Best of the year

Written by my mom, Carol McFeeters Thompson

The end of the calendar year invites reflection. As I turn the page on a new year, I look back over the best adventures of the past twelve months.

2010 was a great year for life birds Adding a life bird is not an easy thing for an experienced birder to do – especially not in his own home territory. When a life list reaches about two hundred birds, most of the birds that can be easily seen in central Illinois have already been

listed. After that, life birds usually come only in ones or twos per year, primarily during migration.

The “Birthday Bird” was our first lifer of 2010.

Adding a life bird in midwinter is difficult. Adding a life bird on home territory, on a specific day in midwinter is almost out of reach. But, that was his goal; it was his birthday, after all.

The number of potential species to be seen is greatly reduced when the many birds that depend on insects or flowers migrate south in the fall. He tallied the year-round birds years ago. The best possibilities for a winter life bird would be irruptive birds, birds that summer in the far north and winter in central Illinois, waterfowl that have strayed from the flyways, or some of the rarer owls.

So, he decided to try for one of the rarer owls first.

In order to avoid harassment by crows and jays, owls usually spend the day roosting in the dense foliage of a conifer. He created a mental list of potential sites and began searching the evergreens. He scanned each tree in search of opaque areas, then moved a bough wherever

necessary to see through the foliage. He had only scoured four or five clumps of trees when he saw the diminutive outline of a saw whet, the smallest eastern owl, perched midway out on a branch within a red cedar. This was almost too easy! He had his life bird.

As we pulled up alongside his truck, I noted a very self-satisfied expression and knew he had found something good.

Walking back over to the cedar, he carefully moved a single bough to reveal a little owl no more than eight inches tall. We could clearly see a shallow flat face with disproportionately large, bright yellow eyes and a black beak. The base of the bill was surrounded by bristles with stiff, lacy feathers radiating around each eye. The shape of the head was distorted by ear openings so asymmetrical in size, shape and placement that the skull was misshapen. It wore an appealing, almost sorrowful expression

The northern saw whet owl blended well with the sun-dappled background, sitting nearly motionless on its roost. White eyebrows connected in a “Y” over the beak. Its short body and tail were chestnut brown, its breast and belly streaked with pale buff and white. Tiny feathered legs and feet were punctuated by long, well-curved jet black talons. For several seconds, he watched us watch him.

Only a month or so later, I added a second winter life bird to my list.

Horned larks were the “beside-the-road birds” of my childhood. Flushing frustratingly way out ahead of the car from the exposed gravel of snowy roadside shoulders just before I could get a good definitive look at them. I was an adult before I managed a certain identification – brown back, light beneath, a hint of yellow, black head stripes and chest shield, black tufts behind the ears – and knew them to be horned larks. It was years later that I learned that flocks of horned larks, every bird swooping and veering in unison, might also include longspurs and snow buntings.

I have set a personal goal the past couple of years to find a snow bunting in the midst of a flock of horned larks. I set my sights on the snow bunting first because, being mostly white, I felt that I had a decent chance to pick one out of even a swirling flock of birds. The field guide describes snow buntings as common in the Midwest in winter, so I thought it was a reasonable goal. For the past two winters, I have tried to focus on every flushing flock looking for a bird that didn’t belong with the rest. A couple of weeks after I admitted my goal out loud, I received a call from my friend Andrea in Michigan. Her voice was filled with excitement as she related her own discovery of a flock of snow buntings. I was thrilled for her, of course.

I continued to look.

Finally, it was my turn. With a heavy snow cover, I spotted a large flock of birds before they flushed. As I approached, the flock swept low over the open field, repeatedly climbing into the sky and sinking low over the ground again. As they banked in a steep turn in preparation for settling back down at the initial flushing point, I spotted a group of birds in the middle of the flock flashing white wings tipped with black, bringing to mind snowflakes scattered on a winter wind. Snow buntings! There was no doubt.

Travel is the quickest way for an experienced birder to add to her life list. Spring break brought a trip to south Florida and new opportunities.

When my daughter was little, she used to amuse herself while we were traveling in the car by reaching for the omnipresent Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds (I never know when my next life bird might appear and dare me to identify it.) and choosing a bird painting from among its pages for me to identify from her description.

Every time we played the game, it was inevitable that she would eventually say, “It has a blue head, and a red belly, a yellowish green back, and yucky brown wings and tail.”

“Painted bunting?” I would reply, trying not to sound too confident, but knowing that it was the only possibility and pretending that she hadn’t picked it every other time we’d played. I had

never actually seen a painted bunting but it is a spectacularly gaudy songbird that captured a little girl’s attention each time she saw it..

“Yep.” She’d answer, not at all surprised or impressed that I was correct.

Over time, the painted bunting became “Lauren’s bird” in my mind and I vowed to see it, placing it first on my bucket list. Having heard that a painted bunting had been reliably seen at the Corkscrew Swamp sanctuary, I included it in my travel plans. I arrived, with Lauren, at Corkscrew Swamp before 8:00 in the morning. Upon entering the visitor center, I asked, “I would really like to see a painted bunting. Can you give me any advice?”

The volunteer smiled a big smile, pointed to a pair of comfortable chairs beside a window a few feet away, and answered, “Just have a seat right there.”

It was meant to be. Moments later, the first of five painted buntings arrived at a feeder within inches of both Lauren and I. We saw the bird for the first time outside of a field guide at the same time. He was every bit as magnificent as Mr. Peterson’s painting, but now I can provide my own description: violet blue head, brilliant red belly, and lime green back. Seeing it with Lauren made it perfect.

The same trip offered opportunities to see other forms of wildlife high on my list.

Walking on a sugar sand beach, warmed by the sun and cooled by the sea, treasure hunting in the sinuous line of high tide debris can be the very definition of a “leisurely vacation” after a long Midwestern winter. Myriad shells in a spectrum of colors and patterns decorated the shoreline. A pleasant ocean breeze carried the crash of the waves and the laughter of gulls.

We were so focused on shells that we nearly missed seeing the first prominent slate gray dorsal fin slicing through the water just offshore. Soon, the waters off the point were filled with bottlenose dolphins chasing a school of fish. We were witnessing a large pod of the gregarious swimming mammals, estimated by several to contain more than fifty individuals. All along the beach, people stopped what they were doing to absorb the spectacle. We watched, mesmerized, as they repeatedly surfaced and dove. Like all mammals, dolphins breathe air. Their nostril, or blowhole, is located at the top of the head, allowing them to breathe without exposing much of the body. They could have remained mysteries of the depths, but several of the magnificent eight-foot creatures chose to reveal themselves.

Rising to a level just below the surface, their streamlined shapes clearly visible, two dolphins came hurtling toward us at a high rate of speed, propelling themselves with powerful horizontal tail flukes that stroke up and down. (Fish have vertical tails that are moved side to side.) Just shy of the beach, each did an abrupt rolling somersault to change direction, throwing a plume of spray in our direction. The maneuver revealed dark gray backs that shaded to paler gray on the smooth skin of their flanks and became nearly white underneath – the countershading typical of many swimming species.

Were the two coordinating their efforts to catch food by chasing fish toward the shore or simply showing off for us? We couldn’t be sure.

A little further south, a childhood dream came true.

When I was a little girl, I read about key deer in the “Weekly Reader” – a four page weekly newspaper written for grade school students. The article was a piece about endangered species that explained that the key deer was a dog-sized version of a whitetail deer that had migrated to the Florida keys over a land bridge during the Wisconsin glaciation and that it was an endangered species with less than one hundred individuals left in the world. I remember I tried to imagine such a marvel as a two-foot deer and I also remember thinking that I would never see one. I felt ripped off.

The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957, the same year I was born. By that time, the key deer teetered on the brink of extinction with an estimated population of only twenty-seven individuals. Loss of the tropical hardwood hammock habitat was the culprit. Establishment of the refuge, and a habitat restoration and enhancement program using prescribed burns and control of invasive non-native plants protected the key deer and twenty-one other imperiled species. Slowly the deer began to return. Forty-three years later, during the population study completed in 2000, the size of the herd was estimated to be about eight hundred deer.

This spring I saw my first key deer in the Refuge on Big Pine Key. The delicate little creature stepped gingerly out of the shadows of the palms and looked at me with big brown eyes. It differed from the whitetail deer I am accustomed to seeing in central Illinois only by its diminutive size, but seeing it was the fulfillment of a dream.

I realized another childhood dream in the fall when we overheard a conversation about a whooping crane in the company of a flock of sandhills at Haehnle Sanctuary in Michigan.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hope to see a whooping crane some day. I remember learning about “endangered species” when I was a little girl. One of the examples of an endangered species given in our “Weekly Reader” was a whooping crane. The whooping crane was a victim of encroaching civilization, retreating as the settlers drained the prairie sloughs. We read that only forty of the elegant birds remained in the wild – all summering at Wood Buffalo Provincial Park in Canada and wintering at Aransas in Texas. Efforts have been made all of these years to re-establish the stately birds. The bird at Haehnle was whooping crane number 37-07 – a bird that had followed an ultra-light plane on its first migration from Wisconsin to Florida in 2007.

We arrived at the Haehnle Sanctuary in plenty of time the next evening to set up the spotting scope and spread a picnic on a blanket on a hillside overlooking the dun colored marsh. The trees around us were painted with a yellow, gold, orange, and crimson October palette. In the distance we spotted a small flock of bright white great egrets with our eyes, using binoculars to identify them with certainty. Larger than the egrets, a whooping crane would be easy to spot against the pale golden background. Beyond the egrets was a small flock of sandhills standing in the water. They were more difficult to spot without binoculars and required a spotting scope to discern details.

We carefully scanned each small flock of cranes as it approached. At 6:06, an inverse “W”-shaped flock flew directly over our heads. The farthest bird at the back of the flock was a little different than the others – a little longer, paler, and distinctly marked with black wingtips. Whooper!

My eyes welled up with tears. I had dreamed of this view for a lifetime of watching birds. The whooping crane is an elegant and stately bird, the tallest and among the rarest of North American birds. The flock landed among the sandhills at the back of the marsh. We switched to spotting scopes to see the satiny white bird fold its black-tipped wings. It immediately began to preen the long plumes of feathers tufted over its rump, revealing a carmine red patch of skin on the crown of its head. We lingered, quietly watching the preening bird, until dusk swallowed our view through the scopes.

It was number 342 on my life list. Who knows what 2011 will bring?

***

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

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