I’ve been doing so much birding this year that, to my surprise, I found myself quickly climbing the rankings in my county’s eBird list. I hadn’t set out to compete with everyone else, but when I saw my name hit the top of the list of “Top 100 Birders in Lucas County,” something clicked in my head. I began to feel pressure to keep my name from dropping back down the list. I noticed that on days I was ahead of everyone, I felt good. And when I was behind, I felt bad. I realized I wasn’t enjoying the birds as much because I was always thinking about which species I still needed to find, and where I had to go next to find them.
Osprey adding to their nest at Howard Marsh Metropark
I did, however, want to improve on my own number from last year, which was 201 species. So this year I wanted to get to 202 species in a single county, just to prove to myself that I could do it.
I was sitting on the beach at Magee Marsh the other day having lunch with a friend when we saw four American White Pelicans fly over us. That was species number 202 for 2018 for me! So, after savoring the achievement of beating my own record from last year, I decided to change my settings to hide my eBird reports from the publicly-displayed rankings. I didn’t like feeling that I was competing with my friends. I admit I did take a screenshot showing my name at the top of the list, but that’s just so I’ll remember what this felt like.
(I photographed this pelican in Texas back in January, not at Magee Marsh)
I don’t want to see birds as just items to be checked off my list. They’re beautiful and fascinating living creatures, and I want to admire and enjoy them. In the past couple of weeks I’ve spent time with several friends who are either new birders or are not at all involved in eBirding, and when I’m with them I notice that I see the birds differently. It’s a completely different experience in which I can almost recapture the feelings of wonder and discovery that I had when I was new to birding.
Song Sparrow singing at Howard Marsh, our newest Toledo Metropark
Cornell’s eBird database is a wonderful source of records about bird sightings around the world, but I’m not fond of the fact that they encourage competition by displaying a constantly-updated list of our names and ranks. I understand that it helps them by getting more people out looking at birds and reporting them to eBird, but I’ve seen that ranking list have some negative effects among local birders. I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing anyone who truly enjoys the competitive aspect of that, but it’s just not for me, that’s all.
Besides, I feel it’s time for me to adjust my focus more toward the insect world for the rest of the spring and summer. Dragonflies and damselflies are showing up now, and I’m going on a butterfly walk next week as part of Blue Week festivities here in the Oak Openings region of Ohio. I had so much fun photographing insects last year, and I’m looking forward to much more of that in the coming months, especially as my native garden begins to take shape. Native plants bring more cool insects! 🙂
Where to begin? Spring migration has been in progress for a while, but it got a slow start because we had persistent north winds that kept large numbers of birds stuck south of us. That finally changed early last week and we’ve seen an explosion of migrant songbirds in northwest Ohio.
My friends and I all agree that this is the best birding at Magee Marsh in recent memory. The birds are here in big numbers and they’re down low, giving us wonderful close views. And not only that, but we’ve had a bonanza of species that aren’t common here too, like the boldly-marked Kentucky and Hooded Warblers:
And the Cerulean Warblers put on quite the show one day, flying back and forth along the boardwalk before the big crowds arrived, allowing us some nice quality time with them. You should have heard the comments from birders as we were all trying to get the best angle for photos or views through the binoculars. “Holy crap! You’ll never get a view of that bird like this again!” or “Are you kidding me?! What a beautiful bird!” It was so much fun to see the birds and to be surrounded by other people who got just as much joy from them as I did.
At one point during this bird explosion, just after my friend Julie had found this Cerulean, three of us took a selfie to commemorate the moment. We took a couple minutes to stand quietly together and talk about the joy of it all.
The only other time I’ve seen a Cerulean Warbler was in Michigan a few years ago, and it was 40 or 50 feet above me. This is me looking at my first Cerulean Warbler:
Getting warbler neck from trying to see Ceruleans in Michigan a few years ago.
I always get emotional when I watch warblers on their spring journey, and this year I’ve had some intensely moving experiences. One day I was birding with my friend Pattye at Magee Marsh. We’d been watching a Blue-winged Warbler foraging for insects among the freshly-emerged vegetation, when I suddenly noticed a second Blue-winged Warbler nearby.
Seeing two of this species together was really special. And not only were they together, but I saw one of them feed the other one, probably a bit of pair-bonding activity between mates. I was trying to get a photo of them both together but only managed some blurry ones. But as we stood there watching this spectacle, we both just kept saying “Wow…just wow…!” You know the birding is really great when you run out of words to express your feelings.
Blackburnian Warbler (not the one from this story because he was too close for a photo!)
And just a short time later we were talking quietly at the edge of the boardwalk, looking down at the ground as we chatted. I raised my head at one point to see a Blackburnian Warbler about a foot away from my head. I whispered, “Pattye, look up, right in front of your face!” She raised her head and saw exactly what I was seeing, this tiny little orange ball of life, staring right at us as if he was as curious about us as we were about him. And I started crying from the intense joy I felt welling up in my heart. I think Pattye might have shed a few tears too.
I get a lot of satisfaction from watching birds all year long, but the phenomenon of the massive spring migration is overwhelming. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the special moments and birds I’ve seen this week, and I’ve had to force myself to take time off from the birds twice already, just to allow my body to process the intensity of these experiences. There’s physical exhaustion from the long days of walking in the heat, but the emotional impact of seeing so many wonderful birds in such close proximity is just as tiring. I find that instead of feeling frustrated when a rainy day prevents birding, I’m actually grateful for a reason to rest at home.
I’m so thankful that I discovered birds — the added dimension they bring to my life is almost indescribable. There’s something spiritual about it — I think it’s because they remind me of my place in the universe. My human problems are put into perspective when I consider the lives of these tiny beautiful creatures. So, in a way, they help heal me when I find the human world overwhelming. And that, my friends, is the definition of nature therapy. 🙂
Red-eyed Vireo (yep, it’s not just warblers we’re watching!)
What do birders do when it’s raining? Well, today I decided to bird indoors…at the art museum. In recent years, the Toledo Museum of Art has been featuring special bird exhibits every other spring, timed to align with the massive avian migration along the Lake Erie shore. This year’s exhibit is called “Before Audubon: Alexander Wilson’s Birds of the United States.” It showcases the work of Alexander Wilson, who produced his massive 9-volume work American Ornithology before John James Audubon published his better-known The Birds of America.
The image above shows pages from Volume 2 of the museum’s first edition of Wilson’s series, featuring the Brown Thrasher. I encourage you to enlarge the photo so you can read his text about this bird. And perhaps you’ll also be able to see that the eyes on the Bay-breasted Warbler and the Gray Catbird sparkle. As I looked through the glass case at this page, I first thought he’d placed gemstones as eyes, or maybe there’s glitter in the paint or something. I’m not sure how he did it, but those eyes seemed alive.
Wilson was born in Scotland and immigrated to America after being imprisoned briefly for writing poetry about poor conditions in the mill where he worked. He settled in Philadelphia and became a teacher. His neighbor William Bartram became his mentor as he studied birds and learned to draw them.
Woodpeckers by Alexander Wilson
Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, by Alexander Wilson
Of course some of my favorite images are of the woodpeckers. In the left image, he shows (clockwise from left) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. On the top of the second image he shows a Pileated Woodpecker (left) and the presumed-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Below their heads he shows them again, with a Red-headed Woodpecker for size comparison. With the exception of the Ivory-billed, all of these woodpeckers can be seen here in northwest Ohio.
I learned at this exhibit that it was because Wilson’s work had been so popular that Audubon was able to secure financing for his own work. I found this interesting commentary on one of the interpretive signs:
Wilson had helped to popularize ornitholology in America, and his approach had a strong impact in Europe, helping to renew the market for natural history studies. Consequently, Audubon was able to secure more funding than Wilson had ever enjoyed. The result was a luxury production, with plates printed and hand-colored on the largest paper available at the time (the double elephant folio) and each bird shown life size.
The scientific community in Philadelphia–the publishing capital of the U.S. at the time–remained loyal to Wilson, forcing the “upstart” Audubon to publish Birds of America in London.
I pulled out my copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America to compare to the images I’d just seen of Wilson’s birds, and I noticed a couple interesting things.
Pileated Woodpeckers by John James Audubon
First, Wilson’s birds are mostly shown without much surrounding habitat, and with multiple species combined in each image. Audubon’s birds, on the other hand, are usually shown as individual species in dramatic poses with detailed backgrounds of flowers and trees. And I’d never noticed before that the captions include the names of the flowers and trees in most cases. I’m so glad I discovered that.
The museum’s exhibit explained that, due to financial concerns, Wilson put more species in each image to save paper costs. Clearly Audubon had no such constraints.
Over the seven years Wilson worked to document birds, he traveled over 12,000 miles and had to overcome many difficulties. I went to Amazon and found a used copy of Alexander Wilson’s Life and Letters, and that tome is on its way to my eager little hands right now. I can’t wait to read about how he managed this groundbreaking accomplishment in the wilds of 18th and 19th century America.
Wilson’s Warbler courtesy of Kevin Vance, via Flickr Creative Commons license
Fittingly, there are five bird species named after Mr. Wilson today: warbler, snipe, storm-petrel, phalarope, and plover. I’ve seen some Wilson’s Snipe recently here in Ohio, and am expecting to find some Wilson’s Warblers in the next few weeks as migration ramps up. And when I do, I’ll take a moment to remember the passion of Alexander Wilson and be grateful for his contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of birds.
The Toledo Museum of Art is a real jewel in this city. Admission is free for everyone, all the time. And it’s only a 15-minute drive from my house, so I can go often. Sometimes I just drop in for a brief visit to stand in front of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Reaper,” because…well, because I just feel a need to do that. I’m grateful for such easy access to beautiful works of art and for the exhibits that teach me something new on every visit. Even though admission is free, I pay for membership each year to show my support for this organization that does so much for the quality of life here.
Oh, my personal connection to this legend? Alexander Wilson and I were both born on July 6. I like knowing that.
During this week we’ll celebrate two special days, Earth Day on Sunday, April 22, and Arbor Day on Friday, April 27. A few years ago I wrote about the history of these two underappreciated events. Here’s an excerpt:
Did you know that the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970? It was a way to harness the energy behind the protests of the 1960s and turn it toward protecting the natural world. Inspired in large part by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the environmental movement was off and running. But it seems to be celebrated much more enthusiastically in other countries than in our own, and that needs to change.
And Arbor Day has an even longer history. Arbor Day was created by J. Sterling Morton, a journalist from Detroit who moved his family to Nebraska in the mid-19th century. The first Arbor Day was celebrated there in 1872, with the planting of over a million trees in a single day. And get this: When it was made a legal holiday in 1885, Nebraska City celebrated with a parade of a thousand people. So tell me, when’s the last time you saw a parade to celebrate the importance of Arbor Day? I never have. (Click the link in this paragraph to see the official story of the history of Arbor Day.)
This year’s Earth Day campaign is focused on ending plastic pollution. Their website says: “From poisoning and injuring marine life to disrupting human hormones, from littering our beaches and landscapes to clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet.”
For the past few years I’ve had a link in the sidebar of this blog for an organization called Balloons Blow. Their focus is on eliminating those horrible balloon releases that result in so much litter in our oceans and beaches. I can’t tell you how many of those nasty mylar balloons I’ve picked up on the shore of Lake Erie while birding. The balloon fragments and their ribbons sometimes cause death to birds and aquatic animals who accidentally ingest them, thinking they are food. I encourage you to go to their website and read about what they’ve discovered in years of cleaning up balloon litter. (Hint: “biodegradable” balloons are not biodegradable.)
Recently I’ve noticed another movement picking up a lot of steam, and that’s the one to eliminate single-use plastics like the straws you get with virtually every beverage you order in a restaurant, whether you need it or not. One of the best known is The Last Plastic Straw, a project of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. A few years ago, when I first became aware of the impact of straws on the environment, I purchased a set of four stainless steel straws. They’re reusable, obviously, and come with a brush so you can easily clean the insides. I keep a couple of them in my car so I can refuse plastic straws and use these instead. I’m can’t claim a 100% success rate on my efforts yet, but I’m improving. And I discovered a fun bonus to using these stainless steel straws too: they get really cold when you use them with iced beverages like milkshakes or iced coffee drinks. It adds a new level of “ahhh” when you’re trying to cool off on a hot day.
If you’d like some suggestions for other things you can do to help in this effort to reduce plastic pollution, check out this page on the website of Earth Day Network.
Hugging a tree with friends last summer
As for Arbor Day, the ideal way to celebrate is to plant a tree. I can’t add any more trees to my yard, but I’ve just removed three large invasive shrubs (burning bushes) and will be replacing them with natives. The burning bushes, although beautiful in their fall color, just had to go. It was a painful decision to have them removed, but I know it was the right thing to do for the ecosystem.
I purchased some native shrubs to put in their places: spicebush, serviceberry, and black chokeberry. These large native shrubs will support lots of native insects, which will in turn support our native birds. I’m going to start a series of articles here about my efforts to add native plants to my yard. It’s a big project that will take years, and I have a lot to learn, but I’m optimistic about being able to make it work.
I hope you find ways to celebrate these two occasions this week!
I’ve amassed a small collection of bird photos showing their reflections in water, so I thought it would be nice to share them as I reflect a little bit on birds’ lives. Hope you enjoy this quick little item.
Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend virtually every waking moment of your life either finding food, or trying to impress a potential mate, or hiding from other critters who want to eat you. I think of this often as I watch large numbers of birds arriving here in the spring, some of them just passing through and others who will stay and breed in this area. Regardless of whether they’re migrants or returning breeders, all of them are tired and very hungry. It’s a matter of life and death for them to find enough food to survive each day.
American Avocets (2×2=4)
One of my first bird reflection shots, Great Egret
American Tree Sparrow and his winter reflection
And for many of them, this is a new place where they don’t know the special spots for the best food sources. So they’re in a strange place with thousands of others who are also hungry and tired. Competition for survival is fierce, and they get no vacation from it. I’ve never seen a bird take the weekend off to sit on the patio and drink iced tea, have you?
Watching birds in the winter is another time when I’m deeply moved by their lives. Among our resident birds, the struggle for food is more intense when most of the plants have gone dormant and insects have died or hibernated or migrated to warmer climates. And getting through the cold nights is a special kind of challenge when you can’t snuggle up under a warm blanket in front of a blazing fireplace.
We humans definitely have our own set of problems, but thinking about the difficult lives of wild animals helps put things in perspective a bit, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.
Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.
I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.
Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.
(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)
I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?
Eastern Towhee male
Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.
Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.
Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears. Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:
(Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)
There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.
As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river. And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.
There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce. Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:
Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.
As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree. The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.
And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level. The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)
My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?
It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since I moved to my new hometown. I just looked back at what I wrote as I was in the process of moving and settling into the new house. I was so eager to put some color on the white walls, but I haven’t done a bit of painting yet. I do have a paint swatch hanging on a wall of the living room though, so I’m getting closer.
Here’s something I wrote last year:
As I walk around the empty rooms of the house with my footsteps echoing around me, my thoughts and emotions fluctuate from excitement and anticipation back to fretting about how much work and money it will take to maintain a home by myself. I think I’ve made great progress in the past year in learning how to control my fears, and I know that no matter what happens, I can figure out how to deal with it. I am braver than I ever imagined. I am resourceful and creative, and I’m willing to ask for help when I need it.
Well, I’ve definitely had my fill of home repair stress and expense already and some days I do miss the ease of condo living, but I still love my house despite the never-ending list of things that need to be fixed.
And I absolutely love living in Toledo. In fact, the past 12 months definitely rank in the top five happiest years of my life. I went through a brief period of loneliness right after moving, but I quickly got involved in lots of activities and now I have an extremely busy social life. My determination to build a new life here helped motivate me to step out of my comfort zone, and I was surprised how great I felt every time I forced myself to go to a meeting where I didn’t know anyone, or join a hiking group of strangers. I feel like I’ve become a more open and relaxed person, and that’s huge for someone who has always had a tendency to isolate myself from much of the general chaos in the world.
And the people of Toledo welcomed me with open arms. I’d read an article that said Toledo is a very friendly city, and it was absolutely right. I’ve been accepted and made to feel like I’ve been here for years. Today my life is full of friends and my calendar is loaded with all sorts of fun things — volunteering, art classes, group hikes, nature conferences, and so much more. There are times I think I need to schedule a few days with nothing to do, but that’s a good problem to have and I’m not complaining.
Just as I was preparing to make the move late last winter, I came across a book called This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. I believe Melanie Warnick changed my life by writing this book. Her suggestions for getting involved in your community can work not only for someone moving to a new city, but even for improving your outlook on a place you’ve lived for a long time. Some of the chapters are:
Paperweights I made at the Toledo Museum of Art. This is Glass City, after all.
Lace Up Your Sneakers
Say Hi to Your Neighbors
Do Something Fun
Commune With Nature
I followed much of her advice — I got out in the neighborhood and talked with people (instead of always avoiding running into neighbors as I’d done before); I signed up for classes and hiking groups; I volunteered for my local metroparks. Each of these things contributed immensely to helping me spread my roots deeper into my new community.
I’ve come to see that Melanie is right when she says that there’s “true psychic power in a clean slate,” and “a new city presses the reset button, forcing you to at least temporarily abandon old patterns of thought and environmental triggers.”
I shared this sign last year but I want to do it again because it resonates so strongly with me:
I drive past one of these signs often and it seems to work as a sort of positive affirmation for me. I know that everything isn’t perfect here, and I will have more struggles and pain in my life. But I also know that I’m surrounded by people who care for me and whatever happens, I will do better in Toledo. I’m connected to this place and its people. Life is good and I’m grateful.
And, to make things even better, it’s almost spring! Migrating birds have started to trickle northward and very soon I’ll be photographing dragonflies and butterflies and watching my new native plant garden grow. I can’t wait to have new nature stories to tell you! Thanks for being here. 🙂
Blue-faced Meadowhawk, one of my favorite dragonflies