Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Usually the first of January finds me tearing out of bed in the darkness and knocking back enough cups of strong black coffee to sustain me for several hours of birds, birds and more birds. Arbitrary though it may be, the first of the year represents the beginnings of a new Year List, and I usually want to stuff that list full of as many species as possible.
This year's been a little different. In part, this is because the past couple of years I've been striving to beat my personal records, to see more species in Illinois that ever before, and all that was great fun, but it got a little hectic, not to mention a bit expensive with the gasoline. I'll probably do it again some time, but not this year. (Not that I'm swearing off birding adventures altogether, mind you. I'm just mentally scaling back the intensity.)
Another reason is that my personal goals for this year are a bit different. I've been meaning to write a book of essays about birding throughout the seasons in Illinois, something a little like Kingbird Highway meets Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and it's time to put the excuses aside and just start writing. I also want to join some volunteer projects to help with habitat restoration in order to "give something back to the birds"; and if all of that isn't enough, I'd like to go back to school...to study birds, of course. (Well, biology anyway.)
These are big goals, and will take every ounce of focus and will-power to achieve. And among the many wonderful things that birding is to me, it is also a great way to procrastinate!
But still, I have gone out for a couple long walks around Dewitt County, as a long walk in nature has always been my greatest solace, even before I "discovered" birds.
New Year's found me wandering around Weldon Springs for a four hour stroll, walking almost the entirety of the park before I got tired and decided to pack it in. The birds were sparse, a mere twenty-two species, but I got a nice surprise on the lake: a large collection of waterfowl, including Canada and cackling geese, mallards, coots and first-for-the-county greater white-fronted geese.
A bald eagle soared overhead at one point. On the Farmhouse Loop, I startled a kestrel. On the other prairie, a red-tailed hawk perched on the interpretive side by the seasonal wetland which will host many a red-winged blackbird in the spring.
Sunday, I was feeling restless and ventured out again. High winds and rough waters on Clinton Lake made me change my plans from scoping for water birds to another long nature walk, this one at Mascoutin, where the birds were once again few and far between.
The cove that I call the area of the "dead trees," for the ashy colored slender trunks that dot the shallow water, often has some nice surprises. Last winter, hundreds of mallards made it their refuge, and in the spring, I came across a flock of at least fifty double-crested cormorants perched in the branches over the water. It's a good place to find other species nestled along the trees on the banks, too, such as pine siskins, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers.
On this walk, the surprise was the eerie popping and groaning noises made by the shifting ice; last year never got cold enough for it to freeze over. A belted kingfisher rattled along the open water by the far shore; in stooping below the branches by the water to get a look at it, I startled a dozen mallards into flight. My best sighting was a single hermit thrush, which gave me great looks at its speckled chest before taking flight. I felt a moment of kinship with it, and wished it well. May you be happy, little thrush. May you find food and shelter through the winter. May you return safely to your breeding grounds in the spring.
At times, the sun would come out, washing the tangled limbs and skinny, twisted trunks of the trees in an austere beauty. Overall, though, it is not a pretty woods, but a mess of twisting second-growth trees, the understory a nightmare of prickly invasives. Pretty much all of Dewitt county is like this, the woods along the lake choked by Japanese honeysuckle and punishing swathes of multiflora rose.
It might not be beautiful, but it is interesting, when I look carefully. Towards the end of the walk, I was so busy looking at chickadees that I almost missed the great horned owl soundlessly flying away from me. (So I can add back end of great horned owl to my year list now.)
The birding might be leisurely, but the quiet sense of peace that frequently overtakes me in nature remains. In the woods, everything is as it should be, if only just for that moment, as am I.
Have you seen any good birds so far this year? And is there any particular work of nature writing that you would recommend?