Friday, February 5, 2010

Where the Birds Are

In the middle of winter in Illinois, it isn't easy to do a lot of birdwatching. My husband and my friend Bob and I have been interested in birding for a long time and have seen a fair number of birds over the years in various places in Illinois and elsewhere, including some wonderful experiences at bird refuges on the Mississippi and out west in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Since then, because it's gotten hard to me to walk on narrow or sloping trails where I can't take my four-wheeler walker, I have mostly watched birds on the suet feeder through my dining room window. Even when I could hike around, I have to admit that I lacked two essentials for becoming a real "birder": (1) being able (and willing) to get up in the dark in order to get to the woods at dawn and (2) being calm and quiet (without shouting, "Oh wow! I think I saw a warbler! Hey, you guys, look over three!") so the birds and beasts are not all frightened away.

Nevertheless, we do try each winter to take an hour's drive east into Indiana to Turkey Run State Park, where the Nature Center has a bird viewing room.

We left Urbana about 10 (yes, it was AFTER dawn) and went directly to the Original Pancake House for fortifications and coffee. Then we drove over to Indiana, taking the small roads and enjoying the scenery -- snow on cleared corn and soybean fields, the occasional woodframe farmhouse, small towns with their Caseys and Krispy Kremes, and a few hawks in the tops of bare trees.

Turkey Run State Park is a big place with an old but cozy lodge and lots of trails down steep ravines in the Indiana woods. There is Sugar Creek nearby and a few canoe rentals places. But this time of year, the scene was pretty deserted. We did see one family on a trail that passes behind the back of the nature center and is therefore visible from the bird viewing area. They were dressed warmly and moving right along.

The trip adventurers included myself, my husband David, and our friend Bob, who kindly drove.  When we arrived, no one was in the nature center, but it was open and the bird room was open as well.

Actually, the time of year and the fact of it being a weekday was perfect because there wasn't anyone around to scare away the birds. We have been there when a lot of restless youngsters in the bird room couldn't sit still or be quiet for very long while their parents tried to identify which woodpecker was feeding on the suet server. It could be a bit distracting. Also, even though there's a one-way glass, movement inside the room is still detectable and keeping still and quiet really helps in terms of not chasing the birds off the area. There's a microphone (one-way, thankfully) so you can hear the bird sounds too -- very cool.

There are a lot of different feeders and different kinds of food available for the birds there. First of all, there are several hanging feeders with sunflower seeds and perches, mainly in the shape of little houses.  These were very popular with a host of small, quick moving, thoroughly charming little birds: nuthatches, chicadees, finches, and tufted titmice.

There were also several posts with wired holders containing a rich fatty suet, loved by the nuthatches and by a variety of woodpeckers.

For example, in addition to a hanging feeder and a thermometer, one of the posts included a suet cage where you can see a small downy female woodpecker. You can tell it's a female because there is no red patch on the nape of her neck. It's a downy rather than a hairy woodpecker because it's quite small, more the size of a sparrow than of a robin.

Unfortunately, the zoom on my camera isn't very powerful, so the birds look small in some of these photos.

However, you get the idea anyway, I think. We had a wonderful time watching them and pointing out various birds to one another on the different feeding stations.

Some of the food was laid out on the ground on top of stones. This was attractive to the ground feeding birds like the English house sparrows (common in backyards, city streets, and fast-food restaurant patios -- but always welcome nonethess) and the little "snow birds" -- the juncos who arrive when the cold weather starts and stay until it's gone and then move north because they like it cool.
Another happy ground feeder is the red squirrel. There were a half dozen of them, hopping around the logs with corn or sunflower seeds on top. Munching away and looking quite fat and plump, sometimes coming close up to the windows.

Another visitor was a tiny little chipmunk with a short tail and a series of dark lines with a white line in between on both sides of his body and on his head. He refused to pose for a picture, preferring instead to pop down between the stones and disappear, appearing again later half way across the feeding area.

Although the feeders may look deserted in my photos (because I wasn't fast enough getting focused and actually shooting), there was a lot of bird activity on all of the feeders all afternoon long. There were a bunch of tiny yellow goldfinches in this area early in the afternoon. They weren't as bright yellow as they are in summer when the males are in breeding plumage, but they are charming, with their black-and-white wing markings and sweet songs.

There were also very bright red male cardinals and their brown-and-red ladies feeding and sitting in the snow-tipped branches looking cheerful. Early in the afternoon, several big noisy but glamorous blue jays showed up.

And we saw a lot of woodpeckers, both male and female, from several species: the small downy woodpecker; the larger hairy woodpecker, the red-bellied woodpecker (actually, more noticeably red on the head and neck than the belly, with a lovely herringbone-type black-and-white pattern for its whole back); and the very bright red-headed woodpecker with its black and white body. You can see one (tiny in the photo) on this flat platform feeder, getting pieces of cracked corn.

The hanging feeders don't seem to attract the woodpeckers the way the corn on the platform and the suet cages do. The tiny swift chickadees with their cute black "caps" love those feeders, however, and so does the tufted titmouse, a perky little guy with a top crest a bit like a cardinals, but soft blue-gray colors.

In the ground area with the stones, we spotted first one and then two opposums enjoying the sunflower seeds, seemingly oblivious of the comings and goings of the squirrels and birds.

We spent several hours watching and really enjoyed ourselves. As you can see, both David and Bob were concentrating on seeing as much as they could!

It was a pleasant and relaxing experience all around and we were fortunate to see quite a number of birds in just a few hours in the afternoon.

We stopped to eat on the way back and arrived long before the snow storm started. We'll be going back again when the weather clears up a little for another chance to see birds close up in viewing room.

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