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Archive for January, 2008

Nuthatch Pipes Up

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It’s been several months since anyone’s heard a peep out of the Contemplative Nuthatch, who you may remember in connection with a Brazilian Nuthatch Snow Party last year.

He’s back with a story and trademark nice photos of a red-tailed hawk that’s been causing trouble in his Ithaca environs. If you’re squeamish, avert your eyes from the bottom half of the post. But be sure to watch the video, a quick half-minute of crows letting the red-tail know it’s not welcome. I love how they cluster mildly around the hawk until it gets nervous enough to leave. Then as soon as it spreads its wings, the crows pounce.

(By the way, despite those pale patches on the wings, these are not oversized lark buntings – they’re just wing-marked crows under study by Cornell ornithologists.)

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Miracle at Gate C15

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Fortunately, I had put on my brown leather Adidas yesterday morning, and checked everything but my shoulder bag. Thus unencumbered and with the best possible traction, I was able to pick up amazing speed on the moving walkways of O’Hare.

My plane from Syracuse, which took off three hours late, landed 30 minutes after my San Francisco connection was supposed to have taken off. But this was O’Hare, where all flights are delayed at least a little. The monitor said United flight 155 to SFO was still at C15, status “CLOSED”. I ran.

A shuttle bus connects concourses F and C, and from the window I could clearly see the beautiful bulbous nose of a Boeing 767 nuzzled up against gate C15, jetway still attached. The bus pulled up to C concourse’s slushy back entrance and I bounded upstairs, ran over a Japanese teenager standing dead in the middle of the moving walkway, and crashed into gate C15.

Which was empty as a morgue save a few bored travelers already awaiting the next departure. No blue-suited United personnel anywhere. I beat on the closed jetway door. Contemplated opening the door, but chickened out. Cursed a few times.

That was how I came to be pressing my face against the window and gesticulating at the pilots through their window not 30 yards away. (The other travelers didn’t even look up.) I thought I saw the copilot look over. I waved my ticket and pointed at the jetway. Now the pilot looked over. I put my hands together as if I were a Catholic holding a tearful conversation with Mary. He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. I cursed some more and went back to the jetway door to beat on it.

Three more guys, businessmen, arrived, puffing. I told them what was up, and we all gathered at the window, staring at the pilots like choirboys. A flight attendant stuck her head into the cockpit and gave us the thumbs up. Miracles. Five hours later I could smell kelp in the air.

I have no idea where my bags are.

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Google for Twitchers

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You’ve got to start back to blogging sometime, I guess. Here’s one for all you plugged-in readers who know what a twitcher is.***

Someone at eBird had the great idea to feed rare-bird sightings into a Google widget. Now you can get a fresh list, right down to the last harlequin duck and wandering tattler, every time you check your e-mail tally/Fox News headlines/stock prices. You even get a link to a Google map of the bird’s last known address.

Future versions of the widget might improve the text wrapping or make the regional selections more versatile, but this is a nice piece of software that ought to be lapped up by hordes of avid listers. Get it here.

***A twitcher is a kind of birdwatcher with an unwavering focus on rare birds. Your typical twitcher keeps a variety of lists, including all birds seen in a lifetime, in a year, on a continent, country, state, county, backyard, etc. In pursuit of the longest lists possible, twitchers are willing to travel great distances when birds show up in unexpected places.
As with most addictions, it’s not easy to tell when you have a problem, but one rule of thumb is that if you are willing to burn more than one tank of gas specifically to pick up a rarity, you might be a twitcher.

“Twitch” also works as a verb, as: “Last winter he spent MLK weekend twitching hawk owls. Drove nonstop from Cincinnati to Minnesota through the night. Lived off diet Cherry Coke and Pecan Sandies the whole time.”

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Stood Up By Shearwaters

flotation_toy_warning.jpg The Hutton’s shearwaters that circled our albatross boat nest in only one valley in the  world – up in the mountains that loom 8,000 feet over Kaikoura. Each evening, thousands of adults raft up on the water just below the peninsula’s cliffs. Sometime after dark, they fly up a particular grassy swale toward the mountains. Or so they say.

Witnessing such a flight seemed like as good a way as any to spend the first night of the year. I lounged around the Lazy Shag hostel most of the day reading Bleak House and plotting my evening. Truth be told, my shearwater plans centered around one of the immense white-paper parcels of fish and chips I kept seeing carried out of the local takeaway. Every available surface around town seemed to have fish and chips unwrapped on it, surrounded by giddy throngs licking ketchup from their fingers.

So at 7:30 I started into town, leaving time to pick up my fish and chips and make the hour’s walk out to the cliffs. Adversity struck almost immediately: Oh! too bad! – it’s New Year’s Day. The chip shops all closed at 4:00!

In the end I found myself crouched on a bench, leaning into a cold easterly wind, eating green olives and nursing a bottle of cheap Australian shiraz. Colder than I had ever been in Antarctica. The evening skies were clear of both clouds and shearwaters. I dejectedly opened a bag of lamb and mint flavored potato chips. Not even in New Zealand is this a good taste combination.

Eventually, I moved downhill and laid in the warm grass behind a windbreak.  Stars spread out across the dark sky, providing enough of a backdrop to detect any flying objects, of which I noticed numerous satellites, a couple of shooting stars but not a single shearwater. Finally, I packed my things and walked home in the darkness. Above me were Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, and Canis Major. It took me a while to recognize them – they were all upside down.

This week I decided to give shearwaters another chance. I was on Stewart Island, or Rakiura, land of the glowing skies, as the Maori called it. Millions of sooty shearwaters nest here, 40 miles out into the Southern Ocean from the South Island. In the charming mythology of the Maori, the South Island is the canoe piloted by the god Maui on a fishing expedition. The North Island is the great fish that Maui caught, so big he had to brace his foot on the Kaikoura peninsula to pull it in, and yell at his crew to throw out an anchor – Rakiura – to slow the boat. (Afterward, some of his crew, including Aoraki, went ashore and became Mt. Cook and the  rest of the Southern Alps. Maui directed one of his sons to give the southern landscape some character, so he set to work with a pickaxe and made Fiordland.)

Anyway, on Monday night I armed myself with some crackers and tuna and headed out to Ackers Point. Seventy feet below the trail, little blue penguins stuck their heads out of the water and made little caw-quacks at each other. The hillsides were covered with dense, twisted trunks topped with red flowers like upturned shaving brushes. Parrots flew among them. Underneath were tree ferns a bit taller than me. The vegetation was too tropical for its latitude; it was as if a cruise ship had woken up one day in the Roaring Forties. Everyone was huddled together on the decks, arms drawn close in against their Hawaiian shirts, wondering what the hell was going on.

A little after dark, the shearwaters started coming in. Millions nest in burrows on and around Rakiura, but perhaps only a few hundred on Ackers Point – just enough to give it a good musky smell. The birds came in like skinny bats, whirring their long wings in the still air. They often circled the headland before zeroing in on their nests – one went about 4 feet over my head – and sometimes you could hear them crashing through the underbrush when they landed in the wrong spot. Upon finding their mate on the nest, incubating, the pairs moaned at each other in a curious, urgent way for several minutes, then changed places.

About 2 hours after sunset I turned to go back down the trail. I don’t know what had made me think I wouldn’t need a light, but under the low canopy it was intensely dark. Dark like the inside of a Guinness can. I stretched my eyes wide open and still couldn’t see anything. I felt along the 1.4-km path one step at a time, listening for the sound of the packed gravel. Occasionally I heard little footsteps and some fluttering or scrabbling, as presumably a shearwater got the bejeezus scared out of it. I bent down and tried to light up the poor creature using the Indiglo dial on my watch, but all this did was turn a tiny patch of the darkness a pitiful shade of green.

That was when I remembered a conversation with Michael, a local fisherman. It was about rats. “Oh there’s millions – zillions – of bloody rats on Stewart,” he had said. “Big as!” A few minutes later we had heard one gnawing at the walls.

I stood up straight and put my watch away.

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The new year ticked over while I was in Kaikoura, New Zealand, a southern hemisphere version of Monterey. That is to say, a deep submarine canyon veers close to shore and pumps nutrients into the surface waters. Seabirds and whales gather for a year-round feast. Seals lounge on flat mudstone reefs; kelp fronds drape the rocks and anemones tremble in the tidepools. California quail sit on fenceposts, and someone’s even planted Monterey cypress in the park entrance.

I spent new year’s eve (the daylit portion of it, anyway) in a 25-foot boat with Gary Melville, an old fisherman with hair the color of sea spray and hands like cured ham. A deckhand on a tractor backed us down the boat ramp while we were aboard, and Gary gunned the engine as soon as we were floating. The raw windswell was running about 5 feet at 4 seconds, which is to say burly. Gary approached it like a tailback, gunning sideways for openings or slowing to take the unavoidable hit head-on. For 20 minutes, it was all red-billed and black-backed gulls.

At a sudden stop, Gary ran to the stern and I figured Oh Great, engine trouble. But he just opened a metal bucket and flung over a hunk of fish liver in a metal cage. In a few minutes we had Buller’s shearwaters all over us, two-toned gray-and-brown upperwings, clean white below. Then came the others, escalating the armaments: Hutton’s shearwater (endemic to right here); northern giant petrel, shy albatross (two subspecies), and the big kahuna, wandering albatross. By the end, we had a half-dozen of them, the big Antipodean subspecies and the massive Gibson’s subspecies. 

They flew in from upwind, carved a clean bottom turn in our wake, wings stretching out past both sides of view in my binoculars, and coasted in through a pile of petrels and shearwaters to take possession. Bigger than a turkey, with massive chest, they were deceptively light on their wings. The biggest one arrived in one swoop past the bait, then calmly hung out its left foot in the water and made a neat pivot like a kayaker catching an eddy. 

Not feeling the proper respect from all present, the bird went after its neighbor, a slightly smaller wanderer, by rearing up on its wings and chest-thumping its opponent, then diving in with a beak to the neck. Its point was made, and everyone calmed down. Minor skirmishes distracted the albatrosses’ attention, and in those few moments a little red-billed gull or mottled, chocolatey cape pigeon nipped in to grab a string of fat. Back at the dock, 14 gannets made a late appearance, heading north in formation. Happy new year to you, too. 

(Photo via flickr)

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