Sunday, September 1, 2013

In writing

A few weeks ago, I had a few moments late one night and tried to summarize some recent thoughts on birding. I submitted the story to the Chicago Ornithological Society, which printed it in its July newsletter. Below is the text of the story. The funny thing is I did hardly any birding in the six weeks after the story until today when I was able to get in a pretty good day at Montrose (peregrine falcon, semipalmated sandpiper, semipalmated plover and sanderling the highlights). 

Birding…with children

By Bob Dolgan

Four years ago, before children, I had all the time in the world to go birding. But I didn’t. I played golf. I went backpacking. I biked on the lakefront path. Then I had children, and I actually started birding more.

I’ve birded since I was 8 years old, but it took having children to sharpen my priorities. The limits of nap schedules and early bedtimes ensure that. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe in traveling vast distances to chase rarities. But I do believe in seeing special birds when I can. I don’t believe in chasing a bird solely for a list. But I do believe in keeping track of the birds I see and hear.

Birding is the one hobby my wife and I can easily still do with the kids. The pace and duration are vastly different now, but the result has been more outings than ever. Having Montrose nearby is helpful. When my daughter was six months old, she would wake early on weekends and I would put her in a Baby Bjorn. We could get to Montrose in less than 10 minutes. I remember clearly the first time she noticed the presence of migrating birds. It was a crisp fall day and American Redstarts were singing from a grove of birches. She turned her head back and forth when she heard their songs.  

None of these early trips were long, as feeding and fresh diapers beckoned, but as we well know, you can pick up a number of species in a short time on the lakefront. Since then, we’ve graduated to a backpack carrier, and binoculars are now dangling from around my neck again. My older daughter, Sonja, now 3, knows the names of several birds—red-winged blackbird, chickadee, pigeon and crow to name a few. Sometimes the carrier becomes less appealing, and Sonja wants to be held. Often I have stood with my daughter in one arm while holding my binoculars up to my eye with the other, scanning treetops. Occasionally I’ve missed a good bird because of these awkward positions, I’m sure, but simply being in the field is worth it.

Earlier this year, in January, I took a day off and went birding. With my second daughter due in April, I thought it might be the last chance I’d have to bird for a while. The outcome was a little disappointing—just 27 species—but I had some time to myself, time I wouldn’t have anymore come April. Then the baby came, I was on leave from work and we birded quite a bit. We recorded 12 lists in April alone.

My birding renaissance has extended into summer, too. My wife and I took the children camping nearby (Chain O Lakes State Park), a location that was close to a place where it was possible to see a lifer without driving far out of the way. Growing up in Northeast Ohio, my odds of seeing a Black Tern were slim. So we stopped off at a site on the way to the state park. Both kids were sleeping when we pulled up to the location. Thanks to the magic of eBird, the terns were right where they were supposed to be. I watched three flit through the air above a marsh. We were back on the road before the kids even woke up. Another success birding…with children.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Good year

Montrose Dunes
It's hard to think about the first six months of birding in 2013 without thinking about our baby girl. Her birth April 8 had an interesting effect on the family birding patterns, though not what you might think. The year started with a trip to Door County that yielded several great birds and a couple of lifers. I took some time off at home around then, too, but managed only one full day of birding the Chicago area. Sure, species counts are limited when birding in January in the Midwest, but I was disappointed with the 27 species I saw on my big day. Then we had Celeste, and that's when things started getting interesting. In those fragile early days, we actually birded quite a bit--I submitted 15 checklists in April. The sparrowing was great--I saw 11 sparrow species in April. The return to work in May, though, made finding time to bird more difficult. May saw only eight checklists submitted. The warbler species tally was just 14--in one day it's very possible to see more than 14 warbler species at Montrose.
Overall, this spring's weather was more normal than 2012, when trees leafed out early (making birds hard to see) and the early warm fronts threw migration patterns out of wack.

I have 117 species on my Illinois 2013 list to date. Spring migration is the top opportunity to build a list, but birds can still be added with a few strategic trips. Last weekend, we went to Illinois Beach State Park. It's not far (about an hour), and we had never been there before even though it's pretty much the only natural Great Lakes beach/dune habitat in the state. I knew we had a shot to see some typical Midwestern birds that had escaped us at Montrose. And we did: belted kingfisher, eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark and tree swallow were all added to the list. Then we added a goody: a Brewer's blackbird in the juniper-covered dunes.

We may do some camping in coming weeks and can look for more Illinois breeding species then. And there will be opportunities in fall migration, too. But the sightings will become more scarce as fall ends and winter approaches.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Opening Door

The Door Peninsula of Wisconsin extends dozens of miles north into Lake Michigan from near Green Bay, Wis. Until last month, we'd never been to this idyllic part of the world. The peninsula is part of the Niagara escarpment that rings the western Great Lakes. So even while we were on the same lake as flat, sandy Chicago, the rocky coastlines and bluffs felt a million miles away from home. 

We chose Door County for a winter getaway unintentionally. I checked into rentals in Wisconsin, hoping to stay close to home, and Door County offered the most options. Then I found a cabin in the tiny Gills Rock community, at the northernmost tip of the pleasant peninsula. The dramatic location was too much to resist. 

In this mild winter, we didn't see snow until we were halfway up the peninsula at Sturgeon Bay. We continued northward on dark, winding, two-lane roads until we pulled up to our cabin at midnight on a Friday. The cabin itself was interesting--a restored mid-19th-century cabin that turned out to be very comfortable and (thankfully) well-heated. 

We didn't realize until dawn that Lake Michigan was in plain view, across the street from the cabin. We woke to a beautiful snowfall on morning No. 1 and the temperatures began to plummet. I knew there was a chance to see some winter Wisconsin bird specialties, and within a few minutes we saw a flock of white-winged crossbills in the trees between us and the lake. A life bird! We did a little exploring that day including a trip to Ellison Bluff County Park, where we saw a beautiful sunset (above). 

On Day 2, we traveled south to Egg Harbor only to realize that most of the shops and restaurants in the quaint Door towns were closed for the season. Still, we saw a good bit of the area and another life bird--a flock of Bohemian waxwings in berry trees along the side of the road in Fish Creek. This variety of waxwing, which lives in the Arctic half the year, is larger than cedars and has a rusty undertail. We also stopped at the tiny Pioneer General Store, the nearest grocery to us.

The temperature was below zero when we set out on the morning of Day 3. We drove around the peninsula and listened to the inauguration festivities. We explored the east side of the county, which is lower in elevation and seemingly more remote. We crisscrossed farmland and saw a couple of other winter specialties--a northern shrike and a rough-legged hawk. We had passed a tiny sign for a Jens Jensen visitor center in Ellison Bay and decided to go back late in the day. Jensen designed a number of well-known parks including Columbus Park in Chicago, where we were married. We discovered that he had created a folk school, The Clearing, in Ellison Bay.  The site was meant to replicate his native Denmark, complete with a bluff facing the western afternoon sun.

We headed back to Chicago in the subzero temperatures on Tuesday and made remarkably good time--about 4.5 hours. It's comforting to know that such an escape is a half-day's drive away.

It's Caillou

To the writers of Caillou --

The episode shown on Sprout on 12 February 2013 at 6:30 p.m. Central time included a scene where Caillou woke in the night from a bad dream. Caillou's dad went to check on him, and Caillou said that he had a dream about a scary monster. If this wasn't enough, the next scene showed Caillou frightened by a shadow on the wall that he thought was a monster (it turned out to be a shadow of a dinosaur doll he had). This scared Caillou to the point where he went to Mom and Dad's room and asked to come to bed with them. The scene led to a sleepless night for the whole family.

The primary audience for Caillou is toddlers, and children under the age of 5 are highly impressionable. There are many thoughts, deeds and words that my wife and I hide from our daughter so that we don't "plant a seed" in her mind. For example, I would never come home from work and open a candy bar in front of my daughter. There's no doubt she would see the candy bar and immediately request a bite from the bar. I also wouldn't come home and ask my wife if we were going to the zoo the next day. The mention of the zoo would cause Sonja so much excitement that any change of plan would lead to a dramatic letdown. Finally, even if I thought say making cookies would be fun, I wouldn't mention it if there wasn't time or if we didn't have the ingredients. I'm finding discipline and restraint are two key tenets of parenting. 

There are good habits we are trying to instill in our daughter -- potty training, courtesy and patience come to mind -- that your program could model for young children. By showing this sleep catastrophe on your program, children now may think it's OK to wake their parents, complain of monsters and crawl into bed. Parents choose toddler TV programming and line the pockets of your advertisers. They also never have enough sleep. You can appeal to both children and parents by omitting the stuff that gives us nightmares.