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!


  1. What a wonderful present! I hope Santa brings me a saw whet owl sighting, too. It can be a late gift...say, in February, when we're at the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Blast. Great post; it made me laugh! A saw whet owl is well worth a few stuck-in-the-toilet moments! MOM

  2. Beautiful Northern Saw-whet shot! I'm still trying to get a look like that. Matt Fraker showed me one early this year, but all I could see was the owls talons. If you see this bird or another saw-whet, please let me know ( I hope you see the Short-eared Owl. And I would be happy to pass on sightings to you via text or email as I do for some of the other birders in the area.