Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Goodbyes

Dominick would have gotten a better shot: A House Wren at La Chua Trail.

This month, two friends passed suddenly, before I could even say goodbye.

The first was an old friend that had been a part of my life and my family's life since my childhood: Gourmet magazine. The corporate bean-counters at Condé Nast decided axe the revered 70-year-old franchise while continuing to support its vapid kid sister, Bon Appétit.

I love cooking as much as I love birding, and as a former professional cook, I can say with objective certainty that the difference between Gourmet and Bon Appétit was the difference between Roger Tory Peterson and the doofus I met a while back who mistook a Great Egret ten feet away for a pelican.

All the obituaries for Gourmet sneered that it was fusty and elitist, not designed for "the way people live today" in "these recessionary times". I call bullshit. True, it wasn't meant for people who are content with microwaved Lean Cuisine for dinner. But neither was it unusable: most of the recipes were easily do-able by any competent home cook, and the magazine had a regular section dedicated to recipes meant for weeknight cooking. And these generally contained lots of (cheap) pasta and veggies. And it featured, along with its wonderfully out-of-left-field travel and food culture articles (Slovenian food! The cooking of Yemenite exiles in Israel!), the ever-entertaining Roadfood column, which lovingly described regional specialties at some of the most blue-collar, American vernacular eateries imaginable.

Bon Appétit, by contrast, features celebrity hamburger recipes.

I looked forward to a new issue of Gourmet every month, to travelling vicariously to decidedly weird places and trying the accompanying recipes—the smells and tastes made me imagine I was there. My subscription was cheap, the writing was great, and the recipes were fun to make and to think about. When I was too busy to follow them to the letter, which was often, I'd just riff off them and still get some pretty good stuff.

And I just got my last-ever issue in the mail yesterday. It even had a bird on the cover—just for me!

And as usual, when I tore off the shrink wrap and opened it, all those annoying perforated "Send a gift subscription to a friend!" cards fell out.

I feel like filling them out and sending them all back to Condé Nast as a protest.

The demise of Gourmet was a sad surprise. But even sadder, and more surprising, was the passing of Dominick Martino, known affectionately as "the unofficial official photographer of Paynes Prairie". He lost his battle with bone cancer—which I didn't even know he was fighting—last week.

The first time I met Dominick was on my first-ever visit to La Chua. I went with another local birder, who had volunteered to show me around. Dominick was, as usual, tooling about in the little golf cart provided to him by the park, and immediately struck up a bird-related conversation. As we left, my host remarked, "Some people around here are kind of afraid of him."

"Really? Why?" I asked. I couldn't imagine anyone being afraid of such a friendly and jolly character.

"Well, if you get to talking with him, you might get sucked into 45 minutes of conversation. Sometimes, he just can't stop!"

It was true that he could talk forever about the flora and fauna of Paynes Prairie. And about taking photos. Both of which he clearly loved.

There was rarely if ever I time that I went to La Chua and didn't see him there; he was as much a part of the landscape as the alligators and wintering Sandhill Cranes, and his New York accent was as interwoven into La Chua's soundtrack as the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds. I thought of him as the Tommy Lasorda of Paynes Prairie: a knowledgeable and shamelessly biased booster.

The last time I saw him was in early August, during an especially pleasant day of birding: I was at La Chua with a friend and we were enjoying summering Purple Gallinules, Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, and even a few distant Whooping Cranes. Dominick was at the observation platform at the end of the trail with his camera, and we spent close to an hour up there, chatting and watching storm clouds go by. As usual, he was having a whale of a time watching the movements of the birds and animals. And despite the typically repulsive Florida summer heat, it felt like a perfect day to be alive, with perfect company to share it with.

If he was already sick at the time, he certainly didn't look it or act like it.

I can't say I knew Dominick all that well, except for his love and knowledge of Paynes Prairie. But my visits to La Chua, his usual haunt, will be sadder without him. Like my lamented subscription to Gourmet, I figured he, and the pleasure of his company, would always be there.

Goodbye, old friends. Life will be a lot less fun without you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Fallout Boy: A Rose Breasted Grosbeak at Bolen Bluff. (No, really)

I heard an NPR interview last year with a statistician who said he always started introductory classes with the following trick: he'd divide the class into two groups, leave the room, and have one group record the results of 100 actual coin tosses, and the other make up series of 100 imagined coin tosses that would look as random as possible. Both groups would then write the results of their real/imagined tosses on the board, and when he'd return, he'd try to determine which series was the real one and which the the imagined one.

He said it was always easy to tell the actual coin toss sequences from the imagined ones: the real sequences always looked implausible (a series of 20 consecutive tail tosses, for instance), while the fake sequences looked suspiciously even.

The moral? Reality is inherently implausible.

On Friday, a number of implausible but agreeable things happened: the temperature plummeted from the high 80s to the low 60s; a grand double rainbow surfaced as a took my morning run, and UF (and, as I later learned, ALL of Gainesville's public schools) shut down for UF's homecoming celebrations. (WHY grade-schoolers should get the day off because a bunch of old galoots in RVs want to relive their youth is a bit of a head-scratcher.)

On Saturday morning, I woke up to pleasantly chilly weather and clear skies—perfect for a long walk!—as well as a Badbirdz Reloaded radar report promising Tons of Migrants. But I felt none of the usual frenzy for acquisition that goes with my Saturday mornings during migration. My miserable luck over the past few weeks had beaten me into a Zen-like state of equanimity: I had broken free from the deluded belief that I could find warblers at Bolen Bluff the same way I find weird microbrews at Trader Joe's. Like the Buddha, I would desire nothing, and simply wait for the universe to do its thing. Whatever it was.

Unlike the Buddha, I still had my bins and a desire to look at birds—any birds. So I hitched up with the Alachua Audubon field trip to Bolen Bluff on Saturday morning. Since it was the last weekend of migration and the weather was so pleasant, over a dozen people showed up. And almost as soon as we hit the trail, we heard and saw a male Hooded Warbler. Not bad.

And only moments after that, we had a few American Redstarts. Nice, but unremarkable. Then a Black-and-white Warbler. Then a Magnolia Warbler. Following scolding flocks of Caroline Chickadees, we found yet more Redstarts. It was beginning to look like that radar report was spot on.

Our next treats: high in the trees was a pair of male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. And in a berry-filled camphor tree known by birders for its popularity with thrushes were—thrushes! The zone of my brain reserved for East Coast thrush ID is still a fuzzy mess, but reputable people in our group IDed several Grey-cheeked Thrushes and Wood Thrushes.

And despite the dozen of us stomping happily and loudly down the trail, the birds kept coming: we found a tree just off the trail containing about 5 warbler species, including a pair of Black-throated Green Warblers (the first and only I'd seen all season), as well as Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Ovenbirds hopped around on the ground nearby, and in a nearby tree was a female Scarlet Tanager.

By now, everyone was oohing and aahing in weak-kneed joy. Our trip leader, a hard-core, seen-it-all-before local birder, was overwhelmed. This morning had made up for absolutely all the mornings of bug bites and warbler-less ennui of the preceding months.

The one area in which I didn't not get lucky yesterday was in getting pictures: the hungry warblers were high in the trees and moving fast.

Out on the prairie, we added two more to our warbler count: a Common Yellowthroat and several Palm Warblers. We looked around for Yellow and Prairie Warblers, which failed to materialize, and were beginning to wonder what our final warbler count would be. We were up to 14. Could we hit 15?

It should be mentioned that the number 15 has local relevance beyond being an a good round number: as any self-respecting college football fan knows, 15 is also Tim Tebow's number, and Saturday was UF's homecoming weekend home game, which means GO GATORS!! WOOHOO!!

(Okay, there's a municipal code requiring all Gainesville-based blogs to say that at least once a year. Now where was I?)

Oh yes, birds! There were lots of them! On our way back out of the prairie, we got good looks at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and yet more Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. We spotted another warbler that may or may not have been a Prairie—but none of use were sure enough to call it make it our #15.

Still, there were plenty more warblers on the way back out to the trailhead: more American Redstarts and Yellow-throateds and dozens of Magnolia Warblers ( we teased our leader every time he spotted something and said it was "just" a Magnolia! ) Then we saw something else: a bit like a Magnolia, but not really. Not a Prairie either. It hopped around about 20 feet in front of us for a couple of minutes while we passed a bird guide around and examined it: a Cape May!

We had hit 15! And this was a great bird to get, too: Cape Mays show up in Gainesville pretty regularly during spring migration, but rarely during the fall.


And that afternoon, the Gators won (barely) their hard-fought battle against Arkansas, with concussion-suffering #15 leading the way. Coincidence? I think not.

Gator fans, you can thank Alachua Audubon later.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Georgia on My Mind

Look, it's a warbler! A female Common Yellowthroat at Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area

I was fed up with birding.

Specifically, I was fed up with hunting in vain for fall warblers. My weekly strolls through Paynes Prairie, normally a highlight of my weekends, had morphed into angst-ridden death marches: watching unidentifiable backlit splotches zipping through tangles of leaves four stories in the air only reminded me of my lack of skills/luck/decent bins.

The birds were making me feel like crap. (Yup, it was all their fault! Blasted invisible Golden-winged Warblers!) It was time to step away from those sadistically elusive migrants and do something different.

And luckily, this week I was already committed to the best possible thing for a burnt-out birder: a birding festival! Because birding festivals are a great way to avoid birding.

I've only been to a few festivals, but if these were typical, birding festivals seem to involve the following:

1. Name tags with pictures of birds on them!
2. T-shirts featuring the same bird that's on your name tag!
3. Banquets with no-host bars where $7/bottle wine sells for $5 a glass!
4. Field trips where someone invariably plants him/herself directly in front of you whenever anything interesting shows up!
5. An exhibition hall filled with reps from local birding/conservation groups, reps of major optics companies, and some random guy selling photos/paintings of birds!

The Colonial Coast Birding Festival on Jekyll Island, Georgia, was no exception. The only reason I went was because a couple of my friends here in Gainesville, both serious birders and professional biologists, were among the speakers/presenters, and they had invited me to join them. (They often invite me to join them on their birding road trips; why they'd want such a clueless birder in their midst was a mystery: I figured they just wanted a low-maintenance person to split the cost of their hotel room.) So I navigated the festival's labyrinth of a website, registered for the festival, signed up for several field trips and seminars, and hitched a ride up to Jekyll Island (and shared a comfy hotel room) with my friends.

Jekyll Island is only a 3-hour drive north from Gainesville, so I wasn't expecting the variety of birds to vary too much from what I'd get back home. But I got a few surprises. Roseate Spoonbills are plentiful there, and we saw several on our drive in. (They're a fairly recent arrival on the local scene, I'm told):

The Spoonbills are coastal birds, which might explain why they aren't attracted to the inland delights of Gainesville. But there were yet more treats: on a Saturday morning trip to Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area , our group found a male and female Painted Bunting foraging together: it was a lifer for the birder who first spotted the male; she thought at first that it was a brightly colored flower! But as usual, the little beauty and his girlfriend flew off before I could get any pictures. We also had dozens of Bobolinks—a fairly new bird for me.

Another treat of the Altamaha trip was the group I ended up carpooling with: the friendly and knowledgeable trip leader, the Painted Bunting Finder, and a guy from Athens whose non-birding-related goal was to sample barbeque in each of Georgia's 100+ counties. He loved his food, and for lunch we ended up at a dumpy-looking little roadhouse (not a barbeque) at his suggestion: everyone dug into huge baskets of perfectly fried shrimp and oysters and tankards of sweet tea (too sweet for me and the Painted Bunting Lady, who was from Ohio and unfamiliar with the weirdness that is sweet tea.) I had a fish sandwich because I was broke, but it was still pretty tasty.

After lunch, my new friends dropped me off back at the festival headquarters, at the soon-to-be-demolished-and-rebuilt Jekyll Island Convention Center. This left me an hour to kill before the seminar on shorebird ID that I had signed up for. So I wandered through the exhibit hall, looking for anything that might have changed since the previous day. I found one new thing: where the seven-layer-dip and chicken fingers had been at the previous evening's social hour, there was this:

My friends came back from their afternoon of birding just after my shorebird seminar ended. They wanted to show me around the island, and they wanted to check out the campground, which had a number of feeders and water fixtures that were known for attracting good birds. There, we saw several American Redstarts and Northern Parulas, and at the feeders and birdbath were about four female Painted Buntings!

This was very cool, and suddenly I didn't hate birds, or looking for birds, anymore. I could have stayed there for hours. But we had to leave for the banquet and keynote address (a talk on bird song by Don Kroodsma) . The talk was great, and featured several eminently quotable lines. My favorite: "Science is organized curiosity." I wish I could brand this on my students' foreheads at the start of each semester!

On Sunday, our last day at the festival, I tagged along with my friends on the trip they led, then we had lunch at one of their favorite barbeque places. On the drive back to Gainesville, we listened to the CD that accompanied Kroodsma's bird song book. The variety of songs and calls was fascinating, but for some reason it made us all quite sleepy.

Back in my friends' driveway in Gainesville, I unloaded my gear and asked how much I owed them for the hotel.

"Nothing! It's paid for since we're trip leaders," they said.

Wow. Maybe I don't suck after all. Or maybe I have some redeeming non-birding-related qualities. Either way, it's good to feel normal again.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Depths of Incompetence

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a male Summer Tanager...

Five fun facts I learned this weekend:

1. Cats are not only predators of nesting Northern Mockingbird chicks, but also take their eggs.
2. Squirrels are likewise known to feed on Mockingbird eggs.
3. Monk Parakeets build ginormous colonial nests on electric poles in south Florida, which causes birds, people, nests, and random other stuff down there to occasionally get zapped into oblivion. Many people find this problematic.
4. Ghost Crabs are major predators of Snowy Plover chicks in Florida.
5. Warbler lust can lead to physical and spiritual ruin.

I gleaned all this important information from the fall meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society , which took place this weekend here in Gainesville. If this year's meeting and last year's fall meeting in St. Augustine are any indication, FOS meetings are great fun, in a seriously weird way: they're a cross between a small birding festival and a low-budget academic conference, with a laid-back vibe unexpectedly generated by some of the most intense birdheads imaginable. Almost all the attendees were professional biologists or wildlife managers (a guy at my table at Saturday's banquet proudly showed off a scar from a California Condor bite); the few other amateur birders there other than myself all had life lists approaching four digits.

Nope, I had no idea what I was doing there, either.

Everyone else was there to either share their latest research or network with like-minded professionals. My goals were more modest: (1) to have fun and (2) to improve my birding skills by learning at the feet of the masters. Both goals were easily attainable: there was lots to do (social hours! field trips! PowerPoint presentations with lots of bar graphs! Beer in the parking lot of the hotel where FOS was held! (Don't ask...)) And the other birders there were AMAZING.

But their awesomeness didn't help me see any birds. And uncooperative migrants nearly ruined the weekend for me.

I scored a lifer on a Saturday field trip (a Magnolia Warbler) and got several good birds overall (a Blackburnian Warbler and a couple of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks), but the whole weekend, I felt hollow. I hadn't found any of these birds myself, I would never have been able to ID them by myself, as all were tiny backlit silhouettes darting through the tops of dense 4-story high trees. I could barely see most of the birds we found, let alone get any photos of them.

The thrill of the hunt is all about the satisfaction of skills rewarded, and here I was getting spoon-fed like a baby. The kind of colicky baby that gets more food on the floor than in its mouth at mealtime.

On Sunday, a kind couple from Tallahassee patiently tried to point out the Ovenbird and Hooded Warbler in the brush about 30 feet in front of us. "See that branch over there? There's another branch behind it leaning to the left and there's some Spanish moss near that? The bird's just behind it—do you see it?"

"Yes, thanks," I lied after about 10 minutes of their careful tutelage.

I was sleep-deprived, covered with bug bites, and plagued with serious warbler neck and self-loathing. The number of birds I'd actually seen and IDed myself that day was in the single digits. My big weekend of migrant hunting, which I had been looking forward to for weeks, was shot. And now all I wanted to do was crawl into a big hole into the ground.

Luckily, there was a big hole conveniently nearby: Devil's Millhopper , locally known as the Biggest Sinkhole Ever (or at least, the biggest sinkhole in the greater Gainesville area). People kept telling me that it was really awe-inspiring and worth checking out. Why? Because it was a Really Big Hole! And there are stairs leading to the bottom of it! Ooh!

The inside of Devil's Millhopper was pretty—lined with ferns and what would have been nice little waterfalls in the rainy season—but it was not the vertigo-inducing thrill-fest I had envisioned. And it wasn't all that deep either—it took me all of 10 minutes to walk to the bottom and back up again. Maybe this is exciting here in Florida, where there are no mountains or canyons to speak of, but for someone who grew up surrounded by canyons and hills, this was seriously lame. And there were no birds in there, either.

But when I emerged from the Really Big Hole, on the rim were several birders from the field trip, who had been told they had check the place out before heading home to Jacksonville or Tallahassee or wherever. We chatted, and I learned that everyone on that trip had been frustrated by the uncooperative birds—about half the group had given up and left early. So it wasn't just me.

And the trips weren't a total loss: I learned a few more cool factoids about birds and plants, and I still saw more birds with the FOS posse than I would have seen on my own.

Which begs the question: is it possible to see a negative number of birds?