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: Gulls Simplified

published by Princeton University Press, copyright 2019, 208 pages

 

Most birders have a nemesis group of difficult birds, or two, or three.  Flycatchers, sparrows, and winter warblers all come to mind.  But I suspect the gulls are the leaders of the flock of baffling bird identifications.  I’m even hesitant to label some of my pictures in this post and may end up with egg on my face.  It’s not just their similar plumages; it’s hard to admire birds that frequent the dump, crave McDonalds french fries, and steal your hot dog right out of your hand at a Super Bowl tailgate party.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis        (non-breeding adult)

They’re all black, white, and shades of gray.  The only color breaking the monotony is the occasional red spot on the bills of some, the pink you see inside their mouths when open (which is often), the shades of yellow, pink, or green on their legs, and the drab brown feathers of the immatures.  And these young birds take their own sweet time maturing, some requiring up to four years to don the adult monotones.  Add to this the different breeding and non-breeding plumages and you have an identification nightmare.  Give me a Cardinal or Blue Jay, thank you very much.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla        (adult, non-breeding)

But then I ran across Pete Dunne’s and Kevin Karlson’s new book and decided to give them and the gulls another shot.  My first impression was positive; this book is short, only 200 pages.  I don’t need another encyclopedic guide to all the variations in first-summer or second-winter plumages, or the subtle field marks of some hybrid gull.  Their goal in writing this shorter guide seemed to be KISS (keep it simple stupid), one of my favorite life axioms.

Lesser & Greater Black-backed Gulls, Larus fuscus & marinus

The introduction grabbed my attention.  The authors don’t claim to be gull specialists, but rather birding generalists who seek to apply the popular GISS technique (general impression, size, and shape) to the confusing gulls.  This strategy features the grosser physical characteristics and behavior over specific field marks, and has been successfully used with raptors and in the popular Crossley guide books.  Luckily the gulls are frequently in mixed flocks that allow a direct comparison between the species.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                         (immature)

Right off the bat the authors dispel my impression of the gulls being the junkyard dogs of the avian world.  They extoll the virtues of the 22 species of regularly occurring gulls in North America as “intelligent, inquisitive, socially complex, and acrobatic aerialists,” well worth our scrutiny.  No other birds are so adept “at foraging on land, air, and sea”.  Seagulls however, with the exception of the Sabine Gull and kittiwakes, are not real sea birds or pelagics.  They are littoral, preferring the margins of rivers, lakes, and the seashore, rather than the open ocean.

Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni

The layout of this book is simple and effective.  The initial pages are profile shots and silhouettes of the 22 gulls and the introduction and first chapter explain the authors’ GISS approach to the gulls.  They caution us to relax and accept that we will not get a definite ID for every bird.  Learning the common ones in your area first will make the ID of the less common easier, later on.  And forget about all the plumage designations of 2nd and 3rd winter, etc.  Dunne and Karlson greatly simplify this to just three:  immature, sub-adult, and adult, the latter with breeding and non-breeding varieties unfortunately.  I like this “Readers Digest” approach.

Herring Gulls, (non-breeding adult & immature)

Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one gull with many good comparison pictures of the bird in mixed flocks of gulls and other shorebirds.  There are 35 quizzes scattered throughout the book but don’t panic.  The answers are all given in the back and no one will know if you peek.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

There are many advantageous aspects of gull ID.  The birds are abundant and worldwide, found on virtually every lake, river, and seashore, as well as on freshly plowed fields, landfills, and McDonald’s parking lots.  They are large and generally allow you a close approach to observe their feeding, fighting, and other comical antics.  Photography, however does offer some challenges due to their white and dark plumage.  I’ll leave that discussion for a later post.

Ring-billed Gulls (with Herring Gull in background)

I don’t generally chase rarities, but unusual gulls do turn up, not infrequently.  On two occasions I jumped into the car on short notice and was pleasantly surprised to find both birds, just as advertised.  The first was a Glaucous Gull reported on an isolated creek off the Chesapeake, about 40 miles south of me on Hooper’s Island, Maryland.  This pale, large gull (larger than a Herring Gull) is not a rarity, but still somewhat unusual and a lifer for me.  I waited alone at a parking lot of a seafood packing plant for several hours and was just getting ready to leave when it flew in and splashed down within 30 feet.  What a surprise and thrill.

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

The second chase was to Delaware Bay, about 60 miles to the east.  A Sabine Gull was reported to be buzzing the Dupont Nature Center several Mays ago.  This small, hooded, and fork tailed gull winters in the tropics off South America and Africa and was likely blown ashore as it migrated north over the Atlantic, bound for its breeding site in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic.  As opposed to my solitary Glaucous Gull experience, the Sabine drew a large throng of birding paparazzi.  This actually was fortunate as I needed help in locating the bird amidst the vast flock of its more common and less famous cousins.

Herring Gull, (breeding adult)

Back to the book.  I do recommend it and believe Dunne and Karlson were successful in presenting this new approach to gull ID.  I note, however, that even they reverted to the more traditional plumage designations in some of their captions.  It will be hard to completely abandon that nomenclature, especially for the hard core gullers.  Also the GISS identification process is not really that simple.  It takes experience, years of experience, and many hours of observation to get good at it.  But I’m gullible and willing to give it a shot.  Wish me luck.

Book Review: Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Published by North Point Press, copyright 2001, 401 pages

 

The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land.  Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible.  It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin.  All he could do was call out his love, over and over.  She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate.  “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.

The Hebrides                                    photo courtesy of A. Sternick

This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book.  The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later.  Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages?  For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands.  How were they formed and will they survive?  Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants?  Did they thrive or merely survive?  He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs.  Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”.  Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctic                            courtesy of A. Sternick

His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly.  He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail.  As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches.  History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants.  The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”.  He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port.  There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen).  This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit.  Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves.  We’ll see.

John J. Audubon’s Puffins

The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages.  The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands.  It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman.  A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins.  Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.

Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri

Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus.  At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained.  The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides.    The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen.  Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land.  There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered.  Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had?  What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem?  For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change.  Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.

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: The Heart of the Valley by Nigel Hinton

Published by Harper & Row, copyright 1986, 236 pages.  Cover art by Pam Stephens.

 

During a recent bird outing in rural England a Dunnock was pointed out to me.  It was warily perched on the far side of a shrub, as if purposely defeating my efforts to get a good shot.  This was a life bird for me so I inched closer, but it flew, leaving me only some unpublishable blurs.  This common, drab, brown songbird is not a great discovery for an English birder, but reminded me of Nigel Hinton’s wonderful story of a year in the life of a Dunnock.  I read this tale years ago, read it again after this sighting, and have loaned my copy to multiple birders.  It’s received their universal acclaim.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Hinton chose to write about a common, non-flashy bird, living in common, rural Kent County, in a common valley, near a common Brook Cottage and Forge Farm, inhabited by common folks living typical common lives.  Although common, the trials and tribulations of these lives, both the birds’ and humans’, are gripping and existential.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

The main character is the female Dunnock, barely surviving the cold blasts of the particularly hard winter, her first.  The optimistic stirrings of early spring lead to a timid introduction to her first mate, nest-building, and egg-laying.  I know, it all sounds so corny, but the author avoids the pitfalls of some anthropomorphic literature.  These are not talking birds and this is not “Watership Down” or “Bambi”, but rather a compelling and detailed account of life, perseverance, and also of death.

Swallowtail Kite, Elacoides forficatus         (click on photos to zoom)

It’s not all happy.  The initial nest and eggs are destroyed and her mate is run over by a car.  The humans of the cottage and farm are also dealing with aging, stroke, and loss.  In the most compelling part of the novel the harrowing and fantastic migration of a female Cuckoo from Sub-Sahara Africa to the English valley is described.  Just as the reader is celebrating this successful migration, you watch in horror as the Cuckoo sneaks her egg into the unsuspecting Dunnock’s nest.  The egg hatches and this monstrous, ugly, parasitic chick wages its genetically programmed war against its smaller nest mates, duping the unsuspecting foster mother and hogging most of the food.  Even before its eyes are fully opened the Cuckoo tirelessly works to expel its rivals from the nest.  It is evil personified, or maybe “birdified”.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus

I didn’t realize that the anthropomorphic nature literature was so controversial and hotly debated near the beginning of the 20th century.  The famous and “pure” naturalist, John Burroughs, felt that authors did a terrible disservice by their non-scientific attribution of human emotions and qualities to wildlife.  Among others he singled out the writings of Jack London, William Long, and Ernest Seton, who had just published a book entitled “Wild Animals I Have Known”.  In retaliation James Montague wrote this poem entitled “Proof”:

John Burroughs, who’s a shark on birds

(He classifies ’em by a feather),

Avers that they’re devoid of words

And simply cannot talk together.

He gives the nature-fakers fits

Who picture birds in conversation,

And tears their story books to bits

In scientific indignation.

 

But there’s a wren outside my door

That talks whenever I go near him,

And talks so glibly, furthermore,

That I just wish that John could hear him.

Of mornings, when I stroll about,

The while he hymns his glad thanksgiving,

He interrupts himself to shout.

“Hey!  Ain’t it glorious to be living?”

Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla

Believe it or not, even the President of the United States weighed in upon this vital debate.  Theodore Roosevelt publicly took the side of John Burroughs and against the “Nature Fakers”, adding more fuel to the raging fire.  And as we all know and agree, if the president says it, it must be true.  Cooler heads finally prevailed and the controversy returned to a simmer.  As for me, I can’t see what harm is done by imagining what a creature may feel or think, fully knowing that it may have little or no capacity for either.

Bronzed Cowbird, Molothrus aeneus

The female Dunnock did survive, at least for one season, as did the Cuckoo chick and one of the Dunnock chicks.  But survival for them hung by a thread and was temporary, as it is for us all.  This book has given me a new insight regarding the lives of these birds.  I’ve been keeping the feeders a little fuller and their baths a little cleaner, and maybe they’ll notice and like me a little more–who knows.

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

 

Book Review: Birds of a Feather by Colin Rees and Derek Thomas

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Birds of a Feather, Seasonal Changes on Both Sides of the Atlantic, by Colin Rees and Derek Thomas, published by Matador, copyright 2014, 358 pages

Everyone needs a library of “bathroom books”.  These are the books with short concise chapters with a message or thought for the day, that you remember as you make your way through the 24 hours.  Its works best when the chapters are each actually dated and the text reflects our seasonal changes. I’ve filled this bill with “A Year With C.S. Lewis, Daily Readings from His Classic Works”, “The Intellectual Devotional” by Kidder & Oppenheim, and others, but my new favorite is “Birds of a Feather”.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

The authors are longtime friends, fellow birders, naturalists, and conservation activists living on opposite sides of the Atlantic pond.  Colin Rees is past president of the Anne Arundel Bird Club in Maryland and lives in nearby Annapolis on the Chesapeake Bay.  His entries have special appeal to me as he sees “my birds” and reports on birding hotspots that I have visited.  His observations have heightened my enjoyment of this area.  Derek Thomas, on the other hand, brings a whole new perspective and “new birds” to light.  He lives and birds on the rocky, Maine-like Gower Peninsula in Wales, and recently retired as Chairman of the Wildlife Trust.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

The book is a mixture of short chapters alternating between authors, describing bird walks, wildlife observations, science, changing habitats, environmental issues, and conservation.  One of the appeals of this book is the contrasting homes of the authors.  The flat, tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake estuary with its 4000 miles of shoreline, marshes, creeks and rivers vs. the rocky, windswept limestone cliffs of seaside Wales.  We locals think of Maryland and the Chesapeake as old, colonized by Europeans in the 17th century, but see real antiquity when Thomas describes birding around the 12th century ruins of Wales.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

Both locations experience the four seasons, which makes for interesting chapters throughout the calendar year.  The Chesapeake has some buffering effects from the nearby Atlantic but still has an extreme annual temperature change with water temperatures going from 86 F in summer to 34 F in winter.  I can testify that the Arctic winds whipping down the bay can be bleak in January and February.  Likewise the Gower Peninsula is ravaged by an average of 50 Atlantic gales each year.  Fog is common due to the tempering effects of the warm Gulf Stream.  Thomas suggests that the moodiness created from the rapid changes in the weather has influenced the writing of local poets, including Dylan Thomas.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

The Atlantic barrier has isolated the Old World from the New enough to allow the evolution of very different passerines.  Except for the rarity that is blown our way by the freak storm, one doesn’t see these birds unless you travel.  Just the names are inviting:  wheatears, pipits, stonechats, whinchat, chaffinches, and wagtails.  We do share many of the migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

I hesitate to offer criticism of a book I really enjoyed and learned from, but that’s what a reviewer should do.  The authors, I think are overly pessimistic for the future of our planet and this gloom comes through in many of the chapters.  They cite the growing numbers of endangered birds, loss of habitat, climate change, etc.  I recognize these issues but also see a very different world today than when I started birding in the 1960’s and 70’s.  At least in this country the air and water are cleaner, we are much more aware of our environment, and we are restoring critical habitats across the continent.  The Chesapeake Bay’s submerged grasses, which are a barometer of the bay’s health, are flourishing again.  There are setbacks, like the Gulf oil spill which is featured prominently in the book, but they are becoming less frequent.  I admit the habitat loses in the Third World, such as the  rain forests, are critical.  I’m just saying, let’s celebrate some of our successes and not overdo the gloom and doom.

Osprey

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

These authors have created a great little book to start each day.  As Mr. Thomas said, “One of the most wonderful things about the natural world is that it doesn’t answer back; it’s an escape from the everyday problems of life and a refuge where I can forget the day-to-day trivia, which becomes less important as I get older.  Communicating with nature is a one-way process; it speaks  to us  in pictures, sounds, and emotion…and much of the world seems not to appreciate its wonders…nothing compares with the simple pleasure of looking at a flower or bird.”