Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Uganda's National Bird: the Crested Crane

Gray Crowned-Crane


National symbols are a curious thing. Ever since 1782, when Congress approved a design of the national emblem with a prominent "American Bald Eagle," we’ve considered the Bald Eagle our national bird. Actually, the United States doesn’t even have an official national bird, but the eagle is so prominent on our national emblem that it pretty much serves that role.



Our neighbor to the north has a Common Loon prominently displayed on its one-dollar coin, which is nicknamed the loonie. Canadians have recently been debating what to name their official national bird. Many people assumed the loon would automatically be named, and it was the first choice when Canadians were asked to vote on their favorite by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. But the Common Loon is already the provincial bird for Ontario, and the second-place vote-getter, the Snowy Owl, is Quebec’s provincial bird.

Gray Jay


The third choice, the Gray Jay, which was formerly officially named the Canada Jay, was the recommended choice of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. One of my favorite ornithologists, David Bird of McGill University, advocated for that excellent choice in a wonderful essay.

Gray Crowned-Crane


When I was in Uganda this month, I was taken with the pride everyone there takes in their official national bird, the Crested Crane. It’s one of those improbably gorgeous birds that doesn’t look quite real, thanks to its crown of fine but stiff, golden feathers. And when I say golden, I mean that in the sparkling metallic sense of the word—these dazzling feathers glow and sparkle, both in flat light or full sun.

Gray Crowned-Crane


That unique crown is even more striking in the context of the bird’s face. The clean black forehead feathers form a poofy powder puff. Those and shorter black throat feathers, along with the black bill, set off the large patch of bare, pristine white skin of the cheeks and a brilliant patch of bare, blood-red skin on the upper face. An inflatable throat pouch dangles like a small choker or a huge, opulent ruby necklace such as Elizabeth Taylor would wear, depending on the bird’s mood.

Gray Crowned-Crane


All this stunning color is set off to perfection by elegant gray neck and body feathers, and balanced at the bird’s other end with white wing feathers and soft golden feathers forming a bustle. When the bird opens its wings, it reveals a bold black, white, rich chestnut, and golden wing pattern that took my breath away, especially when I watched a small group dancing away, engaged in what was probably an early breeding season competition for mates, on our wildlife drive through Murchison Falls National Park. We saw elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, hartebeests, Uganda kob, and other spectacular wildlife on that same drive, but somehow the vision of those dancing cranes is what keeps popping into my mind’s eye a week and a half later.

Gray Crowned-Crane


The Gray Crowned-Crane ranges from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya to southeastern South Africa. There are two subspecies. The “nominate” subspecies, called the South African crowned crane, breeds from Angola south to South Africa. The East African subspecies, the crested crane, is the one so beloved in Uganda. That crested crane manages to be even more gorgeous than its southern brethren, the red skin patch above the white cheek larger and bolder.

This species and the much darker Black Crowned-Crane of Senegal and Gambia on the Atlantic coast to the upper Nile River basin in Sudan and Ethiopia are considered the oldest of the crane family, dating to fossils of the Eocene period. Fossils of eleven species of crowned cranes have been identified in Europe and North America, but apparently all but those in warmer Africa died out as the earth cooled at the end of the Eocene. Unlike most crane species, crowned cranes are non-migratory, wandering here and there as wet and dry spells dictate, but not as regular seasonal movements to warmer or cooler areas.

Uganda’s choice of the Crested Crane as its national bird is perfect. On various Ugandan websites, the bird is aptly described as beautiful, majestic, magnificent, elegant, friendly, gentle, and peace-loving. The crane features on the national emblem, as our Bald Eagle does, but Uganda is unique in the entire world for having a bird on its flag, too. With such a perfect national bird, how could they not?


Both species of crowned cranes are declining. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Black Crowned-Crane as Threatened, and the Gray Crowned-Crane as Endangered. After spending time in Uganda and seeing first hand how tirelessly people are working for wildlife conservation, I think the species is in excellent hands.

Gray Crowned-Crane

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Stroll Down False Memory Lane



How we piece together the world as small children isn’t as straightforward as we like to think. Back when he was a toddler, my son Tommy learned all 50 states via a wooden puzzle his grandparents gave him. He knew every state—its name and exactly where it went. But when he was in elementary school and had to learn the states in geography, none of that seemed familiar anymore, and he had to learn the states all over again, from scratch. Our childhood memories and what we learn as toddlers grow strangely jumbled over time. It’s like when we read bedtime stories to our children—after a few readings, they can supply missing words and whole sentences. But when my daughter Katie started insisting on reading her nighttime story by herself, she attacked each word individually with her blossoming reading skills, using an entirely different part of her brain than where those exact same words had been committed to memory.

When my big brother started elementary school, when I was almost four, I decided I wanted to learn how to read, too. I quickly learned my ABCs, and then started searching for simple words to read. My mother was overwhelmed with three children younger than me, and so I couldn’t pester her too much, but little by little I worked out the system for sounding out straightforward words such as my last name, Farley. I also picked up some common words it was trickier to sound out, like through and my first and middle names, Laura Lynn.

I was allowed to ride my tricycle on the sidewalk down to the corner, just two or three two-flat apartment buildings away. I could read my street name—Nelson—and STOP on the signs where the sidewalk ended. Every car license parked next to the curb said Land of Lincoln and ILLINOIS—my parents told me we lived in Illinois, though I didn’t understand that because I knew we lived in Chicago, and I couldn’t work out how one place could be inside another place. I also had no clue what Land of Lincoln meant, and when my dad showed me a penny with Abraham Lincoln on it, that hardly cleared things up. Other things I read didn’t seem to make any sense, either, such as the ingredients listed on food boxes and cans. But it was fun sounding out even what seemed like nonsense words.

We had a couple of Little Golden Books: Five Little Firemen and The Poky Little Puppy. My dad subscribed to The Chicago Tribune and Fire Fighter, his union magazine. Most of the newspaper was confusing, and except for some exciting stories and photo captions, so was Fire Fighter.

At some point, we got a set of the Illustrated Home Library Encyclopedias. I opened them at random now and then, and at some point when I was four or five, I decided to tackle them systematically, reading every word of every volume starting with Aardvark. I plowed through the two A volumes, perhaps understanding one tenth of one percent of what I read, and then started in on the first B volume. I got as far as B-i-r-d and stopped. That article, eight pages long, was utterly fascinating. I already loved birds—I was obsessed by the pigeons and sparrows around our apartment, and knew that my beloved grandmother, also named Laura, who had died when I was very small, had loved birds. I didn’t understand most of what was in the bird article, but figured if I read it over and over, little by little it would make more sense.

I was the only one in the family who was fascinated by our encyclopedias, but that B volume was the only one that was read over and over. Soon it had a visible crack in the spine and automatically opened to the Bird entry, which I eventually committed to memory. I remember a couple of times when we had company, my parents opened the encyclopedia to Bird and gave it to someone to follow along while I recited it word for word. Of course, no one had the patience to follow for more than a few sentences, so there’s no proof that I actually could recite all eight pages, but as I recall, I really could.

In my memory, that encyclopedia article is where I learned about the tiniest bird in the universe (the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba), the largest bird in the universe (the Ostrich), and what seemed like the most beautiful bird in the universe (the Resplendent Quetzal). For a while as a small child, I even became obsessed with the word resplendent, using it over and over in everyday conversation because the word itself seemed so resplendent.

A few weeks ago, I found a vintage copy of that B volume for sale on Amazon, opened it up, and there was my beloved Bird entry. But it seemed utterly unfamiliar, and nowhere were the Bee Hummingbird, Ostrich, or Resplendent Quetzal even mentioned! I must have learned about them from poring over copies of my Grandpa’s Readers Digest or from different volumes of the encyclopedia, but now I’ll never know for sure. As it turns out, something I’ve been talking about for decades turns out to be based on a false memory.  Of course, the essentials remain true. I was fascinated by birds for as long as I can remember, and even if I don’t know how I learned it, the Bee Hummingbird remains the tiniest bird, the Ostrich the largest, and the Resplendent Quetzal truly resplendent. When it comes down to it, I guess that’s all that really matters.

Laura at Grandpa's, 1955

Weird Genetics: White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow detail


The White-throated Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite birds. I saw and heard my first on April 12, 1975, when I was a brand-new birder. I was in Virginia for an environmental education conference right when White-throats were in full migration down there. Within a week or so, they were up in Michigan where I was living, and nestled into a permanent place deep in my heart.

White-throated Sparrows are unique in the bird world—indeed, in the entire vertebrate world as far as we know right now—for a bizarre genetic condition. At some point long, long ago, in some individuals, a large section of their Chromosome 2, involving more than 1,100 genes, mutated, becoming inverted. The inversion meant that during reproduction, that section of chromosome had no match with a normal Chromosome 2, which led to even more mutations and inversions within that inverted section of the chromosome.  Yet somehow those individuals with the mutation survived and reproduced.

Of the thousands of White-throated Sparrows whose chromosomes were examined, not one had two copies of the inverted Chromosome 2s. Just about exactly half had two non-inverted Chromosome 2s, and half had one inverted and one non-inverted Chromosome 2. In other words, Chromosome 2 was behaving exactly as vertebrate sex chromosomes do.

About half of all mammals have one X and one Y chromosome (these are the males), about half have two Xs (the females), and about zero have two Ys. To produce young, one individual mammal with two Xs (a female) and one with an X and a Y (a male) are needed. Birds, snakes, and butterflies have a slightly different system. Their sex chromosomes are named W and Z, and it’s the females with the two different chromosomes—females are WZ. Males are the ones with the identical sex chromosome: ZZ. None of these animals ever have two W chromosomes.

Some of the genes on the inverted section of the White-throated Sparrow’s Chromosome 2 are involved in courtship, mating, and breeding behaviors. Chromosome 2 also determines each bird’s appearance. Those with an inverted and a non-inverted Chromosome 2 have white head stripes, are promiscuous, provide poor parental care, are highly aggressive, and have a very musical song. Those with two non-inverted Chromosome 2s have tan head stripes, are very monogamous, provide good parental care, are very protective and nurturing, and have a far less tuneful song.

White-throated Sparrow
This white-striped White-throated Sparrow has one inverted and one non-inverted Chromosome 2


White-throated Sparrow
This tan-striped White-throated Sparrow has two non-inverted Chromosome 2s.


White-throated Sparrows have the W and Z sex chromosomes as well as the inverted or non-inverted Chromosome 2. And intriguingly and uniquely, all reproductive pairings involve two different sets of opposites: virtually every mated pair has a male and a female, of course, but also, each pair has one tan-striped and one white-striped individual.

The scientist who led the research that teased out all of this, Elaina Tuttle, did field and laboratory work on this one species for over 25 years. (Read an excellent article about her seminal research in the current issue of Nature.) So much painstaking research on a single species is almost unheard of today.

Dr. Tuttle grew fascinated with the species while she was researching fish ecology in New York’s Finger Lakes—White-throated Sparrows fill the woods of Upstate New York with song from spring through summer.  It was already well known that the behaviors of the white- and tan-striped birds are quite different, and that pairs virtually always include one of each, and she became obsessed with the question of why. A paper from 1966 described the weirdly inverted Chromosome 2, and how just about exactly half of all males and half of all females had one inverted version and half had zero inverted versions, suggesting that there had to be some mechanism that caused birds to always select the opposite of what they were. But how this worked was not understood until Dr. Tuttle began her work. She met Rusty Gonser in 1991. Their similar research interests evolved, and they married in 1994. The two of them worked together on the puzzle ever since, publishing the culmination of this work this January in Current Biology, just a few months before her tragic death from breast cancer on June 15.

No one knows how sustainable it is for any species to maintain the complex mating system White-throated Sparrows have, in which birds can only select from 25% of a population, rather than 50%, for a suitable mate. It's possible similar systems have evolved and died out in the past. And no one knows what genetic and environmental factors led to White-throated Sparrows evolving this system in the first place, rather than causing birds with the inversion mutation to simply die out. Dr. Gonser intends to continue the research he and his wife have done together for so many years, hoping to reveal even more secrets involving this satisfyingly mysterious yet common little bird.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Dealing with the Election Results

 


I made my decisions about who to vote for in the 2016 election before the national conventions took place. I’m a very political but pragmatic person when it comes to federal lands and their protection, climate, wildlife, and clean air and water, so there was simply no question about my vote. The Chicago Cubs diverted my attention from much of the campaign, and after I cast my early ballot, I traveled out of the country before and during the election.

This campaign was characterized by so much vitriol, anger, and outright hatred that the country was certain to be in a heightened state of drama no matter how it ended. It’s so sad that we the people of the United States can’t stand together the way, say, Chicago Cubs fans can, in a unified, joyous front celebrating the blessings of liberty we enjoy right now, and in a determined front to solve the many problems that confront us. We should be fighting together to defend the self-evident truths so clearly outlined in our Declaration of Independence: that all of us are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We Americans should be standing together to defend the Preamble of the Constitution, which itself provides the very foundation of all our nation's laws, written “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” It’s impossible to even conceive that the general welfare of American citizens doesn’t involve clean air and water, meaningful work with a living wage for all working-age citizens, and protection of our most fundamental national treasures, our natural resources, for ourselves and our posterity.

During the 30 years I’ve produced For the Birds, I’ve only covered political topics as they directly impact birds and the environment we share, and that’s how I intend to keep things. I don’t much like drama, and refuse to feed drama creatures or become one myself.

We Americans should take our cues from that quintessential all-American bird, the Black-capped Chickadee. Chickadees, like Benjamin Franklin, know that we must all hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately. They combine the best of black and white in each individual, and welcome all other peaceable birds, regardless of color or social traditions, into their diverse social flocks. Peaceable they may be, but chickadees are not wimps, as any bird-bander who has held a chickadee against the little bird’s will can attest. No chickadee goes gently into that good night—chickadees rage, rage against the dying of the light even as they know the difference between real existential threats and imaginary ones.

Taking revenge

Chickadee flocks have a social hierarchy, but only very young and immature birds squabble over their place in it. Chickadee society combines the very best of capitalism and socialism both, every individual working hard to amass its own personal fortune, but readily sharing the fruits of its labors with others if tragedy, or an ice storm, destroys a flock mate’s food stores. Some people romanticize what Tennyson called “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as if evolution somehow rewards aggression and competition to the death more than cooperation. Those cooperative little chickadees give the lie to that strange belief, vastly outnumbering every avian and mammalian predator they share this continent with.

The coming weeks, months, and years will pose grave challenges for Americans trying to get through these angry times with our nation’s heart and soul intact. Getting angry or dramatic won’t help, but neither will complacency or giving up. Chickadees are the answer for me. They never lose sight of exactly who they are and what they believe in, and they recognize and avoid danger and protect their families and flock members without facing their days in fear or anger, and without closing their hearts or minds to the rich diversity that gives their social flocks such stability and success. At times like this, one could do worse than be a watcher of chickadees.

Black-capped Chickadee



Equatorial Birding



The equator, that imaginary line bisecting the northern and southern hemispheres of our planet, famously runs across Ecuador—the country whose very name is derived from “equator.” Of course, the precise location of the equator is not fixed; the true equatorial plane is perpendicular to the Earth's spin axis, which drifts about 30 feet every year. We humans like precision even in imaginary constructs.



I supposedly straddled the equator at a famous monument near Quito in 2006. Oddly enough, this was a replacement monument—there was already a beautiful statue of the earth marking the equator a short distance away, but GPS drew the line in a slightly different place than the original surveyors had. And because of the earth’s axial drift, neither monument could definitively mark the equator every day of the year.



This September, I crossed the equator on my flights to and from Peru. Some maps show the tiny northernmost tip of Peru above the equator, but apparently none of Peru is currently considered to be north of the equator thanks to the settlement of a bitter territorial dispute between Peru and Ecuador. Some Peruvians still claim that the equator passes through that tiny northern tip, and it’s easy to find maps on the Internet showing the equator crossing Peru. One person posted that Ecuadorian Immigration Police confiscated one of his guidebooks when he crossed from Peru because that book had a map showing the equator crossing Peru. Imaginary lines mean a lot to us humans.

This month, when I visited Uganda, I crossed the equator several times—it runs just on the outskirts of Entebbe—and I got a photo of me straddling the northern and southern hemispheres at one commemoration site. As much as African nations are famous for their bitter disputes, they don’t seem to fight over whether and where the equator crosses within their boundaries.

Laura at the Equator in Uganda


Peru, Ecuador, and Uganda are all home to endemic bird species that can be found only within tiny ranges, defined by such geographical features as a particular slope of a particular part of a mountain range. My trips this year to Peru and Uganda focused a lot of attention on these endemics. Birds can fly, and so it seems mystifying to us humans why these rare species don’t spread beyond their tiny ranges, or at least occasionally wander somewhere else; it’s their innate inability to cross the imaginary lines forming their species’ range boundaries that makes these species so rare. Yet even these most finicky endemic species pay no attention whatsoever to national borders or the equator. Human-constructed imaginary lines bear no importance whatsoever to birds.

In September, while I was on the far side of the equator in Peru, over 4,000 miles from home, I was still in exactly the same time zone as Duluth, Minnesota. Of course, time zone lines are even more bizarrely imaginary than the equator—if I left for Peru today, there’d be a one-hour difference because now Duluth is on Central Standard Time, not Daylight Savings Time. When I left for Uganda on November 5, there was an 8-hour difference between the time at home in Duluth and the time in Uganda, almost 8 thousand miles away; the day I arrived, the difference was 9 hours thanks to the US switching that very weekend back to Standard Time. Jet lag has nothing to do with the equator but with an entirely different set of imaginary lines—those of longitude, related to which part of the earth is in daytime or nighttime at any given moment.

Most bird migration involves far greater movements between north and south than east and west, so few American birds need to reset their biological clocks as we human Americans do when we travel outside the Americas. My internal clock is just about back to normal now, as I get back into non-migratory, chickadee mode.

Exciting as it is to cross so many imaginary lines now and then, it’s always wonderful to return to my decidedly non-imaginary little chickadees. They can be found in 8 different time zones in North America, but each individual chickadee lives in just one unless its home range is right on the border between two zones, and regardless, it pays no attention to clocks, waking up just before sunrise wherever it happens to be and retreating to its nighttime roost at about sunset whether we humans are honoring some ridiculously imaginary daylight savings time or not. I’m glad I’m spending Thanksgiving with chickadees. As Robert Frost almost said, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have chickadees.”

Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Coming Home from Uganda

Gray Crowned-Crane

I’ve spent the last two weeks in Uganda. I finished my packing during the heady days of the World Series and the glorious aftermath of my beloved Chicago Cubs winning it all, and left the morning after my hometown held a parade that drew an estimated five million people, united in a way Americans never are anymore, all wearing Cubby blue. When Russ met me at the airport last night, he bundled me up in a warm coat, gloves, a scarf, and a brand new baseball cap—the official Chicago Cubs World Series Championship hat.

Once I escaped the nightmare of a delayed flight on my way to Uganda—a delay that lost a day and a half of our tour, including my only chance to see an African Shoebill and zebras—I spent two weeks away from news and snow, and in the company of well over 400 species of birds, including Uganda’s national emblem, the Gray Crowned-Crane, which gave me some of my finest photo ops of the entire trip. I spent my birthday with Mountain Gorillas, and during the two weeks came upon iconic mammals including the African Elephant, lion, leopard, giraffe, hippopotamus, chimpanzee, and a variety of monkeys and antelopes. In the coming weeks, my blog will be filled with photos of all these and more.

Me and a Mountain Gorilla

African Elephant

African Lion

In Uganda, I spent time on a boat trip through a beautiful protected marsh. November is within the rainy season, but the locals told us how unpredictable rainfall has been in recent years because of climate change. The water levels were distressingly low, something even a visitor from Minnesota could see because the plants bore a clean mark where the normal water level is, which was well more than a foot above where the water level is right now in the middle of the wet season. The Ugandan government is working tirelessly to get people to plant trees, and to exploit clean energy wherever possible to offset climate change. Uganda is a country where science and education are valued: we watched children every morning trudging long distances to school. It reminded me of my own childhood, when America valued education, and worked hard to be competitive in the sciences. We were first to the moon. Our scientists were the ones who found the vaccines for polio, and the profit motive wasn’t even on their radar: Salk gave all rights to the vaccine to the American people, not patenting the results of his hard work.

But Uganda is far ahead of America in their understanding of what is happening with regard to climate change, and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and attack the problem as a unified nation, even as they are so far behind the US in the wealth and capacity to make major, large-scale changes. After hearing from so many Ugandans about the issue, it was disconcerting, to say the least, to return to news that the next administration has named Myron Ebell to lead the transition of the EPA. Ebell isn’t a climate change skeptic—that at least requires an open mind to review the science. He’s a political hack and lobbyist with vested interests, who out-and-out denies what the vast consensus of objective scientists and even major oil corporations around the world have learned, and what anyone with any historical awareness can see is already happening. In my school child years of the 50s and 60s, it was the competition between the US and Russia that put these two nations ahead of the rest of the world in science. Now, with a new Administration extraordinarily friendly to the worst elements of the Russian kleptocracy, we’re taking huge strides backward in science. Ebell runs a think tank that defends the most dangerous pesticides and other pollutants, not based on science but on the short-term profit motives for major corporations. Imagine if Richard Nixon had appointed to his cabinet someone who said the Cuyahoga River fires were actually good for human health and the environment—that would be the equivalent of Ebell at the EPA.

Coming home from a major adventure is always bittersweet. But I’ve never before felt the unsettling disappointments of this time, when I saw a destitute Third World country so far ahead of my beloved United States of America in its respect for science and in having the public and governmental determination to tackle the largest problems facing all of us. Donald Trump promised to get rid of the current system of lobbyists calling the shots, yet Myron Ebell is one of the worst lobbyists of all. I hope the people who voted for Mr. Trump call him to task for this egregious break with his campaign promise. The whole world is watching.

Gray Crowned-Crane

Monday, November 7, 2016

Uganda: The Adventure Really Does Begin!

My flights yesterday and today went like clockwork, my luggage also made it here with me, and I set out tomorrow at 6:30 to catch up with my group. And our Fearless Leader, Herbert Byaruhanga, said he'd arrange something for me to see the Shoebills during our last weekend. This is going to be a thrilling 2 weeks!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Uganda: The Adventure Begins! And hits a roadblock!

I'm heading to Uganda for what was supposed to be 11 full days of birding before the African Birding Expo. Yesterday I was supposed to fly from Minneapolis to Detroit, where I'd meet some of our group for the flight to Amsterdam, and then spend today flying into Entebbe. My group will be birding on Lake Victoria and heading to Lake Mburo National Park tomorrow.

My flight was listed as on time, we boarded fine, and then as we were taxiing, the pilot said there was some electrical problem and we were heading back to the gate. We sat patiently on the plane--I showed the flight attendant that my next flight was supposed to be boarding at the new estimated landing time for this flight, but she said they'd expedite me making the connection. And then the pilot said the delay would be longer. And then a nice Delta guy took me off the plane to help me rebook. And then pandemonium, when they said the plane was disabled and they'd have to change flights.

It took over an hour (with the TV blasting away election news to add to everyone's stress levels) before I was rebooked, and the best they can do is get me into Entebbe 24 hours (well, 25 counting DST) later than the original plans. This means I'll be missing all the Lake Victoria birding, plus lose the morning on Tuesday trying to catch up to my group, so actually I'll be missing a day and a half of birding.

This is rather vexatious. The election is making it worse. Reading the delighted posts of participants who are already there is making me feel more left out.

But, as I keep telling myself, I'm headed to UGANDA!!  I'll probably miss out on 50 or so lifers, but I'll still see many!

I'm blaming this on corporate airline managers who make some of their profits, and exorbitant wages, by keeping down the number of maintenance people who could be keeping up better on preventing these problems. Instead, we have small maintenance staffs who are run ragged trying to fix problems as they happen. Delta is far from the only airline with this problem.

The people who helped rebook passengers were shockingly patient and helpful, but again, there were only 2 or 3 people dealing with a large flight. It was a logistical nightmare when everyone started flooding off the plane, no one realizing they were supposed to get their boarding pass scanned, and the only people there to scan them were the people trying to rebook the people already off the plane. During the time he was helping me, the Delta agent rebooked at least 5 other passengers, scanned dozens of boarding passes, and tried to explain to people where to get in line (it was far from obvious) so someone could help everyone in a timely way.

I tried to get into Zen mode, but the loss of 24 hours, the bewilderment of not knowing how I'd catch up to my group, the disappointment of missing the whole first day and becoming part of my group from the start--it was very hard to keep from crying or being cranky or both. I'd paid extra to get a window seat on the KLM flight to Entebbe, but both the seat and my $22 are lost now, and KLM will not let me pick a seat, even paying again, for the rebooked flight.

The staff at Delta who helped all of us are to be commended. But the top level managers who make the decisions about how big their maintenance crew should be, and how best to maintain planes for the long haul, and how many staff to keep on hand for this kind of emergency? Not so much. Yet those decision makers, not the ones cleaning up after the problems, are the ones making the millions of dollars each year. We need a Joe Maddon in the airline business telling these airlines to try not to suck.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Chicago Cubs Win World Series!!!!



On Wednesday night  Thursday morning, moments after midnight Central Time, 1 AM Eastern Time, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. This happened 11 days after winning the National League Pennant for the first time in 71 years.

I’ve been a Cubs fan my entire life. Some of my loveliest and earliest memories are of my Grandpa explaining baseball to me. His love for the Cubs is ingrained in my bones—whether it was nature or nurture, my love for the Cubs comes directly from him. He was 11 and 12 years old the two years that the Cubs won the Series, so he knew first hand that winning was possible, and he carried that first-hand knowledge with him through all the years following.

Grandpa and me
My Grandpa and me in 1955


The heartbreaking end of the 1969 season was the last Cubs season he’d see to the end—he died in June the following year. Russ and my first year of dating culminated with that ’69 season. Much as I’ve always identified as a Cubs fan, I’ve not been to many games at Wrigley Field, though this was where Russ first told me he loved me, and where after I became a birder I once saw a Peregrine Falcon fly over.

I was never the kind of fan who followed every game, or knew the name and face of every player, not since 1969. But 2016 happened to be the 120th anniversary of my Grandpa’s birth, so in January I decided to follow the Cubs for this entire season, game by game by game. Most of their games weren’t televised on stations we get, and I was out of town for a great many anyway, but I got an app for my iPhone that allowed me to follow each game play by play. Even when I was giving talks on birds, I could peek at my phone to see how my boys were doing—and little by little, they really were becoming my boys—recognizable by their names and faces and all the biographical details I was picking up.

The catcher the players called Grandpa Rossy—the one who just became the oldest baseball player ever to hit a home run in the World Series—is 39 years old, born 5 years after Russ and I were married, so he’s definitely young enough to be my son. And the players in their 20s are easily young enough to be my grandchildren.



I started the season as I always do, saying “this year for sure!” and the ESPN statistical website FiveThirtyEight seemed to agree with me, game after game after game.

The Cubs made it into the postseason, and for the first time since, well, just last year survived the division series, when they beat the Giants. For the first time in 71 years they survived the National League championship, when they beat the Dodgers.

And now at long, long last, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. The Cubs had gone 39,466 days since their last win, and I’d been alive 23,733 of them. Now the clock has been reset after all these years.

Baseball isn’t a very important thing in the overall scheme of the universe. Following the Cubs gave me a lovely respite from politics day after day in this, the worst political season of my life. And knowing the Cubs were doing well was wonderful no matter where I was birding. My week in Cuba was the only time all season that I could not get live updates—a couple of participants who managed to call home that week found out the division final results for me. And now the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series.

It doesn’t seem like a very ornithological achievement, and I know birds don’t give a hoot who won. Or do they? At about 1:15 am Thursday, when I was finally settling down an hour after the win, I took my dog Pip outside, and a Boreal Owl was calling away, right in or just outside my backyard! I’ve had them in my yard before a few of the winters we’ve lived here, but never in November, and never before had I heard one call from here. This one moved about a bit between calls, so I could be certain it was a real bird and not some odd recording—the little guy even got my Archimedes to start calling back. The Cubs finally won the World Series, and apparently nature itself is celebrating.

Boreal Owl
I took this Boreal Owl photo in 2013 on, ironically, Super Bowl Sunday (which I can't help but call Superb Owl Sunday).

Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: Heather Wolf's Birding at the Bridge

 Cover: Birding at the Bridge

I’m headed to New York City in December for a few days. My primary goal is ostensibly to visit my daughter, but she long ago resigned herself to the understanding that her mother is always looking for, or at least noticing, any nearby birds.
This time I have a specific birding goal—while Katie’s at work one day, I’ll be headed to Brooklyn Bridge Park with my binoculars and camera, inspired by a book I recently read, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront, by Heather Wolf. How could I not love a book that starts out like this:
I’ve never been a morning person. I’m still not a morning person. You might be wondering how someone like me got into birding, a pastime that often requires waking up at the crack of dawn. Birds are the only thing, barring an emergency, that makes me rise before the sun. Once I developed this passion, the possibility of spotting an interesting species or observing a new behavior became an obsession. I said good-bye to the snooze button. I braved freezing temperatures. I flew to an unfamiliar location in Texas, rented a car, and set out on a two-hour drive at 3:30 AM to get somewhere else I’d never been by sunrise. I was pulled over for speeding at 27 mph (in a 25 mph zone) and had to explain to a police officer that I was on my way to see a scaled quail.
Heather Wolf fell in love with birds while living in Florida’s Pensacola Beach. In particular, the first bird to catch her attention enough to look it up later was a Least Tern that dive-bombed her, defending its nest. She studied up about it, and found the information about its travels from South America and the Caribbean to be fascinating, and became concerned about its vulnerability while nesting on beaches.
Least Tern
When she visited New York, she picked up a copy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birder’s Life List and Diary, intrigued by the very idea of keeping a list of birds. But it took her a while to get started. The first time she set out with the intention of starting her list, she didn’t even bring along binoculars. While standing on a boardwalk, a bluish bird with a long beak flew over making a loud rattling sound. She didn’t know what it was, but when she did a Google search on “blue bird rattling sound” the first result was “Belted Kingfisher.” She and her boyfriend toasted the bird with a glass of wine, and that was how she started birding.
After moving to Brooklyn in 2012, she set a goal of seeing and photographing 100 species at Brooklyn Bridge Park, started a blog about the birds she saw, with photographs, and started offering bird walks. That’s how her book got its start. It’s organized by season, with photos—all good and some absolutely splendid—and short accounts of the birds she’s seen. Reading them, you get a good idea of the cool birds that you’re likely to see there, but you also hear Heather Wolf’s voice in both her personal experiences of each bird and her explanations of its natural history. Although brief, her accounts vividly draw you into her experience. For the Bufflehead, she notes,
 Just as I bring the bird into focus, it propels itself up and forward for an elegant dive, one that doesn’t seem possible for such a chunky duck. Down it goes, its tail feathers an outstretched fan entering the water. While I wait for the bird to surface, I imagine its hunt for a mollusk or crustacean below. What’s it really like down there in the depths of the East River? Maybe I don’t want to know. After twenty seconds or so, the bufflehead bobs to the surface like a rubber duck.

The whole book is like that—an introduction to the wonderfully varied birds of Brooklyn Bridge Park as told by a particularly charming young woman, each account filled with both enthusiasm and fascinating, well-researched facts. Heather Wolf currently works as a web developer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—oddly enough, her boyfriend took a programming course with my daughter Katie, which is how I found out about the book in the first place. When I head to Brooklyn in December, I hope I can figure out a way to make my path cross with Heather Wolf, but even if not, she’s piqued my interest in Brooklyn Bridge Park. No matter where you live or bird, her book Birding at the Bridge: In Search of EveryBird on the Brooklyn Waterfront is a delightful read, and I strongly recommend it.