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 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. 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.


  1. Oh, goodness, I was getting all teary-eyed with nostalgia, reading about you standing there on the bridge on the Tanglewood Trail, remembering our happy birding days together, until I read on!
    Heat, thirst, and ticks, plus getting a "little confused" (not lost!), doesn't sound like any fun! At least you don't have to worry about any bear encounters in Moraine View. Glad you heard a veery, too. Mom

    1. You know, at the time I didn't feel like I was having much fun, but sitting in the office today I kinda wished I was back doing it all over again. It's all a matter of perspective!