Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Big Dipper

To dip out (or dip): To miss seeing a bird which you were looking for. ---Wikipedia, "Twitcher's Vocabulary"
Usually I spend the weekend after Thanksgiving strolling the woods and fields of my favorite parks and railing against the consumerist frenzy that overtakes the land of Affluenza around this time of year, reaching its peak in the shoppers' holiday known as Black Friday; but I decided to do something different this year, and not just because listening to my own rants has become tiresome. My change of pace actually involved going into a store and purchasing something. Of course, there were birds involved.

As you may recall if you read my last post, one of the ways I try to shake up the doldrums of late fall birding is by actively chasing birds. Recently, it seems like most of the note-worthy birds being seen in Illinois are all up in Chicagoland, just a bit too far away for this central Illinois birder, so imagine my joy at seeing on the birding forums that not one, but three, potential lifers had been spotted along the Illinois River in East Peoria: white-winged scoter, lesser black-backed gull and Iceland gull. Better yet, at least one of these sightings occurred from the parking lot of the Bass Pro Shop, which made it easy to persuade my husband Greenturtle to tag along.

We arrived at the Bass Pro parking lot around nine in the morning, and began strolling along the riverside, scanning the water for scoters and unusual gulls. What I saw instead: ring-billed gulls, Canada geese and mallards.

We walked along the sidewalk to a very small river-front park, which someone had attempted to give a whimsical air by attaching steam-boat paddles to the purple martin houses. It was the first below-freezing temperatures of the year, and I had dug out my hat, gloves and winter jacket; Greenturtle, on the other hand, had worn his favorite pair of shoes: his Birkenstocks. As a nod to the weather, he'd put on some thick, woolly socks first.

Before we headed back, he noticed a largish congregation of gulls on the far side of the Bass Pro shop, and behind them, I could just make out the shape of a larger, dark bird in the water. Could it be the scoter? Alas, the only way to get to this area appeared to involve traipsing through a scrubby wooded area, which didn't really surprise me, as some of the posts on the birder's forum had mentioned bushwhacking.

Generally, I prefer to stay on marked paths or trails, as staggering along through the undergrowth, being slashed by thorns, smacked by branches, tripped by roots and fallen logs, and wrapped up by vines is not my idea of a fun outing. At least at this time of year I don't have to worry about my other woodland nemesis: the large patch of nettles.

Greenturtle, on the other hand, loves going off trail and just floundering about at random, but not in his Birkenstocks. Also, his feet were getting cold. (The point at which every spouse is dying to say, "I told you so!") Since he needed new hiking boots anyway, our quest for the gulls and scoter was delayed by a stop at Bass Pro, which (luckily) was nowhere near as crowded as I suspected. I found the theme-park atmosphere within to be a bit off-putting, but succumbed long enough to purchase some pajamas with the image of a fish and the words "Kiss my bass."

On the way out, the arch over the parking lot exit exhorted us to "Enjoy the Great Outdoors"; despite these wishes, we seemed to be just about the only people in the vicinity actually doing so.

And now for the bushwhacking: we stumbled through a scrubby mess of floodplain filled with tiny trees with crowded branches and the usual mix of flood plain detritus: fallen trees, washed up garbage. "Don't get scratched on anything," I advised Greenturtle as I staggered along with my spotting scope. "This looks like Tetanus Alley."

Finally we burst out along the river bank again.

"I could live here," Greenturtle proclaimed.

"Where? Here? East Peoria?"

"Not here exactly," he clarified, gesturing to the slopes and curves of the river valley. "Just somewhere that isn't flat."

From this vantage, we could see not only the gentle slopes of the valley and the buildings of Peoria proper across the water, but also the colony of gulls: ring bills, each and every one. Except for a couple of Bonaparte's I found skulking in the back and a monstrous pair of juveniles that we decided had to be young herrings as they towered so far over the others, the gulls were all ring bills. And no scoter in sight.

We tried to find an easier way back along the shoreline, which provide us with a shorter and less tangled route through the flood plain, where we found a couple of tents and tarps that indicated that someone was camping out down there.

We drove a bit further down the road to the parking lot of the Burger Barge, where I saw a large raft of ruddy ducks with a few lesser scaup mixed in, but still none of my target birds. By now it was lunch time and Greenturtle was taken by the ambiance, so we stopped for a bite at the Barge, which was trying for an incongruous "Margararitaville" vibe.

The food was adequate (certainly better than fast food and a more interesting atmosphere), but by the time we left, the clouds had rolled in, my body was too busy digesting lunch to keep my extremities warm, and I'd had enough of driving up and down the busy road (filled with all the same restaurants and big box stores as just about any other town, with the exception of the wacky Burger Barge and the neighboring casino), and we had errands to run in Bloomington on our way we left.

Despite dipping out on all three of my target species (seriously, just how big a dipper can one be?), I decided it was time to go. The excursion had been fun and interesting, a break from the ordinary routine. I was satisfied.

Until this morning, that is. Taking another leaf from my own book of advice (when the birding gets boring, bird less often), I slept in this morning, and didn't power up my laptop, first cup of coffee in hand, to check my birding forums until around nine this morning.

When I learned...yesterday the scoter had been seen from the parking lot of the casino, which we had decided not to check because someone else had mentioned getting hassled by security! And a bit further down the river, at the Marina, someone else had seen long-tailed ducks! And while East Peoria is only an hour and a half's drive away, I still wasn't planning on going back again, today, by myself.

To grip off (or grip): To see a bird which another birder missed and to tell them you've seen it. --Wikipedia, "Twitcher's Vocabulary"

To be honest, I'm not familiar with that term myself...but it's appropriate. I didn't mind dipping out on the varied thrush at the Arboretum so much because no one else had seen it that day (or subsequently), either. But to be that close to TWO life birds and turn home?!? It's moments like this when birding...kinda isn't fun anymore.

Completely deflated, I kept scrolling down the messages on the birding forum, until another one caught my eye: someone had seen a red-throated loon at the Clinton Lake Marina. Potential life bird alert!

Suffice to say, I gulped down my coffee, got dressed and out the door by ten...and it was still there! The red-throated loon!! Order has been restored to chaos, significance to the quotidian, fun to the birding. You beautiful loon....

I got a good long look at its long pale throat (not red in the non-breeding plumage) and pale face, the marks distinguishing it from the much more common, non-life-bird, common loon. The wind off the lake was fierce, causing tears to flow (and not tears of joy), but since I know I always second-guess myself, I even ran back to the car, looked the bird up in the field guide, ran back to the scope, found it again, and confirmed...yes, my lifer red-throated loon!

I spent the rest of the morning strolling the trails, enjoying my common winter friends: hairy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, American goldfinch, northern cardinal, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, blue jay, white-breasted nuthatch, etc. Weldon Access had a couple of hooded mergansers on view. Parnell Access had common redpolls again and some weird-looking hunters.

Maybe it sounds a bit neurotic, but the chasing of life birds makes me forget, for a while, how much I miss warblers. And catbirds. And kingbirds. Scarlet tanagers.... How long it is, until spring.

Friday, November 23, 2012

November birding blahs

American white pelicans

I haven't added anything to my Year List in about two weeks. At the beginning of the month, I was giddy with visions of winter birds, especially as I had just seen winter invader Life Bird (red crossbill) and a new sighting for my Illinois list (common redpoll). Meanwhile, it seemed that every time I took a peek at ebird or one of the birding forums, someone had just seen a Bohemian waxwing, varied thrush, evening grosbeak or other winter wonder somewhere in the state. Suffice to say that I managed to work myself into a minor tizzy just thinking about it.

But life somehow always manages to even things out, which is why it's probably best to stay away from extremes to begin with. To counteract the giddiness, there was my spectacular dipping out of the varied thrush seen at the Morton Arboretum, followed by a week or so of birding boredom. (I did get a brief look at a snow bunting, which was my last addition to the list, although quite a welcome one.)

I really hate to juxtapose the words "birding" and "boredom" (although any non-birding family members who have fidgeted aimlessly while the Birder stares at distant shorebirds with a spotting scope might disagree), and the truth is, I'd rather spend a day wandering around outside looking for birds, even if I don't see many, to doing anything else.

And there have been some worthwhile moments: watching a northern harrier glide soundlessly over the prairie at Weldon Springs; enjoying the sight of a large flock of hooded mergansers drift along Clinton Lake (the hooded merganser is my favorite duck); getting a quick glimpse of a barred owl; the surprise of seeing a lingering great egret stalking the shallows by the Marina.

But still, the tally of species on this, my Ultimate Birding Year, remains at a standstill: 231. I am not going to finish up 2012 with 231 birds! There must be more!

Flipping through my past bird journals, I am not encouraged. My typical patches are likelier than not, in November, to reveal only typical November birds. And that list is discouragingly limited; for example, a two-hour stroll at Weldon Springs yesterday revealed: blue jay, cardinal, American tree sparrow, tufted titmouse, dark-eyed junco, great blue heron, house sparrow, American crow, black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, mourning dove, belted kingfisher, ring-billed gull, pied-billed grebe, American robin, American goldfinch, eastern bluebird, cedar waxwing and northern flicker.

These are all nice birds. Some -- belted kingfisher, eastern bluebird, cedar waxwing -- are among my favorite species, the ones that never fail to bring a smile to my face when I see them. But still--no surprises. No real expectation of surprises. Long stretches of trail with no birds whatsoever.

It's not just the birding blahs that bum me out about this time of year. I miss my friends. Late summer and early fall birding are very exciting, but as the season progresses, what I notice most on each outing are the species that are missing. The common yellowthroats, indigo buntings, field sparrows, dickcissels, etc., whose songs kept me company for so many weeks---one after the other, they leave. The American white pelicans that were a familiar sight on Lake Decatur, a short enough drive from my work place that I could "visit" them on my lunch break, have been absent for the past couple of weeks. Without exciting winter species to distract me, I tend to feel like the speaker in this poem:
by W. S. Merwin

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

So here is my personal remedy for escaping the Late Fall/Early winter birding blahs:

1. Bird less often. I know, it sounds crazy, but as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Chickadees and titmice are really cute birds, and if I only see them once a week, I look forward to it. If I just saw them yesterday, I tend to resent them for not being evening grosbeaks. This also makes this time of year good for working on worthwhile, non-birding pursuits such as watching reruns of Ally McBeal on Netflix reading, walking my dogs, doing yoga, working on my writing, etc.

2. Chase birds. Aggressively pursuing species for the lists is one of those things that, like field guides with photos versus drawings, seems to draw criticism from many in the birding world. And I have often praised the joys of exploring one's local patch and being open to the wonder of every bird, plant and stone you find there. That's one experience, and it's a great one. But for me, chasing birds -- driving to a new place in hopes that the rare species someone else just saw is still hanging out in the vicinity -- is a lot of fun, too. I see new places, make a little day-long adventure out of it, often running into other birders who are doing the same. It can be another way of keeping things fresh. Not to mention all the great new birds on my life list.

3. This time of year would also be ideal for birding travel. Alas, I don't have the funds for that....

Luckily, when the November birding blahs start to set in, I have three dogs to keep my life interesting.

Trevor, my little "snuggle bug"

Raven, my goofy spaniel
Leo, plotting world domination, as usual

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Prairie, Luminous

Afternoon sunlight at Weldon Springs

Here's the thing about nature: there's always something more to see. It's like magic. You can rush along a trail, listening to your ipod or texting your buddies or what-not, not seeing a thing and, perhaps, thinking how boring it all is, or you can walk slowly with your eyes open and stop every few feet in amazement at what you see. And it's the same trail.

When I say this, I speak from personal experience. I used to be a rush along with a Walkman-type person (I know, I just dated myself). In my mid-twenties, I lived for several months on a military post in north central Texas (Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, in case you're curious), and every other day, I ran the six-mile loop around the perimeter of the base. It wasn't very interesting: a flat, barren landscape, with lots of cactus. That's what I remember. But around and around I ran, listening to music with every step to alleviate the monotony, and although I enjoyed the experience more than I would have running laps indoors, I wasn't really focused on my surroundings.

In retrospect, I could kick myself. For one thing, I suspect that a few "life birds" might be skulking in the scrub lands I so doggedly ran through, and yet I can't remember seeing even a single bird. Not a single bird! Talk about a wasted opportunity....

I'm sure that if I went back today, I would walk that same six miles in a state of amazement. Sure, it would take me half a day instead of the hour it used to, but the experience would be so much richer for it.

I had a demonstration of this just this afternoon. I work a half a day on Friday, and was delayed even more this afternoon as my employer was injecting me with botulism toxin in lieu of a Christmas bonus. [Yes, I was a willing participant; luckily my life is not some sort of horrifying "torture porn" film where people chase me around with needles against my will, or the like the movie I keep torturing my mother Sunwiggy by telling her about, The Human Centipede...and how's that by way of a digression? Back on topic!!]

So was late afternoon by the time I got out for my nature stroll. Due to the season and time of day, I wasn't expecting a lot of action, bird-wise, but since I am taking an Internet class on nature photography, I had a homework assignment to complete. Where to go? What to focus my camera on?

I chose my favorite place of late, the Old Farmhouse trail at Weldon Springs State Park, a lovely prairie that has been my solace and inspiration over the past year. But to be honest, I wasn't expecting to find much to photograph. It's November; everything is brown and boring.

You've probably already surmised how wrong I was! I managed to take 187 photos, and only headed home a couple of hours later when the sun had started to set. Just a few feet down the trail, and I was captivated by a milkweed pod....

The thistles were also quite interesting.

But mostly what captured me was the sense of space and light.

Space: many people diss my new homeland, "The Prairie State," as being flat and boring. And it's true, there's none of that dramatic beauty to be found with mountains or oceans. Having seen both, my first impression of Illinois was, indeed, "flat and boring." Flat? I thought it looked like a steam-roller had traversed the land, reducing all to a single, ginormous cornfield. And boring? What could be more boring than looking across a ginormous cornfield?

But as I went out, again and again, to look for the birds of the flatlands, I came to appreciate the unique beauty of the prairie. Indeed, it is now one of my favorite landscapes, so much so that I wish to go back to school for a Master's in Biology (and, who knows, a PhD in Ornithology), and devote my studies to the birds of the prairie (more specifically, the sand prairie....but that's a topic for another day).

Light: today it was more enchanting than ever. The late afternoon light, on a mild autumn day, made everything seem as if it were lit from within, literally glowing. My camera and I had a hard time keeping up. In fact, the photos that capture it best are, from a technical perspective, horribly over-exposed, and a good example of why I am taking this class...

I really didn't see any birds at all: house sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, black capped chickadee, European starling, one northern harrier soaring over the grasslands, and a flock of American tree sparrows...yep, that's it...

But still, the walk was fascinating; I snapped photo after photo, seeing everything as if for the first (or at least the second) time:

A Country Road...cue John Denver, right?

And I call this one "The Two Trees," like the poem by William Butler Yeats. Or the haunting rendition set to music by Loreena McKennitt.

I took a lot (A LOT!) of photos of trees. There's something very powerful about trees. I call this group "The Five Sisters"...don't they seem like they're together?

I was completed fascinated by the stream on the Old Farmhouse Loop:

I hope this inspires you, whoever you are and wherever you live, to grab a camera or binoculars or just your own two eyes, and go to a park or natural area or even just your own street, and look around. If you truly look, with a sense of wonder, I promise you, you will be amazed by what you see.

And if you do go out, and see something interesting, I would love to hear about it. That's what comments are for!!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

RIP Rodan

Rodan, July 2004-November 2012

Yesterday when Greenturtle and I got home from an unsuccessful trip looking for the varied thrush recently seen at the Morton Arboretum, we discovered that one of our own birds, a Maximillian's pionus parrot named Rodan (or Dan, as I liked to call him), had passed away.

It was not a surprise. He had been sick for a while, and despite a trip to the U of I Veterinary School's small animal clinic, and some blood work and radiology, we still had no idea what was wrong with him. It sounded like what happened to the author's favorite parrot in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, with progressive weakness in the legs, although no one could give us a diagnosis.

We purchased Dan from a pet store about six years ago, because he had been there forever and no one wanted him, so I felt sorry for him. I already had some cockatiels so I wanted to give him a nice home. He really only bonded with my husband (that bird bit me more than once), but he did have many cute little quirks, such as whistling and warbling excitedly when we came home, or hanging upside down in his cage and begging for a bath whenever he heard the vacuum cleaner. When he was upset about something, he would make a noise that sounded like an old-fashioned radio searching for a station.

Dan taught me a lot, too. For one thing, although we gave him a good home, I now believe that, in most cases, people should not keep parrots as pets. Certainly birds as intelligent, emotional and difficult as a parrot should not be for sale in a pet store! (My cockatiels, on the other hand, are ten years old and still thriving.) My one consolation is that Dan was hatched and raised in Illinois; taking a bird like that from the wild would be unforgivable. (Also illegal, but it still happens.)

A very special bird
Only as I sit and remember how happy, active and inquisitive Dan seemed during the "good times" do I realize how much his illness had taken out of him. I don't pretend to have knowledge of the afterlife of birds, but I can only hope that he is now in a better place, perhaps flying free with a flock of his own kind as he should have, or maybe he would prefer someone's shoulder to perch on.

RIP, Rodan. I'm sorry we didn't know enough to make you better. You really were a special bird.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Invasion of the Winter Finches: A Preview

Red crossbills

It is probably no surprise to the birders of Illinois that this year winter finches and other enigmatic birds of the Far North are supposed to irrupt far from their boreal homelands, giving the rest of us a chance to see them. It has, on the other hand, surprised at least one birder (myself) that I have actually managed to find a few.

You see, I have no luck with winter species. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to get even the easy-peasies, like the pine siskin. For redpolls, I had to admit defeat on my home territory and travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Sax Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to get any satisfaction. So as the first reports of the Winter Finch Invasion trickled in over the past week or so, I contained my expectations and went out in search of common loons on Clinton Lake instead.

Saturday was another gray, wet, chilly day, much like the last time I went out looking for a loon. The weather was so dreary that I didn't even mind restricting my search to places along the water, as I normally would -- long before I loved to bird, I was an avid hiker, and am always at my happiest when I can combine the two. Scoping the water front is fun and all, but doesn't satisfy me the way hiking a trail for five or six miles can do.

At the Weldon Access, I saw nothing. I stopped a bit further down past the IL 48 bridge, and found a small flock of double-crested cormorants and a pair of ruddy ducks, which were nice, but not exciting. Next stop: Parnell Access, where I once again trained my spotting scope over the water and saw...ho hum...ring billed gulls and a great blue heron.

But the trees around the parking lot were surprisingly birdy. In quick order, I saw a white-breasted nuthatch, a Carolina wren, a northern cardinal, a flock of juncos, ditto for robins, pine siskins, an American tree sparrow, cedar waxwings, a downy and a red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadees and a crow. Something else flew in, something streaky and finch like and reddish. "Could it be a redpoll?" I thought to myself, and had almost convinced myself that they were, when the small group flew off after I had barely had a glimpse of them.

I hurried to the opposite side of the parking area, saw a bird moving in the trees, and put up my binoculars, to see...a female purple finch. "Oh, purple finches," I thought. "Well, they're nice, too."

By now, the dampness of the day was starting to sink in, and after getting back in my car and turning on the heat, I had no desire to brave the wind off the lake again, and began heading for home. On a last minute impulse, I decided to stop at the West Side Access on the way, where I lazily pulled my car right up to the water and raised my binoculars to see...something loon-like.

OK!! Park, set up scope, get the bird in focus...and it dove beneath the water and popped back up further away, dove again, and popped up even further, and then again: yes, a common loon disappearing quickly from my view.

The next day Greenturtle and I headed for the grounds of the Robert Allerton park outside Monticello, as someone had posted sightings of both red and white-winged crossbills in the hemlocks by the 4-H camp. Once again, I didn't have much hope. I really, really wanted to see the fact, I had woken early and, like a kid before Christmas, been unable to fall back to sleep just thinking about the crossbills...but due to the Winter Finch Curse, I was certain I would be unable to find them. What's more, it was more likely than not that someone else would post a sighting of them a mere fifteen minutes after I had given up and left. Such is my luck with winter birds.

But no! They were there! I spent several minutes admiring my "lifer" red crossbills, and my first decent look at white-winged crossbills (previously only seen flying overhead as I cursed my fate as per the dictates of the Winter Finch Curse), and everything was right with the world.  As they were preoccupied by the tiny cones on the hemlocks and the even tinier seeds these cones contained, they simply flew from branch to branch and cone to cone, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

For crossbills!!

Mission accomplished, Greenturtle and I took a walk on the trails, seeing nothing else that was new, though I did enjoy the sight of a pileated woodpecker flying past. The trail was smouldering from what I assume to be a controlled burn of the undergrowth not long before our walk, and the sky was turning gray once again. After a couple of hours, we headed back, and I promised to spend time that did not involve birds with him in the afternoon.

But you know how it is with birders. Before we commenced our Quality Non Birding Spouse Time, I checked my birding alerts. Common redpolls had been seen the day before at the Parnell Access area of Clinton Lake. OMG!! They had been redpolls!  But could I, in good conscience, add common redpoll to my Illinois State List based on such a quick look, which I had then mentally downgraded to "purple finch"? If I did such a thing, perhaps no one would judge me; certainly, unless I confessed to it, no one else would even know.

But the bedrock of birding is the honor system, and if I did not go back and verify their ID, in my mind, they would always be kinda-sorta-maybe redpolls, and an internal sense of guilt, not triumph. There was nothing else to be done.

" you mind if we postpone our Quality Non-Birding Spouse Time?" I asked Greenturtle. "Because I kind of have to go back to Parnell Access and check out some redpolls."

Being the good sport that he is, he said that would be fine; actually, I sometimes think that he likes my birding obsession, as it leaves him free to play computer games to his heart's content.

"You can come, too," I added, not wanting to "bogart" the redpolls. He declined. And so I ran back for the car and sped down Highway 54 to Parnell, hoping against hope that they would not have taken off in the night. I wheeled past a group of hunters and skidded to a stop.

The parking area was quiet, the birding bonanza of yesterday gone. But in a tree I saw a small flock of birds, raised my binoculars: red caps, check. Variable amounts of red on chests, check. Brown steaks on sides, check. Tiny little bills, check. Redpolls!

Can it be? Is the winter birding curse broken? I hope so, as varied thrushes, evening grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings have all been sighted recently in Illinois. November has never been this exciting.