Friday, December 30, 2011

Can this warbler be saved? A review of Cerulean Blues

I just finished Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon, a book which I highly recommend to all birders and others who care about nature and conservation for reasons which I shall describe in a bit. But first, a confession. I downloaded it onto my Kindle about a month ago, read the introduction, and then skipped to other things.

It wasn't that the introduction was boring or poorly written, far from it. But the sad fact of the matter is that the beautiful little cerulean warbler is disappearing at a rate of 3% a year, the government agencies which could try to help appear to be indifferent, and one of the main reasons for the loss of its breeding habitat is mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians. I've read some interesting books about trying to save disappearing species before, such as Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper (2003), Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island by Mark Jerome Walters (2006) and the story of a whole island's species (Guam) being wiped out, And No Birds Sing: A True Ecological Thriller Set in a Tropical Paradise by Mark Jaffe (1997). All of these were interesting (I especially recommend tracking down the last one if you can -- it's kind of old and has a sad ending, but it's a fascinating read), but right now I'm in no mood for a downer.

But earlier this week I picked it up again. After all, if Katie Fallon has taken the time to tell the story of an endangered warbler, then I really should learn more about it. Why "should"? Because even though it's painful to read about the damage inflicted on our world, I don't want to be like an ostrich with my head in the proverbial sand of denial, poking it out a couple of decades later to discover a polluted wasteland and screeching, "When did this happen? Why didn't I get the memo?" It's a fine balancing act, though, between caring and wallowing (for an example of the latter, The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen (2004), an exhaustive survey of what seems like every terrible thing people have ever done, and which I don't particularly recommend unless you're perusing pamphlets from the Hemlock Society and want that final incentive to take the plunge).

So I began the book, giving myself permission to quit if I started to feel too sad. Well, after the first couple of chapters, I was in no danger of quitting. Fallon is a terrific writer and an engaging narrator, and the story is more of a personal quest than a journalistic exploration, although she certainly seems to have done her homework.

She gives us a couple of chapter of historical (Wilson, Audubon, etc.) and ecological background, interviews a couple of experts, and then it's off to see ceruleans for herself, and this is where the story really picks up. She goes birding with an old friend in West Virginia, finding her first ceruleans, then hangs out with students, researchers, bird-banders, and even goes to Colombia with a conservation group to see the warbler in its wintering habitat on the slopes of the Andes.

The book has many strengths, first among them probably being the readability. Fallon is a writer and English professor, not a scientist or researcher, and this shows in both the engaging prose and the fact that she often seems to bring up the kinds of things that someone like me (imaginative birding type, not statistic-minded science type) would think of, such as this description of a male warbler appearing in response to a recording of their song: "He puffed up the soft white feathers of his chest -- perhaps to appear larger -- and buzzed viciously. He seemed totally consumed by hatred for the intruding, brazen male who must be down there somewhere...." Her response? "He's so cute!"

A weakness of some birding books and blogs is that it can be difficult work up that much enthusiasm about someone else's birding trip; at the end of the day, someone else's list of species might be impressive, but is it interesting to read about? In Fallon's case, yes it is. Her descriptions of birding trips made me want to get out and bird myself, right now, to join in some of the fun. (From the chapter about Colombia: "The life birds came almost too quickly for me to enjoy them: tropical mockingbird, yellow-rumped oriole, a slew of hummingbirds, lemon-rumped tanager, crimson-backed tanager, and scrub tanager. My senses were overloaded; I felt intoxicated by tanagers." Yeah, don't you hate it when that happens?)

Another reason to read this book is that, although she does not hesitate to describe the problems these little warblers face, such as the horrific mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia, she balances it out with enough cause for hope. She seems able to see the better side of people while also keeping her eyes open to all the problems we have to fight if we are going to make the world a better place for warblers (and incidentally, for us).

Mountaintop removal coal mining is absolutely horrific; in Fallon's words, "Not only is the mountain removed, but everything on it: forests, birds, bears, deer, homes, cemeteries, flowers, butterflies, streams," leaving behind a landscape that "looked as if bombs had been dropped...from the copilot's seat, I had looked down on massive brown ditches; flattened, grass-covered 'reclaimed' mountaintops; and ominous black lakes of coal slurry." In one of the more memorable passages, she describes looking down on such a mine while "a small flock of cedar waxwings...flew beyond the treetops, into the empty air above the barren hole, and, seemingly shocked, quickly turned and headed back for the tree line."

Despite passages like this, and her own bouts of sadness (not only for the warbler, but shortly before her quest began, the shooting incident at Virginia Tech, where she teaches, occurred), the overall tone of the book is absolutely not the downer I'd feared. From mentioning the efforts of conservation groups to improve habitat, even after the mining has done its worse, to describing a parade of school-children dressed like warblers in Colombia in a town by a nature preserve where they winter, Fallon manages to find the good in both the world and its people. I also love the Spanish word for cerulean warbler, reinita cielo azur," or "sky-blue little queen." Who wouldn't want to save something called that?

The book ends with some suggestions for what we can do to help the warblers, from the constructive (buy shade-grown coffee, support conservation groups, oppose mountaintop removal mining) to the sublime (learn the names of things, let nature help you heal).

Her final recommendation is one I shall absolutely take to heart: go out and find a cerulean warbler for yourself. You know what, they do nest in Southern Illinois. I think I'll have to go for it!

Highly recommended!

Monday, December 26, 2011

A two-faced time of year

As the season of introspection continues, I have found myself more in the mood for long nature walks than frenetic birding expeditions, although of course I always bring my binoculars along. Regarded from without, the activity probably looks the same: I stroll along for a while, I notice something, raise my binoculars, and then after a minute or two, walk onwards. The difference is that my attention is directed more inward than usual, and that the focus is more on the walking than the birds.

But obviously, there are birds, today 26 species (my favorites being the white-throated sparrow and eastern meadowlark I saw at Weldon Spring, and the pine siskins I saw at Mascoutin, along with my perennial favorites northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, belted kingfisher and blue jay); plus, two, the siskins and a pair of ring-necked pheasants, were new species for DeWitt County.

It was a decent day for birding but perhaps an even better day for reflection. For while I ignore the "holidays" as much as I can (or at least the lock-step consumerism that the season seems to encourage), I am a total sucker for the New Year's Resolution.

I know, I know! Nobody ever keeps their resolutions, and it's pretty much a trite waste of time, and besides, why should the hopes of self improvement be limited to just one time of year? I never keep my resolutions either (unless I resolve to go birding!), and yet that doesn't stop me from trying again. I love the line in one of Florence + the Machine's songs, "I am done with my graceless heart/So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart." That's what I would resolve to do if I could, but I know that extreme changes never stick. Or even if they do, one soon finds that old graceless heart back in place in all-new surroundings.

But if one can avoid setting unrealistic or rigid expectations and instead focus on a constructive amount of introspection, I do believe that an annual ritual of deciding if we are the people that we want to be, and if not, what steps we can take to get closer to our best possible selves can be worthwhile. As the two-faced Roman god of the crossroads and January's namesake, Janus, looks both ahead and behind, I like to think of where I've been and which direction I hope I'm heading.

I'm not thinking in terms of "resolutions" (which brings up memories of lapsed gym memberships and failed diets from years past) but instead intentions or goals, with the understanding that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Goal Number One: To Achieve My Personal Best in Birding. Amongst friends and family members, I've been referring to 2012 as "my Big Year," but to be honest, I don't actually expect to be the Illinois Ultimate Birding Champion. I have too many limits to my time and resources and too many other things I want to achieve to go for that, plus I don't want to get obsessed about it. But I can hope for my best year yet -- in fact, my goal is to see 255 species, which would be 80% of the A.B.A.'s total for the state (if I understand their website correctly), and the minimum number required for a Big Year. Since that's about 40 more species than I've seen in the state all total, it's still quite a challenging goal. And let's be honest, I'll get obsessed about it.

Goal Number Two: To Work on My Avian Haven, a.k.a., my yard, which is currently a wild, weedy overgrown mess chock full of invasive species (bamboo, starlings, house sparrows, English ivy, nightshade; seriously, how can a yard this size have so many "issues"?). Rome wasn't built in a day, and my backyard bird sanctuary won't be achieved in a year, but I do have some plans to add native species and bird and butterfly-friendly plants, and to remove more of the invasive stuff. I hope to be able to provide regular updates on creating better wildlife habitat (and a prettier garden!) starting in the spring.

Of course, being an over-achiever in the resolution department, I can think of a half a dozen other "goals" I plan to work on, although these are not so relevant to the theme of this blog. You know, eat right, work out, be a nicer person, cure that case of "foot in mouth disease," spend more time reading worthwhile books and less time watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc., etc., the same as every year.

Do you have any goals for the coming year? Especially any as relates to birding?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solstice thoughts

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! Although I much prefer the summer one, for both birding and general merriment, there's at least one thing to be said for this time of year...starting tomorrow, the sunlight hours will start to get longer! And if that doesn't deserve a big woo-hoo, I don't know what does.

I apologize to anyone who checks for new posts here very often, but lately my inspiration has been in as short supply as the daylight. Luckily, there are some bright spots on the horizon, at least figuratively.

For one thing, one of my favorite days is just around the corner--January first! And not for the opportunity to make a lot of resolutions that I'll keep for maybe a day or two (although I'm sure that will happen), but because it's the one day of the year when each and every species of bird I see is a "year bird." House sparrows, hooray! Pigeons, I'm glad to see ya! Starlings, welcome aboard! And of course I hope to see a lot more as well.

Sometimes it seems like the best moment is immediately before something happens. It's like that quantum physics thought experiment with the cat in the box with a radioactive isotope. Before you open the box, it's not that the cat could be either dead or alive. It's both at once. Then you peel back the flap, the die is cast, and the cat's fate is decided. I know that Erwin Schrodinger wasn't a birder...but it's that same feeling of infinite possibility.

Or, a more mundane example, the unopened Christmas gift. When I was a kid, I was always disappointed after I opened my presents on Christmas morning. It's not that I didn't like my gifts. It's just that, although I never could have articulated it back then, it was somehow more fun before I knew exactly what they were.

Now, I get that same feeling of excitement from a bird checklist. Every January I print off a copy of the Birds of Illinois list from the Internet, and read it over several times in anticipation, lingering an extra few seconds on the species I think most likely for the location and season. Will I see purple finches? White-crowned sparrows? Rusty blackbirds? Snowy owls? Golden-crowned kinglets? Will I see them all? Until the day is over, anything is still possible.

Some people have a solstice ritual they like to keep, or Christmas traditions, or they really look forward to partying on New Year's Eve. I could never get into any of that. It's not that I don't want to, I just can't work up any enthusiasm. But as I though about it while soaking in the tub this evening, I realized that birding has become my ritual.

Maybe it sounds silly, but going back to the same places, over and over, in different seasons, weathers, moods, what have you, becomes a way to anchor myself to this particular place and moment. It grounds me, and wakes me up, and fills me with gratitude and wonder when I least expect it. Sometimes it feels almost like a prayer or a meditation.

I will wrap up this post with a quote from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue.

Familiarity enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation....
This happens also with our experience of place. I remember my first evening in Tubingen, Germany. I was to spend more than four years there studying Hegel, but that first evening in Tubingen was utterly strange and unknown to me. I remember thinking, Look very carefully at Tubingen this evening because you will never again see it in this same way. And this was true.... After I had mapped out my routes through this strange territory, it became familiar, and soon I did not see it for itself anymore.

Perhaps that is what my January Birding Ritual is all about. For at least one day, I can shake off the dross of familiarity, and see each bird for itself once more.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Upper Peninsula Birding Adventure

Last week I went to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to visit my parents and, more importantly, to look for winter birds. Luckily, they enjoy birding as well, though perhaps not in the "all birds, all the time" way that I do, so it wasn't a complete conflict of interest.

A note about the photos: I did not get any good bird photos on this trip, so all bird photos on this post were actually taken last February at Sax Zim Bog. All landscape and otherwise non-bird photos were taken on this trip in Michigan.

As usual, I had a mental list (if there are many species it is usually an actual list) of birds I'd hoped to see, cobbled together from recent sightings on ebird, plus those that Sunwiggy had seen herself in the past couple of weeks: snowy owl, spruce grouse, snow bunting, white-winged crossbill, and Bohemian waxwing, all of which would be "lifers." Some evening grosbeaks would have been nice, too, but since no one had been seeing them, I didn't have my hopes up for those.

When I arrived on Thursday, I had barely crossed the state line when it started to snow. As in, how do I keep in my lane because I can't see it? Welcome to Michigan! Well, that's what I get for traveling to the north in December; except for the scary driving factor, it was actually kind of nice, as here in Illinois we've had a mild year and no snow in sight.

First bird sightings: bald eagle and American crow on the drive there, plus black-capped chickadees on my parents porch and pigeons at their feeder.

Day One, Friday: To Marquette and back

The next morning, it was still snowing like crazy around Calumet, but the weather forecast reported clear skies in Marquette, so we decided to head that way. It was an exciting trip because I had never been to Marquette and my parents had not really birded there, so new things to be discovered by all.

Sure enough, we did soon leave the snow behind, and had a nice time stopping along the water to look for birds: at the pier in Baraga we saw mallards, common mergansers, and a large flock of redheads; in L'Anse, Canada geese and mallards, and at Marquette Harbor more common mergansers and hooded mergansers. I kicked myself for forgetting the camera, as the two of the hooded mergansers were very close, in the slips for boats, diving for fish with no mind paid to us, and raising and lowering their hoods with abandon.

It was quite cold, but I wanted to walk around Presque Isle Park for a bit to see if I could spot some crossbills. I had forgotten a quirk of Sunwiggy's; when it's cold, she won't step outside unless she absolutely has to, preferring to bird from the vehicle. So she wouldn't get out, not even for crossbills. "I've seen them before." This sighting was something like three years ago, but there was no changing her mind, so she got to wait in the Jeep, drinking coffee from her thermos. Luckily, my dad was willing to stroll around a bit so I wasn't all alone.

The woods were very peaceful, and away from the wind off the water, not even too cold, but the only birds we saw were chickadees and a hairy woodpecker. I did see two flyovers of noisy flocks that I determined to be white-winged crossbills, which was good enough for my list, although I definitely needed a better look. Maybe later in the trip; people had been seeing them everywhere.

On the way back, the harbor was crammed with gulls (from what we could determine, ring-billed and herring), plus the mergansers and greater scaups. Few species seen but proof of life birds in the vicinity, so not a bad start to the trip.

Day Two, Saturday: all around the Keweenaw Peninsula

On the second day, my parents decided to drive by every place they or someone else had recently seen something cool on the Keweenaw Peninsula. I especially had hopes of picking up some nice species out towards Copper Harbor, as there had been some interesting sightings there lately, especially the Bohemian waxwings my parents saw a mere week or so before.

We started with White City Park, as a small colony of spruce grouse is thought to live there. It was another cold day, so here is a picture of my parents. The reason you can't see them is because they wouldn't come out of the Jeep!

It's ironic that two people who hate the cold so much moved to a land where it's cold for six months out of the year; on the other hand, absolutely nothing was stirring at the park, so maybe they had the right idea.

We were surprised to see many huge flocks of common redpolls picking for grit or salt on the snowy roads, and a few much smaller flocks of pine grosbeaks. Even though I had picked up these species last February in Minnesota, it was a treat to see them again, especially the huge flocks of redpolls as I'd had no idea that they came down in such numbers.

Keweenaw County also produced a rough-legged hawk for us, and in Copper Harbor my dad and I strolled around a bit, where I added "blue jay" to my list of species for the trip, and heard and saw both crows and ravens -- it was fun to be able to compare them up close like that.

The only thing out over the water was a lone greater scaup.

I did enjoy the patterns that the ice made as it formed over the water.

If I hadn't gone to Copper Harbor, I would have been sad to miss it, and the flocks of redpolls and pine grosbeaks were really fun, but overall I was a little frustrated by how few species I was seeing, and how much time I was spending in the vehicle, so I announced that on the following day we were getting out somewhere and walking around!

Day Three, Sunday: Houghton and Baraga

Luckily, the weather was with me on my campaign to get out of the Jeep, as Sunday was sunny and warm, going up into the forties. Rather than be bummed out about all the lifebirds I wasn't seeing, I decided to make a game out of how many species in general I could add on for the trip, and was happy to find three purple finches in with a flock of redpolls, plus starlings and goldfinches as we explored the county. We strolled around Houghton for a bit, and then headed back out towards Baraga, which gave us some new species in the bay (red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye), and a couple of very nice surprises, such as a pair of trumpeter swans on the south end of the bay and two Thayer's Gulls in L'Anse. The gulls were especially nice as they were life birds, and as they are rather hard to identify, it was nice to have three pairs of eyes agreeing that they weren't herring gulls.

Sunwiggy actually got out of the vehicle a couple of times!

To wrap up the day, we decided to go to the Baraga Plains, hoping for gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers or a better view of white-winged crossbills. I'm a little hazy about the rules for visiting the plains; apparently the land is owned by a private company, and is actively being logged, but anyone is free to wander around if they want to.

The day was bright, the (melting) snow a glistening white contrast to the blue sky, but there were no birds. I mean, none, not even the chattering of the ubiquitous chickadees. It was as if the area was suffering a bird blight -- but hey, I got to walk around a bit, which was a nice way to round out the day. I think that if I lived up here, I would have to invest in some snowshoes, or go insane with cabin fever.

Day Four, Monday, Back to Marquette

Since we'd had the most luck finding birds along the water, for my last day, I voted for a return trip to Marquette. It was gray and drizzling for most of the day, but we did have enough of a reprieve to check out the harbor, where I saw mostly the same birds as before, plus a common goldeneye. It was fun seeing the "rafts of wintering ducks" that I've read about and never managed to find before, and we got to challenge our ID skills by such creatures as a juvenile goldeneye and female greater scaups. Another stroll through the woods at Presque Isle park revealed black-capped chickadees and a bald eagle.

By then it was starting to rain again, so after lunch I checked out a gift shop and agreed to a visit to Snowbound Books for Sunwiggy--she loves bookstores the way I love a mixed flock of warblers in their breeding plumage, and since Marquette is a two hour trip for her, it would be mean not to. And I did enjoy seeing more of the town; it seems like a nice place, and I would love to visit again, preferably in the summer.

On a non-birding note, I would like to mention several of the nice places we ate lunch or dinner during my visit; since birding can really work up an appetite, these were much appreciated: Bambu and The Library in Houghton, the former serving good Chinese food and the second a wide variety of dishes--the carne asada I tried wasn't bad but they are also a microbrewery and the Miner's IPA is excellent; The Vierling Restaurant in Marquette, where we had some good sandwiches, also a brewery but we were there for lunch so I didn't try the beer; Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay served a good salad for lunch; and Toni's in Laurium made a decent BLT (my parents swear by the pasties, but no offense to one of the U.P.'s signature foods, that's not my thing). I'm a picky eater (or, as I prefer to call myself, a "foodie," and usually bring a picnic lunch on a birding trip; the weather didn't make that appealing on this trip, so I was glad to find some decent places to eat.

Oh, and if you're wondering the total number of species I saw -- 29. I know, not very tantalizing, but at least there were some good ones. And the next time I visit the U.P., I think I'll choose the summer months!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ruins in the snow

For those who may have wondered where the Crow has been, I've spent the last few days visiting the 'rents in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where they have chosen to spent their later years -- specifically, in Calumet on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which (as my dad would be happy to explain to you in great detail), is in the midst of Copper Country.

Here's a bit of a history lesson: the Keweenaw peninsula is rich in copper, which started a mining boom in the middle of the 1800s--I'm not enough of an aficionado of the period to give a complete history, but here's a brief summery from Wikepidia.

One thing that did catch my interest as I was driving northward were the ruins along highway 26 between Houghton and Calumet.

It turns out that these are the ruins of a stamp mill -- as my dad explained, the facility was used to crush huge rocks sent down from the copper mines further up the hill, so that the rocks were turned to sand, and only the hunks of copper remained.

I enjoyed wandering among the ruins taking photos -- although to be honest, the history of the area as shown by the ruins of the stamp mill, although interesting, is not the point in time I'd chose to visit if I had a free trip in a time machine. I'd chose a century or two earlier, and hang with the French explorers, the Ojibway, and the passenger pigeons.

Besides, there's a certain gravitas to ruins; you don't necessarily want to know the facts. Sometimes it's more interesting to just wander around taking photos. OK, the past history major in me is so shocked at that statement that I take it back! It's better to know!

There used to be so much copper in the area that even the pulverized rock, post-stamping, had enough to dredge out afterward. And then, some time in the sixties, it stopped being profitable to mine for copper in the Upper Peninsula...the competition from the western mines was too great, and the mines had to go down so deep, that it was no longer worth the companies' while, and they closed up shop....

And for those of you who want to know what birds I saw Up North...I promise to share all the news on the birding front later this week!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some thoughts on Spontaneous Happiness

(And of course sooner or later these thoughts will get around to birds!)

The terminal grayness of the season has dragged on into Sunday (there was a respite yesterday afternoon...when I was busy running errands, alas), so that after a brief jaunt to the Salt Creek Wetland this morning, I spent the rest of the day huddled under an afghan, snuggling with my dogs and reading the latest book to hit my Kindle, Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil.

I have been a big fan of Dr. Weil's for over a decade; in fact, it was his books Health and Healing and Natural Health, Natural Medicine that first piqued my interest in alternative (and integrative) medicine. His latest, Spontaneous Happiness, is mostly a discussion of how to alleviate the mild-to-moderate depression and other mental issues plaguing the twenty-first century developed world. Although he mentions that part of the "epidemic" of depression is actually created by the medical industry (I think that very few would argue that, especially after approval of direct-to-consumer advertising, the pharmaceutical companies have gone overboard in pushing their wares), and that the idea that one should be aggressively "happy" all the time is artificial and unnatural, he also states that more people than ever seem to be depressed. Hunter-gatherer societies, the Old Order Amish, and those in less developed countries very rarely get depressed, even though their lives are more physically grueling. Modern American cosmopolites (and those in other developed Western countries) are much less happy. Why is this?

Besides birding and nature, integrative and natural medicine, especially as it relates to mental health, is a huge interest of mine. Partly this is for personal reasons--I try not to dwell on it, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm completely neurotic, mostly suffering from various forms of anxiety, with a liberal smattering of melancholia to round it all out.

Like Dr. Weil, I find the whole biochemical theory depression and other problems (with some exceptions, such as bipolar disorder, which thankfully I do not have!) to be inadequate if not downright flawed. But if neurotransmitters aren't to blame for the problem, then what is? Here is where the topic intersects nicely with the core subjects of Bird Ephemera.

Lately my thoughts on the topic can be summed up briefly: "We're just not meant to live this way!" In fact, I've felt out of step with our society pretty much my entire life, and the disconnect has just been getting worse, to the extent that, at times, trying to squeeze myself into the current mold is almost a torment for me. And like a pendulum swinging from extreme to extreme, the more horrible I feel in my daily life, the more obsessively I turn to nature as my escape.

I was interested to see that, basically, Dr. Weil seems to agree with me. Possible culprits mentioned in Spontaneous Happiness include our heavily processed diets (I would personally rate this higher than he does, at least based on my own experience--junk foods always lead me to junk moods), too little activity and too much time spent inside, being disconnected from nature (he mentions Richard Louv's concept of  "nature deficit disorder"), but Weil seems to place most of the blame on our Information Technology: information overload, the constant pull of e-mail and cell phone calls bringing work into leisure time, our responses to the non-stop demands of the news media to catch our attention by alarming us.

I can see how that would be true for people who have fallen into this trap. During the Gulf Oil Spill, I know I became more and more depressed as I plunged again and again into coverage on the tragedy. Other than stories on the environment, personally I try to avoid the news as much as possible, a strategy I've been following for the past fifteen years, after I realized that the TV news was really upsetting me over stories (such as crimes in other cities) that I had no control over and did not impact me. And I will say that I personally know people who get angry or agitated after following the news, so I agree that picking and choosing very carefully is a good step.

Other than that, although I complain a lot about my job, I am very scrupulous about maintaining my work/life balance. My cell phone is for emergencies and calls to Sunwiggy only. My e-mail is only given out to people I want to hear from. I do love to use the Internet for fun and information -- my blog, ebird, other people's birding blogs, listening to music from distant radio stations via iTunes while I do all this -- and since my depression and anxiety issues stem from times long before any of this was available to me -- in my case, I don't think that's the issue.

Not that I am exonerating technology: at work, when I've had jobs that keep my body busy as well as my mind (such as my days as a line cook in Arkansas), I was literally too busy to be depressed on the job! Since "upgrading" to better paid office work, I find that the tasks I do in front of the computer don't really challenge me, so that my mind has plenty of chance to ruminate on unpleasant things, and my body sits idle, so I don't burn off any of my restless energy. I also hate -- HATE -- talking on the phone. Hate it. And I do it all day long. So I have to say, in my experience, sedentary (boring) office work is much more depression-inducing than equally monotonous manual labor.

As a penultimate thought, I will say that Spontaneous Happiness gives short shrift to introverts. Dr. Weil states that we are social creatures, meant to live in tribes and extended family groups, and that social isolation is invariably detrimental. "Period." I honestly cannot dispute this. But...what about true introverts? I am one of the most introverted people I know. I find interactions with others outside of my immediate circle, even if they are positive in nature, to be exhausting. I honestly like to be alone. I crave it. Sometimes when my nearest and dearest decline my invitation to join me for a nature walk...I'm relieved. Not that I don't love them or enjoy their company. But I am almost never, ever depressed when it's just me and a bird, me and a plant, me in awe of a lake or a tree or the sky. Actually, at those times, I feel the most "complete."

And for my ultimate thought.... Dr. Weil cautions against spending too much time alone. And I agree. But when I am by myself in nature, I never feel alone. There is a whole world, both seen and unseen, natural and metaphysical, all around me. And the more I learn to pay attention, the less alone I feel.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Some things I forgot

Here are a few things I forgot about December:

How the sense of darkness, so early in the evening, is heavy and thick, as if you could drown in it. How my hair tangles and my eyes burn and my hands chap from the dry air. How the only time I don't feel cold is right after stepping into a scalding hot bath. How the brown and taupe landscape of the autumn gives way to a grayness that seems able to actually seep inside my flesh and render my thoughts equally gray. How hard it is to get out of bed on these cold, gray mornings.

Today I drove around the countryside to the north, the stretch of road from El Paso to Gridley, hoping to catch sight of a snowy owl that was seen by some other birders a couple of days ago. I did not see the owl, and I took it personally. I saw a red-tailed hawk gliding above the muddy wallow of a farmyard, and the dark little profiles of kestrals perching on the telephone wires, against the gray wash of the sky. I saw some horned larks dashing for the camouflage of winter fields as I made an ill-conceived detour along a dirt road. But no owls.

At least it is Friday. Lately being at work has meant the inability to think any thought through to its natural conclusion. The phone rings constantly. While I am taking one call, the message light starts flashing to remind me of all those I am missing. Coworkers hover by my desk waiting for a moment to ambush me with a question. Behind me, the fax machine keeps whirring with more work flowing in. In order to multi-task, I would first have to be able to finish an actual task.

Despite a grim weather forecast for the weekend (both days overcast with a chance of rain), if at all possible I will spend as long as I can slowly wandering through the woods, letting the stillness soak down to my bones. Somehow the season only starts to bother me when I am stuck inside (or when I am not seeing owls, but that's another point).

And I remind myself that winter is not always this bleak; sometimes it is touched with its own moment of transcendence, such as I described in my Bird Journal from February 13, 2010: "Beautiful winter day, archetypal, what people mean when they praise 'the seasons' (not the weeks of misery that accompany it)--the sky so vividly blue, the snow a sparkling white expanse, trees and grasses glittering with frost.... Heard a cardinal singing what cheer and then purty purty purty, the notes so clear, the tonal equivalent of the sparkling blue/white day. It seemed the most beautiful sound I had ever heard."

But there is an eternity between that moment and this one....

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A perfect Friday

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
-- John Muir

Yesterday the weather was just about perfect for a day in Nature: sunny, not too cold, a bit too windy for setting up my scope around the lake, but other than that, I could not complain. Greenturtle's ankle was bothering him, so I headed out for a solo stroll around 9:00.

I decided to make Mascoutin my first stop, since I had not been there in a couple of weeks, and someone recently saw a purple sandpiper in the "the boat launch area" around Clinton Lake. I'm not sure exactly where that is -- the Lake has quite a few places from which one can launch a boat -- but since the launch at Mascoutin is nice and rocky, I could envision a sandpiper flitting from stone to stone there.

The wind was so fierce I decided to walk the Houseboat Cove trail first. As I walked along, I thought how similar November and March look across the land, and yet how different they feel: one the advent of winter, the other the land's first wakeful stirrings afterwards. And yet, we have the same color schemes, the leafless trees, the swathes of tan grasses in the fields; the persistent windiness of both seasons; the general sogginess of the ground; the same mix of birds (American tree sparrow, junco, chance sightings of waterfowl in migration).

I wasn't expecting much, birding-wise, from my walk, and yet, the day surprised me. It was not that what I saw was unusual for the season; the surprise was the spontaneous surge of joy the sightings gave me: a bald eagle on the wing; crows harassing a red-tailed hawk; the shockingly red hue of a cardinal against the bareness of a branch; the profile of a flicker.

The wind made the water over the lake so choppy that I was looking forward to the part of the trail where the "cove" begins, a more sheltered area where I was hoping to find some resting waterfowl. Alas, I was not the only one hoping for this: I saw an unnatural white fluttering across the lake, and raised my binoculars to see artificial ducks flapping endlessly in the wind, while a flock of decoys bobbed in the water beneath. Oh, yeah: duck hunting season. Shots cracked out, sundering the stillness of the land, and a congregation of coots scattered for safety. If the hunters were successful, at least I did not have to see it. Instead, I hurried off on the "short cut" back to the woods, heading quickly away from the cove.

I dislike duck hunting because I love ducks; that said, not only some friends of mine but also several well-known conservation-minded birders have been hunters. My feelings on hunting in general are mixed, and therefore likely to please no one. On the one hand, humans have been hunting for their supper since time immemorial, and if someone is going to eat meat anyway, I don't see why it's wrong to kill it oneself. But in the past century or so, the balance of humans and nature, and our understanding of the same, has gotten so out of whack that it affects just about every aspect of our lives, hunting included.

Rather than trying to explicate, I will simply give two examples, one from each side of the unhealthy extremes: the first, a "hunter" who complains that wolves eat too many deer, elk or moose and thus must be slaughtered, so that humans can have more of the share, without any conception of the vital predator-prey balance and what that means to a healthy ecosystem, or the fact that what we have here in Illinois -- deer with no predators, devouring the landscape in their abundance -- is the sign of a very sick balance of nature. The second, meat-eating co-workers who have criticized other employees for killing their own meat (in one case, a Nigerian man who would purchase and slaughter his own goats, in another, a deer-hunter). In the first case, the exact words were, "This is America! We don't kill the animals ourselves!" And yet this woman would go to the supermarket and buy meat from the worst abuses of factory farming....

Philosophical musings aside, I really didn't want to see any dead ducks, so I checked the boat launch area one last time for sandpipers (natch), and then drove back to the non-hunting Weldon Springs to continue my walk.

It was just such a beautiful day. I saw all my favorite "usual suspects" (titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays, cardinals, chickadees) plus a few good "extras": cedar waxwings by the berries. A shy pair of fox sparrows. A brown creeper, creeping up the tree-trunks. A flock of snow geese overhead; before I saw them, they sounded almost like dogs yapping in the distance....

I walked on and on, simply not wanting to the day to end. As I decided to explore one more loop of the trail, one more bend in the road, the quote from John Muir that I know from my local Audubon Society flyers came to me in a slightly convoluted form: I thought, The way out and the way in are the same. I knew I was mangling a quote, but it still seemed important. I asked myself, Do I mean "the way out is the way in?" And told myself: NO. The way out and the way in are the same.

Maybe it was low blood sugar... All told, I was out for six hours, and walked a minimum of ten miles, and yet, it all passed so quickly, a perfect way to spend a Friday.

Today, Greenturtle and I took the dogs for a walk around Weldon Springs, and then had to do some grocery shopping. On our way into town, he mentioned a tweet about some "Black Friday" incidents involving pepper spray and tasers. At least this year no one was trampled to death.... Give me a day in nature, any time!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Primal Birding; or, the need for nature

November is a good month to think about things. I've come to like the late fall season less since I've gotten more into birding because, at least for me, it's just not very exciting on that front. But in terms of going out on a nature walk, I've enjoyed this season as long as I've enjoyed being outside so, in other words, ever since I can remember.

And as I've strolled the woods and prairies recently, enjoying the antics of American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice and a variety of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, and red-bellied for the most part), it's occurred to me how, at all times of the year, these jaunts are absolutely vital to my mental and physical well-being. I simply cannot imagine how I would survive without access to regular outings somewhere peaceful and outside, surrounded by trees, grasses, birds, wind, water. It's when I feel the most content, and how I step away from the aggravations and outright B.S. of day-to-day life, and, I must admit, distance myself from my own neurotic tendencies. Of course, I love to see the birds. But in a way, a good birding day is just the icing on the cake.

Of course, I am not the only one who feels this way. In his book The Nature Principle, Richard Louv mentions many different ways that being in natural surroundings, even highly artificial ones, benefits adults and children alike, with positive effects ranging from decreased stress to improved health (mental and physical) to greater memory and learning abilities, and many of these effects have been demonstrated in studies. Those who have been following my blog might remember that, in previous posts, I was actually kind of harsh in my discussion of Louv's book, but the reason for that was not because I disagree with the importance of the natural world for human health.

What bothered me about the book was that he pulled back from what seemed the most obvious conclusion. Instead of discussing how we humans have strayed too far from the kind of environment in which we thrive, he makes the case for a "hybrid mind" in which we post-modern people can use judicious amounts of "vitamin N" (for Nature) to become a "high-performance human" -- that is, to be more "productive" in our stressful, artificial daily routines.

It's not that I am unsympathetic to the need to make a living. Not all of us can really get "back to the land." I myself must, for the time being, spend my working days trapped indoors, forced to sit in front of a computer screen and be as "productive" as I can. I just never feel that it's a worthwhile way to spend my time. I am not a "hybrid" anything. I have always known exactly where I belong: walking in the woods. Identifying plants and birds. Listening to all the sounds around me, senses keen. My time in nature taps into something timeless and wonderful; it makes me feel alive. My time in cities and office buildings or big box stores or being stuck in traffic makes me feel, well, to be honest, less than fully alive: stressed out, anxious, bitchy, neurotic, sometimes even a little bit cut off from the world.

I have been saying for a long time, "We are just not meant to live like this!" Luckily for me, I am not the only one who feels this way; in fact, I have recently discovered several "primal" and "paleo" websites on the Internet, some of which bring up a whole range of topics such as this post about being in nature from Mark's Daily Apple, my new favorite non-birding website.

The stillness and austerity of November help push me to think about my place in the world; the contrasting hyperactivity of the "holiday season" is an interesting contrast to that inward pull, and one that I resist as much as possible. I am truly starting to loathe "the holidays" -- and it has nothing to do with hating on Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice or even Kwanzaa. This has been a sacred time of year for a very long time, I'll just put it that way.

What I hate is that this has also become the peak time for consumerism, which seems to have its own holy day now, "Black Friday." I promise you that I am not about to go off on a rant. Satisfying as it may be to express one's strongly held opinions, there is nothing so tedious as reading someone else's.

I'll just sum up by saying what I'll be doing tomorrow: going birding, and for a long walk in nature, then coming home to play with my dogs and prepare some healthy food. I'll get plenty of fresh air and exercise and I won't spend a single dollar or step into a single store. And I think that's the way I'm supposed to live.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Slouching towards epiphanies

He says,"It just occurred to me that your pursuit of the bunting repeats an archetypal American fable."
"What," I ask warily, "might that be?"
"Ahab's quest for the white whale. Your bunting is a pint-sized Moby Dick. And we know how that story ends."

This quote from Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher by Leonard Nathan (Harcourt Brace & Company: 1996) flitted, bunting-like, through my mind a few times yesterday, after I had convinced Greenturtle to accompany me on another ill-fated search for the Franklin's Gull of Clinton Lake.

"I'm really starting to hate that bird," I confessed on our way out to the lake. "With everyone else, it's a real little exhibitionist, showing itself willy-nilly, but whenever I go out looking for it...oh no, it's nowhere to be found. And I will see that [censored] gull, one way or another!"

Tough words, but I'm no Ahab. In fact, the gusts of wind that galloped over the lake and bitch-slapped me right in the face as I tried to squint, teary-eyed from the elements, at the congregations of gulls through my scope soon had me retreating to the warm embrace of our vehicle, cursing not only the gull but the flat and windy state in which I live. To be honest, I should have known better than to try. Cold, windy days make me so grouchy and whiny that I can't even stand myself; on the other hand, since being pent up inside makes me feel the same way, days like that are a real lose-lose situation for me.

But just as there is nothing new under the sun, there is no birding mishap or conundrum that someone else hasn't experienced first, and the Left Handed Birdwatcher's tale touches on many of the recurring themes of this blog.

Leonard Nathan, a retired professor of poetry, documents some efforts made to see the (apparently elusive where he lives) snow bunting, along with some other excursions he makes with his local birding group; and even more to the point, it documents his need to understand why he needs to look for birds. The book is also studded with accounts of dreams he has of reading rare and wondrous books, filled with wisdom and beauty--books that, in the nature of dreams, are destined to fade away. In fact, birds and books seem to blend together in his mind, both being examples of his greater quest, which he explains to a skeptical friend as being a search for an epiphany.

Can birding lead to transcendence? Do egrets and epiphanies go hand in hand? In the course of the short volume, the author, through the voice of science-minded or otherwise long-suffering interlocutors, brings up some interesting points. For example, if you thought you saw a rare and wonderful water bird, and experienced the elation and even near-epiphany at viewing it, only to be told a few minutes later that it had escaped from a zoo and was therefore not "countable"...was the first feeling you had just a sham? Does the truth cancel out that "a-ha!" moment? And if so, what does that say about such moments?

In my case, I can say...yes, learning the bird was not "countable" would reverse the joy of the moment. Utterly. But then, my fascination is with the ephemeral--the seasons, the coming and going of birds, dreams, my emotions, even our lives,-- whereas Leonard Nathan seems to be searching for the capital-T truth. That's an awful lot to pin on the back of a fragile bird just going about its own business, although I really can't fault him for it. I'd like to look up from the shadows on the cave wall to see pure truth too; but as a representative of the post-modern era, I can't really convince myself that it's out there.

Another good topic for thought is a passage where he is alerted to the presence of a Connecticut warbler, goes out and sees it, and yet:

It's a rarity out here and a first for me. I'm deeply satisfied. After a good long look, I make way for others eager for the same.... So why am I suddenly discontented? Perhaps because the experience has demanded so little of me. Or because I had looked so hard at the books I couldn't get free of their pictures and saw the bird through them. It seems I have had a recognition without the shock. Satisfaction, however deep, is probably not epiphany.

I must admit, I have experienced this myself at times; for example, if I ever do see that frickin' frackin' Franklin's gull, I will heave a sigh of relief and duly tick it off my life list, but I doubt it will be on the order of an epiphany. And yet on the other hand, I have been literally moved to tears by the sight of an "ordinary" bird at an unexpected moment.

In fact, on November 14, 2009, after a deeply unexpected sighting of a pileated woodpecker at Funk's Grove in McLean County, I confided to my Bird Journal: "For that moment, felt that greater happiness could not be possible. Proof of phenomenon already noted (e.g. sandhill cranes at Goose Lake Prairie): the Spontaneous Joy of an Unexpected Bird Sighting. A different emotion entirely than the Well-Earned Satisfaction of a Worked-For Bird Sighting...."

Despite these interesting points, I have to admit that I did not find the Left-Handed Bird Watcher's account all that compelling. I felt like he enjoyed sitting around debating the Nature of Seeing a Bird with his intellectual friends more than he enjoyed going out and seeing birds. He writes poetically, but I found him a bit too high-falutin' for my tastes, and I very rarely say that.

So, is there a bird that's your personal white whale right now? And how do you expect to feel when you finally see it?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not my normal routine

I used to be terrible at Scrabble. This is because I didn't play for the points, but to try to find the most unusual or erudite word I could with the letters provided. I would ignore the opportunity to play a word like "axe" in a triple word score space because I was too busy trying to impress myself. Once I wised up to some basic strategies, I became a much better (although still not great) Scrabble-player.

Birding can be a little like Scrabble sometimes, in that I would rather seek out a ten-mile hike across a scenic landscape for only so-so birds than go out of my way to somewhere boring to get something new. But just as with my Scrabble strategies, I am revising my ways, especially as practice for next year -- which I am not calling an Illinois Big Year, as it is bound to be medium-sized at best; but, perhaps, my Ultimate Birding Year.

Case in point: this morning I eschewed my usual, pleasant rambles and instead took off to Lake Decatur, about 25 miles to the south, in order to see the red-necked grebe that people have been sighting over the past week. I had never seen a red-necked grebe, and the anticipation of perhaps doing so was, of course, appealing. But birding in Decatur? Are you serious??

I hope that the following sentences will not offend the doubtless upstanding and wonderful citizens of Decatur, IL, but all comments I had heard up to this point about the city were not very flattering.  Not to mention that a glance at the map showed nothing of interest to me in either Decatur or its surrounding county (Macon), apart from the Lake and the grebes currently bobbing about on it, that is. And my one previous drive through the city, right through its industrial core on a gray and forbidding afternoon, was such that afterwards I was tempted to place cool teabags over my eyelids in order to recover from the sight.

So, did I wish to have a nice stroll somewhere grebe-less, or did I want to try for a life bird? I shall probably make hard-core birders the world over proud when I state that I decided on the grebe. And, because I really hate to drive and navigate at the same time in a strange city, I got Greenturtle to come along with me. He even programmed the destination into the GPS system on his smart phone, so that the bossy computerized voice could work my nerves telling us where to go the whole trip.

We stopped at Nelson Park, and glanced over the water, which was choppy from the wind that has been whipping over the Prairie State like mad for the past couple of days. As I tried to stroll along the water front, I decided I needed at least another three layers added to the three I already had on, and since the only birds in sight were a sullen flock of ring-billed gulls, I didn't think it was worth struggling on. To cheer myself up that our trip to Macon county had not been completely wasted, I suggested we drive to the Lincoln Homestead Park, which would doubtless have something historical on offer and maybe even a bird or two to boot. Of course I was disappointed that the grebe was not in evidence...just my luck, really...everybody else gets to see cool birds, but oh no, not me...guess I'll go eat worms.... (The downward spiral of self-pity is not pleasant to witness, is it?)

As we drove away, Greenturtle announced that he thought he had seen a grebe fly past. At first I thought he was teasing (he likes to say silly things such as that he's just seen an albatross and too bad I missed it, for example--non-birders, what can I say?), but after he turned sharply and headed back for the lake, I realized that he was serious.

He turned onto a road called Country Club Lane, or similar, on the other side of the causeway, where the water was more sheltered from the wind. I could see some birds on the water, but since it was all residential, with nowhere to pull over, how to see them? We finally pulled into the parking lot of a small business, and I pretended I did not see the prominent "No Trespassing" signs as I set up my spotting scope. When you're in a city or town, that's often the problem with any area deemed a "lake"--people like to build fancy houses around it, and then live in suspicion of anyone who ventures too close to their exclusive neighborhood. (At least, unlike Lake Sara, where Sunwiggy and I stalked a different species of grebe a couple of years ago, there were no creepy signs proclaiming "U R N our sights.")

There were more ring-billed gulls, two snow geese, several Canada geese -- and hallelujah! Not one, not two, but THREE red-necked grebes! I congratulated myself on a job well done (and kudos to Greenturtle for spotting them) and took off before anyone could wonder what I was up to.

To round out the morning, we decided to check out the Lincoln Trail park, which was a huge amount of nothing, really. Neither a historic site nor a trail, just a couple of picnic shelters along the Sangamon River. I did see a nice belted kingfisher, though.

And it's nice to know that sometimes when I go out looking for a particular bird, I might actually find it!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fear of flying (things)

I have a confession to make: I am the survivor of a vicious bird attack. Statistics tell us that we are more likely to be victimized by someone we know than a random stranger, and thus it was in my case. The feathered hooligan that attacked me -- that, to be precise, flew across the room at me and tried to pierce my eyebrow with his infernally pointy beak -- was my mother's sun conure, Wiggy. Traumatic as this encounter was, it is very unlikely ever to occur in the wild. Despite the fact that birds have an awful lot to be cheesed off about, they almost never retaliate.

But having little to fear does not prevent phobias from developing, and a fear of birds, or ornithophobia, is relatively common. I have met several people with varying degrees of it: the coworker who was terrorized by a robin that accidentally flew into her house; another who was convinced that crows were going to attack her; the woman who explained that she wasn't afraid of birds, not really, but she really hates it when they "swoop at her." In his autobiography The Urban Birder, British birder David Lindo confesses that, despite his love of birding, when he has to get too close to a bird, such as when someone wants his help with one that is injured, he feels a bit apprehensive about it, for which he blames a childhood viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's classic suspense movie, The Birds.

I suspect that many a bird phobia can be traced back to seeing this movie during one's impressionable years. Surely everyone is familiar with the plot--birds of varying species attack Tippi Hedron and other people of Bodega Bay, CA, for no reason whatsoever. I saw it as a child myself, and thought it was quite scary; a second viewing as an adult led to a huge disappointment as I realized what a silly story it really is. Birds just don't do that! At most, one might be "pinged" by a red-winged blackbird defending its young, or harassed by a goose or swan for the same reason, but whole flocks of angry birds descending for no reason?

Birds just don't behave like that. Or do they? Just for fun, I googled "birds attacking people," and found a wealth of articles, anecdotes and You Tube videos (mostly the latter) demonstrating that birds will, indeed, "dive bomb" people, usually because they are protecting their nest or, in the case of birds such as gulls, trying to snatch food from unwary picnickers. Actually, according to articles like this one, bird "attacks" are even on the rise, often because, due to loss of natural habitat, birds and humans have to share the same space, and certain species, such as crows, jays, grackles and mockingbirds, are very protective of their young.

It's still not scary, though.... In fact, most of these sites are humorous, as this video of a belligerent grackle shows. The number of people who have actually been injured by a bird is very, very small. Not that actual risk has anything to do with phobias. The very definition of a phobia is that it is a "persistent, abnormal and irrational fear," so reason has nothing to do with it.

I imagine that just about everyone has at least a minor phobia of something. In my case, it's spiders. Of course, a fear of spiders is completely understandable! They're creepy, crawly, nasty creatures just waiting to bite people while they sleep...and they have eight legs, which is at least two more than anything ought to have, and some of them are poisonous, and some are huge, and don't try and tell me that they're more afraid of me than I am of them because that is just not true! In fact, I'm getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about them! I also really dislike heights, and looking in mirrors after sunset (don't ask), and I will no longer read any informational "health" features in magazines because they just feed my hypochondria, so if anyone should be sympathetic to a bird phobia, it's me.

Except that I am not. It doesn't matter how many irrational fears a person has; there is still nothing so risible as someone else's phobia. And thus I remind myself that birds, like all natural creatures, have an ancient symbiosis with humankind, and not always a pleasant one at that. Myth and folklore present many examples of avian-human encounters, not all of them good, although that is well beyond the scope of this post. (The chapter "Then the Birds Attacked: Avian defense and flying nightmares" in Graeme Gibson's The Bedside Book of Birds is a good start on the topic.)

Perhaps I will come back to this at a later date. In the meantime, do you have any irrational fears? I've shared all, now it's your turn!

From the Bird Journal

For the past couple of years, I've logged every birding expedition, nature stroll or even exceptional day around my Work Place Pond in my Bird Journal, a habit which has added a lot to my enjoyment. Sometimes I merely list the birds I've seen and the location; occasionally I wax poetic about them. Usually it's somewhere in between. Here's today's:

November 11, 2011 -- After work birds, 2:00-3:30. Sugar Grove Nature Center
Sunny but windy and chilly
By myself

Species seen:
Eurasian tree sparrow, about ten
House sparrow, a multitude
Goldfinch, about 30
BH Cowbird, just one
BC Chickadee, five seen
RB Woodpecker, 2
Cardinal, 3 (two males, one female)
American tree sparrow, at least ten
Dark-eyed junco, ditto
Downy woodpecker, one (female)
Eastern bluebirds, four

Seen while driving: meadowlark, starling, crow, RT hawk, Canada goose

Per young man at Nature Center, pileated was seen over by Chapel of the Templed Trees, so walked on Stubblefield trail in hopes of finding it. Many deer and squirrels, no pileated. Did find chickadees, two cardinals and a RB WP. For whatever reason, that part of the woods is never very birdy. They seem to prefer the scrubbier area across the prairie.

Feeders packed, but only four species: Eurasian tree sparrow, house sparrow, goldfinch and one lone cowbird. Seeing house sparrows and goldfinches side by side on the ground made me realize how tiny goldfinches are by comparison.

Best birding was at Imagination Grove: Am tree sparrows, more goldfinches, juncos, a cardinal, a downy WP and bluebirds, a small flock. Bluebirds are so lovely, every time.

Was last walk with current pair of hiking boots -- small holes in sides became large ones. The sun felt cold and distant and descended all too swiftly.

Have not been to Sugar Grove in months...almost like seeing an old friend again. Perhaps will try to make Friday afternoon stroll a regular occurrence.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stillness of the season

Earlier this week, as I pulled into my Workplace Parking Lot, I saw a group of crows clustered in the trees by the pond. At first I saw two...then one flew up from the ground and there were three...then another, and four. In total, there were five, perhaps six, hard to tell as they were flying around such that I never saw the entire group at one time. I wondered if, perhaps, it was the family group I had observed over the summer, as mentioned in my previous post, "Juvenile Crows and Growing Goslings."

Other than that, it was a very still and introspective day. The sky was gray, intermittently spitting rain. One of those days when I couldn't even wish I were free to bird (free as a bird?), for the weather made the specter of work that much less point in wishing for freedom, if it's just going to rain.

Even my memory of birding last weekend was not that exciting. Despite all the cool water birds (and life-bird Franklin's gull) that other birders have been seeing around Clinton Lake recently, I have had my usual late fall/early winter not-much-of-anything birding.

Saturday I walked around Mascoutin Recreation Area's Houseboat Cove trail for a while. Mostly I saw blue jays. I headed towards the grassy area, where a large flock of red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds were making quite the ruckus. Along the way, I also saw: American robin, mourning dove, turkey vulture, black-capped chickadee, red-bellied woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, red-tailed hawk, song sparrow, field sparrow, American goldfinch, dark-eyed junco, American crow, and ring-billed gull. There was also a solitary female wood duck swimming along the "cove" part of the Houseboat Cove trail.

And also the bird that made the whole trip worthwhile: a great horned owl, flying so soundlessly across the path in front of me. It alighted in a tree on the opposite side of the trail for a couple of minutes, long enough for me to get an excellent look, and then took off again, doubtless looking for a quiet place to roost until nightfall.

It is moments like this that I hope for: a sliver of time where nothing is wanting. Where I am completely satisfied, exactly the way things are. With that silent beat of wings, surprising for such a large bird, that effortless and yet ponderous movement across my field of view...there was nothing else that could be wished for. Nothing lacking. A sliver of perfection.

Stillness is November's gift. The fields are shades of brown, taupe and tan. The month begins with the day of All Saints (and then All Soul's, or the Day of the Dead) and ends with darkness. Winter is scurrying ever closer. The fall migrants are hurrying southward, and the first fall visitors just starting to arrive. Outward, everything is so still, a moment for reflection.

Inwardly, I am anything but still. The great horned owl is a moment of transcendence. The crows at work, an approximation of the same. The rest of the time, my mind is whirling, scurrying, chasing the worry of the week. I bird, in part, to escape this, to find a moment of rest, of experience the stillness of the season. In the presence of the great horned owl, I achieve this. The rest of the time...'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Eulogy for a wetland: by Sunwiggy

Three weeks ago, when my husband and I were out for a Sunday drive, looking for snow buntings in the cemetery (they like it there), he told me that he had just taken a walk in The Scrub, and that the beaver dam was gone.  So was the beaver lodge.  And, so was the beaver pond.

Gone?  What happened to the beavers?  Who took away their dam and lodge?  Why?

The Scrub is not the prettiest place to walk and bird in the UP, by any means.  It's what I call the area that was formerly a railroad track, and a streetcar line, now given over to an ATV trail that runs from Calumet to Hancock.  It's surrounded by former hay fields, now mostly going back to forest, and still in the early succession stages.  It's wet and marshy.  Birds love it.  Warblers and vireos crowd into it during migrations, and some stay to nest.  Redstarts love the areas of tall willows.  Veeries "veer, veer, veer" from the lines of bushes.  Chickadees and various species of sparrows flit and call.  I guess all of this just proves that birds and humans see places very differently.  I like to walk there because the birds like to nest there.

I'm sure the loss of the beaver pond won't affect many of these bird species.  The creek still flows.  But, oh, I can picture the resident pairs of kingbirds and kingfishers, the great blue herons, the American black ducks and mallard ducks, all of the peeps, all of the water loving and needing birds that we used to see there.  I would always hush my companions and try to tiptoe as we approached the beaver pond.  It's not easy to be quiet on gravel.  Who knew what birds you might see before they burst into startled flight?  But, always, the biggest, hold-your-breath suspense was the question:  would you see one of the beavers?

The Patriarch Beaver was huge!  Some of the ATVers would stop and look for him, and take photos of him, and tell each other about him.  Sometimes he would sit on a mud bar, eating what looked like weeds.  Sometimes he- or a littler one- would be swimming in the creek, or in one of the channels they'd made.  We didn't see them often; early evening was the best time to look.

On October 30th, last Monday, I grabbed my husband and headed down to The Scrub to view the devastation for myself.  We got lucky!  Two trucks, marked Michigan American Water Company, were parked right by the site of the former pond.  We approached the employees of the water company, and found them to be friendly and informative.  (I let my husband do the talking.)  The water company had been worried about a big cement water pipe that had had most of the rock materials around it washed away, because of the dam.  They were concerned that a big storm would wash away the pipe itself, affecting the water supply to Hubble and Tamarack City, downstream.  As the photos show, they had piled up an impressive amount of rocks to protect the pipe and it's flow.

I had to ask:  what happened to the beavers?  I was told that the beavers were already gone, trapped or died or wandered off, when the dam and lodge were removed.  One of the workers said that he found a trap in the dam.  My husband mentioned to me later that one of the customers in the gas station where he works talked about the beavers being trapped down there last winter.  (But at least two had escaped; they were seen in midsummer.)  So, that solved the mystery of who and why.

Richard Louv discusses in his book, "The Nature Principle", how sometimes people are afraid to care about and bond to a place, out of fear that it might be bulldozed.  He points out that people need to take the risk, because you can't protect a place you don't love.  But, sometimes you can't protect a place that you DO love!  Still, I take his point.  And, to be honest, The Scrub hasn't been destroyed as a bird habitat (except for a few birds such as herons and kingfishers).  Mammals live there or travel through it, too; we saw deer tracks and coyote scat on our last visit.  There have been reports of bears.  It is an ATV trail, on the very edge of town, barely outside; the deer visit people's gardens up and down our street.  There are other, protected places, such as the Paavola Wetland, just down the highway, for beavers and their dams.  The  Nara Nature Center has a sign boasting of it's beavers and their activities.  But I still feel a sense of loss.  Must we, humans, always be pushing out and driving away our fellow creatures that are trying to share this world with us, with our endless needs and wants? 

And, just because the dam and lodge with its resident beavers was so close in to town, it could be visited by older kids on foot or bike...or an ATV.  I remember a conversation with a boy of about 12, telling me about the newts he could find in a ditch.  Another told me about a bear sighting!  My son, James enjoyed encountering a snake on the trail; he moved it to safety into the bushes.  I think we all need these meetings.  Well.  There's a UP saying that I hear all the time:  "It is what it is."  But, I think we could do better. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Birds and the imagination (or, Loplop takes flight)

Today while I was shopping for groceries, I was momentarily reminded of my creative side (much curtailed these days, alas), when the song "Speed of Sound" by Coldplay was played on the overhead system. Have you ever had a song that was a shorthand message for something beyond itself--a memory, an idea, a feeling? Of course you have. Ever since traveling minstrels went around singing "Hey nonny no," or whatever it was they sang, words set to music have had an uncanny power over almost all of us.

This particular song is one of my "enigmatic signifiers" (a term I explain in a previous post, "Why Birders Bird and Listers List"), for a variety of reasons. One, it sounds wistful and lonely without being whiny. Two, it mentions birds. Three, the birds it mentions are clearly symbolic of something else, but I'm not sure what, which keeps me guessing. The birds themselves are referenced in the refrain "And birds go flying at the speed of sound/To show you how it all began/Birds came flying from the underground/If you could see it, then you'd understand."

The image these lyrics form in my mind is something I hope to work into a story--a vast flock of birds, dark birds, wheeling up into the sky until the sun is momentarily blackened, braiding the air with their flight, and with the ponderous sound of a million wings beating together.... Of course I didn't get this image from the song; rather, the song reminds me of this image, which had already formed powerful (yet ineffable) associations in my mind. Partly it brings to mind the huge mixed flocks of black birds that one sometimes sees in the fall, and the aerial acrobatics of starlings. Also, inescapably, the memory I can't possibly have, and yet feel as if I do, of passenger pigeons overhead, darkening the sky for days as they passed.

And yet the birds of this song are clearly very deep. They contain the mystery of life in some fashion, for they can "show you how it all began," like the Persian Simurgh, who roosts in the Tree of Knowledge. Most of us are oblivious, and yet if only we would open our eyes to their flight, if only we could see them, we would understand. Maybe you can see why I love this song.

With this aural prodding, I began thinking about birds and the imagination, a topic way too huge to be covered to anyone's satisfaction in a single blog post -- instead I hope to get you musing, as I have been, on the relationship between the two. Birds are prevalent the world over as mythological figures (many cultures have a phoenix-type legend, for example, and then there are, of course, Odin's Ravens, and similar messengers of the gods), and many poets have written famously about birds, such as Shelley's sky lark, Frost's ovenbird, and Dickinson's bobolink, just off the top of my head.

But I think that the ultimate union of Bird and Imagination has come about in the works of surrealism. The painter Max Ernst, for example, was fascinated by birds, so much so that his alter ego was called Loplop, the Superior of Birds. (The image at the top of this post is also by Ernst.)

Ernst stated that the figure of Loplop came about due to a confusion between humans and birds when he was a child, for his pet bird died the morning before his sister was born, a juxtaposition of events that evidently scrambled his brains forever. One of his works, a graphic novel called "Une Semaine de Bonte," showed birds as humans or humans as birds with both horrific and erotic intent.

The surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, one of Ernst's girlfriends, also seemed a bit enamored of the intersection of birds and dreams/nightmare images.

Another artist who frequently featured birds was Marc Chagall, although his works are more of a gentle dream than something uneasy or even nightmarish.

It is tempting, at this point, to try to explicate further; but that would be pointless. Either the images resonate, or they don't. But if they do, consider this just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to say on the topic of birds and the feverish reaches of the mind.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Excellent Emiquon

I wasn't sure if I would have a good birding day on Saturday or not. Due to feelings of guilt engendered by leaving my dogs behind for most of the day, I agreed to take them along on my Illinois River Valley trip...after all, I was mostly going to be looking for waterfowl, and since neither of my dogs are much for swimming, as long as Greenturtle kept them away from me and my scope, I thought I could probably see most of what was in the vicinity.

We started our trip at Chatauqua Wildlife Refuge. The area by the headquarters was disappointing (as usual...seriously, I have never, not once, seen an interesting bird there...but the dogs did enjoy walking the short loop), but the Eagle Bluff area was a total score! The water was low, filled with water birds, mostly Canada geese and green winged teal, plus some ring-billed gulls and, surprisingly, a large flock of American tree sparrows...and even more exciting was what was hovering over the water. A juvenile bald eagle and a peregrine falcon. The peregrine was not only a year bird but also an "Illinois state bird" for me, and both Greenturtle and I enjoyed watching it swooping over the water for a while.

Next stop, Emiquon. We took a quick jaunt around the NWR Spoon River access. A couple of years ago a storm felled many trees and rendered this area nigh-well impassible; now it is still a pretty rough trail, but able to be traversed. We saw a man and his son walking around the (now dry) marshy area with binoculars, but for ourselves, all we saw was a robin. Having two active dogs in tow does make looking for passerines a challenge.

Just a quick jaunt down the road was the newly established Nature Conservatory's observatory, with boardwalks and trails, and here we hit water bird pay dirt.

First things first, the coots. There had to be thousands of them. What would you call that? A cootilla? A cootitude? A cootarama? No matter the technical term, where one coot, or even a dozen, fails to impress, seeing them in such numbers is always a bit awe-inspiring. I was very grateful to Greenturtle for taking the dogs so I could peruse the waters at my leisure.

In addition to the coots, there were a large number of dabbling ducks, and you can guess who's who in this picture by the "bottoms up."

I saw more green-winged teal, plus blue-winged teal, northern pintail (year bird!), mallards, and northern shovelers. Along the trail were many sparrows, including white-throated, white-crowned, song and (year and state bird!) Lincoln's sparrow. Overall, a very successful trip.

Yesterday I had time for a stroll around Weldon Springs before the weather turned foul. The day was quite windy, and I saw few birds, but one species was another year bird, the purple finch. When I came home and logged them, I realized I was just ten species away from 200 Year Birds, which, barring the possible exception of the year Sunwiggy and I went to Texas, would be a personal record. So here's to an excellent last two months!