Christmas Bird Count 2011

Depending on how you look at it, birding is either a bizarre, old-fogeyish pastime or a transcendent activitity capable of bonding the human soul with the natural world. When I take my binoculars and go outside to watch birds, it's not unusual for me to feel both ways about what I'm doing, with my emotions changing from moment to moment. I'll be feeling sort of silly and self-conscious standing by a roadside while cars of gawking people stream by and I'm looking at, of all things, a chickadee. And then I'll remember that chickadees are actually phenomenal creatures whose brains expand in the fall so they can recall where all the best feeding locations are (scientists have no clue how this happens but are desperate to learn what it means) and that these tiny, hollow-boned, nine-gram fluffballs are actually modern dinosaurs

The day that always embodies my avian ambivalence happened to be today, when I took part as ever in the annual Chrismas Bird Count. The origins of the count make for an interesting story, especially for someone like me who is both a birdwatcher and a birdhunter. (Many of the best birders I know are both.)

This morning began on the frozen Rockland breakwater in a biting snow squall, stretched over eight hours of counting every crow, gull, and yes, chickadee my comrades and I could find, and ended at nightfall at the edge of a trackless bog where in the far distance a great horned owl was beginning to hoot. It was cold, exhausting, socially awkward at times (lots of people shake their heads when you explain what you're up to although more confess a secret affection for birds)—but also an occasion for good-fellowship, a raw and necessary encounter with nature that too few of us modern Americans allow ourselves to experience, and an unfolding series of revelatory moments that affected me aesthetically and spiritually.

Here was my group's tally for the day, if you're interested:

Weather: Cold, snow showers throughout day, heaviest in morning

Total species for section I: 50

Total species for Count circle: 69

* Species seen ONLY in our section
Red-throated loon   4 
Common loon        7
Red-necked grebe    6
Horned grebe    3
Great cormorant    2
Canada goose    164 (the most numerous species in our section)
Black duck    6
Mallard    131
Lesser scaup    1 *
Common eider    9
Long-tailed duck    22
Surf scoter    2
Common goldeneye    4
Bufflehead    4
Red-breasted merganser    4
Hooded merganser    4
Bald eagle    1 
Red-tailed hawk    1
Merlin    1
American coot    600 (at least!)
Purple sandpiper    4 *
Bonaparte's gull    15
Ring-billed gull    6
Herring gull    127
Great black-backed gull    2
Black-legged kittiwake    14 
Razorbill    2 * 
Black guillemot    7
Mourning dove   24
Great horned owl    1 *
Hairy woodpecker    3
Downy woodpecker    4
Red-bellied woodpecker    1
Northern flicker    1
Blue jay    1
American crow    32
Black-capped chickadee    27
Tufted titmouse    3
White-breasted nuthatch    2
American robin    22
Northern mockingbird    1
Starling    90
Yellow-rumped warbler    1 *
on the whole count!)
Northern cardinal    7
American tree sparrow    16
Song sparrow    2
White-throated sparrow    2
House finch    11
American goldfinch    26
House sparrow    3

* Species seen ONLY in our section

All in all, it was both a frivolous and deeply meaningful day. 

Beware of Carp

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier—who can make plastic grocery bags interesting—doesn't have to work so hard to tell the terrifying story of the Asian white carp, two invasive species that have infested the major rivers of the Midwest. The article isn't available online, but it's worth picking up a copy of the magazine for Frazier's article alone. This video gives a sense of the danger these fish (literally) now pose:

Responsible fishermen have tried for years to explain to the general public that invasive species are destroying our ecosystems. It's probably going to take something like a jumping Asian carp killing some kid in a boat to get people's attention.

On Maine Weather

One of my first jobs was being a paperboy, which in some ways is as close as I'm ever going to get to being a Maine game warden who must do his job every day in all kinds of weather. It was brutal going out into those subzero mornings—but bracing also. I'm not sure I've ever felt as intensely alive. (People who avoid the cold deny themselves that experience of pure vitality.) And the best fires are the ones we find waiting for us at home when we return from an adventure in the freezing cold.

My River

It is a raw November day along the Maine coast. The fog is sweeping down off Mount Battie, and our backyard is covered with a wet blanket of fallen leaves. Most of the maples and oaks behind the house are bare now. As a result, the view of the Megunticook River is unobstructed from the bedroom window. Looking at the river this morning put me in mind of the joy I felt moving to this place a few years ago. It reminded me also of this essay I wrote for the magazine.

Having just returned from the far side of the continent, I've been dwelling on the concept of personal geography — how we define ourselves and are defined by the landscapes we choose to inhabit. And I realized that, for the time being at least, this river is me.

Missing Moose

My wife Kristen and I are spending the Labor Day Weekend in Greenville on the shores of Moosehead Lake. At 5:30 a.m. this morning our kind hosts at the Lodge at Moosehead Lake arranged a "moose safari" for us. We drove to First West Branch Pond and then paddled through a cold but lifting fog in search of moose.

Alas, the big animals didn't make an appearance for us (they tend to lie low before the annual fall rut, so it was no surprise), but we did see some great birds, including a family of solitary sandpipers (evidently not so solitary after all), a merlin, sharp-shinned hawks, and a young wood duck that rocketed out of a beaver flowage. As Maine natives, Kristen and I have both seen dozens of moose so we were content just to spend the morning in a canoe on a remote North Woods pond taking in the scenery.

Probably the highlight of the trip for me was when our Registered Maine Guide described a bull moose during rutting season as "Bill Clinton with four legs." That was one joke I hadn't heard before.