February 2010

Patch birding is wonderful. Patch birding is an unmatched pleasure, an unmitigated good, and in many ways the apotheosis of the birder’s art and science; in its best incarnations, it involves becoming truly one with a piece of the landscape in a way that brings one closer not only to the birds, but to the entire ecosystem.

But travel is broadening. And while listing leaves one vulnerable to the pain that desire and attachments bring, it also satisfies the collector’s urge in a way that is relatively harmless and indeed educational. It helps one think globally whilst acting locally. And let’s face it, it’s fun.

So the ideal is to travel, and in so doing hook up with someone who knows the local patch. A guide, formal or informal.

The Inimitable Todd and I, moved to visit the magical but imperiled Owl Woods of Amherst Island, booked a trip with Lakeshore Nature Tours. Besides multiple species of owls – typical northern highlights like Barred- Saw-whet, Snowy, Long-eared, and Short-eared, as well as the tantalizing prospect of Boreal and Great Gray – the tour offered the possibility of other cold weather specialties such as Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, Evening Grosbeak, and even Gray Partridge. Sure, it seemed a bit counter-intuitive to run towards the cold and snow rather than away from it, but who ever said that birders make sense?

Despite my discontent at the fact that we had to rent a car for the journey, the good times started rolling almost at once. As usual, my first major car trip of the year netted me my first Turkey Vulture of the year. Less expected was a Pileated Woodpecker that flew over the road – beautiful, but too brief to satisfy. And, of course, a plethora of Red-tailed Hawks observed our journey as we made our way down through the Delaware Water Gap, then back up through New York to Ontario. Night fell before we got through the border and to our hotel, scarfed a (sadly overpriced due to the holiday) dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning we had a far more leisurely and pleasant breakfast, did introductions with the group, then drove to Kingston and boarded the ferry. It was cold, and not just a little cold – I speak from a place of extensive cold experience when I say that it was really freaking cold. The wind acted on every bit of exposed skin like pincers, and I found myself involuntarily huddling, which was less than effective, as there were no other auks to huddle with. The crossing was nearly frozen over, and the only waterfowl in evidence were a few Canada (and, for once, Canadian) Geese.

Amherst Island itself was a charming collection of sheep and horse farms, art studios that had closed for the season, and similar pastoral delights. Most of the roads were gravel-paved and very dusty; the access road to the Owl Woods wasn’t even that ambitious. There were points when I wondered whether my decision to rent a compact car had been a wise one.

Nevertheless, we made it to the woods. At the trail-head, cars of all descriptions were nudged up on what passed for the shoulder, and not because the Rapture had occurred.

Right off the bat, I was please to see evidence that the owners of the woods (and one of the odd things about this gem is that it is privately owned; fortunately, at least for the time being, it’s in the hands of people who care more about the owls and the birders than about more extractive values) were taking potential threats to owl equilibrium seriously:

Owl Woods Rules

The Rules and Regulations

The cautions seemed common-sense, but they turned out to be necessary, because the place was crawling with people. Small kids with parents, college students, and elderly birders alike covered the trails and peered into evergreens. I was hardly in a position to complain that this was a bad thing – going by accent, a lot of them had more right to be there than I did – but the fact remained that this was more agreeable for the ubiquitous Chickadees, who clustered around the feeders looking for handouts of seed, than it was for the owls.

A single Barred Owl was on the hunt, surrounded by numerous spectators and photographers. Though each, individually, seemed respectful, the aggregate effect was a bit overwhelming for me, so I can only imagine how it was for the bird. Nevertheless, it maintained its composure and scanned diligently for voles – and for smaller owls, whose decline the Barred was suspected of having a hand in. Or a talon, as it were.

Barred Owl, Digiscoped

Smirking Owl, Crouching Paparazzo

Whether because of the Barred Owl, or the unbarred humans, or both, or neither, we saw no other owls in the Owl Woods.

Out on the road again, we circled the island slowly, spotting waterfowl from the banks in the open water of the deeper side. The Gadwall, Buffleheads, and large flocks of Common Goldeneye were all nice, but the Tundra Swans were the stars – lifers for me, and I believe for many others on the tour as well. We also got a short but diagnostic look at a Northern Shrike. Then we scanned the open fields for Snowy Owls (present, but distant) and Short-eared Owls (hiding until the light was too dim to really make them out, alas) as the sun, and the temperature, got lower.

Though the day had been long, and many of our target species MIA, I was still reasonably happy as we returned to the inn. Three lifers could not be accounted a bad day, and more promising opportunities were still ahead of us….

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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

One thing that working in a used book store will teach you is that literary fame is strange and fickle. A decade’s, region’s, or genre’s superstar can become invisible just by traveling on in time, space, or to the next floor in Barnes and Noble. For instance – you’ve probably heard of Wallace Stegner and Tim O’Brien, but when’s the last time you picked up a novel by Mary Lee Settle? Yet she won the National Book Award for fiction in 1978, the year of my birth – right between Stegner’s 1977 win for The Spectator Bird and O’Brien’s 1979 win for Going After Cacciato.

But this isn’t about Mary Lee Settle, so godspeed, good lady. This is about Allan W. Eckert. Eckert, a native of Buffalo but an Ohioan by inclination, has had a career that includes an Emmy (for work on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) and a nomination for the Newberry (for Incident at Hawk’s Hill), as well as controversy for playing fast and loose in nonfiction and an apparent inclination to bring up Pulitzer nominations that mean the same thing as Nobel Peace Prize nominations (e.g. nothing: anyone can be nominated, only finalists get props.) Outside the circle of people interested in the history, natural and otherwise, of the American midwest, hardly anyone knows about this action-packed resume.

I was not part of that hardly anyone – aside from a cover-deep familiarity with A Sorrow in Our Heart, his biography of Tecumseh – until I received The Silent Sky.

This is a book that plays to Eckert’s strengths. A novel based on the life of the last wild passenger pigeon, it allows scope for his imagination while letting him describe the flora, fauna, landscapes, and people of the midwest at length, something he does aptly and with heart.

As you may already know, I’m sensitive to anthropomorphism in this type of work, not because I believe animals are machines with no subjective experience, but because I feel certain that their subjective experience is in many cases as alien as a Martian’s, and as poorly represented in art as a man in a green rubber suit. I’m happy to report that, except for a few weirdly old-fashioned gender assumptions (perhaps understandable in light of the book’s original publication date in 1965), Eckert appears more interested in cramming as many facts as possible about the birds into his story than in making them human. Moreover, he attempts to capture – as nearly as human words can capture – the restless bewilderment that results when an animal finds itself completely out of its accepted element – alone when driven by instinct to flock, in a cage when driven by instinct to migrate.

Of course the end is foreordained, so suspense is not really a factor. There’s an old-fashioned vibe to this book, but one not inappropriate to the subject and setting.

The real strength of the work is in the way that it conveys on the story level how very essential sheer quantity was to the Passenger Pigeons’ whole way of life. Though some scholars now argue that the billions-strong flocks that Audubon reported were anomalies, there seems to be no doubt that even on a smaller scale the pigeons’ chief tactics were surprise – surprise and numbers. They showed up where food was plentiful, produced young so numerous that the local predators couldn’t hope to cut them all down, and next year, when those same predators had reproduced into more hazardous numbers, were somewhere far away. It was an excellent strategy – but not one that could hope to overwhelm the human mobility, rapid communication, and capitalist rapacity that came into play in the U.S. in the 19th century. Eckert recounts how death stalks the pigeons at every turn in a matter-of-fact way that eschews melodrama – and then contrasts that “natural” level of mortality with the mass destruction resulting from pigeon hunts.

The Silent Sky is lovely in a quiet way, distant but haunting – and in the last analysis, a rather emotionally draining experience. Which is my only excuse as to why I haven’t purchased Eckert’s book on the Great Auk.

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Always paying more attention to flashy tourists than hard-working natives:

Mandarin Duck in the 79th Street Boat Basin

(I want a houseboat!)

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Female Bufflehead by Mdf

Sea Duck Inshore

Sea ducks. The phrase sets a certain type of birder (cold-hardy, salt-resistant, moderately insane) throbbing with anticipation. We have spoken before of the Long-tailed Duck, the Harlequin Duck, and other anseriform denizens of the briny deep. But there is one among the tribe that need not cost you your extremities, one pocket-edition sea duck that brings its tang of winter romance even to environs as calm as Prospect Park: the Bufflehead.

The Buffle in Bufflehead is short for Buffalo – the idea being that the bulbous shape of the male bird’s head in full display bears some resemblance to that of the American Bison, which is not a buffalo. Other things that named after the bison which is not a buffalo include Buffalo, New York (and by extension the Buffalo Bills, a notoriously non-champion American football team, and buffalo wings) and Buffalo soldiers (and by extension the Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier, Ray Petri’s visual imaging company Buffalo, and Neneh Cherry’s hit song Buffalo Stance).

The male Bufflehead puffs up his head feathers, of course, as a pose to look sexy and important to other Buffleheads, very much like the characters in the song Buffalo Stance.

Unlike most other ducks, who are notorious rakes and libertines at best, the Bufflehead is prone to fidelity. Not only do mates stick with each other from year to year (unlike the characters in the song Buffalo Stance) they tend to return to the same nesting site as well – a tree cavity, usually an old Flicker nest. Just in case you were tempted to look to them as icons of family life – always a bad idea with birds – it should also be noted that they share a predilection for violent kidnapping with their cousins the Goldeneyes. When two female Buffleheads fight, the victor will often add some or all of the vanquished duck’s young to her own brood, perhaps in order to provide safety in numbers for her own offspring.

But all of this takes place in the boreal north. The vast majority of North Americans know Buffleheads as winter birds, floating in sheltered coastal areas and those inland waters that remain unfrozen. Though they are tiny and monochromatic, they can be an incredibly beautiful sight as they pepper the water, disappearing in dives and then popping back up like rubber bathtub ducks on the lead surface of the winter water. To me they are holiday ducks, since I generally see them on the Hudson from the window of the train while going from New York back to the Olde Homestead in the late fall and winter. Even at a distance and at speed, their dark-and-light pattern is distinctive.

If you know someone who is too frail, or too sensible, to chase the other sea ducks, show them a Bufflehead this February.

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