Spring Diary: Chapter 3

April 26th:

The woods are now teeming with yellow rumped and palm warblers.  The noise level has risen to a surrounding white noise, but instead of standing befuddled in the midst of a cacophonous UN debate, I can begin to sort out individual strands.  Most of the songs are from the quintet of song sparrows, yellow rumped warblers, ruby crowned kinglets,  robins and goldfinches.  And every now and then, I can pick out something new, which is how I found the new warbler, waterthrush and vireo today.  The blue headed vireo is interesting since between my original field guide and my new Peterson guide, the bird has quietly changed names from the Solitary Vireo to the Blue Headed Vireo.  I imagine committees of impassioned birders, arguing forcefully for some sort of name change, and the undercurrents of vicious politics.  Perhaps, “I will vote for your blue head if you vote for my yellow rump.”  Oddly the Latin name remains the same, vireo solitarius.  Perhaps the Latin name is etched in stone.  And the name blue headed vireo is only somewhat descriptive, as the blue is sort of a dark dusky blue.  If I were going to change the name, I would really go for it and use one of the wacky color names that you seen in clothing catalogs.  How about, Gun Metal Headed Vireo, or Storm Tossed Marine Headed Vireo.

New Birds Seen

Black Throated Green Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Blue Headed Vireo

Pied Bill Grebe

Northern Shoveler


April 29th

The last few days have been windy and darn cold and I have not seen much, though today did turn up a few new species.  I think that birds do not flit about in a heavy wind and the wind drowns out the sounds of the bird songs.  It is difficult to rely on visual cues alone, since it is harder to pick up the sudden movement of the bird among branches that are already swaying.  I am pleased with the yellow throated vireo, since this is a bird I have only had pointed out to me once, and this is my first solo effort with this vireo.


Yellow throated Vireo

Turkey Vulture

Northern Parula (by voice only)


April 30th

It continues to be cold; there was even frost today.  A north wind has discouraged any new arrivals, and the current residents are silent.  I did see an Eastern Towhee (another mysterious name change from the more descriptive Rufous Sided Towhee), and a few water birds.  The yellow legs is a migrating water bird that comes in two sizes, greater and lesser, and otherwise is indistinguishable.  It is very difficult to tell relative sizes unless the two birds cooperate and stand side by side for comparison, but otherwise it is just a toss up.  My field guide says that the ankle joint of the greater yellow legs is much more prominent, but that hardly seems adequate to hang your hat on. 


New Birds Seen:

Yellow Legs, greater or lesser, you pick ‘em



May 2nd

Another day of minimal activity.  With nothing else to do, I dwell on my birdwatching technique, which involves a complicated series of movements.  As I scan the trees with my bare eyes, I hold the bird guide under my arm.  If I spot something, I quickly move the book to between my legs, scooch my glasses up unto my forehead and lift the binoculars to my eyes.  This all must take place within no more than a second, otherwise the bird is likely to flit off somewhere.  It can be difficult to find the exact spot with the binoculars that you saw with the naked eye, and sometimes you need to take a few steps from side to side.  This means that with my otherwise fabulous system, I am trying to walk with a book between my legs.  Old fashioned etiquette training required young women to walk with a book on their head, but I am sure that walking with a book between your legs was not considered stylish. If the bird is particularly provocative and I have to take a few large steps, the book just plops on the ground.  Anyway, as awkward as this may sound, this system has served me well for twenty years, but this year I have one slight modification.  I am using a new field guide.  For twenty years I had used the Golden Guide to Birds, but last year I was told that this book was not professional enough.  My new selection was a Peterson Guide.  Roger Tory Peterson is a giant in the bird watching field and revolutionized field identification in the 1930s by helpfully pointing out key features.  All birdwatchers stand on the shoulders of this innovative naturalist.  This current edition is very sleek with a handsome glossy cover that is intended to be somewhat waterproof.  The problem is that this book is too slippery for my system.  As I try and take tiny steps the book slips down between my legs – a major distraction.  I definitely need improved traction, either in my pants or on the book.  Here is yet another use for duct tape.

New Birds Seen:

Green Heron

Blue Winged Warbler (song only)

Rough Winged Swallow

Sora (song only)


May 1st

Today starts the beginning of bird banding at Shaw Prairie, so for the moment I have abandoned my usual route.  Thirteen mist nets are set up in the morning, and then checked each hour for the unfortunate birds that happen to fly through.  Every hour, the team of volunteers checks the nets, extracts the birds, puts them in a muslin bag, and then returns to the central station where they are weighed, measured and banded.  And then after thanking the birds for their forebearance they are happily released.   The banding information is submitted to a national database to gather information on migrating patterns.  I am somewhat equivocal about the banding process, since I am a little hesitant to handle these fragile looking birds, many of them weighing no more than the heft of 4 pennies.  But these looks must be deceptive, since the birds have survived a several thousand mile commute.  One of the attractions is that you spend several hours in the company of very knowledgeable birders, who so far seem extremely patient with my naïve and silly questions.  Since you get an in depth look at these birds, you can also confirm your somewhat tenuous sightings.  For example, I was able to confirm that what I was calling a swamp sparrow really was a swamp sparrow.  One of my concerns was that the swamp sparrow did not exactly match the book, and I was startled when I was told that the picture in my Peterson was inaccurate.  Like any spectator sport, you cannot tell the players without a scorecard, and I was aghast to think that my scorecard, the standard Peterson, was basically wrong.  Many birders like to use multiple field guides – since the birds can be presented different ways, in different poses and some even use photographs – so that a final identification represents an amalgam of Gizzes from different sources.   But toting multiple copies into the field is problematic.  My cousin Terry likes to use three guides at once, and his system involves wearing cargo pants with deep pockets.  So when he walks around, he has a virtual library clunking around his knees.  But for a single reference, I thought that the Peterson would be the best.  I am told the Sibley is the new standard.

New Birds Seen:

Northern Oriole (song alone)

Brown Thrasher

House Wren

May 2nd

I again stand at the precipice of the slippery slope of the honor system, as I must decide whether birds identified only through netting can count on my life list.  This strikes me a little bit like going to the zoo instead of Africa so I dig in my heels and stand firm.  This means that the Sharp Shinned Hawk, which had the misfortune of being netted twice, and with whom I exchanged meaningful glances, is not yet on my life list.  However, other raptors seem to abound today.  There are several red tailed hawks and kestrels gliding over the fields.  The sun just catches the kestrel and his blue wings and red tail are perfect.

New Bird Seen:

Common Yellowthroat

May 3rd

Another cold day with few birds.  To protect the birds while waiting to be banded, we put them inside our fleece jacket.  It is an odd sensation to feel the fluttering bird against my beating heart.


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