Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Smiling Spider by Odilon Redon

OK, it's not a bird...but that's because birds aren't scary. Not even the silent birds that fly in darkness.

Two Owls by Gustave Dore

Or ravens that swoop in during the night.

Gustave Dore
Although they might be scary if they grew really, really big.

Or if they were some kind of half-human were-bird on the rampage.

from Une Semaine de Bonte by Max Ernst

Or if they were able to capsize a boat.

But in real life, they're just not very threatening.

Hope you have a fun Halloween!

Monday, October 15, 2012

A rainy day at Clinton Lake

The turkey vulture gets my vote for the fugliest bird in Illinois

It was early Saturday morning. I had just checked my e-mail and noticed that a potential year bird, the common loon, and a cool "county bird," the surf scoter, had been reported just the day before at the Overlook/Peninsula Day Use area of Clinton Lake. This was exciting news indeed.

During the workday, I had used my vicinity to Lake Decatur's mud flats and Sportsman's Park to get four more year birds -- the black bellied plover (life bird!), the orange crowned warbler, the American pipit (life bird!) and the dunlin, a lunch time round-up almost good enough to make me stop pining for my former Work Place Pond. And just as the old saying "you can never be too rich or too thin" goes, you can never see too many "year birds." Even if you're so skinny people think you're anorexic and so rich you can't trust anyone to like you just for yourself, another year bird is always an unmitigated joy.

So I waited impatiently for the sun to come out. It did not. The sky remained gray, the daylight feeble. Finally I began to suspect that Mother Nature was up to something, and checked the weather report. Rain all weekend long, that's what it said. Arrgh!

But it wasn't raining yet, so I decided to try my luck and go out in search of the loon. Drizzle splatted on my windshield as I drove out of town, but I decided to try to be optimistic. Maybe the full deluge would hold off for a while. Maybe the meteorologist would be proven so wrong he'd have to resign, and a full day of sunshine would commence. Maybe pigs would fly and people in hell would get their longed-for ice water. You never know.

I decided to start with the Peninsula Day Use Area.

Suffice to say that this particular corner of the Lake has been officially closed for a while. I don't think anyone minds if you park at the gate and wander in to bird, although I don't come here very often because it creeps me out a little bit.

The first time I came here, it made me think of Planet of the Apes, a movie I have not seen since grade school, but somehow associate with images of ruined, overgrown cities. Perhaps this is why I find it creepy, a subconscious fear of confronting a talking primate able to subjugate the human race into slavery. Images seen in childhood have the power to stick around long after we are old enough to know better, which is why I blame Hitchcock for a lot of grown-up ornithophobes.

The day was so gray that passerines had to be identified by sound or shape alone, as otherwise they just appeared as gray shapes against the foliage. I saw a nice abundance of robins, goldfinches, blue jays and crows. But no matter. I was looking for loons! Also scoters, but if I had to pick only one, I'd go with the "year bird," the loon.

I passed the old playground and picnic area and headed for the lake, noticing that someone had cleaned up considerably since my last visit. The piles of garbage, beer cans, stray bits of clothing (ugghh...don't want to imagine how that got left behind), and even a frying pan were gone.

I did not see a single loon over the water. Or a scoter. Or anything at all. The water level was so low from our dry summer that I realized I could probably walk quite a ways along the shoreline, as it curved around into a relatively sheltered cove, so I decided to explore a bit.

Due to the drizzly weather, the roar of motor boats was thankfully absent, and I felt agreeably solitary. It was rather attractive in an austere, autumnal way. Sky, water, and shore were all variations on a theme, sending my mind scrambling for synonyms for "gray." Gun-metal, slate, pewter, ash, shale, mother of pearl. The weather might be bad for birding, but was not without its charms.

I startled a belted kingfisher and a great blue heron. A flock of double-crested cormorants flew past, further into the cove. The shore wound around until I could see the berm of the spillway. Behind this was the elusive "Clinton Marsh," the best place in the county to see Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows, or so say my birding buddies. I have yet to explore the marsh, or even pinpoint the exact way to get to it.

The drizzle seemed a bit more earnest, so I decided to keep walking along the shoreline. I startled a small flock of pied-billed grebes, and noticed a group of gulls on the far shore by the berm. I put up my scope, and identified ring-billed, herring and Bonaparte's. And on I walked.

I had just gotten to the base of the berm, with still nary a loon in sight, when two things occurred. One, I got slapped with a good-sized rain drop. And two, my feeling of "a bit creepy" turned into "downright weird." Despite my usual nonchalance about hiking alone, occasionally I do start of feel a bit unnerved by my solitude. Perhaps it was just how isolated the location seemed. It's times like this I wish I had my mother, "Sunwiggy," along, not just for company, but so I can ask her, "Is it just me, or is this place weird?"

I began heading back, with the rain ever more insistent, until finally I was back at my car, flinging camera and spotting scope into the trunk. I sat down behind the wheel and made a list of the birds I'd seen, a poor round-up of species indeed. Just as I was debating trying my luck at the Overlook, the heavens opened, and lo! the rain came down.

Sunday morning, I got to repeat my routine: early rising, coffee, more coffee, check my e-mail for bird sightings, another cup of coffee, and go. The loon had been seen again, this time at the Marina. At the time the bird was seen, I knew for a fact it had been raining ropes, as the French would say, so I wasn't sure how it had been seen, but who am I to doubt other birders? Besides, I love checking my morning bird alerts. Sometimes it's the highlight of my whole day.

After mid-morning or so, the rain clouds scudded away, chased by winds that gusted up to forty miles per hour, or so said my trusty Internet weather report. I'm not sure who hates these windy days more, birds or birders, but the Marina's not too far from my home, so I thought, what's the harm in looking?

Leaves were blown at my windshield the whole way, and every glimpse of the lake I had showed a choppy, birdless expanse. Crows were tossed about willy-nilly on the gusts, and everywhere I looked, the fields were filled with turkey vultures. The vultures must be migrating through; it seems that, all of a sudden each fall, I see them everywhere.

Indeed, I saw them at the Marina. There were at least a couple dozen of them, circling overhead, perched on utility poles, hanging out in the parking lot. Not a loon in sight, but vultures everywhere!

I drove around the lake a bit more, but everywhere I could see water, it was too rough and choppy for good bird sightings. The way the trees and grasses were shaking, I didn't think it would be a good day for passerines, either. So I decided that the whole venture was just "loonacy," and headed home with no year birds to show for it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Winged Creatures: a story

Solitary Wanderer by Vocisconnesse, used by permission

The following is a long-delayed fulfillment of a story I told my mother I'd write, about a group of birders who disappear in the woods. We were walking in the woods at the time and I thought that was a fun starting point. It goes without saying that none of these birders are anything like any actual people I know, nor is the park based on an actual place. If you enjoy a classic creepy tale, you might like this one.

Winged Creatures

There had been reports of a rare bird in the area. Not many reports, and not reliable; the observer was someone that none of them had heard of. But even so, the bird was so choice, a “lifer” for each of them, and not seen in the area for over a century, and the day so fine, and the company of their fellows so enjoyable, that they decided to go looking for it.
Six of them exited from two vehicles at the remote trailhead, four men and two women, each toting binoculars and some with field guides, moleskin notebooks, daypacks or water bottles to round out their gear. They did not expect to be gone that long, perhaps until mid-afternoon. The park was large, and the bird seen at the far side of it, but the trail was well-marked and one of them, Josh Morrison, was somewhat familiar with it.
He was the only one for whom birding was profession as well as passion, having recently gotten a master’s in environmental science, and considering pursuing a doctorate in ornithology. But that could wait until later. In the meantime, he worked for a birding tour company, and the satisfaction of actually getting paid to bird, though not paid well, was something of a novelty. He was also the youngest of the group, at twenty-six, but he had been birding for so long that he could not imagine a day not spent lusting after winged creatures.
Before they left the parking area, Becky and Arnold Friend brought out apple juice and a fresh bakery loaf of cinnamon bread, and offered it to the group. They were the oldest of them, a married couple in their late sixties, whose only child, now grown up, was a lawyer who hated birds. They were only casual birders but first-rate community members: organizing the annual bird seed fundraising sale; working on the local birding group newsletter; hosting gatherings and summer BBQs in their spacious backyard, where people could watch hummingbirds battling at the feeders while waiting for their hamburgers to cook.
Everyone took some bread and juice, although they were impatient to hit the trail, except for Andie Kadery, who had not been with the group for very long. There was something a bit off about Andie,. She was thin, thirty-something, with spiky hair that was rarely the same color two months in a row, and tattoos, a lot of them. Today two were visible, a snake twining up her right arm, with its rattle on her wrist and its head nestling across her bicep, and a dove with a bleeding heart in its beak on her left arm. She had only gone out with birding with them perhaps three or four times, and was quiet and aloof; when she did speak, it was always, and only, about birds.
The last two members of the group were Sammy Haring and Peter Duran, both regulars in early middle age, solid but not exceptional birders. Sammy was married, with a wife who disliked being outdoors, and Peter was divorced. Peter was a bit more obsessed with birds than Sammy, but that was not the reason for his wife’s leaving him. Rumor had it that she had gone to California to join some sort of New Age cult, but whatever the reason, Peter didn’t seem that broken up by it. Mostly, he birded, on his own, or with Sammy.
They had not even moved away from the vehicles, and the birds were promising: an eastern towhee sang from the telephone wire running along the road, and an indigo bunting flashed past them before disappearing into the field beyond the trees. A Carolina wren sang shrilly, not too distant, its voice proclaiming teakettle, teakettle, teakettle.
Josh made a quick note of the sightings; if this rare bird panned out, this might be something that the tour company might want to include on their roster.
By then everyone was ready to begin, although the Friends treated these walks more as social occasions. They trailed at the rear, chatting with Peter and Sammy, while Josh and Andie searched seriously for birds. As they came upon a mixed feeding flock of warblers, Peter became more intent as well, and soon everyone had ceased to chatter except to call out the better specimens among the winged jewels before them.
It was a perfect day for a walk, especially with the possibility of the rare bird still ahead of them. Their pace was leisurely, and they covered little ground, although the rare bird had been seen several miles down the trail; but the birding was just too good to hurry.
Around ten, the day began to warm up, and the bird sightings slowed. The trail bogged down at a creek. Normally quiescent, the water surged over the stepping stones that bridged it after the previous week of spring rains.
“I don’t think I can cross that,” Becky said. “I’ll wait here.”
There was some talk about shifting the car-pooling arrangements so that she wouldn’t have to wait, but Arnold rather wanted to see the bird, and Becky insisted that she would enjoy the rest as it was at least a couple miles back to the car, and she was no spring chicken, and as she seemed quite cheerful about it, Sammy declared that he would benefit from the rest as well, and would wait with her.
“We can make it there and back in an hour if we hurry,” said Josh, and he, Andie, Arnold and Peter splashed their way across the stream. As soon as they were out of sight, Sammy took advantage of the opportunity to fish a pack of cigarettes out of his cargo pocket and indulge. He had told everyone that he quit, and after two triumphant months was too embarrassed to admit that he had caved, especially as Josh and Peter had always found the habit annoying; but Becky was such an old friend that he felt comfortable in front of her.
“I hope they’re not too long,” he said, inhaling blissfully on his Camel. “Jackie invited her parents over for dinner and I said I’d help clean up before they came. I don’t want to end up in the doghouse like Peter.”
“Peter’s wife didn’t leave him because of the birding,” Becky said. It was probably her greatest weakness, but she was a terrible gossip. “It was because Peter’s gay.”
“Are you sure?”
“He told me so himself.”
“I didn’t see that one coming.” Sammy thought about all the time that he and Peter had spent alone together birding or hiking, and decided that it didn’t make a difference if Peter was gay or not. Anyone who could identify the birds like Peter could was given a free pass.
As he ground out the cigarette butt and tossed it out of sight, the air was suddenly filled with birdsong, a piercing, beautiful song that he had never heard before. It sounded almost like that of a wood thrush, but with more, it was like a meadowlark, if only a meadowlark were a baritone instead of a tenor....
“I’ve never heard anything that lovely,” Becky gasped.
“Do you think it’s the bird?” Sammy speculated. “It would be funny if we’re the ones who ended up seeing it.”
They both stood up, and Sammy was so excited that he didn’t notice how Becky’s face blanched upon rising, and she tottered a few steps. He waded the stream and dashed down the trail, assuming that she was right behind him, although if he had thought about it, he would have remembered that she had not been spry enough to dash for several years.
“There it is!” he cried, feeling a bit foolish when he realized that he was speaking to himself. He raised his binoculars, brought the bird into focus, and realized that he was staring at a black-billed cuckoo, a nice enough bird, but nothing extraordinary, certainly nothing worth abandoning a friend over.
And the birdsong had faded; in fact, the woods seemed quieter than they should be on a spring morning. There was something a bit heavy about it, and he felt as if he had not only been rude to abandon Becky like that, but had actually left her in some sort of danger. He knew this was silly; he had been gone perhaps five minutes, ten at the most. But still, it was with some urgency that he turned around and jogged back along the trail.
It took him a few more minutes to realize that something was wrong; he had merely rounded a bend or two after splashing across the creek, and yet the water was nowhere in sight. The trail petered out into a sort of swale, with water oozing up over the tops of his shoes as he staggered forward into the nettles.
He turned around to retrace his steps, but could not find the trail at all. This is why I don’t go walking in the woods by myself, he thought, trying to deny the beginnings of panic that he could feel quivering about somewhere beneath his solar plexus. He paced back and forth along the edge of swale for a good half hour or so before he realized that would have to risk the good-natured mockery of his friends and admit that he had gotten lost in the most ridiculous way.
He fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone, intending to call Becky and reassure her that he was just a few minutes away from her along the trail – provided he could find the trail again – and to make sure that she was all right. The phone rang a few times and then that most pure and beautiful song played achingly through the tiny speaker; and after that, the signal seemed to drop entirely, and the phone went dead.


            Josh, Arnold, Andie and Peter had not kept the quick pace they’d intended. The day was just too beautiful, with too many things to pay attention to: a summer tanager foraging in the leaves of an oak; a patch of rare yellow ladies’ slippers beside the trail; a glimpse of a red fox trotting away from them. Arnold and Peter began to feel guilty about leaving the others behind, and after another hour or so, they stopped to discuss just how much further down the path the rare bird was said to be, and how much longer they should continue to pursue it.
            “It’s eleven o’clock already,” said Arnold. “Becky’s a patient woman, but I don’t think she’ll want to sit around all morning.”
            Josh consulted his notes, and a park flyer with a crude trail map that he had folded in half and stuck in his pocket. “The bird was seen by the river, which we should get to in another half a mile or so.” But Arnold, taking the map, shook his head and said that the legend had it clearly marked as another two miles at least, which was too long to keep Becky waiting.
            Josh tried to control his impatience. People sometimes told him that he was too obsessed by birds – even other birders were known to have said this – and he knew that this was one of those occasions.  The right thing, the courteous thing to do, would be to go back with his friends and return on his own later in the week, for the bird, if it really had been sighted and was, in fact, still in the area, might well choose to remain another day or two; and even if not, the bird would not be offended, or inconvenienced in any way, by his failing to see it.
            But still. A “life bird,” and an extreme rarity at that. He did not want to turn around until he had exhausted every last chance of seeing it.
            “I should head back too,” said Peter. “I’ve got work to do in the afternoon.”
            They looked at Andie. Since she was the other driver, Josh hoped that she, too, would choose to call it a day, but she just shrugged. “I’d like to stick around for a while. Do you think you could all squeeze in with Josh?”
            Josh made his decision; there was no way he was going to risk Andie’s seeing the bird, while he waited impatiently for his next day off. “Do you mind giving me a ride?” he asked Andie.
            She shrugged again, a weird contorting motion that was not quite normal, and said that would be fine.
            Josh handed his keys to Peter. “Take my car. I’ll have Andie drop me off at your place when we’re finished.”
            With their dilemma solved, Arnold and Peter turned back, leaving the other two to wander farther along the trail into that numinous morning sunlight, beneath a spring time sky that seemed almost painfully blue.

            Arnold and Peter did not make the best time on their return trip, for Arnold was a steady walker but not a fast one, and the trail was a bit more uneven than they recalled from their trip out, but that was not surprising, as the trail on just about any trip is more arduous on the return.
            It was almost noon when they got to the creek, and the area where they had left Becky and Sammy to wait for them. Neither was present, although a dropped cigarette butt indicated that Sammy had gone back to his bad habit.
            “They must have decided to wait by the cars,” Peter said. “There’s a picnic shelter and an outhouse there; maybe that would be more comfortable.”
            “I shouldn’t have kept Becky sitting by herself for so long,” Arnold mumbled.
            “Well, she was with Sammy. And it’s a very mild day. I’m sure she’s fine.”
            But to assuage his concern, Peter volunteered to call Sammy and let them know that they were coming back. He had not been alarmed when Becky did not answer, as the Friends only had one cell phone between them, and stubbornly managed to forget it half the time when they went out. They often managed to “forget” to check their e-mail, too, as they had been quite pleased with the twentieth century’s progress, and saw no need for any more.
            Sammy’s phone did not ring, nor did it offer to let him leave a message, and this did alarm Peter a bit. There were many reasons it could happen—a pocket of bad reception, perhaps, but the area they were in was not remote, and Sammy always had his phone with him, and always answered it. Even in the middle of dinner, even at work or a doctor’s office, he picked it up. This lapse was the first inkling Peter had that something was wrong, but he ignored it, and said, trying to sound cheerful, “Well, on to the parking area.”
            As it turned out, Arnold had not been paying any attention. He was a few feet down the trail, kneeling awkwardly over the ground. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” he asked, turning and holding up a long, glossy black feather. “What kind of bird could this come from?”
            “An eagle?” Peter said hesitantly, but he knew right away that no eagle had left that feather. Approaching, he added, “Is it even real?”
            The feather was over two feet long, with a shaft the size of a pencil. The barbs stitched it together into an unbroken expanse of unvarying black. Arnold tilted it back and forth in the sunlight, but not the slightest trace of iridescence could be seen to shimmer along it.
            “There’s more,” Arnold said, gesturing to the ground, where a half dozen of the feathers lay scattered. Then he looked a bit forward, and groaned, and it was upon hearing that noise that Peter knew that things were not right and would not be right for them ever again.
            He followed his gaze, and saw, discarded beneath a shrub, Becky’s unmistakable glasses with the rhinestones in the corner. There was no other sign of her.


            Josh and Andie had just reached the river when Josh’s phone rang. He was tempted to ignore it, but seeing that the caller was Peter, he flipped it open and snapped, “What?,” not caring that his impatience with anything coming between him and the rare bird was showing.
            Peter babbled for a while about giant feathers and people disappearing and Becky’s glasses on the trail, and Josh kept trying to talk sense into him – was there any blood or other sign of violence? Was there any sign of Sammy? Shouldn’t they go back to the cars before they decided to panic? And as for the feathers, they must have fallen off of another hiker’s shirt, some sort of fashion accessory, since no bird on earth had three foot long feathers. But finally he recognized that he was being a jerk, and his friends, foolish as they were, needed him.
            “Keep heading for the cars,” he said at last, “and I’ll catch up to you. I’m turning around now.”
            Andie was standing alongside the river, balancing on two rocks along the bank, and glanced at him quizzically.
            “There might be something wrong with Becky,” Josh said. “I have to head back.”
            “I’m sure she’s fine.”
            “Are you coming?”
            “No, I’ll just drive back on my own. Sorry you missed the bird.”
            He almost tried to persuade her to come with him, but she seemed capable, and it would be a shame if none of them got to see the bird. So he wished her good luck and turned around, walking swiftly, and then, bit by bit, increasing his pace until he was jogging, then running as quickly as he could over the uneven ground. Why had he thought of his friends as foolish? He had known them for years, and they were as sensible and ordinary as anyone he knew. They didn’t panic for nothing, or wander off and get lost in the woods. If Peter sounded alarmed, it was because something alarming had happened.
            As he ran along, this seemed so obvious to him that he was angry at himself for doubting him, and for being so focused on birds that he allowed them to split up. As a fledgling tour leader he knew better—the safety of the group came first. The desires of the guide came last. And even if this was not an official tour but a mere group of friends out for a walk, Josh was the one who had suggested it, organized it, mapped it out. Whatever bad thing was happening, it was at least partly his fault.
            He kept running until he had to stop to get his breath back, then staggered forward, kicked the pace up to a jog again. He slogged through the creek, and did not see the feathers that Peter had talked about, or Becky’s glasses, but perhaps they had taken those with them.
            It seemed to be hours before he emerged at the trailhead, sweaty and gasping, his heart pounding in his chest at the unaccustomed exertion. He could see the cars, side by side at the edge of the small parking area, but no people.
            “Hello? Peter? Arnold?” he called out, and then wished he hadn’t. It seemed to him that it was better to remain unnoticed. He held up his binoculars, and scanned the picnic area, but there was no sign of them, or of any movement whatsoever.
            And then he looked at the cars. They were both covered in black feathers, which rose and fell slightly in the wind as if the cars were living creatures, exhaling. He did not want to get any closer, but he knew he owed it to them to follow it through to the end. Slowly, he walked towards the nearest vehicle, and with one sudden movement, pushed the feathers off the windshield, even though he knew what he would find within.


            Andie continued to walk along the path by the river. She was glad to be alone now, having formed, over the course of the morning, an intense dislike for all of the others, for any other people at all, in fact. She had been mostly solitary her whole life, and although in the past that had bothered her, she now realized that, all along, it had been her strength. She alone had not turned back. She alone had been chosen.
            Any sense of time seeped away from her. She let her binoculars dangle carelessly in one hand, and when they began to feel heavy, let them drop. As the trail meandered further and further into the forest, she found herself humming tunelessly, almost babbling, like a child or a madwoman.
            Oh, I’ve always been mad, she thought, but it’s OK, it brought me here. I just don’t want this to ever end; I want to walk on and on down this trail, and never have to go back to being myself again.
            Then she heard the singing. It was like the chorus of a hundred unearthly birds, only with tones so pure and beautiful that hearing it was almost a form of cruelty. At first she wanted one last chance to run, but isn’t this what she had come for? This rare creature who had not been seen in a century at least?
            The creature was rushing for her, not a bird after all, but a heartless winged creature, its feathers as black as the void and the look on its face that of pure hunger.
            Andie threw out her arms before it, and shouted, “I’m ready!”
            There was a pounding of wings, and darkness, until finally she could no longer hear the song, or anything at all. For the space of several moments, silence filled the forest. And then, one by one, the birds began to call, the squirrels to chatter, the insects to buzz. The wind rustled through the treetops, and no living thing remembered that six people had walked across the land just that morning.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Autumn: a new beginning

Something happened over the last couple of weeks. The leaves started to change, subtly at first, a sprinkling of yellow here and there. Today I noticed a new shade in the mix, deep burgundy hues. Yesterday morning was the first frost of the year. And on the bird front, the mixed flocks of fall migrants have mostly moved onwards; now 90% of the warblers I'm seeing are yellow rumps.

How did September disappear so quickly? Wait, I want to call out to the season, don't change yet, I wasn't finished! I could easily have enjoyed another couple of weeks of the fall warblerama, and I still haven't seen a blue-headed vireo this year. It's bad enough that summer ended before I found a chat!

And all of these yellow rumps are distracting. I would start to get annoyed with them for hogging up so much of my binocular time except that I keep imagining them saying, "Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit" whenever I get a glimpse of those yellow behinds. It's this kind of silliness that prevents me from wallowing in self pity because now so many months have to pass before I will see another indigo bunting, scarlet tanager or dickcissel.

There's something special about fall. Many people state that it's their favorite season. Indeed, for many years, it was my favorite season, until I became a birder. Now I tend to associate the season more with cycles ending, species departing...a slow, beautiful departure for the year.

But as I walked across the campus of Illinois Wesleyan in the early evening last weekend, on an (unsuccessful) hunt for the eastern screech owl that had been reported there, the sight of so many red brick buildings resurrected all those old, autumnal associations: the start of the school year, the sense of new possibilities, of my own untapped potential. It made me want to buy a stack of textbooks and get to work. It also made me wonder what it is about myself, that I feel more comfortable being eternally the student, and never the expert.

Of course, it's entirely possible to be both student and expert simultaneously. I felt this while I was birding at Weldon Springs with a couple of people from the Audubon society last Saturday; sudden chilly temperatures kept the group quite small. One of the birders grabbed his binoculars case, and realized that it was empty--he had forgotten to replace the binoculars back inside. So I volunteered to lend him my extra pair.

I'm sure he had forgotten how, back in 2004, Sunwiggy and I showed up for our very first bird walk, and were so naive about birding that neither one of us had thought to bring binoculars. (Actually, back then, she didn't even have any binoculars, and I only had a hideous bargain pair of Greenturtle's.) So this person took pity on us and lent us a very nice pair, which Sunwiggy and I shared for the duration of the walk...which was, to bring things even more "full circle," at Weldon Springs.

This was probably one of those random acts of kindness that is swiftly forgotten by the giver, but always remembered by the recipient, and though I said nothing about it, I was very pleased that, years later, I could return the favor. The walk made me realize in other ways how far I've come since that first venture in 2004; looking for birds with two individuals whose skill had once seemed unattainable made me realize how much I've learned.

Normally, October is the winding down of my birding year, but perhaps this year, late fall and early winter will instead keep bringing new possibilities. Now that I am neither student nor expert in the birding realm, things are getting interesting.

When I was a brand-new birder, whole categories of birds seemed way too complicated to sort out. Sparrows were the first group I grew confident about, then the warblers. This year I am finally getting a grasp on the shorebirds, and hopefully the gulls as well. And I am also figuring out how and where to find these birds. But, I still have so many left to see, that everything still feels exciting.

"Do you still need many birds for Illinois?" one of the birders asked me. To which I could only reply: "So many!"

After the walk, I went home and checked my e-mail, whereupon I learned that an American avocet had been seen at Clinton Lake. And although the report was not specific, I had a pretty good idea where. I made a nice brunch and took off again to the inlet at the east end of the lake, and after bushwhacking through the thorns and underbrush (along the way seeing several other nice species, such as brown creeper and northern waterthrush), I set my scope up along the drier edge of the mudflats...and there it was.

THE AVOCET!! Such a long-legged thing, pale in its winter plumage, with the black on its wings a stark contrast. The long, up-turned bill swept side to side over the water as it searched for food. Not a life bird, but not seen since my last trip to Texas in 2007. Do I still need many birds for Illinois? less as of this moment.

My fall birding luck has continued. Yesterday, I spotted my "lifer" black-bellied plover at the mudflats along Lost Bridge Road at Lake Decatur. Seriously, I can't think of a better way to spend one's lunch break.

Today, a lunchtime excursion to Sportsman's Park netted me another "year bird," the orange crowned warbler. In with a whole lot of yellow rumps, of course.

This year, fall doesn't feel like an ending so much as a window for new possibilities, just as it used to be in my student days. I will miss all the summertime breeding birds and the excitement of migration, of course, but if the seasons didn't change, I'd never get to look for winter owls and finches. And this just might be the year I finally get to see them!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ex libris: literary wanderlust

I just finished a book in the travel/memoir genre, All Over the Map by Laura Fraser (Broadway, 2011), which detailed some jaunts and journeys that the author made over a period of a couple years. I enjoy reading about people's travels even when it doesn't involve birds, and am always looking for a good book to indulge my vicarious wanderlust.

The memoir begins on a note of longing. Fraser, a divorced magazine writer who had recently seen the far side of forty, is acutely aware of all the things she doesn't have: a husband or steady partner, a home of her own, the level of professional success she'd hoped for. Attending her class reunion brings some of these insecurities to a head; and then a subsequent bad experience while researching an article in Samoa shakes her up even more.

At first, I found the book scatter-shot and superficial, all over the map, indeed. A chapter about a visit to Naples to work on an article about exploited sex workers didn't segue well with a subsequent one about attending a meditation retreat and the chapter about visiting Peru was downright dull. And how on earth do you make Peru sound dull? Plus, I was getting tired of reading about her bad luck with men.

Despite all her travels, Fraser was getting stuck in a rut, writing articles she didn't care about, dating men who weren't right, still living the same kind of way as she had in her twenties. (Cue Dido's song "Life for Rent.") But then finally--and I really rolled my eyes at this one--a session with a life coach helped her get her priorities in order. She stopped making excuses for why she couldn't have the life she wanted, and ended up happier, with a home in a place she never expected.

It is a very personal book, and I despite my impatience with some of its shortcomings (which may be the fault of her being primarily a writer for glossy woman's magazines, as I really don't care for that sort of breezy journalism; thinking back over it, I think that the style is superficial, but the overall content of her personal journey is not), I found I could relate to a lot of it.

I think that most of us, once we get to a certain age, tend to become more aware of all the things that haven't quite gone right in our lives. And travel can help us shake things up and find a new perspective.

For everyone sighing and thinking this is all Eat, Pray, Love-style self-indulgence (btw, I have read Eat, Pray, Love twice and really enjoyed it, but the reader reviews on Amazon are pretty harsh), I would like to point out that the human love of wandering is an ancient one; in other times and places--depending on exactly which time and place--people would go on pilgrimages and walkabouts, shake things up by going on a Crusade or a voyage to the New World, or decide to explore the Arctic, the Amazon or to circumnavigate the globe. Or even on an inward journey: Dante's Divine Comedy came from his finding himself, at middle age, feeling as if he were "in a dark wood." As humans were nomadic for much of our history, perhaps this urge to wander is ingrained in us.

Foreign travel is an especially efficient way of slapping oneself to attention--the language is strange, the culture is unfamiliar, all of a sudden you're paying attention to everything. I've done it twice (to Japan my senior year of high school and to Morocco for a two-year stint teaching English), and I can honestly say that those were some of the most intensively lived moments I've had.

But, the experience can also be disorienting, even a bit scary. And thinking of travel can also invoke another deeply ingrained human impulse: the fear of the unknown, the different, the alienation of being completely adrift. In its most extreme form, this fear becomes actual xenophobia, and the travel genre (though more often fictional travel than memoir) is replete with examples of that, as well.

I have also read a few books recently about the perils of travel. One was a work of fiction, Losing Gemma by Katy Gardner (2002), a novel about two British girls, friends from childhood on a trip to India together. Esther, the narrator, is pretty, a college grad, and well-traveled, believing herself to be much more sophisticated than her dumpy pal Gemma. In fact, she is quite condescending to Gemma, and insists that this India trip be done her way---squalid hostels and crowded trains the whole way, going to off-the-beaten path locales instead of the nice beach vacation at Goa that Gemma would prefer.

Not surprisingly, Gemma takes umbrage to this, and seems to prefer the company of an Australian hippie they encounter, Coral, to that of her old friend. Things really get weird when they go to the shrine of a Muslim martyr out in the jungle, and Gemma disappears. I will say no more of the story, for fear of spoilers.

What I liked: vivid and colorful descriptions of India; a suspenseful story that kept me turning the "pages" on my Kindle; and some seriously weird and creepy scenes that appealed to my love of the Gothic and unexplained. What I didn't like: two extremely annoying characters and an ending that relied too much on some clunky coincidences. But overall, a book I enjoyed and would recommend. (Other works of fiction set in India that I like: Travelers by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Ivory Swing by Janet Turner Hospital, A Passage to India by E.M.Forster, and Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. And another good work of British girl with a backpack in peril novel is Backpack by Emily Barr.)

The other book I've recently read on this theme was actually a true-crime story, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry (FSG Originals, 2012), about a young British girl, Lucie Blackman, who was murdered in Japan. I don't normally read much of the true crime genre, but I picked this one up at the library because I am always interested in books about Japan.

The story centered on the disappearance (and ultimate death) of a young girl who worked as a "hostess" in a Tokyo night club. This job doesn't really have an American equivalent; the hostesses entertain the club's clientele by pouring them drinks, lighting their cigarettes, and pretending to find them fascinating. They are also supposed to generate revenue for the night club by going on "dates" with the clients and then bringing them back to the bar for drinks afterwards. Although the job is not strictly sexual in nature, it is considered part of the mizu shobai, or "floating world," of the sex trade. In other words, although she didn't have to strip or turn tricks, Lucie's job as a "hostess" wasn't completely respectable either.

And the job, along with her own naivete, left her vulnerable. Lucie Blackman is now dead. Who killed her, and how he was discovered, I will leave to those who might want to read the book.

What I liked: the insights into some facets of Japanese culture that my exchange student days did not touch, such as the world of night club "hostesses" and the awkward situation of Koreans living in Japan; the fact that the book was well-written, minimally sensational, and seemed quite thoroughly researched. What I didn't like: the last part dragged a bit (once we knew who the culprit was, I was ready to wrap it up), and--though this is not the fault of the book--I don't really enjoy "true crime" as a genre. Talking about Lucie seems in poor taste to me, as she was a real person, with hopes and dreams and a family, who is now dead.

The travel/memoir genre has other sub-types as well, such as the I Bought a House in Another Country books (my favorites: A House in Fez by Susanna Clarke and The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah); stories of general wanderings (Paul Theroux is always great, especially with Dark Star Safari and The Happy Isles of Oceania); and then of course there are those who chose to live in another land for a while (The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost and Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris); travel essays (The Astonishing World by Barbara Grizutti Harrison); and then, of course, the whole living in France sub-genre (Peter Mayle, Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, etc.)

As usual, I have embarked upon a topic, barely skimmed the surface, and left myself, if not my readers, wanting more. As I have more travel books piled up by my bedside, I am sure that I will come back to the topic.

Until you enjoy reading travel books? What are your favorites? Why do you think it remains such a popular genre?