Bird brained stories!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dreams of boreal species.....

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Dashed! Spending a few days in far northern Wisconsin to eat turkey and visit with in-laws, I had visions of Boreal Chickadees, Grey Jays, Redpolls, Crossbills, Bohemian Waxwings and any northern owls dancing in my head. What did I find? Let's see. A bunch of Black-Capped Chickadees and four Mourning Doves. That's it! I seem to have better luck staying right where I am, like I did before we left for the great white north.

Early this week, reports were trickling in about a Snowy Owl being seen in the industrial park in far north LaCrosse. It must be that "north" thing at work, eh? On Tuesday after work, I made the trek, circling several times. No luck. Wednesday morning, I called one of the businesses to see if the bird had been spotted yet. Nope, she had not. Circled the area numerous times slowly anyway. No luck. Ran my errand, came back, circled again several times. Ah well, I thought.

Once home, I began to pack, but within a half hour, my phone was ringing. Dan Jackson, who has in the past alerted me to the presence of cool birds in the area, was on the phone. Looking right at her. Where I'd just been! I was in the car right away.

Sure enough, there she sat. I slowly approached, but she barely opened her eyes. A few other birders came and left. A fellow from the diesel shop where she was sitting offered to open the gates for me to approach closer, but I declined. I didn't want to disturb her, and there might be other birders on their way.

I watched in the gathering storm that would vex our travels north later that night. It is still a source of amazement to me that something so out of its element can provide such beauty. I hope this beauty survives the coming winter and can return to her breeding grounds near the Arctic Circle, perhaps returning again.

On another note, Clare of The House and Other Arctic Musings (appropriately enough!) is the host for I and the Bird #11, "Where in the World?"

Thursday, November 17, 2005

How do you spell "speechless?" IBWO

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The first line of an email I received yesterday read--

"Congratulations on being selected as a volunteer for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Project..."

I opened that email at work, during my lunch break amidst reading ordinary emails I generally receive---sightings from the mnbird and wisbird lists, emails from the storytell listserv and other semi-personal notes from here and there. I had to look again to make sure I'd read correctly.

I had.

My next step was to jump up and down in my room, much like some of the kindergarteners I'd just finished supervising in the lunchroom. Who to tell? I raced into another room where I knew a couple colleagues were working at their desk. One, an avid outdoorsperson herself, totally understood my excitement. The other said, "Well, I'll just pretend it's a letter that tells you you got tickets to a Broadway play in NYC, and then I'll get it!"

When I learned earlier this fall that Cornell would accept applications for the next search season from the public, I thought, "No way." I remembered next what my parents always told me; "The worst they can do is say no." Looking at the two week slots available, only one could really work with my teaching schedule, the final two weeks. They coincided with our spring break, but they also coincided with the Northlands Storytelling Network spring conference. Not only is that event a high point of my year, I'm on the board of directors. I emailed the board, who all told me to pursue my dream.

Then I filled out my application. It wasn't as if I had anything of significance to offer, other than the fact I enjoy the outdoors and birding, have paddling experience and don't shrink from rough conditions.

Apparently that was enough. A day later, I'm still scratching my head in wonderment. Take, for instance this statement in my letter detailing the logistics.

"Given the high caliber of applicants we expect to have some of the most competent birders/field biologists in the country assisting with our research. We are pleased that we can include you in this group."

Most competent birder? Me? A decent birder. Even competent. But "most competent?" I imagine after spending two weeks doing field research like this with Cornell Lab that I will move much closer to being a most competent birder, and for that alone, I will be forever grateful.

Certainly, an opportunity to see this grail bird, larger cousin of the pictured Pileated shown above, would be the high point of such an experience for any birder, but I'm not so unrealistic as to head into this thinking that will be a certain occurence. Thousands of hours have already been logged, with but a few tantalizing glimpses and maddeningly fewer bits of lasting evidence. I can only imagine that upon seeing one, people are so stunned that they don't react quickly enough to get the camera lens aimed. Of course, like anyone else who will be involved in this search, I'd love to entertain the fantasy that my photo will be the definitive one. Dreams are a good thing. I held this dream over 30 years ago, when I wrote a piece of lousy fiction for a friend, my one and only academic transgression.

I'll be happy to enjoy this unique habitat, to be part of this piece of environmental history, to be in the company of other birders who "get it" for two weeks. An unexpected bonus is learning that we'll have the weekend off, and there is an Important Bird Area not too far away where we can look for Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, another life bird for me. A trip to nearby Brinkley is likely as well, where I can visit Gene's BBQ for an "Ivory Bill Burger" after spending my first week in the swamp. Pity my poor teaching colleagues who'll be spending their spring break doing such ordinary things as sitting on Mexican beaches or skiing in Vail. If you don't understand my giddy excitement of this spring break of a lifetime, take a cue from my fellow teacher. Pretend I have tickets to the original cast production of "Wicked" in NYC!

Friday, November 11, 2005

I just love these guys!

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So, the choice was the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, where the waterfowl were viewed facing into the sun and the small birds were plentiful but evasive. Three new birds for the year----Cackling Goose, Northern Shoveler and Brown Creeper. Tantalizing but all too quick views of several Red-Headed Woodpeckers. And these Nuthatches, they just make me smile!

There were other varieties of nuts on the Refuge as well, bird nuts, as it were. Heading off the Pine Creek Dike trail, I just couldn't help but notice a group of birders who'd gathered on the viewing deck. Birders are easy to spot from a distance. Huddled groups, all with binoculars in hand, peering in one direction as directed by the Most Knowledgeable Birder (or the one with the best eyes/ears) pointing off in the distance. The presence of a minimum of two big spotting scopes is usually the key field mark. Sure enough, these folks were here from the Horicon bird club, doing a little birding before hitting the Rivers and Bluffs Birding Festival in Lansing Iowa tomorrow. I introduced them to my non-birding husband, who of course, being a non-birder, was not with me.

It appears he will be a birder at least for tomorrow, though. He's agreed to come along to the Festival with me, enticed, I do believe, by the prospect of blues music tomorrow night, provided by Joe and Vicki Price. Maybe I'll even add a few non-Coulee Audubon birders to my life list in the process.

Although the outing was not all that productive from the standpoint of avian photography, I managed to get a shot of a charming little woodland creature, frozen in the leaf litter at close range. Owl bait, I'm afraid, but at least he's been immortalized here.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Birding on(the)line

Who would have thought that on November 11 in Wisconsin, one could consider going out in the field with nothing warmer than a sweatshirt? One that can be removed as the day warms up, even? That's just what I'm considering, though. Will it be the Hixon Trails, or perhaps a run over to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Pamela Martin has braved storms and power outages to get "I and the Bird #10" up for your reading pleasure. Take time to peruse her "What, Who, Where" presentation of excellent birding blogs. I'll be hosting Edition #14, the first for the year 2006. I had this wonderful framework in mind, but doggone Birdchick already went and did it! Once more, my secret dream of being a Weekly World News writer has been dashed. No worries, though, I think I have another schtick I can try.

So if you, like me, are sitting here online instead of in the field, make good use of that time in pursuit of birds and check out "I and the Bird."

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Seasons change

It seems not so long ago that I walked these trails and had trouble spotting movement among all the leaf cover. It seems not so long ago I walked these trails and stared Great Blue Herons down from 15 yards--at every turn. It wasn't so long ago, perhaps just a couple weeks. The leaves are almost all down, and the seasons are changing in the marsh once more.

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Walking to the trailhead, it struck me with the same blunt force as the cold autumn wind blowing across the open marshland. The marsh, before barely visible through the brush, is now easy to see. Birds, however, still have a way of staying hidden, even in plain view. I heard small chirps and peeps almost as soon as I stepped to marsh's edge, but it required my vigilance to finally see what I'd been hearing--a Downy Woodpecker. This one was more accomodating than some I've tried to shoot, and the resulting image shows just why they earned the name "Downy."

It was surprisingly quiet as I walked throughout. A few chickadees, about 30 Canada geese with a few mallards mixed in and the occasional Cardinal. That was really about it. It was still nice to be out and enjoying the brisk fall afternoon, and I was musing on that when my eye strayed to the top of a dead tree out in the marshland. It was one of the trees that often allowed a heron or egret a perch during the summer, but they were all gone now. Binoculars up, I realized that the big hawk I thought I was seeing was an Osprey!

At that moment, I was glad I had a good command of all the deer paths throughout the marsh, because I headed for the one leading away from the big cottonwood tree and into the deadfall's hollow to get a closer look. Slowly, I followed the path, watching in amazement as the Osprey kept working over whatever it was having for dinner. Occasionally, it would open its wings, but I'd freeze and it would relax again. I could hear its chatter, a sound unlike anything one would expect from so majestic and powerful a bird. It sounded like nothing so much as a rubber duck and a chatty one at that.

I continued my slow approach, the whole time wishing it was just an hour later in the day for nicer light--always the photographer's dream. Still, I was able to capture an image before it lifted its huge wings, took its fish in its talons and began a low circling of the marshlands, two times before settling in on a tree further afield. These are the moments for which birders live.

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The moment was savored in the breeze of the waning day. So many people out on these trails today, walking, biking, talking on their cellphones, and I wondered if anyone else had even noticed it gracing us with its presence. I've seen Osprey before, but never so closely and in such intimate detail. Grateful that I'd been allowed into this space, I finally moved on, returning to my mundane tasks of the day, but buoyed up by this close encounter.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Of sublime moments and aching knees

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I have a career. It's teaching, special education to be more precise. It helps pay the bills and I feel lucky to have a job where I can play with little kids and tell them stories and call that "work." Like any job, it has its less desirable aspects as well; late nights for parent-teacher conferences, lunch duty, and way too much paperwork. I rewarded myself today for getting all my end of the quarter paperwork finished on time by granting myself a road trip to enjoy this unseasonably gorgeous fall. Part-time teachers can do this and post about it on the internet, because we get days off and don't have to pretend we're sick.

I'd heard reports of Townsend's Solitaires being seen in Devil's Lake State Park, and what the heck, if I saw them or not, it would still be a great way to spend a day. I headed on down the road and arrived at the nearly empty park, ready to take it all in.

This was not my first trip to this park. My last was in, let's see, 1978. I was a graduate student and came down with two fellow students to escape studying for a day to try our hands at rock climbing. I made a couple ascents and one rapel and remember it as a lovely, if a bit misty, day.

It's still a lovely place. My knees, however, have born the slings and arrows of chondromalacia, torn ligaments and other nasty things, mostly from marathon running days, but also from having two children. I tend to forget this until I'm coming down a trail, however, which is a good thing, because I still get out. Like today.

Climbing up the Balanced Rock Trail, I was given to moments of reflection regarding just how phobic I am about edges. This trail would do that even to those without such phobias, but I reminded myself I've climbed all kinds of things and survived to tell the tale.

Partway up, such thoughts were deflected when I saw a flash in the tops of some pines. Was that my target? I aimed my binoculars and saw that yes, off in the distance was the bird I sought! He flew off into some other trees I couldn't see, and burst into full song. Glad for light breezes, I enjoyed the serenade until....a train was bold enough to come through on the tracks running below me at ground level. My bird took wing, and I heard the "theep" calls, my eyes following. I decided I'd sit where I was, waiting to see what might happen. My back against a huge rock wall, I enjoyed the scenery, when suddenly, movement caught my eye. There it was! No more than 20 feet in front of me! I took a couple lousy photos, due to the lighting, then made a decision. I could try to move slowly into better light for a better photo, or sit and enjoy the bird. I enjoyed the bird. He preened, surveyed the fall colors, relaxed, then tired of this spot after about 10 minutes and flew off.

I didn't see him again, but I made my ascent to the top, following the East Bluff Trail, clambering goat-like down to the Devil's Door, then back up and along the rim, skirting the rock face I'd climbed all those years ago. Traversing the rock strewn trail down to lake level, I enjoyed the company of Golden Crowned Kinglets, various woodpeckers and nuthatches and the playful Black Capped Chickadees.

Tomorrow it will be back to school, another story to tell my students, more paperwork to finish and the weekend ahead. I'll carry the images of the day, including the music of the Solitaire with me into the last hours of wakefulness..and perhaps beyond. My knees, however, will remember the trek for at least a week, by which time they'll have stopped hurting, I'll forget, and perhaps head out for another challenging hike.

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