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 whatsover...as 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 Springs...at least for the next couple of days.

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

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely post! As I'm a little bit familiar with some of the loops you write about, I could picture myself there. Just two days ago, I had Dad pick me up from work so we could make a quick check of one of my Local Patch(es), the Nara Nature Center, or anyway, it's neighbor, the Peepsock Trail. We saw 5 Baltimore orioles, Father, Mother, and 3 bouncing Baby Boy orioles. And were they ever bouncing, and squawking, and doing that baby wing-quiver thing. Also one of my favorite of birds, a common yellowthroat, made an appearance. Buggy up here, too! MOM