Tag Archives: passerines

Nesting season

To get to the supermarket, I walk from the apartment where we’re cat-sitting through Danehy Park in North Cambridge. Danehy Park is built on top of a landfill. It has soccer fields, baseball diamonds, a couple of playgrounds, and a few picnic tables under the trees that grow along the main bike path. There are generally quite a few people, and some dogs, in the park — not the kind of place where you’d expect much in the way of wildlife.

Yet without even looking very hard, I saw three bird nests on my walk across the park: two American Robins nesting in trees right over the bike path, and a Northern Mockingbird nesting in some shrubs right next to one of the playgrounds. I also heard a Flicker, some Common Grackles, several Song Sparrows, and several Red-winged Blackbirds — presumably, these were all males singing to define their nesting territory. It’s remarkable that so many birds could live in such a heavily developed landscape, in a limited ecosystem with apparently very little biodiversity. This made me wonder about the fecundity that I might have seen in pre-Columbian times.

City singers

Readers of this blog may know Charles Hartshorne as that process theologian who wrote books such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), and used terms like “panentheism” (I first heard about him as one of the editors of the complete works of Charles Saunders Peirce, but then I was a philosophy major). But Hartshorne also was a serious amateur ornithologist who published a number of papers in the field, and wrote Born To Sing: An Interpretation and Survey of World Bird Song (1973).

In Born To Sing, Hartshorne begins by dismissing strict behaviorism as “inadequate, at least in the study of human beings; moreover, in view of the evolutionary continuity of life, and the ideal of a unitary explanation of nature as a whole, it seem unsatisfactory dualism to make man [sic] a mere exception.” Hartshorne does not believe that we can attribute human motives to non-human animals, but he does feel that animals can find aesthetic enjoyment in their own ways. This leads him to a serious consideration of the aesthetic elements of bird songs.

As part of his argument, he establishes criteria for determining highly developed or “superior” bird song, and based on these criteria he develops a list of 194 species of superior songsters. Less than twenty of these species are indigenous to North America, and only eight of those species breed in our immediate area.

On a walk today, from urban New Bedford over to densely suburban Fairhaven, we heard three of these eight species: Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, and Song Sparrow (links go to USGS site with recordings of their songs). And I heard at least one other of these species, the Carolina Wren, near our apartment earlier this spring. Suburbanites dismiss cities as bleak, forbidding places, but if you’re willing to look, it’s possible to find incredible natural beauty.

Spring watch

at a ministers’ retreat, Wareham, Mass.

After the high winds died down midday, I went out for a walk in the woods around the retreat center. There were birds everywhere: after spending twenty four hours hunkered down in shelter from the gale, they were out busily feeding and defending their nesting territory. They were so busy that they paid little attention to me. I managed to get within eight feet of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, a tiny little bird: it was carrying a feather in its bill, presumably to add to its nest. And then I rounded a bend in a trail, just as a Wood Thrush started singing in a tree nearly over my head: that ethereally beautiful call, those four liquid notes, so close: it provoked a deeply emotional response, a surge in my heart, a lift in my spirits, a feeling of sudden intense joy. It sang twice, and flew away, and the moment was over.

Spring watch

A few notes of bird song drifted across Route 18 during a momentary lull in the traffic. “A Song Sparrow,” I said to Carol, “now where would a Song Sparrow be?…”; there aren’t many places in a marine industrial zone where a Song Sparrow would want to sit and sing. We came up to the top of the pedestrian bridge over the highway, in the March sunshine. “It’s so warm,” said Carol. “It feels like spring.” It felt like spring all the way over to Pope’s Island, where we bought a newspaper and a couple of magazines. But on the way back, the clouds started to cover the sky, and it felt damp and chilly down by the water of the harbor, and it stopped feeling like spring. Even though the sun peeked out now and then, it felt gray and dim, it felt as though real spring wouldn’t come for months.

Wood Thrush

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

The afternoon showers drove most everyone off the beach. I walked down to Ferry Beach State Park, and walked under Route 9 through their underpass, and into the woodlands and swamps of the park. There weren’t any cars in the parking lot, but one of the rangers was still there. He saw my binoculars, and we started talking about birds. I asked him if he had heard any Veeries, and he said no, but there were a few Wood Thrushes in the woods.

Wood Thrushes and Veeries can produce more than one note simultaneously — birds have syrinxes, not larynxes like us mammals do, and many birds can produce more than one note at a time — so they can actually sing in harmony with themselves. A Veery sings a song that sounds like it’s descending in a sort of swooping spiral. I’m not good at describing sounds, so I won’t try to describe the sound a Wood Thrush makes, but it’s a series of notes that I find hauntingly beautiful.

A few steps out of the parking lot and into the woods, I heard a Wood Thrush calling. The quality of the sound is such that it can be hard to tell exactly where the sound is coming from. I walked down the path towards the sound of the Wood Thrush, and it seemed as if the bird was slowly moving away from me, flying from tree to tree — but maybe it was two different birds, and one started singing while the other stopped singing as I got close to it.

Eventually, the Wood Thrush stopped singing. It was getting dark. I headed back to the campsite.

Blogger BioBlitz 2007 final list

Today was my only day off this week, and I had planned to do my Blogger BioBlitz survey today, trying to find how many of each different species — plant, animal, fungi and anything in between — live within the small area I chose to survey (the garden at First Unitarian in New Bedford). We had heavy downpours most of the day, so I had to cut the survey short. In between rain squalls, I took as many photos of living things as possible; I also relied on photos and notes I had taken earlier in the week when I was surveying the area. Unfortunately, the weather meant that I didn’t have time to search out many animals (e.g., I wasn’t able to dig up some soil and look through it for invertebrates, etc.).

My identification of many plants was hampered because it’s still early in spring and many plants have just begun to emerge from dormancy or sprout from seeds; and only a few of the flowering plants were actually in flower. I’m thinking I may continue with this survey of living things over the course of the summer, to see if I can do additional identifications.

I’ve included my list of organisms below, arranged in rough taxonomic order. Over the next week, I’ll be working on further identifications as well as filling in the taxonomic order, and when done I’ll update this entry. (Final update, 28 April, link to final data sheet included.)

Video tour of the site.
Photos from field work.
First post on Blogger Bioblitz 2007.
Second post on Blogger Bioblitz 2007.

Continue reading

The light of the sun hanging low over the western side of New Bedford harbor practically blinded me; when I got closer to the water, it reflected up off the flat surface of the water, and I had to look down. Down at the asphalt pavement littered with broken shells left when the gulls dropped a quahog or a mussel to break it open and reveal the tender mollusc body inside. Broken shells and some bones, picked clean, probably bones of a small gull — that bone looked like a humerus, that one perhaps an ulna — and the tail end of a fish skeleton, left by returning sport fisherman, and picked clean by the gulls.

Out on the still surface of the water, sea ducks dove underwater to catch small fish. The fish in the harbor are filled with toxic waste, PCBs, which will accumulate in the fat of the ducks. The fish in the harbor are evolving to become tolerant of the toxic waste, although it took many generations of fish and lots of death to get there. The same will probably happen to the ducks.

A breeze riffled the surface of the harbor. I turned away from the sun. Three gulls flew away at my sudden movement. One immature gull, too stupid to know when to fly away, stayed, facing the sun behind my back. No haze to soften outlines or hide sharp edges: I could see each feather on its head.

The ducks aren’t bothered by the traffic on the highway. They see me and fly low across the water, their wingtips tapping its calm surface. On Pope’s Island, I can see every detail of a Lark Sparrow hiding in the bushes, even though I have forgotten my binoculars: the harlequin pattern of its head, the clear breast with a dark spot in the center.

Walking west, the sun blinds me and forces me to look away. Then it dips behind the city, the few last rays lighting up the top of the old New Bedford Hotel dimmed by clouds moving in from the west, and the sun sets for the last time on this year.

On retreat: Autumn watch

Wareham, Mass. I was sitting at the breakfast table talking to some ministers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, when Rachel, the program chair for this retreat, came around and said the morning’s program was about to begin. The other ministers filed in to hear the rest of the presentation by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Even though I strongly disagreed with Dowd’s presentation last night, where he described an eco-theology grounded in a grand narrative of the universe, I felt that I should keep an open mind and go hear more. Then I thought to myself:– Would I rather sit indoors and listen to someone talk theology, or would I rather go outdoors to take a long walk? I went quietly upstairs to get my coat and binoculars, and slipped out the back door of the retreat center.

Cloudy and cold this morning, a real mid-autumn day. Birds filled the bushes along the edge of the retreat center’s lawn: Gold-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, and even a Hermit Thrush. I bushwhacked to the edge of the little estuary. As I came down to the edge of the salt marsh, a Great Blue Heron squawked, crouched, and leapt into the air, tucking his neck back and slowly pulling his long legs up against his body. Some of the trees surrounding the salt marsh were already bare of leaves; one or two maples still covered in brilliant red leaves; the white oaks shone dull gold in the subdued light; a few trees were still green. The tide was quite high, and I skirted the high water through the salt marsh hay. One high bush blueberry, a bush about five feet high growing right at the edge of the marsh, was covered in deep, glowing red leaves; I only noticed that small bush because the trees around it were already bare and grey.

After a long walk, I wound up on the Wareham town beach. A fisherman stood at the far end of the beach, where the sand ends in a little spit sticking out into an estuary winding up through extensive salt marshes.

“Catching anything?” I said.

“Not today,” he said. “Caught a little striper yesterday.”

I said that was pretty good; it’s late to catch a striper this far north.

He was feeling talkative, and we chatted idly for a few minutes. “What are you looking for?” he said, noticing the binoculars hanging around my neck.

“Ducks,” I said. “The ducks should be here by now. But I’m not really seeing any. Maybe because it’s been so warm, and they’re just not moving down onto their wintering grounds yet.”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying about the stripers this year,” he said. “They should be gone by now, but it’s still warm so they’re staying up here.”

Every year, the story is a little different. The fall migrants generally move on at about the same time, but a Hermit Thrush might stay a little later than usual. The striped bass run south, but one year that might leave a little earlier or later than another year. Some years a few maple trees hold their leaves a little longer, or a blueberry bush turns a particularly bright red. The same story is told year after year, and it’s always the same but always different. That’s the only grand narrative I care about, a grand narrative that’s not told in words.

Don’t go to “Walden Woods”

We awakened to a clear, cool autumn day. I spent the morning writing, and after a late lunch I decided I’d drive out to Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord. I wanted to walk from the parking lot there down to the Concord River, figuring I might see some interesting birds and get to walk through the autumn woods. When I got to Walden Pond, I discovered that the state now charges for parking year-round. I don’t blame them for doing so; parking fees help pay for the erosion damage all the tourists do; but it didn’t logically follow that I was going to pay to park.

So I drove a mile down the street and parked at the town forest. I walked past Brister’s Spring, which still doesn’t have an interpretive marker even though Thoreau mentions it. A little farther on, several acres of land had long ago been bulldozed, stripped of topsoil in anticipation of a hotel being built right off the highway. The hotel never got built, and the land had grown up with grass and scrubby trees. People used to ride dirt bikes and go off-roading up there; that, and the fact that it looked pretty barren, tended to keep casual walkers out. A good place to look for birds. Fewer people to scare the birds away.

When I got up to where I could see the old dirt bike track, I saw that someone had erected a stone marker, thrusting up three feet into the air. The word “phallic” comes to mind. The stone had been carefully and neatly cut, and on the side, in laser-cut letters, was the slogan “Walden Woods.” On top was a bronze cap that turned out to be a tablet with a crude map that purported to show “Thoreau’s path on Brister’s Hill.” Well, maybe, but any evidence of old paths got stripped off with the topsoil. A sappy quote from Thoreau, in raised bronze letters, encircled the map.

A hundred feet down “Thoreau’s Path on Brister’s Hill,” a discreet metal marker informed me that I should “Please stay on the path. Restoration Area. Walden Woods.” It looked like the signs you see on the mall in Washington, D.C., where there’s a D.C. cop lurking in the distance daring you with his eyes to step off the path so he can politely reprimand you. Then I realized that the black pipe I had seen in the ground earlier, a pipe with a funny piece of metal across the top, had once held another one of the signs. Someone had ripped the sign off. I tested the sign that was still intact. The metal was flimsy, and I guessed that if you bent it back and forth half a dozen times, it would break right off the black pipe. I was tempted, I even looked furtively up and down the trail to see if anyone was lurking and watching, but I didn’t.

Another hundred feet, and I looked down at four long pieces of granite, about three feet long and eight inches wide, embedded in the ground. A quote from Thoreau had been engraved into the stone, like that judge in Alabama had the Ten Commandments engraved into a piece of stone in his courthouse. I kicked at one of the pieces of granite. It was firmly anchored to the ground in anticipation of potential Vandals like me. I kicked again, It still didn’t budge, so I walked off the trail into the “Restoration Area.”

I slid down a steep slope into a shallow gravel pit. Someone had dumped several truckloads of wood chips down that slope. I followed deer tracks up the other side. There in some scraggy pitch pines and white birches I saw a warbler. Unbelievably, instead of flitting about and hiding in the leaves, it stayed in plain sight long enough for me to really see it (and the light was perfect, slanting autumn sun through crystal-clear air): olive-green back with light streaks, wing bars, streaking on its white breast, white undertail coverts: a Blackpoll Warbler in fall plumage. I watched it pick insects off the leaves of one small birch tree, and then fly away. I crashed through the brush, stepping on leafless blueberry bushes, and suddenly I was surrounded by birds. If you kiss the back of your hand, sometimes the birds will come quite close: a dozen chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted down to perch on branches not twenty feet from me.

I found my way out past more granite markers, and crossed the highway to the site of the old Concord dump, where the town still maintains a composting facility. Birds flew from one big compost windrow to another: sparrows, a flycatcher or two, and bluebirds — bluebirds! I love seeing bluebirds. I walked up onto the hill that used to be the dump, now capped off and planted with some kind of grass that grows six or seven feet high, proud to think that I had dumped lots of trash here over the years. I saw my first Ring-billed Gull here, and my first Lesser Yellowlegs, here at the dump. When I got up to the top of the huge trash pile, two meadowlarks flew up out of the grass and circled around me. I love town dumps.

With a little bushwhacking, I skirted the Walden Pond parking lot and found the road up to the top of Pine Hill. It goes straight up the steep hill, so I went up it as fast as I could, my heart pounding. Ahead of me, two people went up more slowly. I reached the top at the same time they did. We all stopped where you can see Mount Wachusett through the trees. I recognized one of the two (name and gender withheld to protect the guilty) from conservation meetings we both attended seven or eight years ago, someone who worked for the Walden Pond State Reservation; I was pretty sure he/she recognized me, too.

“Wow, what a great view of Wachusett today,” I said. “The air is so clear today.”

Silence. They pointedly turned away from me, sat on the grass, and carried on a conversation in low tones. Who can blame them? If you work at Walden Pond, you must feel like you’re in a constant state of siege from hordes of tourists, Thoreau nuts, swimmers, and anglers. The park gets ten thousand or more people on a hot summer day. I’d probably be just as hostile as those two if I worked there.

The view of Wachusett was incredible, though, the mountain’s flanks reddened by the fall foliage. “The air is so clear, I can see the flashes of the car windshields from the top of Wachusett,” I said out loud.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw their backs stiffen. I could almost hear them thinking to themselves, “He’s talking to us, the bastard. He wants to engage us in conversation.” The one who knew me had enough remaining human instincts to half turn towards me, until catching him or herself. They turned back to each other and pretended to be carrying on their conversation in low tones. Merrily I bounded off down the hill, running in the sheer exuberance of a perfect fall day.

As long I was experiencing the Walden hostility, I figured I might was well walk all the way around the pond. Dozens of people clogged the narrow paths along the shore of the pond, even though it was a weekday. Some of these people obviously had been deluded into thinking they could find some kind of Thoreauvian solitude at Walden, and I watched them flinch as I hove into view, smiling at them as if I might talk to them. They avoided my eyes as we brushed by each other — you have to brush by each other because the trail is only about two and a half feet wide, and lined on either side with four-foot high wire fence to keep you safely separated from Walden Woods. God forbid you should go into the Walden Woods.

So I skipped up to the trail that follows the high ground around the pond. It’s wider, less crowded, doesn’t have fences, and one woman I passed actually said hello and exchanged pleasantries with me, my first human encounter at Walden that day that lacked all hostility. Thoreau’s misanthropy must be infect most people who visit Walden Pond. Or maybe the hostility comes from the increasing numbers of signs and interpretive plaques and stone commemorative markers. They now have a granite marker commemorating Thoreau’s bean field, for Pete’s sake. We should just develop all the land around Walden Pond into luxury houses. Think about it — the state could get millions for a single house fronting onto Walden Pond. A luxury house development could generate fifty to a hundred million dollars, which could go towards conserving what little wilderness is left in the state. Enough of Walden Pond.

Across the highway, back in the town forest, I walked around the little pond there. A man was fishing at the far end. “Catching anything?” I asked.

“A couple of small ones,” he said. “I just missed one.”

“Sunnies?” I said.

“Yep, bluegills,” he said. “There’s bass in there too.”

“Bass?” I said.

“Yep,” he said. “Once I talked to a guy who caught a twelve-pounder and brought it over and released it.”

It was hard to imagine that a twelve pound bass would find enough to eat in that little pond, but you never know. The man was fishing with long cane poles, not rods, dangling his bait and bobber twelve feet out into the little pond at the ends of the poles. They were beautiful, burnished a warm brown, with silver-colored ferrules. I secretly admired them while we chatted. He was from North Cambridge, he said, and he took the train out to Concord and walked over here to fish.

I wandered off down paths lit by the slanting autumn sun, and after a time found myself in the middle of a pine woods, of not very great extent, with no underbrush, only a soft covering of deep, quiet pine needles. On the northwest edge was a field, and there the pine wood was bordered by red maples covered in bright yellow and red leaves; the light filtering into the wood was golden. The black trunk of the pines drew my eyes up into the heights of the trees with mysterious dark pine needles. To the north, through the neatly spaced black tree trunks, the setting sun lit another line of red maples into a blaze of orange and red, and the light made me catch my breath. I may have stayed there a while, or maybe I just passed through. I could find no path leading out of this wood, so I pushed my way through the underbrush between it and the field, and emerged under blue sky and pink clouds. Transformed.