Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On My Nightstand: Reading About Birds

Tastes just like turkey!

(Part of an occasional series)

One way to know a place really well is by its birds. Another is by the literature it inspires.

My hometown of Los Angeles gets rightfully blamed for a lot of its, um, "contributions", to American society (Paris Hilton! The Hills!), but its spirit of experimentation and endlessly shifting subcultures have also made it a fertile incubator for literary talent. Back in my English major days, I imagined how much fun it would be to plan a seminar around Los Angeles-based authors and books (think Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, the one-hit-wonder who wrote Ramona (Signet Classics)). L.A. lit is strange, dark, and funny, just like the town that inspires it.

The Gainesville area's contribution to the national literary canon, on the other hand, seems to be limited to a single 70-year-old young adult novel: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (Aladdin Classics). I've been avoiding the book all year because (1) everyone kept telling me to read it, and (2) I hated the goopy impressions I kept getting about it from local civic boosters: it's a touching coming-of-age story of a young cracker boy living in a mysteriously mosquito- and fire-ant-free version of Cross Creek sometime in the 19th century. (And because of the soaring leap of imagination this scenario required, Rawlings was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.)

Unlike Rawlings' intended readers, however, I've already come of age, and know firsthand that the experience not always sweet and touching. It actually sucks big time. It hurts worse than anything a kid could ever imagine. And the last thing I wanted to do with my spare time was waste it on an "uplifting" kiddie book, even one set near my new home. Gag me with a saw palmetto!

But curiosity—and the need for diversion on the long plane ride back to California for the summer—got the better of me. So loaded onto my carry-on bag, along with my boarding pass and a supply of granola bars to eat on the way, was a copy of The Yearling.

And I was happy to find that Gainesville's civic boosters had seriously misrepresented it.

First, it's not really a children's book, at least not for today's children. The plot unfolds slowly, with long digressions for lovingly detailed descriptions of the natural landscape. (Most intriguing for me are the glimpses of the area's folk ornithology: references to singing "red birds" certainly referred to Northern Cardinals; the "curlews" with long beaks and big white bodies that cooked and ate like turkey were mostly likely White Ibises.) The titular character—a young deer—doesn't enter the picture until halfway into the novel.

Most jarring to modern sensitivities, though, are the threads of moral ambiguity woven into the narrative. The parents and educators who forced Cookie Monster into a primarily fruit-and-vegetable diet would freak if a contemporary youth novel contained as much straight-faced lying, stealing, and gratuitous whiskey-swilling (by heroes and villains alike) as The Yearling. And the Florida backwoods the young protagonist Jody Baxter and his family inhabit—and that Rawlings so lovingly describes—are simultaneously a source of solace and life-threatening menace. Ditto the Baxters' closest neighbors and best frenemies, the Forresters: when not stealing the Baxters' livestock, burning down a house to avenge a romantic snub, or beating the pulp out of Jody's hero Oliver, a young sailor, they find the wherewithal to save Jody's father from a rattlesnake bite and work the Baxter farm while he recovers.

And in his year of discovery, Jody learns not only hunting and farming, but the equally important adult skills of the little white lie and the pragmatic (as well as spiritual) usefulness of forgiveness. For a family of sustenance farmers with no safety net, neighbors with dubious ethics are better than none at all.

In the end, Jody—and the young readers following his travels—learns that adulthood truly sucks. And getting there hurts worse than he ever imagined.

This is probably not the take-away message Gainesville's boosters want visitors and newcomers to associate with the town. But props to them for offering up a harrowing, hauntingly honest read.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spring into Summer

A water lily near Watermelon Pond, in southwest Alachua County.

The academic year is finally over. I'm done with lecturing and grading (and dealing with the aftermath of grading—hell hath no fury like a B+ student), and now I can finally focus on my own research. And birds.

The former pursuit has gone productively this week. The latter, not so much: just when my schedule has opened up, spring migration has come to an end. How cruel is that?

Still, ordinary resident birds are better than no birds at all. A former colleague and avid birder once told me—years before I started birding officially—that there's no such thing as a boring bird. And it's true: even the most common of birds, if you watch it long enough, will do something really twisted.

But this week's birding was so uneventful that the most notable thing any bird did for me was stay still while I photographed it. On Sunday at La Chua Trail, it was wall-to-wall alligators, and few interesting birds (although I heard the unmistakable—and unseasonable—honking of Sandhill Cranes in the distance, I only saw them briefly, flying high overhead.). For a while, all I saw were noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. They were all over the place, and they really are quite pretty:

The warm weather also brought out the butterflies: I think this is a Gulf Fritillary—mostly because every orange butterfly out here turns out to be a Gulf Fritillary. And it looks like the pictures in my seriously underused copy of Butterflies of Florida Field Guide (Our Nature Field Guides)

Even when the birding is dull, the rest of the natural world continues to reveal its surprises. On Saturday, Alachua Audubon had a field trip to Watermelon Pond, which had evaporated into a mere puddle (there was a prominent boat ramp that led to a dry grassy field.) But in the middle of this field was what was left of the pond: our trip leader said this was an alligator hole: the resident gators had dug deep and wide to ensure enough water for themselves until the rainy season resumes, in July. This puddle was probably filled with 10-footers:

And it won't be long before I head back to California for the summer! I can't wait to see my husband again. And my Black Phoebes and Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds. And get some decent Chinese food for a change.

But I'll miss the Northern Cardinals and Carolina Chickadees at my feeder, and the dive-bombing Mississippi Kites soaring above my neighborhood.

I guess I'm lucky to be able to get all of this—even if I can't get it all at the same time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bad Excuse of the Week

Spring migration activity has been kind of sparse out here, but I still managed to get a lifer out of it: migrating Bobolinks at Bolen Bluff trail of Paynes Prairie during an Alachua Audubon field trip there on Sunday morning. Those of us out there were also lucky enough to get a Bobwhite and a couple of bright Indigo Buntings. We were also treated to the sight of a family of wild horses with a tiny foal, and a pair of young Homo sapiens sprawled out inexplicably in an amorous tangle in the middle of the trail. ("Must be a tick collection experiment," noted a curmudgeon in our group.)

On Sunday afternoon, our local bird bard sent out his weekly e-mail, reporting that he'd seen several Bobolinks and Orchard Orioles, as well as Purple Gallinules, along the La Chua Trail, northeast of Bolen Bluff in Paynes Prairie, that morning. So after a painfully tedious afternoon of grading term papers and other work-related bureaucracy, off I went. I'd gotten some good looks at Bobolinks that morning, but no respectable photos. And I really needed another bird break.

Well, I didn't get any photos. I wanted to, and I headed down the trail to the spot where they had been seen regularly over the past few days; Then I saw a park ranger and a cluster of visitors, and figured they were part of a guided tour. But then I realized there were blocked from moving ahead on the trail by a slight obstacle:

(The dude's head on the right side of the photo is cut off on purpose: it's bad art, but it's worse ethics to post an identifiable online photo someone without that person's permission.)

The obstacle wandered off after about 10 minutes, and I forged ahead--then I realized I didn't have my phone with me, nor any way of contacting the rangers should yet more obstacles of this sort should cross my path. It's mating/baby season for the gators, and perfect sunbathing weather as well: More heat-seeking gators could well wander up onto the trail, and the ranger looked like he was heading home. So I chickened out and turned back.

But I'll be back...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Creature Feature

A delicate symbol of the ephemeral joys of spring. Or something to shoot when there aren't any birds around.

Spring migration season has officially hit Florida, according to several reliable sources. These sources say that big flocks of warblers are passing overhead even as I type this, and that feeders all across Gainesville are swarming with Indigo Buntings, with the occasional Painted Bunting trailing in their wake.

Yeah, right.

My feeder is still in post-winter doldrum mode: it's busy, but with either the usual year-round residents (Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, and increasingly, a large number of House Finches) and late-lingering Chipping Sparrows. No cool migrants, despite my amply stocked feeder and a birdbath that I have to clean daily because those *&#@ Titmice keep leaving sunflower seed hulls in it. Don't those ungrateful little buggers realize I've got a full-time job?

I thought spring migration would be cool because it happily coincided with the end of spring semester at UF. Finals week concluded yesterday, and classes the week before. So on Friday before finals—not having any new classes to prep for—I took a break and headed off to a local migrant trap, Loblolly Nature Center. I knew spring had arrived because of the preponderance of mosquitos, but birds were hard to find: The thick woods were noisy with the usual suspects, but Icould count the number of birds I actual saw during my two-hour exploration on my fingers. Truly pathetic.

On the upside, though, I saw some cool non-avian critters. My last few trips to Loblolly have yielded some cool damselflies; here's one of them. I don't know what the exact species is:

One of the spring trips sponsored by Alachua Audubon that was supposed to be REALLY REALLY good was to San Felasco Hammock State Preserve. And I thought it would be really good, too: as our assembled group lingered in the park's parking lot, we saw a bright male Summer Tanager perched overhead. How could this not be an omen of good things to come?

Very easily, apparently. We slogged from spot to spot, as our increasingly dismayed leader lamented that he had seen DOZENS AND DOZENS of Warblers and Buntings at this very place just days before. And we got--not much.

Still, it was a pleasant early morning walk with some of my favorite local people: the conversation was good, even though the birding was pathetic. The trip ended early because of the general uncooperativeness of the local migrant population.

But I wasn't ready to go home quite yet. There had to be something out there! So I headed to Bivens Arm Nature Park, a quiet, wooded enclave only five minutes from my place, to see what I could see. And just after I entered the park, I stopped on a little footbridge crossing a stream, and saw a male Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Worm-Eating Warbler in the same little creekside bush!

And being warblers, they refused to cooperate for any of my photo attempts. But the park was filled with non-avian critters: despite being only minutes from downtown Gainesville, its previously dry treams housed large alligators, some of whom bellowed ominously from the various seasonal water fixtures in the park. And on one of the paths, I encountered this large turtle:

It wasn't afraid of me, and let me take this close-up:

But my week wasn't totally bird-less: the next day, I headed off on the Alachua Audubon trip to Cedar Key, the local go-to place for coastal migrants. On the way in, we stopped at a reserve known for its population of Florida Scrub-Jays, the only bird species that only occurs in Florida. Like their more numerous Western Scrub-Jay cousins, they are bold and shameless, and not at all afraid of people. This was my only cooperative bird of the week:

Unlike back in California, spring migration here is (1) late and (2) generally sparser than fall migration; Apparently, the birds take different paths coming and going from their winter spots, and their spring trajectory doesn't always include Gainesville.

At least I now have something fun to look forward to in the fall.