Guest Essays

Ducks ain’t birds.

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

The views expressed by guest essayists do not reflect the opinions of Two-Fisted Birdwatcher or anybody else for that matter. Especially when the guest essayist is the recurring Bob Grump. But we still publish his stuff, whether we agree with him or not. And besides—the guy’s just playing with us. Or is he?

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Ducks ain’t birds.

By Bob Grump

They’re ducks. Geese ain’t birds, either. And neither are seagulls. Chickens sure as hell ain’t birds. Don’t care about ‘em at all. Loons ain’t birds. Now you might be thinking I’m one of them. A loon.

A duck butt not a bird in my book!

I wouldn’t blame you, because all that stuff I just said is loony. But it makes sense to me.

Coots ain’t birds, either. And you might think I’m one of them, although you’d have no way of knowing if I’m a coot or a loon.

Looniness and being a coot go together, most of the time. But not always.

But, where was I?  Oh yeah, if ducks and the like ain’t birds, then what ARE the real birds? Hold on. I’ll get to that.

I’m a guy who spends half his life in wild parts of the upper Midwest. I walk through weeds, into woods, along lakeshores and up and down rivers.

I get mosquito bites, ticks dig me, I get scratched by thorns and I get covered with those sticky burrs that come off plants I wade through. I’ve seen bears, but mostly their ass ends because bears like to run off when I’m comin’.

I watch a lot of birds when I’m out in the sticks. And they ain’t ducks!

They’re bird-shaped honest to Pete birds that look like birds. Robins, swallows, thrushes, woodpeckers, hawks, meadowlarks, bobolinks, kingbirds, orioles, tanagers, bluebirds, finches, sparrows, you know what I’m talking about: real birds.

When I’m out in the wild and I see a real bird there, say a Brown Thrasher, I figure, awright! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

"A Dick what...?"

I have started thinking of myself as a two-fisted birdwatcher, thanks to your Johnny-come-lately web magazine of this name.

You are two-fisted in some ways I guess. (I like the picture of  booze on your Facebook page).  But in other ways you’re smartass, talkin’ about books and all.

Still, when I hold binoculars in my scratched-up scabby old two fists, and I see some real birds, I do get a two-fisted kick. Wanted you to know that, pal.

It’s not because the birds I see are unusual, either. Although sometimes they are. Hell, I saw a Dickcissel. A bird with a stupid name that I commented about in an earlier guest essay.

No, I get a kick because real birds are little bits of red, white and blue freedom.

Now, okay, you duck lovers, you seagull lovers, you coot, loon and goose lovers—you’re probably sayin’….what the hell!

How about these birds you like so much? They’re free, and sorta colorful, too. I refuse to argue about this. All I’m sayin’ is that they don’t do it for me.

For me a bird is a bird that looks like a bird. I wouldn’t walk across the street to look at a duck. I’d walk across a mountain to look at a Clark’s Nutcracker, though.

That’s how it is, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t care if anybody likes it or not. I’m going birdwatching now, not duckwatching, so enough talk.

Antiphon

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Here’s another piece in the distinctive style of Nath Jones. A “Best New American Voices” nominee, Jones received an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Her publishing credits include PANK Magazine, There Are No Rules, and Sailing World. She lives and writes in Chicago.

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“Antiphon”

By Nath Jones

What else? You know, it’s really the story of that Great Horned Owl in Drexel Woods.

So. When I was a kid there was an abandoned Indian Normal School with broken windows in these woods surrounded by cornfields on three sides and a state highway on the fourth.

Someone, maybe him, had heard the owl there. Dad rousted us out of bed in the middle of the night, whizzed over to the college in either the Nova or the Citation, got out of the car, and started shouting, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-wah! Hoo-hoo-hoo-wah-wah!” repeatedly up into the trees.

How could we take this seriously? I had a lot of respect for my father. The guy had more dignity than almost anyone I know. But. In that moment? Really, Dad?

Then he’d stop, keep looking up, and say, “Girls!”

Well. Mom was stifling her laughs in the front seat trying to be a good example for her children. Genny? I don’t know. She was either asleep or uninvolved. Inert somehow. Probably in as much disbelief as I was. But. Me?

Jesus. I was in middle school. My father was shouting monosyllables up into the dark heights of trees. I just wanted out.  But he was so excited.

“Girls!”

I mean, this guy loved birds. And. So. Okay. Yes. I would have loved to have shared my father’s enthusiasm in the moment.

“Do you hear it!?!”

No. No, I didn’t hear it. There was nothing. I heard my sister shifting to get more comfortable in the car, heard her head quietly thump against what might have been a rolled up sweatshirt on the glass. Cars were going by every once in a while on 231. I heard that. There was a little breeze so, yes, I heard the oaks moving in the night. But nothing else. No owl.


"It may be gone..."

Deflated, he admitted, “It may be gone.”



Really? You think? For twenty-five minutes he’d been hooting up that owl going, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-wah! Hoo-hoo-hoo-wah-wah!” up into the blackness around all those trees. And for twenty-five minutes, nothing returned his call.

Dad might have stayed forever, wanting, needing, insisting, hoping, waiting, listening, listening so hard, desiring so much to share the wonder of it, the rarity, the once-in-a-lifetime encounter, the whole perfect moment, if my mother hadn’t said, “Duvall. The girls have school in the morning.”

I didn’t say a word. Nothing. But. Yeah. It was there. Come on, Dad. It’s gone. Or. Not talking to you. Or. Something. But. Can we please go home and go back to bed?

He looked up into the night. He looked back into the car. “Girls! I want you to hear it.” He could have climbed into the sky, would have if it were possible, surely cupped his hands around his mouth, and called again.

“Did you hear it?”

You cannot—cannot—tell your birdwatching father that you hear the call of a Great Horned Owl if you don’t. It betrays all sense of familial honor. Just eyes into the night, all of us, together.

I said, “No, Dad. I don’t hear it,” no matter what he wanted for me, no matter what he needed me to share of what was most his in this life and experience. He didn’t have to have it. But he had to try, at least once more.

So through that uplifted jawline, through those opened-prayer curves of his two cupped hands, I just heard, hopeful forever, one voice to the sky, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-wah! Hoo-hoo-hoo-wah-wah!”

Stopover.

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

By Nath Jones

Nath Jones is a writer in Chicago. She wrote that she grew up with bird watching parents. She explained that they listened to bird call records all day, planned family trips around migration paths, spent hours silent in idling cars, and almost all family traditions involved birds in some ways. She wrote to say that she’s got a bunch of ideas for guest essays. And sent the following…

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A year ago I took my mother to the Bahamas to see the birds for her birthday.

Our guide was a thin woman who’d raised her children on a sailboat. We definitely wanted to see as many species as possible. She had lots of locations for us: wetlands near Atlantis, quiet roadside stops near construction areas, a path with some grassy clearings at the headquarters of the Bahamas National Trust, and an elderly woman’s backyard.



My father was an avid birdwatcher so I’m familiar with behavior like standing stock-still and silent in a parking lot, looking up into dense trees, listening. I’m familiar with rushing along a path after a fluttering something. And scanning a focused area through binoculars came right back even though I hadn’t really been birding since well before my father’s death in 2005.



But going to this elderly woman’s backyard in the Bahamas was really something.

When you pay a guide for a tour—like, say, a winery tour, or a tour of local architecture—you’d expect to be ushered from one place of significance to another.

But when our guide made a quick cell phone call, turned down a residential street, and parked abruptly near a nondescript house, my mother and I just sort of looked at each other. Like, “What’s happening?”



Now. When I was a kid in a small town in Indiana, yes, we had a nondescript house with a bird feeder out back. And. Yes. Over the years many wonderful birds stopped in our backyard. We enjoyed watching them from the kitchen table during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But. Even if my father were a very good birdwatcher, even if that bird feeder were the main focus of our interest and afforded us almost all our mealtime conversation, our house was never a stopping point on any ecotour.



Anyway. Mom and I are curious enough and polite enough that, of course, we got out of the car in the Bahamas on this residential side street. And. Yes. Okay. Fine. We nervously followed our guide who rushed right into the backyard.



We took our seats in lawn chairs against the house. Five feet in front of us were about twelve different kinds of feeders. There were hanging columns like our finch feeders. There were flat, open, square-screened frames hung in trees. They swung gently under the weight of birds landing and taking off. Ropes and twine and clotheslines ran in all directions from bush to bush, feeder to feeder, so all the migrants had plenty of places to rest.



So. There we were.  At someone’s house in the Bahamas.

With hundreds of warblers and finches and little flitting, chatting, busy, hopping birds: Cuban grassquits, American redstarts, bananaquits, and several red-legged thrushes.

The elderly woman who owned the house came out for a few minutes. She was in her housecoat and slippers. Sat with us. Indicated a few favorites. Especially the bright, beautiful red, indigo, and green male painted bunting.

Mom pointed, thrilled. I took a picture.

Bread Birds.

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Awright! After going silent for about ten months, the curiously named character, Bob Grump sends in another guest essay. He’s usually on a rant about one thing or another, and they’re not always friendly or popular. But, this time he’s in a gentler mood. Must be because his belly’s full. 

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By Bob Grump

We lived in a crummy apartment building in a crowded city neighborhood near Wrigley Field, this ballpark beloved as it is by us in Chicago. And by most Americans.

It’s where the Cubs played crummy ball season after season, year after year.

And in our neighborhood of brick walls, alleys, courtyards, narrow streets, cars, buses and garbage cans, there were birds.

Little brown things. We didn’t know they had names. Well, yeah, they had names: birds.

I know now what they were, but who the hell really cares? Naming birds is a form of pedantry, isn’t it? You might not agree at first. But in your heart, well, maybe.

Using the word pedantry is a form of pedantry, too. Damn it. Can’t get away from this kind of thing. It’s a loop. Which brings me back to Chicago.

Okay, we fed these little brown birds. Ma Grump, my mother, took store-bought, cheap and supposedly unhealthy bread slices, and tore them into squares. She put these on the concrete outside our windows and doors, and let the birds come.

I was a little rug rat of three, four or five, and I watched. Big eyes. I liked the bread. I liked the birds. I liked my mom for giving our bread to them.

I knew that they were tasting what I had tasted that morning at breakfast, and that day at lunch. Good American factory-packed white bread, sliced and soft and mass-produced, wrapped in a plastic bag and tied with a string tie.

A wonder, that bread. A Wonder, literally.

"....sourdough?"

Loved it then. Still do. And it drew birds to our concrete world so I could watch them up close. The birds were, and are, wild animals.

I’d rather we’d lived over a river in India and tossed scraps to tigers and cobras.

Or that we lived on the edge of the Congo and fed hyenas, apes, skulking leopards, and I could see them.

But, there, at that time, in our gritty city, the birds came. For our bread.

Right now, I’m not thinking so much about those birds, long dead—their life spans being just a few years.

No, I’m thinking about store-bought crappy, bad-for-you, soft, sweet, damp white bread, and how Ma Grump cubed that bread in compassion.

She brought the birds to us. I watched. But this isn’t some sappy appreciation of bird life. It’s a sappy appreciation of mass-market white bread.

This stuff is much maligned by the sanctimonious who like earthy bread that tastes like it’s made of sand.

And it’s maligned by those who think spoiled bread—otherwise known as “sourdough” is somehow better. Bullshit.

The best bread on the market is still the soft squeezable store bread that’s white and damp and sweet. It’s a pleasure that’s overlooked, ignored and disrespected, just like the hardy little brown sparrows it once fed in our crummy city neighborhood.

Sparrows that had white wing bars and black throats for reasons no person will ever understand.

I had a sandwich tonight, made of such bread. It made me think about how we don’t appreciate the mundane beauties.

Why I Bird

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

A new birder weighs in on reasons for starting out.

By Megan Morgan

You read correctly: “bird” can be used as a verb, and not necessarily by the birds themselves. Birds don’t bird. I bird. And I’m quite human.

The action of birding generally means watching wild birds in their natural environments. But “bird watching” is just too passive an expression, I think. If I want to watch something, I’ll watch a Thunder basketball game.

But I’m not out in my backyard squinting and straining my neck in order to sit back and simply watch birds. I bird to experience birds.

So what does this mean? Admittedly, it sounds a little new age-y, but birding gives me a sense of wonder that almost nothing else can.

Once, when observing an American Robin scrabble around in the undergrowth, a species of woodpecker flew into my binocular range. I had never seen this species before. Leaves shifted overhead, and then the shocking contrast of the woodpecker’s clearly defined black, white, and bright red was suddenly in the sunny spotlight.

The scene made it look like all the colors in the world were turned up a few notches. It brought tears to my eyes. This made the rest of the observation slightly blurry, but that brief moment when I was caught off-guard and slapped in the face by natural beauty was all I needed. I was hooked on birds, and the feeling of awe that they give me when I truly pay attention to them.

And to think, this scene would have played out in the exact same way had I not been crouched there with my binoculars, watching. I find it humbling that daily dramas in nature play out constantly whether or not mankind is around to see them.

Look around, really, I started to tell myself. Once I started noticing birds, it now seems like they are everywhere. Some people might go to the zoo to see animals, but in truth, we are absolutely surrounded by highly visible ones every day.

When I started to take the time to see them for what they are, when the easily dismissed “short, black bird” became the lovable “loud-mouthed European Starling,” even the commonplace pigeon became suddenly fascinating. (Pigeons all seem to be colored differently! And they clearly know what they’re doing if they’ve successfully adapted to so many kinds of life all over the world!)

It makes me wonder what else I’m missing out there. There’s such incredible diversity right in front of our faces, and within our everyday soundscapes. How did I never before notice that bird calls and songs have provided a soundtrack to my entire life? Never again will I delegate the Carolina Chickadee’s clear-as-a-bell, four-noted song or the Northern Cardinal’s car-alarm call to the background. Because even when you can’t see them or find out where they are, birds are noisy creatures and you will always know they’re around.

Birds make me really consider my own humanity, too. Bird for too long, and I start thinking that they have figured out something about life that I haven’t. They gotta do what they gotta do, and they always know what they’ve gotta do. I’m jealous of that apparent assuredness and life-direction. That might be when I’ve really “gone to the birds,” so to speak.

So, I have my reasons. Just give me some more time out there, and I’ll be as hardcore as the rest of you two-fisters. Bird on.

About your damn cowboy story. A complaint.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

By Bob Grump

(Here’s another guest essay sent in by a guy calling himself Bob Grump. We figure that might not be his real name. We also figure he has a few beers when writing these essays, which can get a little cranky. Fine with us. He’s got a right to ruffle some feathers, if he wants. Hell, there’s plenty of feathers to go around on a website about birds. But if it was just a website about birds, we probably wouldn’t have received the following…)

~ ~ ~

I come to your website, Mr. 2-Fisted Birdwatcher, for stuff about birds. And you keep throwing up these stories about things that are not really about birds, but might just have only one or two birds in them.

You did it last month in your story about Wyatt Earp’s girlfriend.

Not me. But the bad mood's the same.

It had a title that caught me. “Cowboys and Birdwatchers.” Pretty damn cool. Like that movie “Cowboys and Aliens,” which was a much better title.

But your title was still pretty cool. That’s not what my complaint’s about. Okay, here’s the part where I start complaining:

Based on your pretty cool title, the story itself left me feeling like I’d bought a ticket for “The Big Year,” and when I sat down in the theater with my popcorn, they started playing “Tombstone.”

Don’t get me wrong. “Tombstone” is a great movie with the Earps, Doc Holiday, Ike Clanton, good lookin’ women. I like it, even if it’s pretty old. That’s okay. I’m pretty old myself.

But look here: Tombstone didn’t call itself “Tombstone and a Titmouse.” Or something like that, which woulda been designed to hook a birder like me into seeing it.

"...Titmouse?"

Yeah, yeah, I know you won’t see a titmouse in Colorado. But the species, Bridled Titmouse, is found in Arizona. (Along with bridled horses. Coincidence?). That’s not the point. That wasn’t the title of the movie anyway.

The point is this: come on man, “Cowboys and Birdwatchers” sounds like it’s gonna be about cowboys and birdwatchers. Like maybe birdwatchers were on grazing land, and cowboys formed a posse to chase ‘em off.

Or maybe birdwatchers were selling binoculars to outlaws who used them when setting up stagecoach robberies. Or maybe birdwatchers taught cowboys to identify birds so the lone prairie wouldn’t be so boring.

There are cool birds on the lone prairie, including Cattle Egrets, which would fit into a story about a cattle drive.

But we didn’t get none of this! Instead we got a gunfight, with a tricky ending and some sexy stuff, too.

I don’t mind gunplay, tricky endings or sexy stuff, but we didn’t even get all these things in one story at one time!

No, you had to make it a “two-parter,” partner.

Being two-fisted is okay: I kinda get that. Us birdwatcher types are not sissies. But just ‘cause we’re two-fisted doesn’t mean you got to write us a story in TWO parts.

Just when I got hooked on where you were going with “Cowboys and Birdwatchers” (“Part One”), you ended it. That’s one big reason for my complaint. Then you made us wait like a week or so for “Part Two.”

Now here’s the rest of my complaint.

Neither “Part One” or “Part Two” was much about birds. Sure, you jammed in a few. The Dippers, a crow, a Great Blue Heron, maybe an eagle.

Your shoot 'em up.

But c’mon, we all know that was just so’s you could put your shoot ‘em up on a birding website. Right?

So, there’s my complaints.

And here’s my suggestion: Stick to bird stories. Leave cowboy stories to Louis L’Amour. (Funny, he was a two-fisted writer who wrote two-fisted westerns, but he sure didn’t have a two-fisted name).

Or, at least don’t write ‘em in two pieces. I don’t like being kept hanging. This ain’t a necktie party.

And furthermore, nobody knows what a damn Dipper is, anyway. Shoulda called ‘em Water Ouzels, or at least American Dippers, but, no, that woulda been too birdy for you. You were more interested in guns, horses and girls with their shirts ripped open.

Okay, I’m done complaining. Just try to remember what I said for next time.

“Ain’t litter. It’s raccoon food:” Bob Grump.

Monday, July 18th, 2011

By Bob Grump

(The following is another guest essay sent in by a guy out there with the obvious alias, “Bob Grump.” We have no idea who this dude is, but he has ideas that we like…sometimes. This time he rambles a bit, and there’s a suspicion around here that he might’ve been hitting the sauce. Anyway, here’s Grump’s take on roadside litter, and it’s not all garbage…)


Ed Abbey, late guru of “save the planet” sentiments, lover of wild places, bird watcher, vulture admirer (his reincarnation choice), author of The Monkey Wrench Gang…

…angry young man, angry old man, essayist and aphorism writer…

…fly in the ointment, bearded, sun burnt, combat-booted, river-rafting, forest-walking spokesperson for the wilderness and disliker of the civilized destroyers of the wilderness…

…would-be saboteur of concrete ugliness and river-damming engineering….the guy who walked canyons knowing mountain lions were tracking him…the guy who’d go for hundred-mile hikes in the desert, hoping to find water or die….

Ed Abbey

Ed Abbey

The guy who wrote about all this in a bookshelf full of good books, and who now has another bookshelf of fair books about him, written by admiring followers and new-coming literary analysts…

…the guy who had the gunsight eyes of a hawk, even toward the end of his life…the guy who encouraged the pulling up of surveyors’ stakes and burning down of highway signs along desert roads…the guy who believed in disobedience for the sake of it….

…the guy whom nature nuts revere, even now that he’s sorta long dead…this guy had written in his book of essays, “The Journey Home,” the following eye-opening sentence:

“Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.”

After reading that, I have a whole different attitude about throwing stuff from the car. Not beer cans. Hell, when I drink, I do it some place other than my car.

But that’s ‘cause I’m not the he-man that Abbey was. If I’m a two-fisted birdwatcher, and you better believe I am, he was something more…

…a two-gun birdwatcher, perhaps. I know he liked to shoot, and owned a good, old American revolver, cowboy that he was.

Still, I have been given a license to litter by Abbey, and I do it. Here’s how…

"Whoa. What's this..."

"Whoa. What's this..."

I eat stuff in the car as I drive. A Subway sandwich (too long to finish). A bag of chips. Just tonight, a box of Oreo cookies.

The cookies were a rare treat, something I was entitled to because I’ve been getting skinny lately, the result of too much exercise and not enough junk.

Hell, I’m bony. And although I like being as studly looking as I was a million years ago in high school, I figure it’s not good to get too bony, so there I was chomping into Oreos.

But after five or six, I lowered the car window and tossed the rest as fast and far as I could into the roadside weeds. I didn’t think I was littering. I thought I was surprising a raccoon that was soon to become very happy.

And I figured Abbey would approve. After all, my highways aren’t paper-free anyway, and a cookie box won’t destroy the world. But the food inside it would make animals think they’d tasted a bit of heaven.

The flavor. The fun. Hell, the energy-building nutrients. I felt good sharing these. Abbey, in the guise of a vulture overhead felt good, too. At least that’s my take on it.

And if anybody doesn’t like it, screw ‘em, and let ‘em talk to the roadside raccoons about this.

Fish or Fowl?

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

By Abe Zion

July 2, 2011 was a “free” fishing day in California.  This means the benevolent Department of Fish & Game suspended all fishing licensure requirements for twenty-four hours.

Always an avid angler,  I briefly suspended my fondness of  two-fisted avian observation  in pursuit of the illusive Rainbow Trout.  Armed with a new Wal-Mart spinning outfit, a jar of Pautzke’s Balls O’ Fire salmon eggs, a cup of night-crawlers, and a brown bag of crickets, I guided my step-son, John and our families to a pond beside Big Pine Creek flowing from Palisades Glacier in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

From the moment we arrived at the 8,000 ft. elevation site, I began to have mixed feelings.  Stepping from the car into the crisp alpine air, the trills and warbles emanating from the ponderosas and willows were celestial music to my birder’s ears. I gritted my teeth and grasped my fishing pole.

Had I been alone at that moment, I probably would  have said “Forget fishing, I’m going birding!”  But alas, others were counting on my expert angling advice to fill their creels. Crossing the rushing Big Pine Creek on a wooden bridge, we stepped into Elysian Fields.  A placid pond, surrounded by towering pines, reflected jagged, snow-capped Mount Galey teemed with rainbow trout, albeit farm-raised plants.

Pond

It seemed from every tree came the winsome warbles of dozens of avian denizens which I could not immediately identify. “Today I am fishing!” I breathed quietly through clenched teeth.  “What’s that?” queried John. “I can’t wait to begin fishing!” I fibbed.

I was longing for my camera and two-fisted binoculars. Planting our wives in camping chairs in the shade of a willow, John and I flipped our lines into the pond and soon we both had deposited shimmering rainbows into the ice chest.  The songs and calls from the treetops seemed to intensify as my desire to fish waned.

After icing a few more rainbows, I excused myself to take a short hike upstream for some riffle fishing. Big mistake!  Armed with a fishing rod instead of the accoutrements of birding, I crossed a meadow filled with Wild Iris in full bloom, an idyllic photo-op with the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background.  How I longed for my camera!

I wasted several more salmon eggs in the rushing riffles and then hiked back to the pond where John had caught several more trout.  The avian serenade above continued stirring my birding instincts. Tired of the easy pond, John wanted to try another location so I reluctantly acquiesced and we headed down the mountain to Taboose Creek, an alpine stream meandering through the prairie among towering cottonwoods with boughs atwitter with singing birds.

Agonizingly ambivalent, I cast my line in and soon hooked a monster trout.  The thrill of angling raced through my veins again, but alas, the lunker spit out my hook and my sinker sailed past my head.  From somewhere overhead I heard the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker. “Pileated?” I wondered. I longed to wander through these woods searching the branches for birds, but instead, I re-baited my hook.

Much later, in the gloaming as I arrived home in California City with a copious catch, my heart yearned to re-visit Big Pine Creek, beneath the Palisades Glacier, next time with a camera and binoculars; birding, not fishing.

Pecker or Picker.

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

A third “guest essay” comes to us from Bob Grump. This guy’s got a thing about names. He’s already written “Let’s change stupid bird names,” and “What the hell is a hectare?” Well, who can blame a guy named Grump for dwelling on names. Anyway, he makes pretty good sense. His suggested revision for the Oxpecker is cool. But whether or not this bird gets its name changed, it’s still one of our favorites.

By Bob Grump

Hey two-fisted birdwatcher, on Monday, March 14, you wrote on your blog about how we can avoid the news of the day, which has become one shitstorm after another. It was called “No CNN In The Woods.”

True words: No CNN there. No Fox, either. Well, wait a second. Not so sure about the fox thing. More about that in a moment.

I want to write about a bird you mentioned in that blog story. It’s got a great name. “Oxpecker.”

"It's got a great name. Oxpecker."

"It's got a great name. Oxpecker."

I know about oxpeckers. Red-billed Oxpeckers. Yellow-billed, too. Not from reading about them in bird books, but from reading African adventures. Hemingway, Tarzan, stuff like that.

I can get a little critical of stupid bird names, but oxpecker, like I said, is kind of a great name. Still, I gotta say… it can be improved with a slight change. The name of this bird should be “ox-picker,” not “ox-pecker.”

"Pecker versus picker?"

"Pecker versus picker?"

Then it would be more accurate. This is because the bird “picks” bugs off of oxes.

And what’s the deal with “oxen?” Why can’t we just say “oxes,” the way I just did.

But that’s another story.

Does this mean that woodpeckers should have their names changed, too? Should they become “woodpickers?” After all, they spend a lot of time picking bugs out of bark.

We don’t have oxpeckers in my neighborhood, but we do have woodpeckers. Usually Downys. Sometimes Red-Bellieds. Red-headeds are getting rare.

And good luck if you want to find a Pileated. By the way, “Pileated?” What does that weird word mean? Well, if you must know, it means “hairy.”

A stupid way to describe a bird that doesn’t have hair on it, and they oughta change it. But I digress.

On reflection, I have to admit that woodpeckers can keep the pecker part of their name. Because although they do pick bugs out of bark and eat them, they also peck holes into trees. Big holes. They build their nests inside them.

So, these birds are fairly named peckers.

But an oxpecker is never going to peck a hole into an ox to build a nest. And it’s especially not going to peck very far into a rhino. Oxpeckers stick to picking.

grump fox

So my idea about their name being wrong is right. I say that oxpeckers are really oxpickers and they should be re-named accordingly. Red-billed Oxpicker. Yellow-billed Oxpicker. Like that.

We should get the ornithology geniuses to put the “pecker versus picker” issue on the table when they have their next big lets-screw-with-bird-names convention.

Meanwhile, back in the woods. There was no CNN there. And no Fox. Except for the real fox whose picture I snapped.

A unusual tern of events.

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Greg Neise has written another inside look at the life of a twitcher. He’s a guy who doesn’t just have a life list. He’s got a state list, too. After exploring the Amazon, running around Illinois should be a piece of cake. Or maybe it’s more like a sandwich. Which brings us to Greg’s latest adventure. If this gets you up for hard-core birding news, take a look at the web forums that he created. Locally, there’s Illinois Birders’ Forum, and nationally, the North American Birders’ Forum. Or you could check out Greg’s July 6 guest essay. Meanwhile, there’s an unusual tern in town…

“Running Out for a Sandwich.”

By Greg Neise

On September 12, a photograph floated onto the Illinois Birders’ Forum. It was of a most unexpected visitor, a Sandwich Tern. The bird was seen briefly on a beach in Evanston, and the photographer sent it to the Illinois Rare Bird Alert.

There’s one other record of a Sandwich Tern in Illinois, April, 1989. The species is strictly coastal, and rare even in Florida. This was a very rare vagrant indeed. Every birder in Illinois needed this bird for their state list.

Later that day birders checked the Evanston beach and no Sandwich Tern was to be seen. But lo and behold, one of Lake Michigan’s most heralded migrant traps—Montrose Point—was about to produce.

On Tuesday, Bob Hughes located the tern at 6:45 am on Montrose beach and called the alarm. Being both fanatical about twitching and car-less, I called for a transportation hook-up. Craig Taylor arrived at 7:40 and we were off.

While en-route, we learned that the bird had been seen flying north. Knowing that there were eyes and cell-phones on the ground at Montrose, we headed for the beaches north of there.

By 1:30 pm we’d checked every beach, lakefront access or park, up to suburban Wilmette. The bird was somewhere along a 10-mile stretch of urban lakefront. It was up to us to find it. Being a strong flier, it could move along the shore faster than we could in mid-day traffic (what the hell are all these people doing driving around? Shouldn’t they be at work, or something?).

By 1:45 we had decided to call off the search. We made plans to reconvene at Montrose the following dawn. Back at home, I was thinking about dinner, when the Illinois Rare Bird Alert texted out an alert:

“Sep 14, 2010 4:01 PM: sandwich tern present at Montrose at 4 pm with two Forster’s.”

20 minutes later, I’m out the door, this time with Bruce Heimer, who birded with Craig and me earlier in the day. We got to Montrose in record time, battling rush-hour traffic. We stood on the beach with a handful of other hopefuls. Nothing but a pair of Black-bellied Plovers (which were entertaining).

blk bellied plovers

We headed home tired and deflated. Bruce had to work the next morning. Craig and I confirmed plans to be at Montrose again at dawn.

A dozen birders stood around on the beach, and as the magic hour passed we realized the bird wasn’t going to show. We worked out our frustrations by confronting dog walkers who were scaring birds off the beach (dogs are not allowed on Chicago beaches, ever—on-leash or not—except for designated, fenced in areas. Yeah, right.).

Dejected, we disbanded at 7:30am and headed to our offices. But the birding gods were not done with us. At 9:53 am a new message went out from Illinois Birders’ Rare Bird Alert:

“The adult SANDWICH TERN was loafing with a couple hundred Ring-billed Gulls…at the 63rd St. beach in Jackson Park at 9:05 this morning. Still there…at 9:20.”

The bird had been rediscovered 15 miles south of where it had been seen yesterday! From space it looked like this:

map

1 is the first sighting on 9/11. 2 is the second and third sightings on 9/14, and 3 is the latest on 9/15

I called my partner in crime, Jeff Skrentny. We tore down Lakeshore Drive. I saw another twitcher zoom ahead of us, and figured if there were cops on this road they’d have gone after him, so we were safe.

We arrived at 63rd St. Beach to find a scope line set up. As I started to unfold my spotting scope and tripod, a twitcher said, “hey, you know the drill…” and pointed to his Questar.

I did know the drill: grab a look through the first available scope to get your bird, then set up your own gear and worry about pictures. And so, I nailed my Illinois State Bird #352.

And pictures I did get. Here’s one….of this slippery, ephemeral ocean-waif. Enjoy:

sandwich tern neise

Let’s change stupid bird names.

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

A second “guest essay” comes to us from Bob Grump. It’s ironic that Bob’s essay is about stupid names. His own name is, well, let’s just say…hard to buy. That’s okay. Sometimes writers use pen names. We don’t mind. Once again Bob Grump makes good points, as he did in “What the hell is a hectare.”  After his essay, we might weigh in with an opinion of our own about what he says here, if you want to read that far. You may not agree with the guy, but he’s interesting…

By Bob Grump

Okay, Mr. Two-Fisted Birdwatcher, I’ve got a suggestion for you and your readers out there.

I think you’ll like it, because I’ve seen that on your website you often grouse about birds having stupid names. No pun intended.

By the way, ever notice how people say “no pun intended?” That’s bullshit. It’s always intended.

So, here’s my idea:

Start a groundswell movement…get your readers to suggest better names for birds. Not all bird names, just the stupid ones.

"...a dick what?"

“…a dick what?”

Come on, two-fisted birdwatchers, does anybody really want to see a Peewee? How about a Hudsonian Godwit. Can you say Hudsonian Godwit with a straight face?

The Indigo Bunting sounds like something in your grandma’s knitting basket. Can you tell your girlfriend you saw a Yellow-Breasted Chat, or a Dickcissel? Dick what?

I think you mentioned these names in your blog. That’s why I bring them up again. I figure you’re gonna support me because you’re already on my side.

I KNOW you recently wrote that a Green Heron isn’t green, and a Great Blue Heron isn’t blue…and a Great Crested Flycatcher isn’t crested. Or great. We’re on the same page, right?

You, and other regular folks who are interested in birds, have been saddled with using stupid names that have been passed down to us from bird namers who were cuckoo.

Hey, that’s another one. Cuckoo. Yellow-billed, Black-billed…the clock.

Okay, what do we do about it?

Trust the people, that’s what I say. They have a way of righting things. Just give ‘em time, and a voice. Ask your readers to pick a bird name that bugs them. Let ‘em write in with their idea for a better name.

"Bark Hammer?"

“Bark Hammer?”

Say somebody doesn’t like “Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.” So they suggest another name. Like, for example, “bark hammer.” That’s one I kinda like.

Somebody else (maybe you, right?) says they don’t like “Bald Eagle,” because (as you also pointed out in one of your stories) this eagle ain’t bald. Maybe the person says we should call it a “fierce fish-eater” instead. Personally, I’m not wild about that one. But run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.

So that’s my idea. Have people get caught up in this thing. Let’s see what happens. It’s about time, you know. And it’s something we can do something about.

We can’t do much about the collapse of the economy, military unthinkables, kids squawking in restaurants, new human and computer viruses, all the crap that’s coming down the pike every day…but we can do something about stupid bird names!

Spread the word!

Sincerely,

Bob Grump

Bob wants us to spread the word. Okay, if you’ve got any bird names that you could improve, let us know. If there’s enough interest, maybe we’ll make a another contest out of it. Like our “hidden bird” contest. And the best name wins a prize. Or maybe we’ll invite everyone to vote for a winner. Might even send winning ideas to the American Ornithologists’ Union and get the bird officially re-named. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Maybe this will go nowhere. If that happens, all we can say is: Sorry Bob Grump, whoever you are.

Southern Illinois Strikes Again.

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Greg Neise has sent us a birding adventure. Actually, a misadventure. Thought we’d share it. Greg’s a guy who’s explored the uncharted Amazon. Illinois should be tame by comparison. But nothing’s tame when the gods of birding conspire to trip you up. For more birding adventure, information, links and other cool stuff that birders at every stage of the game need to know, check out the web forums that Greg has created. Locally, there’s Illinois Birders’ Forum, and nationally, the new North American Birders’Forum. Meanwhile, here’s a recent adventure….

“Southern Illinois Strikes Again.”

By Greg Neise

I think that Southern Illinois has its own pantheon of renegade birding gods, that somehow I have blasphemed. Maybe it was my impertinence in my quest for a Swainson’s Warbler, which no one living north of I-70 is allowed to see.

Maybe it was the great string of luck that my pal Skrentny and I had, right under their noses, last year. I don’t know…but whatever it was, I do know that I pissed them off. Royally.

Randy Shonkwiler and I set out from Berwyn, Illinois this morning at 3:30 am. Or we would have if my alarm had gone off. That should have been a clue that something was amiss, and a higher power was $*#&-ing with me.

Randy called, sitting in his car at 3:45, waking me up and initiating the fastest S-S-S ever recorded. Ever. Recorded.

Late, but not too late, we headed onto I-55 for the long haul down to the St. Louis area where we had a small laundry list of goals for the day: White Ibis (state bird for both of us), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (state bird for Randy, year bird for me), Western Kingbird (life bird for Randy), Least Tern (life bird for Randy, year bird for me)…and maybe a Black Vulture (lifer for Randy), if they’re hanging out south of Kidd Lake.

As we were hurtling southbound, approximately 130 miles south of Chicago, Randy glanced down at his instrument panel.

“Huh… the battery light just came on”

Limnothlypis, chief of the Southern Illinois birding gods, smiled from her perch at the top of a huge dead bald cypress.

I checked the owner’s manual to see what, exactly, the battery-check light meant. As with all warning lights on the control panels of American cars, this one was pretty specific: it either meant the battery was dead, a belt was messed up or there was a Cracker Barrel 30 miles ahead on the right.

The car seemed to be doing just fine despite this warning, so we pushed on, vowing to make a stop at a service station to check it out when we got to the St. Louis area.

Limnothlypis laughed aloud and instructed one of her lesser gods, Ciris, to take action.

Suddenly the entire instrument panel (except for the passenger-side air bag light…??) went dead. The speedometer, which a second ago was teetering just a hair over 65mph, read zero. We had no fuel. The engine was revving at zero RMP and was cold as a stone.

“Huh… the dashboard just died”

Limnothlypis cackled and screamed, doubling over with laughter, and kicked a Fish Crow…just because.

We pulled off at Business 55 in Lincoln and looked for a service station. At 6:35am. On the Saturday before the 4th of July. Limnothlypis howled in delight and bitch-slapped a Barn Owl.

We found a gas station, and the friendly people there told us that there was a repair shop just 3 storefronts up the road that would be open at 8am. We waited, and at 8am, no one showed up. By 8:30, no one had shown up. We gave up.

It was at this point that I had an epiphany: WINKS!

Here we are, stranded with a dead car in central Illinois, and one of our own non-southern Illinois birding brethren just happens to be of the Winks Shell family at I-55 and Market St. in Bloomington (one of the last true full-service stations left in North America…if you’re passing through, stop, get some gas and say hi).

I called. He answered. “Hey, where you at?” I asked.

“Working…driving the tow truck”, came the reply.

GENIUS!!! We were saved! Matthew was coming to get our asses. Hallelujah.

Limnothlypis wrinkled her rusty brow. She didn’t see this coming. Hmmm…time to put Ciris back to work, and maybe send another of her minions, Eudocimus, along for backup. Ciris is reliable enough, but he’s all show sometimes, without a lot of follow-through.

An hour later we are at Winks Shell, smiling and having a great time shooting the breeze with our birding pal while Randy’s trusty Malibu gets a new alternator. We would be out of here in an hour and off to see our birds.

After about an hour, the mechanic (Matthew’s brother, John) and Matt confer. Like a doctor approaching the family after a routine hang-nail removal results in death, Matthew approaches us:

“Bad news, guys…we can’t get you a new alternator until Tuesday or Wednesday at the earliest.”

Limnothlypis erupts in delight, toppling out of her perch at the top of the dead cypress tree (a state champion) and lands in the swamp, flattening the first Illinois record of a Limpkin.

Okay…time to wrap this up: we wound up driving back to Chicago, sans alternator, and just managed to limp home. About 15 minutes into the drive, my phone rings: it’s Jim Malone.

"See ya next time..."

"See ya next time..."

“Hey where are you guys? We got the white Ibis, and there are two dark Ibis as well…one of them’s a Glossy”.

“AAAARRRRGGGGHHH!!!!!!” (Another state bird for both of us)

Limnothlypis rolled about in the swamp, kicking her legs in the air with unbridled joy—almost taking out an Anhinga—and she screamed to the sky:

“Y’all come back soon now, y’hear??!!??”

I’m shooting for Wednesday.

Epitaph: Randy did get a year bird: a Eurasian Collared Dove in Lincoln.

Note: For those unfamiliar with Greg’s birding gods, it might be useful to know that Limnothlypis is part of the Latin scientific fancy name for Swainson’s Warbler. Eudocimus? Same thing, but for the White Ibis. Ciris? Ask Greg where he got that one. Don’t think Painted Buntings could be involved, but who knows.

–TFBW

Deadly Salt

Monday, June 14th, 2010

By Scott H.

Scott is a two-fisted guy in New Mexico who commented about our Daily Sighting, “Bear Pressure.” He also turned us on to a website about the Gulf oil spill. See “Bears, and oil in your neighborhood.” But there’s more to Scott than bears and oil. He wrote the following piece about a little known ecological eye-opener. If you’d like additional information, use the comment box and we’ll relay your message to Scott.

The mess in the Gulf is dramatic and criminal, no one should doubt that, but there is another, ongoing bird-killing ecological train wreck that can be found in several localities out here ‘west of the hundredth.’ This is a situation that has gone on, day after day, year after year, ever since our industrial culture reached the High Plains.

The birds involved are migratory waterfowl and the killer is salt. Not so much the natural levels of salt found in isolated water bodies all around the West, but the evaporative concentrated brines that are discharged from various industrial processes, notably potash refining and petroleum extraction. These are crack-your-skin brines, fluids so concentrated that a film of crystalline salt forms on the surface on hot days. One hesitates to use the word water in association with these basins. You wear a broad brimmed hat when you work on these lakes and heavy waterproof gloves. You put sunscreen under your chin and eyebrows because the floor of these lakes is solid salt, feet thick, whiter than bleached bone and ragged with sharp salt crystals. The reflected sunlight will give you a nasty burn without protection.

iStock_000013102362Small

Migrating waterfowl, mostly ducks and grebes, that loiter on these waters for more than a few tens of minutes are doomed. There’s no water to drink after their long flight. The salt penetrates the oil on their feathers and they begin to suffer from hypothermia. They become waterlogged and begin to ride low in the water, become too heavy to escape and soon exhaust themselves trying. They die, badly, in less than a day and sink to the bottom where they become crystalline caricatures of themselves, or they wash up onto the shore where the scavengers only sample them and leave. The bodies are too salty even for the likes of rats and skunks.

In my experience natural salt lakes don’t kill birds. Only lakes whose normal hydrologic cycles and salt loads have been disrupted become killers. Here in New Mexico these lakes are concentrated in the southeast part of the state, down in the Carlsbad Potash District and the geographically overlapping Permian Basin oil fields, but there are isolated systems of these little known killing fields stretching from New Mexico to Manitoba. They sit there out on the High Plains, largely out of sight and out of mind, luring exhausted waterfowl to their deaths in their thousands, year after year, decade after decade.

There has been some progress. As a result of work done in the early 1990s by several intrepid biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, some of the offending water bodies have been cleaned up or hydrologically altered such that the bird ‘take’ has been reduced or eliminated. Too, companies began early on, under pressure, to try to haze birds landing on some of these lakes to drive them off. These efforts continue to this day on some lakes despite the continual destruction of airboats and other equipment by the corrosive action of the salt.

No one knows the exact toll on migrating populations of ducks in New Mexico, let alone nation wide, but across the High Plains the tally must reach into the thousands annually, perhaps higher.

I have years of experience with this situation as well as other issues involving more conventional playa lakes and would be happy to help educate this website’s readers about a little known aspect of our nation’s biological endowment – and sometimes tragedy. I have access to documents, raw data and people. And, being recently retired, I have time to pontificate.

This has been two-fisted work at its smelliest, grimiest best – or worst – depending on your perspective.

Birds of Literature

Friday, June 11th, 2010

By Marc Davis

Another guest essay comes to us from Marc Davis, a two-fisted ex-newspaper reporter (among other things), and a guy who probably has read any book you’ve read and seen every movie you’ve seen. He knows a few things about classic bird poems, too.

World literature from contemporary times to before antiquity is replete with many a bird, real and imaginary.  In Biblical times there was Noah’s famous dove, the winged creature he sent in search of dry land when the deluge had subsided and the rainbow appeared.  The dove returned to the ark with an olive branch, signifying that the flood waters had retreated and the world with its people, beasts and birds could begin anew.

Then there is the legendary Blue Bird of Happiness that lives in your backyard.  There’s no need for two-fisted birdwatchers to hunt for it everywhere around the globe except at home, where it resides awaiting your greeting and ready to bestow upon you its namesake gift.

As the opposite of the happy bird cited above, there is a dark and accursed bird, also the object of an international quest.  Boundless avarice, betrayal and murder were inspired in those who sought it: The Maltese Falcon. Gutman, the fat man, tells us why the bird was so avidly hunted in Dashiell Hammett’s tale of the same title.  Gutman tells P.I. Sam Spade that the bird, made of pure gold and encrusted with precious jewels, was the loot and plunder of the Levant, stolen by the Knights of Malta and paid in tribute to the King of Spain, the Emperor, Charles the Fifth.  Greed undid all who pursued it.

"Nevermore..."
“Nevermore…”

But of all literature’s many birds my favorite is the talking bird with the one-word vocabulary: “Nevermore.”  No bird or word more perfectly sums up the gloomy fact that what is past is past. The raven proclaims with that solitary utterance that there’s futility in mourning what is lost. Still, the brooding, disconsolate narrator of the poem in which the bird appears, grieves endlessly for his passionate, selfless lover, the lost Lenore.  And all the while through long rhyming lamentations, that foul bird perches overhead on the mourner’s chamber door, and will remain there throughout eternity, a winged reminder of our own mortality.

From “The Secret History of Birds.”

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

By Marc Davis

Two-Fisted Birdwatcher is pleased to publish a third guest essay by Marc Davis. Marc is a prolific writer; a novelist, journalist, and two-fisted observer of all things, including historical events and the players in them, big and small.

Here’s something to consider for The Two-Fisted Birdwatcher: It’s from an imaginary book (which doesn’t exist—yet), that I’ve titled “The Secret History of Birds.”

When Napoleon was defeated by Wellington at Waterloo in 1815, a man named Reuter was on the scene and sent a homing pigeon to Baron Rothschild in London, announcing the British victory.

Rothschild, one of the five brothers of the banking dynasty, proceeded to the London exchange and started selling the Pound Sterling, and shares in British companies.

Nameless and uncelebrated.

Nameless and uncelebrated.

Traders on the floor saw Rothschild dumping everything and assumed that Napoleon had been victorious. But the wily Rothschild knew otherwise. So as the market crashed and fell to near zero prices in the ensuing panic, Rothschild’s agents were secretly buying up the depressed equities and currencies.

When word finally arrived in London via horse and carriage that Napoleon had been beaten, share prices soared and Rothschild made another fortune when he sold everything at a huge profit.

That man named Reuter was the progenitor of the international Thomson Reuters News Service.

Reuter’s bird which brought Rothschild the news remains nameless and uncelebrated. Until now.

Jailbird Seeks Salvation Through Birding

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

By Marc Davis


Two-Fisted Birdwatcher is proud to post its second guest essay by Marc Davis. Marc is a prolific writer; a novelist, journalist, artist and two-fisted observer of all things, including movies that make a point.

When was the last time you saw a two-fisted birdwatcher as the protagonist of a movie? If you said 48 years ago, you’d be right.

The birdwatcher was Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film, “Birdman of Alcatraz,” the almost true story of Robert Stroud, a nasty guy serving life for a murder, who then doubles down with a second homicide of a sadistic screw.

Stroud is a loner, a tough and mean-spirited thug with homicidal impulses who is miraculously transformed when a bird flies into his cell.  What ensues from this chance human-aviary meeting is a profound change in the once incorrigibly combative prisoner.

Alcatraz. The ultimate jailbird cage.
Alcatraz. The ultimate jailbird cage.

During the course of the 147 minute film – and through the decades in his real life – Stroud becomes an expert ornithologist, studying bird diseases and becoming one of the most knowledgeable of the world’s laymen in this area.

Lancaster handles the birds with an exquisite delicacy, cradling the fragile, trembling little creatures in his massive hands, the same hands with which he stabbed to death the guard who irked him. He feeds them like a loving mother with an eye dropper.  He constructs bird cages with scraps of wood.   He builds a bird hospital in his solitary cell, formulates remedies for common and exotic bird diseases and sells them successfully through an outside partner.

When dealing with birds, Stroud is angelic, but his demonic truculence persists in his dealings with the various wardens who come and go.  Along with his birding, Stroud has written a secret expose of prison abuses.  Warden Karl Malden discovers it and Stroud falls into what seems like an inextricable jam. All of his privileges are withdrawn.

But eventually, as often happens in movies and occasionally in real life, Stroud does something noble, and dangerous, which redeems him with prison authorities – he helps squelch a prison riot. Eventually, he is released from prison after decades of confinement – a two-fisted killer and amateur ornithologist who sought and found salvation in birding.

What the Hell is a Hectare?

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

By Bob Grump


The noted writer of books and articles, Marc Davis, was proud to put his name on our first guest essay, “Crows Await Second Coming.” But the following tirade, our second entry in the Guest Essay category, is written by a guy who gave us a fake name. His essay is pretty good though, so we don’t care if he wants an alias. Enjoy.


Actually, I wanted to entitle this “What the heck is a hectare.” Sounded better. (heck, hectare.) But it’s not two-fisted enough, the word heck. So I went with “What the hell is a hectare.” Which, while not making a word play with hectare, better expressed my feelings about the word “hectare.”

It all started a few years ago. I saw in a birding magazine that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology wanted volunteers to measure shrinking tanager populations. They said they’d specify an area near each volunteer’s home and supply a kit with maps, charts and questionnaires.

ScarletTanager-1

I don’t normally volunteer. But I was interested in tanagers and didn’t like the idea that they were declining. So I signed on. Soon I got my kit in the mail. It told me to claim a section of forest near my home and it described the area I should cover in terms of hectares.

I don’t remember how many. Just “hectares.” As in two hectares or five, like that. Not sure if they meant square hectares. All hectares are automatically square, right? What the hell is a hectare, anyway?

Okay, I don’t live on Mars. I know something about this word. It’s from the metric system that the rest of the world is trying to shove down the throats of Americans. And hectares are composed of something called “ares.” And an “are” (100 of them make a hectare) is a word useful only to crossword puzzle nuts.

Come on: Miles are now also expressed as kilometers. Feet as meters. Good old Fahrenheit temperatures have to appear with parenthetical Celsius numbers, just to confuse things.

Let’s use one system or another, okay? Keep using both and we’ll keep being confused. I ordered a load of logs for our fireplace and would have probably accepted a cord—also an unusual unit—but got a “stere.” What the hell is a stere?

ScarletTanager

Anyway, back to the tanagers and their territories. I set out to begin the study in good faith. But I just couldn’t get a handle on what a hectare was. So I quit. I dropped out.

All I had wanted was for the Cornell people to say: go to  So-and-So Woods, bordered by this road and that road. Hike in, count the tanagers, mail us the information and have a nice day.

Instead I got vague directions about measuring hectares. I mailed the unused kit back to Cornell with my apologies. I assume the tanager study went on. I hope the tanagers are doing well. I still look for them every spring and I see a few.

scarlet_tanager1

They’re in the forest, which is measured in units I’ve heard of: miles, acres, paces. Things like that. But even those American measurements don’t matter. What matters are trees, streams, fields and the tanagers.

Science can take its hectares and put them wherever it wants. They lost a tanager counter because of the metric system. A system that someday I hope our scientists will get out of their system. But don’t count on it.

Crows Await Second Coming

Friday, May 8th, 2009

By Marc Davis

Two-Fisted Birdwatcher is proud to post its first guest essay. This piece was written by Marc Davis, a novelist, journalist, artist and two-fisted observer of all things, including crows.


We often drove that 100-mile straightaway from Clovis to Rosewell in little more than an hour.  There was nothing along the road – no houses, no telephone poles, hardly a tumble weed or a mesquite bush, no stoplights, and only a few intersections where the farm-to-market roads met the highway.   The land was flat, barren, the color of sand.  Even the Spanish name for it was harsh, with hard, ugly consonants: caliche.

I just gunned it, foot to the floor, straight ahead with  no distractions. The road was hypnotic in its featureless, two-lane monotony, with seldom a car coming at us in the other direction.  When a car did loom far down the road, the air between us shimmering like waves of heat off a charcoal grill, it was only for a few moments.  Then the car flashed by with a rush of air, buffeting my car for an instant away from it like momentary turbulence in flight, and it was gone, way down the road far away in the rear view mirror.

Back about thirty years ago I was driving that road en route to El Paso when about half way toward Rosewell I saw a cluster of black spots looming on the road shoulder to my right.  In a few seconds as I approached, drew alongside it, and passed, I saw it was a group of crows or ravens, pecking at what looked like a slice of pizza that some traveler must have thrown from the window.

...an amazing delicacy

...an amazing delicacy

What an amazing delicacy, they must’ve thought, what an astonishingly delicious meal.  They must’ve told one another that they’ve never had anything like this in all their years of scavenging whatever food they could find in this desolate fraction of the world.  If these birds can think, they must’ve thought it divine.

They spread the word to their family and friends, and those crows or ravens told others and they told others still, of the incredible delight of that strange, new, never-before-seen-or-tasted dish that gave those who ate it so much pleasure.

Wanting more of that indescribable gourmet delight, the birds gathered every day at the same location along the road, hoping, wanting, even praying in their aviary manner, that some traveler would toss another triangle of that heavenly food from one of those objects that sped by every so often.  They waited.  And waited.  And to this day, three decades later, they may still be waiting.  But their faith is unwavering.

None of that original group is now alive who tasted of that long-ago wonderment, and spread the news of its heavenly flavor.  But the story of that miracle has come down, generation after generation, and now along that straightaway from Clovis to Roswell, the crows and ravens still congregate, awaiting a second helping, a second coming of that divine provender.  People I know who have driven that stretch, have told me that they see these same spots of black at that point in the road where the pizza first appeared, as if out of nowhere.  Knowing as I do, that human nature and animal nature are alike in so many respects, the birds will eventually tire of waiting.  But not yet.