Monday, November 20, 2006
Okay, I didn't really report this band to the Bird Banding Lab, but it's tempting. The banded skua had a small but pivotal role in Happy Feet, an animated film released this weekend. Bird research is a pretty rare plot device for feature films, and the inclusion of avian in-jokes (the central character, Mumble, sounds at times like a real Emperor Penguin while his conspecifics all sing like pop stars) made me wonder if the skua's band might be an homage to a real banded bird.
While it's not in the same league as March of the Penguins, Happy Feet is well worth seeing if only for the exquisitely rendered birds and land/ice/seascapes. The creators took quite a few artistic liberties, mostly to help distinguish the characters from one another, but the textures of the feathers and their interactions with the environment are simply amazing. A word of warning, though: This is not your average kiddie fare, with themes that very young viewers might find at least puzzling (courting penguins belting out the sexy lyrics of Prince's "Kiss") if not disturbing (terrifying Leopard Seal and Orca attacks, an abandoned whaling station strewn with skeletons, penguins rendered catatonic by life in captivity).
And speaking of animated wildlife and environmental fables, a few months back we watched a Japanese feature film called Pom Poko. Though Tom's not at all interested in anime, he couldn't resist the plot description involving raccoons fighting the destruction of their forest home by human development. Japan doesn't have raccoons, but it does have the raccoon-dog, a.k.a. tanuki, which figures prominently in Japanese folklore. (We occasionally eat at a Japanese restaurant in Sierra Vista named after this critter.)
One thing we noticed a few minutes into the film was that the male tanuki were often drawn with rather prominent testicles, something you seldom see on Western cartoon mammals, with the obvious exception of Fritz the Cat (but maybe that's why Mickey Mouse wears pants and Donald Duck doesn't). Later, the soundtrack referred to the "raccoons" using their magical "pouches" as weapons. It finally hit us that the English translation was neither taxonomically nor anatomically correct. It seems that the tanuki of myth and legend is renowned for its oversized testicles, which it uses in a variety of inventive ways (even as a percussion instrument - ow!). The mating season also enters into the plot, one more reason that many Western parents probably would not consider this appropriate fare for the very young.
The shifting visual representations, from realism to traditional caricature to goofy minimalism, may be confusing for viewers not steeped in the conventions of Japanese animation, but the plot is engaging and the message compelling. I recommend it for an entertaining peek into Japanese mythology, culture, and environmentalism as well as an introduction to modern Japanese animation - see it if you have the chance. --SW
Thursday, June 08, 2006
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
-- D.H. Lawrence
It was one of those hot, hot days, and when a breeze kicked up at midday I began to worry about a few tender young plants still in starter pots. Pepper seedlings can handle temperatures in the 90s, but single-digit humidities combined with a breeze can turn them into shriveled little mummies in a matter of minutes.
Out on the patio, I did a double take. It looked like the gardening fairy had beat me to it and placed a thin gray hose into the tub that partially protected the tiny chilitos from the elements.
A quick peek over the side of the tub confirmed that it was not a hose at all, but the rear third of a Sonoran Whipsnake (Masticophis bilineatus). I dashed back into the house to grab a camera and returned to capture the event in pixels. But this was hardly the snake's best side, so I lightly touched it near its tail, outside the box. Up popped a foxy snout and brilliant amber eyes.
A couple of quick flicks of the tongue, a couple of clicks of the shutter, and the snake's head disappeared into the tub again. Dang...
In "Snake," the poem quoted above, D.H. Lawrence owns up to struggling with the "education" of his childhood:
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
Ultimately, "those voices" won out over Lawrence's fascination with the snake (a venomous species), and he picked up a log and chucked it at the poor creature. I always managed to resist my family's efforts at "education," so harming this whipsnake never entered my mind. But in the quest for a better photo, I stroked its hindparts again. This was too much for it, and it shot out of the tub, nailing me on the hand with its needle teeth before vanishing under the house.
And immediately I regretted it...
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
I had been a boorish host, groping my guest for the sake of a photo opp. If he honors us with another visit, I'll treat him with deference befitting "one of the lords of life." --SW
It's the time of year, I suppose - Julie Zickefoose just blogged on a similar visitor, though not welcomed quite as wholeheartedly as ours. --SW
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Today we got the same setup, but I resolved not to get my hopes up even when it looked like a burly slate-gray thunderhead was moving our way. In between butt-numbing stints at the computer dealing with a couple of weeks' worth of e-mail backlog, I popped into the kitchen for a drink. From the living room I heard Jesse say, "It's sprinkling." I replied, "Yeah, right - it's sprinkling. No such luck, my dear." I returned to the computer for another half hour, until I noticed a lovely moist fragrance wafting into the study on the AC. Torn between skepticism and hope, I peeked outside and found the patio drying from a recent shower. Jesse was right - it had been sprinkling.
Jesse is a 19-year-old, captive-bred, hand-raised African Grey Parrot. Until today, I didn't even know that she'd added "It's sprinkling" to her already prodigious vocabulary. Her cage sits by a window overlooking the patio, where she could see the rain falling. Did she really understand what she was saying? I don't know, but she does things like this all the time. In our house, "bird-brained" is a compliment. One of these days, I'll take dictation from her and transcribe a few minutes' worth of her more intelligible utterances into her very own blog entry. --SW
Monday, May 15, 2006
Well, here’s my monthly blog entry. This is HARD! I have even more admiration for Amy, Julie, Bill, Sharon and others that blog every day. It has been a busy month with a few milestones. Our community radio station KBRP is back to streaming on the web http://www.kbrpradio.com/ so you can catch my Wed. night music mix 7-9 MST from anywhere. The new edition of the Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail Map is finally done and available, and it looks great.
I just finished helping with my second five day birding Elderhostel class in the Chiricahuas. This is a great time to be out and about in the “sky islands” with a few winter birds still hanging around and new arrivals every day. Elderhostel groups are fun; most folks are beginning or moderate level birders so there’s none of the pressure of the white-knuckle lister who
We had to work hard for the Elegant Trogon but persistence finally paid off. We did amazingly well with most of the other southwestern birds and ended with over 150 species. Highlights included Barn, Whiskered-screech and Elf Owls, a well seen Whip-poor-will and dozens of warblers and tanagers at what little water is available in the mountain canyons.. I’ve often thought that the total list at the end of the day should be weighted with extra points for especially charismatic (Painted Redstart), colorful (Lazuli Bunting), or rare (trogon) species as well as cool behavior (young redtails fighting over an unfortunate Scaled Quail). Mammals (javelina, Apache Fox Squirrel) and reptiles (Whipsnake) should count a little extra since they are so seldom seen. As usual, the total number of birds seen is a poor measure of a good week in the field.
I rarely see a life bird in
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Spring is upon us in southeastern
I’ve done a couple of Elderhostel birding classes in the Chiricahuas in the last two weeks and leave tomorrow for another one. In between, the bird observatory has begun our regular walks on the river and in the Huachucas and hummingbird banding along the
Owl Prowls this week were a mixed bag. A trip to
We are still waiting for our first trogon, Red-faced Warblers and Western Tanagers but they should arrive soon. One of the scariest aspects of this drought is that we are now entering a time of year we EXPECT to be rainless. It may be July before we see any relief and it will be hard to watch the plants and animals suffer. We’ll keep the water features full at home and at the field station and water our wildlife-friendly landscaping and hope for the best.
Climate change? What climate change? tw
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Who says there's no culture down here on the border? How about a Mardi Gras parade in Naco, Sonora? O.K., so it's not New Orleans, but the costumes are cuter. We stopped for the elementary school parade on our way through Naco yesterday as we scouted a cool new birding spot just across the border. The rancher is very interested in hosting birders, so we're setting up some day trips and overnights. Should be a great new spot - we will report more on this site as we explore the possibilities. In the meantime "L'aissez les bon temp rollez!" or "Deje el buen tiempo rodar". TW
Friday, February 24, 2006
I once had a visitor express disappointment upon seeing her first roadrunner. “ But, that’s a bird!” she said. I’m not sure what she thought a roadrunner was - maybe too many cartoons had blurred the roadrunner/coyote line for her. But most visitors from afar, be it
The late Sally Spofford in Portal, Arizona once had a roadrunner who had learned to jump off her roof and snatch a hummingbird from the line of feeders on his way down. At the time, she was also hosting a Lucifer Hummingbird that was attracting birders from near and far, and, fearing a revolt if the roadrunner ate her star attraction, she began feeding the predator. A simple meatball of ground beef with vitamins and calcium powder added would suffice, and within a week or two the roadrunner would come knocking on her sliding glass patio door asking for his daily ration. Like a mafia Don demanding protection money – “Gee, I’d hate to see anything happen to your little birds today. You got anything for me?”- he would take his meatball and then disappear for the day. I’m not sure who trained who.
As I mentioned, in
On some of our trips to southern
Sunday, February 19, 2006
In the middle of a typical winter morning, the nearly 22,000 Sandhill Cranes that roost in the playa lake at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area are supposed to be feeding in the farm fields, recycling waste corn into nutrient-rich guano, so it was a shock to see two - just two - cranes standing a few yards from the viewing platform. It didn't take long to figure out why these cranes were not breakfasting with their comrades. One was fluffed, its eyes and red forecrown dull. As we watched, its neck folded into a tight "S," its long black bill came to rest to its breast, and its orange eyes closed against the blustery winds.
What could be wrong? There was no obvious sign of injury - no drooping wing, dangling leg, or bloody wound. Could it be toxic lead pellets in its gizzard, mistaken for grit or grain, or embedded in its body from a hunter's wayward shot? Pesticides or aflatoxin in the corn it's been eating? West Nile virus? Or even old age? Cranes can live more than two decades, but few do.
From fall through spring, safety in numbers is the dominant survival strategy for the three migratory subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. A single crane is an easy mark for a hungry eagle, and two are not much safer than one. The second crane could have left around sunrise with the rest of the enormous flock to fill its crop and lay on fat for the migration to come, but on this chilly morning a deeper need took priority over an empty belly and the vulnerability of being left behind. Cranes bond for life, and within the flocks they travel in pairs and small family groups, maintaining a separate identity among the multitudes. The healthy bird remained where it was needed - at its mate's side, vigilant. Feeling helpless and humbled, I turned my heart and mind away from what the future might bring for these two.
That was yesterday. Returning to the crane roost today, I half expected to see a pile of gray feathers where the crane pair had stood, but there was no sign. I'll take this as cause for optimism, as reason to believe that the sickly bird rallied after a night's rest and returned with its devoted mate to the fields this morning to continue preparing for their long journey to the nesting grounds. May they have many more years together and many healthy children and grandchildren that will return to the Sulphur Spring Valley in decades to come. And may future generations of our kind continue to find inspiration in the lives of cranes. --SW
Saturday, February 11, 2006
If you don't live in Arizona, the profound importance of this may elude you. We're in the grip of a devastating decade-long drought, and this is the first time since October that we've been able to measure and record rainfall in our yard in Bisbee. That's right - almost four months without measurable precipitation. Any green thing in our yard that doesn't have its own dripper line is in mortal peril. Even the prickly pear cacti are shriveled and limp. Last night's micro-storm would have been disappointing had we not been waiting so long, had the situation not been so dire. Instead, we celebrated. Standing outside in a February rain might not seem too wise, but it had been just too damned long since I'd felt drops of water on my face that didn't originate from a showerhead.
Living in the desert can and should change your view of the world and its resources, but too often it doesn't. Oblivious humans keep living like there was no tomorrow, building enormous houses, putting in lawns, swimming pools, and golf courses, using hoses instead of brooms on dusty driveways, and holding car washes to fund high school field trips. To sustain the unsustainable, vampire wells overtax fragile and finite aquifers, changing desert streams from ecosystems into drainage ditches.
I'm afraid that for the Arizona I love there really is no tomorrow. I wonder if a decade or two of devastating drought is what we need to motivate that change in world view, or at least to slow the rate of destruction, but this is just too horrible to contemplate. It's been hard enough already, especially watching birds more familiar to me than my human neighbors disappear from their haunts, their empty territories as mute and forlorn as abandoned houses. Rain can't wash away the devastation, but it can ease the burdens of those who have survived (for now). So let it rain...please. --SW
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Weekends find us in the Sulphur Springs Valley on "Hawk Stalks" and valley tours. Rural Arizona is a trip in itself.I grew up in west Texas and out there first you meet the goat, then you pet the goat.........
Oh yeah... birds. The sandhill cranes have been spectacular in the valley this year. With over 20,000 cranes at Whitewater Draw, 30 minutes from Bisbee, I feel like I need to be there as often as possible to soak it all in. They will be leaving in about a month and I miss them when they leave. The valley seems unnaturally quiet without their bugling. Some of our winter cranes have been tracked by radio transmitter from Whitewater Draw all the way to nesting grounds in Siberia.
We've had a couple of really nice groups lately, which always make the trip more enjoyable. The first was a group from Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, a wonderful wildlife rehabilitation facility. These folks spend hundreds of hours volunteering their time to help injured birds of prey and it is really gratifying for us to show them wild, free, healthy raptors doing their jobs. We had Bald Eagles harassing the cranes both days and on Sunday watched two Golden Eagles lock talons and spiral towards the ground in a territorial dispute. Even the common birds can be exciting - we had Red-tailed Hawks of almost every imaginable color morph including a stunning dark morph that drew gasps of appreciation from the group. A couple of the Liberty folks are avid photographers with bazooka-sized lenses so I may be able to share some even better photos of the trip in a later post. We found owls all over the valley, over a dozen birds of three different species by the end of the day. A great weekend with a great bunch of folks.
The next weekend brought another full bus including a returnee from an earlier trip this year. We particularly enjoy birding with Tony because he's a fun guy and about as far from the stereotypical "little old lady in tennis shoes" birder as you can get. As "Tony Pointless", he is lead singer for an anarchist punk rock band (Rambo) that tours the world. He birds all along the way and points out birds to his bandmates. He's even listed as resident "ornithologist" on his band's website. He brought his father this week and we all had a great trip. That's Tony with the dreadlocks standing next to Sheri as they watch 3 Golden Eagles play on the wind. We broke our all-time owl record with 16 even though we didn't visit all our regulars. Many of the owls were paired off, sitting side by side, including a pair of Long-eared Owls at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Love is in the air. --TW
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
I wish I had the ability to record the sounds outside our window right now and share them with anyone reading this blog. We’ve been treated to a spectacular coyote chorus tonight much earlier than their usual concert. One of the things I love about living on the edge of town is the diversity of wildlife that visits our yard and adjoining desert. Coyotes are among of my favorite animals and although I know that puts me in a minority, you have to admire any creature able to adapt and co-exist so well. Humans have been at war with coyotes for at least two hundred years and all that our shooting, poisoning, trapping and persecution has accomplished is to eliminate the stupid coyotes and encourage the smarter ones to breed more. We’ve bred super-coyotes that prospered as the less adaptable wolves were eliminated from most of their range. And then coyotes expanded their range to fill the void. Mexican Wolves used to roam these mountains but they have been gone from southeastern Arizona for quite a while. Some day I'd like to go up to northern Arizona where they have been restored (a much better term than re-introduced) to listen for wolves, but for now I'll have to content myself with the coyote chorus. What sounds like 25 coyotes outside the door is probably 3 or 4, enjoying the unseasonably warm nights and just being coyotes. It’s easy to see why many Native American cultures revered coyotes as “the trickster” Oddly, Josie, our border collie, shows no interest in the howling going on outside.
She does have an interest in some of our other visitors-javelina. If you think squirrels at a feeder are a nuisance, try these guys. I put out a quail block for our local Gambel’s Quail and the javelinas KNOCKED PICKETS OUT OF OUR FENCE to get inside to the sweet molasses-based block. After a couple of hours of hand–to-hoof combat (in the middle of the night), I gave up and heaved the quail block over the fence and went for my camera. Josie had a bad encounter with javelinas, totally innocent on her part. She dashed out the door one night after alerting me to the presence of the beasts on the porch. Before she could react, one gave her a nasty gash in her side that necessitated an emergency vet run and several weeks of comical Elizebethian collar-wearing for our Princess. She now alerts me whenever javelinas are on the porch and then quickly retreats to the bedroom when I go out to shoo them away. “Go get ‘em Dad, I’ll just stay in here”. Javelina are not really pigs, they are our North American peccaries but their flat snout and pungent odor seem very pig-like. Their presence reminds me were living in an interesting corner of the world but I wish they'd leave our garbage (and dog) alone.
Friday, January 06, 2006
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
The Elfrida count was held New Years Day and while the rest of the country nursed hangovers and watched football games, we had a beautiful 60 degree day with bright blue skies to watch birds. To maximize the diversity within mostly agricultural area count area, our 15 mile diameter circle includes the foothills of the Swisshelm Mountains in an area known as “The Granites”. Sheri and I decided to cover “The Granites” since it required a high clearance vehicle to access the area. We had never birded the area before and didn’t really know what to expect, but we had a great time. We did find some mountain birds (Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Black-chinned Sparrow) to fill out the count list, but the list total is soon forgotten except by the numbers-crunchers that will analyze population trends. What I will remember of this count are the spectacular views, a small troop of coatis playing hide and seek in the rocks and the caterwauling of a bobcat in heat echoing off the canyon walls. The rock slabs are pockmarked with "bedrock mortars", deep depressions left by grinding stones used by Apaches and others to grind acorns for flour. It's easy to imagine a group of Apaches sitting on these rocks and talking as they worked to process the acorn harvest.