Bernie's Birdship

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

No Exit on the Prairie

Lately, the birding in general has been a let down from the few intense weeks of the spring WARBLER migration. I must have racked up at least 10 – 15 life birds in May alone – mostly warblers, and got good long looks at several birds I’d only fleetingly seen in the past few years.

This past weekend, I decided to bite the bullet and go birding with my buddy A. A is highly active in the local birding community- perhaps one of the most active folks in the state, as far as citizen naturalists go, and his birding outings are long and brutal escapades of forced marches, punishing road trips and lots and lots of, “Oh, we’re just going to walk up to that stand of trees (1/2 mile away through stinging prairie grasses), go around the stand (1 mile slog), back over to that marsh (non visible) and than take the perimeter of that other stand (2 miles away) back to the road (through more stinging grasses and ticks) and then to the car (3 mile haul). We might make a few more stops before we get to the next stop- the outhouse at XYZ Slough (or marsh or whatever) had a few CASPIAN TERNS two years ago, and once I had a HARRIER, I think in 1988…”

I admit that my biggest mistake when I have a birding date with A is that although I know better, I usually get drunk the night before, which results in me getting up at 5:30 am, often on 5 hours or less of sleep, highly dehydrated, with a 8 hour ordeal of interminable slogging and praying for death ahead of me. Birdwatching hungover is a hideous experience. Lifting my ultra heavy binoculars to scan the branches for some diabolically small and hidden bird induces a kind of queasiness that just makes me want to puke. I usually spend most of our time together alternately zoning out, praying for death, and trying not to hurl (or shit my pants).

To calm myself, I look at the grasses blowing in the wind. This always works. I try to reconnect with my surroundings through concentrating on the hypnotic swaying of the various catkins and delightfully-tufted tips of the multitude of grasses, and I think of my favorite Carl Sandburg poem about love- “Waiting in rainleaf whispers, waiting in the dry stalks of noon… bending- never to be broken”. I think for Carl Sandburg, lots of things (at least his poems) always come back to his childhood nature emblem- the grasses of his Midwestern prairies. My childhood nature emblem is the ocean, specifically, the ocean retreating over the wet rocks of the beach (also hypnotic), but I haven’t had much chance to connect with it over the past few years. I’ve been trying to get a grasp on the prairie, and every time I go out into it, or the grasslands, I try to solidify this growing connection I am building with it. Part of my “midwesternization” I guess. I need to develop a new love of landscape….

Carl Sandburg is king of the prairie grasses. I think of him as I slash through the sharp grass, scattering blue moths ahead of me, and knocking tan husks off into the dry wind as I go.

Every once in a while, I snap to attention long enough to be schooled on the chattering of a HOUSE WREN, the cooing of a YELLOW BILLED CUCKO, or the buzz of a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW. We stop to stare at a HENSLOWs turning his head right and left on a low bush- showing his painted dots and markings like a tiny cheetah bird. We hear the robotic buzzing of the GRASSHOPPER SPARROW off to one side, but it never materializes out of the sedges.

A birds by ear. The second he gets out of the car he starts his narrative: “I hear two CARDINALS, a few GOLDFINCH, a HENSLOW’s SPARROW over there…CHIMNEY SWIFTS, FIELD SPARROWS…..ORIOLE…etc..”

Anyway, even though during some parts of our outing I felt like I was having a bad out of body experience, complete with nausea, sweating, and an overwhelming feeling of being trapped on a stuffy, never ending summer prairie (kind of like how I imagine the characters in No Exit might have felt in their stuffy Hell-parlor), I managed to salvage a few moments.

We had a CHAT, which I never had seen before- a giant yellow blob of atypical warbler, two perfect HENSLOWs SPARROWS perched on scrub tops, a YELLOW-BILLED CUCKO, heard an OVENBIRD calling from deep within a dark and distant stand of oaks, FIELD SPARROWS, a ton of MEADOWLARKS, INDIGO BUNTINGS, COMMON YELLOWTHROATS, YELLOW WARBLERS, RED TAILED HAWKS, TURKEY VULTURES, TREE SWALLOWS, GREAT BLUE HERONS (we had seven nests at one dead stick pond and 15 babies), GREAT EGRETS, WOOD DUCKS, BCNHs, BARN SWALLOWS, JAYS, one female BLUEBIRD, two GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHERS, two RED HEADED WOODPECKERS, DOWNIES, HAIRIES, FLICKERS, COWBIRDS, SONG SPARROWS, and the usual GRACKES, STARLINGS, ROBINS, etc.


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