Posts Tagged ‘birding’

A shaggy owl story

May 16, 2014

Why do we (well, some of us) feel compelled to air our most embarrassing moments on the public square of the Internet?

It was dusk on a Friday evening, and my husband and I were winding our way down Panoramic Highway towards Stinson Beach. The western sky was still light, but the woods along the road were in shadow. Fidgeting in the passenger seat and trying not to feel carsick, I suddenly saw two faces flash past in a tree – round faces, big forward-facing eyes, one large dark face and one smaller light face.

If I were an eight-year-old boy in my Star Wars phase, I would have thought: Ewoks. 

But I’m a 50-something-year-old woman who works for Golden Gate Audubon, so I thought: Owls. 

Maybe it was because it was that owlish time of day. Or maybe I was subconsciously thinking of a great photo I’d seen that day by Glenn Nevill of the huge-eyed, white Peregrine Falcon chicks on the PG&E building.

“Stop! I saw something!” I shouted at to my husband. To his spousely credit, he actually stopped, without getting us killed, and did a u-turn onto an area of shoulder.

I dug my binoculars out of the overnight bag in the back seat and peered through the increasing darkness. There was a big mess of sticks in the crook of a tree, and sitting in it, a large bird. “I think it’s an owl.”

My husband took a turn with the binoculars. “Great Horned Owl. In profile. Great job spotting it! But that’s kind of a weird place for an owl, so low down and close to the road.”

We watched for a while. It wasn’t moving much. I couldn’t see the second face that had flashed past. But how amazing would it be to see a nestling? This called for a better look. We drove back up the hill, did another u-turn, and parked about 20 yards away from the tree, now with a direct frontal view of the nest.

Yes, there was that second small white shape. Fluffy, kind of gumdrop-shaped, no pointy ears. “A chick!” I exclaimed quietly.

We watched. Neither bird moved. I started to have a bad feeling about this.

A car passed us, travelling fast downhill past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

Two bicyclists struggled up the steep slope past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

“Okay, I’m going closer,” I said. I crawled out of the car, closing the door gently and taking just a few steps so I could get a better view without spooking the birds. It was getting seriously dark now.

And yes, that bad feeling I’d had was justified.

The two shapes in the tree were… stuffed toys. 

Aak!

I wondered if whoever had placed them there had also installed a hidden camera. Of all the drivers who passed by, how many others actually stopped their cars? Were there any other suckers who got out and stood there staring through binoculars?  I wondered if I’d end up in some viral video of “America’s Dumbest Birders.”

“Well,” my husband said generously as he revved up the car and I slouched as low into the passenger seat as a human body could slouch, “it was still good that you could notice something in the dark when we were driving past so fast.”

Thanks, Sam.

But really, why do we (well, some of us) post our most embarrassing moments on the web for all the world to see?

I don’t think it’s masochism. Picture a dog or cat, facing a clearly alpha animal. It doesn’t want a fight. It wants to be friends. It rolls over on its back, paws in the air, tender belly exposed.

Present your vulnerability and you won’t be attacked. Make fun of yourself and people will laugh with you, not at you.

On the other hand, maybe some of us just can’t resist telling a good story. Even when we are the punch line.

Owls, unmediated

April 30, 2012

For a few weeks I’d been hearing about the famous Berkeley owls of Claremont Canyon. A pair of Great Horned Owls had built a nest right along a popular hiking trail about two minutes from the Claremont Hotel, and were raising one or two chicks. They had become avian celebrities, delighting hikers and dog-walkers even as they would swoop down at passing dogs whom they perceived as a threat to their young.

On Sunday morning, Sam and I headed over to take a look. We joined the little crowd of paparazzi ogling and photographing the nest. It was in a eucalyptus right next to the trail, and a chick was easily visible even without binoculars. It took a while to spot the mother owl, who was keeping watch from a tree about twenty yards away, but we eventually found her too.

“Didn’t the owl in Winnie the Pooh have a sign pointing directly to his house?  Don’t they all have that?” joked my friend Susie today when I was giving her directions on how to find the nest.

It struck me that nearly all of us urban Americans — myself included — are much more familiar with fictional, cartoon or designer owls than we are with real ones. Think about it. Owls are common in children’s books (Sam and the Firefly! Hedwig in Harry Potter! Owl in Winnie the Pooh!) and marketing (from the low-tech owl on those old bags of Wise potato chips to the high-tech, stylized owl logo of Hootsuite). Most of us come up with an image of owls based on these caricatures rather than on the actual bird.

That’s true for a lot of nature — even spilling over into food. I consumed a lot more cherry Life Savers than actual cherries when I was a kid.  And Cherry Life Savers taste nothing like actual cherries. In fact, they taste nothing like fruit.

Yet if you asked me as a child what “cherry” tasted like, I would have immediately thought of the Life Saver. I still sort of do. Ditto for a bunch of other fruit flavors… pineapple, grape, lemon. Even though a grape Popsicle is a far cry from what an actual vineyard-grown grape tastes like.

I know this isn’t the biggest deal in the world. Civilization isn’t going to rise or fall because most American kids have seen more Disney birds and animals than real, living birds and animals.

But still, it’s a little unnerving.

We all think we “know” animals and birds and plants and the food we eat.

While in reality, that “knowledge”  has been filtered and mediated and refracted through the pervasive fun-house mirror of mass media and marketing.

Learning to bird

April 22, 2012

This month has been Birdathon, the annual fundraiser for Golden Gate Audubon Society, where I started working in January. (Think of a walkathon, although instead of soliciting pledges for every mile you walk, you ask friends to pledge for every bird you spot.)

It’s been a good excuse for me to get outdoors and actually do some birding, rather than writing and posting and Tweeting about other people birding. Two weeks ago, I went on a four-hour trip led by a really experienced pair of birders. Today I co-led a trip for friends of mine who had never birded before but wanted to try it: We had four very experienced birders, me, one other mid-level birder, and four “baby birders.”

The BabyBirders Birdathon team / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This has gotten me thinking about the skills that go into birdwatching. It’s more than just “Boy, you really have to learn the names of a ton of birds that all look small and brown.” There are in fact a variety of different skills:
  • Peripheral vision. Walking through a wood or a meadow, you’re surrounded by 360 degrees of things to see — clouds, trees, grasses blowing in the wind. In one small corner, a bird flits between branches. A good birder notices the movement. It’s partly peripheral vision, and partly an ability to notice slight changes in  a broad panorama. It’s like the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, where you scan for the tiny figure with the red striped cap in a page that is busy with hundreds of other tiny figures.
  • Pattern recognition. One of the first things a birder notices — in a split-second, without consciously thinking — is the shape of a bird. Is that distant figure on the water shaped like some kind of duck, or some kind of cormorant?  Toddlers learn to do this when they sort plastic triangles and squares into triangle- and square-shaped holes. We adults do this every day with images from our urban environment — the hexagonal traffic sign that means “stop,” the triangular one that means “yield.” But I learned the traffic signs decades ago, and I’m only now trying to learn the shapes of birds.
  • Noticing and remembering colors. This is where I frequently get stuck. In distinguishing among similarly-shaped birds, you have to notice all these minute differences in colors. One kind of grebe has black around its eye, while another has white. One kind of gull has pink legs, while another has yellow. Not only do you need to be able to notice these differences, but you need to remember them. And the males and females often have different coloration, as do adults and juveniles. I fear my mental database is not large enough to store all the various kinds of gulls. Can I get an upgrade, please?
  • Deciphering layers of sound. The birders who led our trip today were experts at birding by ear — identifying birds just from their calls, without ever seeing them. This requires a good memory for sounds, and remembering which pattern of tweet or trill  belongs to a particular species. But it also requires an ability to isolate the calls from each other. Walking through the Oakland hills today, there were easily six or eight different birds singing at the same moment. At first all you hear is a dense wall of sound. It’s like listening to a symphony orchestra and trying to isolate the viola from all the other instruments. Musicians can do it; people who bird by ear learn to do that too.
  • Attentiveness. This underlies everything else: You have to be mentally present and paying attention. You can’t be birding and texting on your iPhone. You can’t be birding and yakking about the great new restaurant where you had dinner last night.

There are probably more. These are just the few that come to mind right now. What struck me over the past day or two were some of the similarities to learning to chant Torah. (Maybe because I’m working on a portion for my nephew’s bar mitzvah next month!)

Learning to bird and learning to chant Torah are both mental challenges with no real practical value. They won’t get you a job like learning HTML; they won’t help you go places like learning to drive a stick shift. Basically, you learn them for their own sake. They both involve memorization of a bunch of arbitrary names and words. There is pattern recognition. There is sound recognition.

I suspect that both learning to bird and learning to chant Torah challenge our middle-aged brains in similarly healthy ways. It’s like suddenly being a toddler again, forced to learn a language from scratch.

They both feel daunting at the beginning. There is no shortcut to repetition: Practice, practice, practice.

I return to that famous Anne Lamott line that inspired  the title for her great book about writing, Bird by Bird.

(Holy cow! I’ve now worked Torah, writing and birding into a single blog post! Will someone give me a stuffed panda, please?) 

When Lamott was a kid, her brother was overwhelmed by a homework assignment on birds that he had left until the last minute. He had far too many birds to write about and one night to do it. He was despondent and freaking out. Then, Lamott wrote:

My father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

My own goal is to come away from each birding trip with one new bird that I have seen clearly enough and long enough to be able to remember and identify on my own. If I can add one new bird each time, I’ll eventually know a lot of them.

Today my bird was a Fox Sparrow. There were two of them, amazingly close to our trail in the hills, kicking up dirt with their feet like dogs at the beach. That’s apparently a characteristic foraging behavior. They were kicking and rustling leaves and making as much of a ruckus as you can imagine a sparrow making, and they didn’t seem to care a bit that we were about three feet away.

One of our expert guides said, “When you hear something making a lot of noise in the woods, it’s either a Fox Sparrow or a grizzly bear.”

That line is a keeper, and worth hauling out in a variety of situations that have nothing to do with woods, trails or birds.

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Shameless plug: Want to support my Birdathon team and the conservation work of Golden Gate Audubon Society? You can make a tax-deductible online donation here.

Wednesday the Rabbi Went Birding

February 1, 2012

Today we took our former rabbi on his first birding trip.

You know those moments — maybe real, maybe in a dream — when completely unconnected  parts of your life suddenly bump into each other?

Birds! Judaism! All I needed to fill out the circle was to find a literary agent standing amidst the sandhill cranes. Stranger things have happened.

In any case, Sam and I had long planned to introduce Rabbi Steven Chester to birding now that he is basking in the leisurely fields of retirement. It just happened that the date we picked came two weeks after the start of my new job at… Golden Gate Audubon Society.

It was a gorgeous day — sunny, warm, not even a breeze until the mid-afternoon. We’ve been on birding trips in the past where it was so cold and foggy outside that the kids refused to get out of the car to see any birds. Today was the opposite of that.

Sam and Rabbi Chester / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We saw:

  • Lots of ducks, including cinnamon teal, which were Rabbi Chester’s favorite. These rich brown birds look like someone dipped them in cocoa or cinnamon.
  • Stilts, which I love for their dramatic black and white contrast. (It doesn’t hurt that this also makes them easy to identify.)
  • TONS of black-crowned night herons. Now, I’ve seen individual night herons before. But they must have really liked this patch of marsh in Merced National Wildlife Refuge, because there seemed to be another heron every five feet or so. At one point there were nine within our field of vision, perching among the reeds, motionless as gargoyles.
  • Sandhill cranes! Snow geese! Tundra swans! Giant birds that are 100 percent guaranteed to impress novice birders, or your money back.
  • A bald eagle flying overhead as we ate lunch – wow.
  • And, as we packed ourselves into the car at the end of the day, a flock of snow geese soaring in formation like Blue Angels over our heads.

Black-crowned night heron / Photo by Ilana DeBare

How many snow geese can you count? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Rabbi Chester had a great day. He brought his point-and-shoot camera, which has an impressive zoom, and practiced wildlife photography for the African safari he and his wife Leona plan to take later this year. Cranes and herons are certainly not as exotic as lions or elephants, but they are a heck of a lot more accessible.

So what’s the news behind this blog post?

Rabbi Chester: For those of you who know him, I’m happy to report that he’s enjoying retirement. He’s contemplating several writing/photography projects. At Leona’s request, he has joined a group that goes bowling once a week! But he’s also looking forward to returning to Temple Sinai as a congregant once he’s done with his year of staying-away-to-give-space-to-his-successor.

Me: With two weeks under my belt, I’m loving my job at Golden Gate Audubon. So far I’ve managed to set off the burglar alarm and program my voicemail greeting as the incoming message for the whole organization. But beyond those little bumps, it’s all good. My colleagues are really talented. The office is funkily nice. My job involves a variety of different tasks, some of which are familiar (press outreach) and some of which involve learning new skills (managing the web site and social media).

I tagged along on a GGAS birding event for kids at Lake Merritt  last Saturday and posted photos on the GGAS Facebook page. You’re welcome to view them here. It wasn’t the Central Valley, but hey — we saw a night heron there too, as well as a lone tufted duck that somehow makes its way to Oakland from Eurasia each winter. And this was just a ten-minute walk from BART and City Hall.

One beauty of birds is that they are such an easy way for anyone to connect with nature, even in the middle of a city.

Sandhill cranes / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Snow geese in flight / Photo by Ilana DeBare