This weekend will go down in history as the two most amazing days in my birding life. How can I possible tell you all that happened, describe each beauty-filled moment, recount the singular thrills of a morning birding with a true naturalist and birder? I guess I’ll tell it by the day and try to include everything relevant. Here's the story of my time at the Oil Region First Annual Birding Festival.
I left for the Oil Fest around 6 p.m., after discovering that the tripod people had again sent me only a head and no tripod. For the second time. No matter, I told Kat. I have Joe Spla’s camera and lenses; I’ll be fine. Besides, the most important thing is to see the birds; pics are secondary.
I’d have to remind myself of this mantra later. Many times.
The drive to Titusville, PA, was breathtaking. I had a CD that Hillel had given me--Dan Gibson’s Appalachian Mountain Suite. The soothing music and background of bird songs and calls proved the perfect mood-setter for a drive through the Pennsylvania mountains, valleys, and forests to a birding festival, with the setting sun painting everything gold. Thanks, Hillel!
I arrived at the Cross Creek Resort near Titusville, home base for the festival, around 8:30p.m. I’d missed the “Flock and Mingle” with Julie Zickefoose, but no matter; I’d see her in the morning for the five-hour bird walk through Oil Creek State Park. The festival’s coordinator was kind enough to help me secure a room at the resort, and I went to settle in. Of course I was too excited to sleep, but I finally nodded off while watching a CSI rerun. I’m sure they cracked the case.
The alarm woke me at 5a.m.--ugh. I showered and dressed in my prearranged outfit, loaded my gear, and headed for the park. On the way, I had to maneuver around a huge porcupine on the park road; life mammal! A good omen.
I said “blog!” to Zick as she approached and like pen pals meeting for the first time, we immediately knew a bit of each other’s story and were able to talk with ease. I prepped my gear in the cold pre-dawn light (shorts and t-shirt were inadequate cover for this chilly morning), and we began our walk.
I’d feared I might tire from a five-hour walk, but in the end we only walked about 200 yards at both sites we visited. The warblers were everywhere, and they came to us; all we had to was listen and look, as Julie ID’d species after species just by its song. My peak moments--besides the incredible number of birds we saw:
--I ID’d a Northern Flicker in the near-darkness, and Zick complimented my good old Leupold binocs.
--We saw a gorgeous little waterfall, though the darkness made my photo a bit motion-blurred:
--I was first to spot the wood thrush up in a tree so Zick could show the rest and get the scope on it. What a beautiful song! It's like the Janis Joplin of birds, somehow able to produce chords instead of single notes.
--The other birders were great, a mix of beginners and more experienced birders, so we were able to help one another.
--Zick showed me a red admiral butterfly, a moment that would make it into her keynote speech that night after dinner.
-- I didn’t get poison ivy!
Along the way, Joe Spla’s camera had a dead-battery meltdown, I didn’t even try to digiscope or digibinoc, and I nearly froze to death. Still--it was by far the best day of my life that didn’t involve Kat. Julie said that’s what she liked to hear. True to form, Zick pointed out not only birds but butterflies, plants, and flowers, identifying and telling the us the reason for their presence. The Science Chimp was in her element, and she had an attentive audience to appreciate her magic.
Julie on the trail:
Speedwell, a beautiful but invasive garden escapee:
Ajuga everywhere, another escapee from a garden:
A beautiful maroon trillium:
Now to the list of birds; it was interesting how few common birds we saw. Maybe that’s because Julie took care to ID the biggies for us, most of which were lifers (indicated by an L) for me.
Wood duck (L)
Common merganser (L)
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (L)
Least flycatcher (L)
Pileated woodpecker -- heard (L)
Yellow-throated vireo (L)
Warbling vireo (L)
Red-eyed vireo (L)
Northern rough-winged swallow (L)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (L)
Wood thrush (L)
Blue-winged warbler (L)
Tennessee warbler (L)
Northern parula (L)
Yellow warbler (L)
Magnolia warbler -- heard (L)
Yellow-rumped warbler (L)
Bay-breasted warbler (L)
Blackpoll warbler (L)
Cerulean warbler (L)
American redstart (L)
Northern waterthrush -- heard (L)
Common yellowthroat (L)
Canada warbler (L)
Scarlet tanager -- only a glimpse but I saw him! (L)
Swamp sparrow -- heard
23 lifebirds in five hours. Needless to say, we did the Life Bird Wiggle® at the end of our walk; Julie took a photo. One of the birders was kind enough to get a shot of me (and my hat-hair) with Zick:
What a morning! I didn’t get many photos, but here are a few more from the walk:
There’s a Canada warbler in here, I swear--it's that yellow blob in the center!
Oil Creek, 7:48a.m.:
The view from the road:
Rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeder by the ranger station:
Uh... a warbler of some sort; I can't remember what this was, and the photo's too grainy for ID:
A little froggy:
At lunch, which Julie was kind enough to let me tag along to, with some of Julie's friends who were attending the festival, we all agreed that they need to change the name of this bird festival for next year. Insert a sexy bird in there--or any bird!--and you'll attract more people! After discussing the merits and >dangers of cheese, we ended our lunch and I attended two of the lecture sessions. The first was “Introduction to Warblers” with Bob Mulvihill, the Field Ornithology Projects Coordinator at the Powdermill Avian Research Center. His important point was that most of the confusion surrounding the ID of warblers results from trying to ID females, not from any difficulty telling male warblers apart. He showed stunning photos taken during banding sessions, so the detail was amazing. What a great job that must be -- spending your days (and nights, it turns out!) studying birds, learning their habits and life cycles, documenting every phase, every molt, every bird. Wow.
Next, I heard Dr. John Karian talk about nature photography and the great photo ops in the Oil Region. He showed some beautiful images he’d taken and talked about how he got them: getting up and into position well before sunrise, getting his gear ready to snap, and then just waiting for the moments to happen. Another amazing job to have, though the getting up early and the patience are not really my strong suits.... He talked about some technical aspects of photography, but mainly about his experiences capturing these images. Great stuff.
By this point, I’d been up for ten hours, hadn’t had any coffee, and was feeling pretty rough. Still, I wanted to get some photos, so I decided to go out and get new batteries and more film for Joe Spla’s camera then head back to the park. I made it to the batteries and film, then went back to the hotel room, where I realized I was just too exhausted and needed a nap. Thank goodness I’d gone ahead and booked a second night at the resort, instead of just the one I’d planned on.
I woke up late but made it to the banquet in time to eat and have some coffee before Julie began her presentation. And what a presentation--it was like watching her blog come to life. Many times she almost brought me to tears, and many times I laughed out loud. The whole time, though, I thought about life and nature from her point of view as well as my own. She read from her book, told stories of her childhood and how and why she became an artist and an observer of nature, and showed photos of many of her artworks. She even managed to sneak in some Chet Baker pics--sweet! We laughed about that after her talk, and she autographed a book for me and one for my mom. It’ll make a nice Mother’s Day present for my mom, a lover of nature and birds.
I went to bed after the dinner, but the banging headache I’d been fighting since Thursday decided to launch a major offensive. I finally got to sleep about 4a.m., woke up around noon, checked out of the resort, and started for home. I’m a tired but incredibly happy birder, enriched not just by my first bird festival but by the gift of Julie’s presence there.