Thursday, April 08, 2010

My new license plates, and how to have a great birding day without really trying

Today after lifting twenty trap nets on a local lake and doing spleen and kidney-ectomies on a bunch of unfortunate fish (sampling for the latest fish disease, VHS, to come our way), I decided to leave work early. I had a book to pick up at the library, and when I pulled up to the combined library/city hall/license center I remembered my driver's license had expired on my birthday, and I needed to renew the license tabs on the Subaru. And it's payday tomorrow, so I could do that.

Minnesota has been issuing special habitat license plates for a while now, and last year they unveiled four new designs. I had decided a while back that when I had to buy license tabs I would get one of the new plates. I was torn between one that featured a chickadee, and one that featured a lady's slipper, our state flower. It was a close race, but the Hermit already had the chickadee plates, and a botanical plate just seems :) Although there is some pink overload in the background...why not bog green, like where these flowers grow?

When I arrived home I installed the new plates, then Sally was insisting that I take her to the pond. Of course I could not resist. After all that, I had exactly twenty minutes before I had to drive back to the school and pick up Calvin and his buddy from baseball practice. I had heard an unusual bird song from the (new and improved) back yard, so I grabbed the binoculars and a beer and sat at the table we had set up out there.

I don't think I saw the singer of the unusual (and still unidentified) bird song, but I did see something flitting around in a spruce tree. It was difficult to zero in on it because it was one of those little birds that is constantly flitting. I started thinking of possibilities in my head: Yellow rumped warbler? This early? Then I thought: Golden crowned kinglet. A possibility, and definitely in the size range. I finally saw the eye line, and a flash of yellow on top of the head. YES!!! I'm sure golden crowned kinglets are everywhere, especially in the spring, I had just never gotten a good look at one! LIFER!!!

Then it was time to make the fifteen mile drive to school. I must have been especially attuned to the look of the trees along the road a couple miles from our house, because I noticed a bird out of the corner of my left eye. It was sitting in an aspen tree near the road, but sitting differently than most birds: it was parallel, not perpendicular, to the tree branch it was on. It was also an unusual size, maybe blue jay size but definitely not blue jay. I had to slam on the brakes and back up.

I did not have my binoculars with me, so I'll have to rely on what I saw with my naked eyes. The sunlight was doing weird things with the bird's back, maybe highlighting some iridescence. But what I saw was dark, with a light front, and a woodpecker-like bill. Its level of wariness was also notable: it did not fly even when my car was about thirty feet away and stopped. I studied it from every angle I could, and I have to go with my gut feeling: Black backed woodpecker! They are uncommon, but definitely not improbable around here as I have seen them before.

Sometimes you see the best things when you're not really trying to see anything.


Sue said...

Oh, I love that license plate design! I wish I could get one with an orchid on it!

elise said...

I had to laugh when you said you backed up to see the bird because although I am not particularly a birder (I am just a devout nature lover), I actually turned around and drove back to see a bird yesterday. It ended up being a turkey vulture. It had looked large but not like a vulture as I had driven past. Not too long ago my daughters and I went trekking through the woods and snow in search of what we thought might be an owl. We must have gotten too close to the neighbor's property because not too long after that a bunch of no trespassing signs went up...

greg said...

Sounds like some great birding, Deb. We went canoeing on the St. Croix yesterday and saw a Great Blue heron rookery, countless ducks that fled as we proceeded downstream, and an immature bald eagle that wasn't the least bit perturbed by our presence as it sat in a tree at water's edge.

I think it's cool that we can get license plates with an orchid on it now, though I've always been fond of the somewhat retro original critical habitat plate design with the deer and I'm bummed that they're finally discontinuing it.

Happy spring!

Floridacracker said...

How could anyone refuse a Lab?
Sally has you wrapped.
I can relate, Bear has me.
Great plate!

Deb said...

Sue- People actually got to vote on these designs; there were eight of them to begin with, and the top four are available. There was a really nice wood duck one that didn't make it.

Elise- You don't have to be a devout birder, it's good enough to be paying attention and noticing things and turning around when appropriate! (I love having barely any traffic around here.)

Greg- that sounds like a marvelous canoe trip. Happy spring to you and Katie too!

FC- We have this ritual now. When I come home from work, Sally won't leave me alone until we do the pond thing. She doesn't do this with anyone else in the family for some reason. I guess I should feel honored.

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RuthieJ said...

I like your new plate Deb.
I can't wait to get one of those new designs when it's time for us to renew again.
Very cool ID on the Black-Backed Woodpecker. We never did get the chance to see one at Sax-Zim earlier this year.