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.