“Daily Sightings” A Blog

Daily Sightings: A Two-Fisted Blog

Unseen.

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Yesterday, I spooked some deer in my woods and saw their white tails flip as they ran.

This reminded me of a favorite bird I have not been seeing recently. The Northern Flicker. An un-sighting can be as noteworthy as a sighting.

What does a deer’s rump have to do with big tan woodpeckers that have black specks, yellow under their wings, and bluish heads with red spots?

Like deer, Flickers flash white at you as they take off.

There’s a big, bright patch on their lower back.

I don’t know why it’s there.

Girls have been highlighting their lower backs with tattoos for years. An attention-getting decoration. Maybe a Flicker’s white rump is also designed to grab attention.

Who’s to say? But, more important: who’s to see?

There are damn few Flickers around. Even the ornithologists call it a “decline.” I didn’t realize I hadn’t been seeing these birds until the deer’s white tails reminded me.

Flickers are among my favorites. That they’re largely unseen these days is disturbing. If you made a film called “Unseen,” people would think it was a scary movie.

FOOTNOTE:

The above post ran in May of 2012. Since then, it’s received a lot of comments, more than 100 at last count. One just recently came in, almost four years later. It’s good news that people are seeing Flickers, and when they Google them, they often wind up viewing this page. Thanks to everyone who commented, and told us that Flickers are alive and well.

Countdown.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I saw a Western Kingbird where Eastern Kingbirds live. A new bird for my life list.

This list is just a bunch of checks in my field guide. When I see a new bird, I find its picture and check it off.

There are many checks.

Even Alaskan, Caribbean and pelagic birds.

Along with vagrants like the Western Kingbird.

I like the term vagrant.

But, I’m starting to dislike the checklist.

Counting new things seems, at first, to be counting up. But up is the wrong direction. It’s really counting down.

When I bought a new car, I noticed the odometer counting up. But as I drove away, my car was going down in value, down in history.

A countdown.

When I put a check next to the Western Kingbird, I thought, okay, another new bird added.

Then, I thought: no, another bird subtracted from the future.

A bleak thought. But there’s a cure for bleak thoughts. Sit by a river in the woods, away from everything. And forget about counting.

Smell.

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

I saw surprisingly few birds today, even though I was in the woods for hours. But I did have an observation.

Something on the birdless trails tweaked a memory of the last Bulls game. Might be the feel of a letdown, but that wasn’t all. There was a smell.

When I watched the Bulls I’d been eating onion pizza. Today, I smelled onion in the green woods. It was pretty strong, and got stronger when I stepped in the undergrowth.

A dimly remembered fact came to mind. This area has been known since pre-Columbian times for wild onions.

Some people call them leeks. Whatever, they have a distinctive smell. And they were growing strong where I was hiking.

The word “Chicago” is from a Native American language, and means “wild onion,” as you might have heard.

That’s a pretty sensible name. Unlike New York’s “big apple,” whose origin is murky.

There’s no redeeming bird-watching story to share after today’s hike. All I came out of the woods with was a great onion smell in my nose.

It made me look forward to lunch. And to my next visit to this place. The birding has got to be better tomorrow. And, besides, I like onions.

Edible.

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

You came for the wild. You wanted to see birds in deep woods, not at feeders. You wanted the rugged, wild-ass ones, far from anything man-made.

The woods are bloated with green. But birds are strangely scarce. Instead, deer caught your eye. This happens sometimes.

Bird watching isn’t always about birds. It’s always about watching.

You watched the deer grazing in knee-deep foliage, and they watched you. You got into staring contests. Big animals, defiant, standing their ground. They chew, and your mind takes a hike of its own, on a weird trail…

You think about how these deer live in a place where everything’s edible. The whole world is food.

What would it feel like? You imagine hiking through woods where there are cheeseburgers on trees. Nachos and Oreos under foot, spaghetti on bushes. Streams of beer.

For deer, at this time of year, that’s their payoff after a freezing, hungry winter in this place.

Okay, you didn’t see birds today. You could go to the feeders near the lodge at the trailhead. There will be towhees, hummers, orioles, cardinals, cowbirds.

But you’re not in the mood. Today, you wanted birds that would say: “We don’t need your stinkin’ seeds.” You wanted wild ones.

So you stay with the deer in their edible world, and think wild thoughts.

Field Mark.

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

Sparrows generally aren’t interesting. They’re drab, small, not much different from each other, and common.

Today I went to a wild field and saw a little brown bird. Sparrow. No need to define it further. But I looked through binoculars.

Wait. Not a Song Sparrow, which is what my guess was, since they hang out around here. Not a White-throated, White-crowned, Fox or House Sparrow.

Who cares? Just a sparrow. Then I noticed it had a strangely colored beak. Sort of pink. Bird books call that a field mark.

When I got home I leafed through my field guide’s sparrow section. Yeah, they had a sparrow with a pinkish beak. The rest of its field marks matched those I’d seen, too.

The field guide had identified my sparrow by pointing out its field mark, and I admit I found the moment interesting.

I got the buzz I used to get when I first started noticing that birds you see out in the world can be matched up to those in a book.

It was interesting, also, that the name of this bird with the distinctive field mark is: Field Sparrow.

Dark May.

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

I haunt the woods along the river year ‘round. But in May they’re a little more active.

Example: warblers. Multi-colored birds that appeal to the collecting instinct. They don’t warble, though. Even if they did, the name’s insulting.

There are other May birds. Bright tanagers, orioles, hummers, thrushes, the springtime homecoming squad.

Uncharacteristically, this May I’m drawn to a bird that doesn’t fit with the cool kids.

It’s a creepy bird in a dead tree over the water. Prehistoric profile, hooked beak, beady eyes, snaky neck, long bony wings.

These wings are held open when the bird’s sitting and staring back at you.

It’s a Double-crested Cormorant. Not sure about the double crests; I don’t see even one. But it’s my May bird.

If Poe knew of it he would have canned his Raven and written “The Cormorant.” Although it’s probably harder to rhyme something with Cormorant. How about “mordant?”

I’ve been watching the Cormorant. He doesn’t leave.

Maybe other birds will break the mood he’s brought to this wild place. But, so far, it’s been a dark May.

Rethinking Ireland.

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

On March 17, I put a semi-serious piece in Viewpoints: “A Bird Watcher in Ireland.”

It was about Ireland being interesting, but disappointing in bird diversity.

I wised up since then, because of a little book I’d forgotten.

In the clutter of my bookshelves, I recently came across “The Birds of Killarney National Park,” a souvenir from my Irish trip.

It was — no joke — skinny enough to be a joke. And it fit with my opinion about Ireland’s lack of birdlife.

But, I started looking through it. Unlike other bird books, which are fat and heavy, this one could be read in minutes.

And I got the feeling that each bird in the little book was a bigger deal than any one bird in bigger books. Because there weren’t that many.

"Irish Stonechat. That's big."

When you’re in America, you’ve got maybe 900 species to spot.

You’ve seen many, and you’re not likely to get blown away.

But in Ireland, there’s around 140, including visitors.

If you see even a Stonechat, hell, that’s big.

Point is: Too much choice can de-sensitize you. Less choice can make what you find…more of a find.

So, on reflection, Ireland’s a fine place for bird watchers. It’s not just about pubs, music, friendly people and awesome green landscapes.

It’s also about rare birds. Because there, most of them are.

 

Assume nothing.

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Uncommon birds are found in wild places. Not cities. Like most assumptions, this one is mostly true.

Mostly.

I don’t plan on getting into much more about birdlife in cities. The last post, “Hard to Explain,” covered that.

But, what follows is an unavoidable postscript. I’ll keep it short. Like the bird I saw…

I have spent much of my free time wandering through the wooded Des Plaines River valley. In there, you might see any wild thing.

Hiking along the river is as calming, and habit forming, as an afternoon Pabst or two.

By contrast, I’m occasionally obligated to spend time in the big city. One day, in a shadowy cement corridor between skyscrapers, I saw an American Woodcock.

It was hurrying along the sidewalk on stumpy legs. It seemed nervous, out of place.

On an earlier occasion, I’d seen an American Woodcock waddling through underbrush near my river. It’s an oddball of a bird, not common anywhere. And I was excited to see it in those woods.

But, seeing one in the city was more than exciting; it was existential. A re-ordering of the way things are supposed to work.

I read about a guy who saw an Anhinga in Illinois. It’s a bird of tropical shorelines. But he saw it in the prairie state.

This happens sometimes. An Anhinga in Illinois. A Woodcock in downtown Chicago.

Just keep your eyes open, and assume nothing.

Hard to explain.

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

There’s a tree outside my window, and in April it’s got sapsuckers. Spring is sapsucker season.

Seeing them on cue like this confirms that there’s a reassuring continuity in the way the world works.

The bird I saw today reminded me of a sapsucker from my past…

There was a time when I spent April and all other months in a Chicago skyscraper. I had a job on the 26th floor.

Any birding I did in those days was confined to weekend forests, where there were sapsuckers and other species I’d note on a list.

"...where a sapsucker belongs."

But one morning when I was in my skyscraper, I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker over my shoulder.

It was clinging to the building outside my window.

I went to the glass. We stared at each other.

This curiously named bird actually has a yellow belly.

What was surprising, though, is that it and its belly were 26 floors up.

After our moment of eye contact the sapsucker took off, dipping away in the roller-coaster style that’s typical of its kind.

Why had he come to my window, up there on the concrete?

The April sapsucker in the tree outside my house this morning was where a sapsucker belongs, and he was easy to explain.

But, the one that came to see me years ago when I was at work, well, that guy’s hard to explain.

Lonesome Dove.

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

This is a bird review. And a book review. It’s even a review of the word “review.”

Here’s how it came about…

I saw a solitary Mourning Dove in early April.

It would have been nice if this were a sign of spring, the way Robins used to be.

But a few doves don’t migrate, and are here even through the cold months.

True to its name, the bird looked mournful.

I thought, “Another cold, lonesome dove.”

That brought to mind a huge, old novel called “Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry. I read this book years ago.

It was pretty damn good. Suddenly, I wanted to read it again.

Most people would say that re-reading a book is a waste of time. I’m not so sure.

Just because you saw a Mourning Dove once, doesn’t mean you don’t look at another one. If you saw a Scarlet Tanager last May, you still want to see one again this May.

“Lonesome Dove” is a book worth reliving: Two-fisted people, wild animals, dusty trail drives, banjo music, beans, biscuits, bandits, snakes, sportin’ women, big skies, and pigs that aren’t for rent.

That’s my book review.

It ought to make you want to read “Lonesome Dove.” And if you already have read it, well, hell, do it again.

As for the word “review,” it clearly says “re-view.” Which is what I did with that cold Mourning Dove I saw.

And it’s what I might do with the book I just told you about. “Lonesome Dove” was worth a good review. And, like an interesting bird, it’s also worth a good re-view.

Go peck yourself.

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

This spring there seems to be more talk of birds attacking birds.

Well, it’s not birds getting attacked, exactly. It’s their own reflections.

And the attackers leave a hell of a mess splattered around.

I’ve had to park my car in the garage. If I leave it out, a crazed Robin goes at the windows and mirror. I’ve caught him in the act.

Friends ask me about this.

(I get a lot of bird questions. I don’t know which makes me feel more odd: that I get these questions, or that I might have some answers.)

Anyway. Friends have heard knocking on their glass doors, only to find beak marks and bird droppings.

There was a story built around this subject a while back in our “Bird Detective” section. It’s called, “Knock Knock Mystery.”

I’ve seen Cardinals as well as Robins knock themselves cuckoo trying to fight an imaginary male that they think is on their turf.

But I’ve never seen a Cuckoo do this. Those birds are smart enough to stay mostly in the wild.

The wild is where it’s at for birds. Or where it should be.

In the meantime, I’ll be parking in the garage. You’ll be wondering who’s pecking at the glass in your door.

And a lot of male birds will be sitting in nearby trees with headaches.

Man O’ War

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

I went to spring training camps in Florida a while back. This was unrelated to bird watching. But then, most things are.

I was recording impromptu public service radio spots with ball players. I wasn’t there to look at a bird. No matter what kind.

I was in street clothes, carrying a tape recorder. Nothing makes an ordinary guy feel dorkier than being on a ball field with real, professional jocks.

I ignored the Man O’ War in the sky.

Athletes like to be in commercials, so I had been cleared by Major League Baseball to make recordings with players between innings, if they agreed.

The huge bird wasn’t much of a distraction.

I convinced some big-name stars to read my scripts as I held the microphone. They were good guys, and I was getting good stuff.

Florida was tropical, with birds that were new to me. But so what. They can’t compete with a bat cracking a ball.

That’s why what happened is tough to recount.

I approached a shortstop, a famous guy whose name I won’t mention. Overhead the Man O’ War circled.

This shortstop was a hot-tempered, tobacco-chewing, scar-faced, wrecking machine, known for scrapes on and off the field.

While I’m asking him to read my script, I glance up. He follows my eyes. “What you lookin’ at?”

I say, “Just a bird.” He squints at me, then spits on the ground, a big glob. And walks away without another word.

This was a long time ago. But it’s spring again, baseball’s starting, and I think about the Man O’ War I saw in Florida.

And how he spit on the ground rather than deal with a dork that didn’t belong on a ball field.

Out of the fog.

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Sometimes, the sighting of a bird is old news. This happens because the bird is common, an everyday thing.

I thought about that today while hanging around a small, woodland lake.

White fog came in, and things became quiet. The water was flat and gray. Overhanging branches were barely visible through the mist.

A pair of Canada Geese swam into view.

They’re all too common around here, and have been for years. A good example of a bird that’s become old news.

Yet, they didn’t seem like old news as they glided out of the fog. Their gray, black and white colors matched the background.

Their reflections in the flat water made them anything but an everyday sight. Hell, they were a painting. Could’ve been in a museum.

A memory came back…

I’m maybe ten or twelve, wandering through a dismal prairie south of Chicago. Rail tracks, weeds, garbage, a pond formed by recent rain.

One Canada Goose landed there, and was resting.

This was rare. We never had Canada Geese back then. I watched the big, wild bird, and I thought: pretty cool.

A teenage kid from our nearby industrial neighborhood waded into the knee-deep water with a shotgun.

I’d never seen a gun fired outside of the movies.

One wing got blasted off. The goose fluttered on the pond’s surface, crying out, splashing in a circle. It was unmoving when the older kid got to it.

Now, a lifetime later, as two geese glided out of the fog on the little lake where I hike, I remembered that ugly scene.

These birds might have become old news around here most days. But at the moment, watching them, I thought: pretty cool.

 

Waiting game.

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

“It’s all about chicks. It’s all about turf. No, it’s all about both.

When I say chicks, I don’t mean nestlings. I mean chicks. Hey, testosterone’s running high. It’s also about kicking butt if other guys come near.

I’m the Red-winged Blackbird you see every morning in the reeds along your highway cloverleaf…”

"...waiting."

This imaginary monologue rings true.

The bird is there every day.

And one like him has been at that spot each year since you’ve been taking this route to work.

He represents a rite of spring. You know winter’s coming to an end.

Male red-wings return early, and alone. They scout a location, defend it. Then wait. Sensible females don’t want to freeze their pretty tails off, so they arrive later.

Meanwhile, the males…wait.

Those that have claimed a good place will get the best females. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, check out the odd word: “lek.”

Girls choose males that offer the best package: Best location. Best looks.

This recalls your youth. Leaning on the wall in high school as girls pass. Or hanging out in a bar, hoping to catch some female’s eye.

It’s human nature. Red-wing nature.

You understand this. And every morning on the way to work you see that same sucker on the reed. You feel sorry for him.

No girl’s gonna want to live that close to the road.

“Show me the grebe.”

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

I woke up thinking: I’m going  to see a Pied-billed Grebe. I went to the pond near here and said: “Show me the grebe.”

Before we go on, let me point out that nobody in my old neighborhood has ever said, “Show me the grebe.”

Or in my current neighborhood, I guess. I had the thought that I was the only guy on the planet thinking those fairly absurd words.

Screw it. I was thinking them. And I had a gut feel.

Gamblers know that feel. In the 1974 film, “The Gambler,” a troubled guy at the blackjack table bets his whole life on the fall of a card.

Everything is hanging on his drawing a three. The actor (James Caan) is filmed from below. Behind him we see the Vegas casino’s ornate ceiling with a round, gold design. It glows over the guy’s head, his halo.

The dealer tries to talk him out of calling for a hit while holding eighteen. The guy quietly says, “Show me the three.”

With that halo going for him, we knew what we were going to see. The dealer slides a three out of the deck.

There I am, at the side of this little green pond, with the gambler’s gut feel that there’s a Pied-billed Grebe there on this day.

I say silently, at least I hope it was silently, “Show me the grebe.”

Pied-billed Grebes are diving birds. It’s possible that one could have been under the surface. Possible that one could’ve popped up on cue.

Like that three.

Did it happen? C’mon, we’re not in a movie. And if we were, it wouldn’t be about grebes. Still, it was a nice moment, there by the water.

"C'mon. We're not in a movie..."

The Yin and Yang of Being Lost.

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

I’ve been lost. Sometimes it feels free. Like you’re relieved of duties.

I thought about this because of a Western Tanager. More about him in a moment.

You can be lost in nature, a city, at work. Once, I was lost in a million-acre forest near Lake Superior. That’s where the two-fisted idea popped up.

And I was lost in the Eiffel tower. Didn’t want to ride down in a crowded elevator. Took the stairs, and wound up in an engine room with no legal exit.

I was lost at work when a boss gave orders I couldn’t follow. Had to quit to find out where I was.

A Western Tanager belongs in the west during warm weather. This winter, one has been showing up in New England. How it got there is a drama only it knows.

When you’re lost, you feel two things. Uncomfortable. And free.

Uncomfortable, because you face danger, maybe death. Free, because you’re off your own grid. That can be a nice break in the action.

Nothing is purely one thing or another. There’s always the Yin and Yang of it.

"I'm goin' east..."

This Western Tanager would look at you like you’re nuts if you said “Yin and Yang.” But what does he know? He’s at a snowy feeder in Connecticut. Two thousand miles from home.

He might simply have a screw loose. But, maybe not. Birds have free will, and free whim.

Maybe he said, “What the hell. I’ll go east instead of south.” He found food. He didn’t freeze his butt. Could be, he just wanted a break in the action.

It was cold and scary. Yet, for a while, it might’ve been fun to live off his own grid.

No upgrades in the woods.

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Here’s another reason to go in the woods: No computers.

And no computer problems. This underscores how good it feels to wander the anti-techno world of wildness.

There’s a Cardinal on a snowy branch. You’ve seen a thousand Cardinals, so seeing him doesn’t make it a red-letter day. Just a red bird day.

And you think: now there’s something that never needs a system upgrade.

The Cardinal on a branch in front of you could be the same Cardinal that was on a branch in front of John Audubon, a tough guy who walked across Illinois in 1811.

No kidding about the walking: he’s said to have crossed the bottom of the state in a couple of days. A hundred and fifty miles without roads.

Crows fly over, making noise, and you’re glad to see them. Audubon might’ve seen the same kind of birds. He also might have seen Passenger Pigeons, now discontinued. But, you’re in no mood for annoying thoughts of discontinued systems just now.

There’s a lot of prints on recent snow. You hope there’s bobcat or even mountain lion tracks in with the coyote and deer. They were here in Audubon’s time, and they’re rumored to still be here. So you look.

Not today. But the word “lion” brings to mind a new Mac operating system that’s a fierce son of a bitch, and you don’t want to go there.

Forget it. You see a surprising spot of blue at the edge of the woods. A Blue Jay? You check it out.

No. Turns out to be an Eastern Bluebird. Not uncommon, but early when snow’s on the ground. You lean against a tree and enjoy the quiet. This is a pretty good place. You never want it to change.

And it doesn’t. Some things need no upgrades.

Free Whim.

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Saw a story about a man on 9/11 who was told to go back to work in the tower that hadn’t yet been hit.

He got on the elevator, but before the doors closed he jumped back out and left the building. He resisted authority.

If you like resisting authority, you might be drawn to birds. They symbolize free will. This is covered in our Viewpoints section. Check out “No Rules.” Don’t worry; it’s short.

Meanwhile, the thought occurred again, when I noticed birds on this unnaturally warm February Sunday.

Canada Geese walking around like they own the place. And odd ducks. (Odd, because it’s winter in Chicago. But these guys do what they please).

Also, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, none standing still. An American Kestrel, a Red-tail, American Goldfinches.

"I'm out of here..."

All are studies in disobedience.

If you told an American Kestrel to get on an elevator and go to work, he’d zip past and drop something on your shoulder.

Birds fly. They’re creatures of whim.

Free whim. The cousin of free will.

They’re the ultimate in civil disobedience. I think that’s why I got interested as a kid, looking out the window of a confining schoolroom, envying street birds because they could take off.

Yeah, you don’t have to be a bird nut to admire birds. You can simply be someone who likes to spit in the eye of authority.

And who recognizes a kindred spirit.

Lucky with a camera.

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

People say there’s a dinosaur in the Congo. Mokele-mbembe.

Trouble is, sightings are by guys who don’t have cameras. Or who aren’t lucky with them.

I thought about this when I heard about shots of a Snowy Owl battling a Peregrine Falcon near Chicago’s lakefront. Taken by a guy who had luck with his camera.

“Lucky…”

They appeared on a popular birding website, and made the site even more popular overnight by going viral.

Take a look, and read the guy’s story, if you’re interested.

http://www.nabirding.com/2012/02/12/when-a-snowy-met-the-locals/

My sons used to ask me: who’d win in a fight, crocodile or shark, grizzly or lion, boxer or Ninja. Good, solid two-fisted questions.

To this list, we can add the falcon and the owl. Both have talons and speed.

Lucky for us there was a guy with talent and speed who captured the action.

Too bad he hadn’t been in the Congo when mokele-mbembe kept showing up.

At least we’ve got his pictures on North American Birding. And besides, as we know, birds are dinosaurs.

Rooked.

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

As a kid I went to a zoo that had a rookery. Didn’t know the word. Boring cages. Birds. Never figured it out.

Now, I’m more aware of words and birds. A rookery is where there are rooks. What they call crows in England.

But there are rooks on my chessboard, too. This is a word with more than one definition. Here’s a third…

Yeah, right...

I felt rooked—cheated—today, because birds weren’t in the wild.

They were in my yard. We put out seeds, and every bird in the world came.

Being a guy who believes that two-fisted bird watching is properly done away from civilization, I had mixed feelings about this.

So I left home, and I walked through nearby wilds to do some real birding. But they were dead quiet.

Snow, bare trees, freezing wind. No wildlife.

Back in my yard there was a buck with a full rack of antlers. Coyote tracks. Fearless raccoons.

Bright red Cardinals and their brownish wives, winter goldfinches. Upside down nuthatches; titmice, juncos.

My kid claims he saw a Pileated Woodpecker on our feeder, but I have doubts about that.

Hell, I want birds to be in the wild. Instead, they’re here, and only here. The wilderness is empty.

I’ve been rooked.