Thursday, April 30, 2015

Multi-cultural Birding - With Tian Yu

Birding, (bird-watching) as do many other human passions like art, music, theater, sports, etc. crosses all geographical boundaries, cultures, races and languages.  This is a fact which I have been personally witnessing; particularly in the past two years.  The real key to meaningful participation is to make yourself available, and to just say “yes.” 

When these unique opportunities present themselves; I am humbled.  What I find most humbling as a “typical American” is how I have somehow managed not to learn anyone else’s native language in my 54 years.  It often makes me wonder what I have been spending my time doing.  I suppose it’s a question many people ask themselves; but I am determined not to let it scare me away from any multi-cultural experience; especially bird-watching.

That brings me to my new Chinese friend Tian Yu.  He reached out to me through my website ( ) to ask if I had the time to go bird watching with him.  He wrote me an email (in English) explaining his reason for being in Milwaukee (staying with his girlfriend who is attending UWM) and that he was interested to connect with someone from the area to watch birds with.  Now (my fellow typical Americans) just consider even that premise for a moment…you are in a foreign country and take a huge risk reaching out to a complete stranger in your best (written foreign language) to ask about an opportunity to meet and (fill-in-the-blank).  That takes courage people; particularly if you have a vivid imagination like mine!  I worry that if I get confused in one of the “Mexican” grocery stores in Milwaukee that I won’t be able to properly “ask” where the corn tortillas are, without being laughed at and secretly mocked by the native-speaking store employees.

I have figured out that the very least I can do (when given these unique chances) is to be gracious and accommodating.  Such was the case when I set up a date and time to meet Yu and his girlfriend for some good old-fashioned American bird-watching.  I drove to pick them both up after my usual work day on a Thursday in April.  They were both standing outside her building eagerly looking into the street for my truck as I approached on foot on the sidewalk (I had parked a block back from their building).  How scary that might have been for them right?  Each not knowing exactly what they had gotten themselves into; who was this man they had decided to trust their safety and lives with?  It takes incredible guts and faith.  Good thing I’m such a pussy-cat and all around good guy.

After introductions and my feeble, “Ni Hao,” we drove to Lake Park and watched birds together for several hours.  His girlfriend (I wish I could say her name properly; but it sounded like “We-belo” to me) took a spare pair of his binoculars and attempted to be interested in what we were doing.  Yu and I (of course) needed very little dialog, as the birds did the talking between us birders.  He spoke English very well and only needed some minor help from We-belo to make a finer point of clarification.  We both took photos of what we had seen (with me providing the narrative and identification for his blue spiral-bound loose-leaf notebook of avian sightings).  I found that speaking slowly and using exaggerated hand movements and body language sufficed as I (the typical American) communicated with them.  Humbling.

Too bad when I got home that evening to show Barbara the Chinese people and the birds from Lake Park; I sadly discovered that I didn’t have an SD card in the camera!  All that shutter-noise clicking was just that – clicking noises…no actual images.  Rats!  What a doofus! Plus, since I’m not a very good drawer; I couldn’t even sketch a crude artist-rendering of our time together.  That’s what buying a new DSLR camera and not knowing its dos and don’ts will get you.  At least I didn’t spend the money to actually visit China and have that same (doh!) experience right?

I thankfully had another chance to redeem myself when Yu emailed me again two weeks later to ask about birding.  Jumping at the chance to hang out with him again; I picked him up in my (new-used 2006 Dakota truck) on Milwaukee’s east side (on the 29th of April) to show him one of my more favorite and productive birding spots; the Menomonee River (Underwood Creek) Parkway and County Grounds in Wauwatosa, WI.  After work, I drove to get Yu at the usual place.  We then stopped briefly off at the house to take Opie for a potty break.  He presented me with a gift of Asian incense sticks; telling me that Chinese monks could control their dreams when smelling this scent.  I laughed about that and accepted it as a treasured memento.   I needed to fetch my binoculars, before driving to SPT (Silver Pick-up Truck) eventually into the shadows of the Harmonee Avenue Bridge to park.  The weather was cool and somewhat overcast as we walked along the railroad tracks to the west to look for birds.  Yu was wearing the Phillips 66, blue, U.S.-themed, baseball cap I had given him the last time we met.  I had impressed on him the value of having a sun-brim when bird watching.  He listened.  He also wore his trusty back-pack and carried his Panda 10X50s and his Fuji DSLR camera.

We walked along the Creek/River as I would normally do; but at a slower pace due to Yu’s swollen ankle.  It seems that the 25 year-old, electrical engineer had been playing a spirited game of American soccer with men from UWM when he was violently kicked.  He unfortunately was dealing for the past two-weeks with that nagging injury.  The first bird we encountered was predicted by me.  As we rounded the corner from the rocks that line the railroad tracks to the woodsy pathway; I told him about the possibility of seeing and hearing the clattering call of a Belted kingfisher.  

On cue; Yu saw one sitting still on a thin branch above the rushing water.  We both took pictures.  From our vantage point I could not determine the sex of the bird as the chest was not visible.  Otherwise the chestnut brown color chest-band of the females (if there) would have made that possible.  Belted Kingfishers breed from Alaska eastward across southern Canada and south throughout most of U.S. They spend winters on the Pacific coast north to southeastern Alaska, and throughout the south, north to the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic coast to New England.   These have been sighted here in this place for many years, regardless of the depth of the creek/river.

At one point along the walk, I heard the sound of an American robin alarm-whistle.  I immediately
stopped and told Yu to look for a hawk and explained that the whistle alerts all sorts of avian creatures to the presence of a dangerous raptor.  Yu spotted a Cooper’s hawk across the water sitting high in a tree.  Yu definitely has good vision for single birds highlighted against the sky.  We watched and he photographed for a moment, before it flew off to the north.  The robin was relieved and stopped his whistle.  We moved on.

One bird however eluded Yu’s attempt to see it for quite a while; the Song sparrow on the far bank.  I spotted it because it was moving.  That’s my birding Achilles heel; I need to see movement or I miss a lot of birds.  That’s why I’m always super glad to go birding with Barbara – she sees still (unmoving) animals.  I pointed across the river/creek in that wildly unhelpful way that excited birders do; saying things about dirt patches, bushes, and finally the position of a clock face; all to no avail.  Yu just could not see it.  I finally resorted to taking a picture first, then showing him on the screen by pointing to it.  That helped immensely and he finally saw it; taking a digital photograph.

Do you see the Song sparrow?
How about now?
We passed many joggers, dog-walkers and bicyclists on the dirt pathway as we stopped to stare at a bunch of Common grackles, Red-winged blackbirds, and Ruby-crowned kinglets.  We finally ended up at the railroad tracks and crossed them on the way to the County Grounds retention basin area.  Once there, I marveled at the amount of Cattails in the basin that had self-seeded over the past five years.  Yu told me that in China; they are called “dog-tails.”  We saw many robins walking along the clear areas, and even heard the” whinny” call of a Sora rail buried somewhere in the reeds.  This area is definitely turning out to be a marvelous ecosystem for bird life.

It was getting late in the afternoon and the sun was threatening to set within the next 30 minutes.  The temperatures were cooling off as we returned to the SPT.  We had seen quite a few birds in a few hours.  Many of these would be Yu’s first ever.  Two FOYs for me were the Rough-winged sparrows and the single Palm warbler.  Yes, it was a great walk indeed.  As I began to take off my own birding gear, I wanted to give Yu another gift so I unhooked my Eagle Optics birding binocular harness and handed it to him.  I asked if he would accept it.  He looked slightly stunned and graciously told me he would.  We hooked it to his Pandas and I fitted them to his body with the adjusting elastic straps.  It felt great knowing that he would head back to China and have a special gift from me with him, each time he went out bird watching.

Tian Yu, Chinese Birdwatcher
Blue Jay

Here's a list of the birds we saw at Lake Park on the 16th and Menominee River Pkwy on the 29th:

  1. Pied-billed Grebe
  2. Canada Goose
  3. Mallard
  4. Greater Scaup
  5. Common Goldeneye
  6. Common Merganser
  7. Turkey Vulture
  8. Cooper's Hawk
  9. Red-tailed Hawk
  10. Sora
  11. Ring-billed Gull
  12. Herring Gull
  13. Rock Pigeon
  14. Mourning Dove
  15. Belted Kingfisher
  16. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  17. Downy Woodpecker
  18. Hairy Woodpecker
  19. Northern Flicker
  20. Blue Jay
  21. American Crow
  22. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  23. Black-capped Chickadee
  24. White-breasted Nuthatch
  25. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  26. Hermit Thrush
  27. American Robin
  28. Palm Warbler
  29. Chipping Sparrow
  30. Song Sparrow
  31. Dark-eyed Junco
  32. Northern Cardinal
  33. Red-winged Blackbird
  34. Common Grackle
  35. Brown-headed Cowbird
  36. House Finch
  37. American Goldfinch
  38. House Sparrow

Song Shu in a nest cavity

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spring 2015 - Lake Park Warbler Walks

Spring 2015 - Lake Park Warbler Walks
Saturdays 8:30 - 10:00 AM

 April 18
April 25
May 2
May 9
May 16
May 23

Meet on the WEST side of the Warming House near the tennis courts on the north end of the park: 43.071968, -87.870073 (map)

Cancelled if weather forecast calls for thunderstorms or steady winds of over 20 mph.

·         These free, informal walks are open to the general public of all ages.
·         Recreational birders familiar with Lake Park volunteer to lead people of all skill levels to the best birding spots in the park.
·         Beginning birders are especially welcome. Camaraderie and discussion of diverse environmental issues are encouraged.
·         From bridges over ravines birders can look down on thrushes, sparrows,and warblers.
·         Red-headed Woodpeckers and Eastern Bluebirds occasionally visit the woodland edges.
·         Sandpipers, gulls and ducks migrate along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Map to the "Warming House" of Lake Park

Lake Park - Satellite view