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Birding lends itself, no question, to amateur ornithology and to what in the old days was called nature-study and might now be referred to as basic field ecology. But that’s not the only way that it’s educational! Consider:

Geology, hydrology: If the uphill end of the field is muddy, the downhill end will be very, very muddy.
Physics: The mud will try to eat your shoes.
Phys. Ed.: But after a vigorous fight, you can thwart it.
History, Logic: If the barn burned down two years ago, you can’t use the hose in the barn to wash your shoes off now.
Sociology: Take your muddy shoes off before you go in the house, dammit.
Meteorology: Maybe it will rain again and wash your shoes off for you!

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.

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.

Time Travel Bird has failed.

We are all Higgs bosons now.

(You probably shouldn’t expect any good sense out of me until the last week of April or a decent sunny weekend, whichever comes first.)

You know, back in my day birds didn’t have a sense of smell. Maybe, maaaaaaaaybe New World vultures did. But no one else.

Now look at this new-fangled tomfoolery: Could Smell Play a Role in the Origin of New Bird Species?

One of the interesting things about nature is that it goes in a circle and in a straight line at the same time.* While the birds of passage are returning to their breeding grounds in the same reassuring rhythm – male Red-winged Blackbirds and then the females, small flocks of Robins today yielding to large flocks of Robins tomorrow, Eastern Phoebes before Olive-sided Flycatchers, Palm Warblers first and Wilson’s after – we large and curious mammals who observe them are going through life changes of a distinctly less reversible nature.

Which is to say that there is an excellent chance that come this time next year, I will be embarking on my first spring outside New York State. This means a lot of things, nearly all of them good. But not all – for this may be my last season for some time to partake of the eastern wood-warbler migration.

Until now, I’ve participated in the rites of spring in a joyful but rather desultory manner. So what if I dipped on easy birds through procrastination? There’s going to be another season along in a minute. Now I’ve developed a new sense of urgency.

It got a little easier to bear this weekend when I picked up a life Orange-crowned Warbler, a frustrating little trickster that I’d come to think of as half-mythological, along with my first-of-season Eastern Phoebe and a handful of other early migrants (Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, more Red-winged blackbirds, and those aforementioned large flocks of Robins) at Prospect Park. Still, I have my work cut out for me:

Golden-winged warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Swainson’s Warbler

Those are the Parulidae known to occur in New York that I have yet to add to my life list. Swainson’s is a bit of a stretch unless I head south, but the others are my mission for this coming season.

Let the migration games begin.

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*if I attribute this to quantum something, I assume I will get a major movie deal, right?

Meanwhile, back in New York, the real owls are being kept under wraps by those in the know, in order to protect their nesting from disturbance by avid fans.

At Gallery Hanahou, on the other hand, the owls are getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Owls Have More Fun by designer Lisa Grue is aptly named – there are a lot of owls, and they’re a lot of fun. The birds are stylized in stark black and white, accented with vivid pink and yellow, and presented in a desire of contexts – enormous wallpaper designs, tiny little painted ceramic plates – with cryptic messages. The theme, beyond the obvious, is a feminist desire to see young girls embrace cleverness and wisdom – not just cuteness – as a driving force in life. I certainly can’t argue with that.

It’s always interesting to me to see how people who aren’t naturalists or scientists or specifically nature-oriented artists nevertheless connect with nature in their work. The show is running through March 26, so if you’re in NYC, consider checking it out!

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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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