Thursday, April 06, 2006

Found, at last

Over a month ago, I lost my binoculars. I had left them in my backpack, I was sure. I scoured my room, but a dorm room offers few hiding places. After I had emptied my three drawers and poured my closet out onto my dorm-room floor, I turned to the rest of campus. I sent out emails and visited the lost and found nearly every time I passed it.

I prefer birding alone, when I have the privacy to stroke flowers and meet birds in solitude. Not having the leisure to stop by the pond for a few minutes before or after classes was the worst part of losing my binoculars. For group birding, Fjord generously shared his own or found another pair from his floor.

The binoculars were my parents, so I knew I had to purchase new ones, but I waited. Surely those optics wanted to see warblers nearly as much as I did.

The kids in Bible club have been rowdy of late. Hoping to buy their attention with a quiet-seat award, I opened a box of ribbons and feathers and various items reserved for presentations. Maybe I could find a suitable prize in there. I didn’t, but I did find a pair of missing binoculars.

Springtime birds, here I come!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Unplanned birding

When I heard that we’d be going camping in Oklahoma during my first weekend of spring break, I didn’t think much of it. As we neared the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, however, and my little brothers strained in their seats to see the buffalo and longhorns, I was glad I had accepted Fjord’s offer to lend me his pair of binoculars.

The campout was a youth retreat (“youth” meaning anyone from the ages of 14 to 30), with plenty of other families thrown in, so birding opportunities were limited. We did have some free time, though, and I used mine to wander through the marshy brush and look for birds. Among the abundant titmice and chickadees and phoebes and Canada Geese, I found four life birds.

While we were setting up camp, I saw the familiar flight of a woodpecker. I didn’t have binoculars handy, so I crept as quietly as I could. The bird had the patterns of a Downy Woodpecker, but it just looked different. I remembered what Bolt had said about the obvious differences between a Downy and a Hairy, and I guessed Hairy, verifying it later when Mr. Holzapful gave me a bird checklist for the area.

The next day we had a break in the schedule to do our individual quiet times. As I was searching for a secluded spot, I caught sight of bright red. Another woodpecker. This one was very clean, it’s colors – red, black, white, black – all unmixed. A Red-headed Woodpecker.

On Sunday morning, we had nothing scheduled until 8, so I spent an hour birding. I climbed through branches and thorns chasing after birds for a while, but with no luck. The many ducks on the water were nothing but dark blurs. As for the land birds, I saw plenty of chickadees and titmice, but nothing I was unfamiliar with.

I was beginning to lose hope when I saw a shore bird standing in the nearby shallow water. I noticed long yellow legs, a gray, speckled back, and a light breast and belly. Soon, it gave a funny call and flew away, revealing a white tail. I grabbed my Sibley. Only two birds looked like the one I had seen: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs. The checklist provided little help, telling me only that both of the birds were “occasional” for spring. Because of the descriptions in Sibley, the funny call, and the fact that it didn’t really look 14 inches, I guessed that it was a Lesser, but I’m still not absolutely sure.

Then I saw a flash of red through the shrubs. I got my binocs on the bird and made a few notes before he flew away – a black and white back, a black head, and a red breast. Unfortunately, my look had been too brief and the brambles too thick for me to be sure. Later that day, however, I was able to observe plenty of his kin as I wandered an Oklahoma mountain. This time, I noticed that his breast wasn’t completely red and that his tail was lined in white. After flipping through my Sibley for a while, I found the match: Spotted Towhee.

On the drive back, I showed Chelsea Raine and my sister Kelsey pictures of the nine types of woodpeckers I’ve seen. They were surprised: “Wow, you’ve seen that?” “I didn’t know there were different types of woodpeckers!” Watch out, girls.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

"The sun’s gettin’ shinery, to spotlight the finery …

... spring, spring, spring"

My mind has been often frequented by this cheesy song from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers of late. Spring does indeed seem to have finished with the teasing game it plays here each winter and finally decided to stay.

The false garlic and spring beauties I learned to love so much last spring once again dot the reviving grass. The magnolia blooms, turned brown by the recent frost, are now concealed by tiny new leaves. One especially warm day, the pear blossoms flared from their shells. I won't mind leaving them this week though, for the neighborhood will greet me with a row of white trees, and in our backyard, a pear tree I helped plant ten years ago will be waiting.

The other trees needn't worry about still being half naked. Each morning, the blackbirds do a fine job of covering the branches. My ears can scarcely take in all the clattering; of course, the nearby flocks of grackles add to the chaos. The mockingbirds don't mind, though. They perch in the bushes and sing as if they had been holding their carol in all winter. And I can't help smiling as I pass under a tree and look up to see two cardinal pairs, the males in playful chase of the females.

Each afternoon, I rush from class to take a long detour by the pond. I roll up my sleeves and pants and let the wind and sun and dust stain my arms and legs while I enjoy springtime. I study the flowers and listen to the birds. I run and I sing. Sometimes, my feet want sand, so I go to the volleyball courts to shuffle around for a few minutes. Of course, homework is inevitable, and eventually I must return to my computer, shaking off the springtime radiance in a room that seems much too small for it. But I delay that moment for as long as I possibly can.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Braving the elements

Fjord’s interest in birding has continued to develop, leading to the establishment of a regular birding schedule. The plan is to go every Thursday morning before our 9:30 classes. When I canceled this week’s trip, we agreed to go instead on Saturday. A cold front blew in, though, and I was reluctant to venture out into the freezing rain and 30 degree temperatures.

So we canceled. And I justified it by telling myself that we could go Sunday morning when the thermometer had risen ten degrees. But by Saturday morning, Sunday’s forecast was in the 20s, and I decided that we had better just go before the weather got any colder.

I bundled up in enough layers to make any self-respecting Texan proud and courageously stepped into the wind and frost. Fjord and I walked down to the pond. I hoped that, even if we didn’t see anything new, the more familiar birds would begin to solidify with Fjord, allowing him to be free from my rather unreliable birding leadership.

Grackles greeted us, and several cardinals with cheerful songs. I wondered if my eyes would ever stop watering enough to allow me to see any of the birds.

We didn’t really see too much. I only had about 45 minutes, and most of the birds were clinging close to the houses. We did see a Red-Bellied Woodpecker with a belly bright enough to satisfy even the VAAM, though.

At 10:15 we parted -- Fjord went to his dorm, and I waited for a carpool in the dining-hall parking lot. Unbeknownst to me, the group had left at 10, but I had fun watching the sparrows, warblers, and juncos while I waited. Finally, at 10:45, when I couldn’t feel my toes or bend my fingers, I went back to my heated dorm room.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

In the land of storybooks

Today was a children’s book sort of day. Clear skies, sunshine, warm breezes, happy boys with bare feet -- Elizabeth Enright and Carol Ryrie Brink probably created some of their stories on days like this.

I had lunch outside, while my little brothers ran around in the greenbelt. After lunch, I joined them, stretching out on the trampoline with Les Miserables. Chickadees sang, and a bird I didn’t recognize.

I slipped off the trampoline and walked to a tree teeming with chickadees. Suddenly, I had an unexplainable urge to see them better. I’d watched them all summer long; they certainly weren’t a novelty. Perhaps that’s the thing about birding: The birds are never tiring, no matter how routine they are.

So I ran up the hill to the house to grab my binoculars. I watched the chickadees and then scanned the woods for the bird with the unfamiliar song. Soon I saw it: a Carolina Wren. I’d thought that his was one of the songs that I could identify confidently, but I suppose I have more variations to learn. Oh well.

Then I climbed into the tree fort with my book in one hand, my binoculars in the other, and my brothers close behind me. Life doesn’t get much better than that. The boys took turns looking through the binoculars and swinging off the fort, neighbors stopped by, and I read at leisure, the birds providing a pleasing soundtrack.

The perfect day to spend outside. I’m glad I’m still in college.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

... and spontaneity

On the way out to Spur, Bolt had been reminiscing about a hiking trip he had once taken to Guadalupe. We had no good reason to return home that day, so when we arrived in Abilene, we turned West instead of East.

We drove to the base of the Guadalupe Mountains just as the sun was rising. As we pulled into the campground, Bolt’s headlights shone on a pair of Canyon Towhees. Life birds before the sun had even fully risen! This was going to be a great day.

Bolt chose the nine-mile Bowl hike in hopes of finding Spotted Owls. The day never delivered any of the owls, but it did yield plenty of other birds.

As we climbed, we came to a stretch of the path filled with wrens. Cactus, Canyon, Bewick’s, and Rock Wrens all appeared. The Canyon Wren’s reddish body was my favorite, although I liked the others too.

Flocks of juncos were numerous. They were the same species, but they always looked different. I liked watching their tails spread out when they flew. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker clung to a branch, obligingly letting us look at it in detail.

The wind grew stronger as we neared the top, threatening to blow us off the path, and a lingering cough snatched at air that I would have preferred to designate toward climbing. Still, though, frequent stops for birds gave us plenty of legitimate resting time, and we peaked without too much difficulty.

Having summited, we began the circular hike through the forest. We watched a flock of tiny Bushtits, and Bolt found a Mountain Chickadee among them.

The birds disappeared then, and the wind swept through the forest, battering the trees and our hopes. Not for long, though. Soon we heard a bird, and we looked to see a nuthatch with a bright red breast hammering away at a tree. A few Mountain Chickadees provided better looks than the one we had seen previously, and we sat down to eat our lunch.

During lunch, we once again heard the familiar sound of chickadees, and we abandoned our crackers and peanut butter to pursue the birds. Nuthatches were among the chickadees, and Bolt identified them as Pygmys. Later on, we spotted Acorn Woodpeckers, which brought my acquaintances in the Picidae family up to seven.

A glance at a watch told us that we would need to hurry if we were to fully descend before darkness did, so we bid farewell to the Bowl and all of its birds and headed down the mountain.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Tradition ...

Bolt goes on a Christmas bird count each year, and since he’s been stuck in the greatest state of all this year, I got to join him on a Texas Christmas bird count.

We left on Friday and broke the five-hour drive up with a brief stop at a lake. A cooperative roadrunner stayed in sight for so long that we eventually left it to look at thrashers and warblers. The lake was fairly empty, but a shore bird walked right past us. I’d spent so much time enjoying the species while Bolt and Lynn attempted an identification in October that I should have known immediately what it was. I didn’t though, and Bolt had to tell me that it was a Least Sandpiper

We arrived in the booming town of Spur, Texas at 7:30 or so and stopped at a tiny Mexican restaurant for dinner. The curve-billed thrashers were life birds for me, and Bolt had seen a life bird the week before, so after dinner we drove across the street to enjoy blizzards.

The bird count began at 7:30 the next morning. We gathered with some other Texans, and the leader divided up the territory. Bolt and I were paired with a father and his almost-ten-year-old son.

I enjoyed the count. I’d heard that they are often rushed and allow little time for enjoying birds, but I found enough time to watch while the others were counting. (I’m just overflowing with team spirit, I know.) I enjoyed the Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Also, the overly abundant kestrels were fun; I felt very familiar with them by the time the day was over.

The day provided two highlights. The first occurred when we stopped at an abandoned shack. We tramped around for a bit, and soon, Barn Owls began flying out of the building. We guessed that there were three of them, although they seemed much more numerous. They flew into the surrounding trees and would fly away and back again, over and over. Amazing.

The second highlight was the turkey. We’d heard it for a while, and I wanted to see it. I’m not really sure why I’ve wanted so much to see a turkey, but I have. We drove slowly down the highway, scanning the tall grass. Suddenly, it appeared. I got a short look at it, but not long enough. A police officer stopped us to caution us about the danger of pausing in the middle of the road, and we didn’t see the bird again.

Of course I enjoyed the other birds too. The ravens and the hawks and the meadowlarks and the finches and the quail and the Pyrrhuloxia and the many other species that showed up during the day … 33, to be exact.

We decided to skip to compilation dinner and head back to Dallas early. Plans can change, though, and ours certainly did.