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No birds around here lately, unless you count me running in circles and flapping my flightless wings in despair of how much I still have to get done before the big trip to Montana!*

Not as many birds as usual in Prospect Park, either…. I was going to rant about it, but Corey has the low-down. Let me just say, GEESE DO NOT WORK THAT WAY. At best, eliminating all the geese within seven miles of the airport only ensures that the offspring of the geese eight or more miles from the airport have a nice cozy territory to call their own next spring, anyway.

*Protip: this does not make packing go any faster. It also doesn’t help when people want to skin you for a museum, boil you for oil, or execute you as a witch. The more you know!

For every type of fossil fuel that we so profligately burn, it seems there’s a newsworthy disaster lately relating to the method of getting it out of the ground. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, of course, need no introduction. The various coal-mining disasters, with their loss of human life and despoliation of entire landscapes, are similarly well-known.

And natural gas has hydraulic fracturing, aka hydrofracking. Although this isn’t the nationally-known buzzword that BP is, hydrofracking – a technique in which high-pressure liquid is used to fracture rock and extract the gas – has also started racking up a litany of accidents, notably in Pennsylvania.

The deposits of natural gas involved in these untoward events are found in a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale – a formation that also extends into New York. Other shale beds in New York, notably the Utica shale, are also believed to contain commercially significant concentrations of natural gas.

The battle is heating up between those who favor bringing hydrofracking into New York State, citing potential economic benefits for financially beleaguered communities, and those who fear that the process could actually strip entire regions of the ability to make money via recreation, tourism, and agriculture, while profiting mainly out-of-state gas companies and degrading both human quality of life and the environment. Tempers are high, since both paying the mortgage and keeping benzene out of the family’s well are potentially matters of life and death.

I, as you might have guessed, say nay on hydrofracking. Once you’ve contaminated an aquifer, you can’t un-contaminate it – and it is no exaggeration to say that groundwater is the life’s blood of everything that makes Central and Western New York valuable on a human scale. But this is a bird blog. What of the birds?

Well, it turns out that in addition to all the other problems with hydrofracking, they possess – as if representing a giant, gratuitous middle finger extended heartily to Mother Nature – extremely bright lights which are kept running whenever the well is.

And we all know how helpful bright, isolated, man-made lights are for migrating birds.

Even if you favor natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, it’s plain that a negative impact as incidental as light pollution should be monitored closely, regulated vigorously, and mitigated to the greatest extent possible. But energy companies are notoriously adverse to even the most sensible regulation, so action must be taken to ensure that their feet are held to the fire by state government. Contacting the DEC and your elected officials directly is the most effective step.

For a one-click way to register your disapproval of the entire hydrofracking fiasco, there is also the option of signing the petition. Better still if you do all of the above.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is conducting a breeding bird survey of the Bronx Zoo grounds, over a hundred years after the first (and until now, only) such count on the property.

plush-crested jay

Not Counted

Not only does the original count provide important information about a lost era, it has added historical richness because it was conducted and written up by legendary naturalist C. William Beebe. His account of the 1904 survey contains the expected – mention of birds that are now absent but for migration, like New York’s own state bird, the Eastern Bluebird. But lest you be tempted to pine for a false golden age, he also notes what isn’t there, including some extremely surprising absences like a lack of nesting Mallards (a lack which 2010 has rectified.)

Even more interesting is the fact that Beebe devotes almost two paragraphs to a spirited defense of the ‘sparrow hawk’ (presumably the Sharp-shinned Hawk), the Screech Owl, and the shrike as agents of pest control. In light of the kind of park management that went on at the time, it’s clear that his insight was much-needed and all to often unheeded.

Beebe’s love of the Sharpie was only equaled by (and, it seems clear, partly inspired by) his hate-on for the Black-throated Brown Warbler, “which only wholesale and systematic shooting has prevented from overrunning the park.” He was also leery of the then-unubiquitous Starling, of which he writes “This is a handsome bird and a fine whistler, but when we realize how surely he is elbowing our native birds out of their rights his beauties vanish and we perceive he is as much of a villain as the English sparrow.”

Clearly, C. William Beebe was a man well ahead of his time.

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Photo by Stavenn

So! I have a really exciting post for you, full of struggle and triumph and not-triumph and almost-triumph and covetousness and mayonnaise and really the entire amazing spectrum of human experience. But I can’t tell it to you right now because I’m busy fending off an army of undead dog ticks who want revenge:

undead tick

*artist's impression

So for now, here is an article about my quasilocal, beloved, recently-Superfunded Gowanus canal, and the issue of whether the invasive hipster fauna can hope to adapt to the coming clean-up: Celebration at the Edge of Decay. This is a New York Times trend piece, and must be taken with the appropriate amount of salt, but admit it, you want a free canoe ride too!

Warning: Ticks can swim.

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The Continental Divide runs diagonally through Montana, and Missoula is on the other side. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, it’s conveniently placed to experience some of the most spectacular nature in the Continental U.S.

Golden Eagles. Prairie Falcons. Four species of grouse, four species of hummingbird, and fourteen species of owl! Mountain Chickadees, Canyon Wrens, and American (ohmygodIamsopsychedaboutthis) Dippers. To say nothing of the mammals. And the reptiles (I found an ad for a rattlesnake wrangler on the Missoula Craigslist).

They have never, alas, had a Western M&*&*^$%^%^#%ing Reef-heron in Missoula. Which is a shame, because I believe I owe that illustrious bird an apology.

You win some, you lose some, of course. Pelagic birds tend to be in short supply in the Rocky Mountains, and they haven’t got the warblers that NYC’s got. But I think the thing I’ll miss most of all is the people: wacky characters like this, boon companions like this, and, perhaps most importantly, a certain Inimitable owl fan. Yes, sadly, tragically, yet inevitably, I’m going to have to learn how to take my own photos while I’m in Montana.

Still, it’ll be an adventure. And what is life without adventure?

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The intrepid souls over at 10000birds.com have blown the lid off one of the most peculiar cryptozoological mysteries of our day: the non-existence of the Short-toed Treecreeper.

However, perhaps due to the involvement of the enigmatic Richard Meinertzhagen in l’affaire Certhia (as the scandal has been dubbed by the cognoscenti), Corey implies that the Short-toed Treecreeper was created in a fit of what can only be described as drunken malice. This, I feel, is a misapprehension. As Machiavelli or someone once said, never attribute to malice what can be explained by cultists.

As I pointed out in the original post:

“I think it’s a bit unfair to call this a hoax. Like the Chase Vault of Barbados, the Short-toed Treecreeper is clearly a Masonic allegory about the pursuit of true wisdom.

Consider:

The Treecreeper uses its toes to cling. The shorter toes of the Short-toed Treecreeper represent a less firm attachment to earthly things, and a willingness to let go of safe, comfortable preconceptions in order to enter the “the ancient mysteries, symbolic of death, where alone Divine Truth is to be found”, as Joe Nickell puts it. Likewise, the fact that the bird is a “purer” white below and a “warmer” brown above than the commonplace Treecreeper of mundane reality is suggestive…

No doubt the whole process of taking an American, or British, or merely noobish birder in pursuit of the Short-toed Treecreeper is a form of initiation rite that contains elements of both hazing and the Campbellian Hero’s Journey. When you look at a ‘common’ Treecreeper and truly see the Divine Truth of the Short-toed Treecreeper within, you achieve a level of wisdom and become a Secret Master.

Of course we must ask, why the Treecreeper? Shouldn’t Masons have chosen the Wallcreeper? I suspect that this may point to Meinertzhagen’s involvement with the Bavarian Illuminati, but the subject demands more research.”

Of course, this can only mean that Jochen, who has provided an additional, more elaborate cover story for the ‘hoax’ (in which the British play the role of the questing Fool of the Tarot, while the German ornithologist is the hoary Mage) is also an agent of the Illuminati! Indeed, the threat at the end of his post seems to imply the existence of shadowy forces possibly beyond the ken of mere ornithology dedicated to protecting this secret wisdom.

As such, and pondering the fate of Casaubon, I shall elaborate no more.

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A Long-eared Owl is loose in Baltimore after escaping from the Maryland Zoo’s native birds exhibit.

Long-eared Owl in the snow

The roof, the roof, the roof... is pretty much the opposite of on fire

Long-eared Owl, by the by, is one of the few target species The Inimitable Todd and I didn’t get on our amazing Canadian adventure, on which more is forthcoming when someone uploads the photos he took. Which are not of Long-eared Owls, but to give you a taste…. Boreal Owl, Saw-whet Owl, Barred Owl, Snowy Owl, Barrow’s Goldeneye…..

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Long-eared Owl photo by Pavlen

“Sold a story!” I told a friend who will remain nameless.

“Is it about birds?” he asked. The last two stories I sold were about birds – “Invasive Species”, which I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about (even though it is awesome) and “Face Like a Monkey”, which may or may not be about a vagrant melanistic Jabiru and will appear in the Datlow/Mamatas anthology Haunted Legends – so I can see where he might have though he had me figured.

And yes, yes he does; yes it is. Specifically, it is about the Black-legged Kittiwake in this post. (Scroll down.) It’s also about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the sometimes-awkward moment when you go from being a birder to being an environmentalist – or fail to. Plus autocannibalism.

Look for it in the April/May/June 2010 issue of ChiZine if all goes well.

Union Square Scott's Oriole

A Blast from the Past

Via The New York Birding List, I am delighted to learn the New York State Avian Records Committee has officially accepted the 2007-2008 Union Square Scott’s Oriole as a legitimate record, marking the Official One True and Only First State Record of Icterus parisorum for New York.

What does this mean, exactly? It means that NYSARC, composed of eight illustrious and experienced New York birders, has gone over all submitted records of Scotty – the photos, the written descriptions, any recordings that were made – and determined that he A.) is an actual, honest-to-goodness Scott’s Oriole and B.) can be reasonably believed to have gotten to Union Square under his own power, rather than escaping from captivity. Since 1977, the committee has used this two-pronged criteria to determine which birds are and are not recognized rarities in New York State. Sometimes it can get quite complicated, with discussions of hypothetical hybrids and tail-feather wear from cages spanning years. The result, after the votes are counted, is the official list of birds known to occur in New York.

The committee also accepted four other new additions to the state list for 2007/2008 – the Western M(*^$^&^%&^^ing Reef-heron, Pink-footed Goose, Cassin’s Kingbird, and Yellow/Eastern Yellow Wagtail. This brings New York’s list to 475.

If it seems like I’ve been waiting eagerly for this day, I have. Things don’t always work out so happily for listers and the megararities they cherish.

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“Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say…”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? You have to think all the time. Think when you buy. Think when you discard. Know about stuff that has been hidden from view, often quite purposefully, often because we don’t want to know and never have (Not in MY backyard…)

And I find… I’m not saying this to be cruel, or accuse people of being “sheeple” or some similar horrid term, but it is my observation that a lot of people find thinking tiring. This is merely funny when they’re accusing you of spoiling their favorite book by having the temerity to analyze it, but a bit more serious when they refuse to separate their garbage or buy the non-disposable option.

I suspect a lot of it is the particular form that capitalism has taken, especially in the U.S. Our employers do more and more to eat our leisure time, commutes (besides being environmental nightmares in themselves where the public transit is weak) get longer, and the only compensation we’re offered in return is the promise that the things we buy will make our non-work hours a lotus-filled haven of contentment. We’re not free long enough to get bored and actually want to do something, which I (incurable optimist) am convinced that even the most putatively sheep-like person will do eventually when offered a surfeit of leisure. Not that a hearty dose of socialism by itself is going to cure our environmental woes, but a person working two jobs, caring for their children and home in between, may well decide that a special trip down to the recycling center is a corner that can be cut, just like home-cooked meals or exercise or any of the other long-term desirable things that the more fortunate scold us for not doing often enough.

And speaking of that home, those children… who is taking care of them? If it’s disproportionately a woman (as, statistically, it often is even when both parents work) then giving up the Swiffer, mucking through the trash bin picking out carelessly discarded bottles, rinsing and reusing plastic baggies, are all likely to fall disproportionately on her as well. As is the work of reminding (read: get criticized for nagging) the partner to do what he needs to do (mulch the lawn clippings, not throw the bottle in the trash to begin with). Again, hard to fault someone who already is burdened for looking for short cuts. Hard to blame someone who already has a lot on their mind for being a “sheeple” when they balk at adding something else.

Again, the successful conclusion of the gender revolution is not going to magically solve our environmental problems (not even if we all start praying to Mother Earth or what have you.) But it’s increasingly apparent that a whole lot of our culture is going to have to change, and change in sync, to pull our fat out of the fire. And since rapid social change is generally pretty wrenching (to say nothing of hard to steer) we’d best get on it now and give ourselves as much time as possible to work it out.

Because it is going to have to be worked out. This (warning: graphic photos) is one reason why.

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