Sunday, October 21, 2012

If You Can’t Find the Bird You Want …

 Savanah Sparrow

Something old: Me
Something New: Maybe
Something Borrowed: Four Tim O’Brien CDs from birding buddies Karin and Pat
Something Blue: My trusty Saturn

Okay, in the Something New spot above I had intended to write, LeConte’s Sparrow. Now that I’ve given away the end of this story, if you want to see a picture of LeConte’s Sparrow, open your dictionary to the word nemesis, I’m sure its picture is there.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

I’ve chased the bird before, even as far north as Winnepeg, Manitoba, once. The little, skulky, orange-colored sparrow and I have yet to cross paths. I thought today might be the day, however. The state bird hot line has been all abuzz with daily reports this past week of a LeConte’s on the nearby Wake Robin Trail in Mentor Marsh, less than an hour from home. It’s a rare bird in these parts.
I’ve been otherwise busy with another project, however, Susan convinced me that I needed some fresh air and what better way to get some much-needed exercise than by chasing after a bird that rarely flies more than 12 inches above the ground; or so it seems to me.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

I arrived at the designated spot at the crack of nine this morning; birders were in place as I expected they would be. The bird, however, was yet to be seen, even by the fellow, Jerry Talkington, who has been tracking the bird for the past few days. Not a good sign.
Jerry and I walked the trail a bit and he told me, almost down to the blade of grass, where the bird had been seen. Hmmmm. The best look I had was a flash of orange about 50 yards away. Could have been LeConte’s or it could have been a Nelson’s Sparrow, also seen in this spot during the past few days.

White-crowned Sparrow

It was a great day for birding so I’m not complaining. I logged 25 species for the day. To paraphrase John Lennon: If you can’t find the bird you want, want the bird you find. I talked with a few birders who had driven up from Cincinnati and Dayton who were not as generous. But, if you’re going to get into this game, the first thing you have to realize is that birds have wings and they don’t read the rare-bird alert traffic on the Web.
Speaking of new birders, I was pleased to see a good number of beginners among the more experienced birders along the trail. One woman in particular impressed me with her enthusiasm. She was carrying (I should say lugging) binoculars better used for astronomy than birding. They had to be 20x60s and must have weighed 10 pounds.
She said, “Are there any birds in this place other than sparrows?”
Me: “Sparrows are what it’s all about, today.”
Her: “We were hoping to see some eagles. Seen any eagles?”
Oh my.

What's not to like about a White-throated Sparrow?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Not As Seen On TV

Nothing like a rainbow sign to kick off the rally for President Obama.

The roar of the loudspeakers, the smell of the crowd. Preaching to the choir. Talking with myself.
It’s been a while since I attended a political rally, so, when the opportunity to see President Bill Clinton, Bubba, and Bruce Springsteen, the Boss—on the same stage— popped up, it was too much to resist. (Full disclosure: It was at Susan’s urging I attend, in spite of my issues with large crowds. Of course she was right. And, while I’m at it, she suggested I carry my little pocket camera, which saved the day. In spite of the fact that the ticket clearly stated cameras were permitted, the security people still confiscated my regular camera gear. But that’s another story.)
The last political (make that, presidential) rally I attended was, hmmmm, 1956. Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver versus Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. I don’t remember a lot about that election, only that I really wanted one of those raccoon skin caps that Kefauver, senator from Tennessee, wore. My brother, Cliff, and I had been recruited by our grandparents, activists in the Democratic party in Cleveland, to be part of a youth rally for Stevenson. Hey, I was 14, it meant a day out of school, and there were probably girls there.
Some things change in 56 years, some don’t. Then, all I had to do was show up. Now, I had to go get a ticket, which I scored easily enough yesterday, by filling out reams of forms. Then, I remember wearing a snappy blue and white hounds-tooth check suit with pegged pants, white shirt and tie. Now, it’s wear what ya dare. And then there’s the electronics …

"We can't go back. We can only move forward." President Clinton

Signs of hope: While unloading from the car (about a mile from the venue’s door) two hours before the gates were to open, a rainbow formed over the building at Cuyahoga Community College where the event was to be. It had been slated, so I was told and thus, oversold, for the soccer field. Cleveland’s changeable weather, however, changed for the worse. Another sign of hope was, what I saw as several flocks of Peace doves landing on the campus lawn, some folks thought were just pigeons.
I’m not much good at crowd estimates, nor judging distance. A fellow on line next to me, who seemed to be an expert on virtually every topic from artificial insemination to xenophobia, said the crowd had reached at least 10,000 and the line to get into the basketball gym was more than a mile long. Okay.
As luck would have it, after a couple hours of standing around resisting the vendors’ T-shirts, I got into the building, through security (except for the camera hassle) and into the gym. Standing room only. In fact, there were no seats for anyone. No movable furniture allowed. No one really cared, this was a party. It was one of those moments when I wished I had been born tall instead of good looking.

Okay, the best shot I got of the Boss and Bubba

After the obligatory speeches by local politicians, President Clinton stormed the stage. The man should run for president, he’s that good. It was a solid, fact-filled lecture by Professor Clinton. Each time he leaned on the lectern, took off his glasses, pointed his finger and said, “Now listen, this is important …” everyone in the room reached for their pens and notepads.
President Clinton made numerous references to the opponents’ promises, however, I think the former president’s most important message, referring to Romney’s one-point economic plan, was that we can’t go back. “We can’t even go back to an economy that we had when I was president. You have to move forward.”
Jettisoning his suit coat, President Clinton introduced the Boss—Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s opening comment brought down the house. “Having President Clinton as your opening act is like trying to follow Elvis.”

A nation is measured by its compassion for its weakest citizens.

For about an hour, Springsteen, in his workingman’s blue shirt, acoustic guitar and harmonica, translated the lecture of President Clinton. He distilled the Democratic message; that a nation can only be measured by its compassion for its weakest citizens. His tools were words and songs we could all understand and sing along with, among which was “This Land is Your Land,” a tribute to Woody Guthrie on Woody’s 100th birthday.

We cannot, Springsteen said, do as the Romney campaign is asking of us in the middle class, to just melt away like scenery in some other man’s play.
No, this is America where we take care of our own.
I’m Clyde Witt and I approve OF this message.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Foraging With Friends

 This morning, with limited time for birding, Susan and I opted to return to a spot we had seen only from afar; a small wetland spot right in the harbor at Santa Barbara. We had seen some shorebirds there earlier in the week and thought it might have something to offer.
As we walked around this small estuary we feared our instincts might have led us astray. Not much happening. As we neared the end of our loop walk, a juvenile White-faced Ibis dropped from the sky about 100 feet from us. This bird is not unheard of in this local, but it is not very common either. In eight years of birding California together, this was our first encounter with a White-faced Ibis.

The bird seemed a bit nervous, but hungry, as it worked its way around the edges of a pool crowded with American Coots and a few Blue-winged Teal. It found a spot that had something to its liking and held still long enough for us to move into position for some good viewing. As it ate and churned up the bottom around its feet, the coots worked their way over to get in on the free eats.
Without warning (at least none we could detect) the ibis swung its massive bill and whacked one of the coots on the butt.
Moral of the story: Birds of the feather don’t always forage together.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Thrill of the Chase

 Common Cuckoo Watsonville Slough, Santa Cruz, California 

 It’s common knowledge in the birding world, when a bird’s first name is “Common,” it’s likely not to be so. As luck would have it, last week Susan and I happened to be spending some time in the Monterey Bay area during our extended California Adventure. As a subscriber to eBird’s critically important rare bird alert program, I could not believe our good fortune when I read, September 28, of the spotting of truly rare bird.
A Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus, first year female) was found at the Watsonville Slough, in Santa Cruz, 25 miles from where we were. The bird is common in Europe and Asia, however, in the U.S. it’s a different story; an uncommon tail to be sure. Our plans for heading south toward Morro Bay made a quick 180—north to Santa Cruz, much to the objections of the GPS lady.
Early Saturday morning we drove to the spot where the bird was reported the day before. As any bird-chaser will tell you, when you arrive at the spot and lots of other people are standing around, hands in pockets, looking in all directions, it’s not a good sign. Susan jumped from the car and chatted up the first person she came to. He turned out to be friendly and knowledgeable. As he dashed for his car, he said the bird had just been spotted “across the bridge.” He recognized the blank looks we gave him and said, “follow me.”
Music to our ears. Susan spun the rental car around so fast the GPS lady was shouting, “What? What? I’m just askin’ here!”
About a half mile away we joined more than 100 other birders, a flowing stream of humanity, like lemmings (to mix a metaphor) toward a weedy edge of a not-so-friendly looking estuary. Fog shrouded the area. In hushed tones (birders often do this when a rarity is around), the question and answer game began: “Seen it? Anybody have it? Where is it?”

Waiting and watching. Part of the thrill of the chase.

After 15 minutes or so, the star arrived. Full disclosure here: I missed the entrance, Susan did not. The bird popped up and down so quickly, I was still trying to sort out which brown tree with the green leaves, etc.; following the directions of a dozen people and getting so frustrated I almost peed my pants. The bird was gone before I was even facing the right direction.
While gnashing my teeth, way overheated, I unwound myself from my camera straps, binoculars, backpack, et al, and dropped it all on the ground to get out of my sweater. On queue, the bird popped up again. Susan had worked her way to the front of the crowd and was one of the first to see it and, I think, the first to get a scope on the bird, much to the delight of many people around her. The chatter of camera motor drives drowned out directions people were giving, however, this time I got great looks.
This would prove to be the first California record for the species and, according to one knowledgeable birder standing next to me, possibly only the second sighting in the U.S., the first being some years ago in Massachusetts.
She (the Common Cuckoo) decided to cooperate and give us adoring fans a treat. She perched in a relatively open spot (albeit 150 feet away) and posed for about 10 minutes, then flew off to the sound of hundreds of people all releasing their breath at the same time.
What a bird. Okay, not glamorous by some standards, but hey, beauty is only feather deep—and those feathers will change soon enough. In classic birder tradition, when the bird pooped the crowd said, “Aaaaaa.” And with that, Cuculus canorus took off to the left, heading for a spot with a bit more privacy.
High fives all ‘round. One of the local birders had a shopping bag full of bagels he distributed, the sun made a cameo appearance. Life is good.

Common Cuckoo takes wing