Monday, January 23, 2012

New Years at Stewart Ponds

By Tom Spofford


It was cold and cloudy when we arrived at Stewart Ponds in West Eugene. We realized it was the day of the annual bird count but didn’t have the energy to devote the day to that endeavor. There was a small group of birders with scopes ahead of us and I imagined they were counting. We’d brought the dog along, a 7 month old chocolate Labrador, and she was behaving quite well as we headed off down the left side path.

The end-of-year rains had filled in the first pond and waterfowl were abundant compared to weeks past when it was dry. Viewing from the blind we saw mallards, widgeons, gulls, green-winged teals, shovelers and a shorebird we couldn’t identify. There was some rotting floorboards in the blind and I made a mental note to report it before someone gets hurt.

As we left the blind, the shorebirds took flight over us, but we were still unable to ID them. Add that to my expanding list of need-to-dos; get at least an elementary grasp of the group that includes sandpipers, plovers, killdeer and curlews. Looking through my Peterson guide I realize that a very important characteristic is beak shape. If I can get a good look at this feature I can very much narrow the field. Birding is fascinating and enriching. There is so much to learn, at one’s own pace, that it is truly a lifelong hobby.

A favorite bird of mine, the kestrel, was surveying the lands from high in dead tree. It seems like many birds favor dead limbs for perching. It also could be that I simply notice more birds overall on dead limbs because they are easily spotted sans leaves. Nearby a solitary jay is quiet and unaffected by our proximity.

In the smaller pond I spot what I believe to be a pintail. We were used to seeing countless pintails in No. California but see far fewer here. The light is beginning to fail and I can’t quite get enough of a view to determine if it is the pintail as it swims into a set of reeds for cover.

The bare trees are beautiful in the afternoon light. Leafless trees have a certain appeal. Without leaves one can really study nature’s design capabilities. It’s fun to spot abandoned nests in these trees along with paper bees nests shaped like footballs.

A gang of about twenty five cackling geese wing overhead looking for a landing strip. A rare sighting! It’s a kingfisher sitting still and being quiet in a distant tree. That is not something one experiences very often. A red-tailed hawk comes in and lands in a small tree and nearby frogs can be heard.

I’m always captivated by the mosses and lichens of the northwest. In certain light it can seem to glow on the branches. Moss and lichen go on the master list for further study... Small songbirds flit in and out of the thickets. I try to identify at least one and think perhaps it’s a vireo. Sparrow-like birds are searching the brush for dinner along the road back by the car.

We are graced with the sight of about 750 cackling geese coming in to land as we climb back into the car.

Spending time out in nature was a good start to the new year. In trying times nature helps slow things down. Fresh air, few man-made distractions and the subtleties of the natural world are ingredients of living well.