Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Winter of Discontent

Common goldeneyes never whine about the cold...unlike me

Today's discontent is freezing rain. I've spent the day reading on the couch, occasionally glancing out the window, where I can see cars splashing grayish slush along the curb as they pass. I pay attention to the windshield wipers, to see if it's still raining. And it is. Even my humble plans for birding today--walking around town a bit in the hopes that a Cooper's hawk or Eurasian collared dove flies past--will not work out.

This winter sucks. To start with, it's the coldest winter in the past couple of decades, at least here in Illinois. Single digits, sub-zero real temperatures, and wind chill factors that make me an instant human popsicle. I've been out to Clinton Lake a couple of times, watching hardy goldeneyes bobbing on the icy waves as I struggled to keep my spotting scope steady in the gale. The goldeneyes take this sort of thing in better spirits than I can muster.

To add slippery white stuff to my list of woes, it also keeps on snowing, not in a glorious, winter-wonderland way, but just enough to make the roads a death trap, with an inch or two of snow hiding random patches of black ice. I haven't gone off the road yet, but I've slithered around enough to give myself a temporary, but debilitating, phobia about it. For about a week, my commute to work involved a death-grip on the steering wheel and a struggle to maintain the speed limit, even when the roads were clear. This is how it starts, I thought. I'm well on the way to becoming an agoraphobic old lady with an animal hoarding problem. Luckily this phobia disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and I am not back to zipping down the highway like I'm practicing for the Indy 500.

I have had a few good birding moments here and there, such as finding three trumpeter swans hanging out in the stubble of a cornfield by Dewitt last Sunday, along with some of my other favorite winter species--a brown creeper in the woods, a small flock of hooded mergansers along the IL 48 bridge. And it is nice to have plenty of time to curl up and read, with dogs snoozing on my lap. Even so, winter is not my friend, and I am fighting off more cabin fevered crabbiness each day. (Next week's forecast includes snow and cold!)

Some people, when they are feeling sorry for themselves, find it helpful to think of those even less fortunate as an antidote to self-pity, and now I shall do the same. At least I am not living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with my parents. Talk about a dreadful winter! My mom's lucky to get a dozen birds on an outing right now. Although if she can find a patch of open water, there will probably be goldeneyes, a bird apparently completely impervious to the cold. How do they do it?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dr Evil Stole My Mojo

I woke up late today, surprised by an unusual sight coming from my bedroom window. Is it...could it possibly be?? It is!! The sun was out! I'd almost forgotten what it looked like....

The reason I give myself challenges like my DeWitt County Big Year is for times like this: I hate winter, I don't want to go out, and I would much rather stay curled up on my sofa, dogs in lap, reading mysteries and drinking hot chocolate. But I get really crabby if I'm deprived of nature outings for too long, and since birding is the only exercise I ever do...well, let's just say that I had a bad surprise in the fitting room at Target yesterday.

Despite my hatred of cold temps, snow drifts and Arctic winds, last year I made a birding trip to northern Minnesota, in search of owls, gulls and winter finches. Having seen them all, I had decided to stay put in Illinois this year (since vacations to warmer climes is not, alas, an option). Even so, I haven't missed out (except in the owl department), for Minnesota weather came to me. Last week, we had sub-zero real temperatures and a snowstorm, followed by everybody's favorite: freezing rain. A perfect excuse to stay inside, reading and making languid trips to the kitchen!

But today abolished my excuses--we're back in the 40s, and sunny. So I decided to "clean up" the birds I'd missed on New Year's, with another trip to my usual places in search of the usual suspects.

First stop: Weldon Springs. Targets: eastern bluebird, northern harrier, song sparrow, house finch, red-breasted nuthatch. The shallow lake was completely frozen, so the only water birds on offer were Canada geese. I strolled around a bit, but I wasn't really into it. For one thing, I was slipping over lingering patches of ice, and the birds were few and far between. Despite the warmer temps, the wind was still unpleasantly cold.

It occurred to me that I haven't been this unenthusiastic about birding in several years. Normally January finds me reinvigorated with the thrill of a new list for a new year, but this year...ho hum. Someone has stolen my mojo, and I've got to get it back! It must be...Dr. Evil! (Apologies to anyone who hasn't seen the Austin Powers movies.)

A quick stroll across the prairie gave me one of my "targets": a pair of eastern bluebirds, so beautiful that I almost got my mojo back while I was admiring them. I also had a happy surprise, a glimpse of a red-shouldered hawk, shoulders ablaze in the winter sunlight. Despite these nice species, I wasn't tempted to linger--the wind kept reminding me it was winter, and the prairie was otherwise completely devoid of birds. Even my usual American tree sparrows weren't making an appearance.

Next stop: Peninsula Day Use Area. Targets: American robin, white-throated sparrow. I got my white-throated sparrows right away; for some reason, they are reliable winter visitors here. So if you are in central Illinois and looking for this species right now, make a quick detour to Clinton Lake. I can almost guarantee you will find them at this spot. I also got the northern harrier I'd missed at Weldon Springs, and a flyover flock of cedar waxwings.

I wrapped my day up with a few more stops along the lake. There were lots of Canada geese, common goldeneyes and common mergansers, but the only other "new" species for the year I found was a herring gull. I wouldn't say that I quite have my mojo back, but a day with birds is always better than a day without.

Total for the Dewitt County Big Year: 50 species! Not bad for a nasty-tempered January!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Let's Round Up the Usual Suspects!

Maybe it's a personal flaw, but I'm the sort of person who craves novelty and adventure. In birding terms, that means that a trip to the same locations, to see the same species, as I've done over and over the past few years, is not that exciting. Some people claim to be enchanted with every single mourning dove or blue jay they see, as though it were their "lifer."

I envy these people. I'm not sure I really believe them, but even so, I envy them. It's not as if I don't like mourning doves and blue jays. I'd miss them if they were gone. But I just need a bit more. Which is why I like to give myself challenges. This year's challenge is:

My DeWitt County, IL Big Year!! Since there's only one other serious birder who birds here, I'm adding an extra challenge: not only do I need to see more species than anyone else for 2014, I also need to beat the high total ever recorded (by that other birder) on ebird. That means, this year's challenge is to see 211 species or more in my home county.

This was all the incentive I needed to get me out the door on a crisp winter morning on New Year's Day. I was hoping for a good mix of passerines and waterfowl, and hopefully some good raptors, and thanks to the previous couple of years birding the area, I knew exactly where I was most likely to find them.

First stop: Mascoutin State Recreation Area, where Clinton Lake was shrouded in thick clouds of fog, due to the warming effect of the nuclear power plant. I like the power plant because it keeps the water relatively open even during the coldest days, and open water in winter means birds! (I still haven't seen a three-eyed fish, though.)

Peering through the mist, which was thicker than ever and created a real horror-movie sort of effect, I was able to make out all my usual winter suspects: a couple of great blue herons, a pied-billed grebe, a large flock of coots, and some Canada geese. The even foggier flume revealed mallards, northern shovelers and gadwall.

Time for the passerines, my favorites. I was especially hoping for: brown creeper, pine siskin, golden-crowned kinglet, cedar waxwing, white-throated sparrow and red-breasted nuthatch, none of which would be rare for this time of year, but not guaranteed, either. To maximize my chances, I'd need to hike for a bit. There are patches along the Houseboat Cove trail at Mascoutin that often have active feeding flocks in the winter, but these areas are spaced out over three miles of trail.

It wasn't the best day for a winter walk: cloudy and damp, not horribly cold but the kind that settles into the bones. The wind over the lake was quite nasty. I don't mind a glittering, ice palace sort of winter day, when the sky is almost painfully blue and the whole world sparkles. This wasn't that sort of day. It was dreary, and to be honest, I'd rather be somewhere tropical, looking for motmots and quetzels. But as I'm in Illinois, it's prairie birds I'm after, and some of them are, after all, quite special.

I got some of my favorites, and even a couple of surprises: white-crowned sparrow, tufted titmouse, golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, and yellow-rumped warblers were some of the highlights.

By the time I'd finished my walk, I was getting cold, but I still had enough spunk for a quick drive around the lake. Common goldeneye were at the Marina, and some cackling geese, greater white-fronted geese and common mergansers at the IDNR station. The causeway along the IL 48 bridge revealed one of my favorites (that I can't possibly tire of, no matter how many times I see them): hooded mergansers.

A couple days later, I took to the country roads to look for birds wintering in the fields, lured in close enough to view to get grit or seeds from the roadsides, and got some Lapland longspurs and horned larks.

So I am starting my Big Year with 42 species, which is not bad at all for me at this time of year. I'm missing some that should be here--bald eagle, white-throated sparrow, northern harrier, ring-necked pheasant. Hopefully this will lure me out into the cold for another round of birding this coming weekend.

So how has winter birding been treating you?