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Posts Tagged ‘birds’

A Year in Birds

When I was younger, much younger, reading James Herriot made me feel warm and fuzzy. I remember feeling disappointed later when I found out that Herriot actually wrote fiction, even though much of it is said to have been inspired by fact. Well, at least it wasn’t inspired non-fiction.

Savoring Pete Dunne on a cold winter afternoon brought back the warm fuzzies. There is, of course, his signature wit, which I sampled earlier  in Prairie Spring. But there is something else to his writing too. Something that inspires wonder, respect and understanding. Expertise and experience. His masterful identification of birds, whether he catches but a glimpse or not at all (purely by ear), whether he sees the birds high up in the sky where field marks are all but devoured by the sun, or camouflaged by tall prairie grass or lush spring leaves. And his rich experiences amidst all the bird wealth the world has to offer, in crowded national parks, and solitary corners of the world. And his lifelist and the glorious birds on it.

Rushing to look up goldeneyes and condors on All About Birds, I was reminded yet again why birds hold so much fascination for bird watchers and non bird watchers alike. They are alive, often colorful, they make music, they are elusive and yet, they are everywhere. Roger Tory Peterson sums it up very nicely:

As James Fisher[noted British ornithologist] commented, they [birds] can even be a bore if you are a bore.

Indeed. And so, just as birds are so many things, according to Peterson, “the observation of birds can be many things, depending on who you are and what you are”. It can be a science or an art. It can be a pleasant recreation if you are a backyard bird watcher or a source of passionate obsession, a game and a sport, if you are one of those listers, those birders. It’s no wonder then that birding is a popular outdoor activity in the United States (I was’nt able to find much more specific data – Is birding more popular than bicycling? Gardening? Fishing? Walking? I am not sure how these rank.)

Dunne’s Feather Quest is really a bird quest, a Pete Dunne’s life in birds circa 1989. With fancy typesetting, and a silhouette of a bird delineating each chapter adventure, the book makes me want to be Dunne’s invisible companion. It even makes me want to be the expert that he is, to effortlessly identify birds, to have all those colorful birding experiences, and that warm birding camaraderie. Dunne is humorous and philosophical and always environmentally conscious. So what if he has a strange proclivity to talk to trees and painted horses, or if he reuses his punch lines. The ‘Basset Hound’ line that I so enjoyed in Prairie Spring where Dunne refers to a Mountain Plover thus:

“a bird with a fawn-colored back, a cream-colored breast, and an expression so baleful a basset hound might die from envy”

…was sadly not all that original. Dunne had already used the same, now less funny, description in reference to a Ross’ Gull in The Feather Quest:

“a feathered figurine, pale as ivory, with an eye so balefully black that a basset hound would die from envy”

Well. It was a good one, even if a tad overused.

Having read Moonwalking with Einstein (more on that later in a separate post), I was struck by the integral role that memory plays in birding. What is a birder’s brain but a high-speed retrieval system that operates on a catalog of thousands of bird names, field marks, bird songs, calls and other tiny, important details polished by years and years of watching birds? Dunne talks about his own techniques (that no doubt every birder worth his salt has mastered):

It takes time to tune an ear, and effort, too. It means tracking down every unfamiliar song and welding the visual image of the bird to an ephemeral voice. Unless you are among the gifted few, someone with the auditory recall of Igor Stravinskly, the weld usually does not hold the first time, or the second time either. The bird with the short, bright phrases or the raspy vowels must be tracked down over and over and over. Then over and over again, until those phrases and the image of that bird fuse and become one.

Now, what is that if not an elaborate memory technique?

Novice bird watchers like me can also benefit from advice that Dunne sometimes dishes out, such as, “just as with foraging flocks of titmice and chickadees, if you want to find uncommon seabirds, search through the ranks of common one”. The next time I see a sea of gulls, or starlings, I will keep my eye open for that lone treasure. Dunne’s admonitions about pelagic birding also are spot on:

First, you are afraid that you are going to be sick. Then, you are afraid that you are going to die. Then, you are afraid that you are going to live. And if you are sick, in rough seas, one hundred miles from land, that is a long, long time to live.

After a painfully long (and empty, I might add) birding trip into the deep Atlantic, I have reconciled myself to the idea that I might never sight a whale or a porpoise or possibly even an albatross.

Finally, Dunne is critical about man’s impact (mostly negative) on bird ecology and the environment in general. While in Prairie Spring he speaks at length about the damage the grasslands have endured, in Feather Quest, Dunne touches upon the impact of birding on birds. While a lone birder or small group might not have a noticeable impact, hundreds (or even thousands) of over-zealous birders vying to catch a glimpse of that rare bird, might trample their way to a longer life list. Heavy birding can destroy vegetation and even disrupt the activity patterns of birds.

Feather Quest was the last book I read in 2011 and I completed it just in time to achieve my modest reading goal of 60 books for the year that was.

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A sea of grass

Reading Prairie Spring only deepened my regrets over a lost opportunity. On our last visit to captivating, friendly Cape May just when fall was about to unfold, I had plans to go on an early morning bird walk led by author Pete Dunne. The plans fell through, and the creamy fig and brie sandwich we had later didn’t quite make up for it.

Prairie Spring is the story of spring over the American grasslands, seen through the eyes of Dunne and his wife, Linda. Talking about his travels through the prairies in 2007, Dunne aims not only to capture the essence of this fleeting season, but also to describe the unique ecology, history and importance of the glorious, often overlooked prairies. But the real, undisguised ambition of the narrative, he says, is to…

“…entice an estranged audience to explore an exciting, overlooked, and now alien environment (i.e., the natural world that surrounds and supports them.”

Beginning on a cold Groundhog Day, Dunne makes his point by bemoaning how most people think of Bill Murray and not a badger (or any other burrowing animal) in reference to the holiday celebrated on February 2. Well, come to think of it, many people might think of a certain radio variety show when they heard the word ‘prairie’.

Dunne’s writing is poetic, witty (except, perhaps, his conversation with the drawing of a horse), nostalgic, philosophical, and educational all rolled into one. Even when he is describing a species of grouse thus:

“…all efforts to describe the sound of a bunch of hormonally fueled male prairie-chickens are doomed to failure, complicated as the phenomenon is not only by multiple birds but by an array of vocalizations. There are clucks. There are descending chortles that sound like a cross between a chicken’s cackle and a kookaburra’s laugh. There are peevish whines. There are rippling burbles that sound like a coffee percolator throwing a tantrum or a sheet metal rippling in the wind. And remember, there are multiple birds! Commonly, all these sounds are heard at once, and the conjoined cacophony sounds like a cross between a crowded hen house and a penny arcade, sounds like spring coming to a boil.”

Dunne discusses prairie ecology at length in this book, especially in the context of its relationship with man. Man, especially modern man, has done much to upset the delicate balance of the grasslands, starting with when European invaders collided with, and ultimately drove the Native plains people (‘Indians’) out of the prairies. This war represented not just a clamoring for the land, but also a clash of two diametrically opposite philosophies: agricultural vs. nomadic hunting. While the natives had a deeper relationship with the land and all the life it supported, Dunne says, the newcomers were rooted in an agricultural tradition that considered land a commodity to be used to serve their needs. The natives, on the other hand, had no sense of property ownership, while at the same time were spiritually bound to the earth, and thus helped maintain its “biological integrity”. European settlers engaged in cattle ranching and mechanized plowing to allow for large scale cultivation. Overgrazing and farming practices that disregarded wind erosion led to the Dust Bowl – a period of droughts, dust storms and damage to the prairie habitat in the 1930s.

Fires are an integral part of the prairies, as grass “both promotes fire and profits from it”. Like the proverbial phoenix, grasses emerge renewed from the soil after the nutrient recharge provided by a fire. For much of the first half of the 20th century, all wildfires were thought to be deleterious and were immediately suppressed by fire fighting crews.

The rejuvenating effects of fires were not realized until much later. Fires also help maintain the grass/tree balance in the prairies.

“…in essence, a prairie is a prairie because it isn’t wet enough to be a forest. Trees require more water than grass. Where waterfall amounts are insufficient to maintain forests, you get prairies.”

Trees are as vulnerable to fires and grasses are tolerant of it. Without fires, drought-resistant trees (several planted by man) will compete with grass for resources and flourish at the expense of grass. And what is a grassland without grass? Trees also completely alter the ecology by bringing in ‘foreign’ birds and animals that normally are not found in the prairies. And these new additions compete with native birds and animals.

Such as the aforementioned prairie-chicken, or prairie dogs (which have been almost hunted into oblivion). Or the once common Mountain Plover,

“a bird with a fawn-colored back, a cream-colored breast, and an expression so baleful a basset hound might die from envy”

I told you he was funny.

Reading in detail about the flocking habits of Sandhill Cranes, the intimate mating habits of Lesser Prairie-Chickens, or the melodious songs of the Western Meadowlark, I can be sure to be able to ID a few more birds on a quiz. I will also be sure to look out for red tags, brands and radio collars on the not quite ‘wild’ bison at Custer State Park.

I hope Dunne’s other seasonal odysseys (Arctic Autumn and Bayshore Summer) are as enthralling as Prairie Spring, because I certainly intend to read them all.

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