Monday, April 29, 2013

Birds in Greek mythology

Eustace LeSueur, "Abduction of Ganymede," 1650

I've been meaning to do a post about the birds of Greek mythology for a while now, and by "a while," I mean, oh, about the past year or so. The sheer scope of the topic has been a bit daunting, to be honest. Every time I'd stop and do a little research, I'd find more, and more, and more. Those ancient Greeks had a lot of tales to tell!

But then I reminded myself, it's not a research paper. It's just something I'm slapping together for my blog just for fun. So here goes....

Probably one of the most famous stories is that of the twelve labors of Hercules. He had to perform these labors to atone for having killed his sons (although that wasn't really his fault; he was crazy at the time); for our purposes, the most relevant of these tasks was the sixth labor, killing the Stymphalian Birds.

Apparently, these birds were really bad news. Maybe you are sick of house sparrows taking over your purple martin houses or pigeons soiling your local park benches. Well, you have nothing to complain about compared to the people around Lake Stymphalia in Arcada, where the local people were terrorized by man-eating birds with toxic dung who could launch sharp, metallic feathers as a weapon. These things bred as quickly as starlings, and not only destroyed the crops, but ate the farmers, too. Luckily for the people of Arcada, Hercules soon put a stop to that.

Hercules killing the Stymphalian birds

He flushed them by shaking a rattle given to him by Athena (or maybe it was Hephaestus; I've read different versions), killing them as they flew up from the marshy edges of the lake. Those he didn't kill flew away to the island of Ares, where they were subsequently frightened off by Jason and the Argonauts. I am not sure what became of them after that. Perhaps they went extinct.

And if anyone doubts that birds can make someone's life a living hell, consider the plight of poor Prometheus, tormented for his audacity in giving the gift of fire to humanity by having an eagle feast upon his liver each day.

Prometheus being tormented by an eagle

Another curious phenomenon that is no longer much reported is that of people turning into birds. This seemed to happen frequently back in the days of the Greeks, as in the tragic example of Philomela and Procne.

As told by Ovid, a woman named Procne married a particularly loathsome character, Tereus, the King of Thrace. Not wanting to be parted from her sister, Philomela, she convinced her husband to let her join them. Unable to contain his lust for his sister-in-law, Tereus raped her and cut out her tongue. Philomela managed to tell Procne what had happened by weaving a tapestry to tell the story, and the two sisters got their revenge by killing Procne and Tereus' son Itys and cooking him up as dinner. (And I always wondered if the horror movies that are my guilty pleasure are too gruesome. Compared to this stuff, they are downright tame!)

After Tereus finished his meal, they held up Itys' decapitated head to taunt him, and he chased them in a murderous fury. The women prayed to be turned into birds to escape his rage, and thus Procne became a swallow and Philomena a nightingale. Although he did not want to be turned into a bird, Tereus became a hoopoe. (Other versions of the myth have them becoming different birds; but birds they all became.)

In a happier tale, the goddess Halcyon and her mortal lover, King Ceyx, were tragically parted when Ceyx died in a shipwreck. Halcyon threw herself into the waves in despair, whereupon the goddess Hera took pity on her sorrow and transformed both of them into kingfishers, so they could still be together.

Halcyon was also able to get Zeus to promise a spot of good weather so she could lay her eggs, which is the origin of the term "Halcyon Days."

In a tale from Homer, the hero Meleager was involved in the hunt for the Calydonian boar. His beloved, the huntress Atalanta, first wounded the boar, and Meleager gave her the hide as she had drawn the first blood. Long story short, a huge argument ensued over a woman being awarded the "prize," and Meleager himself ended up dead by the end of the tale (he ticked off someone named Althaea by killing the dudes who insulted Atalanta, and Althaea got revenge by destroying the brand that had to be protected because if it burned up, Meleager would die...yikes, it is almost impossible to simplify these tales).

After his death, his sisters were so mournful, keening and sobbing, that the goddess Artemis transformed them into guinea fowl and sent them to the island of Leros. This is why guinea fowl make pitiful sobbing noises. They just can't get over Meleager's death.

When the gods weren't transforming other people into birds, at least one god, Zeus, was becoming a bird himself in order to commit hanky-panky. In one instance, he transformed himself into an eagle in order to kidnap the youth Ganymede to become his "cupbearer," and at another time, he seduced a young woman named Leda in the guise of a swan. This is actually one of the more tasteful renditions of this scene.... I'm not really sure why anyone wants to think about a woman making out with a swan, but anyhoo...

"Leda and the Swan in the Palace of Fesch Ajaccio" by Paola Veronese

Finally, there are birds that became associated with a Greek deity, such as Athena and the owl. For many of my generation, this bit of mythology lives on due to the mechanical owl named Bubo in the movie Clash of the Titans.

In actual myth, the owl (symbolized by a Glaucous or Little Owl) would not have been seen as a "pet" or companion of the goddess, but as a representation or symbol of Athena. The owl symbolized wisdom and vigilance, due to its ability to see in the darkness, and the eyes that seemed to shine from within.

Regardless of how this association came to be, it was so entrenched that an Athenian coin, which was in circulation for over 300 years (430 BC -- 99 BC), featured an image of Athena on one side and an owl on the other, and were colloquially known as "owls."

Athenian coin

I love owls, but my favorite bird is the crow, and crows were associated with the god Apollo. In some stories, Apollo seems to have a grudge against crows: in one instance, he turns the crows' feathers black for telling him about the infidelity of his lover, Coronis; in another tale, he banishes the crow a constellation in the sky for eating figs instead of bringing him water as it was supposed to. In the heavens, the crow perches eternally near the water-snake, but unable to drink, which is why his caw is so raspy.

Apollo and the crow

In other tales, Apollo and the crow are on better terms; crows are considered sacred to Apollo, and in one myth, the god turned himself into a crow in order to escape the monster Typhon.

And now, I am suffering from Internet overload, a fate unknown to the ancient Greeks, I am sure. If I could turn into a bird in order to soothe my mind, I would either become a mourning dove, as I don't think they have enough brains to worry themselves, or a blue jay, as I am sure they are far too clever to get into such a state.

I hope you have enjoyed this summary of birds and the ancient Greeks; in the meantime, please let me know if there is a good bird myth that I have overlooked.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Where the warblers are

prairie warbler

Once again, spring migration is upon us. And to many of us, the creme de la creme, the icing on the migration cake, is warblers in their breeding plumage. It's not that I don't appreciate other types of birds. Of course I do. But to me, "warblers" and "spring" are pretty much synonymous.

Last year, the spring warbler phenomenon wasn't much to speak of. Many central Illinois birder commented how they seemed to fly right past us, so I knew I wasn't the only one. Still, that wasn't much consolation!

This year, over the past week or two, my personal sightings have started to trickle in. A couple of weeks ago, I got my first of year pine warbler at Sand Ridge and my first northern parula at Weldon Springs. Then last weekend, I added some palm warblers. Some lunch break birding last week added a splendid yellow warbler, and then yesterday at Friends Creek Park in Macon County I saw my FOY common yellowthroat and northern waterthrush.

These are all nice birds, but when it comes to warblers, I am greedy. I want mixed feeding flocks of splendid males...and I was especially hoping for four species in particular, which would all be life birds: yellow-throated, prairie, Kentucky and cerulean.

Finally, I decided that if the warblers would not come to me, I would have to go to where the warblers are, and according to the ebird alerts I get daily in my in-box, most central Illinois warblers were showing up at Busey Woods, an urban park in Champaign-Urbana, not too far from where I live, with the added attraction of some nice restaurants and shopping to boot.

At one point, I would probably have been surprised that the best birding is found in a city park. But I have since learned that these small oases, surrounded by traffic and concrete, often offer great birding, as all birds migrating over the cities have limited places to land. (The documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect is a great demonstration of this. Central Park is a birding hotspot because of, not in spite of, the fact that its surrounded by miles of urban wasteland...from a migrating bird's point of view.)

So off I went this morning, with my ever-obliging husband Greenturtle along for the fun. (He also took all the photos accompanying this post, which I appreciate, as it leaves my attention free to focus on the birds.)

Busey Woods is a 59 acre urban oasis in the heart of Champaign-Urbana, a nice patch of woods with a nature center attached. We had been there once before, for a quick stroll while we were waiting for our parrot to be examined at the U of I small animal clinic; unfortunately, at that time, I was a bit preoccupied, and did not really enjoy the park as much as I could have, although I did wonder why so much of it was traversed by a boardwalk.

Well, this trip answered that question...after all the spring rains we've been having, much of the woods is under water...great for prothonotary warblers, of which two or three were in evidence.

an unusual prothonotary warbler

We got terrific views of this one. I do wonder if this particular individual is an unusual variant or perhaps even a hybrid, as I have never seen a prothonotary with a "cap" before. In any case, he was very blase about the humans around him. Greenturtle commented on how "tame" some of these birds seemed.

Probably, the reason for that is twofold--the migrating birds are tired and hungry. Their main concern is finding enough food to continue on their journey, so they probably aren't paying much attention to some random humans. Also, as far as they know, humans aren't a big threat. The harm we do to warblers, we mostly do behind their backs, so to speak: destroying habitat, placing barriers like skyscrapers and wind turbines in their way, releasing our felines upon them, etc. To look at us, staring at them with amazement and admiration, who would think we had done them such harm?

Other great first of year birds I saw at the park were white-throated vireo, gray catbird, and two green herons.

green heron

Even some old favorites showed up in endearing ways, such as this bathing white-throated sparrow.

It's all too easy to overlook such common birds, until they do something so cute.

And saving the best till last, right as we were getting ready to leave the park, we saw my "life bird" prairie close that I almost stepped on it. Another great birding day in central Illinois!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Birding DeWitt County

the humble mourning dove can be seen everywhere

Birding DeWitt County is not for the faint of heart. Many of the best locations are in obscure places, or require some bushwhacking or stamina to get back to. The extremes of Illinois weather -- broiling under the summer heat, or being slapped silly by a vicious wind the rest of the year -- seem magnified along the lake. And perhaps the "county flower" should be the multifora rose, an invasive species whose vampiric thorns has turned much of the countryside into the kind of briar patch not known since the days of Sleeping Beauty's castle.

I should begin this post with a couple of confessions: I've lived here for two years, and I'm still constantly discovering new hidden recesses of the county. And also, it took me a while to warm up to the place. My first couple of visits were not very successful. If I hadn't bought a house in Clinton (the largest town in the county, with a population of around 6,000), I probably would not have persevered to find the county's hidden treasures. And now, in the spirit of birderly fellowship, I have chosen to write a series of posts to serve as a general guide to birding the county. Consider this post by way of introduction.

In general, I mentally divide birding here as Clinton Lake or Away from the Lake. (So far, I have explored two locations Away from the Lake, Weldon Springs State Park and Mettler Woods. I hope to stumble upon some others as I continue to explore. And for a fun, non-birding location, there is the allegedly haunted Old Union Cemetery.)

As for Clinton Lake, that body of water traverses most of the county in a long, skinny line like a big squashed finger. That was one of the things that most confused me when I first attempted to bird here. The word "lake" conjured up an image of an approximately spherical or otherwise contiguous body of water that one should be able to drive around. Instead, I would get a brief look at water as I whizzed over a bridge, and then spend the next several miles staring out over cornfields, demanding, "Where the bleep did the water go??" (For those whose anticipation is so great that you can't wait for me to get to all the fabulous places to bird here, many of the places I'll be describing are mentioned here.)

Before I actually begin my guide, I will describe my first, frustrating trip to the Lake. My sometime birding buddy (and mother) Sunwiggy and I decided to explore Clinton Lake based on the description given in Sheryl DeVore's book Birding Illinois, and from seeing all the great birds that other people had recently logged on ebird.

We set off one bright, sunny day in early October, 2009, to explore the wonders of Clinton Lake. With only the Birding Illinois book to guide us, we drove through Clinton and headed down highway 10, looking for likely spots to bird. Mostly I remember being frustrated. I had really just started birding on my own at the time (before that, I mostly enjoyed birding by going out on group walks with the JWP Audubon Society a few times in the spring and fall), and I had yet to learn some birding basics, such as the importance of refining one's search for certain species based on very specific habitat and season, and the necessity of a spotting scope if one wants to see waterfowl or shorebirds.

Other important items I've learned in the interim: the wealth of information provided by the birding community at large via the Internet, and the importance of really pinning down locations when heading out into the countryside. Though it embarrasses me to point out some of my old mistakes, well...we all have to start somewhere!

I finally turned at the sign for "Mascoutin State Recreation Area," giving a long-overdue glimpse of some water, and then we turned in to the park. We noted that there was a hiking trail, then found the beach area. My tally of species (I dusted off my old 2009 Bird Journal to get these details): American crow; Canada goose; great blue heron; ring-billed gull; belted kingfisher; killdeer; Bonaparte's gull; northern flicker; turkey vulture.

We then tried to find a spot described in the Devore book as being a trail "past the town square in DeWitt...." Multiple passes by the town square revealed nothing resembling a trail, and we finally turned around in disgust. (I now know where this spot is, and will share the details in a later post!)

Our next stop was the Clinton Marina, where a half a dozen turkey vultures perched on a houseboat with a "for sale" sign. The house boat is no longer there, although turkey vultures continue to gather at the marina in large numbers each fall. Still, this remains one of my favorite birding memories at the Lake.

turkey vultures are common at Clinton Lake Marina

Next, we drove further, to the bridge along Illinois 48, where we saw double-crested cormorants, black-capped chickadees, mallards, more crows, and more ring-billed gulls. On the advice of the book, we pulled up at the cemetery by the bridge, which was supposed to have a trail that lead to all sorts of interesting places. There was a short trail that petered out into nothing, and we added gray catbird, northern cardinal, least flycatcher, European starling, and eastern bluebird to our list.

By now I was getting disappointed. We weren't seeing much at the places we found, and two of the spots described in the book that sounded especially promising were either impossible to find or no longer maintained. Still undaunted, we decided to head for the Parnell Access, turning in the direction indicated by the sign on Highway 10. As no further sign told us to turn again, we kept on driving straight, until miles later it was clear that we were nowhere near the lake. We backtracked and did eventually find it, although I still have a bone to pick with the county for omitting the extra sign. (I will not make anyone wait for a further installment before giving this piece of advice: when heading towards the Parnell Access via Highway 48, turn the way the sign points you, and then take the first left. Do not keep driving straight. That only leads to tears.)

There wasn't much happening at Parnell, so for our final stop, we head over to Highway 54 and the Salt Creek Wetland Project. This looked more like it! A long gravel lane lead to a gate. Late fall migrants--yellow rumped and Tennessee warblers--fluttered in the branches overhead.

We walked down a slope towards a large marshy area, where we finally saw an expanse of water birds, including a large flock of American white pelicans. But when we got closer to the water, we encountered a most distressing sight. It turned out that we had arrived in waterfowl hunting season, and hunters in ungainly looking boats fringed with camouflage netting and festooned with leaves and branches bobbed in the water. The sound of gunshot rang through the air.

I have mixed feelings about duck hunting to start with, and have absolutely no desire to watch ducks being blown from the sky before my eyes. We decided to call it a day. We also decided we didn't care for Clinton Lake.

As is often the case, repeated excursions made me change my mind. Now I would say that birding in DeWitt County is, indeed, some of the finest that central Illinois has to offer. And so others can "cut to the chase," and the good birds, I will be doing a series of posts about the different places to bird, interspersed with my usual birding adventures and random musings you can find on this blog.

Is there anywhere in particular you would recommend be included for a guide to DeWitt County? Or anyplace that you would especially like to read about?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sunshine, after the rain

Bonaparte's gulls

All week it rained. Sometimes it drizzled; at others, it lashed down in torrents. Always, the skies were gray and unforgiving. The fields flooded, and my usual route home had to be adjusted, as what looked like a small river pulsed across the country road.

Yesterday, the deluge ceased, to be replaced by spitting snow and gusts of high winds. I wimped out. I did not try to bird at lunch, and yesterday after work, I retreated home, for an afternoon of serious dog-snuggling and Netflix movies instead of birds.

But, woe is me! This morning, I checked the Illinois Birding Forum, and saw that another birder (and just about every Illinois birder probably knows who I mean; but all is anonymous here on Bird Ephemera!) sighted Franklin's gulls, a cattle egret, and a little blue heron in some "fluddles" (by which I understand, field puddles) caused by our recent rains.

Egads! All three would be First of Year birds, and two (the gulls and the egret) a first for me in DeWitt County. This is what happens when you watch B-grade movies with a dachshund snoring on your lap, a cocker spaniel draped over your feet, a Pomeranian on the chair beside you, and an adorable mutt snoozing on your chest. Other people go out and see good birds behind your back!!

As a Public Service Announcement, I would like to mention that all four of my adorable dogs were adopted from my local Humane Society. As a person who loves dogs as much as she loves birding, I have stopped at four only because I don't wish to be featured on the next installment of the next program on "Animal Hoarders."

Today was my chance to make amends for past laziness. The sun, the sun, the SUN came out!! And shortly thereafter, I had consumed enough caffeine to be functional, and was on my merry way.

The Franklin's Bonaparte's gulls were still at the "fluddle" -- 20+ individuals, although of course I couldn't get all twenty into one photo. But as the gulls were not only a first for DeWitt County, but also the first time I saw them with their snazzy black heads in breeding plumage, I was happy enough I didn't even mind (all that much...) that the cattle egret reported by another had flown the coop. To make up for the lack of the egret, I did get an FOY savannah sparrow.

Compared to the Franklin's Bonaparte's gulls, the ring bills looked positively chunky.

(NB: Someone brought to my attention that the gulls in my photos have dark bills, not orange bills. They are Bonaparte's. I'd never seen Bonaparte's in their breeding plumage before, so it's still a fun sighting. And also a birding lesson learned--I just assumed that since Franklin's gulls had been seen there the day before, that's what they were. Ooops!)

My next stop was the Parnell Access parking lot and the associated equestrian trail. I had a long walk, and had to take the "high road" along the fields as the "low road" by the water was flooded, but the rewards were great: first of year palm warbler, blue-headed vireo (one of my faves) and Lincoln's sparrow, along with a bazillion ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumpled warblers, a handful of golden-crowned kinglets, and an assortment of song sparrows, field sparrows, one barn and one tree swallow, hermit thrushes, blue-gray gnatcatchers, house wrens, a belted kingfisher, a brown creeper (another one of my faves), and first of year broad winged hawk.

After grabbing a sandwich to go at Subway in Farmer's City, I headed for the Salt Creek Wetland, as last weekend one area remained there where the water was low enough for sandpipers (greater and lesser yellowlegs and one solitary sandpiper...appropriately enough).

Alas, today even that area was completely flooded, providing a habitat for ducks (ring necked, blue and green winged teal, female buffleheads) instead of sandpipers. However, a dozen or more swamp sparrows were flitting about the muddy fringes, and I stood for a while, trying to make a swamp sparrow transform into a marsh wren. As it turns out, I don't have that kind of mental power, but while I was so entranced, I caught a glimpse of movement close to me, and looked down to see a LIFE BIRD!! Virginia Rail creeping out of the grasses.

Rails are so secretive by nature, and this one gave me such a good view. I didn't even have to raise my binoculars, as it was so close that if I had fallen forwards, I probably would have smashed it with my head. For several minutes, it shuffled around the grasses, as I stared at it.

Then, a swamp sparrow moved, causing me to look away. I glanced back, and the Rail had already skulked back into the grasses, nevermore to be seen. But still! Mentally, I did an insanely embarrassing "life bird" victory dance. Physically, I didn't do much of anything at all, as I did not wish to frighten the rail into kingdom come.

For my final stop, I decided to drive to the Swisher Bridge side of the North Fork Trailhead, and I was glad I had not decided to walk this trail today, as at least one side of it was completely flooded.

Last year was so dry, I didn't see anything like this. It made me think of the year before, when Greenturtle and I were flooded out at Humiston Woods. At least this year didn't involve any wading!

I followed the trail about a half a mile or so, enjoying the sight of more yellow rumps, ruby-crowned kinglets, hermit thrushes, and the like, until I got to the end of the "road":

By then, it was getting late...and the late afternoon light was so gentle, reminding me of all the great birds I had seen, but that it was time to go home.

And so I did!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Chasing the "Havana Five"

black bellied whistling ducks

As I was checking the birding forums Friday evening, I saw that an Illinois rarity has been sighted right outside Havana: five black-bellied whistling ducks! As it turned out, Greenturtle and I had already planned a trip to the area, to go to Chatauqua and Emiquon so I could play with the new Swarovski spotting scope that my awesome mother-in-law sent me as a surprise.

I was on pins and needles all the way there...what if the "Havana Five" (as one birder called them) had departed before I could get there? I am not always so anxious about seeing a bird, but I really wanted to see black-bellied whistling ducks! Since their normal range is in the southern Texas, if I missed out on these, it might be a long time before I had another chance.

Luckily, they were still there, and the people in the house beside "their" pond had been very considerate of traveling birders:

In fact, a lady came out as were admiring them and snapping their photos, inviting us to come for a closer look and asking where we were from. She said that she had had visitors from as far away as Chicago and Rock Island, which does not surprise me. As I told Greenturtle, bird alerts are obviously what the Internet was invented for. It doesn't take long for a rare bird sighting to go "viral" in the birding community.

Most of the photos we took show the ducks busily feeding.

But every once in a while, a few would pop their heads up.

We declined to go any closer, as we were afraid of scaring them off, and ruining the trip for the next birder who came by. As we left, we speculated what brought them so far out of their normal range.

Greenturtle suggested that someone had gone to Texas in order to purchase or capture some ducks and bring them to Illinois, either as a prank on all the bird nerds such as myself, or in order to stimulate the local economy. I, on the other hand, preferred a more romantic explanation--that the "Havana Five" were a gang of outlaws on the run from the law (I picture "the Law" in the bird world to be represented by a hawk or falcon, perhaps in their case, a white-tailed hawk? Or maybe even a crested caracara?

In any case, I was very happy to have seen them, but for a rare life bird, it felt a bit too easy. Really, we just put the grid coordinates from the Internet in Greenturtle's smart phone, and went right to them, and there they were. Not that I'm complaining; they were great birds...and a life bird. But still, I do think that the experience is even sweeter when the "rare life bird" is a complete surprise.

After that, we headed for Chatauqua, which had more ducks on the water than I've ever seen there before, including northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, canvasbacks, bufflehead and ruddy ducks. I also saw many snow geese in a field.

Here I am with my new spotting scope...thanks, Norma!!

I also noticed another sign of spring, the first dutchman's breeches of the year:

Emiquon was lovely as usual, but did not have any shorebirds at all. Is it still too early, or is the water too high? Instead we found ducks, ducks, and more ducks, everything we'd seen at Chatauqua, plus green-winged teal as well.

For a final stop, we went to Sand Ridge State Forest, where I found a singing pine warbler. I didn't do this on purpose, but after the bird had flown off, I asked Greenturtle to get out his phone and play the warbler's song, just so I could confirm the identification.

Well, let's say it certainly did confirm it! The bird flew back in to confront what he thought was a rival's song, perching right overhead and flying from tree to tree. I felt bad for inadvertently messing with his head, but we really got a good look!

Another good day of birding in the Prairie State....

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The 100th Year Bird

Blue Winged Teal was actually bird #101

Today I drove home through a downpour. Ropes of rain pounded against the ground, while pulses of lightening spliced the sky. I love a good thunderstorm. The expanses of endless brown cornfields that I normally find so ugly, especially at this time of year, were rendered intriguing, almost mysterious, by the storm.

And best of all, I could see puddles forming. And what do muddy field puddles bring in the spring? Why, sandpipers, of course! If this rain keeps up as predicted, tomorrow's long drive to and from work might be rather interesting.

The past few days have been rather decent all around...dare I tempt the Fates of Birding by stating "excellent"? Well, two life birds in one weekend is excellent in my books.

It all began on Friday afternoon. After work, instead of dashing away from Decatur as quickly as four wheels will take me, to explore the nooks and crannies of Clinton Lake as has been my wont of late, I decided to stay in town for a while and look for gulls. As those who read my last post might recall, a little gull had made a surprise appearance on Easter weekend, and though it had not been relocated, hope springs eternal in a birder's heart.

I decided to try my luck at Sportsman's Park, because: one, I knew that a colony of gulls had been hanging out in the area, and two, I had recently realized that I don't need to flounder around through the weeds and shrubbery to find them, as there is actually a short trail leading from the parking area to an overlook where the shallow portion of the lake can easily be scoped, gulls and all.

I can't believe that, in a dozen or more visits to this park, I never noticed the trail! In my defense, I must state that the entrance to the trail is rather obscure, and all that I had previously done was park, look out over the water, check out the pond, and then leave...but still. Embarrassing! But better late than never, eh?

Even before I pulled up into the park, I was excited, as I glimpsed a group of pelicans as I drove past. Last year, I consistently saw pelicans there from July, my first visit, to early November. I wonder if these will stay at Lake Decatur this year?

Not a lot was going on as far as passerines were concerned -- my first of year eastern towhee, brown thrasher, and cedar waxwing have yet to appear -- but there was definitely a lot of interest on the water. A couple hundred American coots, a few dozen gadwall, a sprinkling of northern shovelers, a few green-winged teal, and a pair of American wigeon all made an appearance.

And right where I expected them to be, a good-sized colony of gulls were snoozing in the shallows. As I trained my spotting scope upon them, I reflected how, at times like these, none of my field guides are that much help. I have images, both drawings and photos, of gulls perching and flying, gulls in summer and winter, as adults and juveniles. However, not one of these images depicts the gulls in what I have found to be one of their most common poses--heads turned around and tucked under a wing, soundly sleeping.

As I mentioned in my last post, the gulls portion of my Life List is not that extensive. Were it not for a trip to the Gulf Coast of Texas, it would be downright pitiful. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the gulls I find are ring bills. Which means that I've gotten really good at identifying ring billed gulls! Which also means that...maybe I'm getting better at identifying "not a ring bill"?

I trained my scope slowly from gull to gull, and before long, "not a ring bill" became apparent. It was like that song from Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the others..." This gull was -- one, bigger than a ring bill; and two, darker than a ring bill. Beyond that, I could not say, as its head was firmly tucked beneath one wing.

Still, mentally putting on my Sherlock Holmes cap, I deduced -- though the gull was definitely bigger than the ring bills, it wasn't gigantic by comparison. It was rather the size of a herring gull. And the feathers upon its back, being so dark, made me backed. Taking its size into consideration, I decided lesser black backed...making it a life bird! (I did get a glimpse of the great black backed at a sewer plant in Duluth, MN, last February.)

When it comes to life birds, one does like to get a look at certain features, such as, say, the bird's head. So I watched and waited for a while. Though the gulls around it stretched and fluttered from time to time, the black backed was one lazy individual. It did not stir a feather.

You know how sometimes you feel kind of prickly when someone is looking at you, almost like some sort of ESP? Well, this gull was completely oblivious to my gaze. A good five minutes or more of intent staring didn't cause it to so much as ruffle a feather, the lazy SOB.

I moved my scope around, getting some nice looks at other birds, such as my FOY blue-winged teal, every now and again bringing it back to the black backed gull. I mentally amended the description in my field guides to read, "The laziest of all gull species, the lesser black backed gull is most often found deep in slumber." I pondered my own personal ethics and wondered how bad it would be, on a scale of one to ten (if one were "Jane Goodall" and ten were "British Petroleum"), if I tossed a stone in the gull's direction to startle it awake?

Luckily, I did not have to wrestle with temptation that long, for the gull in question did twist its head around for a second or two, allowing me a glimpse of its heavy-looking beak with a large orange "splotch" on the end. Definitely a lesser black-backed gull! So my 100th year bird was a life bird after all! Happiness all around!

Not much of note happened over the weekend, though on Monday afternoon I took a quick trip to Mettler Woods here in DeWitt County. This is a small patch of woods owned, I think, by the Nature Conservancy, which suffered the misfortune of being hit by a tornado about a decade ago. The resulting damage (more trees are downed than upright, it seems), and the fact that it's a little out of the way spot in the middle of cornfields, without any trails to speak of, probably resulted in its complete obscurity on the birding radar.

I plan to do a post about it before too much longer, but in the meantime, it is significant as being the site of my second life bird of the week.

One of the birds on my Top Ten Wants list for 2013 was the eastern screech owl. Despite being relatively common, they are not that easy to find, being small birds that spend their days in sleeping in hollow trees. On the advice of a fellow birder, I had made a few trips after dark to wooded areas, hoping to hear their screeching, but while I heard evidence of a nest of great horned owls in the cemetery by my house, I neither saw nor heard anything "screechy."

I guess I just gave away my second Life Bird of the weekend. It was an eastern screech owl. And I happened to see it under circumstances I could never replicate. One of those fluke, once in a lifetime events....

I had rambled around the woods for a bit, and found myself in an area particularly ravaged by tornado damage. At least half the trees were fallen, and the other half, though still upright, were dead. I was wondering why I was wasting my time in this area, as nary a bird did I see.

In fact, I was starting to wonder what might be the swiftest way to exit this blighted area. Heading towards the end of the ruins, I was scrambling over one fallen log, jumping over another, onto yet a third, and reached over to support myself by grabbing onto an upright, yet still dead, tree. This must have startled a screech owl from its slumbers, for it burst out of the tree, and perched right in front of me for several seconds, perhaps as long as a minute. I didn't even need to raise my binoculars to see it clearly.

It was a little gray owl, about the size of my hand, with endearing little ear tufts.

I stared at it.

It stared at me.

I stared at it.

It stared at me.

I became aware of a coprophagic grin on my face (I use the long, pretentious word to keep my blog "family friendly"), and whispered to the little owl, "Hello!"

It flew off a distance, perched again for another few seconds, then flew out of sight. Eastern screech owl, baby!! I've wanted to see one of those for years!

So, a good weekend all around. And since the Fates of Birding have been so good to I hope for another "wish bird" in the near future? Like...a Smith's longspur?

Here's hoping!

So...what new birds have you soon lately? And were they a complete surprise, or something you'd been looking for?

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Larophobe's lament

I had just wrapped up a particularly enjoyable weekend of birding and exploring DeWitt County, summing up with 99 birds on my Illinois list for 2013. Ninety-nine is such an unsatisfying number. Not only does it summon up memories of interminable childhood road trips, tormenting my parents by squawking out "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" from the back seat, but in more recent years, making note of the 100th Year Bird has become a bit of a ritual for me. I hate finishing a weekend of birding still stuck in the double digits, and yet once again, that's what happened.

The 99th IL bird of the year was the ruby-crowned kinglet, which livened up a rather unbirdy stroll through Weldon Springs by warbling his thin, rolling song to get my attention. It was the first time I had actually heard a kinglet singing, and I thought how last year, the a ruby crown was the 100th Year Bird.

So this year, what would Bird #100 be? I had a mental list of suspects: blue winged teal, cedar waxwing, brown thrasher, eastern towhee. Any of those would be a likely candidate, and none of them made an appearance.

Later in the evening, I checked the Illinois Birder's Forum, and noticed that someone had seen a little gull at Lake Decatur. What if the 100th year bird was to be a life bird, and a rarity at that? As I have the misfortune of working in Decatur, I wouldn't even have to go out of my way to look for it.

I informed my husband Greenturtle, the early riser, that I wanted to head to the city early in order to look for the gull, and to make sure I got up with him at five o'clock. Not that I really had great expectations for sighting the gull. I can never find new gulls. Heck, I even attended the IOS' Gull Frolic last year, and didn't get any "life gulls." (Though I did get a life bird, the surf scoter, so yea!)

Not that I hold this scarcity of gulls against the good folk of the Frolic. It was not their fault; I never see any gulls in Illinois except ring-billed, herring and Bonaparte's. (I did see a Thayer's at the frolic, a first for the state, and finally got my lifer Franklin's last year. But I really worked for that gull. It did not come easily.)

I don't even take it personally. Unlike my new nemesis, the shrike, whom I suspect of deliberately thwarting me at every turn, I don't get all that worked up over gulls. Some people do. Both my father and my husband have a soft spot for gulls. As exhibit A, I show you the caption on a photo taken by my father Up North:

There is even an Illinois birder's blog devoted to gulls, Anything Larus. (In case you are wondering about the title of this post, larus is the genus for gulls. Not that I am actually afraid of gulls, mind you. It just seemed like a fun title.)

My poor record with gulls undid my best intentions. When Greenturtle's alarm went off at stupid o'clock, I mumbled, "Don't wake me up, I need more sleep."

"But what about the little gull?" he asked.

"Don't care." I pulled the covers over my head. "Rather sleep."

Later, at work, I took a surreptitious peak at IBET (Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts), and saw that some more motivated birders than myself had gone looking for the little gull, and found it not. Well, guess who was glad they hadn't gotten up early now??

Still, I did drive down to the place on the lake where it was seen on my lunch break, in case it had returned. Ring bills, big fat ring bills everywhere! Also mallards, many coots, and a few bufflehead.

The most exciting thing that happened was when I was almost mugged by a pair of Canada geese. They charged up over the side of the pier where I was walking, necks outstretched, tongues flapping, honking furiously. I never appreciated how big Canada geese were until they were very pissed off and right in my face.

I backed up slowly, waving my tripod and spotting scope in front of me as a shield, until the geese and I had reached an impasse. A sign at the dock had warned me that the premises were under camera surveillance. (Although these warnings were nowhere near as insistent as those at Lake Sara, Il.)

If my actions truly were recorded for posterity, I bet the security folk got a chuckle out of that! I drove a bit further down the road, and scanned the gulls again. No little gulls at all.

Oh well. It's not like I expected to see one. Maybe tomorrow. Who knows what my lunch break will bring?