Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bathrobe Birding

I hate birding and what it has done to my life. That is what I was thinking as my alarm went off at four this morning. My head pounding and my eyes too sore to keep open, I vaulted myself down from my loft bed, switched off my alarm, threw on a sweatshirt and a bathrobe, and climbed out my bedroom window onto the roof.

My life is a strange one, indeed.

Well, you see, most birds have this nasty habit of migrating at night. That would be fine, and would allow birders to slumber undisturbed through the night, except for their other nasty habit of calling while winging overhead.

Almost immediately I was rewarded with the plaintive heep nocturnal flight call of a Swainson’s Thrush flying overhead in the darkness. Another passed over, and another. Turns out that there was a river of thrushes migrating overhead—I estimated nearly forty flew over during the forty-minute span I was listening on the roof.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the whole operation was the utter lack of migrants other than Swainson’s Thrushes. Now, the thrushes are one of the more common passerine migrants at this time of year, but there are plenty of other species that migrate at night that should have been calling.

Actually, I lied. The strangest thing actually happened at 4:21, when my dad came out into the backyard below to walk our new puppy. A Great Horned Owl was hooting in the distance, so, in an effort to spread some owly joy, I whispered, “Dad! Hear the Great Horned Owl?” Unfortunately, from my vantage point, I couldn’t see his reaction, but the flashlight beam danced across the backyard and then the door scraped shut several seconds later. At that moment, I realized how sketchy I probably looked, a robed figure silhouetted against the sky before dawn. Later, I learned from my dad that he took my whispering to be the snarling of a coyote and beat a hasty retreat in the house to protect the well being of both himself and the puppy.

My little night-listening escapade brought forth three questions:

1) Are there any differences between the nocturnal flight calls of “Russet-backed” (C. u. ustulatus) and “Olive-backed” (C. u. swainsoni) Swainson’s Thrushes? Online recordings are scanty, and I haven’t heard the flight calls of the eastern birds since last September.

2) Why has listening for nocturnal flight calls not caught on in California? Back East, it’s the hip thing to stand out in your driveway at three in the morning and then brag on Facebook about all the sweet flyover thrushes and warblers you had. This behavior seems to be much less commonly practiced in California.

3) How does whispering sound anything at all like a coyote???

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Migration Letters


My Dearest Hodenpyl,

It is with regret that I am informing you that I must break off our association. If all the events of my life were under my complete control, I would linger longer and savor the luscious fruit of migration in your muddy embrace. However, urgent duties and obligations have transported me across the country, thus bringing our symbiotic relationship to a tragic close. Perhaps it is for the better; migration will soon languish and die, and you would surely be heartbroken if I abandoned you in favor of other partners. You can anticipate my return in the fall, and, if you produce plentiful warblers, you will surely be seeing me multiple times a week, at least until mid-October. But, the future is uncertain, so let us not worry our minds overmuch.

In the meantime, I encourage you to seduce other birders. To assist you in this venture, I find it appropriate to offer two small tokens of advice. Birders are fickle creatures, with variable tastes, and you may find it necessary to modify your ensnarement techniques.

First, a word about trail conditions. The swashbuckling attitude displayed by many birders is mere bravado; more often than not, these deceitful knaves are timid and will be easily deterred by a few mud wallows. In many spots—especially by the first bridge—your paths have become genuine quagmires, excessively sufficient to strike fear into the heart of the average birder. Relax. Allow your trails dry a bit, do not allow the vegetation to encroach too aggressively upon the trail, and limit the number of spider webs stretched across the path at eye level. Remember this counsel, and you will enjoy higher rates of birder traffic.

Second, once you have attracted birders, cautiously regulate the numbers of warblers you reward them with. Do not be stingy initially, or you may never see those birders again. On the other hand, do not overwhelm a birder on his first visit. Remembering the abundance of feathered jewels, he will return once or twice, and, upon finding a much reduced warbler population, he will leave, almost surely never to return. Instead, slowly tease your clients into submission, first perhaps with a Golden-winged and then with a few Cape Mays or Bay-breasts.

Oh, one last thing. Mind your geese! Last time I visited, I was nearly devoured by these beasts. While many people may enjoy being goosed, goosing takes on an entirely new—and wholly unpleasant—dimension when the agent of this foul action is, indeed, a goose.

Warm Regards,


Neil A. Gilbert

President, Homework Destruction Society

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Studying and Negligence Thereof

Chem is done at last
Spanish notes in the garbage
But what about migrants?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In Dubious Battle



Right now, two legendary battles are raging, one causing the other. The first is the migration of millions of birds northward. Millions upon millions of birds are fighting their way north--fighting inclement weather, questionable food supplies, natural predators, and deadly obstacles such as skyscrapers. This enormous army brings forth a second army, not to fight, but to watch this northerly march with jaws dropped. The birders are out in force; I am proud to be among them.

It's been a considerable personal battle lately. Finals are approaching. Study seems prudent. But, my inner birder thinks otherwise. You fool! he screams. You can hear singing Nasvhille Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos while walking from class to class. GET OUT!!

Lately, I've been very obedient, following orders whenever issued.



In the last week, I've birded almost desperately, foregoing lunch every day so I can ramble across the wilder parts of campus, attempting to rally the tired troops entrenched in the woods and thickets for the day. Finally, Saturday came. I was at Reed's Lake at dawn. There had been an invasion overnight--paratroopers milled in the treetops, whistling and singing merrily in the face of grave opposition. This one had received a bullet to the chest but still clung to life.



This little guy--a Yellow Wagtail, I'm told--was steadfastly guarding a prisoner-of-war camp.



What it is, I don't know, but Operation Murmuring Trees must be important, because this corporal was repeatedly humming it to himself, presumably so he wouldn't forget.

The battle may be over, but the war has just begun. Get out and support your troops.