February 2009

Ducks. They’re around. They’re in the park, eating scraps of bread; they’re in barnyards, looking picturesque in the mud; they’re in kid’s books; they’re in ponds on golf courses. They’re homey and familiar. And mostly, they’re dabbling ducks, the sort that point their butts to the sky endearingly and swear incoherently at cartoon mice.

But there’s another side to ducks. There are ducks that are wild harbingers of unpopulated climes, ducks that come and go on their own rhythms, uninfluenced by domestication, unmoved by the prospect of stale bread. Sleek ducks that skim over cold waves at the edges of our perception.

They are sometimes called sea ducks, and though some of them are found frequently in fresh water it’s a name that fits, because these are ducks that need their space. With more accuracy, they are also called diving ducks, because instead of tipping themselves up on a fulcrum they get their food by plunging wholeheartedly in and taking on fish, mollusks, and crustaceans in their own element.

In New York State, the time to go looking for sea ducks is in the winter. Heading south for these birds is no trip to the tropics; they end up in Long Island Sound and other similarly non-balmy climes. So over Valentine’s weekend, the Inimitable Todd and I decided to combine a little romance with a little birding and take a long-weekend trip to the tip of Long Island to look for diving ducks and other cold-water specialties.

We had some success, as you can see:

Long-tailed Duck Demonstrates the Validity of its Name

Long-tailed Duck Demonstrates the Validity of its Name

These Long-tailed Ducks were hanging out right in the marina at Greenport; chilly and quiet in what locals would call the off-season, but a bustling metropolis of human activity compared to the Arctic areas where they breed. True to their nature, they spent a lot of time and covered a lot of distance underwater, and the Inimitable Todd was faced with a considerable challenge running up and down guano-coated piers to try to get a good photo. Meanwhile, I watched from shore, delighted; my only previous experience with Long-tailed Ducks was a pair flying rapidly away during the pelagic trip I took last spring, which allowed for a clear ID but was by no means satisfying.

With the trip off to a start like this, could it hope to keep up? Stay tuned!

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The Inimitable Todd and I go to the Union Square Farmer’s Market to pick up something for dinner. We’re food nerds, he and I. He loves to cook; unfathomably, it relaxes him. I grew up on a farm and am snobbish about the notion that when I eat something, it should taste like it had something to do with a plant or animal in the not-too-distant past. We both grok that shipping apples to Brooklyn from Africa or chowing down on burgers that are really mostly corn that is really mostly petroleum maybe isn’t the best plan in a world of finite resources, and we are blessed with the economic privilege to do something about that.

So we’re at the Union Square Farmer’s Market looking for something for dinner. And, since it’s Union Square, I have an eye out for improbable birds.

Up in a tree is a shaggy lump which is not at all improbable; a Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are the ubiquitous hawks of North America, thanks to their high degree of adaptability. If a thing is smaller than a Red-tail and moves, the Red-tail will probably try to eat it; if the thing is larger than the Red-tail and sits still, the Red-tail will probably try to build a nest on it. Kestrels, house cats, carp, grasshoppers? On the menu. Saguaro cacti, building ledges, trees of all kinds, the Unisphere? Home sweet home. As a result, the Red-tail has a population estimated at up to a million individuals at any given time.

So. We buy some pork chops from pigs raised at the Queens farming museum, where a Red-tail probably soared overhead looking for rats attracted to feed spillage. And we buy apples from New Jersey, where a Red-tail probably perched in one of the taller trees and scanned the orchard for Robins slower or stupider than the rest of the flock. We buy potatoes and onions from upstate, where a Red-tail might have picked off a tasty nightcrawler or a young, foolish raccoon or a confused field mouse turned up by the plow. And all the while, above us, the Red-tail eyed a stupidly brave squirrel. His dinner, when he gets it, will have ours all beat for being local.

As we all know, them that has the gold makes the rules.

As a result, I’ve always had mixed feelings about duck stamps and other related items. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense that people who are using up wildlife, the common property of all American citizens (if you happen to live in the U.S., which for the purposes of this post, is what we’re discussing), should pay for the privilege. On the other hand, parks and trails and habitat and so forth cost money to maintain, and when a substantial chunk of that money comes from hunters, hunters will naturally be catered to by state wildlife departments. That isn’t always good news for birders and ecologists. Whether it’s managing habitat for edge-loving species like white-tailed deer (and thus other edge-loving species like Brown-headed Cowbirds), introducing game bird species from entire different continents, or engaging in predator control that might at best be termed overenthusiastic, hunter-centric natural resources management practices are often not what they would be if birders called the shots.

So I’m delighted to hear (via A D.C. Birding Blog) about this effort in Maine to create a birder-driven revenue stream for wildlife. The mechanism is clever and useful; the bands themselves are visible enough that there should hopefully be a positive peer pressure effect from participants; and the funds go directly to support programs for non-game species. If New York adopts a similar program, I will definitely participate.

I had an excellent weekend well outside the five boroughs, but before I tell you about that, I need to tell you about what I did the previous weekend. Which was, I went birding in Van Cortlandt Park.

The park, up at the top of the Bronx, is bigger than Central or Prospect Park but receives less attention. And this is a shame. Because for mature forest, and critters that live in mature forests – such as Pileated Woodpeckers, breeding Wood Ducks, and Great Horned Owls – this is one of the top spots in the five boroughs. It also features the Bronx’s largest body of fresh water, its oldest house, and the remains of the Old Croton Aqueduct, an early piece of New York City’s remarkable public waterworks.

Spoiler alert – I didn’t see any of the three above-mentioned species. Nor did I see the mysterious disappearing Rusty Blackbird – a species once regular in the park’s central wetlands in winter; their precipitous decline has been largely concealed from the public eye by the fact that it is “just” a blackbird, and most people can’t tell one from a Starling or for that matter a hole in the ground.

But that doesn’t mean I went away disappointed. Indeed, my good luck started much earlier than I had a right to expect, along the edge of the golf course at the southeastern quadrant of the park. There I blundered on to a convocation of half-hardy birds discussing the end of the brutal cold snap; Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmice and more tried out their neglected courting songs in a tentative but most welcome manner. Around the time I’d gotten their flitting forms and sometimes misleading notes sorted out, a single immature Snow Goose glided in to graze with a couple of Canadas out on the links. Since I’d missed my rendezvous with the Snowies at Jamaica Bay, I was grateful that this one went out of its way to see me. Or, more likely, to see the grass.

After making my way around the end of the lake (where a solitary Great Blue Heron hunched among the reeds and an optimistic pussy willow looked ready to bloom) I crossed into the wetland area. The lack of blackbirds was in no way compensated by the numerous Juncos and a single Mockingbird, but as I made my way uphill into a dryer area, I spotted a flash of unlikely blue and robin-rust – a male Eastern Bluebird, perched on the corner of a rustic bench. A female picked at the lawn nearby. Now, you get sporadic Eastern Bluebird sightings in Central and Prospect Parks – and I do mean you, I certainly never have – but the nearby bird boxes seemed to suggest a certain optimism on the part of park management that these two are in it for the long haul.

The next bit of my journey was unbirdy – although I don’t know whether to blame the birds, or the inch-thick layer of ice with a half-inch layer of water on top that still coated much of the trail. Since the park changes elevation with some dispatch as you head north, the slippery conditions made reaching the northwest woods a challenge.

Still, I made it, and the towering trees of this stretch of woodland – which runs nearly to Yonkers – proved once again the old adage that once you finally see a nemesis bird, it turns out to be everywhere. A flock of American Goldfinches yielded up no less than three Pine Siskins, where searching through similar flocks last winter produced nothing but heartache and eyestrain.

By now it was nearly time to go – the Inimitable Todd, who was running a half-marathon nearby, called to let me know that he’d reached the finish line. So I made a beeline for the edge of the park. Except that unlike a bee, when I realized that I’d come to a fence or the edge of a precipice, I had to turn around and go back. Across the inch of ice with its half-inch of melt water.

Still, I’m rather glad that I’m not a bee, if only because my westward ramblings eventually led me near three frozen squirrels. As always, the sight of inert squirrels led me to check nearby for raptors, and this time I found a handsome, golden-eyed immature Sharp-shinned hawk bathing in a puddle of melt water. I crept as close to her as I could without disturbing her toilet, but thanks to the vines and crackling twigs and uncertain footing (did I mention it was icy?) this wasn’t close enough to get a good photo. But it was close enough. I left the park with a new regard for the Bronx.

The trip on Birdstack

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Before I get Darwin on you, I just want to apologize to the Auk Mom for worrying her by not blogging for so long. Sorry, Ma! And get well soon!

Birthday Boy Chas D.

Birthday Boy Chas D.

200 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. 50 years after that (slow and steady!) his most famous work was published, and he became the reluctant public face of one of the great key insights that humanity has ever gained into the way the world around us works.

Roughly 135 years after that, a me who was, as I recall, about 14 years old sat on a tired blue couch with my legs tucked up, reading a back issue of Newsweek with a trilobite on the cover. Across from me sat an acquaintance of my mother’s, who smiled at me and, in a lull, “Can you believe that people actually believe that?”

Time stopped while I considered the barn full of the products of artificial selection immediately to my south, and the creek-bed full of fossils south of that, and the woods and fields full of plainly evolved and interconnected species south of that; a microcosm of the evidence that Darwin himself had used to construct his theory. Then I sort of shrugged and went back to reading.

Fearless truth-speaker, yeah.

Evolution has always seemed pretty self-evident to me. And while self-evidence is not actually evidence, it always surprises me when people are confused by the concept. Angered, I get. The whole culture war thing, I get. But a lot of nice, genuine people like my mom’s friend seem nicely, genuinely confused by the whole thing. Nicely, genuinely confused by the concept, and also by the context, the sound and the fury that signify so much.

It’s sad, because evolutionary theory is neat. The things Darwin came up with are neat; the things we’ve figured out since Darwin are neat; and I feel confident that the things that have yet to be discovered about evolution will blow our socks off with their neatness.

What could be neater, for instance, than dinosaurs? When I was very little, dinosaurs were big, slow, lumbering, cold-blooded swamp lizards, at least in the dusty, cellophane-covered books I found in the local library. Then Robert Bakker came on PBS and suddenly dinosaurs were running around having roaring slap-fights and conducting family melodramas. And then, it turned out dinosaurs were birds. Or rather, birds were dinosaurs. Seriously, could anything be better than that? I think not!

As I’ve aged, my criteria for stuff which is neat has expanded and I now enjoy the more subtle joys of things, like, for instance, a fascinating (albeit outdated) taxonomic debates about juncos. As genetic analysis reveals new family trees and highlights the commonness of hybridization, the fuzzy edges of the entities we call species, birding becomes less like a sport and more like a Zen koan, or a particularly cunning crossword puzzle, depending on your inclination.

An understanding of evolution makes patch birding richer too, expanding the web of life that amateur naturalists study in time rather than merely space. With evolution in mind, ginkgo trees aren’t just the producers of annoying fruits and dubious herbal teas – they remind one, again, of dinosaurs! Scrub Jays and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers tell us about a history of fire and resiliency. Flowers craft Hummingbirds and Hummingbirds paint flowers. Crossbills and Skimmers slowly accumulate their idiosyncratic tool chests. The angriest critics of the theory claim that it makes life meaningless, but with evolution in mind the tiniest differences and the smallest events have implications. Those implications may be at cross-purposes, they may swamp each other or be pre-empted by a sudden environmental change or lead to something far different than the obvious, but they’re there. All the pieces matter.

So my birthday wish for Darwin is that everyone should at least get a fair chance – through good, honest science education in our schools and through the work of dedicated science writers, filmmakers, and other artists – to see just how neat the world can be. Just how neat it really is.

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The New York City Audubon Society has announced the most dangerous buildings for birds in NYC. The top three deathtraps:

* The Metropolitan Museum of Art
* The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
* Bellevue Hospital Center

I’m not surprised that these buildings are killers. I am surprised that the article describes glass-intensive buildings as green, unless “green” is here, as it is so often, not “green” as in environmentally friendly but “green” as in “demonstrating that the architect and buyers/renters have green cash money to chase trends.” Walls of glass, unless intelligently placed and equipped, make apartments a bear to heat and cool. It’s akin to certain yuppies I could mention who buy organic milk for their kids because that’s what good parents do, but can’t be bothered to recycle and hop in the car to drive three blocks – it’s about status, not a stand.

Of course, it’s not exactly news that environmentalism and status have become tangled in often contradictory, self-undermining ways. Ideally, environmentalists want products that don’t push the true cost of production – in packaging waste, pollution, or whatever – off onto the Commons, but that often means that these products are more expensive at the point of purchase. And generally, the poor pay at both ends – taking the brunt when the air is fouled, the soil soiled, and the waste needs to be dumped somewhere, and only able to afford deliberately-disposable crap that increases the problem. Meanwhile, upper-crusters take on “green” projects as though they were detox diets or some other form of ritual purification – all personal, never political, and ultimately ineffective except as a way to demonstrate your virtue in public. And the marketplace chases both sets of people around like interchangeable sales units, resulting in all sorts of absurdities.

My colleague David Barouh has written a series of articles on how this plays out in the world of drinking water. You can read the first two here and here. As David lays out, bottled water perversely captured people who probably bought organic fruit and single-source cheeses, by selling itself as healthy and exclusive. By doing so, it’s undermined the idea of clean water as a public resource. (David’s articles and hard work were instrumental in getting the Park Slope Food Coop to stop selling bottled water.)

Or consider the issue of coffee. Fair Trade, shade grown, organic – it’s right, but it’s also ritzy, in part because our system makes it cheaper to do the wrong thing. Again, the problem of companies who externalize costs onto their producers and the environments that provide raw materials is the tooth-breaking core of the problem. But on the American end, the perception is that environmentally friendly (well, friendlier) coffee is a luxury, a status symbol.

But when the environment is considered a plaything for the rich, there’s a danger of backlash, either suddenly in these economically trying times, or over the long term as strivers emulate the top dogs and the trendsetters decide to move on to something else (consider how white bread went from status symbol to just the opposite over three generations.) Species and ecosystems can’t wait around to come into style again, or long withstand stupidly symbolic, counterproductive gestures like building a glass atrium and putting a tree inside.

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Sometimes you do stupid things for love.

I love birds, and I especially love seeing birds I haven’t seen before. I also love the Inimitable Todd. IT loves owls, including Snowy Owls. Snowy Owls love lemmings, and when they can’t get enough of those, they love anything that’s made of meat and lives in a relatively isolated area without too much vegetation. Somehow, when you boil it all down, this twisted love triangle, quadrangle, or whatever it is added up to me making another attempt on Jones Beach by bike.

This time, armed with foreknowledge, we took the LIRR to the nearest station. Merrily, energetically even, we biked out along the bike path. And this time, when we found the bike path was closed, we had a cunning plan.

On the Bridge

And by “we” I mean “Inimitable Todd”. And by “cunning” I mean “Damn near suicidal.”

Locking up the bikes, we crossed the four lanes of traffic, dense and fast, the Robert Moses dream come true. Then we walked across the bridge along the footpath on the other side. At the toll plaza, we went down to the shore, only to find that that shore was in many ways less passable than the shoulder; later, seemingly much later, we stumbled over a plastic decoy’s head in an endless, shadowed salt marsh, and I adopted it. I probably should have named it Willard. In fact, what the hell, as of right now, the decoy head’s name is Willard. Willard is a Canada Goose, only not really, but Canada Geese are apparently supposed to think he’s a Canada Goose. We pick him up and take him along, although he does not smell particularly good.

On the Beach

Sometime later. We’re in water up to our toes. There are quite a few Common Mergansers on the water, and assorted Gulls.

Sometime later. We try heading uphill, which should work but it doesn’t. Now we’re in water up to our ankles and brush above our heads. There are thorns. The sun, when we can see it, is slanting down at a 45 degree angle.

In the Weeds

Sometime later. We’re at the side of the road. We’re eating apples and having a… spirited discussion about whether I got the directions right. We’ve walked three miles and spotted Ruddy Turnstones picking at the pier at Field 10. Later I’ll learn that there were White-winged Crossbills at the Coast Guard station we just passed, but although I’ve been scanning the pines all day I will not spot them.

On the Road

Sometime later. The Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center. We go out on the boardwalk. A jogger tells us about how the owl flew right past him one day. As he’s speaking, my eyes lock on a Northern Harrier cruising over the dunes behind him. I think he thinks I’m rude. I don’t care. The Harrier is another immature.

A little later. Coming off the boardwalk, we spot a cluster of people staring in one direction. I approach them. Out on the dunes, the Owl, barely visible, sleeps the sleep of the righteous.

On the Bird

Sometime later. The sun sets. Horned Larks feed invisibly, their songs trickling over the dunes. The Owl stretches one wing, then the other. The sun has set. The Owl flies out to the north. A nice man whose name I did not catch, an older gentlemen who counts ducks for the Audubon Society and once pedaled across the country with his daughter, gives us a ride back to the bikes.

Sometime later. The Steelers have beaten the Cardinals, but we are home and safe.

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Epic all-weekend birding leaves little time for writing. So for now, while you eagerly await tales of my derring-do, check this out:

Living Bird, the house organ of the Cornell Lab of O, has a great article on those perennial fan favorites the Florida Scrub Jays.

NYC Councilman Tony Avello, a major proponent of animal welfare in the Big Apple, is proposing strengthened legal protection for Brooklyn’s Monk Parakeets.

Ever feel like there’s nothing left to discover? Not only have the nests of the Esmeralda’s Woodstar finally been found for the first time in recorded science history, so have the females of the species.

We’ll return you to the amazing true adventures of the Greatest Auk and Inimitable Todd when I thaw out… probably two or three days from now!