“Viewpoints”

An irony of geese.

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

Say it’s back in the middle of the last century. You’re a kid who likes jungle stories and wild places. You hang out in a prairie south of Chicago.

It’s got an industrial taint since there are adjacent factories and dumps. But, hell, Illinois is the Prairie State, and you can’t quash its elemental nature.

It’s a place of birds, snakes, and adventure. Even though you’re a roughneck, your interest in wild things gives you names for what you see. They’re not just birds; they’re Red-winged Blackbirds.

Or Bobolinks and Green Herons. Sometimes yellow Meadowlarks capture your attention while your friends are looking under flat rocks for coiled snakes, and finding them.

You’re a kid who reads about wild things. The general view is that nature will lose out to human overgrowth. Birds will get scarcer as you get older.

iStock_000068371487_Double

One day, after a rain, there’s a swamp in your prairie.

In it, floats a lone Canada Goose. A big, unusual bird for that time and place.

Word spread, and soon a man parks a pickup and wades into the water carrying a shotgun.

He shot a wing right off, and the bird swam in circles, making small cries.

Seeing this as a sad kid you figured the birds of nature wouldn’t have a chance in their ongoing competition with humans.

Today, you’re not a kid. You live in a citified suburb outside the big, smoking city of Chicago. You walk the dog, and—irony of ironies—there are healthy Canada Geese all over the place.

At least two mated pairs are on your lawn. They saunter off, unconcerned, as you get near. You’re not worth the effort it would take to fly out of the yard.

The irony is heavy, just like the bodies of these big geese.

Back when you were a kid, you figured they had no future. Now it’s the science-fiction year of 2016, and the place is full of goose droppings.

Geese aren’t just in residential neighborhoods. There’s a big shopping mall nearby, and geese are in pairs on the cement parking lot. They nest under lampposts in the mall’s gardens.

Ironically, geese are here today with a vengeance.

As some character says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

Groups of geese are called “gaggles” according to quaint terminology.

And when flying, they’re called “skeins,”

A gaggle of geese. Or a skein of geese. Both phrases are outdated. You’ve got a better one.

It comes to you as you look out the window. There’s a group on the lawn now, grazing. An “irony of geese.”

Bird points and ice-age basketball.

Monday, February 10th, 2014

You get the paper from the bottom of your driveway on this winter morning.

Heading back, you notice that heavy icicles hang from your roof. They look like downward-pointing swords high above the doorstep.

But more about them in a moment…

"4 points!"

“4 points!”

Inside, from a kitchen window you notice the backyard bird feeders.

They’re busy, and you stop to watch. An idea hits.

You assign points to the birds you see.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Blue Jays: four points.

Cardinals and White-breasted Nuthatches, three.

Downy Woodpeckers and Song Sparrows, two. Slate-colored Juncos, one. You get bonus points for a deer that joins the seed-eating, its breath steaming.

It occurs to you that the word ‘point’ is used in a lot of games. Why?

Did ancient athletes poke opponents with sword points, and each point counted?

Maybe the word ‘point’ then evolved to measure scoring in other kinds of contests.

Something to wonder about. But the thought of swords and points reminds you of those icicles.

You leave the house and go out front. You bring your basketball from the cold garage. It’s rock hard.

You shoot the ball toward the roof. A high, arching jump shot.

Bam, it smashes the longest icicle, knocking it down.

Heavy ice splatters the steps.

Hey, a three pointer.

There are more icicles. You assign points to them.

A three. A two. You shoot. You score.

This is fun. You’ve got ice points in the front. Bird points in the back. Let’s hear it for winter sports.

Bottom Line.

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Marc Davis is a guy who lived in El Paso with Roadrunners, and in Greenwich Village where he once saw a vagrant Sooty Tern.

The fact that something was sooty (or vagrant) in the Village wasn’t unusual. The fact that it was a bird of the tropics was.

But interesting things are where you find them.

A book recommendation isn’t usually found on a birding website. Yet sometimes, you find one there…

In addition to keeping an eye on birds, Marc Davis has spent a lifetime keeping an eye on everything else.

Marc Davis

That’s why he’s a perceptive writer. You’ve seen his stuff. He has four guest essays in our “Guest Essay” category.

To the frustration of the more prolific guest essayist, Bob Grump, Marc’s essays consistently draw hits and fan mail.

Marc’s insights are eclectic. He’s classed up our site with his writing, and we’re pleased to point out that he’s just published a novel.

It’s his third, and interesting as hell because it’s contemporary, cynical, truthful, engaging, fast moving, sexy. And it skewers amoral greedy bastards who need skewering.

Publishers Weekly says “Davis provides easy explanations of complex business dealings and foreign adventures before reaching an exciting conclusion in this smartly executed financial thriller.”

And best-selling novelist Michael Connelly says, ”I loved this…half corporate insider story, half private eye yarn, full on entertainment. I read it start to finish in one sitting.”

We have writers who regularly communicate with us, like Jan Dunlap, author of the Birder Murder series, and Suzie Gilbert who wrote the book “Flyaway.”

Plus, short story writers who send comments and stories.

Seems we’re not just into bird watching around here; but word watching, too.

Bottom line: If you want a good read, try Marc Davis’s new novel, “Bottom Line.”

Then, after its shattering ending get out in the clean air to see some birds and clear your mind.

Our two-fisted name.

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

The idea of a two-fisted birdwatcher came about because the image of bird watching needed toughening up.

Bird watching can be a wilderness boot camp.

There are bugs, bears, thorns, mud, toothless people with shotguns, all kinds of adventures.

To say nothing about Bald Eagle nests that make you climb trees. Great horned Owls that make you prowl the night.

And Clark’s Nutcrackers that drive you up a mountain.

It’s for the hard-bitten, mosquito-bitten, tough and hard-hitting.

The phrase, “two-fisted” means just that: “hard-hitting,” according to the dictionaries.

It also works pretty damned well for those interested in birds, because binoculars are gripped in two fists. 

In addition to binoculars, drinks are sometimes gripped this way.

That’s why there’s the colorful phrase: “two-fisted drinker.”

Fun pictures of these characters are on Google images.

There’s a pizza joint in Colorado named “Two-Fisted Mario’s.”

I wouldn’t mess with Mario.

Old boxing films used the phrase, too.

But the most illustrative, and illustrious, use of “two-fisted” can be found in the pulp fiction world from the mid last century.

There’s a website that revels in this stuff.

Shown here are a few samples of what you can find there.

We thought our logo was cool.

Then we saw these forerunners of Indiana Jones adventures.

The exploits in “Two-Fisted Tales” may be history.

But, the wilderness, with its timeless, trackless forests, prairies, mountains, deserts, rivers, animals and birds, isn’t history.

And, as long as all this is out there, we’ve got our own two-fisted tales to keep discovering, experiencing, writing and reading about.

Hot and Bothered.

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I’m standing on the north shore of a small, woodland lake. The wind is blowing out of hell.

It’s a hot wind. But temperature is not the reason it’s from hell. This wind has come up here after blowing over Chicago, which sits to the south. It carries factory smells, car exhaust, burnt rubber from highway tires, greasy urban humidity.

A Green Heron comes in for a landing. His skinny wings stretch and slow him, like a jet on a carrier. He walks in the shoreline mud. Doesn’t see me because I’m not moving, just watching.

Green Herons are small for herons, but have the predatory beak and long legs. It hunches its shoulders, and is all eyes, looking for fish or frogs.

It’s got orange legs, white neck, a rusty body. What it doesn’t have is the color green. This bothers me.

Yeah, there might be a weak excuse for some vague greenish-gray on its back, but that doesn’t cut it.

Reminds me of another heron, another visitor to this lake, another misnamed bird. The Great Blue Heron. It’s tall as a big kid; with eagle wings, long legs and a sword beak. It’s gray, white and black. What it’s not is blue. It’s a great heron, okay, just not a great BLUE heron. That bothers me.

Not so green

When the wind is blowing out of hell, you get bothered by things.

Author Raymond Chandler wrote that when L.A.’s hot Santa Ana blows, “…it can…make your nerves jump and your skin itch…every booze party ends in a fight…”

I think about bird names on this day when the temperature’s pushing a hundred, and wonder what the hell caused some to be so wrong.

Herons are only part of it. The Great Crested Flycatcher isn’t great, and doesn’t have a crest. It’s pointy headed. But so are other flycatchers. Including one called a Peewee, which isn’t especially small.

Ever see a Red-bellied Woodpecker? The word “belly” is amusing in any bird’s name. But this guy’s belly isn’t red. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a tinge of yellow near its crotch. But not much. You couldn’t even call it a Yellow-crotched Sapsucker.

The Bald Eagle’s not bald. It’s got a full head of thick, white feathers. The Golden Eagle’s not gold; it’s brown. And so it goes.

Sure, some birds have okay names. The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher works. Especially if you spot one catching gnats. And the Blue-footed Booby’s a good name, because it’s got blue feet, and c’mon: Booby.

The Green Heron takes off while I’m thinking this. Must’ve got tired of finding no food on my shoreline, or maybe he noticed me. He flew south, into the heat. He seemed comfortable, just another day at the office for him. He didn’t know he was called a Green Heron even though he’s not green. Or that the wind was blowing out of hell.

Why should he be bothered about such things? Why should I?

~    ~    ~    ~

These thoughts were originally expressed with slightly different words in a Daily Sightings post about two years ago, also written during a heat wave. 

A bird watcher in Ireland.

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Some thoughts on St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, after a Jameson and Guinness…

Due to an improbable toss of the ancestral dice, my paternal bloodline runs through Dublin.

"...James Joyce's old neighborhood."

Not long ago, we went there to see where our dad grew up.

Visited the James Joyce neighborhood of his childhood, then headed to open lands.

All travel, when done right, is also about bird watching. I intended to do some.

In a green meadow, there was a bird we don’t have back home.

But wait. Something happened the night before.

We were in a rural hotel’s sitting room with drinks, a fire and piano player. One of the men in the room began to sing. The piano player stopped. Listened. Then accompanied him.

The guy was no entertainer, just another patron. In a strong Irish tenor voice, he gave the spellbound room “Rose of Tralee” in its entirety.

Afterward, he gestured to a pretty dark-haired woman next to him, and told us all, “That was for my wife, Rose, on our anniversary. And we live up the road…in Tralee.

"...Irish fiddle."

True. That town, made famous by this song, was in the vicinity. We raised glasses and the room glowed.

But back to the bird…

Was it a Green Woodpecker? Shoulda been. They’re all over Europe. Ironically, none are found on that green island. The bird I saw wasn’t green.

Next night, we’re having Guinness in a crowded pub when a ragtag combo starts. Piper, banjo, old piano, a girl with wild blonde hair playing a fiddle.

They’re doing something Gaelic and quick.

Men and women around us quietly tap with their heels. Just heels. No other body movement. Then, the heels get louder. Suddenly, everyone, as if on cue, stands and starts that Irish foot-clopping dance. The room vibrates.

"...Kelly green."

But the bird, the bird…

Every day I wandered a bit in meadows and forests. The forests had some trees with Kelly green moss. I looked for birds. Didn’t see many.

I saw Magpies, but they’re in America, too. I saw English Sparrows, nothing unique in them. Okay, here’s my report. The only bird we couldn’t see back home: Hooded Crow.

These gray and black guys are pretty common in Europe. I wasn’t real impressed. I glared at him. He glared back. He wasn’t impressed with me, either.

They say there are no snakes in Ireland. St. Patrick drove them out. Could be folklore, but it’s true about there being no snakes.

Maybe birds left, too. Sure, there are some. But avian diversity is wanting.

Look at any field guide to Europe and you’ll see bird-range maps that leave the little oval island west of Britain empty of color.

Well, it may be empty of birds, but it ain’t empty of color.

Ospreys, red light, green light.

Monday, September 19th, 2011

I know a place. If you let me take you there, you’ll see Ospreys. This is what I said to a friend.

We went to the sure-fire Osprey place and there were no Ospreys. What’s more, the place itself wasn’t even there.

I hadn’t visited for a while, but didn’t expect it to be gone. It had been Osprey habitat. Now it was a nature park.

Landscaped hills, trails, a café and a tram. The water was still there, but the wildness wasn’t. This happened while I wasn’t looking.

I thought of the kids’ game, red light, green light. You face away from a bunch of players who sneak up behind you while you say green light.

You turn suddenly, say red light, and they have to be motionless.

But there’s this odd feeling when you see them: The group has changed while you hadn’t been watching.

The wider world is like that. You turn your back on it, and think it’s going to stay the way it was, but it doesn’t.

The home you grew up in has been torn down. Your old school is a shopping mall.

When you hit the road, hotels you once stayed in don’t look the same, smell the same or even have the same names.

This is no great revelation. Just a common truth that requires common sense to accept. You nod your head, and move on.

But, damn, it was good to know there were Ospreys in a reliable place. Too bad they had to move on.

stop

Two-fisted birdwatching and science fiction.

Monday, July 4th, 2011

What does two-fisted birdwatching have to do with science fiction? Two things: Not much. And a lot.

Not much.

Two-fisted birdwatching is about getting into the rugged, old-time, buggy, woodsy, overgrown, muddy wilderness. It’s about sometimes seeing bears and liking it. It’s about seeing birds, and knowing their names.

It’s often about going places alone, getting lost, getting scratched by thorns, facing down a weirdo in the woods who’s cradling a shotgun and looking at you while sucking on the only tooth in his mouth. It’s about spending some time like you’re living on the frontier.

Two-fisted birdwatching has not much to do with time travel, UFOs, lost-world dinosaurs and leaps of imagination. Wait a second. Did we just say time travel…? Hold on.

A lot.

Two-fisted birdwatching is about time travel. And the more you think about it, this rugged sport is also about dinosaurs, unidentified flying objects and imagination.

Walk in the wilds not far from the northern ‘burbs of Chicago in the year 2011, and you could be in a time machine. On days when no jet contrails are ruining the sky, it could be the 1800s, the 1600s, hell, it could be twenty thousand years ago. The place belongs to trees, bugs, animals and birds.

scifi

Walk the game trails. As long as you avoid human hikers, you’re living apart from time as we know it. It’s just “place.” And “time” is taking the day off.

If that sounds like science fiction, well, cool.

Now: dinosaurs. Without going into hard science, we can report that the latest information, including a story in National Geographic, shows that birds didn’t descend from dinosaurs; they are dinosaurs.

Look into the eyes of a Great Blue Heron if you can get close. Millions of years of saurian self-confidence will stare back at you. Look at the scaly claws, the bone structure. Birds equal dinosaurs. A classic sci-fi subject.

Next: “Unidentified flying objects.” Do we really have to say more?

On to the final point: imagination. When you walk in the woods, your two fists wrapped around grubby binoculars, you think of things. You’re not always spotting birds.

You think up stories. Sometimes they’re science fiction stories. Take a look at “The Ferruginous Hawk.” It came from the imagination of a guy walking in a birdless woods on a birdless day. Is it sci-fi?

Independence Day.

Today is July 4th. Independence Day. That’s also the title of a great sci-fi movie. I might re-watch it tonight.

ind day

This makes me think about how much I like science fiction. And I like other people who like it.

Sometimes science fiction fans are believed to be a little nerdy. An unfair image problem. Actually, they’re generally bright and interesting.

The public imagination has also thought of bird watchers as being a little nerdy, too. Screw the public imagination. Two-fisted birdwatching is here to zap that image into the twenty-fourth dimension.

Two-fisted birdwatchers are going to go into the wild places tomorrow, and these places will be time machines. There will be dinosaurs and flying objects. We’ll identify some of these birds, but others will remain UFOs.

And, as we go where no one has gone before, we’ll know that our style of birdwatching has not much in common with our favorite sci-fi stories. And also a lot. That sounds like a paradox.

All the best time travel adventures are paradoxes.

Ornithological memory.

Monday, June 27th, 2011

I’m an average guy. I don’t have a photographic memory. Or an eidetic memory, whatever the hell that is. (I’ve heard the term bandied about by wise-offs who say they have it).

But I do seem to have an ornithological memory. I don’t understand it. But when I see a bird in a bird book, I remember it.

I have looked through bird books since grade school. I guess I liked the variety. There was no variety in the birds I saw outside, just pigeons and sparrows.

When I was a kid, sitting in the backseat as the family drove out of the city to a country farmstand, I saw a teardrop shaped bird on a wire and said “Mourning Dove.” My dad thought I was nuts. I sorta did, too.

Man o' War

Man o' War

In Florida I saw a swallow-tailed, eagle-sized bird, and said “Man o’ War.” That was when I was ten. It’s been my story throughout life.

A few years ago, on a rare European trip, I was in Oslo and saw a bird on a lawn. I’d never seen its kind in my life. I said “White Wagtail.” Where the hell did that come from?

An ornithological memory.

Once I see a bird in a book, it’s locked in. I knew I was looking at a Loggerhead Shrike in Muir Woods near San Francisco. In Jamaica I saw a really weird hummingbird and said, “doctor bird” to my wife. She said,”huh?”

I forget a lot of things. But I don’t forget a bird. Not just USA birds, but Eurasian, African & Pacific birds. Rollers and Hoopoes and Green Woodpeckers.

I guess the two-fisted thing to do might be to go out into the world, and try to sight all the birds I’ve seen in books. Yeah, maybe not.

The idea behind  “two-fisted bird watching” is simply that you defy anybody’s stereotype. I don’t want to get gung ho about checking birds off a mental life list. I’m not against it; I’m just saying that’s not what “two-fisted” was intended to mean.

It was intended to say that birders can be rugged, beer drinking, motorcycle riding, sports loving, weight lifting, pizza loving, non-conformist, surprisingly well informed bad asses.

TF cyclist

Not the dweebs that they’re often shown to be in the public imagination. They’re not silly; they’re Indiana Jones.

You remember him, I hope. It’s been a few years since his movies were big, but c’mon, you gotta remember Indy’s revolver, bullwhip and arcane archaeological knowledge. Like I remember birds.

Maybe some day the birds in my memory will start flying away. Migrating to a place where I can’t find them. If that happens, I won’t be me any more.

Meanwhile, I just saw a picture of a bird with a blue head and orange chest. It was on another website. There was no caption. But I said to myself, “Lazuli Bunting.”

I don’t need captions. I’ve got an ornithological memory, and hope to keep it.

A bird watcher’s field guide to the mosquitoes.

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

They're out there...and they're coming.

They're out there...and they're coming.

There’s a bumper crop of mosquitoes today. Might be one in the room with you, sitting on your shoulder like a tiny, weightless parrot. Do you know what kind of mosquito it is?

Who cares. A mosquito’s just a mosquito, right?

That’s like saying a bird’s just a bird. When you hear somebody say that, you think: no, that’s a male Red-winged Blackbird.

You’re not being a wise guy. You’ve just got a handle on the world around you.

Similarly, the mosquito on your shoulder is an Aedes vexans, Culex pipiens or Anopheles quadrimaculatus. Could even be an Uranotaenia sapphirina, a blue rarity.

Huh?

Are we really going into the arcane world of insects and Latin names? That would suck.

But still, in the interest of at least knowing what we don’t know, here’s a quick field guide to the mosquitoes. They’re not all the same. Once you know their names, you see them differently.

But, try to see them before they see you.

Floodwater mosquitoes

These are the “Aedes” family of mosquitoes. They lay eggs near water. When inundated, bam, population explosion. This is happening in my neighborhood right now.

Aedes in the Arctic have been known to swarm and kill caribou. Swarms like that don’t happen around here.

Aedes field markings: these guys are brown with striped abdomens. Bands of color on the legs, no wing spots. Their butts are pointy. Feelers are shorter than snouts.

"Aedes vexans"

"Aedes vexans"

Some floodwater mosquitoes include: Aedes canadensis, the first sign of spring. Aedes stimulans, Aedes exrucians and Aedes fitchii. All are abundant, and bite even during daylight.

They say most Aedes can carry encephalitis, but Aedes triseriatus and Aedes trivittatus, identified by two bold stripes on the upper back are particularly known as carriers.

And there’s the common Aedes vexans, the one you’re likely to have around you. Experts say this mosquito will travel a mile for a meal. The ones hovering around my front door don’t want to travel that far.

When biting, Aedes mosquitoes get into a hunkered posture, head and tail angling down. This is another identification tip.

House mosquitoes

House mosquitoes are the Culex type, and you don’t want them in your house. They’re known for the diseases they carry, specifically West Nile Fever.

Culexes breed in stagnant water, old tires, beached boats, garbage cans and birdbaths.

In addition to West Nile, they can carry St. Louis encephalitis. Outbreaks of these diseases typically show up in late summer and make the TV news.

Culex field markings: drab brown, no wing spots. Body and leg bands are variable, sometimes faint, sometimes visible. Tails are squared-off.

 A "Culex" house mosquito you don't want in the house

A "Culex" house mosquito you don't want in the house

Culex pipiens is common, and rests during the day in houses (thus the name “house mosquito”). At night, they bite.

Culex restuans is active in spring and fall. They rarely bite people, but spread encephalitis in birds. Culex salinarius hangs around parks.

All Culex species are worth avoiding. Remove standing water. Don’t hike after dark. Use repellents. Arrange spraying. You’ve heard all this before.

Identification tip: When biting, Culexes hold their bodies parallel to your skin. This contrasts with the hunkered Aedes types, and especially with the next batch in our field guide.

Malaria mosquitoes

The mid-American version probably won’t carry malaria. But mosquitoes in this group, known as the Anopheles, have spread it in Illinois back in the early 1900s.

Anopheles quadrimaculatus, is a large, brown mosquito that lays eggs in clean ponds. Spotted wings are clear field markings.

"Anopheles" - The Malaria mosquito

"Anopheles" - The Malaria mosquito

And Anopheles mosquitoes have long feelers, same length as their snout. Aedes and Culex have shorter feelers. Mention that at your next beer blast.

Biting posture is, again, an I.D. tip: Anopheles mosquitoes tilt their bodies when biting, tails way up.

Tigers, speckle-wings and sapphires

The Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, is an exotic, introduced accidentally when American truck tires had been sent to Asia to be recapped, and returned with stowaway eggs.

These mosquitoes can transmit dengue fever, but that’s not expected to be a problem here. More likely, just encephalitis or West Nile.

Asian "Tiger " mosquito. Not just in Asia any more.

Asian "Tiger " mosquito. Not just in Asia any more.

Identification tip: Bold stripes. And they bite during daylight, making tiger mosquitoes easier to spot.

The speckled-wing mosquito, Psorophora columbiae is found near farms and feedlots. They’re mean biters.

Finally, the “collectors item:” Uranotaenia sapphirina. An iridescent blue specimen that breeds in ponds. They’re non-aggressive and not often seen. They’re “rare birds.”

Mosquitoes have survived for 50 million years. We’ve only been talking about them a couple of minutes here. For some of us, that too, has been a survival story.

When it comes to identifying the things that fly, we’ll stick with birds.

Our first two-fisted birdwatcher.

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

If you ever visit the website, North American Birding (nabirding.com), you’ll come across articles occasionally contributed by “Mike at Two-Fisted Birdwatcher.” That name might ring a bell.

Don’t laugh at the photo that goes with these stories. Yeah, it’s me, a few years younger and a whole lot hairier.

I wrote the following piece specifically for North American Birding, and it ran there November 6, 2010. The subject continues to be interesting, especially with the recent publication of Edmund Morris’s “Colonel Roosevelt,” an excellent if overlong finale to his trilogy.

It’s about a guy who I believe was our first two-fisted birdwatcher. Biographers report that he cold-cocked a gun-waving cowboy in a saloon in Dakota territory with two punches.

And we know he was a bird watcher because he wrote and published field guides. He knew birds and their calls like a pro. But there was more to him than fists and birds…

“The ornithologist who started a war.”

I saw a sign on my hike this morning. It said: “dedicated nature preserve.” I also saw a Fox Sparrow.

Those two things got me thinking about a nerd who changed his image and started a major war.

This guy’s more interesting than the Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Juncos and the shivering late-season Eastern Bluebird that I also saw.

The sign reminded me of him because he started a conservation movement resulting in national parks and bird sanctuaries.

park-sign-226x300

The Fox Sparrow reminded me of him, because he knew one when he saw it, and even when he didn’t. We’ll get to that, but first…

If you think bird watchers have been saddled with a nerdy image in your lifetime, imagine what it must’ve been like to have that interest in 1870s America.

Then imagine that the bird watcher in question was a scrawny, squeaky voiced little guy with ever-present spectacles. The age-old image of a four-eyed dweeb.

The guy is young Theodore Roosevelt. Not Franklin Roosevelt; people get them confused. This is Theodore, who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Talk about a complicated character. He’s a textbook case of overcompensation. But sometimes overcompensation works. Roosevelt’s weak and sickly start in life turned him into a gutsy guy who did everything to become a he-man.

Two facts are interesting here, for us, at least.

The guy was an avid bird nut. A true ornithologist. He wrote extensively on the subject: “Summer Birds of the Adirondacks,” “Notes on Some of the Birds of Oyster Bay, New York,” even a tract in 1910 called “English Songbirds.”

A few years later in life, when he was attacking Spanish troops in Cuba with his cowboy band of “rough riders,” he noticed calls of wood doves and a mysterious Cuban cuckoo. These turned out to be Spanish snipers signaling each other. The snipers were discovered and routed. Did Roosevelt know the bird calls were bogus?

How did this bird geek grow up to start a war?

When he wasn’t bird watching or writing about birds, he was doing other things. His friend Henry Adams called him “pure act.” Roosevelt was driven and tireless.

Theodore Roosevelt, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

He succeeded at Harvard. Got married twice, had a bunch of kids, did ranching and cow-punching in Dakota Territory, researched naval history and wrote a landmark book about it, then became a big shot in various political jobs. And, as you know, he was president of the United States from 1901 to 1909.

But before that he pulled strings to get a post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under a reputedly lazy old guy who vacationed a lot, leaving Roosevelt in charge.

Young Roosevelt single-handedly built up the navy during this period, and when a small revolt in Cuba caught his eye, he saw it as an opportunity to make America a badass good-guy on the world stage. He personally manipulated people and events to bring about the Spanish-American War.

Could one man single-handedly influence global powers to go to war? Quick answer: if it’s this ornithologist, yeah. For details, check out Edmund Morris’s “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”

But the point of all this is that here’s a skinny, bespectacled birdwatcher, and he grew into a brawny bespectacled warrior, cowboy, U.S. president, jungle explorer (see “The River of Doubt” by Candice Millard; incredible!), creator of our national park system, 150 National Forests, 51 Federal Bird Reservations, and he most likely set the stage for the Pacific war with Japan long after he was gone (see “The Imperial Cruise,” by James Bradley).

He liked to say “bully” meaning “good,” and he might have been a different kind of bully; leave that to the historians. But he was a bird watcher to the last.

TR's fox sparrow

As a big-bellied old guy walking around the White House lawn toward the end of his presidency, he picked up a tiny bit of fuzz and commented, “Hmm, a feather from a Fox Sparrow.”

From matters of state and matters of war…to matters of wildlife preserves like the one I visited this morning… to matters of sparrow species, that was Theodore Roosevelt. A two-fisted birdwatcher if there ever was one.

*The bird shown here is a Fox Sparrow—not a Brown Thrasher.

Boondoggle bird-watching.

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

The place: Nantucket, a resort island. The cast of characters: A bunch of ad execs and their big-bucks clients. They’re on a corporate getaway to brainstorm and mostly to bond. And you’re part of the group.

There will be meetings in a fancy hotel conference room, with reports, charts and idea-swapping. That part’s legit. But, we all know the truth. This boondoggle’s really about golf, joke-telling, laughs, the cementing of relationships.

Conference Room

You can accept being away from wife and kids back home while you sit through the business meetings. Business meetings are part of the job; what  you’re being paid for. But you do mind it when the focus turns away from business and switches to pure bullshit: corporate bonding. You’ve never been into telling jokes. Never been on a golf course. And you don’t want to start now.

What are you going to do?

Here’s an idea: When the socializing starts, say to the group: “I’ve got to go bird watching!”

Okay, this is a very tricky excuse. And you know that sidestepping the “good-time-Charlie” stuff could be a firing offense. The firing squad is never far away. Business can be ruthless, like pro football or organized crime.

Your excuse is also tricky because it sounds freakin’ nuts.

But that may be your secret weapon. If you’re from the creative department, this excuse might just be quirky enough to work. As the business part of the get-together breaks up and everyone’s leaving the conference room for the reception area, name-tagged and boisterous, you say it again: “Sorry, guys, I gotta go bird watching.”

gull dropping clam

They laugh. But you’re serious. And wait a second: they’re buying it. You’re their slogan writer, idea man; the solo eccentric with the jeans and hair. It fits. They even like you for it. They give you a thumbs up, and say “G’wan, get out of here!”

So while they’re telling “guy-walks-into-a-bar” jokes, you wander down to the ocean and watch Herring Gulls drop clams on rocks to crack the shells open. Pretty cool.

By the way, this avoidance of corporate party-time doesn’t necessarily mean avoidance of refreshment. You like to unwind along with the best of ‘em. So, if you take a few cold beers to the beach with you, well, that’s what pockets are for.  And they make the gulls’ behavior all the more interesting. You raise a toast to these clam-busting geniuses.

Opened beer can

Later you describe what you saw to the suits (these men and women are suits, even if wearing golf outfits). Your enthusiasm for intelligent gulls cements your image. You’re not unfriendly, just unusual. Gotta expect that from the creative types.

At another conference, this time in Tarpon Springs, Florida, you beg off the buffet lunch between meetings, and tell them there are probably Purple Gallinules, Tri-colored Herons, Cattle Egrets and who knows what else in the nearby wetlands. “Go ‘head, get outta here,” they laugh.

You take a nap. Call your wife. Then get out into the wild and check for birds. Later, when you tell your colleagues about the Anhinga you saw, they say, “An-hing-what?” You say, “Shoulda seen it, guys, a snake bird.” And you’re home free. The Anhinga sold it. Plus, you got a new bird for your life list.

kiskadee

In Bermuda, maybe you saw a Kiskadee while the group took an afternoon away from conference tables to hit the golf course. No problem. When you said the weird word, “Kiskadee” they bought it, and didn’t mind your absence.

Corporate getaways can be tolerable if you play the bird-nut card. You attend the business sessions, sure, but when it’s time to swap jokes in the social rooms, you take your binoculars and your jacket with its pockets of beer cans, and disappear for a while. You’ve got a free pass.

Trouble is, such out-of-town meetings are becoming rare in the age of recession. They happen, but not as much. Extinction is always a possibility, whether you’re an Ivory-billed Woodpecker or an expense account.

But if you do find yourself on a corporate boondoggle, and you need a polite way to avoid the back slapping, this excuse has been proven to work…just say: “I’ve got to go bird watching.”

Laughing Moose.

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

It was easily seven feet tall at the shoulder, with long legs. Big spread of antlers. A showy rack. I’d heard that antlers like that can flip a person over a tree if things go bad.

I wasn’t worried. This moose looked lazy. Not moving. Sleepy-eyed, and busily chewing something. Too gawky to be a threat. A big, slow bull.

Well, that theory’s bull. I can laugh now. Actually, the moose did some laughing at the time. Or at least I thought he did.

I was somewhere near Yellowstone, in the woods. I’d seen a Western Tanager and other birds that we don’t have back home.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Gray Jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Steller’s Jays, a Golden Eagle overhead, big noisy Ravens; and a few Northern Flickers, that are called “Red-Shafted” out west.

These have red under their wings, a red Nike swoosh on their faces instead of a black one like eastern Flickers have. And no red on their heads. Quirky little regional variations in design.

Then I saw a dark brown animal and I stopped caring about the design of red-shafted Northern Flickers. At first I thought it might’ve been a grizzly. If it had been, I’d have been meat.

But it was a moose. I’d never seen one before. I had a camera, and the animal wasn’t moving. This was going to be good. I eased in for a better look.

The moose heard one camera click too many, too near, and spun toward me. Fast. Faster than a horse. I’d never seen any big animal move like that. Quick feet for a monster. Its racked-up head swung toward me and dipped, a clear sign that it meant business.

I’d seen bison earlier, and a distant bear, too. Both bison and bear, though big, moved slowly. The moose was bigger. How could it be coming on like a lightweight fighter?

Easily seven feet at the shoulder...

Easily seven feet at the shoulder…

I took off. He might be faster on paper, but this wasn’t on paper, and I don’t think anything could’ve caught me.

But I ran into boggy ground I hadn’t noticed. Soon my feet sunk to the ankles. Wet mud grabbed my boots. I went down on my belly. Got a face full of warm glop. It tasted like worm.

My camera was under me but didn’t get ruined. Neither did I, as it turned out. When I looked for the moose, it was way back there, pulling up vegetation, unconcerned.

But I heard him laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the vegetation he was chewing; it was laughter.

I couldn’t blame the moose. I’d run into a bog and fell in mud. He’d made his point (“Don’t get so damn close, camera boy!”), and I looked like a clown.

All in all, a good experience and fun memory. It emphasized what I already knew: when you go bird watching you sometimes see other things.

Once, I saw a fox chasing several deer—an inexplicable incident. There’s more to bird watching than watching birds.

And another thing to know: big, lumbering characters should not be underestimated. They can be faster than they look. If you’re lucky, they’ll have a sense of humor, but don’t count on it.

Anachronisms and Woodpeckers.

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Anachronism is a fancy word used to describe something that doesn’t belong in the time period in which you’re seeing it. A cell phone in a cowboy movie is an anachronism.

Some things that are with us at the moment seem like anachronisms because they look like they’re from another era. And you get the feeling that they’re not going to be around much longer.

Two examples: Telephone poles and newspapers.

Start with telephone poles: Look at them today when you’re driving. They belong in a movie filmed in the 1930s. They stand tilted and weathered, dead bodies of pines hauled from forests years ago. Yet they’re here. But for how long? Who’s going to miss them? Not drivers who wrap cars around them. Not linemen who climb them in a storm. Not anyone who likes a natural landscape.

But the Acorn Woodpecker’s going to miss them.

"Where do I go now?"

“Where do I go now?”

This Western bird with the clown face has a fondness for telephone poles. The poles are easy to find and drill into. Acorn Woodpeckers put holes all over the poles, and stash acorns and other nuts in them. You can see these holes as you drive in the west.

"A place for your nuts."

“A place for your nuts.”

When the poles go away, will the Acorn Woodpecker do the same? Will the wireless age create a woodpecker-less age?

Probably not, unless there are other problems facing the birds. Extinctions do happen. But as long as nothing else comes along to threaten them, these birds will live just fine without telephone poles. Sure, maybe they’ll spend some nervous days circling the gaps at the side of the road, wondering, “Where do I go now?”

But they’ll discover an alternative. Necessity finds a place.

There’s another anachronism we see every day. And it’s not going to fare much better than telephone poles as modernization keeps vaporizing things that used to be part of everyday life. It’s the newspaper, sad to say. At first, newspapers don’t seem to have much in common with telephone poles, except for a similar old-fashioned image. They too, look pretty natural in an old 1930s movie.

But now the web, with all its convenient access points, is the undeniable information carrier of choice. Consider where you’re reading this. Newspapers, like telephone poles, will fade away. Coincidentally, they’re also made by cutting down trees. (And they deal in lineage.) Their demise isn’t going to affect a woodpecker. But it will affect some people we know.

"Destined to fade away, sad to say."

“Destined to fade away, sad to say.”

It’ll hit journalists in city rooms, clacking on keyboards. And it’ll hit ad people in martini bars, the cool taste-makers who made good money from ad lineage on newsprint. Like Acorn Woodpeckers, these guys will probably circle the gap where the thing that defined their territory used to be. They, too, will wonder, “where do I go now?”

But like the birds, they’ll survive. Their new work places might not look like city rooms or hi-rise ad agencies. Instead, they could look like a techie’s basement, a seat on an el train where you can open a laptop as you ride. Or a wi-fi cafe. Necessity finds a place.

Pigeons, Gulls and Dumb Luck

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

You’re enjoying an Orlando vacation, lazing at a lakefront resort. Taking a break from everything, even bird watching. But you don’t really need a break from this effortless hobby. In fact, it has saved many a vacation.PARIS

There was one interminable European trip that you survived by walking through parks near the cathedrals and museums that your wife and others in your group felt compelled to visit. You said: seen one crumbling statue, seen ‘em all. This opinion wasn’t popular with your companions.

On the other hand, the Europeans do have a whole other birdbook to explore, living things you don’t get to see in the U.S.A. Like Wagtails, little European Robins, Green Woodpeckers and Blue Tits; even their Jackdaw crows are interesting with two-tone gray and black coloration. But that was Europe, this is Florida.

Meanwhile, back at the beach…

You’re enjoying the sun. Doing nothing. Thinking nothing. There are birds around but none is unusual. Just pigeons who find the garbage cans interesting, and of course there are gulls near the water. Probably Herring Gulls and Laughing Gulls, but you’re not looking closely. You’re on vacation.

Then a thought hits.

You wonder: what do the pigeons think of the gulls? The pigeons are wobbly and pear shaped, short winged, grayish and comparatively clumsy. While the gulls are sleek and slender, long winged and regal. They make flying a sport. Pigeons do it to get from here to there. Gulls do it to swoop and sail, the kind of thing you’d do if you could fly, if you had wings.

pigeons

Who could help but admire the gulls and their grace? Do the pigeons admire them? And what do the gulls think of the pigeons? Do they see them as chubby nerd birds who can’t rise to the heights of the cool kids? You have to figure: probably.

You try to imagine that you’re a gull.

You’d fly just for the fun of it. You’d coast on the wind and dip and slide over the water, and then rise and circle, do a wing-over stunt or two, and it would feel great. The pigeons and featherless humans are just pathetic background. Gulls are royalty of the shore, made to fly, and nobody does it better.

herring gull

Hey, if you were a pigeon you’d want to become a gull. You’d go on a diet. You’d watch how gulls fly and try to emulate them. You’d see how long you could hover without having to flap. But the sad truth is that if you didn’t flap, you’d drop. And if you didn’t eat you wouldn’t get slim; you’d get weak and maybe die. You were put in a pigeon body and that’s the end of it.

Idle musing, not worth disturbing the pleasures of sun and relaxation. But then a new thought hits. It’s related to the irrevocable destiny of pigeons and gulls. And it’s right in front of your eyes…

There’s a boat rental business by the shore.

It’s a family resort and boats are being offered to kids and parents, miniature motorboats, big enough for one teenager or maybe a dad and his seven-year old. These little boats zoom around the lake. Each is shaped like a speedboat, but smaller.boats

Kids line up to get in as boats come back from their half-hour rental. Riders who are returning exit onto the pier, and an attendant pushes the empty boat into position for a new passenger or two to get in.

It’s fun to watch this.

But you notice something. Some boats are faster than others. An eager kid gets into the boat he was given and throttles it forward, full blast. But his boat doesn’t have pep. It’s a pig; it groans rather than roars. Its wake is anemic and its nose doesn’t rise as high as the noses of other boats. That’s the luck of the draw.

A different kid gets into the next boat, and it’s a charged up maniac of a little speedboat. It zooms past the pig boat, hitting waves with loud slaps that you can feel in your chest.

What was that all about? Each kid was more or less equal. Same age and size. Both were aggressive fun lovers. But one got assigned a boat that was sluggish, and the other got a better one. The kids had nothing to do with it. It was fate, destiny, dumb luck.

And you think: Hey, some birds got put into pigeon bodies. There was nothing they could do about that. And some got put into gull bodies. Just luck.

Same thing happens to people.

Some of us get put into average-looking bodies while others get pro athlete’s bodies, or super-model bodies. It’s the way of the world, the way of all life.

So what do you do? If you’re a pigeon you walk around in that goofy, neck-bobbing style and hope somebody throws bird seed on the ground near you. And if you’re a gull you fly on the wind. You enjoy it. And you better be thankful that things worked out that way.

Okay, enough thinking. C’mon, this is your vacation. Why not settle back, read a summertime book, get some sun, take a nap. You realize that you’re better off at work. When you get too much leisure, your mind works overtime. You try to blank out your thoughts. Simply listen to the waves and enjoy the breeze.

Then a gull flies over and you can’t help saying to yourself: lucky, just lucky.

seagull

Something Interesting: Guaranteed.

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

You went for a hike this morning figuring something interesting would happen. It always does. Guraranteed. We’ll get to that later.

Certificate SEAL

This morning you saw one of your favorite birds, a male Yellow-Shafted Flicker. Same woodpecker that’s mentioned in The Boy Detective. But even if you hadn’t seen the Flicker you’d have seen something else. Maybe another favorite, the Scarlet Tanager. Since summer’s nearly over, this bird’s changing plumage would be mottled with green. Interesting.

Maybe you’d see a bird you never saw before. Once you met an old man in the woods. He was an odd bird: elfin and friendly, bent over and looking for medicinal herbs. He told you his name was Huckleberry Finn. You thought he was crazy, but he showed you his driver’s license. His last name was truly Finn. The nickname was what his friends called him.

394175789_caf5ff89c9

On a dawn hike you saw a giant, big-chested deer with sprawling, pointed antlers and you felt a little uneasy. He outweighed you, big-time, and he looked aggressive. Interesting.

Once you followed laughter coming from a woodland brook and saw a couple skinny dipping. Oops. You crept away quickly. But it was interesting.

Once you saw a red fox cross your trail. You saw a snake but couldn’t identify the make and model, just that it was colied, shining and primeval, with a darting forked tongue and no fear.

Once you went for a hike in the woods and saw nothing special. No interesting birds. The trail was quiet. No other people, no snakes, foxes, nothing. You just hiked for an hour or so, then left. That was unusual, seeing nothing noteworthy. Then it hit you: Hey, that was the interesting thing. Something interesting had happened after all. It never fails.

Baseball and Sudden Death

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Baseball. Sudden death. Two-fisted subjects. But what are they doing on a website about birds and birding? Everything.The pitch

By now you’ve probably seen the snippet of video in which fireballer Randy Johnson throws a 97-mile-an-hour pitch in a Diamondbacks-Giants pre-season game, and a bird happens to fly into the trajectory of the ball as it zooms from the mound toward the plate. Bam, the bird explodes in a burst of feathers while stunned ballplayers stop the game and the umps try to figure out what to call the pitch.

Makes you wonder two things: One, if you’re interested in birds—and you probably are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this website—what species was that hapless bird? Well, as far as we can tell it was one of those show biz albino Rock Doves, although some say a gull. We’ll call it a dove, though, since gulls are less likely in Arizona, and there was talk of a dove-releasing ceremony at the game. In any case, it was an explosion of white, and it sure wasn’t a Snowy Owl.

The windup...
The windup…

By the way there’s actually different footage of another bird being hit, same way, in a minor league game. That bird was documented as a gull, probably a Herring Gull and it was said to have survived. Gulls are tougher than doves. And a minor league pitcher’s no Randy Johnson. If you’re going to get smacked by a league, stick to the minors.

Anyway, the other thing you’ve got to wonder is: Life, what’s it all about. One second you’re flying along without a care and the next second you’re a splatter of feathers and a hit on You Tube.

The pitch
The pitch

Now, the more philosophical of two-fisted guys are saying, hey, maybe that’s not so bad. Think of all the things this bird will never have to do…

It’ll never have to sit around starving because its arthritis is so bad it can’t fly. It’ll never die of cancer of the giblets. It’ll never perch on a branch wondering where the hell it is and how did it get there. It’ll never look at a hot young Rock Dove and think, “I haven’t got a chance.” It’ll never get old and lose its feathers.

Was it good to die young? No, absolutely not. Was it good to die fast? Well, sure. Was it good to be immortalized by Randy Johnson, one of the biggest, hardest-throwing pitchers to ever head for the Hall of Fame?

"Splat!"
“Splat!”

From our point of view, the human, or at least semi-human view, we have to say that it’s humbling and instructive, even inspirational, to be reminded once again how everyday life can disappear in a splash.

A little more okay
A little more okay

You don’t expect it. You can’t see it coming. And bam, gone. Thoughts like this can make you feel like getting a big martini and a steak. And while you’re in the mood, it just seems a little more okay to get the pie ala mode for dessert.

Why not enjoy the things you were born to enjoy? They say you never hear the shot that kills you. If you’re a dove on a baseball diamond, you never see the fastball that gets you. And if you’re a guy, you might never know when the good times are going to stop rolling.

So enjoy. And take solace in knowing that the bird nailed by Randy Johnson probably had a belly full of ballpark fries and a half eaten hotdog, two tastes of bird heaven, with more to follow. At least we hope so.

Three Guys

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Three guys in different places and points of time. They never knew each other. And didn’t have much in common. Well, one thing. But that’s the punch line, and we’ll save it…

Gene.

Gene managed a carnival. The guys who worked for him had tattoos, missing teeth and great stories. Military adventures, run-ins with cops, road trips. They were on familiar terms with strippers. And liked whatever beer was on sale.

Serious as war

Serious as war

Gene had been in Viet Nam.  His eyes were squinty. His hair was grayish and neat. He had a faded tattoo on his forearm. It was a large forearm, and the tattoo looked serious as war.

He had a young second wife, purely trailer park. Tight pants, painted nails and a pack of cigarettes in her fist. One afternoon, during a storm, we gathered in the concession stand eating hotdogs, listening to Gene’s wife rant about a guy who bothered her. You never heard a woman talk so profane. She said Gene punched the guy out.

I broke it

I broke it

Gene had two grown sons who worked there. One was a body builder with long hair. He only talked about weight training. The other was lanky and going bald. He said motorcycle helmets caused his hair to fall out. He was always mad about something and talked about going into bars to pick fights.

Both sons would stop talking when Gene came around. One hot night, I broke the Ferris wheel. Forgot to lock one of the baskets and it splattered neon tubes, then jammed. I froze. Gene appeared out of the darkness and took charge. He fixed the wheel quickly, got the riders out and patted my shoulder. He said, “Forget it, kid.”

Tex

A cowboy in a rank cowboy hat

A cowboy in a rank cowboy hat

Tex was old. His legs were bent. His nails looked like they came from elephants. He wheezed, and his belly hung over his jeans. He was a cowboy in a rank cowboy hat. He lived in a world of horse manure. It was ground into him. It didn’t make him smell bad; he smelled like a stable. We knew Tex through vague family connections when I was twelve. We’d rent horses from him.

He’d sit on a crate in the stable, and when he got up you could see he was bow-legged like Yosemite Sam. We’d shake hands and his skin felt like animal hide.

Tex had been a rodeo rider and wrangler. He drank redeye and slept outside. Everyone knew that he’d rescued a rider on a runaway years ago by galloping to the horse and jumping on its head, slowing it, saving the day.

She'd stand on a horse

She'd stand on a horse

He married a cowgirl and had a little cowgirl child who grew up to be a bareback rider. In her act she’d stand on a horse like a ballerina. Tex had an old magazine cover with a picture of her on it. He nailed it to the wall in a dusty office. Nearby there was a gunbelt, holster and old Colt .45.

Tex died. We didn’t go to his funeral and never went to the stable again. At the time I thought of his bow legs having trouble fitting into any coffin. A private joke that I wasn’t proud of.

Al

Al had a reputation as a motorcycle racer. He kept a shiny Harley under a tarp in the gas station where I worked at eighteen. I was a grease monkey, changing oil, doing brake jobs, fixing flats. My fingernails wouldn’t wash clean that year.

Sometimes you have to do something that can't be done

Sometimes you have to do something even if it can't be done

One afternoon I was working by myself. The place smelled of gas and rubber. I was eating peanuts, hoping nobody’d come in. Bored, I opened the drawers in Al’s old desk. I found photos of him at motorcycle races holding trophies.

Later that week we worked on a car that needed a wheel pulled, a stubborn chunk of rust. I learned that sometimes you have to do something, even if it can’t be done. All the guys tried to remove this wheel. We poured solvents. We heated it, cooled it. Nothing worked.

After we gave up, Al took charge. He got a mallet and kept hitting the wheel. It wouldn’t move and he kept hitting. No talk. He hit the wheel while some of us watched and others drifted away. He hit it forever. He could still be hitting it.

But the thing is, he hit it until it started to move. Then he hit it until it came free. And he went to the cooler for a beer. We all had beers.

Okay.

What did these three guys have in common? You might be thinking: they were take-charge types. Gene fixing the carnival ride, Tex stopping a runaway horse, Al hammering a stuck wheel until it moved. Well, that’s one thing. But not what stands out the most.

Here it is: They all had a specific knowledge of wildlife that was surprising for such guys. They weren’t bird watchers in the traditional sense. But they knew what they saw; they knew what was out there in the world, and they knew it by name.

Not a buzzard

Not a buzzard

The tattooed veteran with the profane wife once said there was a Barn Swallow’s nest in the ticket stand. The old cowboy didn’t call a Turkey Vulture a buzzard; he called it a Turkey Vulture. The mechanic liked to walk near a pond in Michigan where he said there were Black Terns, a fairly uncommon bird.

Talk about uncommon birds. Gene, Tex and Al. They weren’t the type to join clubs. But they had life lists in their heads. Tex said he’d seen a California Condor out West when they were still wild. Al talked about a “snake bird” in a Louisiana  bayou, correctly calling it an Anhinga.

A footnote: Why isn’t this piece of writing in our “Stories” category? It reads like three little stories, with characters who seem a bit larger than life. And there’s a story-like point to the whole thing. Well, the reason that it’s in our non-fiction “Viewpoints” category is that it’s all true. Those three guys really existed and were just the way you see them described here.


Bugs and Birds

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

There’s a short story we read years ago about people walking around covered in living bugs. Okay, we’re two-fisted guys and this kind of thing shouldn’t bother us. But we gotta say, sorry, no way do we want to see this image in our heads or hear much about it.

A two-fisted birdwatcher!

A two-fisted birdwatcher!

Remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones (now there’s a two-fisted bird watcher!) and some sleazy crook were in a cave in the Amazon jungle and the sleazy guy’s covered with tarantulas?

The guy sorta deserved it because he was double crossing Indy, but who cares. The bugs were hard to look at. Yeah, yeah, spiders are not bugs; they’re arachnids. But we don’t want to split spider hairs here. The point is: nobody wants to have bugs crawling on them.

"Don't bug me, okay?"

"Don't bug me, okay?"

When we’re bothered by things we say we’re “bugged.” Something’s bugging us, right? Your wife says, “Honey, you’re quiet, what’s bugging you.” And you say “Don’t bug me, okay?”

Worries bug us. Problems bug us. People bug us. Bugs bug us. Go out on what should be a beautiful summer night and mosquitoes that might carry West Nile bug you. Walk in the woods to look at birds down by the river, a quiet pleasure, and ticks that carry Lyme disease bug you. Check into a hotel in Manhattan and maybe bedbugs will bug you.

Sorry!

Sorry!

This is getting creepy. And we didn’t want to talk about bugs at all! Where are we going with this? Simple. We’re going to get rid of bugs.

And by bugs we mean the literal kind, like the one crawling behind your computer, and also the metaphorical kind—the worry, the problem, the angst.

(Time out: Do two-fisted birdwatchers get angst? Do they even know the word? Good question. Sorry about that. From now on, the word angst is banned from this site.)

Something to avoid

Something to avoid

Back to that story we didn’t want to talk about: People covered with bugs. How does it end? The hero and his girlfriend go into the woods and sit on a log. It’s peaceful and pretty. Eventually birds come around. The couple doesn’t move, just sits there with bugs on their skin, in their hair, tap dancing on their shoulders.

The birds get brave and hop onto the people. They start eating the bugs! Robins and tanagers. Crows and wood thrushes. Bluebirds and flycatchers. All honest meat eaters. They gently alight on our heroes and pick away. The forest is pleasant. The sun is coming through treetops. There’s the sound of water in a distant creek. A rustle of wind in the leaves.

Chow down, old friend

Chow down, old friend

At the end of the story, the bugs are gone and the guy and his girlfriend take a deep breath. The nightmare is over. Birds have saved the day. The writer of this story was using a literary device to tell us a simple truth.

The literary device was horror—the idea of bugs all over us. The truth was that nature and an appreciation of birds can make the things that bother us go away. Bugs symbolize problems and troubles. Hey, just look at the word: bugs.

DEET

Moral of the story. When you’re bothered by the nagging little problems of life, get your butt into the woods. Sit on a rock or by a stream. Unwind. Watch the birds. Let them do their work. They won’t literally eat bugs off you, but they’ll get rid of them all the same.

Just don’t get West Nile or Lyme while you’re out there. A metaphor can only take you so far.

Banjos, Birds and Janis

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Your banjo teacher’s a local legend, but a likable guy. And impressive. He plays every instrument there is, even the bagpipes, although he seems most interested in trumpet. But he does know the banjo, which is why you’re there.

At your last lesson you gave him Steve Martin’s all-banjo album, The Crow, Steve playing the banjo like a pluckin’ madman on 16 cuts.  The fact that this album is titled The Crow has nothing to do with your interest in birds or banjos.

banjo hands

You figured your teacher would like it and you wanted to give him something good for a change to listen to. Your pathetic strumming wasn’t getting the job done, although you liked the music and figured there’s nothing coming out of a banjo that isn’t just a two-fisted cool sound.

So the guy’s got Martin’s CD. Next week he gives you a quiz. He says, “Did you hear what he’s doing?” And you say, “Yeah, playin’ the banjo.” “No,” the teach says, “Did you listen to the third song?”

“What was he doing there, didn’t you hear?”

Truth is, sure, you heard. It was banjo. A lot of fast plucking and a wild happy sound. The reason you’re taking banjo lessons. Your desire to play started when you heard the audio book of Steve Martin’s life, Born Standing Up, and Martin used banjo riffs in between chapters. You wanted to make that kind of noise. But that’s not what the guy was asking. He gets a CD player and hits the button.

“He’s playing down here.”

And your teacher indicates the lower part of the banjo’s neck. “And he’s making all the melody with the strings, no chords.” You figure, okay, if he says so. It still just sounds like a lot of banjo noise. Not bad, but nothing discernible.

And then he hits another cut, “Get this?” And you listen, but get nothing. “He’s doing claw hammer. That’s amazing. Nobody does that kind of thing any more. “Okay, enough.” You figure this guy’s hearing something you just can’t. But he’s been making music for more years than you’ve been alive, so maybe he’s learned a thing or two about it.

Still, you feel bad. Because you’re not hearing, identifying, digging and loving something that’s apparently worth knowing about.

redTailedHawkBig

There’s a window behind your teacher.

In the distance you see some birds flying by, silhouetted against the sky. You don’t want to change the subject, but what the hell. You go for it: You say to the guy, “Hey, look over the roof across the street. What d’you see?” And your teacher says, “Birds, why.”

And you know that what you’re seeing is a Red-Tailed Hawk being harassed by a group of Grackles, probably defending their nests or at least a territory. And your teacher just saw “birds.”

This has happened before.

It’s not your teacher’s fault. Another bird flies by, way off in the distance. You say, “See that bird flying, what kind is it?” And he says, laughing, “ I don’t know, man, it’s a bird.” And you know it’s a Blue Jay. Come on, the long tail, the stubby wings, the strong but erratic flight. Obvious. And a good thing to see, too, since West Nile has all but wiped out the Jays around here. But your banjo master just saw a bird, that’s all. And you only heard banjo music, that’s all.

You didn’t get the details. He didn’t get the details.

And this drives home an essential truth. Not just about birds or banjos but about everything we know and don’t know: When you learn about a thing, you see it differently. No, not just differently, better. This is not a value judgment. Not a subjective opinion. It’s reality.

A guy who spends forty years with banjos hears notes and subtleties that a dope like you can’t possibly get. He’s better off because of that. He lives in a beautiful world of complex surprising music while you hear what is essentially pretty noise.

You have something else, though.

For some inexplicable reason, you have picked up bird knowledge since you were a little kid intrigued by a bird book, and have regarded seeing birds as something akin to stamp collecting. Because of that, you know every kind of bird that flies past.

You don’t see birds, even if they’re shadowy silhouettes at a distance; you see herons with long unmistakable curled necks, and raucous crows with unbeautiful flapping wings, and hawks you’re envious of, powerful buteos with awesome wingspreads. Boring sparrows; and robins who no longer migrate in this changed climate. And you know a grackle by its tail and a starling by its tubby mundane body shape.

You and your banjo teacher are alike.

You both know a subject and get the details of it while other people might blithely stumble by, missing these details. And you figure, wait, if this is the way it is with banjos and birds, maybe it’s like that with…. everything. Of course, you’re right. Ad executives don’t see billboards…they see cost per thousand drive-by impressions. You remember working in a Chinese take-out joint when you were a kid. The boss asked you to go to a newly opened rival Chinese place and order egg rolls to bring back for analysis. He dissected these, muttering Mandarin about the contents. He didn’t see egg roll stuffing; he saw everything he needed to know about his competitor.

truckTires

When you wrote truck tire brochures…

…it was a lousy job, but you came to know everything about truck tires. While waiting for a light, you looked at the truck next to you and said to your wife, “diagonal lugs on that 275/70R22.5 baby,” or some such arcane nonsense.

But wait, that was good.

Essentially good. You didn’t just see a tire; you saw a kind of tire and understood it to its core. That made you smarter. So, point of all this: you may not know one banjo chord from a pluckn’ other chord. But you’ve got the birds. As Janis Joplin said to Leonard Cohen in the Chelsea Hotel, “We may be ugly, but we’ve got the music.”

Well, neither was ugly.

janis new

But they did have the music, that’s for sure. And you may be tone deaf, but you’ve got the birds. And when you see them you know that they’re not just birds. They’re Rock Doves and Mourning Doves and Cedar freakin’ Waxwings and Merlins with mice in their bellies, and you’re better for it.

Strum that tune, Steve Martin.