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?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A poem...for passenger pigeons


2014 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, a captive female named Martha. As I have a weird obsession with these extinct birds, it's safe to say I'll be posting about them over the coming months. Here is a poem in their honor. I hope you like it:

Lost Beings

Lately I’ve been reading about Buddhism,
drawn by fantasies of
expansive stillness, and the impersonal
benevolence that I might find by sitting
and counting my breath, if I can
persist for long enough to get there.

Despite my best intentions, these
teachings trouble me—the last chapter, for example,
with the practice of tonglen,
the giving and receiving meditation,
in which I am to give my health and
happiness to other sentient beings,
taking, in return, their pain, their fear,
their hunger, and their want. I think if
you could do this, and really mean it, you
would already be enlightened. Your
love for the world would be so
singular and so perfect if you could
offer yourself as its sacrifice.

Partly I object because I am too
wounded, too selfish, too hesitant
to ask for the world’s suffering.
I’d prefer that someone else take on
my suffering instead. But even if
I were equal to the task, how could I be
sure to find each sentient being?
What about the lost beings, the missing
ones? My meditation might skip over all
the spaces they used to occupy.

The bodhissatva vow promises to find
each being, though they are uncountable,
and set them free. But what of the dead?
The extirpated? The extinct?
Can I send them my happiness?
Can I accept their pain?

The passenger pigeon, for example,
whose flight once darkened the sky, as
there were so many of them,
vanished a century ago.
Can I offer them my lovingkindness,
my wish that they be free from pain?
I might even be willing to take on
their suffering, and the panic they surely felt,
watching the flock drop by the thousands—
bullets tearing muscles strong enough for flight,
and unexpectedly so fragile,
landing, one after another, in the muddy fields.

Surely, some died in an instant,
their wings dropping them into Nirvana,
as suddenly and inexorably as a monk who,
after a decade of stillness, exhales,
and has the world crack open,
all of its passenger pigeons tumbling in,
flight and pain both, and just like that,
he gets it. The world we have,
so insufficient. Enlightenment.

It was not like that for every bird.
Some must have shook and trembled,
wings twitching, perhaps for hours on the ground,
victims of a careless shot. Others
smothered beneath the weight of the perished flock
layered over them.
This did not happen only once, of course.
It takes a dedicated carelessness
to extinguish a species.

How many of us would it take
to absorb pain and terror of this magnitude?
Do we need a billion meditators
for a billion lost beings?
Could I be the first?
I don’t want to send them vague and empty
thoughts of kindness. I’d rather offer
these lost flocks my bones to roost,
and my heart, like the mast of the
beech trees, also vanishing, for their banquet.
If these lost birds could soar again
what an insignificant offering
would be my cells and corpuscles,
my mindful exhalations breathing them
back to life.

And yet, I finish the book, and let it
fall to my lap. It’s not that I don’t want to try
these selfless meditations: the lovingkindness,
the giving and receiving. But what would hurt the most?
Realizing that my every good intention
is not enough? Or that the pain of
these lost beings is really my own?
For I am the one who lives in this world

day after day, without them.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Missives from the Bamboo Front

My backyard when we moved in
It's been a while since I whined about the bamboo taking over my back yard. That doesn't mean I've forgotten about it, though...or my goal to turn my yard into a mostly native planted Avian Haven. The past few months have resulted in a stalemate, but as of today, the war's back on!

For those of you who might have missed the backstory, a couple of years ago, Greenturtle and I bought a lovely, 100-year old house in the the sleepy town of Clinton, here in central Illinois. I was especially excited to be moving so close to a lot of great birding hotspots, and because the house is on a double lot, which seemed perfect for my goal of transforming it into a tiny sanctuary for birds and native plants. Of course, all that bamboo would have to go...

How naive I was! How uninformed and foolish! Had I done a bit of research, I would have known that it is almost impossible to remove an established bamboo grove. Not only is my yard full of it, but so is the neighbor's (and he likes his). It's like this horrible science fiction monster. You see, all of those culms, each and every one, is part of a single organism, that spreads by means of underground runners. (It's invasiveness and persistence have led some Internet yard experts--and victims--to call it "damboo.")

So even if I cut each and every culm down (which I have, more times than I can count), the beast itself continues to live under the soil. And since my bamboo is attached to my neighbor's, it continues to pull nutrients from those culms. So what I have to do, basically, is tear up my entire lawn, probably with help of a backhoe, remove as many underground runners as I can, and then dig a reinforced trench along the side of my yard to prevent reinvasion. Even that won't really do the trick, as any missed node will continue to sprout, but at that point, I can mow them down ruthlessly until, deprived of the parent plant, they eventually die off.

After completing my Master Naturalist training in the fall, I was reinvigorated with my plans for the Avian Haven, but I decided to allow the bamboo one last winter, because at least birds can shelter in it. Big mistake. Bamboo is a ruthless foe, and respects no attempts at truce. Actually, it was my neighbor's bamboo that struck back.

Yesterday, we had an ice storm, and since I had a full pantry and a fresh stack of library books to occupy me, I stayed inside. All was happy until I tried to get on the Internet after dinner. No connection. I didn't worry too much, just went back to reading.

This morning, the connection was still down, and looking out my windows, I immediately saw why: the ice had caused the bamboo from next door to flop over my fence and snap the cable. I could see it there, still propped up on the slumping line. Damboo!! My feelings at that moment are hard to put into words--murderous rage is probably the closest. Something like this:


Ice or no ice, I grabbed my extra-strong shears and cut down each culm that had dared to flop over my fence. Then I cut down some of their neighbors, just to be on the safe side. Shards of ice rained down over my head as each one toppled, but what did I care? I just wanted more bamboo to punish!! Seriously, who would have guessed that a plant could inspire so much blood-lust?


Normally I consider myself a very peaceful, laid-back person. All I wanted was some pretty flowering trees and a birdbath or two back there...was that so much to ask, damboo? Did you have to take over the entire yard with your underground runners, making it impossible for me to dig even a small spot for a shrub? And then the bamboo had to go one step further, and take out my Internet cable! Well, that's a line it should not have crossed, because now it's full-out war!


Well, it's still winter, so there's not much I can do at the moment, except keep shearing off anything too close to my cable line. But just wait until spring. I don't care what it takes. A backhoe. A Bobcat. Agent Orange. There's bound to be some casualties. That's unfortunate, but trust me, you can't play nice with bamboo. It will be a long, bloody struggle, but in the end, when the last runner has been yanked from the earth and tossed onto a ceremonial bonfire, it will be oh so satisfying to behold the muddy crater that used to be my yard, and know that I have triumphed.


So, has anyone else ever wanted to murder a plant? Did you succeed?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reduced to pigeon-watching!


Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Just a couple of months ago, I was Birdy Birderson, swaggering around central Illinois, safe in the knowledge that if any rare birds were in the offing, there was a pretty good chance I had seen them.

But then it got cold, and I got lazy. I decided I'd rather stay home, snuggling on the couch with my dogs, reading a book. Each weekend, as it approaches, I think that maybe I'll go out birding again. And then comes the weather report: cold, windy, dreary, cloudy, horrible. No, thanks. I'll stay inside.

Still, it starts to weigh on me--all the birds out there, and myself inside. Birds glimpsed in passing are precious: the murder of crows, 40 or 50 of them, flying over the road a couple of weeks ago as I drove home. The American tree sparrow perching on a shrub, seen from the walkway at the as I walked to the cafeteria in the hospital where I now work. And, mostly, starlings and pigeons, braiding the sky in syncopated flight each evening as I drive home.

I expected the starlings. But pigeons? Who knew that pigeons also swooped in formation, circling and weaving before coming to roost for the night on the flat roofs of the gas stations? This is an unexpected behavior from pigeons, more than a bit intriguing. It makes me want to go out and bird again....

"Snow on Saturday," Greenturtle informs me. "Twenty degrees on Sunday."

Twenty degrees? That's not so bad... Unless I get wrapped up in another good book, I might even be able to tear myself away from central heating. For I do miss birds, more than all the non-birders out there would ever expect, I'm sure. But really, winter is just not for me. If only I could afford a nice vacation in the tropics!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sulking (I'll admit it). And a poem.


Summer is over. OK, that's not a news flash. It's been over for a while now. And I am sulking about it. Each weekend, I make myself some vague promises about going birding, and each weekend there's something unappealing about the weather. Today, for example, is gray, cold and windy. So I am not birding.

I usually have a birding slump in late fall/early winter, and then pick back up with renewed enthusiasm on January first, with the beginning of my Year List. This year, my slump just started a month or so early. In my defense, I've had a lot on my plate, with the desire to lay around reading with dogs on my lap various projects, and the new job I started about a month ago.

But mostly, it's the time of year. The breeding birds have long since departed, with the fall migrants on their heels, and I always end up feeling like a guest who just hasn't figured out the party ended a few hours ago. Well, me and the juncos. They never get the hint.

In the spirit of sulking, I thought I'd share a poem I wrote about the end of summer. It seems like every year, ever since I noticed the flocking phenomenon, when I first notice that the summer sky is full of swallows preparing to depart, I run around in a tizzy, crying, "It's the Day of the Swallows! The breeding season is officially over!" Meanwhile, everyone stares at me like I'm crazy, since this happens some time in the beginning of August, which as far as everybody else is concerned, is clearly the middle of summer.

The Day of the Swallows

All summer long, soft mornings have cradled the
Woods and wetlands. On the prairie, the big bluestem
Blazes with the sun's first strike upon the dew. Now,
Full-throttle, life bursts into song:
Dick-dick-dickcissels, flinging their heads back,
Black triangles of attitude upon their throats;
And the sedge wrens, on weeds and stems, proclaim
Their provinces with songs like bouncing pebbles.

It's the orchestra of breeding birds: bandit masked
Yellowthroats crying witchedy-witchedy from the pond margins,
While a meadowlark, perched on a rotten fence post,
Shreds the air with his liquid see-you see-year. The Russian
Olives reveal a field sparrow, looping an extra whoop into
His ancestral trill, because he knows that this field is for
His kind, willing to sing for it, over and over.

Above: the swallows, disdaining the tangled grasses.
They don't even sing, simply chittering, swooping, self-assured.
After all, no legends speak of dickcissels, or of you,
The birder with your binoculars askew and your
Field guide handy. It is they who return to Capistrano every spring.

This is summer as Golden Age, life at its most exuberant.
You have forgotten the other seasons, and the eternal axiom of motion.
Until one evening, somewhere between midsummer and
The Equinox, you arrive to find the songs extinguished.
Birds hunker in the forbs, gobbling seeds or lazy insects.
No redwings shrug their superior epaulettes.
Perhaps a sheepish kingbird flutters down, or
A field sparrow trills, desultory.
You only glanced away for a moment.

And overhead, the sky is spangled with swallows, hundreds-fold.
They are skimming the season's ending, and will carry the songs
With them in their beaks, far to the South--the sparrows and the
Yellowthroats, the shy meadowlarks.
This year the prairie will not sing for you again.

Maybe they want to tell you not to blame the harbingers.
Do you really think that they, of all fragile creatures,
Asked for this? The long flight, the spinning dark, the imperative
To depart? We did not set this clock in motion, they might say. Not us.
There are so many of them, and gazing upwards, you become
Dizzy. Penitent. It happens like this every year, it seems--
You learned to pay attention just a day too late,
And now summer's over, swallows gathering in the dusk.