Saturday, June 23, 2012

Birding (Mis)adventures; or, the Perils of Listing

The fateful crossroads at Banner Marsh

As part of my Ultimate Birding Year, I have been letting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's birding database, ebird, decide my birding trips for me. I signed up for the daily "alerts" that inform me what other birders are seeing across the state of Illinois that I have yet to see, and a couple days prior to each weekend, I check out the most recent sightings and choose my destination. The rules are, within a couple hours' driving time, a Life Bird trumps a State Bird and a State Bird trumps a Year Bird.

Or at least this is what I tried to explain to Greenturtle about why I had changed my plans for today at the last minute, and instead of going to the pond at Cahokia Mounds down by East Saint Louis (which has recently contained a potential addition to my Illinois state list, cattle egret, plus two for the Year List, snowy egret and yellow-crowned night heron), with yet another trip to Emiquon. Emiquon trumped Cahokia with two potential life birds (Wilson's phalarope, black tern), along with some miscellaneous State and Year birds, for a total list of 80+ species just a few days prior. For whatever reason, from January onwards, the series of wetlands along the Illinois River Valley collectively known as Emiquon have been absolutely bird-tastic.

And so, practically slobbering with anticipation of the birding to come, I arrived at Emiquon bright and early this morning, and saw: killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves and goldfinches. Once again, there were some stilts in evidence, but stilts are old hat by now and cheered me up not a whit.

Black necked stilt

I wanted to know where all the other birds were. How on earth is it possible, I asked myself, that a mere two days ago this wetland was an ornithological wonderland, and yet all I can see are a half a dozen species? I could only think of three possible answers:

1. I am clearly the Worst Birder Ever. Whole mixed flocks of terns are wheeling overhead, and the trees bob under the weight of this avian plenitude, and somehow all I can see are killdeer. Really, it's a miracle I don't trip right over one and break my neck, they are so numerous.


2. I am not the Terrible Birder. On the contrary, the previous fellow must have been smoking something really good, because hallucinations are the only way those birds were seen.


3. There are no terrible birders here. Rather, I am the victim of crappy luck the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the Greek tragedies. If I am not careful, next I shall be accidentally killing off some family members and marrying others. The killdeer certainly sound hysterical enough to be a Greek chorus.

Look at all the killdeer!

In a fit of disgruntlement, I headed for the South Globe area of Emiquon, where even more killdeer and black-necked stilts were found, and Greenturtle and I slowly worked our way along the dike where we had found the godwits and dowitchers in April. The grass was up around ankle height, which means...yup. Ticks. I should start my own personal Lyme Disease Foundation in order to afford all the treatment I shall surely need at some point in the future.

To be honest, I did see some nice birds: great egrets, great blue herons, a green heron, a black-crowned night heron, double-crested cormorants. Lovely birds, one and all, but not what I was looking for.

Juvenile cormorant

At the very end of the embankment, I finally had a bit of luck, and found a lone Wilson's phalarope scurrying about in the company of the killdeer. Hooray, persistence paid off, and I got a life bird as my reward. If you squint towards the middle of this picture, you might get a glimpse of it, too.

I swear, there's a phalarope in there somewhere!

But still no black terns, the other species I had come to find. Since we'd dipped out at Emiquon, I suggested we head north a bit to Banner Marsh, as that also seemed to be a likely place for terns to hang out.

As per my last handful of stops at Banner, I saw lots and lots of some species (great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, mute swans), but almost nothing else. We drove down to the end of one side, then slowly wended our way to the other end, which didn't have a nice spot to pull around.

I figure that everyone is allowed to have a couple of irrational fears, and although I will freely admit to having enough to push me across the line to "neurotic," some of them are actually kind of sensible. For example: I hate having to pull off to the side of the road if there is any sort of ditch or slope or soggy area, because I'm certain I'll get stuck. Ditto for going over large potholes or down rutted country roads. And the absolute worst is getting too close to water. Any of these make me feel anxious and short of breath and as far as the water goes, I actually have had recurring nightmares about plunging to a watery grave in my car.

So of course I said, "Ummm...are you sure you have enough room to turn around? It looks kind of narrow."

This made Greenturtle decide that driving right up to edge of the water in the truck would be a nice funny joke, even though I was squeaking with the fear of getting stuck, "Stop it! You're too close to the water! We'll get stuck!!!"

Well, karma can be a b!tch, because very swiftly it turned out that the "joke" was on him.

While I tried to come up with as many variations of "I told you so" as possible, Greenturtle got to work trying to unstick the truck. But alas, to no use...the back wheel spun uselessly, literally filling the air with the smell of "burning rubber," while the other three wheels refused to budge at all. Ummm, did I mention that I told him so?

Eventually he conceded defeat and called a tow truck, but even before then I was growing bored with indignation and instead listened to the sounds of birds all around us: a sora whinnying from across the water, song sparrows, a common yellowthroat. It struck me that not a one of them cared if we were stuck or not, and put me in mind of some lines from one of my favorite poems, W.H. Auden's "The Fall of Rome":

Unendowed with wealth or pity
Little birds with scarlet legs
Sitting on their speckled eggs
Eye each flu-infected city.

While we waited for the tow truck to arrive, I took a stroll along the marsh, and found my mood subtly changing. The gluttony for new species had faded along with the snit about the truck. Part of the reason is that, despite the dearth of birds I often find, I love Banner Marsh because the reflections of sky and shoreline across the still expanses of water always make me feel that I've stepped into some otherworldly dimension. It feels very peaceful there, and yet also very distant, truly unendowed with pity, like Auden's little birds.

the stillness of the marsh

It was in this frame of mind that I found a dead great blue heron, such a large, ungainly bird reduced to a puff of bone and feathers in the grass.

This is the second time I have found a dead great blue at Banner Marsh, both times directly under a power line, which makes me wonder if there is a case of cause and effect at work here. I had seen a dead juvenile red-winged blackbird along the dike at Emiquon, but somehow a dead heron is just more pitiful. I guess I've always had a bit of a morbid streak, for the transient nature of things is frequently in my mind. This year has been whipping by so quickly that, after my last jaunt to Emiquon at the beginning of the month, I wrote in my Bird Journal: "Kept thinking to myself to enjoy these moments of early summer for they are limited a la Housman's cherry tree, all of us whirling in the centrifugal spin of mortality."

The mood was lightened again by the tow truck driver, as he went past, stopping to tell me, "Try not to so hard on your husband about it. Us guys can be real stupid sometimes!" It turned out that Greenturtle had confessed the whole story about how we happened to get stuck there.

And so the day began with a lister's mania, progressed through triumphs and mishaps, and wrapped up with me wandering around in nature thinking about Stuff: all in a typical day's birding.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bird till you puke! (The joys of summer)

Scavenging robin

It happens every year. I always begin with such grandiose intentions. I wake at a very reasonable hour on the first of January (dawn cracks so late in winter that it's not much of a challenge to meet it even for a slug-a-bed such as myself), bundle up, and rush out in a frenzy of excitement to see every bird that the state of Illinois has to offer. I promise myself that this will be the best, absolutely the best, birding year ever.

And just as winter birding starts to pall...there is spring migration! First ducks, then sandpipers, then sparrows, then warblers. Such fun! Who could ever want it to end? Really and truly, I will see more birds than ever this year!

And then...along comes summer. A time of warmth and plenty, and memories of long, lazy summer vacations and road trips with the family, right? How does the expression go? Summertime, and the living is easy.

Except: just between you, me and the lamp-post, I hate summer. Maybe it would be OK somewhere up around the Arctic circle. But here in central Illinois, it's hot, humid, bug-infested, and not that interesting to bird. Right now, for example, as I contemplate my past few birding adventures, I am alternately bemoaning my sun-induced splotchiness and scratching the bites of ticks, mosquitoes and chiggers about my person. Whenever I stagger outside for more than a half hour or so, I swoon in the vomit-making humidity and dip out on whatever bird I happen to be searching for. And I whine. A lot. That's just the way it goes.

So it's probably appropriate that my favorite photos of the season are of a robin scrounging in a dumpster in Macon county. I expect this sort of behavior of crows and grackles. But robins? Macon county robins truly have no class.

Other highlights:

At least this is the year I am finally seeing black-necked stilts!

Black-necked stilt at Emiquon

That was a very nice addition to my Illinois list, and the first time I saw them at Emiquon I almost danced a jig in happiness. The second time I was disappointed that they weren't whimbrels or black-bellied plovers. I'm sure there's a life lesson in there somewhere.

I always love to see my favorite summer breeding birds, however, no matter how horrible the humidity:

Great blue heron at Weldon Springs

Red-winged blackbird at Emiquon

And, despite the heat, I've had a couple of terrific birding days. Ten days ago I challenged "Sunwiggy" the Yooper to our annual mid-summer's "bird off," and managed to top my personal best for number of species seen outside of spring migration: 55! I have also enjoyed "exploring" places quite close to home, such as Weldon Springs State Park, a mere five miles or so from my house. For example, I did not know that Weldon Springs was part of the famous Chatauqua circuit around the turn of the last century, or that the "springs" refer to an actual body of water.

But if you are a glass-half-empty person such as myself, this is mainly what you will notice:

Although the "year birds" have been slow in coming, and the heat has been atrocious, I have been trying to focus on the nice species I have seen.

Horned lark

Grasshopper sparrow

The last two were seen down in Jasper county, from the roadside at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, where I was hoping to see upland sandpipers, blue grosbeaks and perhaps even prairie chickens...but all of the natural areas seemed to be closed to the public, and we had to make do with what we could see from the roadside.

Plus a nice year bird over by Newton Lake:

Little blue heron

This was only the second time I had seen a little blue heron, so definitely an exciting moment. Of course by that time, I was sweating a bucket...and crawling with ticks.... It sounds like I'm whining, but really, birding is the only thing that keeps me sane! If only I could get more than one "year bird" a week, I'd be ecstatic.

So how has summer birding been treating you this year?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ex Libris: Wild and Freedom

These days, when I get excited enough about a book that I finish it off in a few sittings, that's enough cause for happiness to merit a blog post, and so in this one I'll be discussing two books that did just that -- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen -- even though each is only tangentially related to the topics celebrated here: birds, birds, and once in a while, a few words about birds. Oh, and also a bit about nature.

Wild details three months in the life of Cheryl Strayed, during which she hiked, mostly by herself, about a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was only after I finished the book and read a few reader reviews on Amazon that I realized that Strayed and her book had become quite the media event, being featured on Oprah and etc.

I can see why Wild has made such a public splash; it has all the marks of a bestseller, both good and bad. The good: it's a quick, engaging read, with lots of emotional angst and feel-good moments; it's reasonably well written and smart enough not to seem like a waste of time; it's accessible and creates a nice feel of immediacy and doesn't demand too much from the attention. The bad: it's a bit too self-involved and ultimately a tad shallow. Strayed was in a bad place in her life, and went for a walk to sort it all out. At the end of the walk she felt better. Granted, it was one hell of a hike.

Ultimately, like the much more nuanced Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, Wild is a book about grief. After losing her mother to cancer in her early twenties, Strayed falls into a pit so dark and ferocious and self-destructive that after a few years, the one thread of hope she manages to cling to is the impulse to spend a summer walking the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from the Mexican border up to the Canada. And she wants to do it alone. With just about no planning or practice beforehand. Seriously, it's a miracle she survives.

But she does...step by step, blister by blister, meeting an interesting host of characters along the way, and by the end of it, she has managed to find a bit more peace in her life. There were actually many things that I enjoyed about this book, such as her descriptions of hiking. Although I've never backpacked, I do love a long trail, and yet...somewhere between the middle and the end, there's often a stretch where one is just kind of, for lack of a better word, miserable. Thirsty, sweaty, tired, achy, and longing for an icy cold margarita, only there is no margarita, just tepid water and not enough of that! And yet, the very next day, I want to do it all over again. Wild captures that contradiction perfectly.

Another thing I liked was the feeling of being young in the mid-1990s described in the book. It turns out that Strayed and I are just one year in age difference, and although the errors of my feckless youth were different than hers, I really enjoyed the "blast from the past" feeling of recognizing a certain generation intersecting with a moment in time. (It probably helps that I spent some of my youth on the West Coast, listening to alternative rock and hanging out with some interesting characters.) If Strayed and I had met back then, I think we would have enjoyed hanging out together.

The final item that really stands out is how benevolent the world of Wild is. Of the scores of people that Strayed encounters, most are kind to her or at least indifferent; only a couple seem threatening. Even nature seems to forgive her errors, leaving her unmauled and unmolested by bears, snakes, mountain lions and the elements. This, too, resonates with my own experience. I hike alone a lot. I have encountered snakes, alligators, bears, and, most unpredictable of all, other humans, and my life has only been made the richer for it. Too many people live in fear of going out and having new experiences and seeing what's out there. Those people should read Wild. True, in many ways, Strayed was lucky. But that kind of luck is not really uncommon.

And finally: this book made me want to backpack somewhere, preferably the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you're hoping for real nature writing or tales of rugged survival or spiritual insights, this is not your book. It's no Desert Solitaire or Into Thin Air or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It's neither as funny or as self-important as Bill Bryson's account of the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, although Bryson's book made me not want to walk the A.T., so perhaps Strayed's is the better one. Actually, it most reminded me of another enjoyable travel memoir by someone of my generation, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. I think it's safe to say that if you like one, you'll enjoy the other.

The other book I've enjoyed recently, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, is quite different. For one thing, it's a long, dense work of fiction, much broader in scope and less generous of heart, and rather than hiking towards a place of fulfillment, the characters of Freedom seem to sink ever further from it. It also seems more the work of the generation before mine, the "boomers" rather than Gen X. Generalizations are, if anything, more odious than comparisons, but at least as far as film and literature are concerned, it seems that the hopes of once-idealistic (now materialistic) "boomers" exist only to be dashed upon the rocks, whereas Gen X always knew that reality bites.

But anyway, on to Freedom. I actually checked it out of the library because there was a cerulean warbler on the cover, which, as bird-lovers might know, is a species in swift decline due to habitat loss, mostly because its home in the Appalachians is being blown sky high by mountaintop removal mining. I knew that the novel had been a big hoo-hah when it came out and won several awards, but what's up with the warbler?

I'm glad you asked. The warbler represents the crashing and burning of one of the principle characters, and the frustration of another.... But I'm getting ahead of myself. (A few mild spoilers might be contained in the next three paragraphs.)

Freedom is the stagnation and corruption, in microcosm, of a certain sector of American society: those who have money, and a certain amount of status, and who once had hopes for a meaningful life. The novel centers around Walter and Patty Berglund, he a lawyer who defends social and environmental causes, she a former star basketball player become champion stay at home mom. To his misfortune, Walter also has a punk rocker friend named Richard Katz. Actually, back in their college days Patty had lusted after Katz but taken up with poor noble Walter instead, since Katz was a cad. And Walter was always so self-sacrificing, from his mistreated childhood onwards, but of course, who wouldn't be waiting to go off the rails after a few decades like that?

Enter the warbler. As Patty dotes on their ever-more-estranged son Joey (who later becomes -- horrors! -- a Republican) and drinks herself into a caricature, Walter somehow gets involved with a shady big business supported trust to save cerulean warblers by blowing their breeding grounds to smithereens, and then declaring the rubble left behind a Warbler Park. To his credit, his conscience won't keep this up indefinitely, boiling over into a humans-are-a-cancer-on-the-planet type speech that Derrick Jensen might be proud of.

And then...they are all left to pick up the pieces of their misguided lives. Each has wandered far from what they first aspired to be; can they possibly find their way back? And after such emotional damage inflicted on the others, is their hope of reconciliation? One question that I had, as a reader, was about the last part...where Walter holes up in Nameless Lake and wages war against the free-roaming cats and the eventual happy ending. Was that "real"...or was it a story told by Patty at Richard's suggestion? If you've read the book, let me know what you thought.

Things I liked: the book kept me turning the pages. Although it is almost 600 pages in length, I finished it in a weekend. And then I thought about it. I read some reviews, some adulating the novel, and some excoriating it. Was it an example of great American fiction, or a work of manipulative trash, forcing cardboard characters through their paces in order to make a social and environmental point? Can I say that I thought it was both at once?

Anything that keeps one thinking and questioning long after the last word has been read has some merit, in my opinion. And I did find that the plight of the characters, the way they ultimately disappointed themselves and each other, was a valid reflection of a certain sector of American life. I was most reminded of the movie (also celebrated when it came out, yet ultimately hollow and heavy-handed), American Beauty. Different plots, different metaphors (in one, the Achilles heel being cerulean warblers, in the other, a nubile high school girl), and yet the same condemnation of the suburban dream. Both had characters that didn't quite make sense (a Nature Conservancy guy supporting mountaintop removal? A successful middle aged man choosing to work fast food? In both, the pathetic wife and the cartoonishly disaffected offspring?)

If you liked American Beauty (a film whose ultimate depiction of "beauty" is of a whirling plastic bag), you will probably like Freedom (a novel which shows all the ways in which we aren't free). To be honest, I enjoyed them both, immensely, on the surface. And then, with a bit more reflection, I found them both to be superficial and manipulative.

But on the plus side, Franzen is supposedly a birder, or at least a bird-supporter, and any novel that brings that into the public eye gets at least a shaky thumbs up from me.

Final verdict...both books recommended, but for very different reasons.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A whimsical life list


Birds in art, legend and symbolism has been a repeated topic of this blog. What can I say? I'm a semi-reformed fantasy geek and one-time liberal arts student who still loves anything to do with mythology, so my love of birds is bound to get mixed up in all my other passions.

There are two categories of birds that, unfortunately, will never get checked off on my life list. One is the all-too-large list of birds that are extinct, and much as I wish I could hop aboard a time machine and see flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky, ivory-billed woodpeckers in their swampy southern homeland, or the inoffensive dodo on its island, the focus of this post will be something less depressing and more whimsical: birds that never existed to start with.

Part One -- The Phoenix

Probably the best known mythological bird is the wondrous phoenix, a bird of knowledge and the ages, that, at the end of its very long life, somehow rises again from its own ashes. We've all heard of the phoenix. I mean, you did read Harry Potter, right?

Accounts of the phoenix date at least as far back as the fifth century BC, when the Greek historian Herodotus, in his accounts of Egyptian wildlife, described it as such:

Another sacred bird is the one called the phoenix. Now, I have not actually seen a phoenix, except in a painting, because they are quite infrequent visitors to the country; in fact, I was told in Heliopolis that they appear only at 500-year intervals. They say that it is the death of a phoenix's father which prompts its visit to Egypt. Anyway, if the painting was reliable, I can tell you something about the phoenix's size and qualities, namely that its feathers are partly gold but mostly red, and that in appearance and size it is most like an eagle. There is a particular feat they say the phoenix performs; I do not believe it myself, but they say that the bird sets out from its homeland in Arabia on a journey to the sanctuary of the sun, bringing its father sealed in myrrh, and buries its father there.

I think it noteworthy that even back then the phoenix was described as a rare bird, certainly something to alert the local ornithological society about. It would not surprise me a bit if it has since gone extinct, as I do not believe there have been any recent sightings...recent meaning, oh, the past few centuries. Although if it is a bird of xeric habitats -- a.k.a., the desert -- perhaps it still survives in a remote outpost or two. If passing bedouin or Tuareg caught sight of one, would they even bother to report it to the appropriate committees? And if so, would they be believed? Doubtful, in both cases.

All ancient Western accounts, at least as far as my brief Internet perusal has shown, are actually more focused on the natural history of this splendid bird than on its symbolic and spiritual associations as a creature that can continuously renew or reinvent itself by rising again from its own ashes. In fact, that is almost a cliche nowadays..."like a phoenix rising from its own ashes." Perhaps the early Western reporters (such as Herodotus, above), in their factual accounts, simply did not grasp the metaphysical awesomeness of this bird, as we do today.

Another interesting thing about the phoenix is that, just as other bird families such as warblers, flycatchers and vireos, etc., are then categorized into separate species, so is the phoenix. I am not even sure if there is sufficient evidence for a phoneix occidentalis, as all early Western reports seem to place the accounts of the bird with some other, more exotic land, such as Egypt or India. I have yet to see a single reference to a true sighting of an Occidental phoenix, although, as I like to point out, birds have they can go pretty much where they please.

The Middle Eastern subspecies of the phoenix, however, is quite well defined, and is often called by its Persian name, Simurgh.

Simurgh, the Persian phoenix

As I described in a previous post, I find the Simurgh to be a fascinating creature: an ancient bird that has seen the destruction of the world three times over, that roosts in the tree of knowledge, and that is described as a metaphor of our spiritual quest in Sufi poetry, such as Farid ud-Din Attar's work, The Conference of the Birds. Perhaps we can call the Simurgh phoenix Iranii, in honor of its Persian heritage. In any event, I am not convinced that the Western phoenix is actually a different species than the Persian or Middle Eastern phoenix. It seems more likely to me that the early Greek accounts were simply of this Middle Eastern bird, and two separate species do not exist.

But what about the Russian firebird?


The Fire Bird is a creature of Slavic folklore that is associated with a difficult quest, appearing in plumes of gaudy red and gold. The bird is featured in folk tales such as Ivan Tsarevitch and the Grey Wolf, and, of course, in Igor Stravinsky's modern musical masterpiece (and ballet), The Firebird, but again, I am not convinced that this is an actual sub-species as opposed to accidental sightings of the Middle Eastern phoenix. So many legends...but just one bird? As all hard core birders know, a real bummer for the life list!

On the other hand, the Oriental phoenix does appear to be a separate species, although it does share some of the same characteristics:

Chinese phoenix

Like its Middle Eastern counterpart, the Chinese phoenix is ancient, colorful in its plumage and fortuitous in its sightings -- and distinct enough that I think we can safely declare a separate species, phoenix orientalis. Still, that would be a very rare sighting -- one that I would not want to present without impeccable photographic evidence, and several reliable eyewitnesses thrown in to boot.

So much for the phoenix! -- so many legends, but, it seems, just two species. However, once we have a couple of phoenixes on our Whimsical Life Lists, we can proceed to:

Part Two -- the Hybrids

These are creatures that are partly bird and partly, well...something else. A few examples.

The Harpy:

Half bird and half woman, in the modern vernacular, a synonym for an unpleasant, nagging female. The story comes from ancient Greek mythology, and in modern times only has parallel to the South American harpy eagle. Harpy eagles are not easy to see...but harpies? Well, a camera and a half a dozen sober witnesses will probably not help your cause should you see one.....

Then there is the griffin, or half-lion, half-eagle.

Although ever popular with heraldry, real-life (or even whimsical) existence: doubtful.

If you mix an eagle with a horse it becomes a hippogriff:

Hippogriff, Gustave Dore, Orlando Furisoso

Despite numerous legendary accounts of these creatues, I somehow doubt that these mutations are scientifically possible. Since these accounts far pre-date the advent of pesticides of nuclear fallout, perhaps these strange species represent some past anomaly (e.g., radiation from outer space) or are simply apocryphal. Either way, should you see one, even extensive photographic evidence would probably not be convincing, but since the Life List is such a personal thing, I say, go ahead and add it! And let the skeptics say what they may!

And finally we have the cockatrice, a dragon with the head of a rooster.


Whatever those ancients were smoking when they came up with these things...hey, I wanna get me some! But in any case, it's all good on the whimsical life list!

And finally....
The Modern


A symbol dating from earlier in the century for the Air Defense Artillery, or, to quote Wikipedia:

The body of the shield "parti per fess, divetailed" indicates the general woodenness, not of the Artillery Board and the other members of the "Gridiron Club" but of the passing throng who paid not their toll cheerfully in passing through the Sanctum to the bar. "Gules and Sable:" The color of the shield is red and black-red for the Artillery, and black in mourning for those who lost at dice by throwing the lowest spots. "In honor, a deuce spot of dice, lozenged. proper:" The honor point of the shield was given to the lowest marked dice, as it was the one which most frequently appeared to some members, the law of probabilities to the contrary notwithstanding. "In nombril a gridiron sable:" the lower half of the shield given over to the memory of those who did not belong to the "Gridiron Club" but who were constantly roasted by it. The supporters, "two Oozlefinches, regardant, proper," were a natural selection, "regardant" meaning looking, or better, all-seeing, with the great eyes that this bird has to protect while in flight in the manner described.
The crest "a terrapin, passant dexter proper, " was selected owing to the great number of these animals, cooked to perfection by Keeney Chapman and served with great pomp to the members of the Artillery Board on occasions of state. This was always accompanied by libations of "red top, " red top being a now obsolete drink made in the Champagne Country of France and once imported to the United States, in times gone by that now seem almost prehistoric.
The wavy bar, over which the terrapin is passing, represents the adjacent waters of the Chesapeake, the natural habitat of this animal.

OK, if you started to go blank part way though the quote, count me in! But even if I find it hard to follow the description in the "field guide," I want to see a oozlefinch, if only because they have the funniest name ever.

And my personal favorite:


For proof that the ultimate bird-a-thon lies in the future, not the past, I give you Suzanne Collins' creature from her Hunger Games trilogy, the mockingjay. And the reference to a story about a battle to the death is even to the point, as my husband has suggested that birding would interest him a lot more if was more of a contact sport. "You can't all get the same bird," he says, suggesting that the "rules" of the game be changed to allow tricking, tripping or even tasering your fellow birders in order to get the bird in question on your own check list. Not that I am advocating this in real life, but I keep telling him that would make an awesome video game should he ever want to program it.

Are there any birds that appear on your whimsical lfie list? Let me know, and maybe someday they'll be featured here!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

When Swans Attack

I have done a couple of posts about ornithophobia, as the fear of birds is relatively common, and also somewhat silly. Birds don't attack people. Except, as this guest post by my Northern Correspondent Sunwiggy shows, sometimes they do. I hope you enjoy it. And once again thanks to my Dad for the photos!

It was with a great deal of apprehension that my husband and I went to the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, on May 30th. A wildfire had been burning there for the past 10 days, and was reported to be about 95% contained. "I don't want to see it like that, all burned up, with all of the birds gone," I moaned to my husband. "Well, one of my customers was there yesterday, and she said you can't even tell there was a fire," he replied. The customer was right! Seney was just as beautiful and bird-filled as we remembered it. Although 5 square miles of the refuge had burned, none of that was visible from the Visitor's Center, or the Pine Ridge Nature Trail, or the Marshland Wildlife Drive. The only sign was an actual sign on the Fishing Loop of the Drive, "Closed, Due to Wildfire."

The Marshland Wildlife Drive was one of the reasons I'd wanted to bird at Seney. My husband had fallen down our stairs, breaking two bones in his left foot, and is currently hopping around with the aforesaid foot in a walking cast. The Drive has lots of pull-offs where you can park, get out, listen and look around, and see birds without having to walk much. Our first stop was actually at a little roadside park right outside Seney. It has a pretty little lake, which was graced by two Trumpeter Swans. "Why don't we stop, honey? Maybe you can get a picture of the swans!", I suggested. Ever-obliging, my husband pulled into the little parking area and got out, camera in hand, hopping down to the water's edge...where the male swan awaited. I stayed in the Jeep. It was cold and wet from a recent cloudburst, and I could see the swans just fine from where I sat.

The male swan was not pleased to have HIS lake, with HIS mate in it, approached by a large, hopping human. He emerged from the water, one big, black, webbed foot at a time, his eyes fixed on the foe. My husband, not being stupid, began to back up, towards the Jeep, keeping his eyes on the swan. Swan: one foot forward. Husband: one foot back. Both swan and husband were picking up speed when my husband made it to the Jeep, and hurriedly got in. The swan peered in the driver's side window, crossed to the other side, and peered in there. He put his head back, and clapped his wings. Swans can make a lot of noise with their wings! I think he was celebrating his success in seeing the interloper off his shoreline.

At the Visitor's Center, I mentioned to a volunteer that my husband had offended a swan by standing too close to it. The volunteer remarked that swans are easily offended. I had been careful with my phrasing, not wanting to get myself and my husband tossed out of the Refuge for harassing the wildlife! From the Center, we were able to admire a pair of nesting ospreys through a scope set up by the volunteers. We saw lots of swans, Canada geese, and loons, and we were able to listen to a loon calling. I love their calls! In all, we saw almost thirty birds, not bad for a cold and windy afternoon.

The next day, we birded much closer to home, on Aho Road, along the Sturgeon River, near Chassell. I love this road! It has several long-abandoned farms, with empty houses and barns and outbuildings, old orchards and hayfields, backing up to the woods, and the river is right there, too. Birds adore it! I've been in a state of bobolink-induced bliss all Spring. I've never seen a bobolink up here before, or seen anyone e-bird a bobolink, but now there are bobolinks nesting all over up here! It must be a rather rare event, because my more bird-knowledgeable coworkers all ask me, "So, what's a bobolink? What do they look like?" The old hayfields on Aho Road are blessed with at least two nesting pairs of bobolinks, as well as a pair of Baltimore orioles, a pair of scarlet tanagers, and phoebes, kingbirds, yellow warblers by the score, common yellowthroats, kingfishers, common redstarts, just one wondrous bird after another. I wish I could just camp out there, in the middle of the road (no ticks in the road, and they sure are everywhere else). Across the Sturgeon River, on Sturgeon Road, we saw for the first time how bank swallows line a bank with their little holes, where they nest. We watched them going in and out with food for their nestlings.

This morning, June 2, we got to see another new thing, a redwinged blackbird attacking a Canada goose. I don't know what the goose had done to offend the blackbird so, but the blackbird kept hovering a foot or so over the goose, then ramming it in the middle of the back! The goose was honking and flopping about, trying to swim fast enough to escape its attacker. The blackbird was in such a fury, I was afraid he'd end up in the water and have to be rescued. By me. Since my husband has a walking cast on his foot.

Despite the fact that this Spring has been mostly cold, wet, windy, and buggy, it's been one of my best birding Springs yet!............Sunwiggy