Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Just a couple of months ago, I was Birdy Birderson, swaggering around central Illinois, safe in the knowledge that if any rare birds were in the offing, there was a pretty good chance I had seen them.
But then it got cold, and I got lazy. I decided I'd rather stay home, snuggling on the couch with my dogs, reading a book. Each weekend, as it approaches, I think that maybe I'll go out birding again. And then comes the weather report: cold, windy, dreary, cloudy, horrible. No, thanks. I'll stay inside.
Still, it starts to weigh on me--all the birds out there, and myself inside. Birds glimpsed in passing are precious: the murder of crows, 40 or 50 of them, flying over the road a couple of weeks ago as I drove home. The American tree sparrow perching on a shrub, seen from the walkway at the as I walked to the cafeteria in the hospital where I now work. And, mostly, starlings and pigeons, braiding the sky in syncopated flight each evening as I drive home.
I expected the starlings. But pigeons? Who knew that pigeons also swooped in formation, circling and weaving before coming to roost for the night on the flat roofs of the gas stations? This is an unexpected behavior from pigeons, more than a bit intriguing. It makes me want to go out and bird again....
"Snow on Saturday," Greenturtle informs me. "Twenty degrees on Sunday."
Twenty degrees? That's not so bad... Unless I get wrapped up in another good book, I might even be able to tear myself away from central heating. For I do miss birds, more than all the non-birders out there would ever expect, I'm sure. But really, winter is just not for me. If only I could afford a nice vacation in the tropics!
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Summer is over. OK, that's not a news flash. It's been over for a while now. And I am sulking about it. Each weekend, I make myself some vague promises about going birding, and each weekend there's something unappealing about the weather. Today, for example, is gray, cold and windy. So I am not birding.
I usually have a birding slump in late fall/early winter, and then pick back up with renewed enthusiasm on January first, with the beginning of my Year List. This year, my slump just started a month or so early. In my defense, I've had a lot on my plate, with
But mostly, it's the time of year. The breeding birds have long since departed, with the fall migrants on their heels, and I always end up feeling like a guest who just hasn't figured out the party ended a few hours ago. Well, me and the juncos. They never get the hint.
In the spirit of sulking, I thought I'd share a poem I wrote about the end of summer. It seems like every year, ever since I noticed the flocking phenomenon, when I first notice that the summer sky is full of swallows preparing to depart, I run around in a tizzy, crying, "It's the Day of the Swallows! The breeding season is officially over!" Meanwhile, everyone stares at me like I'm crazy, since this happens some time in the beginning of August, which as far as everybody else is concerned, is clearly the middle of summer.
The Day of the Swallows
All summer long, soft mornings have cradled the
Woods and wetlands. On the prairie, the big bluestem
Blazes with the sun's first strike upon the dew. Now,
Full-throttle, life bursts into song:
Dick-dick-dickcissels, flinging their heads back,
Black triangles of attitude upon their throats;
And the sedge wrens, on weeds and stems, proclaim
Their provinces with songs like bouncing pebbles.
It's the orchestra of breeding birds: bandit masked
Yellowthroats crying witchedy-witchedy from the pond margins,
While a meadowlark, perched on a rotten fence post,
Shreds the air with his liquid see-you see-year. The Russian
Olives reveal a field sparrow, looping an extra whoop into
His ancestral trill, because he knows that this field is for
His kind, willing to sing for it, over and over.
Above: the swallows, disdaining the tangled grasses.
They don't even sing, simply chittering, swooping, self-assured.
After all, no legends speak of dickcissels, or of you,
The birder with your binoculars askew and your
Field guide handy. It is they who return to Capistrano every spring.
This is summer as Golden Age, life at its most exuberant.
You have forgotten the other seasons, and the eternal axiom of motion.
Until one evening, somewhere between midsummer and
The Equinox, you arrive to find the songs extinguished.
Birds hunker in the forbs, gobbling seeds or lazy insects.
No redwings shrug their superior epaulettes.
Perhaps a sheepish kingbird flutters down, or
A field sparrow trills, desultory.
You only glanced away for a moment.
And overhead, the sky is spangled with swallows, hundreds-fold.
They are skimming the season's ending, and will carry the songs
With them in their beaks, far to the South--the sparrows and the
Yellowthroats, the shy meadowlarks.
This year the prairie will not sing for you again.
Maybe they want to tell you not to blame the harbingers.
Do you really think that they, of all fragile creatures,
Asked for this? The long flight, the spinning dark, the imperative
To depart? We did not set this clock in motion, they might say. Not us.
There are so many of them, and gazing upwards, you become
Dizzy. Penitent. It happens like this every year, it seems--
You learned to pay attention just a day too late,
And now summer's over, swallows gathering in the dusk.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
I've posted a few times about birds and poetry, and birds as symbols, sometimes as winged figures of inspiration, other times as harbingers as death. So what could be more appropriate than an anthology of poems about birds? Truly, for birders who enjoy poetry, or poetry enthusiasts who like birds, I cannot recommend Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds by Billy Collins (editor) and David Sibley (illustrator) highly enough.
As often as I've researched birds as symbols--and the history of myth, folklore and superstition has plenty of examples--at the most basic level, there is no reason to think of birds as metaphors or portents of anything. They are just themselves, winged beings who happen to catch the attention of humans, now and then, whether poets or not.
Several of these poems seem to simply want to capture that moment, of the human (poet) noticing the bird, without unnecessary fanfare of symbolic weight. How would you describe a bird you've seen, if you had a poet's way with words? And many of the selections here appear to do just that, no more, no less: depict the bird, just as the writer saw it. Among my favorites: "Cliff Swallows" by Annie Finch; "Cedar Waxwings" by Jonathan Aaron; "Loons Mating" by David Wagoner; and "Sandpiper" by Elizabeth Bishop.
In Lisa Williams' "The Kingfisher," the startled bird departs, "trailing calls like the bead of a rosary: a string of clicks in the air." In Jane Hirshfield's "Hope and Love," the solitary heron in her barn "slept/with his long neck/folded, like a letter/put away." It is details like these that make us look at familiar birds again, in a new way. Have we really been seeing them, all of these years? For isn't the unexpected description apt, although we wouldn't have phrased it quite that way, on our own?
Or what about "The Birds" by William Carlos Williams:
The world begins again!
Not wholly insufflated
the blackbirds in the rain
upon the dead topbranches
of the living tree,
stuck fast to the low clouds,
notate the dawn.
Their shrill cries sound
and drop among the bending roses
and the dripping grass.
Many of us cannot resist adding our own human spin to our observations, and in some of these poems, the result is unexpected and surprising. For example, I didn't expect to like "Seagulls," by John Updike, since I really dislike his fiction, but the poem gives a fresh and surprising look at gulls: "Are they intelligent?/We imagine so, because they are ugly./The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,/the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,/the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump/all suggest deskwork...." I confess I've never thought of gulls that way....
Or what about crows, in Lucia Perillo's "The Crows Start Demanding Royalties," where she imagines them as human thugs, hoping that "new bones would come popping out" of their wings "with a boxing glove on the end of each." Or maybe it's just that "men like to see themselves as crows."
One of my favorite poems in this selection is "Swifts" by Anne Stevenson, a joyous play of language about swifts returning in April, those "bolts in the world's need: swift swifts..." This is a poem to be read aloud, for the lilting cadences that catch the movement of those winged cigars: "bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther/Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields." Even if you think you hate poetry, I dare you to read "Swifts" aloud a few times, and then tell me you weren't the least bit captivated by the language.
Left to their own devices, birds sing beautifully, and have busy lives, but they don't write poems. This might be one of those important distinctions of being human. So it's natural that many of these poems don't simply try to convey the birdiness of the subject, but something of the intersection between bird and human observer.
For example, Robert Cording's "Peregrine falcon, New York City" shows an advertising writer momentarily transfixed by the sight of a falcon--"the air articulate with a kind of/wonder and terror..." and although "the thin edge of the falcon's wings/Had opened the slightest fissure in him," he soon returns to his trade, thinking that the bird's power would be "a fit emblem for something."
In a less cynical mood, Sylvia Plath's "Pheasant" shows the poet realizing that "I trespass stupidly" in the bird's world. They are rare, so she doesn't want them killed, but "A dozen would be worth having/A hundred, on that hill--green and red,/Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!"
There's just something about the sight of a bird, or the presence of birds in general, that make us in awe of the mystery, of the world just beyond us. Jane Hirsfield stands out again, in "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning," in which she ponders why the bird is hammering at the side of her house, and where is his mate? "I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding/the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate."
In "Bird Watching," by John Ciardi, an unidentified bird provides an insight: "...A bird is a bird as long as it is/there. Then it is a miracle our crumbs and/sunflower seeds caught and let go." In Stanley Plumly's "Cardinals in a Shower at Union Square," the unexpected sight of the birds causes dancing and clapping, and "For a moment the ringing air is clear, then/for a moment nothing happens, nothing moves/except the cardinals, in and out of trees,/And in that moment ends."
Sometimes no one notices that intersection of bird and human, as in "Sparrow Trapped in the Airport" by Averill Curdy, in which the bird, "lentil brown, uncounted, overlooked" scrounges for food beneath the baggage loop, "looking more like a fumbled punchline/than a stowaway whose revelation/recalls how lightly we once traveled." But someone was looking, and here is the documentation....
Some of the poems describe a sort of transformation at this moment of bird/avian connection. In "The Darkling Thrush," Thomas Hardy details a sterile and depressing landscape, and finding renewed life in a thrush's unexpected song: "His happy good-night air/Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware." Or in Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," in which their call "harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things."
Sometimes, the importance of looking is not so transparent. In "Grackles," Lisa Williams describes seeing her yard filled with grackles, and yet they had not gathered up "the darkness of my winter thought that day/in mid-September, bundled it, black-ribboned,/into sleek coats and lifted it from me." On the contrary, her life goes on just the same. Or in "Red-Winged Blackbirds," Juliana Gray acknowledges that "here's the point where I should turn the birds/to metaphors...", and yet she is left only with the image of them: "Their shoulders blaze like eyes, like coals, like wounds/like circumstance as they stretch and fly away." Really, who, after seeing a flock of red-winged blackbirds, can conjure up an appropriate metaphor? Not me.
The birds of Bright Wings do not escape their reputation of harbingers of death, for several of the poems touch on this association. "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire" by David Wagoner is, perhaps, my favorite of this collection. In it, the speaker addresses a man known for killing hawks, and launches a sort of hawk's-eye curse at him: "Tonight, I aim this dream straight at your skull/While you nestle it against soft feathers", not only that he will experience the acute death of his victims, "...Your breastbone shatters/Suddenly, and you fall flapping...", but also his own slow death over the years, once he wakes: "Little by little, lightly and softly/More quietly than the breath of a deer mouse." Honestly, this poem, read in its entirety, is so powerful it makes my blood run cold.
Maybe I'm morbid, for the poems of death are some of my favorites. Perhaps it is just such a powerful theme. In "Keeping Track," Bob Hicok's counting of birds in a tree--"One grackle two grackles in the maple three four/two grackles one grackle in the maple none grackles," leads him to surmise that a perching crow is "making the tree resemble an excuse for crow/as I am an excuse for death to take its time."
On a more somber note, "Cedar Waxwing on Scarlet Firethorn" by Stanley Plumly shows a potential suicide's desire "To start again with something beautiful/ and natural, the waxing first on one/foot, then the other, holding the berry..." The speaker believes that after death "each bird/could be anyone in the afterlife/alive, on wing. Like this one, which lets its/thin lisp of a song go out into the wood-/land understory, into its voice, gone." This is one of the most powerful poems in the collection, beautiful despite the subject matter. I could read it again and again.
In "The Ravens of Denali," Dorianne Laux imagines them as being the ultimate death-bringers, the "pole star of the apocalypse" and "harbingers of unluck/and the cold bleak lack to come." Well, if it's going to come anyway, it might as well be with the world's "tattered ends/gripped in [their] fur-crusted beaks..."
More often, though, it is the birds who are at risk, at least in real life, and some of these poems reflect that. Eamon Grennan's "On a 3 1/2 oz Lesser Yellowlegs, Departed Boston August 28, Shot Martinique September 8" is short and poignant: "But ah, the shot: you clot/in a cloud of feathers, drop/Dead in a nest of text-books." Mark Jarman's "A Pair of Tanagers" is even sadder, describing a male and female, their long journey ended with a collision against his wall. And one of the poems I truly hated, though not for the poet's skill, as it was quite vivid, was Linda Gregerson's "Make-falcon," in which the captive is tamed and its eyes sewed shut to make it amenable, for "They greatly dislike the human face."
The ultimate truth, of course, can only be guessed at, as in "Humming-Bird" by D.H. Lawrence, where he imagines that "in some otherworld/Primeval-dumb, far back/In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,/Hummingbird-birds raced down the avenues." This was a monstrous creature..."We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,/Luckily for us."
And luckily for us, we have Bright Wings to bring these poems together. (BTW, I paid for this book, so I have no reason to exaggerate.) If you enjoy birds and poetry, this one is worth checking out.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
I recently finished Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?: More Answers to Common and Not-So-Common Questions about Birds and Birding by Mike O'Connor, a book in the same Q&A format as his previous volume, Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? They are both fun reads, but I have to confess I didn't buy either one. I read Woodpeckers over a pot of tea at the Borders cafe, before Borders bummed me out by going bankrupt...and I got Bluebirds for free as a First Reads Giveaway with Good Reads.**
O'Connor owns a wild bird store and has a birdy newspaper column, so he gets asked a lot of bird-related questions. I've been asked some similar questions myself, such as "Why won't a certain bird come to my feeders?" and "What's up with all the grackles in my yard each fall?", though when I try to answer them, some people will scrunch up their faces and say, "No, I don't think that's the reason."
"Honest," I tell these skeptics, "that's the explanation. I read about it in a science book. By an ornithologist."
Then they pause and tilt to head to one side, thinking it over, before stating, with a final decisive nose-squinch: "No, that just doesn't sound right. I think I'll go ask the people at the wild bird store."
And then I respond with the utmost courtesy and patience:
Well, now I have another option before resorting to crude gestures--I'll just whip out my copy of Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?, which is not a science book by an ornithologist, as anyone can tell by the amount of humor in it. Even though I already knew the A's to most of the Q's in his Q&A chapters, I still enjoyed the book quite a bit, simply because of the jokes and wry comments. I even snickered from time to time, which actually places it quite high on my funny-meter. I'm just not the laugh-out-loud type.
Despite all those ornithology books I just bragged about reading, I did learn some fun facts as well, such as that titmice won't fly over water. They won't even cross a modest channel like the Cape Cod Canal. They got there by flying from girder to girder on the bridges. Another new tidbit--blue jays sometimes eat pain chips, presumably to get calcium.
I would definitely recommend Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me? for backyard birders and those new to the hobby. It would also make a nice stocking-stuffer for friends and relatives who still don't understand what all those grackles are doing in the yard, even after you explained it to them so nicely. At least if you want them to still speak to you the next time they have a question.
**I don't have much experience with free books arriving in the mail, but apparently I am required to disclose this in my review. It goes without saying that I was not bribed in any way and this is my honest opinion. (As if anything could get between me and my opinions--just ask my long-suffering family!)
Sunday, October 20, 2013
|Emiquon, IL River Valley|
I've been to this area to look for life birds so many times over the last couple of years that it's practically my home away from home, so I arrived a bit early in order to do a spot of birding before class began. It didn't feel like October, that's for certain. As I wandered around the boardwalk area, the heat and humidity made me wonder if I'd accidentally ended up in Florida instead.
Well, not really--in Florida, I'd be expecting some exciting new birds, and fall migration has been rather low-key for me this year. I guess I saw too many species in the spring and summer--not that I'm complaining! But since I wasn't expecting anything new, I left my camera and spotting scope in my truck and simply wandered with my binoculars.
|blue-winged teal...beautiful, but not exciting|
This is exactly what happened to me. Lulled by the predictable flocks of early fall waterfowl, I wasn't even thinking about the chance of a rarity. Maybe I was hoping, just a little bitty bit, that a new (to me) sparrow might pop out of the reeds, but ibis was the last thing on my mind. Still, there's no mistaking an ibis when you see one. That long, decurved bill, and that ancient Egyptian profile. Seeing the ibis made me feel, momentarily, that I'd somehow traveled far out of my way indeed.
So I knew they were dark ibis, and in the fall these are one of those mission-impossible ID challenges, like non-singing drab flycatchers or second-year gulls. Should I keep looking through my bins, or hope they stayed in place long enough for me to grab my scope and camera? I decided to go with the latter, even if the trip to the parking lot and back made me late for class (priorities, right?). And just as I rounded the bend again, staggering under the weight of all my gear (yes, I am out of shape...I'll admit it), the ibis all flew off. I drove the wetland loop a couple of times hoping to relocate them, but time was running short.
Luckily, our class in the archaeological record of the native peoples of Illinois was interesting enough that I could almost forget about the ibis. If you're ever in central Illinois, I do recommend the Dickson Mounds Museum...and it's free! Finally, in the evening, we all returned to the wetland observatory for a lesson in duck identification, and I set up my spotting scope so everyone could see the beauty of wood ducks, American white pelicans, coots and teal, plus a surprise snowy egret, up close and personal.
|one white pelican with many coots|
Then another birder showed up and the touchy-feely moment was over. As everyone else headed off for dinner, we looked for ibis. We saw some snipe, pied-billed grebes, and a horned grebe, and an ibis fly-by, but still not a good look. After some consultation with my field guide, I had decided on white-faced ibis, as there appeared to be no markings at all on their faces (as to be expected at this time of year), and that species is statistically more likely for Illinois.
Eventually, it was time to turn in (after some fun with astronomy), and some people were camping, and others were staying at a B&B. To be honest, I hate camping. Maybe as a self-proclaimed "nature girl," I shouldn't admit this...but I really like a nice, cozy bed and hot running water. I also hate spending money, so this was a dilemma. Originally, my husband had planned to join us, but at the last minute, he didn't want to leave our dogs alone for the first time since we've adopted them. (And who can blame him? Look at this piteous little face):
|"How could you leave me alone all night??"|
I woke up at some point on the wrong side of midnight. There were some stars, but a lot more light pollution from Peoria than I had expected, giving a milky wash to the horizons. Barred owls were hooting. A dog was barking, somewhere distant. A mosquito (in October! This is so wrong!) was whining, altogether too near. At first I thought it must have rained, but no...my sleeping bag was just wet with dew. You know, that stuff that makes your shoes wet in the morning, and films over your windshield? Yeah, all over me....
For a while, I tossed and turned, thinking those weird middle of the night thoughts. Like, how weird is it to think of sleeping out in the open? Because of all the naturalists around me, I wasn't worried about human predators. But what happened to all the others? (Answer: extirpated.) At least up North, where my parents live, there are still bears, and wolves. Not here. In Illinois, I am the Top Mammal, sleeping undisturbed (save by mosquitoes.)
Then it was morning. We studied wetlands, and I was tired and crabby. On the far side of forty, the body is not as forgiving of these sorts of experiences! Luckily, we were all on the far side of forty, so I was not alone in deciding to call it a day around two o'clock in the afternoon. Once home, I triumphantly logged my ibis onto Cornell's ebird database.
The birding expert must have dashed off his reply immediately: Did I see the eyes of the ibis? According to Ken Kaufman's advanced birding guide, unless I saw the eye color, there is no way to decide glossy or white-faced. More recently, a response on the Illinois Birder's Forum has been more ambiguous still--Fall ibis? No way to know!
My Illinois State List still has "white-faced ibis" as the latest entry. Should I change it? Is it dishonest to go by my "impression," and statistics? Probably. And I promise I will modify my list...next spring, when I have a better ibis sighting, one way or the other....
So...does anyone else have a bird on their Life (or Other) Lists they're not really 100% about? Anyone else hate (or love) camping?
Friday, October 18, 2013
I just realized that, once again, time has gotten away from me and it's been way too long since I posted something new. I promise, I've got a lot of new stuff to come, including my ibis sighting, fall festivals, a birding book review, more patch dispatches and creepy cemetery birding for Halloween! Also the next installment of my Dewitt County Birding Guide.
In the meantime, here's something cool with crows that I found on Tumblr. (And if you like fiction, I have been posting on my other blog, Entitled to Birds.)
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
I feel like I've been neglecting my birding blog lately. I have an exciting weekend coming up, so hopefully that will give me some fun stuff to share. The last time I was out in nature I was looking for benthic macroinvertebrates with the Master Naturalist class. If you're wondering what the heck that is, just continue reading, as I was inspired to write a poem on the topic.
I'm still struggling with the title. I could call it "Ode to a Flatworm," I suppose....
Three Worlds: A Nature Lesson
We arrive as explorers, with nets and buckets
at the banks of the Little Vermilion,
a river thin and idle from weeks of drought.
Skate bugs zig-zag lazily across the surface,
over schools of scurrying minnows.
Below them, a layer of pebbles, and
our objective: the hidden world of
benthic macroinvertebrates; in layman's terms,
the spineless creatures of the river bottoms.
The minnows dart away from my shadow
as I peer past them, at the sullen lips of
freshwater mussels. The mussels do not scatter--
that is the whole point of them, a nearly motionless
existence, sucking subsistence from the current.
Almost, I can imagine the minnows' lives:
acrobats suspended in the water,
a world always in motion, punctuated by
the distortions of refracted light.
But what silty sensations
inform the mussels' world?
On the chart of life's branchings,
we diverged too far back to allow
a sense of kinship.
We step in, and the water muddies.
The minnows ribbon away when we reach down,
for handsful of mud, gravel, leaves.
Someone has found a crayfish, which has
grabbed her thumb in protest.
Water drips through my fingers, revealing
the messy guts of the river, nothing more.
Then something moves against the rocks,
a flatworm, small as a fingernail clipping,
curling in distress, so tiny that seeing it is an act of will.
Other beings are revealed, clinging to a shred of leaf,
a flake of bark, burrowing into the mud.
They have strange names, like caddisfly, and
unfathomable life histories. By my thumb,
for example, a larval mayfly, which will swim
for several years of infancy before metamorphosis
turns it into a mouthless creature that
mates and dies within a day.
Our nature study over, we slosh them back;
the mud settles, and soon the shallow water clears again.
Along the banks, jewel-toned damselflies pause
on dangling roots, prowling for prey.
The skate bugs angle back above the minnows.
For the mussels, too, order has been restored;
they snuggle deeply in the benthic ooze,
dreaming of silty delectations.