March 2009

Just a reminder that you’ve got until the last minute of the last hour of the last day of March to get your submissions in for the next edition of I and the Bird, right here at Great Auk – or Greatest Auk! So get ’em mailed in to labenc AT gmail DOT com!

Then come around Thursday to see the monster trucks best of the birdblogosphere before your wondering eyes!

CNN recently published a tantalizing article on the North American Bird Phenology Program, and the unique opportunity it provides to get involved with some Science! with a capital S and an exclamation point.

To quote the project’s web site:
“The North American Bird Phenology Program houses a unique and largely forgotten collection of six million Migration Observer Cards that illuminate migration patterns and population status of birds in North America. These handwritten cards contain almost all of what was known of bird status from the Second World War back to the later part of the 19th century. The bulk of the records are the result of a network of observers who recorded migration arrival dates in the spring and fall that, in its heyday, involved 3000 participants.”

In order to get all that rich, tasty data off of the cards and into a database where it can be more easily accessed, the program is recruiting volunteers. From the comfort of your own home, you too can help convert records from the scanned cards into database-ready chunklets. Or, if you live in the Baltimore/D.C. area, you can pop round the office and help scan the cards, actually handling notes written by hands that observed the mighty migrations of yore.

I mean, tell me, is this not tantalizing? “The collection contains data on about 900 bird species, some of which — the Guadalupe storm-petrel, Labrador duck, Guadalupe caracara, great auk, Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon — have gone extinct.”

How this ties together with my last post is left as an exercise for the reader.

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I meant to blog on this post of Nate’s a while ago, but I got distracted with all the crazy birding adventures and so forth. Still, better late than never.

150 years after we got the origin set out for us, the species concept remains nebulous, wispy around the edges. The endless lumping and splitting, along with oddball hybrid birds popping up to frustrate local committees, have given us ample notice that birding as we know it and the world as we find it don’t always map perfectly to each other. Still, like many scientific concepts with a wispy edge, the species idea remains robust in the center, and it’s hard to see how even the most holistic birding could dispense with it entirely.

But if we get to a place where many species of bird cannot be reliably identified in the field using our current tools, what then?

The Technocratic Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke goes birding): Nanotechnology creates iPhones powerful enough to perform the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Super-focused microphones let us tune birds in and analyze their flight calls on the spot. No matter how far this goes, however, it’s difficult to see how it could apply to species distinguished only by the quirks of their DNA – to analyze that, you need physical specimens, and there’s no way that birding could return to a collector’s ethos under our present circumstances. Still, technology being what it is and the market for birding gadgets being what it is, I expect we will see big leaps forward to help with the audio side of the problem.

The Dystopia (George Orwell goes birding): The new, subtle species distinctions forever slay the citizen-scientist and sunder the expert from the hobbyist. The former stretch limited grant money to cover only the most urgent or trendy species while the latter are reduced in significance to something between a trout fisherman and a stamp collector. Frankly, certain big listers won’t have far to fall in this scenario; and there would still work to be done for citizen scientists doing things like observing life cycles, habitat preferences, etc. for the birds that can be identified. It need not be Birding Apocalypse Now. Still, losing the connection between the scientist and the hobbyist would mean losing the thrill of the chase as a tool for drawing people into ornithology, and that would be a damn shame.

The Totally Unforeseen (Philip K Dick goes birding): Just because it’s hard to see doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Birding becomes about displaying great technical skill in observing every facet of a single individual bird, in a single instant, and recording it totally in every aesthetic dimension using technology yet unknown…. or birding becomes about tagging a bird once, with minimum intrusion, and then following the rest of its lifecycle with tiny cameras and GPS, every bird a bird cam… or hell, birding becomes about taking psychoactive drugs developed by the CIA and communicating with birds telepathically and reporting back on what they tell us. I mean, this is the future we’re talking about here.

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When last we left our adventure in progress, John and I had each scored a lifer in the form of a sleepy Glaucous Gull at Jones Beach. But like the man said, if you rest on your laurels, you’re wearing them on the wrong end. We had new targets to target, new species to lay our eager eyes upon – notably the Harlequin Ducks that had been reliably appearing for weeks at Point Lookout for weeks.

Harlequin Ducks have long haunted my dreams. First it’s absurd for them to look that way, sort of as if Keith Haring was designing ducks for Ikea’s prestigious Zulu line. And then on top of that, they favor fast-running and/or rough water and lurk out of sight for most of the year, just waiting to pop up in the bleakest days of the year and get birders out on the windy shore where they can be freeze-dried and salt-cured by the unforgiving elements.

And if that doesn’t spell birder doom, well, you have to watch out for unforgiving jetties.

Still, even with all those hazards facing us, it was worth the risk. Buy howdy, was it ever! As Corey’s and Patrick’s stunning photos document, we got excellent close looks at no less than four very obliging Harlequin Ducks – one female, two immature males, and an adult male in all his purple glory.

This stop also turned up more Loons, quite a lot of Oystercatchers, a very close pair of Horned Grebes, and a lonely Sanderling (as well as a cast-up starfish and many lovely shells) but the Harlequins were far and away the highlight. Nothing could possibly top that, unless we pulled into some unprepossessing little town park with a blatantly artificial pond in a drab Long Island town like, say, Merrick, and found something entirely uncharacteristic for the habitat like, say, a Ross’s Goose.

Which… yeah. This Ross’s Goose was, I must say, a fine example of team effort in birding – Corey had heard about the bird previously and suggested going after it, Patrick drove us there, John spotted the bird lurking behind an island, and I very valiantly looked at it.

The lake also yielded some Black-crowned Night Herons, a lot of excellent ducks, and a Ring-billed Gull with either road rage or the first documented case of avian rabies.

Thus ended our adventure, except for the part where I almost fell asleep on the shuttle bus on the A line, and I think I’m not overstepping my journalistic bounds to say that a good time was had by all, and that as pleasant as solitary and contemplative birding often is, there’s a lot to be said for making it a party. Especially when you have companions as knowledgeable and genial as Corey, John, and Patrick.

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… to announce that Great Auk – or Greatest Auk? will be hosting the next edition of I and the Bird. I have an awfully tough act to follow, but you can do your part to make it spectacular by sending me your best birdy material at labenc AT gmail DOT com. Submission deadline is March 31st, and the new edition hits the streets on April 2.

When we last left our fearless foursome, they were at Jamaica Bay, appreciating the signs of spring as displayed by common but welcome birds like Tree Swallows and Pintails. And that was a wonderful thing. But where was the spectacle, the drama, the rarities and life birds obtained in defiance of hunger, exhaustion, and the odds?

Out in Nassau County, we hoped.

Patrick had brought his car, and so we got to Jones Beach the way the good lord (Robert Moses) intended. This was a substantially different than my last experience at Jones Beach – I looked up from my list once, spotted a Red-tailed Hawk in a roadside tree, and then looked up again and found that we were there. Trippy!

We hit the Coast Guard Station first, where we saw more of the same waterfowl, with such sterling additions as Common Loon and Long-tailed Duck. A Northern Harrier soared in the distance.

But all that was just a tease; we had visions of a main event featuring Lapland Longspurs and a lingering Snowy Owl, so we headed across the way to the Nature Center. The Owl was still there, very nearly in the spot where the IT and I had seen it before (at least, it was when we saw it. Later a pair of morons went wandering over the clearly-marked-offlimits dunes in its general direction, so who knows where it is now?) But the Longspurs were not in evidence – not among the Horned Larks that were in full song among the dunes, and not among the Snow Buntings flying over head.

As we headed back to the Coast Guard Station, a Killdeer rode the chilly wind. Along with Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeers are solid gold Proustian spring for me. So I was feeling good even before Corey, taking a last scan of the gulls on the sand spit, spotted a larger, whiter bird that proved to be a Glaucous Gull – a life bird for both me and John.

Of course, a bird like that had to be savored (and debated – it emerged that all field guides were back in the car, and the possibility of an Iceland Gull also had to be entertained) and our long, loving looks at the cooperative bird attracted the attention of other birders. One of these anonymous co-observers returned the favor by pointing out three Piping Plovers as they came in to land on a nearby mud flat.

Yes, things were getting interesting on the blogger trek. But could Corey, Patrick, John, and I top this stop and rake in more lifers? Stay tuned…

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If the bloggers are Corey from 10,000 Birds, Patrick from The Hawk Owl’s Nest, John from A DC Birding Blog, and yours truly, a lot of good birding happens.

We started our adventure in Jamaica Bay, bright and early. Well, early, anyway. I had gotten so wrapped up in my novel that I didn’t get to bed until 2 in the morning, and then I had to navigate the troubled and troubling public transit of Queens. So bright was a bit of a tall order.

But a few minutes at Jamaica Bay quickly cured all ills. The male Red-wings are back in black, and full of song, although the girls haven’t showed up. To my surprise, the Tree Swallows have arrived too. Swallows and spring are a poetic convention, but a biologically sound one; dependent as they are on flying insects, they gamble high stakes on judging the changing seasons (albeit Tree Swallows hedge their bets a bit by being able to eat some berries when times are tough.) These Tree Swallows were all in. They had arrived in numbers, and some were already staking out the nest boxes along the West Pond trail.

But in nature, there are far more continuums than bright lines, and a lot of the winter regulars were still hanging out at Jamaica Bay as well. On land, Juncos and White-throated Sparrows still fluttered up from the path, along massive flocks of energetic Yellow-rumped Warblers and those year-round stalwarts the Song Sparrows. On the water, Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks in winter drab mingled with Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads and Black Ducks, while good numbers of Brant and Snow Geese were still around, gearing up for their trips back north to make more Brant and Snow Geese (something that Snow Geese, in particular, excel at.) A few more transient visitors, including a pair of Pintails, a single Green-winged Teal, and a handful of Common Goldeneyes (no Barrows, alas) put in appearances as well. And a lone Great Egret formed the vanguard of what will, by summer, be a veritable wading bird convention.

The contrast with my last trip to Jamaica Bay could not have been more marked; from splendid but ice-locked isolation to a scene of bustle and promise, adorned with good company. It got my mouth watering for the season just around the corner. And it definitely got my mouth watering for more more birding.

Happily, courtesy of Patrick’s car, more birding was in the offing….

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The last day of our East End trip included a lot of epic biking, and a little epic cheese-buying, but not particularly epic birding – I added a pair of Surf Scoters to my year list while waiting for the ferry, but that was the only clip for the highlight reel.

But if you love someone, you have to show it all year round, not just on the special occasions. So the last weekend of February, we once again boarded our bikes and headed out on the hunt for the very special birds that bring the Inimitable Todd and I together like nothing else – Owls!

Our destination was Alley Pond Park in Queens, where in-the-know park rangers were scheduled to lead an educational program centered around the park’s breeding pair of Great Horned Owls – a species that the IT was particularly eager to see.

We got there in the very nick of time, and a large crowd had already assembled; a wide mix of ages, races, and sexes were represented, as well as the range of skillsets from a Lab of O researcher with a hefty scope (yowza!) to people who had clearly barely ever thought about owls until someone else in the family decided to drag them along.

There were, from the first, some inklings that things might not go entirely smoothly. A storm earlier in the season blew down the GHO’s nest, which they’d used for several years past, and neither of the rangers had yet located a new nest. So our crowd, including a restive four-year-old and a group of earnest but rambunctious preteens, was tramping around in the cold on last year’s dry leaves looking aimlessly into trees. I managed to spot a raccoon, which everyone looked at with varying degrees and types of interest (some of the people on the tour REALLY HATED raccoons, apparently) and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers flew over, but that was all the wildlife we got for some time. The rangers gamely led us around, explaining the habitat requirements and nesting habits of the owls, as our party trailed off into the distance, their interest caught on other things or just lollygagging.

The Lab of O dude spotted the owls. The IT and I, attentive and unencumbered by offspring, were near the front of the group that cautiously headed over to join him, and we were rewarded with excellent views of both owls flying off as the slower and noisier members of the group joined us. They didn’t go far; we held back to give some of the others a chance as the owls were pursued, spotted again… and in short order flushed again.

At that point, the rangers decided on discretion and drew everyone’s attention to a noisy flock of Goldfinches that had just come in to feed on a sweetgum. Soon after, we dispersed, and the IT and I headed home, heartily satisfied.

It was a microcosm of The Problem of Owls. Were the GHOs done any good by being flushed twice in short order? Certainly not. Were they done any serious harm? Probably not really, but survival in the urban wilderness is always a knife-edge. Did the four-year-old who wanted nothing more than to throw sticks into the pond while the rest of us were scanning the tree-tops receive subliminal suggestions that will one day make him an ardent conservationist? Again, probably not – but if his mom keeps taking him to events like these, even if serious birders are not one hundred percent thrilled at all times with his company, he’ll probably pick up something. Maybe it’ll be herps instead of birds. Maybe it’ll be trees. He likes sticks. And what about the twelve-year-olds who actually saw the owls? The moms and dads, the regular voting, taxpaying adults who might one day have to decide in some way how important the parks department actually is? Was the education of The People and the well-being of The Birds properly balanced that day? Does it make a difference that the winter has not been unduly harsh, that the owls had already been thwarted in their nesting attempt for the season, that this event is only run once per park per season?

Can I end this post without answering my own questions?

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Unfortunately, I awoke on my second day in Greenport in no fit state to do any biking. Call it a stomach virus, or just say I ate, drank, and was merry with too much verve – I suspect it was probably a bit of both. But anyway, birding was off the table.

So while Inimitable Todd went off to discover the Long Island wineries by bike, I walked around the quaint little Greenport downtown. I soon stumbled over the one thing to make me happy in a quaint little downtown, namely a quaint little used book store filled with stacks and stacks of idiosyncratically selected books. This one specialized, appropriately, in seafaring literature; I picked up a book about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes and an early edition of my homeboy William Beebe’s original account of his bathysphere explorations in Bermuda. But the most interesting volume I acquired, for the purposes of this blog, was an original 1888 copy of Names And Portraits Of Birds Which Interest Gunners, With Descriptions In Languages Understanded Of The People, by one Gurdon Trumbull.

The issue of bird-names is one which occupies every birder. The folk-process proposes, the ABA disposes. The Myrtle Warbler disappears and the prosaic Yellow-Rumped Warbler appears. The Northern Oriole is split, and the Baltimore Oriole emerges in glory. And birders return to the subject of bird names over, and over, and over again.

Trumbull comes at the subject from a different perspective, that of the “sportsman”; but the concern of sorting through a mass of idiosyncratic local names to figure out and communicate what the heck that was that just flew away is the same. Here is the American Woodcock as snipe, timberdoodle, mud hen, bog-sucker, shrups, mountain partridge, and hookumpake; and, of all confounding things, also as pewee. Each name is documented as to the locality it was found in, making an interesting reference for the folklorist. And, being a book for gunners, the birds are also rated by flavor. Apparently Ruddy Turnstones (aka sea dotterel, Hebridal sandpiper, horse-foot snipe) taste too much like whale oil to be palatable even to the destructively omnivorous nineteenth-century palate.

The descriptions, in common with most pre-Peterson works and in keeping with a reference for people who would shoot the bird and then inspect it in hand, are detail-focused to the exclusion of practicality; the entire plumage of the Northern Shoveler gets described before its bill is even mentioned. But it’s not like I’m going to cart a book from 1888 into the field with me anyway. It’s fascinating browsing, and an instructive look at a different era; and $20 is a small price to pay to know that on Long Island, the Common Merganser was once known as the weaser sheldrake.

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By synchronicity, I come across this news article as I am also reading The Western Paradox: A Bernard DeVoto Conservation Reader – a volume that combines Bernard DeVoto’s unfinished last work with many of his essays against the economic exploitation of public lands.

It’s interesting, because the subject of the article is clearly exactly the sort of person who DeVoto worked himself to death opposing – someone who is willing to do permanent damage to a public resource for short-term gain, and not even willing, but has constructed a world-view in which he is awesome to do so. Look at some of those quotes. He clearly thinks he’s some sort of a Trickster figure sticking it to Da Man, and everyone likes tricksters who stick it to Da Man. If you can convince yourself that some relatively weak opponent (the Forest Service, or the tree-huggers, or if you prefer working in a cozy east coast office you might use Ivory Tower professors, feminazis, PC liberals, there are lots of choices…) is Da Man, then you can be a cross between Bugs Bunny and Robin Hood practically every day. In your own head.

Outside your own head, of course, you’re being a spoiler and a gangster, a childish figure who causes destruction just to demonstrate power. “Nice park, shame if anything should happen to it.” DeVoto demolished the argument that the Forest Service was Da Man, coming from similar people for similar motives, back in my grandparents’ day.

Now, unfortunately, a perfect regard for the rule of law forces me to say that if this guy wins his case on a by-the-book basis, somebody is going to have to pay him some money, and he’ll walk away thinking he’s a big winner. Too much attention to him will probably just cause him to raise the price on his blackmail demands. But in a world where people still make fun of a woman who sued McDonald’s even though McDonald’s actually put her in need of skin grafts, the idea that anyone would valorize this guy for his expertise in system-playing makes me sick.

(As an aside, the whole idea of being able to “sell” mineral rights separately from the rights to the land on top of them has always struck me as a bit odd, and should probably be rethought. It seems set up mainly to privilege large corporations in extractive businesses, who can lock in future profits at low current prices, over individual humans who move around, die and pass property down, and might learn more about what their land is really worth as time goes on.)

It is really exhausting reading DeVoto’s work, and seeing how little has changed, but also inspiring.

Here’s a guy, little remembered today, who went time after time into the fray with people who would lie for profit, lie to stick it to the “socialists” (they didn’t have the phrase tree-huggers yet), and handily label anything that results in a smidgen of profit or a momentary sense of triumph for themselves as a great All-American good. And he didn’t lose. He didn’t win, exactly, but the opposition goal then as today was ultimately to get all public resources into private hands for exploitation (at the time, a few cattlemen and sheep growers were openly speaking of obtaining all the National Parks as potential grazing land) and that didn’t happen. Here’s a guy who was warning us before World War II that we needed to pay attention to watersheds and take it easier with irrigation, or the American West could find itself in a really bad fix. A guy who looked at the deserts and said that they couldn’t be what our triumphalist mythology demanded, so mythology, not the deserts, needed to yield.

The Western Paradox is the first thing I’ve read by DeVoto, but I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to him.

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