August 2008


One night as I lay awake at the Olde Homestead, I resorted to counting birds (the sofa bed has seen better days.) Including the birds I’ve seen and the birds I’ve had reliably reported to me, there are over eighty species on the list for this little farm.

We’ve been visited by Snowy Owls and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Snow Geese migrate over; Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers stop and sojurn awhile. Breeders range from Red-tailed Hawks to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Eastern Kingbirds to American Woodcocks, Redstart to Yellowthroat to Indigo Bunting. House Wren. Barn Swallow. Field Sparrow. Wood Thrush.

And now one more. I wandered, like a cloud, not minding being alone at all, up the shaded lane where back in the day I’d seen my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak. To my left, a maple-beech woodlot; to my right, crabapple-willow scrub that faded into a touch-me-not studded seep that yielded in turn to a hayfield half overgrown with wild strawberries.

What caught my attention was a Catbird causing a ruckus. This isn’t exactly unheard-of behavior for a catbird, but this one was really going at it. Soon another one joined in, and then a House Wren, and then a Northern Flicker winged over to join them.

It was a mob scene!

The focus of their ire was deep in the center of a dense, thorny shrub. I bushwhacked my way over, but couldn’t get a look at whatever it was. I just had to content myself with the birds that it attracted (poor me.)

Wrens were popping up everywhere, as loud and kinetic as banner ads. The Catbirds kept whining. A Hairy Woodpecker joined in, and a bunch of Robins, and even an unusually bold and forthcoming Wood Thrush.

As I got closer, some of the birds started eying me askance. A Red-eyed Vireo nearly landed on me in its zeal. And then there were the Warblers. Three appeared, but one disappeared again in a quick yellow-brown blur.

But the other two were lovely male Hooded Warblers (especially thrilling since this is a species I regularly miss for no good reason.) Their hoods were strong and sharp across the top but bit fuzzy around the chin – I assume the result of molt, since the effect was nearly the same on both birds.

I watched them until it became obvious that whatever was bugging and being bugged by them wasn’t
going to make a break for it, and then decided to stop bugging all concerned myself. Still, it was with a lighter step that I headed for home, and not just because of the blood I’d lost to mosquitoes. After thirty years, a casual walk around the Olde Homestead could still show me something new.

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You’re going to have to wait for the Olde Homestead story again, because this is too incredible not to share at once.

On Sunday, I went to Central Park for my first bit of hardcore NYC birding in awhile, what with all the traveling and writing I’ve been doing. Migration is starting to kick in again, with little clumps of Confusing Fall Warblers (Dendroica whatthefuckwasthatshitwherediditgoii) scattered around the landscape and the plaintive calls of shorebirds mingling with the equally plaintive calls of birders expiring in the quicksands of Jamaica Bay.

I had a particular yen to fill some embarrassing gaps in my year list, of which perhaps the most shameful was Green Heron. Yeah, somehow I’d missed Green Heron until nearly the end of August. How does that even happen?

So it was with much delight that I spotted a lovely specimen of Green Heron standing on an earthen bank not far from where the Gill enters the lake. An immature Black-crowned Night Heron was a few feet away, doing a passable imitation of a lawn gnome – but the Green Heron was putting on a show, hunching up and stretching out, stalking up and down, and eventually flying to the top of a nearby fence to better show off for me and the pair of bemused German tourists that I pointed the spectacle out to.

At one point, the Heron cocked hir head and fixed one yellow eye on the top of a fencepost, where a large dragonfly had landed. For a long moment I watched the bird watch the bug; then the Heron swung its beak around in a single darting sweep, and swallowed the erstwhile terror of the skies in two bobbing gulps.

Dang, I thought, that was cool! I can’t wait to blog that. Perhaps I could do a post about the primal appeal of predation, and how even very serious birders seem to enjoy swapping stories of improbable meals they’ve seen birds consume….

Jump-cut to this morning. I’m sitting in my windowless cube when my Auk-sense starts tingling and I reach for my cell phone – a bit too late. The call – from my brother Brian – has been transferred to voicemail.

And what a message I get. Brian, it appears, is standing in a swamp somewhere outside Albany. While waiting for a train to pass so he could check some power lines on the other side of the tracks, he found himself observing not just one Green Heron but a large colony of them! Already enough to make me jealous.

But then, he noticed one of the Herons skidding awkwardly across the water, unable to get airborne. And then he sees the form pursuing it through the much – an otter, which proceeded to catch and dispatch the bird. He’d never seen an otter before, let alone one engaged in such dramatic behavior. I was, of course, immediately compelled to relate the entire story to the other technical writer at the office, who I’m sure thinks I’m charmingly eccentric now. Or something.

Apparently this sort of thing is not unheard of amongst otters. A study of otter droppings in England found that birds may be an important component to the otter diet where fish stocks are in decline or birds are particularly vulnerable. Certainly that’s in keeping with the general principle that animals inclined to eating flesh will often take whatever they can catch and get down the throat. Still, it’s not anything I’d ever heard of or even considered.

It’s a funny old food web, innit?

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So Scott Weidensaul (of Ghost with Trembling Wings fame) has a blog. One more thing for me to read instead of working on my own writing!

Yay!

I had a really spiffy post written for your weekend perusal, about my trip to the Olde Homestead and the marvelous bird observations I made there, but alas, I left it in my notebook at work, so I guess it will be for your coming workweek perusal instead.

In the meantime, though, I’d like to highlight some awesome at another blog. You see, while I’ve been fucking around misplacing my notebook and contemplating the eternal mystery of where the Cliff Swallows came from and where they went to (of which more in due time,) Charlie over at 10000 Birds has been productive in a more meaningful way.

He’s on a mission. And his mission is to raise money to support research into the Sharpe’s Longclaw through the Small African Fellowship for Conservation. Sharpe’s Longclaw is a highly endangered bird endemic to the grasslands of Kenya. Clicking on this handy link will take you to an explanation of the project, a virtual tip jar for donations, and some beautiful pictures of the Longclaw – a Meadowlark look-alike that is very underdocumented in the wild. Do it because Charlie’s awesome, or so I don’t have to write a species eulogy for a little brown-and-yellow bird in this space. Do it to make the world a better place. Do it to embarass me because I don’t get paid until the 1st of September. Do it because, in the immortal words of Richard Thompson, generosity is like a lucky charm. Go on, then. Do it.

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Let me say this right up front: Dirk Kempthorne is a stupid name. Not just because “Dirk” is clearly a moniker that belongs, now and forever, to the porn industry, no. But because the nation’s highest-ranked Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior nominated by President (*ptui*) Bush, is a stupid and/or evil man.

Here is what this stupid, evil man has done.

He’s proposed regulations that would allow individual agencies to police themselves on their compliance with the Endangered Species Act, rather than having the EPA oversee them. At best, this involves taking the oversight out of the hands of trained experts and putting it into the hands of people whose expertise is in some entirely different, irrelevant field. At worst (y hallo thar, Bureau of Land Management!) this involves putting the fox in charge of the henhouse in the name of “increased efficiency”. As a person of extensive agricultural experience, I can assure you that fox-watched henhouses are very efficient indeed… for some purposes.

He’s proposed regulatory changes that would limit protection of an endangered species to only where it is presently found, rather than throughout its historical range. A brief consideration of the Whooping Crane, let alone the California Condor, will show why this is ludicrous from the perspective of actual wildlife conservation, as comforting as it might be to certain economic interests.

And last but not least, he’s proposed exempting all greenhouse gas emissions from EPA regulation.

Tell this evil, stupid man who is dishonoring the Kempthorne name what you think of him here.

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Scotland is beautiful. Glasgow is beautiful is an industrial sort of way. Edinburgh is beautiful in a “holy-shit-is-that-made-from-the-skin-of-infamous-murderer-William-Burke*” kind of way, as well as the more obvious ways. Argyll is beautiful in a quaint, sleep-in-a-room-over-the-pub way. Islay is beautiful and smells of malted barley and burning peat. The ferry to Islay is beautiful and has a Little Auk floating off the port side, or at least it did when I was on it. I already knew all that.

But goddamn are the highlands beautiful.

I wanted badly to see a Capercaillie – the famous David Attenborough Attack Grouse that are as pure Scottish as the thistle and the kilt and the bottle – but I needed to see a Common Gull. I mean. Common. Gull. How embarrassing would it be to miss that?

So there we were in Invernesse. We checked into our hotel and wandered down by the river – the River Ness, that is, a shallow but wide-ish meander not far from the main tourist drag of town, which was playing host to a small flock of Mergansers and some Mallards, as well as more Pied Wagtails on the banks. And Gulls, of various kinds, but not Common.

How could this thing be?

We crossed the bridge and headed to the other side of town, a more residential neighborhood, but one where the internet promised that we could find more bikes to rent (they would turn out, as it happened, to be the best bikes that we got all trip.) We saw Turtle Doves on rooftops and House Sparrows where they belonged and an Oystercatcher high overhead and crying out for the slowly dying day (the sun took its sweet time about setting, what with being so far north.)

And then, on the roof of a house, I spotted a Common Gull.

It would be the last bird I added to my life list for the trip, so let’s talk about it a little. Larus canus is the William H. Macy of gulls – smallish and softish-looking, but still unmistakably a bird that will scavenge your trash and leave guano on your chimney, still all gray and white but for the fleshy bits, which tend to a sporty lemon-lime color. It’s conspecific with the Alaskan Mew Gull, a bird of fabulous name and some mystique for an East Coast-bound birder.

I stared at it for a long time, and the Inimitable Todd tried to get a picture (it didn’t come out.) Hopefully the people who lived in that house weren’t home, or at least weren’t inclined to paranoia.

So thus, staring at a chimeny with a seagull on it in a pleasant residential neighborhood, did my birding adventure for all practical purposes end. I still have plenty to go back for, but I can’t complain, with my life list now solidly over 300 and a new appreciation of Tits**.
*yes, it is.

**had to get one last in.

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The Inimitable Todd is more enamored of biking than I am. After our adventures in the all-conquering wind at Brighton, I was not totally thrilled to be getting on two wheels again so soon. But Todd had a plan, and that plan was ably backed by the city of London, which had had the presence of mind to turn the towpaths along the Thames and some associated canals into bike paths.

Aside from my fear of accidentally biking into the canal, and the difficulty of actually finding the path in the first place, it was a great trip. The path led to a wetland reserve outside the city, where I got to test my recall on some of the species I’d seen previously – particularly the ChiffChaff, World’s Easiest Singer, but also a variety of Tits and Finches. I watched a pair of Coots whup the stuffing out of a third Coot (territory invader, I presume) while IT puzzled over the roadmaps. And I picked up Graylag Goose and Dunnock for my life list.

The overarching thing, though, was the sheer idiosyncratic beauty of the trails themselves. Although there were spotty bits, my overall impression was that London is slightly ahead of NYC in terms of pedestrian and bike access. This is in keeping with the relative priorities of the US vs. Britain in general, I suppose. I would have liked to do more walking while I was over there, especially in the countryside; the whole system of right-of-ways established by common law is fascinating and very appealing to me, although part of me also experiences an all-American quiver of crankiness at the turnabout prospect of having people on my land.

I can’t speak with confidence, but I can’t help but wonder if the more laid-back British attitude towards climbing over a fence or two (they even have stiles for greater fence-climbing convenience, as I noted before) is one of the factors that has made twitching and listing the proportionally bigger deal it has historically been in British birding.

Next… we’re off to Scotland!

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Note: Yes, I know. And it will never ever happen again. But I’ve been changing jobs and visiting the Old Homestead ™ and then my grandfather, in one final display of his characteristic beloved cussedness, died. And then one of my cats died. Also I had to go lose a major award and read from Shirley Jackson. So, onward, and let’s see if I can’t catch up with myself in the next month or so without getting swamped by fall migration.

Also, being at the Old Homestead, I do not have my notes with me. I’m winging this. A full species account will follow.

##

So far on Albion’s fabled shores, I’d picked up a grand total of eight new species – not bad for an average three-day stretch, but this was no average three-day stretch and I was going to have to do better. I needed a guide who knew where – and what – the birds were.

Enter Charlie Moores, 1000birds.com‘s Brit-in-residence and one of those rare birders who logs air mileage like an Arctic Tern. He was kind enough to give up one of his rare days with both feet on native soil to show me around.*

I left bright and early, only to arrive in a rather stressed-out state thanks to the idiosyncrasies of both British rail and my cell phone (which, as it turned out, would not receive any kind of signal throughout my trip. Also, I was afraid that my deodorant was giving out.

Charlie, accommodating to the max, laid out a whole buffet of birdy options before my bewildered brains. After a brief roadside stop to check out some orchids and butterflies, we hit a swath of farmland that could not have been more British if Beatrix Potter were buried there. Climbing over a stile (the first stile I had ever seen!) we almost immediately spotted the original Buteo, the Common Buzzard. Coming as I did from a background where Buzzards are Turkey Vultures, I definitely got that not-in-Kansas-Any-More feeling. A brief stretch of woodland stream failed to yield a Dipper or Kingfisher, but turned up several species of Tit. Then things began to pick up – the birds I’d been studying in my ancient Peterson’s Guide starting winging across the pastures – Green Woodpecker, Jay, finches, more tits, to say nothing of Magpies. Then we were in someone’s backyard. Someone who, going by their house, I ought to trade lives with, but never mind that. Someone with a feeder.

More tits in abundance attended at the feeder, plus Greenfich, Goldfinch (a bird I have yearned to see ever since I saw it illustrated in my Eastern Birds as a kid) and, in an uncharacteristically high and clear perch, a Gray Wagtail. This new addition to my Wagtail gallery excited me tremendously, a beautiful bright-yellow (and gray, of course) bird perched on a sunny rooftop – a perfect picture, if I could have worked my camera. That, and the Robin, nearly distracted me from the Great Spotted Woodpecker that decided to visit the feeder. On our way back through the pasture, a Chiff-chaff began belting out its characteristic song.

Once we’d drunk our fill of the feeder, we got back int the car, took a quick detour through the most scenic town in Britain (I believed it), and went looking for partridges. The partridges didn’t put in an appearance, but this was more than made up for by th Mistle Thrush that lived up to its reputation for calling rain, and a glorious field full of poppies and Skylarks, and a quick pop-up appearance by the Song Sparrow’s British doppelganger, the Corn Bunting.

Then it was on to Chew Reservoir for a quick lunch and a gander at some context-appropriate Mute Swans, a glorious plethora of Tufted Ducks, multiple Grebes, Gulls a-plenty, Lapwings, more Pied Wagtails and Coots, and a chance to finally catch up with the elusive (and surprisingly tiny) Kingfisher. Then, in a moment that will stay with me forever, a Hobby cut a swath through the Martins overhead and demonstrated some hot falcon flying skills.

We ended the day tromping about in the woods on the trail of more Tits, and sighting the Hobby (or its spouse) again, and stumbling over a dead goat. Charlie was kind enough to offer
to extend the trip, since we’d “only” seen about forty species, but I was growing increasingly anxious about my cellphone and my ability to find the Inimitable Todd again in a city the size of London.

In retrospect, I realized that I was also anxious about my job. Anxious about my job! While birding! There could be only one solution. The job would have to go.

But I still had some more vacation before needing to worry about that – and a few more key target species to track down….

*I do want to assure Charlie that my nerves were entirely my nerves, and not anything reflecting badly on him; but the subject of being a woman in a male-dominated hobby is one that I may well write more about in the future – Cliff Notes: birding is better than science fiction, anyway.
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