Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tip #2 for Birdwatchers: Keep Your Eyes on the Regular Joes

Birdwatching is exciting for many different reasons, and one of the most alluring is the possibility of encountering something unusual.  Because birds have wings and are highly mobile, this can happen just about anywhere, at any time.  Discovering something new, something rare, something seldom seen is a big part of what drives us out into the field, whether to the little park down the road or to the ends of the earth.  

It can be all too easy to fall completely into this mindset and start ignoring the normal, run-of-the-mill birds that we see all the time.  The robins, the chickadees, the crows, the cardinals.  The yellow-rumped warblers, the mallards, the red-winged blackbird.  The starling, the house sparrow.  It's understandable, of course.  We see them all the time, and though we don't exactly dislike them, if we catch them in our binocular's field of view we say "Oh, it's just a robin," and quickly move on.  

One of the best ways to increase your skills at finding new and unusual birds, however, in fact the best way to train yourself to recognize them when you see them, is to watch your everyday birds carefully: watch how they fly, listen to what they say, notice where they go in the spring, what they do in the winter, who they associate with, how they're plumage varies, and so on and so on.  Keep your eyes on them!  Knowing a black-capped chickadee inside and out means you'll be that much closer to actually noticing that one bird or flock that seems a bit off, the call note a little strange, and the color of the cap not quite right, and realizing that it's not a black-capped at all, but a boreal chickadee.

This is particularly useful in the realm of bird songs and calls.  Many of our most common denizens have several different vocalizations that can be confusing for years and years, long after you've developed the skill to identify them by sight from two hundred yards away in dim light.  Think of the robin, with its variable song, its woodpecker-like whinny, its understated call note and its rhythmic chuffing that follows.  Following one robin around and watching it while it goes through its little library of songs is very helpful in making sense of the constant chatter you hear all around you.

Getting in the habit of ignoring birds leads to ignoring birds, period, whether they be rare or common.  And beyond that, of course, watching birds closely, any birds, is interesting.  They all have unique ways of behaving and interacting with the world around them that will lead to understanding and insight above and beyond identification and bird-finding skills.  And spending time watching your most familiar neighbors might just lead to a new appreciation and respect for these fellows that have the resiliency to thrive amidst this very altered landscape that we've created.  And and just maybe, that will even lead to insights into...ourselves.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yoga for Farmers

Just so I could add a new hobby to the lists, I've taken up yoga. 

Well, really, I've only gone to two sessions, one last Sunday, one this morning.  That doesn't quite say 'hobby' yet, but the experience has been...interesting.  Intense, humbling, rewarding, and...enjoyable?  Uncomfortable, difficult, confusing.  I plan to keep going for the time being.

Next year I'm going to be a farmer.  I'll be serving an apprenticeship at a vegetable farm in Ipswich from early Spring through mid-late Fall, and it should prove to be a very physical job.  I expect to spend a lot of time on my knees, bending over, lifting things and generally performing a lot of repetitive manual tasks.  I thought that it might be a good idea to try a new program of exercise to prepare myself for the job, and in particular to work on developing my core strength and my flexibility.  Learn how to use my body better, more efficiently, develop the strength to do so, and increase my flexibility to help prevent injury and discomfort.  

So why yoga?  Many reasons, I suppose.  There's a recommended studio around the corner, for one thing.  Attractive, healthy, interesting women seem to frequent it.  But more than that...I'm interested in something that is equipment-free, so I can do it anywhere, anytime (a small, roll-up mat seems a reasonable concession).  Something that combines many goals into one, in this case strength, flexibility, mindfulness, aerobic activity, upper body, lower body, breathing. Many yoga folk claim a lot more, such at detoxifying, losing weight (don't need, don't want), spiritual growth, etc; I'll suspend judgement for the time being on some of this other stuff.  

I went to a studio in Newton called Prana Power Yoga.  Power Yoga is a type of Vinyasa yoga where the studio is heated to a merciless 90-95 degrees or even higher.  Vinyasa yoga is also known as flow yoga, as the center of the practice is moving from pose to pose in a dynamic manner rather than holding a pose for a long time (though we seem to do some of that too).  

I'll tell you, I flush easily and sweat profusely in that kind of heat and humidity, and I lost gallons in both of my sessions.  Today, I think the nice lady who led the group got a little worried about me; she took a moment to quietly ask me if I was okay.  I said yes, and then worried that I would make a fool and liar out of myself by fainting.  Like I said, it's intense!  It's a real workout that seems to hit every muscle; last week I was sore in a long continuous wash from my neck down through my thighs.  It's great!

And I also really like the emphasis on breathing, though that part is as difficult as any other; it's very easy to lose mindfulness and find yourself holding your breath or breathing shallowly and quickly, out of sync with your movements.  And I value the awareness and relaxation that is integrated into the practice.  One thing that our leader, Jacqui, said that really struck me was that we can never get truly healthy if we never give our minds and bodies a chance to really rest.  In this context, I don't think she meant resting by letting yourself float along with a book or a movie, or sleep, or any of the things we generally associate with relaxation, but something harder and more empty; it's hard to explain, and I don't really understand it either.  My mind is always a whirl, and always looking for something to occupy its cascading, restless energy, but often feels just as cluttered and disconnected as always as I jump from consuming one thing to another, whether it be books or television or hobbies or work or whatever else I do in my free time.  But we took the time within the yoga session to stop and be still, to keep our breath steady, to feel the center of our strength and purpose as we lied on our backs, sweating away.  It felt good.

So I'll be back, and I'll see if I can't work out the kinks, learn some poses, find my center, and finally grab my toes with my hands.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Lure of the Lifer

This morning I had the pleasure of adding a new bird to my life list, a dickcissel.  A dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird with a stout, seed-crunching beak, generally found during the warmer months throughout our midwestern states.  However, according to Kenn Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds, it is "rarely winter except in the northeast, where a few may spend the season at bird feeders."  Right on.  This bird was first seen a couple of days ago at a bird feeder in Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I had an itch to head out today, but I also had a lot of chores to take care of, and also, it was cold.  Though I love winter birding, spending hours up at Plum Island in 15 degree and windy weather seemed a bit much.  So I took the dickcissel sighting to heart and drove up the road to the world's most famous birding cemetery and readily found the spry little gal (it is thought to be an immature female) running frequently between a rather wilted and dismal-looking rhododendron and the base of a forest-green bird feeder. 

I was prepared for a more difficult identification than was needed. As the bird reported was a young individual and a likely female without all the unmistakable marking of an adult male, I thought I would need to pare subtle facial markings and shades from the assortment of other sparrows and finches that enjoy that feeding station.  The dickcissel, however, quickly showed up with a clear and bright yellow wash on its breast and a wonderfully googly-eyed facial pattern.  Frankly, the markings were distinctive enough in the full sunlight that I wonder if it wasn't an adult female I was looking at rather than a young bird, though vagrants like this are more commonly immature individuals without a lot of experience navigating their way south.  

I don't normally do a lot of chasing after rarities.  This has become a very popular manner of birding these days, greatly enhanced by the steady flow of information on the internet as well as networking by walkie-talkie while out in the field.  I certainly do my share; I very much enjoy seeing unusual birds, especially if I've never seen them before, but I guess I prefer to go somewhere and get out of the car and see my birds while I'm walking around in a nice place rather than driving from point to point and peering out of the window or stepping out of the car for a couple of minutes at a time.  I also don't particularly like gassing up and driving a long distance just for the chance to see one rare bird; it encourages a single-mindedness in me that, frankly, often prevents me from enjoying the experience as much as I should (especially if I don't find the bird). Of course, I'll do some chasing on occasion.  Certainly, once or twice every winter, I enjoy taking a day to hit several spots scattered across Cape Anne in northeast Massachusetts; one spot is good for king eider, another for the eared grebe, the state fish pier is great for black-headed, glaucous and iceland gulls, eastern point for black guillemots...I can really put together a fun list for the day if I hit a bunch of spots.  But the high point is always Halibut Point where I take a few minutes to walk through the coastal scrub (where you might see wintering hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warblers or chats) in order to get to the spectacularly rocky coast.  There I'll see harlequin ducks, eiders, scoters and with some luck a few alcids like razorbills (or dovekies!) winging by.  

But with just a few minute's free time on a cold winter's morning to spend birding, the lure of the lifer was just too much to resist.  And with my dickcissel now in the bag, I can go about the rest of my day with a satisfied smile on my face.

(The photograph, by the way, was not taken by me, but by Will Freedberg on the day preceding my visit, when it was snowing. It was bright and sunny, though much colder, when I went.  You can see more of Will's images at:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tip #1 for Birdwatchers: This Is Kind of a Zen Thing

I thought that maybe I’d try something different here, just for fun. I’m going to institute an ongoing series of tips for birdwatchers. Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a world-class birder, or that eventually I’ll complete any kind of comprehensive ‘system’ of birding or anything, but I have done my share of watching our feathered friends and have a few bits of advice I could share. Some of them might be technical tips on using binoculars, some of them might be tips for observing and identifying, and some might be more oriented to seeing things in a new way or opening up the experience to something unexpected.

And so…

Tip #1 – This Is Kind of a Zen Thing

If you’re out on your own, find a comfortable spot to sit and be still for a period of time. Try for ten minutes at least, but twenty would be even better. Someplace comfortable, a little out of the way and off-trail, where you can hide from other human trampers and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. Make sure that your legs won’t fall asleep on you, settle in, shut up and keep your eyes and ears open. Small movements of your head are okay, but try not to reach for your binoculars or that candy bar. Just be still, quiet and pay attention.

We generally make a lot of commotion as we travel about, and even if we don’t frighten the birds away we often change their behavior. Try and get a glimpse of what might be going on when you’re not there! Maybe some shy individuals will finally show themselves, or perhaps resume their feeding or singing. Remember that some birds (especially those active at night) may be almost invisible when they are roosting; you might want to pick a good spot for owls. Once a Great Horned Owl materialized before my eyes after I had been sitting still for fifteen minutes - I had been looking right at it nearly the entire time!

Try to use this time to really see the whole picture – what kinds of trees are the birds in? What, exactly, are they eating? How do they move, how do they perch? Do they interact with other birds? How do their songs change or repeat? All too often we spend the day caught up in our own activity and excitement and catch very few of the finer details of what is really going on around us. As Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot just by watching.” If nothing else, enjoy the time to yourself and come back to the trail with refreshed eyes.