Monday, May 28, 2012

Fanfare for the grasslands (and, the Bird of Birds)

Nachusa grasslands

I love prairies: an expanse of waving grasses stretching to each horizon, with a mix of wildflowers giving the land a touch of whimsical paintbox color; the sense of the infinite promised by the endless blue sky above; the gentle undulations of the earth that appear as you begin to walk across land that once seemed so flat, and the shimmering of a patch of wetland or a lazy stream meandering through; and of course, more than anything, the buzzy, busy chorus of dozens of grassland birds singing all around. My affinity for the flatlands has been an enduring theme of this blog, to the extent that I sometimes think of it as an extended (and occasionally crabby) love letter to central Illinois. (For the musical accompaniment for this post I have selected Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." I think it has the right mix of hope and wistful longing. Right click to open in a new tab.)

But here's the thing--sometimes I wish I could move to Kansas. Or South Dakota. Maybe the flat part of Colorado. Because, despite being known as "the prairie state," finding an actual, intact grassland in Illinois requires a bit of driving. There are some remnants and restoration projects here and there, a small taste of what it used to be at Sugar Grove Nature Center in McLean County, for example, or Humiston Woods in Livingston, or at Weldon Springs State Park close to my home, which has been my refuge over the past year, and the inspiration for poems and contemplation.

And they are all lovely, but the fact remains that less than .01% of the 22 million acres of grassland that once covered the state remains, not that much for a prairie-lover, or for the grassland nesting birds, of which shamefully many are now state-endangered. To find them, I must travel a couple of hours out of my way to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Nachusa Grasslands, the destination of yesterday's bird quest.

I chose the Nachusa Grasslands for three reasons: one, because I love it there; two, bobolinks!!, and three, two species had been recently spied there which would be new for my Illinois State List, the lark sparrow and the western meadowlark (both previously seen in Texas). Despite another scorcher in the forecast, I convinced Greenturtle to rise at "stupid o'clock" with me so we could arrive bright and early at the grasslands, and so we did. Well, relatively bright, and almost early. It was 8:30 to be exact, and already quite hot.

The first thing I heard as I stepped out of the car was a chorus of dick-dick-dickcissel coming from every direction, not a new bird for the year list by any means, but still a favorite. Even more exciting was the call of tsi-lick, tsi-lick, a sure sign of nearby Henslow's sparrows. Without too much fuss or bother, one soon flew up and landed on a stalk of grass, bobbing up and down in the breeze while he proclaimed his territory. I love it when sparrows sing...makes the job of identifying the little boogers a snap.

I did not have any such luck with the Bell's vireo cheedling in a nearby group of shrubs, and after a few minutes suggested to Greenturtle that we move on.

"Don't you want to wait for it?" he asked.

"Waste of time," I said. "They're champion skulkers. He's not coming out." Even though I always feel like I'm cheating when I add a "heard only" bird to a list, that rule exists for species like the Bell's vireo. I did get a good look at one...once. Mostly, they skulk.

The next bird we saw was an old favorite, the bobolink.


I wish I knew why bobolinks won't nest here in Dewitt county. The prairie at Weldon Springs seems suitable. If only I knew the exact habitat requirements, and had the resources to buy up land for bobolink conservation; they are just so precious. But, nice as bobolinks** are (and that is an understatement if I ever made one), they were not the reason I went to the grasslands.

After staggering around through the grasses for a while, we sat atop one of the knobs and rested for a while, observing brown thrashers and eastern meadowlarks below.

A turkey vulture slowly wheeled overhead, making me think of previous trips with my mother on hot days, and how much she would complain about dying in the heat. There was always a vulture nearby, and I would gesture to it, teasing her that it was just waiting for her imminent demise from heatstroke.

Greenturtle mentioned how these nature jaunts always make him introspective, freeing up his mind to think about things. Of course, the things one thinks about aren't always so pleasant, but in my case, I can safely say that I love birding, and being in nature, because it's the only time that I am completely at peace with myself. As soon as I am outside, binoculars around my neck, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, everything makes sense. Nothing is wanting. I think that humans have an innate need for nature, as demonstrated by the Japanese fad for "forest bathing." Prairie bathing works just as well. (My unpleasant thoughts always like to spring up when I am doing boring, data-entry type stuff at work.)

As we descended from the knob and found a mowed trail, I saw movement, raised my binoculars, and begin to sing, "Hallejujah!," for one of my "target birds" was in sight, the lark sparrow. (Right click to hear my internal jubilation as you read.) The patterns on his face were quite distinctive, but the first give-away that I was looking at something different were the white scallops on the tail as the bird flew away, kind of like a kingbird's, only on a sparrow.

Before we left, I got two more year birds, the summer tanager and the grasshopper sparrow (the latter of which sung for me, and did I mention how much I love it when sparrows sing?), and everything was peachy.

But: it was hot. And we were on the prairie. The sun beat down relentlessly.

"Was that the last one you came for?" Greenturtle asked, after the grasshopper sparrow.

"There's still the western meadowlark," I replied. "Oh. And I'd like to see a sedge wren."

"Oh, yeah," he said, in a resigned tone. "The wren."

But for the time being, we had lunch on our minds, and we ended up eating in the smallish town of Rochelle, which had a Chinese buffet...yum, my favorite. Greenturtle wanted to try a mom and pop American-style place, but I tend to stay away from those, having eaten, and worked, at some pretty greasy spoons. In fact, the cockroach-infested family diner I once worked at in Arkansas has pretty much turned me off that type of restaurant for life. (I think the worst moment--the one that still gives me flashbacks--is when I picked up the reeking, bloody plastic bag which had once contained chicken pieces, and which had been tossed in the sink and left to sit for hours in the 100+ degree kitchen, only to see a few dozen roaches scurrying for cover in every direction...bleech!!!)

On the way to Rochelle, I felt something wriggling around in my cargo pants, and although it was just a beetle of some sort and not a tick as I'd feared, I managed to smash it and coat the inside of my pants with its gooey guts, so I unzipped the pants to create shorts, which meant having to apply sunscreen to my legs as well as a touch-up to my arms. Greenturtle (who, being part Cherokee, does not tend to fry and sizzle in the sun as I do) likes to disparage my sunscreen habit, but I say...always practice Safe Sun!

Even if sweat and sunscreen tend to create a rather unpleasant mixture. In fact, I remember an occasion when Sunwiggy and I tried to apply both sunscreen and insect repellant at the same time, only to create a nasty, smelly paste on all exposed areas of the skin...and this is making me wonder why, exactly, exposure to nature is supposed to be so good for us?

After lunch, we tried another spot, in DeKalb county, where western meadowlarks might be seen, but it was so hot by then that I felt nauseated and dizzy, and had to call it a day. Still, I summed up with 170 year birds, which is not bad at all.

With so many birds under my belt, this morning I felt the need for yet more, and after checking recent sightings on the internet (bless you, ebird!), I noticed that a prothonotary warbler had recently been spotted at Centennial Park in Heyworth, which is right on our way to Bloomington, where we had to run some errands and Greenturtle wanted to watch Men in Black Three.

As we wandered around, seeing only Canada geese and robins, I suggested to Greenturtle that he pull up the warbler on his smart phone and play its song, because, who knows, maybe one was listening. And sure enough, after he played it a couple of times, the hoped-for warbler flew in, perching right above our heads and singing sweet sweet sweet.

But really, this was a bad thing to do. Playing a bird's song like that makes it think that there's a rival in the vicinity, invading its territory, and the bird will take up time it should be eating or bringing food to nestlings to try to drive the rival away. And this poor little guy did, indeed, seem a bit confused, as the interloper was actually a phone about the size of my moleskine notebook, and not a male prothonotary warbler at all. So feeling triumphant, but slightly guilty, about year bird #171, I moved on.

At times, the laws of karma can be swift, for just as I had messed with that poor warbler's brain, a scarlet tanager soon messed with mine. It sang and sang and sang...and gave me a brief glimpse of its tail end disappearing into the the treeline, but never a good look did I see. Still, a heard bird is a counted bird, and although it was frustrating, I suppose that, after the cruel trick played upon the warbler, I deserved it.

**The Bobolink -- by Emily Dickinson

The Way to know the Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him --
Obliged to be inferred.

Of impudent Habiliment
Attired to defy,
Impertinence subordinate
At times to Majesty.

Of Sentiments seditious
Amenable to Law --
As Heresies of Transport
Or Puck's Apostacy.

Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy --
He compliments existence
Until allured away

By Seasons or his Children --
Adult and urgent grown --
Or unforeseen aggrandizement
Or, happily, Renown --

By Contrast certifying
The Bird of Birds is gone --
How nullified the Meadow --
Her Sorcerer withdrawn!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Hot weather bird quest

Short billed dowitcher

"We've been birding a lot," said Greenturtle. We were at a wedding last weekend and catching up with some old friends. "We went out this morning and got some shorebirds."

"Cool," said our friend Sarah, who is not a birder, but, like everyone else who knows me even a tiny little bit, understands that birds are what makes me tick. "Where'd you go?"

"The sewage lagoons at El Paso," I piped up.

Greenturtle glared at me. "You didn't have to say it that way!"

"But that's where we went!" I protested.

Birders, right? Look at all the places we go: sewage treatment plants, garbage dumps; no matter how unpicturesque or odoriferous, if the birds like it, there we are.

Actually, I used to be more of a nature hike/scenic vista sort of gal, and birds were just the part I liked the best, but as building up my Illinois State List and besting my personal record by finding at least 200 species this year has become my obsession, my motto is, more and more, "all birds, all the time." And I'll pick a sewage lagoon as my destination over a pretty park if that's where the birds are.

Least sandpiper

El Paso (Illinois, not Texas) is a small town in Woodford County, about an hour drive from where I live, but the daily e-mail I get from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's ebird database informed me that some other birders had seen some pretty nice species there recently. When I saw the list, I got so excited I called Greenturtle at work. "Can we go to the sewage lagoons in El Paso tomorrow? Potential life birds and state birds!"

This is why I love my husband: he doesn't even like birds very much, and he said yes. So off we went. I'm not really sure what I was expecting. Even though sewage plants are popular birding destinations, the only two I'd been to so far were the one outside of Bloomington which doubles as the Kenneth Schroeder Wildlife Sanctuary, and which I've enjoyed visiting in the past, and the awesome Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, Texas, which happens to be the place where I got my "lifer" roseate spoonbills, American avocets, tri-colored heron, and more.

The El Paso sewage lagoons are nothing like either of the above. In fact, my first reaction, when we pulled up, was more along the lines of "WTF? There aren't any birds here!" Well, except for numerous grackles and mourning doves clustered around the sandy area at the entrance.

The lagoons consisted of three ponds, each shored up by a rocky berm, with some Canada geese lining the sides and families of wood ducks paddling around on the water.

Female wood duck and ducklings

But since we had come all that way, we might as well walk around, me lugging my spotting scope and wondering where the shorebirds could be without any mud flats, and Greenturtle, outwardly at least, in better spirits than I. As we neared the second berm, he said, "Hey, what's that reddish bird?"

"That's one of them...the short billed dowitcher!" I gasped, immediately setting up my scope. And there there were, scrambling about the nooks and crannies of the rocky berm, shorebirds galore, including a life bird white-rumped sandpiper, the state bird dowitcher (previously seen only in Texas), and a bonus "year bird," the semi-palmated plover. Hooray! A clear-cut example of persistence paying off!

We also saw a splendid example of the prairie king snake.

Prairie king snake

Isn't he handsome? I happen to be very fond of snakes, although it seems to be a less popular avocation than birding. I've noticed that most people (such as employers and what not) vaguely approve of birding; it seems like such a gentle and uncontroversial hobby, a nice topic for phatic communion. But I keep the snake thing to myself. People wouldn't get it. I've realized I'm in a distinct minority when it comes to herptophilia.

I ended the trip with three additions to my Year List, and the next day, as Greenturtle wanted to see the bison, we went to Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria. Just as lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, I usually don't have two great birding days back to back, and so it happened that I only got one new bird for the list, the northern mockingbird. It didn't help that it was hot and humid. Neither one of us felt all that energetic.

We did have a nice view of a big rat snake slithering around in the pavilion, surrounded by a whole flock of indignant house sparrows. A good weekend for snakes.

Rat snake

This weekend has been a bit more challenging as it has been Really Freakin' Hot (e.g., highs of almost 100.) Weather like this makes me long for a nice trip to Alaska, somewhere just north of the Arctic Circle. Heat makes me cranky. But you know what else makes me cranky? Not seeing birds. Dilemmas!

Yesterday I decided that I would just pop up for a quick stroll around Weldon Springs, about a five minute drive from my house, concentrating on the two prairie areas as it had been a while since I'd taken the time to walk those trails. It turned out to be a very good walk, and despite my loathing of the sweaty season, I ended up staying out until noon. Some particularly nice sightings included a northern bobwhite, a pair of Carolina wrens, a male orchard oriole in his first year plumage, a white-eyed and a red-eyed vireo, a yellow warbler (first for my County List), and an eastern kingbird perching on the "no trespassing" sign at the edge of the park property. was hot. I'm not sure exactly how hot, hour by hour, by here's my own personal heat index:

7:00 -- arrival at the park. Warm and sunny. Perfect birding weather!
8:00 -- uh-oh, it's getting kind of sticky. And it's only 8:00.
9:00 -- distinctly uncomfortable. It is officially hot now.
10:00 -- why am I still out on the prairie? This is madness! My only excuse is that I am woozy and disoriented from the heat. Seek shade, you fool!
11:00 -- Sweat has saturated every inch of my clothing. I want to puke. The only thing that keeps me going are thoughts of an icy cold margarita big enough to swim in. That's right, and it's not even lunch time!
Noon -- I think I am going to pass out. Birds? What's a bird? That's right, time to pack it in!

So I did. I went home. new birds at all for the year list. And so, in the evening, since Greenturtle was going to Bloomington to attend a party anyway, I carpooled with him and headed for Tipton Park as I knew I was almost guaranteed to see an old friend of my own:

Green heron

And voila! My year bird for the day. The poor thing was just frozen in place while I snapped its photo, as if thinking..."Oh God, please, just make her go away! Maybe if I stand real still like this she'll think I'm a log and leave me alone." So I took pity on it and strolled on.

The pair of mute swans that I saw nesting earlier in the season were still there, but not on their nest.

Mute swan

I met a lady walking in the park who told me that they had laid an egg, but sadly it cracked, whether due to human interference or pure bad luck for the swans. However, they have remained in the park, and are very popular. That is one thing I miss about city birding, people love to stop and chat. Even though I am a natural introvert myself, I do enjoy hearing people talk about birds.

Today was another scorcher, with yet another prairie trip in the line-up...and Greenturtle and my trip to Nachusa Grasslands will have to be a topic for tomorrow's post.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Time flies...just like the birds!

Courting catbird

I can't believe it's already the 18th of May. I have been outside with my binoculars every chance I can get, as May means Migration Madness and the best birding of the year. And I still feel like I'm behind the eight ball, as I haven't seen a fraction of the species I'd hoped for, and my year list is suffering horribly as a result...and as far as blogging goes, what can I say? Time flies when you're chasing birds.

So here's my month-long recap, thus far (to capture the frenzied spirit of May birding, I have chosen as musical accompaniment Darius Milhaud's "Le Bouef sur le Toit." Right click to open a new window to listen while you read.):

I believe in yellow-headed blackbirds

Early in the month, my parents came for a short visit, and I decided the most fun we could possibly have would involve looking for yellow-headed blackbirds, which had been seen just a few days before at the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands in Putnum county. For those who have been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that previous searches for the blackbirds had come to naught, and, as it turned out, I was not the only one who had been frustrated by the yellow-headed little varmints.

"It's a wasted trip," my father announced as we drove north to the wetlands. "They don't exist."

"Every time you say that, a yellow-headed blackbird disappears!" I admonished him.

My husband Greenturtle had also decided to come along, and was recording our conversation on his smart phone, so he could play back my dad saying "They don't exist" over and over again, causing blackbird after blackbird to vanish into thin air.

At this point my mother and I started clapping and yelling, "I believe in yellow-headed blackbirds!" to bring them back again. By now, Greenturtle was probably rethinking his decision to come with us, but too late, as we were almost to the wetlands.

Of course, I was hoping that there'd be yellow-headed blackbirds (or YH BBs as I will be calling them for short). I think that's part of the reason I love to bird. In most areas of my life, I have become terribly jaded and cynical, but when it comes to birding...well, before every excursion, I feel like I could see just about anything. It's all possible. Just like Emily Dickinson wrote, hope is the thing with feathers. Only in my case, it's not a metaphor. It's birding.

Still, as we pulled up to the parking area and lugged ourselves, plus scopes and guidebooks, to the top of the observation tower, I was so used not to finding them that I could barely believe it when Greenturtle said, "I see one!" There were at least three, far off in the reeds and grasses (sadly, too far to get photographic evidence), but before long all four of us had viewed, to our satisfaction and the extension of our respective life lists, a YH BB of our own.

Despite this quick victory, we tarried on the tower for quite some time, as there was plenty more to see: Bonaparte's gulls, Forster's terns, American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, mute swans.... After this glut of birds, we embarked on the trail, where Greenturtle was hoping we'd find some of the Baltimore orioles that were here this time last year.

Oriole explosion

There were at least two male Baltimore orioles fighting amongst themselves, and a pair of orchard orioles. We also saw the catbird puffing himself up while singing from the first photo, above, and many other nice birds: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-headed woodpecker, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting. Yeah, I know these are all fairly common birds in central Illinois. But I always love to see them.

Because one good tern deserves another....

Sadly, my parents could not stay very long, but since I was hyped by the previous weekend's birding, last weekend I tackled Dewitt County with enthusiasm. At the Salt Creek Wetland Project, I found some Caspian terns and juvenile bald eagles, plus a surprising number of shorebirds: greater and lesser yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers shaking their booties, and a solitary sandpiper or two. At the end of the walk I also found at least a dozen ticks doing the hokey-pokey upon my person, but luckily my arachnophobia only extends to spiders. Ticks, schmicks. I just flick them off.... To be honest, Greenturtle and I went to dinner and a movie later that evening and I found a few more to flick off in the theater, so maybe don't sit by me in the summer time, OK?

The next day, I decided to tackle the 11-mile loop at the North Fork Access of Clinton Lake, since I had vowed to do the trail at least once a month and managed to skip it entirely in April. It'! And, cutting across the bluffs of the inlet, the trail is constantly switchbacking up and down at fairly steep angles. What can I say, I'm a wuss!

But, it was time to tackle it, so I did. I finally got red-eyed vireos and some warblers, including life bird blackpoll warbler, plus ovenbird, chestnut-sided, Wilson's, and the maggies and redstarts I'd been seeing for the past couple of weekends. I am seriously bumming about being away from my old Work Place Pond at the height of spring migration. I used to see so many good birds in spring and fall, just strolling around before work in the morning, or taking a ten minute break. Alas, sages and philosophers throughout the ages have been saying, "Let it go, already!," and I shall try.

I did see some good birds, including a veery, a pair of wood thrushes, and a rare-for-the-county red-headed woodpecker (right at the spot that I always thought would be good habitat for them, by the Redneck Cabin), and suffice to say, with eleven rugged miles, I got a good workout, too!

Red-headed woodpecker

By the end of the weekend, despite my initial impression of Swinburnian excess in the profusion of greenery all around, I was still stalled at 157 for my year list, and as for the I'm counting on the fall migration! Ooops!

Yellow warblers make my heart sing

Today I got the chance to take the day off, and decided to tackle points around McLean county, hoping, of course, for the tail end of spring migration. I started off at Centennial Park in Heyworth, where I have seen green herons in years past, which, now that I am away from my Work Place Pond (cue internal lecture about Getting Over It as per sages and philosophers of yore), I have yet to see this year. No green herons, though I was pleased to find a flock of cedar waxwings. They are one of my favorite birds, and I had not seen them for a couple of months.

My next stop was the Sewer Plant, a.k.a. Kenneth Schroeder Nature Sanctuary, where I walked the entire trail for the first time.

common yellowthroat

Once again, I was treated to many of my favorites, such as common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, orchard oriole, plus a year bird, black-billed cuckoo. I rounded up my day of birding at Sugar Grove Nature Center, where Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks thronged to the feeders, and indigo buntings filled the woodland trails. Plus a gazillion house wrens! Suddenly, it occurred to me, with the tangle of greenery and the mix of birds I was's summer already. Time's gone by so fast, and spring has already passed us.