Tomorrow is the Global Big Day for eBird, where they ask for people all over the world to log in the birds they saw. So today I did a practice count to see how the process would work. Presumably this will create data for global bird counts. I made a point of recording every bird that I saw. 13 species with 22 individual birds.
As I ponder the ways of solitude, my memory reaches back fifty years to my studies of his writings. His book “Walden” offers insights on how to live a deliberate life.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Not only his thoughts on nature, but his essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” helped me to formulate my own early thoughts on politics and the pact between a person and his government. This was not just speculative philosophy. You have to remember that this was the 1960’s, the draft was in force, and the government did not look kindly upon those who questioned its authority.
Another memory comes to surface from my hitchhiking days when I wore a button with Henry David Thoreau’s portrait. I recall one hippy chick who recognized it immediately. We had an interesting intellectual weekend.
Here’s to you, Mr. Thoreau. You helped to make the world a different place.
Today is Mayday. In the past, I have spent it dancing around the maypole and invoking the rites of spring. That activity is not really suited for quarantine. The trails here have become my temple. I do miss the exuberant gatherings of people, but as I go deeper into solitude, the bonds with nature seem to become stronger.
Now that the migrations have passed, there are fewer species to admire, and the rains have made the birdbaths less of a gathering place. I still hopefully peer out the window, but there are less photographic opportunities.
This morning I saw one Yellow Bunting and one Indigo Bunting. I don’t know if these are fellows that don’t like to follow crowds, of if these are the nerdy dudes that everyone “forgets” to invite to the party.
With fewer birds to photograph, I am working on my backlog of images. I am doing more editing and adding identification tags to the images. I study each image, then realize that I had totally misidentified that raptor. I am left with the unknown birds and the not quite sure identifications. I delve into the books. I check online. There are subtle differences between the Common Ground Dove and the Ruddy Ground Dove that I wish I had known when I was seeing them live, or perhaps the bird in question is actually a red variation of a Blue Ground Dove. Birding is definitely not an activity for those who insist on completion.
I do miss the migratory birds, but I am grateful that they have been here at all, and that they decided to grace me for a few weeks with their presence and their beauty. I also marvel that they manage to travel so far and so accurately. Apparently one of their senses is magnetism, which they use to sense the earth’s magnetic field. That would be kind of like us having a GPS chip implanted in our brains.
Again, I express my gratitude. I, while under quarantine have managed to photograph over fifty species of birds without leaving my house.
It is strangely quiet this morning. I only hear three different bird calls. The storm has driven most of the migrant birds away, and the perennials seem to be in no hurry to make their presence known. I only take about a dozen shots today, and most of these are of a black vulture in the trees. Seems appropriate. I suppose he has come to check up on me. Not today, my friend. Not today.
Rather than shoot, I am looking at the photos of birds I have yet to identify. I send a photo to a birding neighbor, and she tells me that the bird is a dickcissel. She is correct, but I had never heard of a dickcissel. Who and why would someone name a bird a dickcissel? I find its picture in my bird book for Costa Rica.
The temperatures have been over a hundred every day this month. But today a thunderstorm. The first rain in the State of Yucatan in 59 Days. It is not the longest storm I have seen, but the thunder booms right after the lighting. It is close, and it is cool and it is refreshing. I wear my mud boots this evening for my sunset walk.
I am honing my craft of bird photography. Learning to count on luck and learning just how far to push that luck. Learning just how far I can push my tools and making some bad images when I push it too far. Learning patience waiting for a bird to reappear or to come into better photographic range. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.
Then once I have captured the image, it goes on to my computer for the culling, cropping, and light and color adjusting of the image. The culling process can be especially brutal. No matter how lucky or patient I was to get the shot, if I have a better one already in my files, is there ay reason to keep it? Using Adobe Photoshop gives me a lot of flexibility in cropping, and color and contrast control. The question is how much time do I want to spend to make each image a perfect as it can be. Usually I settle for good enough for now. The wonderful thing about photoshop is that all the adjustments I make are permanently temporary. I can always go back and tweak them later.
I have to admit, I am getting a few good images. If I need to be quarantined I am grateful for having competent tools and having been sequestered at one of the best birding places on the planet.
Then there is the identification process. Now that I have photographed that sucker, just what the heck do I call that particular bird? I have a half a dozen bird books where I study the various colors and structures of feather patterns, body shapes, wing structure, bills, eyes, legs, and lifestyle habits. I ponder through the drawings, photographs, descriptions and location maps until I am reasonably certain I have identified it. Not all birds are pictured; the girls can look different from the boys, and the juveniles can look vastly different than the adults.
It is difficult to describe the wonderful “Aha” moment that comes when figuring out a new species. A mystery solved! A puzzle challenge accepted! The smug feeling of knowledge when I can say, “I know that one.” I have now identified over fifty different species from my recent photographs (I say with only a little smugness.)
With some I am quite positive about my analysis. I have confidently identified adult male orioles in three different species, the Altamira Oriole, the Hooded Oriole, and the Orchard Oriole. With the females, I am less sure, and with the juveniles, I am even less confident. Perhaps I will have a future “Aha.” Perhaps I will never know.
Then once it is identified, I am now working on taking my bird knowledge to the next level. Now that I know what to call it, maybe I can learn a bit more about its habits and lifestyle. For me, the name is not quite enough. I must confess that I have always had a bit of contempt for the Scrabble players whose only interest in language is how many points they can get for their letters. They are delighted that “aa” is word, but have never considered trying to make a path through a sharp angular aa lava field, or marveled at the frozen whorls of a field of pahoehoe lava.
And so it has become that way for me with the birds. Each species has its own uniqueness, and I learn a bit more each day.
A random quote just percolated into my memory. It is from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”, and goes, “A day was longer than a week.” This was his way of saying of how when there was not very much variation in the daily routines, each day seemed to pass so slowly. Yet when one looked back at larger blocs of time, the same monotony seems to compress time.
For me it is the birds that bring the delightful disruptions in my routines.
There is a technique for agricultural fertilization that has been practiced for thousands of years called swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture. It involves deliberately setting fire to the forest and brush, and then using the ashes as fertilizer. It uses no chemicals and I suppose you could call it an ancient organic practice.
Normally, I might support such traditions, but not in the height of the dry season when the fires could easily jump the property line and set fire the the land next door. And particularly not when my house just happens to be the on lot next door. This was done without warning and then the winds picked up.
Once we realized what was happening, our fire suppression team got into action. They extended our garden hoses and used our well water to keep our lands wet. They made sure the fire was contained. Nonetheless some of the embers burned well into the night.
The fire starting man tends to ignore the laws and doesn’t even own the land he was clearing. The local people in the village don’t like him. I am beginning to understand why.
Be assured that I am safe and grateful to have a good team.