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