Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sandhill cranes and plastic pink flamingos

Full disclosure: I like birds. I mean, I really like birds.

As in, I travel with a pair of binoculars and a bird book, am easily distracted by bird songs and calls and often walk with my eyes scouring the treetops for signs of avian life.

As in, I spent the summers of my undergrad chasing songbirds through the woods across Canada and the USA.

As in, the first book I purchase before traveling to a new country is a bird guide. (The Philippines was rather challenging because the country has so many endemic birds and the only complete book is very expensive and is also the size of a 1990s telephone books ... not exactly conducive to slipping into a backpack for a weekend trip.)

Thus ends the preamble to this story.

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Wednesday morning at the crack of dawn. Six am. The sun has been up for a while now, beating down on the campus track where a dozen or so runners are lacing up their shoes. Some are stretching out tight hamstrings and quads, others are gulping down Gatorade. No coffee for this crew pre-workout. Yet others are still trying to wake up.

The hour-long workout passes quickly, albeit not without the addictive pain and breathlessness that characterises track workouts. Running intervals with a group makes the time and the laps fly by. The pre-determined workout eliminates the need for conscious thought. Runners need only breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Fast. Sometimes very very fast.

During the endorphin-filled cool-down someone spots a pair of leggy creatures moving purposefully along the edge of the soccer pitch just opposite the track. When they raise up their heads, they stand chest-high. The scarlet plumes above their bills catch the sun's rays, giving the creatures a regal aura. They make no sound. Another runner identifies the birds as Sandhill cranes. I think they're spectacular.

I make a mental note to bring my camera to next track practice.

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For six weeks, I tried unsuccessfully to photograph the "track cranes". The camera was nearly always in my bag. But, if I had my camera, they were nowhere to be found. On the days that I'd left the camera at home, the pair would be strolling along the soccer pitch or eating the peanuts someone had left for them outside the nearby Cereal Crops Research Unit.

One Sunday afternoon, to my surprise and delight, the birds, the camera and I found ourselves together at the Cereal Crops Research Unit. The lighting was not great, but I was not about to miss out on this opportunity. Here are some of the photographs.


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Post-script: Other birds you are likely to see in Madison and the surrounding areas include: Northern cardinal, house sparrow, mourning dove, cedar waxwing, Baltimore oriole, herring gull, bald eagle, turkey vulture, osprey, American goldfinch, American crow, raven, European starling, purple finch, tree swallow, nuthatches, blue jay, American robin ... and plastic pink flamingos.

The official bird of the city of Madison is the plastic pink flamingo. Back in 2009, city councilors voted in favour of adopting this unusual avian symbol to represent the city. This article has a short video explaining how this quirk came to pass.

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