Bird brained stories!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Children of Lir?

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Tundra Swans on the upper Mississippi River

A story from Irish folklore tells of some royal children who were placed under a spell by a jealous stepmother, left to fly about as swans for hundreds of years. The spell could only be broken when two warring clans were joined in marriage. The event came to pass, the swans turned back into people, people who were very old, then almost immediately died.

Strange story.

Maybe not. The Tundra Swans have arrived in our area yet again, as they do each fall. Warring clans don't bring them here, or perhaps they do. They spend the summers in the high latitudes near the Arctic Circle, then head to our coasts when the "warring" winter storms move in to chase them off. The Mississippi River valley is a stopover at which they will remain in the tens of thousands until ice makes dipping below the surface for tubers impossible. It would seem that in one form or another, cold and ice are warring against these magnificent beauties.

I have watched the backwaters just across the highway from the school where I teach the past few weeks for signs of their approach. It took a post from Fred Lesher on wisbird to find out they'd arrived for the season. Each post would bring the numbers higher and higher until one day Fred said, "Maybe 20,000, you count!"

There have been wars of a sort fought by one of my own children of Lir for a time now, and finally that child was ready to break the curse. It required not an evil stepmother's intervention, but that of his loving parents, to cast the new spell needed to help him. No one gives out instruction manuals when a child is born, and perhaps it's just as well. If one were able to read of all the possible challenges, our species would never survive.

After making a tough phone call, it seemed like the best thing I could do would be to go see the swans for myself. On a glorious fall afternoon, I was on an overlook in Minnesota, facing a huge ribbon of feathery white stretching in front of me. The river flapped and tipped; sometimes it took flight in small drifts. A wonderful cacophony of cooing created the soundtrack for this spectacle. Adding to the drama, huge kettles of Bald Eagles would soar and stream just above the blufftops behind me.

Each fall, I make it a point to spend some time appreciating the majesty of this special migration. Each fall, as I watch the swans, I'm reminded of the strange story of the Children of Lir. This fall, as I watched them, I had a moment's respite from all the hurt, but I also couldn't help but think---when the spell is finally broken, will my swan come out stronger than even before? I can hope that in this real-life story, he will return himself, just as these swans will pass through again next spring, heading back to the high Arctic.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Stranger things have happened......

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Lesser Yellowlegs in a cooperative mood, photographically speaking

After about three and a half years of serious birding, I hit the magical number of 200 North American life birds this past summer, most of which were seen within 50 miles of my home. Though I would read on the various bird lists of amazing sightings within the upper midwest, envying those able to run after them all, I have a job. And a family. And a desire to try and minimize my ecological footprint by avoiding lots of driving, fuel efficient though my car may be.

I would harbor dreams of attending a conference near Lake Michigan, thereby adding in lots of shorebirds and those migrants while being a good employee AND steward of our resources. Not happening. I was lucky to be granted a one day conference in Madison this year, no overnight stays, so don't even ask for reimbursement!

Really, I enjoy any birds I happen to see, even the ever-present Chickadees and Goldfinches at my feeders. The number of birds sighted isn't that important, other than the desire to enjoy a wider variety of avian friends. But....but.....

I just couldn't help myself recently when reports started to float in of a Plegadis Ibis hanging around a wetland area less than 50 miles from here. I know the location, but had only driven past it on my way to someplace else. So, bringing along my non-birding husband with the lure of a couple geocaches to be had along the way, we set off a couple of weekends ago, into the brisk and unseasonable fall weather.

As we approached the site, I spotted the bird at once. It was somewhat distant, and continued to be maddeningly non-distinctive. Most bets were that it was an immature White-Faced Ibis, and though my photos are "mood shots" only, by studying a blow up in Photoshop, it did appear to have the reddish eye tint that suggests this bird over the Glossy Ibis. Cool! A new life bird, and one that is vagrant!


There was a lot of activity in this little area. A pair of Wilson's Snipes were working an area in plain view the whole time. Usually they take seriously the old saw, "Heard and not seen," but today was an exception. Not a new bird for me, but a much better view than I've ever had before now.


Look at all the Lesser Yellowlegs here! They worked the pond ever closer to where I crouched in the brush, allowing many nice photos. And further back....a lone Greater Yellowlegs. New life bird for me! This was almost too intoxicating to handle, two new birds in less than an hour, at a distance less than an hour from home.


Along came a family of birders I know from our birding club, and as we watched through their scope, they picked out some Green-Winged Teal. A common enough bird, but one that had escaped my notice until today. Three new life birds? This was almost too much!


As we watched a flock of gulls, one stood out, with a little black "earring" behind its eye. I remember noticing a gull flying with hardly any black on the wing, and thinking, "there's a gull with hardly any black on the wing," but the excitement of all these life birds was just too much a distraction at the time. We tried calling Dan Jackson, who didn't pick up, but confirmed later that yes, he had seen a Bonaparte's Gull hanging out here two days ago. FOUR new life birds?

As we finally headed off, greeting some birders from Illinois and Baraboo just arriving, I exulted in my great good luck. We found our two caches, so that made us happy, too. But...but...but....

Loading my photos onto the computer so that we could claim one of the caches, I started looking over the bird shots, only to discover that one of those Lesser Yellowlegs was actually....a Long-Billed Dowitcher! Racing from one bird id website to the next, I found several photos that looked like better quality versions of mine.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Does size matter? Try telling the Long-Billed Dowitcher it doesn't!

That made FIVE, count them, FIVE new life birds in one afternoon. All in the same unremarkable pond I've passed on the highway many times. Stranger things have happened, but not to me, at least not in my birding life.

Locations of visitors to this page