Sunday, November 28, 2010

Missed opportunities

The picture above is of me, age 17 (that was a long time ago! Check out those ugly earrings! Ah, the 1980s, at least I was too lazy to do the big hair thing), on a boat off the coast of Japan. I had the wonderful fortune to win a Rotary Club International scholarship and spent my senior year of high school as an exchange student in Maizuru, Japan. It was overall a very positive experience (I later spent a summer studying in Hakodate, Japan--on the northernmost island of Hokkaido--and I would go back for a third visit in a heartbeat if I could afford the trip right now) and the cultural experiences I had are, sadly, beyond the scope of this blog.

But this is what really gets me. I remember this boat trip quite clearly, and I remember that I enjoyed it. I had recently arrived in Maizuru, still did not speak the language beyond a few greetings, and was feeling so overwhelmed by it all...but the chance to just sit on the boat, watching the water, doubtless listening to the cries of the sea birds (I actually don't remember the birds), completely relaxed me. I have always been happiest when I can spend time in nature. I was so enchanted by the sight of the island that I asked my Rotary translator/chaperon how one could get there. He said maybe ask a fisherman to drop you off, but since I didn't speak Japanese at the time, I didn't try it. (Later I did learn Japanese well enough to be fairly fluent--few people in Maizuru spoke much English, at least in the 1980s, and the Crow MUST communicate!--but I never did go to the island.)

So there I am, as you can see in the photo, looking DOWN at the water. I was not especially into birds at the time. I liked birds well enough, was always happy if someone pointed them out to me, but it never would have occurred to me to go looking for them.

And overhead were flying...well, as I can see in these photos, there are clearly some gulls or terns, and what looks to me like it might be an ALBATROSS! I almost cried when I saw it in my photo album. But look at the beak, and the pattern of the wings--an albatross? Right above me? And I didn't even LOOK UP??????

Sadly, Japan is not the only missed birding opportunity I can think of. I also lived in Morocco for two years (I did see and identify white storks and a Levaillant's woodpecker there, and heard a European cuckoo, but that was just a decade ago and the "birder" in me was starting to stir, I think--sadly, still no binoculars, guide book or wherewithal to look for birds) and have been to Spain and Gibraltar. Not to mention having been a Navy brat and then spending four years in the Army, I have been to a lot of places! And not until I moved to Illinois did I stop to look for birds!

I try not to think about how long my Life List could be if I'd been paying attention all those years. The purpose of all this is not to kick myself with pointless regrets, but to illustrate the point: birding is learning to pay attention. To stop and look, to listen, to engage all one's senses, to be open and present. I do feel that now, as a birder, just strolling down the street, I notice more than I ever used to.

The question is, what else is there that I am not paying attention to, that's happening right now somewhere around me? Learning to wake up and really see what's all around us is such a gift. At least with birds I'm making progress.

And if anyone looking at these pictures can give me a positive ID on these birds, many thanks! Not that I could add them to the life list...but it would be nice to know what was flying overhead that day.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Canada Goose Illustrated!

The semester is almost done which means that Greenturtle is once again stuck at home studying like a fiend. As those who have been reading about my rambles know, when we go on nature strolls together, Greenturtle and I are a team: he takes the photos, and I write about the outing in deathless prose, a sample of which you are reading right now. (Yes, that's a stab at humor!) Since he has been unable to accompany me for the last few months, my poor blog has been mostly unillustrated. Today I was fed up with that situation, so I borrowed Greenturtle's camera and drove down the street to State Farm Corporate South. So all photos accompanying today's posts were taken by me, hooray!

That is one of the things I like about birding. Because of my love of birding, I am continuously challenging myself, not only to learn more about birds (namely, where to find them and how to identify them, most important birding skills!), but also I have explored so many new places, learned about different ecosystems and plants, met new people. Working from birds out, I just keep learning. The only reason I ever would have started a blog is to share my love of birds. And now I seriously intend to become a better photographer, starting today....

Mostly I had an opportunity to look at, and photograph, Canada geese, which were numerous on and around the State Farm pond. As I walked up, they were lying on the grass around the sidewalk, probably happy to have the place to themselves on the weekend. As I approached, they hurried for the pond, giving me the opportunity to take photos of them in flight (see below).

I spent a lot of time gazing over the pond, switching back and forth from binoculars to camera (which was a little awkward -- not used to having so many straps around my neck!) In addition to the geese, there were mallards, pied-billed grebes, ring necked ducks, and an American wigeon. I also learned today that ring necked ducks have an uncanny ability to always stay as far from the observer as possible! Also, that they are diving ducks, not dabbling ducks like mallards.

It was a lot of fun snapping the photos, until I got home and had Greenturtle download them-- "You took over a hundred photos of CANADA GEESE??" What can I say, they kept DOING things!

The miracle of flight

What is it about birds that makes them so captivating? I think it is flight...combined with their beauty and the contradiction of strength and fragility. Even birds which are ungainly on land, like Canada geese -- don't get me wrong, I like them, especially in the spring time when they have such cute little fuzzball goslings following them around -- but no one seeing their butt-waggling walk on land would gaze at them and think, "Ah, that's like poetry, isn't it?" But just wait till they take flight....

Friday, November 26, 2010

Quiet Friday

Today begins the consumerist frenzy that will drag on for the next month or so. The Crow will not be partaking. Since I hate both crowds and shopping, I participated in Quiet Friday (am I the only one who finds it a bit disturbing that our Cult of the Consumer now has a de facto holiday in its honor?)by spending the morning working on my novel and then, entranced by the sunshine I could see pouring through the windows, went out for a nature walk in the afternoon.

I have not been birding in a couple of weeks because a couple of weeks ago I got the flu, which passed quickly but left a host of secondary infections in its wake, first some sinus deal and then some phlemgy coughing thing, which is still hanging on, in fact, but not acutely enough to make me go to the doctor. Luckily I now feel better, and also felt like getting some exercise outdoors in the sunshine would do miracles for my mental state.

It was sunny but extremely windy, so I decided to drive out of town a bit to Parklands Merwin Preserve, hoping that the trees would block the wind. And I realized that, while I stayed inside coughing and feeling sorry for myself, the seasons had changed.

The trees were bare of leaves, the woods a study in shades of brown and gray. The corn has all been harvested, the fields stretching bare to the horizon. The golden hues of the prairie grasses are fading. A thin film of ice coated the surface of the ponds....

The woods always seem a little unsettled on a windy day. The wind doesn't just create one sound as it shakes the tree tops but many, and other sounds carry oddly. The wind is like a presence, seeming to travel from one grove of trees to the next in progression.

I followed the trail to the river, where a mixed flock of starlings and robins were bathing and drinking water, flying back and forth from a small sandbar in the river to the nearby trees. Although they are both common birds (it wasn't like I was seeing any others to intrigue me!) I stopped and watched them for a while, enjoying seeing their behavior. It was clear from watching them, for example, that there was a flock of starlings and a flock of robins that both happened to enjoy the same moment at the river, rather than a true "mixed flock." They would stand side by side to get their drink, but then each flew back to its own kind.

I could see some people hiking on the other side of the river (the Preserve has trails on both sides of the Mackinaw River, but no bridge connecting them--to get from one side to another you have to drive around, unless the water's VERY low and you can wade), but my side seemed to be entirely solitary.

I had left the trail to stand by the edge of the bluff overlooking the river, and somehow, walking back, I couldn't find it again. For those who have never been to Parklands Merwin Preserve, let me explain that losing the trail is actually hard to do. Where I was consists of a narrow strip of woods with the river bluff on one side and an open field on the other. As I wandered back, I could see both the river and the field at all times, and I knew that the trail went right alongside the field.

There's no possible way to get lost, so I wasn't alarmed. But it was disorienting. Part of it was that even though I have been to Parklands many dozens of times over the past few years, and have seen it in all moods and seasons, the sudden change of season just made it "look wrong" to me. And the continuous whooshing of the wind provided an auditory confusion of its own. I thought of how in the movie The Blair Witch Project, the students end up going in circles and can't get out of the woods no matter what they do. I thought of the old faery myth of "stray sod," a clump of grass enchanted by the faeries so if you step on it, you'll get lost even if you're in your own back yard.

And still, where was the trail! I walked by a deer hunting contraption (a ladder with a camouflaged seat at the top, looking quite new) that I hadn't seen on the way to the river. I stepped over a dead raccoon. OK, I was just joking about the Blair Witch and the pixie grass, but where the flip is the trail?

And I found it. I had crossed right over it, and was skirting the other side. The thick ground cover of fallen leaves must have obscured it. Luckily the strip of land between the field and the river was so narrow that I was bound to find it fairly soon.

I kept walking, and even though I did not lose the trail again, everything still looked a bit "weird" to me. As I walked past the grove of pines, I realized that the wind sounded different blowing here than it had in the oaks... Just before the loop to swing back to where I'd parked, I found a nice flock of chickadees, and enjoyed all the different sounds they make; there were also a lot of cardinals, a red-bellied woodpecker, and a white-breasted nuthatch. (Which brings me to the sum total of all species seen on my walk, not impressive, I know.)

By this point, the clouds had blown in and it felt like the temperature was dropping, so I was glad enough to head back to the car (even though doing so was straight into the wind! OMG, life in the flatlands!) Although a little strange, and not very birdy, the walk surely did me good. For one thing, the story I am working on involves a strange woods, and it never hurts to have inspiration!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The perfect birding book...

Do you have in your mind the image of the perfect book? The one that reading it would bring unmitigated pleasure, that would satisfy your every need as a reader? Consider it the Platonic ideal of the Book, the one that can never exist in the mere pallid imitations of real life.

I have such a book. Actually, depending on my mood and the genre, I have several such books. The inability to actually find them more than once a decade is probably what inspires me as a writer—then, if the book falls short of the dream, I only have myself to blame.

In regards to this blog, my perfect book would be one of those vivid, rollicking travelogues, the kind that make you imagine the place so vividly you could almost be there yourself – not that you’re entirely sure you’d want to go, because the narrative presents the locale dust, beggars, warts and all, not some prettified fluff piece – but the writer seems so engaging, offbeat and funny that you’d sign up for any trip on the globe with him or her—well, except maybe to Guam. I have nothing against Guam, except for the fact that an invasive tree snake has eradicated almost all of the birds on the island, and who wants to visit a place with no birds? I can think of a variety of travel books that meet these criterion—but by and large, they do not mention any birds. My ideal book has all of that AND birding.

To be honest, although I have read many interesting books on birding and birdwatching (the differences are subtle but they exist), some of them discussing the philosophical/spiritual aspect of birding that fascinates me as well, some relaying an individual’s experiences seeking different birds, some biographical, some factual, etc. – I feel that the travel/birding merger is still a consummation devoutly to be wished. (Perhaps one day I will write it.)

The closest I have found is “A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All” by Luke Dempsey (Bloomsbury USA: 2009). In this book, Dempsey and two friends, Don and Donna (who are probably composite characters, if they exist at all) travel to various birding hotspots, including Michigan (to see the Kirtland’s warbler), Texas, Arizona and Florida. The love of birding shines through for most of the narrative, and yes, they do have some madcap adventures.

So how does this stack against my Platonic vision of the perfect birding book? Birding emphasis—yes, that was satisfactory. They went looking for birds, and they saw lots of them. Vividness of description? On the one hand, yes—I could picture the places they went to fairly well, but I have been to several of them myself, and Dempsey’s description did not “jive” with my own memories at all. For example, Pedernales Falls State Park in Texas, home of the golden-cheeked warbler. I actually went there just a month or so before he did, and our experiences could not have been more different. He describes it as being hard to find (I suspect the trio are directionally challenged, let my just put it that way) and overrun with RVs and white-water rafters. I found it easy-peasy to get to, not too crowded – it had just the right ratio of hikers/campers to a solo birder like myself, enough that you don’t feel like you could be murdered by a psycho with no one the wiser, but not so many that the trails felt crowded. And everyone I met was super-friendly. As for the birding – Pedernales Falls will always stand out as one of the best moments of my birding history. Not only did I find the endangered warblers, singing sweetly from the tops of the pines, but I also spend an enchanted hour or so sitting in a bird blind by a feeding station just watching the life birds fly in. Black chinned hummingbird! Pyrrhuloxia! Spotted towhee! Western scrub jay! Every time I wanted to move on, some other wonder flew in, detaining me for another few minutes to admire it.

True, people can have different experiences of the same place. Maybe when Dempsey and Company went there the variables were different than at my visit. (Except for the location – it is NOT HARD to find!) But this seems to happen more than once. For example, I am a native Michigander before I migrated a bit south to Illinois, and I didn’t really think he had a feel for my home state (except for the mosquitoes—that was totally plausible!) It seemed like everywhere he went he met rude, weird people and ended up in a shouting match—well, I am widely traveled myself, and have NEVER gone off on people the way he relates in his book.

This brings me to my last criterion—did the book make me wish I could kick about with the author and his friends? Here is where the narrative fails. It is birdy, and the descriptions are vivid (although I would disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel that way), but I would NOT want Luke Dempsey as a birding companion. He would probably embarrass me before we got three steps into the woods. Anyone who has traveled much, if honest, will admit to the occasional meltdown—but that seemed to be his modus operandi.

So all in all, I would recommend the book as a fun read – maybe from the library, though. And in the meantime, I’m still waiting for the perfect blend of birding and travel to read.

The dark is falling

I knew that from here on out I would start experiencing diminishing returns for my birding jaunts. Yesterday I went to one of my favorite local birding locales, Comlara Park/Evergreen Lake, as always with high hopes and visions of life birds dancing in my head.

It was sunny but windy, a bit chillier than I’d like, but winter’s around the corner now, so I’ll just have to suck it up because the alternative is to stop birding and that is NOT going to happen.

As for the birds—well, I saw some of the usual suspects. The only really “good” sighting was of a pair of Bald Eagles flying over Deer Island, and I had a nice chat with some other birders I saw in the park. They were the ones who keyed me in to looking for the eagles, in fact; on my way out, I’d only given a cursory look over the lake, due to the fact that the wind was blowing so strong and cold across the water that I was afraid my eyes would freeze shut!

In case anyone is wondering what are the “usual suspects” for mid-November in Central Illinois, I saw: blue jays; black-capped chickadees (it always trips me out how tiny they are); white-breasted nuthatches (red-breasted are also possible this time of year but I didn’t see any this outing); golden-crowned kinglets (even smaller than chickadees! Seriously, how do they survive?); ring-billed gulls; crows; downy woodpeckers; Canada geese; northern cardinals; one killdeer (I was a bit surprised it was still hanging around); American tree sparrows; robins; tufted titmice; mallards; belted kingfisher; and red-bellied woodpecker. Maybe someone far away, in a different climate, might have their interest piqued by some of these species – and to those people, I would say, come to Illinois! If you’re not a wackadoodle I will happily show you where to go to see them! – but to me, they were distinctly ho-hum. Does that make me a bad person? Shouldn’t I be happy to admire their beauty instead of lusting for the potential of spring and fall migration? If so—“should” is such a negative word.

It is what it is. And although I try to make a spiritual practice of staying open and appreciative of the world, and the birds, before me, I can’t help how I feel. I always miss the birds of summer so much. It’s not just that I admire them so. It’s as the days get colder and shorter, as the birds I love have fled, I always feel that the dark is falling in more ways than one. I can live with winter as long as there’s a promise of return. But I just don’t believe that they will return year after year for much longer. I think the world will just keep getting darker.

Hennepin Hopper Wetlands in the fall

At the beginning of the month Sunwiggy and I went to the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands in Putnam county to look for ducks. As taken by the beauty of the wetlands as I was last July, I found that, in fall, it was perhaps even more striking. The shades of gold of the wetland grasses, the sun glittering off the water, the freshness of the crisp autumn air—not to mention the enormous quantity of waterfowl that we saw resting in the water—all of this made the outing almost magical. We saw northern pintail, American black duck, American wigeon, northern shoveler, American white pelican, mallards, Canada geese, ring-necked ducks, gadwall—not to mention American coots by the thousands.

Along with Emiquon, the Hennepin Hopper lakes (a project of the Wetlands Initiative) is one of the crown jewels on the Illinois River Valley. We watched a young harrier gliding over the grasses for at least half an hour, getting good views of him or her from every angle. After a while, the harrier caught a mouse – and then found more appetizing pickings with the flock of pigeons that had been sitting on top of a nearby barn. Suffice to say, the flock shot upwards in an absolute panic as soon as they were spotted. When it’s a matter of bird versus bird, it’s hard to know who to “root for”—but seeing these moments of birds behaving naturally is one of the things that keeps the wonders of birding alive.

After exploring the wetlands for a couple of hours (it felt more like a half hour – I swear, time goes into this weird dimension whenever I’m birding because I can never believe how long it’s been), we stopped for lunch at a Chinese buffet in Peru – I think it was called House of Hunan. It was pretty good. I tend to stick to vegetarian food, so there weren’t a lot of options, but the veggie fried rice wasn’t bad at all. I picked out all the broccoli from a nearby seafood option to round out the meal.

I had planned a day heading slowly west along the river, ending at Morris with time for a stop at Heideicke Lake. With the shortened daylight hours, of course that didn’t happen. We had a brief stop at the LaSalle lock and dam – herring and ring-billed gulls and more Canada Geese, and then stopped at Buffalo Rock State Park, a first for me.

The weather was beautiful, and we saw a lot of nice birds before even heading onto the trail: a bald eagle, cedar waxwings, tufted titmice, a fox sparrow, a white-breasted nuthatch. There was a trail leading to some “effigy” that we thought sounded really cool, but unfortunately, it was blocked off a bit down the line, probably for hunting season. Maybe I’ll go back in the spring to look for the effigy again.

By the time we got to Morris the sunlight was fading, so it was time to sum up with dinner and the drive home.

I feel rather sad because, judging by last year’s Bird Journal reports, that will probably be my last really birdy outing of the season. Last year on November 9 Sunwiggy and I went to Banner Marsh, Emiquon and Chatauqua—some other really worthwhile stops along the Illinois River Valley – and saw an amazing selection of birds, including the plenitude of coots. My Bird Journal entry for that day states: “First stop, Banner Marsh East Point entrance – very peaceful and otherworldly, the water shining with reflections from the cloudy sky and dotted with waterfowl (mostly coots)—seemed like my idea of something from some Artic land, Scandinavia or similar. Perfect start to the day. Kingfisher making quite a racket, and great blue heron perching on a post.... Then on to Emiquon, must have seen at least 1,000 coots, probably many thousands more, overwhelming and even humbling by sheer multitude... EXCELLENT BIRDING DAY.”

That first November trip is like a gift, before the cold sets in, the days get shorter, and hunting season ruins everything. (I have nothing against responsible hunters as individuals but the season does put a real crimp to my birding adventures.) Last year I had no luck with winter birds. Maybe this year will be different? In the meantime, I will try to remember that River Valley Magic and keep my spirits up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More mystical birder

In an earlier post, I described how sometimes birding for me borders on a sense of mysticism. I also mentioned how the book I am reading, "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature" by Jonathan Rosen (I am still reading it -- it's interesting but I'm not making fast progress, I'm afraid) discusses humanity's relationship with birds, and nature, over the past hundred years or so--a relationship that, sadly, mostly goes badly for nature, though it is our loss, too. We are part of nature and how much of ourselves do we lose as we destroy it? Being an essayist and a novelist, Rosen frequently uses poetry and literature as springboards for his discussion. There is a lot of food for thought here but as I alluded to earlier, I find myself a bit disgusted by the almost romanticized descriptions of killing, such as the way the settlers killed passenger pigeons and other birds by the thousands and hundreds of thousands; or how one "naturalist," knowing full well that the Carolina parakeet was almost extinct, somehow could not help himself from slaughtering a whole flock for his "collection." Even though this is historical fact, Rosen seems a bit too enamored of these figures for my tastes.

But I keep reading, and he redeems himself as a writer for me by capturing so eloquently the feeling I tried to convey in my earlier post:

...The descendants of the Baal Shem Tov--like the romantic poets, rebels against the Enlightenment--believed that when God created the world something got broken in the process; the vessels intended to hold God's glory shattered, and the world was strewn with holy shards, scattered in the act of creation. In this kabbalistic system, each person has a sacred task to gather up the divine sparks and thus repair the world. This for me is a very beautiful metaphor for birdwatching. Or perhaps birdwatching is a living metaphor for this mystical process.
There is certainly the purely physical thrill of seeing a trembling leaf suddenly detach itself and turn into a redstart or a chestnut-sided warbler. But there is the other unspoken longing as well--that the bird itself will give way to something that lives beyond birds. And that the broken puzzle will someday be complete. (page 164)

I think that is such a beautiful passage. And perhaps, too, I am searching for some sort of hope that this broken and ugly world we are making might somehow be salvaged. I was still reeling from the Gulf Oil Spill when I read about the tar sands mining (perhaps rapine would be more to the point) in the boreal forests, and the nearly 2000 ducks that died in the toxic waste water; and then just yesterday I read how the lights on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico trap migrating birds into flying around and around all night, until they are too exhausted to resume their journeys. Every day I find more bad news.

Dylan Thomas wrote, in one of his brilliant poems, "After the first death, there is no other." I disagree. My heart is perfectly capable of dying, in increments, with every fragile and beautiful creature that dies. I wish it had an "off" button. But maybe that would be even worse.

Jonathan Rosen (who is Jewish) presents conservation as an obligation: "I believe that there is a divine spark in us that binds us to the rest of creation, not merely as fellow creatures but as caretakers, with an earthly responsibility like the one we imagine for God. I'm not saying you can't be a conservationist without this feeling -- it's just harder for me to understand what we owe the ivory-billed woodpecker without it." (page 162)

Although I tend to agree with him, and I love the image of each bird as part of the broken puzzle of creation, in a way that just makes it worse. If this metaphor were true, how would we ever discover that beautiful pattern when so many of the pieces are being destroyed by our own carelessness and greed?