April 2010

There are two political issues which, as a birder, are currently at the forefront of my mind. One, in light of the disaster in the Gulf, is offshore drilling; Nate has said everything I could possibly say about the issue, and very ably, in this post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead. I’ll wait right here.

(Seriously, go read it. This may be the worst single-source environmental catastrophe of our lifetimes.)

The other is Arizona’s recent passage of a “papers, please” law targeting undocumented immigrants, and the resulting boycott. Many people with better knowledge of the legal ins and outs than I have explained why this law is unconstitutional, why it can never in practice be anything other than race-based, and why it’s a generally crap idea. But what does it have to do with birding?

Three things:

1. It robs us of opportunities to catch and punish polluters. Businesses that hire people illegally at sub-minimum wages have already shown themselves willing to break the law to make money. Many of these businesses are in industries like landscaping, sanitation, meat-packing, and agriculture, where regulations on the use of pesticides and the disposal of waste are frequently and flagrantly ignored. The witnesses to these violations? Often the lowest-level workers, these self-same undocumented immigrants. If local law enforcement is forbidden to cultivate a relationship other than adversarial with such people, they won’t trust any law enforcement, and they’ll have no incentive to whistleblow, witness, or testify against their exploiters. (This is already somewhat the case, but the new law will make it worse.)

2. Following on from the last, by going after individual violators of the immigration laws instead of systemic violators like employers, it validates the whole mindset that brings us such environmental disasters as the border wall and the troops of Minutemen scattering ATV tracks, powerbar wrappers, and shotgun shells across the desert. Just as targeting drug addicts rather than the root causes of addiction creates a War on Drugs mentality that leads to urban blight, targeting “illegal” immigrants rather than illegal employers is liable to create Southwestern rural blight as groups of people, some too desperate to care and some too focused on their own self-righteous rage to give a damn, trample the fragile landscape in large-scale, long-term games of cat and mouse that don’t solve the actual problem.

2a. The same thing, but on a macro scale: it slaps a band-aid on the problem of economic inequality, and economic inequality is the Sauron to most of the various orc-like threats that the environment faces today. People living relatively comfortable and stable lives can often be persuaded to care about the environment, even if they’re not nature-lovers by instinct; they’re accessible via expanding circles of NIMBY-ism and the promise of a better world for their grandchildren. The ultra-rich, however, often suffer from the delusion that their wealth will insulate them from environmental disaster. And the very poor, understandably, can’t be persuaded to care about the kind of world their grandchildren will live in until they have some reasonable hope that their children won’t starve to death tomorrow. In the particular case of Arizona, the immigration problem is an outgrowth of economic exploitation that’s occurring throughout Central and South America, and that same economic exploitation is the
driving force behind deforestation, pesticide abuse, overhunting, and other issues that are threatening birds throughout the hemisphere. Human misery and envirocide are growing out of the same rootstock. But the United States will do nothing to address its own very large role in the problem if we keep masking the symptoms with punitive laws meant to keep the issue out of sight and out of mind.

3. The law is a direct threat to birders. We’ve already seen that birding is a suspicion-arousing activity in some minds. Every community contains its share of cranks, racists, and resentmentphiles, and with this law these people are basically deputized via the power of lawsuit and hopped up on the chance to add some drama to their lives. Wandering around will no longer be a safe activity – not just for birders of Hispanic origin, but for those of Middle Eastern descent, Southeast Asians, Native Americans (I think this is called irony by some), etc., etc. And while it’s all well and good to explain to a concerned officer what you’re doing once or twice, having it happen frequently would put a serious cramp on birding as a leisure activity. Moreover, having to carry your passport or birth certificate (a simple driver’s license won’t cut it) with you in the field could lead to their loss and thus to identity theft. Chances are, the hassle will lead to people dropping the hobby, or never getting involved in the first place – and for those concerned that birding skews too much to old white dudes already, this is bad news.

Arizona contains many areas of unique natural beauty that I’ve always wanted to see. And I will be overjoyed to finally see the Grand Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, even the famous Patagonia picnic table… after this law is struck from the books.

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I must say, it’s very generous of Corey to make sure I’ll have a new image of New York City every day when I get homesick….

This is my favorite so far for some reason.

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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Having returned from my top-secret mission to the Bay Area of California (oooh, spoilers!), I am pleased to report that there are birds there.

Now, that’s not much of a surprise, is it? Not surprising that on a college campus in Oakland you could find Steller’s and Western Scrub Jays, California Towhees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Anna’s Hummingbirds. Not surprising that when a friend was kind enough to escort me to the aquarium at Pier 39 in SF, he had to stop and wait for me to dig the binoculars out of my backpack so I could scope out some Clark’s Grebes (I can be pretty hard on my friends).

But birds don’t have to be surprising to be awesome. Even incredibly common species, like the sandy but subtly elegant towhees and the ubiquitous, vocal hummingbirds, are exciting when they’re part of the giant burst of potential that is spring in the northern hemisphere.

Western Scrub-jays (hopefully soon to be California Scrub-jays, but who’s counting? Well, all of us!) can be more than just another bouncing blue corvid when they appear in a moment when all seems lost, when you’re thinking “what in the hell am I doing? I’m on the entire wrong side of the continent.” In that moment, they can let you – and by you, I mean me, an easily discombobulated person facing one of the biggest challenges of her life – focus and reassure yourself. That is, herself. Myself. Anyway, there they were, right when I needed them.

And Steller’s Jays! What can I say about them? They’re another of the species that I spent years staring at in field guides, wishing and hoping and thinking jay-like thoughts (“oooh! shiny!”). On my very first day in California, my sister pointed out their calls and assured me that if they were around, I’d definitely see them. But two days later I found myself on a trail covered with alarming signage (“Fire risk high!” “If you see suspicious activity, contact campus security!” “If someone approaches you, trust your instincts. If you feel threatened, run in the opposite direction”, “Check out portable alarms here.”), nettles, and bugs, only to suddenly hear the rattle and scream of a flock coming over the ridge and lose all regard for my personal safety. They settled into a towering pine and began harassing a squirrel, and nothing else even existed for at least five minutes.

And Ravens perched in old Spanish fountains. And a Golden-crowned Sparrow popped out of a brush pile just long enough to be id’d, then popped back in again. And Rufus Hummingbirds joined the Anna’s in their buzzing and scolding. It was a beautiful thing.

But is it to be my final fate? Stay tuned.

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Juncos where I come from look like miniature Darth Vaders.
Juncos where I am now look like a particularly inauspicious flavor of salt-water taffy.

Yesterday my sister warned me about poison oak.
It really sucks, she said.
Today my legs itch, but there’s nothing there.

Two species of jays here. One,
with a black mohawk
the other with a suede vest.
Punks vs. bikers
They both rumble with the squirrels.

Eucalyptus bark
peels from the trunk and falls noisily
Woodpecker? No, it just falls.

Everywhere the hummingbirds.
They perch higher, squeak louder, come in more luxurious variety.
They dance at the corner of my eye and out of sight.

(those of you who read my facebook are, of course, cheating if you guess.)

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Some time ago, I mentioned that I had sold a story that was inspired by a photo taken by the notorious bird blogger and swamp monster Corey Finger.

That story, Plastic Sargasso, is now available online for your reading delectation.

I will also note that I had a beautiful and perhaps too exciting weekend, of which more in due time.

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.


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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