Monday, December 29, 2008


The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. The shoes were another story.

Winter is the time when nature dials back and retrenches: trees are bare, fields lie fallow, and birds and animals quietly gather their strength for the frenzy of spring migration and breeding. And thus it is for humans too: winter is a time of rest and redemption, of reflection and quiet anticipation of new beginnings.

And this is my official excuse for sitting on my bum doing nothing for the greater part of the week.

Christmas was everything I hoped it would be: the rainy weather was a perfect excuse to relax indoors with the family, catch up with a year of gossip, and feast on amazing food—it seems that my family's Christmas spreads just get better every year.

As soon as the rain passed, of course, my mind turned to birding. The Orange County Birding listserv was buzzing as usual with lots of interesting sightings, but for some reason, I didn't feel like chasing too hard. Part of this was low-level burnout after the 15-hour marathon that was the Gainesville Christmas Bird Count (during which I aggravated an already bad cold, pulled a chest muscle from coughing, and infected half the membership of Alachua Audubon), and part of it was just...sloth. I was home, and I didn't feel like wandering.

So my birding outings this week have been boring and predictable-yet, for me, deeply enjoyable. During long walk through Talbert Nature Reserve down to the beach on Sunday, I found about 20 Canvasbacks in the little pond by the Victoria Street bridge. At Huntington Central Park yesterday, I tried and failed to locate the McGillivray's Warbler and Black-throated Gray Warbler by the Gothard Street parking lot. They certainly could have been in there, though—when we arrived, warblers were calling and darting through the trees everywhere. About 90% of them were Yellow-rumpeds, but there were also good numbers of Common Yellowthroats, as well as Orange-crowned, Wilson's, and Townsend's Warblers:

There were so many birds flying around that finding the lone McGillivray's in the crowd would have been like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Glenn played its song a few times on his iPod, with no response (at least not from the McGillivray's Warbler—it did manage to seriously piss off a Hermit Thrush, who jumped up and glared as us for about a minute before taking off again).

A few minutes later, we ran into another birder who told us he had just seen a Yellow-throated Vireo. So of course, we followed him back to the spot where he had seen it, and found—after about half an hour of looking—that it had taken off. But we still had fun watching a huge flock of Cedar Waxwings plucking berries from the trees and fighting for perching space.

At Bolsa Chica yesterday afternoon, we didn't see anything we hadn't seen before. But after coming back from north-central Florida, where birders can usually expect to see at most two or three duck species at a time, and usually at spotting-scope-only distance, it was fun being on the Bolsa Chica footbridge again—Lesser Scaups, Ruddy Ducks, Cinnamon Teals, Northern Shovelers, Mallards, Northern Pintails, Buffleheads, and Surf Scoters were all bobbing around only a few yards away. I realize now how lucky I am to have learned to bird out here!

We stayed at Bolsa Chica until it was dark, so Glenn could get some sunset shots. I love watching the birds fly in for the night.

For the past few years, this was always how we ended our weekends: watching the Sunday evening sunset at Bolsa Chica before heading home to gear up for the week ahead. But the great thing about being on vacation is that I still have a few more weekend days to go!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home for the Holidays

The best things about being home? Family, food, and photos that don't suck because I didn't take them!

I thought finals week would never end. But miraculously, it did, and on Friday, I finally escaped from the Gator Nation to return to California for winter break and Christmas with my family.

And now, I'm writing this from my parents' place in the Hollywood Hills, as I'm sitting in front of a Christmas tree almost as wide as it is tall,sipping a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and looking at the lights of Hollywood and the Miracle Mile sparkling a few miles away down the hill. I filed the final grades for my classes online this morning, and now fall semester is officially done. Life is good.

Almost as wonderful as finally seeing my family, and especially my husband Glenn, again, is the pleasure of hearing my homie birds. I almost forgot what it's like to hear dozens of House Finches going off at the same time, for no particular reason. And it was great hearing the perky "bouncing ball" chorus of Wrentits, even if they were impossible to see.

I just had to see all my old birds again. So Glenn and I spent Saturday morning at San Joaquin. I didn['t really care what we saw; even a morning I would have found eye-rollingly dull six months ago would have suited me fine.

And this was just as well: Even though some rarities had been spotted there recently (Hooded Mergansers, a Summer Tanager, and a Harris' Sparrow), we didn't see anything unusual. But I was happy just to see the usual suspects again: Bushtits, wintering Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks, and huge flocks of Cedar Waxwings, feasting on berries. (I passed a number of bushes stripped bare by the hungry little guys).

Everywhere I've looked, I've seen and heard dive-bombing Anna's Hummingbirds, and twittering Dark-eyed Juncos and Bushtits. Nothing out of the ordinary, but good to see, like seeing family and old friends again.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

All I want for Christmas are a few more lifers! Like this Baltimore Oriole.

A few months ago, something evil happened to my car's stereo system--for some reason, the buttons on the face plate stopped working, which means I can no longer change radio stations or adjust the the volume on the darned thing. Now I'm stuck with the embarrassing soft-rock station I was listening to when the thing broke, and worst of all, said station has been playing non-stop Christmas music since Halloween. I can't decide which version of "There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays" I hate most: Bing Crosby's, The Carpenters' , or Barry Manilow's pseudo "jazz" version. (I could just drive with the radio off, but adversity builds character.)

All this xmas cheer was bringing out the Grinch in me: just when the rest of the world gets to slow down, build snowmen and gingerbread houses and basically have a gnarly time, I'm trapped in finals week hell, writing and grading exams and racing to get stuff ready for next semester, while getting more and more homesick by the moment. Being constantly reminded by a dead anorexic that I ought to be home with my family eating pumpkin pie only makes things worse.

But the second-best cure for homesickness is distracting yourself with the good stuff where you are that you can't find at home. So yesterday I threw myself into the glory that is north-central Florida by participating in the local Christmas Bird Count.

My team was to cover the north-eastern section of Gainesville, which includes several large parks and lots of tiny retention ponds. Most of us met at Morningside Nature Center at 5 a.m. to look for owls: the moon was nearly full and fantastically bright despite a layer of clouds. We had a gorgeous—but owl-less—early morning walk.

And of course, the slackers on the team who didn't join us until 7 went out to their assigned part of our territory, and immediately spotted a Great Horned Owl. Go figure.

Our team of seven broke into three subgroups, and I was lucky enough to be placed with our team leader, a naturalist who works for Gainesville's park system. He did most of the finding, and I made myself useful by writing everything down. Thanks to him, I managed to get two more lifers: a Brown-headed Nuthatch (a now-uncommon bird here that is only regularly seen locally in Morningside) and a Baltimore Oriole.

Between writing stuff down, counting things up, and trying to find more birds, I didn't have much time to take pictures. I wish I had gotten a shot of that Nuthatch! But we did manage to find a fairly cooperative Red-headed Woodpecker: they're gorgeous birds; their heads look like they're covered with red velvet:

We birded until 5, with a brief break at a surprisingly good pizza place for lunch. At 5:30, all 11 teams assembled for dinner and the final count-up: the first half of the event consisted of individual teams eating (yet more) pizza while frantically tallying up their sightings and trying to calculate distances and travel times involved. The highlight of the evening was the final collective reading: we went through all the expected county birds, and each team announced how many it had found. Someone entered all the numbers in a computer database, and the numbers (compared to past highs and typical records) were displayed on a video screen for all to watch.

Some teams got some good stuff: There was a sighting of a Limpkin, and the Harris' Sparrow at La Chua stuck around for the count, as hoped. Our territory didn't yield anything exceptional, except for the Nuthatches.

But it was still a great day of birding. And the pizza wasn't bad either.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

Truth is Bittern fiction.

I'd never been to the Deep South before moving to Gainesville, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But I had some ideas, many of which were pretty close to the truth: Moss hanging from trees in a sinister manner? Check. People calling me "ma'am"? Check. Iced tea sweet enough to send hummingbirds into a diabetic coma? Yup. Locals spinning improbable but true yarns worthy of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. God yes...

Like the story a birder told me one day about a relative of hers who had survived the storming of Normandy: He was invited back to Normandy as an honored guest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day—and upon seeing that beach again, had a long-delayed flashback, suffered a heart attack, and died on the spot. On the beach at Normandy. On D-Day.

And the story of what I hope was Gainesville's one and only serial killer: he targeted young woman, and one local student was so frightened, she had a burly male friend move in with her for protection. A few days later, the killer found and dispatched them both, ceremoniously placing the girl's head on the TV in the living room for the benefit of whoever found them.

I heard this story while standing by the girl's grave during the fall migration count.

Now here's my story: like the others, too weird to be true—and also, too strange for anyone to make up.

It happened at the Alachua Audubon field trip yesterday. We were having a productive morning: we had two very bold American Bitterns only feet away, both Glossy AND White-faced Ibises, and thousands of Sandhill Cranes. There were lots of good passerines, too: we were treated to sightings of Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, a Black-and While Warbler, a pair of Loggerheaded Shrikes, and flocks of Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows.

At one point on the trail, our leader pointed out an area where he had recently encountered a pair of out-of-town birders playing a recording of an unfamiliar bird, and asked them what they were looking for.

Oh, they told him, we're looking for a Harris' Sparrow.

Did you hear of one around here? he asked, his curiosity piqued. He explained to us that the last known sighting of one in Alachua County was in 1973.

No, they said. But we drove all the way up to Louisiana to find some, and didn't see any. So we thought we'd stop by here on the way home to see if we got lucky.

We all got a good laugh out of this. Hey, why not play an Ivory-billed Woodpecker call and see what we could scare up? Ha ha.

We continued down the trail, and stopped to check out a flock of feeding White-crowned Sparrows just off the trail.

"Hey, what's that?" one of the birders asked.
"The one the left."
"Which one?"
"The big one. With the black throat."

Our trip leader trained his bins on it, as did the rest of us. It was bigger than the White-crowned Sparrows in the group. It had a black throat and buff cheeks...

"OH...MY...GOD!" he gasped. "IT'S A HARRIS' SPARROW!"

Stunned, we stood frozen in place as it twitched for several seconds, then dove into the brush. None of us with cameras had a chance to capture it.

You really can't make this stuff up. Strange things just happen here, just like that.