Valentine’s Day

My wife and I went out for lunch today, as we often do. Our destination was Smokin’ Buns BBQ in Jacksonville, Arkansas—forty-five minutes east of our house. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, but that wasn’t the reason for our excursion. (We have plans for the weekend.) But still, we knew what day it was and we were together. My wife dressed courageously in white and pink—daring the BBQ sauce to do it’s worst. I, in honor of the day, put on my church jeans and a nice(r) shirt.

We were settled in the restaurant, waiting for our food when my phone buzzed with a message from a birding friend. “There’s an Iceland Gull on the lock wall at Dardanelle Dam.” Figures. I was planning on heading to the dam tomorrow to look for gulls.

Iceland Gull is a rare bird in Arkansas. Only ten or twelve have ever been found in the state. It wouldn’t be a lifer for me—I’ve seen one three times before—but it would be my first in a long time and I’ve never gotten a photograph. In addition, it would be my 297th species in Arkansas, and I’ve made it one of my goals for 2024 to get to 300 in the state.

But I was out to lunch with my wife on Valentine’s Day, and an hour-and-a-half away from the bird, which was 45 minutes west of our house. I didn’t even mention the bird to my wife and settled in for a nice meal and pleasant conversation.

Eight minutes after the first message, two more came through from fellow birders informing the group that they were on the way.

Six minutes later, more detailed information came through about where, exactly the gull was at the moment and exactly where I should go to see it.

I turned off my phone.

We finished our meal—the ribs were a little dry, but the brisket was delicious, as was my wife’s pulled pork. And we loved the sauce—the “original” flavor.

The meal wasn’t the only thing we’d planned. We drove through traffic and construction zones through downtown Little Rock to visit a store we both like. We leisurely shopped, discussed our options, talked with the salesman, and picked what we wanted. I still hadn’t mentioned the bird. It was Valentine’s Day, after all.

The third stop we’d planned was at an antique store between Little Rock and home. As we got into the car, I casually asked my wife if she still wanted to go. She said, “There isn’t anything I’m really looking for right now. I can go or not go. It doesn’t matter to me.” And I could tell by the tone of her voice that she meant exactly that.

So I said, “Well … There’s an Iceland Gull in Dardanelle. If you want to go antiquing, that’s what we’ll do. But if you don’t, then I’m going to drop you at home and head there.”

It’s at times like this that I’m reminded once again that I married the right woman. She said, “That’s fine. Let’s head home.” I turned my phone back on and, while I drove, dictated a message for her to send to the bird group (in my name), asking if the bird was still there.

There’s a certain amount of competition between birders, but we work hard to see that everyone sees the bird. I immediately got two messages and a phone call saying that the Iceland Gull was on the lock wall, sleeping.

And then came the suspense. Every birder has chased a rare bird only to have it take off minutes before he gets there. I obeyed the traffic laws (in spirit anyway), avoided running anyone off the road, and ignored the fact that I was low on gas.

I pulled up to the dam at 3:35 and saw four of my birding friends looking through their spotting scopes, always a good sign. I jumped out of my car and asked for a quick look through one of their scopes. (It isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility for a bird to take off and disappear at the very last moment.) I saw the Iceland Gull and identified it to my satisfaction, and then went back to my car and got my own scope and camera.

The Iceland Gull is the one on the right with it’s wings spread. Most gulls, like the Ring-billed Gulls in the background and the Herring Gull on the left, have black on the wing-tips. The Iceland does not. This particular bird is in its first-year plumage.

This is one of the reasons why birding is such a fun hobby. February birding can be dull. The winter birds have been around for several months, and spring migration hasn’t started yet. Yet suddenly somebody finds something good, and I’m off on an adventure.

And, to make it all even better, it was a sunny day with shirt-sleeve temperatures. I had a wonderful time with my wife, a delicious meal, a rare bird, and an hour’s enjoyable conversation with friends. Two guys who worked on the lock came by to see what we were looking at. They stuck around and regaled us with stories about floods, inept towboat captains, and Arkansas River navigation history.

The gull was still there when I left just before sundown. I remembered to stop for gas at the first station I passed. I drove home content, walked in and hugged my wife, and watched as she demonstrated the new waffle-maker she bought with her Christmas money.

So on top of everything else, I soon get waffles!

I got that going for me, which is nice.

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You Can’t Go Home Again (because other people live there now)

On the way home from Wisconsin, we stayed a night in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, close to where we lived for 18 years. We got a surprisingly good rate on a room at a new and fancy Hampton Inn in Deer Park. On Saturday evening, we connected with old friends at Giordano’s Pizza. On Sunday, my wife went to our old church with a friend while I went birding.

My first stop was a random road in Lake County where European Goldfinches have taken up residence after being released in the area. If they were around seven years ago when I lived here, I never heard about it. But more on that at the bottom of this post.

I drove to Moraine Hills State Park and walked the trails. I was getting ready to leave when I met another birder. We got to chatting, and he asked my name. When I told him, he got all excited—he’d seen my name on eBird and knew of me. When he told me his name, I knew of him too—he’s the guy who’s been passing me in number of birds seen at all the local spots. He’s a lot more passionate about birding than I was when I lived in Cary. I even quit listing for five years or so and only started again when I moved to Colorado and discovered eBird. Anyway, he took my photo (“to remember what you look like”), and we chatted for about 45 minutes.

The colors at Moraine Hills were close to peak.

The other birder told me that Red Crossbills were being seen at a park in Crystal Lake. I headed over and birded there for about an hour, but didn’t see them. I drove past our old house in Oakwood Hills. The people who bought it from us foreclosed a year or so later, and last time I saw it, it was abandoned and looking pretty shabby. Whoever lives there now has got it looking nice again and has even done some work on the driveway and retaining wall that we couldn’t afford to do. I never cared for the house, but it’s nice to see it taken care of.

When we lived there, it wouldn’t show up on any mapping software (the street name had recently been changed from Tip Top Lane to Lake Shore Drive). Friend and pizza delivery guys used to get lost all the time. We began telling people to pay no attention to street signs but to turn left by the red pickup. The pickup is still there, 18 years after we moved out, and it’s still in the same shape.

Our Cary house is a different story. The current owners have put solar panels on the roof and a library-on-a-stick in the yard, but the yard looks like trash and the gardens haven’t been kept up at all. I had that place looking sharp, so that’s kinda sad.

Two more bits of sadness. The Einstein Bros. in Barrington no longer sells bagel dogs. And the Catlow, while still there, is closed. Baloney’s is also gone.

I got a Chicago-style hot dog at a stand on Route 14 and spent a little while at another of my old birding haunts, Baker’s Lake. I picked up my wife at a restaurant near church at 3:00, and we headed south to Lincoln. The Hampton Inn there was old and in need of updating. The woman told me $154 for the night, but when I expressed my disappointment with that price, she called another hotel across the road and asked their rate. Then she looked at me and said, “I’ll match it. $104. So that was nice.

On Monday, we drove the rest of the way home, stopping at a couple places in an unsuccessful attempt to see a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. We got home around 5:00 after a slow-paced but pleasant 10-day vacation.

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Five Days Up North

We rented a cabin in the Oaken Bucket Resort on Thunder Lake in Rhinelander. While it was actually in town, the resort was on a peninsula and felt a lot remoter than it was. We were about five miles from my nephew’s house and about 12 miles from my parents’ old house.

I picked the cabin because it had a screened porch where my wife could sit and read while I was birding and exploring. But it was too cold all week, so the porch went unused. She didn’t mind. There was a comfortable chair and a nice picture window in the front room.

The cabin also had two bedrooms. The kitchen was part of the front room. It wasn’t big, but it was clean, comfortable, and beautifully located.

On Monday, our nephew and his wife took us exploring. We hiked a trail along the Wisconsin River south of Tomahawk, where the river has the biggest drop along its entire length. There wasn’t a lot of water this day, so the rapids weren’t as dramatic as they often are.

We also hiked a trail that hopped from island to island in Lake Mohawksin, a flowage on the Wisconsin River.

On Tuesday, I went birding at Rainbow Flowage, one of my old haunts. The water was way down. I saw some cool birds, but none of the northern Wisconsin specialties I was hoping for, like Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, etc. That evening, we went to the White Stag, my favorite restaurant on the planet. It’s under new ownership, and while the place looks and feels exactly the same, I didn’t think the steak was quite as good.

On Wednesday, we went antiquing with my nephew’s wife. We also drove past my parents’ old house. The people who bought it from my mom let it run down some, but now it’s owned by someone connected with Fort Wilderness and he’s fixing it up again. It looks very much like it did when Mom sold it.

On Thursday, my nephew and I drove back roads near Eagle River, hoping to see a Spruce Grouse, a would-be lifer. We concentrated on areas where one had been seen lately, but we had no luck. A Ruffed Grouse ran across the road in front of the car, giving us a momentary thrill.

On Friday, it rained all day. We went into town and visited the family bookstore and also the Hodag Store.

All of that left many leftover hours. I birded around the resort and along an abandoned railroad track. I discovered snowmobile trails that wound all through the woods on the peninsula, and it very much felt like I was out in the wild even though I knew there was a Menard’s and a Honda dealership just beyond the trees. Here are some scenes from around the cabin, in no particular order.

My wife kept saying that, if we could rent the cabin for $1,000 a month for July and August, we could come up and escape the heat of Arkansas. The only problem is that we paid $1,071 for six nights, so I don’t think we’ll be able to swing the deal.

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Bird #601 — American Flamingo

phoenicopterus (from Greek, red-winged) ruber (Latin, red)

Adams County, Wisconsin — Pentenwell Lake

Sunday, October 8, 2023 — 1:18 pm

In my last post, I reported my failed trip to Alabama to see American Flamingos that were blown there by a recent hurricane. On the very day I was striking out in Alabama, birders found three adults and two juveniles on Pentenwell Lake in central Wisconsin. The lake is man-made, part of the Wisconsin River flowage, and is very close to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge where Whooping Cranes breed. It just so happened that we were heading north to spend a week in Rhinelander. I kept watching the eBird reports to see if these birds would hang on until I got there. I really didn’t expect them to.

They almost didn’t. We arrived around 1:00 pm on a cool, cloudy day. The lake was large—about two miles across. A family from Illinois was already there looking for the flamingos. They had been told by another birder that they were still there. The father, Ben, pointed to the area of the lake where they had supposedly been seen. There were some white spots along the shore that Ben thought might be the birds. After exchanging phone numbers to keep each other up to date on what we were seeing, he and his family took off to try to get closer. Sally and I stayed where we were. I soon became convinced that the white spots were foam on the shore. They certainly weren’t flamingos.

I started scanning the far shore with my scope and soon found what I was convinced was a flamingo. I couldn’t see much because the distance created haze that made everything dance. Sally and I thought we could see the bird preening, but most of the time it stayed in the same place not doing much. We also thought we saw some pinkish color on the bird.

Meanwhile Ben and family returned. They had met some kayakers who had paddled along the far shore. They said there was only one flamingo in view, right where I had been looking. The other four birds had apparently taken off and, so far as I know, were not found again.

I let Ben use my scope, and of course while he was looking, the bird flapped. He said he could see black on the wings. Pretty soon it became even more evident that we were looking at a bird because it began moving through the shallows. I could make out a long-legged, long-necked wading bird with black on the sides. I could also make out flamingo-like feeding movements as it slowly worked through the shadows. There is no way I could have identified it as a flamingo if others hadn’t found it first, but since they had, I feel confident in my identification—especially since I found the photos the kayakers took of the very bird we saw at the very time we had been looking for it.

Here are my best photos. Make of them what you will.

When you compare them to the kayakers’ photos (which I post here, having “borrowed” them online), you can sort of make out what I was seeing. There is some pink on the bird, but I don’t know if we were really seeing it from two miles away or not.

Somebody else saw them from the same place we did, about two hours after we left, but nobody saw it again later on that day or on any other day. So I missed the Alabama birds by four hours after they were there a month, missed four of the five Wisconsin birds by a day after they were there about a week, and saw this one just a couple hours before it was last seen. It wasn’t a very satisfying view, but I have no doubt about what we saw.

American Flamingos are rare in south Florida—straying up occasionally from their range in the Caribbean. To see them in Wisconsin is almost unbelievable. But that’s what makes birding such a fun hobby. You just never know.

Update: I found out later these birds were from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

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Lake Michigan from the Indiana Dunes

We spent a day with our niece and her husband in Porter County, Indiana. They live about a mile from Lake Michigan, surrounded by pieces of Indiana Dunes National Park. During the day, we went to the lake shore two or three times. It was a windy day, and the waves were crashing.

Our first visit was mid-morning, at Porter Beach. Those are Ring-billed Gulls.

My niece and I went to the Portage Lakefront mid-afternoon. We could see Chicago in the distance across the water. While we were there, a lake freighter passed in front of the skyline.

We went back to Porter Lakefront at sunset. This time I think the gulls were Herrings.

Sunset over one of the steel mills that line the lake.

The view as we were leaving.

The next morning (Sunday), we drove through Chicago on our way to Wisconsin. Shortly after I took this photo, we had to get off the Dan Ryan because the police had it blocked for reasons we never discovered. We drove about six blocks through the south side, then got back on without incident.

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