Friday, July 27, 2012

Urban birding redux: Sportsman's Park

The ungainly spectacle of American white pelicans coming in for a landing

Before this, the year that I have finally admitted that I am powerless over my birding addiction and declared the commencement of my Ultimate Birding Year, damn the consequences and full steam ahead, I used to attempt to bird locally, somewhere I could get to by foot or on a bike, and since I lived in the city of Bloomington, IL, I called these efforts Urban Birding. I birded on my lunch break, and compared my adventures to those of other urban ornithophiles. I read the memoir of a self-proclaimed Urban Birder. I enjoyed my rambles, both physical and mental, immensely, but finally decided that I could never be content either birding or living in a city. And so I moved to a small town, and embraced my identity as a Rural Birder, and happy to be one.

Lunch time for an eastern kingbird

But, due to a small matter known as earning a living, most days of the week, I still have to spend a large part of my waking hours in a city, and not even Bloomington, where I know my way to all the birdiest spots, but instead Decatur. And here's the thing. I really don't like Decatur. I've tried to warm up to it. I truly have.

For me, it's a matter of principle. Whining about where you are seems like such an act of ingratitude. I have lived, and traveled, many places in my four decades on this planet, and only one of them (a soulless ex-urb of Virginia Beach, where I lived for six months in my teens) was an experience of unremitting loathing. Everywhere else I could find something to admire, or connect to, or feel thankful for.

Or, as someone more eloquent than I once put it:
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the window of the alms-house as brightly as from a rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. -- from Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
I must admit that lately, except when birding, I have not been "living my life," as Thoreau meant it, but rather shunning it and calling it hard names. Perhaps that is why I love to bird so much; it is always a moment when I am truly present and alive. And so my attempts to appreciate Decatur have mostly come in the form of birding.

Today, for example, after work, I decided to go to Sportsman's Park on Lake Decatur, as another birder had recently recorded a bumper crop of "peeps" (small sandpipers) at that location. I had never been there and didn't know what to expect, but had been looking forward to the excursion for most of the week.

As it turns out, the park is just a few miles down the road from where I work, though except for the lake, there isn't much there, just a dock and a gazebo. And, at the moment, mud flats, the sandpiper's best friend.

Peeps and pelicans

After a bit of squinting through my spotting scope, I decided I was looking at: many killdeer, a handful of semipalmated sandpipers and lesser yellowlegs, a couple of solitaries and a spotted, and Year Bird #184, a stilt sandpiper. Other birds included a flock of American white pelicans, some Canada geese and ring-billed gulls, a half a dozen great egrets, great blue and green herons, one apiece, and a hungry kingbird. Oh and mallards, females and juveniles.

Some great egrets not smiling for the camera

But the kingbird wanted to strike a pose
First "Macon County" pelicans

After my good luck at Sportman's Park (both getting to it and seeing nice birds), I decided to look for the Grove Street Bridge, another spot where other birders had seen good stuff. And that was my mistake. You know the expression "quit while you're ahead"? That's really not bad advice.

Almost immediately, my dislike of the city had resurfaced. Looking at the map (both google maps and my Illinois Atlas and Gazateer), getting from Point A to Point B did not seem very challenging. There were even supposed to be other parks along the way that I could stop at.

But that is not what happened. Instead, it turns out that the road names on the map and the road names on the streets did not match up. Not that all streets seemed to have a sign that I could find. While I was driving slow, trying to get my bearings, other drivers were tail-gating with a vengeance. Just when I thought I'd figured it out again, I got spilled onto yet another multi-lane highway splitting off into various directions. This has been, consistently, my experience of Decatur. Suffice to say that I was soon calling it hard names all over again.

Eventually, I gave up and headed for home, idling at traffic light after traffic light. Everything looked so ugly and run down. There have been times, on my morning commute, where I have stared through the windshield and wondered, Who on earth ever thought that humans were supposed to live like this? Did anyone actually think this was a good idea?

I wish I knew why it can be so hard to find that sparkling moment in the quotidian. I know I am not alone. When I confess that, by the time I get home in the evening, it feels as though the entire day was lost in some sort of black hole, and by that time, for the few hours between dinner and bedtime that I might try to do something worthwhile, I am so tired and drained that anything more challenging than "vegging out" is a struggle...everyone agrees. When I say that I'm grateful to have a job but it's stressful and tiring and not what I want to do for the rest of my life...everyone agrees. When I lament the low pay and skimpy vacation time and the fact I can't afford to really get away in either time or money...everyone agrees. And this is consistent across work places in the past decade or so.

I think this is a spiritual problem, on a personal level. Also, in the bigger scheme of things, a societal problem of the global/post-modern era. I don't pretend to have an answer, but when so many people are disconnected and unsatisfied, how can this be right for humanity? And beyond my informal little co-worker polls, I take, as case in point, the astronomical number of people being prescribed antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs. And their kids on those drugs, too.

Once again, to quote someone more articulate:
The greatest danger, that of losing one's own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, etc., is sure to be noticed. -- Soren Kierkegaard

Commuting in aggressive city traffic, stalled at light after endless light; getting home exhausted and drained; and in between, unable to speak a sentence or think one thought from beginning to end without interruption (phones, questions, clients, coworkers, call it "multitasking" all you like but it really means life chopped up into incoherent pieces), a dumping ground for every person who's had just as bad a day as myself (e.g., "customer service,")...I really don't want to whine, but I wonder if this is what it feels like to be in danger of "losing one's own self."

In any case, at least I know how to find myself again. I only need to bring along my binoculars, and find a moment of stillness, and look at the trees or the skies.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

No shrikes, and I'm out

Yellow crowned night heron

This morning, I could put it off no longer. It was time to head north to Will County to look for some choice birds that had been sighted for the past few weeks in Wilmington and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: yellow-crowned night heron and loggerhead shrike, to be specific. I'd been meaning to go up there to look for them for the past few weekends, and each weekend I'd put it off. I had tons of reasons: the heat, the cost of gas, the squandering of resources to drive two hours just to see a couple species, neither of which were "lifers;" fatigue; a sudden fondness for the park right outside of town; a blister between my toes.

But the truth was, for someone whose motto is "bird to live, live to bird," none of these excuses were worth a dime. The fact of the matter is...I was nervous. My erstwhile birding buddy Sunwiggy has moved to northern climes, and the normally good-spirited Greenturtle has declared July to be a month off from birding. So I had to go alone.

Normally, that's not a problem for me. In many ways, I actually prefer solitude, and can stroll for hours around the countryside without seeing another human soul, wandering not lonely as a cloud, but happy as a clam. The operative word being the countryside. Whereas in my mind, Will County is getting awfully close to Chicagoland. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is within spitting distance of Joliet, for God's sake! Joliet!

To be honest, I have been in and around Chicago and other urban areas many times, and never had anything worse than getting lost or stuck in traffic happen. But I have a personal hang-up about the area. I could just imagine people hearing the horrible news that I had never come back from my trip to the prairie.

"What on earth was she doing," people would ask my husband, "wandering around all by herself so close to that godforsaken industrial corridor that is Joliet?" And he would shake his head sadly, as if secretly admitting that he had known all along that birding would be the death of me, and reply, "She was looking for a shrike."

But, I really wanted to see those birds! And I believe that life is way too short to stay trapped in your comfort zone, so off I went. Seeing the road signs informing me that I was getting closer and closer to Joliet was not fun, but luckily I arrived at Wilmington unscathed. (In my defense, I know several people from Chicago who state that they feel nervous out in nature, so I think it's mostly a matter of what you're used to.)

Finding the park where the yellow-crowned night heron was hanging out was a bit complicated, but once there, finding the heron was easy. Two other birders had already found it, and were taking photos.

Very photogenic

And seeing how pleasant the park was made me realize I'd been silly to be nervous. In my subconscious, I'd been picturing this:

Scary

And instead I found this:

Not scary

After "getting" the night heron, I didn't want to linger, since the shrike was still out there, and I wanted to get as many birds as possible before the day got too hot. So onwards to Midewin.

At the Iron Bridge Trailhead parking lot, I met two birders on their way out and asked about the shrike. They had just seen it, and gave me directions to the exact location. I quickly set off, thinking how friendly I have found most other birders to be. A shared love of birds seems to bestow instant membership in the club. (Although there is a password: "Have you seen anything interesting?")

As usual, I found the tallgrass prairie to be quite beautiful. The wildflowers were in exuberant bloom.

Yellow coneflower, bee balm and compass plant

These cornflowers and Queen Anne's lace aren't natives, but still very pretty.

Cornflowers and Queen Anne's Lace

I saw a lot of old favorites, such as eastern meadowlarks, barn swallows, field sparrows and dickcissels.

Dickcissel

Snack time

The mockingbirds were throwing me off; something about their shape and coloration, from a distance, kept making me hope that they were a shrike, until I either got my binoculars on them, or they flew, revealing the white circles on their wings.

"I am not a shrike."

Despite the scenery, I have always found Midewin to be a bit...strange. I can't explain it, really; it's a "vibe." Perhaps it's something to do with the bunkers making the landscape look odd.

Bunkers at Midewin

And today I felt a bit disoriented from the weather: the escalating heat; the harsh summer light that makes colors seem blanched and flattens out perspective; the enduring dryness of the season. Insects droned monotonously, but as for bird song, there was almost none, just a few desultory trills from some field sparrows. Everything was touched with the stillness that overtakes the land right before the explosion of fall migration.

Despite all these good explanations, I can say that this was the fourth time I have gone to Midewin, and each time, I felt something a bit "off." Perhaps this particular landscape just doesn't resonate with me, or I with it. Some places feel so welcoming that even on my first visit I feel like I've arrived home. For me, Midewin is definitely not one of them. It's an interesting place, and a wonderful prairie restoration in progress, don't get me wrong. But I was feeling a bit weird there.

As an example of this feeling, when I saw a fellow birder slowly heading towards me down the path, I did not think (as, to be honest, I sometimes do when I'm on a solitary walk), "Darn...hope he's not a chit-chatter, I don't feel like talking." Instead, I felt, "Hooray, a fellow human being! And maybe he can spot the shrike."

When we got within speaking distance, he gave the password: "Seen anything interesting?"

"Not really," I said. "I'm looking for the loggerhead shrike that's supposed to be hanging out here."

It turned out that he was, too. I mentioned the night heron, and seeing it was already on his birding to-do list for the day as well. It's amusing to think of how these birds are just going about their daily lives, oblivious to the fact that people are coming from all over the place to pay their regards, almost as if on pilgrimage. Well, sometimes birding feels that way; when I'm chasing species for the Year List, it usually feels more like a scavenger hunt.

The other birder gave up before I did, and departed in search of the night heron. But I kept stalking up and down the gravel path for the better part of an hour. I really didn't want to "shrike out," not after driving so far. But all I could find were mockingbirds, which persisted in getting my hopes up, for that split second after I spotted them, that they might be shrikes.

"Yes, I'm making fun of you...after all, I'm a mockingbird!"

When it feels like the mockingbirds are mocking you, it's time to wrap it up. I finally had to admit defeat. It was hot. I was thirsty. And what little movement there had been was fast disappearing. But despite the lack of shrikes, it was good to shake out of my routine, and the yellow-crowned night heron wasn't bad at all either. I might not be getting that many species for my Ultimate Birding Year this summer, but I certainly am getting the birding adventures!


Saturday, July 21, 2012

A lament, and some interesting books

"Last Migration"  by bezayildirim 77, used by permission

Once, on a windy spring day when I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, and was shocked all over again at how beautiful this commom migrant really is, I had two conflicting thoughts. One was that my life is so much richer and more meaningful now that I love birds. And the other was that this love has also given me a sorrow that is ten thousand fathoms deep. It's like meeting your soul mate, falling madly in love, planning your incomparable future together, and then finding out that he or she is dying of a terminal illness.

But does that comparison really hold? The indignities that we are inflicting upon our planet are certainly serious, but are they terminal? I don't think so...yet. If we don't change our ways, in another fifty or one hundred years, who knows? For many species, it is already too late, and many others are suffering from alarming declines. (If you'd like a soundtrack to this post, try Planet Earth by Duran Duran -- right click to open a new window.)

Meanwhile, when thinking about this feels like walking in a world of wounds, the vitality of birds can be a partial antidote.
-- from The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina.

The naturalist Edward O. Wilson posited that humans have an innate affinity for nature, which he coined "biophilia." This thought has been taken up, with much fanfare, by Richard Louv in his works The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, which diagnosed many of us in the industrialized, post-modern era as suffering from "nature deficit disorder." (Although I have a few bones to pick with Louv's hypotheses, I love the fact that he has had such success in bringing these ideas to the public consciousness.)

And one of the things I like about the growing paleo movement is the recognition that exposure to natural spaces is vital to our well-being; I wonder how many modern problems with depression, anxiety, OCD, ADD, etc., are caused or exacerbated by our artificial lifestyles?

But if biophilia is a true, deep-seated human affinity, then how do we explain that so many of us react to the news of what we are doing to the earth with apathy, denial, defensiveness, or even jubilation? Surely no one actually enjoys looking at photos of oiled pelicans, but why would so many people have reacted to the BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico not by responding, "How can we stop this from ever happening again?," but with the mantra of "drill, baby, drill"?

How could comments like this even be possible?
The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man's dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet -- it's yours. That's our job: drilling, mining and stripping. Sweaters are the anti-Biblical view. Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars -- that's the Biblical view.
--Ann Coulter, "Oil good; democrats bad"
Perhaps the situation is similar to that of a smoker; and by saying this, I mean no disrespect, as I used to smoke myself. The evidence on smoking is in, and the verdict is undeniable: it's bad for you! And yet people still smoke. My smoker's train of thought went as such...it's probably not all that bad, really...not for most people, anyway, only those with really bad genetic luck, which I don't have...and even if it is bad, I'll stop before I get sick...and don't I have the right to ruin my health if I want to? It was only after I'd quit once and for all that I recognized those excuses for what they were: the justifications of an addict.

All of these ruminations make me think of Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, (Penguin: 2005) which gives several "case histories" of societies that have adapted and lived (Iceland, Japan, New Guinea), or failed, not with a bang but a whimper (Easter Island, Norse Greenland, Pitcairn Island). Islands go faster than the rest of us, but the combined pressures of population growth and exploitation of resources will bite anyone in the ass sooner or later, or so goes his theory.

The central question of the book is: what did the Easter Islanders think as they cut down the last tree? Why didn't they see their fate before they got to that extreme? On a literal level, this question is a bit silly, but taken metaphorically -- why don't societies correct their ways before it's too late? -- an excellent question. Some of Jared's analyses seem spot on, such as the discussion of the genocide in Rwanda and comparison between Haiti and the Dominica Republic; others seem hurried or incomplete (the parts about the Anasazi and the Maya, and the case of China needs a whole book to itself, not one chapter); and others are unconvincing and rather dull (on and on and on about Greenland).

Probably the most interesting part is about Easter Island; who hasn't been fascinated by the giant heads, or wondered what on earth could have happened to that civilization? Diamond has a good discussion, but it seems that he may have published a bit too soon, as more recent archeological evidence has presented some different perspectives.

For one thing, humans might have been blameless in the case of that last tree on the island. According to Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue by William Stolzenburg (Bloomsbury: 2011), the culprit may very well have been a rat.

Written in a breezy, journalistic style, Rat Island presents some very bad and moderately good news about island ecologies the world over. We already know the bad news; invasive species, which include rats, rabbits, cats, weasels, stoats, pigs, foxes, goats, even insects, simply decimates the bird life and other endemic species of fragile island habitats.

Even after having read numerous other books on similar topics, I learned some new information, such as the havoc wreaked by Arctic foxes transplanted to foxless Alaskan islands, and the efforts of some early conservation pioneers in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, all true heroes as far as I'm concerned. I also learned a lot about how to get rid of rats on a large scale, with some wonderful news: it works! Islands which were once practically dead zones as far as endemic bird life are concerned are once again flourishing, because a few stubborn and caring individuals insisted on going ahead with the projects.

Of course, nothing is without controversy. These pest-removal missions can be expensive and labor-intensive, and are not without some collateral losses. The Nature Conservancy came under scrutiny after some gulls and eagles were found poisoned on one of the Alaskan islands; but gulls and eagles are not rare, and the effect was only temporary. Was their loss worth saving the nesting ground of endangered seabirds? Just when is OK to intervene, and when should we let "nature take its course"?

This is a complicated question. In my discussion of another book, Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America by William Stevens (Pocket Books: 1995), I agree with the premise that the remnants of "nature" that are left are so degraded that mere conservation is no longer enough; we must try to restore things the best approximation of their past glory.

I understand the concern that we don't yet know enough about these habitats to ensure that we don't trample in and do more harm than good; after all, our species' interference is how we got in this mess to begin with. And I also sympathize with those who don't like to inflict harm or suffering on other creatures, even if they are lowly rats (not to mention that tinderbox of environmental controversy, feral cats). But in my view, if you have a chance to save a species on the brink of extinction, barring inflicting harm on fellow humans (harm, not inconvenience), you just move forward and do your best.

But as Carl Safina points out in The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World (Picador: 2011), the underlying problem is that our paradigm for understanding the world is centuries out of date. The view that humans are separate from, and superior to, the natural world goes as far back in Western thought as the ancient Greeks. Aristotle stated that, "It must be that nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man"; Rene Descartes that men are the "lords and possessors of nature"; Francis Bacon that "the world is made for man."

The problem is that those earlier thinkers simply could not have imagined a time when man's technology, and the ever-increasing pressure of population, could actually start to destroy the world around us. Even if one is loath to relinquish humanity's special position as granted by Western thought, if we want to continue to flourish on this planet, it seems wise to think of ourselves as caretakers rather than the rapists and pillagers of Ann Coulter's statement.

I am only partway through The View from Lazy Point; it's the kind of detailed, thoughtful work that I don't want to rush through. I'm sure I'll come back to this topic; in the meantime, I can only console myself with the hope that, just as rat-despoiled islands can once again teem with life, we will pull ourselves back before too many of the birds I love so much are gone forever.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Emiquon again!

cattle egrets

This morning I woke to discover a freshness in the air that I love about summer mornings, when the day still feels quick and light before the heat sets in. As I was whining about in my last post, this feeling has been missing for the past week or so, as central Illinois sweltered in a triple-digit hell. But it seemed as if the heat wave had broken so...time to go birding!

Being a good sport as he usually is, Greenturtle agreed to make another trip with me to Emiquon, even though we have been there so often this year that it is becoming our home away from home. I was hoping that the trip would bring, in addition to the cooler temperature, a return of my birding mojo, as I'd had bad luck with that for the past week as well. First there was the matter of the debacle at Moraine View last Sunday, when I not only failed to see the yellow-throated vireos I was after, but managed to get lost in a park about the size of a postage stamp.

And then there was what happened on the fourth of July....

Sandpipers getting uppity

For the past couple of years, one of my longed-for life birds has been the upland sandpiper. I took a trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, hoping to find one there, only to discover that their numbers there had been steadily declining to the point that it was not so easy to find one. Then last month I went to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area south of Effingham on the heels of an upland sandpiper sighting, only to come back disappointed.

And then came reports of consistent sightings much closer to home; apparently a whole family group of the sandpipers were hanging out at M&M Turf Farm in McLean County. Greenturtle had announced that he just wanted to relax on the holiday, but I convinced him that this excursion would be simple and easy. All we had to do was drive by this turf farm, "get" the sandpipers, and then go into Bloomington to run a couple errands, and home by mid-morning!

It was already hot when we arrived at the turf farm around eight. I could see many shorebird shapes scuttling around on the turf, and eagerly set up my spotting scope to see...about a dozen killdeer. We waited. An eastern meadowlark made an appearance; so did a dickcissel.

We drove up and down the road a couple of times, then pulled off to the side again, scanning the neighboring soy field. Red-winged blackbirds called raucously, and barn swallows performed their aerial ballet. Every once in a while, we could heard the upland's trademark wolf-whistle from a distance, and this encouraged us to wait some more.

It got ever hotter. Occasionally someone would drive past us with a wave; country folk seem a lot less suspicious than suburbanites. In some places I've tried to bird, this sort of sandpiper stake-out would have the neighborhood watch in a tizzy. Here, we were free to sizzle by the side of the road as long as we wanted.

Finally, after it had been at least twenty minutes since I'd even heard the sandpipers, I...gave up. Greenturtle pointed out that since I'd clearly heard them, I could count them, but I didn't feel good about that. Not on a life bird. Sigh. Maybe next time.

Drive by birding


I didn't have many expectations for today's trip to Emiquon. Hopes, sure, hope springs eternal and all that. But there hadn't been any "good" sightings reported for the last week, so I told myself, "Just have fun being outside on a nice day; don't worry so much about the year list."

We were driving along Highway 136 ("the soporific highway") through the unremarkable county of Logan, and I was rambling on about watching puppies being born on You Tube when....

"UPLAND SANDPIPER!!" I hollered.

upland sandpiper

For there it was, in all its glory, perched on a telephone wire over a soybean field. What's up with these birds and the soybeans? They turn up their beaks at the tallgrass prairie being set aside for them and choose to hang out here? No accounting for taste, is there?

This was a splendid specimen of a Life Bird. It perched on the wire for a long time, occasionally giving a trilling call, then flew down to the other side of the road, then up to the wire again. Good looks were had by all.

Pee-yew!

And then on to Emiquon. Unfortunately, the expanse of mud and brackish water caused by our recent drought did not leave the preserve smelling like roses. Luckily the observatory area was less stinky than the South Globe, but even so, the water had retreated, and the birds were few. I saw a nice pair of horned larks, which are more often sulking in farmer's fields.

I caught a glimpse of a black bird with a yellow "skullcap" and did a double take--yes indeedy, three bobolinks were hanging out by the cat tail marsh, the last place I'd expect to see them. And then I got my second "prize" of the day, the cattle egret, a first sighting in Illinois.


Seriously, a good day all around.

A sand prairie to wrap things up

For our last stop, I suggested we head for the Henry Allan Gleason Preserve at Sand Ridge. There weren't any special birds I was looking for; I just really like the sand prairie.

The entrance was neglected and overgrown as it always is, and we tramped along the sandy path, stepping over cacti. Mason County has several sand prairies, and despite being a bit inhospitable (hot, buggy, filled with prickly plants, and a chore to walk through), I find them a fascinating ecosystem. Nor am I alone in this feeling: Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Willa Cather's My Antonina both contain paeans to the sand prairie. Like the oak savanna, it is one of the priceless, and now very rare, midwestern ecosystems. (For more about sand prairies, go here or here.)

The first bird we saw was a northern mockingbird, and a very vocal one. It took me a moment to realize that the cardinal I heard singing was not the cardinal I could see, but the mockingbird imitating his song.

I wonder whose skull this was? There was a pointy bit broken off, so the nose should be a bit longer. Those teeth look like they're all for grinding, so I'd guess a deer. (If you know, don't be shy...leave a comment!)

Alas, poor Yorick!

Before leaving, we sat in the shade for a while. Greenturtle noticed an eastern kingbird and a brown thrasher perched on a tree top, but mostly I sat and stared over the expanse of grasses, enjoying a moment completely free of other people. For the whole time we sat there, each in silence (mostly), I did not hear a single human noise. Not the sound of passing traffic, or an airplane overhead. No music from a blaring radio, or a motor, or the sound of other voices. As much as I loved seeing the upland sandpiper and the cattle egrets, and all the other good species at Emiquon, I wonder if that moment of total peace was not the most precious gift of the day.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Too hot to bird


We interrupt this saga of my Ultimate Birding Year due to the fact that it is just too freakin' hot to bird! Central Illinois has been scorched by triple digit temperatures for the past week or so, and despite being pretty much insane on the topic of birds, I do have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. When the temperature either hits the triple digits or drops into the negatives (no chance of the latter at the moment), I stay inside.

I think the birds agree with me, for glancing out the window at the brown expanse of crabgrass in my back yard (even if I was oblivious enough of consequences to water my lawn in the midst of a drought, the weed-infested patch that came with the house is just not worth the effort), I see no signs of life whatsoever, not even a hopping robin or an inquisitive house sparrow. It's just too hot.

Oh, and as for all those people who get defensive on the topic of climate change, this is all I have to say: I don't pretend to be a scientist of any stripe, but the last time I experienced temperatures like we've had for the last couple of years, I was living much further south. 106 degrees is normal...in Texas. Or Hell. Not central Illinois.

And if anyone thinks my last paragraph was a bit snarky, I must apologize, but the heat, and feeling imprisoned in the cooler lower level of my house (the air conditioning gets too feeble to make the upstairs bearable) makes me cranky! Just ask Greenturtle.

So I am trying to use the time stuck inside wisely by working on my Internet class. I am taking a short community education class in being a veterinary assistant, in the hopes that I can eventually find a more congenial job. I have yet to come to the chapter that discusses if it's OK for dogs to play poker. I also have a few books piled up and if I'm feeling really ambitious I can make up lists of all the things I should start doing for Self Improvement (such as start doing my weight work out before I get middle-aged arm-flaps--sadly, I don't think that lifting my binoculars to my eyes is going to cut it--)and investigating whether nachos and Mexican beer really is the optimal human diet. I suspect I will instead while away the hours watching my way through the all of the X-Files.

But even with all these other things to keep me busy, I am still sulking. Being stuck inside always starts to feel like punishment for some past misdeed. Hopefully the heat wave will break soon so I can get back to birding.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A birder's bogus journey


The terrible twitches

My Ultimate Birding Year has been going along quite well. Yesterday Greenturtle and I strolled through the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden for a couple of hours before we went to the Lincoln Museum (since we had just seen Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter it seemed appropriate, plus the museum is air-conditioned! Nothing like summer to make me appreciate things that can be done indoors), where I finally got my lifer northern parula. I had heard the odd, zippy call of the parula frequently throughout the spring, and yet somehow never actually managed to see one of them. And finally, I did! I tracked them down by their song, and finally found a couple flitting around in a tall tree by the lake...oh, sweet victory! To top it all off, they were year bird number 178, thus meeting my previous high count for the state of Illinois...everything I see for the rest of the year will be gravy. (My goal is to get at least 200 species.)

My original plans for today were just to do a short stroll around Weldon Springs, very close to home, and then hang out at home with my dogs tending to non-birdy pursuits. But then the ebird alerts of birds I still "need" for the year informed me that someone had seen four yellow-throated vireos at Moraine View State Park. Hmmm.... I haven't seen one of those for a couple of years. Plus I'd been meaning to make a stop at Moraine View for the past month or so, just for old times' sake. Although it's never been one of my favorite spots, back when I lived in McLean County, I'd go there once a month or so to check out the birds. And just thinking about those vireos, yet to be seen, was making me twitch. So, Moraine View it is!

I was feeling high on birds, and smug about my talents. But as the expression has it, pride goeth before a fall.... (To get in the mood for the tale of woe that follows, you can right-click to open a new tab to hear this song by "Weird Al" Yankovic.)

A slow start

As I entered the park, I felt a rush of nostalgia for all the good birds and fun memories I'd ever had at the park: the tree full of roosting turkey vultures by the swimming beach. My first sora and black-crowned night heron. The flock of waxwings hawking for insects over the water, almost hitting their bellies as they dove. The pied billed grebe that seemed to glow with the reflected light of a late spring evening. I instantly forgave Moraine View for all the bad experiences I had ever had there. I would see yellow-throated vireos, and all would be right with the world.

I began at the Tanglewood Trail by the marsh, and got my first ten species just standing by the bridge: brown thrasher, gray catbird, common yellowthroat, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, American robin, American goldfinch, red-bellied woodpecker, northern cardinal and white-breasted nuthatch. The fellow who'd seen the vireos had reported a total of 37 species. Trying to make my day of summer birding as exciting as possible, I decided to set my goal at 38. After all, I'd just seen ten in ten minutes.

Satisfied I had seen everything in the area, I began to walk the short loop. It was already getting hot, even before 8:00 in the morning. I didn't get many extra birds, just an entourage of mosquitoes as I finished the loop. (Added downy woodpecker, mallards [overhead], blue jay, American crow, house wren, and heard mourning dove).

I chugged some water after the loop, then decided to walk around the Boy Scout camp area. I'd researched yellow-throated vireos before leaving, and Cornell's All About Birds website claimed that they liked the edges of deciduous woodlands, which sounded quite like the Boy Scout area to me.

On the way I saw a green heron, and the Boy Scout area was non-birdy as usual, yielding only an eastern towhee, a black-capped chickadee, a couple of indigo buntings, some barn swallows overhead, and a few more catbirds. I did pause to reflect on a few good memories, though, such as the time that Sunwiggy and I saw all the white-crowned and white-throated sparrows in the fall, and then saw an owl being mobbed by a huge flock of crows. But as for the present moment...it was hot, and I wasn't seeing anything exciting.

On the way back, I stopped and sat by the shore for a while. A flock of waxwings hawked for insects over the water, just as I'd remembered. I saw the green heron again, plus a wood duck and her three babies, and a whole slew of Canada geese. It was getting hot, and my instinct was to call it a day. As I chugged some more water by my car, I heard the distinctive cry of the yellow-billed cuckoo coming from the Willow Marsh. I've seen one in the area once, and heard them numerous times, so it wasn't a surprise. In fact, it was one of the species I'd been hoping to find, year bird number 179, heard only but no doubt as to identity. I briefly considered doing the Tanglewood Loop again to look for it, but really, if a cuckoo doesn't come out, you are not going to see it. They are champion skulkers. Hopefully I'll see one later in the year.

A veery odd sound


I prepared to leave the park. A couple of hours had passed already, the sun was high, and the birds were few. As I drove along, I noticed four turkey vultures circling overhead. I also noticed a good half a dozen ticks crawling up my pants, and flicked them out of the car window one after the other. This has been a terrible year for ticks.

At the last minute, I decided to walk the backpack trail in the Tall Timber area. Even if I didn't see the vireos, I might catch a glimpse of the pileated woodpecker that had been hanging around in the winter.

But first, let me present a couple of facts: Moraine View is a tiny little park surrounded by cornfields and windmills. And the Tall Timber area is a mere postage-stamp sized woods within the park. Despite my propensity to get lost, that could never happen at Moraine View. A few steps in, and you're back to the blacktop.

And so, with getting lost being the furthest thing from my mind, I wandered into the Tall Timber trails. The backpack area was crowded with dog-walkers, families with screaming kids, noisy folk of all varieties. Within a couple of minutes, I had strolled to the edge of the forest, and decided to walk along the horse trail instead. It seemed much quieter, plus ran along the edge of the woods...yellow-throated vireo habitat.

And I walked. And walked. There were a lot of robins, and the yank yank yanking of more white-breasted nuthatches. I was ready to head home, year birds in the offing or not, just as soon as the trail intersected with the backpack loop.

Only...it didn't. I kept walking, and heard an odd, reverberating sound, similar to a wood thrush's, only a singe note instead of the three syllable eh-oh-lay. In fact, it sounded like...veer veer veer. I was hearing the song of a veery! But so far away.... I passed an area that had once been the Old Orchard Group Camp, now forgotten and overgrown, no campers welcome. I had also picked up another entourage of bugs, and kept batting at them ineffectually while I hurried along. Would this trail ever end?

And then, a bit louder...veer veer veer. At this point, I was thinking, that is surely a veery if ever I've heard one (and I have); and when oh when will I get off this trail?

Finally, I reached a juncture: the wooded trail kept on into the trees (I never suspected that Moraine View had that many trees), and another one looped back towards whence I came, through some fields.

With a sinking thought of ticks, I chose the fields.

Cursing my fate

The fields were pleasant, providing a nice selection of field sparrows and common yellowthroats, plus a red-tailed hawk overhead. But I was seriously disoriented, along the lines of, Where the bleep am I??? Technically, I wasn't "lost," as I knew how to retrace my steps. But I'd been walking for a hour, and really just wanted to get back to my car. It had never occurred to me that one could walk for an hour in this park, and still not turn up anywhere in particular.

Finally, I came to a parking area that said Wildlife Management Area Six. This dumped me out on county road 800. Where on earth was I? Swallowing my pride, I pulled out my cell phone and called Greenturtle, begging him to pull up Google Maps and direct me back to my car.

It turned out that Moraine View was much bigger than I'd suspected, and I was about three miles by blacktop from the Tall Timber area parking lot. Greenturtle obligingly gave me some directions, and I walked...and walked...and walked...all around the back end of the park and then back along the long and boring entry road. A chorus of dickcissels guided my way. I stepped over the body of a dead kingbird. I added chipping sparrow, cowbird, house sparrow and killdeer to my list.

I was so thirsty...and still there was more to walk. And then more. Oh, this had all been such a bad idea! Listing is the work of the devil, why oh why do I persist? Another step onward...and then another. This is why I don't go to Moraine View! Bad things always happen here!

Ticked off

Finally I was in sight of my car. I heard a wood thrush, but neither saw nor heard any trace of my "target" species. I had read that they liked to frequent the edges of deciduous forests, and thus had practically circumnavigated the same, and still no luck? Not cool, yellow-throated vireos, not cool at all.

And finally, the car! I found a few more ticks and flicked them off. Once home, I found another half dozen creeping in my hair, and disposed of them. I bathed, both shampooing and conditioning my hair...and then found yet another, a very clean and shiny tick, creeping along my hairline. This makes at least two dozen ticks for the day!!

And so I thought to myself, I will never, ever do this again. Listing only brings torment; it is not worth it.

Until I read my ebird alert for the day...a family of upland sandpipers seen in McLean county just this weekend?? That would be a life bird. And I'm off on Wednesday for the fourth of July.... I'll have to check it out!

P.S. Counting all my heard-only birds (including the rare veery), my species total was 38! So not a totally bogus journey after all. Just a bit longer than anticipated.