Saturday, February 14, 2015

Why I'm a Birder: Loving the Places They've Brought Me

I've finally been reading The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. It's the story of three obsessive birders and their race to see the most species in North America in a year. The book inspired the Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson film of the same name.

Early in the book the author describes one of the competitors, wealthy businessman Al Levantin, who kicks off his Big Year spotting mountain birds from skis in his home base of Aspen:
"That was the thing with Levantin: he loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. When you spend your career in the confines of a gray suit, the pipits at dawn above timberline are even more wondrous. He lived to be in the field."
That rang so true for me that it practically leapt from the page, shimmering in gold.
~~~ He loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. ~~~
I don't mean exotic new locations, though maybe someday birding will take me to some of those. I mean that my growing interest in birds has gently led me into the natural world, as well as into places that might also be described as states of mind: the wondrousness of the pipits at dawn.

What are some places birding has taken me?

Outdoors.
Woods. Prairie. Trails. Ponds. Riverbanks.

The frozen Missisippi in winter, looking for bald eagles.
The first ice-free pond that hosts migrating ducks in the spring.
The Christmas Bird Count, spent driving slowly along rural roads looking for every single bird we can spot.

Barely leafed-out woods in May, looking and listening for warblers.
A driving trip up the Northern California coast: oystercatchers and thousands of marbled godwits.
A hilly hike in a Bay Area wilderness area, in search of golden eagles.
Sewage ponds. Yes, sewage ponds.

REI.
Good hiking shoes. Caps that shade the eyes. Quick-dry trousers with zip-off legs.
The idea that it's okay to invest modestly in some gear for what makes you happy.
Tentative experimentation with snowshoes.

Photography.
A better camera.
A huge proportion of this blog.

The Carleton Arboretum and River Bend Nature Center in all seasons.
The Minnesota Master Naturalist Class.
The Pothole and Prairie Birding Festival in North Dakota.
Plans to witness the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska this spring.

Listening. Looking. Scanning the sky or a body of water. Intently gazing into trees or shrubs.
And, at last, a new comfort being alone in a natural area. A sense of freedom and empowerment.

   

Let me say more about that last thing, because it's one of the biggies.

I lived mostly in large cities until moving to Northfield almost 25 years ago. I knew people who went hiking and backpacking and camping, and in fact my high school was quite into such things, but I didn't ever get much experience with those activities outside of organized groups, and though I admired people who did them, they didn't really call to me.

Also, in the city or outside it, I was always aware that danger might lurk in the bushes. And, terribly, there were reports of murdered hikers reinforcing the point.

Even when I got to this safe small town, my city instincts followed me. Maybe I didn't still carry my keys pointing out between my fingers when walking to my car at night, but a woman (especially a small, not particularly athletic woman) alone in a park or the woods or on a hiking trail was vulnerable. You didn't put yourself into that situation. At least, that's how it continued to feel to me.

Until I had enough reason to want to. And that's what the birds gave me.

It's taken me a long time to realize what I'd missed -- that sense of freedom and empowerment that I mentioned above -- and birding is what finally got me there. But it's not all about the birds anymore. Being out in the natural world has become intrinsically rewarding in a way it really wasn't for me, before.

I still don't feel called to feats of solo distance hiking like Cheryl Strayed, or my sister-in-law Bethany who hiked the John Muir Trail solo in 2012. One of the things I've always said I like about birding is it gets you outside without having to be too strenuous about it.

But an early morning hour or so wandering by myself in the Arb, River Bend, or other natural areas nearby, entirely at my own pace, choosing my route, camera and binoculars ready for whatever I may discover ... bliss.

Thank you, birds.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Adorable Downy

Yesterday Dave and I stopped by Big Woods State Park, where there was a lot of woodpecker and nuthatch action in the trees surrounding the park office. I was charmed by this little female downy woodpecker working her way around the trunk of one of the trees, only a few feet from where we were standing. Isn't she pretty?




While we were there, we also saw a juvenile red-headed woodpecker, patchily transitioning to its full red head, which it should have by breeding season this year. I didn't get a good photo, but we were pleased to see young of this increasingly rare woodpecker. Big Woods State Park is one of the most reliable places to spot them.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dawn Juncos Sitting on the Ground

This morning I looked out of the window next to the front door before going out to get our newspaper, and saw three dark-eyed juncos on our front walk where I had scattered some seed the day before. The sun was just coming up, and I was a little surprised to see the juncos there before full light. I was even more surprised when I realized they were not eating, but just sitting still. 


I don't think I've ever seen them just sitting on the ground like that before. The temperature was about 0 F, which is warmer than it has been for the past several mornings, but still exceedingly cold. The first two photos here were taken through the window and reflect the pinkish light of the rising sun.


Because I didn't want to disturb them if they were conserving energy by hunkering down, I waited a few minutes until seeing that two of them had left and the one remaining was eating. I then stepped out to get the paper and turned toward the pink eastern sky. It was a beautiful sunrise.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year 2015



This is a downy woodpecker, taken last winter. I like the light and the seemingly heart-shaped red spot.

First birds of 2015 have included a red-bellied woodpecker and a chickadee singing its sweet spring song: Fee-bee, fee-bee. The heart lifts! The darkest days of the winter are behind us.

Happy new year to one and all.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Bird Count 2014: Quiet

Participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count has become a tradition I look forward to eagerly. It's a chance to devote half a day, or more, to looking for birds and documenting the number of each species we see, as well as our time spent and mileage covered by car and on foot, to aid in interpreting the numbers reported. I've also written here about the Christmas Bird Counts of 2009, 20102011, and 2013. As in the past, we were assigned to a rural area east and south of Northfield, as well as a good portion of Northfield's east side.

Relatively mild at about 30-32 F. all morning, it was also gray and chillingly damp, though thankfully not windy. Ponds were frozen, while creeks were open. The mantra of the day for our group of four turned out to be, "Boy, it's really quiet out there." While we saw some decent action at a few homesteads that had well-stocked feeders, we came up dry at many others, including those at my own house. It wasn't always literally quiet, as we had an ample number of crows cawing raucously, but there were a lot of places that seemed unexpectedly bird-free.

Open water at the creek west of Dennison -- but no birds

The photo above is taken from the highway bridge just west of Dennison. Every year I get my hopes up for this creek, which often offers open water and seems so inviting from a human perspective, but once again there was nothing to see.

Here are our results for the morning. Occasionally birds (mostly chickadees and nuthatches) were identified by sound though not seen.

  • 2 Canada geese
  • 55 mallards, seen in many small groups overhead, flying with their characteristic rapid wingbeats, and in a large congregation on the open creek in the golf course
  • 1 ring-necked pheasant. Pheasant numbers are down so much in the last few years that this was now considered a lucky sighting.
  • 1 sharp-shinned hawk seen flying through woods (I missed seeing this. Darn!)
  • 1 red-tailed hawk
  • 19 rock pigeons (your standard barnyard or urban pigeon) on silos
  • 5 mourning doves
  • 1 red-bellied woodpecker
  • 5 downy woodpeckers
  • 1 hairy woodpecker
  • 12 blue jays
  • 52 American crows
  • 14 black-capped chickadees
  • 7 white-breasted nuthatches
  • 43 dark-eyed juncos, including a flock of 35 seen on the west edge of the Sibley School natural area
  • 5 northern cardinals
  • 39 house finches, the majority of them in one large group at a rural homestead with plenty of large trees and well-stocked feeders
  • 22 house sparrows, mostly in one large group at the pond west of Archibald Street and just north of Jefferson Parkway; we first caught sight of a few of them on top of and going into a wood duck box. 
This total of 18 species is the same as our total in 2011 (the last count I can find detailed notes for). Species seen then that we did not see yesterday included the European starling, wild turkey, American robin, American goldfinch, and northern shrike. Species seen yesterday that we did not see in 2011 included Canada goose, ring-necked pheasant, sharp-shinned hawk, rock pigeon, and hairy woodpecker. I always hope to see snow buntings or horned larks for the CBC, but there were none to be seen yesterday, nor (ambitious hope) a snowy owl, for which there have been sightings in Rice County in the past week or so.

Non-avian sightings included plenty of squirrels and, notably, a mink that was being eyed warily by a pair of mallards on Spring Creek on the east edge of Northfield.

I was happy to see several new participants at our Northfield-based count, including my longtime friend Mary, who came along in our group, as well as the now-familiar friends who are faithful to this effort. Thanks as always to Gene Bauer for organizing the bird count for the Northfield area, Gene and his wife Susan for their hospitality for the pre-count breakfast and post-count lunch, and the other bird enthusiasts, both experienced and developing, who showed up and helped make it a fun day of comradery and citizen science.