Bird brained stories!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Birding: Connecting one to all of creation

Birders, like any subculture, are an odd lot to those not part of the tribe. What could possibly be so interesting about birds that people willingly get up at 3 AM to go out into the field, often in miserable weather, to see birds? You can sit in your porch and see birds, can't you? You can watch them in comfort and dry weather, so what's with all the binoculars, bug spray and multiple field guides, anyway?

As the commercial says, if you have to ask, you just don't understand. Each person out in the rain and cold with her binoculars trained to the heights of the tallest tree has her reasons, each as unique as the person gazing skyward. I'm guessing you'd be hard-pressed to find a person alive who doesn't find birds at least mildly interesting. They can fly, after all. They fly incredible distances over open ocean non-stop. That's impressive, anyone would have to acknowledge that.

For me, it goes beyond that universal degree of awe they inspire. Birds allow me to connect with all of creation, natural and man-made. I just spent a week taking a teacher workshop at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River Wisconsin. The workshop was "Birding by Habitat," and it was a wonderful way to earn a couple university credits. The goal of the workshop wasn't to see lots of birds, but to carefully study those we did see and make some connections as to why those were the birds seen. Why, for instance, were Northern Parulas common in the mature hemlock forests and not the burned areas? As I've sought to watch more closely, I've realized the need to better understand the plant communities and habitats in which various birds choose to nest and live. I need to watch the flowers growing along the trails as closely as the birds flying in the treetops. Otherwise, how would I have seen the incredible bog plants, such as sundew and grass pink?

Understanding the habitat leads me to question the alteration of habitats and the impact on birds and other members of a given habitat community. Like many naturalists, I'm concerned by the constant sprawl taking place around me. We notice fewer birds of certain species than in years past and need to look no further than the ripped up old fields making way for a new development or strip mall. It makes us angry, perhaps, but even more so, sad. Sad for what is lost, and then the anger over that loss impels me to activism. I contact a county board member to suggest there is no need to mow a vacant field used by nesting Dickcissels. I post links to entries on this blog to increase awareness of the wonder of birds and the places they live, hoping others will follow suit. It's like that story of the woman throwing back the starfish washed ashore. She can't possibly save them all, but it matters to the ones she saves.

Most of all, birding allows me to share my moments of joy and discovery, sending out into the universe my gratitude for all that has been shared with me. On my way home from my workshop up north, I traveled through the cranberry bogs of west central Wisconsin. As I rounded a curve in the county road between two cranberry operations, something caught my eye right at the edge of the road, moving slowly and almost prehistorically through the plants. I pulled around the corner and parked, watching first through the car window, then tentatively stepping outside my car. The eating was good; they stopped, looked, and decided I wasn't much of a threat. I share with you now, in gratitude for all I've learned from each of you, my latest moment of avian joy.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

No slide tackles in this World Cup!

Readers of this blog might have the mistaken impression that all I do is go out birding. In fact, more than once, birders who I finally meet IRL (in real life) comment to that effect. Not true! My appreciation of the game of soccer has been nurtured by years sitting in the stands watching my two sons play. This is football for REAL men, no pads and helmets here!

So I was delighted to see that Patrick Belardo of Hawk's Owl Nest used a World Cup theme for the current issue of I and the Bird. Go see who the contenders in this first, and possibly only, I and the Bird World Cup are. Go Phantom Photogs!

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Tap your red shoes together three times and say, "There's no place like home!"

Almost two weeks ago, I unwittingly spotted my 200th North American life bird. Since realizing I'd hit a landmark, I have wanted to try and get photos of the Dickcissel, Mr. #200, or at the very least, get a decent look at one.

This has proven to be difficult. First attempt was a week ago, when I joined another birder in the area to check out some fields where she'd seen some earlier in the week. It was a lovely afternoon, as reported elsewhere, but no Dickcissels for me that day.

A couple days ago, local birders reported seeing some very cooperative birds near a small beach close to the airport. Unfortunately, even yesterday, access to that road was cut off due to the impending Deke Slayton Airfest taking place as I type. Again, no Dickcissels.

People have mentioned that they are in the fields behind the Menards building in Onalaska, so before picking my son up at work last night, I gave that a try. I did hear Dickcissels--at least six--but because of the wind and just plain stubbornness, I'd say, none poked their heads above the grass. One of them had to be no more than six feet in front of me, singing away, but not so much as a wing flutter could I spot.

I'd pretty much decided to let this little goal go, as so often we must do with many things in life. Then....

My son's car has been in the shop, creating the situation neither of us loves, that harking back to when he had his permit and had to depend on Mom or Dad to get anywhere. I was driving him to work this morning, and as I passed a field in the industrial park across the street from us, I heard it. "Dick dick sizzle sizzle!"

After running Mom's Taxi Service for my sons for the afternoon, I gathered up my camera and binocs and walked the shoulder up the road from my house. Echoing off the vacant building, I could clearly hear one singing, but had to look up before I spotted it. Sure enough, a miniature Meadowlark was singing away on the line overlooking this patch of former farmland, still untouched by the corporate interests that have taken over our front porch view. For about an hour I sat on the hillside, watching and listening to at least two male Dickcissels trying establish territory, and noticing a female preening for her suitors.

I have never been happy with the development that has taken place in front of me. We bought this home 24 years ago and enjoyed rural views and a quiet street. In the last ten years, it has become as busy as any street in town, constantly noisy. Where once I could depend on watching Sandhill Cranes in the spring at sunset, reflected in the vernal ponds that would form in the unplowed fields, I now look at a building that was occupied for less time than it's been advertised as "will divide," and a growing number of other industrial sites. To say I'm not pleased with the powers that be would be an understatement. However, for the time being, I will enjoy this little gift in my front yard, hoping for better light and better photos.

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Oh, and to ensure that perhaps they and all the other birds I enjoyed in that field can continue, I will write to my county board supervisor and ask that they consider saving some gas and labor costs and avoid mowing down there.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Will the circle be unbroken?

Despite dire warnings to the contrary, for right now, here's photographic evidence proving that life will go on.

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Aren't they cute? They were joined by at least three families of Mallards I saw in the LaCrosse River wetland yesterday, along with two baby woodchucks nibbling at trailside. Though I didn't see them, others reported seeing a Virginia Rail with at least two chicks in the same wetland.

As further testament to hope for the future, three Peregrine Falcon chicks hatched atop the US Bank building in downtown LaCrosse were banded today by Bob Anderson of the Raptor Resource Project. Two girls and a boy. You can read all about it here.

The world is not collapsing---at least not for now.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

In the summer, my hair turns red!

It's true, my Irish heritage reveals itself more clearly after time out in the sun. Not blazing red, of course, but red enough to once cause a snobby hairstyling instructor to lift up my locks for the class and proclaim, "She's henna-aad her hay-er," only to argue with me when I proclaimed no colorants had ever been in my tresses.

Not just my hair, however. I had a lovely afternoon yesterday, and it involved birding, not a beauty salon. At least not a salon of human creation. A woman had posted on the wisbird list that while checking her bluebird trail, she'd spotted some Dickcissels in a field in a rural area. As some regulars might know, the Dickcissel was my unwitting 200th bird last week, but I had nothing to show for it, having left the camera home. Heck, had the camera been with me, it still wouldn't have mattered. As it was, I couldn't ID the bird until a couple days later.

Since this woman lived in a town only 20 miles from here, I contacted her to see if she would share directions for me to find this field and bird a new area. She wrote back, telling me to just come on up and we'd go together. It would be easier to take me there than give me directions.

I headed up the road, crossing into nearby Jackson County and met her at her home. The first thing to greet me as I pulled into her driveway was a flashy Red-Headed Woodpecker on the power pole near her garage. Upon meeting my hostess herself, I stepped into a lovely backyard refuge, alive with birds. The Woodpeckers were nesting along the stream somewhere adjacent to their property and visited the feeders often.

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We set off down the road, travelling onto curvy rural routes. I'm always struck by the fact that the landscape can change so much from my rocky blufflands to the sandy, more coniferous forests in a space of 20 miles. Much of our travels took us through Amish country, friendly greetings from two little boys and a little girl playing in the sandy dirt at roadside. We reached the field where the birds had been seen earlier, and it was pretty quiet. We saw little birds flitting into and out of the tall grasses, glimpsing something every so often on the fenceposts or power lines.
One little bird perched nicely in front of us, and Joan noticed white outer tail feathers. Checking the book and re-checking my snaps enlarged on the digital screen, we confirmed we'd seen a Vesper Sparrow. Neither of us had seen one before, at least that we knew.

A Northern Harrier cruised the field just before we left, giving us another great show. Moving on, we came to another fallow field, next to an area with grazing horses. The windows on the car rolled down, we heard, then spotted, Bobolinks in this field.

Returning after a couple hours spent watching and chatting, we pulled into the drive of my new birding friend, greeted once more by a Red-Head, this time with the sun reflected off his feathers.

One new bird + one new birding friend + one nice photo = one great afternoon well spent!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Unceremonius attaining of a Life List goal

I had been but two birds away from meeting a goal of 200 North American birds. I'd asked a co-worker with rural farm contacts to ask them about possible Barn Owls. Barn Owl would be a great number 200 for this landmark, I thought. Endangered in the state, not to mention just a very cool bird. Awaiting her reports, I couldn't just sit around and do nothing, however. So I headed down the bike trail, wearing my binoculars with my nifty new Eagle Optics harness to keep them at the ready.

I haven't done much biking yet this spring, but as in every year before this, I went the distance, sore muscles be damned! I saw many of the expected birds along the way. It was fun to stop under the interstate bridge, where hundreds of Cliff Swallows have nests, watching all the comings and goings from their little mud hut village. Lots of American Redstarts, one particularly cooperative at eye level and close range, guarding his territory. Common Yellowthroats were equally abundant. I couldn't discern if the Eagles were nesting or not.

Then I stopped near some fallow fields to see what might be out there. Not easily spotted except in flight was a Solitary Sandpiper. It confirmed my id with its funny whistle call. Another bird could be heard singing waaaay out in the field. It took quite some time for me to locate it, perched atop a weedy stalk, singing away. Some kind of sparrow, I'd figured. Try as I might, I could not make out any field marks at that distance. The best I could hope to do was match its call with my sources for bird songs. Off I went.

I reached the trailhead and decided to continue on the next branch of the system. I'd always been curious to see where the City Trail branch went. For the most part, I was in industrial parkland, but there was an area of shrubby growth that was quite thick just south of the LaCrosse River. Listening here, I spotted quick flashes of an Empid. An Empid that sang! This Empid was an Alder Flycatcher. Cool. Number 199 on The List!

I returned home several hours later, some parts of my body burned, others tanned. I sat down with all the sparrow calls, reviewing every one to see what that bird in the field had been. Not a single one matched. Nothing could even come close to being some sort of variant. So that bird went unreported for lack of any ID.

A couple days later, one of the local birders posted on the wisbird list that he'd seen Dickcissels in a field near the Menards store. Preparing for my venture over there to capture bird Number 200, I reviewed the different versions of this bird's song. That's when it hit me.

The bird waaaay out in the field on Sunday? No wonder I couldn't match its song to any of the sparrows. It was a Dickcissel! I must here report that in a household with two teenage sons and one overgrown teenager passing as an adult--my husband--this is not the best bird to share in conversation regarding birding achievements. So be it. I grew up with brothers and boy cousins, I can take it!

Number 200 had been reached, and I didn't even know it at the time. I wonder how many of us who proclaim that listing isn't important, but do it anyway, have reached such landmarks without being aware of it at the time.

As a birder who tries to avoid chasing, especially if chasing involves unnecessary use of fossil fuels, I'm happy to report that 163 of these birds were seen right in my home county of LaCrosse. Most of the rest were seen within neighboring counties, or while on the road for other reasons, such as visits to family. I suspect that trying to attain a new landmark will be much harder. I have a standing offer from a birder friend on the Texas coast to give her 20 minutes to change the sheets and we're off. Might be time to take her up on that offer!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

House Wren 1 House Sparrow 0

With the slowing of the migration, I've been forced lately to face the state of my own nest. No clean socks, weedy flower beds, endless piles of ironing. What does all this mean? No birding for me this weekend?

Maybe, maybe not. It's a beautiful day out there, and the laundry can be hung on the line. Only problem with that? The House Wren.

House Wren, you say? Why would that be a problem? I have never had the honor of sharing living space with these feisty little birds before, and I find it endlessly fascinating. I've been hearing one sing, and sing, and sing, and....for about two weeks. I knew it was in a corner where the four lots touch, but never could spot it. Our corner has a stand of evergreens and shrubby stuff, great habitat, but hard to see anything.

Well, a friend told me you could play a House Wren call and they'd come right out, they're so territorial. Last weekend, I brought my wireless laptop out into the yard, went to the Cornell site and played that call. No sooner had it finished playing than this little brown dynamo came right out and perched in front of me! I watched its retreat, and discovered the neighbors had put up a little birdhouse. That's his spot. If today is any indication, it will remain his spot, too.

I'd taken out a second load of laundry to clip on the line, when I heard a major ruckus from the vicinity of Wren-ville. It took a moment to realize that much of that nasty scolding was actually the wren. Dropping my clothespins and grabbing my binocs, I moved into the evergreens, discovering two House Wrens, very agitated. A step or two closer revealed the problem. A pair of evil House Sparrows were checking out the real estate.

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This is one feisty little House Wren!

The sparrows weren't dissuaded immediately, but those two wrens made it unequivocally clear this was their crib! They would position themselves, one on either side, scolding, then attacking, running the sparrows into the nearby lilacs. This little drama was replayed several times until the beleaugered couple finally moved on. I haven't heard anything more since then other than wrensong and occasional peeps emanating from that little birdhouse. I will have to keep a closer eye on it, not only to chase off sparrows, but perhaps to enjoy the maiden flight of the little ones.

I have had House Wrens, Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles, and evidence last night suggests Ruby Throated Hummingbirds, nesting nearby, along with the usual Robins, Chipping Sparrows and Grackles. Not bad for a small town lot and a day spent doing chores!

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