Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mountain Talks Lecture: "Extraordinary Ordinary Birds"

On May 25th, I was honored to be the kickoff speaker for a new monthly lecture series hosted by the Volunteers in Parks Program (VIPP) of Mount Diablo State Park. Conceived, produced and facilitated by docents Anastasia (Staci) Hobbet and Jenn Roe, Mountain Talks intends to speak to "our hearts and minds" monthly on topics related to our great and cherished Mountain, Tuyshtak.

At first blush, I blushed. Moi? What do I know besides a lot about very little and very little about a lot (especially, he says with self-deprecatory irony, when it comes to being precise and knowing about birds). But with gentle prodding, persuasive charm, and an unwavering conviction that I should be so honored because of my long-time chronicling of the natural world through my two blogs, Staci managed to sway me to deliver the keynote Mountain Talk on a topic near and dear to my heart: Extraordinary Ordinary Birds.

But as the weeks wore on, a shroud of anxiety descended, in odd but striking defiance of my oh-so confident side convinced of my veritable talents as writer, photographer, chronicler, naturalist, and champion of the natural world. Never one to tout myself as an "expert", just an old-fashioned nature writer, effusive narrative poet, irrepressibly enthusiastic observer of Mother Nature's small nuances, unseen miracles, hidden charms coaxed out from the most unlikely places - an urban culvert creek, a couple square yards of forest, a landscaped garden.

But the butterflies wouldn't abate as the day of reckoning approached - I just couldn't shake the age-old fear of having to perform. And be not just good, but excellent. And not just excellent, but funny and entertaining. And not just that - but profound!

Should I reach back to my early thespian roots and memorize a script, or go the extemporaneous route and just riff like a rapper from notes? What I really wanted to do was just get up there at the podium, relax into things, and read from my favorite passages, but Staci would have none of that. So, I needed to find a way to unleash my written eloquence in the spoken word - not get up there and ramble disjointedly like a half-cocked fraud. Plainly, I was nervous right up to the moment.

My plan was to engage the audience by telling stories. Around 25 people were in attendance, including the two founders of Mount Diablo Interpretative Association, the lovely couple Frank and Edith Valle-Riestra. Stories of everyday wanderings, encounters, observations and musings about birds. Stories with no particular lesson to impart, maybe a pun or two, and who knows, let slip an accidental parable or allegory, for birds have a tremendous lot to teach us.

A half-hour of meet 'n greet set my mind to a calm state getting to know members of the Mount Diablo Interpretative Association and others in attendance - many fine people dedicated to the protection and preservation of the ecological treasure trove that is Mount Diablo State Park. Jenn delivered a few words of interest about MDIA programs, events and initiatives, and Staci then jumped right into her heartfelt paean to Gambolin' Man:

"Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Tom McGuire to you. Tom has a real world job at the UCB Extension, but his ruling passion for many years has been to hike and explore our area, and then to write about his experiences in the natural world.

A few months ago, as I was doing some research on our local trees, an eye-catching, whimsical blog popped up under the heading Gambolin’ Man (gamble, gambol). He wrote it last January: Arboreal Wonders of the Bay Area: Magical Encounters & Spiritual Appointments with Our Beloved Old Acquaintances. I thought: too touchy feely, but Tom’s photos drew me in—and then his text took me under completely.

Not too touchy feely at all. Along with more than 30 beautiful and sensitive photographs of native trees, he wrote eloquent portraits of our native trees, a mix of natural history interpretation with contemplation, which spoke deeply to me about my own experiences outdoors.
We’re all nature junkies. Why do we love it? Because we learn cool stuff, we get some exercise, we get to be with other people who share our interests, whether it’s watching butterflies or building a new trail. 

But we’re out there seeking something deeper too: beauty, peace, serenity, balance, a sense of connectedness. This is what Tom is about. His isn’t a scientific talk about extraordinary ordinary birds but a talk about the nourishing rewards of taking the time to look."

Below are verbatim notes - my "GPS" waypoints to keep on track with nicely segueing topics and thematic unity, but also a narrative loose enough for free association encouraging stream of thought pyrotechnics and in the moment verbal spectacles on all things birds.

I. Introduction – my name, author of two blogs - they wanted David Attenborough. . .BUT, got me . . acknowledgements to MDSP - VIPP – MOUNTAIN TALKS series / host = / Staci / others in attendance.

From Gambolin’ Man to Berkeley Backyard Bird Blog – my Inspiration from generations of nature writers. Inspired by rustications and NATURE WRITINGS of oldster Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and the relatively unknown John Burroughs, to modern poets and champions of nature, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey. So I began GM 10 years ago, as a way to pay homage to nature wisdom, to being in the moment, paying attention, communing with what Tom Brown, Jr. referred to as " the spirit that moves in all things."

THEME: Here to talk about XTRAORDINARY ORDINARY BIRDS because of the stories they provide - SHRIKE PUN STORY! ("Third time's a charm, or three shrikes and yer out!") (Speaking of Strikes – 300M / year killed in collisions with aircraft.)

II. Themes / Philosophy in Writing

As I mentioned, Gambolin’ Man – no GPS, TH info – all about experiential adventure, come along with me. . . Small miracles abound, unseen, in the commonplace - the so-called commonplace is actually full of magic and charm;

HENRY MILLER QUOTE: "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."

Naturally translates to my feelings for “everyday” birds. . .never generic or pedestrian! – and my lyrical, poetic approach to writing about them.

III. SO, What Do I Know About Birds?

I could know a heck of a lot more, that’s for sure! (Lazy, sloppy!) I’m no “expert” etc. I don’t profess to know…but I suppose by virtue of my avocation – observing, writing, recording, understanding. . .I have some catalog of knowledge. . .BUT I am a NATURALIST BY DEFAULT.

Consider myself just a hobbyist, so no discourses on migratory patterns or complex alternate molting strategies – I’m NOT one of those serious fanatics obsessing over top quality bird related websites and traveling to the far ends of places like Arkansas and Siberia to spot unique birds, or attend conventions for bragging rights to life sightings. Or compile LIFE LISTS….but actually I DO (*hold up book)

I am a NATURALIST BY DEFAULT . . .BUT really just writer / photographer. NO LECTURE here, just sharing what I have experienced. AND YET :: A few examples of how little I know :: CONSTANTLY stumped in the field.

Confused / mystified / befuddled by gender, age, variation: sparrows / woodpeckers / waterfowl.

Cannot rattle off "fascinating" facts.

Of 10,000 species, and what – 800 in US - maybe I’ve catalogued 150! I can only name two genus / species - MIMUS POLYGLOTTUS (Mockingbird) and . . .TURDUS MIGRATORIUS! (Imagining little turd balls floating across the sky....)

Horrible at vocal learning and aural ID'ing. –EXAMPLE: Quail mating call didn’t recognize. Could not recognize my neighbor's tropical bird in the window; Warbling Vireo at Tilden on Sunday thinking it was a “drunken Robin” (Grosbeak)

JAY imitating HAWK.

Certainly I need positive visuals! AND have LOTS to learn!

Take-away: while I recognize importance of LINNEAN UNDERPINNINGS, genetics, etc. MINE IS NOT a scientific or rigorous approach – more about HAVING FUN, enjoying nature, like enjoying a tiny creek that is not MAJESTIC, the tiny birds bring me satisfaction and joy!

WALT WHITMAN QUOTE: “You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.”

So, not study them so much as to admire them. Not split feathers over lineage and genes, but to avoid the trap – as EMERSON CAUTIONED THOREAU - of “finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show you.”

All of which inspires a deep (organic) understanding and well-spring of respect for birds, all creatures and to the earth, - for we never wish to drain too much of the mystery and magic out of birds’ fabulous existence.

SO, MY ONLY FACTS are what I observe, note, and meditate/write upon. Mine is a more poetic, sentimental lyrical interpretation – pure “nature writing”. I leave the science of birds to others. . .


I see my love of birds as a poetic pastime, an aesthetic avocation, a whimsical pursuit of the magical, mysterious, and mystical aspects of birds, preferring to not know too, too much, deriving (as I do) an inordinate satisfaction from just being in the simple sacred miraculous moment, where "regular life" becomes a series of opportunities to steal away and obsess on birds - a walk to the library or grocery store or a quick garden or weather check turns into a perfect excuse to - hold life's presses! - just stand around in meditative wonderment spotting playful birds, birds at play, and birds at work. . .

IV. Extraordinary Ordinary Birds (TAKE A STEP BACK and return to the Theme!)

I must have been meant to be a birder, because:

(killed little bird at 12 with bb gun story @ SLAUGHTER’S POND!) – IRONY escaped me 47 years ago!

My three loves in life: all bird associations. . .Cindy "Hawk" Haq, Marie "Little Magpie" Ceccanese, and Mary "Raven" Corbin.

ON RIVER, someone asked Why I love birding – cite a few reasons:

These little creatures, flitting here and there, adapted to every ecological niche on earth – something only humans! – are the EVOLUTIONARY DESCENDANTS of dinosaurs - Living manifestations of dinosaurs; never went extinct but figured out a way to take to the air.

They force you to pay attention, see the intricate workings, Attuned to their inner workings.

Meditative, peaceful, calming, reflective “in the moment” time – SOUNDS ZEN, but it’s true, used to be OBSESSED with getting Pt. A to Pt. B fast and furious, SLOW DOW, gain a DEEPER appreciation of Mother Nature.

Used to be merely the “birds”, nameless, unknown, featureless entities. But get to know them, and their personalities jump out. And you want to get to know them better. No wonder bird lovers are so fanatic and passionate about their subjects, because birds are expressions of freedom and symbols of vitality, merry song-makers without a worry, care or regret –

IZAAK WALTON QUOTE: “little nimble musicians of the air, that warble forth their curious ditties, with which nature hath furnished them to the shame of art.”

Personal paradox / oddity -- that what many people consider "common" and normal, I consider exotic and rarely spotted: - thus: Lazuli Bunting, Oven Bird, Kestrel, GC Kinglet, Grosbeaks, various never before spotted Warblers, Band-tailed Pigeons, Western Kingbirds, and Red Crossbills, and Violet-green Swallows – SO PRETTY!

E-bird reports from places I frequent all the time…BUT TIMING IS EVERYTHING RAP: / importance of time of year, being out at “crepuscular hour”

Some field days I do spot 30 or more …and 1X or 2X / year: a holy grail of a FIRST SIGHTING! (SORA, PYGMY NUTS, VIOLET-GREEN & OLIVE-SIDED SWALLOWS, HERMIT WARBLER)

V. Stories – Extraordinary moments / behavior from “ordinary” birds: BLOG ALL ABOUT MUSINGS, OBSERVATIONS, & STORIES.

Turkey – crosswalk, flying and cat face-off – SHOOT PEACOCK / CROWS for “making noise” (WALTON QUOTE).

Bewick’s Wren caught in window (panic / calm native intelligence to realize I was helping!

Gull / Starfish

Heron gobbling down fish with Mom

Various life and death struggles (peregrine falcon, kite, jay taking down dragonfly with blitzkrieg precision)

Varied Thrush irruptions – became almost “common” but not.

“Hot Thirsty” Birds at Hinkel Spring

JUNCO in mirror!


MT DIABLO Birds: and then there are our . . .mt. D birds. One of my favorite places in the world – Donner / Mitchell / Oat / Curry Canyons, Pine Creek, Deer Flat. .

Although it's always great birding in Mount Diablo, I can't help but feel a bit let down considering how little I actually see of the bird world of Mount Diablo. According to the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association - get your head around this:

33 varieties of Warblers can be spotted! (I've probably seen just five varieties in my days.)

7 Wren species (2 maybe)

11 Finches (3 maybe)

70 distinct breeding and migratory waterfowl. (1/10 of ‘em)

Never-before seen (by me) Scarlett and Summer Tanagers

Phainopepla, for heaven's sake!

Yellow-breasted Chats, Painted Buntings, and Northern Parulas, are you kidding me!

Two dozen kinds of mostly indistinguishable Sparrows.

I HAVE SEEN, though:

Bold-faced Acorn Woodpeckers working gnarled Blue Oaks.

White-breasted Nuthatches hammering away up top.

Northern Flickers skirting away with their prominent white ass spot showing.

Teeming, energetic Juncos and Bushtits hanging upside down like fruit bats.

Even the "bland" California Towhees enchant momentarily.

FLYCATCHER (Olived-sided?) – feeding young uns by big Fremont Cottonwood tree on Mitchell canyon trail


BREWER’S BLACKBIRD, I presume = feeding little ones poking beaks out of hole in tree by visitor center – ANYONE recall?


VI. Paying Attention / Conclusion

Yet the cute, ubiquitous creatures operate in plain sight, all about us, all day long. How is it possible to miss them? Yet we do. To appreciate their flitty comings and flighty goings, timing is everything. Noticing and paying attention is another. (DIFFICULT to do in or time.) Then, and only then, will we be able to know and recognize birds as singular, wild creatures, special freedom - loving individuals of the earth who know no boundaries and owe no human a thing.

Take a lesson from old-time naturalist John Burroughs' playbook in the "art of seeing" where "things escape us because the actors are small." Long ago in another time, Burroughs also exhorted us "to look closely and steadily at nature" and take pleasure in the "minute things" about us. MY GUIDING PRINCIPLE – finding the spectrum of smallness to be soul satisfying and spiritually rewarding – equal to being on the Merced River in mighty Yosemite or spotting a super-exotic bird. APPRECIATION for the small miracles in my immediate environment.

TOLSTOY QUOTE: "But, ah, what magic awaits, if only, as Tolstoy exhorts, "in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you."

EMERSON QUOTE: Then we will all understand, Ralph Waldo Emerson, when he said that the “invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

We all have the capacity to appreciate MOTHER NATURE in this vein – to “cease our work” – admire the “small actors” and “minute things”, pay attention, notice, and appreciate the miraculous in the common.


Slide show: birds bein birds

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Teachable Moments, Existential Lessons Learned From Ordinary Ol' Urban Birds

Watching urban birds go about their business entails a lot of idle standing around. Peering into trees, staring at bushes, glimpsing into private backyards. Hoping to catch a high wire act. What I'm doing might appear to be a prosaic activity, or heaven forbid! a suspicious one, recalling the time I was approached and questioned by the Director of the Jewish Community Center for aiming binoculars in a children's playground area along a sylvan stretch of protected Codornices Creek fenced in on their land.

Moments before, imagine, I had actually honed in on a Green-backed Adult Lesser Goldfinch perched resolutely on a branch, a noble little creature thinking himself hidden and secure, but in plain viewing sight. With a mixture of enthusiasm, pride and eventually relief, once I caught the subtle drift that the elderly Director was vetting my intentions, I pointed to the pretty little bird about fifty feet up and away in thick brush and invited him to have a look. He amiably accepted the binoculars, saw for himself, then handed them back, waving off the "incident" saying, "You're OK, you're OK."

As a bird aficionado, for whatever reason, I'm mostly a lone wolf and uninterested in "taking it to the next level." I see my love of birds as a poetic pastime, an aesthetic avocation, a whimsical pursuit of the magical, mysterious, and mystical aspects of birds, preferring to not know too, too much, deriving (as I do) an inordinate satisfaction from just being in the simple sacred miraculous moment, where "regular life" becomes a series of opportunities to steal away and obsess on birds - a walk to the library or grocery store or a quick garden or weather check turns into a perfect excuse to - hold life's presses! - just stand around in meditative wonderment spotting playful birds, birds at play, and birds at work.

Renowned birder David Lindo, author of Tales from Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding Around the World, writes that it took him "years to truly believe that I could find birds in cities." Then, the inevitable epiphany: "When you start to see the urban world as a habitat with cliffs, woodland, marshes, lakes, rivers and scrubland, that is when you start to see birds."

You know what Lindo means when he says see birds. Whether birding in the field, at a local park or in my backyard, it's easy to get caught up in the hoopla of "Life Lists," "Big Years" and "First Sightings" - ever hoping to up the tally and spot a new, exciting bird. But barring doing that; i.e., being a "professional hobbyist," owning high-tech sophisticated gear, joining birding groups, going on outings, taking classes . . . what's left is urban backyard birding in richly landscaped and tree dense Berkeley neighborhoods.

Where there are many, many birds to see.

Where 100 year old Interior Live Oak trees reside in the side yard (over 25 species spotted over the years).

Where overgrown back lots teem with mature pines and Chinese Lantern bushes attracting many interesting characters. I almost have to question: is this urban or wild?

Where creek-fed city parks, all within walking distance, beckon. Live Oak, Codornices, Mortar Rock, Indian Rock, and John Hinkel.

The idea of urban birding as dull, boring, prosaic can officially be laid to rest. Lindo, calling it "a bit of a mindset thing," says "there is not a day when I don't marvel at the nature that surrounds me in my urban environment." (He also goes on to write, "Birds are my life, my love, my sanctuary and my therapy.")

Sure, every twenty years or so maybe, a Painted Redstart will appear, or a freak visitation by a Northern Waterthrush. And yes, I've spotted Wild Turkeys, Western Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, and Cooper's Hawks in the city, and one very bizarre white Dove-cum-Pigeon I saw and photographed a couple of years ago in the neighborhood. With eyeballs peeled, I'm forever hoping to spot a passing passerine other than one on the laundry list of common urban birds I spot daily with zero / minimal effort they're so - public! The usual "pedestrian" suspects: Towhee, Jay, Sparrow, Chickadee, Robin, Finch, Crow, Pigeon, Junco, et al.

The aesthetic that Lindo captures in his worldly peregrinations is a simple, humble act of bearing witness to the insignificant (are they?) activities of mean and occult little birds (are they?) who go about their lives unnoticed, unheralded, and under-appreciated (are they?), but for the keen observer so eager to spot one of the little winged creatures livening up the urban landscaping and high voltage wires. Lindo writes, "I would be so sad if those everyday occurrences were to cease."
Well I declare: Ecce Ave! The little winged creatures in our midst provide an immeasurably nuanced thrill of real discovery, tiny cherishable moments inducing giddy joy! and irrepressible enthusiasm! at being somehow privy to birds' innermost workings, their deeply secret comings and mysterious goings, the dizzying array of doings of our little urban bird friends - truly wild creatures of Earth! (And, duly noted, hunted by other food chain predator wild creatures of the urban zone, Hawks and Falcons.)

Once you start to see birds, then will their precious natures be revealed to the keen observer, then will their quirky personalities bursting with dazzling vitality be unveiled in plain sight. Once you start to see birds, then will the magic of their lives unfold, then will their bird-brainy secrets be peeled away in layers of shared avian consciousness.

A brief Dramatis Avianae:

Take Oak Titmouse. A bouncy, handsome little guy who very seldom sits still for me. Often obscured deep in the branches, and vocally prominent, as though mocking the shit out of you. I'm forever fooled by the variegated high-pitched shrills of the Oak Titmouse, constantly thwarted in aurally ID'ing the bird. Then, once (if ever) spotted, it's like - well, of course! - an Oak Titmouse!

Consider Northern Flicker. The flighty bird's extraordinary patterning and elegant coat of splendid colors; that perfectly round red beauty mark gracing his neck. That says it all about Northern Flickers. Every time I'm lucky enough to espy a Northern Flicker, I always come away feeling like I just saw an exotic bird, feeling a special, no doubt illusory and tenuous connection.

And what is perhaps the most taken-for-granted, reviled, urban bird of all time - the Pigeon! I cry foul! Such undeserved street cred! Lindo relates how he has "found my peace" with the brilliantly plumed scruffians, noting their amenable nature and surprising high IQ, to wit, (top this Mr. Crow) they are able "to recognise the human faces that feed them in a crowd, and have even allegedly learnt to use the underground system in London by deliberately getting on trains and getting off at specific stops."

And honorable mention for yawning banality goes to those flying brown blobs of fat and feathers, AKA California Towhees! Not! Note to self: trying admiring them more.

Oh, the commonplace Crow. But what of its supernal quirkiness and intelligence of the highest order ("for a bird"?), capable of recognizing individual humans, recalling slights, and behaving altruistically. Don't despise Crow, Human!

The goofiness of Geese and silliness of Ducks is always a fun stuff. OK, so it's a bit anthropomorphic to ascribe risible traits to our resident waterfowl, but let's admit, they have a knack for eliciting chortles from even a disinterested curmudgeon.

Ah, Juncos! They come in many flavors, and they're always chirpy and chippy, flying off to reveal their split white tail, or casting off a quizzical look from a fence. When I see them in different light, from a different angle, I'm like - wait! - that isn't a Junco, is it? Sure enough is.

Mourning Doves are way cool, whether chilling on a lone branch, ground feeding, perched on a high wire (which they love), or flying off swiftly and sleekly in formation with a dozen mates. I used to not notice them. Now, I always do.

The "mundane activity of urban birding" and the "prosaic nature of urban birds" is anything but. In fact, urban birdspotting is as exciting as "wild" birding farther afield in our extensive green belt of open spaces, parks and wilderness areas. I mean, think about it - right in our midst, we are so fortunate and blessed with many exciting encounters and sightings with birds who pass through or call the urban environment their permanent home:

The quantum vibrations that are Hummingbirds.

All that Jazz of Jays and lively Bushtit festivals.

Sparrow feeding frenzies and the finicky nature of Finches.

"Goodpeckers" bangin' away in a neighbor's tree (as my Spanish-speaking amigo once called Woodpeckers).

 And the occasional "exotic" passer-throughs - Cedar Waxwings, Pacific-slope Flycatchers,  Varied Thrushes, and the Warbling Vireo.

The thing is: Every little bird on the move captures my attention and engages the engines of curiosity and pistons of wonder at so much subtle, hidden, dynamic life happening all around! And mostly without a single human being noticing, too busy they are hustling here and there and faces buried in digital devices. Except for the old school cool among you, paying homage to the most 'umble and ordinary of our birdenizens - our urban avifauna.