Is it a handsaw? I just can’t tell.

January 25, 2011

Things are getting lively again – yesterday we had a nice Peregrine flyby;  I would probably have missed it if I hadn’t been watching a crow do repeated u-shaped hummingbird-style swoops on a Kestrel sitting on the building across the way.  Suddenly the crow headed out and a second later the Peregrine came booming around the corner of our building and swooped up and over.  I don’t think he was after the crow, and it wasn’t clear what the crow thought; maybe he was just clearing for action.

Then this morning, on the way in through some nice, unexpected snow sprinkles, there was a sudden uproar of pigeons and crows near the road, and our local big female Sharp-shin came whipping over the roof in hot pursuit of a crow.  It made a nice change; usually the crows are giving her a rough time, but this time she made him sweat for a little while before she banked off and casually sauntered away.  Turns out crows are pretty darned maneuverable when they need to be.  I suspect she was pissed because the crows wrecked her shot at a pigeon breakfast.

Speaking of crows,  also on the way in, about a half dozen crows came gliding silently over the road, with wings held in a stiff curve, somewhat like the position a Turkey Vulture gets when it ‘dips’.  I’ve never noticed that particular wing position before; the crows didn’t seem to be perturbed or anything unusual, just gliding down to a group session on the ground/in a tree.  Could have been feeding, loafing or just hanging out.  Overcast, gloomy, cool winter morning, no wind to speak of.

In other news, our hatchling theridiids (probably Steatoda triangulosa) have been out and about for several weeks, spinning little webs up the angles of walls, and under the front edge of the countertops and windowsills.  I noticed some debris in one of them; a bunch of ants and a couple of baby cockroach shells.  More power to them; even in the dead of winter, our household ecosystem is active.  Now if only we had something that would catch mice.  Our local White-footed mice have become smarter and smarter.  They don’t get caught by snap traps any more (except the occasional very young one); they don’t get caught by the live trap either, and they haven’t even been eating the poison I’ve been leaving all over the place.  I frequently hear the beating of their hideous feet at night, though, going back and forth.  Maybe they’re just in the walls now and not out in the rooms.  When I was a kid, we used to release Black Rat Snakes in the walls of our big old farmhouse in hopes they might at least give the mice a fright.  Maybe I could do that here, if I could find any Black Rats.  You can’t just go out in the back and hunt them down any more, even away from the city.  I wonder if anybody does reptile surveys.


Who needs comments when you can have rants?

January 18, 2011

I like to read, and on occasion comment, on various weblogs I find interesting, thoughtful or amusing.  It helps when doing this to keep in mind that for all of us who have opinions, “reality” is a somewhat subjective thing.  Anyone who has read much history knows that “history” basically comes down to something that someone thought was important enough to remember.  Of course, each person that sees something that’s important enough to remember sees only some limited portion of the event, and remembers only some limited portion of that.  Initial accuracy of observation, as questionable as it might be, is still greater than accuracy of memories, as over time things are added to or subtracted from the memories, until the memory of the event may be strikingly different from the event itself.  We can get around that to some degree by consulting as many independent eyewitnesses as possible, so as to get more closely to the core of the event.  The trouble is, that as you go farther back in time, the number of actual eyewitnesses to history becomes smaller and smaller.  It soon becomes the case that much of our history is based on the memories of a very few eyewitnesses, overlaid by the modifications of years and of other interpreters.   This can actually lead to a dangerous situation where we can consult a variety of sources about a past event, and not realize that all or most of the sources we consult can be traced back to some very small number (perhaps even one) original eyewitness.  All the variation we imagine we’re sifting through to get to the core of the event is simply the overlay of generations of other people’s errors and interpretations.  And that’s the best case scenario – what if all we have to work from are some individual’s memory of the accounts of one or a few eyewitnesses, which memory itself has spawned a variety of subsequent, slightly different “sources”?  It’s all too easy to consult a variety of “sources” and imagine we’re getting close to “the Truth”, when all we’re doing is collating the results of a big old game of “telephone”.  Man, what would we do without “quotes”; I don’t think I could write.  Them and (ellipses).

Anyway, there’s a reason for this – fill out with bit on comments, over-simplification, limited world view, and the line from warped assumptions (“is it true or false; that’s all that matters”) to meaningless or misleading conclusions.  Also, how tiresome and time-consuming it is to try to communicate, even with close contacts who can accurately grasp ambiguous threads of meaning.  Explaining to people who want to learn is hard enough – explaining to people who “already know” has become more than I can stomach, even if I had the time to go back and forth in comment threads with people I’m pretty sure I would dislike in person.

How are NY’s Resolutions like celebrity marriages?

January 10, 2011

Well, that lasted less long than most.  Anyway, it occured to me last week that after only a couple weeks since the solstice, the days seem to have got a lot longer – it seems like almost an hour longer already.  No wonder we have all these traditional year’s end/new year’s/festival of light-kind of celebrations around the solstice.  It’s such an obvious thing even for us modern disconnected-from-nature city dwellers.  And speaking of nature, a couple things struck me this past week, besides the grim necessity of setting my alarm clock every night now that the holidays are over.  First, it seems that our backyard has become one of the preferred stops for our local Sharp-shinned Hawk.  I knew that letting it grow into an impenetrable jungle would be good for things other than my laziness and my back.  We’re just down the road from a fellow who’s courageously trying to raise racing pigeons (talk about selective pressure!), and there’s lots of good hunting in our vicinity for some of the larger songbirds such as starlings and cardinals and such.  The female likes to pluck her victims on the ground in the southeast corner of the yard, judging by the periodic feather piles there.  I had thought that Sharpies plucked their birds on a perch, but I guess that doesn’t always hold true, or maybe that’s just the smaller males.  The second thing is that lately I have been hearing a good bit of crow noise, but essentially all of it has been the regular American Crow, rather than Fish Crows, as has been the case for much of the past decade.  It seems that the American Crow population has finally rebounded pretty well from the West Nile hammering it took a while back.  When was that, about twenty years ago?  I still wonder if there has been much (or any) hybridizing, as over the years I’ve heard a lot of more-or-less intermediate caws and calls, but I suppose we’ll have to wait until some graduate student at Towson or Loyola gets the urge to do a genetic study.  Shame no instructor ever wanted to do a longitudinal sort of survey, but I guess it would have been a lot of trouble.  So many interesting things, so little money or student resources to do them, so much we don’t know about even the most common things around us.

New Year, new post!

January 3, 2011

And off we go, trying again to turn over a new leaf.  A short recap of the end of December, I think, before we go off into the fresh year’s stuff.

So, we celebrated the holidays by taking the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, in the traditional pagan style – celebrating the end of the old year and the beginning of the new at and after the Winter Solstice.  In my case, that involved a lot of beer and too much driving (not, of course, in any sort of overlapping relationship).  After returning home from the family holiday pelican (well, I can’t think of any synonym for “get-together” that has three syllables and an ‘l’ in the middle, so I just picked a word at random) to find that the Great Snow of Doom of 2010 had by some incredible mischance (if you watched the TV forecasters, anyway) managed to pass us by with only a dusting of snow, we took a day to loaf and then headed out to the Atlantic coast.  Try saying that three times fast.  The trip down to Chincoteague was very nice, if a bit longer than I remembered – especially as we got closer to the coast and the snow began covering the fields and building up at the sides of the roads.  It was particularly great to have the wind-blown crests at the tops of the banks – they looked like the hairstyles of the Leningrad Cowboys, who by a particularly odd coincidence, we were listening to as we drove down.  If you haven’t enjoyed ‘California Girls’ or ‘Gimme All Your Lovin” covered by a Finnish rock group backed by a Red Army (or Air Force, but that’s a trifling detail) Choir and Orchestra and balalaika ensemble, you owe it to yourself to go buy one (or more) of their albums without delay.  Do it for the kids!  Anyway, when we crossed onto the island, it was more like winters from my youth – only the main roads were actually clear, and the side roads were pleasantly snow-packed and rutted/slidey – just the way I like them.  We had a couple of good meals at a place down toward the southern end of Chincoteague called Mr. Baldy’s, which I highly recommend, and not just for the food.  The general ambience possesses a je ne sais quois which is a sine qua non for the finest of fine dining in an atmosphere conducive to a feeling of replete satiation.  It was my kind of place.  The food was good, and plenty, and the Beatles memorabilia and the amusing quotes on the walls made it a most pleasant stop.  We were all well-stuffed and relaxed afterwards.

So, on to the wildlife – we had to stick to the main Beach Road route on the refuge, since some of us were not able to handle the snowy walking trails, but that turned out fine; we spotted a number of ponies (maybe as many as a half-dozen), and got nice looks through the scope.  Several of them were saddle-shoe (roan at each end and white in the middle), and the rest were a various shades of brown, but all of them were cute.  When we reached the beach, I was happily surprised to see a couple dozen or so Surf Scoters scattered not far offshore mixed with several Red-throated Loons and a couple Common Loons.  Very nice looks through the scope.  In between, a D-c Cormorant, lots of very close, hunting Great Blue Herons and several Great Egrets, surprisingly musical Boat-tailed Grackles, the normal gulls, maybe 50 Tundra Swans and some Canada Geese, along with Black Ducks, Mallards, Shovelers, a single female Pintail and a couple female Buffleheads.  A solo Black-bellied Plover, and a Willet, a Marbled Godwit and a bunch of other sandpipers flitting around took care of the shorebirds, and we also had a nice brown Harrier perched where we could get good views of its owl-like face.  No Turkey Vultures, but 4-5 Black Vultures, and a bunch of sparrows, of which I could pick out the usual Juncos and Song and White-throated (along with a Towhee) at the visitor’s center, and plenty of Savannahs scattered along the road.  I’m sure that there were others mixed in, but it was not an easy day for sparrowing with the family along.  No Brown-headed Nuthatches, and only a glimpse of a probable young Bald Eagle; somewhat surprising.  In general, a fine, happy day; sunny and not too breezy, so that when the younger boy decided to get soaked by the surf to his knees, it wasn’t too uncomfortable.  Maybe next year, we’ll do a two-overnight trip and get up to the Ocean City inlet as well, but this was very pleasant if a little strenuous on the driving end for an old guy like me.

We were welcomed home on Friday by our big female Sharp-shin who spent quite some time standing in our backyard at the tree line on what looked like a snow patch, plucking what turned out to be a pure white pigeon.  That’s the second time she’s left a pile of feathers there; it appears to be one of her spots.  She’s pretty big, too: at crow-sized, I could easily mistake her for a Cooper’s.  I’ve reconsidered putting up a winter feeder – in our neighborhood she and her male don’t really need the assistance, what with all the local pigeons and starlings and other songbirds.  Plus the local rats eat quite well enough as it is.  We could really use some rat snakes and Horned Owls around here, but wishing won’t make it so.  Speaking of which, it was nice to hear a Horned Owl hooting during the day down at the parent’s house in the Shenandoah valley on the 26th.  I miss the days when we had a wooded back yard big enough for Horned Owls to nest in.