Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ravens of unresting thought

In my last post I wrestled with a metaphor of writing as the chasing of a dangerous bird through a sinuous jungle. Since most of the essays I'm working on involve chasing real birds across the Prairie State, the comparison feels apt. Birds, especially nocturnal hunters or birds with black plumage, have a long history in mythology, poetry and art as being dark omens, messengers and muses. And unemployed writers with too much time on their hands have an equally long history of getting a bit carried away by their "muses."

At the moment, I have a bit of down-time between jobs. Ultimately, I'd like to get back into teaching, or else go back to school. Maybe law school? I'd really like to be a conservation biologist, but with a history/English background that would mean starting over from square one. I'm not sure if I want to do that...

Now, this is my own fault for continuing to work in a field I find aggravating, pointless and boring for almost a decade, instead of looking for something that might actually be meaningful, but I finally got to a point where I just couldn't do it anymore. Life is too short to be miserable. Our talents are too precious to be squandered. While I'm regrouping, I've joined the Illinois Master Naturalist program, am trying to brush up on some basic skills, and finally have some time on my hands to write and to think. You know, about stuff.

It's tempting at this point to try to let everyone know exactly how awful and demoralizing it's been, how I was surrounded by mean girls, backstabbers, slackers and idiots, and how I came home every night and beat my head on the wall. It's tempting, but I won't. For one thing, whining is tacky, and for another my hideous job was no different than anyone else's hideous job. That's why Office Space is so funny.

The important thing is to learn from experience, and move on. But sometimes while I'm writing and thinking all these "deep thoughts," comparing a few hours at my laptop with some sort of shamanic quest for Truth and Beauty, I start to feel a bit sorry for myself, because, well...just because. I start quoting Yeats, about "ravens of unresting thought" flying to and fro in my brain, and then the alarm bells start going off.

It's time to put down the laptop before things get any worse. Because do you remember those arty, "sensitive" and absolutely annoying people who went to your school? I kind of used to be one of them. For a while, in my youth, I might have even had a touch of Special Snowflake Syndrome. Luckily this was a couple of decades ago, so I was at least spared embarrassing myself all over the Internet.

Then I stopped writing, mostly, except for this birding blog. I traveled a bit and settled down with crappy jobs and, it must be said, became a lot more down to earth. But I've missed writing. Even if it never goes anywhere, I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. Besides, I love books, and how can we have books without writers?

But there's a difference in being creative, and wallowing in it. I don't want to be like this:

The fictional Jenny Schecter

If you've ever watched The L Word, you probably hated the character of Jenny, the self-absorbed, neurotic writer.  I actually liked Jenny. She was kind of unbalanced, but I could sympathize. Don't people understand that spending all that time in your own head, poking at every dark impulse and painful moment to get at the authentic truth of your experience, and then presenting all that hard-won anguish to an indifferent world who'd rather read Twilight, will make you insane? At least Jenny never ran around trying to kill her family members with a giant croquet mallet, as another famous fictional writer-gone-crazy did. (And yeah, I can sympathize with Jack Torrence, too.)

It might be an occupational hazard. In one of my favorite books about writing, Bird by Bird (of course, a bird reference!), Anne Lamott warns us of the dangers of "Radio KFKD" (K-F*cked):

If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on an on. -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

When that station starts playing, I know it's time to go birding. To walk around looking at flesh-and-feathers birds, gazing out over the mudflats and getting bitten by chiggers and keeping both feet thoroughly grounded in the real world, where crows are scrounging French fries off the street and not symbolic messenger to the dark reaches of the psyche.

In the meantime, I'll keep running after that dream of writing something that will translate my love of the Grand Prairie onto paper. I hope these random thoughts on the process are interesting or helpful to someone besides myself, but just let me know if I get too "special," OK? And I'll promise not to come after you with a croquet mallet.

Birds as dark muses

by Audubon

It seems like it's been a while since I ran off for a morning or a day, binoculars around my neck and a life bird or two to chase. There was an impressive show of shorebirds at Chatauqua along the Illinois River Valley last weekend, and I was tempted. A piping plover had been seen--not only a potential life bird, but an endangered one which, judging from its photos, is extraordinarily cute.

Piping plover, image from National Wildlife Federation's blog

See what I mean? Shorebirds, as a whole, do not strike me as cute, but piping plovers are adorable. Still, I didn't go out to look for it. For me not to chase a good bird sighting is so out of character that Greenturtle asked me if I was OK.

I've done so many posts about chasing birds that maybe I'll do one a bit later about not chasing them. But the quick answer is that I just didn't feel like it. Yikes, maybe I am sick!

But we've been walloped with a late summer heat wave, I can't really afford extra gas right now, and...and...I just wasn't into it. I have stacks of books I want to read piled willy-nilly around my house, and drafts of essays for the book I've been meaning to write for years all over my laptop.

When I'm writing, I tend to chase ideas the way I would otherwise be chasing birds, dashing off with a journal in one hand for field notes and blind faith that if I am persistent enough and go far enough and wait long enough, I'll find it. Whatever it may be, I'll catch it and return with something I can work with: an intriguing photo, an evocative description, a specimen for future study.

My pursuit of birds is bloodless, but chasing ideas frequently ends with a death struggle. I'd rather bring them back alive, but it's a clumsy process, and I am heavy-handed. Far too often I bludgeon my concept to death, and then hope that if I pin it up nicely, in a lifelike pose, you won't notice the gaps in the ragged feathers. You did? Maybe if I apply some glitter....

And then every once in a while, right when I think I've got it displayed just so, my trophy winks at me and lunges. I step back, just in time to see it make a complete mess of my laboratory.

Or, to put it a way that doesn't make me sound quite so barmy, when I am working on a writing project, I tend to direct all my mental energy and enthusiasm to the process. If I don't, I lose the momentum. I forget what I meant to tell you, and end up watching bad horror movies on Netflix instead.

But that sounds so pedestrian. I'd rather think of my mind as a dense and mysterious jungle, myself an explorer--weary, awestruck, perhaps raving just a bit--and my topic as a rare and dangerous bird.

There's a long tradition of seeing birds as divine messengers and dark muses, after all.

Night Crow
By Theodore Roethke

When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
Further and further away
Into a moonless night
Deep in the brain, far back.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The crane's elegy

As I was looking over the blogs I follow, I saw some bad news on Vickie Henderson's site: despite heavy opposition, Tennessee just passed legislation to allow hunting of sandhill cranes. This is just so upsetting. I have no words to express my sorrow and disgust. (My full rant on the topic, in case you're disappointed at my brevity, can be found here.)

For now, I will express my feelings with a quote from someone far more talented than I:

This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. 
And so they live and have their being--these cranes--not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history. -- Aldo Leopold, from A Sand County Almanac

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Real James Bond

James Bond, ornithologist, 1900-1989
Here's a birding fun fact you may not know. The character of super-spy James Bond, who needs no introduction due to the decades-long series of extremely popular films, was named after an ornithologist. The real James Bond gave up a career in banking to become a curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences and an expert on Caribbean birds.

It's true. Ian Fleming, the novelist who created the character, was also an avid bird-watcher. Since Fleming lived in Jamaica, Bond's book Birds of the West Indies was probably consulted on numerous occasions.

Fleming chose the name because it sounded both ordinary and masculine, and asked James' Bond for permission to use it for his character. Bond was cool with that, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Stretching the truth, or an outright lie? (More fun with Photoshop!)

ducks flying away, Photoshopped

original photo

This is a continuation of my last post, in which I discussed the ways in which we present our experience of the world (specifically of the natural world), and at what point creative license oversteps its bounds and becomes deceit.

When I left off, I was defending some examples of Photoshopped pictures, where I felt that the touched up example looked more like what I actually experienced than the murky original. Usually, I restrict myself to cropping and brightening the colors, especially as, in some of my photos, if I didn't do that, people might have trouble distinguishing what bird I was trying to photograph.

On occasion, I have also played with a photo a bit to try to capture the mood of my walk. For example, for the photos I used for my post "The Butcher Bird, My New Nemesis," I experimented with changing the texture using Photoshop, to create a more artistic or painting-like effect.

I had gone out on a gray and gloomy day, just before the spring equinox. I was looking for a bird which I never found; if I had, perhaps the triumph would have filtered my perceptions. As it was, it was one of those tail-end-of-winter days, and I was taken by how stark the landscape looked. Even without engaging my over-active imagination, I could picture using my surroundings in a suspense film. Sometimes, in this blog, my goal is purely informative, such as showing a certain prairie plant. More often, my photos are meant as examples to show where I went and what birds I saw, and I'm just hoping for a good image to match my words.

But on this day, more than anything, I was trying to capture the mood of the land. Since the day so so cloudy, my photos didn't look like much. Everything was drab and hazy, and to my eyes it hadn't looked so dull at all. Well, Photoshop to the rescue.

I was particularly taken by the fog rolling off of the power plant spillway. My original photo was so drab, I felt that it simply did not capture my impression. A bit of Photoshop, and it seemed much closer to what I actually saw.


And these spindly, spikey trees, silhouetted against the overcast sky. This whole area seemed so atmospheric. I had never really paid attention to it before (only my search for my nemesis bird made me wander here), and it was an interpretation of the natural landscape of central Illinois that I really hadn't seen before.


I have chosen the path of creative writing (creative non-fiction, poetry, short stories) rather than journalism or science writing because, for my personality and particular way of interpreting the world, I feel that the creative approach gets closer to the truth of my experience. What is the purpose of all this writing and blogging, really all the creative arts? The topics can vary, but at the heart of it, I think that the most important thing is making the particular into the universal.

If I can't convince you how important the natural world around us is, how endlessly fascinating I find it, how my feelings of awe and wonder and mystery are not my individual "thing" but applicable to you as well, then I have failed. And I probably do fail, frequently. But that won't stop me from trying again, using every creative tool at my disposal to better tell the truth.

Still, I don't think that means that honesty is not important, or that there is not a line that can be crossed. For example:

Cottingsley fairy photo
Back at the turn of the last century, two English girls claimed to have taken photos of real fairies that they saw in their gardens. At least one of them always claimed that she really did see fairies, and it was all the teasing she received that made them fake the "proof." Mostly likely, the hoax got much bigger than they anticipated, convincing the likes of people such as Arthur Conan Doyle, until they felt that they could not come clean. Regardless of their motives, we can probably all agree that this clearly crossed the line. Whether they really did see fairies or not, they knew the photos weren't real.

A similar forgery occurred in the birding world, in 2007, when a graphic artist from Kentucky faked a photo of an ivory-billed woodpecker, supposedly taken in the Cache River area of southern Illinois. Later, he confessed, claiming that he truly did see an ivory-bill, and faked the photo in the hopes that people would preserve the habitat. Obviously, this was dishonest, and while his intentions may have been good, in reality, this will just make it that much harder for the next person, who may have a genuine photo on their hands, to be taken seriously.

A literary equivalent might be the infamous memoir by James Frey, A Million Little Pieces.  In case you are not familiar with this story, the book was published purporting to be a non-fiction account of the author's rehabilitation for severe drug use and alcoholism. Apparently, the author's presentation of himself as a tough guy and a criminal who managed to get clean on his own terms isn't quite accurate. No one's disputing that he really was a drug addict, but it seems that many of the details--the most vivid and extreme incidents--were fabricated.

Although I never read the book (I flipped through it in the bookstore, but the tough-guy persona and stream-of-consciousness writing style didn't appeal to me), I nevertheless followed the controversy with interest. I'm sure all memoir readers must suspect that the authors are polishing and re-interpreting their experience (not to mention quoting passages of dialogue that I highly doubt that, literally speaking, they can remember), but this is not considered problematic as long as we feel, overall, that the author is trying to tell, to the best of their ability, the truth of their particular experience.

So at what point, exactly, did James Frey cross the line? In an interview with The Guardian, he states that, "My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience." I have to admit, as someone who has some very healthy alter-egos of her own, I can understand how this might happen. And it's a shame he did it that way, because that story, about how he really was versus who he imagined himself to be, and how these sides of his personality became addicted and then became sober, could have been quite interesting. Not that I am letting him off the hook. At some point, you stretch the truth enough, and it becomes a lie.

I don't think I've clarified, in my mind or in this post, exactly where the line is. These are my personal hard and fast rules:

1. I would never lie and claim to see a bird I didn't (whether it's rare or common). This is the ultimate birder's sin, and those who commit it will be endlessly pecked to death by starlings in the afterlife.
2. I would never give myself achievements I didn't have, or actions I didn't commit. Minor shifts in the time-line or compression of events to give better narrative flow are permissible.
3. I wouldn't alter a photo to the extent of making it unrecognizable from what I saw. Minor touch-ups are permissible.
4. I would never write about someone else, even if I changed their name and details, to present them in a false light. However, re-creating dialogue in my mind or writing detailed accounts of events in the past, in which some of the minor details (what someone was wearing, what we ate for lunch, etc.) are fabricated for a better narrative, is permissible. (In other words, if I said that my mom and I ate egg salad sandwiches at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and argued about Obama, when we really ate tuna fish that day and the Obama argument had actually happened the month before, no biggie. If she's a vegan and never argues politics, on that day or any other, we have a problem.)
5. I would never try to make myself look any better or worse than I actually am. Since I am both my own biggest fan and harshest critic, take this one for what it's worth.

And finally:

6. I would never tell lies about nature. No matter how beautiful the prairie was, if I leave covered head to toe in chigger bites, you will know about it. And vice versa.

So, do you read (or write) memoirs? Do you blog or journal? Do you enjoy photography? I would be very curious to hear exactly where you draw the line on being truthful.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ways to tell the truth (or, is photoshop a lie?)

gray jay...after Photoshop

same photo, before

Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la verite. -- Jean Cocteau, "Le Menteur"
You said the truth once/That was just a lie. -- Moby

A couple of days ago, I went to the Salt Creek Wetland, hoping to find some sandpipers. Shorebirds were few and far between, as the water level is still too high to create the nice sticky, stinky mudflats and shallow puddles that they prefer. On the other hand, I do have a souvenir of this trip, as I am now covered in itchy, oozy bites from some unknown insect (I suspect chiggers), including one in my navel.

As I schlepped along with my spotting scope tossed over my shoulder, squinting at great blue herons and ring-billed gulls through the heat haze over the water, I found myself wondering, "What would be the truest, most accurate way to depict this?" And is this the wetland itself, my experience at that particular moment, or some juxtaposition between the two?

This train of thought was sparked by something said at the first session of  the Illinois Master Naturalist course that I am taking, and also the fact that I am working on a sort of memoir, a series of essays about birding and nature in central Illinois, which is a work of what's known as "creative nonfiction." What was said in class was that  "Master Naturalists have the responsibility to accurately portray Nature with conversation, written word and image."

An example of the harm that comes from a lie was given--a person looking at "nature" photos on his computer, technicolor sunsets or impossibly pristine beaches, who is then disappointed by the sight of a real sunset or a real beach because the images were so much more vivid. How much Photoshopping can you do before your image becomes a lie?

My first reaction was to wonder how creative writing can serve the cause of accurately portraying nature. (Actually, my first reaction was to hang my head with shame as I Photoshop the hell out of everything, in service to the "lie" that I am not a lazy and impatient photographer.)

The path of the scientist, restricted to the physical reality of a thing, is valid and necessary, but it is not the only way of experiencing nature, and, indeed, to show only the physical aspect of a landscape, a bird or a flower is also inaccurate...not quite a lie, but woefully incomplete.

It's a lie of omission, because if I tell you only the physical aspects of what I have seen--the composition of the grasses, the Ph level of the soil, a snippet from an ornithology textbook on the habits of the great blue heron--I have left out the most important thing: that to me, why this matters, why I was there in the first place, sweating in the unwavering sunshine and offering myself as a feast for insects, is because the wetland and everything in it is numinous with life.

I'm still not there, at that accurate portrayal. This makes me sound like a mystic in a forest, and while I did not lie to you, I left out a lot of stuff, like the chiggers and how much I was sweating and how I wasn't thinking, Oh, this is so wonderful at all. I was thinking, Where the *bleep* are the sandpipers? and I was also thinking about lunch.

So let's get away from me, and back to the wetland. There were two dozen great blue herons scattered in the shallows, and only one great egret. A kingfisher slapped the water, diving for a fish. Juvenile green herons perched stumps by the water, staring at me for several minutes as if they were trying to figure me out. Soon they decided that, whatever I was, they didn't trust me, and took off for a tree.

The state of Illinois used to be filled with wetlands like this, linked one to the next like Indra's net of jewels, each teeming with life. One by one, they were drained, plowed over, paved into acquiescence. It's a sad story, but not without hope, for this wetland itself has been rescued from the agricultural wasteland rather recently.

My intentions--on this blog, in my memoir, and for becoming an Illinois Master Naturalist--are to both inform and inspire. Sometimes I do a facts-only post (such as my last one, about wildflowers I found at Weldon Springs), but to be honest, I find those the least fulfilling to write, and others must agree with me, for they get the fewest hits. If someone's is looking for something educational, there are people out there who are doing it better.

I hope more to inspire people to get out and experience nature for themselves, for the dual purposes that I honestly believe it will make people happier and healthier, and because I want these natural places to be protected and expanded, and if people aren't out there, they won't care when it's gone. If I had lugged a camcorder around with me at the wetland, and simply tossed that unadorned footage on You Tube, it would be the most boring thing ever. And that's a lie, too. As far as I'm concerned, nature is never boring.

Luckily I don't have to chose between creative writing and being a good naturalist, because some of the most famous naturalists are excellent creative writers. I present, as an example, this quote from Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, about the passenger pigeon.
The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of the forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no dimunition of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter of even a wisp of smoke.

Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.

The wonder is not that the pigeon went out, but that he ever survived through all the millennia of pre-Babbittian time. --Aldo Leopold

It's a bit fanciful (actually, I consider it to be poetry in prose form), but I aspire to tell the truth about nature as perfectly as Leopold does in this passage. This is creative nonfiction at its finest.

While I think that accurately portraying nature does not mean a facts-only approach, I am still wavering on the line of where the truth of one's experience, expressed creatively, becomes a lie.

Now, after all my philosophical blather, it's time for some concrete examples!

I don't think that anyone, except the most stringent of photography purists, would find fault with my Photoshopped gray jay, at the start of this post. I cropped the image to bring the bird closer, and arranged it so that the jay was more to the left and bottom of the image than the center, to make the composition more interesting. I also lightened it a bit, because even on a cloudy day, the jay did not look as drab as it does in the original. If I were a better photographer, I would have taken a better photo to start with, but I think that the retouched photo truthfully depicts the Gray Jay Experience.

I am not so sure about this pine grosbeak, however.

original photo

Once again, my intention was simply to crop and lighten the image, but in doing so, I made the bird turn out a bit...candy colored? The lie, if there is one, is subtle. I think this is still an accurate Pine Grosbeak Experience, but I wouldn't have posted the photo here if I wasn't illustrating an example of "a bit too much Photoshop." My dad also saw the before and after pictures, though, and he disagrees with me. He thinks the second one is fine.

Here's another example, from the photos I took for my post yesterday. Again, I think the difference is subtle.

big bluestem, before
Here I will defend my retouched photo 100%, as being not only improved, but more accurate than the original. For a haphazard photographer such as myself (my only intention is to amuse myself and illustrate my blog; I may aspire to be the next Aldo Leopold, but Ansel Adams is safe!), probably the most challenging sort of photo is one of prairie grasses. I mean, if you want to make a non-nature person start slobbering with boredom, just start talking about grass.

But, the prairie really is beautiful, and so is the sight of big bluestem against the sky. The original photo was kind of murky-looking (it was a bright day, so I don't know why), and the big bluestem was fading into the background. Lighten it up a bit and play with the contrast, and now the photo looks more like what I actually saw.

So far, so good. But the argument of distorting the facts (or the image) to better tell the truth is, as you can tell, a slippery slope, and I'll have more to say about it tomorrow.

In the meantime...when does Photoshop become a lie? Do you think any of my photos cross the line? Do you think it's dishonest to present candy-colored nature photos that look way better than real life?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Plant Quest at Weldon Springs

big bluestem
Today I went to Weldon Springs, with the intention of looking for plants rather than birds. Of course, I brought along my binoculars (and saw some good birds, including my first Illinois Wilson's snipe for the year flying overhead), but mostly, I was looking for wildflowers.

I have just started the Illinois Master Naturalist class, which has been a dream of mine for several years now, and this morning, as I drank my coffee, I was reading the chapters on botany and prairies in preparation for the next lesson. Due to a lazy morning, it was a bit late for a birding trip, but one of the nice things about plants is that they tend to stay put all day, so I headed out to look for some wildflowers and prairie plants.

I actually began with a quick stroll through part of the backpack loop, which has been a horrible spot this year due to flooding and mosquitoes. Luckily, it has dried out significantly, and the mosquitoes are just a bit annoying now, rather than a blood-sucking death-swarm, as previously.

I saw some white snakeroot:

white snakeroot
This flower is common throughout Illinois in "moist or dry woods, woodland borders, and disturbed sites." Native Americans used the roots as a tea for diarrhea, fevers, and kidney stones, and as a poultice for snakebites. One of the plant's components, eupatorin, might have anticancer properties. The plant is not benign, however; cows eating the plant produced poisoned milk, and humans that consumed it became ill with "milk sickness," the disease that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother. (Or she might have been killed by vampires. Historians are divided on that point.) Source (for the real information): Illinois Wildflowers by Don Kurz (Cloudnet Publishing, 2004), hereafter referenced as IW.

Back in the woods, I also found common boneset:

common boneset
This is another common Illinois plant. It was used by the Native Americans to treat a wide variety of illnesses. The American settlers called it "boneset" because it was used to treat the aches and pains of flu-like symptoms (a.k.a. "breakbone fever). IW

In another month, this trail will be riotous with tall yellow flowers (I think, goldenglow and Jerusalem artichoke), but not much was going on, either flower or bird-wise, today. I did find some American bellflower:

American bellflower
This is another common wild plant in Illinois. It was used by the Native Americans as a leaf tree to treat cough and tuberculosis, and as a crushed root to treat whooping cough. IW

I soon left the woods for the prairie, and it was here that the wildflowers shined. Actually, I was a bit embarrassed at how I've neglected the marvelous restored prairie at the Union Schoolhouse trail. I've been a bit focused on birds all the time since moving to Dewitt County, despite being an amateur prairie enthusiast; actually, when I saw the quality and variety of prairie plants on offer, I was amazed that Weldon Springs is never cited as an example of a good place to view Illinois prairies.

To be honest, the first view is not something that's going to make your average person swoon with the beauty before them. There's a lot of big bluestem (or the name I prefer--turkeyfoot), which is a lovely prairie grass, but's a grass, so not that dramatic.

But a quick stroll revealed three of the four silphiums, which are large yellow prairie flowers in the aster family. These are some of the common forbs found in Illinois prairies; forbs are the flowers, as opposed to the grasses (like big bluestem).

These silphiums are big, showy yellow plants with scratchy leaves. Prairie dock has the biggest leaves (as in, huge); compass plant has more spindly leaves that are supposed to orient north to south (though I don't advise you to count on that if you're ever lost on the prairie); rosinweed I haven't had a chance to see yet; and cup plant has leaves large enough to cup water in, for the delectation of birds and insects.

There was a lot of cup plant at Weldon Springs:

cup plant
Another flower that was everywhere was bristly sunflower. The on-site naturalist commented how these plants have really popped up this year:

bristly sunflower
I was also pleased to see a lot of rattlesnake master:

rattlesnake master
Illinois Wildflowers calls this one "occasional" rather than common. It is found in open woods and prairies, and was used by Native Americans to treat snakebite, for bladder problems, and for muscular pains.

Here's another good prairie plant, wild quinine (also called American feverfew):

wild quinine
Another common Illinois plant, which was once used to treat fevers and malaria when quinine was in short supply. It may stimulate the immune system, according to modern research; but it can also cause dermatitis and allergies in some people, so caution is advised. IW

I talked with the on-site naturalist for a while and complimented her on their nice prairie. She said they've been working on it for the past thirty years (seriously, why isn't this place better known?), and agreed to let me interview expect more about Weldon Springs to come!

In the meantime, she said there was some nice blazing star blooming a bit further down, so I went in search of it. This is another common Illinois prairie plant.

prairie blazing star

This part of the trail is scrubbier, but I found some other interesting plants, such as tall boneset:

tall boneset

And I think this is a kind of tick trefoil:

I'd already found another possible tick trefoil in the woods; there are about 17 different species of them in Illinois. If anyone can tell me for certain what these plants are, please do!!

Finally, I passed a small pond, and found some arrowhead:


I've seen this flower before, at Humiston Woods in Livingston County. Unfortunately, my Illinois Wildflowers left me high and dry on this one, and I had to resort to my other ID book, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern). Muskrats and ducks like to eat the starchy tubers, causing an alternate name of "duck potatoes." In any case, look at that huge, arrow-shaped leaf.

This same pond also produced some pickerelweed, another aquatic plant missing from IL Wildflowers. It is related to the wild hyacinth.


Finally, along the sides of the pond, I found some horse nettle.

horse nettle

This plant, found throughout Illinois in "open woods, waste ground, cultivated fields and roadsides" is a member of the nightshade family. Although the Native Americans used it as a gargle for sore throats and a poultice for poison ivy rash, the berries are quite toxic, so don't imbibe. IW

By now, I've spent about as much time blogging about the plants as I actually spent looking at them...and it's time to get dinner on the table. So enough for now!

Hopefully this will inspire someone to go out and find some plants in their own county. Are any of these common where you live?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lazarus birds?

range map for passenger pigeons

I have long thought that if a genie popped out of a bottle and gave me a wish, I'd ask for the return of the passenger pigeon. These birds, once so numerous that they darkened the sky as they flew overhead, were killed by the millions, until the last one, a female named Martha, died in captivity a century ago. For some reason, more than any other extinct species, I take the demise of the pigeon personally. I miss them.

Well, someone might say, don't just sit around crying about them. Why don't you do something about it? Believe it or not, there's a group of scientists that actually is trying to do just that....

There's a new field of biologists working towards "de-extinction," and The Long Now Foundation has brought many of them together for a fascinating series of talks. No matter what your reaction to this idea is, I recommend going to the site and watching a few; it really is interesting stuff.

I'm not going to try to recap the discussions--the speakers themselves do that better than I could--but instead to summarize my reactions to the idea that, within the next decade or two, we might have passenger pigeons in the world again.

My first thought is: hooray! Just imagine if this actually worked, and future generations of birders could go out and put ivory-billed woodpeckers, Bachman's warblers, heath hens and Eskimo curlews on their life lists. What if we really could begin to reverse the long toll of extinct species, and start bringing them back? Quite frankly, I think that would be the most amazing thing ever achieved by science.

But then there are a few issues, the most important being the question of habitat. I don't see the point of pursuing this sort of thing if the animals can't be released into the wild at some point. There are already too many species that exist only in captivity -- the Hawaiian crow, the Micronesian kingfisher and the Spix's macaw, just off the top of my head. These are species that we don't need to "de-extinct," as they are still here, but they can no longer survive in the wild, due to habitat loss and disease (the crow), their home being overrun by invasive snakes (the kingfisher) and habitat loss and illegal capture for the pet trade (the macaw).

If I were in charge of allocating funds around the world, I would say, "This de-extinction thing is a great idea, but first we need to take care of the species we still have, so come back and talk to me when we've got viable populations of all these creatures back in the wild."

In today's selfish economic climate, it's hard enough to get funds for conservation projects. Grassland bird species in Illinois have actually been increasing, due to government programs to pay land owners to leave them some breeding habitat. These programs are all being slashed now.

Another potential problem is that the concept of "de-extinction" will be an excuse for governments to stop protecting endangered species. "Who cares if they all die, we can always bring them back later." I can easily see certain segments of our government/population cynically jumping on that bandwagon.

There are also ethical issues. This sort of research is still at a very rough stage, and many animals will die before they are successful. And I hate to say it, but so far, we humans don't have the best track record at how we put our discoveries to use. From atomic energy to GMO crops, ideas that could have been a boon are often used destructively, and once the genie's out of the bottle, it's out. So now we get to worry about North Korea or Iran tossing nuclear missiles around, and about the loss of genetic diversity and farmers going bankrupt because of our "friends" at Monsanto.

For many people, there's a very deep-seated fear of this sort of tinkering. From movies like Jurassic Park to Mimic to Alien Resurrection -- does it ever turn out well?

"No, it doesn't."

Finally, is it even possible to bring back an extinct species, really? Take the passenger pigeon, for example. We don't have the technology to just bring them back in a test tube; their genetic material will be mixed with very similar species (the band-tailed pigeon) to create an almost passenger pigeon.

And then, the scientists are hoping that their unique pigeon-ness is genetically encoded, as opposed to learned behavior, since obviously there are no passenger pigeons to raise them. But that's a pretty big assumption. In the case of the Hawaiian crow, for example, one of the problems is that young crows raised in captivity do not learn the necessary survival skills that their wild parent crows would have taught them. Indeed, if not raised with utmost care, they imprint on their human caretakers or begin to behave neurotically. (The book Seeking the Sacred Raven by Mark Jerome Walters gives the details.)

Most of these points, and many others, are addressed in the talks. Reservations aside, this sort of research is doubtless the wave of the future, so it might as well be turned to a good cause.

Actually, I'm in favor of this. Tentatively, with some strong reservations...but this could be a really good thing. As Ben Novak, of the pigeon project, states in his talk, If you have a tree in your yard that's 150 years old, its branches remember the feet of the passenger pigeons. We're the ones who forgot.

And as another of the speakers said, if we can do this, maybe it's our duty to follow through. It's our fault that the pigeons are gone. Maybe we owe it to them to bring them back.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shorebird season (or, will it still be there?)

It's taken me a while to warm up to shorebirding. It's not that I dislike shorebirds, as they are certainly inoffensive creatures; it's just that they are so hard to identify. For years I was convinced that some were bigger and some were smaller, but except for that, they all look exactly the same.

And if you don't like shorebirds, then the first three weeks of August are pretty much a birding bummer. The fledglings are growing up, and the summer is winding down. Each stroll through the woods or across the prairie is more still and silent. Fall migration is just around the corner. For the sandpipers, it's already here.

Last year, I finally started to get the knack of identifying shorebirds. It helped that it was an extremely dry year, creating vast fields of mudflats at Emiquon and along Lake Decatur. Late August and early September at Lake Decatur was spectacular, and as I happened to work just a mile or so down the road, I was able to go out and study the birds just about every day. I got my "lifer" black-bellied plover, sanderling, Baird's sandpiper, black tern (not a shorebird, but still awesome), American pipit (same comment as black tern), and most exciting of all...whimbrel. I missed the willet, though.

Up until then, I'd had a serious challenge just finding shorebirds. It took me a while to get the hang of searching for "fluddles" and mud flats at just the right time of year. And then last year, what a bonanza! I could just pop out on my lunch break, set up my scope, and study them at my leisure.

This also helped.... I highly recommend it.

This year, it's been a lot wetter, and a lot more hit or miss. The Emiquon Refuge along the Illinois River Valley, for example, was flooded for much of the spring and summer. But finally, some interesting bird sightings were showing up on the Internet, including potential life birds marbled godwit and willet.

Finally, after being tantalized by these reports for a couple of weeks, Greenturtle and I finally had a chance to go out there. "Chasing" a good bird sighting is always so suspenseful..."will it" still be there?

There were a ton of shorebirds at Chataqua National Wildlife Refuge, at both the Eagle Bluff and Goofy Ridge levees, more than I've seen on past visits. I saw both yellowlegs, pectoral, semipalmated and least sandpipers, and my first of year stilts.

When we parked at the Goofy Ridge area, as we were strolling to the levee, we heard the sound of gunshots. I reassured Greenturtle that it's not hunting season, nor we were in an area where we should be in danger even if it was. Still, I was wondering myself what was going on.

As I walked up to the levee, I saw a big blue pickup truck on a gravel road over the water to the right. Another crack of gunshot rang out, and then the driver took off down the road. WTF? As I said, it's not hunting season...and anyway, what kind of hunting is allowed through the window of your truck? I suspect that the person was up to no good, and drove away when he saw potential witnesses. But what on earth could he have been shooting at? Hopefully not sandpipers!

It was a long walk out to the productive mud flats, but I added my first of year semipalmated plovers to my list. I also noticed that Greenturtle was not behind me. Normally, I don't worry about things like that but after the mystery shooter in the pickup, I was a bit concerned. Luckily, he ambled along a couple of minutes later; while I'd been studying shorebirds, he'd been more interested in turtles.

Our next stop was Emiquon, and at first I was afraid it was going to be a bust. We walked along the levee by the "North Globe" area, which had looked promising on my last visit. But the only birds we saw, apart from a couple of killdeer and great egrets, were hundreds of swallows swooping overhead.

Despite the best efforts of these little birds, there were still a lot of insects pinging through the air. "The swallows aren't doing their jobs!" I announced, as some unspecified sort of gnat tried to fly up my nose.

On a whim, we turned onto a road that I had always thought didn't look promising, Prairie Road. There was a small area overlooking the water. We got out, and saw some snowy egrets...very exciting, as I haven't seen one of those for years.

Another birder was packing up his stuff. "Did you see the willet?" he asked.

And there it was! "Will it" still be there? Luckily, yes!

How about you? Have you seen any good shorebirds recently?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ivorybills revisited

I want to believe!

I remember the exact moment I heard the news report that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been discovered by a team from Cornell in Arkansas. Usually when people say, "I remember exactly what I was doing when...", they are referring to something traumatic. Presidential assassinations. Terrorist attacks. Exploding spacecraft.

But we all need some good news from time to time. And for me, the hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird so impressive that it was colloquially known as the "Lord God Bird," might not be extinct after all was cause for jubilation. Or, more precisely, for jumping up and down in my pajamas with Sunwiggy, crying out, "They're not dead! They're not dead!"

After that, well, almost a decade of nothing. Other people came out and said they weren't even convinced. The woodpecker mania slowly seemed to fade away.

Recently I read a book about a search for a different extinct woodpecker (Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher), which got me into ivory-bill mode, and so I dusted off my copies of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (2005: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Tim Gallagher and Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness (2007: Oxford University Press) by Geoffrey E. Hill.

Gallagher's The Grail Bird begins with a discussion of several earlier ivory-bill sightings, none of which were taken very seriously. Ornithologist George Lowery presented some rough photos of ivory bills perched on tree trunks taken in Louisiana, given to him by an anonymous source, which was disputed by the American Ornithologists' Union. Some people even claimed that the photographer must have shimmied up two separate trees, placed a taxidermied ivory bill specimen forty feet up, then shimmied back down to take the photos. Respected ornithologist John Dennis reported ivory-bill findings in the Big Thicket area of Texas in the 1960s, but his report, too, was not investigated very thoroughly.

As Gallagher presents it, one of the problem with verifying ivory-bill sightings is that no one takes seriously reports of seeing an extinct bird. I mean, what if I told you I saw a passenger pigeon in my backyard? Or Big Foot in central Illinois? (Don't laugh at that last one...someone really claimed to see Big Foot at Funk's Grove in Mclean County. I hope you are not surprised that local scientists were skeptical about that sighting.) At least pre-big news from the Big Woods of Arkansas, respected birders and ornithologists might have kept a possible ivory-bill sighting to themselves out of fear of ridicule.

Gallagher, on the other hand, does an admirable job in tracking down people who have claimed to see ivory-bills, including the mystery man from Louisiana, and he seems predisposed to believe their accounts, or at least consider them with an open mind. His optimism is understandable, as he and friend Bobby Ray Harrison took to the Arkansas swamps to attempt to verify a possible sighting, and soon saw the magnificent woodpecker for themselves. A veritable team of birders and researchers from Cornell descended on the area, and obtained enough sightings, sound recordings, and even a video, that they felt confident going public with their findings.

The Grail Bird, even after so many years since that initial excitement has waned, is still an entertaining read. Gallagher is a good writer, vividly describing the landscapes he explores and the colorful people who are part of the ivorybill's saga. Gallagher describes people I would want to meet, in places I could imagine visiting, which is definitely part of the book's charm.

Shortly thereafter, a biology professor from Alabama, Geoffrey Hill, and some of his students, began their own search for ivory bills in the swamps of northern Florida, as described in Ivorybill Hunters. As the state's resident bird expert, Hill would occasionally get calls from people claiming to have seen an ivory bill, but he never knew what to do about them. After the Cornell hoopla, he realized that his neck of the woods had a lot of potential territory as well, and after a few outings, like the Cornell crew, he and his students hit pay dirt.

They had sightings and sound recordings of the woodpecker's distinctive double-knocks and kent calls, but virtually no budget to speak of for an extended project, and he didn't want to risk Cornell's getting wind of it and possibly trying to take over. Despite their limited money and manpower, the Alabama team seemed to get the same type of results--a lot of interesting evidence, including an inconclusive video, but ultimately no conclusive proof of the birds' survival.

Hill also has a good knack for narrative, and I enjoyed my vicarious trips with him to the murky swamps of northern Florida. He presents some compelling arguments for how ivory bills could have persisted in these remote areas for decades without anyone knowing about it--this is wild and difficult terrain, often impassible without a boat. One of the strengths of his book is the details about nuts-and-bolts aspects of the search, from trying to keep their equipment dry to the long hours involved in analyzing sound recordings. I certainly came away from his story with a new appreciation for the drudgery inherent in this sort of field work.

Unlike Gallagher's book, occasionally I found the tone of Ivorybill Hunters to be a bit problematic. While I can appreciate professional rivalry, in some passages, especially the chapter "Good Science, Bad Science, or No Science at All?", I felt like he was indulging in a bit of Cornell-bashing, with a bit of a lecture to the rest of us about what is or is not "science" or "evidence." Likewise, at times, his descriptions seemed a bit condescending, such as a passage where one of the students imitates an elderly local man as they sit around their camp or how they often seem worried that they will soon be forced to re-enact certain scenes from Deliverance as they navigate the swamps. I'm not saying that he's actually rude about people (he isn't), and except for that one chapter, it wasn't a large part of the book. I only mention it because, if these woodpeckers do still exist, we will need collaboration, both among research and conservation groups, and with local, rural communities, in order to protect them.

All of this leads to the million dollar question: were there ivory billed woodpeckers in either Arkansas or Florida, or did inefficient and/or understaffed teams simply convince themselves they were there? The resounding lack of follow-up evidence in both cases does not look promising. But even so, reading these books again almost a decade later, I am still convinced that they did find ivory bills.

In neither case did the evidence rest on only one or two sightings, but multiple reports from multiple witnesses, along with interesting sound recordings and inconclusive video. The conditions were challenging, and sure, there were mistakes made along the way -- Hill especially is candid about some things that his team could have done better. I have no reason to suspect the sincerity or qualifications of anyone involved. We're not talking about beginning birders or cryptozoology aficionados. All of that, taken together, leads me to believe that if they thought they saw ivory-bills, it's because they did.

As to the problem of why there have not been further sightings? Well, all of the challenges involved -- the vast and difficult terrain, the limited amount of time and money, the elusiveness of the birds, the fact that any claim is swiftly dismissed -- are still present. Especially in the Florida case, only a very small portion of possible territory was actually explored.

please don't be extinct!

But finally, I will admit that--although this falls under the heading of "no science at all"--I believe that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist because it would just suck too much if they didn't.

What do you think?