Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?--A book review


I recently finished Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?: More Answers to Common and Not-So-Common Questions about Birds and Birding by Mike O'Connor, a book in the same Q&A format as his previous volume, Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? They are both fun reads, but I have to confess I didn't buy either one. I read Woodpeckers over a pot of tea at the Borders cafe, before Borders bummed me out by going bankrupt...and I got Bluebirds for free as a First Reads Giveaway with Good Reads.**

O'Connor owns a wild bird store and has a birdy newspaper column, so he gets asked a lot of bird-related questions. I've been asked some similar questions myself, such as "Why won't a certain bird come to my feeders?" and "What's up with all the grackles in my yard each fall?", though when I try to answer them, some people will scrunch up their faces and say, "No, I don't think that's the reason."

"Honest," I tell these skeptics, "that's the explanation. I read about it in a science book. By an ornithologist."

Then they pause and tilt to head to one side, thinking it over, before stating, with a final decisive nose-squinch: "No, that just doesn't sound right. I think I'll go ask the people at the wild bird store."

And then I respond with the utmost courtesy and patience:



Well, now I have another option before resorting to crude gestures--I'll just whip out my copy of Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?, which is not a science book by an ornithologist, as anyone can tell by the amount of humor in it. Even though I already knew the A's to most of the Q's in his Q&A chapters, I still enjoyed the book quite a bit, simply because of the jokes and wry comments. I even snickered from time to time, which actually places it quite high on my funny-meter. I'm just not the laugh-out-loud type.

Despite all those ornithology books I just bragged about reading, I did learn some fun facts as well, such as that titmice won't fly over water. They won't even cross a modest channel like the Cape Cod Canal. They got there by flying from girder to girder on the bridges. Another new tidbit--blue jays sometimes eat pain chips, presumably to get calcium.

I would definitely recommend Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me? for backyard birders and those new to the hobby. It would also make a nice stocking-stuffer for friends and relatives who still don't understand what all those grackles are doing in the yard, even after you explained it to them so nicely. At least if you want them to still speak to you the next time they have a question.

**I don't have much experience with free books arriving in the mail, but apparently I am required to disclose this in my review. It goes without saying that I was not bribed in any way and this is my honest opinion. (As if anything could get between me and my opinions--just ask my long-suffering family!)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Eye of the Ibis

Emiquon, IL River Valley
Once again, time has gotten away from me and three weeks have passed since the events in this post. So let's all get in our imaginary time machines and go back to the first weekend of the month, when I went with the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalist class to the Dickson Mounds Museum and  Emiquon Preserve along the Illinois River Valley.

I've been to this area to look for life birds so many times over the last couple of years that it's practically my home away from home, so I arrived a bit early in order to do a spot of birding before class began. It didn't feel like October, that's for certain. As I wandered around the boardwalk area, the heat and humidity made me wonder if I'd accidentally ended up in Florida instead.

Well, not really--in Florida, I'd be expecting some exciting new birds, and fall migration has been rather low-key for me this year. I guess I saw too many species in the spring and summer--not that I'm complaining! But since I wasn't expecting anything new, I left my camera and spotting scope in my truck and simply wandered with my binoculars.

blue-winged teal...beautiful, but not exciting
Note to all other birders here: Never do this at a wetland along a prime migration corridor. I know, I know--it's hot and humid, there's nothing out there but coots and blue-winged teal, it's a pain to drag all that stuff around and you don't want to be sweaty when you show up for your meeting. It all sounds good at the moment. But just wait until you round the corner and find a small flock of dark ibis back against the reeds by the boardwalk. Then you'll be sorry.

This is exactly what happened to me. Lulled by the predictable flocks of early fall waterfowl, I wasn't even thinking about the chance of a rarity. Maybe I was hoping, just a little bitty bit, that a new (to me) sparrow might pop out of the reeds, but ibis was the last thing on my mind. Still, there's no mistaking an ibis when you see one. That long, decurved bill, and that ancient Egyptian profile. Seeing the ibis made me feel, momentarily, that I'd somehow traveled far out of my way indeed.

So I knew they were dark ibis, and in the fall these are one of those mission-impossible ID challenges, like non-singing drab flycatchers or second-year gulls. Should I keep looking through my bins, or hope they stayed in place long enough for me to grab my scope and camera? I decided to go with the latter, even if the trip to the parking lot and back made me late for class (priorities, right?). And just as I rounded the bend again, staggering under the weight of all my gear (yes, I am out of shape...I'll admit it), the ibis all flew off. I drove the wetland loop a couple of times hoping to relocate them, but time was running short.

Luckily, our class in the archaeological record of the native peoples of Illinois was interesting enough that I could almost forget about the ibis. If you're ever in central Illinois, I do recommend the Dickson Mounds Museum...and it's free! Finally, in the evening, we all returned to the wetland observatory for a lesson in duck identification, and I set up my spotting scope so everyone could see the beauty of wood ducks, American white pelicans, coots and teal, plus a surprise snowy egret, up close and personal.

one white pelican with many coots
I actually did forget about the ibis for a while, as I was having so much fun sharing the wonder of birds with everyone. Over the years, so many other birders have lined up their scopes on something routine to them, but amazing to me, that it felt good finally to pass the favor forward. At one point, someone asked if I would focus the scope on a great blue heron, because she had never seen one up close. I was happy to comply, and the way she thanked me afterwards, stating that she had never realized how beautiful they were, made me remember why I am doing the Master Naturalist thing in the first place. I really do believe that if people actually learn to see nature, they will want to protect it...and in my case, what I can share best is birds.

Then another birder showed up and the touchy-feely moment was over. As everyone else headed off for dinner, we looked for ibis. We saw some snipe, pied-billed grebes, and a horned grebe, and an ibis fly-by, but still not a good look. After some consultation with my field guide, I had decided on white-faced ibis, as there appeared to be no markings at all on their faces (as to be expected at this time of year), and that species is statistically more likely for Illinois.

Eventually, it was time to turn in (after some fun with astronomy), and some people were camping, and others were staying at a B&B. To be honest, I hate camping. Maybe as a self-proclaimed "nature girl," I shouldn't admit this...but I really like a nice, cozy bed and hot running water. I also hate spending money, so this was a dilemma. Originally, my husband had planned to join us, but at the last minute, he didn't want to leave our dogs alone for the first time since we've adopted them. (And who can blame him? Look at this piteous little face):

"How could you leave me alone all night??"
So I decided to be Nature Girl Times Ten, and simply unrolled my sleeping bag in the bed of my pick-up truck, in order to slumber beneath the stars...hoping that the rain in the forecast would hold off until morning. I actually fell asleep rather quickly, doubtless because of the extra glass of wine I'd had with dinner. This extra glass also led to some bragging about my awesome birding and nature blog, now that I think about it. Which might explain three weeks worth of blogger's block. I'm proud of my blog, but it is possible I might have exaggerated a bit. (What can I say? Birders like to party! Really, it's an actual fact backed up by statistics and everything...or I'm sure it would be, if anyone did a study.)

I woke up at some point on the wrong side of midnight. There were some stars, but a lot more light pollution from Peoria than I had expected, giving a milky wash to the horizons. Barred owls were hooting. A dog was barking, somewhere distant. A mosquito (in October! This is so wrong!) was whining, altogether too near. At first I thought it must have rained, but no...my sleeping bag was just wet with dew. You know, that stuff that makes your shoes wet in the morning, and films over your windshield? Yeah, all over me....

For a while, I tossed and turned, thinking those weird middle of the night thoughts. Like, how weird is it to think of sleeping out in the open? Because of all the naturalists around me, I wasn't worried about human predators. But what happened to all the others? (Answer: extirpated.) At least up North, where my parents live, there are still bears, and wolves. Not here. In Illinois, I am the Top Mammal, sleeping undisturbed (save by mosquitoes.)

Then it was morning. We studied wetlands, and I was tired and crabby. On the far side of forty, the body is not as forgiving of these sorts of experiences! Luckily, we were all on the far side of forty, so I was not alone in deciding to call it a day around two o'clock in the afternoon. Once home, I triumphantly logged my ibis onto Cornell's ebird database.

The birding expert must have dashed off his reply immediately: Did I see the eyes of the ibis? According to Ken Kaufman's advanced birding guide, unless I saw the eye color, there is no way to decide glossy or white-faced. More recently, a response on the Illinois Birder's Forum has been more ambiguous still--Fall ibis? No way to know!

My Illinois State List still has "white-faced ibis" as the latest entry. Should I change it? Is it dishonest to go by my "impression," and statistics? Probably. And I promise I will modify my list...next spring, when I have a better ibis sighting, one way or the other....

So...does anyone else have a bird on their Life (or Other) Lists they're not really 100% about? Anyone else hate (or love) camping?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spineless creatures, and a poem



I feel like I've been neglecting my birding blog lately. I have an exciting weekend coming up, so hopefully that will give me some fun stuff to share. The last time I was out in nature I was looking for benthic macroinvertebrates with the Master Naturalist class. If you're wondering what the heck that is, just continue reading, as I was inspired to write a poem on the topic.

I'm still struggling with the title. I could call it "Ode to a Flatworm," I suppose....

Three Worlds: A Nature Lesson

We arrive as explorers, with nets and buckets
at the banks of the Little Vermilion,
a river thin and idle from weeks of drought.
Skate bugs zig-zag lazily across the surface,
over schools of scurrying minnows.
Below them, a layer of pebbles, and
our objective: the hidden world of
benthic macroinvertebrates; in layman's terms,
the spineless creatures of the river bottoms.

The minnows dart away from my shadow
as I peer past them, at the sullen lips of
freshwater mussels. The mussels do not scatter--
that is the whole point of them, a nearly motionless
existence, sucking subsistence from the current.

Almost, I can imagine the minnows' lives:
acrobats suspended in the water,
a world always in motion, punctuated by
the distortions of refracted light.
But what silty sensations
inform the mussels' world?
On the chart of life's branchings,
we diverged too far back to allow
a sense of kinship.

We step in, and the water muddies.
The minnows ribbon away when we reach down,
for handsful of mud, gravel, leaves.
Someone has found a crayfish, which has
grabbed her thumb in protest.

Water drips through my fingers, revealing
the messy guts of the river, nothing more.
Then something moves against the rocks,
a flatworm, small as a fingernail clipping,
curling in distress, so tiny that seeing it is an act of will.
Other beings are revealed, clinging to a shred of leaf,
a flake of bark, burrowing into the mud.

They have strange names, like caddisfly, and
unfathomable life histories. By my thumb,
for example, a larval mayfly, which will swim
for several years of infancy before metamorphosis
turns it into a mouthless creature that
mates and dies within a day.

Our nature study over, we slosh them back;
the mud settles, and soon the shallow water clears again.
Along the banks, jewel-toned damselflies pause
on dangling roots, prowling for prey.
The skate bugs angle back above the minnows.
For the mussels, too, order has been restored;
they snuggle deeply in the benthic ooze,
dreaming of silty delectations.