Saturday, February 26, 2011

Guatemala Birding - And Other Good Reads

If all works out, and it should, I will be making at trip to Guatemala in April. As usual, I have been looking into what would be the most helpful birding guides to take along, knowing I will likely have little or no time to do more than memorize less-than-a-second glimpses of
Birding regions in Guatemala
exotic specimens flying by, perched in plain site but me being in a car speeding by, or being in the perfect spot to stop and look but not have the birding guide with me - such as been my experience to-date when traveling with work. I may try to better prepare myself ahead of time, so if my worse-case-scenarios happen, at least I will be about to make the best of a less-than-best situation. I found a nice Website today about Guatemala birding - lots of information, the kind of stuff that can help ensure better success for a casual business trip birder like me. Guatemala Bird Watching - Authentic Nature has the U.S. Agency for International Development as one of its sponsors. Ecotourism has become an industry that helps developing countries take advantage of their natural resources in ways that promote them - rather than clear cut them for short-term economic gains.

In doing my prep work for birding on this upcoming trip, I have found the reader reviews on the Amazon Website helpful when reading the poorest to middling book ratings. These seem to bring out the best faults with the books, and can supplement the more positive reviews - helping to read-between-the-lines. Today, when trying decide between A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb, and Birds of Mexico and Central America: (Princeton Illustrated Checklists) by Ber Van Perlo, I came across a review that not only confirmed the critiques about
Princeton Checklist (I decided on buying the pushing-four-pounds Howell and Webb guide), but also gave another helpful recommendation: "use the premiere Belize guide" as a supplement in the field. Another quick search on Amazon revealed the title mentioned in the review: Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Belize by H. Lee Jones and A.C. Vallely - only problem with this supplement, it was listed for $103.77. Since I was in read-the-reviews-mode, another piece of good advice, this time in the Belize "over-priced" Belize guide review: "Go to American Birding Association web site and then to birding products. Their price is $12.50 for the same edition. (I'm guessing the price listed on Amazon is a mistake.)" It just goes to show, shop-around-prices.

I may have read about the American Birding Association (ABA) when reading the history of birding in Of A Feather: A Brief History Of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul (another great book). (1) The ABA now partners with Buteo Book for their birding reference listings, and as the reviewer above mentioned, the Belize bird book was only $12.50 plus $3.73 for shipping by USPS - a far cry for the errant Amazon prices. There are a plethora of other birding book offerings available for viewing on the Buteo Book Website, but it is still best to keep cross-checking prices - it turns out the Howell and Webb book is $5 cheaper at Amazon, and because it costs $39.60, shipping is free with the Super Saver Shipping option. The ABA Website looks interesting - I will need to check it out more.
(1) I remember NPR's All Things Considered had a regular feature last year of notable writers and others giving summer book reading
recommendations, in sets of three. If I were asked to give my esoteric summer time (or any other time of the year) three-book reading list recommendation, it would have to be: (a) the Weidensaul birding history book Of a Feather; (b) Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection by George Black; and (c) Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. These three are absolutely great books to hold in your hands, and smell, and slowly read for the full effect of what Johannes Gutenberg must have intended from the beginning - Kindle and other electronic media just do not do printed words on bound paper justice.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Human Nature - Last Minute

I woke up at 4:00 AM to finish a presentation I was making at a meeting in Crystal City at 10:00 this morning. It takes about an hour and ten minutes door-to-door from my house to the Gateway Marriott via Route 50 and the Metro Orange and Yellow Lines - if there are no delays. It am giving at least one presentation a week these days - many to groups that are not familiar with production agriculture and how it relates to biojet fuel. (1) So with work days packed and being too tired to do much at night when I get home, the early morning is the best time to get the PowerPoint presentation slides ready without distraction with a clear mind and enough energy. This morning was about as close as I could cut the corners and be ready - I still made it with 40 minutes to spare for arrival to the venue and getting the presentation loaded up, meet the other panel speakers, and sit back in my chair and relax - after realizing at 7:00 that I needed to set up an entirely different set of slides for a different topic than I had been working on, and different from the subject that I have been working on for the past year and a half. Last minute seems to be my nature - human nature - but it has become routine for now.

I didn't know until the end of last year that the Miles Davis tune from his You're Under Arrest album - Human Nature - was a Michael Jackson song. I had know of the song from Davis' album way back in the 1990's. Since I typically pop CD's in the automobile player when driving, I don't pour over the album cover like I did with vinyl records at home in times past, so the song's writer credit was overlooked. Here are good video renditions by Jackson and Davis. Also from the Davis album is Time After Time - a favorite of mine also performed by Cyndi Lauper who was seen on Donald Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice reality television show a couple of years back. The jazz song Time After Time from 1947 was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne - Lauper added the lyrics.
(1) Examples include: ATA, DLA Energy, CAAFI, Fresno County Economic Development - all looking for information to help them make decisions about biofuels.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mango Tree Mind Scene

A group of friends we get together with on Wednesday evenings heard a Midshipman tell about her trip to Haiti last summer doing a relief project. She mentioned how when her group returned to one of the camps they had been to earlier, how a woman she had worked with was delighted to see her return - not expecting to ever see her again. The
A lone mango tree standing in a field
woman offered her a mango fruit in gratitude, from a tree that was in the camp - from the little she had, she offered all she had to the Midshipman. The image of a mango tree growing in a camp filled with people stuck in my mind. If I was an artist, I would draw a picture of the scene in my head - it would look like something you would see in a Shel Silverstein book - another kind of Giving Tree story, but in real time. A mango tree, surrounded by U.S. AID tents, with people all around, and a woman standing in front of a mango tree, holding a mango fruit in her hand, offering it to the viewer of the scene. (1)

I was surprised when I went to Google and searched for a mango tree image, and then when trying to narrow the search to Haiti mango tree, came on this Website with a song titled MangoTreeForHaiti. No endorsement intended, but it is a nice song produced by folks who seem to want to help.
(1) Interestingly, Silverstein wrote the lyrics for the song A Boy Named Sue that was made famous by Johnny Cash, sung at San Quentin Prison in California. Looking at the video of the concert performance at the prison, and compared to the video of the last song recorded by Cash before he died is stark - we all age.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Can't Be - Tricolored Blackbirds in Maryland

Red-winged or putative
Tricolored Blackbird
and Common Grackle
This morning there was a rush of activity with Common Grackle at the bird feeder. It was one of those sightings where it looked like seven or eight were going to rush the place. Last year, the grackles didn't seem to be able to adjust to the new feeder - they couldn't figure out how to perch on the small footings. This morning they showed themselves to be quite adept, and at least three at a time were feeding. While all of the jet-black darts were attaching themselves to the feeder, or gleaning below on the ground, all of a sudden a white-streaked wing fell in among those on the ground - and then another, and another. While catching some pictures, I noticed a faint red streak above the white - Tricolored Blackbird I thought, until I looked in my National Geographic bird guide. These are only supposed to be found in the far west of North America - not here where only the ubiquitous Red-winged blackbirds are found that range across the continent, or perhaps a variant with a more-white-than-yellow is in my yard. We have had Brewer's Blackbirds in the yard, but these were the first other blackbird species I had seen here - other than a Red-winged I once saw near an estuary toward the Chesapeake Bay off of Route 50. Regardless of the species, it is worth the time to learn more about the Tricolor Blackbird - a declining species. Much of the natural wetland habitat in the San Joaquin River Valley is gone, replaced by irrigated agriculture.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Birds, Books, and Winds

I received a couple of books as gifts - for Christmas and my birthday, from two of my sons. The first is about exploration and attempts to establish trade routes in the Pacific - following the journeys of John Kendrick four years after the American Revolution - Morning Fire by Scott Ridley. This book will set the stage for the period of micro-discovery that David Douglas carried out in the inland Pacific Northwest during the later part of first quarter of the 19th Century - I read his biography a year ago. Morning Fire will likely provide context to another book I have on my Amazon Wish List - Fortune's a River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America by Barry Gough. That book will give much more
detail about the disputes between Great Britain and the United States that were eventually mediated by Washington Irving - another biography that I read a couple of years ago - which helped avert another war after the one in 1812. The second book, The Bedside Book of Birds - An Avian Miscellany by Graeme Gibson, is light fare; a compilation of literature about birds. Like the first book, it was a satisfying experience - nothing like a surprise that fits my personal interests with my taste for books.

The winds across the Mid-Atlantic region were wicked yesterday - howling as fast as 60 miles per hour at times. Regardless of the severity of the weather, the power to our house seems to hold up without faltering, when others' may be knocked out for days by lesser storms. I wondered what effects these kinds of winds would have on the birds that visit our backyard this time of year - would little birds be blown to far reaches from our house. A quick look this morning turned up: Common Grackle, Eastern Blue Jay, Mourning Dove, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee (maybe a Carolina Chickadee - I need to look more closely to tell the difference), and Northern Cardinal. (1)

The other night I read Alberto Manguel's account of Cardinal in the Gibson Avian Miscellany. This morning I caught a quick photograph with my Nikon of the male cardinal perched in the dwarf peach tree that is waiting to be trained to look like a grape vine. I thought about what I had read two nights ago as I focused the 200 mm lense and shot the image. The prose goes like this: Outside my window is a cardinal.
Northern Cardinal
There is no way of writing this sentence without dragging in its tow whole libraries of literary allusions. The frame of the window and the margins of the page entrap the bird that serves as a sign for any idea. Noah's dove, Macbeth's rooks, Horace's swans, Omar Khayyam's pigeons, Theocritus's nightingale, Count Fosco's cararies - they are no longer birds but usages of birds, feathered with words and meaning. My cardinal of symbolic colour and symbolic name bleeds now across this page as it did a moment ago across the sky. I wonder, corrupt with reading, if there ever was a moment when this sentence - outside my window is a cardinal - was not an artifice; when the blood-red bird on steel blue tree was quietly surprising, and nothing urged me to translate it, to domesticate it into a textual enclosure, to become its literary taxidermist. I wonder if there ever was a moment when  a cardinal outside my window sat there in blazing splendour signifying nothing. (2)

Outside my glass door 
Perched on the peach tree limb 
Is a cardinal. (3)
(1) There were also a gray squirrel, and large house cat that resembled a Maine Coon. Of course, they are not avian, rather mammalian. Quite bound to the ground, other than squirrel when leaping to the feeder full of seeds from the pruned but untrellised fruit trees that must be formed into an espalier soon to put a stop to the intrusion upon the birds' banquet table. The cat, perched on the fence, fancies birds not seeds, appears too lazy to take flight after them. (4)

(2) Alberto Manguel. Stevenson Under the Palm Trees. Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2003.

(3) Playing on Manguel's introductory sentence and using a 5-7-5 haiku form, is a verse for what I saw out the window this morning. It was just about five years ago that I moved into our house in Annapolis. The only furniture I purchased while I waited for Jan to move our household in June was a queen-sized bed and night stand with a built in lamp. There was also a chair in the den that sat in front of the build-in desk in the closet to hold my laptop computer - my link to the world back in Oregon: wife, family, home. It may have been the next Saturday morning, but when I looked through the shade at the upper limbs of the leafless ornamental cherry tree at eye-level with the second floor bedroom, there outside my window was a cardinal.
(4) Just to see what this footnote looks like in verse:

There was a gray squirrel
and a large house cat -
that resembled a Maine Coon;
of course not avian, rather mammalian,
quite bound to the ground.

leaps to the feeder full of seeds,
from a tree that must be espaliered soon - 
to put a stop to the intrusion
upon the birds' banquet table. 

perched on the fence,
fancies birds not seeds -
appeared too lazy
to try and take flight after them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

West of the Cascades

The check-off list results of a couple of hours of walking the board walk through Jackson-Frazier Wetland, and other environs between Portland and Corvallis are shown below.

a. Brewer's blackbird
b. Red-winged blackbird (female)
c. American crow
d. Western scrub jay
e. Dark-eyed junco
f. Bewick's wren
g. Glaucus-winged gull
h. Mallard duck
i. Rough-legged hawk
j. Rock pigeon
k. Dusky goose
l. Purple finch
m. Red-tailed hawk
n. American robin

It was a nice late-morning to slowly work my way around the wetland between 10:00 and noon. The view was difficult for the birds perched high in the trees when I faced east and south. Since I hadn't been to the wetland before, I didn't know what to expect. The meandering board walk "trails" were great, and since they are elevated, it would be easy to move through the area any time of the year. There were a number of vegetation assemblages in this western Oregon wetland habitat to observe that ranged from a brush woodland to Willamette Valley Wet Prairie.

I had taken my National Geographic Field Guide of Birds of North America (hard cover version) - that was a mistake. It was too large to fit easily in my coat pocket, and had too many choices to look through when I tried to make an identification. There were a number of small-sized species that I hadn't seen before, and the female red-winged blackbird through me off for a while. Mallards among the cat tail reeds played hide-and-seek as I tried to get close to them. The male red-winged blackbird had a distinctive call that I was able to learn by watching and listening. There were a lot of other calls that I didn't know - it would have been helpful to have an experienced birder along for the watching (and listening). After getting back to my car, I drove to the Border's Bookstore on Ninth Street, and bought copies of Birds of Oregon Field Guide, and Field Guide to Birds: Washington & Oregon - the later was on sale and only cost $2.99. Either would have been helpful and easy to handle while watching - next time.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Next Generation Of Pasturists

I have always been drawn to pastures. My favorite text book in college was one titled Forages published by Iowa State University Press. It was used in a forages class where I learned about pasture culture, the relationship between the plants that grow together, the livestock that
feed on them, and how to manage the two together. I even did my Ph.D. dissertation on a topic that involved the effects of sheep grazing on a special kind of clover and how the seed were produced. The leguminous forage plants like the clovers are sources of protein for livestock, and nodules that grow on their roots turn the dinitrogen gas (N2) in the atmosphere into natural nitrogen fertilizer that helps grasses in the pasture grow. I spent a good part of my career after college doing research on the management of clover crops that are grown for seeds that are used to improve pastures. Among the forage legume crops that grow in pastures is birdsfoot trefoil - another plant that I did a great deal of research. I learned a lot about this humble plant that is not as famous as lucerne or red clover, and have published many stories about this species. (These pasture legumes all have flower fairies of their own.)

Flower fairies, most thoroughly documented by English illustrator Cicely Mary Barker, are tiny creatures - the biggest is less than eight inches tall. These specially adapted fairies live in the bottom of gardens, the middle of grassy meadows, and on the edge of distant marshes. Wherever and whenever a seed
sprouts, a flower fairy baby is born. Each flower fairy lives and sleeps in their chosen flower, herb, or tree, and as the plant grows the fairy grows, too. Flower fairies are in charge of looking after their plant or flower - keeping it strong and healthy by making sure there is plenty of sunshine and water to drink, sweeping away dead leaves, and polishing flowers and stems. Barker in her research discovered that the best times of the day to see a fairy are at twilight, midnight, just before sunrise, and midday - the best time of the year to see a fairy is on Midsummer's Eve. Flower fairies are very shy and don't like to be discovered by big folks like us, but can warm up to children if given the proper circumstances. With extra-sensitive ears, fairies disappear quickly with the help of their magical fairy dust. Each fairy wears an outfit made from their own leaves and flowers, so are naturally camouflaged and easily hide in their natural environs. Some report that to begin a friendship with a fairy, it is necessary to leave a dish of milk, sugar, or cream out for them in the night. Personally, I believe friendliness to all pasture creatures - plants and animals - and the use of good husbandry practices that were used before our over-reliance on machinery and chemicals to ensure that neighboring streams and wild areas are protected is a good way to begin to introduce ourselves to flower fairies.

This evening my six-year-old grandson Josiah introduced me to another book about fairies - a favorite of his that his first grade teacher is reading to the class. This one is about The Night Fairy, who was born a little before midnight and who isn't much taller than the length of an
acorn. I haven't had a chance to sit down and read the book, but a quick browse through the book's pages and accompanying Website gives the appearance that excellent research has been done to document the facts of this fairy's life. The introduction describes a situation where the Night Fairy lost her ability to fly - a dreadful situation for a fairy to be in. Though very small, it is reported that she is very fierce and determined to do whatever it takes to survive - I am looking forward to learning more about the Night Fairy and her adventures (1). Maybe my grandson and I will read this story in the morning, and find out whether I will be as fond about this new fairy friend, as I am with my own favorite, the Birdsfoot Trefoil Fairy. The topic of fairies must be interesting to young people and may serve as connection that spans present and possible future generations of pasturists. Such an interest may be contagious, because Josiah's younger brother Micah (age 4) is taking note of this blog as well. Perhaps the draw of their grandpa's interests (2), along with the lure of fairies as reported by noted authorities such as Barker and Laura Amy Schlitz (3), will capture their future career interests for pastures as well, where many fairies can be found and which I am sure they will appreciate as well.
(1) It may be that I will find as much pleasure discovering as much as I can about fairies, as I have through birding. I can see how addictive it could be to collect field guides about fairies, as I do for birds from different regions and countries that I visit.

(2) If I set my mind to it, I can dream up a pretty good character for playing Star Wars with my grandson Micah.

(3) L.A. Schlitz is the scientist who documented the life of the Night Fairy.

PDX - Bird Encouraging Activities Unwelcomed

After getting back from downtown Portland and walking from the light rail MAX station at the airport, this sign stood out - DON'T FEED THE BIRDS AT PDX. How unwelcoming. With all of the efforts to help wildlife recover in the Pacific Northwest, this is probably the first time I have seen any indication of a wildlife unwelcoming activity being encouraged.
I am going birding this morning, my first official attempt in the Willamette Valley. Instead of the coincidental viewing I typically do while in a hurry getting from one place to another - like along the freeway on my way to the airport, I will do deliberate birding at the
Jackson Frazier Wetland near Corvallis. The local newspaper had a recent article about birding at the Little Willamette Conservation Easement. The Willamette Valley is full of an interesting mix of land uses. A lot of people are doing a lot of work to find compatible ways to use the different resources the valley has to offer. When I worked in Corvallis, the efforts a group of us started have continued to progress - so with time, there may be a lot of practical ways to absorb the need for using the natural resources, while still preserving their quality.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Five Senses

When driving across eastern Washington and central Oregon earlier this week, Starbucks was a convenient stop for a break. With the Chinese Lunar New Year upon us - the year of the Rabbit - the coffee company has among its music compact discs for sale, a compilation of Chinese music - old and new, techno, rap, pop, R&B, art deco.... Track 11 is titled Miss Shanghai by a group called The Shanghai Restoration Project - it is the best song on the disc. I heard an NPR report that the Chinese are interested in getting into their own coffee business, the entire supply chain from bean production to their own brand coffee shops. (1) It only makes sense that a CD to recognize Chinese New Year would be mixed with a little cafe mocha as a part of the company's business plan. (2)
I listened through the CD several time driving from Pullman to Spokane, and from Portland to Corvallis, yesterday and the day before. This morning I put the CD player on repeat, and listened to Miss Shanghai over and over. I had two
meetings in downtown Portland today. After dropping my rental car off at PDX, I took the TriMet's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail to the Lloyd Center stop for my morning appointment. From Lloyd Center, it was to Pioneer Square for my afternoon meeting, and then from Pioneer Square back to PDX - the Red Line all the way. It was interesting how out of place I felt - not knowing the series of stops like I do for the D.C. Metro. The view of Portland from the light rail was also different than the typical sights seen from series of exchanges along Interstate 5 as it runs along the Willamette with the city's skyline across the river.

This evening, I played Miss Shanghai the same way as this morning when driving from Portland back down the valley to Albany - on repeat mode; over and over - a three minute song, at least 25 times. The headlights from the oncoming cars heading north on I-205 streamed by as I drove south bound to intersect with I-5.
(1) The album cover reminds me of Chinese peasant art style.

(2) I think it was six years ago that on a flight from Baltimore to the west coast, I sat next to a young fellow who worked for Starbucks and was in charge of choosing the musical CD's that are promoted and sold in the stores across the U.S. It seemed like a pretty good job - I wonder if he was the one who chose the World is China selection.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

East of the Cascades

The temperature east of the Cascades in Spokane, Washington is 19° F and may dip down below10° tonight - the sky was bright blue and clear in Pullman this morning. Driving both last night and this evening, the 
sky was black except for the stars that stand out bright. Yesterday driving from Spokane to Pendleton, Oregon, there was a coyote walking on the ice on the far side of Ames Lake along Interstate 90 before we took the exit to Highway 395. As I drove, the bird I most frequently saw was the Black-billed Magpie (a) - along 395, particularly south of the Tricities area, along Interstate 84, and even on the Washington State University campus. There were also American Crow (b), and yesterday evening driving after passing Walla Walla, Washington along Highway 297, twice  Snow Owl (c) flew across the road in front of the car. The driving at night is easy (2), without a lot of on-coming traffic and good road conditions. I am sure I also saw either an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) or a Merlin (Falco columbarius). On this trip, along Interstate 5 between Portland and Albany, Oregon, a large raptor perched on utility poles or fence posts is common - maybe Rough-legged, Red-tailed, or  Coopers Hawks (3). I will need to learn the profiles of the different raptors that are found in winter so with a quick glance while driving, will know what they are.
(1) This is one of two magpie species found in North America, and has a wide-spread range over most of U.S. The Yellow-billed Magpie is the other species, but it's range is limited to the San Joaquin Valley in California, and other areas west of the Sierra. The first time I saw a magpie was when I drove up Highway 99 towards Sacramento. I didn't know it was a Yellow-Billed, and I never saw them in the southern San Joaquin Valley around where I lived.
(2) One in my party driving to Pendleton had to dial in for a conference call, so we stopped at the Starbucks Coffee store on Highway 297 in Kennewick, Washington. I bought a compact disc titled World is China, and played it while driving from Pullman to Spokane this evening. One of the tracks is playing in the background.
(3) The Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife has a nice Weblink for raptors.