Bird brained stories!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Drama at the feeders!

Perhaps the weatherman was right this time. The small birds that frequent my feeders--Juncos, House Finches, Chickadees and the like--had been gorging themselves frantically. I'd never seen so many feathers all at once at my busy feeders. They must know this ongoing drizzle really will turn to snow, eating in frenzied fashion before needing to roost out of the gale.

I turned my back to warm up my coffee and when I returned to the window, not a single bird could be seen...anywhere. Not in the branches to which they retreat when the bullies come, not even in the bramble of the hedge. They'd simply vanished from sight. What could be happening?

Walking over to another window on the side of the house, I saw a distinctive, fast moving form cut across the gray sky, perching in a very upright fashion tall in the branches above a neighbor's house. This is why the birds scattered!

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It watched me for a few moments, then swooped away, searching to fill its belly before the storm hit.

If it ever does. I'm still waiting for some of the white stuff.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

My jinx bird

We all have one, don't we? Most people have a bird that deserves its place as a jinx bird... Spruce Grouse are well-hidden in their habitat, Black-Billed Cuckoos are reclusive in the tangled brush they prefer, giving perhaps only a flash of their distinctive tail before retreating further. My jinx bird is one that judging from photos posted by many is often lured to backyard feeders...the Pileated Woodpecker. I can't really say I've never seen one. I have. I even got a photo of a female once at our cabin in northern Wisconsin. I was lucky that day and moved fast before she glided, pterodactyl-like, into the depths of the tall evergreens. One distant shot, enlarged to that artful pontillism appearance, used many times in my art.

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Still, my efforts to get a really good look at one of these magnificent birds have been marked by following the distinctive laugh-like calls and drumming through brush and burs, only to see but a flash of crow-sized wing with white markings disappear to the other side of the ridge. I have made it one of my birding goals this year to really learn how to find them. After all, I'd been accepted as a search team member for the IBWO project, so I needed the practice.

I headed out to areas where they are heard often and known to live in some numbers. Hixon Forest in LaCrosse. LaRiviere City Park in Prairie du Chien. Each time, clear evidence of their immediate presence was found.

Such as fresh chips and exposed bark on dead trees, like this...

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Other times, I'd spot recently excavated rectangular holes, a clear indicator that Pileateds were at work, like this...

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Befitting its status as my jinx bird, in every instance, I'd hear plenty of calling or drumming and if I was really lucky, a flash of a shadow across the draw in the coulee. That was it.

My luck changed last weekend. I was in northern Minnesota, staying with six other storytellers in a cabin in the woods for a storytelling retreat. I'd gone out in search of boreal birds whenever I could, but the forest was amazingly quiet, save for Black-Capped Chickadees, which I have in abundance at my feeders. Sunday, snow began to fall in big, lovely flakes, and the birds appeared. Gray Jays. A lifer for me, and I was surprised at their size. They entertained me for a while, but weren't cooperative photo models. A Pine Grosbeak, another lifer, but similarly camera shy. A Raven called nearby. Then I heard drumming. Not sure of the instigator, my hopes led to Black-Backed, which would be another lifer. It moved about in a low area filled with dead trees, and I searched for a pathway in. Following a deer trail, I came upon a dead tree with the piles of fresh bark at its base, and heard that laugh-like call. It was getting closer. Closer. There! Not 15 feet in front of me, a flash of brilliant red crest appeared, more brilliant against the snowy background. A male Pileated, gorgeous against the white, worked the side of a tree, apparently unconcerned with my presence. I tried to capture him in pixels, but the timing was miserable. His head would hit the tree and disappear from view as I pressed the shutter, leaving me with a stump on my screen. Fumbling with the erase function, I kept my eye on this beauty and saw him hitch around to the other side, giving me a full body view. Focus, breathe. Compose, breathe. Click. No click! What's wrong? Looking briefly at my screen, I'm told my battery has died!

The woodpecker hopped from the side up onto a dead branch, an uncharacteristic view of this tree hugger. He cocked his head, watched me as I watched him, then glided off into the tangles, laughing the whole way.

Somehow, this story seems symbolic to me. I have no image other than my words to paint the picture of what I saw. Dead batteries left me without a pictorial image of the jinx bird. I could easily imagine myself having the same experience with its much rarer cousin, the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. It wouldn't happen. A few days earlier, I'd made the difficult decision to resign my search team position for the IBWO project due to family issues.

Still, I think my friend the Pileated had a bigger lesson for me, one that transcends shattered birding dreams. One can make beautiful photos, and I wish I had, but the dead battery allowed me to relax and truly appreciate the gift that Woodpecker shared with me, the gift of his close presence for a quarter of an hour... the falling snow, a Pileated Woodpecker and me...nothing else mattered in that golden moment.

For something completely different, check out Aydin's "Blonde on Blonde" inspired "I and the Bird." I'm impressed! Next edition is hosted by the Dharma Bums; get your submissions to them or Mike at "I and the Bird" by February 2.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I and the Bird #14--Lake Birdbegon Days

Along with being an erstwhile birder and blogger, I spin yarns of a different sort as a professional storyteller. Now, I give credit to good genes and family upbringing, growing up as I did before cable tv and the internet, but I must also give a nod to one of my native Minnesota's favorite sons, Garrison Keillor of "Prairie Home Companion" fame. Mr. Keillor actually hails from the same county I do, and I listened to PHC from its infancy. I can claim to have been a member of the live audience at Northrup Auditorium for his first-ever national broadcast. Heck, I can remember lining up outside what is now called the Fitzgerald Theater and paying three bucks to be part of the audience. So, when faced with the task of presenting readers with the best of bird blogging, I turned with apologies to none other than my fellow native born Anoka Countyian, offering you the 14th Edition of I and the Bird---with "Lake Birdbegon Days."

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Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Birdbegon. That's to be expected, of course, given that winter has set in and the snowbirds have flown south till spring, abandoning those who adore and search for them to perch in tropical Mexican forests or forage on Caribbean beaches. Add in the post-Christmas doldrums, and it's enough to make one grow downright reflective. It's one of those hallmarks of winter to turn inward even as the days again grow longer, as Victor at "The Clog Almanac" does, musing on the perceptions of birds and the strange perching of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on a power line. Similarly, Rob of "Birdchaser" also muses upon hope for the future if you'll only believe.

It's a time when birders all over North America engage in that annual ritual, the Christmas Bird Count, heading out in the darkness of the winter morning to count every single bird seen or heard. Members of the Birdbegon Audubon Club met in the church basement, led by club president Pastor Lindquist, displaying the deadly sin called "envy" while they discussed their own paltry count against those such as a b's of "Birding Is Not A Crime." Vesper sparrrows? In northern Illinois? Or Pamela of "Thomasburg Walks," who saw bluebirds, robins and northern shrikes on hers.

Folks down at the TurkeyTrack Tap were discussing the situation, pondering the whole existential "Bird Problem of Winter." Some took the tack that birds are just smarter than we are, and know enough to get out while the getting's good. They must have been out-of-towners, passing through on their way to their ski week at Lutsen, because as we know, all residents of Lake Birdbegon are upstanding and responsible, and can't just go flying off to Barbados anytime they want. One such local, Gwyn of "BirdBrained Stories"--who is not so coincidentally the scribe of this missive--demonstrated this responsible side as she told the locals that it isn't just how many birds she sees, but how well she knows them. Still, a part of her longed to just once, just this once, achieve some small level of fame in the birding world. Maybe she could hope to see more exotic birds, as Duncan of "Ben Cruachan Blog" shares in his stories of Catcher of the Fly, waxing about birds in a green gully with names like "Rufous Fantail," "Golden Whistler," and "Leaden Flycatcher." Curses on responsibility! It's the week after Christmas! She's a teacher, for crying out loud! What's to keep her tied down during that interlude known as "winter break?"

All pretense of responsiblity to laundry and cooking abandoned, she set off in earnest to search out the wild and exotic for herself. Her first stop was with Rob of "The City Birder," who managed to outbird her Christmas Bird Count circle while searching Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh--in Brooklyn New York, no less. The shame! That a New Yorker could outbird her circle's measly count this winter. Perhaps "Birdbegon" was aptly named after all.

Dejected but not yet deflated, she set off for points south, much in the manner of the flighty warblers she'd watched the previous summer. Okay, so insects are a bit scarce in Lake Birdbegon in the winter, but what else could be drawing the birds? She discovered that Tom and Shari, of "Bisbee Border Birder Blog," are pretty funny folks, sharing a story of confusion over bird names shared in the United States and the United Kingdom. Maybe the birds just liked that open-minded approach to humor, where a person could laugh out loud, instead of the proper midwestern nose snort. As the kids are wont to say, "Whatever."

Well, this was not the way she'd hoped things would go. Instead of Birding Fame finding her, she was finding the birding fame bestowed upon others, others who were able to visit more exotic locales than the local dump, looking for bears on a Saturday night. Locales such as New Mexico, where Janet, the Freakin' Plover Freak of "Plover Warden Diaries" had a wonderful flashback of early techno-geekness, resulting in of all things, a life bird sighting of a Loggerhead Shrike on one of the antennas at the Very Large Array. My God! A Loggerhead Shrike at the Very Large Array? The shame of it all, to set off from the good town of Lake Birdbegon on some misbegotten search for fame and fortune, only to come upon such an incredible life sighting, from someone whose birding lists include Antarctica? Another birder with some impressive new life birds this year is John, of "A DC Birding Blog," whose new life birds included a Red Knot and King Rail! She could not even begin to think of returning home without pressing on, for fear that the humiliation would be so deep that even a request for a Powdermilk biscuit would be returned with scorn--along with the biscuit, of course, the scorn being of the silent but still polite type.

Quietly, she crossed the border into the great state of Texas, where she'd heard the birding was mighty great, just like the state itself. While here, she encountered Ro Wauer, whom Tony of "Milkriver Blog," pointed out, waxing eloquent about the charms of Ruby Crowned Kinglets. Well! Charming they are indeed, and she gained small satisfaction in knowing that at least where she was from, she could also see the Golden Crowneds! Small satisfaction, however, is not quite on the same level of grandiosity as great fame. Great fame which continued to elude our Lake Birdbegon friend. None of her friends from the TurkeyTrackTap would be out gallivanting about, looking for anything as elusive as Birding Fame, much less Ruby Crowned Kinglets. Nosiree, that's not what life should be about, they'd told her.

It sounded like a challenge, something her sturdy Scandinavian upbringing taught her never to avoid. It was off again, hoping against hope to make one tiny discovery that would be the Next Big Thing in the avian world. Massive Dodo graves, maybe? Nope, someone else already found those. Well, how about new species for a country? Nope again, she was distressed to learn, as Menotti of "Birding Italy" reports the discovery of two new species of Parrotbills settling in Italy. Oh for the love of Pete, anyway. This was growing more and more challenging by the day! Not one new species, but two? Clearly, she was running with the big dogs, and she had no hope of keeping up, being but a young pup from the heartlands of Minnesota. Ooofda, as they said back home at the church lutefisk dinner.

Still, winter break was not yet over. Perhaps that fleeting discovery was just around the corner. Perhaps...or perhaps not, as she encountered Charlie, of "Charlie's Bird Blog," returned from a dream birding trip to Mauritius-the very location of the aforementioned Dodo graves, no less! Who in the world did this bird brained storyteller think she was, anyway, with a pathetic excuse of a year list, trying to chase the brass ring of birding fame in the face of such amazing experiences? Pathetic didn't begin to describe her sense of gloom, matched only by that one incident way back in high school during Luther League. The shame of it all, indeed!

In fact, the lessons learned in those Sunday meetings of Luther League, the ones about "responsibility" and "honor your elders" were starting to loom larger and larger in Gwyn's conscious. They sort of chastised her, in that subtle Minnesota manner, to "think about those chores you have to finish at home." The rebel in her--the part that went Presbyterian--said, "Darn those chores! I have fame to seek!" and she pressed ever onward. Her peripatetic travel brought her face to face with Bora of "Circadiana," with a fascinating post on the possible effects of global warming on the circadian rhythms responsible for migration. Oh my, not only was this heady stuff, but so well presented that perhaps senators responsible for legislation affecting the tide of global warming could possibly understand it. This...this was not simply birding fame staring her in the eyeballs, it was possibly turning the tide of the so-called advance of civilization and its wanton effects on nature. The rebel was just about to hop the next Great Northwestern back to Lake Birdbegon and throw it all in. The rebel just couldn't quite make that jump onto the tracks, not as in youth. So off she went again, ever more determined.

Too many hours on the road made for irrational decisions, as any road warrior who has settled down can tell you. Bad coffee, worse blue plate specials and you just don't think right after a while. That was obvious, as Gwyn jumped from Africa, to the eastern US, and now clear around the globe to New Zealand. Clare pointed her there, and she was drawn to the quiet observations of responsibility, as Pete of "pohanginapete" studies the nearby birds going about their daily routines.

More bad coffee, that frou-four latte instead of the real heavy-weight stuff, and she was impelled beyond reason this time to Alaska, where Dave of " Bird TLC" shared a story of a popsicle fueled Great Horned Owl rescue. Racing without thought to an itinerary that was decent and in order, she visited Julian of "Oeygardenbirds," who while not a Norwegian bachelor farmer, was a birder in Norway, enjoying views of birds with poetic names like Fieldfare and Ruddy Turnstone. From here, she ricocheted back across the ocean to visit Beth of "Firefly Forest," only to be taunted by a cousin of her old nemesis, an Anna's Hummingbird. Then it was off to visit Eric of "Feather Weather," with a visit home and the story of the Peabody Ducks, who are not really wild anymore, but almost as funny as Beth's angry hummingbird. Crisscrossing to Long Island, she met Danielle of "This Is Danielle's Den," hearing about her weekend visit with thousands and thousands of scoters. Thousands? Thousands?

One more cup of the worst coffee ever, and Gwyn was ready to head back to Lake Birdbegon, ready to simply take her lumps as well she deserved them. Trudging her way back to Minnesota, she ran into Sharon of "Birdchick," who had made a worthy birding goal for the year of seeing a wild raptor a day. Is this like vitamins? She wasn't sure. She just knew she'd be glad to see any birds yet today. A day like the one enjoyed by David of "Search and Serendipity," in which he'd seen many birds in his Feather Bowl, or that of Jason of "Beakspeak," who saw a sunrise Prairie Falcon and a mystery goose in his visit home to Nebraska, were only the stuff of dreams to her. Heck, she could have simply crossed the river to visit Mike of "Bird Digiscoping" and had a nice look at some backyard birds in living color, or visited the other Mike of "10000 Birds" to see the birds visiting his mother-in-law's feeders. Feeder birds are nice. They are dependable, like those biscuits of her home town. They may not be flashy, but they're honest, a quality after which she'd do well to seek.

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What was that? Something flashed in the leftover seedheads of last summer's wildflowers. A lone Tree Sparrow, balanced precariously on the stems, just as she was between her quest for birding fame and a return of the prodigal to the fold. Whatever had she been thinking? What need was there to jet-set about, seeking bird fame? She suddenly remembered--the holiday season just past might not have been at all, if not for Raven who saved Christmas; at least, that's how Laura of "Birderblog" tells it.

She thought of all those times she'd ignored the birds around her, looking only in exotic places, ignoring the everyday, unlike Cindy of "Woodsong," who witnesses the amazing as she shares her prayer to the birds.

She promised herself that even facing the polite scorn of her friends at the TurkeyTrack Tap, she would always keep in mind what she learned from even the humblest of birds, so eloquently stated by Grrlscientist of "Living the Scientific Life." Steeling herself with inherent midwestern stoicism, she entered the darkened quarters of the neighborhood gathering spot, only to see this announcement posted over the bar:

Mike, Charlie and the rest of the Birding Gear Big Board gang are giving away a couple of copies of the "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" DVD. Do you have it in you to cast an invasive avian species in a positive light? If you can say something nice about a nonnative species using words or pictures, you might get yourself a copy of this acclaimed documentary. Check for details on the Birding Gear Big Board.

She could do this! Fame in the birding world was within reach! House Sparrows! Certainly she could write something nice about them, couldn't she? After all, in the immortal words of her childhood hero, Thumper's mother in Bambi, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

And that's the news this week from Lake Birdbegon, where all the hens are strong, the roosters good-looking and the chicks are way above average.

Next time, this show will be brought to you by the good folks at Snail's Tales. Get your submissions in to Mike or Aydin by January 17.

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