Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Memory Palace for Birds

It was cold this morning. Although a bit belated, winter finally decided it was here this weekend, with the windchill factor sending the temperature into the single digits. But still...the sun was out. There was something timeless and compelling about the endless blue of the sky. No two ways about it--time for a bird walk!

I decided on the Houseboat Cove Trail at Mascoutin, along Clinton Lake, as I had not been there in a couple of weeks, but it's still pretty close to home. Since the neither entirely unanticipated nor unwelcome announcement that the Crow is out of a job, I must be more careful with the gas before hopping in the car for a day of birding. And it's better for the environment to be thrifty, as well.

Anyway, it's cold, I was out, and I was seeing birds. In milder weather, I like to take along a moleskine notebook to record all the species I see, but as I had misplaced my only mechanical pencil (the ink in pens tends to freeze on days like today), and I was loath to expose my digits to the chill, I had to rely on memory to log my birds in my Bird Journal once I got home.

To keep the birds in mind, I like to use a mnemonic device known as the Memory Palace, or method of loci. This technique, which was invented by the ancient Roman orators, is sometimes called "a mental walk." Basically, it entails visualizing a route that you know well, and "placing" items that you need to memorize at specific areas along the walk. In other words, if I gave you a list of random words to remember, you would think of ten landmarks along your familiar "walk" and stick a word at each one. By tying new information to the familiar, people are able to remember more things than they could otherwise.

When it's too cold to log birds (or I just forgot my notebook!), I turn my physical walk into a mental walk as well, affixing each species in my mind to the location where I saw it.

Black capped chickadees -- Two, on the shrubbery near the ground, to the left of the trail just after I passed the ephemeral pool that is now filled with water, but completely iced over. This area is completely birdy, but today there were just the chickadees.

American crow -- One, against the blue sky, its wings "rowing" in through the air. Mid-way down the path as it runs straight to the inlet of the lake.

Ring-billed gulls and mallards -- immediately past the bench, where the trail turns and runs along the Cove. They were all out in the water. The mallards took off in a quacking panic as soon as they saw me. The gulls, they couldn't care less.

Red-bellied woodpecker and hairy woodpecker -- one each. I saw both as soon as the trail switch-backed to the right to continue running parallel to the cove, the red-bellied on the left side of the trail, the hairy on the right. I knew the RB at once from its call, and again from the flash of its red "skullcap" as it inched along the tree; the hairy I first recognized by size--is that a robin? A blue jay? No, a woodpecker -- a hairy.

Evidence of woodpeckers

Dark-eyed juncos
-- to the right of the trail, in one of the more open areas before the trail forks into the "long" and "short" walks. I recognize them by the white "V's" created by their tail feathers as they fly. They've been significantly absent on my last few birds walks, so I'm glad to see them.

The short road or the long one?

Great blue herons -- two, at least. Caught sight of them taking off to the right, in the area with all the sunken trees.

The drowned trees

Even though I've been seeing them all winter -- the mild temperatures have kept the water largely free of ice -- it still surprises me each time. I just don't think of them as winter birds. And something about them -- is it the long dangling legs? The large size? The prehistoric cries? Or just their extraordinary beauty? -- startles me every time.

There are also dozens of mallards in this area, all quacking, all panicking. In the past, this area has also yielded blue-winged teal and a lone female wood duck. Today? Mallards.

Northern cardinals -- about a half dozen, feeding on the ground to the right of the trail in another scrubby/shrubby area. In the intense winter sunlight, one of the males looked preternaturally red. I don't know if you've ever watched a fantasy cartoon with a pile of magical rubies, glowing from within? That's what this guy looked like. I mean, he was CGI red! I've never seen anything like it....

Tufted titmouse -- two of them, same area, right before the line of hedge apples. What can I say? So cute! So precious! Such crabby noises! As I was watching one of them rummaging around on a branch for his lunch, I thought: This is what's real. It felt...I dunno...kind of spiritual? What can I say? I like titmice!

Former windbreak -- a row of Osage orange

Blue jay -- one, on the left side of the trail, just a few feet beyond the titmice. There were some cardinals and juncos as well.

American Tree Sparrow -- perhaps a half a dozen, sheltering in the line of Osage orange trees, which were probably planted a while ago, when this was all farmland, probably as a windbreak.

Last but not least, a small flock of Canada geese, flying overhead right before I got to the parking lot...and then a lone American coot glanced in the water as I was driving home.

And I can still remember each one! It gets more difficult in the spring, when mixed flocks of warblers fill the trees and the list runs over fifty species. Today was just thirteen, not too hard to recall even without a Memory Palace. Of course, in the spring, I'd have my notebook with fear of freezing pens, or need for gloves!

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