Friday, September 5, 2014

In praise of sewage ponds

     I reclined on the less-than-comfortable scree and gazed across Lake Michigan to the hazy outline of the Upper Peninsula. I plunged my trembling hand elbow-deep into the bag at my side, sufficiently calorie-deprived that the dry raisin bran tasted delicious. I have the chronic problem of skimping on food when I hike. My only fuel for the day of hiking had been a stale bagel generously upholstered with peanut butter.
      I turned my attention to the DeLorme atlas sprawled across my lap, searching for birding sites in the three-hour swathe of Michigan that separated me from the Fall Out Boy concert to which I had spontaneously purchased tickets.
      Like a hummingbird attracted to red, my eye fell upon a cluster of rectangular ponds outside Houghton Lake—sewage ponds! Birders are fascinated with sewage ponds—a strange but entirely understandable fixation, since such facilities attract birds the way coffee shops attract hipsters.
      Yes, they were sewage ponds, and only a couple miles off the highway. The next afternoon, I turned down the dirt road that ran north of the ponds. Pulled off, scrambled out, and squirmed atop my car. The gleaming ponds teamed with birds—the only problem being they were too distant to identify. Oh, sure, I could pick out a few Lesser Yellowlegs stalking the grassy edges, but the half-mile handicapped my ability to see, let alone identify, most of the birds that were surely present…
      Why not go to the office and ask to go in? I thought. The worst they can say is no. I squinted again at the blots oscillating in the heat waves. Then I slid from the roof, collapsed my tripod, and drove toward the office.
      Doubt arrived with its corresponding fear. I pictured burly, tattooed men in overalls hooting at my request to go birding in the ponds. Nevertheless, I pulled up and entered the nondescript office.
      I was greeted not by a burly man but a smiling young receptionist. “Is there any chance I could, uh, go birding around the ponds?” I asked, lifting my binoculars with my question.
      My request did not catch her off guard. “Of course!” she answered. “You can drive around the ponds, as long as you stay on the roads.”
      I battled a strong desire to fly over her desk and shower her feet with kisses. Instead, I mumbled, “Sweet, thanks.” When she handed me the waiver, I spotted a tattoo on her wrist. But, it looked innocuous, and she was neither burly nor wearing overalls. I signed my name and marched out of the office to drive around the ponds. Ducks and Ring-billed Gulls fled the dikes ahead of my car.
      I have lived in the north woods all summer, a beautiful area but tragically free of shorebirds. I hungrily scanned the dikes and pond margins for their furtive brown forms. I enjoyed modest success: a brace of Pectoral Sandpipers, a smattering of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, many clamoring Lesser Yellowlegs, and stripy snipes hiding in the grass.

     It was the ducks that stole the show. I don’t think of late August as prime duck season, but I found fourteen species of waterfowl. Teal, shoveler, pintail, wigeon, scaup, Redhead—they were all present, unassuming and overlookable in their tattered eclipse plumage.
      I departed happy, eager to visit more sewage lagoons. Until then, I will sit beneath the relatively unpolluted northern stars listening to loons and migrating warblers while dreaming of crisp juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The truthful nest

The bottom quarter of Sammy’s sweatpants were stained dark with dew and mottled with mud. He trudged ahead, cold, head scrunched into his hood, left hand pocketed, right hand cradling the GPS that guides us on our transect. A slender Red Maple branch, waylaid by his shoulder, sprang back and stung my cheek. “Ouch!” I cried.
            “Sorry, dude,” he mumbled. We walked on, pushing past brambles, cracking branches like bones, scuffling the leaf litter. My eyes slouched. Four hours of sleep is not enough…
            A feathered pinwheel erupted from the leaves underfoot. “Oh shit!” I hissed, flinching backwards. The olive pinwheel flopped away with exaggerated wing beats, chipping angrily.
            “Wait for it, wait for it,” said Sammy. He walked ahead and stooped, bending back some seedlings. “Ah-HA!” he yelled triumphantly. I walked up, bent over, and saw the nest—a straw-y cereal bowl submerged in leaves, invisible from overhead view. The three small eggs looked like someone had systematically sneezed fine brown snot all over them.
            I had never seen an Ovenbird nest before. I squinted at it and realized that it looks nothing like a Dutch oven. For over fifteen years I had blithely believed it looks like one. The reality of the nest at my feet confronted years of blind faith in the books. My heart sank. What other false facts are lurking in the literature? What other misguided analogies masquerade as truth?
            When I returned to my room, I gathered my collection of field guides and scientific journals and carried them to the fire pit. As the lying pages curled and blackened, I chuckled with glee at the incineration of falsehood. Take that, charlatans!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Urban birding

Without car, without camera, without functional bike, without even the physical ability to ride a bike, I nevertheless embarked to bird this afternoon. I girded myself with my Leicas, grabbed my notebook, and walked northbound on Fuller. Urban birding.

Martin Luther King Park is a dismal birding spot. Bald ball fields, a few scraggly trees, and very few birds. It is, however, one of the largest patches of green near my house. Interestingly, it is also the namesake of the song "King Park" by the post-hardcore group La Dispute. Not my normal taste in music, but, hell, it's cool to find a song about a park a half-mile up the road. It is a song that induces goose bumps.

Martin Luther King Park, Kent, US-MI
Apr 20, 2014 2:00 PM - 2:10 PM
Protocol: Traveling
0.15 mile(s)
9 species

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Domestic type))  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)  1     A female-type in the squat pine just north of the tennis courts.
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  10
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  1
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  1
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  2
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  8

As far as I know, no one has written a song about Oak Hill Cemetery. I sauntered in that direction, past scores of family barbecues and children riding tricycles in driveways. At the intersection of Worden and Alton, cherr-cherr-cherr--a Red-bellied Woodpecker, surprising given the scarcity and diminutive stature of the neighborhood trees. Finally, the cemetery. Walk to the middle, and you'll find yourself in one of the quietest spots in Grand Rapids. 

Oak Hill Cemetery, Kent, US-MI
Apr 20, 2014 2:25 PM - 3:15 PM
Protocol: Traveling
0.2 mile(s)
Comments:     Afternoon ramble through the north half of Oak Hill Cemetery. I spent most of the time period sitting in the middle of the cemetery writing.
14 species

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)  1     I didn't see any activity at the nest when I walked by, but later heard a bird giving "kek" calls from that direction.j
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  2
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  3
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  4
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  3
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  2
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  1
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  1
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  1
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  2
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  4

Most birders are white and affluent (relatively speaking). Today, I realized that most of the birders I know are suburb or rural dwellers. Connection? Certainly. Poor, single-parent families can't access or accommodate the resources and places birding entails. King Park is better than nothing, but there a ten year old boy won't be able to catch frogs, find trout lilies, or encounter a potential mentor that totes binoculars.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Five years the wiser

Why am I here?
This is no ordinary delve into existentialism; I am wondering why, specifically, I am at Brier Lane.
I am exiting the car at my Christmas Bird Count turf in Lemon Heights. Ah, CBC season! Those hectic weeks centered on the holidays drain birders. We neglect sleep and personal hygiene to prowl our territories, wringing every bird out of the shrubbery. Once the rush is over, we sigh, slumber, and don’t return to our territory until the next December.

Yet here I am, walking up steep-as-hell Brier Lane on January 12. Count season is long over. I didn’t make it home for the count this year, so I just want to see what’s around…what I would have seen.

Audubon’s Warblers and House Finches skip through the knackered eucalyptus trees lining the road. “Damn butchers!” I mutter, bemoaning the excessive tree trimming that compromises the potential of my territory. Cresting the hill, I peer down to see if I can find the customary scrub-jay or mockingbird in the cactus patch. Nope! I can’t—but that’s because the whole patch is GONE, leaving a swathe of dirt that eagerly awaits the next rainfall so it can slide down and befoul the neighbor’s pool.

Good habitat is ephemeral in these neighborhoods. Shaggy yards eventually attract the ire of neighbors, to the misfortune of overwintering birds.

Why are you here? Again I ponder my motives as I watch Yellow-rumped Warblers silhouetted against the picture windows of rich people. Meanwhile, my cynicism and optimism duel. No way. It’s dead. There is NO way it is back. “Shuttup, will you? I can always hope.”

It, in this case, refers to the “Western” Flycatcher I first pished out a thicket in 2009. It subsequently returned in 2010…and 2011…and 2012…

I had started believing it would winter indefinitely. It, ten grams of fluff, would pace my annual return. You idiot, it’s just a bird. Your life expectancy is probably forty times longer. At some point, it needs to die. “But come on, not yet!”

I stop before the appointed yard and spray the jungle with an aggressive pish sequence. Within two seconds, a wide-eyed olive bird squeaks and flits to a twig six feet in front of my face. “Hah. It’s back.” Cynicism doesn’t respond.

When the bird darts back into cover, I turn and plod downhill. While I walk, I  try to imagine where it nests. Breeding Pacific-slope Flycatchers have infiltrated old developments such as this one; it is possible that it never leaves. Or, if it is a Cordilleran, it might come from a Ponderosa Pine forest in Colorado. Or, even it is a Pacific-slope, maybe it travels to this unkempt backyard from a rainforest in British Columbia.

I reach the car, pause. “Good-bye…until next year.”  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Last bird, first bird

            Yesterday and today are the same. It is winter. The sun has set and risen, just like it has for millennia, just like it will for years more. But, since today inaugurates the new calendar that you bought half-priced after Christmas or received for free in the mail, it is a big deal to us humans. Time—we live in it, but can’t quite grasp it, and anything we can’t grasp is fascinating.
            The birding world is not immune to the turn of the year.
            In fact, birders are more excited than the average citizen about each New Year. No, we don’t party late and spend January 1st with a hangover. Rather, we turn in at 9:00PM in preparation for our early alarm to start the fresh year list…
            Yes, the year list, that mortal list among the immortal county, state, birds-seen-while-peeing lists. Every year, the clock is reset. Every birder’s year list goes back to zero. Lots of birders keep meticulous tally of their year lists.
            I’ve kept my share. In fact, I was so excited by the idea when I first learned of it that I started my year list right then and there, on September 17th, 200?. Eventually, I switched to the kosher start date.
            The zenith of my year-listing was 2009. I rabidly kept a Bigby list—a specialized year list that only allows birds seen while walking or biking from home. A year of collecting 283 species, only to lose them all when December changed to January…
            When a birder obsesses over his year list, it becomes a Big Year. The birding community reveres those who have taken the quest to monumental proportions. Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway, Sandy Komito in The Big Year—the Herculean efforts of these superstars inspire a fresh crop of year list junkies annually. It can be a Big Year (ABA area), a Big Year in a state, a Big County Year, or…
            Or a Big Year of birds seen by bike.
            Anyway— each year, whether it is a Big Year or a Normal Year or a year without a year list, is always kicked off by one bird, the first bird. “What was your first bird of the year?” birders ask each other. It is the topic of many forum threads and Facebook posts.
            I reflected on this tradition as I wrote in my journal on New Year’s Eve. Hunched in my chair, I tried to write but ended up nibbling my fingernails. First bird—what will it be tomorrow morning?
            Then I heard the pattern: __-_-__---______-_______
            No, it couldn’t be—the window was shut. I set my journal on the desk and listened. There it was again!
            I reached forward, slid the window open. Sat in silence.
            Ah, a Great Horned Owl. I glanced up and saw my reflection smiling at me in the window. A good way to end the year. I sat and listened to the owl’s serenade. A second owl joined in. They sang their throaty duet, an old married couple getting friendly in preparation for another breeding season. I winked at my glassy twin, wrote a few lines, and then crawled into bed.
            It was 2014 when I emerged. I stumbled to the same window, cracked it open, and strained my sleepy ears. The first sound to reach my ear was a warbling House Finch.
            Another year. I won’t have a list, but I still had a first bird.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spruce Berries

Only two things can produce euphoria such as this: Spruce Grouse and the promise of blueberry pie.

Spruce Grouse are extraordinary creatures in that their very existence compels human beings to drive inordinate distances and donate quarts of blood to thirsty insects for the mere chance to glimpse this dappled boreal chicken. I, for one, am not immune to their spells, nor are my comrades Harold Eyster and Alison Világ. For this reason, we found ourselves wandered down sandy Clark Lake Road, scrutinizing the trees and underbrush for grouse-shaped objects.

 One could call it birding. In reality, rather than walking or birding our way down the road, we slapped and joked and laughed deeper into the bog as the light faded and the mosquitoes crescendoed. Harold and Alison slapped, swore, and danced in an effort to assuage the suckers’ assaults. I attempted to employ Zen, convincing myself that the proboscises that pierced my skin caused me no pain or reason to react. My enlightenment produced only a triple layer of welts on my feet that took nearly a week to fade.

Upon reaching the end of the road without a grouse, or really any birds at all, Spruce Grouse virtuoso Alison had a suggestion. “On the way back, let’s be quiet and see what happens.”

Easier said than done. Anything said when martial law demands silence is automatically funny, so we choked on our laughs as we retraced our steps.

Harold, quite accurately perceiving that the dozens of mosquitoes latched onto my feet were causing me pain, repeatedly came to my aid. “Jeez, Neil,” he said, stomping on the little vampires. “There you go, buddy.”

On one such occasion, I was standing in the middle of the track, stroking my fifty-seven chin hairs and pondering whether the faint sounds I was hearing were the work of a Red Squirrel gnawing a pinecone, an exceptionally large beetle scraping on spruce bark, or a Spruce Grouse munching on needles.

Stomp.I’ve seen you four times,” he whispered.

What?” I hissed in return.

We’ve only seen each other four times,” he explained.

Wait…now, Colorado—“

He cut me off. “No, I’m not counting now. And actually, it’s five.

Inexplicably, we found this hilarious. Ahead of us, Alison turned and hurled visual poison darts to express her displeasure with our poorly stifled snorts. We quickly sobered up and continued to scan the boughs.

We rounded a bend. “Spruce Grouse,” Harold announced nonchalantly. My initial reaction was skepticism; surely he was being facetious. But—no. A male Spruce Grouse scurried in the sandy road a hundred meters ahead. It soon burrowed into the roadside undergrowth. We stealthily approached, and, tracing faint rustling sounds in the blueberry shrubs, found in stripping the sweet sapphires that we ourselves had been feasting on throughout the day.

Excellent. However, that is not the end of the story. Birding, particularly when done with such charismatics as Harold and Alison, is rarely the mere pursuit of birds. This expedition to the Upper Peninsula was a pretext for the excessive consumption of blueberries. It all began innocently enough; an occasional handful stripped as we trekked to the tip of Whitefish Point.

But, to the eternal regret of the blueberries, our plundering took on megalithic proportions when discussed how fun it would be to bake a blueberry pie in the campfire. The pillaging saw no limits as we plucked berry after berry to transform this romantic whim to reality.

Accoutering ourselves with a pie crust, sugar, and tin foil in Paradise, we detoured to make the aforementioned Spruce Grouse search, gorging ourselves on a quart and a half of Bear Claw ice cream on the drive to Clark Lake. After our triumph, we made an incognito pause along a county road to acquire fuel for the fire.

The dashboard of the Stinkpot after the Spruce Grouse campaign. From left to right: bandana, headlamp, binocular strap, DeLorme atlas, empty ice cream carton, pie crust, sugar, Furious George, day pass for Hartwick Pines State Park.

What emerged from the glowing coals half an hour later was, we agreed, the tastiest blueberry pie any of us had every tasted. We felt an odd communion with the Spruce Grouse. Blueberry-eaters, all of us.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Such Diaries: 12 July 2013

July the twelfth is Renée’s birthday, so, in conformation with family tradition, we ventured into the mountains on a hike. Our destination was the Fourth of July trail, which we reached despite being trapped behind an obstinately slow-driving sedan picking its way up the dirt road. We had wisely selected an easy hike to save ourselves for a 5K race the following day; upon arrival we learned that “easy” meant an 1,800-foot elevation gain over three miles to Dorothy Lake above tree line.

We began in the solemn douglas-firs, serenaded by saucy kinglets and their out-of-control whistles and warbles. As our elevation ticked upward, the trees shrunk until they tempted abduction as house plants. The kinglets gave way to White-crowned Sparrows as the dominant species. Finally, vascular plant life all but surrendered, leaving us exposed among rock and lichen, the domain of Pipits and Ptarmigan that we did not see.

Unaccustomed to high elevation, I felt dizzy, as if mildly drunk. Joel and Marcel forged ahead; I plodded behind, attempting to correct for the rocks that spiraled underfoot. Finally I reached them at the lake. I gave a triumphant shout and facetiously yelled, “Who’s jumping in with me?” The frigid lake leered at us, caped in ice that I had to convince myself was not blue.

Upon hearing of our planned tomfoolery, the parents disapproved. “What will you do, jump in your underwear? That will be wet and miserable for the hike down,” Renée interjected.

“Exactly. That is why we will take it off.”

It was cold.

Our unclothed adventures distracted us from the gathering gray clouds to the west. Afternoon thunderstorms are about as regular as defecations on a fiber-rich diet; thus, we decided to flee the tundra, where we towered as fleshy lightning rods. We hurriedly packed up and made it to the stunted trees before lighting began striking. I doggedly slid-walked down the trail, my hood up and my head down, occasionally tossing back a handful of chia seeds from the flask that Dave lent me.

We reached the parking lot thoroughly drenched.

It wasn’t until I was mostly finished with lunch at the Nepalese buffet in Nederland that I realized I had a chia seed imbedded in the blister that I had sustained on my palm the previous day from weeding an onion bed.