Monday, July 28, 2008

Waxwings Eat Bugs

The Cedar waxwing is one of our most debonair birds, having a slick suit of silky tan feathers decorated with a stylish black mask and vivid, glistening wing and tail tips of red and yellow. It is a very social bird, most conspicuous in Winter when rollicking flocks will dependably visit every tree or shrub of lingering fruit. A few of them hang out here in the summer as well. 

Yesterday I watched a pair raiding a white mulberry tree overhanging a pond in Ipswich, occasionally letting fly a short burst of their high-pitched, sibilant song. They also engaged in something I hadn’t seen before, flying out over the pond to hover and poke at the surface with their beaks in simple, delicate gestures before flying back to the mulberry. I had always thought of them as exclusive fruit eaters, but the only thing I could imagine they were up to was eating insects. As I was thinking of the sight this evening I pulled out Kenn Kaufmann’s Lives of North American Birds and found that yes, Waxwings eat insects, and are in fact known to hover and flutter as they snatch their meals from their hidey-holes. Another one to add to the short list of birds that I’ve observed doing a pretty effective job hovering in place: hummingbirds of course, golden-crowned kinglets, american kestrels and eastern phoebes. 

The phoebes were also busy at work over the pond, but stayed much closer to shore, and sometimes perched right on the quivering surface of a lily pad, if you could really call that a 'perch'.  

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Another Summer Shower

Oh my what a big thundershower we just had! A classic of midsummer, heavy and deep, of a second’s drenching, with those frightening cracks of thunder that come right with the flash. I was out when it arrived, watching the darkening skies from inside the greengrocer’s with excitement and trepidation, wondering if I hoped to beat it to my car or to get caught. Caught I was, deliriously, running awkwardly in my sandals, splashing through the new puddles of rain, still hot from the overheated atmosphere.

I was lucky enough to make it home in time to catch the best of it from my front porch, challenging myself not to flinch at each newest, loudest burst of light and sound. Little rivers poured out of yards and onto the steaming asphalt of the street, and finally, after a few entrancing minutes, it broke up as it always does in a few rays of sunlight dodging the last, fitful squalls. Is it just me, or do these summer storms always end with a final crash of thunder after the rain has gone and the sun has returned, always the loudest, the closest, a last laugh from the sky?

Our Summer here in the northeast has been hotter and more humid than usual, making me remember previous seasons in the Midwest, particularly Cincinnati, where the late afternoon or evening flurry of atmospheric rumblings and maybe rain was an almost daily event, as predictable as sunset. But memories are so unreliable.  All of these musings, Cincinnati storms, the last gasps of thunder, the breaking rays of sun, are the products of my highly subjective mind and its accompanying bank of memories. Who knows what really happened, and where it all fits into the grand scheme?  

It is what it is, and perception is reality, except when it isn’t.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nine Reasons to go Birdwatching

What is so special about birdwatching?  Why do I enjoy it?  What do I get out of it?

1 Birdwatching is done outdoors, usually in relatively natural habitats and areas of open space.  I am a big believer in the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially amidst the splendors of what we usually call 'nature'.  I believe it is a powerful restorative for our minds and bodies.  

2 Birdwatching is a stimulating mental activity, exercising one’s memory and observational skills to a high degree, as well as reasoning ability. It also engages one’s sight and hearing to a great extent. Few things are as important as keeping your mind sharp.  (For the record, I think that musical activity is the ultimate all-around exercise for your brain, as it engages your memory, your motor skills, your intellect, language skills, creativity, self-expression, and social skills.)

3 Birdwatching has great depth as an observational and educational pastime, allowing one to delve into the science and lore of birds as far as one could possibly hope to go.  This is true of almost any discipline, of course, but rarely is the science so accessible and useful to such a widely-practiced hobby.  Knowledge of bird behavior, ecology, etc. immeasurably helps when looking for birds, when identifying birds, and trying to understand birds.  (Fishing and hunting qualify here, I would think, as well.)

4 There is tremendous beauty and variety in the appearance, behavior and sounds of birds.  An opinion, to be sure, but one shared by lots and lots of people.  Certainly birds find their way into poems an awful lot.

5 Birds of many sorts can be found just about everywhere, at almost any time, making it a hobby anybody can do, anywhere, anytime.  You can birdwatch on your way to work, as you wake up in the I said: anywhere, anytime.  I know people who keep track of the birds that they identify on television shows (you wouldn't believe how often they use the hooting of a great-horned owl in the background; well, maybe you would believe it.  Wood thrush, too.)

6 The variety of birds is such that novices can easily learn to distinguish many common, distinctive species, and dedicated amateurs and scientists can find plenty of challenges in most environments.  Entry into the world of birdwatching is easy - most people have done it whether they realize it or not.  When I started birdwatching seriously I made a list of the birds I had already seen - crow, blue jay, bald eagle, robin, etc.  But even on a short jaunt around the corner I can be challenged with a group of various species of sparrows that have me examining the finer points of their behavior and habitat, the thickness of the streaking on their belly, and the pattern of their various songs in order to figure out what I am actually watching.  And of course there's the whole wide world to explore and learn about...

7 Birdwatching is an activity where amateurs can and do contribute meaningfully to the process of scientific discovery.  Now this is unusual in most other scientific disciplines, but events such as the christmas bird count that occurs every year across the country give us valuable sets of data by which scientists and amateurs have been able to track patterns in bird dispersion, population and variety against any number of other variables, which can be used in very concrete ways in planning conservation.

8 Birdwatching allows one to learn about their own powers of perception and recognition, giving great insight into the working of his or her brain.  This point is a little more mysterious, as it should be, but I am often interested and sometimes amazed at the way experience and knowledge in the field accumulates until identification and instinct work so quickly, naturally and effortlessly together, allowing even a relative dilettante like me to make many identifications from a long distance away, from just a split-second look at a bird in shadow.  Of course, this only comes with birds that I am very familiar with.  But what is particularly interesting is that the more you become this way with common birds, the more you can see something out of the corner of your eye for just a second and think 'wait a minute, something's off there, that's not a song sparrow, that's something else,' and end up chasing a very unusual sighting.

9 Regular birdwatching deeply connects one with the rhythms of life and the planet, allowing the many swells of the planet to affect us personally – tides, seasons, weather, daylight. This has its apotheosis in the spectacular phenomenon of bird migration, one of the great wonders of life on planet earth and the most exhilarating yearly reminder that the planet is still working.  This, for me, is the true heart of birding, and really, of just about any engaged study of nature in the field.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

An agricultural idyll

I went up to Ipswich yesterday to visit Appleton Farms and have a talk with the farm manager there.  Appleton Farms is a pretty big chunk of land owned by the Trustees of Reservations, about a thousand acres encompassing woodlands, wetlands, pasture, field, and farm.  They run a highly successful CSA vegetable operation on 26 acres, which was my primary interest for the visit.  

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few photos.  Appleton Farms is a beautiful spot, and its gently undulating fields couldn't be lovelier, filled with swaying wild grains and the patter of sparrows, blackbirds and bobolinks.  Nestled amidst the pasture, field and woodland is the crop acreage, with row after row of healthy green salads, herbs, onions, hundred of vigorous and delicious plants.  Yesterday I found the small crew there weeding several rows of onions that were overgrown with waist-high lambs-quarter, a tasty green in its own right when picked much younger.  

I had my chat and then wandered around for a while with my binoculars and camera, and chanced upon a nice bird sighting - a cattle egret, my first seen in Massachusetts.  In full breeding plumage, as this one was, they are somewhat comical looking, with pale, startled-looking yellow eyes, yellow beak and dirty-blond patches on their otherwise white plumage. 

On my way home, I took a swim at Walden, which was lovely.