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? Well...one 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!