Sunday, January 29, 2012

Disaster at Starved Rock?

Source:  Photograph by Randy Schaetzl, Professor of Geography - Michigan State University

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went up to Starved Rock State Park for the Eagle Watch Weekend that occurs each January. It's one of those things that I have come to mark the seasons by. Last year we saw an amazing number of eagles, and also hiked back into the canyons to enjoy the frozen waterfalls. Hearing the gurgle of the stream of water trapped inside the pillar of ice and marveling at the different colors and textures -- at the edges thick and white, like frozen lace, behind blue and almost translucent -- can make me feel that I have been transported into the midst of a fairy tale.

The mild winter this year has kept the water open all along the Illinois River, and thus there are no congregations of dozens or hundreds of eagles, as occurs in some years. We did enjoy a brief stroll through the canyons, where I saw year bird #65, the golden-crowned kinglet, and after lunch we browsed the tables set up in the lodge.

I'd heard rumors that someone wanted to create a sand mine somewhere in the vicinity of Starved Rock, but it was not until I spoke with a man from a local conservation group that the awfulness of what they want to do sunk in. This man had a photograph of another mine in La Salle County, and it looked terrible, a deep, ugly hole in the earth, stripped of all trees and plants, turned into a wasteland for wildlife. I couldn't find a similar photo of an Illinois sand mine to illustrate this post, but the image was similar to the one I found in Berrien County in southern Michigan, above.

And this proposed sand mine is not going to be excavated somewhere off the beaten path, either, but right along the entrance to the park. Apparently the benefit to the community will be the creation of 39 jobs in a county with a 10% unemployment rate. But the noise, disturbance, pollution to the air and water caused by silica particles and waste water runoff, and impact to the wildlife that the mine would cause are good reasons to opposed it. And when I say "air pollution," I mean something potentially deadly: airborne silica particles can cause a fatal lung disease, silicosis. Despite opposition from many local residents and environmental groups, as of today, plans for the mine are going forward.

Please don't get me wrong; I appreciate the need for employment. But even if we stick to economic impacts, not only will the property values of the surrounding area be reduced, but if the disruption, noise, pollution, etc., from the mine impact the park, which is right next door, then it seems to me that some of the two million visitors that come to Starved Rock each year will go elsewhere. Greenturtle and I usually visit the park several times a year. We've had lunch at the Lodge and in the nearby town of Utica, and I've bought wine from one of the local wineries. If you add up all the visitors who might be turned away, that could easily result in far more than 39 jobs lost over time. (I read that there are around 1,000 tourism related jobs in the area.)

This isn't the only place impacted by sand mining; Wisconsin and Michigan also have plenty. It's tempting to jump on my soapbox and continue with a long treatise on all the terrible things we keep doing to ruin our environment, but I won't. (You're welcome!) I'm just trying to remind myself sometimes people can actually come together to preserve or restore something lovely, and maybe that will happen here.

In the meantime, I did send Pat Quinn, the Governor of Illinois, a brief message:
The reason I am writing is to state my opposition to the proposed sand mine which would be adjacent to Starved Rock State Park. I love that park and visit it regularly, and I don't see how the mine can fail to impact the natural beauty and precious ecosystem so close to it. I understand the need for jobs in the area, but with over two million people choosing to visit the park, I fear that the impact over the years for the area could actually be even more jobs lost if the mine causes people to stay away. I know that I would not drive so far to get there if I had to hear the noise of machinery and breathe in the dust as I hiked. My main concern, however, is for the environment. Please help protect the park as you did to protect Plum Island from development for the eagles. Thank you.
 If you love Starved Rock, please make your voice heard as well. I don't know how much good it really does, but at least it's something.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Searching for my invincible summer

Eurasian tree sparrow

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. -- Albert Camus

I ran across that quote recently on someone else's blog, and it has been coming back to me in moments of stillness ever since. I think it is an absolutely beautiful idea and I wonder how many of us can truly claim to have an invincible summer in our hearts? Unfortunately in my case, all too often I feel that winter's chill and gray slowly seeps through my pores and renders me as frozen inside as Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen.

Earlier in the week I was talking to an old acquaintance, and stated that I was ready for winter to be over. She laughed. "We haven't even had winter yet!" I knew what she meant; our weather has been extremely mild, with only a couple of dustings of snow and temperatures often hovering in the thirties or low forties. But it's still winter. "I'm sick of walking my dogs in the dark," I clarified.

The fact that the sun sets by five thirty is only one of the signs of on-going winter. As I strolled the trails at Sugar Grove Nature Center this afternoon, I thought of many others:

Most obviously, the birds! Every nature walk is dominated by the triumvirate of winter birding: black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and woodpeckers (downy, hairy and red-bellied). A runner up would be the tufted titmouse. Don't get me wrong; I love all those species. But they consist of about 80% of my sightings on a woodland walk between late November and early March.

Winter is red-tailed hawks and American kestrals perched at regular intervals along the country roads. It's birds in flocks instead of pairs. It's the utter absence of warblers, catbirds, phoebes, pewees, orioles, and cuckoos. On a more positive note, it means a chance to see brown creepers, pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, unusual owls, and other winter only species.

Winter means bird chatter instead of bird song. It's the absolute quiescence of all things green. It's landscapes that look like this:

So, there doesn't need to be a foot of snow on the ground for it to be winter. And lately I've been craving catbirds, if you know what I mean.

No catbirds, but house sparrows are never in short supply.

To top it all off, January always sucks. This one has been better than some, but I woke up this morning, with three things floating into my awareness: one, my teeth hurt from being gnashed in the night; two, I'd been dreaming about taking tests and not being prepared and it's a good ten years since my last classroom experience -- and a good twenty since I got my bachelor's -- so what is up with that?; and three, even though I'd gone on some nice nature walks just last weekend, it seemed an eternity since I'd gone birding. Why do people say that time flies? This month has lasted forever. This week alone has felt like a month.

But Fridays are my half day, which I cling to except in case of complete emergency, despite having a boomer boss who thinks it is a mark of achievement that he stays and works until ten at night, and looks askance on my Gen X attitude my personal time is priceless. Not only that, but the sun was out! All morning long, I gazed towards the windows at the sun's beneficence and counted down the minutes until my longed for nature walk at Sugar Grove.

On the way out of town, I sat idling in stop light after stop light, and just as I was reaching the town limits, guess what happened?

That's right, complete cloud cover! Terminal grayness! Is this a cruel cosmic joke, or what? How bad can my karma possibly be?

Despite this hideous change of circumstance, I kept my rendez-vous with Sugar Grove, and got up close and personal with a Eurasian tree sparrow at the feeders:

But seriously, what a dismal afternoon. My shoes squelched on the muddy trail, and everywhere my eyes looked were shades of gray.

A fallen giant:

If you look closely, you can see the line where this tree was girdled by the IDNR. Several big old trees were similarly killed this way in the Grove, and for the life of me, I can't understand why they did it.

On a happier note, one of the best sounds on Earth, water gurgling over rocks:

And a reminder that, in the midst of winter, there is always the promise of spring.

And I hope, wherever you are, you have kept a trace of invincible summer in your heart!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

12 Species, 11 Miles

It's still January. That's both the good news and the bad news. It's good when I think of how many more winter species I'd still like to add to my Year List -- there's plenty of chances, it's still only January. But when I think of warblers and wildflowers and picnics, it's definitely bad, because those things are months away yet. It's still only January!

Today I was in the bad news part of the on-going Januariness. For one thing, I've only added one bird to my year list, wild turkey, all weekend. And since neither the weather nor my budget included wandering farther afield to look for species today, I knew I was unlikely to improve my chances. Ughh, the weather: damp, gray, drizzly. The prognosticators were calling for drizzle, freezing drizzle or rain, or even all three. Yay, my favorites.

So I thought to myself, "If I go on one of my usual walks at Weldon Springs or Mascoutin, it will just be gray and nasty and I won't see anything good, and I'll sulk. But if I don't go out at all, I'll be crabby and restless and sulk." Dilemmas!

I decided to sidestep the whole problem by going out, but with a focus on a personal challenge rather than a good species list for the day. At the end of December, Greenturtle and I discovered an 11 mile loop trail at the North Fork Access to Clinton Lake, and had walked a little ways on it, but then turned back because we had the dogs along and Greenturtle was in no mood for a major hike.

That loop trail was preying on my mind ever since, mostly because I was so curious to know where it went. Obviously, it's a loop trail, so it goes in a big circle -- but what sorts of habitats occur in the loop? Granted, the two times I walked a ways along it, I saw nary a bird, but that doesn't mean there aren't any further down. To be honest, the real reason I've been dying to walk the loop trail is: Because it's there.

OK, Loop Trail, today's the day! Since the birdiness on my previous trips left much to be desired, I set my species goal really low: 11 birds in 11 miles. Surely even the most benighted place on earth could provide that many. As the day was so hazy I could barely see if anything was in the water by the DNR station as I drove past, I decided I had picked a great day to explore something new.

I got the first two in the parking area, ring-billed gull and Canada goose, and then a crow appeared shortly after I embarked on the trail. There was one other vehicle in the parking lot, which made me wonder who I was sharing the trail with. The tracks in the snow indicated that my fellow nature-goer had a dog with them, which is always reassuring. In my mind, dogs and psychos just don't go together.

The woods were grim and moody-looking, the treetops coated with a frosting of ice, and mist curling over the water. When I gazed out past the trail across a field, the fog was like a wall. Everything felt secretive, shielded. But mostly I was amazed at how few birds there were. I saw a downy woodpecker and a red-bellied one, and a pair of white-breasted nuthatches right before I hit the third mile marker, and then the action picked up a little with some black-capped chickadees and a tufted titmouse. A red-tailed hawk soared over the frozen water.

Despite the lack of species, I was enjoying the walk. The trail wound up and down the hills along the inlet, occasionally opening to a field or marshy area. Just as I was getting bored with the upland forest environment, the trail dipped down to a low area whose multitude of downed, straggly trees indicated a flood plain. Such an interesting mix of habitats, but so few birds. I consoled myself by thinking that it's probably a very different picture in the spring and summer.

A pair of runners passed me; one of them asked if I had seen a dog. I indicated that I had not, and she said that her friend's pit bull had run off, but not to be frightened if I saw it, as it was very friendly. I hope they found their dog; it never crossed my path.

Around the five mile mark, I added the rest of my species for the day: blue jay, eastern bluebird and American goldfinch. I guessed I'd find 11 species and got 12, so not too far off. The trail led me to a short jog down a road and over a metal bridge, and then headed back for the return loop. I noticed a picnic table off to the side, and made a mental note for future reference. By future I mean, not January or its hideous brother February. Maybe glorious April, or magnificent May?

There were some interesting abandoned buildings, and a clearing in the woods, more marshy areas--a lot that I would love to spend more time investigating. Today was not the day, however, for I had barely begun the return side when the "freezing drizzle" began. Only I always had a different word for it, and that word is hail. Granted, small hail -- ice pellets instead of balls -- but they still sting!

So I picked up the pace, race-walking up and down the hills, cursing the huge swathes of trail I had to traverse in between each mile marker; but to be honest, I was nowhere near as miserable as I would have predicted. I even had to admit that I would have been much more unhappy in the midst of a 95 degree summer day -- and at least in winter, there are no mosquitoes! I tucked my binoculars under my jacket so they wouldn't get soaked, but the only birds I passed seemed to be more chickadees, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and titmice.

As I stumbled along, I thought about reading Dr. Weil's speculation in his book Spontaneous Happiness that time is rushing by ever more quickly for people because we are so caught up in technology and information. I thank birding for sparing me a lot of that. My passion forces me to slow down to the rhythm of the seasons, e.g., it's still January! And I have a bit of advice for anyone who feels that the days go by too quickly. Try walking eleven miles of switchbacking up and down trail, in the hail. I promise, time will not fly past you.

I passed another pair of trail runners (wondering as I did so, Are you people insane? Granted, I was out there, too, but at least I wasn't running up the hills!), and then, truly, before I had time to get myself into a self-pitying state of mind, the trail ended on the road a ways down from my parked car. The freezing drizzle had warmed up to just plain drizzle, and I staggered the rest of the way to my car, filled with the sense of satisfaction that only comes from really punishing oneself in the process.

And already, I can't wait to go back and explore those eleven miles at a slower, birder's pace, but on a nicer day. One with warblers and wildflowers. I'll bring a picnic.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What I've been reading (some thoughts on food)

I decided to shake things up a bit and discuss some books I have read lately about one of my other favorite topics, food. Mostly I stick to the topic here and concentrate on birds, but in the rest of my life I am a bit of a "foodie", perhaps even a glutton, and also quite interested in eating the healthiest way possible in order to be able to bird for decades to come.

With that in mind, I shall turn my attention to Folks, This Ain't Normal by Joel Salatin. I downloaded this onto my Kindle after reading the review of it on Summer Tomato, one of my favorite food and health websites. In the book, Salatin, an organic farmer from northern Virginia, takes pot-shots at many of the problems currently bedeviling our food supply: factory farms, genetically modified crops, food shipped to us from distant lands, people not knowing how to grow or preserve food or even how to cook it.

The life of an organic farmer is not an easy one, and Salatin has choice words for those who make it even more difficult: the government, animal rights supporters, environmentalists, and the average consumer (which seems to be most of us).

What I liked about the book: I agree that our current agricultural system is profoundly abnormal and short-sighted, and the book made me think about our current lifestyle in different ways; I learned a bit about traditional farming practices; I learned even more about what small farmers have to put up with from the government, and I heartily agree that the system is terrible; and the book made me think, period. I love it when I find myself debating with an author in my mind after I've put the book down. It's the opposite of passive entertainment. The book also inspired me to get serious about composting, putting out rain barrels, etc., to make my kitchen and garden more "normal," and got me excited about planting some veggies this summer.

What I didn't like about the book: mostly, the ranting, sarcastic tone. Once in a while I'd find myself chuckling at his diatribes, but overall, I found it off-putting. I am always opposed to using words like "duh" as an elocutionary device. The other thing I didn't like was the lack of references to support his claims, especially as some sources he did mention, such as Lierre Keith and Sally Fallon, are not exactly sources I would turn to for objectivity.

If I were trying to convince someone who eats factory-farmed meats, highly processed foods, fast-food value meals, etc., to upgrade to better choices, would I hand them Folks, This Ain't Normal? Probably not as their first book on the topic.  But if you're already interested in what's going on with our food supply, Salatin provides an interesting and in-your-face perspective, which I'm happy to have read.

An interesting companion piece to Salatin's book would be Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat by Howard Lyman. It's an older book (2001), and towards the end a bit of a vegan polemic, but the part describing how Lyman was convinced to "modernize" his family's ranch after attending the agricultural program at his local university, and in doing so rendered the land an ecological wasteland, burdened with debt and filled with sick, stressed out animals, and probably hurt his own health as well, is a perfect example of what's just not normal about our farming practices.

Some people want to define "normal" as even further back in time, before the advent of agriculture, and think that the ideal way to live is similar to our hunting and gathering ancestors. I have found the most persuasive of these "paleo" type diets to be Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint, which is described in his book of the same name and also on his wonderful blog, Mark's Daily Apple. One of the things that appeals to me about his philosophy is that it goes beyond diet; exercise, rest, play, and even spending lots of time in nature (love that part!) are discussed.

I do have a confession, though. Despite being convinced by the rationale of the lifestyle, I haven't been able to make the transition to following the diet. I tried it for two weeks, felt nauseated from eating so much meat, and actually gained five pounds! And no, it wasn't muscle. Since then, I have scaled back the meat and added in some rice, and feel my equilibrium returning. I'm really enjoying cooking my way The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, though. So far I've made the Swiss chard frittata, the beef and broccoli stir fry, and the chicken and fennel stew...all delicious!

And overall, I do feel that even though I can't forgo my white rice, the book has convinced me to put the processed crap behind me once and for all, which has to be most of the battle.

Because really, that stuff ain't normal!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

More views of the lake (and a bit of silliness)

It's cold. Right now, as I sit and type, I feel a bit of a chill. It was even worse a half hour ago, as I was outside then, taking my dogs for a walk, which is a bit of a spectacle at the best of times, and even worse in the winter, for in addition to wishing they wouldn't bark at everyone and try to eat various disgusting things they find on the ground (thus giving me more room to say, "Wipe that coprophagic grin off your face!" than I ever expected when I thought of that phrase in an attempt to put humor into vocabulary), but I just want them to hurry up with their business, because it's cold!

Imagine this, if you will: I am holding all three leashes in one hand, so as to keep the other hand as snug as possible in my pocket (due to the extreme, hideous cold, of course), a scenario which only works when all three run along side by side like some ironic, post-modern take on Cerberus (just so you can visualize the silliness of this correctly, let me remind everyone that I have a dachshund, a cocker spaniel, and a Pomeranian). True to their usual, alas, they are all straining at the leash in three different directions, tangling up each other and myself in the process, so that I am either continually doing a sort of doggie jump-rope, or swaying in an attempt not to fall face first. For all of you who are thinking "obedience training" at about this point, I tried that with my dachshund. At the end of the first class, he lifted his leg and took a whizz on my shoe just to show me how successful the whole endeavor would be. I took him for a few more sessions before deciding to spare myself further embarrassment by home-schooling.

This has all been a bit of an unexpected detour, for which I blame a case of brain-freeze, caused by--guess what?--the cold! Since it happens every winter here in Illinois, you would think I would get used to it. Unfortunately, my complaining about it also happens every year like clockwork around this time. Well, give me six months and I'll show how well-rounded I am by complaining about the heat.

Despite these impediments, I have maintained my attempts to get the year birds. Yesterday I called in sick to work. Just for the record, I want to be very clear that I did not call in sick in order to go birding. I really did feel unwell. In theory, I aspire to be the sort of slacker who would call in sick for a chance to see more birds, but I have been too inculcated into the so-called Protestant work ethic ever to let myself get away with it.

Having already called in sick, however, and spent the morning lying on the couch watching extremely weird videos, my mind soon turned to year birds, and I decided that driving to the lake to gaze out over the water would hardly be taxing. Besides, there is only so much lying around idly that any one person can take, and just in case I face some sort of gruesome extended death-bed scenario in my later years, I don't want to waste a moment now.

So, out I went. The area between the power plant and the DNR station was full of common goldeneyes and ring-billed gulls, with a couple of hooded mergansers tossed in here and there.

I made this picture extra large because I thought I might have seen a Barrow's goldeneye in the mix, and maybe someone else will spot it too! No? Yeah, me either. Since my spotting scope was in the trunk of my other vehicle, the picture pretty much sums up how the ducks looked in "real time" as well.

And as far as a Barrow's goldeneye goes...finding stuff like that is a good reason to spend more time with more experienced birders. On my own, I'd probably never feel all that certain. I mean, the head seemed pointier and the white patch on the face seemed skinnier, but they still look pretty similar, right? On the other hand, I once despaired over how I would ever recognize a Thayer's gull if I saw one, but when I did (at least I'm pretty sure I did) Up North, I knew at once, "Hey, that isn't your normal herring gull. It's different somehow...."

I drove further down the road to Mascoutin; on my way there, I did get a wonderful look at year bird #62, a rough-legged hawk, circling overhead in Dewitt. And then on to the lake again, where what did I spy? Mallards!

Hellooo, mallards! Do you guys think I rose from my couch and risked being "busted" on a sick day to watch a bunch of you swim around? Like, haven't I seen enough mallards to last me forever, just this week?? Do you really think I need more mallards?

Attracted by all these negative vibes, an American coot swam up towards the shore.

Said the coot, "I see we have one of those hard-core twitching lister types who just can't stop and appreciate the qualities of the bird they happen to see. Well, I'll show her!"

"I'm going to get out of the water and display my supreme cootliness, not to mention my ginormous feet, to make her look twice and show her the error of her ways!"

OK, lesson learned, little coot.... You are marvelous and I will henceforth go out and admire each bird I see for itself and not for its place on my list!

I briefly considered a bit of a stroll, but didn't feel up to it; however, I saw some more nice birds on my drive home, including American black duck (year bird #63...don't tell the coot!), plus an eastern bluebird and a red-tailed hawk.

And it would have been a very nice day if only it weren't so cold!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter Prairie: A Meditation

At first glance, the space seems barren, the grasses brown and brittle, nothing moving against the sky. It is a moment of quiescence, of held breath. Waiting. The trees look stark. This small spot of land, a tiny scrap of remnant prairie, has always been welcoming before. Now it seems empty.

Where has the past gone? How much does the land remember? The time when this homestead was populated is long past; even longer, a time when the long grasses stretched to each horizon. What will be in this spot one hundred years hence? And if this last sliver of prairie is also gone, will someone, for a moment, be shaken from their cage of glass, cement and steel, and sense the sacred force of the soil beneath them?

A flock of birds flies from the ground, like autumn leaves in reverse, as brown and white as the grass against the snow: American tree sparrows.

Like the simple man's Ozymandias, the collapsing buildings ask us to think of those who left so little of themselves behind: fragile wooden buildings, now collapsing. And yet, there is something about the curve of the path that encourages us onwards. The path is everywhere if we know where to look for it. If we want it to, the prairie in all its seasons can live inside of us.

No matter how many times we walk this path, the bridge is always yet to be crossed.

The window bangs and rattles in the wind, shaking me from my reverie. For a moment, the clatter makes me wonder if I am not alone. Does the wind count? The grass? The quiet warm presence of the wintering birds? If we just look around us, are we ever alone?

The roots of this tree must descend all the way to the pulsating core of life. Beneath the winter prairie is the promise of renewal. Behind the quietude is the noisy resurgence of spring. Every time I come here, I see something different.

This time, what I saw I did not notice with my eyes. Even blanketed by winter's silence, the ground here hums with the sacred. Every time I come here, I know that I am home.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Now it feels like work

A case of the blahs

I probably shouldn't admit this, but here goes: Sometimes I don't really want to bird. Sometimes I'm kinda tired and would really rather stay home reading or even watching scary movies or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This never happens during spring migration, of course. And when it does happen, often, if I make myself go out anyway, I am soon so lost in the "birding zone" that I completely forget I was tired. Sometimes I stay home and then kick myself for the rest of the week while I am trapped inside until sunset (the worst thing about winter is that it's dark by the time I get home) because a day or two later, I'm dying to get outside, and I'm stuck at work. And sometimes I go out when I'm feeling blah, and the outing is blah, and that's all there is to it.

Not that I felt completely blah about going out this morning. I did want to see if any new waterbirds were congregating around Mascoutin, now that the weather has been cold several days. Warm water from the power plant keeps that area of the lake free of ice, and in years past other birders have seen smorgasbords of ducks, geese, gulls, all kinds of exciting stuff. In fact, as late fall became winter and I'd drive past all the Clinton Lake "hotspots," seeing nothing besides flocks of ring-billed gulls bobbing atop the otherwise unoccupied water, I'd tell myself, "Just wait until we get some ice.... Then who knows what I'll see here!"

As I drove along the country roads, the flat and unvarying expanse of the fields made me kind of sleepy. The thought of embarking on a long hike wasn't too appealing. I thought, If I could go back in time to when I was 16 or 20 and tell myself that someday I'd live in central Illinois and my main interest in life would be birding, I'd never believe it. If I also told myself that sorry, in twenty years' time I wouldn't be a rich, famous writer, either, I'd probably wonder if the intervening decades would even be worth slogging through. And yet, I'm not altogether dissatisfied with the way it turned out. I love birding. I have even developed a sense of affection for the flatlands. It would be nice to be a rich, famous writer, however. Oh well.

Luckily, before I could get too sleepy or introspective, I had arrived at Mascoutin.

Birds in the mist

I could see tendrils of fog rising from the water from several "blocks" away. This very localized weather pattern is caused by the fact that the water temperature is much warmer than normal due to the presence of the Exelon nuclear power plant (and no, I don't object to nuclear energy, as long as the reactors are kept up to the most stringent safety codes -- I actually find the power plant less offensive than the endless crops of wind farms sprouting up across the state. In fact, even a disaster such as what happened at Chernobyl is probably less damaging to the environment in the long run than, say, mountaintop-removal mining, as the very engaging book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio describes).

I parked and walked along the causeway for a while, seeing pied-billed grebes, Canada geese, a pair of mallards, a bazillion ring-billed gulls, and some coots skulking against the shoreline.

"I am not skulking."

Don't laugh, it's a year bird:

When the highlight of your birding trip is a brown-headed cowbird, it might just be time to go home...which I did, after a brief stop at the prairie at Weldon Springs, which will be the topic of tomorrow's post.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Birding here and there

After the excitement of seeing the snowy owls last weekend at Montrose Harbor, almost anything would have to seem anti-climatic, right? Of course, I had further birding adventures planned, but after adopting another dog (an adorable Pomeranian, who is curled up on a pile of cushions beside my desk as I type this), all that was canceled, and I have restricted myself to a few "nature walks" here at home in DeWitt County.

It's not just the owls that have spoiled me. There's also the weather. The winter here has been so freaky mild that the modest snowfall we received last Thursday, and a dip into normal winter temperatures, made me remember what January birding is normally like.

A moment of enchantment

Every once in a while life gives you one of those. One of the reasons I like birding is because it raises the odds of experiencing one. I have rarely felt that the world is numinous and magical and that I am the luckiest being in it because the beauty and mystery all around me has left me standing half-dazed yet entirely alive while watching TV or wandering around a shopping plaza. To be completely honest, I don't believe that has happened even once. And yet, with birding, I have an experience like that every two or three months on average.

Last Sunday it happened as I was strolling along the Houseboat Cove Trail at Mascoutin. The weather was mild, the sun was out, and I was mentally a bit restless because I wasn't seeing a lot of birds. I turned the bend before an ephemeral pool, an area which is frequently rather birdy, and saw a half dozen or so American robins flying up from the ground, Year Bird #52. With them were some cardinals and a blue jay or two. Then I heard the high keening cry of the cedar waxwing (Year Bird #53), and a whole flock of them descended around me, flying down to the leaf-strewn basin of the mostly-dry pool and back. I also heard the distinctive Ziiip! noise of the pine siskin (Year Bird #54)and noticed that they were also scratching about in the leaf litter; despite their yellow tinge, they were almost perfectly camouflaged before I started looking for them. Closer to the bank were American tree sparrows and a white-throated sparrow (Year Bird #55), and a happier person could not have existed on planet Earth than myself in that moment.

The walk rounded out nicely with some old favorites (belted kingfisher, brown creeper -- Year Bird #56). I don't know what made that moment so special. I like cedar waxwings and pine siskins a lot, but I don't feel like I'm about to dance with leprechauns around the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow every time I see them. I think it was a combination of seeing such a variety of species in a small location, such that I felt that I was actually right in the midst of it all.

The day summed up with yet another Year Bird, the Eurasian collared dove, glimpsed sitting on my neighbor's roof as I walked past the window -- and I never complain about a year bird that wants to appear more or less at my doorstep, either.

A bad surprise and a Carolina wren

Yesterday I wanted to take Greenturtle and the dogs for a walk around the backpack trail at Weldon Springs, but we decided to leave the dogs home as Greenturtle was worried about Trevor, our short-haired dachshund, getting too cold from the snow, and our new Pom has the snuffles (luckily he is going to see the vet tomorrow). It was snowing and everything had that winter wonderland sort of feel to it.

I was looking forward to looking over the bird feeders, as I am always hoping that a purple finch, red-breasted nuthatch or other rarer winter bird will be partaking, but I knew that something was wrong even before I could see them. Usually in the winter the birds "overflow" from the feeder area and fill up the surrounding space with their calls. But it was still and silent, and I soon saw why: the feeders have all been taken down. I hope this is not permanent and it's a shame if they did that because of budget concerns because I bet if they put the word out people would be willing to contribute towards the cost of the seed. I know I would. Anyway, it was always so nice to see all the birds feeding there and I was rather disappointed they were gone.

As we finished up our walk, I heard the crabby noise that only a wren can make, and turned around to see a Carolina wren skulking and scolding in the underbrush--Year Bird #58. We also heard a barred owl call once, and despite back-tracking all over the woods trying to find it, it remained silent and a "heard only bird," but since those count by the rules, he's Year Bird #59. I always feel like I'm cheating if I don't see it, though.

And now that I have rambled on for so long, I will have to save today's outing for a different post. There's even a couple of year birds in the mix so I hope you'll come back tomorrow for the rest.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New member of the family

I interrupt this weekend's scheduled edition of My Ultimate Illinois Birding Year due to the unforeseen acquisition of a new family member, an adorable Pomeranian named Leo. You see, I have wanted a Pomeranian for several years, due to their extremely cute demeanor, their feisty attitude, and their all around tininess. I absolutely don't view dogs as an accessory, but I do like the idea of having a dog I could tuck under one arm and carry around if the situation warranted.

But, being a responsible-type person, at least some of the time, I decided that it would be nicer to adopt a dog in need from the local shelter rather than seek out a particular breed from a breeder, and so the first two dogs that Greenturtle and I adopted were a dachshund named Trevor and an American cocker spaniel named Raven. We got Trevor first, immediately after buying our house last May after years of living in no-pets policy apartments, and got Raven about a month later because we were afraid that Trevor was developing separation anxiety since we both have to leave him alone while we go to work. And the two became good friends, and I had pretty much decided that my canine family was complete.

And then guess what appeared at the Central Illinois Humane Society? A Pomeranian, just like I'd always wanted. This particular Pom is a four year old male named Leo.

He is super sweet and affectionate, so the only hurdle was wondering if our current dogs would get along with him. I was especially anxious about Trevor, since he often decides to hate other dogs...but not all other dogs, so who knows?

The introduction didn't start off on a good note. Trevor was barking, barking, barking, Leo seemed cowed, and Raven was just running around getting in the way like she often does. But after they were all taken to a quiet room together and allowed to sniff out their introductions, everything seemed copacetic. So Leo became dog number three! (And the last for a long, long time...I herewith promise never to be a candidate for a TV show about animal hoarders.)

So between the expense of the adoption, and the desire to spend quality time with the pack, I canceled my birding adventure for the weekend.

The rest of this post consists of gratuitous cute dog photos, at Sunwiggy's request, and since she is my most faithful reader (and my mother), I have complied. If anyone else wants more birding stuff, I promise it will be back tomorrow!

In the meantime....

Trevor seems a little depressed about having a new brother, and has been hogging my lap a lot more than usual, especially if Leo wants to sit there.

Raven, on the other hand, likes everybody, but has been showing her insecurity at the change of pack order by forgetting that she was almost housetrained. And while Leo seems like a well-behaved dog in almost every respect, he does have one bad habit...he's a nervous piddler. So now in addition to Sir Barksalot (Trevor) and the Galumphagus (Raven), we have Mr. Piddlesworth.

Is having dogs worth it? It is when they're as cute as they were in the backyard today.

Follow the leader:

Raven enjoying the snow:

Leo doing the snowplow routine:

Trevor wants to make sure I still love him best.

Sizing each other up:

Raven galumphing around:

A game of tag:

"Please play some more!"

"Yay, he wants to play!"

Leo chooses not to join in the fun:

He's like, "Really, I'm good the way I am."

Trevor says, "This is a lot of work when you're as low to the ground as I am!"

Leo even joins in for a bit:

Now Leo is announcing that he's had enough fun:

After they started looking like they were about to quarrel, I took them inside. Overall, everything seems OK though, and I know it will take a while for the "pack order" to get rearranged with a new dog in the mix. Luckily, they're all so cute I forgive them their bad habits.

If anyone has any advice about nervous piddling, though, I'd love to hear it!