Friday, June 26, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Along with my usual projects, the falcons are keeping me very busy. First flights should be coming up this week.

The last time I moved back east because the midwest had wiped me out financially, the first job I got was at a junk jewelry factory which got enormous sales from a single earring in the shape of a glove. This was a big look for Michael Jackson at the time, and that's the closest he ever came to having any effect on my life. But the love song for the rat was ok.

And no heterosexual male of my age group will ever forget Farrah. I've always gone more for intelligent brunettes so I was more of a Kate Jackson guy, but all that hair, all those teeth, that perky red swimsuit. Ahh.

I'd told you to expect a review of Rick Bass's new book The Wild Marsh--this is as close as I'll come to that because I hated it and quit after a bit more than two of the twelve months. I knew I'd have problems with his attitude toward animals--(Sure, Rick, the prey want the predators to kill them, and it's really sweet that you worry about how the same deer you kill are doing in the deep snow and that you feel bad for them because a mountain lion might kill them instead of you)--but the biggest problem for me was the writing style.

The introduction sounded promising with some Walden discussion and specific examples from a remote life such as teaching his children where the best berry patches are. But the Thoreau stuff gets the best of him with allusions to Walden both specific ("Are we still sleeping, or are we awakening?") and general (paragraph-long sentences overflowing with dashes and commas) and lots of spirituality and navel-gazing and not enough berry patches. I've enjoyed almost every Bass book I've read before this one but this style is better suited to the short magazine articles much of the book was previously. There was no way I was going to plow through almost 400 pages of this. Lots of people seem to like it; I'm definitely not one of them, and Bass is no Thoreau.

On the other hand, I read a novel which I loved and immediately started reading again because I wanted to write something detailed about it, but soon realized I had no time to give that the energy and concentration it deserves right now. But if the following description interests you, I highly recommend The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. It's a near future where 50 year old women and 60 year old men who didn't have children or earn lots of money are sent to a place where they're treated very well and among like people actually develop more of a sense of community than they'd had in the outside world. Well, they're treated very well except that they're used in medical experiments and eventually have to donate some vital organ to a more deserving human.

It's primarily a personal tale of the people inside; we just get passing mention of how this came to be and its consequences. I enjoyed it because the characters made the same choices I did in life, but also because the natural world is repeatedly shown as the antidote/alternative to this regimented human world. Trees, flowers, snow, stars, a fossil, and memories of playing on a beach with a dog all make repeated appearances throughout the book. It's this aspect I wanted to pay more attention to on my second reading but that will have to wait for another time. Along with anything else I have to say.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Peregrine Falcon Banding

This month is the fourth June in a row I've spent as much time as possible in a small park overlooking the western tip of Lake Superior. Watching the Lake is always a favorite activity, but in June I'm usually facing the other way to watch the activities at a peregrine falcon nesting box at the top of a 14 story building.

Naturalists from Hawk Ridge, one of the best locations in the country to watch the fall raptor migration, provide the use of spotting scopes and lots of information about the birds. Most hours are spent watching the adult falcons sit on buildings, but over the years I've witnessed many spectacular flights including hunts, aerial food transfers, and territory defenses against eagles, hawks, and other falcons. The funniest moments are provided by each year's new fledglings. These have ranged from one who spent a day running back and forth on the building's ledge before flying, to a couple other youngsters who wound up waddling around in the park we watch from.

Thursday was banding day for this year's nestlings. I arrived in the park a few hours early but the falcons weren't moving--Amy, the mother (officially numbered when banded, these falcons are also named for convenience when talking about them), spent two hours next to the nest box, while Dad (never banded) remained at his usual location on a tower a few blocks away where we can watch him through a different scope.

About an hour before the scheduled banding by the Raptor Resource Project, Amy suddenly flew off and returned almost instantly with a rock pigeon which she began plucking on the corner of the building. A second pigeon landed nearby in a spot where I rarely see one and remained for a few moments before flying off alone.

I believed this to be the mate (or maybe just a good friend) of the one being plucked. I have no problem with predation but I retain sympathy for the prey and her/his survivors, and I'm always secretly annoyed with visitors who enthusiastically want the falcons to "kill all the pigeons and seagulls". But for every visitor like that, there's one like the man who last week told me I'd made his day when I pointed out the falcons to him. He enjoyed watching Animal Planet but didn't realize what was happening right around him. It's rewarding to see someone get excited about the natural world.

As banding time drew closer, we moved from the park to the roof of a parking garage where we had a closer and straighter view of the box. The nest box has a camera in it, and in past years, we've had a monitor in the park which allowed us to see what was happening inside the nest box. Due to lack of funding, that has been missing so far this year (it's coming soon) so we weren't sure how many nestlings there were. For the past several years four eggs have been hatched by this pair each year, but we'd only spotted three white heads at once this year--soon we'd find out for the first time how many there really were.

Here you see how the nest box is reached--not a job you could pay me enough to consider.

One by one, the nestlings are removed from the box and placed in a carrier. Here's a view through a scope.

As we watched, Amy (the human the falcon was named after) pulled out one . . . two . . . three . . . and yes, four white handfuls. A cheer went up among us as she pulled the fourth one out. As you can imagine, the falcon mother doesn't appreciate this process and repeatedly swoops into the scene--last year she took the hat off a bander's head. At one point this year, she actually landed at the opposite end of the nest box.

Usually the banding is done right on the roof with the adults circling and diving overhead but because this season's events are being filmed for the local PBS show Venture North, the birds were taken inside to be banded. This gave me the chance to be present during the banding for the first time.

We gathered in a small hallway as the eyases were taken one by one from the carrier and banded. This one waits for his brother to get banded so they can get back where they belong.

Those big white feet will turn yellow as he gets older, and you can see some of his feathers starting to emerge from the fluff. It takes about six weeks from hatching to first flight and he's probably about 2 1/2 weeks into the process here. But if you think he's a cuddly little baby, the bander's bloody hands would convince you otherwise. Take a closer look at that beak.

After all four (two male and two female, with one of the female
s already huge compared to her siblings) were banded they were quickly returned to their nest box, their entire time out of the box amounting to about a half hour. Back over on the parking garage, we watched Mom check on her young, did some interviews for the TV show, and started wondering what sights we'd be treated to the next day.

Most of the photos here are courtesy of the naturalists from Hawk Ridge. The close-up is from professional photographer Mike Furtman and I strongly urge you to go to his site where about thirty photos will take you through the event much better than my words could. Along with the banding, you'll see a falcon's view of the Lake and many flight photos including nest box defense. And to read Amy's great account of what it's like to stand on the ledge while being attacked by the falcon, go here.

"Look, Ma, it's a treehugger!"

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Neil Young & The Ferrets

Tonight, for my last night of television for as long as I live here, I plan to watch a couple PBS shows, one about Neil Young and one about ferrets. Neil Young & The Ferrets--definitely sounds like one of his electric phases to me. And Neil sometimes has a bit of a rodenty look himself. I do realize ferrets are actually part of the weasel family, but somehow it seems more derogatory to say Neil looks weaselly, so just play along, OK?

I didn't buy that many Neil albums over the years but Decade belongs in every collection, and in the years after college when I shared a house with a few alumni Comes A Time and Rust Never Sleeps were in heavy rotation on the turntable. Playing with the street address, we called our place The 420 Eastern States of No-Mind Institute and sent out holiday cards recounting our fictional adventures during the year. The younger sister of one of my housemates wrote a song about the place which included a line about Neil Young wailing away on the stereo. She wrote one for me too, but we never got the chance to find out if our attraction might have lasted as a long term relationship. Having reread some of her old letters recently, I'll put that one in the regrets column.

In 2003, I paid attention to Neil for the first time in many years when he came out with Greendale, a bluesy collection of related songs which by the final track, Be the Rain, led to some eco-warrior behavior on the part of character Sun Green. I wasn't crazy about the electric version which came out on CD but it did include a DVD of one of the European shows where Neil performed all the songs solo and acoustic with lots of additional info on the characters between songs. At the time I accumulated copies of many of those shows and thought the material really shone in that format.

About the same time, I was spending a year as a zoo docent here. I've never been a huge zoo fan--even without considering the ethical issues, my main reaction when I visit one is intense sadness, and I lived here several years before I even visited the zoo. When I finally did, I started feeling a strong need to have some connection with animals in my life and I wound up volunteering.

For the most part, I don't think zoos accomplish the education mission they like to publicize, and most zoogoers didn't seem to really have much respect for the animals. But sometimes I'd speak with someone who got the big picture or who had a lot of enthusiasm about what they were learning. I stopped being a docent years ago but I still sometimes make a similar connection when I'm in the park downtown watching the peregrine falcons, and it still feels great to get someone excited about the natural world, more so in the falcons' case because there aren't any cages involved.

One of my favorite connections during my time at the zoo involved the ferrets in the education room. This was a room with animals which I would take out of their containers so people, mostly kids, could get a better look and maybe touch the animals. The critters ranged from millipedes and cockroaches to snakes and rabbits and ferrets. Ferrets are prone to cancers, and that was what led to a conversation I had with one young girl.

I don't really remember the circumstances which led to it--whether she missed one of the ferrets she was used to seeing, or if I told her I couldn't take one out because he was sick, or if I was having a conversation with an adult about issues with having a ferret as a pet. Whatever led to it, she began passionately talking about how we should take just as good care of ferrets with cancer as we do humans with cancer. And I felt proud to realize I had a little eco-warrior/animal liberator in training on my hands. My very own little Sun Green. I hope you're still being the rain, Sun.

P.S. Black bears frequently wander around Duluth but it's quite rare to see one back in my old southeastern Massachusetts area so the one who is wandering there now has been the subject of an article in the Boston Globe. After a couple posters made ridiculous comments about the ACLU and socialistic gun control, someone with the user name of George Heyduke (sic) posted about bitter right-wingnuts finding any excuse to turn every article into one of their wacky diatribes. In the interest of protecting the bear and amusing Monkey Wrench fans, I replied that we always have bears wandering here, but sensible bitter right-wingnuts are seldom seen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Little T & A

Thoreau and Abbey, that is. What did you expect?

I just deleted the poll question "Eco-writing Legend?" where the lead went back and forth until Henry ended up with one more vote than Ed, with none for Rachel, Aldo, or John. No offense to those last three, but I'm proud of all you voters and the result perfectly reflects my own opinion which probably means we're all in the right place. If only we got choices like that when we actually elect politicians. I actually considered different wordings of that question--favorite, most important or effective--which might have led to different voting. Any thoughts on that?

In any case, Thoreau and Abbey (in that order) are the two eco-writers I find the most appealing writing models. There are other writers whose every book I'll read--David Carroll, David Quammen--and many more--John Hay, Robert Finch, Doug Peacock, Rick Bass, Bernd Heinrich--whose work often interests me. But Thoreau and Abbey are the only cases where I have books written about them and not just by them. And the reason, I think, is that Thoreau and Abbey don't really belong in the Nature section of the bookstore.

We know that Abbey disliked the "nature writer" label, and despite being considered the person who started American nature writing by many and spending his later years predominantly making notes about events in nature I don't think Thoreau would have appreciated being limited that way either. These are two men for whom nature and their respect for it leads their writing more to social criticism than objective natural history. And in both cases, we thus get writing filled with humor and passion and opinion, writing unafraid of questioning or offending instead of just reporting. I like that.

People joining the Nature Blog Network are currently asked to place their blog in one of the following categories: Birds, Ecosystem, Flora, Fungi, Hiking/Outdoors, Inverterbrates, Mammals, Mollusks, or Reptiles/Amphibians. Sort of a strange collection of the specific and the general which has led almost half of us to be in the Ecosystem category. (You also get to write a little blurb. Mine, written to play up the nature aspects of the blog: "Natural history near Lake Superior, books (nature writing & more), deep ecology, animal ethics, and the end of industrialism.")

I happen to think Ecosystem is a pretty good label for this blog, not in the scientific sense, but in the sense of seeing people as one part of something bigger, looking at the big picture and how one thing affects others, etc. But for most people it has been more of a default category because the other choices are all more specific, so the group is now trying to come up with some new choices to thin out the Ecosystem.

There have been some good ideas which appeal to various people such as location, writing, photography, and what the intention or motivation is, such as creative vs. scientific. The problem is that the platform the site operates on allows only one of these labels so people would have to choose between location and topic for example, when they might want to be identified by both. Natural History seems to have emerged as a popular and appropriate alternative but I'm not sure that will reduce the large number much. My own concern as a generalist is with applying too narrow a label. No list of new categories has been offered yet but I've decided that if I'm kicked out of the Ecosystem, I'll try to go with Nature Writing--if it's big enough to contain Henry and Ed, there ought to be room for me in there as well.