Monday, January 30, 2012

The Cost Effective Solution to Maximize Birding Potential

Financially impoverished birders have two options. The first is to never take birding trips; the other is to embark on bum adventures on minimal budgets. The latter is, of course, the superior option. A five-day break before my spring semester started provided a perfect time span for such a bum trip, so my girlfriend Alison and I headed north, to the Upper Peninsula.

The Bum Code of Birding has but three rules:

1. Never spend money on unnecessary luxuries (e.g., hotels, showers, food, etc).
2. Pay for necessities (bridge fares, parking fees, coffee) with scrounged change.
3. Avoid plans. Drift.

Follow the rules, and you will enjoy abundant success.

The eastern Upper Peninsula, in the vicinity of Sault St. Marie, is a popular destination for northern specialties in the winter. We wandered the area, finding birds like Bohemian Waxwings...

...Pine Grosbeaks...

...Pine Siskins...

...and Common Redpolls. All of these birds were at Dunbar Experimental Forest well south of the Sault. The feeders there teamed with hundreds of siskins and redpolls. Strange combinations of southern and northern birds--American Robin and Pine Grosbeak, Red-winged Blackbird and White-winged Crossbill--made things interesting.

A day of birding the Sault was plenty. The Sault style of birding--driving around country roads, occasionally pulling over to check out a shrike or Snow Bunting--appeals to neither Alison or me, so we moved westward, into the land of spruce and birch, to search for denizens of the boreal forest.

At Peshekee Grade, west of Marquette, we donned snowshoes and tramped through a couple feet of snow to look for Boreal Chickadees, Gray Jays, and Black-backed Woodpeckers. The line between walking and wallowing loses sharpness in snow of this depth--we both took our fair share of spills.

Ah, but it was worth it! The loss of a bit of dignity is certainly compensated by the sight of Boreal Chickadees, brown and raspy-sounding, clambering through the snowy spruces.

Our other targets, however, remained concealed in the frozen forest. The Gray Jays, however, were kind enough to find us the moment we began to eat lunch back at the car. They liked tortillas just fine but refused to eat Clif bars.

Many miles of hiking over the next couple days failed to produce our other quarry, the Black-backed Woodpecker. But, the remainder of our time was filled with adventure--the discovery of the most immaculate gas station bathroom in existence, the consumption of pasties that exceeded a pound in weight, and a brief jaunt "just to stretch the legs" that morphed into a ten mile hike at Pictured Rocks. I look forward to the next bum trip I will take. Where I will go and which birds I will see will remain unknown until the very moment of occurrence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Winter Stewardship

No, it wasn't a dream! I really do have a job wandering around outside looking at birds! I worked another shift Monday morning and once again thoroughly enjoyed

The biggest surprise came early in the shift. While pishing at a flock of chickadees at the edge of the preserve, I noticed a midget of a bird, wings crackling with energy, bouncing around in the underbrush nearby. "Oh, cool, Golden-crowned Kinglet." It had been awhile since I'd seen one in the preserve. Suddenly, the bird, which I had not yet glassed, opened its bill and uttered a snappy jid-it, seemingly indignant I had mistaken him for his cousin. Yes, a Ruby-crowned--a bird worth ignoring in California, but, here in Michigan, an excellent bird for the winter.

Compared to October and November, when the skies are full of flyovers, the January skies are bleak and empty except for the resident Red-tails or geese winging over. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when this Northern Harrier cruised overhead. It was a new campus bird for me.

It was a chilly morning, temperatures lounging a few degrees above freezing. Too warm for snow, but plenty cold for frost and stiff fingers.

The preserve was a farm back in the olden days. Some of the clues to its history are subtle, like the uneven ground from the tilled fields, but others, like the skeleton of this old car, are blatant evidence of the past.

A would-be white landscape now masquerades as a different place, a place much farther to the south with scarce snow, maybe Tennessee. The dearth of snow this winter is frightening. The woods are brown and steel-gray instead of white. Here and there, however, scraps of color--lichens or rose hips--can be found.

Even if it's the "wrong" color, the preserve still an art gallery with innumerable exhibits. Some are only visible if you kneel in the leaf litter with a critical eye. Beetles may belong to the phyla Arthropoda, but their sculpture outdoes that of some human artists I have seen.

What surprises are waiting in the woods for next time?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Preserve

After a series of boring, frustrating jobs, I've finally landed one I genuinely enjoy: preserve steward in Calvin's ecosystem preserve. My responsibilities? Walk the trails, greet visitors, clear fallen branches, pick up litter, and, oh, watch birds.

It is tempting to surmise that frigid (well, actually, it's been extraordinarily warm this winter) woods are lifeless, but three hours of roaming through them will convince you otherwise. Bird numbers and diversity were low, as would be expected, but my wanderings produced a couple goodies, including a Northern Shrike and a Great Horned Owl. I had packed only my wide-angle lens, so the shrike in this photo may or may not be identifiable.

The woods really are beautiful this time of year. I will cherish the privilege of being paid to wander through them.