Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes To The Arctic

In 1939, James Stewart starred in a movie called "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It received one Academy Award and multiple nominations, too. It was even added to the National Film Registry. All accounts say it was (or is) quite a film. Even though it is considered a classic, I haven't seen it.

Well, this past weekend, I experienced my own "Mr Smith" storyline. Instead of a naive Senator heading to D.C., insane birders drove hundreds of miles to see a bird on migration. The bird, Smith's Longspur, winters in the southcentral United States and breeds on the tundra in or near the Arctic Circle. When they wing their way back to the breeding grounds, they don't fly straight there. As they move north, they swing a bit east (bird people call this an elliptical migration). So, instead of heading to, say, Oklahoma, for example, to view them on the wintering grounds, some birders can head to Illinois instead and catch them in migration. That is what I did. (I missed this bird in Alaska in '04, so it was time to try again.). The Illinois Ornithological Society was hosting a weekend of field trips, including a solid chance at the Longspur and Greater Prairie-Chickens on the lek. This was my chance to see Mr. Smith before he goes to the Arctic.

So, in the early morning hours on Friday, my Co-Pilot and I hit the road. By early afternoon we were in Centralia, Illinois. With hours to kill before the evening owl field trip, we opted to bird Forbes State Park. While asking about good birding locations in the park, Joe and Corinne, who now live in Colorado, walked in the door! Joe had originally informed me weeks ago that they would be there and invited me to join them. So, not only was it an opportunity to see some new or cool birds, it was also an opportunity to bird with a dear friend and his wife (who, by the way, was allowed in the country some time ago. You may recall their situation - you can read it here.) Birding in the park was pretty fair, including a Northern Parula and Carolina Chickadee.

Friday night's field trip was not really the way a trip should be run. The itinerary was changed for whatever reason, and I know that irked some people, including me. People from states across the country (West Virginia and Colorado, to name just two) were certainly puzzled. The posted itinerary was for owls and nightjars on Friday night. So what should you be doing? Heading to the woods, right? Instead, we were off to a marsh to call for rails. Why in the world would we call for rails in the dark knowing that many participants would be heading to the same wetland the following morning with the hopes of seeing a rail?! Oh, and then there were no maps. It was basically a caravan. You know what I mean - follow the car in front of you and hope that everyone can manage? A map and/or GPS coordinates would have been very cool.

Anyhow, the rail calling was not particularly successful. A Sora called but that was more or less it. There was that charming elderly woman who tried her own rail calls, "butt in the end", if you know what I mean, they did not work. Shortly thereafter, we tried for Barn Owl (at a location the leaders admitted used to be reliable - what's up with that?!). No luck. Gee, why? Interestingly enough, that same charming woman tried to call for owls, too. Her two calls sounded, well, very similar. By 10:00pm, we were back at the hotel and a very disappointed.

After an early breakfast on Saturday, a shining moment occurred. The leaders paid attention to weather and saw that Sunday was supposed to be a bust. Visibility and chicken activity could be hampered in the rain. Recognizing that quite a number of people were hoping for chickens on Sunday, they took us to the lek right away. Not far from the Karl Bartel Marsh, the Greater Prairie-Chickens were a boomin'. (Check out this video to get an idea of what was going on.) Even at distances exceeding one-third of a mile, the booming was easy to hear. With a spotting scope at 40x (or more), the yellow throat sacs were glowing! They were jumpin' and runnin', all in an attempt to impress the ladies. (The picture has red arrows to mark a bird. The view was much better through a scope.) What a treat!

Before long, we where back at the Karl Bartel Marsh for rails (again). The whole point of this field trip segment was to secure a Yellow Rail. Basically, you line up and march through the marsh/wet field (boots required). If the bird flushes, you'll know it by the white stripe in the secondary flight feathers. After a few swipes, we managed one. A life bird for many, yes, but not moi (I had one in Minnesota many years ago). Other goodies of the day included an American Bittern, Sora, and one million Henslow's Sparrows (okay, not that many). A LeConte's Sparrow was there, as well, but I never got on it. Unfortunately, the Yellow Rail slipped into a wormhole and likely landed elsewhere in the marsh. Maybe two-thirds of the people saw it. Corrine, unfortunately, did not. More late morning birding was done at Forbes. Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Osprey were pretty cool, but many of us where starting to chomp at the bit for Smith's Longspur.

Before long, the caravan hit the road which ultimately exposed administrative gaff #2. All literature told us specifically to pack lunches for the trips. We would, they said, be in areas where we would not be able to get lunches. After leaving Forbes, we found ourselves at a gas station next to the interstate. You know the type - gas and a Subway. Many people ate there, while some of us had a cooler full of food. Grrrrrrrrr. I know for fact that REALLY ticked some people off.

Just east of Farina, we found ourselves at some ponds. What a bonanza! Black-necked Stilts, American Golden-Plover, and ducks up the wazoo. Being a total wanker at times, I commented (out loud, I'll have you know!) that I thought it would be quite a show if a Peregrine showed up to kick up the birds. Of course, a thought like that in south central Illinois is pretty outlandish, right? Well, within 60 seconds, one shot over head chasing a Yellowlegs! After that one pass, it moved off to the west. Within seconds, it was back making another pass. But, several people were still watching the first one. Yes indeed, TWO Peregrine Falcons creating havoc. You have to love that! We also made a quick stop at Newton Lake for a White Pelican.

Before long, we had pulled over to a rather innocent looking field containing gobs of corn stubble. A key reason for this trip was hopefully in that field - Mr. Smith. Like the Yellow Rail march, we lined up and advanced. Timing and fate were our side. We were on the left of the line when three birds, with lots of white on the outer tail, flushed and came left. They put down a few yards away. I locked onto a female (much more drab than the male). Within seconds, the male flew within feet of me - buffy/orange belly, white outer tails feathers, white wing converts (they form a stripe in flight), and black-and-white on the face. Bull's eye! SMITH'S LONGSPUR! Life bird #628 in the bag! Unfortunately, not everyone got a look. Had the bird flushed right and not left, I would have missed it, too. Right place. Right time. Corinne missed the bird...for now.

Further up the road, we made a stop for Upland Sandpiper. Multiple birds were soaring over a field doing their flight call. How cool! I thought they were in the mesosphere, but I think they were closer to 500 feet - easily "migrating hawk altitude" (no joke). They were way up there!

At this point, the trip officially ended. We secured permission from the trip leader to re-visit the field. Corinne needed the bird, remember? Permission granted. With a line of now four (not 25), we advanced. Within a few minutes, a bird flushed. Smith's Longspur again. A new bird for Corinne. All of us had now seen Mr. Smith as he goes to the Arctic!

The long drive back to the hotel in Centralia gave us some great looks at one of the coolest birds of trip. It was started with a well-timed glance by the Co-Pilot, then a scream followed by my foot hard on the brake. Within a few seconds, the four of us where looking at a sub-adult Golden Eagle! While some of the other birds on this trip are rare or difficult to see, we were there to see them; we basically expected them. A Golden Eagle was NEVER on my list of possible birds for this trip. Too cool!

After a quick meal at a mexican restaurant, we headed out to Forbes (again). The plan? Well, do what we should have done the night before - find owls and nightjars. Before sunset, we found ourselves tracking down (and seeing) Louisiana Waterthrushes. By night fall, we were in the campground. Whip-poor-wills were going nuts! No owls of any kind. As we were passing through the boat launch, the Co-Pilot screamed (again), and I stomped the brakes (again). Within seconds, we were looking at a lump on a light pole. "It's an owl! I saw it fly up there!" The light was shining down from the pole and it was sitting on top, so we were not sure of the species. Argh! Somehow, it slipped off the pole and it was gone. Dammit. We got out of the car hoping to hear a distant call, but nothing was heard. Double dammit. Admitting defeat, we went to climb back in the car when the Co-Pilot whispered "Its right there!" On the post at the boat slip, 100 yards away, under the lights for all to see, sat a Barred Owl. I even had time to put the scope on it! Killer views for all! With that, a very successful day of birding came to a close and we returned to the hotel.

It was at the point, that I learned that I had paid for the evening banquet. Well, I didn't, or so I thought, but it turns out I did, I guess. Confused? Me, too. Remember the Florida election in 2000 with the confusing ballot? The IOS registration form was apparently designed by the people who laid out the Florida document. I didn't sign up for it, but I did, even though I didn't mean to....I...well....


...Sunday morning sucked. It had rained and more was coming. Joe and Corinne opted to pass on the trip as a result of the rain and invited us to a real breakfast up the street. There was an eagerness to see Prairie Chickens again, so farewells were bid. That offer should have been taken. By the time the group had arrived at the lek, a fog had rolled in and rain was steady. The birds were nothing more than black shapes on a gray background, but they were still boomin' a bit.

On that note, a course was plotted for home. Per usual on these long drives, I found myself at an antique mall. Totally against my will (Needed. To. Resist. But. I. Couldn't...), I found myself pulling out a credit card to buy more coffee tins. The power of the coffee tin is very hard to beat. Really. I'll tell you about them some other time.

At this point, you might be wondering how it possible that I could travel and not try a regional beer. Well, apparently, it isn't possible. I recalled from a beer tasting that a brewery is located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I could not find it in my GPS so a helpful clerk at a hotel provided some good details. Basically, the Warbird Brewing Company doesn't serve food. But the Mad Anthony Brewing Company does! The taco pizza was truly excellent, but the beers needed a bit of work. The Blonde (Ahh, come on! Get a fun name!) was extremely boring. No life. No gusto. No body. Minimal flavor. Very, very blah. The Auburn (Ahh, come on!) was much better, but average. Standard red lager profiles made for a nice beer, but nothing really to get excited about. Of course, after the Blande...er....Blonde, anything would be nice. #559 and #560 were a 2 and a 3 out of 5.

After the short drive from Fort Wayne, home felt good. My Illinois list now stands at 92 species. 83 were seen on this trip alone. The Smith's Longspur brings me to a grand total of 627 species.

So, that's my movie. Mr. Smith WAS seen on his way to the Arctic. Perhaps I'll submit a script soon. I'll get somebody cool to direct it. Maybe Clint Eastwood can do it...


Anonymous said...

Did you buy carbon offsets?

Paul said...

I did not. I do, however, live 5 minutes from work, drive a fuel efficient vehicle, have significantly reduced my overall driving from years past, and carpool when I can. The trip was a birding weekend, as well as a getaway weekend and social weekend.