinois are sadly out of date. In her book, she describes this trail as being rather exciting, but it actually peters out at the edge of a cornfield before very long. Well, the book is ten years out of date now, and I got a wild turkey.

After that, the best place I could think of for more species was Mascoutin, even though I'd been there earlier in the weekend and not been that impressed. But if nothing else, I knew I could pick up ring-billed gull by the concession stand.

Indeed, a whole flock of ring bills was bobbing on the water by the beach; I also saw a phoebe perched on the fence, and some Canada geese.

And then, the Houseboat Cove trail. Somehow I ended up convincing myself that the long loop was a good idea. So far, it feels like most of the distance I travel for De Witt county birding is on my feet! Not that that's a bad thing.

The birds were few and far between (well, it was afternoon by then), but I did get some good ones: yellow-billed cuckoo, great blue heron, Nashville warbler and pine warbler. I had a lot of time to reflect as I hurried from bird to bird along the 4 mile loop, and mostly I kept wishing how I could learn more about the local ecosystems and make a difference to help the birds. It's too late on my ill-fated career path to start over for ornithology -- I know, somewhere some 40-something is doing it, but in my personal case, it's just not feasible -- but a dedicated amateur can really be knowledgeable too.

I don't know if it was my inner wisdom or just more mental babbling, but the thought came to me, quite decisively: I can make a difference and I can learn more, and the path to doing that is literally in my own backyard: my dream of an Avian Haven filled with local plants. That's one of the reasons I like to spend so much time alone in nature. It's not just about seeing great birds.

But speaking of I finished the loop (one of my toes was actually numb by then, as I'd walked about eight miles total by that point) I had 40 species but I wasn't sure that would top whatever Sunwiggy saw at Seney Wildlife Refuge up north, so I swung by Clinton Marina on my way home, as I remembered a sheltered inlet by the road there. Bingo--mallards and killdeer making themselves at home! Added to the bluebird and pigeons I got on the drive home--44 species for the day, 8 miles of trails, surprisingly little gas squandered and another triumphant Bird Off!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A change of pace (Old Union Cemetery)

Normally with me, it's all birds, all the time--after all, my personal motto is, "Bird to Live, Live to Bird." But I do have a few other interests; for example, I love old cemeteries, an interest which long pre-dates the birding thing, and which I attribute to a childhood in Newport, Rhode Island, which has some really nifty old graveyards.

There are several interesting ones I've seen in central Illinois, such as the cemetery at Funk's Grove in McLean county, which includes an Irish monument; the old poor farm cemetery along route 66 in Livingston County, which is just a sad little postage stamp sized thing surrounded by fields (strangely, one time when Sunwiggy and I stopped to check it out someone had left a "Tickle Me Elmo" doll by one of the graves -- I say "strangely," for those are pauper's graves and very old ones at that); and Woodlawn Cemetery here in Clinton, which has some Civil War graves.

So when I was in Barnes and Noble the other day, flipping through a book called Weird Illinois, I was excited to learn that there is an allegedly haunted graveyard here in DeWitt county: Old Union Cemetery.

According to the local lore, this place has really creeped out a lot of people; spooky phenomena include seeing lights whizzing by, capturing said lights in photographs, and feeling a sudden extreme drop in temperature. A grave surrounded by a rusty fence decorated with a willow tree motif is supposed to be the epicenter of the bad vibes; according to Weird Illinois, one theory is that the cemetery is actually some sort of portal. So obviously, after reading all that, I had to go!

To really build the up the atmosphere, Sunwiggy's response to my e-mail that I was going to find an old supposedly haunted graveyard, complete with the link provided above, was met with considerable alarm. Just seeing the photos kind of freaked Sunwiggy out, and she admonished me to be careful. I would have taken this more to heart if it weren't for the fact that all kinds of innocuous things creep Sunwiggy out, among them, her basement (I think she just wants an excuse not to do the laundry!) and bur oak trees.

As far as I'm concerned, I have a pretty open mind when it comes to the supernatural. I (very briefly) lived in an apartment that seemed to be haunted; I have had my share of weird "what was that?" moments and even a couple of dreams that came true. Greenturtle, on the other hand, is a complete skeptic, the Scully to my Mulder, so I figured we would make a good pair. Also, I needed his help in finding the dang place, because he has a GPS and a smart phone and the directions I could find on the internet were pretty sketchy. I also brought along a pair of completely impartial witnesses, my two dogs, Trevor and Raven.

The first day we looked for it was completely anti-climatic. Though criss-crossing back and forth along innumerable country roads, we couldn't find it. After a couple of hours, we gave up, and I decided to spend more time on the Internet pinning down the location.

Today, we tried again, and met success! It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, with the first traces of fall in the air. The graves were very old, most from the 1800s. (Nobody get excited about the specks in the top of the photo; the camera needs cleaned.)

I'm afraid to say that the place didn't live up to its reputation. It didn't give me the heebie-jeebies. Not even a heebie. The dogs acted normal, too.

I strolled around with the dogs while Greenturtle took photos -- none of which picked up any weird lights, by the way. This is the area that is supposed to be the scariest.

With my ghost-hunting team:

Raven says, "I am not going near that one!"

Trevor says, "I've checked everything out. Can I have my Scooby snack now?"

For those of you who wish I'd go back to blogging about birds, I did see a phoebe in the cemetery. It's perched on the pointy headstone--you know, that tiny speck you can sorta see if you click on the photo to enlarge it.

Right before we left, I noticed a small headstone against the trees all by itself.

So, could it be haunted? Based on my trip today, I don't want to say one way or the other. Nothing remotely weird or unusual happened while we were there; but, every once in a while, I felt a little flicker, not even like the place was haunted. It just felt uneasy. However, after reading that it was haunted, and being warned by Sunwiggy, I could obviously be under the influence of the power of suggestion!

The only other thing, again inconclusive, was that the dogs didn't want to go by the willow fenced area. They didn't act scared, or whine or yelp or anything like that, but I had to literally pull them -- in Trevor's case, almost drag him -- to get him over there. Still, I have stubborn dogs that frequently don't want to go the direction I'm taking them, so I can't use that as proof of anything. Just something interesting.

Well, I'll have to go back someday and try it again, preferably with Sunwiggy!

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Sometimes things turn out just as good as I'd hoped they be. My birding trips to Texas, for example, or a few stunning and warbleriffic "big days" I can think of. But anticipation is a two-edged sword. Thinking of all the wonders that are about to befall me adds zest to otherwise tedious and frustrating days; but then, when said wonders do not produce themselves, instead of enjoying the day I have, I end up cursing it for all that it's not. (Suffice to say I had a real issue with Christmas letdowns as a matter what I got, it never matched up to the weeks worth of anticipation I'd built up staring at the beautifully wrapped packages under the tree. I still hold a grudge against the holidays for that, but that's a whole different topic....)

In case you are wondering, all the sound and fury of my introduction signifies...a very dull round-up of birds. (And I regret that once again I'm pulling photos from my "archives"--I don't take the camera with me when I'm hoping for warblers. I never get good shots at them anyway, and the extra weight of the camera really compounds the affliction known as "warbler neck." But my apologies to the more visually oriented who might be reading this.)

The first problem--the main problem--with the day is that the horrible heat has returned! It's never a good sign when it's almost eighty degrees before I even leave the house. I know, some time next January I'll be wondering what on earth I was whining about, but right now, my sentiments are: summer BEGONE! I want afternoon temps in the sixties, red and golden leaves, a crisp coating of frost on the ground early in the morning. I want fall--and the fall of my snowy homeland of Michigan, at that. (Autumn in central Illinois is a very hit or miss affair. Sometimes we get treated to a proper one, other times it stays hot and muggy until October.)

Since I knew it was going to be a scorcher, I cut to the chase and just did the backpack loop at Weldon Springs. I thought that would be the likeliest place to find warblers without having to drive too far, and also to escape the holiday weekend crowds.

I was right about the crowds. Just as with my previous trips, the walk was very solitary, and the yellow flowers along the creek beds were still blooming. The spiders weren't too bad, either, and only a few mosquitoes.

It has been pretty dry the last few weeks, and the land has a parched feel to it: ground hard and cracking under my feet, Salt Creek low in its banks.

Alas, for all my efforts, the birds were few and far between: ovenbird, wood thrushes, red-eyed vireo, black-capped chickadees, catbirds, cardinals, one great blue heron seen at a distance in the creek; a crow, blue jays, many many robins, one field sparrow, a handful of get the idea. Except for the ovenbird, the only warbler I saw was another black-throated green.

And it was hot. So I went home. It feels really wrong to spend the first afternoon of my long holiday weekend cooped up inside, with the air conditioner chugging faithfully along, partaking of my summer staples of cold beer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Hopefully the rest of the weekend won't be this dull. In the meantime, I am dreaming of fall. Or the Arctic. How about fall in the Arctic? Let's just say that, as far as I'm concerned, this hundred degree weather has outlived its welcome!