Thursday, June 27, 2013

Books for the intermediate birder

In a recent post, I discussed two books beginning birders by Peter Dunne. These books covered the basics of finding birds to admire (choosing a good habitat, time of day, weather conditions, etc.), and bird identification.

But let's say you've been birding for a while. You know some nice, birdy locations and manage to identify many of the birds you find. But still, you know that there are better birders out there, and you want to know their secrets. Maybe you'd like to find more warblers in spring migration. Or maybe you wish you could find some of the rarities in your state or county. Or maybe you're struggling with one of those confusing bird categories, like warblers in fall plumage, sparrows or gulls.

Luckily, there are some books that might help you out. One I just finished recently, How to Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovitch (2012, Princeton University Press). It's a slender book and a quick read, with some attractive color photos.

The first few chapters are like a review of Dunne's books, discussing using a holistic approach to bird identification, what Lovitch calls "the whole bird and more" -- more including habitat, behavior, general impression of shape and size, etc. Lovitch recommends spending a lot of time in the field, just watching birds and their behavior, even the common ones, as well as learning about the rest of nature. This is all great advice, but probably not worth buying a separate volume for, assuming that your library already covers the birding basics.

But subsequent chapters provide more. "Birding by Night" explains how to use radar images from weather reports to predict the best times and places of finding birds, especially in migration. The chapter "Birding and Weather" suggests that birders might want to learn the basics of meteorology, for wind patterns and storms will definitely affect the birds you might be able to see.

The chapter on "Vagrants" discusses some reasons why rare birds show up. The concept of "mirror migration" is especially interesting; sometimes a bird will fly the expected distance during migration...but in the opposite direction. Knowing the best time of year and locations, as well as studying which birds are showing up in neighboring states or counties, can help your chances of finding a really exciting bird. (Not that all birds aren't exciting....)

Finally, the chapter on "Patch Listing" gives some good reasons why birders should find a local patch and visit it often. And in "Birding with a Purpose," Lovitch mentions some ways to get involved in projects or use your observations to help further the cause of science, such as Christmas bird counts, breeding bird surveys, and Cornell's ebird database.

And additional feature that makes this book helpful is the exhaustive resource list of both books and websites for each of the topics he discusses. I really enjoyed this book, and will probably refer to it often, especially to check out the books and websites he recommends.

Another useful book is Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson II and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest (2005, Houghton Mifflin).

I consulted this book several times when I first began birding, with special attention paid to the chapters on sparrows. For some reason, identifying sparrows used to drive me to distraction. At the time, I did not find the book especially helpful. There was just too much information and too many details about field marks, habitats, comparing one sparrow to another.

Fast forward several years to the present day. Now, I have a fondness for sparrows, which seem like such gentle, unassuming birds. Flocks of American tree sparrows cheer up bleak winter days, and the sight and song of our familiar breeding species -- field, song and chipping sparrows -- are part of the beauty of a summer walk. Every spring and fall, I look forward to the passage of large flocks of white-throated, white-crowned and fox sparrows. And when something less common pops up, like the lovely LeConte's I found at Weldon Springs, hooray!

Now that I have more experience with sparrows, and other species, I decided to dust off Identify Yourself and give it another try. I looked especially at the chapters on shorebirds, gulls and flycatchers, as these are some of the categories that still give me pause. And of course, I reread the chapters on sparrows, which no longer seemed overwhelming.

While I found this book confusing when I first started birding, I now think it is a handy addition to an "intermediate" birding library. It's still not the kind of book I would sit and read cover to cover, but I think it will be quite helpful to study one chapter at a time, in conjunction with field guides and observation of the actual bird.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Patch dispatch

eastern bluebird

When the summer doldrums hit--migration is long over, the breeding season is winding down, the shorebirds are still in the Arctic, and there's nothing exciting to chase--I like to take the advice of Peter Dunne and others and put the "watching" back in "birdwatching."

Today, with that in mind, I headed to my local patch, Weldon Springs State Park, with the hopes of getting as many bird photos as possible and maybe even watch some birds doing interesting things.

I started out on the backpack loop, hoping to see if the American redstart that I saw last summer, and again late this spring, was still singing in the tall trees, hopefully doing his part to make more redstarts. This was a big mistake. The mosquitoes were worse than I have ever seen them, causing me to run from the scene in a tizzy, using some naughty words along the way.

Luckily, the Union Schoolhouse prairie and Lake Loop were fine, and provided me many photogenic birds. I like to call rose-breasted grosbeaks my "cherry pies."

someone's been into the cherries

Believe it or not, this was my first of year hummingbird for Illinois.

female ruby-throated hummingbird

And I did find some birds doing strange things. It appears that this white-breasted nuthatch is trying to scare the mourning dove away from the food.

kung fu nuthatch

And I didn't think that a chickadee would drink nectar.

"So that's what all the fuss is about!"
Several Canada geese families were hanging out by the wetland. The "babies" are so big now, like they're just about ready to graduate.

"They grow up so fast!"
And here is probably the only great blue heron on earth that doesn't fly away from the sight of a human. It made me think of a heron that Sunwiggy and I saw at Banner Marsh a few years ago. We called him "Special Ed" because instead of flying, he ran down the road in front of the car. (Ed would fly eventually, so we knew he could.) I think this one just knew how handsome he was.

"I'm too sexy for this pond."

Of course it's always fun to see the rarities, but as one of the people in the documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect said, if you get tired of looking at the common birds, you might as well hang up your binoculars. These birds are beautiful!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

DeWitt County Birding Guide: Salt Creek Wetland Project

The Salt Creek Wetland Project is approximately sixty acres of wetland and wet meadows located on Highway 54 in DeWitt County. The entrance is about two or three miles west of Farmer City.

My Personal Birding History

Since moving to Clinton in 2011, I have tried to stop at the Salt Creek Wetland at least once a season. My personal observations consist of about two dozen visits in all, many of them clustered in the summer of 2011 and the spring of this year.

General description and birding highlights

A short, narrow gravel drive takes you to the parking area and the trailhead for both the Salt Creek Wetland and the adjacent equestrian trail, which leads past the lake and several fields and eventually connects to the Parnell Access site. A thorough description of that trail will be undertaken in a future post.

It's worth taking several minutes (or longer, if it's birdy) to check out the trees around the parking area and gravel drive and the entrance area to the equestrian trail. On some trips, the best birding might be found right here. Various warblers and other migrants might be hanging out here in spring and fall, and it's also known for alder flycatchers. Bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and eastern towhees like it here as well, and will stick around throughout the summer.

The entrance to the equestrian trail can also have some good surprises: a couple of years ago, a Bell's vireo bred there; more common are indigo buntings, eastern wood pewee, ruby-throated hummingbird, and a variety of sparrows, depending on the season. Last spring, walking in a short ways (about a quarter of a mile in and back) on the trail itself, I found American woodcock and winter wren.

After that, a short hill slopes down and takes you to the wetland area. The amount of water, and the birds you can expect to see, varies widely depending on season and weather conditions.

the wetland in summer

The trail takes you an a short (maybe half a mile to a mile) loop, with wet meadows and a channel on the left side, and trees, a portion of the lake, and more channels on the right side. Right before looping back to the observation tower and the parking area, there is a small wooded area.

Spring and fall are hands-down the best times to bird the Salt Creek Wetland. The place is sponsored, in part, by Ducks Unlimited, and is managed as a waterfowl hunting area, so it should not be a surprise that spring and fall get lots of ducks and geese. Some of the typical species to see include green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, northern pintail, American wigeon, bufflehead, ring-necked duck, wood duck, mallard, Canada goose, pied-billed grebe, gadwall, American coot, greater white-fronted goose, and snow goose. American white pelican also like to hang out here in large numbers in migration.

The catch is, although this can be a real duckapalooza, the geography of the wetland, with the trail sloping down into an open, basin-like area, means that they can see you as soon as you can see them. Within minutes of a birder's arriving, everything is apt to take off in a quacking panic, not fun for them or you. I find that the best way to deal with this is to slowly, slowly creep forward along the tree line beside the trail, inching just a few feet forward at a time, and peering through my spotting scope. (Unfortunately, this is one of those places where a spotting scope is really a requirement to get the best birding experience, at least in spring and fall.) Then I at least get to see the birds before they flush...and they will flush, so I usually end up feeling guilty.

If the weather is dry, the edge of the lake shrinks back to reveal mudflats, and we all know what mudflats mean...shorebirds. Unfortunately, I've found that, in this location, shorebirds can be hard to see even with a scope, but I've found solitary, spotted and pectoral sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, and Wilson's snipe to be "regulars" in the right conditions and at the right time of year. (This spring was so wet that there weren't any shorebirds to speak of.)

Spring and fall are also good times to look for gulls and terns; I saw Caspian terns this spring, and one late summer/early fall, I saw my "lifer" Forster's tern here.

One thing that keeps me coming back here is the hope of seeing rails and bittern. So far, I've seen one Virginia rail. I'm sure that more are in there!

"Check out my epaulettes!"

In summer, there's the mix of breeding birds that you might expect from this sort of habitat. Red-winged blackbirds love it here. Other common summer species include eastern kingbird, dickcissel, swallows (barn, tree, bank and cliff), common yellowthroat, field sparrow, song sparrow, American goldfinch, house wren, eastern towhee, northern flicker, gray catbird, etc. Yellow billed cuckoo sometimes likes it here, and so do great blue herons and great egrets.

great egrets

If the water's low enough (not this year), solitary and spotted sandpiper will spend the summer in the "channel" on the left-hand side of the trail, and one summer, we had a very unusual resident, a female common goldeneye. I wouldn't expect to see another one anytime soon, though.

A female common goldeneye

I keep hoping to find a really unusual species one day, like tricolored heron or an ibis...not so far.

In winter, I mostly see northern harrier and wintering sparrows, along with year-round residents like the woodpeckers. The water is fairly shallow, so it tends to freeze up, even when other parts of the lake are still open.

And now for the bad news...

Like many places in DeWitt County, the Salt Creek Wetland Project can be a difficult place to bird. I tend to associate it with great birds, but also physical discomfort. In summer, the sun beats down pitilessly across this mostly shadeless expanse, and the light is harsh, the view of birds distorted by heat shimmer. Distant points in the spotting scope tend to dissolve into a mirage-like haze. The rest of the year, it tends to be cold, scoured by winds off the lake flats that make the eyes water and spotting scopes wobble.

And then there is hunting season, which lasts forever, closes the place down at unpredictable intervals, and has traumatized me for life by the sight of camouflage festooned boats gliding back and forth over the water, as the hunters blasted away at waterfowl right before my eyes.

Even if none of the above happens, something else will. As an example, I went there today, as I wanted to refresh my memory before doing this post. I got there early, so it wasn't hot. It wasn't windy. It wasn't hunting season. For once I would have a relaxing trip to the Salt Creek Wetland!

But then I saw the "trail":

No, it's not the wrong photo...that's the "trail"

What happened? Budget cuts? Too wet to mow? For whatever reason, it looks like no one has mowed the trail at all this year.

I looked at the tall grasses, and I thought of ticks. I wanted to explore the wetland, I really did. But holy hypochondria, Batman! Who wants some Lyme disease?

I thought of this blog post. I thought of the ibis, rare herons, and black-necked stilts I hoped to find. I thought of all the other central Illinois birders who, completely ignorant of my dilemma, would nevertheless want to know if anything "good" was lurking here. So I decided to do it: for Art. For Science. And for Fellowship. I plunged in.

As it turned out, ticks were the least of my worries (I came home sporting a very manageable total of three bloodsuckers.) The height and thickness of the grasses gave me a touch of claustrophobia. I couldn't see where I was stepping, and at times it felt like the grass was actually trying to trip me, tangling around my feet and even somehow untying my double-knotted bootlaces not once, but twice. My pants were soon drenched from the thighs down as the grass was still wet from last night's storms. By the time I stumbled back out to the parking area, I was practically shouting, Thank God almighty, I'm free at last! But that's OK. It wouldn't be a trip to the Salt Creek Wetland otherwise.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from visiting this wetland, especially in the spring. It really is a great place. But if you don't live close by, and/or you want a more relaxing wetland experience, I would recommend the Emiquon refuge in Fulton County or the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands in Putnum County.

Species list


This is a list of the birds that I have personally seen at this location, and when I have seen them. It is, therefore, limited in scope, and not to be taken as the final word on birds to be seen in the area. As I continue to bird in the region, I will regularly update all my checklists.

Birders are encouraged to use their general knowledge to pinpoint the best times to look for a particular species. I am also always happy to answer any questions as to exactly when and where I saw a particular bird. Feel free to leave a comment, as I check them regularly.


Waterfowl: blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, pied-billed grebe, gadwall, American wigeon, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, northern shoveler, Canada goose, greater white-fronted goose, snow goose, American coot, mallard, wood duck, northern pintail

Shorebirds: solitary sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs, greater yellowlegs, pectoral sandpiper, killdeer, Wilson's snipe

Passerines: blue jay, barn swallow, tree swallow, bank swallow, American robin, red-winged blackbird, palm warbler, yellow rumped warbler, American redstart, Tennessee warbler, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, field sparrow, Lincoln's sparrow, swamp sparrow, fox sparrow, American tree sparrow, eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, gray catbird, northern flicker, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, white-breasted nuthatch, eastern meadowlark, northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee, winter wren (on entrance area of equestrian trail), house wren, Carolina wren, ruby-crowned kinglet, golden-crowned kinglet, eastern bluebird, American crow, blue-gray gnatcatcher, brown thrasher

Other: great blue heron, great egret, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, American kestrel,  bald eagle,  ring billed gull, Caspian tern, Forster's tern, American white pelican, ring-necked pheasant, turkey vulture, belted kingfisher, Virginia rail


Passerines: common grackle, European starling, red-winged blackbird, blue jay, indigo bunting, eastern meadowlark, song sparrow, field sparrow, American crow, barn swallow, tree swallow, cliff swallow, eastern kingbird, brown-headed cowbird, ruby-throated hummingbird, common yellowthroat, northern cardinal, Bell's vireo, warbling vireo, dickcissel, eastern towhee, black-capped chickadee, house wren, American robin, gray catbird, American goldfinch, mourning dove, Eurasian collard dove, cedar waxwing, northern flicker, tufted titmouse, yellow-billed cuckoo, eastern phoebe, eastern wood-pewee, chimney swift, common nighthawk, blue-gray gnatcatcher, brown thrasher

Other: mallard, Canada goose, wood duck, common goldeneye (just one summer), great blue heron, great egret, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, ring-billed gull, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, killdeer


I've only birded here a couple of times in winter, and didn't keep a list. Will update this section as soon as I can remedy that.


Have you birded at the Salt Creek Wetland? What did you think of it?

My next DeWitt County Birding Guide post will describe the North Fork Access Area and Trail.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Summer Solstice

Arthur Rackham, A Midsummer Night's Dream

It's the longest day of the year. And while mid-summer does not have the excitement of spring migration, it is still one of my favorite times of the year.

Evenings are so beautiful now, the gentle gray twilight lingering for an hour. It's an explosion of life and energy -- fledglings popping from the nest, harried parents bringing bugs. Everything is is green. And the dog days of summer are yet to come; there's still a freshness to the land.

Maybe this longest day brings back childhood memories of summer, when those days of vacation still seemed to last forever. My grade school days occurred in the last decade before video games, cable TV, home computers and other electronic time-wasters were available. Cell phones weren't even a glint in some technocrat's eye. No one needed to write books about "Nature Deficit Disorder" -- it was still normal for kids to play outside. I'm not trying to idealize that time--in many ways, the 1970s sucked -- but mid-summer conjures up some sort of happy archetype of ideal childhood.

Or maybe it's just because I love A Mid-Summer Night's Dream so much. Puck's mischief, the sparring fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, the star-crossed lovers in the woods, hapless Bottom being changed into a donkey...what's not to love about that play?

Arthur Rackham, "Bottom Wakes Titania"

And from a birding perspective, the summer solstice shows that nothing is static, there are seasons within the seasons. It will feel like summer for weeks to come, but meanwhile, the breeding time is wrapping up, and very soon the shorebirds will begin their trip back from the Arctic. Which means there's always something to look forward to!

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy summer solstice, and sweet mid-summer night's dreams.

Arthur Rackham, "Oberon Meeting Titania"

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
--William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fairy tale birds

my first Illinois scissor-tailed flycatcher

Ever since I returned from my U.P. Adventure, I have been tantalized by reports of a scissor-tailed flycatcher and a western kingbird hanging out at the Ameren power substation outside of Havana. These are both rare species for Illinois, and the western kingbird would be a life bird for me. Greenturtle and I went looking for them on Saturday, but as soon as we arrived, a thunderclap sounded above us, and the skies began to pour. In addition, several men were working on the station, so between the rain and the workers, we came up empty-handed.

Everybody hates to "dip out," and to make it even worse, these two species are really special birds. I have been wanting to find a scissor-tailed flycatcher in Illinois for years, and who knows when another western kingbird will show up? (And what's up with all these rare birds showing up in Havana, such as my "lifer" black-bellied whistling ducks a couple of months ago?)

I don't think anyone could forget their first scissor-tailed flycatcher. I almost drove off the road when mine flew overhead, as I was leaving Pedernales State Park in Texas. A year later, Sunwiggy and I went to Corpus Christi, where she espied her first scissor-tail at the botanical gardens. "I can't believe something like that really exists!" she exclaimed. "It's like a bird in a fairy tale."

My photo doesn't really do the bird's tail justice. It's incredibly long, and fans out in two scissor-shaped streamers when it flies. (And no, it doesn't actually catch flies with its tail. Apparently some people wonder about that.)

Seeing more reports of these two species on the Illinois Birder's Forum, I made up my mind that I was going to try my luck again. I probably shouldn't. I have so much to do, and gas is expensive. But as Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist anything except temptation," so I decided to take a day off from procrastinating and chase them again.

I had a hard time falling asleep last night from the anticipation. Would they still be there? Would I dip out again? Would I sit for five hours waiting for them to show, only to give up at last, and have someone else come along and see them a mere five minutes later? I don't know if other birders feel like a kid before Christmas the night before chasing something good, or if it's just one of my many quirks.

In any case, I did not have to suffer the pangs of disappointment twice. I spotted the flycatcher perched on a wire at the back of the power station a couple of minutes after I got there. The station itself is enclosed with a wired-topped fence. The surrounding area wasn't marked "No Trespassing," so I stepped over the rail blocking the gravel driveway next to the station, and almost immediately found the western kingbird.

western kingbird

Meanwhile, the flycatcher had flown off, and I realized why they had chosen to hang out here for the summer. It was swarming with bugs. Big fat gnats pinged off my face as I snapped photos.

The morning was still young, and I'd already driven all this way. Time for a trip to Emiquon, where last summer I had a bonanza of shorebirds--black-necked stilts, Wilson's phalarope, Hudsonian godwit, short-billed dowitchers.

None of that this year. I don't think I've ever seen the Illinois River Valley so flooded. This is the area where the phalarope, godwit and dowitchers were seen. Last year most of that was mud flats! And do you see that little structure poking up? That's the top of the information kiosk. Beside it is the parking area.

Luckily, the Nature Conservancy's Emiquon Observatory area was not flooded, although the water was too deep to attract wading birds. It sure was a hit with red-winged blackbirds, though. A chorus of conk-la-ree followed me as I strolled around. I saw a lone coot on a nest, and a pair of pied-billed grebes ran over the water towards me, slapping their feet on the surface. They paused when they saw me, and they sunk beneath the water like a pair of stones.

I think my favorite Emiquon sighting, though, was of cliff swallows going in and out of their nests. The lack of cliffs doesn't seem to bother them at all.

If you look closely, there's a swallow's head peeking out of each one:

A good morning's bird all around!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Books for the beginning birder

drawing by Jean Cocteau

I recently read a pair of books by Peter Dunne that I wish I had known about when I first started birding: The Art of Bird Finding: Before You ID Them, You Have to See Them (Stackpole Books, 2011) and The Art of Bird Identification: A Straightforward Approach to Putting a Name to the Bird (Stackpole Books, 2012). They are both fairly slender books, quick reads, and written in Dunne's humorous, conversational style.

The Art of Bird Finding purports to fill a gap in the birding literature. There are numerous field guides, but no books on how to actually locate a bird to identify. Although birds are all around us, one can greatly increase the chances of seeing them by choosing the most fortuitous time of day (morning, for most birds) and habitat. Although much of this might seem like common sense, he mentions things I didn't know as a beginning birder, such as looking in flocks of chickadees for the other species that often tag along with them, or taking account of the direction of the wind when approaching a bird.

Seasonal patterns, how to take advantage of weather and migratory lines, and things to look for to find a potential "migrant trap" near you are also discussed. Further chapters go into more specialized areas, such as hawk watching and pelagic birding. The topic is almost too simple for a book unto itself (if the two books were combined into one beginning birder guide, I would give them a more enthusiastic recommendation), but I always enjoy Peter Dunne's engaging, sometimes sly writing style and anecdotes.

My favorite quote: "Mourning doves have a hard-to-explain tendency to freeze when everybirdy else flushes, which may explain why they find it necessary to breed just about year-round."

The Art of Bird Identification has a bit more meat on its bones. It is not a field guide, but an introduction to the concept of looking at birds holistically.

Field guides are both a boon and a hindrance to the beginning birder. I know that I myself was guilty of the error of flipping open my guide immediately after seeing a new bird, hoping to locate the image of my suspect on the page before it took off. This led to occasional success (my first common yellowthroat, seen at Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria; surely one never forgets one's first common yellowthroat!), frequent frustration, and every once in a while, an error of embarrassing magnitude, such as the time I (briefly! very briefly!) wondered if I was seeing a pine grosbeak in late summer in central Illinois. (Well, I was looking for red birds in my book...kind of like the color of the house finch I soon determined my "grosbeak" to be.)

Following Dunne's advice will help new birders avoid frustrations like that. Many of the items are things that I soon learned myself through trial and error, such as studying the field guides before and after birding, taking note of habitat and time of year, and learning the behavior of different species. According to Dunne, taking in the whole picture is more effective than trying to pinpoint certain field markings, which may be hard to see. As he puts it, "A bird on the plate in a field guide is a disembodied thing. Static. Lifeless. A bird in the field is an element in a tapestry...."

I especially enjoyed the chapter on identifying birds by sound, and the example of picking out different species of shorebirds in a huge, distant flock using holistic impressions -- size, color, foraging activity, etc. I would call myself to be an "intermediate" birder, and these are skills that I am still working on.

These are both fun little books, with some good information, but I do think they would be a better value if they'd been combined in one volume. They would make a nice gift for a beginning birder. I know that the advice would have spared me some early fumbling around, and embarrassing house finch moments.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I have so much to do....

Some of it is fun (posts for this blog, working on creative projects), some of it is dreary (sending out resumes, doing the laundry, bushwhacking the yard--I have an unwanted plant issue that requires far more than mere "weeding"). And the more I think about what I have to do, the more I seem to end up walking in circles getting nothing done.

Why do people procrastinate? It is clearly easier and less traumatic to tick things off in a timely manner than to let them pile up until the very sight of one's "to-do" list creates an overwhelming impulse to see what's on Netflix instead. Because while you were avoiding it, the list only got longer! And before you know it, there's no solution except to mope around in a ruined chapel like our friend Galahad in the picture, thinking of how you would have found the freakin' Grail five years ago if you didn't keep getting waylaid by unimportant time-wasters like surfing the 'Net.

Luckily there is an easy solution to procrastination, which is to start tackling the necessary items one at a time. Simple, right? And it feels so good to cross them off, one by one: done, done, DONE! Which is what I'm going to do right now.

After checking out some birding sites on the Internet first. And making lunch.

And so it goes....

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Copper Country Birds II: To Copper Harbor and Back

My parents at Bete Grise Nature Preserve

For part two of my Copper Country Birding Adventure, I will detail our excursions to Keweenaw County, not too far from my parents' home in Calumet. My impression of Houghton County is: rugged, scrubby, historic (the bones of abandoned buildings from the mining era appear to be everywhere), working class, birdy but not especially scenic. On the other hand, my impressions of Keweenaw County are: natural, scenic, blue and watery, touristy, a hiker's paradise.

These impressions aren't necessarily accurate. There are plenty of tourist attractions and hiking trails in Houghton County, and certainly a lot of historical mining sites in Keweenaw. I would not want to discourage birders, or anyone else, from visiting either. Regardless, these are the images that come to mind when I think of the two counties.

As I love the drive to Copper Harbor and back, that was my most often requested excursion, and this post includes details from four separate trips.

Bete Grise and Bete Grise Nature Preserve

My first request was to venture to Bete Grise, where the Nature Conservancy purchased some of the coastline as a nature preserve, and further down the coastline to the public beach, where other birders had recently spotted some interesting species such as black-bellied plover and loggerhead shrike.

I should mention at the outset that, in the nature of a true nemesis bird, the loggerhead shrike did not make and appearance. It seems I can only find shrikes by accident, not when I'm looking for one. Oh, well. That's better than not seeing shrikes at all.

On our first visit to Bete Grise, the morning was still quite chilly when we arrived. Warblers were singing all around us, and we got good looks at northern parula, yellow-rumped, Magnolia, and Canada warblers, the latter a life bird for my parents. It was probably one of the easiest times I've had finding warblers. All we had to do was walk around the parking areas and along the side of the road. I was especially pleased to see a merlin, as they are not that common in Illinois. And that early on a weekday morning, before the tourist season really takes off, we had the place to ourselves.

Of course, there is always the one that got away. While Sunwiggy and I were looking for warblers in the trees around the parking area at the Nature Preserve, my dad slipped off in chase of an unusual bird. He came back and flipped through the field guide, stating that he thought it might have been a northern mockingbird. He has seen gray jays and shrikes in the past, and was certain it wasn't one of those.

My dad enjoys birding, but he's not the obsessive type that I am. He doesn't keep lists or chase birds. In fact, he's adamant that he is a bird-watcher, and not a birder. This might actually be a tribute to his relative sanity, and I personally applaud any interest in birds, from the acquaintance who describes a goldfinch and asks if I know what it might be, to the kind of obsessive sort described in books like The Big Year. It's all good. I just mention his level of birding enthusiasm so as not to create a rumor of a mockingbird sighting on the Keweenaw, although it's possible. My dad has turned out to be right in the past. (I'm thinking in particular of an episode involving a black-billed cuckoo.)

Mockingbird or not, he'd certainly piqued my interest, and we wandered the preserve for another fifteen minutes or so in the hopes of re-locating his mystery bird. Alas, it had disappeared forever into the trees. Although the mystery remains unsolved, this sort of thing is part of what makes birding so enjoyable for me.

coastal marshland at Bete Grise

I wish I could go back and spend a whole day just exploring this area. I've been doing more reading about it since then, and it turns out that it is the most important coastal marsh habitat remaining in the region. So much of the area is being developed for expensive lakefront cabins and vacation homes, and it's really amazing that the preserve was spared the same fate.

Copper Harbor

There's something about Copper Harbor. It's a small town, often filled with tourists in the summertime and snow-mobilers in the winter, and it's no mystery why it's so popular. It's one of the prettiest spots I have been to, with a campground and historic site (Fort Wilkins Historic State Park), and lots and lots of coastline and blue water. And more to the point, it's incredibly birdy, with several trails and birding hotspots to explore.

We walked along the waterfront, finding lots of common mergansers in the harbor, and saw alder flycatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-eyed vireos, yellow warblers, American redstarts, Nashville warblers and others in the shrubs and willows along the roads in town. Once again, it made for an easy pace and yet a satisfying number of species. This was also the only place I found loons on my trip (and what's a northern birding excursion without loons?), one seen in the harbor itself and one on the lake by Fort Wilkins.

common loon

The best selection of birds was in the area known as "Clyde's Pond," an area with a large field and pond and shrubby habitat. The more open area provided redstarts, Wilson's warbler, Tennessee warbler, indigo bunting, chestnut-sided warbler, eastern bluebird and flyover sandhill cranes, while the biking trails behind provided a good walk (the "Stairway to Heaven" is a rather steep trail going up into the woods) and some new species: Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers. The Blackburnian was a special treat, as I had never heard one singing before, and they are just such beautiful birds.

Once again, I could have spent twice the time here and still barely touched on all the places I'd like to see. A week is just not long enough!

Brockway Mountain

In the birding community, Brockway Mountain is probably best known for hawk-watching. We were too late for the hawk migration, although there were still plenty of broad-winged and red-tailed hawks in the area. Still, one of the short nature trails on the mountain was one of the more interesting walks of my trip.

Much of the habitat in Keweenaw County can be characterized as cedar or conifer swamps, a very different ecosystem from my beloved prairies and oak savannas of Illinois, but very interesting. As you might expect of a habitat described as a "swamp," a lot of these trails were kind of murky and buggy.

Contributing to the mysterious "vibe" of the area was the usnea hanging from the trees. Usnea is a lichen, used in herbal medicine as a cough medicine, antibiotic, and for immune system support. Northern parula use it to build their nests, and not surprisingly, there are a lot of parula in the woods here.


Other warblers that enjoy these dense woods include black-throated green and black-throated blue. I'd especially been hoping to see a black-throated blue, as they visit Illinois only as uncommon migrants on their way to and from their breeding grounds, and I was not disappointed. Getting a photo was another story, however. Dark and murky habitats make getting good pictures a bit of a challenge.

black-throated blue warbler

This is one place where the birder's adage, "The magic is over by eight o'clock" is appropriate. Personally, I would extend the "magic time" to nine or, on colder mornings, even ten; but after that, the birds stop moving around and become almost impossible to see. The foliage is dense, the canopy high. Once they stopped feeding around mid-morning, I could hear them singing all around me, but rarely got a glimpse. How I wish I were an early morning person!

Black Creek Nature Sanctuary

I took one day of my trip just to hike the trails at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary with my dad. This was actually my favorite walk, not necessarily for the birds that I saw (although there were some good ones) as for the variety of habitat and interesting scenery.

Two creeks intersect the sanctuary, and trail also takes you past some of the Lake Superior shoreline. Swainson's thrush and ovenbirds were very common here, and I also got good looks at blue-headed vireo, magnolia and black-throated green warblers, and red-breasted nuthatches. The flyer provided by the trail head shows a photo of a spruce grouse, but I was not so foolish as to get my hopes up for one of those. Sometimes other people see spruce grouse in the Upper Peninsula. But I have come to accept that it is not to be. (Luckily I saw one in Minnesota last winter, or I'd be getting downright crabby.)

The far end of the trail also has a large expanse of stamp sand, coarse "sand" created by the copper mining process, when the rocks were crushed in order to extract the ore. The left-over sand creates an interesting, if not very welcoming, landscape. Little seems to be able to grow where the stamp sand was deposited, and it can contain traces of heavy metals such as arsenic, which can pollute streams and rivers. But that is all a topic for another day. In any case, the stamp sands don't seem to have spoiled the sanctuary.


Birdiness factor: Very good, but this is one place where getting out early definitely makes a difference. At this time of year, breeding warblers and other songbirds seem to be the main attraction.

Best birds of trip: the black-throated blue warbler seen on Brockway Mountain; the blue-headed vireo and ovenbirds at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary; the common loons at Copper Harbor; the Blackburnian warbler behind Clyde's field; and a total surprise, a wild turkey a saw running across someone's lawn while driving through the small town of Gay.

If you want to bird here: I feel like I've just skated the surface of places to bird in Keweenaw County, and I certainly wasn't disappointed in any of the spots we visited. If time is limited to just a couple of days, at this time of year I would recommend doing some shorter woodsy trails in the morning, when the birds are still active (there are two short trails on Brockway Mountain and the Hunter's Point trail at Copper Harbor, as good places to start), and then check out the birds in Copper Harbor and along the water. If a longer hike is what you're in the mood for, the Black Creek Nature Sanctuary trail is awesome, with some great birds, but probably won't provide the maximum variety of species for the time spent there.

On my next trip (the great thing about having family here is I know there will be a "next trip"), I plan to explore more of the trails and sites owned by the North Woods Conservancy. They seem to be doing a lot of good work to preserve areas for conservation and public enjoyment, and I would like to support them in the future.

Have you been birding in Keweenaw County? Where would you recommend?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Birding the Copper Country

common loon

I just got back from a week of visiting my parents on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I haven't seen the area in the summertime since my brief birding trip in 2010, and much as I appreciate winter's austere beauty, I decided that I wanted to remember what the area looks like without several feet of snow.

I'd been checking out Internet bird sightings for a few days before the trip. It didn't look like I had much chance of getting a life bird -- clay-colored sparrow and mourning warbler were the only contenders that had been reported -- so I decided to set a goal of finding one hundred species while I was there. I especially wanted to see warblers, and thought of a passage in Mark Obamsik's The Big Year, where he mentioned the importance of seeing the warblers in migration, or else having to travel north to find them in their mosquito-infested sex hovels. I could see how that would put a damper on someone doing a big year, but it sounded like fun to me. Bug-ridden warbler sex hovels, here I come!

The drive up from Illinois was as long and horrid as I remembered it (I have an entirely unjustified dislike of Wisconsin formed from countless trips on the freeway driving through; someday I will have to spend more time along the way to form a better impression), but I consoled myself with the thought that at least I wouldn't hit wintry weather. As Greenturtle couldn't come with me, and I didn't feel like traveling alone, I brought two of my dogs, Trevor the dachshund and Leo the Pomeranian along for the ride. They can be little terrors at home, but they were surprisingly well-behaved on the trip.

I had fine weather until about a thirty miles from Houghton, when I drove into a low-lying cloud of cold, spitting rain and wind. The temperature dropped down into the mid-thirties. At the rate I was going, I might hit a snow squall yet. Luckily, the dogs and I arrived without incident, and I went to bed full of anticipation for the birds I would find.

Day One: From Calumet to Lake Linden on the ATV Trail

I awoke to gray skies and cold temperatures, and to be honest, was in no hurry to get out the door. Around mid-morning, I decided to walk along the ATV trail that winds behind my parents' house for an hour or so. This was the first place Sunwiggy birded when she moved up here a few years ago, and she tantalized me with descriptions of "the Scrub" and the unearthly calls of the mysterious bird that lived there until I drove up to check it out for myself. It turned out that the eerie songster was a veery, whose distinctive song has since become one of my favorites. It would be fun to see which species I could find now, especially since I'm a much more experienced birder than on that first trip, and I had more time to spend.

The weather was cold and gloomy, and I was glad I'd worn long sleeves and my fleece jacket, even though my parents had sworn that the sun had come out earlier the day before. I reflected that sightings of the sun were like those of the spruce grouse -- a magnificent but elusive creature that my parents always swore they'd spotted just before I came up.

Puddles and ponds lined both sides of the gravel trail, and in places streams coursed across the path. Apparently Michigan has gotten as much rain this year as Illinois. The first part of the trail was open and scrubby, with shrubs dotting the landscape. I heard an eerie sound that seemed like it should come from a marsh bird, but a cursory check of the landscape revealed only a Wilson's snipe flying away. This open area also attracted many American redstarts, and I also saw chestnut-sided and Wilson's warblers. Song sparrows and white-throated sparrows sang from all around me.

Before long, the trail entered a woods filled with birch and sugar maple, which actually doesn't look too bad on a cloudy day. A sharp-shinned hawk, perched over the trail, was startled into flight as I walked past. Yellow-rumped warblers and red-eyed vireos flitted in the foliage.

I had been walking for about an hour, and was considering turning back, when the sun came out! At once, the landscape along the ATV trail looked much prettier. Despite the lateness of the morning, the birds became more active, probably as grateful for a bit of warmth as I was.

The habitat changed subtly several times as I walked, with other trees replacing the birches in one area, and a more open landscape in another. I heard the ethereal song of the wood thrush in the distance. Yellow-bellied sapsucker and white-breasted nuthatch soon joined my list of species for the day.

There's really no better way to get the pulse of a place than a long, solitary walk. When I'm in a vehicle, I tend to zone out, and find later that my impressions of the day might be a bit jumbled; and when I'm with other people, that can be a lot of fun, too (I wouldn't want every walk to be solitary), but it can be a bit distracting. Other people tend to talk. I tend to think of things to say to them. That's not bad, but it can take away a bit of the immediacy of the senses, especially hearing.

There's a rearrangement of time and scale. So often, time seems to go by so fast. Days become a blur of business. A long solitary walk is good at slowing everything down. In the five hours I walked, I could have driven all the way to Duluth, MN. Instead, the landscape was measured by footsteps instead of miles, the steady crunch of my feet on the gravel, the sounds of birdsong and breezes. Not that I'm saying I'd want to walk to Duluth, mind you. There's a place for everything. But I can't imagine wanting to travel the ATV trail on an ATV. I'd miss everything.

One spot in particular that stands out is a small pond along the side of the trail (in dryer seasons, it might vanish altogether), which was a magnet for bird activity. Flycatchers (alder and least) and warblers (redstart, yellow-rumped and black-throated green) were all in the vicinity, and a winter wren sang from the opposite bank.

After another hour or so, I decided to see where I was relative to the main road, and popped out at Lake Linden, about four miles down the peninsula from Calumet. I decided to walk as far as the lake, and then turn back. Here I watched a yellow warbler, a savannah sparrow and bank swallows by the water's edge, whilst frightening a killdeer and some Canada goose as I sat down for a rest. A lesser scaup was the only sort of fowl to be seen on the water.

The walk back is rarely as fun as the walk to a place, so I decided to try walking along the road for a change of scenery. However, the birding wasn't good (aside from a red-breasted nuthatch), and the continuous passing traffic was getting annoying, not quite what I mean by soaking up the environment with the senses. Mid-way up a very steep hill, a gravel driveway led to a lawn waste area, and behind it some sort of water treatment facility. (There was just a building, no actual water.) Since it didn't say "no trespassing" anywhere, I decided to see if I could re-locate the ATV trail, stumbling across a male scarlet tanager behind the building. What a beauty! Completely worth the detour. After that, well, I had a long walk back.

In the evening, my parents and I went to the Lake Linden Sewage Lagoons, which has a nature trail running in between the sewage ponds and the adjacent Torch Lake. On the way I showed them the spot where I'd seen the tanager. No sooner had we parked, but a police vehicle pulled up behind us. Uh-oh. Maybe it wasn't OK to be there?

The policeman said he was just making his rounds, and there was no problem with us birding there...we didn't look like trouble-makers. Lucky thing I wasn't wearing anything with an anarchy sign, right? (I actually did once make a crocheted hat with an anarchy sign on it. This is what it looks like:)

Anyway, on to the sewage lagoons, because what birding trip would be complete without them? Ring-necked ducks, American black ducks and mallards bobbed about the water, while over on the Lake, herring and ring-billed gulls hung out in their multitude, and a trumpeter swan was resting on the shore. It seemed like a bazillion swallows (tree, barn and bank) swirled overhead, and a small flock of peeps flew in. An excellent ending to the day.

Birdiness factor for day one: awesome! 52 species total.

If you want to bird here: ATV trails are plentiful on the peninsula, and entry points are all over the place. Just park and walk. If you go out early enough on a weekday, there's usually minimal ATV traffic. I don't remember how to get to the sewage ponds, but they're flagged on the Cornell ebird database as a local birding hotspot. Both Calumet and Lake Linden are quite small, and I saw lots of different species just wandering the streets, as well.

Best bird of the day: scarlet tanager.

As I have rambled on for quite some time, I will have to do the rest of my trip in future installments. Stay tuned for Copper Harbor, lots of views of the lake, some wetlands and more sewage ponds yet to come!

Suddenly, it's summer

Each year, it seems that summer comes as it's said that madness does: bit by bit, then all at once. Each year, I find the sudden surge of nature's fecundity a bit unsettling.

These photos were taken about ten days ago. As frequently happens, I felt the stirrings of a poem, a line here, an image there, but did not stop to write them down, and by the time I got back to them, they had faded in the manner of a half-remembered dream.

Summer really isn't my favorite season. I don't like the heat, and the intensity of the sun can feel a bit oppressive. But summer is when the fields and prairies come to life, an explosion of song and color that no other time of year can match.

The birds come back to breed. Soon they will be scurrying to feed impatient fledglings. Tree swallows perch on their houses, barn swallows swoop around the buildings.

The long, hot days seem like they will last forever, but I have to remind myself to stop and savor each moment. Nothing stays still. Each moment is a play of ephemera. The soil beneath our feet, the endless sweep of the sky to each horizon, the chattering of the summer swallows, all of it is telling us: summer is too intense to last. Catch it while you can.