Thursday, September 20, 2012

When you least expect it

juvenile bald eagle

I left my last post dangling with my anticipation of a day of nature observation at Weldon Springs, and a mention of how becoming a sort of bird-focused amateur naturalist rekindled my relationship with my binoculars back in 2009.

Perhaps a bit more about the latter before I get around the former. I began birding in the fall of 2004, when Sunwiggy and I decided it would be interesting to join the local Audubon chapter on some field trips.

And we did enjoy it, so much so that I went to Texas twice to find me more birds, once to Austin and the Edwards plateau region (hello, golden-checked warblers!), and the following year with Sunwiggy to the Gulf Coast region, the highlight of which was a nature tour of the awesome King Ranch (hello, ferruginous pygmy owl!).

But after that, if I wasn't losing interest in birding, exactly, I was kind of losing steam. My local patches and the local birds were starting to feel a bit "been there, done that." In fact, in all of 2008, I only got one year bird, although it was a good one, the prothonotary warbler. My fancy binoculars and pile of birding books were at risk of going to waste.

Then, in 2009, a series of factors intersected to make me the bird-obsessed individual that everyone knows and tolerates today. One was a series of frustrations and tribulations in the rest of my life that left me in dire need of an engaging hobby.

Another was the discovery of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's database, ebird. Introducing ebird to a compulsive numbers and list-obsessed person such as myself is like asking someone with a propensity to drug problems if they'd like to try crack. I submitted one checklist and saw the potential for lists upon lists that could only occur in an obsessive-compulsive's paradise.

The third factor was deciding that I wanted to visit several favorite birding spots in my (then) home county of McLean (IL), to record each coming and going of every species. I had always been more of a fair weather (and spring and fall migration) birder, so it was a fun challenge to visit the prairies and lakes in the heat of summer and the icy blasts of winter. And I learned that no matter how boring juncos are by early spring, when they first show up in the fall, it's exciting. And then when they were gone I missed them. Ditto every other common species in central Illinois.

Actually, it's a project that I would recommend to just about everyone, birder or not. Pick a spot in nature, or even a local park with a scrubby overgrown patch or a grove of trees or a waterfront, and go there each and every week for a year and make a careful note of what you see. 2009 was the year that I really learned to love central Illinois, and to appreciate the subtle variations in each season.

I really haven't been doing that this year. Each year I've birded has had a slightly different focus, and 2012 has been the year of the unapologetic checklist: identify the species I want to see, the place it has recently shown up, find it and check it off! This sort of behavior has a bad name in certain birding circles, but so what? It's been a blast.

Except when I go out for several trips in a row and don't add a single species to my year list! Then it's agony. So on Thursday morning, I decided to revert to my 2009 attitude, and spend the entire day (as I had it off, and was solitary) walking each trail in Weldon Springs Park: two prairie loops, the "backpack" loop that winds through a small forest bordered by Salt Creek; and the two mile loop around the lake.

I really didn't expect to see a lot. I began at 8:00, strolling the Farmhouse Prairie Loop.

This is one of my favorite walks in central Illinois, and I have seen some wonderful birds here, such as blue grosbeak and bobolink. But my first impression that morning was of stillness. Blue jays called, and a red-headed woodpecker drummed at a tree. I saw a juvenile red-headed woodpecker fly past, a first sighting in the park, so that was exciting.

But mostly, a quiet walk. The pleasures were subtle: a meadowlark flying away from me, showing a white "V" on its tail. A phoebe pumped its tail by the stream. I saw year bird number 207 on the far loop of the trail, perched atop a dead tree as is its wont: the olive-sided flycatcher. Then another surprise, flushing an upland sandpiper in the long grasses, a first sighting for the county.

I finished the loop, and began walking along the lake. Many warblers were in evidence, including blackburnian, magnolia and golden-winged. I cut across the road to hook up with the trail connecting to the backpack loop, which revealed more warblers, such as Nashville, black and white, and chestnut sided, plus a pair of Cooper's hawks and several vireos (red-eyed and Philadelphia).

The Schoolhouse prairie loop is usually less productive than the Old Farmhouse, and this day was no different: the only new species was a male ring-necked pheasant, almost giving me a heart attack as it launched away from me.

The final loop of the lake trail revealed yet more species: green heron, pied-billed grebe, and finally, on the way back to the car, year bird number 208, the red-breasted nuthatch.

The entire walk took seven hours and covered about eight miles (I walk slowly when I'm birding), but I saw 54 species, and enjoyed every minute of it.

The next day I had my old birding buddy, my mother Sunwiggy, join me, and we decided to go to Comlara State Park as that was where I had previously gotten the biggest species lists in the fall. To be honest, I didn't expect to top my Weldon Springs day, so I once again set out with a "beginner's" mindset that I would just enjoy my day and whatever birds happened to be there.

As it turned out, we lingered for the longest time at the trailhead by the visitor's center just because the birding was so great: more red-breasted nuthatches, chipping sparrows, a variety of year round residents and some warblers. All of this mere yards from the car!

And it only got better. Year bird 209 popped out of the reeds and scolded us, an incomparable marsh wren. And as we were admiring the large number of cedar waxwings along the trail, year bird #210 was sighted overhead, which was also a first for Illinois for me, the merlin. Sunwiggy was not excited by the merlin, as they are common in her northern homeland, but she was excited by the yellow-headed vireo that appeared further along the trail, a life bird for her.

By the end of the walk, I had a total of 58 species, a personal record for one outing...including two more year birds, yellow-bellied sapsucker and Savannah sparrow.

The next day we went to the Allerton park by Monticello, where I knew I could not top my past two days...and, indeed, I didn't. I got another year bird, the pine warbler, and picked up my last "new species" of the week, the common tern, along Clinton Lake on the way home.

There has to be a life lesson in here somewhere: early in the week, as I was raring to see "year birds," I fizzled out; just when I decided to accept whatever happened to come my way, the magic commenced!

Does that ever happen to you, that things work out just as you stop trying so hard for them? And do you have any local patches that you return to week after week throughout the year?

Species seen on my Week Off for Birding:

American crow
mourning dove
eastern meadowlark
European starling
great blue heron
great egret
American goldfinch
American kestrel
pied-billed grebe
belted kingfisher
barn swallow
cliff swallow
song sparrow
eastern phoebe
red tailed hawk
blue winged teal
red winged blackbird
wood duck
red headed woodpecker
chimney swift
cedar waxwing
red-necked phalarope
lesser yellowlegs
American pelican
ring billed gull
semipalmated sandpiper
pectoral sandpiper
bank swallow
mute swan
American robin
American redstart
bald eagle
ring-necked pheasant
eastern bluebird
house wren
rose-breasted grosbeak
northern cardinal
gray catbird
blue jay
northern flicker
tufted titmouse
black capped chickadee
red bellied woodpecker
red eyed vireo
least flycatcher
chestnut sided warbler
magnolia warbler
palm warbler
white breasted nuthatch
blue gray gnatcatcher
ruby throated hummingbird
turkey vulture
Carolina wren
Swainson's thrush
scarlet tanager
house sparrow
olive-sided flycatcher
upland sandpiper
downy woodpecker
eastern wood pewee
chipping sparrow
Canada goose
blackburnian warbler
golden winged warbler
green heron
red-breasted nuthatch
bay-breasted warbler
Nashville warbler
hairy woodpecker
black and white warbler
Cooper's hawk
Philadelphia vireo
Wilson's warbler
house finch
double crested cormorant
spotted sandpiper
Caspian tern
yellow bellied sapsucker
yellow throated vireo
marsh wren
brown thrasher
blue-winged warbler
Tennessee warbler
black throated green warbler
Canada warbler
Savannah sparrow
indigo bunting
common grackle
pine warbler
eastern towhee
common tern
blackpoll warbler

97 species in one week...when I see it summed up like that, it's clearly no Fall Fizzle!

1 comment:

  1. Not a Fall Fizzle at all! And, I saw a lot of those birds myself, thanks to my! I'm grinning right now, just thinking of that marsh wren. In the middle of last summer, I decided to try to just be "in the moment" with whatever bird I was looking at, and not so obsessed with my Year List, as I'd noticed I was getting stressed out and crabby, not at all my goal when birding! And, one just never knows what one will see, which is a lot of the fun! MOM