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.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I loved this post! So far, up here in the UP, I haven't found a truly great sewer plant to bird at. Houghton's is all covered up like the Big Top tents at the circus, but not as colorful. Atlantic Mine's is posted and stinky enough to make one pass out, and mainly frequented by degenerate crows and geese. You could come here to escape the heat; it's closer than Alaska! My heat is still set at 70 degrees, and it kicks on every night. Wish I'd seen the green heron! Mom