Thursday 12 April 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a Birder's Tale in three Parts

The following account of my birding adventures yesterday really started two days ago, on Tuesday, which will be part 1:

Part 1: The Good
After that long and nasty cold spell, Tuesday was a fine day with blue skies, a few scattered clouds here and there, it was rather mild again with some sunshine and a Tree Swallow. That was all pretty good from a birder's perspective, hence my presumably good idea of getting enough work done on Tuesday to have the next day's afternoon off for some serious spring birding again in this nice - and presumably improving - weather.
Well, this is where part 1, the part on the Good, ends and we move over to ...

Part 2: The Bad
Wednesday saw the return of the Bad, with a thick and heavy Snow Storm beating down upon us from grey and depressing skies. Oh, of course it was also cold again.
That's how easily a good idea can turn bad.
You see, when I was young and in my early birding years, I used to say that only three things could possibly prevent me from birding or rather cause me to interrupt a birding day:
feeling cold, feeling hungry or having to go to the Zoo urgently (or somewhere that sounds very similar).
Of course those were the young and reckless days. Today, with time and experiences, I'll have to redefine that. What can keep me today from birding is unconsciousness caused by severe injury.
So did that weather prevent me from birding, could a little snow storm keep me inside?
No way, and that's how the bad part ends and we get to...

Part 3: The Ugly
What started out as a walk through snow flakes rushing past in the strong wind turned into sleet halfway to the Arb and due to the wind speeding the ice crystals up considerably it felt like a myriad of pinpricks on your face. This changed again upon reaching the Arb, though for the better or worse I don't know: it started to rain rather heavily and continued to do so until my return to the apartment three hours later when my jacked had soaked in so much water it was about three times its usual weight.
That was pretty ugly I must say.
Well, if I was a meteorologist then this last sentence would mark the end of a rather depressing post on yesterday's weather. Luckily I am not, I am the birder and so here's the bonus part, the brilliancy of the bird life encountered!

And no more comments on the weather, I promise!

Bonus Part: The Birds
Any day that starts with a Peregrine perched on a Bell Tower is bound to be a good day, even if that Peregrine is crouching close to the wall to avoid the downpour of what was then still snow.
But when you reach the Arb a few minutes later and the first three birds you encounter (apart from hearing a Northern Cardinal sing) are two Fox Sparrows and a Hermit Thrush, you know you're in for a birding feast. Of course there was no sign of the Pine Warblers at their former haunts, sure enough they weren't stupid enough to remain here and be turned into Pain Warblers, but upon reaching the central meadow I could distinctly hear the chattering of a large flock of American Robins. Another good sign.
Scanning through the scattered Robins I found three Common Flickers and a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos with a single Song Sparrow amongst them. I eventually climbed the small hill again that was so good for woodpeckers lately and yet again, there were 2 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, a few Downy Woodpeckers and a Common Flicker as well as a Tufted Titmouse, Golden-crowned Kinglets, White-breasted Nuthatches and the first Brown Creeper of the day.
My usual walk along Rhododendron Glen produced the usual lack of Eastern Screech Owls but just before I came to the "Beach" area of the Arb, I was almost run over by a party of approximately 30 Golden-crowned Kinglets and at least 5 Brown Creepers.
Brown Creepers frustrate me. Judging by the Sibley guide and my limited impression on their vocal and plumage variation (some call like our European Tree Creepers while I wouldn't even attribute the calls of others to anything but Kinglets), they are bound to represent several species, but as long as nothing is published, there's nothing we can do about it, and whenever I see a Creeper, I have this annoying thought of Creeper spec. spec. spec. in the back of my mind that almost spoils my whole observation.
Anyway, with a few reports on the local email forum and the Kinglets being often at eye-level, I had decided that this was going to be the day of my first Ruby-crowned Kinglet for this year.
Apparently the Ruby-crowneds thought in a different direction as I couldn't find one amongst the Golden-crowneds, but a) those supercilia were difficult to see on all those dripping wet kinglet's heads, so I at least had an impression of what my first Ruby-crowned of the year will look like and I b) remember how much I struggled in May 2005 to find Golden-crowneds amongst the Ruby-crowneds, so I am relaxed.
Knowing it is about time I got back to reporting birds I actually saw and not felt like seeing (California Condor being another one of the latter category), I'll move on to the Dow Prairie section of the Arb where I was treated to yet another Hermit Thrush encounter, this time intriguingly associated with yet another Song Sparrow. Sadly there was no sign of the American Tree Sparrows that had been hanging around there all winter and I presume they left for good (or bad, judging by the weather and if they really moved on North).
My initial plan had been to return home by then but I somehow was drawn on to Gallup Park by all the recent reports of Common Loons on every puddle of Michigan. And so I just went on and on along the Huron, bypassing an Eastern Phoebe and 2 White-throated Sparrows on my way until I reached the open waters of Gallup Park.
Sometimes birding is an amazing experience. I specifically went to Gallup Park to try and see a Common Loon, knowing I was really pushing my luck quite close to the edge, and the first waterbird I see at Geddes Pond (which is the Eastern section of Gallup Park) was ... drum roll ...
a Common Loon in full breeding plumage! What a sight and, hey, what a foresight!

That's pretty hard to believe, don't you think?
And you're right:
Actually I just lied. The first waterbirds I saw upon reaching Gallup Park were Canada Geese, Mute Swans and Mallards, but they are always the first waterbirds you see when approaching any body of water in North America and even though ignoring them is not nice, it makes for more exciting blogging, so I hope I am being forgiven. Oh, and the Pied-billed Grebe next to it looked incredibly tiny, which really it isn't but it goes to show just how huge those Common Loons are.

I mentioned before in another post that next to Geddes Pond behind a rail way line lies South Pond which is a good place to be when you're a member of the waterfowl society. Yet again, this proved to be true and I was treated to sights of three Bufflehead, a gang of Common Mergansers, a few Gadwalls and - the stars - a pair of Northern Shovelers.

And this was it, I had reached the last spot of my bird excursion and headed back the way I came for home.

The return was more monotonous as I didn't stop to look at or for birds, but there was one encounter I still want to tell you about. I know I promised earlier to not write about the weather anymore, but this is all within birding context, so it should be OK:
The rain was still pouring down hard and the wind was howling and the last thing I expected - apart from a Kakapo crossing my path - was to see a Raptor in this kind of weather. But there I clearly misunderestimated them as I was suddenly taken aback by the appearance of no less than 9 Turkey Vultures.
That's part of the reason I am so fond of Turkey Vultures. They are really bad ass tough guys who won't give a toss about anything and just fly whenever and wherever they please. Gosh, I doubt they even need an atmosphere to fly and if life on earth was brought here by extraterrestrial influences, it wasn't comets that carried it, it was Turkey Vultures travelling through from outer space. They are the first to fly in the morning, the last you see flying around in the evening and I am sure they actually seek and maneuver Tornadoes to gain height quickly during their migration. And it doesn't matter what kind of weather you will see them flying through, even if there is no wind or thermal whatsoever, complete stillness of the air, they will still fly on and on without a single wing beat. This is the ultimate Raptor, the bird extraordinaire and ... what do you mean, they aren't classified as raptors?

What, Storks?


Did I ever tell you just how fond I am of Storks in particular?
Well, OK, maybe that's another story.


Patrick B. said...

So it turned out to be a pretty darn good day I would say. Is your jacket dry yet?

The only other Jochen I have ever "known" is Jochen Hecht, center for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team. So every time I see your name, his name always pops in my head. :)

Jochen said...

Yepp, it was a pretty darn good day and nope, the jacket is still wet and I have to leave the apartment with it now to hunt down some groceries.
Hard times, I tell you, hard times.

Jochen Hecht is actually a completely German name, Jochen being the German version of "John" (or vice versa depending on your perspective) and Hecht being the German word for "Pike".
John Pike.

Cool name.

Anonymous said...

Love all the birdies you saw! Looks like a great day and also seeing the P falcon! Sweeet! Thanks for writing this day up, was fun reading!

Jochen said...

Hi Mon@rch!
Very glad you like it, that's what blogging is all about.
Yes, I really liked it outside and you know what, even the rain was somehow good. It's been a long time ago that I had to be outside in bad weather and it somehow adds spice to life, taking the road that's less easy.

Anonymous said...

Turkey Vultures are such tough guys. Saw one fly over the road today driving through the Adirondacks in heavy snow (not a good idea by the way). It fooled me for a second because it was actually flapping its wings! Wierd, right?

Jochen said...

Flapping its wings?
It couldn't have been a stray Black Vulture or a Black Hawk?
That's almost too strange to be true...

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