Duck hunters without guns

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This past Sunday I had the privilege of going birding with my stepfather for the first time in months. We went to a fish hatchery and a state park in search of the ducks, grebes, and shorebirds that winter here in Tennessee (bad joke: how is a birder like a rich person? They both use winter as a verb!)

We saw nothing rare or spectacular, just flocks of ring-necked ducks, gadwalls, and coots. Coots are considered a nuisance in the northern states and provinces, but they are among my favorite waterfowl, with their fat bobbing bodies and absurd feet. I have a weakness for ridiculous birds like coots, woodcocks, and night-herons; they show one a jolly side of nature that seems so soothing and necessary after a night spent watching Carl Sagan videos.

I’ve encountered some academic speculation that birding represents a “safe” eruption of the hunting instinct within the mind of the bourgeois   – in other words, that birders are hunters without guns, people who stalk wildlife as their ancient ancestors and country grandfathers once did, but take only symbolic trophies because modern living has neutered them. Of course this is a tad derogatory, and fails to take things like scientific curiosity and birding as a subculture into account, but when I am out looking for ducks in the winter I do get a sense of being a frustrated hunter. I stand in the rushes in my muted-brown jacket, holding binoculars and listening to the sound of my own breathing, staying as still as possible because the most sought-after species are also the most skittish. Then, if I see an unusual duck or shorebird and identify it with confidence, a sense of triumph. I know people who hunt, and they would consider this a sort of dry orgasm – “Then you just walk away?” Yes, because I am gentle, respectful, civilized, intellectual, delicate, guilt-ridden, anemic, sentimental, and ridiculous. Also, I don’t own a shotgun, and nobody ever taught me to shoot. No Artemis am I. I’m sure the ducks, somewhere deep in their little duck-brains, appreciate this.

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I wish to be reincarnated as a vulture

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A vulture, I say!

Why, you may ask? Because they get up late and spend most of the day riding thermals with their vulture pals, keeping an eye out for roadkill but mostly just soaring and playing and soaking up the sun. Sure, there’s a gross-out factor, especially when it comes to diet, but a vulture is programmed by evolution to enjoy carrion the same way a human is programmed by evolution to enjoy a well-marbled ribeye. I’d just like my deceased ungulates a little less processed if I were a vulture. No biggie.

My diet would give me the spectacular defense mechanism of vomiting carrion onto aggressive parties. Step up on me and you’d get rancid meat in the face. Ha!

I’d be “ugly,” too, but no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. The captive turkey vulture at Ijams Nature Center believes herself a great beauty, judging by how much time she spends preening and strutting before the visitors. Even she is an exception – most birds show zero indication that they care what humans think of them. Wilderness-dwelling birds may be unaware of humans as separate entities.

The question would be: turkey vulture or black vulture? A birder can generally tell these species apart by their aura*. if you look up in a tree, see a big black bird, and think “Look, a vulture,” then you’ve probably seen a turkey vulture. If you look up in a tree, see a big black bird, and think “OH MY GOD IT’S A HARBINGER OF DOOM FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL!” then you’ve probably seen a black vulture. Bulky, scary black vultures look badass, but I think I’d rather be a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures have a leaner shape for more graceful soaring.

A lot of people hate vultures, but I love them enough to want to be one. I guess it’s my knowledge of what a world without scavenging birds looks like, combined with the pleasure of watching my local vultures circle lazily in the summer air.

 

* Birding by intuition (getting the gist of the bird) is called “jiz birding,” because the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Bushtit v. Woodcock case that all birding slang must sound unspeakably filthy 

Not-Robin: the bird that started it all

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“I saw a weird bird this morning,” began the note I wrote to my stepfather, which I would leave on the counter for him to pick up as he left for work.

The bird I’d seen was odd not because of what it was, but because of what it was not. It was not an American robin. It was a big, fattish songbird with dark upperparts and rusty flanks, but it gave off a maddening vibe of not-robin that I didn’t know how to interpret at the time. I’m surprised my stepfather was able to decipher the garbled description that my untrained eyes and mind came up with. Bertrand Russell was right – non-experts make terrible witnesses.

I’d seen an Eastern towhee. Unlike robins, which are in the thrush family, towhees are basically gigantic sparrows. They’re named for their enthusiastic calls of “Tow-hee, tow-hee!” which can often be heard at dusk in Eastern states (a closely related bird, the spotted towhee, lives in Western states.) The male wears a handsome black coat with white accents over a rufous vest and a white shirt. The female looks a little drabber in her brown jacket. Image

A major difference between towhees and robins is that towhees hop rather than walk across the ground. Scientists don’t know why some birds hop while others walk; possible factors include leg length, energy expenditure, weight, and the evolution of ground-dwelling vs. arboreal species. I say that a scurrying robin and a bouncing towhee are equally cute.

Towhees also tend to be more reclusive than robins, despite preferring similar suburban and woodland edge habitat. They like to stay in the bushes, kicking up leaves with their feet in the most charming manner to get at insects.

The Eastern towhee remains one of my favorites because it was the first bird that really got my attention. The attractiveness and peculiarity of this species encouraged me to look about and perceive the beauty and variety of the natural world, and to forge a friendship with my stepfather based on my newfound interests. Hooray for the not-robin!

Afternoon in the clouds

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We ventured into the heart of the Cumberland Mountains once again, to look for birds.

When we visited the same spot last week, it was a sunny day, crisp for late spring, and the trees at the top of our preferred mountain were not yet in full leaf. This week a different atmosphere had taken hold. A storm system was blowing through the valley, sending tendrils of mist up the hillsides and making the gray sky growl with occasional thunder. Chill winds alternated with those damp, balmy breezes that feel like animals’ breath. The sheer amount and variety of green before the eye, green pressing in on all sides and made even more vibrant by the gloom, dazzled us as we made our way up the old mining roads and into the clouds. The Cumberlands were in a serious mood, fecund and brooding.

What a difference a week makes.

We spent a lot of time traipsing wetly through managed elk habitat, the closest thing East Tennessee has to moorlands. The grass was festooned with spittlebug foam. Trilliums and mushrooms sprouted in the bushes. A number of birds were enjoying the diversity of food available at the woodland edge, including an American redstart with vivid orange patches on his tail and two chestnut-sided warblers with jolly raspberry-jam-red streaks running down their flanks. A pair of field sparrows mated right in front of us. It all bespoke a mad early-summer rush to grow and procreate, so much so that I was slightly embarrassed to bear witness to it in the company of my mother and stepfather.

We had fun, though. We had so much fun that recent photographs of my mother and I not looking stiff and unnatural are now in existence:

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My mom looking for roadside ginger

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Me being hammy

It was very quiet for an accessible wilderness area in our tourism-happy region (no, I shan’t tell you exactly where it is), perhaps because it’s in what’s understood to be coal country. If you look off the road on the mountain, you will see land formations like broad shelves where seams of coal were sliced out many years ago. The much more gruesome scars of mountaintop removal are visible in the distance at certain overlooks. This may be too depressing for many nature lovers. I would argue that when you are listening for the ethereal calls of Eastern wood-pewees in the handsome second-growth forest atop this mountain and others like it, you come to focus not on what has been lost but on what has been preserved, and on what you would be willing to fight for.

This is what I do on Sunday instead of church. I highly recommend it.

Once Were Warblers

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It’s Thursday, May 16, and I feel like I’m backsliding into nothingness, into a bog of scatterbrained depression where I fear I may spend the rest of my life. Because of my disorganization I managed to miss the second half of my midterm in MITx biology, putting me in danger of not earning a certificate of completion. Who cares about a certificate of completion? I don’t know. It may be spiritual. Any faltering in an online course, especially if it’s my own fault, seems to me proof that I don’t deserve a second chance and will never amount to anything.

When Primo Levi (one of my favorite writers) was in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take an oral chemistry exam so he could work in a factory and get better rations. After being kept waiting on his feet for ten hours, he was taken into a room with a calm, banal German officer who could easily have condemned him to die. And he, nervous, literally starving, out-of-practice, exhausted, embarrassed of his appearance, and working outside his native language, passed that exam. In chemistry. Which is hard. This is the sort of anecdote that is either inspiring or unbearable depending on one’s situation. Right now it makes me feel like a nematode.

My solace, as is often the case, has avian sources. This past Sunday I went up into the Cumberland Mountains with my family to look for nesting birds. It was a clear, sunny day, surely one of the last cool days of an unusually cool spring, and wildflowers were in bloom all across the forest floor. The leaves on the trees at that altitude were not yet completely unfurled; they glowed light green in the sun. I confess that I separated myself from my family so that I could absorb this bit of Appalachian quietude into my own skin, accompanied by my own thoughts. I heard Northern Parulas buzzing in the treetops, but I could not get a look at them – which is normal, because they are tiny and prefer to stay hidden in the canopy.

After I had absorbed enough Appalachian quietude, I intercepted my search party on the gravel mining trail. My timing was lucky. We ran into a cell of neotropical migrant birds, including a black-and-white warbler (like the one in the photo), a rose-breasted grosbeak, a hooded warbler, a blue-winged warbler, and some Eastern wood-pewees. Our most impressive find in birder’s terms was a blue-headed vireo yelping from the branches of a tuliptree. It was my first blue-headed vireo: life bird #139. Stephen has already blogged the vireo.

There is no failure in birding, except perhaps in the most competitive circles. Finding all the warblers made ours a fruitful outing indeed, yet even if we’d come up empty we could have still wandered among the wild rhododendrons and called it a victorious nature walk. How ironic that bearing close witness to the trials, travails, and little chirping results of evolution is the one thing that frees me from the idea that everything is about fighting and judging and winning and clawing one’s way to the increasingly unattainable American dream and being hard on oneself because that’s what winners do. It’s not that birds are an excuse to be lazy so much as an excuse not to collapse into suicidal depressions over mistakes and obstacles. To both the prophets of old and the secularized geeks of the 21st century, they are a constant reminder that the petty, psychotic social world of human beings is not all that exists in the universe.