Memorial Day 2016

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You never lived to see

What you gave to me,

One shining dream of hope and love

Life and Liberty.

With a host of brave unknown soldiers

For your company you will live forever

Here in our memory.

from “Requiem for a Soldier” by Michael Kamen and Frank Musker

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American Cemetery at Normandy, France

 

 

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Omaha Beach

 

 

Bald Eagle

 

 

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Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego

 

We’ll Never Forget

 

Book Review: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

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Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

 

The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, published by Random House, copyright 1957, 211 pages

People who are curious and inspired by our natural world can often look to another person, event, film, or book that first sparked that interest.  Candidates for books that potentially fit that bill include Walden by Thoreau (1854), the writings of John Muir about the Sierra Nevada around 1900, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White describing in detail the geology, flora and fauna of his native southern England in the 18th century, and more recently Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928) chronicling a year on Cape Cod.  For me that spark occurred 50 years ago when I first read The Immense Journey.

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Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus   (click on photos to zoom)

Loren Eiseley was born to a homesteading family in Nebraska in 1907 and eventually rose to become the Head of the Department Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Much of his academic work involved searching for evidence of post-glacial man in the plains and mountains of the western United States which he describes so well.  “Some lands are flat and grass covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time.  Some are torn, ravaged, and convulsed like the features of profane old age.”

His writings have been called the musings of an “imaginative naturalist” looking for some deeper meaning or message in the fossil record as well as in the contemporary natural world.  The book includes but is not limited to the history of our understanding of the evolution of man.  There are diverse and beautiful chapters entitled “How Flowers Changed the World”, “The Dream Animal”, Little Men and Flying Saucers”, The Judgement of Birds”, The Bird and the Machine”, and “The Secret of Life”.

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Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

You might wonder what all this has to do with birds and a birding blog, but avian evolution and Eiseley’s bird encounters do figure in the story.  He describes southward migrating warblers passing overhead at sunset while he hunts fossils in the otherwise nearly lifeless Badlands.  There are the observation of the pigeons at dawn high on the rooftops of Manhattan and the surprising close encounter with the crow in the fog, described by me in the 4/7/2016 post, “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind”.  All these seemingly mundane episodes have some deeper significance for this author.

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Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Eiseley’s writing style is rich and contemplative.  He is an evolutionist but not dogmatic.  He asks many more questions than has answers and openly wonders about “a ghost in the machine”.  His science of accumulating and cataloging specimens and testing hypotheses is supplemented by moving passages about the meaning of it all.

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Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Many of my favorite sections describe his field work hunting fossils, often working alone in the central plains.  He relates an episode of floating on his back down the shallow Platte River, melding with the eroding sands of mountains making their way to the Gulf.  Another scene describes his capture of a male sparrow hawk for a local zoo as its mate escapes his grasp.  After a night of guilt and contemplation Eiseley releases the male in the morning who flies joyously to join his mate, still soaring high overhead in anticipation of such a reunion.  All these events become grist for the imaginative naturalist’s prose.

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California Towhee, Pipilo crissalis

In one section he explains that evolution is not done and not complete with us or other life forms.  “There are things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat.  It pays to know this.  It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past.  The only thing that doesn’t pay is to be sure of man’s own part in it.  There are still things coming ashore.  Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity…then you miss it all.”

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Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

Eiseley describes with amazement the relatively rapid evolution of man and his brain.  “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself…”, but in the chapter called “Man of the Future” he cautions, “The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear.  The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly.  It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

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Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

Don’t you hate it when someone recommends a book using the superlatives such as “classic”, “best ever”, “greatest one I’ve ever read”, etc.  I hesitate to do that with this book, but just remember, I have read and reread it countless times over 50 years.  That says something.  In one of Loren Eiseley’s other books he describes perching on his father’s shoulder and watching in wonder the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910.  He hoped he would live long enough to see its return again in 1986 after its long celestial orbit.  Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it as he died in 1977.  If its any consolation to him, his writings survive and continue to inspire.

Great Horned Owls

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It was unseasonably cold for early May and had been raining all week when cabin fever set in.  I just had to get out and do some birding.  I chose a small woodlot on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay which is known locally as a Warbler trap, hoping some early migrators had arrived.  I decided to “go bare” with just the binos and leave the camera home and dry–always a bad move.

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San Domingo Creek with first hint of blue sky in a week

The birding was sparse and the warblers few.  But do you know the eerie feeling that you’re being watched?  I felt that just before I looked up into two pairs of yellow eyes 20 feet above my head.  Great Horned Owls are formidable birds.  I slowly backed off while snapping a few poor shots with my cell phone to prove to my skeptical birding friends that I had actually seen them.  That night, despite dreaming that I had been attacked by owls, I resolved to take a real camera back to the site and look for the birds again.

I believe these two birds are juveniles, likely hatched in February making them about 3 months old.  You can still see some of their fuzzy down but they are nearly full-sized.  The juveniles leave the nest and climb onto nearby branches at 5 weeks and can fly by 9-10 weeks.  They won’t acquire the full adult plumage until next October.

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Bubo virginianus

When I returned the next morning with a real camera and lens, the Canon 7D II and 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS II, the birds were gone or at least not where I had left them.  This was a big disappointment as I had never taken a good photo of a Great Horned Owl in daylight.  Making the best of it and birding the remainder of the woodlot I saw nothing more exciting than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Yellowthroat, and a small flock of Cowbirds making that weird clunking sound.  That is until I saw the owls again about 75 yards away from their initial perch, hunched together and staring me down.  Their leery gaze followed me wherever I moved as I tried to get the best angle for a shot while still keeping a prudent distance away.

Getting a reasonable photo in the dark woods on an overcast day is a real challenge.  I cranked the ISO up to 6400 which explains the slight lack of sharpness of these shots.  I was still able to keep exposure speeds of 1/320 to 1/640 seconds.  Normally one wants exposures faster than that while shooting moving birds, but these were motionless.  I only saw one adjust his foot position once. These speeds along with the image stabilization gave a reasonable result.

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Click on any photo to zoom

The juveniles were obviously capable of some flight, having moved to another tree.  I haven’t mentioned that on the first day I found a third owl. This one was an adult about 100 yards away in the same woods.  Since this is Mother’s Day I will venture to say that it was the mother keeping a close eye on her adolescents.  She was still helping with the feeding and protecting them from any birder that got too close.  I can just hear my mother telling me and my brother to sit there and don’t move until I return with your lunch.  Mother owl likely did the same.  I’ll bet she’s also encouraging some independence for her owlets and looking forward to the day when her offspring are finally mature, on their own, and her maternal mission accomplished.

Who Named That Bird Anyway?

 

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Green Heron                                                click on any photo to zoom

I was standing on a wooden observation deck overlooking a pond in the Florida cypress swamp when an inquisitive new birder asked me the name of the brown bird posed a low branch over the water.  “Oh, that’s a Green Heron.”  A look of confusion came over her face.  “I know”, I added  “someday we’ll figure out who named the bird anyway.”  A more descriptive name might be a Brown or Hunch-backed Heron.  There are other bird names that cause similar confusion.

Take for instance the Ovenbird.  Where did that name come from?  My research fails me.  Why not a sink, refrigerator, or stove bird?  Linnaeus gave it the species name aurocapilla which means “golden-haired” in Latin.  That makes much more sense to me.

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Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla), note the golden hair

Then there’s the Veery, a member of the Turdidae or Thrush family.  Don’t you have to be very something, like very big, or very loud, or very good?  Research in this instance did help.  The name is derived from the downward veering sound of its call.  I can live with that.

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I have no Veery picture but these are Rufous-bellied Thrush photographed in Buenos Aires.

What about the Tattler?  That was the very worst thing you could be called when I was in elementary school, right up there with stool pigeon.  Yet someone gave this west coast shorebird, a member of the Scolopacidae family, this derogatory name.  Let me know if anyone is aware of the back story here.

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Long-billed Dowitcher, a fellow Scolopacidae

Then there are the “P” birds, Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia.  Try pronouncing or spelling these to the new birder in the field.  If you are Greek however, it’s no problem and the names make perfect sense.  Phainopepla is the furthest northern member of the Central American Ptilogonatidae or Silky Flycatcher family.  Phain pepla is from the Greek meaning “shining robe”.  Given the appearance in my shot below this finally makes some sense.

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Pyrrhuloxia is also from the Greek; pyrrhus meaning red and loxos meaning oblique, and referring to the peculiar short crooked bill of this bird of the southwest desert.  I prefer the sometimes used “desert cardinal”.

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Pyrrhuloxia (female, the male would have much more red around the face and breast)

Another puzzler is the Godwit, pictured below.  A little internet research took me to an etymology expert Ted Nesbitt.  He claims this bird’s name first appeared in the European literature in Latin about 1544 as “Godwittam” and later translated into English as “Godwitte”.    “Wit” means “to know” making Godwit, “to know God”.  Still unanswered is how this explains the bird’s saintly name.  As Nesbitt said, “God only knows.”

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Marbled Godwit                                            photo by Andy Sternick

Have you ever been called a Booby in the school yard?  That’s right up there with “tattler” on the list of childhood insults.  The bird name comes from the Spanish slang “bobo”, meaning stupid.  Apparently these people-friendly and naive birds would land on the Spanish ships in the Caribbean and were easily captured and served as dinner.

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Blue-footed Boobies                                           photo by Andy Sternick

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Masked Booby, perhaps trying to deceive the Spaniards, photo by Andy Sternick

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Bananaquit                                                      photo by Andy Sterrnick

I’ll quit with the Bananaquit, a beautiful bird of the New World tropics first described by Linnaeus in 1758.  They apparently love bananas and once they start eating they just can’t…