Author Archives: laurenkmo

Eyes Peeled

I’m not sure at what point I turned the corner to a full-on bird nerd. I’d always casually observed them around my parents and had definitely looked through binoculars at birds, mostly on our annual visits to Florida.

I have a vague recollection of keeping my mouth shut to avoid mockery when my parents were scoping out a pond to see if there were mergansers or wigeons or wood ducks. Ducks, other than mallards? I had honestly assumed they were one and the same. Now I can’t get enough of shovelers and hoodies and the occasional pintail. I squealed the first time I saw harlequin ducks.

I’m not sure what stage of birding I’m in, expertise-wise, but it is hard to walk anywhere without dragging along my binoculars. I’ve also begun stopping, Indiana Jones style, going “Did you hear that?” whenever I hear a new call, song, or promising rustle in the underbrush. (If it is not very much fun to walk with me now, my friends have not said anything.)

My relatively new entry to birding means that I still have weekends where I go hiking and spot 3 new species (yellow-billed cuckoo, Pileated woodpeckers, red-eyed vireo) without a ton of effort. Just the idea that there are interesting birds around has made me more aware of the ecological complexity that exists in a walk through greenery.

While not a bird, I saw this snapping turtle laying eggs on the way to work. One of the benefits of looking around for surprises on any walk, however short.

What wildlife has surprised you lately?

Snapping Turtle

Female snapping turtle laying eggs. Photo by author, June 2017.

With Legs Outstretched

I don’t remember where I read it, but I do remember reading that most ticks die without reproducing. They don’t really move very far, just pick a spot on the top of grass and wait with a pair of outstretched legs, hoping that they can grab onto a passerby. (Although it might be a bit much to ascribe an emotion such as hope to a tick, it is semantically much simpler than a scientifically-accurate explanation.)

This behavior, reaching into the air with their legs, is called questing. The ticks can’t jump or fall from their perch, all they can do is hang on if a suitable host makes contact.

While hiking recently, I bent to tie my shoelaces and caught a brown lump on some grasses right in the middle of the trail. I saw a large tick, two legs held aloft – evoking a superhero pose, presumably waiting for an unwitting host to brush against its patient legs. I poked a little at the tick with a twig, to see how it responded. The legs reached forward to grasp it, and I flipped the tick-occupied side of the twig onto a rock off the trail. I uneasily continued on the trail.

Tick

Blurry brown lump, a tick, is towards 11 o’clock on clump of grass. (Best a phone could do.)

I have been casting about recently, prodded on by a restless feeling, making lists of my values and goals and what would comprise a life well-lived. I keep writing and thinking and going about my daily routine and waiting for change to happen to me, for an opportunity to pop up, for a crystallized vision to strike me as I doze off.

Meanwhile, years have passed.

This semi-lazy opportunism has worked for me in the past – a college brochure directing me to the midwest, an instantaneous decision over breakfast conversation that I wanted to go to grad school, working various internships that others recommended, doing a U-Turn into teaching, etc. But the magic sauce seems to have run out.

Clearly stepping past the caution tape surrounding the academic sin of anthropomorphism, I identified strongly and reluctantly with the tick. That moment with the tick made me clearly aware that I am questing in my current life, hoping that something will happen to me and move me towards my purpose, hoping that a lumbering opportunity will pass by and let me grab on with my outstretched legs.

Spring Fever

The world is bursting at the seams with birdsong.

Swirling in my run-of-the-mill anxiety, it was a relief to go outside into the greenery.

I was caught inside my own head, frenetically (but efficiently!) darting from place to place within the house – washing dishes, refreshing sourdough starter, filling the bird feeder, making hummingbird nectar,  folding laundry, cleaning out the car, putting away groceries, checking the news to make sure there weren’t any additional disasters, dealing with compost, being disappointed by my decision to check the news – and I knew had to get outside, the brief window of spring already closing rapidly.

The overhead chips alert me to free-wheeling swallows, slicing through the air like dive bombers. I’ve been working like crazy to get better at distinguishing tree swallows, barn swallows, and rough-winged swallows as they cartwheel past with their clicks.

The grackles have discovered my bird feeder and argue over it with the blue jays, while the mourning doves and house sparrows selected the subtle route and hop about for the leftovers.

It was a relief to see the birds going about their business, robins and catbirds and geese. Nothing unusual this time, no male Baltimore Orioles scuffling in the treetops, no thrushes singing in the underbrush. But it was a great reminder of the remarkable world living right under my nose. (And I like to think I gave back a little, returning an earthworm stranded on the asphalt to the grass.)

Here’s to more time outside in the spring!

Urban Jungle

I was the star producer in my own NatGeo special today – except my camera was an iPhone and my quarry was in a park.

I was walking around a neighborhood park with a co-worker and discussing the buffleheads and cormorant we’d already seen amidst floating plastic, when a flapping figure went past my vision and landed on an electric pole. I saw something bird-shaped in its talons, and yelled out in excitement, “It has a bird! And I think it’s a kestrel!” (Given its relatively small size.)

In full nerd mode, I scrambled for the binoculars by throwing my bag on the ground, ripping them from their case, and hurling the eye covers away. I was so thrilled to see a flash of blue wings and red breast that I didn’t care about the squirming prey flapping its wings in vain. I shoved the binoculars at my colleague and basically shouted, “Oh shit! It’s a kestrel!” She noted what a beautiful bird it was before politely handing back the binoculars and saying she couldn’t watch it if it was starting to eat. Fair enough, watching a flapping bird (probably a starling) having chunks torn out of it is not pleasant and elicits feelings of sympathy.

But.

I saw a kestrel make a kill and eat it! While on top of a light pole and in New Jersey’s largest city. So starling aside, it was a top 10 wildlife experience.

IMG_0374

Kestrel, Newark, 2017. Eating unidentified prey, best guess is a starling.

The cherry on top was when I heard two kestrels calling back and forth and freakin’ knew that was a kestrel call. I have been relentlessly learning birdcalls via a phone app and am therefore slightly above the level where you are unable to distinguish a bird call from airplane engine noise.

I spent the rest of the day gleefully showing colleagues pictures of kestrels and buffleheads like they were my own children who had just learned to sit up or roll over or walk.

And I will continue to keep my eyes and ears on high alert in urban settings.

 

 

Days of Birds

When I first moved to New York City, fresh from the open air and mountain views of Colorado, the best part of my week was grocery shopping. First thing Saturday morning, exhausted from a week of crying during and after work, I would head to the Union Square Farmers’ Market or Trader Joe’s and relish the feeling of coming home with a full hiking backpack of groceries. Then, it was back to work.

If only I’d had a bird feeder near a park during that time, I would have had a more consistent source of joy, at least on the weekends.

I could have tapped away diligently at my computer and been able to look up and see flashes of red house finches, goldfinches transitioning into their namesake color, bluejays screeching their superiority, the splashy mohawk of a red-bellied woodpecker, and upside-down nuthatches snagging a seed and heading to safer perches to feast.

It’s unlikely I would have seen the orange streak of a fox unsuccessfully hunting squirrels, though stranger things have happened in Manhattan.

The snowstorm has brought a plethora of hungry birds to my backyard feeder, and a lot more joy to my daily tasks than I would have thought. Washing dishes, filing papers, and folding laundry is much more interesting, not with YouTube in the background, but with squabbling and tumbling birds going about getting a meal.

BlueJay

Blue Jay, 2017

Can a Bird do that?

I think I’m being pranked.

Yet another thing that humans had reserved for themselves – intentional use of fire, seems to be falling by the wayside.

Black kites and brown falcons in Australia have been documented dropping burning twigs in areas outside of the fire’s reach in order to flush out tasty bits of protein-lizards, insects, mice.

Competition is fierce at the fires, as the prey animals basically escape the flames just to meet their end in the talons of raptors.

So an arsonist streak gives these birds the chance to have the animals fleeing immolation all to themselves.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a second source. In the meantime, hats off to inventive and bold birds.

Snowy Birding

There’s no such thing as too many layers when it’s 20 degrees out and snow blowing sideways. Three was the magic number – three layers of pants, three layers of tops, and wishing I’d had 3 layers of socks rather than 2. Not sure I could have fit three layers of socks in my shoes, but one is tempted by such thoughts when your toes transition from pretty cold to one notch short of painful.

gulls_longisland

Photo by author, Long Island. 2017. Gulls on a pond, including an unusual black-headed gull, visiting from Europe – presumably with his papers in order.

But, it was a beautiful day for birds!

atlantic_ocean_long_island

Photo by author, Long Island, 2017. 

I saw several species for the first time – common eider, horned lark, purple sandpiper, ruddy turnstones, and the highlight, 3 male harlequin ducks bobbing placidly in the icy gray waters. (There was a female harlequin duck too, but in the duck world, it’s the males that are the real showstoppers. Even the 4 harbor seals we saw barely deserve a mention compared to the stunning male harlequin ducks.)

I have been aching to see these improbable creatures. I even had a dream the night before that I had seen a huge group of harlequin ducks, and I woke up super excited to share my birding adventure before realizing that I had been tricked by my subconscious and still had to venture out into the frosty morning.

At the beach, I disbelievingly stared through the rapidly-fogging binoculars as long as I could as they dove down and popped back up in the whitecaps. The only good thing about leaving the snowy beach was that the feeling gradually returned to my abused feet. While we saw other notable birds after that part of the trip, my mind was filled with visions of harlequin ducks. I was also quickly preoccupied with figuring out who among my friends and family could be tricked into joining me in future snowy beach birding.

If reincarnation is real, I want to come back as a male harlequin duck gifted with self-awareness, so that I can revel in being the most beautiful bird around.

harlqeun_glennbartley

copyright Glenn Bartley, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, November 2009