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.

1 comment:

  1. You just have to write a book about your birding adventures! Dad and I got only 16 species driving to Marquette and back; the prize of the day was a splendid parade of wild turkeys across the road, really strutting their beautiful stuff. The Bay is starting to ice over. We were treated to wind, low 20s, gray skies, fog, and icy drizzle, too! Gotta love winter! Mom PS I'd love to go on a picnic, but 5 miles is my limit.

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