Book Review: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

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Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

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

Since the virus pandemic I’ve been rereading many of the books in my library and came across this classic which I previously reviewed here in 2016.  If you’re looking for an escape from all this lockdown boredom, check it out.

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.”

Eastern Bluebird

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.

Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

Published by Doubleday, copyright 2017, 427 pages.

 

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Painted Bunting, Passerina iris                 click to zoom

The lovely light of the candle is synonymous with the lives of the bizarre and beautiful birds.  One pathway of evolution has resulted in the male’s flamboyant colors, tempting ornaments, and loud love songs, all to impress the female, even at the expense of his survival.  The other more conservative pathway has led to identical males and females of subtle camouflage coloration; the keep-your-head-down, blend in, and stay safe approach to life, with survival being the ultimate goal.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

The conservative approach follows the classic science of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.  Darwin, however, later decided that a different theory was needed to explain the evolution of beauty; a process resulting in the dramatic bright plumages, long tails, striking crests, and unusual courtship behaviors.  The aesthetic evaluation of mate choice and pleasure become the goal of these birds, apparently trumping survival determined by the classic idea of fitness.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Richard Prum expertly describes the consternation and debate that Darwin caused in his lifetime over the concept of evolution by sexual selection, a debate that has lasted to the present.  The author takes up Darwin’s fight and supports his argument with fascinating accounts of avian courtship, emphasizing the central role of the female choosing a mate purely for the pleasure of it.  Detractors say that assigning charm, sensory delight, and aesthetic discernment to birds is far too anthropomorphic.  Darwin and Prum disagree.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

It was the elaborate beauty of the Peacock’s tail with its eyespots that was so unsettling to Darwin.  How could his “Origin of Species” and survival of the fittest explain this impractical plumage?  His second book, “The Descent of Man”, introduced sexual pleasure and female choice as new and different driving forces in evolution.  As you can imagine, Victorian patriarchal England had significant issues with this revolutionary concept.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Prum has impressive credentials, first as a childhood birder from New England, then from years of fieldwork in the tropical jungles, and later as a professor of ornithology at Yale.  In the chapter “Beauty From the Beast” he describes the male Bowerbirds and their construction of architecturally elaborate bowers or bachelor pads.  These males build competing aesthetic structures which have no practical use other than to charm and attract a female mate.  The evolving male animal artists must match the corresponding evolution of female preference for their art to be successful.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The fossil record raises some interesting ideas about the origin of colorful feathers.  It seems that feathers evolved and adorned reptiles prior to other structural changes that would allow flight.  Recently electron microscopy has shown tiny color-forming melanosomes in the feathers of the theropod dinosaurs.  Were these early colorful feathers initially sexual ornaments that only later evolved to the avian structures of flight?

Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus

In the chapter “Manakin Dances” Prum describes the bizarre social world of South American Manakin leks.  A lek is a small, male-defended patch chosen as his personal stage upon which he performs to lure females.  The male, in turn, is chosen for mating by a discerning female who is impressed by his plumage ornaments, acrobatic displays, dancing skills, and acoustic signals.  It is female choice that drives male behavior and sexual evolution.

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

So why do I give this book only 4 stars out of 5?  To me the wheels seemed to come off a bit in Chapter 5, “Make Way For Duck Sex”.  The description of the ducks’ displays, female and male urogenital tracts (males are endowed with a long retractile penis), and the description of copulation, both consensual and otherwise, were fascinating.  But the author at this point begins to enter into a highly speculative correlation of avian behavior with human sexuality, including female autonomy, feminism, fashion, eugenics, and even homosexuality.  Although these are worthwhile topics, the jump from avian evolution which occurs over millions of years to human sociology and cultural evolution, which may change yearly, seemed somewhat farfetched and out of place.

Yellow Warbler, Wilsonia citrina

But this book will have great appeal for birders and non-birders alike.  As I read other reviewers it is clear that birders favor the first half of the book and its wonderful accounts of avian behavior, while non-birders relish the second half which evolves into a parallel discussion of human sexuality and social issues.  Clearly the book will foster many interesting discussions and I can picture it as a popular book club selection.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The next time I am traipsing through the underbrush and see the brilliant crimson flash of the male Cardinal, the iridescent body of the Hummingbird, or hear the loud melodic call of the Carolina wren, I’ll remember Darwin and Prum and the millions of years of sexual selection that have created pleasure for both the birds and the birder.

Book Review: Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman.

Published by Houghton Mifflin, copyright 1997, 320 pages.

 

Did you ever dream of dropping out of high school, travel the continent, meet interesting people, and bird till you dropped, but never quite had the nerve.  That’s exactly what Kenn Kaufman did, a birder since age 6, and coming of age in the early 1970’s.  “Kingbird Highway” is his first person account of a year of extreme birding, breaking the one year record for the most birds seen in North America, but also a story of an astute teenager’s self examination and road-wise education acquired in a spartan manner that few of us would attempt or survive.

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus           (click on photos to zoom)

Kenn Kaufman not only survived, but thrived and is now one of our leading ornithologists, conservationists, and authors.  His dropping out of high school was not due to disillusionment; he was not running away but instead beginning a personal pilgrimage.  At the time he was student council president in Wichita, Kansas and his remarkably tolerant parents supported his quest, as long as he agreed not to hitchhike.  That promise only lasted until the first Greyhound bus trip.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

Armed with a notebook, mediocre binoculars, a small knapsack, and sustained by a meagre diet that sometimes consisted of cat food (it’s cheap), he crisscrossed the continent on a shoestring budget primarily by thumbing.  He eventually tired of explaining his birding goals to incredulous drivers and made up more mundane and believable excuses for being on the road.

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

He describes hours spent on Interstate on-ramps watching thousands of cars pass by his scruffy self until one finally stops.  The best long distance rides were with truckers who often stopped after midnight looking for conversation on their long hauls.  His finances were periodically replenished by odd jobs such as apple picking, and in dire circumstances he knew his centrally located Wichita home and a square meal were never more than three hungry hitching days away.

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus

Kaufman describes happily meeting the subculture of like-minded obsessed birders along the way including his hero, Roger Tory Peterson and the prior record holder and similar aged Ted Parker, to whom the book is dedicated.  He often birded alone, but occasionally hooked up with local bird clubs on weekend birding excursions to prime sites.  Initial skepticism about this young, long-haired, hippie birder quickly changed to admiration as his advanced skills became evident.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

Birders and non-birders alike will enjoy the many anecdotes shared in this book.  Like his honorary membership as an IDIOT (Incredible Distances In Ornithological Travel) bestowed by the Lancaster, PA Bird Club, or the young woman in the hot car that gave him a ride to a foul-smelling dump in south Texas, not really believing he was actually looking for a specific gull.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

Or the story of the Christmas Bird Count in Freeport, TX where he was assigned to a jetty to search for off-shore pelagics but was swept into the gulf, scope and all, by the raging surf.  He barely survived, but did manage to see some great seabirds enhancing the local count.  There’s also the saga of hitchhiking the entire 1500 miles of the gravel Alaska-Canada Highway, and the incredible scene of a flock of Alcids in flight at sunset over the Bering Sea with the snow-capped Siberian mountains in the distance.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

Amazingly Kaufman broke the old record of 626 birds by July and was able to spend the second half of the year chasing rarities and mopping up some common birds missed on his earlier trips. The tone of the narration and I think the mindset of the author changed as the year progressed.  He seemed to tire, both physically and emotionally, and began to question the whole listing rat race.  In this period he seemed to revive his interest in bird observation and his relationship with fellow birders, placing listing in a secondary role.

Brewer’s Sparrow, Spizella breweri

By the end of the book, the year, and 80,000 miles later his count was a phenomenal 671 birds, but there was no climactic celebration.  Almost as an afterthought the reader learns that another birder, older and better financed, also had a big year in 1973 and surpassed Kaufman’s count by several birds.  Ken was non-plussed.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The author fist drafted his book in 1974 but did not finally publish “Kingbird Highway” until 1997, thus allowing a retrospective assessment of the incredible year.  The book contains descriptions of a plethora of birding hotspots, some of which I have visited but not with the birding eyes or ears of the esteemed author.  These include the Dry Tortugas in Florida, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen State Park in Texas, Cape May and Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, and Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and the Chiricahua NM in Arizona.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

This is a story that will never be repeated, even though the record has been broken many times since.  “Kingbird Highway” took place in the pre-internet and pre-eBird era when there were no instantaneous rare bird alerts.  Back then sightings were conveyed by telephone, newspaper, or snail mail, and often stale by the time the birder could respond.  In those days hitchhiking was safer and cheap travel more available.  Kaufman spent less than $1000 for the entire year with half of that used for two plane trips in Alaska.  I’ll wager you’ll have a hard time finding any birder, young or old, that would endure the challenges of the year that Kaufman so wonderfully describes in this book.

American Oystercatchers, Haematopus palliatus

I’ll end with two Kaufman quotes.  “The most significant thing we find may not be the thing we are seeking.  That is what redeems the crazy ambivalence of birding…  It gets us out there in the real world, paying attention, hopeful, and awake.”  “Any bird-listing attempt is limited by time–a Big Day, Big Year, even a Life List are reminders of mortality.  The day ends, the year will end, everything will end.  Time is short…make the most of it.”

Book Review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, published by HarperCollins Publishers, copyright 1974, 290 pages.

In the spirit and words of Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard went to her Walden Pond, Tinker Creek, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  This remarkable Pulitzer Prize winning book by a 28 year old will impress and inspire.  Like Thoreau, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord”, Tinker Creek is her local unassuming haunt in the suburbs of Roanoke, Virginia. Dillard is the pilgrim to this sacred place, a small creek with island, winding its way through pasture and wood, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

It is a book of her fascinating natural observations, but then buckle your seat belt and hold on tight as she takes you soaring into the meaning, or lack thereof, of it all. It’s a pilgrimage of the mind dipping into cosmology, theology, epistemology, and even quantum mechanics before bringing you back home, somewhat exhausted.  She intends to “tell some tales and describe some sights of this rather tame valley, and explore, in fear and trembling some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

European Starling

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

This is obviously not a birding book although she does relate some interesting bird encounters.  There was the “Wood Duck flying like a bright torpedo that blasted the leaves where it flew.”  Or the Mockingbird with the white-striped tail fan diving straight down, seemingly just for the joy of it.  Or the flock of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds hidden in the Osage orange.  Or the annoying flock of thousands of European Starlings in the valley.  At wits end a hunter went out with shotgun and fired into the flock, killing three.  Asked if that had discouraged the birds he replied after some reflexion, “those three it did.”

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A quiet contemplative day of birding?                           Photo by A. Sternick

Birders, like Dillard relish being out there day after day to see what develops, observing closely and carefully, and returning with some pearl or new insight.  As she says, “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.”

Wood Duck

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa; female and juveniles; I still waiting for a good close shot of the colorful male

Insects seem to be her special interest and several tales lead you into that strange world.  There’s the small frog on the bank that slowly involuted into a pile of skin right before her eyes.  It was being sucked dry by the hidden Giant Water Bug that had injected its dissolving enzymes and was now enjoying the nourishing broth while leaving the skin behind.  Then there’s the female Praying Mantis slowly devouring her sexual partner during coitus until all that’s left is his sexual organ, still fulfilling its purpose.  She has a special place in her heart for spiders.  “Any predator that hopes to make a living on whatever small creatures might blunder into a four inch square space in the corner of my bathroom…needs every bit of my support.”

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Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

I appreciated the section about quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says that the process of observation itself alters what is being observed.  This led to a college term paper for me years ago.  I won’t attempt to review the theology of this text, New or Old Testament, Koran, and others.  Nor will I tell you what the author concludes about the universe; is it brutally cruel or kind, chaotic or orderly; actually I’m not sure what she thinks.  I’ll have to read it again.  Some may find Tinker Creek too obtuse.  I suggest just plowing through those passages and come back to them later for a fresh look with a clearer head.  There’s much here to ponder.  “Knock; seek; ask.  But you must read the fine print.”

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

Some critics, including the author herself in recent years have complained about excessive verbosity in some passages–her style has later become more succinct.  You can also take the “deeper meaning” approach to the extreme, but remember when this was written.  We were all reading Hermann Hess and listening to Jimi Hendrix back then so I’ll forgive the influences of the time.  I still wonder how I overlooked this 1974 book for so many years, recipient of prizes and much acclaim.  Better late than never.

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.”

Eastern Bluebird

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.

Book Review: The Owl Papers, by Jonathan Maslow

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Burrowing Owl

 

The Owl Papers by Jonathan Maslow, published by Vintage Books, copyright 1983, 177 pages.

“Twas the owl that shrieked the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st goodnight,” said Lady Macbeth when her traitorous husband murdered his king.  Shakespeare was reflecting his age’s connection of the doleful call of the owl with imminent death or evil. Earlier medieval children were coerced into obedience by the couplet:

Oh–o–o–o–o!

I once was a king’s daughter and sat on my father’s knee

But now I’m a poor hoolet, and hide in the hollow tree!

Even today Hollywood invariably uses the Great Horn’s mournful call in its horror movie soundtracks.  What a reputation! Is it those penetrating eyes, the calls, the claws, or the nocturnal hunting? These are all examples used by Mr. Maslow in The Owl Papers as he discusses this bird-of-prey in our history and literature. He also includes interesting chapters on their evolution, physiology, and behavior as well as chapters which recount numerous anecdotes from his quests for owls in greater New York City.  The birding adventures are grouped by the four seasons, further adding to the appeal of this short book.

Great Horned Owl, xx Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

A memorable chapter discuss the hunting prowess of the Great Horned Owl, called Le Grand Duc by the French.  After the owlets have fledged in autumn they are callously driven off the breeding ground by their parents, who each resume their solitary life as hunters.  Evolution has produced the ultimate nocturnal hunter with the Great Horned, described in detail by the author.  Along with the keenly sensitive eyes, aligned anteriorly to track the prey with binocular vision, the entire head structure is sculpted to enhance hearing.  The facial disk collects and channels the sounds to large ears on each side of the face, one directed slightly upward, and one downward.  By tilting and turning the head the owl receives directional information about each sound’s source.  The ears are most sensitive to the high frequencies of the owl’s prey–usually the sounds of small rodents scurrying among the leaves.  The Great Horned, in fact can successfully hunt entirely by sound.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl, asleep along a boardwalk in Naples, FL.

The owl feathers are designed for stealthy flight, and the claws for a crushing and penetrating kill.  It makes me remember with some trepidation my encounter with a Great Horned years ago.  I had perfected the owl’s call and one dark night decided to try it out, answering the nocturnal hooting of an unseen Le Grand Duc in my backyard.  I kept “whooing” and slowly inched toward the owl’s answering call when I suddenly felt the swoosh of wind and passage of the huge bird, inches above my head.  My imitation must have been good, frankly too good, and I am thankful to still have my scalp.

Screech Owl, Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

The owl drawings in this post are courtesy of Lou Probst, a nonagenarian artist and friend of a friend.  I sincerely thank him for allowing me to use them.  I especially like the Great Horned drawing, which reminds me to stick to my imitation of songbird vocalizations and leave the dangerous raptors’ calls alone.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Owl photography in daylight is difficult. This is not because the birds are moving, but precisely the opposite.  They are usually, quiet, hidden, and often sleeping, recovering the previous night’s hunt.  You’re lucky when you find one with his eyes open and in a location amenable to photography.  My only experience with nighttime owling was during the Christmas Bird Count years ago when I volunteered to assist a dedicated local birder.  We found a remote wooded road, put the tape recorder on the roof of the car and played the various calls, recording the responses from each species.  We never actually saw anything, but it was fascinating, albeit cold work.

by Lou Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

Another chapter in The Owl Papers describes owling in the Meadowlands of northern New Jersey in pursuit of Short-earred Owls.  The pristine wetlands of the early twentieth century was sought out as a picnic site for New Yorkers escaping the city heat. By the 1970’s, however it had become a wasteland.  Maslow gives a great description of the habitat gone bad, with old leaking drums, rusting cars, dead end rutted roads, abandoned warehouses with broken windows, and rotting dog carcasses, which were likely the remains of a nefarious competition.  All were overgrown with Phragmites choking out the native grasses. There were Red-winged Blackbirds and Flickers spotted, along with a policeman sound asleep in his patrol car, but no owls.

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Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, from King’s Ranch is SE Texas

I’m not sure how I stumbled across The Owl Papers, but it is my kind of book.  The author’s descriptions of his quest for the birds in an urban environment, along with discussion of their anatomy, physiology, and behavior, sprinkled with reminders of the owl’s role in our history and literature, make for a good read and a lucky find.

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Short-Earred Owl, photo courtesy of A. Sternick

 

Birding Haiku

Haiku is an ancient form of short Japanese poetry.  It usually consists of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, although more modern examples have become less stringent with this rule.  Despite their short length, they leave the reader with distinct impression or mental image.  Consider this example by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), considered the master of the form.

old pond…

a frog leaps in

water’s sound.

With fear of corrupting a beautiful art form, I offer these birding haiku.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl mournfully calls,

“Who cooks for you, cooks for you?”

I reply, “my love”.

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican

His pouch is bulging with fish.

How the helican?

(apologies to D.L. Merritt)

Osprey

Osprey flies above.

Unsuspecting fish below,

Beware the talons!

American Robin

The Robin Red Breast

On the lawn, upright and still,

Hunts worms for the young.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Woodpecker attacks

My aluminum gutter.

Make him stop now.  Please!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Trumpet vines in bloom.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Savors the nectar.

Carolina Wren

The loud hidden call,

Somewhere in the dense willow,

Carolina Wren.

Great Blue Heron

Tall Great Blue Heron,

Patiently fishing in the

Still waters.  No luck.

Here’s the appeal of birding.  You can pursue the science of ornithology, bird structure, evolution, physiology, or behavior.  You can study migration patterns, climate change effects, habitat loss and gains.  You can collect data and lists and contribute to the science, or just observe the beauty at the backyard feeder.  You can combine birding with travel, traipsing through the best scenery the world has to offer.  You can draw, photograph, or just feast your eyes on the beautiful avian fauna.  You can play with gadgets, scopes, binoculars, cameras, and lenses.  You can read the vast birding literature, both fiction and non.  You can even write your own bird haiku and publish it on the internet to decidedly and understandably mixed reviews.

Feel free to add your creations to the “comments” section.

Cardinal Etheree

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Etheree is a form of poetry named for the American poet Etheree Taylor Armstrong.  It is composed by using 10 non-rhymed lines, the first with one syllable, the second with two, the third three, etc. up to 10 syllables in the 10th line.  I came across the form at Somali K. Chakraburti’s blog, www.prepforum.wordpress.com where she posted his beautiful example called “Elusive Happiness”.

A

whiff of

sweet fragrance

wafting through air,

crisp ray of sunshine

in a misty morning that

vanishes as soon as it

appears;  Elusive happiness

finds us and fades away as we seek

it frantically at each turn along the way.

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So I thought I would give this art form a try with “A Cardinal”.

A

Cardinal

flits across

my morning path

capturing sunshine

in its scarlet feathers.

The temporary pleasure

brings contentment to this birder

as he begins another solo

trek to the swamp and future feathered joys.

Northern Cardinal 2173

Okay, I get it.  I’ll stick to prose and photography and let S.K. Chakraburti and others compose etheree.  But I encourage you to try it for yourself.  It’s fun.  Feel free to submit your own creations in the “Comments” section.

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“Free As a Bird” or “Laying an Egg”

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One warm summer evening while enjoying the gentle breeze on the screened porch, my wife and were chatting about birding.  I’m a birder and she is not, but the conversation evolved into something she does enjoy; words, and their meanings.  Maybe more that any other animal, bird phrases and idioms have entered into our daily discourse to convey meanings in ways that may be quite difficult for those for whom English is not their native language.  Literature, from Greek and Roman times to the present have used birds to explain human behavior and traits.  Over the next hour or so, encouraged with a glass of wine or two, we came up with many examples.  See what you think and feel free to add more.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (click on any photo to zoom)

Some of these are meant to be derogatory, such as a birdbrain, quack, cuckoo, silly goose, stool pigeon, chicken-livered, turkey, hen-pecked, or an albatross around your neck.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

Others are quite complimentary; wise as an owl or proud as a peacock.  Some are symbols of strength or nobility; the Bald Eagle, the Falcon or the Screaming Eagles, the insignia of the 101st Airborne division.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

While others imply weakness and vulnerability; an Ostrich with his head in the sand, a sitting duck, being naked as a jay-bird, getting goosed, squealing like a canary, delivering your swan song, getting your feathers ruffled, or having the need to eat crow.  Then there are the religious symbols such as the dove of peace and the Holy Spirit, or Easter eggs connoting a new beginning, vs. the evil Raven or Vulture.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

What about the motherly trait of nesting while preparing for childbirth and the expected delivery of the stork.  Later those same parents experiences the empty nest syndrome.  There are also humorous examples, such as he’s a hoot but really laid an egg with this posting.

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There are the signs of contentment such as happy as a lark, the bluebird of happiness, lovebirds, or singing like a nightingale, and being free as a bird.  And don’t forget the signs of success such as feathering your nest, the early bird getting the worm, or getting your ducks in a row.  There are many that describe action:  flying the coop after being cooped up, taking a swan dive, jay-walking,  pigeon-holing, getting a bird’s-eye view, or parroting someone else.

Juvenile Gull

Juvenile Gull

And lastly don’t forget the age old conundrum, what came first, the chicken or the egg?  At least this immature gull seems to have gotten a charge out of all of this.

Book Review: Birding On Borrowed Time by Phoebe Snetsinger

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

Birding On Borrowed Time, by Phoebe Snetsinger, published by American Birding Association, copyright 2003, 307 pages.

If your non-birder family and friends think you’ve gone off the deep end due to your occasional early morning birding trips, photography, etc., just hand them a copy of this book.  They will see what a real birding obsession looks like and your exploits will pale in comparison to those of this legendary and record-holding icon.  This book is Phoebe Snetsinger’s autobiography of a birder’s life, lived to the extreme and ended tragically with binoculars in hand.  She was the first person to see 8,000 species of birds and at the time of her death she held the lister record.

White Ibis,

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

It all started innocently enough.  She was a too busy, tired, 34 year-old housewife and mother of four, starving for something new and exciting when her friend took her birding in the local woods. Her first sighting through the binoculars was a beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler in its finest spring garb.  She was smitten for life.  Her birding competency and experience quickly grew and in a dozen years she held the record in her area by seeing 275 local species in one year.  Guided domestic trips to Maine, Texas, Florida, and Arizona were soon supplemented with her first trips abroad to Mexico and then to the Galapagos and Ecuador.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

At age 41 Phoebe had a malignant melanoma removed from her back, but the margins were clear and she thought she was cured.  Nine years later she noticed a growing lump in her axilla which was shown to be metastatic melanoma.  Her prognosis was for 3 months of normal living, then an inexorable downward spiral and death within a year.  The book describes her shock, denial, and temporary depression, but also her later revival and fight to make the last days memorable.  Her motto became Carpe Diem.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

In the epilogue the author’s son wondered if his mother’s records would have ever been established if she did not have the Damocles Sword of melanoma recurrence hanging over her for much of her adult life.  After the first recurrence and the specter of imminent death, she set out doing what she loved most, birding.  When death did not come and her bird sightings mounted, her competitive streak kicked in.  Setting the all-time record of 8,000 birds then seemed possible. Two more subsequent recurrences of the disease at 5 year intervals did nothing but accelerate her birding pace and lead to more frequent international trips to birding hotspots.  As she approached the mark, the difficulties of finding these rarer birds increased geometrically leading her to almost inaccessible rain forests, mountaintops, and deserts.  The time, physical toll, and cost of seeing each new bird rose significantly, just when Phoebe’s age made each trip more difficult.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

This book mentions, but does not dwell upon the risks, costs, and calamities of world-wide birding.  Long trips, often a dozen or more per year, took a physical and emotional toll on her and her family.  She was brutally raped in New Guinea, attacked by spear-throwing tribesmen, broke her wrist, sprained her knee, survived at least two emergency airplane landings, an earthquake, and even a shipwreck in Indonesia.  She was aware of her obsession but didn’t back off her pace, no matter where it took her.  I frequently found myself shaking my head and wondering at some of Phoebe’s foolhardy decisions and risk-taking, but that is exactly why she, and not I, set the record.

California Thrasher

California Thrasher, Toxostoma redivivum

Although the book has some human interest for non-birders, it is probably best suited for the birder, given the long lists of birds and sites on all the continents.  The book’s real value for me was the lessons this iconic woman has left for birders.  Let me summarize them:

  1. Despite her becoming the all-time lister, she clearly found great joy in observing, and not just counting, birds–even ones already ticked off her list.  Phoebe rightly noted the “wonderful warm feeling of fulfillment all birders feel” when seeing a life bird after a long search.  She appreciated the folly of birding with a guide who quickly calls out the new bird names while the lister spends more time taking notes than observing the birds.  She adamantly refused to list birds that were heard but not seen.
  2. She recognized the utility of playing birdsongs to attract and observe the rarities of the world.  She was birding in the early days of this technique when the birders carried the cumbersome tape recorders miles into the bush.  Today we just use our smart phones.
  3. She spent many hours of preparation before each trip, getting acquainted with the target birds in the area.  Although she was not a photographer she would keep copious notes and records of her observations and field marks, building a vast filing system at home, all before the days of eBird which has made our record keeping so much easier today.
  4. She recognized the value of learning the Latin genus and species names of the birds, and not just the common names that often vary per culture.  Of the two Latin names, the genus is the more important, especially when identifying new birds.  Remember that many of these remote countries had not yet developed birding guidebooks, reference materials, or even adequate maps.  If you could at least place the unknown bird in a genus and remember its key field marks, you could eventually make the ID.  Some of the birds she saw had just recently been discovered and not yet named.
  5. For Phoebe a knowledge of the taxonomy of the avian world was important.  Seeing how each new bird fit into the hierarchy was part of birding’s appeal for her as she tried find at least one bird from each of the 2153 genera.  She almost fulfilled this dream.
Osprey

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Phoebe Snetsinger was an obsessive, quirky, and intelligent woman, who overcame amazing obstacles to reach her birding goals.  She died at age 68 doing what she loved most when her bus overturned on the backroads of Madagascar pursuing the next bird.  Her last life bird was the Red-shouldered Vanga, number 8,398.