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.

1 comment:

  1. What a hoot! Loved the post! I, too, have had those "AARRGH!" moments when I check ebird and discover that the bird I went to see, and did not see, was subsequently seen by someone else. So glad you got your red-throated loon; aren't they nice? All we're seeing up here in the UP, during our 3-day snowstorm, are chickadees and blue jays and nuthatches, clinging for dear life to the bird feeders. Anybody up for a trip to Florida? MOM