Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My summer birding project

Cerulean warbler-image from Wikipedia

In birding or other parts of life, I'm always happiest when I have a project. Something concrete, with measurable results. Many birders like to do a "big year" and attempt to see the most birds in their particular area, and I've done that in the past, but tallying up species doesn't really interest me this year. Instead, I want to find as many different species of warbler as I can over the summer breeding season, say, from now till the beginning of August. Maybe I can find ten different species? With a bonus for each one I can locate in my home county of Dewitt (Illinois).

To prepare for this venture, I have consulted one of my favorite books, The Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas (Editor: Thomas Rice, Illinois Natural History Survey). How I love to spend a relaxing evening at home, curled up on the couch looking at maps and tables of breeding birds. (I know this pushes me firmly into "nerd" territory, and I don't care.)

So, possible warblers I could find include:

Blue-winged warbler: prefers to nest in brushy hillsides, successional  fields, and second growth woods. Builds nests in grass or vines on or near the ground. Chances: unlikely but possible. There are a few records on ebird in June for this species, with one sighting (from 2013) occurring at the Parkland Foundation's Merwin Preserve, which is in the county just north of mine. There is a lot of this warbler's favorite habitat to be found in the area.

Northern parula: preferred habitat deciduous bottomlands and along streams in upland ravines. This one's almost guaranteed, as they breed right here in my county (seen in previous years at Weldon Springs and along the North Fork Access trail.)

Yellow warbler: preferred habitat wet second growth woodlands, scrub and riparian thickets. Another easy one, as they are quite common in the area. I know I can find them at the Salt Creek Wetland in Dewitt county or the Schroeder Nature Preserve in McLean county.

Yellow-throated warbler: preferred habitat pine-oak woodlands and river corridors. Chances: pretty good, as I have seen them in July in Macon and Logan counties. I don't find them very often, though, and it would be a new bird for my Dewitt County list, so fingers crossed!

Prairie warbler: preferred habitat dry brushy clearings, second-growth forests and abandoned upland fields. Chances: very slim, although there have been sightings in Coles and Vermilion counties. There's a lot of the habitat they like here in Dewitt county, though, so I can always hope!

my "lifer"...and so far only...prairie warbler
Cerulean warbler: preferred habitat mature deciduous bottomland forest. Chances: not that good, although this is my most-hoped for warbler, both because it would be a "life bird" and because their numbers are dropping so quickly. I can think of several parks/woods with likely habitat, and there are a couple records on ebird for some surrounding counties.

American redstart: preferred habitat open deciduous and mixed forests. Chances: very likely, as I've seen them in the backpack loop of Weldon Springs over the summer in past years, and I just found one hanging out there and singing last weekend, so hopefully they will hang around.

Prothonotary warbler: preferred habitat swamps and flooded bottomland. Chances: would be excellent if I were planning a trip to southern Illinois. Since I'm not, unlikely but possible. A couple years ago there was one that appeared to be nesting at Centennial Park in Heyworth, which is not that far from me.

prothonotary warbler...this one was seen during migration
Worm-eating warbler: preferred habitat extensive mature deciduous forest with hillsides and ravines. Oh, how I would love to find a "wormy." I know they nest at Siloam Springs and Forest Glen, both a bit of a drive from me but not impossible. Closer to home, I've heard rumors they've been seen at the Mackinaw preserve in Tazewell County. Unlikely to be found in Dewitt due to habitat requirements...if they were to be found here, I would guess along the North Fork Access Trail would be the most likely spot.

Ovenbird: preferred habitat large, mature deciduous forests. Chances: I'm not holding my breath for an ovenbird, but a trip to one of the "wormy" places might turn one up.

Louisiana waterthrush: preferred habitat forested streamsides. Chances: I think pretty good, considering the fact I found one in early July two years ago along the North Fork Access Trail here in Dewitt county.

Kentucky and Hooded warblers: two more deciduous forest breeders, like the ovenbird and the worm-eating, my chances are limited to a couple of locations quite a drive from home. Possible but not likely.

Common yellowthroat: preferred habitat overgrown fields, hedges, marshes and forest edges. Bless their cheerful little hearts, these adorable warblers are everywhere during the summer.

the common yellowthroat is both cute and abundant
Yellow-breasted chat: preferred habitat dense brush or scrub. A very bizarre warbler that I am quite likely to find, as I've seen them nesting in both Dewitt and Macon counties in years past.

So here's hoping for a "warbler-iffic" summer!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When inspiration fails

So I started the new year with so many good intentions...one of them being to start posting regularly again on my bird blog! And now it's May already and...nothing. Honestly, if anyone is still out there paying attention...thank you so much for wondering what's going on in the realm of Grand Prairie birding! Because, yes, I still go out at least once a week, and look for birds. There are some really nice ones, too.

The thing is, I've learned (about myself), that while I enjoy walking my local patches week after week, that doesn't really inspire me to write about it. Nothing much changes, after all. The scenery is the same, the birds are predictable. Last weekend, for example, I had my first spring warblers (yah!), out at Weldon Springs, including blue-winged and blackpoll, which are a bit harder to find for me. And there was a vulture perching on a branch over a path. which I saw right before the reek of something dead and decaying slapped me in the face...so I turned back, to let the vulture enjoy its find. Really, better him than me, eh? But I haven't had a life bird in over a year.... Money and time, you know, with neither one being abundant.

On a bigger level, for the past year or so, I've been stuck in a routine...commute/work/go home...commute/work/go home. And on and on. I really need to connect, not just with exciting new life birds, but with my own creativity and sense of exploration. So let this be a lesson to everyone stuck in the nine to five (or eight to six, or even longer) pattern...don't lose sense of yourself! There is so much more to life! Birds and all!

Yes, I am aware of the "birds and more," hopefully soon to revive myself (and this blog). For anyone else out there, what can I say? I don't know your circumstances, what you had to do to get through your day. But it can't hurt to spend a few moments in nature. And maybe look at a bird while you're out there. Here in central Illinois, in the middle of my work week, I'm doing the same thing. (Saw a robin, some Canada geese, and a magnificent male northern cardinal on my lunch break).

Happy birding!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year, More birds

I do look forward to New Year's Day. No, I don't mean partying the night before and staying up late to watch the ball drop; those things would interfere with getting up before the dawn the following morning and going out to see some birds. Symbolically, this is a time of year for renewal and fresh starts--the solstice has passed, the days will get longer, and it's time to put the old year to rest and focus on new beginnings. Being a birder, I celebrate by starting my new year list and trying to see as many species as possible.

The new start is also a much-needed kick in the pants, to get me back outside to appreciate the small miracles all around us, even the ones that aren't all that exciting the rest of the year, like starlings and house sparrows. Otherwise, I hate winter and its cold, dark days and sloppy weather so much that I would probably hibernate until the beginning of April, which wouldn't be good for me at all. Besides, fair weather birders miss out on all the owls, finches, raptors, gulls and waterfowl that come here on winter holiday, and take off before the weather gets decent again.

So I was all set for a full day of birding. My plan was to walk around Weldon Springs, the park closest to my house, where a couple of hours in the woods and fields and along the lake usually nets me 30 or so of the usual winter suspects. Then, with a respectable start to my list, I would spend the afternoon scoping Clinton Lake, a bit farther afield, for gulls and waterfowl...and maybe finding some cute winter owls along the way. The weather report was predicting a partly sunny day with highs around 30--very reasonable for winter birding.

Alas, they left out the part about the wind, which made being anywhere near the water (or on the prairie, or in a field, or just about anywhere except deep in the woods) fairly miserable. There are birders whose stamina and dedication fills me with awe, to whom I mentally tip my cap in acknowledgement that I will never join their number. Likewise, I will never become an endurance athlete or the sort of person who hikes up Mt Everest, with or without supplemental oxygen. I know this attitude deprives me of greater glory, but I would rather appreciate the little things in life, such as having extremities that free of frostbite.

My New Year's birding was, therefore, somewhat abbreviated, as I got chilled to the bone shortly after arriving at the park, and didn't warm up again until I was snug in bed again that night. Chattering teeth and shivering limbs do tend to scare the birds away, as does my whining about the cold.

Even so, I did manage to get in a few good birds, including:

* Two golden-crowned kinglets squabbling with each other, hanging out in a mixed flock of black-capped chickadees and titmice
* Eastern bluebirds--I don't care how many times I see them, they are one of my favorites each and every time.
* Ditto northern cardinals.
* Ditto cedar waxwings.
* Ditto pied-billed grebes.
* At the spot along the IL 48 bridge over Clinton Lake, where hooded and common mergansers usually winter, there were also a dozen or so Bonaparte's gulls--the first time I've seen them here in January.
* A disgruntled-looking great blue heron, hunched up and scowling into the water
* And BEST OF ALL, a pair of northern saw-whet owls, located with the help of my birding buddy, Ben. If I could just keep the owls coming, winter probably wouldn't be so bad.

Happy New Year!

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.