Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Sight for Sore Eyes

No law about blocking another guy's trash with your trash in Missouri

Eastern Kansas. I’ve been on the road for a couple weeks. Sitting in the hotel’s dining room (sorry, it’s the only descriptive word I could think of that would pass the censor) this morning, unabashedly listening to the conversation at the next table, glad that the knife I was trying to saw through my waffle with was plastic, gave me pause.
The woman at one table was from Iowa, the couple next to her from South Dakota. They were in agreement on a number of things: The Interstate highways were wonderful, large round hay bales in the field were so scenic (I held my peace, honest), and the open spaces were just like home.
I wanted to join in but was in a bit of a hurry to head back to St. Louis so I opted for I-70 rather than the back roads I prefer. I decided to take in the scenery that so enchanted these people who spoke like visitors from another planet.
My conclusions are: The Interstate highways are as exciting as watching clothes in a dryer, gimmie square hay bales any day, and where the hell are the open spaces?
People who only travel the Interstates in the cities can’t see the scenery to begin with because of the sound barriers (don’t get me started on those atrocities) blocking the view. And when they do get out in the country, billboards, actually litter on a stick, blocks and distracts what might pass for something interesting. It’s a toss up which state tosses the worst visual crap in the face of drivers, Indiana or Missouri.
Why, as taxpayers, suffering to use these highways, do we have to be assaulted by junk mail? Talk about exploitation of the 98 percenters.
I tried to find a number for how many billboards there are in America and it’s not an easy chore. The number is someplace between 500,000 and a million. Close enough for government work. And a lot of it is government work. Laws regulating how close trees can be planted to the highway so that they do not intrude on the drivers’ view are in place in 28 states. Florida has a law that prevents trees within 500 to 1,000 feet of the “view zone” of a message telling you something you don’t really care about.
Four states, Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine prohibit billboards. Any wonder why they’re at the top of everyone’s most beautiful list?
And who doesn’t love those fancy new brilliant, giant, flashy pieces of trash made with light-emitting diodes? You can see them from 20,000 feet in the air, or a half mile away on the ground. They’re billed as energy efficient because they consume only 4.8 kilowatts of electric power per square yard per hour. To put that into perspective, the average household in America uses 950 kilowatts of energy per month. A sign measuring 30 feet x 90 feet would use about 1400 kilowatts per hour, or 34,500 kilowatts per day or more than a million per month. These numbers are based on my proper use of the kilowatt conversion tables.
These disgusting signs are huge money makers for the billboard industry because they can change messages rapidly, attracting more advertisers. Forget about safety and distracting drivers. We’re only going to see more of them.
It’s time to deal with this litter on a stick as we would with any other trash found along the highway. Let’s put it all in a bag and send it to the recycle center. Let the kids in the minivans watching senseless videos look out the window and see something they can’t identify—like a cow or a barn. They might even have to talk with their parents.
Where’s the Monkey Wrench Gang when we need it?

Gentelmen, start your engines

Thursday, December 08, 2011

… And We Lived to Tell the Tale

Long-tailed ducks, Niagara River

Oscar Wilde said, “Niagara Falls is the bride’s second disappointment of marriage.” Well, to my knowledge, he was not a birder, nor was his wife, so her disappointment would have been understandable—for several reasons. Before this gets too complicated I think I’ll move on to our latest adventure.
Susan and I, along with birding buddies Karin and Pat, are freshly back from a trip to the wilds of Niagara Falls, Canada. The falls is viewed as the place to go for sighting gulls in winter. Any wife who is a birder, as is mine, and picks up three life birds as Susan did, would hardly consider a trip to Niagara Falls a disappointment.
Our trip was weeks in the planning and seemed like a good idea at the time. However, when we were trying to keep warm in 37-degrees, fog and rain so hard we couldn’t keep the binoculars clean, no one would admit they were first to suggest the holiday.
Going all the way to Canada did seem a bit peculiar. Currently, here in northeast Ohio, we have some great birds visiting from the Arctic. Adventure, however, can be like a drug, the desire for which increases with the habit.
I was particularly excited about going. A Razorbill, a bird of the high Atlantic regions, had been seen off and on for a couple weeks. It would be a lifer for me; one I missed this past spring while working on Project Puffin in Maine.
One requirement for these kinds of adventures, along with checking the weather, is to constantly check updates on the rare bird alerts. I’m beginning to think neither is a good idea after all. First, the weather promised to be about as miserable as it can be. Second, the day before we left, the Razorbill was seen—floating belly up in the Niagara River. These were not exactly good omens.
I’ve been at the birding game long enough to know, however, like the line from that great Rolling Stones tune says, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need. And, to keep the musical metaphor rocking and rolling, you get by with a little help from your friends. We ran into a mixed flock of birders from New York and Canada. They helped us spot some rare gulls—Iceland and Franklin’s to name two. They also gave us great directions to find the Little Gull.
And, while we might not have logged the species we were hoping for, in the end, after we dried out and stuffed ourselves full of food and Guinness in a great Irish pub, we got what we needed—a great time.
There was one last thrill to be had. Coming back into America from that foreign country to the north, with all the current border security these days, Customs Agents are definitely no-nonsense kind of people. So, when the serious-faced agent, wearing a gun belt with more tools hanging from it than a house carpenter asked if we had anything to declare, I was more than relieved he did not hear the quip from one excited person in our car, “Just a Black-legged Kittiwake.”

Black-legged Kittiwake from above the Whirpool, Niagara River