Sunday, December 31, 2006

On the last day of 2006...Winter!

Winter finally blew in yesterday, not with a bang, and not exactly with a whimper, but with a modest two-inch snowfall and a chill deep enough to keep the ground white for a couple of days or so. Finally! The warm temperatures of the last month or two have been surprising, even among those of us sold on global warming long ago. I will admit that the warm November was enjoyable, but as it stayed mild well into December it started to seem strange, eerie and finally somewhat frightening, leading me to wonder if the anticipated global or regional climate change will happen not gradually over decades but in some crazy sudden ‘inversion’ that will instantly send our ecosystems spinning. Certainly, it has been an interesting month of birdwatching; from egrets to orioles, many birds have lingered that are normally long gone. I saw a great blue heron today flying across I-95.
So, the snowfall and the dry chill air feels most welcome. I like to think that the resident birds are enjoying it as well. I took a walk today at MassAudubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary and found that everywhere I turned, black-capped chickadees were buzzing about in a playful frenzy, picking their various ways through the winterscape, eking meals out from under leaf, between crevasses of bark, through clumps of snow, always keeping an eye out for a handout as well. They are tame here at Ipswich River, and they will land on your hand if you hold it out, whether it has food in it or not. So will the titmice.
It was sunny today, and other birds were active also, from a beautiful swamp sparrow foraging across the marsh boardwalks to a pair of soaring red-tailed hawks above the swallow field. Actually, my two best birds of the day virtually greeted me as I arrived at mid-morning: a vocal hairy woodpecker hopping along a tree on the edge of the parking lot, and just as I was making my way towards one of the back trails, a beautiful fox sparrow, my third of the year, and certainly a very beautiful bird, maybe (maybe) my favorite of the sparrows, if it isn't the grasshopper sparrow. Or the swamp sparrow.
I also brought along the Golden Guide to Trees today, thinking it would be useful, and enjoyable, to brush up on my tree identification skills which have gone largely dormant, and are more in tune with the Midwest selection anyway. I kept mostly to conifers today, for obvious reasons, and now I feel I know my way around Eastern White Pine, Eastern Hemlock and Eastern Red Cedar reasonably well. This ties in well with an excellent book I’m reading right now called Changes In the Land by William Cronin, which gives a fascinating history of the ecological changes that have occurred in the New England landscape from pre-colonial eras through the settling by Europeans.

It was nice, as usual, to get away from the noise and bustle of the city for a few hours, and the sound of snow crunching under my feet was a great bonus, expected but almost not expected in this strange Massachusetts winter. And a final prize: as I sit here writing this, I am hearing the low, nasal grunt of a fish crow, an uncommon species of crow distinct from the nearly-ubiquitous American crow, which gives me 205 bird species seen (or heard) in Massachusetts in 2006 (220 in North America, if you’re curious).

Now onto my New Year’s Even dinner, an indulgent splurge on a cheap but good cut of steak (chuck blade) and a California Petit Syrah, accompanied by mushrooms and bread.
Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Crazy names for animals

I wanted to share with you an enjoyable list I found on Massbird is an internet site with lots of links and information related to birdwatching in Massachusetts, including a listserve that anybody can write into with unusual (or usual) bird sightings, observations or ruminations. I check it daily. A couple days ago some folks posted a list of literary terms for various multitudes of animals, and I've found them quite interesting; sometimes obscure, sometimes apt, sometimes hilarious. I thought several of them would be perfect novel titles, and lo and behold, a search on Amazon found that some of the best ones already have been used as such. Darn! I was set to title my next book A Parliament of Owls. Apparently these are called venereal terms, and many stem from a fifteenth century source having to do with hunting. James Lipton's book An Exaltation of Larks gives these and many more.
Here they are (there are a couple duplicates; I just cut and paste from two different sources):

cete of badgers
sleuth of bears
sloth of bears
singular of boars [French sanglier]
gang of elk
business of ferrets
earth of foxes
leash of foxes
skulk of foxes
trip of goats
husk of hares
richness of martens
labor of moles
nest of rabbits
dray of squirrels
sounder of swine
pack of wolves
route of wolves

pace of asses
drove of cattle
clowder of cats [clutter]
peep of chickens
rag of colts
brood of hens
drift of hogs
passel of hogs [parcel]
harras of horses
kindle of kittens
barren of mules
span of mules
string of ponies

shrewdness of apes
obstinacy of buffalo
bask of crocodiles
tower of giraffe
leap of leopards
pride of lions
crash of rhinoceroses

school of fish [shoal]
bed of oysters
pod of seals
knot of toads
hover of trout
bale of turtles
gam of whales

dissimulation of birds
sedge of cranes [siege, as in siege engines/cranes; infl. by sedge grasses?]
murder of crows
dule of doves [dule = French "deuil" = mourning/pitying]
pitying of doves
charm of finches
gaggle of geese on water or land
skein of geese in flight
cast of hawks
siege of herons
party of jays
exaltation of larks
tidings of magpies
parliament of owls
company of parrots
covey of partridges
ostentation of peacocks
bouquet of pheasant
nide of pheasant
nye of pheasant
congregation of plovers
unkindness of ravens
building of rooks
walk of snipe
murmuration of starlings
mustering of storks
wedge of swans
rafter of turkeys
descent of woodpeckers
BOUQUET of pheasants
BUILDING of rooks
CAST of hawks
CHARM of finches
CHATTERING of starlings
COVEY of quail, partridges
DECEIT of lapwings
DESCENT of woodpeckers
DULE of doves (a what? "dule" is not in my Webster's)
FALL of woodcocks
FLIGHT of swallows
GAGGLE of geese
HOST of sparrows
MURDER of crows
MURMURATION of starlings
MUSTERING of storks
OSTENTATION of peacocks
PADDLING of ducks
PEEP of chickens
PITYING of turtle doves
RAFTER of turkeys
SIEGE of herons
SPRING of teal
TIDINGS of magpies
UNKINDNESS of ravens
WALK of snipe
WATCH of nightingales

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas, Bird!

Well, once again my photography will not win me any prizes, but it is fun to document a bird here or there. This blurry little guy is a Northern Shrike, seen on Christmas day at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. I took it through my binoculars.
The Northern Shrike breeds far to the north and is mostly found around here in the winter. As it is ucommon to rare, as the field guides say, it is an uncommon to rare sighting, but made much easier by its habit of sitting at the top of exposed branches, trees or utility wire. It looks kind of like a mockingbird, but stouter, with a shorter tail and narrow black mask, barely visible in my photograph. I urge all interested parties to go look it up and take a gander; you might see one yourself someday, though in some parts it's easily confused with the Loggerhead Shrike, a close relative.
The Shrike is a powerful predator, taking prey of a size you wouldn't expect from a robin sized bird - I just read an account that had them occasionally taking Blue Jays, which are considerably larger than they are. I think small birds and rodents are more typical.
Anyway, Merry Christmas! I promise a blog about something other than birding soon.
ps Some interesting, thrilling and chilling items I've culled from reading Scott Weidensaul's Raptor Almanac. In his discussion of a group of fossil raptors called teratorns, enormous avian scavengers related to condors, he says that the largest of these, and the largest flying bird ever, was Argentavis magnificens from the late Miocene, and that it stood as tall as a man and had a wingspan of around twenty-five feet. Compare that to the ten foot wingspan of modern condors. He goes on to mention, however, the flying reptile Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan of thirty-six feet. Yikes. Finally, he mentions the largest eagle ever, Haast's eagle, which weighed an estimated thirty pounds (compare to about nine pounds for a golden eagle), and fed on moas, giant flightless birds of New Zealand, which were killed off about one thousand years ago. The eagles disappeared about the same time, but Weidensaul quotes biologist Jared Diamond as to his theory - the eagles may have been killed off by humans in self-defense, as the eagles were used to killing and consuming the enormous moas - two legged, strong, flightless birds between three and ten feet tall, and they probably could have made easy prey of the occasional Maori. Wow.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Home Ground

Here on the first day of Winter, it’s nice to think of the warmth and promise of Spring, even if just for a few moments. Winter does have its charms, but Spring…I was looking through a few pictures I had taken this last April in a local park I often visit, and thinking about how nice it is to have a place nearby that you visit frequently, that you know well, that comforts you and surprises you in the ways that an old and good friend or family member will.
Having been somewhat unsettled through much of my adult life, there’s no place I go now that I’ve known intimately for all that many years. Many people talk of the relationships they’ve had with places throughout their entire lives, or throughout large chunks of their adult lives, but I just don’t really have that. However, for the last three years, since moving to Newton, I have had Hammond Pond.
Hammond Pond, and the adjoining Webster Conservation Area, is a wonderful and surprisingly wild and varied park in central Newton, straddling both sides of the Hammond Pond Parkway, just north of two separate mall complexes in Chestnut Hill. Though I’ve explored both sides, the east side that includes Hammond Pond itself is the place I usually go. It’s on my way to work, and easy to stop off at for a few minutes (or few hours, if I get up early enough) of birding and tramping about before clocking in. The pond itself, which borders the mall parking lot on the south and an inaccessible red maple swamp to the north, often harbors surprises for those who take the time to scan the water and the trees bordering this small lake. The water is often full of ducks, geese and gulls; in the Spring wood ducks are always present paddling and dabbling along the western shore, and can often be found sitting in nearby trees as well. Before and after ice out there are usually numerous hooded mergansers diving for fish. Two weeks ago I saw one struggling with a sunfish as big as its head; as if that wasn’t enough trouble it was soon attacked by a herring gull which forced it to dive again and again, always resurfacing with the fish still in its beak. Eventually it made its way over to the water’s edge; the gull gave up as it hid itself in the overhanging brush there and finally consumed its enormous meal. Great blue herons are often seen here, ospreys not so often but on a few occasions.
Entering the woods you quickly pass beautifully sculpted cliffs of Roxbury pebblestone that sometimes hold climbers on the weekends. When the palm warblers arrive, usually among the first warblers to do so, they jam this stretch of trees in considerable numbers and think nothing about going about their business not ten feet away, singing their feeble trill and constantly flicking their tail as they forage in the low, open undergrowth.
Just a few minutes of walking brings you to a short dip down into the Webster Conservation area, where a small, clear brook babbles along into a wetland area, a peat bog. Skunk cabbage abounds, and this is usually the first place I spot migrating hermit thrushes, hiding in plain sight in their peculiar and endearing manner. This wetland appears wildly different at different times of year, or even from day to day according to the amount of rain we've been getting. Sometimes it is lush and picturesque, full of frogs and swimming ducks, herons and kingfishers. Other times it is a dank mudpit, and sometimes it appears as a dry, stubbly field bunched with clumps of brown marsh grass along its margins. Once again wood ducks are dependable if there is water to be found. There are always song sparrows, but that is no surprise. I have seen, twice, a coyote trotting along the train tracks on the far side. And some incredible, unseeable species of frog makes the most amazing, bubbling, endless trill in the early mornings, one frog harmonizing with another at strange, jarring intervals.

Moving along, before I cross the train tracks there is a little spot up from the wetland where I look and usually find an ovenbird skulking about the logs and leaf duff in early May. Crossing the tracks finds me in the Houghton Gardens, a more manicured garden area with benches, carefully placed stone steps and small arched bridges over narrow, shallow waterways. Warblers are plentiful here.

Coming back, I skip the wetland and instead head up along a back trail to the top of the bluffs we passed earlier, finding myself in perhaps the most surprising place of all, a rolling open shelf of rock and thick, verdant moss, with views over the high ledges to the pond and swamp below. This place never fails to thrill me with its fragile beauty and unexpected character; the dense heterogeneity of this entire property is a marvel, surrounded by residential neighborhoods, highways and shopping malls, five miles down the road from Boston.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

An important milestone we should all celebrate. Not really.

I tell myself, and others, that as a birder, I’m not all that interested in numbers or obsessive ‘listing’, as it’s often called. Simply, listing is making a list of the birds that you’ve seen. Easy enough, no big deal. The most basic form is the ‘life list’ – a list of all bird species that you have ever seen. Many people take it one or two, or ten or twenty, steps further. There are country lists, state lists, city lists, park lists, backyard lists, lists of birds seen on television, bird calls heard on television or radio, birds referred to in books or poetry. Then there are year lists, month lists, behavior lists (singing, feeding, copulating…), the possibilities are endless. This, along with the mental and physical challenge that is a real part of birding, is what makes it kind of a sport, and what spurs many people to bird competitively, trying to rack up as many species as they can, sometimes in conscious competition with other birders (the most famous competitions are the ‘big day’ and the ‘big year’ – you can probably guess what these mean).

As I said, I don’t really consider myself a die-hard lister, most of the time. I have a life list, and I keep a year list, and I keep records of species seen on most outings I take. But I don’t tend to drop what I’m doing in order to chase down one rare bird, and I don’t make much of an effort to tally as many species as I can in a year, or even a lifetime. I’ve got other things I also like to spend time on, though birding is near the top of the list. In this way, I sometimes think of myself as a ‘birdwatcher’ instead of a ‘birder’, being more interested in watching the birds and learning about them, enjoying their beauty and the intricacies of the world they fit into rather than quickly checking them off and moving on to the next.

This is somewhat true of myself, but also somewhat false. Today I found myself birding with moderate fervor, and a specific goal in mind: to reach two hundred species in Massachusetts for the year 2006.

I was successful.
A few weeks ago, I looked over my year checklist and found that, after having birded frequently in the Spring but not having done much since then, I had seen about 180 species in Massachusetts for the year, and remembered telling myself that it would be nice to reach or break 200. So I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Over the next couple weeks I added new birds here and there, some waterfowl species at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord one weekend, a couple of sparrow species at Nahanton Park in Newton another, meadowlarks (which I had somehow missed in the Spring, despite their lovely song "springtime is here") at MassAudobons Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary last weekend…

This morning my tally stood at 196. One thing I hadn’t done all year, either this Fall or last Winter, was hit Gloucester and Rockport (except for Halibut Point, which I visit frequently, but often to go snorkeling rather than birding). There are a lot of wonderful birds to be had in Gloucester, but it’s not usually my favorite type of birding, as Gloucester is pretty well developed and birding mostly involves driving from site to site, getting out of the car and scanning with binoculars or scope along the way. I generally prefer to pick a location where I can get out and hike or walk for some distance. But like I said, there are good birds to be seen in Gloucester, and some more likely to be seen there than any other place around here.

I started at the Fisherman’s Monument by Gloucester Harbor, and found the wind blowing in from the south quite fiercely, making holding my scope steady or even my binoculars difficult. I found some common eider and red-breasted mergansers, but didn’t have the patience or will to really clamp everything down and scan from there for the uncommon gull species that I’ve seen there before.

So I moved on, and that paid off. At the State Fish Pier the wind was still fierce but it was just a bit more sheltered and I could crouch by my car to steady myself (at least it wasn’t cold). Almost immediately I had a tremendous view of a female scaup, a type of waterfowl, paddling and diving around a floating wooden dock laden with a motionless cadre of double-crested cormorants. There are lesser and there are greater scaup, and with both female and males it is hard to distinguish between the two species, but this bird was close and stayed close as long as I was there, and between the larger bill size and the shape of its head, peaked in front, calling it a greater scaup was fairly easy.
One down!
Next I began to scan gulls, never one of my favorite birding activities. Gulls mostly all look alike, but there are two straightforward things you can do to zoom in on most of the rarer ones in New England, at least in Winter. Look for very small gulls, and look for larger gulls with no dark brown or black markings on their wingtips. These latter are what we call the 'white-wing' gulls, consisting mostly of Iceland and Glaucous Gulls.

Success, and two down! Another great view, this time of an Iceland gull, a mid-sized gull that winters here in modest numbers, amidst the many thousands of ring-billed, herring and great black-backed gulls that abound in these parts, nowhere more so than the Gloucester Harbor.

I then moved south along the eastern shore of Gloucester Harbor to eastern point, where I saw nothing new for the year, but did see a sizable flock of purple sandpipers on the big jetty there, more hordes of gulls, more eider and a small group of the fun-loving buffleheads. Driving out from the point I stopped at Niles Pond where there was a nice flock of bonaparte’s gulls, to my eyes an exceptionally elegant small gull with a fine black bill. I don’t often see these resting so placidly on a pond, usually I’m trying to make out the field marks on a considerable chop out at sea, so I took my time looking at them and making mental notes about plumage and shape.
This was not a new bird for the year, but a friendly birder at the pond reminded me of a rarity that has been haunting that neighborhood the last week or so, a western kingbird, a large flycatcher usually seen, as if you couldn’t guess, in the west, but a rare but regular vagrant across the eastern United States. So I found a parking spot by the beach and walked over to 10 St. Louis Street off of Farrington, and almost immediately found it preening itself high in a bare tree just below a small congregation of house finches. Superficially this bird resembles a great-crested flycatcher, which is easily found in Massachusetts woodlands during the Spring and Summer, but has more dark/light contrast between its head and chest and a noticeable black line across its eye. It also holds itself more horizontally. Despite belonging to the flycatcher family, this one has been eating berries (though with our warm weather so far, I'm sure there are plenty of flies still around. Ticks, too). Plus, one thing you learn, if you see a bird you don’t expect for the time of year, look more closely – it might be a completely different kind of bird that’s completely off your radar, a vagrant from worlds away.

Three down!
The last bird was the most fleeting but the most exciting, as it was a bird I’ve been hoping to catch a glimpse of for years but never have until today, the lovely oddball, the flying football, the dovekie. This is a type of alcid, a group of tubby ocean birds usually draped in bright white and black that normally stay well away from land, diving endlessly for their meals, at least when they're not breeding. These are the penguins of the north, but they can fly, barreling along just above the surface of the water with considerable speed, if not much grace. The dovekie is the smallest alcid in the east, and the tubbiest as well. It really is quite small, and I nearly mistook it for a sandpiper at first from its size, but noticed right away its distinctive shape (football) and coloration (tuxedo) and manner of flying. If it had been off on the horizon, I may not have been able to judge size or shape well enough to really distinguish it from another type of alcid like a razorbill (or I wouldn’t have been able to see it at all), but it was pretty close in, maybe a hundred, hundred and fifty yards out or so, flying south past the Granite Pier in Rockport into the small bay there. I watched it for about six or seven seconds, heart thumping, hoping to see it splash down and get a chance to watch it feed. No such luck. I suddenly lost it, mysteriously, in mid-flight in the sun’s glare on the water. I scanned for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes more, but could not turn it up again, but…it had to be there, somewhere.

No big deal. Four down, and a lifer for my 200th Massachusetts bird species seen in 2006.
Happy Holidays!
(p.s. the photograph has nothing to do with this post. I didn't take any pictures today, but feel that a photograph might help people enjoy my blog, so I included one of my favorite pictures from Costa Rica 1990. It's a picture of a damselfly.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Have you heard Joanna Newsom's new album?

The name of the album is Ys, (1 point if you know the old French folk tale, 2 if you know the excellent Debussy prelude inspired by that tale), and I hesitate to recommend it, as Ms. Newson’s voice is an acquired taste. One I’m not sure I’ve even fully acquired yet. It’s odd, squeaky and strangled, flighty and warbled, like a record on an old turntable set somewhere between 33 and 45 rpms. The first time I heard her sing, on a track from an earlier album, I hated her voice, really, thinking it full of fakery and strained effect, but even then I was paying attention to her harp playing and her hypnotic and enticing melodies.

In any case, I felt I had to check out her new album after reading a considerable number of intriguing and positive reviews, notably Sasha Frere-Jones' from The New Yorker and the one from the sometimes-irritating site. There are only five tracks on the new album, all lengthy affairs full of the constant motion of her harping and her singing, and four tracks also have highly imaginative and unpredictable orchestral scoring by Van Dyke Parks. Her songs seem to consist of long sequences of her simple harmonic progressions, one after another, after another, endlessly strung with her voluminous and poetic lyrics. I say poetic, and I think I mean it. Each song reads like a long, imaginative work of poetry; whether it’s good poetry or bad poetry, I’m not really sure, but it seems to hold my attention, obliquely touching on themes of family and work, and art and music, myth and history, and who knows what else, replete with details from the natural world, minnows and bears and meteors…I like it.

And the orchestration is great, shimmering with ideas, buffeting the melodies and lyrics like the various waters and worlds surrounding a small boat passing downstream on its way to the ocean. (That analogy was a bit much, wasn't it?) Mr. Parks has worked on many other notable projects, including the finally-last-year-released SMILE album from Brian Wilson, a couple tracks with Sam Phillips (one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the 90’s), and some work of his own. I have an album of his called Song Cycle. I hated it when I first played it, and shelved it for three years, only pulling it out a couple weeks ago after hearing Ms. Newson’s new album. Now, well, I like it, but haven’t really fallen for its willful eccentricities yet.

Anyway, regarding Ys: it seems to have caught me. I’ve played it through a few times in just a couple of weeks, a rare event these days for me, especially for anything related to the popular music world. Maybe this is music far removed from that world, but I don’t think so. It’s less complicated music than the recent press would have you believe, less complex than you might think at first from its unique instrumentation and long, poetic structures. It is accessible and straightforward music, done with personality and imagination, and worth checking out.

My apologies if her voice makes your cat cry.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Winterberry and the misfit goose

Winterberry is one of the standouts of the wintry New England coastline, often providing the only splash of bright color amidst the muted browns, greens and tans of dune, scrub and field. I love in particular their contrast against the small dark green juniper shrubs when they grow together in the shallow, stable depressions between windswept dunes. By mid-winter they often seem to be the only berry still available, and an important foodstuff for wintering birds and animals that enjoy berries. Myself, I’ve never tried one. I did notice signs posted at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge today to leave the berries alone. I think, however, that they are often collected for holiday decorating, not as a tasty addition to your yogurt.
Birding today was a little quiet, especially once the drizzle began around nine o’clock or so. I missed most of the more exciting birds posted on the chalkboard – the shrike, the owls, the Eurasian wigeon and the kittiwakes. I had to make do with excellent, close views of several other expected but enjoyable species, including Common and Red-throated Loons, Red-necked and Horned Grebes, Common Goldeneyes, all the scoters, the Common Eiders…and a few other things.
Interesting behavioral note: I watched a group of seven female Common Goldeneyes for several minutes. They always dove as a group, either all at once or in quick succession, and surfaced quickly, usually within six or seven seconds, which is shorter than most of the other diving birds, I think. I wonder what sort of group hunting formation they use, collaring schools of small fish and driving them towards each other. What a cold observation project that would be!
Northern Harriers seemed to be everywhere, and I still have yet to have a dull moment watching them hunt and they wobble and drift above the marshes. Most of the individuals seem to be immatures, showing that beautiful reddish wash on their breast. I also had great views of a Cooper’s Hawk along the roadside.
The bird of the day was the Snow Goose, a single individual grazing amidst a large flock of Canada Geese. I included a picture here to demonstrate my great skills at photography. Despite its blurriness, I think you can see the diagnostic black wingtips and maybe the pinkish color of the bill, maybe not. You can see that its white, and clearly not a Canada Goose, can’t you?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Snowy Owls!

Man, when I get the birding bug, I really get it. After a very full Spring of almost daily trips near and far throughout eastern Massachusetts, I went several months with only a trip or two every few weeks plus some incidental roadside and vacation birdwatching (thus missing the heights of the fall shorebird, sparrow and raptor migrations). But with the end of the year approaching, it got into my head to see if I could bolster my list to 200 species seen in Massachusetts this year, and I've been out nearly every day for over a week. Though I haven't really done the job I need to if I want to add species - there are rarities to be chased down on Cape Cod, and a full swing through Cape Ann might turn some things up, but alas, I have to work and there have been other (albeit enjoyable) commitments preventing me from going at it full time on the weekends. And now it's snowing! (Plus laundry, library, clean room and kitchen, practice violin, rehearsal, grocery shopping...) But I just can't get the birdies off my mind, have several guides by my bedside that I am leafing through idly.

I should go chase the Bell's Vireo down in Falmouth, hour and a half drive each way, an unknown location and unclear directions, a possibly several hour wait with no guarantee of success for one bird, well...I'm just not up to it today. Not without company. Too much driving. Why does that make me feel guilty? Less than dedicated? To those birders who might be reading this whose perseverence stretches beyond my own: my apologies.

In compensation, here are two photographs of the Snowy Owl that I saw yesterday at the Salisbury Reservation on the northern mouth of the Merrimack River. My friend Anne has a sixth sense for these wonderful birds and spotted it on a dumpster as we were leaving the park. It soon flew (the first time I've ever seen a snowy fly in ten-plus sightings!) and perched for several minutes on the maintenance building where we got some pictures. Otherwise, it was quiet at Salisbury, but a few nice birds were about - Long-tailed Ducks, Eider, Common and Red-throated loon, Red-Breasted Mergansers...the short-eared owls hadn't arrived yet.

Did I mention that it's snowing?

Monday, November 27, 2006


You know, as a birder, and as a person, I try not to play favorites. It’s a fun exercise, no doubt, and the kind of top-ten list making that starred in the novel High Fidelity can easily consume hours of idle thought. But really, I find that these favorites are in a constant state of flux, changing by the year, week, day, or minute. Often, my favorite is whatever is staring me in the face at that particular moment, which is as it should be. A few things certainly stay near the top of the list for long periods of time. For me, musicians such as the Beatles and Mozart, movies like Jaws and ET, books like The Lord of the Rings and Dune will always be near the top.

Birds are different. I have so many favorites. There are birds such as the Black-capped Chickadee, which reliably entertain me with their familiar chatter and antics at any time of year. I see them almost every time I venture outside, and they are familiar friends. There are birds like the Wood Thrush, which send a thrill through my ears and my soul when I hear one for the first time every Spring, singing with a voice at one with the heart of spring and the woods, but also speaking from just on the other side of some parallel world beyond my reach. That was a little over the top, wasn't it? And of course there are the memories or anticipations of rare thrills I get from such birds as razorbills or phalaropes.

But all of these are forgotten when the Harlequin Duck pops into view. This bird just happens to be the most entertaining little guy that I know of. Luckily, it is reliably seen here off the coast of Massachusetts from November through March. This is a tiny duck with an outlandish pattern of white dots and crescents and splashes of rufous against its compact, dark body. It spends its time on rocky shores, playing about the crashing surf just inches from the seaweed and barnacle encrusted rocks, diving for mollusks and crustaceans, poking its head in the water, and skittering about the surface, playing with others.

Here’s to the Harlequin, at least until the next bird flies by.
Pictures were taken at Halibut State Park on Cape Ann, 11-26-06.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Pictures

Who are these people? First picture: Anne, Anna, and Mathilde. Second picture: Mathilde and Anna. Third picture: Me, windblown. Fourth picture: who knows. Fifth picture: two rowdy crows.

I may be spelling Mathilde's name wrong.
These pictures were taken in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The first four at Crane Beach. The crows were in some tree down the road.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More Gabby Pictures

Well, the world probably has plenty of pictures of my beautiful little niece Gabriella, but I couldn't resist posting a few more. These are from Whitefish Bay, Lake of the Woods, Ontario, August 2006.
But don't forget to read my fascinating posting about Bluebeard's Castle below!

Bluebeard's Castle

I promised you Bluebeard’s Castle, didn’t I? I didn’t really intend to write about it, but I listened to this one-act opera of Bartok’s last night for the first time in many years and felt like saying something about it.

It’s an early piece of Bartok’s, written around 1910 or so, and is loosely based on an old fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Bluebeard, which concerns a murderous villain and his new young wife. He brings her home soon after they are married and forbids her to open a particular door in his castle, but of course gives her the key anyway, so…she opens it! And finds the dead bodies of his previous wives hanging on the walls. He finds out what she's done and chases her, intending to kill her, but she is rescued in the end by her brothers. A happy ending, I suppose, to a gruesome story.

Bartok’s story is similar – Bluebeard brings his wife home, where she sees there are seven locked doors. She is curious, but Bluebeard tells her they must not be opened, and makes a foreboding reference to ‘rumours’ about him. But she can’t let it go, and persuades Bluebeard to give her the keys to each room, and she opens them one by one. In the first we have a torture chamber, in the second an armory, the third, gold and jewels, the fourth, a beautiful garden, the fifth, grand vistas of Bluebeard’s lands, the sixth, a glittering fountain, and in the seventh…Bluebeard’s three former wives, but not really dead. They are living, and move about, but they don’t seem all that talkative (there are only two singing parts to the opera, Bluebeard and his wife, Judith).

What I find interesting is Bartok’s use of this story as an analogy, more or less, for a classic battle of the sexes. Though on the surface, (and clearly in the original folk tale), Judith is the heroine, Bartok’s point of view seems particularly sympathetic to Bluebeard. (Disclaimer: this is not just my own psychoanalysis; some of these thoughts were sparked by the liner notes, particularly the conductor Istvan Kertesz’s comments.) In fact, one can almost look at the story from a comical standpoint, as if it’s a modern sitcom. The guy, who just wants to love his wife and have her love him, but doesn’t really want to share too much or expose himself. He knows there are things buried in him (and in all men) which are not attractive. But his wife can’t leave him alone, she keeps pestering him to open up, which he reluctantly does, and eventually she drags out of him more than she can bear to know, and of course things end badly after that.

Now, I don’t want to analyze this too far; on the surface of things Bluebeard is a villain, and one certainly wouldn’t want to defend his crimes too much. But everything that is depicted falls very easily into metaphors for the life of a man and his relationship with the women he’s been close to, and Mr. Kertesz makes a very compelling, concise point: he says about Judith “She doesn’t want him, she just wants to open his doors.”

This brings up a lot of interest thoughts regarding relationships. All of us, I think, and maybe especially men?, have things in us which we don’t want to share, can’t share, ugly things, embarrassing things. In an ideal relationship we share as much as we can of ourselves, and are allowed to be ourselves as much as possible instead of playacting some other person, but still…there are some things better hidden, and finding that compromise with people you truly care about can be challenging. I don’t mean that we’re hiding violent crimes (in most cases) but we all put on at least slightly different faces when we are interacting with people than when we are alone, and often different faces for the different people we see. Or maybe it’s just me? It would be interesting to get a woman’s take on this story.

Regarding the music, it’s wonderful. Not yet in Bartok’s mature idiom, it has echoes of Strauss and Mahler, with a strong stamp of Bartok’s own developing personality, but it is very evocative and imaginative. The structure of the story is perfect for a series of small tone-paintings, as Judith opens each successive door to see something different. The garden brings forth a dense yet vibrant tapestry of verdant growth and birdsong, the grand vistas of Bluebeard’s estates ring with magisterial, swelling brass figures that seem to look across to the horizon, the fountain brings serene, drifting notes. When Judith becomes jealous and begins to ask Bluebeard about his former wives, you can hear a note of madness creep into her voice as she sings a thin monotone backed by dissonant strings edging against her notes.

And best of all, this is a short opera, about one hour long, and I was able to listen to the whole thing without falling asleep or letting my attention drift away!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bartok's Fifth String Quartet

Here's a picture of me getting ready for a tramp in the woods.

No, actually, (as if I really fooled you), this is Bela Bartok getting ready for one of his groudbreaking forays into the Transylvanian countryside to collect folk music. Bartok was one of the first musicians to systematically collect, study and categorize folk music. What he heard and learned during his trips across the countryside of what used to be just Hungary and is now also Roumania and Czechoslovakia had a profound affect on the music he composed and on his thinking as a human being.

But I'm not really intending to write another biography of Bartok, as much as I think he led a fascinating life. I've been listening to a lot of his music lately, and in particular his string quartets, which are often (and justly) referred to as the 'new testament', the old testament being the quartets of Beethoven. I would like to urge anybody and everybody to give these a listen - get them out of the library if you don't already have them - especially the Fifth quartet, which is my personal favorite.

I've been trying to come up with a concise, intelligent way to describe this quartet and why I like it so much, but have been mostly failing to find the right words. It is a gentler and more austere quartet than the fourth, which may be his most well-known, but it is still full of the spiky character and strong dissonances that inhabit most of Bartok's work. Bartok himself could be spiky and dissonant by most accounts, but he was also a fierce idealist and compassionate humanist, a proud Hungarian yet universalist in his outlook, and these qualities also show in every measure of his music, and never more than in this piece. On a more specific note, if you listen to this quartet, note the five-movement structure of the piece, the affinities of the first movement for the last and the second for the fourth (the fourth movement is essentially a free variation of the second). Bartok never subscribed to any established system of composing but came up with plenty of his own.

Next stop, Bluebeard's Castle!

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Domestic Sunday in November

Hi Everybody! (Hi, Dr. Nick!)

I am very pleased to report that this afternoon I have baked the best loaf of bread, by far, that I have ever made myself. This doesn’t mean much, as I have probably baked somewhere around 6 or 7 loaves of bread in my life (not counting around 9 or 10 sweet quickbreads like banana or walnut). However, this was really a great loaf of bread, as good or even better than most high-end bakery breads that I can get. I owe it all to an article in last Wednesday’s New York Times Food Section by Mark Bittman, and I urge any and all interested parties to read it. Mr. Bittman was invited to the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York where the head baker/owner, Mr. Lahey, showed him an unusual method for baking an old-world style rustic loaf with a rich, flavorful crumb riddled with holes and a fabulously crackling crust.
Two aspects of the method are particularly noteworthy: instead of kneading the bread to develop the gluten, it relies on a long (12-18 hour) rising with a very small amount of initial yeast. This apparently develops the gluten quite satisfactorily with the added benefit of imparting great flavor from the long fermentation. The second unusual aspect is in the baking: the dough, after a secondary two-hour rising, is dropped into a preheated pot (such as a dutch oven) and covered for the first half-hour of baking, where it develops the crackling crust by baking within it’s own steam, mimicking the process of those expensive professional steam-injected ovens.
This was one of those articles that really excited me, and I immediately decided I would try it soon, but of course there was a hefty amount of doubt I had in it really working out so well. I was wrong. This was a wonderful bread. My results differed a little, I think, due to some inexperience and one small mistake. The second rising happens on a well-floured cotton towel, and I lost a bit of the dough in transferring it to the pot. I think this caused my loaf to be a bit small and a bit flatter – more like a ciabatta instead of the boule pictured in the NYTimes article. But who cares? It was a delicious ciabatta, if that’s what it was. My other little mistake, and I urge you not to do this, is that I was impatient and cut into the bread when it was still too hot and still steaming – so the interior crumb was a bit moist and gummy. It was still delicious and the texture quickly improved, mostly, but you should wait for the bread to cool down before you cut it, or at least until it’s warm and not still hot. If you can see the steam coming off of it, wait. You can easily reheat it later.
This is ideal as a dinner bread, for dipping in olive oil or spreading with butter, for sopping up sauces and throwing into soups. The crumb is too well developed with holes of all sizes to be used easily as a sandwich bread. I do look forward, however, to experimenting with mixing in some whole wheat flour and maybe some other grains and flours – flax seed, wheat germ, wheat berries – see if I can get a slightly healthier bread that I would also consider appropriate for breakfast toasting.
The article is most interesting and the recipe is very clear and easy, but here is a brief paraphrasing:
3 cups flour
1 ½ tsp salt
¼ tsp active dry yeast
Mix these well dry, then add 1 5/8 cup water – mix together thoroughly.
Put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, leave out in a warm dry place for 12-18 hours. (I went for 16). The dough should be bubbly and inflated. Turn out onto a floured board and fold over onto itself a couple of times (do not knead). Let rest, covered, for fifteen minutes. Flour a non-textured cotton towel and put the bread onto it, sprinkle with more flour on top and cover with another towel. Let rise for two hours. 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees with a 6 quart or so dutch oven inside it. When ready, pull out the oven and throw the dough into it. Cover and bake for thirty minutes, then uncover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until well-browned on top (the browner the better, I say). Cool on a rack before cutting into it!

Enjoy! I wish I could share it with you right now.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Walden in fall!

Today is the last day of my ‘home’ vacation, and while I am not dreading work, I will definitely miss the time I have had this last week. Nobody who knows me should be all that surprised if I say that dividing my time between reading, writing, birding and cooking sounds just about perfect.

I made an effort to cook some interesting meals this week. I started last Sunday with a Potato Gratin from It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten. Very simple, and unusually he omits any cheese, insisting that if you do it properly, it will develop a cheesy flavor all on its own, just from the potatoes, cream and butter. He’s right, and it was delicious, though who’s to say it wouldn’t have been even cheesier with a handful of Gruyere browned at the top? On a slightly related note, I made myself polenta with butter and salt for breakfast yesterday, and it developed quite a cheesy flavor as well. Very tasty.

Monday afternoon I made Beef Bourguignon from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. Once again, this was a very stripped down recipe compared to several others I looked at, which is probably why I chose it. It was delicious, savory and silky, rich, the meat fork tender, the carrots soft and meaty. I think maybe I was expecting something a little more exotic, but after all, it is essentially just a beef stew with a slight French accent. I do wonder, however, if I had done the Gourmet Cookbook’s recipe, which called for brandy, dusting the meat in flour before browning and an entire bottle of wine (Les Halles used, adjusting total amount ratios, the equivalent of about a cup and a half), if it would have had a more refined and unusual flavor or texture. It also called for mushrooms.

Tuesday I followed the outline for Spaghetti with Clams from somewhere in Bill Buford’s Heat. Good, but not quite the glorious dish of pasta infused with the flavors of the sea I'd hoped for. The different liquids, the wine and butter and juice from the clams, just didn’t come together seamlessly, and I oversalted the dish just a touch. The clams themselves were perfect and still flavorful. Maybe I have to steam them more, extract more of their flavor into the pasta.

On Thursday I made a very simple Chicken Soup recipe from Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. This was just a basic chicken broth (with the chicken), ginger, dried shiitake mushrooms, and my own addition of some baby bok choy, meant to be served with a dipping sauce of Soy, sesame oil and ground Sichuan peppercorns. Pull out chunks of food from the broth and dip, slurp soup – a very healthy, easy, delicious way to eat. I will fool around with this approach more during the winter months, I am sure.
Okay, that’s all I’m going to write now. If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Well, it's been a while. I seem to be slow getting this blog off the ground. Truly, I've been getting bogged down with the second draft of my book, The Vampire of Castle Esterhazey. Thankfully, I've just finished a very productive week that I took off from work, spending two or three hours daily on the project, and I've gotten a good handle on this mysterious process of revising and what it means for my story. I am going to go out on a limb and publish my personal goal of having a second draft complete by the end of the year. That will entail real work, however, and a daily commitment. I go back to work at Johnson's next week.
I've attached three pictures that I took through my scope (the snowy owl and the singing swamp sparrow) and through my binoculars (the great blue heron). The Snowy Owl was found at Plum Island March '06, the heron April '06 at the Broadmoor Audubon Sanctuary in Natick, and the lovely Swamp Sparrow was found May '06 on the western side of Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. I hope you enjoy these pictures, and look forward to uploading another post soon.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Pictures from Canada

This is Gabby's first boat ride, I think (excepting ferry rides!) All done?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Wow, my first picture posted on my blog! This is a picture of two of my sisters, Esme and Franny, and Franny's little girl, my niece, Gabriella, hanging out on the dock in Canada.

More pictures to come, soon, now that I'm getting the hang of this.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

An unnecessary introduction

Inspired by my fearless niece Gabriella I have launched a blog of my very own. (Her blog can be seen at I don't really expect to advertise this blog to many people outside of a few family members, and possibly a friend or two, but you never know. Mostly I want an easy place to post some pictures for family to view, but now I'm thinking I can use this exercise as motivation for some journal writing, nature observations and a few other odds and ends. Nothing too personal, have no fear. I'll try and give fair warning to any descent into extreme self-absorbtion, unless the very existence of this blog and this entry has already violated that boundary.

Coming soon: Pictures from my vacation in the Canadian wilds, or at least wildish parts. Boating, fishing, navel-gazing.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

You have to start somewhere...

This is my first posting.