Thursday, April 21, 2011

Secret mountain wilderness

There are so many images flickering in front of our eyes every day; so much stimuli that sometimes it all blurs together. I was trawling through the pictures I have on my computer, looking for one that I needed for a job I was doing. I always say I'm going to organize my files, but I never do, so I always have to scroll through hundreds of jumbled-up pictures to find what I'm looking for. As I was rushing through them, out of all the thumbnails on my screen, that raven on the left seemed to peer out at me, saying, Stop for a minute, remember me? Forget all those ads and horrible news stories and words you've been absorbed by all day, and remember me.

I kept on scrolling and did my work -- and saw a whole lot more ads and horrible news stories and words. But when I closed my eyes to go to sleep, the image of these ravens -- especially that cheeky character on the left -- appeared again in my mind. It was still there when I woke up.

The moment that I took the picture had seemed special at the time: It was late February. It had just snowed, but spring was on the way. Everywhere you looked there were ravens wheeling through the air in courtship displays, jet black against the bright blue southwestern sky. But I had never seen them be quite so gentle and intimate as on this day. They were preening each other, in what seemed to me a tender and respectful way.

The ravens were a kind of greeting committee at a parking lot we'd randomly pulled into north of Sedona, in Arizona. They seemed a good omen. It only got better when we saw the sign for the park.

Secret mountain wilderness. Some linguists and clever clogs like Tolkien (and perhaps more importantly, the English teacher in Donnie Darko) say that the most beautiful-sounding arrangement of letters in the English language is cellar door. Give me secret mountain wilderness any day.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The goofy, serious Northern Shoveler

The dabbling ducks. When I hear that name I think not so much of a type of bird but of a bunch of ducks just hanging out, dabbling at whatever takes their fancy -- watercolor painting, the local amateur theatrical society, playing the fiddle.

Northern Shovelers, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico.

Of course they are busy all day long doing dabbling of a much more serious kind: puddling about looking for food. As the last ray of light was fading here at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, these Northern Shovelers had a true urgency about them; you could feel it. The weather was especially cold this February, so no doubt they needed every calorie they could get. And there was a storm rolling in.

Snow was on the way, and bitter, cold winds.

Actually, this guy looks kind of irritated with me for taking his attention, doesn't he? This lasted for all of a second, and then he was back to his job, as though I wasn't there at all.

That yellow eye is kind of glaring at me.

This is the view I'm most accustomed to seeing of any dabbling duck, a.k.a. the headless duck:

Headless Northern Shovelers.

But Bosque del Apache is a magical kind of place, a birder's fantasy, where you can see birds relatively close and at your leisure. Being able to sit and get a good look at these Shovelers as they got up out of the water onto the ice, it suddenly struck me just how odd looking these ducks are. They are like bills on legs.

There is something especially cute about a creature that is so serious and businesslike yet looks so fantastical. And what they do with their bill makes them seem all the more fantastical -- half bird, half whale. As they scoot along through the water, the fringed edge of that bill, like a comb with more than 100 teeth, filters the water so they can harvest tiny invertebrates. (This photographer captured a shot of the lamellae, those projections on the bill.)

The poor dull-looking female Northern Shovelers -- when I got home I realized I had taken hardly any photos of them. But a female Northern Shoveler is an awesome creature: When a predator comes to her nest, she poops on her eggs to make them unappealing. Hah, take that!

Female Northern Shoveler - less spectacular with her brown eyes and plumage, but awesome nonetheless.