26 December 2007

Thomas Hardy

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

This is about as upbeat as Hardy gets. This poem was written around and is about the turn of last century. I learned that and also the justification for my use of the Nightingale picture for a poem about a thrush at this wonderful page.

(photo courtesy of wikipedia)

12 December 2007

Poor Dead Cedar Waxwing

In the first episode of the fantastic sketch comedy show "Mr. Show", Bob Odenkirk's Terry the Cameraman character mentions offhandedly how he received a baked carrot from the Society for Unpleasant Gifts. I thought of this briefly when Kellie's co-worker Jennifer gave me this window-collisioned Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).

Nice and fluffy after a near-thaw

A few weeks later, just pulled from the freezer

It's quite a thoughtful gift, though, from an interesting and interested woman. The poor thing (the bird, not the gift-giver) had been one of a flock to be flushed from her parents' yard in Rhode Island on Thanksgiving. Besides the wife's pet Budgerigar, I've never been closer to a bird than through my binoculars. So now I guess I've got a specimen. In the freezer door.

For the past, jeez, two months or so now (Kellie the librarian I'm sure could tell me exactly how long) I've been reading David Sibley's excellent The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. And coincidentally enough, soon after receiving the dead bird, I came upon the Waxwings chapter. And I quote (extensively):

Waxwings are named for the red waxy "droplets" on the ends of the secondary flight feathers of adults.... The color of the droplets comes from carotenoid pigments that are found in the birds' diet of fruit and that cannot be synthesized by the birds directly.... In the bombycillids [i.e. waxwings], deposits of a bright red carotenoid (astaxanthin) are concentrated in flat, expanded extensions of the rachis that project beyond the feather vanes. Immature waxwings have few or no droplets, but the number and size of droplets gradually increases with each basic molt, at least over the first few years.

In the tail, the yellow carotenoids are normally incorporated into the vanes at the tips of the feathers, producing a yellow band across the tip of the tail that is not waxy like the wingtips.

Wow! I had no idea about any of that! Let's take a look at that, exclamation point!

Again, again!

Now that I've discovered that tidbit, however, I'm unsure of what to do with the carcass. I feel like I should donate it to a collection to be taxidermied, or have it necropsied, or something else; even though it's a familiar bird that died a quotidian death, it must still be of some scientific worth. I know nothing of the subspecies, or what to measure to determine which subspecies it might be. Any suggestions?

06 December 2007

Emily Dickinson


A Bird came down the Walk--

He did not know I saw--
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass--
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass--

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around--
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought--
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home--

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam--
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

(photo courtesy of wikipedia)

27 November 2007

Getting Going, Part I - In the Beginning There Were No Binoculars

In a previous post I mentioned how ideally, in my opinion, someone just starting out birding should go looking for herons and male ducks because they usually have easy-to-distinguish field marks and tend to stay in one open area for a good amount of time. As a disclaimer let me just say that any advice I give is simply what I found worked for me (or not in some cases). I'm sure of two things: 1) that there's no perfect way to start for every birder, and 2) there are, in fact, many ways to start out birding that will provide great experiences. It can't hurt to read about another birder's story, however.

My situation was that I started birding the day after Christmas when I received my first field guide. I didn't have any binoculars so I used my girlfriend's digital camera to take pics of any bird I came across. Later I uploaded them on to the computer and IDed the birds after the fact. As I pointed out in that post, this had the benefit of keeping a record of the field marks of the large slow-moving birds I was able to cut my teeth on in Florida in December. But there are a number of downsides and caveats to those first few days. I was soon back in Massachusetts with winter birds in the northeast to deal with. And IDing a bird after seeing it is risky, especially since so much useful information is provided in the act of watching a bird: its sounds, its habitat (admittedly seen in the pictures), and its behavior. And though I didn't quite have enough experience yet (who does?), it is easier to determine the limiting factor when actively observing a bird. Do similar birds move the same way? If so, do they occur in this environment? Figuring out what bird it's not allows the birder to attack the problem from two directions.

So finding a pair of binoculars is pretty important. Obviously, they combine the ability to capture small visual details like the digital camera (even more so, in fact) with the placement of those details in a broader context in the moment. Being a cheapskate, my advice would be to research any new pair you're thinking of buying, and try to borrow a pair in the meantime. I remember getting used to my binoculars took some time. It was worth it, though. All About Birds has a great gear guide and how to get started guide that really helped me. Go ahead and let them help you, too.

And while I recommended looking for those easy-to-spot birds in the winter to get ready for the brightly-colored singing spring migrants, not everyone has that luxury. It's much more important to just get out and watch some birds. There are all sorts of reasons not to get started. Lack of the "right" birds isn't one of them. Next up, choosing where to go.

25 November 2007


I've never been a chaser. I've gone to specific places hoping to see certain species of birds, but often as not I'm more interested in becoming familiar with a new birding spot. After all, I'm new, I'm still crossing off most common species from my lifelist, I don't need to see a Ruddy Duck right away because I'm sure I'll see it at one of the many ponds on the Cape someday.

All of that changed recently when a Western Kingbird was reported to be seen at the Crane Wildlife Management Area. Again, this isn't an uncommon bird where it occurs. But unlike the other birds I still have to cross off my list that occur on Cape Cod, the Western Kingbird shouldn't be here. And unlike the Gray Jay that occurred earlier this fall, or any other rare bird in Massachusetts or even around the Cape, this one was in town. Across town maybe, but in town nonetheless.

So word trickled down about the kingbird, and I decided to go check it out, never having been to Crane WMA I thought I could still locate it. The morning after the initial report I went down there (it's hunting season so I was restricted to the road), a couple more people stopped by, but didn't see anything. One person had seen it the day before, pointed out a tree it had perched in, let us know it wasn't shy, and had been associated with a flock of Eastern Bluebirds. I went back at lunchtime, still nothing.

Still reports were coming in of people seeing this lost bird. "Great look at it." "Right where previously reported." Every time I gave up on seeing it, someone else would and I'd fall for it again. And still I saw nothing.

I read up on kingbirds in every bird book I had. I thought back to my experiences of seeing Eastern Kingbirds around town. This morning I was determined to go and see it. I stepped out into the hunting area, since quail/partridge season ended yesterday and since hunting is prohibited in Massachusetts on Sundays. I carefully watched the trees where the Western Kingbird was reported to have perched. I walked all around the area well to the north and as far south as I could, and still nothing. I secretly hoped someone else would show up and that their luck would influence the situation. Nothing.

So what can you do? If more reports keep coming in, I'm not sure whether I'll keep looking for the kingbird or not. I was hoping to have seen it this morning, since I had tried to prepare myself on how to find this elusive (for me but apparently not for anyone else) bird, and since today was the day I could go and explore the area it was seen in. But I didn't see it. I saw other things (I do believe the Northern Harrier has been the most fascinating bird I've been able to watch for any length of time). But I didn't accomplish my goal. In relatively fresh hindsight, however, my goal was just a simple wish, and in every other aspect this chase was exactly what I've been doing for the past year now: exploring new places to go birding, becoming more familiar with areas around my town where I had never been before, enjoying being in nature and getting to watch birds (whether or not they were lifers). I must say, then, that my first experience chasing was a failure, but what it made me accomplish was still a success.

11 November 2007

Go Birding Again for the Very First Time

My wife had uploaded some of my photos from last weekend's visit to the pond near my parent's house onto her computer, and as I was looking at them I found some photos from my first two days being a birder. Hard to believe what it was like when I first began, even though it was only last Christmas! Some people have their spark birds that get them started--I had a book. A few weeks before Christmas my father bought a Peterson field guide (who buys themselves things a few weeks before Christmas? Answer: my father). I started leafing through it and realized how much I would enjoy birding. Considering my lineage, it's shocking that I hadn't picked it up before. My paternal grandmother, whose house I spent a good portion of my childhood days in (right next door to the house I grew up in), kept diaries filled with the lists of birds that came to her window feeder. My maternal grandfather had me fill each one of his birdfeeders whenever I visited (I didn't really mind): one with corn, one with sunflower seeds, and one with a songbird blend. His brother is also a long-standing member of the Mass. Audubon Society. It's a shame neither of my grandparents lived to see me take up birding, it would've been nice to hear their stories.

So a few weeks before last Xmas I started thinking a) I'm sedentary, b) I always wanted to be the guy in the group that when someone asked "What was that that just flew overhead?" I'd know the answer, and c) whenever I went for a walk on a trail or around a reserve, I never felt like I was doing anything. So that was it. To the top of my list went the Peterson field guide, which I (expectedly) got when we went down to Florida to Kellie's folks' for the holidays.

Cattle Egret and a horse, just chillin'

As an aside, let me tell you that Florida is a wonderful place to start birding. The day after Christmas I was off. I borrowed Kellie's digital camera (no binoculars yet) and trotted off down the road to sees what I could sees. In some ways I miss that day, walking to the next yard, saying "Wow cool." taking a photo, and going onward, not really stopping to determine any behavior or looking for specific field marks. Mostly I'm kicking myself for not spending longer looking at the Glossy Ibis and Sandhill Cranes. But it was still great. Ahh, to have each bird be the first again!

Things wouldn't really kick off for me until I permanently borrowed some binoculars from my parents, but those first days were fun. The camera was useful because it kept a record of the field marks I didn't know I was supposed to look for, like the legs of the Great Egrets at Wall Springs Park.

Here's a good look at the feet, so you get all three important field marks at once: bill, legs, and feet. Herons and egrets are great birds to start out on because they forage slowly, are large enough to see with the naked eye if need be, and are wonderful introductions to identification by field mark. If I were confronted with a sparrow, I would have been flipping through Peterson and by the time I looked up to look for the streaking pattern it would most likely be gone. No, if you can, look for wading birds and male ducks, in my opinion. They'll start you off right.

04 November 2007

Outer Cape 10/29-10/30

I don't think there should be any inaugural post shenanigans, so on to the birds!

I spent a few days with my wife on the Outer Cape, visiting a few places along the National Seashore and Monomoy Island NWR. I hadn't been out there in years, and she had never been. The beaches on the Atlantic side of the Cape are much different than the ones in Falmouth and Mashpee, which I'm used to. Less rocky, wider, and of course the towering dunes on many of them.

This little guy was the cause of a little embarrassment for me, but I'm a big believer in learning from your mistakes and helping others learn from your mistakes. So here goes: There were a number of these little guys running over the beach. Clearly a plover. I'm still a novice at this; I've only been birding for less than a year. And birding is about nothing if it isn't about trying to solve the puzzle of seeing a new bird. I saw this plover

wandering around. There were also others that had very dark backs and bills with a little bit of orange at the base of the bill. I came to the conclusion that this plover was a banded form of Piping Plover and the others were Semipalmated Plovers. When I posted my day's list to eBird, I got a warning that the Piping Plover was not a normal bird to see on the Cape in late October. An eBird reviewer soon wrote me to ask, very nicely, if I had any evidence that this was, in fact a Piping Plover. After looking at my photo he corrected me: this was also a Semipalmated Plover and the banded form of Piping Plover doesn't occur on the Cape. So new birders take note and old birders think back on your early mistakes that made you better!

When Kellie and I went to Monomoy we spent some time trying to figure out what this raptor was:

As we were debating, three young people all decked out for a very professional bird count (possibly rangers?) loudly walked by and flushed our bird down the beach. Not wanting to interrupt or be interrupted, we continued on a little while before we heard one of them shout "Evening F***ing Grosbeak!" Unfortunately I missed the bird, but I figured I would use his elation to ask him what we had been looking at before. He confirmed that it was a young Peregrine Falcon. I still think his nickname for the grosbeak should be accepted by the American Ornithologists' Union, or at least a special consideration be made for the Evening Grosbeak Alpha Code, EVFUGR perhaps?

A picture of a basic plumage Black-bellied Plover to leave you with.