Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The New Brohemians Head North

Wednesday, March 9, 2011
The unrelenting winter was slowly turning my mind space to slush and mush when I realized, in a rare moment of clarity, that the perfect curative prescription was adding a life bird to Ye Olde Life List. You may recall, gentle blog readers and lurkers, that I have previously broached the subject of the life list.

I'd recently broken my self-imposed ban on list-serves dealing with bird sightings and the two that I subscribed to represented opposite ends of the spectrum. The Ohio Birds list-serv had reports of great birds from around the Buckeye State, but very, very few species that would require a new check mark on the life list. And NARBA, the North American Rare Bird Alert gave me great birds that were at least 2.5 million miles away in places like Caribou Sac, Yukon and Blown-out Flip-Flop Key, Florida. Most were a bird too far.

What I needed was an attainable goal. And there it was, right there (unchecked) in the middle of my life list and making regular appearances on the Michigan Birds List Serv: The Bohemian waxwing.

I posted on Facebook that I was planning this quest and my friend and fellow birder Geoff Heeter (see photo above) sent me a message asking if I needed a co-pilot. The Heets is a fun dude. So of course I said "Sure." [If you'd like further insight into the humanoid critter we call Geoff Heeter, visit his business website, or his birding festival website, or my earlier post here in BOTB about the trip.

So it was all set: the Brohemians were going after the Bohemians.
Massive amounts of gear.

Geoff arrived late on Sunday afternoon at my mom's house in Marietta. He bolted a plate of food, and we loaded up all of my gear (weighing several tons) into his vehicle. Then I folded myself into the passenger seat like some contortionist getting into a Houdini submersion box. The level of discomfort I was to experience during the next three days nearly wiped out the gratitude I owed Heets for agreeing to drive. We could have taken the Birdmobile, but its track record on snowy, icy roads is scary poor.

So, riding uncomfortably in Geoff Toyota truck, now known forevermore as The Back Breaker, we hit the highway headed north to Bowling Green, Ohio, where my friend Annie had agreed (surprisingly) to let us crash for the night. On the drive we spoke of many things, of cabbages and kings, of bees with no stings, of LeBron with no rings, of caged birds that don't sing, and so on.
Birding junk in the trunk.

We passed through Toledo and then Detroit mumbling our respects, respectively to Jamie Farr and Eminem. The farther north we got, the fewer birds we encountered. In fact our bird list, upon stopping for gas and tire air in the town of Old Gregg, Michigan, was:
European starling
Rock pigeon
Mourning dove
American kestrel
Red-tailed hawk
American crow
Snow bunting
Canada goose
some flying ducks
sky pepper

It was not looking good. Yet we pressed on, blindly optimistic that ours was a quest worth taking.

By late in the day we reached the town of Harbor Springs, MI. This is the home of our my friend Sally, who had responded to my query on the MI-Birds listserv asking about Bohemians. She had seen a huge flock of them in Harbor Springs that very day and we were welcome to come up. She, however, was wisely leaving town with her husband before we arrived.

The Michigan birders from the list-serv were very helpful and generous in sharing their BOWA sightings. Geoff and I mapped all of the sightings and concluded that Harbor Springs gave us the best shot—recent intel, plus it was not as far north as Sault Ste. Marie, where MOST of the sightings were clustered. And, being a Michigan native, Geoff was somewhat familiar with the area. [During the next 36 hours I would hear about every youthful misadventure young Master Heeter was involved in during summers spent in Harbor Springs. We'd go past a house and he'd wax nostalgic about some young lassie and a warm can of Hamm's beer. Lucky for us, the statutes of limitations on most such escapades were expired.]

We followed Sally's directions to the letter and found the fruiting trees the waxwings had been, apparently, occupying non-stop for the past month. Most of these trees were along the lakefront streets and nearly all were stripped almost bare of fruit. Not a good sign.
But we could see ample evidence of the carnage—of the raw masticating power of the roving Bohemians.
The snow was stained from the juice of thousands of crushed berries.

We loafed around the harbor and its springs enjoying the quiet of a waxwing-free winter's afternoon. Common goldeneye and common mergansers edged their way onto the trip list. The temperature began to drop from a balmy 12 degrees F so we changed strategies.

We went to the pet store.

I figured it might sell bird seed and therefore the owner might know another local bird watcher and that local bird watcher would know where else we could go looking for the waxies.

Bingo! Within 30 minutes I was talking to a nice woman who was, indeed, a local bird enthusiast. She'd had the waxwings in her yard that morning. We got directions and headed out to her rural home, racing the daylight, which was doing its best to disappear into Lake Michigan.

Then we got lost. Found a general store. Got directions. Found the woman's house and yard, now 100-percent devoid of Bohemian waxwings.

The Waxwing/Bunting Lady's house. She was both nice and helpful.

"They come every morning to eat the fruit on that tree right in front of my living-room window!"

I muttered to myself, feeling slightly wounded.

"Ya can't hardly shoo 'em away once they start eatin'!"

Wound now gushing blood.

"Yeah, I didn't even know what they were 'til I talked to my daughter on the phone and we figgered it out!"

Wound: meet salt. Salt: wound.

Geoff pulled me away, toward Back Breaker. We needed to go elsewhere so I could have my missed-life-bird conniption fit in peace.

And here is where our luck changed ever so slightly. We ran into a big flock of snow buntings. you can read the tale of this in my recent post over at the 10,000 Birds blog.

Snow buntings. In a tree, of all things.

After enjoying the buntings and their weird, tree-perching behavior, we rolled back past the Waxwing Lady's house, just in case we were on an actual roll.

She came out again to chat with us. We told her about the snow buntings.

"Oh yeah, those things come to our feeders round the back of the house every day, all winter!"

I felt my knees begin to buckle.

Back to town we went, but it was to late to see any more birds. Instead we added planked white fish to our gastronomic life lists, got some affordable hotel rooms and crashed out, with visions of Waxwing/Bunting Lady's birds dancing in our heads.

My room had plaid wall paper which made me think I might be sleeping inside a giant Christmas present.

Ahh. Sleep. Let me drift until tomorrow, when I will take on the Zenlike aura needed to ADD THIS #$&(%(+@ BIRD to my life list. But, really, I'm not like that.

I'll continue the saga in my next post.


On March 9, 2011 at 8:32 AM KaHolly said...

And then?

Enjoyed part one of your search for the Bohemians with my morning coffee...looking forward to more.~karen

On March 9, 2011 at 8:35 AM Mary said...

Ugh. It ended so abruptly. I was enjoying the adventure, Bill...

On March 9, 2011 at 8:40 AM Connie Kogler said...

Why oh why would you make us wait for the conclusion, Bill?

Oh, by the way. I've had Bohemians in my yard here in Colorado.

Waxwings, that is.

On March 9, 2011 at 12:56 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Back to my childhood with a cliffhanger at the local theatre on Saturday afternoon.

On March 9, 2011 at 2:01 PM Bill of the Birds said...

Gee whiz, gang! I hate to leave you feeling strung out. Here's the link from the post a few weeks back when I revealed what happened.

On March 9, 2011 at 2:34 PM Susan Gets Native said...

Aw, took Heeter? And he DROVE you? You're a brave soul, Bill.

On March 9, 2011 at 9:03 PM Dave said...

Sounds like my Yellow-headed Blackbird yet unfinished.

On March 11, 2011 at 8:21 PM Kathi said...

And Susan complains that *I* pack along too much gear. She should travel with you!


On March 12, 2011 at 9:30 AM MaineBirder said...

Great post! I've seen more Bohemian Waxwings this winter than I have seen Cedars. Some flocks numbered in the hundereds.

On March 13, 2011 at 11:55 PM dguzman said...

I just had the same "they're ever-where if you just go drive down this middle-a-nowhere road a piece and turn left at the cactus!" search for Aplomado Falcons in Texas.

My story doesn't turn out as well as yours.