Friday, December 31, 2010

End of the Year

Northern Shovelers, Castalia, Ohio

It’s not uncommon at this time of year for birders to take a look at their life list and contemplate adding one more bird, or maybe chasing after a rare sighting in the area to sort of pump up the yearly species total. This past week I found myself guilty on both counts. The end result can be both good and less than good.
First, I thought Santa was going to deliver an early Christmas present to me. A few days before the holiday word popped up on the Ohio Ornithological Society’s hot line that several Ross’s Geese were at Castalia Pond, about 75 miles away, along with several Cackling Geese. The alarm bells sounded in our household and it wasn’t the jingling of sleigh bells. While both Susan and I have tallied the Ross’s Goose, the Cackling variety of Canada Goose has eluded us.
Plans were made, snacks packed, car gassed up and off we went. Oh, we did have company for the holidays, my brother in from the nation’s capital. He had heard of this bird-chasing habit of ours but had never witnessed it. I might add that he hates cold weather and the day’s temperature was 18—not a good combination.

American Wigeon, Castalia, Ohio

The end of the story is that it turned out to be a wild goose chase. The “target” birds were nowhere to be seen. My brother could not understand why we were not dismayed at driving all that distance and not seeing the bird. I tried to explain it’s an acquired skill, missing the target but hitting something else, like stunning Northern Shovelers and American Wigeons.
Then, on New Year’s Eve day, we had a repeat performance, sort of. This time it was a Golden Eagle reported at Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area, about 75 miles in the opposite direction. Again, we’ve both tallied the golden, but it’s so rare in Ohio, you just have to chase it—if at all possible. Our first in Ohio, several years ago, was on a day when the thermometer never got above minus 13. Now, that’s chilly—but worth it.
Again, to shorten the story, the beautiful Golden Eagle was not to be seen. In its place we tallied six Bald Eagles, an equally rare sight in Ohio.
All of which goes to prove, sometimes you win and sometimes you win in the birding game—true sport has no losers.

Bald Eagle, Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Not Just Another Sparrow—Part 2

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

For many birders, making a trip to St. Louis was, and still is, akin to a trip to any spot of birding where a rarity can be found. It was, is, the only place in the U.S. where you could tick the Eurasian Tree Sparrow off your life list.
A lot of mysteries surround this diminutive bird, the greatest for me is why the bird does not expand beyond its current range. Twenty-five years ago there was an article in the American Birding Association’s newsletter about the sparrow and how to locate it—within a well-defined neighborhood in St. Louis. Over the years the article has helped a lot of birders track down this little guy.
Now, it seems the bird is expanding its range from the three-block area where it has thrived. We’ve seen it across the Mississippi River in the Riverlands Project area and, fortunately, in the suburbs—right at my mother-in-law’s feeder on occasion. Today was such an occasion.
How the bird got to St Louis is not a mystery. In the 19th century, south St. Louis was the home of many European immigrants who wanted to see familiar birds from their homeland. So, on April 25, 1870, 12 Eurasian Tree Sparrows were released in Lafayette Park in south St. Louis. Numbers of other European birds were also released (European Goldfinches, Eurasian Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, and Linnets), but only the Eurasian Tree Sparrow successfully established a breeding population.
The birds are not physically remarkable, only rare—which makes it remarkable, I guess. It’s still somewhat secretive out here in the ‘burbs, so any sighting is worth recording. As luck would have it, the trio I saw this morning was cavorting with some House Sparrows allowing for great size and color comparisons.
I suppose purists complain about these essentially invasive species, however, the diversity crowd seems to have assured the continuation of these critters, based on the notion that a life bird is a life bird.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hunting for Ghosts

Woodson County courthouse, Yates Center, Kansas.

I stood looking at the imposing red brick courthouse, probably, possibly, where my father stood nearly 95 years ago during the Kansas-life he had, and I never knew about. He was a kid fresh into his teens in 1916, anchored by so many loose ends in his life we can’t begin to imagine—or long for. The building stands in the near-geographic center of Woodson County, Kansas, where my genealogy research has most recently taken me.
Looking east, the direction from which he had somehow managed to navigate, colorful buildings built in the late 1880s, restored numerous times, blocked my view of the rising sun. Looking west, were his future with disappointments he’d yet to discover, lay, dark clouds and unrelenting winds welcomed me to late-November Kansas.
The streets are, were, uneven, made of solid, unspeaking bricks, darker in color than those used to build the courthouse building, designed to keep secrets intact. No stop signs around this square to impede traffic or progress, one might guess. Angle parking on both sides of the street still left plenty of room for modern cars to make U-turns. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what might have been when the dirt streets were crowded when long-horned cattle passing through from the no-longer existing railroads to the tall grass prairies north and west of Yates Center.
My camouflage, head to toe, seemed a bit off the mark—again. First, my car was the only one of its kind in this land of seriously big pickup trucks and SUVs I'd need a step ladder to get into. I’m no slave to fashion, so when I entered the Feedbunk, the only place around to get breakfast, I donned the obligatory baseball cap, however, mine advertised striped bass, not some cattle feed or farm implement. I had on my best Justin boots, only to learn natives dress in real camo and wear Nike and New Balance. Since I was relatively free of mud at 6:30 a.m., they probably sensed I was an outsider. (Full disclosure: I’m something of a city guy so I had to ask what a “Feedbunk” was. The waitress looked at me like I might be from outer space and said, “Well, honey, it’s where we put the feed for the cattle,” which I guess is better than calling your restaurant the Food Trough.
I ate at the Foodbunk two mornings, noting that the same guys sat in the same spots, wearing the same clothes both mornings. The things that changed were the conversations, which extended from one table across the aisle to another, booth to booth. I noticed the waitress never offered the locals a menu. She’d just ask, “Are ya eatin’ this morning?” then bring a customer a plate of food.
Conversations ranged from lost dogs, “Yer dog ever come home, Bill?” “Yep. Never did tell me where he’d been for three days,” to hunting; “Yer nephews get any birds yesterday?” “Those two fools? First the young one shot up a trash bag that was blowin’ across the field, then the otherun shot two crows, then they complained ‘bout not seein’ any pheasants.”
I’m not sure if the conversations were real or just for my entertainment. Doesn’t matter, really. As writer William Least Heat-Moon says, “You can worry about every twist in the road, or you can sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

Where my dad’s dreams of being a cowboy began 95 years ago.