Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I've seen a Snowy Owl!

The call goes out: a Snowy Owl at Stratford Point. Not much more than a 20-minute drive away. Grab binoculars, camera, car keys, jump in car. Frank Gallo gives me directions to this place I've been a million times before but of course can't remember how to get to. He's giving exceptionally good directions, but to me it sounds like: words, words, diner, turn left, words, words, airport, other words, more words -- what is wrong with me? Anyone who gives me directions may as well be talking in Abyssinian. I know that even once I've plugged the street address into the GPS, I will still get lost. Now why is everyone suddenly obeying the speed limit? It's un-American. Why won't that giant SUV get out of the overtaking lane? What the hell is that guy in the giant Cadillac tank-boat-thing with Tennessee license plates actually doing? Certainly not driving. I take a wrong turn. Yes, even with the GPS. Somehow I get there. Step out of car. Cell phone falls out of pocket onto pavement, falls into more pieces than I realized a cell phone consisted of. The bird is astonishing. It's just sitting there, 20 yards away from a knot of birders, napping, occasionally opening its eyes and swiveling its head, absorbing the warmth of the rocks. I get that dissociated feeling you get when you're in the middle of an accident that's unspooling right before your eyes: It's happening, yes, it's happening, but somehow it's not happening; you're registering it all from a distance. All this time -- more than three decades -- and here I am, face to face with this creature. It's head is so rounded, so boofy -- somehow I only fully notice this now, being able to watch it turn that head. And there are barely perceptible ear tufts, fluffing up now and then in the wind, which always blows cold and hard out at Stratford Point. Thank you, Scott Kruitbosch, for finding this beauty today, and Frank Mantlik, for setting up his scope so I could get a good look!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Protesters occupy Foley Square! I still haven't seen a Snowy Owl!

So I was umming and ahhing over whether to go into the city and see the OWS Day of Action today. How weird it would be, I thought, to see subway stations occupied by the masses. (Oh hang on, what's weird about that?) Anyway, my urge to see my first Snowy Owl was more pressing, so I went to East Haven.

(You know, I probably should use that photo-straightening tool in Windows Photo Gallery, but somehow it always seems like cheating to do that.)
Wow, that is a welcoming little place just off Cosey Beach Avenue, in East Haven. Why did I always used to think of "cozy" when I saw that street name? There were "No Parking" and "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs everywhere. Um, yeah, okay.

This is the inviting rock where the Snowy Owl was -- yesterday, for hours, when I wasn't:

Whoa, check out that horizon! Was I drunk? No. East Haven most certainly has some kind of strange electromagnetic ley line vortex effect going on.
No Snowy Owl today. The quest continues. And I can't complain, really. It is so quiet down there at this time of year, so unpeopled, that the gulls and Brant and Sanderlings are in a world of their own -- a busy, methodical world of turning shells over and winkling around with their bills to find food. The only sound was the tinkling of shells along the foreshore.

Attack of the 50-foot gull
I have been delightedly looking at Keith Mueller's pictures of the Snowy Owl, which he took yesterday. Now I want to see one myself even more. That a killing machine so powerful it can take down a great big eider duck looks so freaking cute when it yawns is just amazing.

Occupy Wall Street, or look for a Snowy Owl?

There are two birds that I have wanted to see since I was small child: the Wandering Albatross and the Snowy Owl. Both thanks to my mother. The Wandering Albatross became a fixation after she took me to see a live production of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" one night in our town's only big cathedral. I still remember the lead striding down the aisle between the pews -- "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink" -- albatross (well, probably a Silver Gull, truth be told) around his neck. I finally saw Wandering Albatrosses this year, on a SOSSA pelagic trip out of Wollongong, in eastern Australia, in August. Even whilst heaving over the side of the boat (turns out I have no sea legs), I was still in awe as the albatrosses sailed by like small, silent planes.

The Snowy Owl, though, huh. Almost every year one turns up in coastal Connecticut for a day or so, and it always seems to be when I am stuck at my desk. The Snowy Owl thing happened thanks to my mother attending art college, painting a giant canvas inspired by a picture from National Geographic of four Snowy Owl chicks hunkered down on a desolate tundra. The idea of tundra, permanently frozen ground, was so appealing to a humidity-hating child stuck in subtropical Australia. Those chicks had gimlet eyes, and they looked somehow superior, as if they knew something the rest of us didn't; I loved that. The picture is still on my parents' wall, those chicks glaring at everyone.

So today I'm torn: Go to NYC to the Occupy Wall Street protests on the 2-month anniversary and soak up history and take photos and you know, BE there, or try and see the Snowy Owl that was hanging out at East Haven yesterday. It's OWS vs. OWL. The inner dialogue is going something like "I'm kind of tired, do I really want to go all the way to the city and tromp around and blah blah..." Then "I might get arrested; I don't want to get arrested" Where did that come from? I'm not really at all scared of being arrested. And "What if it turns violent?" Pfft. Let's face it, I'm just coming up with rational excuses. Neuroscientists have pinpointed the moment that the brain makes a decision, before we even know about it. Then it tells us about it and kindly lets us think that we've made a conscious choice. My brain has already decided that OWL beats OWS, so off I go to try and find that bird...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

One of these things is not like the other

We have a new visitor in Milford harbor -- a Pied-billed Grebe. After four years of walking by the harbor every day, you just don't expect to see something different, but there it was all of a sudden a couple of weeks ago. Boink. It popped up from under the water, looking like a rubber ducky compared to the Mallards. And it's stayed around. Now that the weather's getting cold, it's sidling up to the Mallards, coasting along with them. You would think that it might try to do its best to just get along with everyone -- but no, not only is it trying to be a duck, it's trying to be the alpha duck. I saw the cheeky bugger lean forward and bite a female Mallard on the tail, seemingly just for the hell of it, and then dive immediately under the water, leaving just a ripple -- and a confused Mallard turning to look behind her -- in its wake. It was such a soft, fuzzy, fog-advisory Milford day, everything just looked like a Turner painting.
Spot the dinky little interloper
Cue "Jaws" music -- going in for the tail bite

Who? A grebe? You crazy.
Mallards really are beautiful.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What bird are you?

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
by Dan Pancamo
via Wikimedia Commons
You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite bird. I just might start up a birders' dating agency, my algorithm centered on one question, "What is your favorite bird?" There are the bold-hearted Chickadee people, taking on all comers, big or small. The Great Egret, graceful, composed, deliberate in its actions. There are the Starlings, garrulous and social. Belligerent, possessive hummingbirds.

(Yes, I am totally anthropomorphizing. I think part of what makes birds so appealing is that they are like a canvas on which we can project human qualities, while we're simultaneously in awe of their avian, distinctly nonhuman, abilities.)

Soon after moving to Connecticut -- my first fall, colder than any winter I'd ever known -- I was living in a quaint, well-to-do New England town like a postcard that had been breathed into life. My apartment was above that of the only drug addicts in town, so there were raids and my address made it into the local paper's police blotter every second week -- but on the plus side, for a couple of weeks in fall the tree outside the living room window became like the best type of Christmas tree: one decorated with Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

The Ruby-crowned instantly became my favorite bird -- it was something about their incessant flitting and wing flicking and their eye ring, so much like the Silvereyes I loved when I was a child. It was something about the way they look both hearty and vulnerable.

I was sitting in the living room one day when -- thunk! -- what looked like a squash ball bounced off my second-floor window. Kids playing, I thought. But then I thought, what if it was a bird? I ran downstairs, and there was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, dead, on the ground beneath the window. I was about to walk away, feeling a little shaken, when I thought, "What if it just looks dead? Would it hurt if I at least tried to warm it up, just in case?" The wind was howling and the sun was close to setting, and if it wasn't already dead, it probably would be soon. So I bent down and picked up the stiff bird. It didn't appear to be breathing. I sat on the ground, enclosing it in both hands, and I felt scratchy and irritable and sad. There always seemed to be a truck idling loudly out front of the downstairs neighbors, and yes, there it was, churning exhaust in my direction as little baggies and cash were exchanged through the window. For some reason, that damn truck and the little baggies and the cash were what tipped me over the edge and made me feel weepy holding my window-crash victim.

And then I felt a slight movement against my palms. The bird was breathing! It began to stir, so I opened up my hands. It looked up at me; I looked down at it. A tiny, dull olive-green bird. At that time of year in Connecticut, people often walk past a whole flock working the undergrowth -- flitting from branch to branch, catching insects -- and don't even realize they are there. They're unobtrusive; they live their life on the down low. You barely see the male's ruby crown unless another bird really presses his buttons . . . and then appears flash of crimson, a tiny feather flag of agitation that pops up. That's when you know that there was something dramatic lurking beneath all along.

This bird hopped up my arm, so light I could barely feel it. It's legs were thinner than toothpicks. It sat on my shoulder for a minute to two, catching the last remaining rays of sun and gathering its wits, and then it called once in my ear -- jit jit -- and was off on the wing, back to the tree to rejoin the flock.

There was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet here,
about a millisecond before I hit the shutter -- honest.

And here.

Oh, and here.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Things I am grateful for today

  • Autumn air, which smells of sunshine and dry leaves and dreams deliciously dissolving into memory.
  • Seed pods scattered all over the sidewalk, which crunch under your every footstep and crackle in a way that makes you feel like a child again.
  • A fish crow making the weirdest mewling sound, so that I looked under a hedge for the kitten that must be there, then around the corner for the mother that must surely be pushing a baby on their afternoon walk, and then finally at the roof line above, and the crow looking down at me, making this soft, plaintive sound.
  • Three young yellow-crowned night-herons that swooped into a part of the harbor I have never seen them in before, silent and gray like stealth warplanes.
  • Funky Duck, the mind-bending hybrid of mallard and who knows what else, still bobbing around with the mallards as you did all summer, somehow fitting in with them though you are double the size and have those crazy white spectacles.
  • An osprey standing in the shallows bathing and drinking as though it were on holiday from the swooping diving flapping fish-snatching hawk life, staying there so long that I began to rehearse in my head the phone call to a wildlife rescue service about this injured, defenseless osprey stuck in Milford harbor.
  • The man at the dock who didn't make me feel like a fool when, thinking I was all alone, I laughed out loud as the osprey shook like a dog and took off, then shimmied mid-air, realizing the job of shaking off those droplets wasn't as complete as it had thought -- clumsy and awesome all at once.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Serpentine bird

Everywhere you look on the Daintree River are sinuous lines, no straight edges. Mangrove roots and trees and vines tangle together. Green tree snakes tangle themselves around branches like tiny garden hoses. And the Great-billed Heron has a neck like a serpent, with a life of its own.

Great-billed Heron, Daintree River, Queensland, Australia
This is Australia's biggest heron, and then its bill is over-sized in proportion to the rest of its body. Shy, skulky birds, they lurk, standing like statues, waiting to stab passing fish.

We had all but given up hope of seeing this bird after a couple of hours on the river. We'd had Wompoo Fruit Dove making their spooky wollocky-wom-pooo call, Papuan Frogmouth so much like tree bark, Little Kingfisher flitting, impossible to photograph. But no Great-billed Heron, until in the gathering gloom, what seemed like one of the muddy, twisted tree roots unfurled great wings.

The photos I took where you can see the bird in all its plumage somehow don't capture the essence of the bird. Sometimes truth gets lost in the details. It's in silhouette that you can see its Great-billed Heron-ness. That gigantic bill, that snaky neck, the predator crouching like a cat.

Sunset, Daintree River, Queensland, Australia

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Egrets, I've had a few...

The whole time I was in Far North Queensland, the lyrics from The Go-Betweens "Cattle and Cane" kept running through my head in a loop. Coming from Brisbane, I especially loved that band because in the '80s who else sung about being in our corner of Australia?
I recall a schoolboy coming home
Through fields of cane
To a house of tin and timber
And in the sky
A rain of falling cinders
I was scared even of fireworks when I was little, yet I remember the sight of a whole cane field ablaze by the side of the road when I was on holidays seeming awesome and cool, not frightening.
The railroad takes him home
Through fields of cattle
Through fields of cane
Home. It was weird being back in Queensland, because it at once felt so normal -- as normal as the sight of my own hands and feet -- and so exotic. Trees that look like roots and vines that look like trees, not worrying all that much when it's red-bellied black snake that crosses your path because at least it isn't a brown or a taipan or a tiger snake, having to brake in the middle of a winding road for Brahman cattle that look like they just wandered off a Delhi street, and the Cattle Egrets that follow them everywhere, eating the bugs the cattle kick up in their wake.
This species is expanding everywhere in the world that land is being turned over for grazing. They came to Australia from Asia, and multiplied like crazy. Their huge numbers in Far North Queensland are a sign that the ecosystem is out of balance, that too many trees have been cut down for hamburgers -- yet even environmental mistakes can make a beautiful sight. The egrets fly in great numbers down the Daintree River each night to roost. I can't blame them. When I think of true stillness and peace, I think of the Daintree River. (Well, I think of those things and giant crocodiles.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rainbow Bee-eater

The thing I love most about watching birds is that exciting moment of confusion as the eyes and brain try to make sense of a random flash of color, to resolve it into something knowable. A burst of blue-green from the corner of my eye; we're near a pond; this is Far North Queensland, Australia. A kingfisher? No. Brain flips rapidly through the rest of its files . . . images remembered from a field guide . . . Rainbow Bee-eater!

Rainbow Bee-eater, Centenary Lakes, Cairns, Australia
These are not rare birds, but they were to me, as somehow I had never seen one before. For twenty minutes or so, Frank and I watched as it flew precise sorties, to pluck dragonflies from the air and return to its perch to dash the insects against a branch before gulping them down. It was gorging itself. So many dragonflies were meeting their doom that I lost count. It seemed the bird couldn't possibly fit anymore in its tiny stomach, yet somehow it kept going.

At first glance, the bee-eater is like a gorgeous piece of jewelry, a decorative folly of iridescence and tail streamers. But to an insect, it's a killing machine. Beneath all that finery is a nervous system wired to hunt. This bird sat on its perch in a state of complete alertness, scanning for any movement, and it almost never missed its target, many metres away in midair and invisible to my weak human eyes.

I love this bird's name. Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bee-eater. So improbable sounding. Yet for once, this bird has a name that actually makes sense (shock!) as it does eat bees. It eats wasps, too. It rubs them against branches to get rid of the stingers and venom glands.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nature Conservancy Digital Photo Competition

I wish I could take a photo like this. For that matter, I wish I could have even been there just to see this.
Northern Saw-whet Owl; Megan Lorenz/2010 Nature Conservancy Photo Contest Runner Up

And this.
Great Egret; Graham F. Owen/2010 Nature Conservancy Photo Contest Runner Up

These are two of the runners-up from last year's Nature Conservancy Digital Photo Competition. You have until September 12 to enter this year's competition. This is what the folks at TNC say:

The Nature Conservancy is holding its 6th Annual Digital Photo Competition. This year, it's easier than ever to enter using your Facebook log-in info - or through The Nature Conservancy's Flickr Group -
Original digital photos that feature the natural wonders of the lands, waters, plants, animals and people around the world are all eligible for the competition.
This year at least 35 photos will be selected as honorable mentions and finalists, and our online community will vote for their favorite images to determine the winners. The grand prize winner will be featured on the cover of the 2013 Nature Conservancy calendar. Proceeds from calendar sales help support our many programs to protect wildlife and their habitats.
Photographers will retain the rights to all their submissions. This competition is open to all photographers age 18 years or older regardless of residence or citizenship, as long as the laws of their jurisdiction allow participation. You can find more details at Photo submissions must be uploaded by 11:59 pm PST Monday, September 12, 2011.
The Nature Conservancy do some pretty incredible things. I love the fact that they are starting to grasp that urban nature is important, not just majestic mountainsides and forests. And this story about how a teenage boy went from being in a homeless shelter to doing environmental work in the Ecuadorean Andes was so compelling that I had to borrow the TNC magazine from my therapist's waiting room. (I'm returning it next week . . . oh, and subscribing to the magazine . . .)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gray-hooded Gull, aka Most Bizarre Birding Excursion Ever

Forget bucolic backdrops and a nice ride in the country for a spot of birding. Why do that when you can go see a super-rare bird . . . on the boardwalk at Coney Island, amid tattoos and thongs, beach umbrellas and giant pina coladas, and signs boasting "Live Freaks, Cold Beers"?

Gray-hooded Gull, Coney Island, NY, July 30, 2011

The Gray-headed Gull that has been hanging around Coney Island recently is a truly beautiful gull--with its icy, translucent eye and those red-licorice legs. When it flies, the bright flashes of white in its forewings make it stand out from the many Laughing Gulls that call Coney Island home. And this bird is sassy. I guess it would have to be gutsy to have somehow made its way here from South America. And now it has really made itself at home on the boardwalk. Twice we watched it chase a hapless Laughing Gull off the top of a lamp-post, and no other bird was getting near it once it perched on there.

Laughing Gull that was soon not laughing, as it was about to be evicted from its lamp-post
Patriotic Laughing Gull
I don't chase birds all that often, but when I do, I never expect that the bird will just fly right at me. Yet that's exactly what it did. Out of the flocks of Laughing Gulls swirling above the beach umbrellas and gold bikinis, the Gray-Hooded Gull peeled off and came and sat on the lamp-post we were standing next to. I was so shocked, I could hardly turn the camera on or remember how to use it. If anything, the bird seemed curious, although no doubt it was probably just calculating whether we had any french fries.

The fact that we were looking at such an extraordinary rarity (only one has ever been recorded in the United States before this) was made all the more surreal by the surroundings.

That's Frank Gallo getting some beautiful shots of the bird after it landed on the lamp-post.

It chose lucky lamp-post number 13 to perch on. Looks like it wasn't the first gull to have done so.
Flight shot showing the glowing white forewings (copyright Frank Gallo)

There are a lot of remarkable things about this bird, but for me it is those icy eyes. When the bird moved to perch on a roof next to other gulls, the lightness of its eyes was so distinctive.

Laughing Gull (in molt), Gray-hooded Gull, Great Black-backed Gull -- on the roof of the public toilet (really, this was the most pristine, scenic birdwatching experience ever)
Gray-hooded Gull on left, with Laughing Gulls

We celebrated with freshly squeezed lemonade.

Though it was hard to resist the tastefully presented pina coladas in naked-lady glasses.

Thank you, Coney Island, for your super-rare gull, your burlesque girls, guys with snakes wrapped around their necks, and girls with Amazon parrots on their shoulders.