Bird brained stories!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Birding is soul food

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It's been a long time since I can say I've actually been out birding. I've looked for birds while doing other things, like geocaching, but as far as actually going out into the field, binoculars at the ready with the express purpose of observing---long, long time. Life has gotten in the way the past few months, I'm afraid. Yesterday I finally got out there again, just to bird---in foreign habitat.

I was hired to do a storytelling program in the little town of Vesper Wisconsin on Thursday night. I decided that rather than drive home after dark, risking collision with deer, I'd treat myself to a bed and breakfast stay, then spend Friday birding the Buena Vista Grasslands. I've been there once before, to sit in the bird blinds and watch the spectacle of the Greater Prairie Chickens. This time, I'd see what else this area had to offer up.

As I pulled off the minimum maintenance road to wander down a trail in the middle of the prairie, a sense of near helplessness hit me. I haven't really been birding in so long, remembering most effective use of my binoculars came slowly. Listening for birds needed to be relearned. On top of all that, this is habitat that is so different from the wetland, forest/bluff and river habitats with which I'm so familiar. How do I look for these birds on this wide open landscape?

I assured myself that I'd find them, and reminded myself of my goal as a birder; not to see lots of birds, but to see the birds well. I started off doing just that, as a bird flew to a treetop and sang. Knowing it was some sort of sparrow, and thinking by the song it might be new to me, I spent close to 30 minutes with it, watching and photographing. My conclusion? A Song Sparrow with a varied song! So much for new birds, but maybe approaching every bird as if it's new yields rewards. Would I have spent so much time with it, had I realized right away it was "common?"

I managed to flush a Prairie Chicken as I walked slowly along the trail. Sandhill Cranes could be heard bugling all around me. Meadowlarks, too, including Western Meadowlarks. That was a new bird for me, but I couldn't find it to see it! I spent much time on that task, enjoying Savannahs and Grasshoppers singing as I searched. At last I did get a good look at a singing Western Meadowlark.

I wandered about the grasslands this way, eventually stopping to look at other places along the road. At my last stop, along one of the drainage ditches placed in the area, I was about ready to head home. Middle of the day, the birds are quiet. Something compelled me to keep on walking, though. Along the drainage ditch, a huge mound of dirt had been built up and overgrown, creating a long berm. I decided to see what I could see from that vantage point. Further down the ditch, a Sandhill Crane was feeding. There was a little bridge behind him, making for quaint pictures, so I continued to slowly advance, snapping with each stop.

As I closed to about a city block's distance, something along the banks caught my eye. Another crane stretched her neck out. His mate on her nest! I'd taken numerous photos with her in the frame, not even seeing her until she moved. I didn't move any closer once I realized she was on her nest, but enjoyed the chance to really observe.

Walking out to my car and heading home at last, I reflected on how relaxed and fulfilled I was feeling. It's been a long time away, and perhaps the lesson I've learned is that even if life throws us nasty curve balls, we need to find a way to make time for those things that feed our soul.

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Why the nesting crane is so difficult to see

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Spring might really be here at last....

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Why am I looking at wildflowers on a birding blog? you might well ask. If you're a birder living in the middle of North America, as I am, you would understand. After another unseasonably warm early winter, snow arrived here with a vengeance--record snowfalls--in early March. We were tempted a few weeks back with some unseasonably warm weather, only to be socked with nasty cold winds and yes, more snow this past week. My early daffodils were buried in it.

Now, I know as a birder, we tend to be a hardy lot, going out in all manner of weather. Still, when things keep getting turned upside down, it's sometimes easier to just look out the window at the feeders and call it a day.

No choice of that for me today, however. Today was the annual crane count, and I'd signed on to take a site again. A couple days ago when the ground was again covered in snow, I questioned the wisdom of such philanthropic use of my time at 5:30AM.

I needn't have worried. The snow has melted and the earth is slowly warming at last. My site is accessed from a cemetery with a trail to the LaCrosse River Bike Trail. I spend hours and hours on this trail in the warmer months, biking to this very spot and then watching all that nature has to offer in these wetlands. This morning, walking in by flashlight, my sensory experience was at first auditory. Peepers calling tentatively, robins and other chirpy birds singing. An American Woodcock peenting over there! No skydance, but I'll check again one evening soon. Winnowing Snipe, then on cue at 5:45AM, three unison calling pairs of Sandhill Cranes around me.

The view was almost mystical. A sliver of a moon reflected in the mirrored surface of the marsh, fog rising from it. The horizon just barely tinged with deep pink. One of those moments that reminds you that sometimes it pays to get up when normal people are still deep in REM sleep. All the birdsong, long forgotten since last fall, gave hope that spring was really here at last. If that wasn't reminder enough, I later discovered this Round-leafed Hepatica blooming near a frog pond as we searched for a geocache. Some of the birds are already back, others returning. It's here at last.

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