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 birds...as 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!