American Birding Podcast



Late November Musings

iPhone marimba…

I climbed out of unconsciousness into a Thanksgiving morning at The Farm. I sat up, dazed and bleary — abnormally bleary in fact. I had to blame Saad for this. Saad is my Lebanese mathematician neighbor and a brother of sorts; he is the master of the giant garden we have on our property that he protected with a Jurassic Park style ten foot deer fence. We had not seen each other in months, and we more than made up for that last evening after my family went to sleep.

In Central Illinois, we have two residences. One we refer to as “The Farm”. It is a lovely conservation property of around 200 acres that sits within a large corridor of the Mackinaw River that also contains about 1800 acres of protected nature preserves and maybe another 1000 acres of private undeveloped ground. For Illinois, it is a wilderness. Then in Bloomington, we have my family home, a house built in 1900 that my family has been in since 1971 when I was four years old. We call this residence “1312” for the street number of the address.

Finding focus in my mental fog, I looked outside and could tell immediately how outside felt. Crepuscular, clear, and crisp. The early rising was because I had to go get my daughter in Monticello for both the holiday and the weekend — it was going to be four days of family, and I was completely ready for it.

I had filled the Farm’s feeders late in yesterday’s afternoon and despite my whistling which usually brings in the Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers, nobody came in, having most likely tucked in for the long cold evening. So this morning was excited avian mayhem — I was smiling at the cozy thought of these birds all awakening to full feeders like children on a Christmas morning. These birds are my friends and their constant active presence around the house mixed with the absolute silence that envelopes this place (excepting their chips, pips, whistles and chatters) is sweet mental medicine.

I wanted to think that it had been too cold for November. It dawned on me how years ago we never took the time for such thoughts — is it too cold for November? Too warm? The weather was outside such purview back then — it was never weird; it just “was”, and we dealt with it. Now, we find ourselves uncomfortable that November is 65 degrees, and then 20. And when did any of us find ourselves in a basement in November wondering if we’d still be alive in 60 seconds? How the hell do Lapland Longspurs react to a tornado? “That does NOT look like snow, Bob! Bob? … Bob?? …”

My entire family was at The Farm when those storms came through. We had hiked all morning all over the Farm in the windy warmth. Afterwards, we retired to our basement to watch a movie. I knew what was coming — everyone did. But when we went downstairs, the day was still pleasant and harmless, even though you could feel how wildly unstable the atmosphere was. In the middle of the movie, we lost power.

“Ruh-roh — we better see what’s going on up there.”

We all came upstairs and saw that the atmospheric instability had now taken on a monstrous form all around us.

“We better get into town, right?” my wife asked. I looked at the Doppler radar and saw the seven tornado warnings all piled up on top of each other that were running in an angled band from northeast to southwest with us right in the middle.

I looked up. “I wouldn’t recommend going for a drive at the moment…”

From our upper deck we could see to our south a monster storm that eventually ravaged Bloomington-Normal; and 15 miles to our northwest was the tornado and all of its surrounding blackness that destroyed Pekin and Washington. Storms have three winds of interest — the on-the-ground speed of the storm, the wind speeds taking place within the storm, and winds associated with tornadoes if present. These storms had an on-the-ground speed of 60 mph plus. The meteorological term for that, if I recall correctly, is “$&*!^*@ insane”. And yet we were sitting in a thin band that had significant winds but hardly a drop of rain — a whimsical luck-out for certain.

On this Thanksgiving morning it was quite cold, but seasonal. As I departed The Farm, I drove under the American Kestrel that was perched at the exact same wire location that it was on when we came out the night before. I noted a raptor back-lit by the early light of dawn at the very tip top of the large cottonwood that sits out in the middle of the field to the east of the lane. This is a favorite tree for the Red-tailed Hawks; but even without a single field mark visible, this was clearly a Rough-legged Hawk — leaning forward, perched impossibly on a tiny tree-tip branch. The best I could do was see that the bird was darker — but that was it. I left it alone to its morning, glad to have it out here.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Further confirmation of the season were the Longspur flocks in the fields just south of Deland. I made it to Monticello with a successful acquisition of my little lady and we made our way back. Not long after we joined the interstate at Farmer City, something caught my eye on the shoulder and I broke safely but quickly and pulled all the way over and off of the shoulder onto the grass, putting the Denali into reverse and using my mirrors to drive back to what I had noticed.

“Daddy — what are you doing?”

“Just trying to get us killed, dear. That’s ok, right?”

I caught her smirky grimace in the mirror as I got to where I wanted to be and opened my door, grabbing a road-killed juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (for the ISU ornithologist, Angelo Capparella) that was a frozen board of a specimen. Happy Thanksgiving, Angelo…

I held it up, looking over my shoulder at Meredith.

“Because that’s what we do on Thanksgiving, honey — we stop and grab roadkill. Want some? I don’t think this is going to feed everyone though– what do you think?”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You’re a weirdo.”

I puppeteered the Hawk making it’s head move like it was talking in a deep official voice.

“I’m having a very bad day.”

“Geez, Dad — you’re gonna freak people out — put it down!”

About 30 minutes later, as we came into south Bloomington, two huge white birds flew over the road north to south.

“Oh Crap!! We have to see what those are!!”

I quickly realized that they were Trumpeter/Tundra Swans, but could not get in front of them, try as I might.

“Daddy, do I have an airbag back here?” My daughter’s subtle opinion of her dad trying to photograph these Swans on the move…

The gleaming white giants remained unidentified past “Swan sp.” but no less wondrous because of it.

Back at 1312, we were having our house cleaned to get ready for the dozen or so people that would be here this afternoon for holiday festivities. I suggested to Sherri that we get everyone back out to the Farm so the cleaning gal could do her thing unmolested by our presence. A female Red-bellied Woodpecker initiated a conversation among Sherri, Meredith, and me as to why they are called Red-bellied versus Red-headed Woodpeckers. I imagine this conversation takes place a lot out and about.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

As we approached the Farm, I could see a hawk in the big cottonwood, perched impossibly far out to the side.

“That’s going to be the Rough-legged…”

We stopped, and now I could see that it was a darkly patterned light morph female/juvenile.

“You want to get a picture?” Sherri asked.

The bird was on the backside of the tree — it would require some iPhoniscoping.

I started to get out of the car and then I stopped and paused.

“No…no, I don’t actually. I’m good.”

You often hear the question, “What do you do when you’re not birding?” And there lies the wonder of birds. “Not birding”?

There’s no such thing…

The Lagopus was content. I was content. And I enjoyed the thought that we were both thankful to be out here.

It was quite appropriate to the day…

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk