Monday, October 31, 2011

Excellent Emiquon

I wasn't sure if I would have a good birding day on Saturday or not. Due to feelings of guilt engendered by leaving my dogs behind for most of the day, I agreed to take them along on my Illinois River Valley trip...after all, I was mostly going to be looking for waterfowl, and since neither of my dogs are much for swimming, as long as Greenturtle kept them away from me and my scope, I thought I could probably see most of what was in the vicinity.

We started our trip at Chatauqua Wildlife Refuge. The area by the headquarters was disappointing (as usual...seriously, I have never, not once, seen an interesting bird there...but the dogs did enjoy walking the short loop), but the Eagle Bluff area was a total score! The water was low, filled with water birds, mostly Canada geese and green winged teal, plus some ring-billed gulls and, surprisingly, a large flock of American tree sparrows...and even more exciting was what was hovering over the water. A juvenile bald eagle and a peregrine falcon. The peregrine was not only a year bird but also an "Illinois state bird" for me, and both Greenturtle and I enjoyed watching it swooping over the water for a while.

Next stop, Emiquon. We took a quick jaunt around the NWR Spoon River access. A couple of years ago a storm felled many trees and rendered this area nigh-well impassible; now it is still a pretty rough trail, but able to be traversed. We saw a man and his son walking around the (now dry) marshy area with binoculars, but for ourselves, all we saw was a robin. Having two active dogs in tow does make looking for passerines a challenge.

Just a quick jaunt down the road was the newly established Nature Conservatory's observatory, with boardwalks and trails, and here we hit water bird pay dirt.

First things first, the coots. There had to be thousands of them. What would you call that? A cootilla? A cootitude? A cootarama? No matter the technical term, where one coot, or even a dozen, fails to impress, seeing them in such numbers is always a bit awe-inspiring. I was very grateful to Greenturtle for taking the dogs so I could peruse the waters at my leisure.

In addition to the coots, there were a large number of dabbling ducks, and you can guess who's who in this picture by the "bottoms up."

I saw more green-winged teal, plus blue-winged teal, northern pintail (year bird!), mallards, and northern shovelers. Along the trail were many sparrows, including white-throated, white-crowned, song and (year and state bird!) Lincoln's sparrow. Overall, a very successful trip.

Yesterday I had time for a stroll around Weldon Springs before the weather turned foul. The day was quite windy, and I saw few birds, but one species was another year bird, the purple finch. When I came home and logged them, I realized I was just ten species away from 200 Year Birds, which, barring the possible exception of the year Sunwiggy and I went to Texas, would be a personal record. So here's to an excellent last two months!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Durance vile

All week my heart's desire has been to go out in search of birds...but, alas, I had to work. As the season shifts and the days shrink, the shackles of work grow even crueler, as the sun sets shortly after getting home.

Today was probably the worst. In the morning, the brown fields were coated with a thin layer of frost, and fog curled up from the ponds' surfaces. The sun was already starting to make the morning sparkle. And that was the last I saw of it. For the whole day.

I kept hoping I might be able to finish up my pile of tasks in time to stroll around White Oak Pond on my way to pick up Greenturtle at his workplace. But it was not to be. Instead, as I drove past, I peered out the car window and saw the water thick with birds, and how I longed to stop and stroll. But there just was no time.

At least it's Friday...two whole days to bird!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Finding Refuge in birds

There are those birds you gauge your life by.

This sentence occurs in the first chapter of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, and it convinced me that the book I held between my hands was indeed worth reading. Because there absolutely are birds that I gauge my life by. I wondered if we were kindred spirits.

As the chapter continues, the themes of the book are starkly laid out. The author describes taking a friend to see a family of burrowing owls that live by one of the bends of the Bear River on the way to the Great Salt Lake. She and her grandmother had discovered them twenty-three years before, the same year she'd received her first copy of Peterson's field guide, and watching the young owls by their burrow had become one of the things she had gauged her life by. Until that day:

About a half a mile away, I could not see the mound. I took my foot off the gas pedal and coasted. It was as though I was in unfamiliar country.
The mound was gone. Erased. In its place, fifty feet back, stood a cinderblock building with a sign, CANADIAN GOOSE GUN CLUB. A new fence crushed the grasses with a handwritten note posted: KEEP OUT.

In the wake of this discovery, the author feels rage, an emotion that she had just disavowed. Behind the anger, echoing clearly behind the words, is a deeper and more tragic emotion: a profound sense of loss. This is the introduction to the extended meditation that follows, the twin crises of the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake, and her mother's diagnosis with ovarian cancer.

The book wrestles with how to balance grieving for a natural loss (the changing bird populations as the lake rises, our inevitable mortality) with anger against what should have been avoided (habitat loss because of the surrounding city, a cancer diagnosis that might have come from environmental pollution). Through it all, the author also discusses other themes as well: how her experience of being female and being in nature dovetail, her interpretation of her Mormon faith in accordance with her feminine and nature-centered experience, the relationship with her mother as the illness progresses. The result is an essay that is frequently melancholy, often quite beautiful, occasionally controversial, and at times even profound.

Each chapter is named for a species of bird, which Williams weaves into the story as either an extended metaphor for what she sees occurring around her, or as a brief glimpse as she struggles with her mother's cancer. An example I particularly liked concerns starlings.

Perhaps we project on to starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world....
What makes our relationship to starlings even more curious is that we loathe them, calling in exterminators because we fear disease, yet we do everything within our power to encourage them as we systematically erase the specialized habitats of specialized birds. I have yet to see a snowy egret spearing a bagel.

Despite the book's many strengths, I think the combination of themes probably limits the number of people it would appeal to. Some reader reviews I've seen criticize the amount of time spent discussing birds, but that was my favorite part. For myself, during the first half of the book, I found myself compelled to keep reading, often highlighting passages or flagging pages that especially spoke to me. That was the part that had the most about the Great Salt Lake and its natural inhabitants. But as the second part of the book dragged on... I don't want to say that the topic of her mother's illness isn't important, or worthy of reflection. Of course it is, and certainly many of the themes are relevant to the human condition, for we are all mortal. But to be honest, I personally wanted to hear more about the lake and the birds.

Overall, I would recommend this book with the understanding that it is, at heart, an essay on grief and loss, written from a decidedly feminine perspective. Parts of it are very good, and I consider reading it time well spent for the beauty of the writing alone. Williams is a poet writing prose in this work. If one is looking for something less subjective or more focused on natural history or biology, however, then this is not the book.

I will end this brief discussion with another quote that I liked so much I had to highlight it, from the chapter called "Canada Geese." (And I consider it high praise for a book if, when writing about it, I feel compelled to keep quoting the author.)

We usually recognize a beginning. Endings are more difficult to detect. Most often, they are realized only after reflection. Silence. We are seldom conscious when silence begins--it is only afterward that we realize what we have been a part of. In the night journeys of Canada geese, it is the silence that propels them.
Thomas Merton writes, "Silence is the strength of our interior life.... If we fill our lives with silence, then we will live in hope.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sometimes we get vultures

I've been having a frustrating time of it lately, birding-wise. Recently, it seems like all I find are turkey vultures. For example, this morning, I took a short walk down to the other side of Angler's pond before work, hoping to see some interesting waterfowl paddling around (it is the time for that, after all--don't the ducks know that they should be migrating south already?), and instead, all I saw were scads and scads of Canada geese. And a few mallards. On the land, it would have been nice to see some cool sparrows or a brown creeper. Instead I saw a flock of juncos. The cute dachshunds that live in one of the houses by the pond weren't even out.

And then, on the way back, I did a double take at a large, dark bird huddled on top of a telephone pole. I almost dismissed it as a crow, as they are common in the neighborhood, but it was a turkey vulture.

The vulture made me think of the ill-fated birding escapade of yesterday. I started out for Clinton Lake with high hopes, as another birder had recently seen a Franklin's gull in the area. Guess who else would enjoy seeing a Franklin's gull? That's right, yours truly. In fact, it would be a life bird. So I headed out for the lake, and set up my scope at the line of gulls by the DNR station along highway 54. There were many gulls there, four Bonaparte's and a bunch of ring-bills.

On I went, to the beach at Mascoutin. All ring bills. There was a big, fat juvenile gull that looked like it had been very spoiled by its parents, but if it was a different species, you'll never hear it from me. After squinting from gull to field guide and back again for the better part of fifteen minutes, I decided, "Most likely a big, fat juvenile ring billed." Overhead seven turkey vultures wheeled within the thermals, and I wondered what they were hoping to find, as they were circling over the water. Maybe they were just hoping for a whiff of something nice and rotten from a landward direction; their sense of smell is supposed to be extremely powerful.

The day was getting rather overcast, so I hurried on to the Marina, hoping for satisfaction there. There were no gulls at all, surprisingly enough. Overhead, I caught a very quick view of a northern harrier flying past, and, of course, more turkey vultures. I wasn't really in a mood to hike -- this was a gull quest, not a hunt for passerines, plus I was feeling lazy -- so I decided to check out the Illinois 48 bridge and the Parnell access area.

Along the way, I had to stop my car so that a turkey vulture could ponderously haul itself away from the feast of a dead raccoon in the middle of the road. I was rather enjoying the austerity of the fields in fall -- the corn mostly harvested, leaving an expanse of brown, beige and taupe stretching to each horizon. Nothing interesting at the Illinois 48 bridge (and for those not familiar with Clinton Lake, just fill in the blanks here with, "places of access to the water" -- for such a large lake, it's unusually difficult to actually stumble upon water, as the lake is shaped more like a skinny squashed finger along the length of the county than anything that one could actually drive around), so I took the turn for the Parnell Access Area.

I'd barely hastened down the road when I realized my mistake. The best way to find the Parnell access is from highway 54--from 48, the winding country roads soon dump you out in the middle of nowhere, or in my case, in a completely different county. It was getting late, and by the time I found myself again, I was so frustrated, I really wasn't that into searching for the gull anymore. How did I know it was still in residence? How did I know it was even really there in the first place? On the way back, the brown stubble across the fields no longer looked that pleasing. It seemed more like a harbinger of cold and dark months to come. Overhead, the vultures soared.

I had forgotten all about the bad luck of yesterday until I looked at my e-mail from Cornell's ebird informing me of new birds that I am missing out on. Someone else, a completely different birder, saw the Frankin's gull. At the Parnell bridge. And I have to work for the rest of the week. Does anyone ever feel distinctly sorry for themselves when these things happen? It's not a pretty character trait, but if I can't be honest in my own blog, then where can I?

And overhead, I'm sure the vultures are circling, Therefore send not to know for whom the vultures come.

They come for thee.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Have you ever wanted to do a Big Year?

On the last Audubon birding trip I went on, one of the other birders suggested that I could do a DeWitt County big year, now that I have moved to Clinton, IL. It's a fun idea, but at this time, I am not seriously tempted, because that would entail focusing the majority of my birding efforts on one county, and if there's one thing I consistently crave, it's variety.

Then Greenturtle and I watched the movie. If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what a Big Year is. Just in case, the short answer is, trying to see more birds than anyone else in from January 1 to December 31 in a specific region. The Big Years most often memorialized are across the whole of North America, though the birders in the book The Biggest Twitch take on the whole world.

As the movie The Big Year, and even more so the book of the same name upon which it is based, makes clear, the whole thing is a pretty intense endeavor. It's also extremely expensive, and after one has seen the birds typical of each region, the race becomes who can find the most rarities, so be ready to fly to parts unknown at a moment's notice.

As we discussed it, Greenturtle and I agreed that even if we were independently wealthy, we wouldn't really want to engage in those shenanigans. Since he's not a birder, his response is understandable; in my case, it's because I would rather go some place brand new to me and spectacularly birdy and enjoy seeing it thoroughly than continuously race around chasing my own tail.

But as I formulated my response, a slightly different idea crossed my mind. I don't have the resources for a big Big Year and would spend them otherwise if I did, and a county Big Year feels too restrictive...but how about an Illinois Big Year? I got so excited about the idea that I even managed to convince Greenturtle to agree to join me for a year's worth of madcap birding escapades. I even took a look at some sites on the Internet to get a feel for how many birds I would have to see to make a go of it.

The American Birding Association has the number of Illinois birds at 319, if I recall correctly. On ebird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's database, the top birders of the year usually tally up in the high 200s. Just for comparison (this is shameful, probably how many people would feel about revealing their weight), my Illinois state total has remained fairly static this year. I got a few nice new birds -- pine siskin, Forster's tern, worm-eating warbler -- but not that many, and my Illinois total is a lackluster 211.

The top birders bird a lot. They live to bird. Some of them are retired, so they have more free as a bird, as it were. And they are good at all the tricky species. The hawks. The gulls. Don't even get me started on gulls. I see three species each year -- herring, ring billed and Bonaparte's. After racking up the Bonaparte's, I pat myself on the back and consider my gulls complete. And I mostly bird in central Illinois, ignoring two whole regions of vast birding potential -- Chicagoland and Lake Michigan to the north, and the whole of Southern Illinois. I also don't chase rarities. By and large, I'd rather go for a long hike somewhere fun and peaceful than drive two counties away to look at a purple gallinule someone saw floating in a sewage plant there.

So me, a big year? Who am I kidding? I don't have the time. I don't have the skills. I don't have the single-minded focus. Still, I'm thinking about trying it. Because the worst that can happen is that I inform everyone I'm doing an Illinois Big Year and tally up my normal 175 species for the year and slink away, pretending the hubris never happened. But the best thing that can happen is that I see tons and tons of new birds in exciting places, even though someone else is bound to see more than me. I'm still thinking it over, but it sounds like just the thing to break me out of my birding rut. (A trip to central America would probably also break me out of the rut, but driving around Illinois is a lot more feasible right now.)

Have you ever wanted to do a Big Year, even if just your home state or county? Or do you think that sounds like the kind of craziness you are better off avoiding?

Spur of the moment

It's been a beautiful fall weekend. After a week of gray skies and drizzle, the sun came out, the afternoon temperatures ascended to the seventies, and the trees were a panoply of fall color. There is only one other thing I could have wished for: it would have been nice to see more birds.

Yesterday Greenturtle and I headed out a bit later than I'd hoped for, but that was OK, because I wasn't planning on a serious birding day, just a nice stroll and some quality time. Our destination was Sugar Grove Nature Center's fall festival, and I suggested we stop at Centennial Park in Heyworth as it was right along the way. I hadn't been to either place since last June, as I described in a couple of previous posts, and I was looking forward to seeing the changes of the season.

At Centennial Park, the pond was devoid of any waterfowl save a pair of Canada geese, but I did have a nice surprise--a small flock of Eurasian tree sparrows. I'd heard a rumor that they were nesting in the park, which answered a question I've wondered about from time to time -- where do the sparrows that congregate around the feeders at Sugar Grove each winter come from?

As we were strolling along, Greenturtle wondered how much we would enjoy a change of itinerary, going to Starved Rock State Park instead? I opined that I would enjoy seeing it--the canyons and dells are especially beautiful in the fall--but with the caveat that, on a day like this one, the park was guaranteed to be jam packed. It's the only park I've ever been to where the crowds get so thick that one must shuffle along the trail at a snail's pace, trapped in a crowd that feels more like the Mall of America at Christmastime. (Not that I have ever been to the Mall of America at any time. But that's how I imagine it.) The only similar thing from my experience is the crowds that gather at the top of the Grand Canyon. I have heard that other popular parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, can get crazy crowded, but I've never been to either one, so I can't compare.

But there's a reason so many people like to go there, the same one that made Greenturtle and I tempted to change our plans. It's very pretty, and it's reasonable close. Like a true Sagittarius, I was open to a change of plans, and instead of going to the festival at Sugar Grove (which is nice, but we've been many times in the past and it really doesn't change much from year to year), we headed north.

There were ring billed gulls, herring gulls, cormorants, American white pelicans, Canada geese and a belted kingfisher at the Starved Rock lock. Along the trails we saw a few birds, including hairy woodpecker, ruby and golden crowned kinglets, cedar waxwings, and a brown creeper. And yes, it was packed. Since I really dislike the company of too many other people, after we had strolled around the Illinois and Ottawa Canyons, I was ready to leave. My reasoning is more phobic than misanthropic. I really, really hate the feeling of someone walking up behind me; it makes me claustrophobic. And at a birder's pace, if the trails are crowded, there's always going to be more people squeezing up behind me. I suppose it's weird, but it's just one of my (many) little quirks -- and why I have chosen to live in a small town and hike and bird in much less popular parks.

After lunch, we saw a few more species on the much less crowded river trail at nearby Matthiessen State Park, but then we felt guilty about leaving our dogs alone for so long, and headed back. A beautiful day, a nice change of pace...not that many birds.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Exploring Champaign County

Sunday once again I decided to add some spice to the same-old, same-old fall birding by not only birding in a new location -- Homer Lake Forest Preserve in Champaign County -- but with a sorta new birder, my husband, "Greenturtle."

Now Greenturtle is not entirely new to the birding scene, as he has had to put up with me for the past few years. But it is only since we got him a fairly decent pair of binoculars about a month ago that he agreed to give birding, as such, a real go -- as opposed to standing around semi-patiently while I look for birds, a situation which is guaranteed to please neither party.

For our first stop, we went to Lake of the Woods State Park in Mahomet, where I had previously enjoyed the Buffalo Trace Prairie. As I recounted in that post, after strolling the prairie for an hour or two, and thinking what great habitat it would be in the right season (sometimes I suspect that, for me, "the right season" is restricted from April to June!), I briefly attempted the riparian portion, and swiftly decided that it was too hot and crowded to persist. Which means, of course, a second trip....
As it turned out, I was rather disappointed in the non-prairie side of Lake of the Woods (too manicured, and not really a lot of birds), so after an hour or so exploring the area, Greenturtle and I decided to try our luck a bit farther afield at Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

It's a nice park, certainly worth a trip if you're in the area. I would not say that it is better than closer parks -- Weldon Springs in my new home county of De Witt, or Comlara in my old one of McLean -- but novelty gives a lot of bonus points, at least for me.

Walking around the lake, we saw some pied-billed grebes and a juvenile double-crested cormorant. In the trees were mostly yellow-rumped warblers. I kept saying, "Yellow-rumps, yellow-rumps," occasionally breaking it up by their more colloquial epithet, "butter-butts." Finally, Greenturtle said, "How do you know they're yellow-rumps." to summarize it for a non-birder one is hoping will become a birder? "Well, they're in their winter plumage. They look a lot different in the spring. But now...kinda brown on top, streaky on the sides, and a yellow patch beside their wings and on their rumps." This led to quite the debate, as Greenturtle kept insisting that their rumps were free of yellow, and I kept asking, What, was he blind, I was looking right at it!

Finally, it emerged that when he heard "rump," he assumed I meant the vent area, whereas the yellow patch was actually on their backs, right between the wings. What followed was a long discussion of how birds are never given a good name--such as, red-bellied woodpeckers not actually having red bellies. (Don't even try to tell him they have a small red patch on the, not convincing.)

The trail soon branched out onto the prairie. It was windy, a little chilly, and not too much bird action going on until we came to a large brush pile. Dark-eyed juncos, field sparrows, white-throated sparrows, palm warblers, all in evidence.... And then, Greenturtle yelled, "Dude! Look at this bird! It's got these black and white stripes on its head!'s kinda cool!"

"White-crowned sparrow," I said. And, secretly, was triumphant. Because that sounded like a bit of birding enthusiasm! And it's true, the white-crowned sparrow is a very handsome bird. But how long has it been since it was "dude!" worthy for me?

So if you can't see new birds...then see them in a new place...or better yet, through new eyes. On the way home, I suggested if that we were renaming birds, what with red-bellied woodpeckers and yellow-rumped warblers being a bit different than their names would imply, then how about calling the white crowns "snazzy headed sparrows"? Just a suggestion...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year: A Birder's Review

The Big Year, a movie based on a book of the same name, came to theaters across the land this weekend, and since it is (I suspect loosely) based on the exploits of three birders in their quest to see more North American birds than anybody else in a calendar year, of course I had to see it. I brought along my husband, Greenturtle, who is not a birder but who has been putting up with me long enough that he understands the concepts.

I should state, going into this review, that I have not read the book upon which this movie is based, although I intend to, and have, in fact, already downloaded it onto my Kindle. So the following impressions are strictly based on what I saw today on the big screen, and not the book and what may or may not have actually transpired in real life. Sometimes I find it's actually better to do it that way. If I read the book first, the movie often disappoints; but done in reverse, I often end up enjoying a similar experience twice.

The movie states at the very beginning, "This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed." Just so we all know where we stand. The story involves three birders, Brad Harris (Jack Black), who works as a programmer at a power plant but is otherwise not very successful in his life, having dropped out of grad school, failed in his marriage, and being financially dependent upon his parents; Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a wealthy executive who is trying to retire, even though the corporate world is loath to let him go; and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), the current record holder for "the Big Year," a building contractor who apparently lives to bird.

Readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the concept of the Big Year--an informal competition to see as many birds as possible in one year in a given area. (Often North America but readers of birding adventure literature are doubtless aware of the fact that this can also be done in other locations or even world wide a la The Biggest Twitch. For birders of quite modest means, such as myself, one can also do a state or even county Big Year.) Suffice to say, to be tempted by the thought of a Big Year, one must be a rather hard-core, obsessively list-making type birder...not that there's anything wrong with that. The movie quickly fills all the non-birders in on the idea with a short pseudo-documentary narrated by John Cleese, then quickly cuts to the chase, and we get to see the three fellows competing for birds. Bostick is ruthless and underhanded, and woefully neglects his wife; Brad is hampered by a lack of funds; and Stu seems like a fairly normal guy whose main challenge is being pulled in too many directions.

The story is mildly humorous. The characters are mildly likable, except for Bostick, who is mildly annoying. When it comes to movies, I am usually easy to please but hard to impress, and with that being the case, I can safely say I enjoyed it but found a lot of room for improvement. For example, the birding---as a birder, there's nothing I enjoy more (outside of actually birding) than a vicarious birding experience. Well, this is a film about birders, but it is not a birder's film. We get brief depictions of birding hotspots (High Island, Attu Island), a few nice views of of good birds (the great gray owl moment brought back happy memories of seeing one at Sax Zim Bog last winter), and a character who is clearly based on the well-known Debra Shearwater and her pelagic tours. But, it's hardly Birder's Porn, although that's OK. I have Winged Migration for that. So if it's not Birding Porn, then is it a good character study of what makes hard core birders tick?

On the contrary, I would say that the lack of depth to the characters is probably the film's biggest weakness, and why all the non-birder critics who panned it just didn't understand. If you're already a hardcore birder, no explanation is needed. You know why someone would go into debt or risk their marriage to chase down birds. (Many critics seemed to feel that Bostick's hosing up his relationship with his wife to continue the Big Year was not realistic, but, in point of fact, many relationships have been strained or even ended because of a birding obsession--so, although presented a bit melodramatically, the concept wasn't that far off.) But if you are not a hard core birder, then this movie probably won't shed much light on the topic. The characters just really love birds or want to be "the world's greatest birder." Despite these short-comings, I did enjoy the movie. It was fun, not too serious, and certain scenes were quite entertaining (the gulls on Attu Island, for example). Greenturtle also said he liked it. And more to the point, he said that it made him look forward to going birding with me tomorrow, when we head back to Lake of the Woods by Champaign.

So would I recommend it? If, based on the description, you think you would like it, then you probably will. If, like many of the critics I found through Rotten Tomato, you think birding is boring (and even call it "birdwatching" without even knowing what you've done), or more properly relegated to PBS documentaries, or don't understand why on earth anyone would do a Big Year...then you probably won't.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Full Circle

It was about a year ago that I became excited about the idea of exploring the nature and birds of the urban environment where I spend most of my time. I sought out every park, pond and vacant space that I could find in the Bloomington-Normal area, and carefully tallied up birds, plants and various impressions. And at the end of the day, I decided that I really am wild at heart, after all -- I prefer my nature experiences to be as remote as possible. But still, I do work in town. And since I'm stuck here so often, I'd rather seek out birds whenever possible than just stay inside. (As an aside, after moving to a much smaller town several months ago, I have to admit that the urban environment is birdier -- at least until I can finish transforming my back yard into an Avian Haven.) Today, after I got off work, I decided to explore the reaches of my Angler's Pond again, as I hadn't done so in about a month. My mind was filled with the memories of the walk around it I did last October, when I discovered a flock of white-throated sparrows scratching in the leaves, and felt as if I were in the vicinity of some mystical truth, represented by sparrows. The sparrows are back. Also, yellow-rumped warblers, robins, blue jays, and chickadees. And something unexpected--a juvenile coot, which I startled from a sheltered spot against the bank as I walked past.
It was so drab and plain, except for its snazzy white tail feathers.
Even so, I was happy to see it, as I've never seen a young coot before. I actually startled it twice -- it kept going back to the same sheltered spot. After the second stroll past, I stopped a distance away and watched it bob back for a third time, at which point I was pleased to leave it in peace. Besides the coot, there was a large flock of ducks that took off before I could identify them (they were small and had a distinctive white patch on their wings, which is all I could really notice as they flew into the distance), and a pair of mallards.
Otherwise, the pond was still, apart from ripples caused by the increasingly strong wind. Most of the trees still look green, though the wind stirred fallen leaves in every open area. I think these berries belong to honeysuckle, yet another invasive plant.
The more I learn about what I see, the more I think I should rename this blog "Things that don't belong here."
Going back to the same place again and again sometimes feels so "been here, done this." And sometimes it feels like a form of meditation. Sometimes it's a private experiment, results tallied only by me (and sometimes shared on ebird). And sometimes it's just what I do. Just because, no matter what else is going on, no matter how tempted one might be to give in to despair (e.g,, how painful to try and love the earth when it's swiftly being destroyed), the alternative is even worse. It's always better to pay attention.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Buffalo Trace Prairie

The opposite of October is March. In one, the last flash of brilliance before winter; the other, the first trembling of spring's renewal. Both are perfect, each in their own way. Before I became a birder, October was my favorite--and I have to admit, it's a beautiful month.

I try to embrace the eternal present, to make repeated walks along the same trail a sort of meditation. Alas, I am driven by the quest for novelty. If I can't find new birds, I must seek out a new place in which to see the same old birds. And since this has been a rather dull month for me, birding-wise, last weekend I decided to shake things up by exploring the Lake of the Woods park in Mahomet. I had never been to the park before, so I was excited by the prospect of seeing a new place.

As good fortune would have it, the first place I parked was at Buffalo Grove Prairie. I have grown quite fond of grasslands and open skies during my years in Illinois, in no small part because so many of my favorite birds favor variation of that habitat--prairie, scrubby areas, and savannas: common yellowthroats, meadowlarks, bluebirds, sedge wrens, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, mockingbirds, bobwhites, sandhill cranes, red-headed woodpeckers, prairie chickens. At this time of year, I saw a bluebird (and it was even singing!) and some field sparrows, but the birds were few and far between.

The habitat looked nice, however, and I am sure that at a busier time of year, the trees and grasses would have been bursting with birds. And even as it was, I enjoyed the relative solitude and the peacefulness of being in such a pretty spot. The autumn colors were belied by the temperature, though -- mid-80s! Lovely for a day in August; in October, I always feel a bit betrayed by the return of heat. (Although consulting my bird journal showed me that early to mid October frequently plays this cruel trick in central Illinois.)

After spending about an hour wandering the fields, I crossed the street to the other side of the park--I didn't get to the "lake" part of Lake of the Woods, but the Woods themselves were quite crowded. Combined with the heat, after spying a nuthatch and a flock of robins and nothing else in the next half hour, I decided to save the rest of the park for a later day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

October prairie: a poem

Fingers of frost,
the first of the year,
crisp on the mowed trail;
Traces of breath
like a ghost of the morning.
Sunlight splinters the prairie
into light and shadow,
and then a sudden burst, and
all is golden.

The colors of forbs and grasses--
mustard, ecru, khaki, ochre,
burnt umber and sienna--
no palette could approximate,
though once the subtle tapestry
touched each horizon;
and the sky, more distant than ever,
is almost cruelly blue.

And then, from somewhere
just out of reach:
the aching cry of a meadowlark.
I'd not thought to hear it again.

I composed this yesterday at Weldon Springs while waiting for the Audubon group. The birding was so-so but the company was good and often, even if I don't get the birds, when I spent time out in nature I get inspired to jot something down. Autumn used to be my favorite season but now it makes me a bit melancholy -- I hope both of those sentiments came through.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Invasion of the House Sparrows

You know that old expression, Be careful what you wish for? Well, I wished for a yard that was a haven for birds, and in the past week or so, that is what I got. It seems like hundreds of birds gather in my backyard every evening, creating a cacophony of cheeps and chirrups so loud that I can hear it long before I pull up to my garage. They fly in to the bamboo forest from the four corners of the neighborhood and snuggle in for the night.

There's just one catch. Almost all of them are house sparrows. (I do have a nice cardinal family and, as I described in my last post, some injury-prone mourning doves as well. But mostly sparrows.)

I do enjoy watching them hop and fly around in the gloaming, and if I walk out towards the bamboo as they're all bunking down for the night, I can hear a wave of them taking off with a mass susurrus of wings. On the other hand, it has made me thing twice about setting up bird feeders for the winter. They'd eat me out of house and home. I haven't actually counted, but it wouldn't surprise me if there was at least a hundred of them. (Even as I write this, the sun is just starting to rise, waking up the flock into a cheerful, chirping chorus.)

But, is there actually anything wrong with having so many house sparrows around? A lot of bird-lovers can't stand them, since they are non-natives and will compete with native birds for nesting sites, especially bluebirds and, from what I've seen of house sparrow nests spilling out of marten houses, purple martens. A member of the weaver finch family rather than being a relation to our native sparrows, they were brought from England and managed to install themselves just about everywhere.

Despite their negative qualities, I find it hard to be a hater. They're still birds. It's still fun to watch them do birdy things like dust bathe, find food, and hover over their fledglings. This attitude seems to be shared by author Sally Roth, whose book Bird by Bird Gardening I discussed in a previous post. She states that "their only 'bad' behavior is being too common," and does not try to exclude them from her feeders, as that would also exclude other species she would like to attract.

As it turns out, it's more difficult to indict a species for being the direct cause of another's decline than one might think. This article by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology discusses the difficulties in pinpointing these things for certain, although it does look like house finches might be outcompeting house sparrows, for a change. In other words, a native species' decline might just as well be caused by habitat or other changes, and the huge flock of house sparrows in my backyard is the effect rather than the cause.

Intuitively, that makes sense to me. They seem to love the bamboo--another non-native species. The two invasives seem quite happy together. The native species I find in my yard seem to prefer perching in the actual trees. I'm almost certain that when I get rid of the bamboo, my yard will not seem as welcoming to the hoard.

Although I'm hoping that removing the bamboo will thin the numbers, I wouldn't want them all to go away. For one thing, even though they are so common as to be considered nuisances here in the United States, house sparrow populations have declined precipitously elsewhere. In England (which I always think of as the "home" of the house sparrow even though the Internet has informed me that they are originally from the Mediterranean), numbers have dropped around 68% percent since the 1970s, and up to 90% in London. In the Netherlands, populations have dropped so much that they are now considered an endangered species. I also found Internet sites devoted to the decline of the lowly house sparrow in India.

This is all a bit disturbing. How on earth does one kill off house sparrows, which have to be among the hardiest little creatures I can think of? Here in Illinois they are everywhere humans are--nesting in signage on big box stores and chain restaurants, hopping across the asphalt at gas stations, even landing right on my plate as I ate at an outdoor cafe. The only bird more ubiquitous that I can think of is another invader, the starling.

No one knows for certain what has caused the species' decline. Suggestions include lack of food for nestlings, lack of habitat (What? They'll live anywhere!) and nesting sites, pesticides, changes in agriculture, and electromagnetic radiation from cell phones. I just have one bone to pick with these theories: wouldn't that mean that the sparrows would be dying off here in Illinois as well? Here in the agricultural wasteland of central Illinois, we just about wrote the book on monoculture fields and pesticides -- ah, the joyous sight of crop dusters overhead! -- and the sparrows appear to be thriving.

But any decline in bird populations should be taken seriously. There's a reason for the expression "canary in a coal mine" -- birds make excellent early warning systems. And for those who shrug and say, "So what if the birds go?," well, as the miners know, as go the birds, so do we. (As a brief rant, that's one of the things that drives me crazy about people who take a "Who cares about the environment as long as we're all making money" stance--where do they think we live? "The environment" is our environment too! Excuse me. Rant over.)

As a brief example, we can look to Chairman Mao's "Four Pests Campaign" of the Great Leap Forward, from 1958-1962. Chinese citizens were exhorted to kill the four noxious pests, rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows--in this case, the Eurasian house sparrow, which was considered to steal the farmer's labor by eating the grain from the fields.

The people responded enthusiastically, shooting sparrows from the sky, destroying nests, eggs and nestlings, and chasing the birds around while banging pots and pans until they dropped from exhaustion. Someone might say, "Well, so what, it's justified if the birds were eating their food and the people were hungry?" But it turns out that the sparrows eat more than grain; they also love insects.

The "Kill a Sparrow Campaign" was so successful that they were almost extirpated from the country--and the result was a plague of locusts and other insects of such proportions that crops failed, and a famine in which 30 million people died of starvation.

So this is why I tolerate the invasion of house sparrows in my backyard. It could be worse. There could be none. However, since I have no desire to feed them, when I do get around to putting some feeders up for the winter, I will follow the advice in Anne Schmauss, Mary Schmauss and Geni Krolick's book, For the Birds, to discourage them from dining: using seed mixes with no millet or using safflower seeds only; using tube or sock feeders that they find hard to cling to; and putting up suet blocks with no grain in them. I don't want to be mean...but there's just too many to feed!