Sunday, July 23, 2017

Birdies II

So, I'm writing this post on civil rights or something like that - I really don't know exactly until I finish. There are a lot of decisions to make about what I want to say, so it is taking a while. I can't believe I used to do this once a week, but most of the time I was doing that I was on my 4 1/2 year vacation down in Virginia and I was not working as much. In any event, I wanted to post something and I've been more than a little obsessed by birds lately, so . . . .

I am sometimes surprised how little most people are interested in birds. Of course, some people are, and are expert at it. Like with most of my hobbies, I'm a dilettante, more an enthusiast than what I would call an expert (although I've learned that some people have a much broader definition of "expert" than I do, particularly when considering their own talents). Sometimes, when I point out a beautiful or interesting bird to someone, they look at, have almost no reaction or nod, and go back to what they were doing. To be fair, I find I'm not very interested in a lot of things most people are, so I guess no accounting for taste, as they say. Admittedly, I am a little shy about mentioning my hobbies to many people, though I talk about it here. With birds, not so much. I'll be sitting with a group of people or talking on the phone with someone and suddenly scream out "Osprey!" or whatever.

In any event, while playing with the aforementioned civil rights post, I realized I was thinking a lot about birds. At first, I wasn't going to do it, because I just posted Birdies in February, but I suddenly remembered, it's my blog, and who cares what anyone else thinks. Not to mention, if I bored my regular readers, including myself, that might make up a basketball team. So . . . . And at this point, whatever readers there are, are asking, as usual, why won't he get to the point? I don't know. I just like to ramble a bit before I start. Let's call it a trademark, because that sounds distinquished.

In Birdies I wrote about my everlovin' pond just down the road a bit, but after a quick mention, I barely spoke about the most common residents, which happen to be a gaggle of geese, a small family of swans and a family of mallards.

Geese are more suavely handsome, rather than beautiful creatures to our eyes. Perhaps we are just so used to them year after year that you rarely hear anyone appreciating their looks. They also, like many birds, are quite awkward on land, and perhaps that detracts from their beauty for some or most people.

Of course, they are truly beautiful in flight, usually in the skein or jet fighter formation. But, I actually prefer seeing them take off and land. Like so:

There are a few things I've learned about geese from reading rather than observation. For one thing, it's been determined by scientists that geese fly in the formation they do because the forward geese provide a draft for the rearward ones, the more draft the further back they are. Their wing beats are actually quite powerful. Single geese who aren't leading have to work, not a little, but much harder. And there is no single leader like with some pack animals. Because flying lead is so much harder, they take turns, the lead goose slipping to the rear when he gets tired. This is the explanation we are given anyway. Other birds obviously haven't figured it out.

They are very social creatures. Even if one becomes injured and can't get about, a few stay with him if the flock moves on, almost as a guard. I have no idea how they communicate what they are supposed to do, but it works. And, I always wonder where they think they are going and who decides it is time to go to the other side of the pond or make a giant loop and come back. And if you ever see a gaggle taking a nap, note one or two keeping watch, necks held erect.

You see them everywhere in New York. Recently I was at a large shopping mall. When leaving, the light turned green and I couldn't go because a huge party was waddling by, goslings and all:

I always find it interesting that you don't see geese laying dead with tire marks on them all over the road. They often sit uncomfortably close to roads eating grass. But, I also notice that although they will venture across roads very slowly (once causing me to scream at them "fly you morons. You have wings.") but they seem to recognize that cars could splatter them if they get too close. When I pull into the small dirt parking lot at my pond, they are non-plussed, gathered near the water. But, come closer with it and they will scatter quickly - probably not quick enough if I was trying to get one.

For whatever reason, I notice that geese often tend to sit along the shore as close as they can to swans, who seem indifferent to them. The edge of the pack of smaller birds keep a short comfortable distance, only a few feet away from the larger birds, but do not surround them. And swanlets are princes and princesses. Geese do not, in my observation, bother them at all, even at a distance of a few feet, although I can't tell you if that rule would be violated if mom and dad, relatively huge, weren't sitting right there. I notice the smaller mallards and their children get slightly less respect, but I've never seen a goose really go after them either - just small warning nips in the air.

Geese do occasionally nip at each other if distance rules aren't observed. This is common of birds. And there is almost every day an instance of a crazed goosed chasing one or two others for who knows what reason. Of course, people do that too. But, I've never seen an actual goose fight.

I did see, at another pond a few miles away from my usual haunts, a very odd situation. A single goose and a single swan (I can't tell sex in either of those species, although it is easy with some other birds, including other aquatic fowl) were chasing each other back and forth on the water. I mean first the goose would chase the swan. Then, when the goose stopped and started retreating, the swan would chase him or her. On and on, back and forth. It was quite comical. I stood there about 20 minutes taking pictures. You can click on all these pictures and make them screen size. I recommend it with this the second picture below in particular. Look at the power of their wing beats on the surface of the water, like small explosions, the splash remaining even as they are a couple of beats away:

I really don't know what they were doing. I've never seen any other goose or swan fly as fast as these two did either, or act like this. As I noted in Birdies I am convinced birds play games with each other, but always intra-species. I've never seen inter-species play, at least before, if that is what it was. And, I've never seen any conflict between these two kinds at all, or any other two kinds of waterfowl other than geese chasing after each other without result or a larger bird edging a smaller one off a prize rock to perch on. An elderly gentleman who lived in a house on the pond 30 years or so insisted that they were chasing each other to protect their young and their territory. There were some swanlets with the other parent (you almost always see grown swans in pairs - they mate for life). But, they were 50 yards or so away. I've seen geese gathered all around Swans and their children hundreds of times and neither party showed any type of stress or worry, no signs of territoriality except for the few feet around them.

Swans are possibly the most graceful animals in the world, at least while floating and maybe even while sitting. But, though many birds are graceful when soaring, so are swans despite their large size. Here's one coming in for a smooth landing, its neck stretched out long before it:

I can watch swans for hours. One day at the Bluff I saw a swan convention. I think I counted 32 of them. Why did they get together? How did they know to go to the mouth of the Nissequogue River on the Long Island Sound that day? They don't flock so each pair must have had a reason to be there. But, it's not like they were attending a lecture. They were all doing what they always do, floating on the water, grooming themselves and sometimes feeding. The next day, when I went back, they were gone.

But, enough of geese and swans. I have always been interested in birds, but I became much more so when I moved to Virginia and would sit on my porch and watch the birds in the neighborhood. I have become increasingly so to the point where watching them is a daily ritual. It is amazing how regular many of them are in their habits. Mornings, for example, I often arrive at the pond between 8 and 9, and geese and swans are sitting on the shore where I pull up, often grooming like mad, but sometimes just sitting there. There's a family of mallards that hangs out there too, all in harmony. After all, they aren't gulls, who are much more combative, active and noisy. After a while, a very small group of common sparrows arrives. Why are they there? A very specific reason. They are after the goose down which is drifting on the dirt all around the geese. Though they keep their distance to avoid a threatened peck from a goose, who is like a giant to them, the sparrows comically hop around and try to pick up the down in their little beaks. Usually, after quite an effort, they succeed. Apparently, down is hard to grab.

Much more entertaining are the swallows who show up and dart all over the water. They try to pick up the fluffy down right off the surface, and that's even harder. Rarely do I see them succeed. Unlike hummingbirds, they can't hover and have to try and snare it on the fly - and they fly really fast. These particular birds are tree swallows, quite beautiful themselves. I caught this one pausing on a telephone wire. You can see its forked tail, dark blue wings and head, sort of like Batman. Well, Batman if he had a red throat.

Perching birds usually don't sit still long and they are both tiny and quick, so it is often hard to get a picture. Many times by the time I pick up the camera, turn it on and get the lens cap off, it is gone. Recently I pulled up in my driveway and was surprised to see on the ground a downy woodpecker, which are quite small. But, it had the distinctive black and white pattern on its back and a red cap. I fumbled and it was quite patient, but gone before I could get any kind of good picture through my window. This is a professional shot because I missed:

I became even more obsessed with bird watching just this year and suddenly my eye is picking up different and rarer species a lot more often (see Birdies). A few weeks ago I was kayaking near Stony Brook harbor, surrounded by egrets, giant herons, osprey, a few varieties of gulls, double crested cormorants and a few other common birds for long island. All of a sudden three odd-looking birds flew across the inlet, very low to the water, with really long bright orange bills, a black had and brown wings. I thought maybe they were related to gulls, although the beek was all wrong., more like the heron family. They came to a rest on the other side of the inlet. I'm not sure I would have noticed them except they make an unusual noise - wheeee, wheeeee, wheeee, sort of like the piggy all the way home. I ended up seeing about 7-10 of them during the day and listened as they called to each other. At one point I passed some on the shore, doing the usual shore bird thing of waiting patiently and then jabbing their beak straight down to pluck out a small fish. I couldn't get close enough for a picture (and managed to take my cell phone for a swim that day anyway). But, I went straight to my bird books when I got home (I have four I can find right now). Sometimes I recognize a bird when I have seen it in one of my books but don't know its name. Not so with these, but I found it easily. They were American Oystercatchers, which I don't remember ever noticing before. I was pretty sure it was them from the picture, although sometimes it is hard to tell, even with a good picture. But when I read the behavioral description, I was sure, as it was a perfect match, right down the high pitched whistling sound and their flying low over the water. Here's an image from the internet:

Only last week I was at the pond when a large bird, for a second I thought a raven, landed on a tree limb that stretches over the water and where I often notice lone birds perching. I'm not sure if they like the limb because it is so accessible or I just notice them there because they are so visible. It had large talons. I got out of my car with a camera and started to take pictures, slowly approaching, hoping it wouldn't fly away. It stayed a few minutes and I got as close as I could. The sun was behind it so it was hard to make out its color. Its shape though reminded me precisely of night herons, who have a long feather coming out of the back of their heads, like the Chinese ponytail during the last imperial period (and the style you see in some kung fu movies). This one lacked that long feather. I zoomed in on my camera and could see that it was mostly brownish, but with a white-brown thrush pattern on its breast. Suddenly it gave a loud "SCRAW!," like a bird of prey, which startled me and it flew off. From the way it beat its wings it also reminded me of a bird of prey and I was momentarily not sure of what I saw. But, looking at the pictures of it perched, the heron shape was too definitive for me to be mistaken about that. When I got home, I looked up herons and found a picture of a night heron. The shape was about right, but it couldn't be. Then my eye alighted on a picture of a green heron, and except for the brilliant colors, it matched exactly, down to its loud cry. It must be another kind of heron, I thought. I thought it might be a young, or immature bird, whose feathers often are quite different than a grown one's. I couldn't find a picture in my usual books. But, laying down in bed that night my eye alighted on my fourth bird book, a very old paperback I rarely look at anymore. I opened it up, turned to green heron and found my bird - it was an immature green heron, which are brown in color except for the pattern on the chest. The picture matched exactly.

If you aren't getting all excited about this, then you just aren't a bird person and its fine. I love recognizing dogs and often get excited when I spot a rare breed, even once a part dingo and another time a combination Rhodesian Ridgeback and Weimaraner. But, a number of my friends are dog owners and they display a great affection for them that many other people reserve for their children that I can in no way summon.

I actually screwed up on one recently and feel strangely inadequate about it (I mean, really, who should care ? But I do - I already know I'll never forget it). Down in Virginia I had noticed beautiful light tan birds, usually in pairs, with brilliant white underwing and tail feathers which I wasn't familiar with from New York. They had a long upright tail, almost like a folded Japanese fan. I asked a local what it was called and he told me it was a bobwhite. This year, in New York, we had a pair nest near our back yard and they are quite active, but often perch on wires. They are very aggressive in their territory and fearlessly attack larger birds. I pointed it out to some friends and repeated the name to them. Later that day I realized I had never really looked it up for myself and just took the old codger's word for it. And, in my experience, old codgers were frequently wrong. For some reason, it just didn't sound right. I looked up bobwhite in a book and sure enough it was a quail with similar coloring. Dammit! I hate having the wrong name for an animal! But, I couldn't figure out what this was. As soon as I saw it I smacked myself mentally. Of course I knew that. Then Bear, who is also an enthusiast, came for a visit. I described it to him and he said it was probably a mockingbird, which are quite plentiful where he lives in Maryland. Of course, I had heard of mockingbirds my whole life, but for some reason, I thought they were black, like ravens, probably because the Munsters lived on Mockingbird Lane and they had a black pet raven (who was actually a famous avian actor - see my 1/1/15 post on ravens). Strange connection, but I think that's why I believed so. In any event, I located mockingbirds easily in a book and the picture was very close and the behavior exact. I felt mortified because I had told people and they had believed me. When one flew passed us on the deck, Bear confirmed it.

Why is that embarrassing to me? I don't know. Facts like that have an importance to me since I was little. It was even a bit obsessive when was really young and memorizing lists of everything that looked interesting in my almanac. I hate telling someone something that turns out to be wrong. It used to be very important to me that I correct it with them, no matter how trivial. But, they never seemed to even remember talking about it (see how interesting I am), so I don't really worry about it much anymore.  You can't know everything and it is not the first time in my life I thought one thing for the longest time only to find out I was misinformed. I just hate it.

I'll leave off with a drama that was a little coincidental. One day recently I was waiting for my bank t open. As I often do in the morning I chat on the phone. My friend was telling me that she had just arrived home and saw he cat torturing a blue jay on their lawn. I suggested she chase the cat away and put the poor bird out of its misery. But, she admitted to being cowardly and not able to deal with it. She drove away. As I was sitting there listening, I was watching a group of sparrows chasing after a blue jay. I thought, how odd she is telling me about a blue jay and I am watching one right now 450-500 miles or so away at the same time - and we only know because of cell phones. Blue jays are not nice birds, however beautiful. The jay came to rest on the parking lot about 50 feet from me and the sparrows seemed content to sit there too around the jay, a foot or so away. The jay lazily pecked at the ground. At what I started thinking. All of a sudden I realized he had a sparrow pinned beneath his talon and was pecking it to death. I screamed in my friend's ear, leaped out of the car and ran towards them hollering like a maniac - "Hey, cut it out."

The jay flew off into the bushes and the sparrows all fled too, including the victim. I couldn't find the sparrow and have no idea if he was injured or dead under a bush or flew away with his friends. I saw the jay fly off.

I was telling this to someone who asked me why didn't I just let nature happen. I'll tell you why. I am part of nature too. And I have an empathy for creatures, which I actually had to learn to tamp down when I was young (mostly because other young idiots would actually be even crueler to animals if they knew). And if I want to stop a jay from killing a sparrow I will and it is no less natural than what they were doing. Besides, if it had a brain bigger than a pie crumb, I'm sure the little guy or gal would appreciate it. We all know the prime directive, but Kirk couldn't help himself any more than I could.

And that's a wrap folks.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .