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Sunday, December 15, 2013

On the ethics of a cage bird

As I write this I am peering through the bars of a cage, inside a lovebird flutters, a bored but regal smile perched on her immobile bill. She is a handsome creature, House Sparrow sized, orange face roosting beady black eyes and the bill, pale and conical, from which issue a variety of querying chirps. Her tail is of medium length, triangular but stubby. Grey feet prop up her light green stomach matching her green hood of feathers. The blue rump is obscured by emerald wings and I find that I have exhausted my ability to describe this marvelous creature’s outward countenance. Now to her emotional appearance I shall leap. 

It would be inaccurate to describe this burbling bundle of vibrant feathers as gallant, for she will squawk and flutter with a great deal of agitation to anything in the least varying from its regular course. For after all, a bird is but flesh and blood. But yet again this same bird will happily attack the household dog, an act which could be depicted only as bold (or stupid). She is safe in her cage, her room and her house, and she takes full advantage of this knowledge whenever the chance of escape from behind the bars arises. Once free she will flap and chirrup her way about the house, enjoying the only freedom she knows, a safe one. For as well may be expected she realizes nothing of the outward world, a world beyond the house. Windows mean nothing to a bird! 

To her she has freedom on a regular basis, for she leaves her cage when ever it is cleaned, and to perfect her comfortable position she has safety, food, water and a nest of shredded newspaper. She lives a life of perfect bliss and near complete unknowing. What more could one desire? 


To state my argument clearly; captivity without knowledge of freedom is freedom ... in fact with the safety which is received by most pets it could be arguably stated that this is the perfect freedom.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Birds for birding but how so?

“Dogs for dogging, Hands for clapping, Birds for birding, Fish for fishing”

~ The Beatles - Revolution 9

It would be a waste of time to discuss each of these lines “Dogs for dogging” etc. Instead I shall focus on the one which would concern the members of this fine organization, obviously “Birds for birding”.

For many years a dispute has raged freely through the feather seeking ranks. That being the question of the function of the bird in our hobby. Most (lets call them Team #1) will passionately argue for the virtue of the view, seeing these beautiful beasts in their natural environments. What could be more pleasant then with a teasing sea-wind frolicking over your broad-rimmed hat, peering over a chaotic landscape of wave-washed rocks to the pale form of a Glaucous Gull. Chancing upon a singing Cerulean Warbler in a dancing beam of oak-tinted sunlight high on tree, high on hillside, leaves one high on life.
Not to say this is not what Team #2 seeks just as eagerly, but for them the wind, the trees, the glaring sunlight; all
these are distractions and disadvantages. They seek the bird for the immaterial collection (the check-list). They strive only for a bigger list. To them more birds means more skill and in general that is the case.
These are birders with a goal and this in reality is not necessarily a bad thing.
I am not a lister but that is not to say that I don’t enjoy another name on my catalog. I find the process of keeping a list up to date tedious and boring. I have many incomplete lists!
I have no argument with a bicker in fact I find few things more pleasing then a good quarrel. But from my perspective this altercation seems lame and often even stupid. I don’t wish to take sides but I think I must. The ideas coming from Team #1 are in eliminating listers damaging the only thing they stand for more. This is, as may have been surmised, the recruiting the of the next generation of pale-necks. It seems to me ridiculous to expect a kid would ever appreciate the observation of even the most colorful birds enough to see the cheapest of field guides a worthy buy without already being deeply involved with the hobby. Team #1 seems to have unwittingly stumbled into a catch-22 of their very own; for they hate listers birding and love kids birding but to be a birder a kid must almost certainly be a lister.
Children should see birding as a game and nothing more; later they can be easily encouraged to enjoy the birds.
I recall when I was small, about 8 years-old, and I had just begun birding that to me the list was at the heart of the hobby, the joy of birds only later grew on me. “Gently rising, rising, rising, as a stiff bloated corpse gently rises above an oily river that flows under endless onyx bridges to a black, putrid sea”.
Team #1 should learn to except these rats in the walls (ie. Team #2) as Team #2 seemingly has excepted them in turn. Have you ever heard the argument from a point of a lister?

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." ~ Grouch Marx 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A post of mine on The Eyrie

Sorry for not posting recently for once I can seriously say I have been busy (please disregard every other time I have said that). As you may or may not know (probably the latter) I have for the last two years been a "young editor", though all I actually do is write posts, for the American Birding Association young birder blog The Eyrie. Seeing that this blog has been a miserably dull read of late I shall give you a link to my most recent post on The Eyrie:

http://birding.typepad.com/youngbirders/2013/06/birding-past-present-and-future-challenges-and-opportunities-a-young-birders-report-from-the-21st-an.html.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Gooseberry Neck May/10/13

Golden sunflakes danced off the roofs of cars scattered through the parking lot, although eye-catching it was not eye-holding, the glimmer of a White-crowned Sparrows feathers were far too riveting.
It was just one of a surprisingly large mix of sparrow species in the area. Chipping Sparrows skipping past White-throated Sparrows who in turn danced among the Savannah and Song Sparrows. The latter, who's song could easily be heard anywhere on the preserve, outnumbered only by the gaily frolicking Yellow Warblers. 
White-crowned Sparrow
The sparrows amused us but for a short while. The feathered envoys of Gooseberry Neck called us away from the parking lot with angelic voices. We tripped merrily down the path gawking at the blazing red shoulders of blackbirds, the burbles of goldfinches. A terrible cry emerged from my brother breaking my extreme gawk. He had just seen the alien feathers and the corresponding body of a Kentucky Warbler wing into a patch thick bushes and, in the same manner, away. All far before I had a chance to get on it. A missed lifer.

We continued forth, our course unchanged by the sorrow that had descended upon my walk like a wicked voorish dome in Deep Dendo. "The black and green scarecrow is sadder than me, but now he's resigned to his fate, cause life's not unkind - he doesn't mind", so straightening my back and adjusting my binocular harness I followed in the footsteps of the straw-man. I returned to the Palace of San-Souci aided by a Chestnut-brown Canary one of my very favorite species. 

The clattering song of a Virginia Rail jarred me from my mind where I'd been going through an assortment of Led Zeppelin lyrics in hopes of finding one useful in just such a blog post as this. "In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven" and all that. As I was saying, a Virginia Rail sang, surprisingly from some scrubby bushes a understanding between feather and twig that I had previously no knowledge of, and god was it a frustrating one. This bird was feet from the path and completely hidden. As I gnashed my teeth and stamped my feet it continued it's unforgiving squawk.

Least Terns called from the beach. Cormorants, antediluvian in all uses of the delightful word, mused on their shrouded past as I swirled through the land of aves accompanied by trusted binoculars. 
I dashed from bird to bird, dodging all distractions. I scented feathers and a nearby Ruby-throated Sparrow laughed, and said "pray, what may that creature be doing? I rise but a few yards in the air and settle down again, after flying around among the reeds. That is as much as anyone would want to fly. Now, wherever can this creature be going to?" In fact I was bounding to a pair of lifers although this was not a realization I had at that point come to.



Grasshopper Sparrow
The first lifer to materialize was a Bay-breasted Warbler. A handsome male who perched with all the grace that only a warbler can maintain for any great length of time (especially the Grace's Warbler) in the shrubbery along the path and right next to parking lot where the sunflakes still lazily glittered on the locomotives. "Sing your song, don't be long" I begged but the elegant bird refused and with a courteous nod, flitted away on equally elegant wings. I peered through the freshly deserted branches and spied a sight which thrilled me to the marrow. Overhead the gull hung 
motionless upon the air and deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves, the echo of a distant tide comes willowing across the sand but I was far too enthralled with the Grasshopper Sparrow who had suddenly confronted my feather weary (but still hungry) eye's. Suddenly focused I gave not a damn about anything else (even Pink Floyd). This dainty mirage (which was not in fact anything but reality) hopped up onto a rock, glanced our way and then vanished with an imagined "pop". As our heartbeats slowed the waves rolled by and life flowed on, screaming through the sunlit sky, momentarily stranding us in our frozen bubble of awe. Thankfully we were able to catch back up with reality accompanied with some documentary photographs of the lifer duo.
Bay-breasted Warbler

"Look at the sky, look at the ocean, isn't it good?" But for me birding is far better...


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scusset Beach, Cape Cod Canal, Sandwich, MA March 30-31, 2013


Nature is unkind: it treats creation like sacrificial straw dogs. But birding is not creation. It is a hobby and it's paths not so harshly ruled. Thank God for that. Birding would be a far more challenging (perhaps even dull) sport otherwise.

A preening (female) Red-breasted Merganser
With voices rivaling Comrade Butt himself eiders merrily whooped. Gulls wheeled and the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, who had been kindly shown to us by a fellow binocular-wearer (thanks Linda), sat in a corner, on some sun-baked rocks and moped about his lot. He was a drab bird in general compared to some of his brothers, birds that had cured the kings pile and now live wealthy, frivolous lives in the mangrove swamps of the Caribbean, no this was a sorry specimen. His blood-shot eyes drifted wearily over his watchers, he didn't care to be the feathered-center of attention, but presumed not to interfere with his seeming fame, as it seemed to be the only way they would ever retire and they did, departing the scene with a flourish of drab garments followed by his satisfied gaze. 

The ducks sped with the foam scuds through the bloated canal which swam in and out of focus as I turned the focus wheel of my binoculars. The unique features of Common Eider were very much in evidence as were the equally strange moldings of Red-breasted Mergansers. A machine of fish-seekers and subsequent killers - nice, nice, very nice, so many different birds in the same device. But one individual was lacking in my view, the bird who, though not one to gain stardom, was making the Cape Cod birding community very happy. 


He was a King Eider and according to the birders asked, a bird who had just flown the canal, for the sake of the marina on the bay, a scopes view away, a scope which was currently lying battered and broken at home. Although my life list would not be lengthened by the end of the day, I left with a sun-dried murre's head in my pocket, a Purple Sandpiper and a three scoter (species) list; it was a grand day. 

On the matter of the murre's head there is not much to tell. After walking about a mile down the canal bike path to Scusset Beach, we strolled down the beach a little way musing on the odd, almost plover-like behavior of a pair of Savannah Sparrows foraging along the shore line. I finally happened upon an intact specimen, one of the many murres washed up dead along the beach, presumably the remains of some recent storm or other. His half fleshless head was too tempting a display for my bedroom and as he wouldn't be needing it any more I took the liberty of removing it with a professional twist. No more will the voice of this (unidentified) murre pollute the air, instead his mighty stench will pollute my gentle (?) snores, my lungs will wreak of this would-have-been lifer, long after his skull has crumbled to a powder on my desk. 

Because we had missed the King Eider today, my grandparents offered a berth to me and my brother in order to make a return visit to the location on the following morn.

It was 9:30am and with the sun's dazzling rays dancing over the still water and black-and-white backs of eider our collective pulse quickened to keep time with crunches of a crow rejuvenating his tissues on a crab in the bushes. We were birding once more. Over the mountains the watchers were watching, but we didn't mind. We were enthralled by the checkerboard pattern of a loon's back. Our revery was cut short however when the sleek looking bird dove to be replaced by an equally cool Red-breasted Merganser, a bird who puts the meaning into the word "freak" and almost as much into "punk".  As startling as he was, the flight of a swan was more so, and we were soon lost in our binoculars and the aerodynamic feathers of a Mute Swan. A flat trill in the distance sounded parula-like, but it was still quite early for such a species and the sight of the impenetrable wall of briars and cedars was too daunting to attempt an entry. The suspected singer was left unconfirmed.

Through the croaking of grackles and the more distant chirping of peepers my sibling’s horrific call rang clear - the King had been located!

Feathers dazzled the eye's of the pale-necks: blue, green, orange, white, black; he was a grandiose sight indeed and he knew it. His majestic sails curled with pride. He was a gentle bird but not a humble one. He took full responsibility for the glimmer of his feathers. he gloated and all the common folks looked at him and said "he is so beautiful that I am sure he has a long Latin name". He was King of the canal.

A barge barreled pass and a flock of terrified eider fled the scene, leaving the birders with a few backlit photos, some fairly poor views and, for some, a lifer.

My internal economy had been once more stabilized, for such is the power of birding.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Midnight Memories with Plumes

I once found a sticker pasted to the underside of a Cambridge theater toilet seat. On its weathered face were printed the words "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time". I am quite fond of the memory of that particular sticker as well as the Marx Brothers movie which shortly followed it's discovery. Those memories swirl through my head now and blend with vibrant feathers like a mirage swirling through the darkened hours of this sleepless midnight.

A Painted Bunting flashes its vibrant colors into my binoculars. Closer to home my mind replays the song of the Hermit Thrush, sung from a distant mountain top. Spangled in the shade of stunted trees a Mourning Warbler hops from branch to branch followed by the chirping of House Sparrows in a city park. Navy blue clad Harlequin Ducks frolic in the surface thrown by the waves that glance against the faltering rocks. "Phoebe" says my memory. A Night-Heron's shrouded form hunches on a distant dock, unaware of the elvin terns that dance over his black-crowned head.

The handsome head of a Tree Swallow appears from the dark confines of a bird house, its stunning blue and white plumage giving it an almost penguin like appearance, but any similarities with those denizens of the south is ruled out by the mirage of metallic feathers that rear out of the dunes of a Cape Cod beach. Swallows vanish and sound appears; the morning chorus flutes through my brain.

Listen: John Shamgochian has become unstuck in his mind.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Yet another apology and an owl

It may seem to you, my scattered readers, that I have now finally mastered the bloggers failure of sustaining a blog and with you I fully agree.

Life has continued, flowing on in its endless, random and abstract style. It has in this fascinating process tossed me a biscuit or two: a bittern, a few Tundra Swans, the first January RI record of a Barn Swallow, more recently a Sandhill Crane, but my biggest recent enjoyment was the kidnapping of a quite substantial quantity of Dragonfly and Damselfly larvae which are now being cruelly constrained in a number of water-filled pickle jars which line an upper floor windowsill. They and their brethren have been latest in a number of wild-eyed obsessions.

Seeing that adult odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) don't overwinter I have not had much satisfaction in this thrilling new pursuit. Larvae odes are aquatic and look like what you would get if you bred a spider with a cockroach and, as might be assumed, are not quite as enthralling as their older selves to observe. To be fully truthful this enthrallment is not fully recent. I have been watching these sewing-needles since early last summer but at the time made very little headway on my identification skills. It took an insect net and a field guide to get me just about over the line of no return. A line which (as anyone who has ever fallen too deep into a hobby knows) will haunt you for many years to come (particularly financially; I have spent over $200 on ode-ing equipment since November.)

I have now resorted to polishing my net and occasionally taking a swing at some object thrown by a sibling which after netting will probably be misidentified (by me) as a Pygmy Snaketail or even a Lake Emerald and then after inspection through a loupe I will realize it is nothing but a rubber ball. I have long ago memorized the local species and now all I can do is wait for the coming of the summer months.

It seems that I have run out of things to say about the elegant insects of my current fascination and seeing that this blog post is pitifully small I think I will give you yet another average summing up of a recent encounter. Unfortunately the "other" in this chance meeting was deceased.

On the 12th of February in the year of our Lord 2013 at 3:15pm, a quick stroll along the Ten Mile River had come to the collective mind of the Shamgochian household. Fresh water was needed for the odes so it was decided to walk the section of river which flows from Turner Reservoir where the water flows at it's fastest and is easily accessed. After retrieving the water we happily collected a number of ants which had been discovered lying prone under a tree. Later it was realized that the largest ant, a soldier, was still alive when collected. I have yet to release the "fortunate" survivor.

The snow which blanketed the trail/road of a short and none-to-attractive loop of the grounds which starts and ends at the river seemed fairly compact and walkable so without any discussion the walk commenced down this trail.  As we neared the parking lot, I (weary from having worried continuously about the of unleashed status of our flesh-hungry dog combined with not-so distant main road and the locally large cottontail population and quite irritated with substantial long list of birds not seen) was pleased to see the mottled plumes of a sparrow. A squint through my binos and the identity of the sparrow was instantly obvious (it was a Song Sparrow) - the identity of the sleek pile of brown feathers at the birds dainty pink feet, however, was not.

As I approached swiftly, smoothly and surely it's name came towards my awaiting gray matter in leaps and bounds (as the Gazelle leaps into the awaiting jaws of a Lion aka. me). In seconds the name tickled my pimpled forehead and with one mighty twitch of my outstretched hand I flipped the husk of a life bird onto it's back. It would be cooler to say that two gold-black eyes stood out stunningly against the brown of the feathers and the white of the snow but to be fully honest it's feathered eye lids had drawn up over the two golden orbs. But that didn't bother me - it was beautiful as it was.

I gazed down on the (robin-sized) bundle of feathers in my hand, a handsome white on brown tail preceeded the similarly colored wings and the white breast and belly buttered with an artists touch by warm cinnamon. From these "butterings" protruded two down covered legs, ended by the yellow of the toes and complemented by the equally brilliant black of the (literally) needle-sharp talons. With it's heart-shaped face sheathed in a soft layering of tan feathers and ringed with chestnut, ornamented with sparkling white streaks like a fanciful tiara, it was stunning.

It, as you may have already picked up, was a very dead Northern Saw-whet Owl, an uncommon and much loved species.

I gazed at the crime scene and remembering the words of my detective hero Chico Marx "you gotta do like a Sherlock Holmes, you gotta get what they call the clues".
First you say to yourself what have you got?, and the answer come right back:  something dead!
Then you say to yourself what is dead? and the answer comes right back: a Northern Saw-whet Owl!
Now you say to yourself what killed the owl? and the answer come right back: something in these woods!
Now you take-a de clues and you put dem all together, and what you got? The owl is dead!
Where did it die? In these woods!
What killed it? Something in these woods!
Now we all we got to do is go to everything in these woods and ask them if they killed it!

There were some interesting features of the picture laid out before me. For instance a dead North American Deer Mouse was laid out on a gnarled branch. The frozen remains of the mouse sat above, and six inches to the left of it's (late) would be devourer. But despite the fact that pepper and salt had been metaphorically sprinkled on the owls furry dinner, it was on the outside not physically damaged.
Even stranger was the direction the owl's now stiff form faced. It was found face down in the snow and twisted 180 degrees from where it must have once perched. If the bird had fallen from the branch on which the mouse rested it seems only logical that it would face away from the same when it dropped.

Strange.

A photo of the crime scene







I finished the walk with 6 dead animals (and the living ant) on my person. Not bad for a short walk in a non-exceptional locale. Now there is a dead owl on the porch and I don't know what to do with it!

Friday, January 11, 2013


The lack of new contents on this blog has been quite disgraceful as of late. I have had many subjects on which I could have written extensively. I could have described my experiences with a recent Northern Shrike, or reviewed the annual solstice bird count tradition which we observed with our grandfather (quite recently but not, as might be expected, on the solstice) for which we thank him. I could have even put up a post about one of my many recent sighting of Pine Grosbeaks in this most beautiful of winters. 

My only real defense for this lack of blogging covers but the last few days I have spent sorrowfully wallowing on the living room couch with the taste of green apples on my breath, my hands feeling like two balloons. My only enjoyment during my recent illness was the time spent watching of the distant hulk of St. John's Catholic Church. It seems to have a curious tendency of terrifying the local pigeons and swallows which so freely frolic in the airways of this fair city of Providence. Their obvious avoidance of the steeple has puzzled me greatly. Perhaps some raptor has taken it as its roosting spot or maybe some other not wholly terrestrial species has taken up an abode there. Hopefully I can get up to Federal Hill some time soon and come to the bottom of this mystery.

My current state of sanity is not fully thanks to this little puzzle. Some of the honor has to go to the nature books which I have most recently immersed myself in. The book which has occupied my attention and lap the most is my new and wisely-purchased (despite what some might think) handbook to the Simuliidae, properly titled.


The Black Flies
(Simuliidae)
of North America      

Peter H. Alder
Douglas C. Currie
D. Monty Wood"

It is a beautifully in-depth and completely unintelligible masterpiece, an indispensable reference to any "Simuliidaeer" which I plan to become once I figure out what a black fly is precisely and how the range maps work, and what the hell that little black thing on page 2028 is.

In fact these completely unlikable vectors aren't that bad really. They are more like blood-thirsty versions of those jolly, fat dwarfs who sneak into your bedroom at night to leave all the sweet little parasites you could possibly dream of under your pillow for you to enjoy when you awake in the morning. Apart from the horribly sawlike jaws of the adults, the gills of the pupae and the labral fans of the larvae, both of which are just too maddeningly Cthulhu-ish for comfort, they are actually rather beautiful in their own highly evolved sort of way.

One parasite which particularly interested me was the Onchocerca volvulus which spends the first part of it's life in the skin of a human but has to be transmitted to a black fly to grow into its second stage and then, to top it all off, the worm has to find its way back into the blood stream of a human where it can live up to 15 years and grow up to a foot in length.

Even more horrible than the adult worm though are the consequences played out if the immature worm does not reach the fly. It will spend the next, and last, 2 or so years of its short life burrowing through the body of its human host (even chewing through the eyes which causes blindness in so many of its victims).

Chapter 7  on the economic importance of the "bugs" was particularly eye catching. They are, it seems, no friend of the economy. Each season they are responsible for the murder of livestock across the country in an number of equally blood-thirsty ways which generally involve: lack of oxygen, lack of blood, shock and agony. There were even reports of animals tossing themselves off of cliffs and rolling in fire to relieve themselves of the terrible swarms that occasionally spring up.

The species Simulium vampirum has since 1886 killed more than 3,500 animals and far more deaths remain un-reported! Thankfully only about 33 species of North America's 263 have been reported to bite humans, livestock and poultry.

Ahhhh Mother Nature, so loving and kind! 

All I need now is a stereo dissecting microscope and some 18 inch forceps to go with it. Time to start saving.

Next on my reading list: Fleas of the Northwest and Mosquitoes of California.

A completely unrelated photo of a Canada Darner (Aeshna canadensis) larvae I recently caught in Petersham, MA.