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October 2017 Archives


After two solid months of meme-related material, perhaps it's time to take a moment for updates on the writer's life. 

*The biggest news is the change of address for Dixon, who moved to his new digs in Carrboro, NC, three weeks ago. He starts a new job tomorrow, and he and his housemates are planning to establish some form of artistic collective there, so his upcoming adventures promise to be interesting ones. He has already put together an electronic-music soundtrack for a play (Dante Piro's "Level 4," which is set in a video game), which you can hear or even purchase from the folks at Bandcamp here. He's also working on finishing up a script for his current artistic collective, Nu Puppis, which hopes to stage it in December. We'll keep you updated.

*What this means for Kelly and me, of course, is a bit of a lifestyle change. Our apartment is small enough that going from three occupants to two makes a noticeable difference in space, so that's good. On the less positive side, we don't have a strong young back to take care of certain chores (taking out the trash, say), and the unfortunate fact is that Dixon was becoming a pretty damned good cook by the time he left, so now my own inadequacies in the kitchen are a bigger part of our routine. Dixon has been my regular sounding board for ideas about art and music and theater for a good while now, and I'm already missing our conversations about such topics, but I'm truly excited about the possibilities his move offers him, so I'll muddle through. Alas, the one person who cannot fall back on such comforting thoughts is Ripley, who's only in our house at all because Dixon insisted we spend time with her at the SPCA. She's not lying by the door howling or anything, but there's definitely a bit of separation anxiety making itself known; if Kelly's at home with her and I've been gone for a few hours, Ripley will reportedly climb off the sofa and begin pacing anxiously around the living room. Basically, when she gets her next visit with Dixon, she's going to lose her tiny doggie mind.

*It's been a fairly light summer for birding (perhaps the lingering effect of my big spring count and the tick bite and illness that followed it), but I did manage to get the year's first Northern Harrier during a trip to Dutch Gap Wildlife Reserve yesterday. It was particularly pleasant because I was leading a birding trip there for a student and his grandfather, and the former had never seen a Harrier; the latter had, but he knew it as a "Chicken Hawk." The weirdest FOY bird of recent months, however, came a week earlier, when I was down in Chapel Hill. I was dropping off some of Dixon's stuff, such as his dresser and his guitar, and spending the night at my parents' place. The weather was cool enough to make sitting on their screen porch just about perfect, so I took my morning cup of coffee outside and monitored their feeders for a while. The usual suspects appeared--cardinals, titmice, chickadees--but I was also able to see a small, drab bird flit into the small tree near the corner of the porch. Other than its small size and active behavior, I couldn't see many field marks, but its GISS was screaming "warbler." I got a glimpse of the thin bill, so that much was confirmed, but there still wasn't much in the way of field marks--except a small white patch on the edge of the wing: the "pocket handkerchief" mark. Yes, there in the leaves was a young female Black-throated Blue Warbler. It's not as striking as the adult male, but by gum, I'll take it.

*With the start of the school year, I have found myself staying on top of the academic stuff pretty well, but my pleasure reading has taken a HUGE hit. Since September 5th, I have finished only two books. One was a re-reading of Tom Standage's entertaining but feather-light A History of the World in Six Glasses, which examines the development of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. The second was a delightful "graphic novel," which is a term I hate to use for a nonfiction book: Dinosaur Empire!, Abby Howard's first book in the Earth Before Us series. It's ridiculously informative, thanks to Abby's paleontological background, and you'll find touches of her trademark black humor throughout, but it's primarily intended to let young readers know just how cool prehistoric animals really were, and it succeeds on that level very well.

*I should note that I read all the time, and regularly fall asleep with a book in my hand, but over the last month or so I've been primarily re-reading bits of old graphic novels on such occasions. And of course I've been reading scores of student papers, but that's not really reading for pleasure. I mean, I don't do it if they don't pay me.

*At the end of July, Kelly and I took her new convertible Beetle for a test-drive to Huntsville, Alabama. NOTE TO TRAVELERS: this is not a city to target for a visit during high summer. It was over ninety every day we were there, and the humidity was impressive even to a native Carolinian like myself. Luckily, we spent most of the week indoors with our friend Q, who showed us such tourist attractions as Unclaimed Baggage, the nation's only place to buy all the stuff that gets lost during air travel. Some of it comes from suitcases, some from unclaimed shipments of manufactured goods, but whatever it is, you can buy it there: clothing, kitchenware, books, musical instruments, shoes, camping equipment, jewelry, and electronics galore. Computer and phone chargers are so numerous you can buy them for $0.99 each. I bought a Kindle for fifteen bucks. I haven't used it yet, but at least now I know I CAN travel without carrying dozens of books. We also found a high quality microphone, so when we eventually get down to recording our podcast, Kelly and I will sound good.

*One of Huntsville's main attractions is Lowe Mill, a retired textile mill now divided up into offices and stalls for artists of all sorts: photographers, potters, architects, painters, printmakers, cigar-box luthiers, you name it. Q's own textile-based business, The Foldout Cat, is there, with yarns, fabrics, crocheted and knitted items, and a variety of delicious baked goods. She also has several looms set up to do the specialized variety of weaving known as saiko, which is fun to do, as well as likely to produce cool materials. There is also a shop specializing in gourmet popsicles, some of which are alcoholic, so even if you don't enjoy the artistic offerings, you can still have a darned good time.

*It's been an odd season of writing. For reasons I can't really explain, I started writing a play. I think the spark of the idea was ignited while Kelly and I were driving to and from Huntsville, listening to the audio version of Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As a Stage. I've been a Bryson fan for decades now, and I greatly enjoyed the chance to hear him sound off on the Bard's biography. I learned a good bit that I didn't know, such as the fact that the current Globe Theatre is almost entirely based on a description written and sketched by a single Dutch tourist, but I also got to thinking about the issue of playwrighting, and during some conversations with Kelly, the germ of an idea appeared. I came home, sat down, and began pounding out ideas. By the time school started again, I was about sixty percent of the way done, and now I'm closing in on the 80% mark. I'm hoping that I'll celebrate New Year's Day with a completed draft, and then I can try to figure out how the heck a guy gets a play produced.

*And if you dont already know, the subtitle of this entry is a play on the chorus of "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" by the Mountain Goats.


10:34 AM
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The Bird Meme: Day 30


Day 30: Your favorite bird of all time

Avis postera

Well, here we are again: the finale of another 30-day writing prompt. Granted, it took me 40 days to get here, but you have to allow for some flexibility, especially during the school year.

The final prompt, however, is one that feels a bit redundant. I've already had to name favorites in so many different categories (and in many cases define the categories) that I can't say I have much interest in picking yet another fruit from the same branch. You already know I like Red-headed Woodpeckers, and Canyon Wrens, and Northern Shovelers, Northern Cardinals, Wood Thrushes, Peregrine Falcons, etc. And I already know this: having seen any one of them, I would cheerfully ignore it for the chance to see a different bird. The second bird wouldn't even have to be a lifer--it would just have to be something I hadn't already seen in the last few minutes.

It's only logical to conclude, therefore, that my favorite bird is Avis postera: the next bird. I went out this morning to see the next bird, and I did. And then I saw the next bird, and the next, and the next. Every time I bird, I am hoping to see my favorite bird, and every time I bird, I am successful.

We travel through our lives one bird at a time, and if we stop wanting to see the next one, we run the risk of stopping altogether. That is a risk I am not yet prepared to take.

So: onward and upward.

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11:52 AM
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The Bird Meme: Day 29


Day 29: A bird everyone hates but you like

Red-winged Blackbird

A strange prompt, this one. For one thing, I don't really know that I could name a bird that everyone hates, though it seems likely that the least popular species in the North American count area would most likely be the invasive ones--with the foreigners, European Starling and House Sparrow, at the top of the list, with invaders from other regions  (such as the House Finch) coming just below them. I suspect even the more attractive members of the exotic species will attract at least some ire, since the Mute Swan and Ring-necked Pheasant are displacing some native birds, but the Ring-neck has been embraced by many Americans, including those in South Dakota, who made it their state bird. I'm not sure yet what to make of the rapidly expanding population of Eurasian Collared-Doves, which don't seem to have attracted the same kind of hatred as the Starling, despite being equally exotic,

But if I can't think of a bird everyone actively loathes, I can certainly name a bird that hardly any birders actively love. Indeed, the Red-winged Blackbird would seem to be so widespread and so conspicuous that many birders consider it beneath their notice. In my youth, they weren't a common sight in Chapel Hill, but any trip to visit my mom's family in the Low Country of South Carolina would scare up redwings aplenty. I therefore got used to viewing them as something of a treat, a slightly exotic bird of the marshlands whose liquid rattles were part of the background music of the Sea Islands--the feathered version of the cicada.

There's no question that the male is both stunning and woefully underappreciated. The glossy jet-black plumage is accented perfectly by the two epaulets, scarlet chased with yellow, patches providing just enough color to pop out from the contrasting background. (It's also a combination of colors that I particularly love; the tricolored German flag is one of my very favorite examples of vexillology.) In addition, the sleek shape, from pointed bill to stiff tail, makes it look completely at home in the air--a bird fully deserving a namesake like the SR-71 spy plane.

But I understand why some people don't appreciate them: they're common as dirt. As hydrogen, even. When I arrived in Iowa City in 1995, I was stunned by their numbers. There seemed to be a redwing atop every stalk of grass in the Hawkeye State. No matter how beautiful a bird is, there comes a point where its ubiquity drowns out its beauty. Stars are beautiful, too, but after a cluster of them gets too big, they stop being pretty and become either commonplace or actively painful to look out. In parts of the country, I feel confident that the Red-winged Blackbird has become the former, though I can't rule out the latter.

In addition, there's nothing especially gorgeous about the female or the juvenile male. Other than the pointed bill and the general size and shape, there's not much similarity with the male's field marks, and streaks of mottled brown don't excite many birders no matter what bird is sporting them. So yeah, I can see why people don't get excited about them. I also understand why not everyone loves Robyn Hitchcock's music, or the novels of John Varley, or a perfectly-cooked batch of collard greens. De gustibus non est disputandum, as the poet says.

But don't ever let me hear you calling the redwing a "trash bird."


8:15 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 28


Day 28: Favorite bird name


Nomenclature and I go back a long ways. I can get picky about the names of everything from a super-hero to an album, from a sports team to a small town, so believe me, there are plenty of things I can say about the names of birds.

For one thing, there's the important fact that we are discussing names, plural. Each bird species has at the very least a scientific name, a/k/a the Latin binomial from the system devised by Linnaeus, and a common name used by the people who live in its habitat. And should that habitat extend over an area where the people speak more than one language, well, you're going to have to decide whether you want to talk about Alauda arvensis, an Alouette, or a Skylark. 

For myself, I'll just note that even though I do love some binomials dearly--Troglodytes troglodytes, Pica pica, and Upopa epops are all high on the list--I think this discussion is best reserved for common names, and only those in English, since this is the category with which I am by far the most familiar. Indeed, I think I'll even limit myself to the North American birds, rather than create an argument over whether the New World birds named after Old World birds--Robin, Redstart, Magpie, etc.--have better names on one side of the pond or not. With those caveats, let's consider the issue: would a Rosy-finch by any other name smell as sweet?

For the most part, American bird names are functional rather than elegant. Some are bluntly descriptive: Yellow-throated Warbler, Black Phoebe, Red-throated Loon. Some describe the habitat where the bird will likely be seen: Spruce Grouse, Mississippi Kite, Mountain Chickadee. A handful are named after the bird's call: Killdeer, Bobwhite, Whip-Poor-Will) and a fair number are given eponymous names to honor a naturalist who described them (Audubon's Shearwater, Lewis's Woodpecker, Harris's Hawk.) Few American birds receive names that demonstrate any real creativity, but here's a quick list of some that do--my Top Ten of American Bird Names:

10. Brown Creeper
9. Snowy Egret
8. Hermit Thrush
7. Prothonotary Warbler
6. Razorbill
5. Evening Grosbeak
4. Loggerhead Shrike (who should really be a Dickens character)
3. Yellowhammer (which isn't officially the Northern Flicker's name, but a nickname I love)
2. Magnificent Frigatebird

And at number one? The best name altogether combines a basic functionality (describing the bird's color and behavior) with a perfectly assembled set of phonemes that make it sound even cooler than it is. This is a bird whose name might well have been chosen by Jack Kirby for a guest character in an old Avengers comic. (Though now that I think about it, I can actually imagine Kirby having Captain America locked in mortal combat against the Brown Creeper, or pitting Iron Man against the man called... RAZORBILL.!) 

You simply will not find any name cooler than... 

Black Vegetable.jpg
Oh, all right. The Black Skimmer, then.


9:05 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 27


Day 27: The most surprising sighting of a bird

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Some entries for this meme are real puzzlers. Some are not. This would be one of the latter.

It's not that I haven't had plenty of surprises when birding. Finding a Canada Goose nesting in a hollow tree? Surprising. Spotting my first Chuck Will's Widow perched about a foot off the ground three feet from a boardwalk in Corkscrew Swamp? Unexpected. Encountering an American Woodcock on the ground outside the downtown Richmond SPCA? Unusual.

But when it comes to the most surprising sighting, I'm going to have to go with one that ticks off all the boxes on the checklist:

1. Preparation: if I'm outside with a pair of binoculars, I'm not necessarily counting on a good bird, but I'm clearly out there looking for a bird of some kind. A truly surprising sighting would therefore have to come in a situation where I'm neither seeking birds nor equipped to spot them at any distance.

2. Location: after I've been birding in an area for a while, I have a tendency to assume that any bird I see will be a local. It doesn't take long; after I'd been in Seattle for a few days, I was ready to assume any gull I spotted was a Glaucous-winged, and in the majority of cases, I was right; I was similarly inclined to assume any big black bird was an American Raven after spending only a day or two in the Four Corners region. In short, if a bird's going to shock me, it's going to have to appear in a place outside its usual range.

3. Probability: a surprise bird has to be a matter of long odds in every way. The bird has to be in an unlikely place and an unlikely time, sure, but the bird is not the only element to consider here; we must also consider the birder. If I'm in a place I frequent, only the bird has to do anything unusual, but if I'm passing through an area I rarely go, the improbability of the bird's presence is multiplied by the improbability of my own. It's not just a flying arrow hitting a stationary target, but an arrow hitting another arrow in midair.

And sure enough, my Most Surprising Sighting qualifies in all these ways. I saw the bird when I wasn't birding, or even remotely prepared to bird; I was driving home from helping a friend move, with neither optics nor a field guide to help me see or identify anything I saw, and my mind was on the fact that Kelly and I would be celebrating our 14th anniversary that night. The bird was nearly a thousand miles outside its usual range, having decided to spend the summer nesting with its partner in a habitat far away from home, and I had seen no rare bird alerts that might have notified me about its presence. And finally, I was taking a road I had never taken before, curious about whether it might save me a few minutes returning from my friend's new place; the bird never returned to that nesting place after summer's end, and I'm not sure I ever drove that road again, turning our meeting into a singular event indeed.

I can also report that the silhouette of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is equally singular. Though I had never seen one in the flesh, I knew exactly how it was shaped, thanks to many years of flipping through Peterson, and when I spotted that shape on a barbed-wire fence along Virgina Route 647 just north of the Rapidan River between Unionville and Orange, I had no doubt about the bird's identity. What I had significant doubt about was whether I had hallucinated it or not. The cloud of dust I kicked up from hard braking on the dirt road threatened to obscure the flycatcher entirely, but fortunately it hung around long enough for me to see it again, confirm the silhouette, take note of the pearly-grey body, and spot the salmon-pink wing linings when it took off to fly to the nest it had built on a nearby pylon. Against all odds, and all logic, I was celebrating my anniversary with a life bird from the Great Plains.

I finally spotted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in its native habitat almost exactly eleven years later, when my father and I were spending a night in Emporia, Kansas, on the way to Denver. It was still a beautiful bird, and a treat to list once more, but there's no question that Sighting #2 did not--could not--live up to Sighting #1. Of all the improbable moments I have enjoyed since I took up birding, that July afternoon ranks as the most improbable, and one of the most delightful.


4:40 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 26


Day 26: A bird that changed your opinion about something

Savannah Sparrow

If you've read Along Those Lines, you may recall the story of my struggle to accurately gauge my birding skills when I was signing up for the Spring Field Ornithology course at Cornell. Given the three available categories--Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert--I opted to list myself in the Intermediate column. And if you recall that I was at the time hanging out with people like Tim Gallagher, Steve Kress, and Kevin McGowan, you'll probably agree with me that I took the correct option.

Still, even given my tendency to hang out with people who are far better birders than I, every once in a while I manage to do something to alter my opinion of my own skills. Sometimes I can take credit for simply noticing something that the rest of the group did not--a bird in the road far, far ahead of our bus on the SFO trip to Cape May, for example. It turned out to be a Turkey Vulture, nothing special, but I was still rather pleased to spot it before Steve Kress was even aware it was there.

To make a bigger shift in my self-image, however, requires more than open eyes; it requires open eyes and a healthy dollop of intuition. Such was the case near the end of April, when I accompanied my colleague Lee Bristow down to the Williamsburg area to help him with a breeding bird count. It was a perfect day for birding, and when we met a pair of Lee's old friends at a strip mall just after sunrise, I could tell that we were in for a productive day. 

Lee is an ear birder by preference, and on this occasion he hadn't even bothered to bring a pair of binoculars; instead, he simply wandered around announcing the name of whatever he heard, allowing the rest of us to track it down and log it. It was a remarkably effective system, I have to say, because we were jotting down species at a furious rate all through the early morning, even though much of the habitat didn't seem promising: lots and lots of post-industrial landscape gone to weeds and scrub, but full of spring breeders: Blue Grosbeak, Great Crested Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, you name it.

At one point we boarded the cars and headed through the remnants of an old outlet center for pottery, one where the long driveway to the main road was lined with hedges, and we began spotting a lot of activity in the shrubs: a White-eyed Vireo here, a Common Yellowthroat there, so we were taking it fairly slowly. I was in Lee's passenger seat, window down, and off in the hedge I noticed a small, streaky sparrow. 

We had already logged a number of Song Sparrows, and there was no good reason for me to assume this bird was anything else, but nonetheless, I asked Lee to stop while I brought my binoculars up. Yeah, there it was, not too deep into the leaves, but not giving me the clearest look at its field marks, either. I could see streaky sides, a pinkish bill, reddish wings, strong lines on the side of its head... nothing that precluded SoSp, but nothing I could really rest a different ID on. I turned my attention to the legs--pink--and waited to get a glimpse of its breast, which finally revealed the hint of a darkish spot. 

By now, everything I knew about Song Sparrows, and everything I could see in my field guide, was telling me to make the call and move on; we had plenty of territory to cover yet, and this was just one rather drab bird. But something kept nagging at me, an element of posture or plumage that I couldn't quite reconcile with the obvious bird. I kept looking for something, and finally, with a slight shift on the part of the bird's perch, I had it: a look at its tail.

Which was notched.

Song Sparrows have all of the field marks I've mentioned above, but their tails are long and rounded. That meant this had to be something else. And as it gradually moved into better view and revealed a slight yellowish cast to its head, the bird at long last announced its identity to us: Savannah Sparrow. It's not a bird I've seen often, but with patience, careful consideration of the field marks, and an unusual willingness to trust my instincts as a birder, I had brought in my first of 2017. And when Lee and his friends commended me for the check on our list, I felt even more like a Real Birder.

Better still, by stopping for the Savannah, we'd left ourselves in a position to look at a second unusual visitor: the first White-crowned Sparrow I'd seen in several years.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I consider the Savannah Sparrow a bird that can help me reassess my opinions. It has little effect on my thinking when it comes to music or politics, but if it keeps me out in the field with a pair of binoculars, it's a change I welcome.


8:40 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 25


Day 25: A bird you can relate to the most

American Crow

I find it hard not to feel one with the crow. David Quammen's single best sentence (and there are a lot of great ones to choose from) remains this gem: "Crows are bored." He's right, because this is a bird that is extremely intelligent, but doesn't necessarily have a lot of good ways to use its brainpower; you can find videos online of crows figuring out how to solve puzzles, or discovering the cheap amusement inherent in sliding down the steep slope of a snowy roof. It's a playful and sociable bird, but it's also fairly taciturn at times, and its attachment to its mate is lifelong.

Crows are versatile, capable of eating nearly anything and living in a wide variety of habitats. They're willing to gang up on a hawk to keep the neighborhood safe, but they're also mischievous enough to make trouble for other birds. Less colorful than jays, less imposing than ravens, they're the most common and least appreciated of the corvids, thanks to their monochromatic plumage and non-melodious voices. They're birds you can imagine having a family connection to dinosaurs, but at the same time they're a bit disreputable, a bit shabby--a bird that doesn't make much of an effort to be presentable.

Needless to say, the crow is pretty much the perfect bird, and indeed the perfect spirit animal, for a guy who likes to think of himself as both intelligent and irreverent, who talks and writes waaay more than necessary, who is devoted to his partner, who considers himself a generalist, who can feel underappreciated by the world at large, and whose general devotion to his appearance can be summed up by an affirmative answer to the question "Did I put on pants?"

Also, there's this guy:

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9:18 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 24


Day 24: A bird you wish more people had seen

Painted Bunting

I suppose I could be selfish here and choose a bird I haven't seen so that I could include myself in the "more people," but I'm prepared to be generous. I'm certainly very happy to have seen some birds that a lot of my friends and acquaintances have not, but I also recognize that in many cases these are sightings that stem from one thing: location. Because I've visited California and the Carolina pinewoods, I've had the chance to log both the Pygmy and Brown-headed Nuthatch, which people confined to one coast or the other can't easily do. Similarly, I've gone out to the Florida Keys to get a Common Myna and into the Rockies to get a Mountain Bluebird, which are relatively common birds--if you happen to be in those places. Is it fair, then, to waste my wish on a bird that a lot of people actually have seen?

Tough question, but either way, I have chosen a bird. It's not exactly common, no, but its range is large enough that many people have seen it, and it's memorable enough that those who have will not soon forget it. The male Painted Bunting is arguably the most beautiful bird in North America, and it's unquestionably among the most colorful, vying for the latter title with only a handful of other multifaceted jewels like the Western Tanager, the Green Jay, the Red-headed Woodpecker and various hummingbirds. The improbable combination of red underside, blue head, and green back makes the bird utterly unique among American avifauna, but its limited range--the southeastern lowlands and the south central plains--leaves a great many birders without a tick on their life lists.

The good news, of course, is that if you do manage to get to Texas or Florida or the Carolina coast at the right time of year, you stand a decent chance of seeing one, and if you do see one, you're all but guaranteed to identify it with ease. Worst-case scenario: you get a look not at the male, but at the considerably less colorful female. But hey, there's nothing wrong with being a pale green finch, and if you're lucky enough to spot one, you can take comfort in knowing that it's equally easy to identify: the female Painted is in fact the ONLY pale green finch in these parts.

So get out there and keep looking. I've got your back.


6:58 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 23


Day 23: A bird you've wanted to see for a long time but still haven't


This could be a really, really long list, as there are plenty of foreign birds I could include on a bucket list (Galapagos Penguin, Steller's Sea Eagle, Resplendent Quetzal) and dozens of North American species (Gyrfalcon, Great Grey Owl, Red-naped Sapsucker) I haven't yet had a chance to go after. There is also a depressingly long list of birds I've actively pursued without success (Plain Chacalaca, Varied Thrush, Tufted Puffin) and plenty that just haven't turned up where I've been (Cerulean Warbler, Red Crossbill, Northern Goshawk). In short, the wealth of my choices here is not unlike that of the Sultan of Brunei.

Still, there's one bird that I've pursued on several occasions for a number of reasons. One, it's just a cool freakin' bird, and I want to see it at that pure id-based level. Second, it's the only North American member of its family that I've never seen, and it would boost my ego to check off another such taxon. (Right now, the only such family that I've polished off is the Sittidae--the nuthatches, which took a bit of travel, but which comprises only four actual species: White-breasted, Red-breasted, Brown-headed, and Pygmy--though I do have the Eurasian as well.) And finally, yes, it's a bird that would help me knock off one of my other obsessions, namely getting a life bird in each of the 50 states--a complex and arbitrary task that almost assuredly has its origins in my superego somewhere.

The Reddish Egret itself is appealing for several basic reasons. First, its appearance is both striking and also variable; the dark morph is grey, with a shaggy red neck and head, while the white is pure white. Both morphs have blue-grey legs and a pink bill with a dark tip, which is the bird's single most distinctive field mark. Second, its lifestyle is decidedly atypical for a heron. It feeds not by ambush, imitating a snag or a stand of reeds until prey comes close enough to spear, but by other methods that no other heron will so much as attempt. In some cases it will spread its wings to create a shady spot, where glare will not interfere with its attempt to spot prey, and where fish may mistakenly associate the shade with safety. But in all cases, the Reddish Egret is an active hunter, racing through the shallows, doubling back, stirring up prey wherever possible. This video gives you an idea of both how the typical heron feeds and how drastically different the Reddish really is.

Even if it wasn't such a cool bird, though, there's the fact that the Reddish Egret has defeated me on several occasions, and I'm eager to emerge victorious. I've traveled to its Gulf Coast on several occasions, but not in a way that would help me log the bird easily. My trip through the Everglades and Florida Keys kept me largely in either the grasslands, the mangrove swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands, or the docksides and open water of Key West, not the shallow saltwater flats where the ReEg feeds. My visit to New Orleans took me to Mobile Bay and Lake Pontchartrain, but I never got down to the real Delta where the bird was most likely to be. And my visit to the barrier islands on the coast of Mississippi and Alabama would might well have worked--if I hadn't taken the trip the year after Katrina knocked the area's habitat into a cocked hat, reducing the bird life to a minimal level.

But I'm still, as the saying goes, dipped. And the Reddish is the only member of the family Ardeidae for which that's true. Worse, it has been so for nearly two decades now; I officially checked off the twelfth member of the baker's dozen of North American herons back in 2001: the American Bittern. (Okay, I didn't check off the "Great White" morph of the Great Blue Heron until 2004, and I still haven't seen a "Wurdemann's" Heron, but these are subspecific variations of a bird I know well.) It's frustrating to be hovering on the edge for so long, particularly when you've done so much birding in areas where herons and egrets are common. I do sometimes feel as though I'm being taunted by the birding gods.

And the really annoying thing is that this is a bird that could really help me out. I've tried on multiple occasions to get a lifer in Mississippi, and I've been thwarted on each attempt. I've visited the Mississipi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge--twice--and haven't logged so much as a FOY bird there; hell, I haven't even seen a crane! I've tried other parts of the state, including St. Catherine's Creek NWR and John Kyle State Park, but though they were far kinder to me than MSC NWR, they did not yield a life bird.

So there it is: I want to see this bird for itself. I want to end the frustrations it has caused me. I want to see it in order to finish off a taxonomic task. And I want to see it to advance my own selfish ends.

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Party on, Red.



4:55 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 22


Day 22: Favorite bird you've photographed

Peregrine Falcon


We're going to very clear about terminology here: this is not "favorite photograph you've taken of a bird," but rather "favorite bird you've photographed," which is somewhat more difficult for me. As a photographer of avifauna, I am both notoriously bad and notoriously persistent. I take photos of birds regularly, and they almost inevitably turn out poorly. Part of this is, I'm sure, my technical limitations--I don't own a zoom lens, so any bird I want to capture had better be very large or very close or both. A bigger part of it, however, is simply my own lack of an eye for things like composition, lack of awareness regarding lighting and focus issues, and lack of ability to do things like hold the camera still when closing the shutter. That's how you get pics like these:

Kirtland's Warbler:
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American Oystercatcher:

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And Vermilion Flycatcher:

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So yes, technically, those crappy pictures might actually qualify for today's prompt, if I loved any of the above birds enough. And two of the three (KiWa and VeFl) were life birds, so it's not a ridiculous possibility.

Still, I'd prefer to write about a bird where I am both deeply fond of the bird itself and reasonably content at the photographs I took. There is such a thing as luck where PC and bird photography are concerned, and on occasion I have managed to stumble across a good picture. In the late spring of 2011, I was walking the grounds of the CLO when a Blue-winged Warbler came down to the creek where I was standing, and I took a string of pictures of it bathing and drying itself, pics which are still probably the best bird photos I've ever taken. Here's one:

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On our trip to Seattle I had relatively good luck with the camera most of the time, such as when I documented the Bald Eagle attack I mentioned a few days back, but most of my opportunities were defeated by distance; I just didn't get very close to the waterfowl--Harlequin Duck, Common Loon, Surf Scoter, Western Grebe, etc.--or to the Anna's Hummingbirds flying around, or the one Lewis's Woodpecker we logged. I did get some excellent looks at a Marsh Wren, however, and I was pleased to get a photo of the Canada Goose we found nesting in a hollow tree:

DSC03218.JPGBut all in all, I have to put one bird, and one opportunity to photograph it, at the top of my list: the bird Mary Stevens and I observed and photographed at great length when we hiked to the top of Hogsback Mountain in July 2013. There we found the hacking box where several young Peregrine Falcons were being raised, and we got to observe them as they whirled around the box (where a volunteer had left them some bits of quail). Having seen only a handful of Peregrines at that point in my life, I considered this an all but magical morning, and I gleefully wasted shot after shot on attempts to keep the birds in my lens while they flew. My favorite pic, however, came when two of the young birds perched near one another and promptly began an attempt at a dominance display, showing off their beautiful speckled plumage:

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So that's my bird--one of my very favorite birds, period, but also a bird I am very, very happy to have captured with my camera. 

I do wish I could share one favorite bird photo that, alas, I haven't digitized; taken with my old reliable Canon AE-1, it currently rests in a photo album of pictures from our honeymoon. As Kelly and I were making our way along the west coast of Scotland, we came around a bend to a small, shallow bay, and in it were a pair of Mute Swans and their cygnets. They were simply sitting on the water, close to shore, with no sign of concern about our car whatsoever, so i was able to pull over, climb out, and snap a photo of them with the green hills of the Highlands looming beyond them. In the US, Mute Swans can be rather hostile, as they're an introduced species and seem to know it, but in their natural habitat they were simply a portrait of pure serenity, and (we hoped) an omen of good fortune for our marriage. On that last, at least, the swans seem to have delivered.


10:59 AM
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The Bird Meme: Day 21


Day 21: Favorite bird from your childhood

Evening Grosbeak

Ah, here's an unusual case: a bird I saw long, long ago and have never quite gotten over.

The Evening Grosbeak is, as you might guess, an extremely memorable bird. Blessed with one of the best common names in North America, it's also striking in appearance. The male's yellow eyebrow is distinctive, but the huge dark head and pale beak are also obvious field marks. In some ways, though, my favorite feature is the way its plumage shades from the dark head to the yellowy back and shoulders and finally to the pure white secondary wing feathers. It really does resemble an evening sky, from dark zenith down to bright horizon.

It's also a bird of mystery. Though its typical habitat is far north and/or west of my home, it will on occasion make a winter migration southward, sometimes as far as southern California or the Gulf of Mexico. On these unpredictable occasions, flocks of a dozen or more grosbeaks may turn up on the roadside, or under a feeder, surprising and delighting those who are not used to seeing them.

My family was once among this group. We were living in the first house I remember, a green three-bedroom place atop a low hill on Tinkerbell Road in east Chapel Hill, almost at the Durham County line. Though neither I nor my parents had become serious about birding at the time, my folks were nonetheless aware of my youthful fascination with animals. In that house, where we lived from 1964 until the summer of 1970, I began to develop interests in subjects that would shape my future: in books, in nature, in geography, in music, and in breakfast cereals. In birds, my interest may well have been intensified during the winter of 1968, when I was not quite five, and our yard filled up with gold-and-white songbirds. It was an irruption year for Evening Grosbeaks.

I can barely remember that time, but I remember seeing the birds clustering under the feeder, setting their massive shoulders against one another to clear space. Mom took pictures of them as well, and somewhere in my parents' house are the photos of those winter days, when I began to understand the myriad forms into which nature has been shaped, and to understand that not all of them are there every day. Sometimes, I realized, something special would come to you. Or perhaps you would have to go out and find it.

That was nearly half a century ago, and I have not set eyes on an Evening Grosbeak since. But even though I don't have its sighting carefully filed in my forebrain, where I keep data on first looks at everything from the Canvasback to the Painted Bunting, I feel rather possessive about the bird. It's primal, pre-rational, and precious to me. When I see one again, I will feel as though I have in some ways circled back to my childhood, and I will taste once again that sweetest of flavors: the milk at the bottom of the bowl.


12:03 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 20


Day 20: Favorite bird in a book

Common Raven

Though movies have offered me a limited set of choices for good birds, books are another matter altogether. And no, I won't take the cheap way out by picking a field guide or something similar, nor will I take the cheapest way possible and choose a bird from one of my own books. I'll even go so far as to stipulate that this bird will be from a work of fiction. But which work of fiction? Ah, there's the difficulty.

I've long enjoyed birds in works of fantasy, whether they've been vengeful human-armed ducks (Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger), nihilistic ravens (Hugi in Roger Zelazny's The Courts of Chaos), or helpful talking owls (Glimfeather in C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair). Still, I don't think I'd add Gwaihir the Eagle from The Lord of the Rings or Hedwig from the Harry Potter series simply because neither shows much personality; they're far more important to the plots of their respective books than to the richness of characterization therein.

By contrast, I think Archimedes, Merlyn's owl in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, is a delightful character, and one who strikes a believable balance between reticence and friendliness. I certainly enjoyed Polynesia, Dr. Doolittle's parrot, though I don't remember her well, and I'd have to say the same about Kaisa, the grey goose daemon of Serafina Pekkala in Philip Pullman's wonderful His Dark Materials series. I'm somewhat surprised that I haven't been able to recall a bird character in any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, though it's certainly possible that I've missed one. But all in all, I don't think any of these candidates measure up to my true favorite.

Perhaps the reason Matthew the Raven is my favorite bird is because he's not purely a bird; he's a former human being, and one from a beloved comics series at that. For reasons that writer Neil Gaiman never gets much into, Matthew was allowed to spend his afterlife as a raven in the service of Dream, a/k/a Morpheus, the protagonist of Gaiman's masterful comics series The Sandman. Before that, Matthew was originally a government agent investigating the "death" of Alec Holland in the original 1972 Swamp Thing series, though also he popped up in Doom Patrol on one occasion. When Alan Moore took over the reins of Swamp Thing in 1983, he put Cable through the wringer, eventually leaving him in a vegetative state, but a few years later Moore's successor, Rich Veitch, finally allowed the hospitalized Cable to die a merciful death.

At that point, in a scene that never actually appeared in Sandman, Dream apparently tapped Matthew to join his service as a raven. Though it was clear Matthew was a former human being, his specific identity was at first only hinted at, with comments such as "I don't like hospitals." He served as a helpful spy for Dream, using his innocuous appearance to gather information, which he reported back to his rather stuffy superior in a manner that usually came off as not-quite-deferential-enough. Matthew fully accepted his new avian lifestyle, including his newfound enjoyment of carrion, and became a friend to both his boss and to the other entitities in Dream's service, such as the librarian Lucien and janitor Merv Pumpkinhead. 

By the end of the series, he was even tasked to assist the Corinthian, one of the nastiest nightmares in Dream's kingdom, in investigating a crime, making for one of the more bizarre buddy-movie-based sequences I can recall in a comic. Though he was sometimes used as comic relief, Matthew was always a character with a bit of an air of tragedy about him, and his long, tortured history became part of the canon, he became increasingly sympathetic. As the series moved toward its grand conclusion, Matthew's honest and straightforward nature helped ground the story's potential excess, and the ending was all the more poignant for having him there. Here he is talking to Dream in a panel from the book's penultimate story arc, "The Kindly Ones," with art by the brilliant Marc Hempel:

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After Gaiman brought The Sandman to a conclusion, I understand that many of the characters from the book were used in a spin-off series, The Dreaming, but I've never picked up an issue. I can't imagine that it would be satisfying to see Matthew or his fellow dreams in any future incarnation, but I suppose it might happen; I'm sure someone said the same thing when he died in Swamp Thing, and look how well that turned out. It was, in fact, good being Dream's raven.


4:37 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 19


Day 19: Favorite bird in a movie


Well, we know what my favorite movie bird is not: the American Robin that somehow turns up in London to sing for Mary Poppins. Or the Troupial being touted as a Pygmy Nuthatch (!) in Charlie's Angels.

But aside from that, we've got a somewhat limited set of options. Birds are far less common in film than dogs or cats, and when they are used, they're almost always either animated/anthropomorphic characters or heavy-duty Symbols.

Disney has provided plenty of the former: Scuttle, the seagull from The Little Mermaid; Iago, Jafar's parrot sidekick in Aladdin; Flit, the hummingbird from Pocahontas; Zazu, King Mufasa's hornbill majordomo in The Lion King; the quartet of suspiciously Liverpudlian vultures from The Jungle Book; the quintet of disturbingly racist crows fluttering through Dumbo; the corps de ballet of ostriches (all males in drag, judging by their combination of plumage and costuming) in the "Dance of the Hours" segment of Fantasia; various flamingos and dodos from Alice in Wonderland; and of course the dozens of nameless songbirds flitting around assisting various princesses with household chores. A lot of of these birds are played for laughs, as evidenced by the actors voicing them (Buddy Hackett, Gilbert Gottfried, Rowan Atkinson, etc.), and they don't create a particularly positive response in a birder (or at least in this birder). If we include Pixar films, we must also consider Kevin, the flightless "snipe" in Up and the flock of manic seagulls screaming "MINE!" in Finding Nemo, but again, I'm not really grabbed by these characters, which are essentially plot devices with feathers.

And speaking of plot devices with feathers, let's consider the Eagles of Middle-Earth. These gigantic birds in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies are also animated CGI creations, but I'm putting them in the Heavy-Duty Symbols category thanks to the brightly-glowing sign reading DEUS EX MACHINA that flashes on screen with them whenever they appear. 

Still, they're not as exasperating as the mysterious red bird (a dyed canary?) that turns up in the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. The bird is the least of the many strikes against this 1995 film, which was saved from multiple Golden Raspberry awards only by the presence of Showgirls on the same ballot. As best I can tell, the red bird is intended to symbolize Hester's temptation, but it may actually serve as a literal physical vessel for the Devil to use while hanging around colonial Massachusetts. It's a further condemnation of the film that I simply can't tell. A Christmas Story features both a turkey and a Peking duck, but they appear not as actual fowl, but as comestibles, the former symbolizing the ordinary traditions of Christmas and the latter representing (in yet another disturbingly racist way) the unusual nature of this particular Christmas season. And there are birds aplenty in Alan Parker's Birdy, though the majority of the attention is given to Nicholas Cage (in an early and highly effective performance) and Matthew Modine; most of the avian actors, however, are there to symbolize the difficulties Modine's character faces in trying to relate to human beings. Again, it's kind of hard to find most of these appealing on an avian level.

Perhaps strangely, I'm not that big a fan of movies that are actually about birds. I still haven't seen The Big Year, though I enjoyed Mark Obmascik's book enormously, and Fly Away Home has also remained unviewed even after the Operation Migration ultralight (and its accompanying squadron of geese) paid an unexpected visit to Woodberry's campus some years back. Heck, I haven't even seen Black Swan, though I'm given to understand that members of genus Cygnus play a fairly minor role. The only avian-based movie I can think of where I really enjoyed the birds was Hitchcock's The Birds, but that's an ensemble performance, so it's hard for me to single out one bird as my favorite.

No, the more I think about it, the more I think my favorite movie birds all appear in one of my favorite movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

After all, we get a spirited debate about how swallows maintain airspeed velocity, a brief cameo from a pigeon being used by Sir Bedivere to test theories about coconut dispersal, and best of all, a supremely dignified domestic white duck rendering judgment on a thorny legal issue. Isn't that really how birds ought to be used in Hollywood? To advance our understanding of science and law? I certainly believe so.

duck arthur.pngOf course, I haven't seen Birdemic yet. If a viewing of this semi-legendary film should ever change my opinion, you'll be the first to know.



5:27 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 18


Day 18: A bird that disappointed you

House Wren

I've written about my feelings of shame concerning putting the Kirtland's Warbler on my life list--you can find it in the "History's Greatest Monster" chapter of Along Those Lines if you like--but I think we're talking about something a little different here. When I cornered the KiWa in Michigan, I was disappointed in myself, but the bird was completely blameless. This is another matter altogether: a situation in which I was disappointed by a bird.

Even then, however, I think we're in a strange place, because on most occasions when I've been disappointed about seeing a bird, I've been disappointed that I didn't get a better look at it. Again, it's hard to blame the bird for the circumstances of my sighting it--crappy light, great distance, thick undergrowth, distracting activity, all of these things can affect the quality of a sighting, but the bird's not the one causing them. And in those cases where I didn't quite know what I was doing in the field yet, I am once again the one responsible; if I didn't get a good look, it was because I didn't know what to look for or how to look for it. When I scoured the countryside near Iowa City back in 1995, I didn't get a good look at my Bell's Vireo or Warbling Vireo because I had no idea how to find a bird in a leafy tree. All I could do was hear the song and catch a brief glimpse of the vireo as it hid in the foliage.

Basically, then, I have to find something really petty to complain about, but luckily, I can usually find something of that sort without expending much effort, and here it is:

How is it that I have logged House Wrens so seldom? This is in no way a rare bird--it can be found in every one of the Lower 48 at some time of year--or a particularly challenging one to identify. It's perfectly willing to live near humans, and its habits aren't terribly secretive, so it ought to be a bird I set eyes on pretty regularly. But I don't.

I didn't see my first House Wren until my 1995 trip to Iowa, and my guide, Jim Fuller, was all but shocked that I didn't already have such a common bird on my life list. 

I saw my next House Wren in 2010.

That sighting was in Georgia, and though it did not make up for the long wrenless years between, it did seem to kick off a bit of a surge in House Wren observations for me. Since then I've spotted them roughly once a year, with one turning up near Cape May in 2011 (followed by a second at the CLO a week or two later--the only one where I got a photo), a western bird appearing at the US 26 Snake River overlook in Idaho back in 2013, a fourth appearing on the Rapidan Fire Road in Shenandoah NP in 2014, a fifth flying out of the birdhouse behind my colleague Jay's house in 2016, and a final pair appearing on the cyclone fence behind a house in our neighborhood this past August.

But that's it. Eight House Wren sightings, all-time. Nine birds. Eight life records. 

I'll grant you that I live in the southeast, where the ubiquitous Carolina Wren certainly hogs an awful lot of the wren-friendly ecological niches, but really, eight?  

By comparison, my year lists show that I've logged records for the Hooded Merganser for 14 years in a row. In that same span, I've got nine Blue Grosbeak sightings, nine for Forster's Tern, nine for PEREGRINE FALCON, for god's sake. And that's not counting any sightings before 2004. But on only eight occasions in my entire life has a House Wren seen fit to come in my sight.

That, my friends, is disappointing.

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6:19 PM
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The Bird Meme: Day 17


Day 17: Favorite bird song

Wood Thrush

This one will likely depend on how we define "song." If any vocalization from any bird will do, then we'll have to consider a sizable slate of possible favorites: the wavering cry of the Common Loon, or the Woody-like laugh of the Pileated Woodpecker, or the descending scream of the Red-tailed Hawk.

But even if we're going to limit ourselves to the realm of actual songbirds, there are still going to be quite a few candidates. I am certainly fond of many songs, and like human songs, it's ordinarily because of the associations I have with them. For example:

Eastern Meadowlark: the slurred "spring is here" remains a powerful reminder of my days in Ithaca and the Spring Field Ornithology course I took there.

Bobolink: I'll never forget this delightful, improbable song after the SFO outing where I was told that the way to find a Bobolink was to "listen for R2D2."

Northern Cardinal: kind of a cliche, maybe, but I do dearly love the springtime days when you can hear the males singing from the treetops. 

Field Sparrow: the distinctive speeding-up/pitching-down song of the FiSp has been compared with a bouncing ball and a ruler on the edge of a desk, but I kind of hear the opening of Lloyd Cole's "Loveless" in it.

Indigo Bunting: I love the paired phrases of the male's song, which always puts me in mind of A.A. Milne's poem "Disobedience": "James James/ Morrison Morrison/ Weatherby George Dupree/ Took great/ Care of his mother/ Though he was only three"

To the list of passerine songs I love you can add the satisfied "drink your tea" of the Eastern Towhee, the stentorian "teakettle teakettle" of the Carolina Wren, and the lilting "potato chip" call of the American Goldfinch, but the song I think I most love is the one I usually hear from deep in the forest. If I get a glimpse of the singer, it's a bit of a treat, as he tends to be more retiring than his cousin, the Hermit Thrush. But even if I get no glimpse of the reddish head, black breast spots, and bright eye, there's nothing quite so enticing and yet so haunting as the distant fluting of the Wood Thrush. If Luthien Tinuviel had been a New World elf, I strongly suspect this is the bird to which Beren would have compared her, rather than the busy, chattering Nightingale.


4:22 PM
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