Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ivory Gull!

Today I did some serious bird chasing.  I know I recently said that I don't tend to do much of this, but there was something in the air today and I couldn't resist.  It's not so much that the location I drove to was in any way extreme - it's a place I regularly visit in the winter, only about an hour's drive away.  Nor the time; Sunday morning is the best time in my schedule to go birdwatching.  It's that I drove through a somewhat nasty snowstorm to get there, in my poor little slip-sliding Honda civic.  

But this was a bird I couldn't resist - the Ivory Gull, an extremely rare visitor from the arctic, and as beautiful a bird as I can imagine.  This is a gull that everyone can love, a medium-sized bird (close to a ring-billed gull) with absolutely snow-white plumage - not bone white, not ivory like its namesake - beautiful, pristine snow-white, with short black legs, black-pearl eyes and a blue-gray beak tipped in mild orange.  My picture above does not do the bird justice; I still haven't gotten the hang of taking pictures through my scope.  Visit this site  for a wonderful series of photos of this startling bird taken by Len Medlock.  

It was found yesterday at the southern tip of east Gloucester, spending its time between a little cove there and the dog bar breakwater that runs out into Gloucester Harbor.  It has been reliably found there over the last two days, and has honored all comers with amazing views, even as close as twenty feet.  I'm not sure if I can really recommend going up there in this weather just to see a bird, even this bird, but it's made my day, especially now that I'm back home safe and sound.  Something about seeing a beautiful bird like this that rarely leaves its home turf above the arctic circle, even in the dead of winter.  I don't know why not; the pickings have got to be better down here in Massachusetts.  It's continually amazing to think of the birds that survive all season long in the long, cold darkness of an arctic winter.  

A few other fun birds were also around, Iceland Gulls, Gadwalls, Buffleheads, Surf Scoters, Common Loons, but I mostly just watched the Ivory Gull to my heart's content and then cut my losses as I was getting soaked in what was a stiff, wet sleet out on Cape Ann.  Driving back to Newton, a quick spin on the radio of 'Our House' by Madness lent a moment of fun into an otherwise stressful drive through the snow.  

Adios, Amoebas!

p.s.  For some perspective on dedication in birders, I met folks at the cove this morning who had driven ten hours through the night, through constant snow, from Ithaca NY, to see this gull.  

Sunday, January 04, 2009

New Year's Birding

For those of us who have gone a step or two beyond 'casual' birdwatching, the turn of the year brings an extra pleasure.  Many of us keep a 'year' list, a list of all the species of birds that we've seen in a particular calendar year.  This would not be quite as personal or meaningful as the 'life' list, but it provides a way of freshening the sporting aspect of it with every new year. For instance, every day as I walk down my front steps to my car, there's a house sparrow perched on the gutters, chirping. This is usually a commonplace observation, essentially unnoticed.  But on January 1st, this is the first house sparrow of the year, and possibly the first bird, period, of the year (if I haven't been woken up by crows or blue jays).  

I usually make a point to go out to do some birding on New Year's Day, and in general often do a lot of birding the entire month.  Not only is winter birding great here in coastal New England, but I enjoy the fun of building up my list again at the beginning of the year, when the birds come quick and easy.  First Robin!  First Red-tailed!  First Chickadee!  

Of course there's some artifice to this, like there is to any new year's type resolution.  The birds are the same December 31st as they are January 1st.  And listing can turn towards an obsession, though a relatively harmless one (some birders have January lists, holiday lists, lists of birds seen on television, etc).  But birds are a phenomenon of nature, and they are extraordinarily tied to the clockwork of the seasons, and so the year list can take on greater meaning and interest than just the sport of measuring yourself.  The first magnolia warbler that I see in high spring is not just another bird to put on my list but a new arrival fresh from the tropics, one of millions upon millions of little reminders that our great planetary system is still moving along, still working.  

I did go out on New Year's Day, but it was mighty cold and I went to a nearby park where most of the activity was well shuttered by the snow.  A stiff band of bluebirds and a jittery woodpecker were my best sightings, and I would say that I enjoyed myself until my toes froze. Today I had more success; I went up to a state park on the north side of the Merrimack River's mouth that is known for seabirds, owls and winter finches.  My best birds were four white-winged crossbills and extensive looks at a flock of lapland longspurs (lifers for me) foraging in the grass.  Longspurs are beautiful birds, with complicated faces of gray and rust and vigorously streaked backsides.  

The most exciting moment of the day came when I spotted a merlin cruising through a grove of scattered pines.  It came to rest at the top of a tree and after sitting there for a couple of minutes a flock of small finches came by.  They must not have had their eyes open. They began to land in the bare branches of a tree right next to the merlin's and he shot like a cannonball into the midst of the flock, scattering them and plunging to the ground and out of sight. Merlins have a certain way about them; they hunt and fly with breathtaking confidence and power and with a little experience you can identify them just from their attitude.  

Though I stuck around to catch the sunset I missed the short-eared owls that usually haunt the park in the late afternoon.  At the end of the day I found myself standing at the side of the road, gazing over the marshes to the west, watching the deepening colors of the sky and keeping an eye out for the distinctively floppy flight of the owl.  None popped out before the dark set in but just before I retired to my car something gave a series of calls from a dense stand of shrubs right in front of me.  I listened and I watched as long as I could,  but eventually the calls stopped, leaving me none the wiser for what they were.  Coyote? Owl?  Hell, I don't know.  

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Goodbye, Sue

Recently I traveled to Cleveland to spend some time with my cousin Brad and my uncle Jim.   We and a few other family members were gathering to support each other and say goodbye to my aunt Sue, who passed away on December 23rd.  While the reason for visiting was a sad one, I think we all had a wonderful time in each other's company, a testament as much as anything else to the love we all shared with Sue and the many, many happy memories we have of her.

Sue was always there in my life, all the way back to my earliest memories of growing up in Virginia where our extended family would gather in the summertime to run about in the fields and woods and float down Buffalo Creek on old innertubes.  She had a quiet presence but was always there with kind words, encouragement and a genuine interest in whatever was going on in my life.  I know that in my case I've pursued a number of different paths over the years and she was always curious about what I was up to and would listen as I would talk about whatever new hobbies or plans I had, offering advice or just letting me talk. 

Sue had enormous strength.  We all saw that in the last couple of years as she battled cancer and the difficult, painful complications from her treatment.  I won't say that you couldn't see her pain but you couldn't ignore the love she gave to everybody around her and took in equal measure.  We saw that strength in other years, too, during difficult times when her love and gentle fortitude kept hope alive when others found it hard to find.  

Sometimes it's hard to figure out the lines of kinship and friendship, and maybe not necessary to do so at all, but I do want to say that Sue was not just my aunt who I loved but also a friend, a good friend who I loved and will miss.  I will miss her but I'll always have the best part of her with me and I know that I'm stronger and happier for it.  

Love to all,