Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A day afield


I have succumbed to what Scott Weidensaul calls "fat man biology" in Living on the Wind. Yes, I study birds, but I do so from a dumpy office tucked along the sterile hallway of a science building. Yes, I study birds, but stationed in front of screens and textbooks, wrestling with concepts of Bayesian inference and Googling the abundant error messages I encounter with my neophytic coding abilities. Yes, I study birds, but I never see birds--I rely on preexisting databases and the information available from satellite imagery. 

It has been a challenging summer, full of headaches induced by excessive screen time and bewildering Greek notation that I haven't encountered since Calculus class years ago. I've learned a lot. But that comes at the expense of what Mycroft Holmes calls legwork, which I adore. I miss walking, pack embracing my hips, binoculars in hand, the sweat, the mosquitoes...

Finally I could take it no more and took Saturday to reconnoiter sites for my field season next year. I arose at 3:30, weary from spotty sleep (few things excite me such that they impair my sleep, but a day afield is one of them), brewed some coffee, and saddled up my lab's field truck. My mission: to find spots with grassland birds. 

I initially targeted some relic prairie fragments in the environs of Livingston in extreme western Alabama. But the fragments were just that: fragments, too small and too choked by invading cedars to host proper grassland birds. I kept myself occupied with Mississippi Kites, a common species that nevertheless always tickles my Yankee bird background. 
Another species I seldom saw growing up was Summer Tanager. They are verminous in Dixie.

The major drama of the morning occurred when I encountered a bird that I almost couldn't identify. I'd like to be modest, but...that seldom happens. After a double take, I realized that this was a hatch-year White-eyed Vireo, just dissimilar enough from its parents to prove confusing with its dark iris and muted plumage.
 I have the inexplicable obsession of photographing birds in flight. This is a Common Grackle--there were lots of them flying around in packs, a sure sign of late summer. It is engaging in some primary molt--and his tail is looking ratty as well.
 As the classic Alabama Swelter reached unbearable levels in the late morning, I jettisoned my mission and repaired to some shaded areas along the Tombigbee River. There I found lots of birds, including this Prothonotary Warbler, one of a group of four cavorting along the riverbank.
If I had to choose between seeing a cool bird or seeing a cool amphibian, I think I might choose the frog. I've seen so many birds in my life. I know less about frogs; they seem more mysterious; they are also fun to catch.
 Insects also beguile me. Every time I'm afield, I notice insects, and every time, I'm awestruck by just how little I know about them. Butterflies are the easy ones, the cardinals and robins of Class Insecta. This one is an Eastern Comma, lapping up residue from a deer skull leftover from past hunting season.
 It was hot, so I stopped in the mom-n-pop grocery at a backwoods crossroads. Attempting to blend in as an Alabamian, I asked the proprietor, "Y'all have sweet tea?" He was not fooled, immediately drawling, "Where ya from?" in response. 
Wood Stork
I finally found my grassland birds by accident at the end of the day. I stopped to gape at the swirls of vultures, herons, and Wood Storks around the sprawling catfish farms on the road back to Tuscaloosa, and there, in the old pastures and hayfields, I saw meadowlarks, Dickcissels, and Loggerhead Shrikes. A fallow field sandwiched between catfish ponds may not be as sexy as a restored nugget of prairie that enjoys prescribed burns every year, but if that's where the birds are, that's where I'll be. 
Catfish farms, the economic backbone of the Black Belt of Alabama

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