Tuesday, January 11, 2011

For the Birds!

I noted in yesterday's posting that we had visited Ithaca, New York, over the weekend.

One reason for the trip was so that my wife, an avid birdwatcher, could take a birdwatching hike with a Cornell Ornithology nature hike leader.  Those adventures are offered on weekend mornings, and we had the weekend morning to do it!

She was hoping to learn more about birds and hopefully see birds that are not common to our area.

I agreed to go along, as there were promises of sidewalk time before and after that adventure and winery visitations (she knows how to handle me).

I must point out, however, something that struck me when she said we were going to a small city for birdwatching...we live in the country...we have lots of birds.  I'm thinking perhaps more birds, and more different types of birds, out in the hinterlands than one would find nestled amongst foot and car traffic.  But, the lure of walking from store to store, on concrete slabs, randomly and happily, overrode that concern.  Off we went.

I tried to practice for the hike by pointing out some things on our way there.

I saw a Thunderbird, as it passed us on Route 17, and when the radio was playing "Hotel California," I nimbly noted it was performed by the Eagles!

I think my wife was slightly amused, but when the oldies station starting playing the hits of the Byrds, she drew the line at my summarizing that we'd seen them all and didn't have to get up at 5:00 a.m. the next day to see the animal types!

Okay, it wasn't 5:00 a.m., but it was pretty close to that, 9:00 a.m. and it turned out that it was cold!  Freezing!
When we arrived at the Cornell Ornithology building, on Sapsucker Road (coincidence? I think not), there was nary a person in sight.  Actually, there was just one gentleman in a car parked next to ours.  I asked him if he was there for the birdwatching hike, he was, and the three of us waited for the nature leader to arrive.

We were about 15 minutes early and I learned something right off the bat.  When you go on a 9:00 a.m. morning hike, especially in the winter, you show up at 9:00.  Or, you stay in your car with heat running until you see the crowd.

The crowd was just the three of us with two nature leaders.  The look on their faces as they rounded the building to spy us on the deck awaiting their arrival was one of, "Darn it, people showed up.  Now we have to do the blankety-blank hike!"

They recovered quickly and started to ask my wife where she got her warm boots, her warm coat, her warm mittens...it was clear to me that they were instantly cold and might have bought any of her garments off her if they had remembered to bring cash.  I was hoping they'd cut to the chase, and start chasing birds, as my toes were feeling the freeze.

But, we stood on the stone deck for another fifteen minutes and talked a bit about what we might see (Great Blue Heron, we didn't), what they were hoping to see again (a red-shouldered Hawk, we didn't), and how cold it was.

I think they were trying to get us to back out, but we were intrepid, and I knew at that point the only way I was going to get heat moving to my toes was to get moving.

Our first sighting was a Mallard Duck.  I didn't point out that my wife drives by a flock of them every day on her way to work.  Closely following, a flock of chickadees.  Now those birds looked very much like the flock that hangs in our back yard and I was wondering if they had just followed us on our trip!  Hard to tell the difference.

All of a sudden, as I had dropped back a few feet (or dropped a few toes), I heard one of the group say, "Stop.  Listen.  Did you hear that?"  No one heard it.  Everyone listened harder, but the only sound was the creaking of my toes as the air cracked through them.

So we went on.

We rounded the bend and, lo and behold, there were dozens of different types of birds grouping together off in a short distance.  Blue Jays, Brown Creepers, Chickadees, House Finches, Downy Woodpeckers...so many of them and how unusual to see them all foraging together on one area in the wild!

Then, I realized that they were all flying around a large feeder that had been placed in a clearing and eating to their heart's content.  That's cheating, isn't it?  I want to see wild birds in the wild, desperately trying to find a mere morsel to sustain them to the next!  Where's the natural nature stuff?  Geez!

In another moment, another shout, "Look, flashing red.  What's that?"

It was my toes that I was trying to warm up.  I had pulled my foot out of my boot and, as I pulled off one sock to put on a warmer one that I had brought along, my foot was suddenly the subject of four pair of binoculars that were hoping for a male cardinal.  The group turned suddenly and expressed no interest in my condition.  I was left to tend to my toes myself.

Another half hour and we were treated to a view of the lake, frozen of course, with large trees.

The nature leader pointed to the top of two trees and noted, "Great Blue Heron."  We were thrilled.  Great Blue Herons!  No, just their nests.  They are large and impressive nests, but the birds were no where to be seen.  I'm thinking they were smarter than us and had headed south long before we even thought of visiting them.  "Come back in the Spring and you'll see them.  They come back to the same nests and use them again!"  We'll come back in the Spring and hope that I still have toes on my feet so I can walk that far again to see, "No birds in the nests!"

About half way around the lake, the leaders noted that the birdwatching time had expired and we could follow them back to the parking lot or continue around the lake to perhaps see other sights, or maybe even birds.  My feet weren't going to get any colder, and I thought that moving them would help, so I told my wife we should do the rest of the walk.

I was also thinking that if frostbite set in this might be the last time I could walk around the lake, so off we went.  We saw beaver teeth marks on trees, a beaver dam, some footprints from animals that were large enough to perhaps be a cougar, lion or elephant, squirrels (we only have a hundred of those in our back yard), and lots of signs that said, "Stay On Trail."

We stayed on the trail, those large footprints made us do just that and stay there faster, and made it back before the others.  We thanked them for their time and information and jumped into the car.

Our next sightings were those of chameleon like creatures.  My toes turning from blue, to red, to pink!

I was rewarded with a trip to the center of town and some sidewalk time.  We'll do the trip again, and the birdwatcher's hike again, I'm sure, but we'll be sure to follow the lead of the birds...after it's time that they've gone south, we won't spend any time traveling to look for them!

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