FRIDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2005
The closest call yet for the Arctic Refuge
Four senators. That was the slim margin this week between preservation and destruction for a global treasure. Pro-drilling Republicans crammed a provision to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into the much-needed defense spending bill, which also includes assistance for both Katrina's victims and poor families burdened by rising energy costs. The forces of exploitation got only 56 votes of the 60 necessary to block a filibuster by the provision's Democratic opponents, and the bill was expected to be withdrawn for revision.
This issue has special importance for us because Tom and I supported the legislation that created the refuge in 1980, with no expectation that we would ever see it. But see it we did, 16 years later on a birding trip down the Canning River with Clay and Pat Sutton and Pete and Linda Dunne, led by Bob Dittrick and Lisa Moorehead of Wilderness Birding Adventures. We can tell you from personal experience that the refuge is everything its supporters claim and more. How many drilling supporters have actually been there to see what's at stake?
The Big Oil-backed proponents of drilling try to reassure the American people by claiming that only a tiny portion of the refuge will be impacted by oil exploration and production. Don't you believe it. A USGS map of the 1002 Area, the area that would be open to drilling, shows that it includes virtually the entire coastal plain - the most biologically rich and sensitive part of the refuge. Drilling pads would be scattered over as much of that area as deemed necessary by the oil companies to get at the gooey black stuff lying under the fragile tundra. Drilling proponents' estimates of the total affected area are based on the combined area of the drilling pads, which is indeed relatively little acreage, but it doesn't take into account the ripple effect of disturbance from each of those pads to the flora, fauna, and hydrology of the area.
Both of Arizona's Republican senators voted to block the filibuster and proceed with the vote, which would have passed the bill. Kyl is no surprise - he's an anti-environmental party hack who has voted for drilling almost every time it's come up - but we were really disappointed in McCain, who had opposed drilling in previous underhanded, backdoor attempts by Congress to circumvent the will of the American people. Since I can't thank either of my own senators this time - even the one with a conscience - I'll have to thank Republican senators DeWine of Ohio, Chafee of Rhode Island, and (I'm choking as I write this) Frist of Tennessee as well as all of the Democratic senators except Akaka and Inouye of Hawaii, Nelson of Nebraska, and Landrieu of Louisiana.
The exploiters won't give up - there's too much money and power at stake - so bookmark your representatives' contact forms and put their office numbers on speed dial. Let them know that a sane, responsible energy policy emphasizes innovation and conservation for long-term security, not exploitation and devastation for a few months or years of oil company profits. Keep fighting for this magnificent wilderness - for the fauna, for the flora, and for the future. --SW
Fri, December 23, 2005 | link
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2005
Tonight was a Solstice party and anniversary celebration for our community radio station in Bisbee, KBRP. I do a regular Wed. night music show on the station and have been involved pretty much since it went on the air.(You can listen on-line at kbrpradio.com) Tonight was slightly bittersweet for me - I enjoyed the party and always get a kick out of the Bisbee folks that turn out for a blowout like this, but originally the plan was for my band, The Guild (my old high school rock and roll band that reformed for our 30th reunion and still play occassional gigs) to play for the dance. In the end, the logistics of getting my group here from three different states, finding practice time and space and doing it all around the holidays proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. Our non-profit is foundering and, as I search for a regular paycheck, I finally decided that getting the group together here was one more bit of pressure I didn't need. But it would have been fun. And the guys would have gotten a kick out of the Bisbee crazies. We love our little town and hope we can stick it out here. --TW
Wed, December 21, 2005 | link
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2005
We call them "chickadees"
Here's a tale of Christmas Party Past inspired by Bill of the Birds:
At the annual holiday bash thrown by some well-to-do acquaintances of ours, I found myself chatting with a lovely expat who had just returned to the States after living most of her adult life in the UK. She quickly discovered that I was into birds and began quizzing me on the differences between American birds and the ones in her English garden. The names were really confusing her. Why, she asked, were our blackbirds so different from European Blackbirds and our robins so huge compared to their British counterparts? I explained that the American Robin is a close relative of the European Blackbird, while neither American blackbirds nor European Robins have precise counterparts on each other's continents. "And you haven't any tits!" she exclaimed, to which I replied, "Oh, we do, but we call them 'chickadees'." Tom chanced to walk up at that very moment but immediately turned around and walked away without saying a word. As the party wound down, we thanked our hosts, said our goodbyes, and headed for the car. Only after we were safely inside did Tom burst out laughing and say, "You should have slapped that woman when she said you didn't have any tits!"
To all, Happy Holidays - whichever ones you celebrate. --SW
Tue, December 20, 2005 | link
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2005
TW tries it out
All right, here we go. I encouraged Sheri to explore the world of blogging for us after enjoying Bill of the Birds and Birdchick's blogs. The danger here is that our lives may seem mundane by comparison, but perhaps this can serve to encourage me (and Sheri) to write more, which would be a good thing. After a couple of weeks where both my computer and our washer died horrible slow deaths, it's a risk to try anything technological but I'm also experimenting with the capabilities of the site.
Sheri and I both have soft spots in our hearts for quail after living with a couple of orphaned rehab Bobwhite in Texas years ago. I make sure that our local quail in Bisbee have food and water at our place. A shallow pan provides a nice watering hole and cheap birdseed is the preferred menu item. Recntly, as you can see they've also been enjoying the pyracantha berries. Mostly we see Gambel's Quail in our yard (we're at the edge of desert habitat) although Scaled Quail used to come as well before the recent drought. We'd love to have them again. We are probably a little too low and far from the oaks for Montezuma Quail. --TW
Sun, December 18, 2005 | link
The Sulphur Springs Valley...
...one of our favorite winter birding locations (at least on this side of the border). At Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, Tom photographed this handsome Barn Owl. The big draw at Whitewater Draw is Sandhill Cranes, but it's also a great place for owls and other raptors. We've seen Great Horned, Long-eared, Short-eared, Burrowing, and Western Screech there in addition to Barn. --SW
Sun, December 18, 2005 | link
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2005
A raptor-iffic day in the Sulphur Springs Valley
Tom and I spent today in the Sulphur Springs Valley leading the second Hawk Stalk of the winter season. The overall raptor tally was pretty low (only 65 individuals of 10 species), Ferruginous Hawk numbers are still very low, and we missed Bald Eagle and Sharp-shinned Hawk, but mere numbers never tell the whole story. Highlights included four Prairie Falcons (including two engaging in an aerial ballet), a subadult Golden Eagle obligingly perched on a fence post, a Taiga (Boreal) Merlin taking a siesta in the shade, the usual rainbow of Red-tails, three Great Horned Owls, and an outstanding crane show. Lovely weather didn't hurt - in fact, it got downright warm by midafternoon. Participants Willis and Pat from PA were a couple of very happy birders when we rolled back into Bisbee this afternoon. --SW
Sat, December 3, 2005 | link
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2005
In Praise of Sparrows
Or "How I Overcame 'Sparrow-phobia' and Learned to Love the LBJs"
LBJs - the classic birders' bane. A double whammy of cryptic and skulky. But those who spend time studying sparrows find that they have a way of growing on you. It typically starts with the gaudier ones: White-crowned, White-throated, Fox, Lark, and Black-throated. As you're admiring the bold contrasts, subtle colors and patterns begin to seep into your subconscious. The vibrant juxtaposition of rust, ivory, and slate in the plumage of a Red Fox Sparrow. Winter-sky grays on the breasts of the Zonotrichias. The way the charcoal nape of a Black-throated shifts to olive on the mantle. Velvety black wing linings on Lark Buntings in winter plumage. Pretty soon you're finding treasure in "the drabs": Kaleidoscopic patterns of maroon, umber, caramel, pewter, and white on Lincoln's, and the pencil-thin white eyering and chestnut epaulet of Vesper. Banders have the ultimate opportunity to appreciate the finer points of sparrow plumage, and it was with birds in hand that I became well and truly hooked on their subtle splendor (I bet "splendor" is a word you never thought you'd see sharing a sentence with "sparrow").
Patient scrutiny is rewarded with insights into their personalities. White-crowneds are the aristocratic artists; their stately songs brighten sunny winter days. Lincoln's are positively savage, lunging at feeder rivals with open bills. Black-throateds and Larks are usually seen in groups and seem to have strong family values. Sage Sparrows seem more rodent than bird as they scurry from shrub to shrub like little chipmunks, their tails cocked skyward.
The West has been in the grip of drought for a decade, and sparrow populations have suffered. Lark Buntings and Brewer's Sparrows seemed particularly hard hit. In the Sulphur Springs Valley, one of our favorite winter birding areas, we had grown accustomed to seeing flocks numbering in the hundreds to thousands. Quiet dirt roads would be blanketed in buntings that would lift off from the near edge first until the whole flock rolled across the landscape like a gigantic feathered tumbleweed. Then the populations crashed, and we were afraid that we would never see such abundance again.
But wild creatures are resilient. Decent rains in 2004 gave the populations a boost, and this year is looking even better. Good-sized flocks of many species have already arrived in the Sulphur Springs Valley, and the feeding station and water feature in our yard have already lured many sparrows of diverse species: both "Mountain" and "Gambel's" White-crowneds, Lincoln's, Brewer's, Chipping, and even the occasional stray Lark Bunting. Green-tailed Towhees, usually one of the most conspicuous members of the family, are back in fair numbers, with at least two visiting our yard. This afternoon, a resident Black-throated scratched around in the driveway gravel less than 15 feet from where Tom and I were sifting soil into a garden bed.
I'm scheduled to teach a two-day sparrow workshop in mid-January. The last couple of years it's been cancelled due to lack of interest, but maybe the rebounding sparrow numbers will inspire a few birders to sign up. Even if it doesn't "go," I'll plan on spending a day getting reacquainted with these vastly underrated birds. -- SW
Fri, December 2, 2005 | link
Sticking a tentative toe into the cold, wet ocean of the blogosphere...
I guess you could call it "blog envy." A lot of our birding friends, acquaintances, and colleagues have blogs, and while Tom and I are not the sort of people inclined to bare our souls to the world, we do love to share the important things in our lives with others who'll appreciate them. Though we spend a good part of work life sharing birds and other natural wonders with the general public, there are also times when we see something spectacular or learn something new and don't have anyone but each other to share it with. There are also things that fall outside our job descriptions that we'd still like to share - music, art, humor, opinions, and worthy causes. This will be our outlet for those shareable moments. We hope you enjoy it. --SW
Fri, December 2, 2005 | link