Friday, April 27, 2012

Shorebird Madness!

Spotted sandpiper

Today after work, I went for a stroll at Rock Springs Conservation Area in Decatur. As the beginning of Warbler Season is upon us, and the my birding alerts from ebird have tantalized me with the fact that other people are seeing (potential life bird) northern parulas all over the place, I had high hopes for the excursion. In fact, I was imagining the limbs of the trees bobbing and bowing under the weight of mixed flocks of warblers, vireos and other migrants in quantities that have certainly not been seen in my lifetime, and probably not since the heyday of the passenger pigeon.

In fact, it was a pleasant, but singularly unbirdy, walk. The highlight was a pair of rough-winged swallows along the river, the only year bird of the trip. The only warbler seen was a lone yellow-rumped. Oh, well. The floodplain was filled with masses of a tall wildflower I am still trying to identify--perhaps butterweed? Next time I go I'll bring my plant guide and my camera. I got a close look at a coyote loping along the trail; it saw me, stared for a few seconds and, not liking what it saw, turned and quickly loped off in the opposite direction.

I got some (much needed) exercise.

It would have been a lovely walk if I hadn't been spoiled by the year-bird extravaganza of last weekend, in which I saw shorebirds galore, with numerous other lovely year birds thrown in...and one lifer! I would have called this post "Sandpiper Explosion" if that might not give people the wrong impression. I really don't want to know what kind of person would search the Internet for stories of exploding sandpipers, but as little shocks me in this day and age, I have instead chosen to call my tale the more neutral "Shorebird Madness!"

Lesser yellowlegs

Last year my annual tally of species was sorely deficient in shorebirds, so this year, I decided to go to a place where they were more or less guaranteed to hang out. And what do shorebirds love?

Mud flats

That's right...they love muddy, shallow, gunky places where they can search for insects and other delectables with their long, plunging bills. In years past, I have had great success with flooded fields, but this spring, good luck finding a puddle, let alone an entire soggy field.

But Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge did not let me down. According to ebird, people had been seeing black-necked stilts, and since I haven't seen a stilt since Sunwiggy and I went to Texas in 2007, that sounded like a good thing to look for. I even convinced my husband "Greenturtle" to go with me.

We began our trip at the "South Globe" area, on the road to the Dickson Mound Museum, where we saw stilts aplenty, along with a spotted sandpiper. On the way there, I had gotten two other year birds, some barn swallows at Chatauqua and a northern bobwhite which Greenturtle almost ran over as it sprinted across the road.

In the spirit of honesty, I must tell you that Greenturtle disputes the near-death encounter of said bobwhite, maintaining that he was far from its little feathered self at the time of the alleged near car-bobwhite collision, but I am convinced that there is one bobwhite with a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder somewhere in central Illinois. Either way, it was alive both when I saw it and when I left, and has been happily added to my year list.

A skulking killdeer

Greenturtle wanted to try a bit of fishing, but I was impatient to get to the Nature Conservancy's Emiquon restoration a bit further down the road, so off we went. Year birds followed in swift succession: least sandpiper, vesper sparrow and Wilson's snipe, plus solitary sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, killdeer, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal and a bazillion coots...OK, nothing new, but who can complain?

One shoveler and a bunch of coots

I would have called the day a success then and there if we hadn't met a family who told us that if we kept walking along the dike at the South Globe, we would see long-billed dowitchers and Hudsonian godwits, so of course I insisted we backtrack and do so pronto! Bless his heart, Greenturtle was up for it.

Long billed dowitchers, far away

And yes, we did see them...the dowitchers being a life bird for me! Hooray!

On our way home, we stopped at Sugar Grove Nature Center and walked the trails for a bit before doing our shopping, where I got two more year birds, the house wren and the white-crowned sparrow. The next day, a stroll at Weldon Springs and later the Salt Creek Wetland netted me more year birds: blue-gray gnatcatcher, gray catbird, bank swallow. All in all, 18 species for 2012 in one weekend!

But, as I have noticed before, in birding as in life, a triumph is often followed by a disappointment. But that's OK, I am sure there will be more birding victories to come!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Birding Central Illinois: The Agricutural Wasteland, Part One, McLean County

One of my favorite books of all time is Sheryl De Vore's guide Birding Illinois. For the past decade, I have dipped into it again and again to find new places for a birding jaunt or just to get some vicarious birding done before I (reluctantly) crawl out of bed in the morning to face the work day. I discovered it shortly after I began birding, and with the naivete of the beginning birder, I'd show up at the place in question honestly hoping to see each species mentioned in the summary. Now I know better...but even if I'm a lot of birds shy of what was "promised," I found some really awesome places, such as the Middle Fork Conservation Area and the Nachusa Grasslands.

There's just one problem: the book is now twelve years old! It's really time for a new edition. With the ease of checking for sightings on the Internet, perhaps ink and paper guides are falling out of favor, but although I am slowly catching up to the times (I even have a Kindle, which I once swore I would never touch on principle), I still like, now and then, to be able to literally curl up with a good book.

I still hope that Ms. De Vore will come out with a second edition, but in the meantime I thought I would write an off the cuff guide to my own favorite birding, hiking and natural spots, focusing on the area that I know best: central Illinois, starting with my old stomping grounds, McLean County. And although I call this the "agricultural wasteland," due to the unappealing expanses of GMO corn and soy fields stretching as far as the eye can see, often with a hideous crop of wind turbines whirling overhead, I truly mean no disrespect. I have actually come to love central Illinois, and this is all because of the fragments of prairies and woods to be found here, and the rivers, lakes and ponds, and the phenomenal variety of birds one can find. People might dispute it, but I would hold up birding in central Illinois, at its best, to be some of the best in the mid-West.

No doubt thanks in part to an awesome chapter of the Audubon Society, JWP Audubon, McLean is a rather heavily birded county. There is even a website devoted to the topic. So with all this going for it, there may not be a lot of need for an additional guide, but for what it's worth, here's my two cents.

My favorite birding spot:

Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake. In all honesty, I never found this site much for natural beauty. To look at, the park and surrounding area is rather flat and blah, now even worse because of the huge wind farm adjacent. The only way that the sight doesn't bum me out is if I'm listening to Goldfrapp's "Strict Machine" as I drive past them. (Right click on the link to open a new tab to listen while you read.)

And yes, I know that "green types" such as myself are supposed to love wind energy. Well, I can't help it, I hate the bat-killing, bird-whapping, Godzilla-sized eye-sores. And at night it's just as bad, all those red lights blinking on and off like so many winking eyes of Sauron! But really, that's not where I was going with this post.... Oops, I hate it when a rant slips out. But it's OK, I'm all better now.

I like to park by the bridge at the west end of the park. I'm bad at directions, so I'll direct those who are curious to this handy park map. The area I am referring to is the John English trailhead off Road 2300 North.

I call this the Swallow Bridge, for the obvious reason that barn, cliff and tree swallows hang out here in multitudes in the breeding season. On a cool summer morning, when a thin mist forms along the surface of the water just before the heat of the day begins, this small piece of McLean county can feel almost otherworldy. Ghost-like great egrets and herons silently stalk fish in the shallows, and a small flock of double-crested cormorants begins to flap their wings to greet the day. Eastern phoebes perch beside the water, pumping their tails in anticipation of breakfast. Woodpeckers like the dying trees in the water; I have seen red-bellied, downy, hairy and, in the past, red-headed in this general area. Red-winged blackbirds line the swampy fringes.

A bit down the road, a small field takes you to a trail leading to a point along the water. (The map calls this the Barred Owl Trail, and I have indeed seen barred owls here. Still, I prefer my own personal moniker, Cormorant Point.) Here, I have seen a red-tailed hawk swooping overhead, and eastern bluebirds perching on the telephone wire. Field sparrows trill from the grasses, and eastern meadowlarks cry plaintively.

Across the street, there is the Shady Hollow Nature Trail (which Sunwiggy and I have named the Witchy Woods, due to the twisted trees and magical bluebells found within...bluebells ephemerally, of course, but so thick upon the ground that the very air above them seems to shimmer with blue). This trail is boggy in spring and a mess of nettles and mosquitoes in the summer, but I've seen some really nice warblers here during spring migration.

This general area is usually good for migrating waterfowl in the early spring, and if the weather has been hot and dry enough, at the end of summer the lake retreats, providing mudflats for sandpipers and other shorebirds. But don't stop here.

Venturing down the John English nature trail, one can find great summer birding. (The map states that the terrain of this trail is difficult, but apart from a couple of steep inclines, it is fine for most people. Sunwiggy has COPD and a wonky knee and she can do it!) Yellowthroats, meadowlarks and field sparrows are easy-peasy, and I have also found eastern towhees, both Baltimore and orchard orioles, Savannah sparrows, indigo buntings, and all the usual migrants. Wooded patches bring in warblers in spring and fall, and walking along the water, one can find a nice variety of gulls and terns in the appropriate seasons. Truly, I have seen birds ranging from ruby-throated hummingbird up to bald eagle at this park. In spring and fall, 50+ species lists are not hard to come by. Some of my favorite sightings include: northern mockingbird, black-billed cuckoo, black-throated blue warbler, Cape May warbler, Caspian tern, common loon...of course don't expect all these species on the same outing!

After the second wooded area, the trail winds towards the visitor's center, past some fields where dickcissels and ring-necked pheasants are fairly common...and a whole cavalcade of red-winged blackbirds. But my favorite summer residents are the yellow warblers, also not hard to find...and once I found a marsh wren in the spring. After a patch of pines, one comes to the visitor's center (a.k.a Bathroom Break!), and in the wintertime, the bird feeders can be quite productive. One year red-breasted nuthatches were quite reliable. At this point, I usually turn around and wander back to the car, congratulating myself on a great day of birding.

In late winter/early spring, I like to stop at the Pumphouse before I go, if the rest of the lake is still covered in ice, because the water is open here and attracts large numbers of migrating waterfowl desperate for a place to land.

But let's say you're not really in the mood for a big species list per se, and you'd rather have a stroll in a beautiful location. (Ha ha, who are these hypothetical people?) Then let me introduce you to another nice nature spot in McLean County...Parklands Foundation's Merwin Preserve. (For this location I would choose the much more mellow Trois Gymnopedies by Erik Satie for musical score--again, right click on the link if you'd like to listen while you read.)

A long and skinny tract of woods and fields on either side of the Mackinaw River, Parklands produces great warblers in migration, bluebells like crazy in the spring (see my previous post "The Enchanted Floodplain"), and a nice year-round round-up of the Usual Suspects. And if you go in through the West Gate, you are almost guaranteed to find red-headed woodpeckers. But summer the mosquitoes will drive you mad!

Being a bit too far to take a spur of the moment jaunt to Parklands is probably the thing I miss most about leaving McLean County, as there really is something special about this small park. As far as birding goes, my favorite sightings are all from the late summer: hooded warbler, Canada warbler, Wilson's warbler, summer tanager, a black-throated green warbler bathing in the stream. Oh, did I mention it's good for warblers?

Another favorite place is Sugar Grove Nature Center. Definitely stop in their visitor center, and check out the awesome bird viewing room, where in the winter months one can almost always see Eurasian tree sparrows. There are also plenty of great workshops and programs, which I would love to attend if I had more time and money, and some nice trails where I have seen a lot of nice migratory birds, plus American woodcock, a great blue heron rookery, an elusive pileated woodpecker, and an especially good panoply of summer prairie birds: eastern kingbirds, common yellowthroats, field sparrows, dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks, even sedge wrens. And some awesome prairie flowers to go with them.

Continuing down my list of favorite McLean County Birding Sites is the Sewer Plant on Route 51, a.k.a. the John Schroeder Nature Sanctuary. (See my previous post, "A Trip to the Sewage Plant?") Yes, it is a sewage plant...but it also has some nice trails and ponds, and has an unreliable yet nevertheless tantalizing mix of birds. Some of the highlights from past visits: marsh wren, Hudsonian godwit, bobwhite, stilt sandpiper, common snipe, and Bell's vireo. I haven't personally seen the vireo, but another birder has, and the territory is perfect for them.

Sheryl De Vore's book mentions, the sole listing in McLean County, Moraine View State Park. I would be curious to see if a second edition would still list this park as the crown jewel of birding in the county. Now, I would never tell someone not to visit a park, and I have seen some awesome birds there, including sora, osprey, and black-crowned night heron. Also, recent birding reports indicate that a pileated woodpecker has recently taken up residence. But for me, a series of bad experiences has turned me off the park, and so I rarely go there.

Finally, I must give a shout-out to all my old favorite Urban Birding haunts around Bloomington-Normal, especially beloved for all the great birds I saw when I was trying to be kinder to the earth and bike or walk instead of drive: Ewing Park, Tipton Park and my old work place pond, Angler's Pond. Even though they were often so crowded with dog walkers, joggers, noisy children, people fishing, roller bladers, young lovers, etc., and thus challenging to I miss you all!

Anyone else want to mention a good place to bird in McLean County? Despite first impressions, I really do think it's a special place.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The 100th Year Bird, or Sandpipers, Storm-Toss'd

When I don't have any cool photos I just steal stuff off the Internet...

We need rain. Between the unusually hot weather and the fact that we've had very little precipitation in either rain or snow form, things are definitely feeling kinda dry. I've noticed that the water is looking pretty low in the ponds where I've been birding, and many of the vernal pools I've taken a peek at are dry as a bone. And on my drive to and from my job in Decatur, I've noticed that farmers plowing their fields are creating a kind of dust-bowl effect.... Um, not good.

But must it rain on my days off????

Friday afternoon: impending rain. All we really got were a bunch of sprinkles, but as it looked like there was a lot more coming, I ditched both birding and yard work and decided to work on a story that's been percolating in my head for a while instead.

Yesterday: I had a hair appointment in Bloomington in the early afternoon, but since the birds don't care if I look like a shaggy dog with gray roots sprouting out all over the place, I planned to stop at the Sewer Plant to look for sandpipers on my way into town. Alas, rain. I consoled myself by my bad-weather mantra: "Well, I shouldn't be so selfish, we really need this rain." Although it's not like I can affect the weather my lust for sandpiper sightings, so I could have just let myself sulk about it all day instead.

This morning: I woke up around 6:30, and looked out the window. The sky was gray. The bamboo in my back yard was swaying from side to side rather alarmingly. I checked the weather report: windy, with up to 35 mph gusts, and a chance of thunderstorms. Well, I don't need to bird all the time.... I could, ahem, do a work out or something. Work on my story, or knit some more of the twenty-foot long "Doctor Who" scarf I am making for Greenturtle. Luckily for me I have inner resources, right?

Ha ha ha...

I couldn't do it. Being outside is a "need" for me, not a "want." As I finished my second cup of coffee, I felt like I was going to explode from the effort it took to sit still. So even if I wouldn't see squat because of the wind, and even if I risked being rained upon, I was going to Go Birding!

It was a no-brainer, really. In addition to everything else, for the past week I have been holding steady at 99 Year Birds, and for the past couple of years, the "100th Year Bird" has been a sort of ritual for me. Last year the lucky bird was the common loon. The year before it was the green heron. I would also love to have a ritual for the 200th Year Bird, if I could ever get up to 199.

And for the 100th bird, I was thinking, sandpipers. April is sandpiper time, and I have the hardest time with shorebirds. Every once in a while I get lucky and am able to see (and identify) a nice variety. But usually this whole family of birds is nothing but a thorn in my side. They like to come through when the weather is awful. Or they are too far out of range for my spotting scope. Or I forgot my spotting scope. And I hate to sound like such a "species-ist," but really, let's admit it, folks...they all look the same!

So I drove down Highway 54 to the Salt Creek Wetland by Farmer City, as that seemed like the sandpiperist place to go, only to find...a big sign stating that the area was closed for turkey hunting until 1:00. So aggravating!

Consoling myself that I could at least enjoy a nice nature walk, I turned around and headed to Mascoutin, where the first bird I saw as I drove down to the Houseboat Cove Trail was...a big, fat wild turkey, happily scrounging for food on the side of the road. So much for turkey hunting!

Highlights of the walk:

A startled pair of wood ducks on a shallow pond. At least fifty cormorants hanging out in the drowned trees of the cove. The 100th Year Bird, a ruby crowned kinglet. Finding a whole new loop of the trail that I'd always rambled right past before, which led to an interesting sort of swampy ox-bow area previously unknown to me.

And of course, my thoughts. I think better when I'm out on these strolls. I thought about this blog, for one thing, and how the Internet is so full of people putting themselves out there, with their opinions and their photos and their essays about their lives, and a lot of it is really good stuff, but at the end of the day, there's so much of it that it's kind of overwhelming. And my offbeat ramblings are just a drop in the bucket. When I started, I had no audience in mind, and I was shocked that a few people who didn't know me stopped by. But that also made me self-conscious. So many other blogs about birds and nature that do things so much better! And then I also had to get over myself because, really, in the grand scheme of things, no one is paying any attention. Kind of like life in general.

But this is what I do: I go for walks, I notice stuff, I think about it, and I write. Does it matter if anyone besides my mom (thanks, Mom!) really reads it? This is not a trivial question, and not just self-absorbed. It's like the question brought up in the readings in my Structuralism and Semiotics class...does a text (our words, in other words) have meaning if no one is there to read it and interpret it? On the surface, it sounds sophomoric, but how deeply must this resonate with our media and celebrity obsessed culture? Why else are so many people trying to get on reality TV shows or posting their mundane little videos on You Tube or putting their Bird Journals on line if we're not all seeking some sort of validation in the process?

The "100th Year Bird" ritual seems to feature me pondering deep thoughts. Last year it was vanitas paintings and skulls. This year, another sort of vanity.

And what is important to me?
My words, even if nobody reads them. The 100th year bird, although I'm the only one seeing it.

So I wandered around, and saw some nice birds, and reflected on my life, but still, no sandpipers! So early in the afternoon, I went back to the Salt Creek Wetland to try my luck.

And...there were sandpipers! I managed to identify pectoral and solitary, and greater and lesser yellow legs, despite the ferocious wind that blasted me non-stop from the edges of the bruised and storm-tossed sky. Really, I need to get better at sandpipers! And pick better days to go out and see them!

So now I'm up to 104 birds and counting! Maybe this year I'll get to 200, deep thoughts and all!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Birds in Christian Symbolism

Fra Fillipo Lippi, Madonna in the Forest

Since I have recently been browsing some books on symbolism, looking for anything about birds, I was inspired to do a special Easter edition of Bird Ephemera by sharing some of the historical Christian bird associations. Art history, world religions, folklore and symbolism--these are all such fascinating topics, ones that have appealed to me even before I began birding, and they are all so large that I never seem to do much more than dabble in them. But preparing this post did make me want to visit an art museum sometime soon. That is one drawback about living so far away from any major cities. Oh well.

Probably the most familiar Christian symbol is that of the dove, which often represents the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, John the Baptist saw "the Spirit of God descending like a dove," which may be the foundation for the association. More generally, doves represent purity, peace, love and hope.

Fra Fillipo Lippi, "Annunciation"

The dove is also featured in the Old Testament, such as in the story of Noah's Ark. After ten months of traveling on the waters, Noah released a dove and a raven to check for land. The raven wandered off, but the dove returned with an olive leaf in her beak.

Mosaic from the Church S. Marco, Basilica, Venice, Italy

Obviously, the dove comes off a lot better in that account than the raven, and crows and ravens, battlefield scavengers and carrion eaters, often have a bad rap in Western symbolism. But not always. In Jerome's Vitae Patrum, we learn the tale of the Coptic Paul of Thebes, also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit or Saint Paul the Anchorite. The legend has it that Paul, the first Christian hermit, fled to the desert to avoid persecution by Decius and Valerianus around 250 A.D., and was fed by a crow or raven, who brought him half a loaf of bread each day.

Velasquez, "Saint Paul and Saint Anthony"

Another bird whose associations are rife with symbolism is the eagle. Amongst many other symbols, the eagle represents Saint John, as it was one of the four creatures seen by Ezekiel in his vision, which were said to represent the four Evangelists.

Raphael, "Ezekiel's Vision"

The pelican is another bird with Christian symbolism. In the Middle Ages, people thought that pelicans would stab their own chests and let their young feed on their blood if food was scarce. The bird thus became associated with the sacrifice of Christ, and images of pelicans wounding, or "vulning," themselves is a common decoration in old churches.

Stained glass, "Pelican in its Piety"

Although pelicans don't really do that, I have always found these images to be especially powerful. Perhaps there is something to the idea of Carl Jung's collective unconscious, that an image from centuries before my time moves me so strongly. Or maybe I just really like pelicans.

One image that is quite prevalent in Renaissance art is the European goldfinch. (BirdLife International reports that an ornithologist, Herbert Friedmann, studied 486 devotional paintings by 254 artists that contained the symbol of a goldfinch, 214 of which were by Italian artists.

Goldfinches were commonly kept as caged birds for children's pets, but that alone cannot explain why the bird so often turns up in pictures of Christ child.

Giovanni Tiepolo, "Madonna of the Goldfinch"

The goldfinch was said to represent the Passion, although I have encountered conflicting interpretations of how that came to be. One stated that the association came about because of the thistle seeds it eats, another said that the finch was supposed to pluck a thorn from Christ's head during the crucifixion, thus acquiring the red spot on its feathers.

Raphael, "Madonna of the Goldfinch"
The summary by BirdLife International simply states that the goldfinch symbolizes "variously the soul, resurrection, sacrifice and death."

I have kept my text to a minimum here to let this wonderful artwork speak for itself. In the meantime, if any art historians would like to chime in, I would love to hear from you!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A monkish encounter

Monk Parakeet at the Power Station

This post will be short and to the point, but I can't let the sighting of a life bird go by without mention. Since my Ultimate Birding Year has gone out the window, I have been focusing my bird trips on finding new species for my Illinois state list, and today's target species was: monk parakeet.

This species is originally from far south of our border (both Illinois' and the United States' -- they are from countries like Brazil and Argentina), but has established feral colonies in Chicago. Because of their location, in areas of the city that are somewhat iffy, I didn't expect to see one any time soon. For those city-dwellers who stride into any urban area without fear, and who may therefore scoff at my reluctance, let me point out that I am, despite being moderately well-traveled, a small-town gal at heart, and am a hardcore Rural Birder. And my husband Greenturtle is even more wary of Chicago than I am. So I had kind of scratched "monk parakeet" of my list of hoped-fors.

Until I started seeing reports of them in DuPage County, such as at a power station by Churchill Woods, a small park outside of the upscale suburb of Glen Ellyn. Except for possible glimpses of affluenza victims, I didn't think I would find anything too intimidating about that area.

There was still the sizable drive to consider, though. Should I be ashamed that I have become the sort of birder who will drive five hours round trip to see one species, and consider it a day well spent? Should I only confess this in hushed tones, or seek the help of a support group?

Although he's a good sport about the whole birding thing (mostly), I suspect that Greenturtle just didn't get it.

"It's not like it's some rare bird," he pointed out. "You can see them in pet stores!"

"But I can't put them on my life list if I see them in a pet store," I retorted.

"Well, what's the difference? The only reason they're up there is because someone let them loose. They don't belong here. It's not like a 'real bird.'"

"You just don't understand birders," said I. "Birding's like a controlled form of OCD. Birders love to make lists, and there are rules about what can and can't go on the lists, and the rules say that monk parakeets can go on my list as long as I see them in the wild, so I want to go."

"They're not in the wild! They're nesting in a power station!"

In my defense, wild or not, some people find the parakeets fascinating.

Despite the serious case of not-getting-it, he was willing to make the trip, and two and a half hours later we were strolling around the Churchill Woods looking for the little buggers. I saw my first great egret of the year, a belted kingfisher, and a great blue heron rookery with a good dozen nests, but no parakeets.

It was a tiny park. They had been sighted just a few days ago. How could I be missing them? Greenturtle consulted his smart phone, and stated that we needed to go a bit farther down the road, where we found a parking area by a bike trail and, lo and behold, a power station. But where were the parakeets?

Before very long, a loud parroty chattering carried to us from the area behind the fence, and we soon saw about a half dozen of them, flying back and forth to the nearby hedge, and returning with sticks and such to use in the building of their nest. Since monk parakeet nests are said to be enormous contraptions, I suspect that this one is still in its beginning stages.

We watched them working on the nest in progress for a while, until I could not help but comment, "They're so cute! Don't you think so?"

And Greenturtle said something that I never expected to hear: "Yeah, they're cute."

And that is why, pet store refugee or not, monk parakeets are worth a trip to see! Because they are adorable!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tiny twitches: Macon County

Dutchman's breeches

Over the past couple of weeks, when I haven't been toiling in my overgrown nightmare of a yard, I have been exploring parks in Macon County. To be honest, I really miss my old Work Place Pond in Bloomington. I don't miss the job, but it was nice to be able to bird actively before work and on my breaks. My new job is in a much more typical location, between a busy road and a subdivision. There is a very energetic red-winged blackbird that calls in the morning, and I have seen crows, cardinals and the white wing-pit of one startled killdeer.

But if I have lost my beloved Work Place Pond, then, as compensation, at least I have a whole new county to explore--a county with a surprising number of parks. I say surprising, because my first impression of it was not that pleasant. The city of Decatur seemed grim and run-down, saturated with the funk of the corn syrup factory's effluvia, and the surrounding countryside just the typical central Illinois agricultural wasteland.

And that would have been the end of it, had I not found a job in Decatur. And then started to wonder what birds people might have seen in the area. This curiosity led me to eBird, which led me to Rock Springs Nature Center, the first stop on my Macon County Tiny Twitch series. (The Tiny Twitch was a project from last year, when I did small birding trips to different counties.)

I followed this up with two other trips, one to Friends Creek Park by myself and another to Fort Daniel Conservation Area with Greenturtle, with a second visit to Rock Springs to round out the day. Once again I am scoping out the obscure reaches of central Illinois so you don't have to!

To be honest, the parks were nice, the birding was fun, but I've been wrestling with this post for the better part of a fortnight. I just can't warm up my changes in circumstance.  I think it's Decatur. Despite the fact that I try to play nice in public, in real life, I can be so sarcastic that I have thought a more accurate name to this blog would be "The Adventures of Birding Bitch." So please join me for another round of birds, exploration and snarkiness in the heartland! Suffice to say, this side of me snorts whenever I cross the Decatur city limits and read the sign declaring it to be, with no trace of irony, "the pride of the prairie." (NB: if any denizens of Decatur read this and honestly believe the city to be lovely, then please, accept my apology that I do not like your town. But hey, it's my blog, and that's my opinion.)

So without further ado:

Rock Springs Conservation Area

Sangamon River wending through the park

My first stop was the bird viewing room in the Nature Center, where I got: dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers and one red-bellied, one crow, one white-breasted nuthatch, house finches and house sparrows, and one male cardinal. So far, so good. I love to watch birds feeding.

As I walked along the River Trail, I saw a pileated woodpecker, not once but several times, flying from tree to tree as I appoached, and also a pair of wood ducks on the river, and a very noisy belted kingfisher. It was a nice walk, and my only 'bummer' was the unseasonable heat... Going up to 80 degrees in March? WTF? I haven't suffered like this since I was stationed in Georgia, over a decade ago....

On my second trip (yesterday), it was even hotter, but I was pleased to see a great blue heron rookery in a sycamore by the river. Also, I saw the first yellow-rumped warbler in breeding plumage of the spring, a quick glimpse of a winter wren, and a good half dozen hermit thrushes. The ground along the river trail was speckled with spring beauties in bloom.

Summary: clearly, this is a very popular park, and so far would be my #1 recommendation for birding in Macon County. The visitor center is great, and I love the bird viewing area. There are a decent number of trails, and also a bike path that leads into Decatur if you are so inclined.

Fort Daniel Conservation Area

Peace, love and birds, eh?

First things first: there is no fort at Fort Daniel Conservation Area. I want to mention this right up front as Greenturtle felt I had mislead him. Not that I promised any such thing...but, well, it's in the name and everything.

What there is, is a decent-sized trail that winds through some woods and past a field, surrounded on just about all sides by some really upscale homes in a neighboring subdivision. In fact, for part of the trail, you can stare right into the back yards (where I saw a phoebe, by the way), although that is much more pleasant than staring into the yard of a prison, as you can do at Edgar Madigan State Park in Logan County.

The woods were filled with a carpet of bluebells, and the park was quite peaceful and pleasant. The highlights, birding wise, were blue birds and meadowlarks in the fields, and a very vocal brown thrasher in the treetops. I actually got quite a nice round up of the usual suspects of spring, pre-warblers.

Is it just me...or does that sound kind of suggestive?
I would not say that that this park is worth a trip out of the way, but to any birders who happen to be around Decatur anyway, it's worth a stroll.

Friends Creek Conservation Area

This park is the smallest and most out of the way of the trio, and yet it is also my favorite. I stopped on my way home from work one Friday (unlike the other two, it is not in Decatur, but pretty much in the middle of nowhere), and strolled across the prairie, where fresh green shoots were creeping up after the recent burn.

 A couple places were still smouldering.

If you are wondering why on earth people set the prairies to flame, I can direct you to an earlier post, "Burn, Prairie, Burn." If you follow the link, you will probably be the second person ever to read it! (The first was my mother.... Thanks, Mom!)

I didn't see a wide variety of birds here, but there were some nice ones: an eastern towhee, a pair of bluebirds, a whole chorus of red-winged blackbirds.

I will probably spend a lot more time birding Macon County, because if you're in a place anyway, what better way to spend the time than looking for birds? And hopefully future excursions will come together a bit better for this blog.

But, the important thing is always: Bird to to bird!