When I started blogging last May, I feared that inevitable moment when nothing I had done over the week warranted a blog posting. I knew this would arrive sometime in the winter and by golly here we are. I have been working almost exclusively on my passenger pigeon book the past month, which limits being outside anyway. I told Andy Sigler I had to go out in the field, and his response was that everyone feels that way, but when they spend all day in problematic weather and don’t see anything worthwhile, they regret having made the effort. (It is good having such supportive friends.)
So far this winter has been marked by absences. I have commented before that the white-winged crossbills last year kept a lot of folks entertained for months. Kelly McKay told me one was seen this past December on a Christmas count in northwest Illinois, but otherwise I have not heard of any winter finches except a handful of pine siskins at a feeder near Waukegan. Then there are always the bald eagles on the Mississippi River. Not real close, but a few hour drive to see hundreds of these magnificent birds is worth doing at least once a winter. This year, though, people have been lamenting the low numbers.
Up until a few years ago there would usually be a snowy owl or two on the lakefront. Indeed, every snowy owl I had ever seen was on the shores of big water- either Humboldt Bay in northern California, Lake Michigan, Lake Calumet, or Lake Superior. But most recently the snowy owls have lingered inland. Two winters ago, I was minding my own business on the computer when I checked IBET (the Illinois birders listserve) to discover that a snowy owl was perched on the roof of a religious tract store in a shopping center five minutes from me. After hunting for it a bit, I spotted the bird on the ledge of an apartment building. Several people managed to see it, but unfortunately not Andy, for whom it would have been a county bird. But here we are at the beginning of February and nary a snowy owl anywhere.
One winter the hot bird that kept people excited was a gray colored gyrfalcon that Cindy Alberico found in LaSalle County, Illinois. The bird foraged on waterfowl drawn to the area by a nuclear power plant cooling lake. It would be a state bird for me so I drove down five times. On my second to last excursion I pulled into the open parking lot by the cooling lake and began scanning the dike that surrounds the water. In a little while, an official utility truck pulled up and a man emerged with an automatic rifle. He informed me that I was trespassing. I suppose I could have responded by singing the famous Woody Guthrie song that explores property rights, but doubting the efficacy of that tact, I merely left. (Heavily armed men can afford to me insensitive to the nuances of folk music.)
The day proved bittersweet. The larger world recalls February 1, 2003 as the day the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded on its reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. (It was not a good time to be a rocket scientist, no matter how smart they are. But then the failures of brain surgeons rarely receive international attention.) I listened to NPR’s coverage of the disaster as I slowly cruised the nearly empty snow-covered roads. And then suddenly there it was, perched on a small mound in the middle of a wind-swept corn field. I jumped out of the car with the scope and had a very quick but adequate view of the gyr. I decided to walk across the frozen ground to get closer, but did not want to leave the car with its open windows and key in the ignition. I turned my head for a brief moment to extract the keys, and when I looked back into the scope the bird had vanished. I never saw it again. And for that matter, no one else did either.