Thursday, September 27, 2012

Against the hunting of the crane

from The Medieval Bestiary

It seems that, if you love birds, there's always bad news. Last night I learned from Sunwiggy about a petition to stop a law in Wisconsin that would allow people to hunt sandhill cranes.

Before I elaborate on why crane hunting is just plain wrong -- on so many levels! -- in the spirit of full disclosure I should probably tell you that cranes are among my favorite birds. I don't just "like" cranes...I have the image of one tattooed on my right calf. And also that I find autumn to be a very bittersweet time of year and so my mood is already primed for long, introspective diatribes with a general tinge of melancholy.

On the other hand, I want to assure you that my feelings are not based on a knee-jerk anti-hunting platform. In fact, I have absolutely no objection to responsible hunting, and respect the fact that hunting for one's supper is an ancient human tradition. If I were talented with a bow like one of my fictional heroes, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy, I might even be tempted to try my hand at it myself.

But not sandhill cranes.

I will start with the more practical matters first. Apparently, one of the excuses for wanting to hunt cranes is that they like to eat corn, and the mid-western states really, really like to grow corn. Opponents to the law point out that killing cranes won't have much of an impact on crop loss, and there are much better ways of addressing the issue.

Another objection is that hunters may not be able to distinguish the more common sandhill from the critically endangered whooping crane. Actually, illegal shootings of whooping cranes are a problem even without a legal "sandhill season."

And, as usual, the preliminary "studies" are riddled with flaws. I will not reiterate all that stuff here, as you can easily find it elsewhere on the Internet. One nice blog with a lot of good crane stuff also has some beautiful artwork to admire, so I encourage you to check it out if you're interested.

Now, facts are lovely, and I would hope that matters of public policy would rest upon a bedrock of them. But humans are not the Vulcans of Star Trek lore. And although I, of course, am completely rational (yes, my tongue if firmly in my cheek on that one), I will admit that my first reaction upon hearing about hunting cranes was not strictly objective.

It was personal. It was philosophical. It was even -- dare I say it? -- spiritual. We can't just run around killing anything we feel like. There are limits. What those limits are is frequently up for debate, but I think we can all agree that there are some.

First off, how about The Hunger Games? Well, if anyone reading this thinks it's OK to run around killing fellow humans for sport, then please leave my blog at once. Open-minded as I am, I really don't want to hear from you.

How about companion animals? The same state in question, Wisconsin, received a lot of flak for a proposal to kill feral cats. A lot of people feel quite a bond with cats, and got very upset at the idea of giving people permission to shoot them. We all have our favorite animals.

What about bald eagles? Song birds? Endangered animals? Why do we want to kill things, and when is it OK?

At the very root of it: what is our relationship to the world around us? Do we have any obligations to it? To other creatures who live within it? To our fellow humans who share it with us? Is the world here for our entertainment? Our livelihood? For stress relief? A sense of awe? Exactly what kind of paradigm are we running with?

I heard the news about hunting the cranes after reading an article in Audubon magazine about how attempts to limit off-road vehicles on public beaches in North Carolina has resulted in a nasty campaign of insults and harassment from those who want to continue to drive their trucks on the sand, even though doing so spoils the beach, kills endangered birds and sea turtles, and the fact that many people who visit the ocean don't really enjoy having to navigate all those vehicles and the huge, ugly ruts in the sand they leave behind.

I also had read an article in Outside magazine about attempts to clean up the beautiful Bikini atolls in the Marshall Islands, the site of the infamous atomic bomb testing in the 1940s and 1950s.

And finally, there was my own solitary walk, last weekend, across my favorite prairie at Weldon Springs State Park close to my home. I could hear a chorus of meadowlarks, but the song was subdued, somehow, and wistful, as if they were playing their rendition of Taps. The season of abundance is over. Cycles end. Every dawn is followed by twilight, spring by autumn, youth by senescence. But dawn always comes again, and once again we have spring. There is death, and there is also birth.

But this balance is precarious. Somehow, we humans have become so numerous, and so unthinkingly powerful, that we can interfere. As I walked across the prairie, I couldn't help reflecting, The state of Illinois is broke, what's to stop them from selling this precious spot of land off to the highest bidder? Who might then pave it all over and erect a hideous subdivision on top of it? Which they will then call "Meadowlark," although the birds will be long gone and the kids who grow up there will wonder, if they think of it at all between video games, just what a meadowlark is?

OK, I did warn you that this time of year makes me a bit melancholy! But what I am circling around here is my firm philosophical and spiritual belief that we are not here to exploit the natural world. It is not here for our entertainment. There are things far more important than our own personal whims.

The paradigm of exploitation -- hey, let's just run out and shoot it just for fun! -- is hardly new. When the settlers arrived in the New World, they saw the teeming plenty that greeted them as being there for their own sport. That led to the fate of the American bison, which still survive on ranches and nature preserves. The same cannot be said for the passenger pigeon. (And anyone who has read much of this blog knows the grudge I have about the extinction of that pigeon...seriously, do not get me on that topic!) (As an interesting aside, an otherwise boring book from 1823, The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, shows an aging Natty Bumppo -- better known in one of Cooper's other works, The Last of the Mohicans -- witnessing the disgusting pigeon slaughter and muttering about the pioneers' "wasty ways" for killing so much more than they needed.)

Even within the paradigm of exploitation, I have to wonder: what more do you need to kill? A perusal of the Illinois hunting and trapping seasons, for example, shows that those who enjoy such sport have an awful lot of variety already. For example, today I asked a coworker whose husband likes to hunt if it is squirrel season, as I recently saw some younger fellows with guns on one of my favorite trails and wondered what they were after.

Maybe, she said, but more likely they were after doves. Squirrel season starts in August.

Limiting oneself only to birds, there is a season for mourning dove, ring-necked pheasant, ducks, and wild turkey. If one visits a private hunting club, gray partridge and chukar are also on offer. I think that bobwhite quail and American woodcock also have their seasons, even though populations of both birds are rapidly declining. Seriously, "hunters," what more do you want?

I am not saying we should limit the seasons already in place, but at least here in Illinois, as far as I know: wild turkey have recently been reintroduced -- and rebounded in population -- after being extirpated from much of the state; ring-necked pheasant are foreign exotics bred and released specifically for the pleasure of hunters, although they have helped to extirpate the native greater prairie chicken from all but one location in the state; the numbers of many duck species are declining due to habitat loss, although duck hunting organizations do (to their credit) contribute to habitat restoration; quail and woodcock are in decline; and doves -- OK, there are about a bazillion doves around. Have at 'em.

Which leads me back to one of my original points: I have no problems with responsible hunting. With the exception of deer -- which are far too plentiful due to the extermination of their natural predators -- what does that look like? I don't know. It sure doesn't look like killing sandhill cranes.

This is one of those posts that I find hard to wrap up in a satisfactory manner. My original ending was a frenzy of indignation, and although I do feel angry at our callous treatment of the world around us, it's not the way I wanted to wrap it up.

Cranes are such ancient and beautiful creatures. In Asia they are called "the birds of heaven" because they fly so high over the mountains when they migrate. In Japan they are considered symbols of longevity and health, and chains of 1,000 origami cranes can be found on hospital doors and Shinto shrines. The town I stayed at during my high school year in Japan, Maizuru, means "dancing cranes," although cranes no longer dance there.

The dancing of cranes is one of their most beautiful habits, and humans from China, Japan, Siberia, Greece and Turkey had dancing rituals in imitation of the cranes. The Greek hero Theseus and his companions, according to Plutarch, performed a crane dance after slaying the minotaur and returning home. And the imitation can go both directions; a group of cranes will sometimes start to dance if a nearby human dances first.

The birds carry symbolic weight in the Western world as well. In Celtic tradition, they were associated with one of the crone goddesses, the Cailleach, and thus were seen as a pyschopomp, or guide to the Underworld after death. In Christian symbolism, the crane was seen to be an enemy of Satan, because they are so adept at killing snakes.

By viewing the world around us as existing merely for our own entertainment or exploitation, we do damage to the web of life that joins us together. We don't only harm the cranes or other creatures; we also diminish ourselves. We might not remember the crane dance, but I do believe that, in some quiet corner of our hearts, we sense that we have lost it.

I only know how I felt one summer morning walking at Goose Lake Prairie, when I was surprised by a pair of sandhill cranes flying up from the grasses. They were such huge, gangly creatures, and yet they looked so graceful as they jumped up in the air again and again, calling to each other. It was such a beautiful and ancient sight that I found myself literally crying with joy to be a witness to it.

I still don't know how to wrap this post up, so I will leave it there, with that memory of cranes, dancing together before me.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Early fall surprises

I think this post will be short and sweet.... I don't have a lot to say, but I got such nice surprises today I don't want to keep it to myself.

This morning Greenturtle and I headed to the Marshall County to look for some interesting gulls which had recently been seen along the lakes of the Illinois River Valley, in particular Franklin's and Sabine's. Either would be a life bird for me, so I was excited to try my luck, even though I have had terrible luck with gulls in general. But then again, I've also had terrible luck with sandpipers, and this year has been absolutely peep-o-riffic, so all bets are off.

We pulled off at the small parking area at the Spaulding Unit of the Marshall State Fish and Wildlife Area, where my first impulse was to announce, "This place blows, let's move on."

It was a lovely, sunny crisp fall day, the kind of weather I've been longing for since March when the temperature first shot up to ninety. Unfortunately, it was also extremely windy, and the morning sunshine was giving everything a washed-out tinge that made pulling out identifying marks a bit challenging.

But still, after convincing Greenturtle to drive over an hour with me on my Gull Quest, I couldn't just give up. So I remained shivering in the wind, slowing training my spotting scope from gull to gull for a half hour or more.

Ring billed...ring billed...ring billed...ring billed...ring billed. Gull after gull was a fat, happy ring billed sitting or feeding in the mud.

Until...hello, who are you?!? Definitely smaller, completely dark head...not a wisp or a smudge of dark a la Bonaparte's, but all a dark smudgy gray, until the sharp cut off at the neck.

I let Greenturtle have a turn at the scope so I could have a witness, and we both's a Franklin's! Hooray, a life bird.

After that, we kept heading north to Henry, where, on a whim, I suggested that we check out the marina. My first visit there with Sunwiggy had been serendipitous, so I keep hoping for an encore.

And, well, I got it.... Very early in the year, a largish flock of snow geese white domestic geese. Mixed in with them were several Canada geese and an escaped domestic goose I have yet to identify. If anyone knows what it is, please tell me in the comments!

And then...OMG, could it be??? Another life bird, the Ross's goose! It's the one that looks kinda like the snow geese white domestic geese, only smaller and with a darker bill.

For whatever reason, this year I seem to be getting "rare birds" in spades, which is exciting, but, as I mentioned in a previous post, a bit unsettling, as I have a horrible tendency of questioning myself in general. And of course, once again Cornell's ebird database informed me that my sightings (snow and Ross's geese) were rare and was I sure I'd seen them? Well, here are the photos to prove it!

I also got some nice shots of a turkey vulture sunning itself. They will be going soon, and I will miss them.

After all this excitement, we had lunch at the lodge at Starved Rock and took a stroll at Mathiessen State Park's river trail, where I got yet another good bird, my first black throated blue warbler of the year. He took off before I could have counted "one Mississippi" in my head, but hey, I'm not complaining....

P.S., based on an quick Internet search I think that my domestic escapee may be a Chinese goose...but if anyone knows for sure, please let me know!

Addendum 9/25/12: An ebird reviewer just sent me an e-mail stating that the large white geese in question are actually domestic geese. Snow geese would have black tips on their wings. [Slapping forehead with hand.] Seriously, this is embarrassing...I have seen snow geese often enough that I should have figured that out! But the Ross' goose is still up for debate. I have sent in some more photos and will keep you posted.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When you least expect it

juvenile bald eagle

I left my last post dangling with my anticipation of a day of nature observation at Weldon Springs, and a mention of how becoming a sort of bird-focused amateur naturalist rekindled my relationship with my binoculars back in 2009.

Perhaps a bit more about the latter before I get around the former. I began birding in the fall of 2004, when Sunwiggy and I decided it would be interesting to join the local Audubon chapter on some field trips.

And we did enjoy it, so much so that I went to Texas twice to find me more birds, once to Austin and the Edwards plateau region (hello, golden-checked warblers!), and the following year with Sunwiggy to the Gulf Coast region, the highlight of which was a nature tour of the awesome King Ranch (hello, ferruginous pygmy owl!).

But after that, if I wasn't losing interest in birding, exactly, I was kind of losing steam. My local patches and the local birds were starting to feel a bit "been there, done that." In fact, in all of 2008, I only got one year bird, although it was a good one, the prothonotary warbler. My fancy binoculars and pile of birding books were at risk of going to waste.

Then, in 2009, a series of factors intersected to make me the bird-obsessed individual that everyone knows and tolerates today. One was a series of frustrations and tribulations in the rest of my life that left me in dire need of an engaging hobby.

Another was the discovery of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's database, ebird. Introducing ebird to a compulsive numbers and list-obsessed person such as myself is like asking someone with a propensity to drug problems if they'd like to try crack. I submitted one checklist and saw the potential for lists upon lists that could only occur in an obsessive-compulsive's paradise.

The third factor was deciding that I wanted to visit several favorite birding spots in my (then) home county of McLean (IL), to record each coming and going of every species. I had always been more of a fair weather (and spring and fall migration) birder, so it was a fun challenge to visit the prairies and lakes in the heat of summer and the icy blasts of winter. And I learned that no matter how boring juncos are by early spring, when they first show up in the fall, it's exciting. And then when they were gone I missed them. Ditto every other common species in central Illinois.

Actually, it's a project that I would recommend to just about everyone, birder or not. Pick a spot in nature, or even a local park with a scrubby overgrown patch or a grove of trees or a waterfront, and go there each and every week for a year and make a careful note of what you see. 2009 was the year that I really learned to love central Illinois, and to appreciate the subtle variations in each season.

I really haven't been doing that this year. Each year I've birded has had a slightly different focus, and 2012 has been the year of the unapologetic checklist: identify the species I want to see, the place it has recently shown up, find it and check it off! This sort of behavior has a bad name in certain birding circles, but so what? It's been a blast.

Except when I go out for several trips in a row and don't add a single species to my year list! Then it's agony. So on Thursday morning, I decided to revert to my 2009 attitude, and spend the entire day (as I had it off, and was solitary) walking each trail in Weldon Springs Park: two prairie loops, the "backpack" loop that winds through a small forest bordered by Salt Creek; and the two mile loop around the lake.

I really didn't expect to see a lot. I began at 8:00, strolling the Farmhouse Prairie Loop.

This is one of my favorite walks in central Illinois, and I have seen some wonderful birds here, such as blue grosbeak and bobolink. But my first impression that morning was of stillness. Blue jays called, and a red-headed woodpecker drummed at a tree. I saw a juvenile red-headed woodpecker fly past, a first sighting in the park, so that was exciting.

But mostly, a quiet walk. The pleasures were subtle: a meadowlark flying away from me, showing a white "V" on its tail. A phoebe pumped its tail by the stream. I saw year bird number 207 on the far loop of the trail, perched atop a dead tree as is its wont: the olive-sided flycatcher. Then another surprise, flushing an upland sandpiper in the long grasses, a first sighting for the county.

I finished the loop, and began walking along the lake. Many warblers were in evidence, including blackburnian, magnolia and golden-winged. I cut across the road to hook up with the trail connecting to the backpack loop, which revealed more warblers, such as Nashville, black and white, and chestnut sided, plus a pair of Cooper's hawks and several vireos (red-eyed and Philadelphia).

The Schoolhouse prairie loop is usually less productive than the Old Farmhouse, and this day was no different: the only new species was a male ring-necked pheasant, almost giving me a heart attack as it launched away from me.

The final loop of the lake trail revealed yet more species: green heron, pied-billed grebe, and finally, on the way back to the car, year bird number 208, the red-breasted nuthatch.

The entire walk took seven hours and covered about eight miles (I walk slowly when I'm birding), but I saw 54 species, and enjoyed every minute of it.

The next day I had my old birding buddy, my mother Sunwiggy, join me, and we decided to go to Comlara State Park as that was where I had previously gotten the biggest species lists in the fall. To be honest, I didn't expect to top my Weldon Springs day, so I once again set out with a "beginner's" mindset that I would just enjoy my day and whatever birds happened to be there.

As it turned out, we lingered for the longest time at the trailhead by the visitor's center just because the birding was so great: more red-breasted nuthatches, chipping sparrows, a variety of year round residents and some warblers. All of this mere yards from the car!

And it only got better. Year bird 209 popped out of the reeds and scolded us, an incomparable marsh wren. And as we were admiring the large number of cedar waxwings along the trail, year bird #210 was sighted overhead, which was also a first for Illinois for me, the merlin. Sunwiggy was not excited by the merlin, as they are common in her northern homeland, but she was excited by the yellow-headed vireo that appeared further along the trail, a life bird for her.

By the end of the walk, I had a total of 58 species, a personal record for one outing...including two more year birds, yellow-bellied sapsucker and Savannah sparrow.

The next day we went to the Allerton park by Monticello, where I knew I could not top my past two days...and, indeed, I didn't. I got another year bird, the pine warbler, and picked up my last "new species" of the week, the common tern, along Clinton Lake on the way home.

There has to be a life lesson in here somewhere: early in the week, as I was raring to see "year birds," I fizzled out; just when I decided to accept whatever happened to come my way, the magic commenced!

Does that ever happen to you, that things work out just as you stop trying so hard for them? And do you have any local patches that you return to week after week throughout the year?

Species seen on my Week Off for Birding:

American crow
mourning dove
eastern meadowlark
European starling
great blue heron
great egret
American goldfinch
American kestrel
pied-billed grebe
belted kingfisher
barn swallow
cliff swallow
song sparrow
eastern phoebe
red tailed hawk
blue winged teal
red winged blackbird
wood duck
red headed woodpecker
chimney swift
cedar waxwing
red-necked phalarope
lesser yellowlegs
American pelican
ring billed gull
semipalmated sandpiper
pectoral sandpiper
bank swallow
mute swan
American robin
American redstart
bald eagle
ring-necked pheasant
eastern bluebird
house wren
rose-breasted grosbeak
northern cardinal
gray catbird
blue jay
northern flicker
tufted titmouse
black capped chickadee
red bellied woodpecker
red eyed vireo
least flycatcher
chestnut sided warbler
magnolia warbler
palm warbler
white breasted nuthatch
blue gray gnatcatcher
ruby throated hummingbird
turkey vulture
Carolina wren
Swainson's thrush
scarlet tanager
house sparrow
olive-sided flycatcher
upland sandpiper
downy woodpecker
eastern wood pewee
chipping sparrow
Canada goose
blackburnian warbler
golden winged warbler
green heron
red-breasted nuthatch
bay-breasted warbler
Nashville warbler
hairy woodpecker
black and white warbler
Cooper's hawk
Philadelphia vireo
Wilson's warbler
house finch
double crested cormorant
spotted sandpiper
Caspian tern
yellow bellied sapsucker
yellow throated vireo
marsh wren
brown thrasher
blue-winged warbler
Tennessee warbler
black throated green warbler
Canada warbler
Savannah sparrow
indigo bunting
common grackle
pine warbler
eastern towhee
common tern
blackpoll warbler

97 species in one week...when I see it summed up like that, it's clearly no Fall Fizzle!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beginner's Mind

"Spring," Rene Magritte

Yesterday on my lunch break I sat in my car at Sportsman's Park and watched great egrets and great blue herons wading through the water and occasionally soaring over the lake's surface and then dropping down with a spectacle of huge, flapping wings and long, gangly legs.

There were several other people parked before the water, and, it was not hard to imagine, similarly entranced by the birds; indeed, I don't think a better stress reliever could be found. And I would also suspect that, for every hard-core birder who has descended upon the mud flats with pricey spotting scopes and enviable life lists this year, just as many people who have enjoyed the sight are not birders at all.

In fact, sometimes I think that the best time to enjoy birds is when you don't know that much about them.

This thought occurred to me last week when I joined the local Audubon group for a field trip. The trip was on Saturday, and as I had taken the rest of the week off to revel in the fall migration -- and boost my year list, of course -- I was really hoping that the excursion would provide a great kick-off to the week. What might I see? An American bittern? A Virginia rail? At the very least, a couple of new warblers for the year?

Alas, nothing so promising. We began at the Grove, a small restoration project in the midst of the new McMansion subdivisions that sprung up around Bloomington in the last decade, and I saw: a lot of great egrets. Some killdeer. Goldfinches galore. A belted kingfisher. A pied-billed grebe. OK, it would take a far more jaded birder than I to say, "Who ordered this snoozefest?"...but suffice to say that it wasn't the most exciting mix of species.

But there were two new birders along on the walk, and great egrets and pied-billed grebes weren't old hat to them. I was struck by their enthusiasm, and also by the generosity and patience of the more experienced birders, trying to make sure that they got good looks at the birds through a spotting scope and happily answering all of their questions.

It made me remember when Sunwiggy and I first started birding, and were the recipients of all that goodwill. I will never forget how awed I was by my first sight of an American goldfinch. The walk had begun with a multitude of grayish-brownish birds -- eastern wood pewee, tufted titmouse, red-eyed vireo, and the like -- and I took a look at them all and made a dutiful note of their names, but mostly what I felt was: How will I ever learn to tell these suckers apart?

And then the goldfinch. It was not grayish-brownish, nor could it be confused with anything else. It was gloriously yellow, the essence of sunshine, the simple joy of a child's Crayola portrait. And if the experienced birders were amused by the sight of someone being gobsmacked by such a common bird, I was too transported to notice.

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as "beginner's mind," the state of receptiveness and enthusiasm one can bring to a brand new pursuit. This state is refreshingly free from the need to be a smarty-pants and defend one's expertise. Not only can you learn a lot more when not having to pretend you already know it, but being a beginner can also be a lot of fun.

When it comes to birding, for example, for the first few trips out, almost everything you see is a life bird. A couple years later, and you have to engage in foreign travel to experience that kind of bliss.

And everything is just so fresh and exciting. Of course, you can't stay a beginner forever. There are only so many times that a goldfinch can be that exciting. And the opposite of "beginner's mind," is, perhaps, ennui.

Unfortunately, the ho-hum start to my Week of Birds dragged on for several days. I went out several times, sometimes squeezing the birding walks in between a variety of errands, and was starting to fear that the excitement of migration was over. I have noticed that sometimes happens in September, where a great birding day will be followed by one (or more) really so-so ones, which I have started to call the Fall Fizzle.

This Fizzle was especially bad, as I had enticed Sunwiggy to travel back to the Heartland from her new home in the Far North, promising a veritable festival of fall warblers.

By Thursday I was getting pretty discouraged. Several birding excursions, no year birds, few birds of any sort. I wasn't all that excited about going out, and decided to give up on pursuing year birds. Still, I didn't want to sit home moping all day.

So I decided just to go out and observe what was there. If I saw only starlings and house sparrows, so be it. That was what would go in my journal. I chose Weldon Springs park as it is only a few miles from my house, and also has several miles of hiking trails and a variety of habitats. As I thought of my day of observation, I even started to get excited.

It brought me back to my second round of beginner's mind in birding: after I'd been birding for a few years, in 2009 I decided to dedicate at least one day each week to visit one of my "local patches" so I could observe and jot down notes about each shift of the seasons in Illinois. As I started out on this project I was already familiar with most of the birds I saw, but it didn't matter. Swallows might not be new, but I wanted to document the exact weekend in spring that the swallows returned, and the one where the juncos left. When would the dickcissels sing on the prairie, and when would the red-winged blackbirds depart?

This led to one of my best years ever, not in terms of species seen (which was not that impressive, actually), but certainly in terms of the enjoyment I got from them.

And now I have rambled on for so long that it is time to sum up! My report of what I observed will have to wait until tomorrow.

Is there anything you do to keep things fresh? Do you have more fun being the beginner or the expert?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Feather Quest and the community of birders

I've had a really amazing birding year, so far, over twenty life birds and I haven't even left Illinois. And for the last week or so, one thing has really hit home with me--I couldn't have done it alone.

For example, as I relayed, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, in my last post, on Thursday, after days of trying, I finally got my "lifer" whimbrel. But here's the thing: I had help. I was surveying the mud flats with my spotting scope, seeing nought by pectorals, leasts and semipalmateds, when a fellow who introduced himself as Kevin drove up and asked me, "Are you looking for The Whimbrel?"

It made me think of my encounter with an anonymous birder at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, when we were both looking for "the shrike." Seriously, the word gets out about an exciting bird and before you know it, birders migrate from all corners of the state. It's kind of exciting, actually.

Of course, I was looking for the Whimbrel (I know that the word is not typically capitalized, but we were talking as if it were), and he had recently seen it, and found it again--in the opposite direction of where I was looking, mind you--and when I at first couldn't follow his description, he was kind enough to hone my scope in on it, and finally, I saw it myself.

A similar thing happened to me today. Another potential life bird, the red-necked phalarope, has been seen by several birders in my county, and I managed to get myself in the general vicinity of these sightings, but no cigar. After traipsing around through thigh-high grasses over treacherously clumpy ground, and tearing my pants into shreds bush-whacking through thickets of multiflora rose, I was about to go home empty-handed, when I ran into the birder who had first sighted them, who also happens to be an acquaintance of mine. As we discussed the situation, he volunteered to show me where he'd seen them, and as it turns out, I had gone much further afield than I had needed to. And best of all, they were still there! Year bird number 204, my "lifer" red necked phalaropes. And bird number 205, the peregrine falcon, swooped in soon afterwards to disperse them.

These face-to-face interactions are but the tip of the iceberg, really. It's sometimes easy to forget for such a solitary person as myself, but my success this year has all been from the generosity of other people. Every time someone enters their sighting on Cornell University's database, "ebird," it goes out there like a beacon for everyone else. I always joke that I log all my sightings for "the scientists," but every day birders also benefit, perhaps even more.

Almost every life bird I've gotten this year has come about from seeing a posting on ebird and then heading in that direction. And I truly hope that, by posting my own sightings, I am "giving back" to the community, and perhaps helping someone else to get a good bird of their own.

This all put me in mind of a book I read recently, The Feather Quest by Pete Dunne (Dutton: 1992). I have read several books about birding and birders, some focused mostly on the chase for birds (The Biggest Twitch, An Extremely Bad Idea, The Big Year); some on trying to understand the birders (Life List, To See Every Bird on Earth, and again The Big Year); some about personal epiphanies or ruminations (Refuge, Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher, The Life of the Skies); some in the form of a memoir (The Urban Birder); and some mostly the biography of a certain red-winged blackbird (Club George).

Dunne's The Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year, stands out from the rest in that its primary emphasis seems to be on the relationship between birders rather than between birder and bird. In addition, it's a very well-written book, which made me reach for my highlighter frequently to capture choice sentences or paragraphs.

Some of my favorites:

Only desperation could drive a person to a public phone during the hours that lie between the time the bars in McAllen close and the churches open; desperation (or the anticipation of a Good Bird--which is just a form of desperation).

Actually, I like gulls about as much as I like shopping, and I like shopping less than self-immolation. But a Ross's Gull. That's different. That's very different.... The bird was a prize. It was a kind of bird you could build a religion around.

No, Sycamore Canyon is not a place to be casual or careless, and penance is paid in broken limbs, dislocated joints, and heat stroke. But if a "good" bird, a Life Bird, is standing on the gates of hell itself, then that's where birders must go to claim it.

Not all of the passages are humorous; at times, Dunne waxes poetic, or even, when contemplating the threats to the environment, a bit melancholy. But throughout, the theme is one of connection and relationship -- between himself as adult birder and the enthusiastic child he used to be; between himself as experienced birder and newbies getting a feel for their binoculars; between experienced birders sizing each other up in the field, or a group of birders looking for a Ross's gull at a sewer plant; between members of a birding tour, or the rangers at Point Pelee and the swarms of birders flocking to to see the migrants.

One of the most engaging chapters is about the "World Series of Birding" at Cape May, New Jersey, where teams of birders strive to get the highest number for the day. After describing the efforts of his team in great detail, he stops short of mentioning if they won or not. An oversight? Somehow, in the hands of such a talented writer, I doubt it.

The focus of the book is not on how many birds, per se, but an attempt to sketch the connections that keep the whole wonderful pursuit known as "birding" intact. It is, finally, a gentle reminder that no birder is an island.... One that has been very much on my mind recently.

As I have struggled, over the past few months, with my loathing of my daily commute to Decatur and the indignity of being severely "under" employed, in a meditation I had a reminder to look for the beauty that lies beneath everything. At first, I could not see it, even as I surveyed the peeps teeming across the mud flats.

But in the past week or so, it has become more apparent, another lesson that birding has given me; this time, not from the birds, but from other birders. We are all here to help each other. Each one of us is a part of that.