Sunday, January 25, 2009


May he never be reduced to snarge.

Snarge has to be my very favorite new vocabulary word ever, and it soon will be yours, too. Here are a few sentences demonstrating its usage:

1. If a Brown Thrasher flying at 20 MPH hits a Humvee traveling at 50 MPH, its innards will be reduced to snarge.

2. High-quality pate de foie de volaille is made from chicken livers, cream, cognac, and spices. However, low-quality versions contain mostly snarge.

2. Flight 1549 was forced into a water landing on the Hudson River after the plane's engines became clogged with snarge.

In the august words of the New York Times, snarge is defined as "pulverized bird guts."

Of course, the NYT didn't bring this up just to pander to the bored 5th graders in its readership. The term came up in their fascinating article on forensic ornithology—a very cool field I had no idea existed. Forensic ornithologists, among other things, analyze bird remains found after bird-plane collisions to identify the species and number of birds involved. (Identifying the species is important because this information can be used to prevent further accidents--fields near airstrips can be mowed to discourage geese from foraging, for instance.)

And obviously, identifying birds that have been sucked into a jet engine is a very different thing from identifying a living bird on the wing. Analysts typically have to make an ID with nothing more than a handful of feathers and, yes, snarge. Lots of snarge.

Apart from the yuck factor, forensic ornithology sounds like an amazing line of work: imagine getting to be Kenn Kaufman and Nancy Drew simultaneously! You get the mental challenge of solving mysteries while putting your birding knowledge into action. And you get to do something helpful and useful, with a certain geek-chic cachet.

Law & Order: Bird Identification Unit. I like the sound of that.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Alligator Lake

Ready to eat: A Loggerhead Shrike contemplates lunch near Alligator Lake

This morning's Alachua Audubon field trip was to the Alligator Lake Recreation Area, and I almost didn't go. First, I wasn't sure I felt like getting up early enough to drive the 50 miles to the lake. Second, I almost didn't go because Alligator Lake is such a dumb name: north-central Florida is covered with lakes, and almost all of them house alligators. Calling a body of water "Alligator Lake" around here is practically tautological. With a name like that, what could possibly be there that wasn't everywhere else in the area?

Well, there was the female Masked Duck that had been reported there, and seen regularly, over the past week and a half. Masked Ducks are usually found in Mexico and the West Indies, and the Alligator Lake visitor was the first (or maybe second) record of the species in the area. Seeking it out, I was advised, would be well worth the trouble.

Our trip was to be a leisurely walk through a wooded area, through a marshy region, then to the lake itself. The area in which the Masked Duck was seen was to be roughly the halfway point of our trip. But there was a lot to see and hear, and nobody felt like rushing.

In the marsh, we saw large flocks of White and Glossy Ibises, as well as a rather bold American Bittern and several huge White Pelicans. We also got a good look at a perching Anhinga:

We also got several birds I had not yet seen in Florida: a Canvasback, several Ruddy Ducks (I didn't know these occurred here at all, though they're common back in California), and several Ring-necked Ducks (which everyone kept accidentally calling "Ring-billed Ducks"--which would actually be a better name for them!)

As we approached the lair of the Masked Duck, someone spotted a handkerchief tied to a branch: one of the guys said that it had been left there to note the location of the duck. And after sorting through dozens of American Coots swimming in and out of the reeds, we found it. (This photo is admittedly miserable and for documentary purposes only):

The bird was quite sedate, and had apparently been quite happy to stay in more or less the same spot for about a week. I wondered what wayward migrant birds think in such situations. Does she know she's lost? Does she care? We all managed to get good looks at it through spotting scopes, then we moved on. Not soon after, I got my second lifer of the morning: a Purple Martin, the first of the season for most of the people on the trip.

We also had a sighting of an interesting exotic:

The reserve abuts a private parcel of land where ostriches are farmed. This guy and his companions were not far from the water's edge, apparently unconcerned about the alligators that were no doubt in there and looking for food.

Two lifers and three new birds on my state list--not bad for a morning at Lake Generic (or whatever it's called....)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Attack of the Flying Metaphor

The infamous Harris' Sparrow deigns to make an appearance for me.

My birding expectations for this weekend were pretty low. For one, I've had a nasty cold and laryngitis for the past week and a half, and thought it would be wise to spend the weekend resting. Second, there didn't seem to be that many interesting birds being found locally—there was a sighting of a Masked Duck, which would have been a lifer for me—but I didn't feel up to driving halfway to Tallahassee to look for it.

I hate being sick.

But I hate being stuck indoors even more. This morning, when I heard the first Cardinal chipping outside my window, I got up and decided to return to La Chua Trail. I had been there twice in the past week, and I knew I wasn't likely to see anything now that I didn't see then. I just needed to get out.

Getting out, however, took longer than I expected. It has been crazy cold for for the past few days, and there has been frost on the ground most mornings as of late. But today, I went outside and found my car fully encrusted in frost. Big thick layers of it obscured both windshields.

When I lived in Canada, my friends there teased me for not keeping an ice scraper in my car. But somehow, I managed to survive three years in Vancouver without one.

And it never occurred to me to get one when I moved to Florida.

Still, I managed to get the ice off my car and get to La Chua just before 9:00. When I stepped out of the car, I was glad I came: I could hear birds everywhere: Robins, Red-bellied and Downey Woodpeckers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Carolina Chickadees... all ordinary birds, but in unusual numbers. Down the trail, a Hermit Thrush popped up, Northern Cardinals were singing loudly, and huge numbers of Palm Warblers jumped around in the leaf litter, flicking their tails.

I had set a low-level goal of looking for White-throated Sparrows: they were supposed to be regular winter birds at La Chua, but I had never seen one. A White-throated Sparrow would be a lifer for me, and I wanted one. But I wasn't expecting much: it was already on the late side for sparrows (according to local wisdom, the sparrows at La Chua are most active and visible early in the morning; after 9:00 it's too late). And I had tried and failed to relocate the visiting Harris' Sparrow twice the previous weekend and hadn't heard any news of it all week, so I assumed it had taken off as well.

I was thinking about this while checking out a flock of singing White-crowned Sparrows mingling with a few Savannah Sparrows. The birds were unusually bold, and I managed to get fairly close to them. Then out of nowhere came...the Harris' Sparrow! And he landed in a bare bush directly in front of me, and sat—nearly stationary—for several minutes, allowing me to take several pictures.

Weirdly, I wasn't even terribly surprised by this. My first thought was something like, "Well, it's about time, you evil little bastard!" But then I felt—just happy. I just stood there and watched the little bird twitch about on the branch, thinking of how lucky I was to be right there at that very time.

Then it occurred to me that just about all the truly cool stuff in my life—my friends, my hobbies, my academic research—all came to me much as that Harris' Sparrow did: by happy accident, often after I'd given up looking for something or was obsessed with getting something else. While I constantly badger my students to Stay Organized, Be Responsible, and Plan Ahead, I'm coming to the realization that all the planning the the world won't always get you what you want ( yup, I'm a slow learner). And some of the things I didn't plan for have led me to amazing places—like to Gainesville, and to a bare bush with a strange sparrow in it.

To paraphrase John Lennon, "Lifers are what happens when you're making other plans."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Big Whoop

What everyone is looking for.

The infamous Harris' Sparrow is still being seen around La Chua Trail, and a number of Whooping Cranes have been spotted among the wintering Sandhill Cranes there as well, so I thought it would be a good spot for my first Florida birding trip of the new year.

When I arrived, something seemed definitely odd: there were tons of birders. A group of over a dozen people, all with binoculars, was gathered at the trailhead when I arrived, and took off shortly thereafter. More groups of people with binoculars and bird guides arrived and disappeared down the trail. And I didn't recognize a single one of them.

This was weird. La Chua is a popular birding spot, but I'd never seen that many people here before. And I thought I had a passing recognition of most of the hard-core local birders. Who were all these people?

I worked my way along the trail, stopping to look at a Gray Catbird and a Hermit Thrush in a tree by the trailhead. Further along—by the now-infamous dead tree where the Harris' Sparrow occasionally perches—I finally spotted some familiar faces. Yay! They said the sparrow had been seen shortly before, but the flock it was with had just taken off.

Meanwhile, more and more people with binoculars continued to slog past us down the trail, some pausing to glance at us curiously. Who were they?

The rest of us chatted while waiting (in vain) for the Harris' Sparrow to return. A large and promising-looking flock of White-crowned Sparrows flew in and worked the bushes in front of us—then a hungry Cooper's Hawk dove in and sent them flying.

"Excuse me," a passing power-walker asked, "Every time I've been here recently, there have always been a bunch of people standing exactly where you are, looking into the bushes. What are you looking for?"

This reminded me of something David Sibley said at the Sea and Sage Audubon annual dinner last year: There is a fine line between bird watching and standing around looking like an idiot.

It was time to move on.

My next goal was the Whooping Cranes. And the others told me that this was the goal of the hundreds of other people on the trail as well: there had been an article on the wintering Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes in the Gainesville Sun , and birding La Chua Trail was apparently on their weekend list of Things To Do For Fun Now That Football Season Is Over.

This was impressive—I remembered how hard we had to work back in Orange County to get any media or public attention at all for bird-related matters. And here, all that's needed to get hundreds of people out of bed and into the field with their borrowed/secondhand bins on a cold Saturday morning are a few column inches of type? Wow. Either Gainesville has the most inquisitive and open-minded population of any place I've lived in, or it's the world capital of peer pressure.

No matter. The birds (except for that Harris' Sparrow) put on an excellent show for all comers. The Sandhill Cranes were out in huge numbers. The gray lumps that look like big rocks in the photo below are actually Cranes:

There were literally thousands of them: huge lumpy grey plateaus of feeding flocks out in the distance, flocks of dozens flying overhead, calling loudly, other equally large flocks feeding and fighting in the fields just off the trail.

The Whooping Cranes weren't hard to find, either: one of the other birders I knew said that they had been feeding not far from the trail a few days earlier. Today, they obliged us by doing the same, and I got my first lifer of the year!

The birds are apparently a mated pair; the female has the blue and yellow leg bands; the male has two yellow leg bands.

The Cranes weren't the only birds out. Among the other birds out were several adult male Bald Eagles, about half a dozen Red-shouldered Hawks, an American Bittern, Wilson's Snipes, Snow Geese, Swamp Sparrows...lots of good stuff.

Just as fun to watch as the birds were the awed reactions of the flocks of new birders when they finally got to the top of the observation deck at the end of the trail. "Oh my God--it's so beautiful up here!" "Look at THOSE BIRDS!"

Yup, it really is beautiful out there, and those birds are really something to see. As a teacher, one of my favorite things is that amazing way people look when they finally get it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

How 'Bout Them Gators?

Woo hoo!

I watched the first half of the game while eating dinner, then went to bed. A little after midnight, I was awakened by the sound of firecrackers/guns/random deliberately noisy noises outside. Yup, we'd won!

Then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

It's just as well that I don't teach on Fridays; making people in Gainesville think about anything serious today would have been an exercise in futility. Still, it's fun seeing everyone so happy.

OK, now time to get back to work...

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ducking Out

The diet starts tomorrow.

I love Christmas, and this Christmas—despite Santa's frugality—has been one of the best of all. Never have I valued time with my family, or the uneventful pleasures of life in Southern California, as much as I have this year. I've filled up on REAL Mexican, Thai, and Chinese food (and plan to fit in a Little Saigon lunch tomorrow before flying back East), and have gotten my fill of California birds.

Much as I've thrilled at all the new Florida birds I've seen in the past five months, I've missed the experience of birding in Orange County. One thing I've missed deeply are ducks: when I first started birding—as a distraction tactic while training for the Orange County Half Marathon a few years ago—the first birds I noticed, and learned to identify from an ancient copy of the National Geographic guide, were ducks. As I ran my weekly 12-mile training run along the Santa Ana River trail, I distracted myself from thirst, fatigue, and growing realization that I'm a pathologically sucky runner, by watching the ducks bobbing around in the river and nearby ponds. I memorized their markings, and learned their names.

And I ultimately finished the half-marathon in respectable time, and came out with something even better than a finisher's medal and a bagful of free energy gels: the first half-dozen or so birds on my official life list. Ducks are cool.

And as I now know, not that easy to find in Florida, despite the preponderance of ponds and rivers there. The waters nurture alligators, mosquitos, and various herons and egrets, but very few ducks. Life with no ducks sucks.

So it was a thrill to be back in OC, where ducks are a dime a dozen, and often only feet away. Like the Mallards that have taken over the swimming pool in our (now Glenn's, I guess) apartment complex. And the so-ugly-they're cure Surf Scoters (like the one above) at Bolsa Chica: when we were there a few days ago, they were happily chowing down on large razor clams, which they swallowed whole before diving down to search for more. And the ubiquitous Ruddy Ducks, which don't occur at all in Gainesville, as far as I know. I've missed these common little buggers:

This morning, Glenn and I went on my favorite long bird walk, basically following part of my half-marathon training range, through Talbert Nature Reserve and down the Santa Ana River bike trail to Huntington State Beach. On the trail, we heard several Clapper Rails (which we unfortunately couldn't see), along with several Red-breasted Mergansers:

We invited along another birding couple, John and Joan Avise, whom we ran into fairly regularly (and always accidentally) in the past. We've been in touch by e-mail, and since I was finally back in town, we actually got together by design for a change. They wanted to go to Talbert and down the trail, since I had mentioned seeing good stuff there in the past, such as the big flock of Canvasbacks that I reported on Orange County Birding last week. To my great relief, the Canvasbacks were still there, just as numerous as ever:

By time we got back to the car, it was almost 3:00. After a break for a late Mexican lunch, we stopped by Tewinkle Park in Costa Mesa, a short drive away, for no particular reason—but we had seen Hooded Mergansers, a Eurasian Wigeon, a Brown Creeper, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a Yellow-throated Warbler there in the past (no, not all at the same time), so we thought something good might turn up. And none of us were ready for this amazingly fun day to end quite yet.

And we weren't disappointed: when the got there, we almost immediately spotted a very bright male Eurasian Wigeon among a large flock of American Wigeons. Unfortunately, it was raining when we got there, so none of us took our cameras out.

It was now starting to get dark. But on the the way back to our place, we saw the most amazing sunset—huge beams of sunlight shining though openings in the clouds, coloring the clouds purple and pink and orange against a darkening blue sky. We pulled into one of the Orange Coast College parking lots to stop and watch it unfold. There weren't any good angles for photos, and photos wouldn't have done it justice in any case. You just had to be there.

It's going to be tough leaving all this behind tomorrow.