“Viewpoints”

Higher than a hawk.

Monday, July 15th, 2024

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has a wild amount of wilderness. Bears, wolves, Eagles, Pileated Woodpeckers. And the quiet you get when there are few roads.

I went for a hike there in the million-acre Ottawa National Forest. Got a map and traveled light, only binoculars. The way is marked by diamond-shaped blue symbols mounted on trailside trees or rocks.

Deer flies didn’t matter at first. But after a while bug spray quits. Bites bleed. I thought about Stanley’s hike through the Congo. He had it worse. No malaria in the North Woods.

I went on, assuming the “trail” remains a foot path. But it soon blends into undergrowth. Still, every so often you see those blue diamond-shaped markers. When you reach one, you could just make out the next, some distance away.

In an hour, it gets difficult. You hit an imaginary point of no return. And you want to return. But looking back, the diamonds are hard to see. You could get lost.

You don’t go back; the exit from this trail must be ahead and soon. An hour later, maybe two, you’re sweating, bug bit and haven’t seen birds, animals, or the end of the trail.

Lack of wildlife sightings in deep woods is typical. If you were in a 100-acre preserve near Chicago you’d see many birds. Often, deer, maybe a fox or snake. But in a million acres of indifferent wilderness it’s quiet.

There are bears around somewhere, wolves and every kind of boreal bird. Probably cougars and bobcats. But you don’t see them. Maybe they see you. Maybe they see a guy who’s getting lost.

An hour further, and I must be near the road. My map says so. I think. There’s an opening, light coming through trees ahead. It’s the road for sure. I speed up. Gotta get away from the biting flies.

I want to smell car exhaust. Want a roadhouse burger and a beer. Many beers. I move through the trees, running the last few steps. And come out into the open. But no road.

I was on the side of a mountain. Way up, on a narrow ledge. Above a forest that sprawled to the horizon like a green ocean. I looked down. A hawk with wide wings hung in the air far below me.

It was a Red-shouldered Hawk, not that identification mattered then. But when you know something, you name it. Had to aim the binoculars down, between my boots, past the lip of the ledge.

The sun was burning on me, and on the hawk, highlighting the big bird’s red-brown wingspan. Interesting. But where was I? The hawk twisted its tail and banked away, far below.

I looked at my hands. They were gripping binoculars, hard. Like fists. I was pissed. I had walked out of the woods, but now stood on an escarpment. I checked the map. Yeah, it was there. A wavy line.

I scanned my ledge, realizing it must be part of the trail. Saw a blue diamond on a distant rock. Could barely make it out. I looked at my fists side-by-side gripping the binoculars. The tough-guy phrase “two-fisted” came to mind.

I figured, c’mon, man, move out. I hiked to the blue diamond, then found the next one, back into the woods. Two-fisted hiking. It had been good to see that hawk below the ledge.

An hour or so later, maybe more, I found a gap in the trees. There was the road. A logging truck came grinding along. Dumb luck. The friendly driver let me ride on back. I sat against logs that smelled of sap.

I was scratched, bitten up and sweaty. I turned my hat around and let the wind blow in my face. I’d thought about fists grasping binoculars. Figured that having a two-fisted attitude was the only way to go.

Hell, I’d been higher than a hawk out there.

 

~

If you were reading our stuff 14 years ago, the above true tale might be familiar. It appeared as a longer 2-part adventure and generated fun comments. With much time past, and many new readers, we revisit the event that gave rise to our name

There’s no “webinar” in the woods

Friday, May 24th, 2024

In fact this tech-age portmanteau is just the kind of word that makes you want to lose yourself in wilderness.

You’ve also had it with “Zoom.” Zoom is what a Cooper’s Hawk does when it bursts out of hiding.

There’s no spam in the woods. And no chargers. Unless you glimpse a coyote and know from its healthy coat that it’s done plenty of charging.

There’s no Bluetooth in the woods, but you’ve got blue jays.

The woods are where you go to get away from digital bullshit. You don’t have to update a tree.

No need to recharge that Rose-breasted Grossbeak—he’s the one who’s recharging you.

When you’re tired of texting and the shorthand of its tiny language you gotta get away.

Go where you can stand in a forest and have no way to tell if it’s now or a hundred years ago. Or a thousand.

A place outside of time where phishing is just a misspelled word. Webinar that!

“Ordinary Day.”

Wednesday, April 24th, 2024

Summer starts with Memorial day and ends with Labor Day. in between there’s Independence Day. The calendar is full of such “Days.” Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, St. Pat’s Day, MLK Day. To say nothing of various religious “Days.” And Thanksgiving, a 4-day forced march.

But there’s a better holiday to celebrate: “Ordinary Day.”

It outshines all others because, like a true friend, Ordinary Day asks nothing of you but that you be yourself. No obligations, no expectations. And you can observe it whenever you like.

Wake when you always wake. Banter with loved ones in the ordinary way. If you grumble about going to work, fine, grumble. Put on the same ordinary clothes and take the ordinary commute.

“Ordinary. Cool.”

Glance with ordinary interest at an ordinary sparrow doing its ordinary hop. For lunch, grab the usual in the usual joint. For dinner, maybe hit the neighborhood restaurant where the usual server predicts your order.

At home, walk the dog on the same old path. Watch the same TV shows from the same spot on the couch. Later, fall into bed at the same time and get sleepy reading the same kind of book.

On days when things are NOT ordinary, you’ll enjoy knowing that at least you have your own special holiday. Say to yourself, your family—and anyone else who shares this knowledge: “Happy Ordinary Day! And many more.”

~

The above appeared in slightly different form in the paperback, “SEVENTY-SEVEN COLUMNS,” a collection of published newspaper pieces by one of our writers. Published by Birdwatcher Books Copyright © 2017.

A dogfight and a dog story.

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024

Birding with friends can be okay. But birding alone, or with your dog, is better. The dog can be quiet, and when you stop to watch something, he watches, too. He’s glad to be on the trail with you.

If you don’t have a dog anymore, you still hike, and maybe you think about him when something interesting happens. Like today…

A camouflaged Cooper’s Hawk dropped out of a tree where it had been hiding like a mountain lion. It tried to snap up a slow-moving Mourning Dove, and almost did. Then another Cooper’s Hawk, more unexpected than the first, flew in from the side to steal the meal.

These hawks are solitary, two-fisted birdwatchers, themselves. But during migration they’ll cross paths. The two engaged in quick aerial combat. Feathers flew. A dogfight. My dog would’ve liked that. Would’ve been good to see it together.

That triggers the memory of another dog who made a pretty good companion. Second best thing about this other dog’s story is that it’s true. What’s the first best thing? We’ll get to that in a moment.

The dog was a Skye Terrier named Bobby, and he lived in Edinburgh, Scotland during the 1870s. He accompanied a night watchman, John Gray, on his rounds. The two became great companions. One day, Gray died. Bobby observed the man’s burial service, then stayed. And stayed.

Through all weather, he didn’t leave the graveyard. Neighborly Scots left scraps of food, and the dog became well-known. As Europeans will do, they built a statue honoring him. But dogs don’t care about statues. They care about you. Something to think about when you’re hiking with your dog.

How long did Bobby stay by John Gray’s grave? That’s the best part. He stayed until his own death, 14 years later.

 

 

An Irish insight on St. Pat’s Day

Saturday, March 16th, 2024

On a March 17 around 12 years ago, we put a semi-serious piece in Viewpoints: “A Bird Watcher in Ireland.” It was about Ireland being interesting, but disappointing in bird diversity.

We’ve been rethinking the “disappointing” aspect of avian Ireland since then, because of a little field guide rediscovered in the clutter of a dusty bookshelf. “The Birds of Killarney National Park,” a souvenir from an Irish trip fondly remembered.

The book is profoundly skinny, fitting with the profound reality of Ireland’s lack of birdlife. Unlike other field guides, which can be fat and heavy–or simply digital storehouses that scroll endlessly–this peewee volume can be flipped through in minutes.

But we gotta say–it gives you the feeling that each bird in the little book is a bigger deal than any one bird in the bigger books. Because there aren’t that many.

“Irish Stonechat. That’s big.”

In America, you’ve got more than 900 species to spot. We’ve seen a respectable number, and when something new gets added to the list, we’re pleased but pretty cool about it.

By contrast, in Ireland’s national park field guide there are 140. If you see even a Stonechat, hell, that’s big.

Point is: Too much choice can de-sensitize you. Less choice can make what you find…more of a find.

So, on reflection, as we celebrate another St. Pat’s Day, we must say that Ireland’s a fine place for bird watchers. It’s not just about pubs, music, friendly folk and awesome green landscapes. It’s also about rare birds. Because there, most of them are.

 

“What’s all the barking about!”

Friday, January 26th, 2024

The dog keeps barking. You get up to see what’s going on. You could be at your computer typing something like this. You could be in bed. Could be day or night. The dog barks a lot.

Amazon delivery? Since the pandemic these have become common. Maybe a neighbor’s walking by? Or an animal? There’s a forest preserve nearby. A two-fisted birdwatcher likes that.

But your dog’s not going to bark at a Junco. He was quiet when a Red-shouldered Hawk sat on your backyard swing, a sight that made you feel like barking.

Back to the moment. Mystery solved. Two deer are out front. Meat on the hoof, according to wolf DNA programmed into your ten-pound poodle. You clip a leash on him—time for a bathroom break anyway—and you move outside.

The deer are winter-hungry and want to stay where foliage pokes through the snow. You stare at each other. The dog barks and pulls. They prance off, toward the neighboring forest preserve you appreciate every freakin’ day. You recall another recent visitor…

You were starting your sunrise dogwalk, leash in hand (good thing) when your dog bolted. He pulled so hard his front legs rose and he stood vertical, straining forward. At the bottom of your driveway going eye-to-eye with him was a giant coyote. We’ve seen coyotes here but never one this big. He’s staring back with interest, not running off as usually happens.

Our poodle seemingly wants to attack. You realize that if you accidentally lose your grip on the leash, hell could happen fast. The coyote holds your eye for a moment then trots off, ignoring you and the little white curiosity that would have made a quick breakfast.

What a great sighting. Not a deer. Not an Amazon guy. And it hits you. All those times when you don’t look outside to see what causes the barking. It’s wildlife you never see. Deer of course. But coyotes, too. That monster and others. The neighborhood has lots of them. Until the 1980s these prairie wolves were relegated to cowboy movies, not cities and burbs. But they’re here now.

Probably the reason for much of the barking. That’s okay. You don’t mind. Whether caused by an Amazon delivery, or something wilder, it’s just the ordinary sound of an ordinary day, and you smile at your ten-pound dog who thinks he’s a badass.

Stuck on the ground.

Monday, December 18th, 2023

It must have happened. Picture it. You’re in prehistoric times. Cave people rubbing their eyes, waking up to the possibilities of intelligent thought. Looking around. Thinking. Wanting. Imagining…. one of them sees a bird. What’s the first thing this early human is thinking? (After “wonder what it tastes like”…).

That early human is thinking, “Jeez, wish I could fly like that!” There’s a tentative flapping of hairy arms, innocent hoping, resounding disappointment. Flap all you want, Grork, messy hair ain’t feathers. And you ain’t getting off the ground ‘til you get smart enough to invent aviation.

Prehistory repeats itself with human kids throughout time. A child of today sees a bird and thinks (after “wonder what it tastes like”)… “Jeez, wish I could fly!” There’s a tentative flapping of chubby arms. Disappointment repeats itself through the millennia.

The beautiful reality of avian life, and surely one of the factors behind the universal human need to become two-fisted birdwatchers…is that birds are built to fly. We have envied them through the ages, and that includes this morning…

You’re in your car at a stop sign near a suburban park. A Canada Goose calmly walks across the road in front of you. So you wait. He casually puts one clown-sized foot in front of the other. Step, step. You gotta wonder, “Why does a goose cross the road?”

This is NOT a reference to the old chicken joke. You’re in no mood for jokes. It’s an honest question. You think: hell, if you had wings you sure wouldn’t walk. You’d have flown to where you’re going. You’d have eyeballed the whole city from a bird’s-eye view just for fun. You’d have climbed high. Soared like a Top Gun jet. Banked, swooped, power-dived …A “honk” behind you! Not a goose. A driver in a car. This breaks your flight of imagination.

The guy’s wondering why you’re not moving. You realize the goose in front of you has now waddled to the curb and is off the road. You hit the gas. As you drive away, you muse about a curious fact of nature…

There are no animals, other than birds and humans, that walk on two legs. How can species that are so biologically different—we’re mammals and they’re hatched—be the only ones to have “bipedalism?” You try to imagine if there are any other bipeds. Kangaroos? No, they use tails and front legs sometimes. Apes? They’re not built for walking. Forget it.

Chalk it up to just another curious fact of life on Planet Earth. Where you’re stuck on the ground.

Done with birds.

Sunday, November 26th, 2023

As a little kid, you were interested in birds. You liked wild things, wild animals, things that could fly, whatever. So you got interested and learned the names of birds.

But as a teenager you were too cool for that. You lost interest. Bird watching seemed geeky, something a little kid did with innocent enthusiasm. You were done with it.

Then, on a trip to upstate New York as a young husband and father, you surprised yourself. You were on vacation with a wife and two small sons, staying with your wife’s schoolhood girlfriend. You weren’t very sociable, and neither was the girlfriend’s husband. You shot driveway hoops and lazed around, bored.

One afternoon you went for a hike alone in a swampy area and saw a Yellowthroat. Small, with a black eye-mask. You mumbled, “Yellowthroat.” Then thought: “how did I know that?” You shook off the question.

Vacation over, you went back to the Midwest. Time passed. You worked. Your kids grew. Birds went largely unnoticed. Life happened. Then one afternoon you and your wife were walking your dog on a nature trail near a wetland. An unusual bird caught your eye. You mumbled, “Killdeer.”

Surprised, you thought, “how did I know that?” A kind of sandpiper. It was standing tall in shallow water and bright sun. Head high—a bird with good posture and stripes on its neck. You said again “Killdeer.” Wife and dog turned to look at you.

You remembered seeing your first Killdeer in a swampy prairie when you were eleven. You remembered how it was known for its trick of leading you away from its nest by pretending to have a broken wing. An odd fact.A Killdeer bird walking in shallow water.

You all moved on down the trail. But you looked more closely into the trees. On your way out of the woods you noticed in passing a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Swainson’s Thrush, a Great Blue Heron out on the wetland through the trees. In the far sky a Red-tailed Hawk was circling.

You thought that sometime soon you might come back here. Maybe you’ll see a Scarlet Tanager. Deep red, exotic. That would be a real find.

And the thought hit: for a long while you were done with birds, but maybe they’re not done with you.

Early Morning.

Thursday, November 16th, 2023

Thanks to a guy named Thoreau, you might find yourself muttering in your mind something about a word that doesn’t exactly fit into a two-fisted lexicon and that word is “blessing.”

As another old-timer would have said, it doesn’t “roll up its sleeves, spit on its hands and get to work”. (Sandburg, writing about “slang”). Back to Thoreau. (You forget his first two names for a moment—guys of that era often went by a mouthful, no worries, they’ll hit later when you stop trying).

Back to excuse-making for the less than rugged word, “blessing.” But screw such self-editing. Thoreau said this: “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

Two-fisted or not, that sticks in the mental library if early morning walks are a routine part of your routine. And if you have a dog who needs a daily reminder that he’s house trained, you get him the hell outside early. Like “still kinda dark.” “Crepuscular” early. A ritzy word also not in any two-fisted lexicon.

But forget about whether a word has muddy boots, and just say what’s going on. Like: every freakin’ morning at dawn, you’re out there walking the pooch. Watching the eastern sky lighten over the trees sometimes in orange glow and other times in silver, and you say: hell, Henry David, you nailed it.

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. If the word fits, wear it. You do feel blessed to see the day start, dark then light. It’s blessedly quiet, too, and in all seasons dawn smells good. And you see birds. Sometimes deer. Once in a while a coyote stares before turning with a shrug and trotting off.

This morning, on your early morning walk, there was suddenly a silent presence moving over you and your dog, a flying machine of commanding size, owning the sky, stamping an image into your day…and you know it was a Great Blue Heron rising for reasons of its own, powerfully, soundless wingbeats putting a mark on the moment and disappearing. Blue heron in flight.

You don’t want to recite in your mind that quote from Thoreau, but it floats undeniable as the heron, low and quiet. Even your downward-sniffing dog has looked up, all eyes, which you read as unlikely canine “awe” but you believe it. And get on with your day, silently thanking Mr. Thoreau for his insight and the heron for his wingspan and the dog for being the reason you’re out there on an “early morning walk.”

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.

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.

 

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.”