Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winter storm birds

The edges of the Chesapeake were frozen this Christmas weekend in Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Bald Eagles stood sentry.

Then the snow began to fall, and the wind began to howl, tossing the full bird feeders around like toys.

The wind whipped the snow into mini tornadoes that went skittering across the plowed cornfields, and there was a weird light to everything.

The birds, normally swarming all over the feeders, hunkered on the ground, finding little niches in the snow.

And popped out between gusts to take the seed from the ground.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Things I am grateful for today

  • The common but beautiful birds you see when you're meant to be looking at a rare bird that's been blown off course from the other side of the country, or Scotland, or Greenland, or heaven knows where.
  • The Northern Harrier standing on a post out in the field with the rare geese, the afternoon light hitting it in a way that makes you truly see the bird in a way you never have before.
  • The four billionth Tufted Titmouse that's zipped past while you're hoping to spot the Mountain Bluebird and that you give in and finally take a look at--that big liquid eye looking right back at you as it cocks it head.
  • The Chickadee sitting on a branch above the Calliope Hummingbird that should be basking in Mexico but is inexplicably in snowy shoreline Connecticut. Next to the tiny hummer the Chickadee looks like some gigantic mutant from a 1950s sci-fi movie, "Attack of the 30-foot Chickadee!"
  • The people who spot these rare visitors and put the word out so everyone can take a look.
  • And the International Bird Rescue Research Center and WildRescue. A disturbed person has captured gulls in San Francisco and put tight collars made of cut-up beer cans around their necks. The IBRRC and WildRescue are doing their best to recapture them, cut the collars from their necks, and release them. It would be easy to dwell on the dark things going through the mind of the person who has been cruel to these birds. But watching the rescuers handle a gull so gently while they remove the collar and check it over is enough to make your heart melt.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fly away

Do you ever have the urge
to fly away from yourself?
To leave just a memory trace of feathers
against a bright blue sky.
To fly way up high,
to Siberia,
to Tasmania,
to a world that isn't your own.
Just for a time, not forever.
Like the rogue bird that separates from the flock
and flies miles from its range,
puzzling everyone,
defying explanation.

I do.

The White-tailed Kite that strayed to Connecticut for much of the summer
and has now been spotted in New Jersey, still far from where it's usually found.
Photo copyright Frank Gallo.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Birding as an excuse for eating

Fall is well and truly here, with biting winds. Late after work the other day, while watching a peculiar Canada goose with a stumpy neck, I thought my fingers were going to snap off like those icicles that form in the freezer. Okay, so the goose was distinctly different to the other Canada geese in the flock, and maybe it was a lesser Canada goose or . . . well, normally I would have been quite interested, but what my mind was consumed by was how glad I was that though all manner of very important things have broken or fallen off  my old car and it makes a symphony of strange and somewhat disturbing noises, miraculously the heated seats still work.

And dinner. I had room in my brain for thoughts of dinner.

Perhaps I am not the only cold and hungry soul out there for whom outdoor pursuits are a good excuse for a slap-up hot meal. So I offer up my antidote to a cold afternoon: easy hearty chicken soup with sweet Italian sausages.

Chicken soup for the birder's soul stomach
Serves: 6 birders who've been standing around for hours on a chilly day

Throw the following in a big pot:

4 stalks of celery, sliced
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cubed (that's 1/2 butternut pumpkin if you're in Australia)
4 medium-sized carrots, peeled and sliced
1 big potato, peeled and cubed
kernels cut from 1 corncob
6 medium-sized mushrooms (portobellos are good), sliced fairly finely
1 big onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, peeled, but it's okay to leave whole as it melts into the soup
4 skinless chicken thigh fillets, chopped into bite-sized pieces (thank you, feathered friends)
1 quart (1 litre) of chicken stock
1 teaspoon or so of salt
black pepper
a good sprinkling of dried parsley
bay leaf

Bring all this to a gentle boil, then turn it down and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until all the veggies are nice and soft.
While it's simmering, cook 4 sweet Italian sausages and slice them.
Rinse and drain a can of cannellini beans.
Add the sausages and beans to the soup and let them warm up for a few minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper.
Eat with crusty bread rolls while ruminating on an obscure bird you saw that day.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

autumn storm

I go walking after a quick and wild autumn thunderstorm, and the world is fresh. It has been scrubbed clean -- each leaf and berry polished and new. The tops of the storm clouds are white and puffy, away in the distance, but the air seems still to carry a charge.

A ball of starlings comes at me, panic in every feather.

The Cooper's hawk follows like a missile.

Crows scatter into the air, too, lifting off from the power lines. Fourteen, fifteen, I stop counting and just watch the raggedy tips of their wings, glossy in the bright clear light. The sky aches it is so blue.

I walk on and the colors of the trees defy language. Sugar maples glow pink-yellow-red as if they were their own light source.

I come eye to eye with a downy woodpecker on a branch. We stare at each other for a while. I don't know what goes through his brain, but for that brief moment I am blissfully without thought.

He turns his back to show me a pure checkerboard of black and white, and the church bell rings out the hour.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Big Sit 2010

I am that annoying person in a group of birders who is always wandering off. I see an especially plump clump of moss to take a closer look at, or a cloud in the shape of a skull and crossbones, and off I drift. So even in the unlikely event that I was ever good enough at identifying birds, I could never do The Big Sit, an entire day of identifying as many species as possible from within a circle 17 feet in diameter (5 metres). I could maybe do The Big 20 Minutes.

These guys, The Surf Scopers, are just incredible as far as I'm concerned. From 4.30 in the morning till about 8:00 at night they stood on this platform at Milford Point, looking out across Long Island Sound on one side and the Wheeler Salt Marsh on the other. They saw the sun come up and go down, and two low tides. And they saw an amazing 107 species of birds, breaking their previous record of 101.

The Surf Scopers: From left, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo, Tina Green, Patrick Dugan, Jim Dugan. Thanks to pledges by sponsors, their Big Sit efforts support the Connecticut Audubon Society's Coastal Center at Milford Point. 
I took this shot of them when I went down to visit them late in the day. Who else but birders equipped with fine optic devices would still be cheery after standing all day shoulder-to-shoulder like this on a tiny platform? Maybe Tibetan monks, but really, who else? Birding is so utterly addictive. When will the next bird appear? Where? What will it be? By the end, when the sun had gone down and the scopes had been packed away, I found it hard to walk away from the platform, imagining phantom owls calling in the darkness.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Life on my doorstep

There is a park near my house that doesn't look like much at first glance. People walk their dogs through it. People throw trash out their car windows into it. I like it in the summertime when the guys next door play games out there after work; there's something very sane about that. If you look just a little more closely, though, it turns out that this park in suburbia is bursting with little miracles. I walked 15 yards from my door yesterday. There were no birds calling, the park seemed dead. But then a flash of yellow caught my eye. It was a quiet, glowing-daffodil-yellow Wilson's warbler. Within 20 minutes or so, I had also seen . . .
  • a northern flicker
  • a red-breasted woodpecker
  • a hairy woodpecker
  • a white-breasted nuthatch, such a cool weird little bird
  • a blue-headed vireo
  • a flock of juncos
  • American robins
  • golden-crowned kinglets
  • red-winged blackbirds
  • common grackles
  • fish crows
  • white-throated sparrows
  • house sparrows
  • a savannah sparrow
  • black-capped chickadees
  • tufted titmice
  • scores of pigeons
  • double-crested cormorants, including one wheeling through the water going for a fish, looking for all the world like a platypus as it did
  • great egrets
  • great blue herons
  • great black-backed gulls
  • herring gulls
  • ring-billed gulls
  • Canada geese
  • mallard ducks, some of the males coming out of eclipse plumage, now gorgeous and iridescent again
  • a mute swan, looking alternately evil and elegant, as they do
  • and an osprey that I thought was injured and drowning but was merely struggling to get aloft because the fish it had just caught in its talons was almost bigger than its body.
I work alone in front of a computer all day, mostly in silence, and sometimes I find myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of solitude where minute facets of work assume gigantic proportions in my head. A comma. A colon. I inadvertently said something bad in that e-mail, didn't I? Maybe I better read over it again. For the fifth time. That's when I know I should step outside and forget myself for a few minutes, but usually I stay sitting at the desk for an hour more, and then another, as if I'm punishing myself. When I finally go out the front door, it's like lifting a heavy lead helmet from my head. There is sun! And air! I'm surprised all over again by the green out here, right on my doorstep. I had forgotten about life, but huh, it had continued on out here in full bustle. Why can't we remember what's good for us and just do it, every time?

Wilson's Warbler by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, National Geographic, 1917

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Swallow Vortex

Summer has passed, winter approaches. All creatures turn their attention to survival, shelter, safe harbor. Each sunset at this time of year, hundreds of thousands of tree swallows are drawn to an island in the Connecticut River, to roost together among tall marsh grass. Now the breeding is done, the drive is to find safety in numbers.

The calm before the swallows descend upon their roost for the night. (Photo by Vanessa Mickan)
To start, you see one or two swallows, feathered darts overhead. Then as the light fades, the air begins to thicken with birds. They stream in low to the water, sometimes skimming the surface to sip a last drink for the night. They pour across the ridgelines, zigzagging randomly as they glean insects on the wing. The sound builds as they call to one another, racing toward their roosting place. 

The swallows stream in from all directions. (Photo by Vanessa Mickan)
It is chaos theory in action. These birds have spent the day dispersed across a wide area and have each flown their own erratic path to get here; now, in the space of minutes, they form an organized system. They start to fly in the same direction, swirling around and around above the island, forming not so much a flock as a meteorological event -- a whirlpool, a cloud, a tornado. No human word can quite sum it up, because this event is a mystery to the human senses. How do the birds communicate? How do they organize themselves? How do they know to do this?
Photo by Frank Gallo

Photo by Frank Gallo

Photo by Frank Gallo
Something happens. Some signal -- the amount of light? -- is picked up by the vortex, and with the suddenness of a summer thunderstorm, the birds rain down hard. The ones at the bottom of the funnel plummet headlong into the grass, seeming to drag the rest down with them. The sky drains within 40 seconds. It is as if it were a dream, a hallucination. Where just a moment ago, you were in the midst of a swirling mass of life and noise and movement, now before you is a quiet sky. It is as if nothing happened.

Photo by Frank Gallo
The birds' day is done. Within the grass, they are no doubt jostling for position, finding their places to sleep, settling down. And now it's your turn. You head for the dark highway and begin to follow the red tail lights of the stream of cars in front of you. Your path may wind and zigzag, but it is a thread in a lacework of paths that leads to the city or the township where you live, the place where you and others of your species gather to roost each night.
Photo by Vanessa Mickan
Photo by Vanessa Mickan

Friday, September 3, 2010

The edge of the hurricane

Skies are leaden, and the air feels heavy. The hurricane is about to pass many miles to the east tonight. This morning, I wake up at five o'clock thinking of the birds that may be blown off course and find themselves here tomorrow. I am excited to get out with the binoculars and perhaps see something rare, unusual, something I've never seen before. And yet at the same time, I identify with those birds whose lives are right now erupting into chaos. Perhaps I am dreaming, perhaps I am awake, but I am airborne for a moment. I am a tiny bird blown out to sea. Imagine the desperate survival urge. And what of the seabird that suddenly finds itself in a strange dry land? No one can know what consciousness a bird has, but we all can imagine the instinct to keep breathing till the very last second that we can't any more. Some of these storm birds will live, some will die. There is nothing new in that, but still it gives me a pang, a reminder that there are clear days for all of us, and storms to face, too.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gull appreciation

The last couple of days I have been walking the sands of Milford, thinking and trying to stop thinking, and in the early evening light everything looks beautiful. Even gulls, which my eye too often used to pass over. So pure-white. So bold. So loud. But so quiet as the day fades.

When I got to Silver Sands, the grassy dune by the side of the boardwalk had hundreds, if not thousands, of dragonflies hovering above it. I have never seen so many, like tiny silent helicopters.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The last days of summer

Snowy Egret, John J. Audubon
The last days of summer are too precious to waste. As the sun sets, I am drawn to the beach. There are not many birds to speak of, but the white sails of the yachts glow pink in the dying light, and there is a breeze on my skin that is warm but holds the promise of autumn. A Golden Retriever puppy jumps up and licks the end of my binoculars. Now I really will have to clean them like I always say I'm going to. The shorebirds know to make the most not only of the last days of summer but the final minutes of every summer's day. At the water's edge they are trying for one last fish, one last mollusc. Gulls fly high to drop shells on the rocks, over and over until they crack open just enough to allow bills in to winkle out their salty treasure. A young Snowy Egret--its legs and bill still pale--does its dance, wiggling its foot in the sand to stir up . . . yes, a little fish, which it swallows down in a snap. If time could pause at this perfect moment, I would not complain.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Raptor beauty

Raptors have an other-worldly quality: Finely tuned hunting machines, they have skills that are so foreign to me as a human. I saw the White-tailed Kite just as we pulled up at Stratford Point late one day this week. It was flying right above us, and as I jumped out of the car, it began hovering high over the tall grass. To me, it was a beautiful display of raptor skill. To an unsuspecting vole, it was a Very Bad Thing Indeed. The bird scooped its wings back and forth oh so quickly through the air, staring at the ground, then swoop, it plummeted down like an arrow . . . and shot back into the air, a limp vole clutched in its talons.

It looked like a precision tracking and killing machine for whom this was no effort at all. When I looked at its ghostly charcoal-rimmed eyes through my binoculars after it ate the rodent in the top of a tree, I could impart all kinds of perceptions, skills, talents to that bird. But these were just human fantasies that say more about the qualities I wish I had: It turned out that other people had been watching the bird hunting unsuccessfully for hours, lucklessly scouring the fields for prey. We just happened to arrive at its moment of glory. To the kite, catching a vole was no spectacular aerobatic feat, just an act of basic survival. It just looked so much more impressive than when I cruise the aisles of the supermarket.

Incredible photos thanks to Frank Gallo.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New life, and death ... and White-tailed Kite pictures

It always seems to happen, and yet it always seems to surprise me, that when I fail to see what I set out to see, I experience something wonderful. 

The White-tailed Kite that surprised everyone by suddenly showing up in coastal Connecticut, at least a thousand miles from its home, has been hanging around now for a couple of days. I want to see its wings slicing through the air again, see it hovering looking for prey, so this evening I went down to Milford Point, where it had spent much of the day. By the time I got there, the tide had risen and the bird had flown from the sandbar where it had previously been sitting eating some small creature.

There was no rare bird, but there was the sky. There was green grass growing in the salt water. Terns, plovers, American Oystercatchers.

I walked by the water's edge, and came upon a black blob. Just a starling, I thought. But hang on, there was something different. I put up my binoculars. It was fuzzy -- oh, a chick on gawkily long legs. I sunk down on my knees on the sand, and this black fluffy chick came right up to me and walked by. I don't think it was even aware I was there.

It was a clapper rail, Frank tells me, who's glad to discover that they're breeding at Milford Point. It's not a rare bird, but there was something about being there on the sand, just me and this little chick, that was just as special as seeing that glorious White-tailed Kite.

Looking at this vulnerable chick exposed on the beach, life seemed more fragile and beautiful than ever. That seems -- I can't quite find the word . . . pathetic? -- now that I've just learned that today in a different Connecticut town nine people lost their lives in another workplace shooting. But this was before my stomach had sunk at that news. Then, I was simply relieved when that chick scuttled on those stilt legs up into the long grass, where it was hidden from view, though still cheeping cheeping cheeping.

More White-tailed Kite Pics
Because I, along with every birder in New England, am still quite obsessed with the White-tailed Kite, I am savoring some more pictures that Frank Gallo took...