Sunday, March 3, 2013

A cacophony of quackings

a waterfowl extravaganza

Friday I woke up in a tizzy. "It's March!" I ran to the window, where another bleak, gray, snow-spitty dawn awaited me. Hmmphh. I should have remembered that, quotes from Tennyson aside, March is truly the cruelest month. This tail end of winter is such a frustrating, in-between season. The first migrants start trickling back and I'm impatient for all the rest, and I always end up feeling that spring should be much farther along than it is.

Yesterday was only partially cloudy, so I went out for a walk at Weldon Springs. I had a vague idea of surveying the whole park, as I like to do at least once a season, but after a stroll over the Schoolhouse Prairie, I was bored. I saw my first turkey vulture of the year, circling the prairie with more flaps than they usually require. But to be honest, the birding was slow.

If I had to make a special birding request for the day, it would be for a horned grebe. Since it was clear that no horned grebes were on offer at Weldon Springs, I decided to drive to points around Clinton Lake instead. In fairness, March really is more about waterfowl than anything else.

I found ruddy ducks and common mergansers, plus a couple of hundred American coots, and just as I was getting ready to head for home, swimming along by the Highway 48 bridge was--you guessed it!--a very handsome example of a horned grebe. With several nice species under my belt, I was feeling quite contented with my early March birding until I began checking my favorite birding forums, and noticed what other birders had seen.

Does comparing our accomplishments to those of others over the Internet: One, ruin an otherwise perfectly good day? or two, spur one on to greater effort and, thus, greater rewards? Especially when these other accomplishments are accompanied by amazing photographs of all the birds you didn't see? I ask this in jest because obviously the answer is "two." OK, with maybe just a pinch of "one" thrown in. Because what the other birder saw, while I was freezing my tail off on the prairie watching a turkey vulture try to stay aloft, was tundra swans. And while turkey vultures are nice enough birds, who wouldn't rather see the swans?

So I awoke this morning on a Quest, and headed to the Salt Creek Wetland Project, which seemed to be the general vicinity in which the swans had been seen. The sun was bright, the air was frigid, and I was not coming home until I'd found the swans! (Except, what if they'd flown off somewhere else? If I take my words literally, it could be a very long birding trip indeed....)

As usual, I found the Salt Creek Wetland to be a challenge. The area is so exposed to the elements that chilly days become downright Arctic, hot days are positively sweltering, and bright days seem glaring instead of warm, giving everything a washed-out, overexposed quality. Plus the Wetland has a weird "vibe." Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm still traumatized by my first visit there, when Sunwiggy and I stumbled upon it during waterfowl season, and witnessed hunters drifting around on boats covered with leaves and bark to create portable blinds, blasting away at the ducks right before our eyes.

As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear the whooping, joyous song of northern cardinals, and the sassy cries of red-winged blackbirds establishing their territories. Despite the lingering snow, the signs of spring have arrived. I crunched over the snow, noticing how both the sound and texture of cold snow, still crisp from the night-time temperatures, was quite different from the sound and texture of warm, slushy snow that I'd walked on the day before.

I got a good look at some northern pintail, hanging out by the shore with a flock of mallards, and then promptly managed to flush every duck and goose in the wetland to the furthest point in the water, far beyond the reach of my feeble spotting scope. I lugged myself closer, flushing several subsequent waves of waterfowl that I hadn't noticed still hanging out in the shallows, until every single one had, indeed, vacated the premises. My typical Salt Creek Wetland experience. Just in case, I trained my scope along the far shore, but with the glare of the sun and distortion from the water, I really couldn't tell what was out there. Nothing looked big enough to be a swan, but when all you can see is a haze with some waterfowl swimming through it, who can say for certain?

On my way back to my car, I admired a pair of northern harriers gliding effortlessly over the marsh. Lustful nuthatches chased each other in the trees at the end of the loop. And perched at the top of a tree across a hay field was my first eastern meadowlark of the year, his haunting see-you see-year cry filling the air. I don't know if he was having luck attracting a female meadowlark, but he certainly got my attention.

It looked like I would have to head for my least favorite DeWitt County birding location: the Impenetrable Thicket. The Maze of Thorns. Otherwise known as the other side of the marsh, which took me forever to figure out how to access and, all griping aside, I am extremely grateful to the birder who showed it to me. I've seen some really amazing species back there. But it's still not my favorite spot. Still, when on a Quest, one has little choice in the matter. The Impenetrable Thicket it had to be.

Once there, I could hear the cacophony of waterfowl as soon as I got out of my car. I flushed an owl in the pines along the way -- a great horned, judging by the size of it -- and it was immediately mobbed by a murder of crows.

I hadn't walked far at all when I glimpsed an expanse of water across a cornfield, and set up my scope to watch the waterfowl at my leisure. Redheads, ring-necked ducks, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese...lots of them. I was sure there was more in the mix, but since they were right along the shore, I didn't want to walk directly towards them, as this would just cause another quacking panic and frustrating view of duck butts heading away from me.

Which meant I had to head for the thorny, wooded area. I trudged over the uneven ground across the field, scaring a flock of ring-necked pheasants, wondering if a group of pheasants has a special name or if it's just a flock. (So easy to look up, but more fun to wonder.) A red-tailed hawk keened overhead, but mostly, I kept my gaze down at the knobbly ground, lest I twist an ankle or a knee.

From the woods, I peered at the water, keeping far enough back to not scare the ducks. From the hundreds of redheads, ring-necked ducks and pintail, I managed to find a couple of canvasbacks, a gadwall, and an American wigeon. The wigeon flew away just as I spotted it, and I swung the scope to the right, trying to keep it in view, when I saw, gliding along against the far shore, the tundra swans.

The Quest successful! I admired them for a while, then spent another twenty minutes or so just enjoying the spectacle of so many water birds. There's always something a bit humbling about so much abundance. I thought, I will remember this as long as I live. I always think that when I'm watching huge numbers of ducks. I don't think I could ever get bored with the sight.

But, I could get cold, and hungry, and I was both, so shortly thereafter, I wrapped up my trip. Really, it was a wonderful least until I check the Internet and see what I missed. (White winged scoter at Starved Rock? Any chance they'll still be there next week? So many birds, so little time....)

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Try this for torture...every bird that you saw today, I will not see for at least 4 weeks! The harbor is sporting little ice fishermen's tents and shanties, not waterfowl in their hundreds, and no bird in it's right bird-brainy mind would migrate up here in March! Still, I AM glad you found your tundra swans. Braving those blood-sucking rose bushes, you earned a treat. PS You're right, the Salt Creek Wetland is odd. MOM