Bird brained stories!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The beginning of the end?

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Yellow-Headed Blackbird stakes his claim

After the high of last weekend's Flyway Festival, it seemed almost anticlimatic to be out birding today. I met a new birding friend, courtesy of the festival, and we'd made arrangements to go out together for a little while this morning. Although she's had a cabin in the area for many years, she and her husband have only recently moved here permanently, and she wanted to find out more about the good birding spots. She wanted to get good looks at a Prothonotary Warbler. I knew just where to look.

Bright and early, we met at the flag pole at the entrance to Goose Island County Park. I'd intended to take her to a boat landing near a wet woodland where the warblers are always calling. Instead, I heard it calling--right there. After slogging through the dense honeysuckle, we were able to pinpoint it, singing away just above the wet spot, flitting about. In this morning's rain-threatened sky, that golden bird looked electric. Unfortunately, the rain-soaked ground led to huge hatches, with mosquitos, gnats and blackflies in abundance. Time to move on!

From there, we went onto the more open trails of the LaCrosse River Marsh near Myrick Park. I couldn't help but feel a bit wistful, knowing that the migration is nearly over. Save for one Nashville Warbler, any warblers seen were resident, singing and defending their territory. The families of Canada Geese have both shrunk in number and grown in size, not quite so cute and fuzzy now. Tree Swallows could be seen feeding young in their snagtop nests, and the Black Terns were there in abundance.

The spectacle of spring migration seems to have been low key this spring. All over Wisconsin, birders have been asking, "Where are the migrating songbirds?" They've been seen, but in small numbers. The big push never seemed to come, and now the birds have already settled down to family life, becoming quieter and scarcer to find.

Like the spring ephemerals that dot our forest floors before leaf out, the tiny songbirds passing through are a smattering of jewels, their flashy dress and persistent songs enjoyed for but a few weeks. Life will settle down for the birders as well. We've had our feast, savored for its scarcity and fleeting nature.

Though I'd love to enjoy the new life born here before its return trip south, I will respect the space needed by these migrants to rear their young. Some have conjectured that the tepid migration is the result of loss during the fall storm season in the Gulf of Mexico last fall. If so, that's all the more reason to give these families privacy and space. I may not tick off those last five birds needed to reach my landmark, but I'll have done my part to ensure that they have a successful year, returning once more to start the cycle all over.

Birding Comix

Carel of Rigor Vitae has taken his turn hosting I and the Bird, and what a ride! The comics page of birding is ready and waiting for your attention. Enjoy!

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Art of birding

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Often when I go out, I can be seen lugging my big Sigma zoom lens along with my binoculars strapped around my neck. I've become fairly adept at managing this behemoth in challenging terrain, as I did on Friday at Rush Creek Scientific and Natural Area. I've spent most of the past three days enjoying the company of like-minded souls during the Third Annual Mississippi Flyway Birding Festival, and Rush Creek was my Friday morning field trip. It's challenging enough for me to get anything resembling a decent photo when I bird alone and can take my time to sit and wait. Photography in groups is almost impossible, since I want to take advantage of the eyes, ears and experience of many in the group to learn. We enjoyed views of a number of birds, including nice looks at an Eastern Towhee, numerous Yellow Warblers, many singing Scarlet Tanagers, a flock of chasing Blue-Winged Warblers and a pair of Yellow-Throated Vireos that allowed everyone a very satisfying look at this bird that is more often heard than seen. But photos? Nope, not really. I've been learning to really appreciate the "artistic filters" in Photoshop to freeze a moment in time without appearing to be a total incompetent in the photography department.

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There are times I wonder why in the world I even bother, those thoughts amplified when I wander to places like the Nature Photographers Forum, where the talent is immense, the images crisp, full of personality and wonderful detail. I'll remind myself I do this for myself, but still...

Friday afternoon, after our morning field trip, I attended Dan Jackson's seminar on digiscoping. I'm in the market to get a scope, and who knows, maybe I'd want to try that. As Dan shared some of his wonderful images, he stopped at one of an American Coot, and commented that "Photographing birds helps you to appreciate and take a new look at those 'common' birds."

Suddenly, I realized why I persist in spite of my constant frustration and disappointment with 99.9% of the shots I take and keep. I persist, because it lets me enjoy all the birds, forces me to slow down, watch, wait and observe...and .01% of the time, get a photo I love. I persist, because it helps me keep sight of my goal in birding, which isn't to see the most birds, but to see them well.

Thank you Dan for helping to define the art of birding, as seen through the photographer's eye.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A matter of perspective

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I visited a new area last night before sunset. It finally stopped raining, and that was reason enough to be out, even if it would be a short time only. Other times, we'd be crying for rain, but this spring, we have had enough for now. It's rained pretty much the last two weeks. The sun and shadow were but a distant memory, and the fact that the sun was finally visible brought many people out of hiding.

I'd gone to this area in search of a new bird. Ah yes, that elusive list again! Though I proclaim not to care much about lists, I care enough to have the landmark pin all set to go, as soon as I hit the magic number. After last night, I am but nine birds away from that number.

Why, when my goal is to enjoy whatever chooses to share my space, be it birds, calling frogs or simply the scent of new growth, do I persist in keeping that list? I avoid traveling beyond my range with rare exceptions, thus limiting my listing opportunities. Birders with Big Lists usually have traveled in pursuit of those lists. I return, again and again, to the same few habitats, watching the march of the seasons, listening for birds announcing loudly that "this space is MINE!" in the spring. I enjoy looking for the subtle differences, guessing at the story of a Northern Cardinal I heard singing last week with a slightly different accent. Was this one blown here from Alabama, perhaps, singing with a southern drawl?

I think I have discovered the answer to my own question; it's a matter of perspective. I've been reading a fascinating book by Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods. He has put forth the idea that many of society's ills today are a reflection of the hurt we've done to our planet, and the subsequent alienation from nature. In one chapter, he refers to the work of Howard Gardner, best known for his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. As a special educator, I'm well aware of the variety of "smarts" students possess, usually not the linguistic smarts that largely determine school success...which is often why these kids become my students. However, it seems I haven't kept up with the theory, as Gardner has put forth an eighth intelligence--"nature smart." He suggests this ability to notice and recognize small details in nature likely evolved as a survival mechanism and has been hijacked in the modern world by our ability to distinguish among cars or brand name jeans.

In other words, making a list is simply a human response to a form of intelligence, noticing different birds and their habits, storing them in gray matter to recognize them quickly upon next encounter. A matter of perspective. I've learned quickly to keep an open mind to possibilities that might present themselves, and this approach has often yielded rich results. I went last night in search of a Least Bittern. I realized upon leaving I probably wasn't even looking in the right area of this wetland meadow, but that was okay. I enjoyed the symphony of calling frogs all around me. I saw a tiny brown flash in the cattail stand that sang the scratchy song of the Sedge Wren. Not the "new" bird I'd come to see, but still one to add to The List.

I enjoyed a common but very cooperative Tree Swallow sitting just off the dike in front of me, taking the opportunity to shoot a few photos. As I watched the sun dropping, my perspective suddenly shifted to another place...and my willingness to be open to that shift resulted in a wonderful serendipity.

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Aaaahh! Taking time to pursue The List and then to throw that list away to enjoy a very ordinary bird in new light, surrounded by a remnant of nature...this is a moment to savor.

Friday, May 12, 2006

I've been tagged! 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Remember when you were a kid, playing tag after dinner in the neighborhood? Though I was an uncoordinated klutz (is there any other kind?), failing miserably at games like baseball, I could run like the wind, so tag was my game. I was feeling a bit like I'd run too fast lately, as I read all the 10 Most Beautiful Birds lists of my blogging friends, never being tagged myself. Or so I'd thought.

I just returned from three very wet hours birding after work. So many beautiful birds seen, even with all the rain; Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, a flock of Baltimore Orioles and an ever-sublime Great Crested Flycatcher. Even with the images of all those lovely birds in my mind, it's not enough to warm me up, so curled up in a blanket with a computer in my lap, I visited Cindy's Woodsong, which linked me to John of DC Birding Blog and his list of people who were tagged "it." Catching up on blogfriends this way, I discovered that Duncan of Ben Cruachan Blog had tagged me. I get to play after all! The rules are to list your candidates for most beautiful birds, using parameters of your choosing, placing an asterisk by those you've seen in the wild, then tagging three more bloggers.

I loved Duncan's approach of connecting his birds to memories. I'd like to create my list by choosing my Beautiful Birds based on the stories they tell. Surprised? I didn't think you'd be.

1)*Barred Owl Just tonight, I heard a Barred Owl calling, and I wondered once again; why does he always ask me "Who cooks for you?" Does he have a favorite recipe to share with my personal chef? Perhaps he's discovered a new taste sensation in "Squirrel Seasoned with Wild Mint" he wants to share with me.

2)*Sora My guess is that the Sora loves to tell what storytellers call "noodlehead stories," those stories of foolish folks who do foolish things, like the townspeople of Chelm. Have you ever listened to them? That crazy laugh, punctuated by the whining call? They sound just like kids who hear me tell stories like "Lazy Jack!"

3)*Pileated Woodpecker Well, of course. They sit around telling really bad puns, which my friends all know I live to tell. How else to explain that maniacal laughter, followed by banging their heads against a tree upon hearing the groaner?

4)*White Throated Sparrow Stories of love lost. You think I'm kidding? Any bird that repeats mournfully "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody," has to be lamenting those heros, like Sidney Carton, who give up their true love for the greater good.

5)*Ruby Throated Hummingbird David and Goliath. Just watch them fight off all comers twice their size at a feeder or patch of jewelweed, chittering away. Need I say more?

6)*Common Loon Ghost stories. I'm absolutely certain of this. That eerie call, so often echoing across the northern lakes under a full moon, can be no other kind of story, can it?

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7)*Kildeer They tell all those old hunting yarns. I've heard them all from the hunter that shares my home, but I don't hold this against the Kildeer. I still think it's a pretty neat bird, in spite of all those tales from deer camp.

8)*Warbling Vireo Urban legends, the real slasher stuff. Seriously. Any bird with the song mnemonic "as if saying to a caterpillar, 'When I see you I will squeeze you and I'll squeeze you till you squirt'" loves those stories that they heard from a friend of a friend that are 'absolutely true.'

9)*Eastern Bluebird I think these lovely passerines like telling those Chicken Soup stories, you know, heartwarming stories intended to inspire and tug at the heart. "Cheeree, cheeree."
I can say this, because I will be published in a forthcoming Chicken Soup book this July. I didn't think I had it in me, but I pulled one off!

10)*Red-Winged Blackbirds Gossip, gossip, gossip. Just listen to them yakking away constantly. Watch them in the fall, gathering in huge flocks, even associating with other birds, sharing that last juicy tidbit about that brazen Great Blue Heron one last time before heading south.

There you have it. Ten birds, chosen for the stories they like to tell, all of which I've not only seen, but have photographed and displayed on the pages of BirdBrainedStories. Since I'm coming in on the end of this meme, I'm hoping those I tag haven't already been "it." I'm tagging Jimmy, Amy, and Jim & Peg. You're it!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Question: When is a wren not a wren?

Answer: When it's a Lincoln's Sparrow!

When I was out birding in the rain the other day, I happened upon this cute little wren-like bird along the trail. I knew it wasn't a wren, but I really wasn't sure what it actually was. I pulled my field guide from my pocket, but those sparrows are all so similar. The bird allowed me to edge ever closer, unconcerned, so I took a few shots for id purposes.

Returning home, I spent time comparing it to my field guides and guessed it could be a Lincoln's Sparrow. Posting to the Wisconsin Bird Network, several birders responded that it absolutely was a Lincoln's Sparrow, and a few added comments to the effect that it was a nice shot.

I looked back once more, and you know what? Even though it was just for identification was a nice shot! Surprises are great! Correct id of an LBJ (little brown job), a life bird and a nice photo as well.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I'm birding in the rain! Happy again!

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You are seeing correctly, don't try messing with your computer's settings; it is indeed a Sora Rail. Granted, a blurry blade of grass has been photoshopped out with marginal success, but it is otherwise the real deal. What's more, along with this one was a second lurking, partially visible between hummocks of dried grasses. But wait! There's more! Earlier in the day, another Sora popped out for quite some time, leaving me speechless and temporarily incapacitated, forgetting I even had that heavy camera hanging around my neck.

The netting of a Sora in pixels was just the proverbial feather in my cap on an incredible day of solo in which I almost chose not to partake. I'd had grand plans to be up before dawn, heading off to a different wetland area in hopes of seeing a Least Bittern reported over the weekend. We'd had some pretty severe thunderstorms last night, I was tired and it was just rather bleak and drippy out today. No pretty light for photography, and I figured the birds would be hunkered down, anyway. So I went back to sleep, then woke with all good intentions of doing laundry and other such exciting tasks of home management.

Then I read my email. One of the members of my Audubon Club reported all kinds of new warblers in her wooded yard this morning, she figured fall out from the storms last night. I couldn't pass up a day like this, I've passed them up all too often due to work, weather or other commitments. I was out the door.

I decided to check out the LaCrosse River Marsh. If nothing else, I knew there'd be families of Canada Geese grazing at trailside, and sure enough, they were. My excitement started well before I even got on the trail, though. Stepping outside my car, I could see the trees were hopping with tiny little birds, high in the uppermost branches. Yellow-Rumped, Palm and Yellow Warblers were spotted right away. Bunches of them. Warbling Vireos were singing throughout the marsh. I knew I'd be out for the long haul today.

I was. It must have taken me two hours to get the short distance from trailhead to viewing platform. Baltimore Orioles, Northern Waterthrush, and oh my! White Crowned Sparrows, tons of them, feeding around the abundant goose droppings. I'd never actually seen them before, but recognized them for what they were from the hours spent poring over my field guides. Here they were, good sized flocks of them all over the place! In the trees, oh my again! Great looks at a Golden-Winged Warbler, assuring me of its id by singing its song that is no match for its flashy good looks.

At the end of this day, one that found me out there taking in periodic drizzles over seven hours, my final tally was 56 species, 13 warblers, all a solo effort, and all but about three id'ed visually as well as by ear. To think I was going to stay home and do laundry. You know what? That laundry is still here. It won't go away. Many of these warblers will.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Birding with a non-birding spouse; yes, it's possible!

My husband doesn't share my passion for birding. He'll come to events, like the Festival of Owls, if food is involved. I've tried taking him when I hike in some of my favorite spots, but gregarious soul that he is, he just talks. And talks. Not easy to spot birds if your companion is yakking away! I think we have finally hit upon a solution. Fishing.

Yesterday was the opening weekend for inland waters fishing in Wisconsin. I used to fish, but I realized it wasn't catching--or even releasing--the fish I enjoyed, but being out there. So yesterday, when my husband set off for a favorite valley not far from home, I came along. He didn't talk, because you know, that scares the fish off. I didn't fish but wandered the valley in search of birds.

This valley is a particularly lovely example of the countryside in which we live--a coulee. Farmland filled the small gap between streamside and roadside, allowing for some habitat variety in close quarters.

As I climbed over the stile to the stream access, I immediately heard the plaintive singing of several Field Sparrows claiming their territory. It took much longer to finally see them, one perched high in a tangled old tree halfway up the side of the hill. Savannah Sparrows were singing in a much more open location, open enough that I hiked back to get my camera.

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I enjoyed an entire morning of wandering up and down the streamside. I spotted birds I don't usually see in my more wooded forays, and spent quite a bit of the morning pursuing these bobbing birds with a whistling call I knew I recognized from my "Who Cooks for Sam Peabody?" CD. They were wary, and they blended right in with the unplowed fields or cow pies they sat upon. It wasn't until we were leaving that I spotted one right under the bridge. Stopping to look, it flew upstream just a short distance, and I slowly moved forward until I spotted it...sitting in some grass on an undercut in a bend in the stream. Slowly...a step at a time...I approached, taking pictures each time. I noticed it fluffing and bobbing more frequently, as if preparing to take wing once again. One more photo...and it was off. Though I've seen Solitary Sandpipers before, this is the first time I've been able to really watch them and enjoy their habits, instead of spotting them as we paddle just before they fly further downstream.

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My husband caught some trout, I caught some birds. We both went home happy, enjoying a quiet morning out. Life is good!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Of migration, social birding and life lists

There. I've used the "L" word right off the bat. I struggle with the "L" word as a birder concerned with not only seeing birds, but also as a person wanting to lessen her footprint on our planet. Yes, I have my little ABA 200 pin just waiting for me to add, as of this morning, 22 more species to the Life List. I can't wait to pin that cute little American Goldfinch onto my binoculars case!

I can't wait, but I will. I'll wait, because even more than seeing lots of different birds, I want to see them well. My usual approach to birding is to hike, or perhaps bike, cross country ski or even paddle a canoe, always looking and listening to see what's there. Except for the canoe scenario, this is almost always done alone. All day, or at least for a good portion of the day. I do make a few rare exceptions. Audubon Club field trips. The local birding festival field trips. That's about it. I know if I traveled to see birds, my list would grow sooner. But I don't. I want to conserve our resources in order to conserve habitat that gets destroyed by my use of them. Less habitat, less birding, as we daily discover when a favorite tangled bank is being flattened for yet another development.

I enjoy going back to a few favorite spots close to home year round. Goose Island. The LaCrosse River Marsh. Hixon Forest. Seven Bridges Road. In the winter months, I am truly alone most of the time, but as the temperatures have heated up, I'm finding lots of company alongside me. If that's the way it's going to be, might as well find company that understands the need to go slowly and quietly into the woods, and not pass me by, yelling and chasing a dog.

For that reason, I look forward to joining the spring bird walks led by Pat Wilson, a member of the Audubon Club to which I belong. I missed the first one the other day, but this morning, I knew I needed to be out there. My last couple weeks have been fraught with deadlines and commitments, and though I did manage a couple afternoons of after-work birding before heading home, it hasn't been enough.

Joining about eight others at 6:30am, we started the slow walk down the trails at Hixon Forest. This is the part of group birding for which I am so grateful. Though I'm officially 22 species short of wearing that 200 pin, I know I've seen and heard lots more birds. I just didn't know what they were. I've learned that no matter how many hours I spend listening to my birding by ear CDs, it seems that only when I come face to face--or syrinx to ear--in the field do I connect those calls with a breathing creature. That's where someone like Pat comes in. He knows them already, important as these little waves of migrating birds come through.

I've been pleading my job, busy always this time of year, as the cause of my lousy life list. I can't get out enough before they're off to the border! After this morning, I can add Blue-Winged, Golden-Winged, Nashville and Tennessee Warblers, along with Yellow-Throated Vireo and Grey-Cheeked Thrush to my list. It was worth it to drag myself out of bed and deal with bad hair the rest of the day at work!

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Along with these new-to-me birds, many of the familiar favorites were present as well. An Eastern Phoebe could be heard singing as I headed into the trailhead, and one was seen later across the golf course at the edge of the trail. Had I been out on my own, I'd have been crawling in the brush, trying to get a good look at some of the ones we only heard, like the Yellow-Throated Vireo. But I know for sure how it sounds, and where I'm likely to hear it when I go back in a couple days.

Go back I will. As Pat said, "From all her posts, I think Gwyn birds Hixon more than anyone else around the area!"

That's the idea. Close to home. Nice long looks. Learn their patterns and yearly cycles.

And add them to The List when I find any that are new! I hope that though my List may not be large, I will know most of those birds on the list well.

While you're contemplating the nature of migration and listing, take a moment to check out the latest edition of "I and the Bird," hosted by Kristin of Homebird Notes. She has done a bit of research for us about the areas we bird. I learned mine is known for things like quality education, the Green Bay Packers and beer and bratwurst! Check it out and enjoy some wonderful bird-related essays.

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