Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not my normal routine

I used to be terrible at Scrabble. This is because I didn't play for the points, but to try to find the most unusual or erudite word I could with the letters provided. I would ignore the opportunity to play a word like "axe" in a triple word score space because I was too busy trying to impress myself. Once I wised up to some basic strategies, I became a much better (although still not great) Scrabble-player.

Birding can be a little like Scrabble sometimes, in that I would rather seek out a ten-mile hike across a scenic landscape for only so-so birds than go out of my way to somewhere boring to get something new. But just as with my Scrabble strategies, I am revising my ways, especially as practice for next year -- which I am not calling an Illinois Big Year, as it is bound to be medium-sized at best; but, perhaps, my Ultimate Birding Year.

Case in point: this morning I eschewed my usual, pleasant rambles and instead took off to Lake Decatur, about 25 miles to the south, in order to see the red-necked grebe that people have been sighting over the past week. I had never seen a red-necked grebe, and the anticipation of perhaps doing so was, of course, appealing. But birding in Decatur? Are you serious??

I hope that the following sentences will not offend the doubtless upstanding and wonderful citizens of Decatur, IL, but all comments I had heard up to this point about the city were not very flattering.  Not to mention that a glance at the map showed nothing of interest to me in either Decatur or its surrounding county (Macon), apart from the Lake and the grebes currently bobbing about on it, that is. And my one previous drive through the city, right through its industrial core on a gray and forbidding afternoon, was such that afterwards I was tempted to place cool teabags over my eyelids in order to recover from the sight.

So, did I wish to have a nice stroll somewhere grebe-less, or did I want to try for a life bird? I shall probably make hard-core birders the world over proud when I state that I decided on the grebe. And, because I really hate to drive and navigate at the same time in a strange city, I got Greenturtle to come along with me. He even programmed the destination into the GPS system on his smart phone, so that the bossy computerized voice could work my nerves telling us where to go the whole trip.

We stopped at Nelson Park, and glanced over the water, which was choppy from the wind that has been whipping over the Prairie State like mad for the past couple of days. As I tried to stroll along the water front, I decided I needed at least another three layers added to the three I already had on, and since the only birds in sight were a sullen flock of ring-billed gulls, I didn't think it was worth struggling on. To cheer myself up that our trip to Macon county had not been completely wasted, I suggested we drive to the Lincoln Homestead Park, which would doubtless have something historical on offer and maybe even a bird or two to boot. Of course I was disappointed that the grebe was not in evidence...just my luck, really...everybody else gets to see cool birds, but oh no, not me...guess I'll go eat worms.... (The downward spiral of self-pity is not pleasant to witness, is it?)

As we drove away, Greenturtle announced that he thought he had seen a grebe fly past. At first I thought he was teasing (he likes to say silly things such as that he's just seen an albatross and too bad I missed it, for example--non-birders, what can I say?), but after he turned sharply and headed back for the lake, I realized that he was serious.

He turned onto a road called Country Club Lane, or similar, on the other side of the causeway, where the water was more sheltered from the wind. I could see some birds on the water, but since it was all residential, with nowhere to pull over, how to see them? We finally pulled into the parking lot of a small business, and I pretended I did not see the prominent "No Trespassing" signs as I set up my spotting scope. When you're in a city or town, that's often the problem with any area deemed a "lake"--people like to build fancy houses around it, and then live in suspicion of anyone who ventures too close to their exclusive neighborhood. (At least, unlike Lake Sara, where Sunwiggy and I stalked a different species of grebe a couple of years ago, there were no creepy signs proclaiming "U R N our sights.")

There were more ring-billed gulls, two snow geese, several Canada geese -- and hallelujah! Not one, not two, but THREE red-necked grebes! I congratulated myself on a job well done (and kudos to Greenturtle for spotting them) and took off before anyone could wonder what I was up to.

To round out the morning, we decided to check out the Lincoln Trail park, which was a huge amount of nothing, really. Neither a historic site nor a trail, just a couple of picnic shelters along the Sangamon River. I did see a nice belted kingfisher, though.

And it's nice to know that sometimes when I go out looking for a particular bird, I might actually find it!


  1. You deserved to see your rednecked grebes after all of that! Was Decatur where you and I saw the pigeons roosting in the grimmest-looking section of town? And...don't call it your Ultimate year, or what will you call the year after that? Mom

  2. But if I call it my Ultimate Birding Year, and it does turn into a Big Year, I can say I'm going to be the Ultimate Birding Champion!