The Philadelphia Flower Show opened today for the winter-weary among us. Flower shows probably aren't my thing, but it'll be at least 6 weeks before anything is blooming in the woods here and I was desperate!
The line of shoes left at the dune fence Sun streaks in your hair Ghost crabs Sun-kissed shoulders Halter tops Floating docks When the wind shifts direction Lavender-infused lemonade Digging your toes into the sand The cries of gulls Orienting your towel to the sun Sanderlings! Stopping for black raspberry ice cream on the drive home Wrap-around porches Polka-dot bikinis Your chair at the low tide mark with waves lapping at your ankles A baby in a white floppy hat meeting the ocean for the first time The smell of Coppertone Skeeball A little pool of water in your belly button Wading through a sun-warmed tidal pool The shapes of clouds Painted toenails Sandcastles
Longish bills, pale bellies, dark wings, chunky birds... um... um... dowitchers?
I really have no clue and know better what they're not, which doesn't help much.
St Marks NWR held a fair number of shorebirds which I mostly ignored in favor of the ducks - no surprise there! Shorebirds are just baffling and I'm almost at the point that I'm ready to tackle them, but don't know where to begin. I have probably all the books, but wonder if someone can recommend which of them is best.
Just once we thought we'd caught a glimpse of white from the horizon, from that far edge between palm trees; a ripple of movement and a rising, the sound of rushing wings and bugled calls: a dream.
For centuries, cranes have evoked a strong emotional response... their behavior, unique calls, graceful movements, and stately appearance have inspired art, mythology and legend in cultures around the world.
Their tall, angular figures, made up of so much wing, leg, neck, and bill, counterpoised by so little body, incline the spectator to look upon them as ornithological caricatures. After balancing himself upon one foot for an hour, with the other drawn up close to his scanty robe of feathers, and his head poised in a most contemplative attitude, one of these queer birds will suddenly turn a somersault, and, returning to his previous posture, continue his cogitations as though nothing had interrupted his reflections.
With wings spread, they slowly winnow the air, rising or hopping from the ground a few feet at a time, then whirling in circles upon their toes, as though going through the mazes of a dance, Their most popular diversion seems to be the game of leap-frog, and their long legs being specially adapted to this sport, they achieve a wonderful success. One of the birds quietly assumes a squatting position upon the ground, when his sportive companions hop in turn over his expectant head. They then pirouette, turn somersaults, and go through various exercises with the skill of gymnasts. Their sportive proclivities seem to have no bounds; and being true humorists, they preserve through their gambols a ridiculously sedate appearance. --Nathaniel H. Bishop, Four Months in a Sneak-Box, 1879
Whooping Cranes exist, now, perilously close to extinction. Various public and private organizations are doing improbable things to rescue them from that sad fate. Cranes historically wintered at only one location: Aransas NWR in Texas, which leaves the entire naturally-occurring population of Whooping Cranes quite vulnerable to disaster. Recovery efforts have thus focused on establishing a second Eastern population of Whoopers that breeds and winters in a separate location. In Florida, I got the chance to meet the ultralight pilot who, as part of Operation Migration, flew a group of twenty cranes from Wisconsin to St. Mark's NWR and Chassahowitzka NWR to spend the winter there. I also learned (a bit too late!) that the likelihood of seeing a Whooper there is small, as they are secluded away in a far corner of the refuge.
So be it... it's enough to know that these birds still live in wild places, far beyond the reach of my vision.
For the Whooping Crane there is no freedom but that of unbounded wilderness, no life except its own. Without meekness, without a sign of humility, it has refused to accept our idea of what the world should be like. If we succeed in preserving the wild remnant that still survives, it will be no credit to us; the glory will rest on this bird whose stubborn vigor has kept it alive in the face of increasing and seemingly hopeless odds. --Robert Porter Allen
I'd love to hear your stories of Whoopers, if you have any.
"The observation of birds may be a superstition, a tradition, an art, a science, a pleasure, a hobby, or a bore; this depends entirely on the nature of the observer." --James Fisher
There was no particular motive that spurred me to buy binoculars and a field guide; I simply found myself doing so one day. In this same "why not give it a try" manner, I found myself walking beside long-abandoned railroad tracks a few weeks later on my first organized bird walk. My epiphany about birds occurred that day in the form of an Indigo Bunting. The unfamiliar binoculars were more of a handicap than a useful tool, but once I managed to find a bird with them and achieved focus, my field of vision was entirely occupied by the peculiar blue of an Indigo Bunting. Time seemed to stop and it felt as if the world contained only that bird of otherworldly blue and me. This is the magic that birding holds for us, I think; that loss of self-consciousness and the greater perception of the other in our lives. My instinct that first day was, and still is, to bow down and pay homage to the presence of the wild around me.
I once read an article that suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that birders, rather than being immersed in a sport, or a simple game of recognition, or some benign form of hunting and collecting, are instead involved in something strange and archaic, something more like a pagan religion than a hobby: a cult of bird worship, a theology inspired by the natural world. While none of us actually worship birds (at least I don't think any of us do!) an examination of our various rituals, from the casual to the most fanatic among us, might lead to an understanding of our reasons for watching birds. There are many reasons, probably as many reasons as there are people who do it, just as there are countless levels of experience or devotion to the craft of it.
I'm not sure where I would place myself among this hierarchy of birders... I've never traveled to a tropical rainforest or studied bird skins, but I have held the feathery spirit of an Ovenbird while it was being banded and sat contentedly for hours while a pair of Orioles built a nest in my backyard. I can distinguish the song of a Pine Warbler from that of a Chipping Sparrow, usually. I've slept in a cold and damp tent in the Blue Ridge Mountains happily serenaded by Whippoorwills and crawled on my belly in the sand of countless beaches hoping for a masterpiece photograph of a Sanderling, sidelit by a warm September sun. All of which feels very much like the telltale signs of a fully-fledged birder. Most of my experiences with birds are deeply personal and so ineffable and idiosyncratic that I don't often know how to talk about them, but I try here on this blog to understand the ways I'm changed by these encounters with birds and the natural world.
I think what makes this cult of ours unique is our susceptibility to be awed by the world around us and our inclination to celebrate that awe with others. We know well the joy that is revealed in pursuit of what is beautiful and sacred. Birds can lead us to reverence for all life and the grace of seeing the extraordinary in the everyday.
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Thanks to everyone who sent submissions for this edition! Direct links to their posts are below, in the order in which they're used in my rambly essay. There are some really fabulous bird blogs out there - please visit a couple new ones today! Deb is hosting the next I and the Bird at Sand Creek Almanac on 3/4/10.
I've studiously avoided it for years, but it's my turn, now.
(another deep breath)
If I've not contacted you directly to ask for a submission, it's only because I don't have an email addy for you. So I'll make it easy... send me something wonderful and birdy (by 2/16) at email@example.com
I'd like something vaguely poetic or literary or rambling...
A ritual walk on the sand, the brittle night and the wide blue sky of Winter boundless above us. With frozen lips I named the couple stars I've managed to learn and wondered why I didn't choose to learn the warmer summer sky.
I'm tempted to start my naming with the Big Dipper and its arrow to Polaris; the Big Dipper being the only constellation I'd learned as a child and which I've since learned (thanks to Steve) is, instead, an asterism.
I turn my back to the chill wind and its view of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor to start instead with conspicuous Orion, whose belt (another asterism and don't I sound smart?) points the way to Sirius and Canis Major and Canis Minor... in that general area, too, someone's imagined a rabbit, but I don't see it.
A couple spins (I did a lot of spinning to reorient myself in the sky and avoid the wind) and high in the sky I find the almost familiar "W" of Cassiopeia, whose name I can't pronounce correctly, especially not with such numb lips. From the corner of my eye, a new one, the Pleiades, overhead.
That's five at least, isn't it? Have I learned my quota, can I get back in my car and out of this relentless cold, please?
The dark and the hush deepen, all a part of the beauty that touches the quick of understanding. We came for the night, as well as the stars, and it was there all around us. When at last my stiff fingers had thawed and I was on my way home again, the magic was still there. It's more than the stars; it's the cold and the wind, and the old, old stories across the sky.
Pete Dunne tells the story (and I like to repeat it) that one must be pure of heart to see most owls. He was speaking specifically of a particular barn owl that was purported to roost in a hacking box at Brigantine Wildlife Refuge years ago. At the time, I suspected his tactic was common among field trip leaders; an excuse for failing to produce an owl for a group of disappointed birders after having stood around in the freezing cold for hours, waiting.
In the intervening years, since having waited many times in the freezing cold for my own fair share of owls, I've come to understand the truth in Pete's story. Owls are the stuff of imagination. Seeing these keepers of shadow requires exploring the edges of light... if one fails at it, the fault lies not in the seeing, but instead with one's way of looking.
I've been sort of surprised in the last couple years to discover that I'm having trouble spotting birds... my distance vision is deserting me to the point that before long I'll have to wear glasses when birding; glasses that I've stubbornly (and vainly) refused to wear anytime other than when I drive. I've become a dedicated listener instead: birdsongs I don't recognize or can't identify will drive me to distraction, but songs or calls help with only the easiest of owls.
Just as the omnipresence of noise makes it difficult to distinguish any one singer in the dawn chorus, the profane in a grove of pines can fill every nook and cranny of our time and space; the fertile silence that makes looking (and really seeing) is easily lost. When spotting owls, the looking is an art. Without true attention to it, an integral part of the reverence is destroyed... only the pure in heart are granted sight.
I was distracted with the trees and the pellets and the scattered bits of bone and feathers, the place this little forest made around me; no two trees the same, every branch saying HERE. I couldn't stand still and let the trees (or the owls) find me.
It is the moon not the finger pointing at the moon that calls us back to ourselves
*Long-eared owl, regarding its own darkness in a well-known secret communal roost in Pa.
"The resemblance between Cooper's Hawk and the Sharp-shinned is not confined to color, but extends to habit, the Cooper being, if anything, because of its superior size, fiercer and more destructive. It will dash into the farmyard like a bolt, passing within a few feet of individuals and carrying off a young chicken with incredible swiftness."
"The attack is accomplished so suddenly that, unless the gun is in hand, the robber always escapes. There is no time to run even a few yards for a weapon - the thief is gone before it can be reached. If there is plenty of thick cover in the run, the chickens will often escape, especially the more active breeds, like Leghorns. At my home, I have repeatedly seen them strike, but as the foliage is dense and brushy they have invariably been unsuccessful in securing the quarry. In four years we have not lost a chicken by Hawks."
An idea, maybe, Kev?
"Cooper's Hawk is preeminently a "chicken hawk" and is by far the most destructive species we have to contend with. Although not so large as the Goshawk, it is strong enough to carry away a good-sized chicken, grouse, or cottontail rabbit. It is especially fond of domesticated Doves, and when it finds a cote easy of approach or near its nesting site, the inmates usually disappear at the rate of one or two a day until the owner takes a hand in the game."
How field guides have changed in 90-some years!
Hawks, however, haven't changed in all those years. Late winter is lean for them and they're getting desperate. Backyard chickens make for an easy meal. I'm glad my brother saves his ire for the woodchucks that raid his garden and reaches for his camera when Cooper comes-a-calling, rather than a weapon.
Reference info from Birds of America, first published in 1917.