August 2010


The next few days contained little birding but what I could get out of the window of the car. There were some highlights, nevertheless – White Pelicans soaring over the Mississippi, Black Terns at prairie potholes. But just little nibbles of each. Nothing you would call a full meal of birding.

Then we were in North Dakota, possibly the worst night of the trip. We’d found no bed and breakfast to bed down or breakfast up at, so we holed up in a fraying Motel Six as rain poured down and thunder cracked. We ventured out only to get food at a nearby mediocre steakhouse.

In the midst of this, though, I knew what would cheer me up – birding. Not just any birding. Expeditionary birding, the kind that would take us off the beaten six-lane path and get us in touch with the new territory we were crossing. And I had just the target in mind – the Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush.

This heavily-hyphenated Catharus is normally found far south of South Dakota – namely places like Costa Rica and Venezuela. The only U.S. records were a handfull from Texas before a lone individual was spotted in Spearfish Canyon, conveniently located almost directly between Bismarck and Rapid City, SD, where we planned to spend the night. The only change our plan would require was getting off the Interstate for Alt. Route 14 – promisingly aka’d Scenic Route 14. And, of course, getting out of the car. Jochen had tipped me off to the bird back in July, but I’d never dreamed that it would stick around until I could drop in. The Internet, however, assured me that it had.

Not that there weren’t a few potential issues. Like the fact that the thrush was active mostly in the early morning, a time when it was logistically impossible for us to be there. And the fact that, like any lonely male bird facing the onset of autumn, it had been singing less and less and lurking more and more over the past weeks. And, of course, my sad personal history with mega-rarities.

Still, if I didn’t try, there was no chance at all that I’d see the bird.

A lot of things would have been strikingly beautiful after Bismarck. Nevertheless, I can safely say that my perspective was not so warped that I am overpraising Spearfish Canyon. It was a lovely place. The road wound gently along the bottom of the canyon, and even in the middle of the afternoon long shadows fell over the pines and rock faces. I tried to get some photos, but nothing about a still imagine could really do it justice. At least, not with my photography skills. Ansel Adams might have had better luck. But even the greatest photograph on Earth could not have captured the sounds of water and wind on rock, or the smell of the trees.

The road was, not crowded, but appreciably populated with other vehicles. At first I thought they might all be birders, but it soon became apparent, not least from the number of motorcyclists among them, that many were just out enjoying the scenicness. (I’m not saying that motorcyclists can’t be birders, but I didn’t see many carrying binoculars.) In fact, when we arrived at the bird’s usual spot, there were only two other birders present. I was somewhat leery of interacting with them, because I was aware that the inevitable patch-birder backlash to invasive twitchers had begun, and I was in a car with New York license plates. As much as I wanted to run up and say “No, really, I didn’t waste that much gas just for this one bird!” I was too shy.

So I strolled up and down diffidently, one eye on the trees and one eye on the other birders. Occasionally something would move in the trees, but it proved – time and time again – to be the same American Redstart, dedicated to sowing confusion (or eating small bugs, more likely.) A few Violet-Green Swallows wheeled overhead, and above that, some turkey vultures.

We waited.

The other birders left. They came back. The IT goaded me into talking to them, but they had no new information, and soon went away again.

Shortly thereafter, we entered the most awkward phase of birding – the part where you have to decide whether stay or go. I’d been there before – I suspect we all have. Other obligations, appointments, hunger and thirst and other bodily urges, the knowledge of (or uncertainty of) the drive ahead of you. And against that, the conviction that as soon as you leave the bird will pop out of the bushes and start singing its heart out, or soar in from wherever it was visiting, or flush and show a crucial field mark, or what have you. The dwindling light or growing shadows. The long uncomfortable fading of hope. It’s hard to know whether this is more difficult to deal with when you’re with other birders – dare I be a quitter in front of them? – or a non-birder who is clearly being patient and understanding.

In short, we didn’t leave, and then we did.

It got darker. We drove into higher and higher foothills, looking for our bed and breakfast, growing anxious. Finally, up a dirt road, we found it, populated with a vast flock of Wild Turkeys and a bustling birdfeeder whose clientele included Black-Headed Grosbeaks. Oh, and also a pair of very nice proprietors and their dogs.

We talked briefly about returning to Spearfish Canyon for one more stab at the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush the next day, but we had a long drive ahead of us, a drive that included Yellowstone National Park. It was not to be.

Perhaps it was road-weariness, or maybe I’m just older now, but I couldn’t even bring myself to curse this rarity out.

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Considering how badly I screwed up last time I hosted I and the Bird, I knew that the pressure was on. This time, I’d do the venerable yet vital blog carnival proud. This time, I’d showcase all the excellent posts so lovingly submitted to me, instead of getting distracted by the ins and out of the process. This time, in short, I would rock the birding Casbah.

Such was my resolution, anyway, until I read Laura Kammermeier’s excellent post, Who Are The Next “Great” Birders?

Sadly, I must confess that it wasn’t the prospect of being one of the next great birders that entranced me. I am too humble for that. No, it was just that, suddenly facing a large tuition bill instead of a large Skimmer’s bill, I got distracted by the following paragraph:

“But now that Hollywood and Harcourt are hot on our trail, what are we going to do? Capitalize on the increased visibility, of course!”

By morning, I was on a plane to L.A. And not to look for Heermann’s Gulls. The I and the Bird submissions were neatly printed and clutched in a portfolio under my arm, and I have to admit, they were getting a little sweaty. Was I really ready for this? I didn’t even have an agent! I could still bail out – I could rent a car and go to the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area, so lovingly described by Larry Jordan, and see all my old California favorites like Black Phoebes and White-faced Ibis.

Oh, that’s right. I can’t drive. Also, I really, really needed the money.

In a few hour’s time, I was perched nervously on the edge of my seat I the office of a Hollywood producer who will remain nameless. He had a reputation as a bigshot, and perhaps even something of a tyrant; I wondered uneasily if I should try breaking the ice by comparing him to an Eastern Kingbird. I had the post to prove that this was most certainly a compliment, complete with a snappy photo, right here in my portfolio – but would that come off weird and nerdy? I wished I had brought deodorant. Or at least a breath mint.

The elegant little covered dish on the producer’s desk looked as though it might contain breath mints. I lifted the lid cautiously, one ear perked for the sound of footsteps. Unfortunately, Mr. Producer was apparently not too worried about halitosis – his breath mints had long since crumbled to powder in their dish. They didn’t even smell like mints any more, as I discovered when I sniffed them. Still, hoping that they might have some kind of effect nevertheless, I dumped a little of the powder into my palm and swallowed it.

Still the producer did not come. I sat up straight, breathed deep, said positive things to myself. And, strangely enough, it worked! Suddenly, I had confidence. Suddenly, I was brave. Suddenly, I had the energy and moxie and determination of a house wren with a growing brood to feed. Everything was going to be fine – no, everything was going to be GREAT. My ideas, and the collective genius of the birder-sphere, were unstoppable!

It was at this juncture that the producer walked in. Immediately, I saw that I could not use the Eastern Kingbird gambit on him; he looked a lot more like a Blue Jay undergoing molt, and although I had pictures of that too, there was no way I could construe them as flattering. I’d just have to get right to the point.

“Who are…” but before he could finish his sentence, I said “I’m going to make us both very rich!”

Ok, maybe that was the wrong thing to say. He was already very rich, after all. But there was no backing out now, so I just plunged ahead. “Movies. About birders. And birds. They’re the thing. We should make one.”

“Movies about birds?”

“Absolutely! Perhaps about Peregrine Falcons. After all, they’re swift, they’re lethal, and they’re everywhere… maybe a bit too much so…

“Falcons? A sports picture?”

“No, horror! They turn on us! Tear out throats with their talons, peck out eyes – I’m talking special effects galore here. Just picture it – the lead actress, say what’s-her-face, that Megan Fox, she thinks the falcons are gone, that they’ve finally been defeated. Her friends are dismembered, the Turkey Vultures are circling in to clean up the mess, but life goes on, right? But then – and this, this will be beautiful – as she’s walking to her car, machete swinging loosely at her side, exhausted but triumphant, suddenly three white doves fly up, doing evasive maneuvers and -” I leaned in confidingly, “this is the important part, they’re flying on different vectors.

“Vectors.”

“Exactly! And as any savvy viewer knows, that means that there’s a predator nearby! The falcons are back, and she has to brace for the big final battle! Or,” I added thoughtfully, “maybe we could use that for the sequel hook.”

He looked impressed, but he was trying hard to hide it. “How exactly did you get into my office?” He reached for the phone, but I smacked the portfolio down on the table, accidentally-on-purpose knocking his hand aside. I had to seal the deal now, or he would just take my ideas and steal them. That’s how they do, in Hollywood.

“If you’re not feeling horror, I have a ton of other concepts as well. For instance…” I flipped through the portfolio. I actually had only had the one idea. My heart was racing, but my confidence was still high. I really could have used some water, though. “Don’t you think that travel pictures are about due for a comeback? Because really, pick your poison with travel pictures here. Nepal, Costa Rica, Panama… there’s beautiful visuals to be had at any of these places. Personally, I think the Panama story is just what you need. It has some wacky highjinks and suspense – we’ll have to spice it up a little, of course, maybe add a bungling security officer, like Inspector Clouseau. Or Paul Blart. But you’re the boss, boss. Pick whichever country will give you the best tax break, and I can make it work. Actually, Costa Rica might be better after all. With all those Toucans, maybe you can work some kind of product placement deal with Fruit Loops. And the frogs would make great action figures.”

Suddenly, abruptly, crashingly, I hated myself. Tax breaks? Product placement? Action figures? I was an artist, dammit! This was wrong, it was dirty. And the other bloggers, how could I do this to them?

And the producer. He wasn’t impressed at all. In fact, he was looking at me much the way Nate might, if instead of selling my very soul for a mess of pottage, I reported a Black-capped Chickadee in North Carolina. I needed a drink very badly.

But I also needed money very badly. “Scifi,” I said weakly. “I have a sort of scifi/fantasy thing with a romance element to it, sort of like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But with birds.”

Swiftly, like one of those Peregrines, the producer flipped my portfolio to the floor. The white dove-feathers of the pages spilled everywhere. As I scrambled to gather them, he reached for the phone again. What could I do? I tackled him.

I knew at this juncture that I had but a few minutes. He probably played jai alai or something, and I’d had nothing but peanuts to eat on the plane. So I abandoned all pretense of artistic integrity, and squawked “Remakes!”

He seemed stunned. Of course, the fact that I had wrapped my hands around his throat probably didn’t help. I’m not sure why I did that, actually.

“Or do you call them reboots now? Whatever. Look, we could do The Kids are Alright with Piping Plovers. No? Too soon? How about On the Waterfront! We have lots of material, we just have to move it from Brooklyn to Queens… Corey will be pleased, anyway…”

Too late. He heaved me off and struggled to his feet. I pulled my last and most abject card.

“Sex appeal! We can put in cute, young birds in the bath!

He picked up the phone. “Don’t even think about moving, Ms… ” he glanced at me. “What did you say your name was?”

“Sharon Stitler!”

And with that, I jumped out the window.

Some time later, with a cast on my foot and a couple of maxed-out credit cards and traveling under the name of Selma Mae Benson, I returned to Missoula. Sadder, wider, chastened – and far too late to put together anything approaching a decent blog carnival entry.

So Birdchick, I’m sorry about the visit from the cops you’ll be getting soon. You might want to come up with an alibi, maybe claim you were birding with Owen Wilson or something.

And Mike, I’m sorry I blew it again. I promise that next time I host, I’ll get it right.

In the meantime, bloggers, send your next round of I and the Bird submissions to John at A DC Birding Blog, who is an East Coaster and unlikely to succumb to the lure of Hollywood Babylon. To me, just send money*.

*All characters in this story are fictional. And resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is a coincidence, and in particular, I actually have a job, so don’t worry.

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I would like to claim that on some level, I knew. That some sixth sense, some migratory instinct, told me to pass by Ames for Missoula and thus preserved me from being underwater at this very juncture. This, however, would be a blatant falsehood. I am here, and not there, because I got in here, and not there.

Nevertheless, when we stopped for the night in Ames (at a wonderful bed and breakfast that I heartily recommend to anyone who finds themselves adrift in that section of the country) I did have certain forebodings. For one thing, the weather had, apparently been perfect for growing corn. Anyone familiar with weather knows that this is not a thing that happens without the extensive application of human sacrifice. To give but one example, I lived on the Olde Homestead for eighteen years, and in those eighteen years, there was exactly one summer where the rain and the sun occurred in the right combination at the right time for maize cultivation. So either there was dark witchcraft afoot, or the piper would soon have to be paid.

Also, the IT and I went downtown, and discovered:

1. Two separate game stores selling Magic Cards
2. An American Legion outpost
3. A Christian bookstore
4. Two bars, both so scary that we felt zero desire to go inside. And this is me and the IT we’re talking about.

So, in short, Ames was not the place for me.

And yet… as we sat outside the hacienda, a Great Blue Heron flew over the pond. At bit later, a Red-tailed Hawk did the same. Barn Swallows arced over our heads, eating (I hope) the abundant mosquitoes. Song Sparrows set the grass wavering with their weight as they belted out their evening tune, and rabbits browsed on the lawn.

A Kingfisher splashed into the water, emerged, and perched on a snag nearby. I watched it for a long time; I rarely see as many Kingfishers as I want. After a time, it was joined by another Kingfisher, a male, presumably its mate.

Dusk began to fall, and the mosquitoes got more onerous, but neither the Inimitable Todd nor I were ready to go back inside after spending most of the day cooped up in the car. Too, IT wanted pictures of the sunset; but clouds were gathering to thwart him (and to engage in what, had we but known, was a very literal form of foreshadowing.)

I kept my eyes on the Swallows, finding their flight patterns soothing. Suddenly, something much larger cut across the sky, and I scrambled to switch gears and ID it, fortunately, it circled the house and gave my plenty of time to take in the pointed wings, overall dark color and distinctive white bands across the underwings.

I had heard Common Nighthawks before – most recently over Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was far more of what I think of when I think of a college town. But, as careful readers already know, I don’t count ear birds for my life list. So the Common Nighthawk was a gap. Until now.

The Nighthawk eventually set a course and disappeared. We also set a course, for a good night’s rest and eventually for Minneapolis and great swaths of new habitat still ahead… still grateful, despite the Nighthawks, that we weren’t staying here and that we had so much yet to explore ahead of us.

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You’re going to have to, I’m afraid, because I’m STILL trying to get moving-in details sorted.

But in the meanwhile, you have until this coming Tuesday to get your submissions to the next I and the Bird to me, at labenc AT gmail.com. Send ‘em in!

Word association game for birders: Prairie.

Chicken, right?

At least, that’s what I thought as we drove through Kansas. We had, of course, missed the mating season and thus the fabulous displays that the male birds put on in hopes of winning the opportunity to breed. These dance-offs and Prairie Idol auditions, taking place as they do loudly, persistently, and in a pre-defined location, mark the best chance for long, clear, and impressive looks at a male prairie chicken (whether you are a female prairie chicken looking for a babydaddy or a birder looking for a tick.) But prairie chickens do not dematerialize when they are not dancing, so I hoped that if I put myself in the right habitat, I might get lucky.

So, as one does when one is feeling lucky, I turned to Google. Google offered me a few options, but none seemed as appealing as the Shawnee state fishing lake, conveniently located right off the highway that we were traveling on anyhow. I copied down the directions carefully and showed the IT the map. How hard could this be?

We set off down the highway, and the first turn appeared soon enough. It couldn’t be fairly called an exit – it was at grade, and we had to cross a lane of traffic heading in the opposite direction to get where we were going. How quaint, I thought.

Still, the not-an-exit had appeared just exactly where the map had indicated that it should, and this does not always happen with birding directions that you find on the internet. Or at least, it doesn’t always happen with birding directions that I find on the internet.

I examined the roadside wires and posts as we drove, netting quite a few Meadowlarks, some Kingbirds, and an odd-looking Rock Pigeon along the way. Nothing that would constitute a lifer, though, and nothing that screamed Kansas.

We made another turn, easy enough to find – but the road down which we’d turned shortly gave way to gravel.

“We must be getting close!” I said cheerfully. The Inimitable Todd, no doubt thinking of that day in the future when the car would have to be returned to the rental office, grimaced.

We made another turn, and the gravel seemed to get dustier. On the other hand, we also saw a sign for the lake, which I resolutely decided to regard as positive.

By the time we reached the lake itself, we were traveling on rutted dirt that our little Chevy Cobalt had never been designed for – the likes of which, in fact, I’d venture to say that most American SUVs never even attain. That speaks more to the inappropriate buying impulses of most Americans than it does to our foolhardiness. I think.

There were traces of a campfire where we parked, still fragrant, although only possibly Satan himself could have needed extra warmth in the 90+ degrees of the early afternoon. Far away, a couple of old pickup trucks were parked, but I couldn’t see anyone near them. Kingbirds hawked for dragonflies over an inlet. Far away, I could hear a Song Sparrow and a tractor and the buzzing of various insects.

I also heard, after a few minutes of listening, the call of a Northern Bobwhite. This would have been very exciting if I counted ear records for my life list, but I don’t. After all, for all I knew it might have been a Mockingbird mocking a Bobwhite.

I neither heard nor saw anything that seemed like it might be a Prairie Chicken. We walked around the lake for a bit, and by a bit I mean all of a few yards. The heat and humidity once again were conspiring to squish the birding impulse clean out of me, and the Inimitable Todd, with less birding impulse to begin with, was past squished.

That didn’t mean that he didn’t have his eyes open, though. And it didn’t mean that he’d forgotten what I’d asked him to look out for. So when a sparrow-ish bird popped up that was showing a bit of yellow, he asked me if it was the Dicksissel I’d wanted.

“Where?”

“Over there.” He points at a patch of weeds and I scan desperately for a movement.

“WHERE?”

Eventually, he got me on the bird. Sure enough, it was a Dicksissel, my second life bird of the trip. If I reflected on the fact that thus far my life birds had both been very very similar to House Sparrows in their own way, it was only to make a koan on the nature of Nature; and when Todd suggested that we go back to the car and look for the Prairie Chickens with four wheels and some glass between us and the bugs, I did not demur.

It seemed to me that it would be a simple matter to go around the lake; unfortunately, the roads did not cooperate. Moreover, dark clouds were gathering. We passed more Meadowlarks, more Kingbirds, many Robins and Mockingbirds. We passed many pastures and fields. The dust followed us like a cloud. Horseflies hit the windows with aplomb. Everything was rattled, even the IT; he eventually pulled out his iPhone and performed his own rite of Google to get us back to the highway. It turned out it was fairly simple – much simpler, for some reason, than getting out there in the first place. I told myself that I hadn’t really expected to see the Prairie Chickens anyway, and this was true; not only was this the wrong time of year, they seemed mythological anyway. Like prairies. Where were the prairies? They were supposed to look different, I was supposed to feel different. But nothing was different.

Shortly after we got back onto the highway, the sky opened up with rain that truly earned the name cloudburst in a way that few east coast storms can.

“Well, at least you won’t have to pay to wash the car,” I pointed out. The Inimitable Todd grimaced.

I glanced out the window just in time to see the distinctive profile of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher beating a retreat to the relative shelter of a tree. By nightfall, we would be in Iowa.

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I have to confess, I had forgotten all about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. I remember reading in the Peterson guide as a child about this smaller, less pushy cousin of the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Unlike the House Sparrow, there was only one successful introduction event for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (sometimes called the German Sparrow to avoid confusion with the American Tree Sparrow). This event took place in April of 1870, in Lafayette Park in St. Louis.

In July of 2010, I checked into a bed and breakfast on Lafayette Square, a little frustrated because I hadn’t yet had a life bird on my epic journey across most of America. Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I was still in mostly-familiar (e.g. Eastern) territory, and birding from a speeding car on the interstate is not really conducive to identifying the finer points of sparrows. (Although if you want to see a bunch of Turkey Vultures it’s a pretty good strategy. And who doesn’t want to see a bunch of Turkey Vultures?) I wasn’t thinking about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow at all, though. I wasn’t even sure if they were still part of the avifauna, or if they’d tapered off into American oblivion; I hadn’t considered the question in years.

It was just happenstance, and the fact that my binoculars were around my neck, that the proprietor decided to share a tidbit of local history and mention the introduction of the German Sparrows in the park across the street from his house.
Of course, no birder himself, he thought that the House Sparrows in his ivy were the birds in question. Still, the tip was all I needed to jump online and do some quick research (and all praises to the internet for making such things possible!) so that I could target the neighborhoods where Passer domesticus had not pushed out Passer montanus. A helpful site gave me not only the block, but the very backyard to check!

Lest you think that modern technology robbed all the challenge from my hunt, though, I would point out that there were a couple of confounding factors.

First, we were on a schedule that, while not tight, did involve being in Kansas City before nightfall.

Second, it was wiltingly hot and compressingly humid, as one might expect in Missouri in the summer in the middle of the day – and not only does such weather discourage birders, it takes a toll on the birds as well. Red-winged Blackbirds and Starlings around the Arch were panting and flocking to the water features like Saharan castaways.

Third, birding in the backyards of strangers is always a hairy proposition – people have been accused of peeping tommery, or worse, for focusing their binoculars indiscriminately. Even as non-threatening a person as yours truly has been ordered off of lawns. And, of course, creeping people out, however inadvertently, doesn’t make one a good ambassador for wildlife.

Nevertheless, a life bird is a life bird and it would take a lot more than three confounding factors to make me drive away from St. Louis without putting in a sporting effort to get this one.

I think the Inimitable Todd may have been less impressed with some of my birding shenanigans, sometime, but I can’t recall which. He did make a good-faith effort to help me look from the car as we entered Dogtown (“There’s… no, that’s another House Sparrow”) but when it came to actually pounding the pavement, he stayed in the shade-parked car and studied road maps.

The birds were not in their appointed backyard. I walked up the block further, staring at Cardinals and Mourning Doves patronizing a well-stocked feeder until a dog began to bark. I circled back, glancing at each passing car with what I hoped was a reassuring, non-felonious face.

And then the German Sparrows flew in to the feeder. There were two of them, and as is so often the case with new birds, they were immediately distinct and recognizable in a way that the field guide could not do justice. Their red-brown caps and black ear spots were immediately apparently, but so were their more gracile builds and higher voices.

I watched them for only a few minutes. It was, after all, hot, and I was staring into someone’s backyard, and we did have to find the frozen custard stand and the highway and our next rooms down the road. But I will never forget about Eurasian Tree Sparrows again.

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