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. 

Big City Parrots

Monk Parakeet

My daughter Katie lives in Brooklyn, and I love when I get to visit her. Not only is she a wonderful person in her own right, but also when I’m at her place, I get to eat real New York bagels and see cool urban birds. My favorite is the Monk Parakeet. I often hear them while I’m in Katie’s apartment—they’re loud, their voices carrying over all the urban sounds. And they’re particularly easy to see and hear in the famous Green-Wood Cemetery. That’s where Leonard Bernstein is buried. I originally wanted to go there to find his grave. But even when I found it, I ended up spending most of my time there looking at Monk Parakeets.
Green-Wood Cemetery
Leonard Bernstein's grave at Green-Wood Cemetery
Monk Parakeets of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn

This is the only parrot species in the world that doesn’t nest in cavities—colonies of them build big “apartment houses” from sticks. In Green-Wood Cemetery, these big nests are easy to spot on the entrance gate and nearby structures.
Monk Parakeets of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn
Monk Parakeets of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn

Some people seem mystified why the cemetery management doesn’t have problems with them as they did with the pigeons that had been there before the parakeets moved in. A few weeks ago, a science journalist contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology wondering about just that. She wrote that someone at the cemetery 
...mentioned that this was a better situation because pigeon poop is quite acidic, and it was corroding the limestone of the gates. Parrot poop is (apparently?) less acidic, and thus having the parrots live there was a lot better for the gates. I'm trying to understand whether there is any reason to suspect that this is true. I wondered whether anyone at the Cornell Lab could talk to me about the pros and cons of pigeon versus parrot poop.
I’ve developed something of a reputation as the bird shit dropping queen, so the question was sent on to me. I couldn’t find any studies comparing pH of any birds’ droppings. That would be easy enough to test in any high school science lab, but just about all bird droppings are acidic, because the white part is composed of uric acid excreted by their kidneys. I suspect the corrosion issue from pigeons is due to more about the pigeon’s natural history than just the acidity of their poop.

I answered that the parrots I've worked with produce noticeably drier droppings than pigeons do. Parrots don't drink as much and have a more seed-based diet. And those wet pigeon droppings dry from the outside in, the part directly in contact with the substrate remaining wet for hours or days, corroding the substrate. Parrot droppings dry much more quickly.

And at least as important are those enormous stick nests that the parrots build. Their droppings collect on the sticks, not the architectural structures beneath. Pigeons build their flimsy nests directly on buildings and other structures, and loaf around near the nests, pooping wherever they happen to be standing. They don't clean up after their chicks' droppings, either—all that wet poop corrodes whatever it's on. 

Monk Parakeets are native to both temperate and subtropical areas of South America, from central Bolivia and southern Brazil south to Uruguay and central Argentina. Down there, large scale tree planting has allowed them to spread beyond their natural range into large areas of the Pampas grasslands. They didn’t spread naturally up here—they were brought to North America and Europe by the pet trade, sold as Quakers. Escaped birds established wild populations, which are especially abundant in southern states, but have also cropped up in Chicago and New York. Now in many states it’s illegal to sell or breed them because of fears that these escaped birds can damage fruit crops, though there is little evidence of that anywhere.

Monk Parakeet
The Chicago population was established in the Hyde Park neighborhood in the early 1970s, and thrived until fairly recently. The City of Chicago tried to eradicate them decades ago, but people, including Mayor Harold Washington, defended them strenuously. My favorite place in Chicago to see them happens to be in Harold Washington Park.  Currently their numbers there are dwindling,  perhaps in part due to the reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons to the city, but their numbers are dwindling in many areas of the country right now, and scientists aren't sure exactly why.

So far the New York population continues to thrive. My favorite place to see them there is anywhere my daughter happens to be, too. I’ll be visiting Katie for a few days in December, and one of my hopes is to see these cool parakeets again. With any luck, I’ll be able to enjoy seeing them without a single thought about their poop. 

Monk Parakeet

Friday, October 28, 2016

Liberty, American Style

Bald Eagle

What with the contentious presidential election and the national conversations, or acrid debates, about immigration and the fundamental rights of citizenship, I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about what exactly it means to be an American. Going to Cuba put the complexities into sharp relief.

As a birder, I have a different sense of national boundaries than many people do. Birds don’t worry about Border Patrol stations. The only time I ever saw a bird at one was when a roadrunner stopped right next to my car while I was waiting my turn at a Border Patrol stop just north of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I pulled out my camera and was starting to focus on it—it was the closest I’ve ever been to a roadrunner—when a Border Patrol agent came charging out, yelling and waving his arms and threatening to confiscate my camera. I hadn’t realized we liberty-loving Americans are strictly forbidden from taking bird photos at a Border Patrol station, but a lone, unarmed and non-suicidal woman is not in a position to argue about it with a fully armed, angry and emotionally unhinged agent in a desolate area with no witnesses. So I meekly apologized and he let me off with a stern warning and walked away, his chest puffed out, feeling both triumphant and magnanimous.  I was left wondering what had happened to my fundamental American rights and freedoms.

Greater Roadrunner

Birds ignore national boundaries. The sections of wall we’ve so far built along the US-Mexican border have made a mess ecologically and not worked well thanks to people both climbing over and tunneling under. I don’t quite see a bigger wall working any better, but unless it was made of glass, like the Vikings stadium, birds' light wings could o’erperch it, for stony limits cannot hold birds out. It’s not that they don’t care about boundaries—most species spend a lot of time and energy defending their territorial boundaries. They just refuse to follow our rules.

Boat-tailed Grackle

We liberty-loving Americans boast about our freedoms. We may set aside areas like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—a place that ostensibly belongs to all of us, paid in large part by Duck Stamp money and other hunter-generated revenue—to be managed entirely for wildlife, but law enforcement was pretty gentle when the Bundy clan took it over for a month and a half even as they stole or trashed office equipment as well as signs and fencing. No one like the Border Patrol agent I dealt with in New Mexico was anywhere to be found.

Malheur is home to 320 species of birds which are vulnerable to habitat degradation and befouled water where cattle are too numerous. And keeping this habitat in good shape benefits us human Americans, too. During hunting season in years when the water level is optimal, well over 300,000 ducks and geese spend time there. The Bundy clan was distressed that they can’t graze their huge herds of cattle for free on this land, despite the legal grazing fees being so small compared to how much they’d pay to graze their cattle on private land, and a jury of their liberty-loving peers acquitted them.

So even if we don't have the right to take a picture of a roadrunner here and there, we Americans have a long, proud history of peacefully and generously dealing with liberty-loving protestors. Well, except sometimes. Right this moment, people peacefully protesting what the Dakota Pipeline will do to the land and the drinking water they and the Dakota wildlife depend on are being dealt with much more harshly than the Bundys were during their occupation. In our freedom-loving nation, we stand up for individual liberty, especially for white men, up to the point where it collides with corporate profits.

When I was in Cuba, I observed police nipping one protest in the bud in Havana. Repressive for sure, but I don’t quite understand how that was any different from government Humvees, helicopters, and pepper spray breaking up the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest in North Dakota. Going through Immigration and Customs at the airport, coming and going, was less of a problem than going through TSA usually is, though every TSA agent on my recent flights was extremely professional and friendly. Nothing at all happened anywhere in the countryside in Cuba comparable to my trying to take a photo of that roadrunner, or the times I've tried to see a Snowy Owl or Snow Buntings near the Duluth airport. And how could I possibly square America’s ideals of liberty and justice with our national embarrassment located right there in Cuba, in Guantanamo Bay?

Fortunately, none of the birds in Cuba or the U.S. are aware of any of this. They continue to live out their lives as well as they can, moving from place to place, defending their own borders with beautiful displays and song, and when they lose a battle, they get over it and move on, never stirring up resentments and fury, never threatening to keep other birds from exercising their own rights, and never befouling whole water systems or demanding to graze their profit-generating cattle for free on land that is supposed to be managed for  wildlife to benefit everyone. At times like this, I wish we humans were much more like birds.

Sunrise in Cuba

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Cuban Tody!

Cuban Tody!!

For more than a decade, I’ve been blathering on and on about todies. For a time, if you googled “Most adorable bird in the universe,” the first page you got was from one of my blog posts about the Cuban Tody. It really does live up to those words, but unless you’re an ornithologist or know enough Latin to recognize that todus means a small bird, you would likely have trouble looking up the word tody, because its homophone is in much more common use. I asked my iPhone what a tody is, and Siri said, “Tody means a person who behaves obsequiously to someone important.” When I asked her how to spell tody, she responded, “T-O-A-D-Y.” Every time I write the word tody using Microsoft Word, I’m told I’m misspelling it, and given the suggestions toddy, today, tidy, and toady, spelled the way Siri spells it.

That would be all well and good if I wanted to write about sycophants, but Siri is clearly not a birder. Tody in my world is spelled T-O-D-Y, and refers to a bird family, Todidae, in the order that includes kingfishers and motmots. This family includes just one genus, Todus, that includes five tiny species, all found only in the Greater Antilles, each endemic to one island. There is one tody each on the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, and two on Hispaniola. They all have bright green on the crown, back, and tail, a brilliant red throat, and a pale underside. But unlike hummingbirds, these feathers are soft, the colors rich and shiny but not iridescent.

Each of the five todies has a unique combination of pink, baby blue, and/or yellow on the flanks and under-tail—only the Cuban Tody features all three of those colors, so its scientific name is Todus multicolor

Last look at the Cuban Tody

The head is oversized, the tail very narrow and not very long, and the bill is flattened and rounded at the tip, the lower mandible red. 

Cuban Tody!!

At 4.3 inches in length, the Cuban Tody is 10 percent shorter than our chickadees, but a lot of a chickadee’s length is in its tail, and a lot of a chickadee’s bulk is due to thick body feathers. The tody is all head and body, lives on Cuba where thick insulation is hardly necessary, and again, it’s related to kingfishers, so it’s muscular and rather heavy compared to the chickadee.

I’d never been to the Caribbean until this month, and so my only experiences with todies were reading about them and looking at photos and videos. The real thing was just as spectacular as the photos captured, and even more wonderful because it turns out the Cuban Tody is rather confiding. Our birding group of 13 didn’t faze the little birds at all. 

Cuban Tody!!

They’re busy little guys, sitting in one spot on a branch, usually just about eye level or even below, for several seconds up to a minute or so. Their feet may stay in the same spot, but even while sitting they’re rather animated, looking this way and that searching for insects. When I got one in focus in my camera, holding the shutter release down I’d capture several different poses within a single second. Todies don’t understand photography but they do understand hunger: feeding fairly constantly from morning until night.

Cuban Tody!!

Todies are not flycatchers, and seldom grab an insect in mid-air. According to the British Ornithologists’ Union’s wonderful A Dictionary of Birds, they capture insects and spiders from the undersides of leaves and twigs. “They sit quietly but alertly on twigs or branches, constantly moving their heads and eyes with rapid and jerky movements, and occasionally flick their wings. Typically the bird perches with its bill pointing upwards (at angles up to 45 º), and scans the lower surfaces of leaves above it. On spying an insect the tody flies up to the leaf, snaps its bill audibly, and continues in an unbroken arc to another perch.”

Cuban Tody!!

Todies excavate long, narrow burrows in banks, and road and trailside cuts, to produce their 2-3 eggs. Both parents incubate, but neither spends more than a quarter of its day incubating, and only in short bursts at a time, so it takes 3 weeks or more for the young to hatch. Suddenly the parents make up for their inattentiveness by feeding the nestlings at the highest rates recorded for any bird: up to 140 feedings for each chick every day. If a pair of todies loses their own chicks, they often help their neighbors raise theirs.

James Bond, the ornithologist whose name was appropriated by the birder Ian Fleming for his most famous creation, spent many years in the West Indies. After spending just a week on Cuba, I could appreciate exactly why. As wonderful as I expected the Cuban Tody to be, the anticipation was shadowed by the actual event.

Cuban Tody!!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Of Cuba and Cubs: Sometimes dreams really do come true!

Pip in her Chicago Cubs shirt!
My dog Pip is a Havana silk dog: a breed that originated in Cuba.
She's also a life-long Cubs fan. Of course, being born in 2015, she has
never lived through a year when the Cubs did not make the postseason. 

On Saturday, October 22, 2016, in a single magical double play in the top of the ninth, my life was changed irrevocably. I’d spent my first 64 years and 49 weeks with the baseball team my Grandpa taught me to love while I was still a toddler never having won the World Series, or making it into the World Series. I loved the Cubs passionately despite their never winning, endured the slings and arrows of Twins and Braves fans’ ridicule for lo these many years, and then suddenly, magically, my dear Cubbies, in a decisive shut out, won the pennant. I’d spent all these years optimistically believing they would win it all during my lifetime, and my dreams for the future were at last proven to be substantive, not mere pipe dreams.

Grandpa and me
My Grandpa explained the intricacies of baseball to me when I was
very little. We loved the Cubs! The last two times they won the World
Series, he was 11 and 12. The last time they won the NL Pennant, he was 49,
and I was 6 years away from being born. 
October 2016 turned out to be a life-changing month for me in another way, too, fulfilling another life-long dream. When I was very little, one of my relatives gave my family The Illustrated Home Library Encyclopedia—I think getting a volume a week at the grocery store.

Sometime around my fourth birthday, I decided to teach myself to read with that encyclopedia. I read, or at least looked carefully at, every word in the A volumes, starting with Aardvark, and perhaps understanding one-one thousandth of one percent. Then I started the Bs, and got all the way to B-I-R-D, where I stopped cold. I read that Bird article, which was 9 or 10 pages long, over and over and over. Anyone who looked at our encyclopedia set on the shelf would know someone was fixated on the bird entry—hardly anyone in my family ever opened the encyclopedia at all, and so all the spines were in perfect shape, the gold leaf of the print shiny and newish, except for the B volume, where the gold was worn off and there was a clear crack in the spine. If you pulled the book out of the shelf, it automatically opened to Bird.

That Bird article was where I first read the word Cuba. It said the tiniest bird in the world was “the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba.” Being four years old, I had no idea that Cuba was a place, so I spent a long time searching the trees in my blue collar Chicago suburb neighborhood for that “Bee Hummingbird of Cuba.”

Bee Hummingbird
The Bee Hummingbird of Cuba

I was vaguely aware that Desi Arnaz, along with his alter ego Ricky Ricardo, was from a place called Cuba, and vaguely associated him with the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba without really understanding why. I also knew that President Kennedy sometimes smoked Cuban cigars, and though I wasn’t exactly sure what a cigar was, I aspired to own a box of Cuban cigars, again in part because I somehow associated them with the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba.

A box of Cuban cigars
A box of premium Cuban cigars! (Cubans also put warning labels on them.)

I was 9 years old in April 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and 10 in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I didn’t understand anything at all about either of those big news stories, and didn’t associate either event with the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba, maybe because the ominous voices on the news were scary—how could anything about the tiniest bird in the world be scary?

Bee Hummingbird
Bee Hummingbird: Not scary!

But somehow by then I had figured out that Cuba was a place that I wanted to go to very badly. Cuba and the Cubs—two words that are 75 percent identical, and two major lifetime dreams that I’m not sure I ever really believed would come true. And this month, after so many years, BOTH dreams came true! I saw my Bee Hummingbirds along with another long dreamed-for bird, the Cuban Tody, AND the Cubs won the NL Pennant!

Cuba: World Champions!
At least half the people who've seen my hat first read it as "Cubs"! 

So the last month that I’ll be 64 turns out to be the first month of a new chapter of my life—the month that proved that dreams do sometimes come true.

Where I went in Cuba