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.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post! I, too, have wondered if I am just The Worst Birder Ever, She Who Truly Sucks, when I arrive all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at a "really happening place", according to ebird, and see: one robin. And, this Spring, Dad managed to drive along the edge of a DEEP, waterfilled ditch on two wheels, for quite some distant, while I intoned, "Oh, God! Oh, God!" When he got all four tires back on the road, instead of rolling us into the ditch, I yelled: "Please, never do that again." Later, I could only attribute my restraint to sheer terror. Congratulations on a well-earned life bird! Mom