revoke my car privileges and drop me in a field somewhere, please

Rarely do I feel compelled to deconstruct my entire day in the space of a blog post, but today was um…special, shall we say? It started out normal enough. Armed with an unexpected day off, I crossed county lines with field glasses in hand to search for field birds. I had good intel on locations for breeding birds, and made haste for them. With windows rolled down, I heard the telltale robotic jingle-jangle of a Bobolink and navigated over to the shoulder. Out of the car in a flash, I first thought I’d been fooled by a nearby mockingbird attempting to hog the spotlight as usual, but then the bobolink himself flew overhead, tinkling and jingling to his heart’s content. He flew across the road and landed in a field, affording me adequate looks to get the day started off on the best foot. Nemesis bird comes home to roost! I moved on. I drove the country roads for about an hour and a half and found the birds to be generally cooperative. I saw and heard all my target birds for this trip. Meadowlarks were plentiful and I got a couple of stellar looks at them. Horned Larks were not as plentiful but I did spot a couple from a distance, and heard them elsewhere. I found a singing male Dickcissel perched on the exact section of power line where I found one last year…could it have been the same bird? In addition to these birds, I was also treated to great looks at several American Kestrels.

As I began to wind down my time, I returned once again to the site of the initial bobolink sighting to see if I could cop another look. As I navigated the car onto the opposite shoulder this time, the right front end suddenly sunk into a hidden ditch. When I got out of the car, I saw that the back left wheel was about 3 feet off the ground! As I assessed the seriousness of the situation, a man in a box truck drove up and offered assistance. We tried moving the car with him sitting in the hatch for balance (he was sorta stocky), but that didn’t work so he offered to seek out a farmer down the road with a chain, or failing that to call the sheriff’s office. While waiting around, I watched a bobolink groom himself while perched on a power line. Unfortunately my concern about the car impeded my joy at witnessing this scene. About 20 minutes later I was about to give up on Box Truck Man and call a tow truck when simultaneously the sheriff showed up and two country dudes in a big pick-up passed by and offered to pull me out. Within minutes they’d hooked a chain to the frame and pulled the car out. Country folks rule! I thanked them all profusely and decided to head back to the city after so much excitement.

I needed to pick Em El up and shuttle her downtown for a meeting but I had some extra time so I stopped to check on the birds at another favorite location. There I found expected Prairie Warbler and Hooded Warbler, although couldn’t get a visual on the latter. Many singing Field Sparrows, a perched Turkey Vulture (usually they’re circling endlessly overhead at this spot), a singing White-eyed Vireo, and other usual suspects rounded out the mix.

Once downtown I killed more time (die, time, die!) by finishing Darkness Visible and continuing with Paris Spleen, drinking espresso, and getting yelled at by a probably schizophrenic man. Somehow I think Baudelaire would’ve appreciated the scene. Unbeknownst to me, while all of this fun was taking place Em El’s car was being towed because I failed to read the red highlighted part of the parking meter that said No Parking Between 4-6 PM Mon-Fri. Yes, this is common knowledge to those who frequently drive and park in the city. However, I’m like a deer in the headlights when I get downtown behind the wheel of a car (really bad simile in this context, I know). I don’t know the rules, man! I’m a cyclist, for god’s sake. I haven’t owned a car since 1997 or something (if you’re curious, it was a Plymouth Valiant that sat in my driveway for a few years after I used it to move to Virginia [it looked like this, except crappier because it only cost $400]). Anyway, I guess the cycling gods were raining down holy fire and brimstone on me today for driving too much lately. Maybe I deserved it, but damn, those cycling gods are harsh. Of course, no thanks to The City of Baltimore, either, always taking and never giving!

As we waited in line to pay the obscene $272 required to get the car back, I attempted to lighten the mood by telling Em El that at least we can chalk this up as another quintessential Baltimore experience (along with other special things, such as becoming the victim of a crime and receiving wildly innacurate water bills). After all, you haven’t really lived in Baltimore until you’ve waited 45 minutes in the tiny concrete bunker under the interstate overpass with all the other suckers preyed upon that day by the blood-sucking savages commonly known as tow-truck drivers.

As if all this wasn’t enough, immediately after Farley ate his dinner tonight he barfed it all up in various places around the house along with all the water he’d drank in the previous 30 minutes. By that time, I was about ready to hurl myself off the deck in search of sweet unconsciouness.

To sum up, my joy tonight is all tangled with misery and weariness.

catbird chatter

I returned early this morning from a work-related trip to San Francisco (photo post to follow). While I was gone, the catbirds skulked back into the neighborhood and resumed transmission of their esoteric messages from the protection of the now fully leafed out trees and shrubbery. I am happy to hear their secretive broadcasts once again. While out walking Farley, I also heard a House Wren singing on the next street over and a Yellow Warbler singing a little farther afield. Word on the street is that I missed a couple of stellar days of migrant fallouts in this area while I was gone. So I’m a little disappointed about that, although I did manage to pick up a few Western North American species on my trip that were lifers. On multiple occasions, I also saw and heard some of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which was really cool as I’d watched the documentary about them not too long ago.

For my trip reading, I took along Anne Tyler’s Celestial Navigation. I like most of her older books and Em El particularly recommended this one. It did not disappoint! I finished up the last few pages over lunch today and was struck by this passage below. It’s certainly not cheery reading, but much of what I read and enjoy is not. For me, it’s all about the shadows.

Being good was not enough. The mistakes he reviewed were not evil deeds but errors of aimlessness, passivity, an echoing internal silence. And when he rose in the morning (having waited out the night, watching each layer of darkness lift slowly and painfully), he was desperate with the need to repair all he had done, but the only repairs he could think of were also aimless, passive, silent. He had a vague longing to undertake some metaphysical task, to make some pilgrimage. In books a pilgrimage would pass through a fairytale landscape of round green hills and nameless rivers and pathless forests. He knew of no such landscape in America. Fellow pilgrims in leather and burlap would travel alongside him only long enough to tell their stories—clear narratives with beginnings, middles, ends and moral messages, uncluttered by detail—but where would he find anyone of that description? And think of what he would have to carry in the rustic knapsack on his back. The tools of his craft; Epoxy glue in two squeeze tubes, spray varnish, electric sander, disposable paintbrushes. Wasn’t there anything in the world that was large scale any more? Wasn’t there anything to lift him out of this stillness inside? He fumbled for his clothes and picked his way downstairs. He made his breakfast toast and ate it absently, chewing each mouthful twenty times and gazing at the toaster while he tried to find just one heroic undertaking that he could aim his life toward.

observations and updates

Life is full of contrast, yin and yang, often subtle, sometimes blatant. Saturday was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, while Sunday brought cold and rain. It was like living in two opposite climates in a single weekend. On Saturday we spent the day outside, hiking and visiting old friends. On Sunday we went to a soggy native plant sale and picked up a few more plants for the front yard. The cool wet weather continues today, ushering in the always jarring Monday Troll, having freshly clawed itself up the muddy embankment from its weekend under-bridge haunts. It sits on my keyboard now, all red gleaming eyes and slavering fangs.

The weekend yielded a few new first-of-year birds, including Northern Parula, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and one of my all-time favorites, WOOD THRUSH! How happy was I to hear their dulcet notes while walking the arboretum trails on Friday evening.

This morning as I rode past the parole and probation office, a young man crossing the street in front of me yelled “Gimme that damn bike,” not even pausing in his stride and with no more than a cursory glance in my general direction. I am always mystified by interactions like this (a more aggressive spin on the classic “Hey, lemme borrow your bike” scheme). Did this guy expect me to immediately dismount and hand my bike over to him? He made no threatening gestures nor did he display any inclination to take my bike by force. His instruction was delivered in a manner more akin to a casual aside than a strict command, although I found his tone reflected a savagery inappropriate for such an early hour. Likely on his way to meet with his probation agent, perhaps he was not in the best of moods and needed to make some desperate attempt to assert control over his situation. I was almost tempted to stop and give him the bike just to see what he would do. I’m sure it would not have been what he was expecting. Maybe he would’ve asked me to hold it for him while he went inside and spoke with his agent. I can imagine him in the office, highly agitated, imploring his agent to hasten the meeting along: “C’mon, man, can we just finish this up? There’s a guy outside who’s gonna gimme his bike and I dunno how much longer he’s gonna wait for me.”

When you live in a crime-riddled city like this one, you need to have a sense of humor about stuff like this. Otherwise you’d stay in your house all the time with the blinds pulled shut.

a birdy morning

I came downstairs this morning to hear a Yellow Warbler singing from a tree across the alley. Over the next hour, I heard and saw the Yellow, one or two Blackpoll Warblers, and a couple of Cedar Waxwings! It was like a tiny migrant fall-out in the alley! Living in an urban rowhouse neighborhood, we don’t get too many birds in the yard. I do keep a yard list, though, listing each species I either see or hear while I’m in the house or yard. This morning’s birds were all new, bringing my list to 40 species! I think this is a decent yard list total for less than two years, and considering the environment around our house. I hadn’t found a new yard bird in a long time, so to get three in one hour was awesome! I’ve already tallied up most of the likely birds to show up here, so I’m now left hoping for random migrants or winter visitors. I was tempted to blow off work today and hang around to see what else showed up. A couple of times in the past week, I’ve seen and heard warblers in the trees along my bike route to work. Hopefully a few more will wander over to my street before the magic of migration fades into summer.

the madness of migration

The general public does not realize the significance of the month of May in the life of a North American birder. It is a magical time when all birders would much rather be prowling their favorite haunts searching for spring migrants than toiling away at their desks, or doing anything else for that matter. Every year I say I’m going to take the entire month of May off the following year because unless you go birding every day there is a good chance you are missing something somewhere. And that is a terrible feeling. I have seen some good birds this spring, but I crave more and more and more. Too much time sitting at a desk, and too little time scanning the treetops. The other day I was riding to work and not a quarter mile from my house I heard warblers singing. I literally threw my bike down in the street, pulled my binoculars from my backpack, and began frantically glassing the trees. Warblers are the true jewels of migration. Sure, there are lots of other cool birds that arrive in the area during this time, but I doubt there is a single birder whose pulse does not quicken when she or he hears that familiar buzzing high above them.

another day in the woods

So I had a photo to post from my outing yesterday, but wouldn’t you know it, my camera’s USB cord is MIA.  I’ve scoured the house to no avail.  So all I’ve got once again tonight is my stream of words.  Let’s see if I can hydrate this barren electronic soil with them enough to grow some trees.

The oppressive heat continues, and as I’d had a late night on Thursday, I left the house later yesterday morning than I would’ve liked.  By the time I spun my wheels down the final leg of my journey to Lake Roland, I was near soaked in sweat.  Locking up my bike to a No Parking sign, I listened to woods devoid of birdsong.  I didn’t really care, though.  What I needed first and foremost was a restorative walk in the woods, and if there were some birds around, even the better.  But if they were laying low, I certainly couldn’t blame them.  The day was still a ways off from reaching high noon, and yet the heavy air already steamed with the essence of warm bath water.  I knew once I stepped from pavement to soil, though, that the temperature would cease to register as a discomfort to me.

As I walked down the dead end road to the entrance to the park, I opened my ears and my eyes, and set the pace for the day.  Today was a day to practice slow birding, where I often stop for long periods of time, standing still, and wait for the birds to come to me.  Sometimes it works better than other times, but it’s always a worthwhile venture.  It reminds me of the reason I truly love birding; it’s not the feeling I get from ticking off a new lifer (although that’s always nice), but the wonder I experience when watching a bird close-up, by really observing its behavior.

Once in the park, I picked up on a few birds here and there.  I started out on the path down toward the lake, thinking I’d start there and then backtrack.  But as I reached the first crossroads in the trail, I heard the soft hooting of a Barred Owl.  I decided to backtrack and see if I could find it.  I’d found one before in the general area where the hooting was coming from.  I crossed over another trail and entered the shade of the pines, but had no luck in locating the owl.  As I moved in slow increments down the path, I did find some pockets of bird activity, though. There were many cardinals and catbirds present, and a few singing White-eyed Vireos.

I soon encountered what would be my slow birding highlight of the day: ten minutes or so of close proximity to an Eastern Wood-Pewee as it practiced its trade, swiftly and efficiently hawking insects from a tree branch.  Flying out in a swooping circle, it would snatch an insect and then return to the same branch to eat it, all in one fluid motion.  I hear pewees often, as they are one of the few persistent forest singers in the deep heat of mid to late summer when many birds have long since clammed up for the season, but rarely have I had a chance to be this close to one for so long.  As I peered at it through my bins, I could see its eyes darting back and forth as it followed the insect paths through the air.  This bird was a true master of its craft.

Eventually I left the pewee behind, and made my way down toward the feeder stream heading to the lake.  On my way, I found a Monarch butterfly and watched it feeding on nectar for a few minutes.  This monarch’s colors looked fresh, and I marveled at how nature could fashion such a beautiful creature.  The monarchs have begun their epic journey to Mexico, and this particular one may already have been en route.  Monarchs are the only butterflies to make such a long two-way migration.  The ones that emerge from the pupal stage in late summer and early fall know by instinct to head straight for their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico.  Then in spring, they return north to reproduce and finish their life cycle.  So when you see monarchs in the fall, they are performing one of the more amazing feats in the natural world.  I find it surprising enough that such a small creature as a hummingbird can migrate such a great distance, crossing the entire Gulf of Mexico and beyond.  But to think that a butterfly, so seemingly fragile and ephemeral, can travel for thousands of miles, survive an entire winter in Mexico, and then travel thousands more miles to its breeding grounds…well, it just seems so unlikely, so absurd!  And yet it happens every year, whether we notice it or not.

Once at the stream, I disrupted some crows roosting in the muddy bottomlands alongside it, a favorite afternoon spot of theirs.  A couple of individuals scolded me vigorously for at least ten minutes, but I was too absorbed in some movement way up high in the treetops to pay them much mind.  I was about to give up on IDing whatever it was because it was so far up there and mostly obscured by leaves as it hunted insects.  But then it flew to another tree and I saw what it was:  an American Redstart, an immature male or a female, my first “fall warbler” of the year.

As I followed the stream I encountered many robins and catbirds, with a sprinkling of chickadees, titmice, and goldfinches.  On the other side of the stream I spotted a hummingbird feeding from some yellow trumpet-shaped flowers (haven’t been able to ID them yet).  I heard and briefly saw a Great Crested Flycatcher.  When I reached the lake, many Chimney Swifts suddenly flew out from the trees out over the water.  I walked down the wooden steps to the water and sat for a while, eating an apple.  I felt at peace, and I knew then that it was okay to leave.

last friday

After a week of sickness, I finally escaped into the woods on Friday. I visited three different local birding hotspots, and was fully rewarded for my efforts. Of course, as migration heats up, I am painfully reminded each time I go out how many more songs I need to learn in order to feel even semi-competent. At home, I listen and listen to songs on the computer and iBird.  I also bring iBird with me in the field, and keep one earphone stuck in my ear.  I try to match up the songs, but when there are dozens of birds singing, it often feels futile.  I know I’m missing out on so many.  Ah well, here are some photos from my day. I wish I had a good enough camera to capture some of the amazing views of birds I see while I’m out.  Probably the highlights this time were the Prairie Warblers at Soldier’s Delight.  I went over there expressly for the purpose of finding them, and as soon as I stepped out of the car, I heard them singing.  I found one pretty quickly just a few steps in from the road, and watched him singing at eye level for quite some time. Truly a beautiful bird with a very pretty song!

First couple of photos are of Liberty Dam.  I found some Spotted Sandpipers feeding on the steps of the spillway, as Northern Rough-winged Swallows flew in and out of one of the drainage holes nearby.  The second two photos are microcosmic shots at Soldier’s Delight.


Em El and I took some much-needed vacation time last week. Part of our journey included a return trip (for me) to one of my favorite places in the South: the Congaree National Park. This park protects the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest on the continent. The average canopy height of the trees is over 100 feet, with many trees well over 150 feet high, including the National Champion Loblolly Pine, which tops out at 167 feet high and almost 15 feet around. Here I am below in front of one of the Congaree’s mighty giants. To put things in perspective a bit, I am about 6 feet 2 inches tall.

On this day, we spent about 6 hours exploring the swamp and it held many wonders for us. Migrating warblers and vireos flitted through the park, often coming quite close, and we frequently heard the wild cry of the Pileated Woodpecker, a bird that is in my mind the perfect ambassador to a place like the Congaree. During our sojourn, we were also lucky enough to spot two Barred Owls. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was the small herd of wild boars we startled (the startling was mutual, believe me) as we hiked through one of the more remote areas of the park.

Between the massive trees, the clumps of Spanish moss hanging everywhere, and the overwhelming primal feel of the place, I felt like we’d traveled back in time, and I couldn’t help wondering what it must’ve been like before our ancestors tore through here like a pack of Tasmanian devils, chopping down trees and draining swamps like there was an endless supply of both.

All I can say is I am so glad that the National Park Service exists. It is arguable that it was too little too late, and that in the grand scheme of things, the NPS protects a mere shred of the natural beauty that once adorned this country. But if it weren’t for places like the Congaree, it would be so much harder to drive through the South today and see how suburban sprawl eats up more and more land. I think of my trip to the Congaree like a pilgrimage. I return to the city renewed inside, for a little while at least.

return of the little yellow birds

I spent four hours birding in the woods today and was excited to finally spot some warblers! I saw both Pine Warblers and Palm Warblers (an entire small flock of ’em). The Palm Warblers are just passing through; they breed much farther north, chiefly in Canada. But some of the Pine Warblers will be sticking around and raising families.

It was an otherwise good birding day. I saw and heard several Brown Thrashers. Not exactly exotic, but they are only here in the summer months and their intricate songs are a real treat to hear. I like hearing them skulk around in the underbrush, too. I also saw two Pileated Woodpeckers goofing around with each other on a tree trunk. That was cool…I always love seeing those crazy birds. Down on the water, I witnessed some fascinating social interactions between two male Mallards and one female. It seemed like the one male was trying to chase off the other one, but at one point the female acted like she’d had enough of both of them and chased them off so she could do some feeding in peace. Eventually the one guy got the girl and the spurned fellow cruised off to sulk by himself.

I felt like I could’ve stayed out there all day. Four hours passed so fast, and I was reluctant to leave. Lately I’ve been thinking about those solitary days in the past spent alongside a muddy river. I spent so much time outside back then…it was the only way I kept from going crazy. It seems like I’ve always felt much more at ease in the woods, or otherwise surrounded by nature and wildlife instead of inside, surrounded by “stuff.” When I’m inside, I tend to go too far inside myself. It’s like I’m being squeezed tight by the walls around me. But outside I can breathe, I can untether my soul and let it roam free.

I think I am just going to be forever restless.

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