Monday, July 29, 2013

Birding by ear

red-winged blackbird

Some advice often given to newer birders is to practice learning the sounds birds make. This is good advice for birders of any level, actually. I am still working on it myself. One of the joys of birding is that there is always, always more to learn. And while I have gotten to a point where, if I can manage to get a good look at a bird, at least here in central Illinois, I can usually identify it, bird calls and songs can still stump me.

One thing that makes it challenging is that even common birds with distinctive songs might have more than one way of expressing themselves. The red-winged blackbird, for example, commonly gives his triumphant "conk-la-ree" song, but they also have a call that, to me, sounds like they're trying to say the word "zither." Blue jays are notorious for the variety of sounds that come out of their beaks, including doing a not-bad impression of a red-tailed hawk.

Northern cardinals have two different songs, which can be approximated as what-cheer! and purty purty purty. Sometimes, I've noticed, they like to riff on them, too. Just last week I was walking along, thinking, "That really sounds a lot like a cardinal, but I've never heard one sound quite like that before." Before long, I found the singer, and yes indeedy, it was a northern cardinal.

Some birds make it easy on birders by telling you their name, such as the bobwhite and the whip-poor-will. As far as I know, neither of those species is prone to saying things besides bob-white and whip POOR will, respectively. But not all species named for their calls are so courteous. The black-capped chickadee, for example, does like to say its name, but they also enjoy calling out the name of another bird, the phoebe. (As for the eastern phoebe, to me its song sounds like "rizz IP.") Chickadees also sometimes make a metallic-sounding, almost blue jay-like call, just to confuse the issue even more.

Just as I was congratulating myself on figuring all this out, I was stumped not once, but three times, by hidden songsters last week during a walk at the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield.

These are the notes I made in my journal about the first song.
Five buzzy notes, three quick and run together, rising inflection. Zi-zi-zi zii-ziii. Brief glimpse of a small, pale bird flitting in the foliage that might have been the singer. Cerulean warbler?? Habitat does not seem right (trees along edge of a prairie, and I thought ceruleans liked tall trees in deeper woods). But I also saw scarlet tanagers here in similar habitat, which does not seem right for them either. ???

By the time I could look up the song, I had forgotten the exact cadence. I am leaning towards cerulean warbler but not going to "call" based on being 80% certain of the song of a bird I did not see, especially as it would be a life bird and a rare sighting for that location and habitat.

The second mystery song, I described as "another buzzy song, eight notes, azu azu azu ziza." A red-eyed vireo popped its head out of the foliage in the vicinity, but I later confirmed that is not even close to the red-eyed vireo's song. I have no clue whatsoever. Habitat: tall trees in a large city park, by a stream. Actually, that is more suited to the cerulean warbler, but definitely not its song either.

Third, I saw two birds that looked like small raptors fly past (in the woods), calling loudly to each other: Whew-whew! Wheew! They disappeared from view almost immediately, but I heard them calling each other for another couple of minutes. Based on size and habitat, I would have guessed broad-winged hawk, but the broad-winged hawk, according to All About Birds, does not go, "Whew! Whew!"

Despite my unsatisfied curiosity, I enjoyed making notes and trying to discover the songsters' identities, and I am not yet resigned to not knowing. I do have a pretty good audio memory (perhaps from past experience as a linguist), and sometimes have identified a bird from its song long after the fact. I was once tormented, for example, by a bird calling out whiz bang, whiz bang repeatedly in the thickets of southern Illinois. I couple of years later, I was studying flycatcher songs and there it was, though most people think that he says, Fitz bew: the willow flycatcher.

Listening to songs and trying to remember them is a good habit, especially if you can think of a good mnemonic (for example, I think the yellow-throated warbler's song sounds like chop suey suey suey suey--maybe no one else would hear that, but it worked for me), but hands-down, the best way to learn the songs is to hear the bird singing, wonder what it is, and then go find it.

Some day, probably in the near future, technology will be able to do all of the guess-work for us, and it would have been quite satisfying to record the mystery song, hit "search," and have my phone give me the name of the bird. (For all I know, that app might already be on the market.) But would I remember the songs and calls as well? I don't think so. More importantly, if I could make it that easy, would I learn to really listen? Would I know the bird as well? Would it matter?

What do you think?

Monday, July 22, 2013

At loggerheads no more!

You can kind of see a shrike in there. Maybe.

I think I should begin by expressing my shock and dismay at how long it has been since I have posted anything here. It's not that I haven't been birding (I have), or writing (I have), I just haven't been putting it on my blog. In my defense, I've been busy with a lot of other projects, including working on some non-blogging writing projects, reading, trying to get back in shape, trying to get my dogs into shape, and spending time with out-of-town company. So, although I am only posting this now, the events described actually took place on July seventh.

It all started with loggerhead shrikes. Shrikes in general were becoming Illinois nemesis birds for me, and I had dipped out more than once seeking them at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. This year I had pretty much resolved to ignore the Midewin shrikes, as it is a long trip up there, and much as I enjoy the prairie, it's not really one of my favorite places.

My good intentions lasted until I read on the Internet that someone had seen the shrikes with fledglings. It was simply beyond my power to pass up a chance to see baby shrikes. My Pomeranian must have sensed how much I wanted to see them, as he woke me up at 3:30 with his incessant barking. So then, since I was up so early and everything, I might as well go take a look....

I left slightly before dawn. It's a long drive, about two hours. My "career" as an insane bird chaser is tempered by the fact that I really loathe being in the car. I've heard of birders who will drive four or five hours for a really good bird, get out of their car, see it, and then get back in and drive four or five hours home. I say, more power to them. Alas, for me, a two hour drive feels like an epic journey, especially when I'm on my own.

There was still some freshness to the morning when I got there, and only one other car in the parking lot by the Iron Bridge Trailhead, home of the shrikes. There were the usual mix of birds -- field sparrow, dickcissel, house wren, mockingbird, meadowlark. I thought of Einstein's remark that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And here I was again, doing the exact same thing in my Quest for the Shrike.

Before long, I met the other birder (of course, the other car belonged to a birder!), who asked me if I was familiar with the area.

"A little bit," I said, fully expecting him to bring up the shrikes.

"Do you know the best place to see Henslow's sparrows?" he asked. Well, that was a stumper. I knew Henslow's sparrows frequented the Prairie, and had seen them there once a few years back, but I sure couldn't remember the location. I mentioned that Goose Lake Prairie, not too far from Midewin, is a reliable place to find them, but he insisted they'd been spotted recently.

"I'm looking for loggerhead shrikes," I mentioned.

"Are they rare in Illinois?"

Unfortunately, they are rather rare, on the state endangered list in fact. I am sure there are other breeding pairs somewhere in Illinois, but the Midewin shrikes are the only ones I know of.

As we walked along, me looking for shrikes, him for sparrows, I felt that we were getting in each other's way a bit, so I turned to the right when another road presented itself. I was actually in the process of giving myself a little lecture about accepting the fact that I would not see shrikes and to enjoy the birds I did see, when I looked up, and there, perched on the wire before me, was a loggerhead shrike.

I crept up slowly, trying not to scare it, as I wanted a good picture to mark this, my day of triumph. The shrike flew across the road to a tree, where it was joined by another. They seemed like young birds to me--their markings not quite as crisp, and their behavior rather goofy. A meadowlark landed on the tree above them, causing both to take cover in the foliage, and then, realizing the other bird was not a threat, they both popped up again. It was quite a treat to see.

Finally, I turned back, shrikes seen at last. I wondered where the other birder came from; obviously a place where shrikes were common but Henslow's sparrows were not. I was also wondering if I should explore Midewin a bit since I was already up here, or head somewhere else, perhaps Goose Lake Prairie.

But since I was on a lucky streak, I decided to be really crazy and go to Hennepin-Hopper wetlands--which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, except perhaps to the type of person who will drive four hours to get their bird, close to Midewin. Hennepin-Hopper was the the site of a potential life bird, a neotropic cormorant, and I'd been meaning to get up and see it for the past week or so. (It's lovely when a life bird sticks around long enough that I can still see it a week or two later when I finally decide to.)

On my way back to the trailhead, I saw one of my favorite grassland birds, the grasshopper sparrow:

grasshopper sparrow

Sparrows might not be the showiest of birds, but I find them endearing, and the grasshopper sparrow makes a particularly cute buzzing noise.

The other birder's car was still there, and I satisfied my curiosity with a peek at his license plate. California. (Oh, the birds I could see in California! Although not Henslow's sparrows, apparently.)

I saw a bit more of central Illinois as I drove to Hennepin on the back roads (the great cornfield tour), and there, my luck held, for I soon saw the cormorant about halfway down the seep trail, perching, from what I understand, on the exact same stump that he'd first been seen on.

Normally, I like to spend an extra hour or so checking out all the other birds in the area, but it was about noon at this point, hot and humid, and I was tired. Yellow-headed blackbird, which I knew to be in the wetland? Not a life bird, I'm going home. The only explanation I have for this behavior is that I'd been up since three thirty in the morning and was not thinking straight!

When I got home, I realized that none of my photos turned out, as I had joggled the focus button and not realized it. (The grasshopper sparrow pic is from a different trip.) The shrikes strike again!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Birds on the Fourth of July

do you have time for a chat?

What better way to spend the Fourth of July than to go birding? I have been neglecting the North Fork Access Trail this year, so I decided that it was high time to check it out.

I frequently see some good stuff on this trail, like my only Dewitt County pileated woodpecker, and breeding season scarlet tanagers last July. There's a nice mix of habitats along the way: upland forest, bottomland forest, scrubby fields, streams and a wetland with a large lily pad. There's also a really scummy pond where I never see any birds, and some views on more open areas where I once saw a red-headed woodpecker.'s the problem. This trail is ten miles (or maybe eleven; the signage is rather vague) of butt-kicking hills and switch-backs. Some people think that Illinois is completely flat. Those people should check out this trail. To add insult to injury, the sign at the trail head states that the difficulty level is "moderate." Who decided that? A triathlete? A Sherpa? I consider myself to be in above-average condition (I don't work out, but I sure do hike a lot), and if this thing were just a few miles longer, it would kill me!

Anyhoo, it "had" to be done. Not a lot of people bird Dewitt County in the summer. Even at the most exciting times of the year, there's just a handful of us hard-core birders checking things out. The only other people I see at this particular location are trail runners, not birders. So if I'm not going to see which species are potentially breeding, who will? Can I call myself the Underbirder, champion of underbirded places? Not to be confused with Underdog, or the Venture Brothers' Baron Underbheit.

Nothing like this...Baron Underbheit

The good stuff started even before I got on the trail. A trio of eastern kingbirds fluttered around the parking lot, and a single tree by the trailhead contained a warbling vireo, goldfinches, a gray catbird, an indigo bunting, and a shy Baltimore oriole. It was like the Tree of Life.

"I'm shy."

Sometimes I think I get one surprise per trip, a bird I hadn't even been thinking of. There's an open, scrubby area where the power lines cut across this trail, and there I heard the bizarre calls of yellow-breasted chats. (Anywhere between one and four chats inhabited the area; as they were flying around, and I never saw more than one at a time, I was a bit unsure of the actual number.) I found one at the end of June at Mascoutin a couple of years ago, nothing since, so this was a big treat.

I also saw an immature indigo bunting in that awkward splotchy stage. Adolescence is like that.

I thought the chats were my surprise, but then I got an even bigger one. In a low spot by a creek, I found a waterthrush -- kind of a bottom-heavy looking bird, brown on top, white and streaky below, thick white eyebrow, bobbing its tail. Based on breeding ranges, I decided that the Louisiana waterthrush was a more likely suspect. I didn't get a photo, but this is where it was:

waterthrush seen here

The Underbirder strikes again! Going to the most remote and horrible reaches of the county to discover unusual warblers, just for the sake of science and the birding community at large.

But before I could get that excited, I had to get back to the trailhead, and that was another six miles away. Lots of cardinals...

Oh, Thank God I'm getting closer...

This side of the loop had a bazillion house wrens, at least one Carolina wren, white-breasted nuthatches, towhees, and a northern parula. But to be honest, I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have been.

Getting closer...almost there now!

And finally, I was done, and back to the kingdom of the kingbirds. Was it worth it? For chats? And a waterthrush? Of course!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Woodpecker dreams

A while ago I expressed my wish for the perfect birding book, a volume that would combine my love of engaging travel writing, natural history, and of course, birds. I have read some enjoyable birding adventure books, but nothing that could fulfill the admittedly daunting requirement of being the "perfect" birding book.

With Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre by Tim Gallagher (Atria Books, 2013), I may not have found perfection, but I'm definitely getting close.

For those who don't know, the imperial woodpecker is a large, charismatic, boldly colored bird with a distinctive call, similar to its American cousin, the ivory-bill. Like the ivory-bill, its numbers declined drastically in the twentieth century due to habitat loss and human predation, and it is almost certainly now extinct. Still, there are occasionally reports of sightings, just to give us a bit of hope that a few individuals might be hanging on in some remote corner of their former range.

Gallagher, who was part of the controversial discovery of the ivory-bill in Arkansas in 2004, wanted to travel to Mexico to see if he could find an imperial woodpecker as well. For many people, a trip to the swamps and bayous of the American south seems daunting enough, what with the alligators, snakes, mosquitoes and various creepy-crawlies. But a quest for the imperial woodpecker takes the danger factor to a whole other level, as its former range was the Sierra Madre Occidental, always a remote and rugged location, and now the scene of some of Mexico's worst drug-related violence.

Earlier this year, I enjoyed a non-birding account of this area, God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant. In that book, Grant hangs out with as many local people as he can, sometimes looking for vanished treasure or talking with the descendants of Mormon settlers, and sometimes getting drunk with suspicious characters. The constant sense of danger starts to wear on him, and eventually he runs into a situation in Durango that almost led to a very bad end.

Ever the armchair traveler, I read this tale with fascination, but I couldn't help wondering how much trouble Grant found just because of the people he associated with? Some reader reviewers on Amazon insisted that they have been to the same locations and did not agree with his depiction at all. Would he have had the same type of experience if he'd been looking for birds?

I'm sure Tim Gallagher had similar questions on his mind as he prepared for his trips. In fact, he mentions a recurring nightmare he had, in which a man with an AK-47 intercepts him as he runs towards the woodpecker. Despite these fears, he really wants to look for the bird, and had good experiences in Mexico in the past, so off he went.

Much of the book recounts snippets of the area's history -- Pancho Villa, the last stronghold of the Apaches, the famous journeys of the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz. This was all familiar territory, as God's Middle Finger covered a lot of the same ground. Gallagher even hangs out with some of the same people as Grant (the nice ones, that is), such as traveling with the friendly and helpful Mormom John Hatch, and talking to the elderly expert on the Apaches, Nelda Villa. Still, it's interesting material, and there's a lot more information on the natural history of the area.

Unlike the ivory-bill, who liked swampy bottomlands, the imperial woodpecker lived in the pine forests of the Sierra Madre. In its natural state, this was an incredibly beautiful place, but as with far too many places, ranching, agriculture (a.k.a. growing opium poppies and marijuana), and most especially, logging, has absolutely decimated the area. Still, pockets of forest, traditional villages, and people old enough to remember seeing the woodpecker still exist, and Gallagher seeks them out.

For his last visit, he decides to explore what seems like the best remaining habitat, the place where the only video evidence of the imperial woodpecker was ever taken--the mountains of Durango. (You may recall, this is the area where Richard Grant nearly came to a bad end.) He tries to do this sensibly, including some Mexican biologists in the planning and expedition, even getting some reassurance from one of the local drug growers (or at least, they strongly suspect he is).

This is the most "travelogue" type part of the book, and also the most exciting. Details like coming back to the hut they are staying in and finding a goat chewing on his hairbrush help make the story vivid, and I loved reading about their sightings of military macaws and other birds. Of course, things don't go as planned.

Once again, as I finished the book, I was struck by two conflicting impressions: one, that most of the people he met seemed to be kind and helpful. And two, despite this, the Sierra Madre seems like a dangerous place that would be nerve-wracking to travel through. So, to answer my question about Richard Grant's narrative--he might have sought out more suspicious companions, but it wasn't just him. The Sierra Madre is dangerous. Travel there at your own risk.

I enjoyed Imperial Dreams a lot, and highly recommend it. I will probably read it again. There is only one problem with the book, and that is not a criticism but a reflection of the author's honesty and writing skills. And that "problem" is that, as I finished the last pages, I felt that it is just too sad. The hardships the people face, the senseless and escalating violence, the many tales he heard of people being kidnapped, murdered and/or raped, the on-going destruction of such a rare and beautiful environment, the almost certain extinction of such a marvelous bird. So sad.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

My (Creative) Weldon Springs Bird Survey

In my last post, I took pity on all those people who might just want me to cut to the chase and tell them what birds I saw, and stuck to the facts of my unofficial Weldon Springs bird survey.

But long before I paid much attention to birds, I considered myself to be a writer. So here is my creative non-fiction narrative of some birding gone overboard. (If you'd like a musical accompaniment, you can right-click to hear "Uprising" by Muse. Or just click on it to watch the cool video. Killer teddy bears! No, it doesn't have anything to do with birding. I just can't get it out of my head right now.)

Day One -- June 18
In Which I Meet Half of a Happy Couple

The day it all began, I had a lot on my plate and hadn't really intended to go out birding at all. But after a few hours in front of my computer, and finishing a particularly tedious task, I just couldn't sit still anymore and decided to see if the blue grosbeaks had returned to Weldon Springs.

A note about the grosbeaks: they are a mostly southerly species that show up from time to time in Illinois, not exactly rare, but not common either. Maybe, like the red-bellied woodpecker and Carolina wren, they are slowly extending their range northward. However it came to be, a pair of them showed up on the Farmhouse Loop at Weldon Springs last year, and I was really hoping that they'd come back.

The prairie is lovely at this time of year, the grasses a soft, subtle golden color. Some places are enigmatically named, but the Old Farmhouse Loop really does contain an old farmhouse and various collapsing outbuildings, as well as a small cemetery. Barn swallows do indeed nest in the barns (though I've yet to see any barn owls, alas), and turkey vultures perch on the rooftops on cool summer mornings, waiting to catch a good thermal.

As I walked to the area where I'd previously seen the grosbeaks, I found myself preoccupied, mulling over the worries of the day, while all around me was an explosion of dickcissels and meadowlarks, singing, perching, flying. In the case of the dickcissels, sometimes both singing and flying. It was like this whole parallel world was going on around me, the birds so full of life, so full of their own lives, with no interest in me long as I stayed far away from their nests. If I could really wrap my mind around it, I'd probably attain enlightenment on the spot. It made me think of that famous Zen riddle, Does a dog have Buddha nature? Dickcissels have Buddha nature. No question about it.

I did see Mrs. Blue Grosbeak, right in the spot where they'd been last year. She had a thick, stubby (one might even say "gross") beak, and dark wings with brown wingbars. That, along with her chunkier vibe, set her apart from her most obvious contender, the indigo bunting.

I hung out in the vicinity for a while, trying to look inconspicuous, but not fooling anyone. (By anyone, I mean birds. As far as humans go, except for distant cries of excited children at the pavilion area, there was no one else about.) Mr. Blue Grosbeak failed to make an appearance. And I was getting hot.

I didn't dally on the way back (it wasn't the best time for birding, and I had failed to bring sunscreen), but I was pleased to find an orchard oriole hanging out in the trees by the ford. It was only my second sighting of one at Weldon Springs, the first being an immature male last year.

Species seen (and heard): northern bobwhite; great blue heron; turkey vulture; mourning dove; chimney swift; warbling vireo; blue jay; tree swallow; barn swallow; gray catbird; eastern meadowlark; brown-headed cowbird; American goldfinch; brown thrasher; European starling; cedar waxwing; common yellowthroat; field sparrow; northern cardinal; blue grosbeak (female); dickcissel; red-winged blackbird; common grackle; orchard oriole.

Day Two -- June 23
In Which I am the Victim of Blood-Lust

Having ascertained that at least one of the blue grosbeaks had returned for the summer, it was time to brave the bug-infested hell-hole known as the Backpack Loop. This particular trail can be either a delight, or the worst decision of your day, depending on weather conditions and time of the year. In summer, it is a murky and mysterious place, the light crepuscular, the vegetation thick.

It might sound conceited, but in terms of how often I turn to it for facts, enjoyment, or inspiration, my own Bird Journal is my favorite book. But it's not because I wrote it that I love it so much. It's the subject matter.

For example, because of my Bird Journal, I know that last year, on July 14, I saw (and heard) both northern parula and American redstart. To find them at that time of year strongly implied that they'd been hanging out all summer, perhaps even making little parulas and redstarts. Granted, I hadn't exactly discovered a nest of breeding ivory-billed woodpeckers, but potential breeding warblers on my home patch was pretty exciting.

Unlike last year, which was hot and dry, we've been having rain, rain and more rain. For most of April, this trail was flooded, along with much of the adjacent fields. I've never seen so many swamp sparrows in my life.

On the last weekend of May, I ventured into the loop. The wet spring had turned into a soggy early summer, and while no water remained on the trail, my boots squelched through several muddy patches. The mosquitoes were out in force, swarming me in dense clouds of blood-lust. As I had not come prepared with bug-spray, I raced through the entire two mile loop, stopping only to admire a view of a singing redstart, and to hear the strange, zippy song of a northern parula. They were back!

I spent the first ten days of June visiting my parents in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where I saw and heard so many redstarts that they were almost becoming trash birds. (Kidding!) As it was, I didn't get back to searching for "my" redstart until three weeks later.

Once again, I neglected to bring bug spray. What was I thinking? Three more weeks of rain and standing water had done nothing to discourage the mosquitoes. At any rate, by the end of my "walk," I was flapping my hands in front of my face like a crazy person, and alternately whimpering and yelling the F word, not that the mosquitoes cared. Somehow, in the midst of all that, I did hear a parula singing.

To calm myself after my ordeal, I spent some time just watching some old favorite birds, as I described in my previous post, "Patch Dispatch." I saw nuthatches and chickadees acting weird. I saw many of my favorite birds acting normal. I talked to the park Nature Lady by the old schoolhouse, who told me that they were warning people not to camp in the backpack loop this year. I couldn't imagine camping there. A madcap dash was more than enough for me, thank you very much.

Species seen (and heard): northern cardinal; gray catbird; blue jay; eastern phoebe; rose-breasted grosbeak; tufted titmouse; red-winged blackbird; American robin; Canada goose; barn swallow; chipping sparrow; eastern wood-pewee; European starling; cedar waxwing; house wren; American crow; indigo bunting; red-bellied woodpecker; eastern bluebird; white-breasted nuthatch; ruby-throated hummingbird; great blue heron; common grackle; brown-headed cowbird; mourning dove; black-capped chickadee; tree swallow; turkey vulture; wood thrush; field sparrow; eastern towhee; northern parula; common yellowthroat; warbling vireo.

Day Three -- June 24
In Which I am Harassed by a Hooligan

I managed to get to the park super-early (for me, that means before 7:00), in order to hang around the wetland area as long as possible. I was particularly hoping to find a bittern, either American or, even better, least. I wouldn't have objected to a black-crowned night-heron either. I wasn't sure that the habitat was quite right for them, but the best way to find out who's hanging around in the vicinity is by first-hand observation.

There were a few red-winged blackbirds, a belted kingfisher, eastern phoebe, and some cedar waxwings flying past. Despite the rather lackluster birding, it was very peaceful by the wetland, and I sat there for around twenty minutes, just enjoying the quiet. My first birding trip ever, with the JWP Audubon society back in September 2004, began at this wetland. Some of the birds I saw on that trip were tufted titmouse, eastern wood-pewee, ruby-throated hummingbird, and American goldfinch.

Since it looked like nobody else was going to show up, I decided to walk the two mile loop around the lake. On busy weekends, this particular trail, which skirts the campground, many picnic areas, and the restaurant and bait shop, can be quite crowded, although just how crowded depends on your perspective. A busy weekend at Weldon Springs is nowhere near as packed as a slow day at Starved Rock, for example. This is one reason I don't get to Starved Rock very often.

Dewitt county is usually one of the safest places I can think of. Alas, it looks like the Lake Loop has fallen victim to a roving band of thugs. I can provide an excellent description of these hooligans, and even have their photo.

The geese had taken over the area by the dam, and were not planning on letting anyone pass. One particularly nefarious individual snake-bobbed his (or her) head at me whilst hissing viciously. I could see its tongue curling up with each hiss. Meanwhile, the goslings, who almost looked full-grown by this point, with just a hint of fuzziness to give away their juvenile status, made plaintive cooing noises that I had never before heard from a goose.

How best to proceed? It seemed a bit undignified getting into a Mexican standoff with a Canada goose; but high-tailing it, possibly to be chased by the feathered fury, would be even less so. I slowly edged sideways, as far off the trail as I could get without falling into the water, while the goose lunged and hissed. Finally, I must have gotten out of its comfort zone, for it ceased its belligerence, and I proceeded on my way.

I saw a lot of the usual suspects, but nothing new. Before leaving, I took a quick stroll by the blue grosbeaks' territory, but neither Mr. or Mrs. was at home.

Species seen (and heard): American crow, American robin, mourning dove, blue jay, great-crested flycatcher, tufted titmouse, great blue heron, European starling, chimney swift, brown-headed cowbird, belted kingfisher, downy woodpecker, red-winged blackbird, ruby-throated hummingbird, red-bellied woodpecker, northern cardinal, Canada goose, American goldfinch, eastern bluebird, field sparrow, Baltimore oriole, northern flicker, cedar waxwing, house sparrow, eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, turkey vulture, common yellowthroat, house wren, chipping sparrow, eastern wood-pewee, eastern phoebe, indigo bunting, barn swallow, black-capped chickadee, tree swallow, brown thrasher, common grackle, song sparrow, northern bobwhite, warbling vireo, wood thrush.

Day Four -- June 25
In Which I Stray from the Beaten Path

I decided it was time to try somewhere new. No, not a different park, just a place in Weldon Springs I'd never stopped to investigate before.

Not far from the park entrance, right by the side of the road, is a small, brackish-looking pond. I usually slow down as I drive past it, make sure there's nothing interesting on the water, and then embark on one of my usual loop trails. But as I had promised myself a survey of the birds of the entire park, I decided it was time to take a longer look.

I parked by the pond, and enjoyed the singing of rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings in the surrounding trees. As I approached the water, a flock of about twenty baby wood ducks took off into the weeds, followed by their mother.

I used to wonder how one poor duck could lay that many eggs, and then I read that wood ducks will drive other ducks away from their territory, and all the hapless babies just stay with their new family. I don't suppose ducks have much family feeling. It's not like the orphans grow up to write sad memoirs and tell their tale of woe to Oprah.

It's a bit off topic, since I didn't see any American coots, but if any bird needed therapy, it would probably be a coot. Like several water birds, coots will lay their eggs in other birds' nests, having taken to heart the advice not to put all of your eggs in one basket. It seems that other coots are on to this, however, and they will abuse and persecute the red-headed stepcoot if there is not enough food to go around, until it swims off on its own to perish. (You can watch the segment of David Attenborough's awesome documentary The Life of Birds that shows mean coot parents here. I encountered the explanation of why they do this in Sharon Stiteler (the Bird Chick)'s book 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know.)

After enjoying the pond life, I walked towards the park entrance, intending to connect with the Union Schoolhouse Prairie Trail, when I saw, tucked away to the right hand side, a trail I'd never noticed before. Finding a new trail is almost as exciting as finding a new bird, so I decided to explore.

The trail meandered through some fields, connecting to a blocked off road (a-ha! I can see this road from my car when I'm approaching the park), and from there, skirts behind the park office buildings and connects to the Old Farmhouse trail. I felt quite clever, as if I were Lewis and Clark beholding the Pacific. The grosbeaks still weren't making an appearance, but I did get a new bird for my "patch," a savannah sparrow.

Species seen (and heard): indigo bunting, wood duck, tufted titmouse, eastern phoebe, rose-breasted grosbeak, brown-headed cowbird, European starling, barn swallow, American goldfinch, eastern bluebird, northern flicker, blue jay, field sparrow, mourning dove, brown thrasher, black-capped chickadee, red-winged blackbird, killdeer, common grackle, great-crested flycatcher, eastern meadowlark, savannah sparrow, tree swallow, turkey vulture, willow flycatcher, dickcissel, chipping sparrow, northern bobwhite, common yellowthroat, house wren, warbling vireo, eastern towhee, northern cardinal.

Day Five -- June 27
In Which My Feet Get Very Wet

It was time to get strict with myself. I'd had some lovely strolls across the prairie and around the lake, but that wasn't going to show me an American redstart. For that, I'd need to brave the Backpack Trail again. This time I came prepared with a mosquito net for my hat, and a can of Deep Woods Off! Nothing can stop me now!

Except maybe a flood. The day before, when I'd not gone birding, there'd been some heavy rains. Apparently, enough water had fallen to push the Salt Creek over its banks once more, and the redstart's homeland had turned into a swampy mess.

For a moment, I considered turning back. The great thing about amateur birding is that no one will judge you for wimping out. It's up to you. But once I set my mind to something, I like to follow it through to the end. Besides, it was just water. I waded in.

The water was surprisingly cold and deep, up to mid-thigh at the deepest. (I am five foot six, to give you some reference.) I thought I heard a redstart singing, but it was only for a couple refrains, and then silence. I didn't hear the parula at all. Unfortunately, the most exciting bird of the trip was the female ring-necked pheasant I saw crossing the road on my way out of the park.

Species seen (and heard): American robin, northern cardinal, gray catbird, house wren, American goldfinch, common yellowthroat, hairy woodpecker, ring-necked pheasant, rose-breasted grosbeak, wood duck, red-bellied woodpecker, American crow, great-blue heron, turkey vulture, indigo bunting, eastern wood-pewee, black-capped chickadee, blue jay, eastern towhee, barred owl...and maybe redstart??

Day Six -- June 29
In Which My I.D. Skills Are Put to the Test

How do you know when an unofficial bird survey comes to an end? You just do. By day six, I felt like I had a really good idea of the Weldon Springs bird population, although there were still a couple of surprises.

I started at the wetland, spending about a half hour there as it was really birdy. I got my first Carolina wren for the "survey," and I found another singing northern parula. The wetland is far enough away from the Backpack Loop that I'm sure this represents a second individual. They're breeding all over the place here. Hooray!

The rest of the Lake Loop provided a repeat of earlier in the week, although you'll never hear me complain about rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, Eastern kingbirds, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and the like.

The pleasures of birding are a delicate mix, rather like the rest of life -- what's the best balance of novelty to old favorites for maximum enjoyment? Life birds might be the icing on top of the cake, but who'd want to eat a plate of just icing?

Just as I was getting ready to wrap it up, I got a good look at a mysterious grebe-like being swimming in the shallow pond behind the Union Schoolhouse. It had a fuzzy brown head, a dark body, and a very long pointy bill. When it saw me, it paddled over the water to get up steam, then took off. I caught a glimpse of a pale underside and white patches at the outer edges of the wings before it was gone forever.

Although my first impression was grebey, the size and shape, especially of that pointed bill, were also merganser-like. But the feathers on the head were too smooth to match any mergansers with that coloration.

My first impulse was to declare it an extremely rare summer visitor, such as a highly confused immature red-necked grebe, but I took the advice of the birding books I've been reading to heart. Rarities do happen, but as the word implies, they're, well, rare. After spending some time with my field guides, I wrote a description on the IL Birder's Forum to see if anyone had a suggestion. (Alas, I had not brought my camera.)

The most likely suspect is an immature hooded merganser, and either its head feathers haven't grown out yet or I saw it from a weird angle. I'm still not 100% satisfied, but I guess it shows how far I've come that in a week's worth of birding, I was only stumped by one I.D.

Species seen (and heard): northern cardinal, eastern wood pewee, mourning dove, house wren, northern parula, field sparrow, eastern phoebe, brown thrasher, European starling, indigo bunting, ruby-throated hummingbird, Carolina wren, cedar waxwing, eastern kingbird, northern rough-winged swallow, eastern bluebird, house sparrow, American goldfinch, brown-headed cowbird, hooded merganser (?), black-capped chickadee, rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, red-winged blackbird, American robin, chimney swift, downy woodpecker, tufted titmouse, great blue heron, belted kingfisher, Canada goose, chipping sparrow, barn swallow, gray catbird, northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, red-bellied woodpecker, warbling vireo, common yellowthroat, eastern towhee, blue jay, great-crested flycatcher.

And that wraps it up for summer at Weldon least for the next couple of days.

Have you seen anything good on your local patch this week?