Monday, January 2, 2012
New Year's birding highlights
Greenturtle and I are at Weldon Springs, and it is overcast and blustery. He has gone back to the car for his hat, while I look for birds. A blue jay takes off across the marsh. I see a goldfinch and a white-breasted nuthatch. Walking up behind me, Greenturtle askes, "What's that?" As he is gesturing in the direction of the nuthatch, I'm nonchalant at first, until I notice, in a tree on the other side of the road, a flock of red-winged blackbirds. I double check their red wing patches a few times just to be certain, because this species is a complete surprise to me. I've never seen them in January before. It feels like a good omen.
The Bird Feeders.
Most of the park feels like a bird-free zone, which is no surprise on such a windy day. Luckily, it is still about fifteen degrees warmer than usual; otherwise, with this wind, being out here would be a misery. But on all but the very worst of days, one can find a bit of birding happiness at a feeder. We get: red-bellied woodpecker, goldfinch, house finch, black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, American tree sparrow--hey, don't laugh, it's the first of January and these are all year birds! To make it even more exciting, a great blue heron flies overhead. I really want a tufted titmouse and a downy woodpecker, too, but they don't seem to be in the mix. And the white-throated sparrow I found in this area just last week? Nowhere to be found, of course. At least the sun has come out.
The Long Bridge at Mascoutin
This is another place I've been mentally hoarding for the first of the year, a long, accessible stretch of water that's been good for birds over the past couple of weeks. But today, the wind is churning Clinton Lake into white-cap soup, so any water birds must be hiding themselves elsewhere. Despite this, we see a bald eagle flying in the midst of a hundred ring-billed gulls, so we pull over to see what else might be present. I do get a small flock of American coots, and on the return trip, a pied-billed grebe. Elsewhere at Mascoutin: ring-necked pheasants racing across the road, plus the downy woodpecker and tufted titmouse I didn't find at Weldon Springs. Greenturtle has had enough of birding for the day and announces it's time to go.
The feeders at Sugar Grove Nature Center
After lunch, I decide to try my luck in McLean County and recall that the bird sanctuary feeders at Sugar Grove are usually good for Eurasian tree sparrows in the winter. I'm also missing some other easy-peasies such as red-tailed hawk, brown-headed cowbird, and mourning dove that are usually a snap to get there. When I pull up, I'm amazed that the feeder area seems exclusively populated by dozens of house sparrows and nothing else. Then the wind gusts, sending the hanging feeders to swinging and clanking, and I think I've figured out the reason. After quite a bit of searching, I find a lone Eurasian tree sparrow in with the flock. Two mourning doves fly over head. The only other species to make an appearance are the European starling (one individual) and the American goldfinch (also one). Not really worth the trip.
The woods at Sugar Grove Nature Center
Since I am here, I decide to stroll through the woods a bit. Downed trees are everywhere, and more trees are constantly creaking overhead. The wind is so strong, it almost feels like a presence. And I do start to worry a little bit--these are some awfully thin, brittle-looking trees. What if one lands on my head? I do see a big brown bird flying silently away from me; judging by its size and shape, I think it must be a great-horned owl. But as I didn't see it's face, let alone it's "horns," I don't count it. Nothing else is moving in the woods, plus, my feet are tired. Not really worth the walk.
On the way home, I stop and look out across the pond, finally seeing a pair of mallards and a belted kingfisher. Luckily they were easy to get for by now the sun has disappeared, the day has gotten colder, and I'm in no mood for tromping around.
North Fork Access Trail
Another super-windy day, and the temperature has dropped to the low twenties. I see some horned larks flying across a field, then attempt to walk the trail by the North Fork access at Clinton Lake. Greenturtle and I had walked a bit of it on an almost-balmy New Year's Eve, and I had startled a flock of common mergansers. Today, however, with the wind whipping across the lake, and no birds in sight, the walk is just a misery. I get as far as where I had seen the mergansers. Once again the lake is rough, the color of slate. No birds have chosen to shelter on it. I don't blame them.
DNR Headquarters on Highway 54
A-ha, finally some water birds. I park by the gate at the DNR office, and hurry down to look. Must be a hundred or so mallards and just as many Canada geese...but I am pleased to catch sight of a diving duck, and identify it as a common goldeneye. Actually, there are three of them. But the wind is relentless and tears of agony are streaming down my face, so time to press on.
Weldon Springs Backpack Trail
I am hoping for some wild turkeys...or eastern bluebirds...or a Carolina wren. Maybe an owl or two? The wind shakes relentlessly through the trees and my face feels like frostbite will set in at any moment. There are no birds to be found. None. Not one. I give up. Tomorrow is another day. And although I don't mean to, for I am trying to Appreciate the Now as much as possible...I start to dream of April. Wildflowers. The first migrating passerines. Sunshine. Arrrghhh!!