Sunday, May 19, 2013

Birding on borrowed time

red winged blackbird

Spring migration is the best time of the whole year. And it's gone so quickly. It seems like there was never enough time, and I barely got outside as much as I wanted, and I still have a half dozen warblers I didn't see, every year.

This spring, it felt like it rained every single weekend. I was starting to feel like nature had a grudge against me. As if there were some spiteful weather spirit perched atop an enormous black rain cloud, following me everywhere I went, muttering, "You think you're going to go out and see any warblers? Well, only if you want to see them in a thunderstorm! Mwa-ha-ha!" A bit extreme, perhaps, but such is the strength of the feeling that spring migration brings.

The icing on the cake was supposed to be the first weekend of May, when my parents came to visit. I had promised them a spring warblerama the likes of which they had never before witnessed. I told my mother, Sunwiggy, that with me as her birding guide, we could possibly see one hundred species on one day. The original plan was to take them for a quick stroll on Thursday evening when they arrived, then head over to Vermilion County on Sunday for an all day birding blast. Friday morning she wanted to go to the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin-Hopper lakes in Putnum County, where last year we'd finally seen yellow-headed blackbirds, just when I was suspecting they were swiftly becoming a nemesis bird.

As it turned out, Thursday, after a day of sunshine, it started to pour as soon as they got to town. Friday morning I awoke to further downpour. Instead of birding, we went out for breakfast at a local restaurant, and I stared sullenly out the window as new raindrops made pockmarks in the puddles.

I decided to go to Bloomington with them for a spot of shopping instead, when just as we were reaching the McLean County line, the rain slowed to a drizzle, and then ceased. Given a choice between shopping and birding, it's obvious what I'm going to do.

"Let's check out Centennial Park [in Heyworth]," I suggested. "It's a small park, but sometimes the birding's good. Last year there was a prothonotary."

We parked by the short, woodsy trail that runs along the back of the park. "Welcome to Warbler Alley," I said jokingly. But it was no joke! The storms must have created fall-out condition, for the trees were practically dripping with spring migrants. Ninety percent of these were yellow-rumped warblers. But in the other ten percent, we got some sweet species, such as black and white, Cape May, palm, yellow and blackpoll warblers, plus warbling vireos.

A fellow walking his dog stopped to tell us about the nesting bald eagles. I had heard of these frequently, but had yet to see them. He also told us how he had rescued his dog a couple of years ago after his wife found it lying by a ditch, practically starving and wounded by gunshot. The dog seemed in good health and spirits, however, and truly lived up to its name, Lucky.

As we walked back towards the car, one of the eagles of local fame flew overhead, carrying such long branches in its talons that at first glance, I assumed it was a great blue heron.

After that, of course, it rained. In between running errands with Greenturtle I did manage to squelch into Ewing Park in Bloomington, where I enjoyed the sight of a hooded warbler in the rain.

Saturday, rain. Every time I thought I'd caught a lull in the drizzle, I raced outside, only to be foiled by the weather once again.

So by Sunday, the last day of their visit, I was starting to feel a bit desperate. Luckily, the weather cooperated for us at last.

As our Friday morning trip to Hennepin-Hopper had been cancelled due to weather, and Sunwiggy insisted that, out of every spot in all of central Illinois, that was the one she wanted to visit the most, we were heading for Putnam County. As I was mostly lusting for warblers, I convinced them to stop at Funks Grove in McLean County along the way.

I have long thought that being a birding guide would be an awesome job, so it was great fun to play that role with my parents. And luckily, the birds cooperated. Once again, we found ourselves surrounded by a giant mixed feeding flock. We added indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, Swainson's thrush, wood thrush, Tennessee warbler, eastern wood pewee, gray-cheeked thrush and blue winged warbler to our year lists in short order.

And what could be better than seeing a scarlet tanager? Why, that would be seeing it in the company of a summer tanager, which was perching in the trees directly over my head.

"Summer tanager!" I called out.

"Where?" they cried. "Where's the summer tanager?"

"It's right over my head here." I pointed skyward. "Right directly over my head."

"But where, where is it? I can't see it."

I clarified, "If it took a dump right this minute, it would land in my eye!" So much for being a birding guide...but they did see the tanager.

As we headed down the road to Sugar Grove Nature Center, the birding just kept on being fabulous. A flock of rose-breasted grosbeaks were feeding in the middle of the road. By the nature center, white-crowned sparrows clustered around the feeders, while Baltimore orioles flocked to the oranges.

Mindful of my boast that we could see up to one hundred species, I suggested we walk the prairie to try for some grassland species, but gray clouds and a biting wind were rolling in. My dad was cold, and it truly did look like more rain, we decided to head northward, where the forecast was kinder.

the observation tower at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

Hennepin-Hopper was as beautiful as ever, but alas, the stars of the show, the yellow-headed blackbirds, had not chosen to make an appearance. I wonder if the water level was too high for them (last year was much dryer), if we arrived too late in the day, or if some other happenstance or fickle mood had kept them away. There were also no great egrets or double-crested cormorants, which surprised me, as they have always been "regulars" in the past.

The species we did see were also surprising: ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks and bufflehead. Shouldn't they have moved north already? And yet there they were. Someone said that the lakes had just been restocked with small fish; maybe that was was kept them around. Joining them were the more expected blue winged teal and wood duck, plus an American white pelican (just one?!?) and a pair of mute swans.

At the other end of the prairie/wetland trail, we heard the uncanny noise of a sora, and as my parents seemed interested in finding it, I took my responsibilities of bird guide seriously and stared into the reeds until I found it. Several more minutes passed until everyone had had a satisfactory look, as the bird was so well camouflaged that even when I was staring right at it, the sora would somehow manage to blend in with the surrounding cattails in a kind of reverse "magic eye" trick.

Now you see it, now you don't...sora

As we stopped to eat the sandwiches we'd brought, we watched a sad and vicious spectacle. A thuggish house sparrow was in the process of evicting a tree swallow from a tree cavity it had chosen for a nest. The swallow made a couple of attempts to reclaim the lost territory, but the sparrow, a ruffian through and through, bullied it mercilessly until it gave up. I found myself identifying with the poor tree swallow, imaging someone barging in and evicting me from my home.

There was one last spot to explore, the mile-long "seep trail" that follows a series of springs and puddles--seeps---where at this time of year I would normally expect to see red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore orioles and a sprinkling of warblers. I was not disappointed. All of these, plus yellow-bellied flycatcher, great crested flycatcher, marsh wren, and about a dozen yellow warblers made an appearance. I have never seen so many yellow warblers in one spot; that might be the "best bird" of the day just for their quantity.

We also saw some plants that had been uprooted and tossed by the trail. Sunwiggy wondered who was pulling out plants, so I explained that it was garlic mustard, a horribly invasive species that is attempting world domination. It spreads like wildfire, crowding out native plants such as spring wildflowers, and changing the habitat -- and the scenery -- for the worse. Yanking this crap out is a good thing.

garlic mustard--bad, bad, bad

Both of my parents were so inspired by my speech that we all began removing clumps of it up and down the trail, until we realized that it was a never-ending task and meanwhile, the birds weren't going to wait for us to finish. Along the way, we met the couple who'd been removing it; it's always nice to meet another avenger of native plants.

My parents got tired before we reached the end of the trail, and turned back early, although they said they were entertained in the meantime by watching a mute swan terrorizing a Canada goose. I'm starting to sense a pattern here -- the house sparrow, the garlic mustard, the mute swan, all showing up from distant parts to bully the locals. Don't get me wrong; I like mute swans. And I hear that garlic mustard is good to eat. And as for house sparrows, well, it's not their fault they don't belong here. It was like a mini-environmental lesson, with examples, there at Hennepin Hopper.

The day kind of wound down after that, and we finished out at a respectable, but not spectacular, seventy-seven species.

And then balmy, sunny day followed upon balmy, sunny day, and I had to work. Since I have an hour and a half of commute on top of my nine-hour work days, there's little time for birding in between. It's hard enough for me to be cooped up inside all day at any time of the year...but during spring migration! It feels like being stuck in prison all day, then let out at night for good behavior.

The imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo trying to catch a glimpse of a Blackburnian warbler

And then, on the weekends...rain!! There were some good moments--a couple of hours at Mettler woods under gloomy skies, where the scarlet of the tanager and the yellow throat of the vireo and the orange on the Blackburnian warbler still shimmered, despite the gray weather.

Or after doing the same double take several times, when I realized that real difference between a thrush and an ovenbird (which look similar on first glance) is not the ovenbird's smaller size or subtle orange cap, but its look of perpetual alarm. Every ovenbird I've seen has looked like it's getting ready for the apocalypse. Thrushes, on the other hand, are quite laid back.

As the spring warbler season winds down, I've been thinking of how the famous birder Phoebe Snetsinger -- the first person to get more than 8,000 species on her life list -- called her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time. I always assumed that she chose that title because she had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer (which went into remission; twenty years later she was killed in a bus accident).

Obviously, having a disease like that, even if one has successfully dodged it, would make one more aware of the brevity of warblers in migration. But more to the point, none of us has an infinite supply of years. And the birds themselves, depending on the species, might not be here in a decade or a century. We're all on borrowed time.

Or, with apologies to A.E. Housman:

Of my three-score years and ten
Forty will not come again
And thirty years will never do
To watch the warblers going through.

1 comment:

  1. What fun I had reading this! You are truly a bird guide par excellence, with the patience of Job himself. You left out all of the annoying behaviors of your parental units! For me, seeing those 77 species in one day was a huge treat, and thank you! If you find yourself missing warblers too much, come on up here, where they're nesting. Then you can ID them for me! I should write a poem about birding when one is almost 64, crochety and crichety and wheezing along, but still in love with the birds. MOM