Sunday, November 30, 2008

On My Nightstand: Reading About Birds

(First in an occasional series.)

When I started birding a few years ago, I noticed something weird: I was in one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country (Orange County, California, just south of Los Angeles) , but almost all the birders I met were white. And even they realized that this wasn't a good thing.

And so did John Robinson, one of the tiny number of African-American birders and professional naturalists. After years of enduring double-takes from people who'd never seen a black guy with a spotting scope, he began to investigate why so few people of color are birders. The result of his investigation is his book Birding For Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers.

Some of the answers he finds—gleaned from interviews and recent results of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment— are unsurprising: A lack of role models. A lack of exposure to and education about the pleasures of the natural world. (Oddly, the top reason African-Americans surveyed gave for not birdwatching was a lack of time—something birders of all backgrounds can relate to.)

Some might wonder why it's a problem that the birding world is as white as a Bufflehead's belly: after all, birding is a hobby, not a career choice. So what if some of America's ethnic communities have different recreational preferences than others?

Robinson has a long-sighted answer: it's not just about the people. It's about the birds. Like it or not, non-white populations in the US are growing faster than white populations (back home in California, whites are already less than 50% of the state's population). And yes, non-white Americans do vote. Will this population be willing to support national parks and nature reserves if it has no idea what's in them? Will people be willing to support legal measures to protect wild birds if they've never seen one?

So, the fact that the youngest, fastest growing groups in the country have little interest or connection to the natural world not a just social problem: it's an environmental problem. And Robinson points out that he's not the only one to make this claim: it's long been a concern of environmental activists of all backgrounds.

Robinson's proposals to reverse this trend are eminently reasonable: Outreach efforts to schools and low-income communties by environmental professionals (including commerical birding enterprises such as optics companies). Get birding and nature advocates involved in educational partnerships with groups such as Head Start. And while he emphasizes that the white birders he's encountered have been welcoming and friendly, he recommends that nature reserves and birding groups target some of their public relations campaigns explicity to minority audiences.

Robinson's book simultaneously addresses two audiences: people of color on the verge of becoming birders, and experienced birders/environmental activists interested in making the birding world more inclusive. This makes the work a bit schizophrenic: the former group may not be interested in statistics about why people like them aren't birding, and the latter won't care about the detailed instructions about how to use binoculars effectively.

He also plays down the role of cultural factors in the absence of minority birders, only mentioning that cultural preferences have been examined and are considered "controversial". I can't speak for the African-American community, but I do know that less-assimilated Asian-Americans would rank birding somewhere between beer pong and karaoke on the scale of usefulness in personal and professional development. (When I first saw Robinson's book, I immediately imagined equivalent volumes addressed to my peeps: "Just Because It's Inedible, Doesn't Mean It's Uninteresting! Birding for Chinese-Americans" or "Birding: It Will Raise Your AP Biology Scores and Look Awesome on Your Yale Application!")

Someone needs to spell out (diplomatically) the uncomfortable truth: some cultures put less emphasis on the importance and sanctity of the natural world than others, and it's up to insiders with a knowledge and understanding of these cultures to change this. (Sigh. Okay, I just did it.).

And here's something else I'd tell an inner-city or newly-immigrated would-be birder: Birding doesn't have to be expensive. Sure, there are a lot of people out there with $1000+ bins who regularly jet to Costa Rica to expand their life lists, but you can still have an amazing time without doing this. (In about three years, I've gotten over 300 lifers and had tons of fun with my $60 no-brand Sports Chalet binoculars.)

But these are quibbles. Robinson has performed an important service by pointing out that environmental stewardship—and enjoyment of the natural world—are too often perceived as white concerns instead of what they are: human concerns. And his passion for birds, and for serving as a role model to minority birders, is contagious. I'm looking forward to seeing where he takes this mission next.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Third Rail

Rail #1: Sora

After last week's fire ant attack, I was tempted to skip birding this weekend. I've practically scratched my left leg off, it's freezing out, and I've got a ton of work to do before the semester ends—not to mention tons of prep for my classes next semester. By Friday, I'd more or less decided to stay indoors and away from biting insects until my leg healed and my to-do list shrunk to manageable proportions.

Then I came to my senses and went out anyways. If stayed in, I'd spend more time wondering what I was missing than working.

So on Sunday, I headed to Cedar Key with the Alachua Audubon field trip group. Our leader warned us that the birding could either be wonderful or non-existent: on one hand, the tide was going to be up when we were scheduled to arrive, meaning little shorebird activity. On the hand, the cold front could well drive in some interesting birds. And there was only one way to find out which way it would be...

Our first stop was on the edge of town, where we pulled off to the side of the road to look for shorebirds. The tide was lower than we expected, and huge flocks of Dunlins, Western Sandpipers, American Oystercatchers, and other usual suspects were feeding off in the distance. We also had a large group of American Avocets—a common bird back in Orange County, but a good sighting here.

In the reeds not far from us, someone spotted a Sora. I heard, but didn't see, a Clapper Rail: Someone played its call, but there was no response.

These were good birds, but we were now on the lookout for sparrows: the swampy area across the street was a known hangout for Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. And it wasn't long before we found one:

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow

This was a lifer for me, and I was happy. Then several more came into view, along with several Marsh Wrens. I love Marsh Wrens and haven't seen any since leaving California, so it was a pleasure to see and hear them again. For some reason, seeing them again reminded me that it won't be long until I get to go home for Christmas. Yay!

Soon after, another Sora popped into view, followed by a bold Virginia Rail, who moved in and out of the reeds, occasionally pecking at a dead sand crab nearby:

Rail #2: Virginia Rail

Someone started playing a Seaside Sparrow song on his iPod, but with no response. "Can you play a Clapper Rail?" on of the others asked, "There was one on the other side, but I missed it--and I've never seen one."

The iPod's owner was happy to oblige—and so was one of the local Clappers:

Rail #3: Clapper Rail

"Whoa. How about a Black Rail?" someone else asked. We tried that, and were met with only stillness. We had been lucky, and now we were greedy.

And this was just the first half hour of our trip. Our other major findings were a Bronzed Cowbird (another lifer for me), several Bald Eagles, and the discovery that birding near the runway of Cedar Key's tiny airport is not a good idea. (The police officer who informed us of this suggested that we go to the cemetery instead to look for Ospreys.)

By time we finished up at the cemetery (one skinny juvenile Osprey and a couple of strangely pale, nearly leucistic Red-trailed Hawks), it was almost 1:30 (we had assembled in Gainesville at 6:30), and I was hungry to the point of distraction. My carpool mate was as well, so we stopped at a local seafood place for lunch, where I made my second-to-last useful discovery of the day: Datil pepper sauce is really good on fried seafood. And most other things too, most likely.

My final discovery? On some lucky days, you don't have to work to be productive. And three rails in a day is enough.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Just Missed It

Beautiful but birdless: weekend scenery from La Chua Trail

This should have been a great weekend for birding, but for some reason, it wasn't. It started promisingly enough, with an Alachua Audubon field trip to Tuscawilla Prairie, an undeveloped tract of marshy prairie just outside the unbearably cute little town of Micanopy.

It had rained the night before, and was still drizzling that morning, so the ground was thick with mud when we arrived. I hate mud. There were no trails on the prairie, so we powered our way across the muddy expanse through 6-foot high dog fennel and other vegetation. We were headed towards an even wetter and muddier area where ducks and shorebirds had been seen, and as the mud got thicker,my feet got wetter and wetter. And then I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left leg—as though someone had impaled it with hundreds of hot needles.

I looked down and saw a swarm of fire ants crawling up my leg. Their nests are usually easy to see and avoid, but not out there.

"Try to brush them off the best you can, " one of the other birders said, and I did—but then they started biting my hands as well.

This made it hard to focus on the birds. Which was a shame, as there were some good ones out there. Sedge Wrens were everyone, skulking in the underbrush and checking us out with their beady black eyes. Lots of Savannah and Swamp Sparrows, and potentially others as well—but I was in too much pain and not in any mood to race though the mud and and mosquito-filled brush to find them.

On the way back into Gainesville, we stopped at a little pond (actually, within walking distance of my place) that looked, as one of my carpool mates said, "shorebirdy." This was a fair assessment: we found both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, a Least Sandpiper, and a couple of Wilson's Snipes. This was the first time I'd seen one of these close up:

I hoped Sunday would be better: I had planned to get together with some other local birders to look for wintering sparrows off the La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie. The rain had passed, and the sky was bright and cloudless. While waiting in the parking lot for the others to arrive, I saw large feeding flocks of Palm Warblers, and watched several Northern Flickers flying from tree to tree. Near the trailhead, we immediately spotted about half a dozen sparrows darting through the brush: Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows (the first of the season for me), and a Vesper Sparrow. Here's an immature White-crowned Sparrow:

Things were looking promising.. until a cold, gusty wind abruptly set it, sending all the small birds diving for cover. During the rest of our walk, we saw only a few Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Phoebes. As a consolation prize, though, we did get some good looks at raptors: a pair of Northern Harriers, and a pair of American Kestrels, as well as Red-tailed and Cooper's Hawks. We also got a good look at several wild hogs and missed—apparently, by only a minute—seeing a herd of wild bison that passing hikers kept telling us about.

Another local birder had just scored 10 sparrow species at La Chua last week, and it was clear that we weren't going to get even close to this.

But a weekend of bad birding is better than a weekend with no birding. And the bad days make the good days even better.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bird Therapy

Common but cute: A Carolina Wren at Bolen Bluff

Last week was insanely busy, so when the weekend rolled around, I didn't feel like wandering too far afield. This wasn't a time for birding adventure, but for birding therapy. All I wanted was to be out of doors with nothing but the sound of songs and flapping wings around me.

First thing Saturday morning, I dropped by Powers Park. I got there before all the boaters did, and got to watch a Belted Kingfisher diving for fish in the shallow water off the boat ramp. A Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Tricolored Heron were perched simultaneously on the fishing dock over Newnans Lake. The Tricolored Heron was quite brave; it didn't flinch even when I stood just 5 feet from it:

It was a good morning for waders. Nearby, several Little Blue Herons were wandering around. I know birds are lighter than their size suggests, but it was still pretty amazing that this one could actually stand on a lily pad:

Today at Bolen Bluff, I saw reasonably good assortment of fall birds. Woodpeckers were everywhere (Northern Flickers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Downey, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were all easy to find). The Yellow-rumped Warblers have arrived for the winter (in large numbers), and were flitting high in the trees with Yellow-throated and Black-and-White Warblers. My other good birds of the morning were a cuckoo (I couldn't tell what kind, as it was a distance away) and Hermit Thrush.

Bolen Bluff is known for its assortment of mammals as well as birds; a couple of groups of wild horses, as well as several deer, were also on the trail:

It was a gorgeous morning. Nothing really special bird-wise, but a nice reminder of the pleasure of escaping from the crowd once in a while.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Rare Migrant, and Why I Voted for That One

Biden time until tomorrow!

I have made a point of keeping this site non-political, but here's a sighting from yesterday afternoon at the University of  Florida campus I must share: a rare migrant from the Delaware, the Scranton Warbler, known for its rich and varied vocalizations. It, and other birds it travels with, have been seen frequently in Florida as of late. Many think this is because of the increasingly welcoming environmental conditions for them here.

I bring this up because
My Friend from up the coast has thrown his lot in with the other guy. Why, he asks good naturedly (the only way he ever asks stuff) would you vote for someone who wants to RAISE YOUR TAXES??

Two reasons: First: for almost all of us, HE WON'T. If you make under 250 grand a year (which I'm guessing My Friend does), you'll be getting a TAX CUT, not a raise. And if you're thinking (like Joe the Plumber) "what if I make a miillion bucks with my book deal and country music album, why should I pay taxes on that?" Consider this: both Colin Powell and Warren Buffett (whom doubtlessly make more than 250 grand) have both crossed party lines to endorse Obama. Both do so knowing they'd pay a bit more in taxes under him. These guys are both civic-minded and financially savvy--they wouldn't be doing this unless it was in their best interest, and the interest of America as a whole.

Second, consider this: Taxes pay for essential goods, such as roads, schools, parks (where birds are!), and the military. As Oliver Wendell Holmes (no commie) once said, "I like taxes. They pay for civilization." I share his sentiment: I don't mind part of my tiny salary going towards the common good. What I do mind is having huge portions of it hacked off and used to cover tax breaks for American companies that ship our jobs overseas, and for a pointless war in Iraq.

Another reason I'm voting for That One: Health care. One reason I moved across the country and away from my husband (who I haven't seen since August, and won't see again until Christmas) is because of this. His job doesn't offer any. So he got an individual policy that costs about $500 a month for the two of us (and no,, neither of us has any chronic illnesses) .And my husband's job is temporary, and the only job opportunities I had back home didn't include health coverage either. So I shlepped my ass out here to the swamp in part so I can get--ooh!--a year's worth of insurance that could potentially cover him as well as me, if, god forbid, his job ends sooner than they promised.

Under McCain's plan, my health benefits will be taxed, and it will no longer be advantageous for companies to offer them. And under his plan, there will be no guarantee that one can buy insurance affordably on the private market: companies will still have the right to turn people down for pre-existing conditions. My healthy, then 30-something brother-in-law was turned down for health insurance because he had asthma as a kid. He's now covered under my sister's insurance. What if that goes away?

Under Obama's plan, companies won't be penalized for offering health benefits, and it will be easier for freelancing individuals like my BIL to buy their own. What's not to like?

And here's another reason to vote for That One:

And no, he's not a terrorist, socialist, or baby killer. For the facts, check
here and here.

I could go on forever, but I'll finish off with a personal reason: the John McCain who's running this year isn't the man I respected as a member of the loyal opposition four years ago. I'm effing sick of being told by him, Sarah, and their surrogates I'm not a Real American. As anyone who reads this regularly has probably guessed, I'm (1) nonwhite, (2) grew up in Los Angeles, land of the weird (and darned proud of it), and (3) one of those pointy-headed elite college professors (and darned proud of that too; I worked my ass off to get where I am.). John and Sarah would have you think people like me are lazy decadent leeches ruining it for the rest of you. Well, guess what?? I'm a proud third-generation American; my father was an Air Force officer. I vote and pay taxes. I do volunteer work. I work 60 hours a week as teacher and researcher, and pull in less in a year than Joe the Plumber. Seriously. E-mail me offline and I'll tell you what I'm making. I don't get paid a penny of overtime for all the late-night and weekend work I do, but if, God forbid, I call in sick, it IS deducted from my paycheck. Joe the Plumber would cry like a proverbial girl if he had to do my job. Don't tell me I don't get it. I do.

And I'm terrified that the environment of hatred and fear that they've stoked against people like me will blossom should they be elected.

So get out there and vote! And vote for my guy.... or I'll slap yo' momma!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Eye on the Sparrow

Don't have a cow: The non-birding scene at Hague Dairy

Hague Dairy is one of the big local birding hotspots, but until now, I haven't been there. The prospect seemed both intimidating and unpleasant: it's a bit a a drive from my place, in an out-of-the-way rural area outside Gainesville, and it's not open to the public in a user-friendly way—it's not a park, but an actual working dairy (actually, a laboratory dairy run by the University of Florida)—so while visitors may enter the and sign in for permission to wander around, there are no signs to show you where you are or where the interesting stuff is. The official story there is the cattle ARE the interesting stuff.

So I was happy to tag along with Alachua Audubon's fieldtrip to dairy—most of the people who attended knew the area well and were happy to show me where the interesting stuff was.

One of the places birders like there is also one of the most repulsive: a massive dungheap and a holding pool filled with...well, once you smell it, you'll know. But birds don't find this problematic: a large flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds and American Crows were pecking happily around on top of the tall heap of you-know-what, and in that regrettable holding pond, we spotted a lone Least Sandpiper, a Common Snipe, and a big flock of White Ibises, looking conspicuously clean considering their surroundings. Here's one of them.

Further along, we reached a more pleasant area, filled with the usual moss-draped oaks and shrubs. There, we found a Prairie Warbler, a Yellow-throated Warbler, and a Black-and-White Warbler. Along a nearby fence were numerous Eastern Bluebirds and Palm Warblers, both members of the brownish Western population, and of brighter yellow Eastern population. I also got a Chipping Sparrow, a species I had seen back home in California, but not often:

I also had the opportunity to be utterly confused by the birds everyone else was identifying as Yellow-rumped Warblers and Savannah Sparrows: I had seen both birds a million times back home, but these?! Then I remembered that the Eastern race of Yellow-rumpeds iaka (Myrtle Warbler) is different from the Western (aka Audubon's Warbler) in a few ways: I knew how they differed in the spring, but not in the fall. Now I know.

Today at Bolen Bluff, on the prairie, I had another sparrow: I'm pretty sure it's not a Savannah, or a Song Sparrow (the two common species I'm really familiar with—I suck with sparrows)—but I'm not sure what is is. Suggestions welcome!

Fall is shifting slowly, but surely into winter. Here's my chance to finally get up to speed on sparrows. Oh crap!