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?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, how I envy you! I want to see a screech owl, too! Up here in the UP, people are seeing robins, and I myself have seen a redwinged blackbird and a grackle. A birding acquaintance at work has seen juncos. How I pity these birds! We have 3 to 4 feet of old snow on the ground, still, and a blizzard about to commence, bringing 8 to 15 more inches of the stuff. I'm off to the feed store tomorrow to buy a mix of seeds and dried bugs for the robins...assuming I can get out of my driveway. My "wish bird" right now is a nice Wausau, where I'm headed in a week! MOM