Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Birds in review

Sign in Clinton, IL City Hall building

This year was to be my ultimate birding year for Illinois, the year in which I was to demolish all my previous records and see so many different species I would barely have time to count them all.

Did I succeed? On one level, certainly. I slapped my previous year record silly and made it cry "uncle," I chased birds all over the central part of the state, and for the most part, had a great time doing it. I got 25 life birds and added an additional 12 to my Illinois state list. (You can see all 233 species on the "Year List 2012" page if you are curious.) But you know how it is. It always could have been better, and the last six weeks kind of fizzled out, with the exception of an amazing northern saw-whet owl.

If I had to chose five birding high-lights from the past year, they would be:

1. Shorebird madness! This was my year for shore-birds, a whole group of birds that I had previously not had much luck with, starting with a Wilson's phalarope at Emiquon, then proceeding to a fortuitous trip to the El Paso sewage lagoon, continuing with a whimbrel, a sanderling and other awesome life birds at Lake Decatur over the summer, and finishing with an amazing American avocet at Clinton Lake.

2. In fact, Sportsman's Park and the boat ramp down the road at Lake Decatur get a mention all of their own in my top five. I haven't made any secret of the fact that I loathe Decatur and consider working there to be one of my current misfortunes. But the birding bonanza that I could get on my lunch break did go a ways to making up for it. Yeah, mud flats!

3. A couple of nemesis birds were vanquished -- well, not literally. I just saw them at last. The most triumphant was doubtless the yellow-headed blackbird, as I had been chasing that one for a couple of years; black tern was another good species that had been approaching nemesis status, finally seen. Alas, I think I have a new nemesis starting with the loggerhead shrike, as a second trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in search of it dipped out. I'm not sure how many failed attempts are needed to officially declare a nemesis bird, but one more and the shrike is on my list.

4. My local patch. Weldon Springs State Park, a mere ten minute drive from my home, produced some real treats this year, such as finding blue grosbeak, American redstart and northern parula as probable breeding species, and a nice bobolink and upland sandpiper in migration.

5. It's hard to pick a favorite life bird sighting, but some of my favorites this year were snowy owl, monk parakeet and upland sandpiper.

My other goal for 2012, to work on making my backyard an Avian Haven, went absolutely nowhere. It remains a scraggly mess of hideous bamboo and other invasive species. I blame a lack of funds and horribly hot summer.

So what's up for 2013? Of course I hope for many more life birds and madcap birding adventures around the state, but I'm not going to try to break any records this year. Instead, I plan to focus on ways that I can give back to the birds and also try to pursue some other life goals, that are only partially related to birding. More on that later, perhaps.

What was your best moment from 2012? Did you find your fantastic bird?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Arkansas interlude

A very poor photo of a loggerhead shrike

Every spring and fall, there is are a couple of weeks where yellow-rumped warblers are so numerous they almost seem to have taken over the trees. My first yellow-rumped sighting of each season is always exciting; then, after a while, they're just birds I'm sorting through in my search for "really good" warblers. I know, birding has so many insights into the human condition.

One things I've never consciously asked myself, during this biannual influx of butter butts, is where they are all going. I knew that they were vaguely heading "north" in the spring and "south" in the fall, and that was enough for me. (At least some of them are heading for Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the breeding season, as I have seen them there in July.)

And in the fall, they are heading to Arkansas. It probably should not have surprised me as they are fairly hardy little warblers (last February I found one here in Illinois at the Morton Arboretum), but still, I was not expecting yellow rumps and yet found them by the dozens.

Greenturtle and I had to make a quick trip down to his family in Arkansas last week due to a sad occasion (his step-father unexpectedly passed away), but while there, I did find time to grab my binoculars and stroll through a park a couple of times.

One day, I visited the Bona Dea Trails in Russellville, a swampy sort of place where, on a previous trip, I saw a prothontary warbler. This time, as I walked through the pines and skirted the ponds, I saw many of the birds that migrate through Illinois or winter here in modest numbers: yellow-bellied sapsucker, golden and ruby-crowned kinglegs, white-throated sparrows, winter wrens, American robins and yellow-rumped warblers were all well represented.

In one pond, I saw a flock of gadwall that were so beautiful in the sunshine that it took me a moment to realize what they were. I'd never noticed how shimmery their plumage is or how they are not colored dull brown but with an exquisite cinnamon wash. A red-shouldered hawk and a pair of pileated woodpeckers rounded out a good morning of birding.

The day before I left, while Greenturtle was running some errands, I strolled around another park in Russellville, over by the dam with some dirt bike trails, where I was excited to see black vultures (which I have not seen since 2007 when Sunwiggy and I went to Texas), and then a life bird, brown-headed nuthatch.

As the day's errands looked like they were going to stretch on for a while, I then went to Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, which on a previous trip had yielded a life bird, Mississippi kite.

This stroll was much more pleasant, as none of the mosquitoes which had plagued us last time were active. I also find Holla Bend to be a more familiar-looking territory, as it is a flat expanse of alluvial floodplain--a wide open space filled with sparrows.

In addition to numerous white-throateds, I saw a lot of fox and song sparrows, along with a single Savannah and a pair of Henslow's. A hermit thrush made an appearance. Flocks of meadowlarks flitted over the grasses, while higher up, northern harriers drifted back and forth on silent wings. Even higher, a bald eagle soared by.

Waterfowl included green-winged teal, gadwall, ring-necked ducks, American coots and a pied-billed grebe. More black vultures perched in the trees, while the Arkansas River presented vast flocks of American white pelican and double-crested cormorant.

For the best sighting of the trip, I pulled the camera out of the trunk; alas, all of that rummaging around scared the bird to such a distance that only diligent zooming and cropping brought him out: a loggerhead shrike, not a life bird (I saw one in Texas), but still his appearance seemed like a particular gift to me at that particular moment.

The Arkansas Interlude kind of ruined my plans for summing up my year in Illinois, but that's the great thing about birding. There's always something to go out and see.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Power of the Prairie

The more gentle face of winter

It has been a day of such relentless and uninspiring grayness that even I (a lover of prairies and plains and wide open spaces) cannot summon up any response to the landscape greater than, "Meh." This week Illinois just seems dull. More than that, depressing.

It's easy to forget how, just one short week ago, the prairie tried to kill me. A winter storm blew in while I was innocently working at my job in Decatur, with not much snow but winds with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. Even though I had taken Greenturtle's pick-up truck to work, this transplanted Michigander was not too worried about driving home. Driving in snow does not freak me out.

Indeed, despite the fact that the roads were slick with black ice, as the day's precipitation had started out as rain before the temperatures plummeted, I was rather nonchalant driving through the city. Sure, the truck fish-tailed a bit every time I had to turn, but I took the turns slowly, so no problem.

And then I left the Forsyth town limits, heading north on highway 51. It was worse than any weather I'd ever tried to drive through. That's right, ever. The wind blew whorls of snow relentlessly across the road, rendering everything into a single cloud of white. Visibility extended perhaps a foot or two beyond the headlights. The road was icy, and the truck fish-tailed precariously with each gust of wind. It doesn't help that I'm night-blind.

I took a deep breath, and kept driving. How bad could it be? Have I mentioned how I'm originally from Michigan and used to drive in blizzards several times a year while commuting from work or school? It's actually a point of pride with me: I can do bad weather. I'll go one step further; I like it. When I'm living in warmer parts, pictures of snowy landscapes can make me sick with longing for "home." I can't think of anything as invigorating as stepping outside into single digit temperatures or heading out for a day of cross-country skiing across a glittering expanse of snow.

But this was different. The wind kept pushing the truck into a fish-tailing nightmare over the ice, and after fighting my way back into what I presumed to be my lane (not that I could see the lanes), I realized that, no matter what, I was going to go off the road. I had two choices -- I could do it unintentionally, sliding off willy-nilly and perhaps smashing something (a road sign, the truck, and/or myself) in the process, or I could just swallow my pride and do it on purpose.

I chose the latter, and pulled over onto the shoulder. I didn't think I'd gotten very far out of town. Despite the length of time that had passed, which seemed endless, I'd probably only gone a half mile or so out of Forsyth.

Perhaps I should have mentioned earlier in this tale that, on this day of all days, I'd forgotten my cell phone. A reluctant citizen of the twenty-first century, I often forget to bring it or find that its charge has petered out. Normally, this is not a problem. But tonight? Well, I had no way of calling Greenturtle and letting him know where I was. It was just me and the elements.

I decided to walk the short distance to Forsyth, find a phone, call Greenturtle, and then either wait the storm out or check into a motel for the night. I exited the truck on the passenger side, retreated a distance from the road in case anyone else slithered off in the storm, and started walking.

In my early twenties, I attempted to write an embarrassingly pretentious, semi-autobiographical novel, which ended with the protagonist returning home to her northern homeland (I was in the Army, stationed in Georgia, when I was wrestling with this juvenilia), and similarly having to pull over to the side of the road in a blizzard; the tale ended with her staggering into the oblivion of that white maelstrom. The ending was supposed to be liberating.

It was a really bad novel, and I hadn't kept a copy, or thought of it in years. Until all of a sudden, there I was, just as I'd imagined, staggering in search of shelter through clouds of whiteness. It wasn't liberating. To be blunt, it sucked. With each gust of wind, I stumbled and, a couple of times, almost fell down. My hair was blown across my head, and coated in place by a layer of ice, thus leaving my ear vulnerable to each gust of sixty-mile-per-hour wind. Well, that hurt; my eardrum felt like it was on fire.

A week after the fact, it's hard to describe, even hard to really remember, on a visceral level, how difficult it was to keep walking forward. When the wind blew, it was not only hard to stand upright; it was a challenge to breathe.

One foot after the foot after the other. It probably took me a half hour to shuffle back to the gas station at the edge of town. It felt like longer. I suddenly understood how people who end up stranded in bad weather (hikers and explorers from the days of Yore) could perish. It sounds silly, but I'd never really "gotten" that before. If I had had to walk five or ten miles instead of a half mile...if I'd been somewhere really isolated instead of on a normally busy highway...yeah, I'll admit it. I would have died. At some point, I would have let the wind push me sideways and not had the strength to get back up. (Of course, in those circumstances, I would not have abandoned my vehicle and therefore not have had to collapse in exhaustion, but that isn't where my mind was going as I shambled onwards.)

Being the birder that I am, of course I thought of birds. The dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows who winter in Illinois, how were they holding up in this weather? What about the cardinals and titmice who call this area home? They must have some strategies of staying warm and safe through the gales. The wind blew, I kept walking, and I thought of birds. I also thought about moving to Texas. Under the circumstances, that seemed like an excellent idea.

Finally, I got to the gas station, where the youthful attendant let me borrow his phone. He wasn't very talkative, but as soon as I defrosted enough to get a chill, he also let me have a cup of coffee for free, thus earning a nomination as one of the anonymous angels of my year. (The only thing he said to me in the hour that I waited was to ask if I believed that the world was really going to end that night, as per the alleged Mayan prophecy. I said, "No.")

Greenturtle insisted on coming to get me, in our much more winter-road-worthy car. I got home safely and, obviously, I lived to tell this tale. But in that short expanse of time, I saw my beloved prairie in a new light. I have always seen the flatlands as quietly beautiful, intriguing, sometimes austere...but always benign.

That night, I experienced a different side of the prairie. The flatlands can be powerful, even deadly. I do feel a bit humbled, and even silly, but also grateful. Grateful that my moment in the storm was so superficial, but also grateful for this new understanding.

As a footnote...we went back the next day to retrieve the truck. First of all, we passed about a dozen vehicles that had gone off the road in a much more precipitous manner than I had, which did make me feel a bit better about my rather melodramatic choices the previous evening. Second, I realized that the arduous journey on foot I recalled was, in actuality, perhaps a quarter mile. Yes, that's right...I felt like a hero for strolling one quarter mile in a snowstorm! (OK, feeling tiny now.)

And finally, seeing the aftermath of the storm in the calm sunshine of the following morning, I no longer wanted to move to Texas. On the contrary, I felt homesick. I wanted to move somewhere with a real winter. Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota...give me some place icy and implacable; give me my home....

Have you ever felt challenged by the elements, no matter how trivial? What's the worst that Nature has ever thrown at you? Please don't be shy...all comments (except for really rude ones, which thankfully I've never had) are welcome!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The best birthday present

Northern saw-whet owl

Last week was my birthday. It's a horrible tradition, really, involving everyone spending a whole day reminding you that you are officially one year older and plying you with fattening baked goods. A birthday just means that I have one less year to go out and look for birds.

I think I would take this all in better spirits if my birthday did not fall in the dreary month of December...or if I could afford to celebrate it with a trip to sunnier, and birdier, climes. Alas, this weekend was promising another bout of gray skies and rain, and the closest I'd come to "birding" in days was watching my dachshund run around the backyard with the legs of a very dead bird dangling from his jaws. (To make the story a bit less horrifying, I'm sure it was dead when he found it. And it was probably a house sparrow. I have about a bazillion of them wintering in the bamboo jungle behind my house. But still....)

I decided to shake up the winter birding blahs by participating in the DeWitt County Christmas Bird Count, and since Greenturtle had promised me that I could name my birthday gift, he joined me in waking at stupid o'clock this morning so we could make the rendez-vous point at the scheduled hour, long before dawn had even considered cracking.

The Christmas Bird Count is such a venerable tradition that I'm a bit embarrassed I had never joined in one before. Also, I wanted to meet some fellow birders. And, as I believe I mentioned, I was secretly hoping to get some new birds in along the way.

The weather forecast called for a partly cloudy day in the forties, so we dressed accordingly. Despite running a bit late, we met up with our fellow birders and joined up with a very nice couple to begin the hunt for the winter species of central Illinois. (I don't use people's names on my blog because I never know who's cool with having their birding exploits recorded for posterity, but that is the only reason for the anonymity, as 100% of the fellow birders I've met have been really nice people.)

We roamed around the North Fork Access and IDNR areas for a couple of hours, finding your typical winter mix of birds: northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos, tufted titmice, ring-billed gulls, etc.

Mostly mallards at Clinton Lake

The IDNR station area added a few interesting species: a pair of bald eagles, a gadwall and a northern shoveler amidst the mallards, some cackling geese along the far shore.

There was just one problem. The sun, promised by the weather prognosticators to make a partial appearance, remained stubbornly, and completely, behind the clouds. The wind was much stronger than the forecast 10 mph, especially along the waterfront. And it was damp to boot. Lulled by the abnormally warm temperatures thus far, Greenturtle and I were not dressed for the damp and the chill. And the birding was pretty slow. I won't lie; the relative dearth of birds did play a hand in my asking him if he wanted to call it a day. So we explained to the very nice fellow birding couple that we were just too cold to continue, and they dropped us back at our car.

Part of me felt embarrassed to back out so soon. But a bigger part of me just felt grateful to be going home to my nice warm house. In my defense, my teeth didn't stop chattering for a good ten minutes after I got home, wrapped myself up in a blanket, and curled up with all my dogs on the couch.

A couple of hours later, I was enjoying a fantasy novel on my Kindle (The Diviners by Libba Bray, in case you're curious), and not even thinking about birds, when my phone rang. It was the nice birder lady, relaying the message that another DeWitt County CBC'er had seen a northern saw-whet owl, and since I had mentioned that I would really like to see one, she was passing it on. See what I'm saying about birders? You just can't find nicer people.

I called the birder who had seen the owl, scribbled down the directions, which were very precise, right down to the road-side garbage found by the owl's roost, and once again convinced Greenturtle that I could not possibly both drive and navigate to the owl's location.

We got to the area specified, and I kept reading the landmarks to Greenturtle, and we kept not finding them. Since the directions were so specific, by the "Weldon" Access, I just couldn't figure out why we weren't seeing anything I'd written down. Finally, I broke down and called the fellow who'd found the owl again for clarification.... Ummm, ha ha. I'd written everything down correctly...except for the access point. The long, squashed-finger shaped body of water known as Clinton Lake probably has a half a dozen official "access points" to the water, and somehow my brain had gotten them scrambled, taking us on a wild goose chase, several miles out of our way. And not only did I look like a class A ditz in front of my husband, I let a relative stranger know how scatterbrained I am too.

Why oh why do I do these things? This is how I felt....

Fictional character Ally McBeal, stuck in a toilet

But, the mistake corrected, we retraced our step to the correct Access Area, where with no further ado, I found my Life Bird Saw-whet Owl, the best birthday present ever!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shapes of nature

Like most years recently, 2012 is coming to a close with a whimper instead of a bang. I haven't been birding in a while, as the weekend weather insists upon being gray and drizzly (despite days of sparkling sunshine whenever I'm stuck indoors at work), and I haven't been seeing much when I do manage to get out.

In other words, it's December. For whatever reason, although I enjoy winter (in moderate doses), I just don't care for December. The month limps along to the finish line. Everything feels stale. I don't find new birds. And, of course, I'm sure it doesn't help that the month is dominated by "the holidays," which manage to evoke both a feeling of disdain for the spectacle of consumerist frenzy, and all the unmet, impossible expectations of the season.

I don't even like the holidays, and yet there is still, simmering away deep beneath the surface, some archetypal expectation that they should be different--crammed with happy, laughing people (holding binoculars, of course) effortlessly skating through a snow-dusted fairy-land, humming the refrain from "Frosty the Snowman" under their breath. (It goes without saying that I detest Frosty and consider the month-long barrage of cheery Christmas tunes to be one of the worst indignities of the season.)

I'm sure it doesn't help that my birthday also falls in December, and I am of an age where that just means an annual reminder of being one step closer to the grave.

So I say bah, humbug to all of it.

January is different; January is fresh and new, and once again every house sparrow and rock pigeon seems fresh. January represents new opportunities and a brief span of time that we won't let ourselves down (again).

The antidote to all of this is, obviously, to get out take a long walk in nature, no matter how challenging that may be (Saturday's forecast is for more rain), because there is a peace and strength in the quiet winter landscape that I can't find anywhere else. Most of the birds may be gone, as well as summer's foliage, but the bones of the land reveal a silent beauty in their shapes.

Earlier in the month, I was struck by the subtle curves of the trees and banks along Salt Creek at Weldon Springs Park; this line of trees, in particular, made me think of passageways in Moroccan old cities or the flying buttresses of cathedrals.

Everything seemed to curl inwards to meet the adjacent arch.

Circular shapes appeared everywhere.

Some of them seem to be leading to secrets:

At a certain level, as I sank into a camera's-eye view of the woods, I saw images that seemed to invite me to stop and contemplate for a while:

Look at the reflection as much as the object for a different point of view:

But don't get too caught up in them; the reflections are just another level between what you see and what is there to be seen. This is a nice image of geese, reflected in water. The real birds, of course, are flying far overhead,

We are all on a spiritual quest, whether we know it or not. Birders and others who allow themselves to be fascinated by nature might be closer than others, as our lives are spent at that intersection between the material and the real. Of course, what we do at that intersection is up to us, and I can usually be found blindly chasing a life bird (Arrgh!! Spruce grouse!) right out of that angle and back into the woods.

Or maybe it's just me. Really looking at nature provides so many invitations to get to the root of the matter.

That, in turn, might lead to being suffused by the numinous:

You might even, at last, find your heart:

 No matter how hectic the rest of the world is, seeing the shapes of nature always takes me home.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Freaky weather (The Last Winter)

Scene from The Last Winter (2006)

It's December in central Illinois. I'd love a spell of crisp winter weather, and even a picturesque sprinkling of pre-holiday snow, but instead, the weekend treated us to gray skies and drizzle, with the temperature hovering sullenly in the high forties. A mere week ago, the weekend brought a high of seventy degrees. That's right, in December. Seventy.

My husband decided that he didn't want to buy a Christmas tree. It just didn't feel like Christmas, he opined. It was too damn warm. I jokingly volunteered to write him a parable in the form of a children's story, How Global Warming Stole Christmas, but the truth is, although I don't like being cold or driving on icy roads any more than the next person, this weather's been creeping me out.

Here in central Illinois, we first saw 90 degrees in March. July brought us a record-breaking 107. (Fahrenheit on all of these, for anyone who may be reading outside of the USA. And by any measurement: freakishly warm!!) Along with the record high temperatures, we had a drought. I'm not sure that everyone in the region put two and two together.

As most people I know were exulting in the unseasonable weather, I began to feel like a less melodramatic version of Cassandra from the Greek myth. Am I the only one who realizes that, in this case, warm = bad? (The only one besides Al Gore, that is....)

And then this weekend, as I sat around watching videos I checked out from the library as it was too gray and gloomy to bird, I found a film that matches my mood: Larry Fesseden's The Last Winter (2006).

On the face of it, it's a horror movie. Set in an unspecified near future, where Congress has approved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (and for birders like me, that alone is enough to qualify as a "horror movie,") the film focuses on a team sent out (to survey?) before the actual drilling begins: leader Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman, who does "asshole" so well); his partner Abby (Connie Britton); his nephew Max (Zach Gilford); the barely tolerated environmentalist (James LeGros); a cook who is a native woman (Joanne Shenandoah); and others.

Horror movie buffs like me probably can't watch an isolated team out in the Arctic without immediately thinking of John Carpenter's masterpiece, The Thing (1982), where the alien shapeshifter monster slowly works its way through an Arctic exploration team. Since this is one of my favorite movies of all time, any such comparisons are bound to be odious (and don't even get me started on that so-called "prequel" made last year with the same name!)

Before long, however, The Last Winter embarked into different territory: less claustrophobic, more environmental. It's true cinematic cousin (apart from An Inconvenient Truth) is not The Thing, but the 1992 Sean Connery picture Medicine Man, in which the quest for new drugs from the rain forest turns into a lament for the rain forest's imminent destruction. By which I mean that humanity's exploitation of the environment is the central enemy of The Last Winter.

The theme becomes apparent almost immediately. As Perlman's character Pollack complains about the slow progress building roads out to the drill site, the on-staff environmentalist Hoffman tries to explain that the weather has been too abnormally warm to allow road construction. The permafrost is melting. The heavy machinery just can't get through.

Hoffman in his hut

Of course, Pollack is having none of this. Americans want the oil, he insists, and he will get it, even if that means having Hoffman removed. But meanwhile, his nephew Max has been having some strange visions out by the test well. Members of the staff begin to behave erratically. Hoffman's theories swing from the mundane (sour gas) to the extravagant (preternatural beings awakened by the melting of the permafrost.) The native cook tells of the native American spirit, the Windigo.

Regardless of the reason, the results are rather gruesome.

In the end, the low budget, CGI "monsters" aren't really that effective. Even so, I would recommend this film, to everyone who understands that a February rain in the Arctic is just as horrific as any monster you can dream of. Or to everyone who wishes that An Inconvenient Truth just wasn't so earnest and pedantic. Or for those who find the fact that any Internet news story about the environment inevitably attracts a comment of "drill, baby, drill" to be scarier than Pinhead, Jason, and Freddy combined....

Well, for all of you, plus those who just enjoy a slow-burning, mostly psychological horror flick, go ahead and check out The Last Winter.

And if you're wondering why this movie review is fodder for a blog devoted to birding, no, it's not because of the rather unpleasant scenes with the ravens, but because the final scene of the movie (no spoilers here)...well, it's going to stay with me. And if you love birds (and their Arctic habitats), it's worth watching.