Saturday, May 19, 2018

Notes From A Lesser Birder

The Murre The Merrier: photo by Diana Byrne
Somebody has to be the worst birder in the Birdathon van, and I for one am not afraid to step up.

I had hope that things would be a little different this time. I've made strides. I pick up a little more knowledge every season. A few years ago, I was astonished when our fearless leader, Sarah, pointed up to some frantic dots halfway to the moon and said "Vaux's swifts." Whuh? How? And yet now I not only recognize them by sight, but also by voice. (They sound like photons swapping secrets.) I was ready for Vaux's swift.

And three years ago I thought she was making things up when she pointed out the Lesser Goldfinch, which, as it turns out, is totally a thing, and not a value judgment. In fact I now know it as one of the commonest birds in my yard, and I know its song, too. I was super ready for Lesser Goldfinch.

And, most significantly, I recently shaved a whole thirty seconds off my personal-best identification time for the female red-winged blackbird, a.k.a. that brown bird that's the only other thing in a marsh full of real red-winged blackbirds. The first time I saw it, I paged through the entire field guide looking for it, finally determining that it was a previously undiscovered species, which should excite other birders, but it doesn't. Anyway, I snapped off that ID in under a minute this time. I know--I'm amazed, too.

So off we went, and while the team was slurping coffee and easing into the day, I shot my arm out and bellowed AMERICAN CROW. Yeah, baby, in the bag! Mark it down and ink my initials next to it. I'm going to take a nap now.

But I longed for more glory. At our first stop I bounded out and squinted into the fog, but one by one, my aces in the hole showed up in someone else's hole, no offense. Anna's hummingbird, bushtit, black-capped chickadee, even Wilson's warbler, which I considered to be advanced--all of them quickly fell by the wayside. By the time I've got a bird in my binocs and a good read on it and am just about willing to go out on a limb with it, someone else has nabbed it right off its limb. Discouraged, I mentally reviewed easy and gigantic birds yet to be found, to no avail. Turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, bald eagle, all of them landed in someone else's eyeballs before they landed in mine.

Pigeon Guillemot. Sure.
Meanwhile our other fearless leader Max glances at a featureless horizon and says "pigeon guillemot" and, when I look distressed, kindly says "Here, I've got it in the scope for you," but I still can't make it out. The only thing holding Max back from identifying all the birds is the curvature of the earth.

I've come to understand that we're not all possessed of the same talent. Sarah and Max and everyone else in the van have been able to sweep arcane details about birds into their brain pans and fry them up until they're crisp and accessible. Most of my bird details get accidentally tossed off the cutting board and down the garbage disposal before I get the burner on. We can't all have the same skills, and I'm freakin' deadly at Bananagrams.

But there was glory yet in store for me. Per my usual method--see where everyone else is looking, and look somewhere else--I spotted something interesting and hopped up and down squeaking ("See something, say something") until someone lumbered over with a spotting scope, found it in the sights, and identified it as a black-bellied plover, which I'd never heard of, in spite of which I went ahead and took credit for it. Loudly. That was my black-bellied plover, on account of how loud I was about it, and consequently they gave it to me and they can't take it away from me. Boo-yah.

We never did see a lesser goldfinch.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pele's Flapping The Sheets

I've said it before. People take things so dang personally. One little thing goes wrong and it's all about them. Everyone bitches about the crappy weather on the weekend, but crappy for whom? There could be legions of salamanders who couldn't be tickleder about it, but nobody thinks about them. They think only of themselves.

I guess it's just our nature. We've got a hell of a thing going on in Hawaii right now that anybody should be honored to witness but it's being described as leaving a "path of destruction." Yes, it's possible you and your car and your house and your slower offspring and everything you've ever loved and cherished could be melted on the spot, but let's get some perspective here. This is clearly an act of creation, not destruction. You've got brand new real estate welling right up out of the ground before your very eyes.

We had much the same sort of event right here in Oregon not that many million years ago. Same kind of basalt flow. It flowed mostly westward at a decent clip until it hit the ocean and got chilly. Generally speaking, the basalt was said to flow at a rate a human being could outrun, although he would have to outrun it for a solid week. That was usually the sticking point, or would have been, had people been invented yet, but they hadn't, which cut down on the whining.

There are various ways in which molten rock meets blue sky. For instance, you could put a wedge of sea floor underneath the shoreline and keep shoving it down until it got so deep the pressure remelted it, causing volcanoes such as our own Cascade Mountains to pimple up about a hundred miles inland. But in the case of our huge shield-volcano basalt flows and the Hawaiian ones, it's because there's a hotspot underneath. Some spot in the deeper earth layers is perennially hot and churns out lava. Could be in the mantle, could be one floor higher; they're not sure. It's the spot where the fire goddess Pele sits and fans herself and complains that everybody's mumbling and the music is shitty now, and many people have left gifts for her as a bid for leniency, bouquets and leis and virgin teddy bears, but it doesn't work. (She wants chocolate.)

Pele doesn't move around, but the lithosphere above her does, so it twirls out a nice apostrophe of islands over time. In the case of the Hawaiian chain, it's the southeasternmost island that is newest and they are progressively older to the northwest. There's a volcano newer than Hawaii but it hasn't broken the water surface yet, and nobody counts it until they can drop a parking lot on it. That's another narrow-perspective thing people do.

Our own basalt flows have quite sturdied up the landscape for us. Apparently we are sitting on enough basalt that it could have covered the continental U.S. evenly up to twelve meters ("meter" is French for "yard"). We and our parking lots stand now as the westernmost legacy outpost of the old hotspot that is currently under Yellowstone. Ain't nothin' but heat coming up around Yellowstone and no end of wonders to behold, but even here you'll find people all cranky about not being allowed to annoy bison with their snowmobiles. If there were any justice in the world, these are the people who would get their asses geysered.

I think there are a lot of things everyone should be required to learn. Here's one that rarely makes the list: whichever patch of the planet you live on, you should know its story. You should know what got rammed or rumpled to give you your view; you should know why there are seashells in the middle of your prairie. You should appreciate how very tiny and ephemeral you are, and be humble, and enjoy the show, and try not to trash the place on your way out.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Strangled By The Arms Of Morpheus

I'm weirdly pumped about our big earthquake. We haven't had it yet but everyone promises, absolutely promises, we will. We've got an ancestral rip going on under our feet that is just itching to cut loose and there won't be anything subtle about it, either. So most people are afraid of it, with good reason.

Not me. And not because I am a brave person, but because I have only the shallowest acquaintance with reality.  Let me give you a quick tour of my brain. You can pretty much take in the whole thing from the front door.

You know those people who spend a lot of time worrying about stuff? People who anticipate the future so as to make plans and forestall disaster? You know, prepared people? I'm not one of those. I have a vivid imagination and tend to use it in a way that makes me feel better instead of worse.

For instance, I always envision our big earthquake happening when I'm asleep. I do assume it will be terrifying. Apparently there is complete unanimity on that, but the actual nature of the terror is difficult for me to imagine, so I don't. Much of the house will come tumbling down and I will somehow end up on the ground floor surrounded by dimensional lumber and sheetrock dust, but not in a pinning sort of way. It will be shocking, but I will be on a nice pillowtop mattress at the time. I might have a broken bone or two, but--as I picture it--it won't hurt much. I will crawl out from under the rubble dragging my useless but somehow pain-free leg, and I will be able to locate the peanut butter in the ruined kitchen, even without my glasses. It will be at a time of year it is not too cold or rainy. Friends and neighbors will emerge here and there, dusty but with a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity and newly appreciative of the important things in life: friendship, love, and the sharing of potable water.

I have read enough about our particular situation to know that we'll get shooken but good. Most of the ground beneath our house was deposited as a big gravel bar during the Missoula floods and in a major earthquake (the kind they absolutely promise we will have) it will turn into pudding. We're on a plateau, so we don't have to worry about our house sliding down a hill with the mud, but we shouldn't count on it staying upright, either. The house will be a wreck but after all we're way too wedded to our material goods already, and it will no doubt do us good to remember that.

So. That's what I imagine.

But that's before I heard of the new Earthquake Bed, which I actually can imagine. The new earthquake bed looks like a regular bed, but when it senses an earthquake the mattress suddenly plummets four feet and a metal box flings up and slams shut over you like a Venus fly trap, leaving you entombed in the dark whilst the planet thumps violently. It's like being dropped into a tyrannosaurus face. Fun!

It comes equipped with emergency rations and water and such, but I don't anticipate using any. There's probably something in there that will record for posterity the precise moment my heart blows up. The good news is I'll be pre-casketized.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Bag O' Murr

In the olden days, life used to be clunkier. You had to write out checks and put them in envelopes and stamp them and run them to a mailbox just to keep your lights on. You had to show up on time to things or otherwise your friends would be worried sick. You couldn't get a copy of anything unless you planned in advance and had onion-skin and carbon paper. And in the olden days, you never had a picture of the exact thing you want show up in the margins of what you were reading, and if it did, you couldn't pay for it just by pointing at it.

No. If you wanted to find your exact right thing, you had to shlep through stacks of catalogs. They came through your mail slot in quantities sufficient to prop up the entire Postal Service. If you happened to be a mail carrier, you got to see every catalog there is. (Ladies and gentlemen of Route 531, sorry about the pizza stains.)

I found my very best thing in a catalog. It was a pair of Early Winters Butterfleece Women's Overalls. One glance was all it took. I ordered those puppies and never looked back. They look exactly the same as when they were new, even though I wear them all the freaking time and they're at least thirty years old. I'd wear them to church if I could get away with throwing a mantilla over them, and if I went to church.

They're only as heavy as a cup of butterfly wings, and other than that tiny suggestion of weight at the shoulders, they feel like naked-time, only warmer and less alarming to passersby. You can basically walk around inside them. You can slip an arm in them to scratch your butt without anyone even knowing. You can gain and lose the same fifteen pounds and they don't say a word. All of your bodily secrets are safe with them.

And that is why, for thirty years, every single time I put them on I get at least one compliment. From a woman. Complete strangers go out of their way to tell me how cute they are and ask where can they get some. Let's call that three times a week for six months a year at thirty years--two thousand one hundred sixty compliments. From men? Zero.

(That's almost true. One time, a man told me they were absolutely darling, called me "girlfriend," and asked if I wanted to hear the specials. But he lived for tips.)

Dave, who has not lived this long by being stupid, has never weighed in on the subject of my overalls. If prodded, he says he likes them because it solved Christmas for him two years running. I have the same overalls in three colors.

It's only been a little while since I learned about polar fleece. Polar fleece is essentially plastic. Polar fleece is made out of fossil carbon deposits and future dead sea life. So it's a good thing it lasts. Some day hundreds of years after the big earthquake I'll be discovered as a tidy pile of bones in fleece overalls that haven't changed a bit. The archaeologists will guess my height and age accurately and commission an artist's rendering of me in those overalls. Maybe they'll give me eyebrows. The caption will reference a woman in "really cute" typical middle Anthropocene garb. That is because there are going to be a whole lot more women in science, baby.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Marge And Studley Show: What Now Edition

Well, you just never know, and this whole eight-year enterprise in chickadee rentals has been one long exercise in just never knowing. Through it all, our admiration of chickadees has only increased, along with our own humility and frailty in the face of adversity. This is life, and life has its ups and downs and sudden screeching halts to it.

It started with the bird box Dave built according to Google directions, with its dimensions exactly yea-by-yo, and its freakishly specific drop-depth, and its entry hole precisely one and a quarter inches, per spec. And when we scored authentic chickadees with it, we were pretty chuffed. After all, how many rotten tree cavities are there around here with those exact requirements? Could Nature even pretend to compete with the mad skills of Dave? Clearly we had elevated the housing stock in the area and we were prepared to be the very best chickadee landlords we could be.

Nuthatch Fiasco...
But it's been one thing after another. The first few years we achieved invisible chicks, judging by the activity and the cheeping and whatnot, but we had to take it on faith. Then one year everything got started on schedule and the nest was abandoned. That was followed by the Year of Dead Chicks and Punctured Eggs. Then there was the dreadful Nuthatch Fiasco of '16, the likes of which I hope never to see again. Those nuthatches were as earnest as they could be but nothing went right for them at all.

Which brings us to this year, when I have been terribly excited by the prospect of monitoring Marge and Studley whilst actually knowing which was Marge and which was Studley, because Studley has a bum left foot. And no sooner does Marge start putting her mattress together than they both go away. Instead there are wasps.

...of 2016
So I haul the box inside for a look and unscrew the top and there's a small active wasp nest hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier. Marge's mattress looks to be nearly done, but there's no Marge. The Windowsons like to eat bugs but wasps are too spicy. I scraped off the wasp nest and re-hung the box after waiting a day to befuddle the wasps. I also took down the hummingbird feeder in case that was attracting them. Ten seconds after I shut the window a wasp came back to the house.

And maybe he was just trying to figure out what happened to his nice sculpture and he'd go away and pout. But how to get Marge back? Staging? Hanging a little picture of Marge's grandma? Laying in some potpourri that smells like chocolate chip cookies?

Besides, what's next? A plague of parasites? Hordes of Huns in hawk suits? Interference from the neighbor's Wi-Fi? Will it turn out that the Mercury in Retrograde crap affects only gullible humans and chickadees?

Odds are Marge and Studley are already off looking for new digs. I wouldn't blame them. We had a working cascara tree when we first put up the house. Now it's ninety percent dead and the birds like that too, but there aren't many leaves left and the birdhouse gets a lot more sun. I'd already thought about hanging an umbrella above it. No one wants to try to hatch a poached egg. How much intervention do our little friends need?

When you make the perfect bird house you like to think you're providing something for the community, but that's just what you tell yourself. The chickadees will figure something out. We have the box one foot away from our window because we want to watch. We put out a seed feeder and hang suet because we want to watch. But birds can share diseases at a feeder. Beyond hosing cats and planting natives and leaving seed pods to ripen, maybe we shouldn't be doing anything at all.

But. We want to watch.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

One Foot Away

My pal Julie Zickefoose is a world-class noticer. One of the cool things you can do if you're a world-class noticer like Julie is you can learn things that nobody else knows yet. It's not like everything knowable is out there on the web somewhere already, ready to be rolled out on casters.

Ornithologists like to follow individual birds to see what they're up to, where they've been, and where they think they're going this time of night, Missy. They do this by nabbing them in nets and sewing little tags in their underwear. Sometimes they nab the same bird in subsequent years and eventually they know how old they are without having to saw into their tiny legs and count the rings. Or maybe someone else nabs them 10,000 miles away and we know how far they flapped for fruit, and then later know they came right back to the same original dang tree to nest. Cool stuff, although it's a long shot you're going to learn anything about any particular bird. It takes a lot of luck with your nabbing.

But Julie pays fierce attention to her own homies. Sometimes it's easy for her to recognize them--a doe whose eyes are hooked up crooked, for instance, or a blue jay with missing feathers or a mustache. But she's so good at paying attention that she doesn't need anything that obvious. She can tell critters apart because of how they ack. One bluebird will distinguish himself from the flock by his tendency toward solipsism, for instance, which gives him--to Julie's observant eye--an air of skepticism that sets him apart. She'll not only know which cardinal winks, but whether it's an affectionate or conspiratorial wink. Probably affectionate. She goes out on a limb for them, as it were.

Even I can do it if it's easy enough. We have a crow a couple miles away with two white tail feathers and we've gone back for three years to check on him, and he's always in the same tree. We think it's right handy of him to be so recognizable. And I have also learned some things, by noticing, that are not in the books. For instance: robins fart. The literature says they don't, but they do, and I've seen 'em do it. But mainly I can't pick out individuals in a flock. Marge and Studley Windowson, my chickadees, to take an example, are i-stinkin'-dentical. They don't even know who they are until an egg drops out of one of them.

UNTIL THIS YEAR! GREAT NEWS! I can tell Marge and Studley apart!

SHITTY NEWS! It's because Studley's got a bum foot!

I saw him a few weeks ago and thought he was feeling po'ly. He was all flopped over and fluffed out on a twig the way birds get when they're sick. But he flew off for sunflower seeds like anything, and ate, and flew up into tall trees, and generally acted fine. Later I saw him checking out our bird house and could see that one foot was all balled up in a little knob and he had to hang from the other one.  Marge was inside hammering away on her nest. We'll trust The Literature that the female builds the nest, and that's how I know Studley's the one with the crumpled gam. And now I can really observe who does what for the next month and a half. I'm very excited.

Last year I thought the neighbor cat Sid had gotten Marge or Studley because the nest had been abandoned, and Sid had been stalking them for a while. But maybe Sid only got hold of Studley's foot. And that put him down for the count for last year's brood, but he's back in the pink now. Anyway, Sid is dead. He got run over by a car, which is really sad news for his personal human, but really good news for everyone else around here.