The most illegal thing I’ve ever come close to doing was want to start a feather collection.
I’m reluctant to admit to almost commiting a felony online, but it struck me the other day that much of my childhood was potentially illegal. Not intentionally -- I wasn’t a poacher hunting Bald Eagles or collecting snakeskins to grind up into medicine -- but as a curious, wonder-eyed child who liked to pick up seashells and tadpoles, and who liked cracking open mussels to feed octopi in tidepools. None of it was malicious or disrespectful. Yet, my actions would have been greeted with angry scolding in certain circles. As I grew older, and entered the birding community, I became very conscious of our treatment of the environment, and the way people directed their frustration into ethical projections: nature, as defined as rules. It was a concept that was both familiar and alien to me. I couldn’t imagine a childhood without raising wild-caught caterpillars and praying mantises. Yet, I understood that if everyone did what I did, soon there might be no more caterpillars and praying mantises.
My inner ethical battle reached its pinnacle when I entered the wider world of wildlife biology -- more specifically, collecting. It struck me how many of the people who were angered by museum collecting, a controlled process with limited licenses and lengthy applications, were probably not vegetarians. Their anger was not motivated by the fear that the collection practices are unsustainable. They’re not. They were motivated by ethical concerns. There was a disconnect between collecting in nature, and eating a McDonald’s burger, because a wall between nature and man has been slowly drawn for the last century. Gone are the days of Teddy Roosevelt: when the greatest naturalists were hunters as well as scientists. Instead, overhunting and dwindling resources triggered by the tragedy of the commons has shifted the majority of wildlife-lovers in a more protective direction. In a world where man outnumbers nature, such a viewpoint is fitting to protect limited resources. But sometimes, this attitude is taken to potentially dangerous lengths: a primarily moral standpoint.
Several instances come to mind. One extreme, a Facebook group against bird banding, cites the cruelty and very small number of deaths that banding causes. Given the vast amount of data generated from bird-banding that aids conservation, their attitude seems to stem from this 21st-century phenomenon: a view that nature is a pristine thing to be maintained outside of human interference, human touch, and human disturbance, like a diorama at a museum: do not touch. Others bemoan the successful technique of shooting Barred Owls to protect the endangered Spotted Owl. Most of their concerns stem from ethics (the owl situation is a whole ‘nother can of worms, but for this essay, we’ll focus on the belief that man should not “mess with nature” even further). Still other organizations will jump in anger at the use of pishing on a nature reserve -- an action that has just as much effect on the well-being of birds as the presence of humans there in the first place. Some of these attitudes are understandable, but the have unintended side effects on how humans and nature interact.
Humans are very much a part of nature. To set strict moral rules determining which interactions are permitted defies the relationship. Some rules are in place because tragedy of the commons dictates that if every visitor peered into a sensitive bird’s nest or plucked an endangered flower, these resources would be soiled. These privileges are usually left to researchers, whose curiosity is considered of a different breed: more structured, more meaningful. Such restrictions are necessary, but if anything, they are guidelines: tenets for how we should respect and treat an easily disturbed common resource - not commandments for the treatment of nature as a separate, holy, entity. Some actions, such as collecting and hunting, have obvious reasons to be limited. But this limitation should not come solely from a place of higher morality but sustainability and practicality. Draconian attitudes infused with self-righteousness go contrary to the ever-flowing, ever-embracing style of nature. This brand draws a glass wall between humans and nature, as well as “common people” and environmentalists. We forget that nature is resilient, as we are, and not a thin crystal statue liable to shatter at a touch. What we cannot interact with becomes stagnant. Then, we may forget that man, too, is rightfully a part of the woods. Nature falls apart in our hands. Society views it as a stop along a sightseeing tour or step on a wellness lifestyle change, forgetting that it ever existed, raw and untamed, on our doorstep.
So I came to learn, that respecting nature did not necessarily mean leaving it alone. Respect, in fact, had to be fostered by both education and interaction. As for my childhood? The mirth caused by my discovery of its unlawfulness was mitigated when I discovered that almost all of the species I had caught were introduced. There are no native praying mantises in California, nor were the mosquito fish I kept in a ten-gallon tank protected by law. Those House Sparrows I had attempted to catch with a butterfly net? Invasive. In my pursuits of curiosity, I had not imposed on a protected species. Yet, I imagined the hordes of people still left balking at my actions, and I realized with sadness that their kids might not ever have the chance to explore nature like we used to.
For the first time, I’m seeing the prairie: not from the scratched, altitude-proofed windows of a plane, but against the calm wind of the Midwest. Mosquitoes cling to my leg like corn on the cob. The grass ripples in the breeze, then exhales. Across the sky, tiny white clouds travel across the blue sky like the hands on a clock.
My appreciation is dimmed by a dozen people. I’m not the only one drawn to the promise of prairie birds on a cool summer in June. At five in the morning, I rushed from my hotel room in Billings, Montana, where the 2014 Western Field Ornithologists conference is being held, and scoured the lobby for a sign reading “Snowy Mountain Grasslands.” Upon its discovery, I crammed into a packed van that drove past abandoned barns and hawk’s nests in a quest for a view of the prairie.
The world is silent. A Grasshopper Sparrow in mid-song is unaware that, through the dusky glass of a van, it is being watched. Inside the van, I am unaware that outside, in the June air, lie the ingredients for a symphony. The sun is the conductor. As it motions its rays over sleeping hills, the fluting of the meadowlarks begins in a pianissimo. Each note sound like how sweet peas taste: organic and sugary. The tinkling triangle of Horned Larks arise in contrast. They are quiet but insistent. And then crescendo! An Upland Sandpiper is the raunchy bachelor of the grassland. Its mellow wolf-whistle halts the careful instrumental schedule. Fluting longspurs reclaim the closing. And then back in the van it is; to the next stop and the next orchestra.
Here in Montana lies the last of North America’s raw prairie sounds. For most grasslands in the U.S., the end was imminent when the first colonists arrived. Montana is not without scars. Tilling, overgrazing, and development leave their nasty pockmarks on the landscape. But the grassland was designed to take blows; in fact, it depends on them, requiring fire and bison-grazing to trim it back from disrepair. When human presence reduced both, the grassland was at risk for undermaintenance. Now cattle and proper rotational grazing prove that a conclusion can be reached between nature and man.
Grass conquers all and gives all. For the breeding birds of Montana, the land is a machine that captures photons and creates usable matter. It is their Creator. For thousands of years, organisms scrambled to find their specific place in its arching web. In a fluid society where each bird has its own strategy for utilizing the resources given to them by the grass, many a species has evolved to fit a small niche, of which it is master. These are the obligate species that rely on the native grassland and have coevolved with it for thousands of years. Other species are facultative generalists who come and go as they please. Unlike the specialists, they are polygamous with the land, choosing quantity of habitat over quality.
Like humans, there are extroverts and introverts in the grassland. On the prairie, the movement of birds is like the molecules in a glass of water, with evolution governing instead of physics. The molecules are tugged by hundreds of factors. Risk of predatory attack is an ion, pulling together flocks of hundreds where lack of ground cover leaves birds vulnerable to watchful eyes. Crowds are not always effective: lots of mouths means extra energy expended, in searching for a food source large enough to support the entire flock. The larger the crowds, the scarcer these reserves are. Where there is a surplus of food, however, being too territorial wastes energy in defending against a endless slaught of thieves attracted to the promise of food. The dynamics behind flocking rely on these opposing factors as they push and pull in an infinite tug-of-war.
These are not simply theories. Where the ground is sparsely vegetated, massive flocks of Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs gather to feed. As the habitat moves from bare ground to mid-length grass so do the spatial relations between birds. Savannah Sparrows arrange their spacing based on the amount of predatory disturbance in a habitat; the higher the disturbance, the more likely a sparrow is to be found in the proximity of another. In the wet and long-grassed parts of the prairie the secretive Baird's Sparrow forages alone.
The masters of the grassland, its top trophic predators, are just as subject to the pulls of millenia as the songbirds. Over the grasslands of Montana, three buteos make themselves at home. Few characteristics distinguish them: the Ferruginous Hawk is the biggest of them all, and its feathered tarsi separate it from the familiar Red-tailed Hawk.The most graceful of them all, the Swainson’s Hawk, migrates in swathes of thousands from South America to the North American grasslands, where it coexists with the other two buteos. On a clear summer day it’s possible to see all three in one sky, the white wing patches of the Ferruginous Hawk distinguishing it from the long wings of the Swainson’s Hawk and the Red-tailed Hawk’s dark patagials. All three breed here in Montana. It’s a coexistence that defies the resources of the prairie. Raptors require trees, and on the grassland, they come in short supply. Large birds also require sizable prey. In a thousand other versions of the grassland, the three species would exist in separate domains.
What watching the hawks on a clear summer day does not reveal are the subtleties in the life cycle of each species. Resource partitioning, or specialization in response to interspecific competition, is obvious in some families. The beaks of shorebirds -- the upturned beaks of godwits, short stubby beaks of Sanderlings, and the long, curved appendage of the curlew --- all reflect their unique foraging methods and food sources. On the prairie, resource partitioning is more subtle than the comical shapes of shorebird bills. The Red-tailed Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk pick the same prey and nesting times. However, the nest sites of the Red-tailed Hawk are typically higher-elevation than either Swainson’s or Ferruginous Hawks, which prefer willows. Swainson’s Hawks fledge three weeks later and hunt smaller prey than either Ferruginous or Red-tailed Hawks. Each hawk overlaps in some life traits with the other two species, but differs enough that the distance between nests is insignificant to increasing species competition. Where there are enough resources, their existence is drawn on a delicate three-way Venn diagram.
Where evolution can take energy-saving shortcuts, it will. The drive to reduce interspecific competition is the not only pressure shaping the buteos of the prairie. For Swainson’s Hawks, compromises are taken to reduce competition with its own kind -- intraspecific competition. Shoulders are rubbed, not always between individuals, but age-groups: immatures and adults. Only adult Swainson’s Hawks breed. The non-breeding first-years, then, pose a wasteful drain to the small mammals adults hunt to give to growing chicks. So adult and first-year reach an unspoken solution -- abundant in the summer prairie, hopping and flying in easily breached swarms -- grasshoppers. For non-breeding birds, the opportunity to pick idly at nutrient-loaded insects outweighs the effort of constant hunting. For adults, the energy required to transport a single grasshopper to nestlings makes it a grossly inefficient endeavour. While adults hunt mammals, grasshoppers are left to the inexperienced combing of adolescents. The colloquial name "grasshopper hawk," belies a complex strategy that makes the most of limited resources.
If there’s one lesson to take away from the prairie, it’s that nature is only violent when it gets an individual or species ahead. Sometimes teamwork is the key to success. Other times, it is solitude. Here in Montana, I have the opportunity to appreciate the prairie both ways. As the many eyes in our van spot raptors I would have otherwise missed, I am reminded that for flocking birds, the same phenomenon occurs. Interactions within birds and within humans, then, are not so different. As always, we learn a little about ourselves by studying birds.
The sea, is, as always, inconveniently choppy. On this particular February pelagic, my stomach is hurdling back-and-forth at a rate where my life depends on my death grip on the railing of the ship. Everyone else around me seems to be doing fine. I smile and clench the boat so hard that my knuckles turn white.
When the boat speeds up, so does the wind. Everyone is repelled off the front of the ship. Only I remain, insistent to subject my skin and eyes to the wrinkling sunlight. Ahead of me is pure water. Behind me trails a long intestine of seagulls. Western Gulls, with their dark slate backs and massive bills, and California Gulls, with their dainty long wings, as graceful as gulls can be. Heermann's Gulls are chocolate brown and sleek. The chum is thrown out again and again, in mechanical motions that belies the person in charge of the chumming. Popcorn lands deftly on the water. Half-a-dozen birds hurtle towards it, clashing wings and beaks. It reminds me of that cloud of dust and limbs that artists always use to depict a fight in the Sunday cartoons.
As the boat keeps moving out to sea, the chum trail sputters as gulls fly off to other pursuits. A few birds cling on, persistently, and others seem to be newcomers joining the fight for a kernel. I'm reminded of a study done on Northwestern Crows. The study found that crows would open mulloscs by flying up and dropping them on the rocks. The shorter the drop height, the more times the crow will have to fly up to drop the mullosc. So, to optimize energy usage, Northwestern Crows fly to an average height of 5.23 meters to crack open a mullosc. Any lower, and the energy expended for more frequent flights would outweigh that of a less frequent, higher flights, and vice versa. That something so simple as a crow's whelk-dropping pattern is optimized for maximum efficiency is unsurprising.
So chumming, then, becomes an equation too. There can’t be that much energy in a kernel of popcorn. Considering the fanatic fight for a single piece, as well as the energy required to keep up with the boat, it doesn’t seem very energetically efficient for every gull to fly behind the boat. If a gull is unable to overpower or outsmart other gulls to grab a popcorn, then it makes no economic sense for it to continue staying in the chum line. A gull must be able to win a popcorn kernel a certain percentage of the time for it to be efficient to stay. That means that there must be a very fast turnover rate in the chum line, and maybe a few consistent winners that pick up popcorn with skill. I wonder what the maximum distance a single bird has stayed in the chum line has been. As the boat heads out to sea, where shore-monging gulls are less inclined to be, I wonder, too, how far the boat would have to go before no gulls are left. Given the probable low energy value of popcorn the chum line seems overall like a gimmicky endeavor for gulls.
Evolution favors those who are energetically efficient. The real winners in the chum line, then, are not the gulls that manage to grab a kernel of popcorn, but those who manage to maximize their net energy payoff. For some birds, that may mean avoiding the chumming altogether. There’s also consideration of species, as bigger Western Gulls may have an advantage fighting for a popcorn but waste more energy keeping up with the boat. It’s a puzzle so complicated that only decades of study and a complex mathematical equation could model it. Most likely, we will never perfect the equation of chumming.
It’s difficult to keep track of individual gulls, especially on a pelagic where birds fly in and out like popcorn. The simple act of chumming, however, carries evolutionary weight. To watch the gulls fighting for popcorn is to watch as individual variation in each gull determines its successive fate in the chum line, and, eventually, its fitness. In light of that, the wind on the exterior of the ship is worth braving.
When one thinks about the Mojave, a desert is the first thing that comes to mind. From the barren sands of Kelso Dunes to the creosote stretches that greet drivers as they enter the park, Mojave Preserve embodies dry and hot. The visitor center, Kelso Depot, is one of the few wet patches in the park where water is distributed along pipelines to power an aggressively green lawn. Alongside the center’s lawn and palm trees, salt-cedars grow on bare sand the color of eggshells.
My car is one of three in the depot parking lot today. A man sits in his truck, a makeshift eaves erected over his head. He’s selling cool drinks to visitors, an assortment of water and soda, on the hot day of May 27th. Collared-doves scatter like ghosts in a graveyard as I walk by a salt-cedar. The stifling heat stuffs birdsong into a cocoon of silence.
I’ve only entered one side of the Mojave, the Dr. Hyde of heat and sand. The other lies on the other end of noodles of roads. I drive through long sheets of creosote before the ground shoots up and up, car bumping on patches of rough rocks. Here the painter of the desert adds long strokes of green as he layers the landscape. The sky is cut against uneven horizons of trees, smooth above and splotched below as hills emerge like great dusty monsters from the desert.
We stop in a pinyon-juniper canyon that swallows our car whole with clubs of Joshua trees and pines. In the warm morning air, the trill of a Broad-tailed Hummingbird slides over my ears like a flute. Gray and black Phainopeplas pop across the canyon like fleas on a dog. From the South, a big flock of Pinyon Jays emerges. With them comes a cloud of sound and light as hollering dusky-blue bodies barrel to shelter. Small groups plop onto the pines, decked out like ornaments on a Christmas tree. As the jays disperse into the canyon, the sky flatlines into pure blue. I’m hiking off-trail. I’m painfully aware that under my feet, tiny plants are being ground to bits. It’s a sacrifice I, as one person, am willing to make to reach a coveted site. Tragedy of the commons is not a sin a single traveler can impose. The visitors to the Mojave, too, are few and far between.
Finally, the canyon narrows and takes a sharp fork to the left. It ends in a tapered dry waterfall bed. In the wet season the boulders that build up the cliff might be formidably slippy. The heat of late spring, however, allows me to clamber up the dry slope easily. Up the slope I hear the indignant whines of a raptor where, hanging in a cloudless sky, three black dots pierce the blue. One of them is a Turkey Vulture, gliding harmlessly with a pink cranium enclosed in bare wrinkly skin. The other two appear similar to a vulture, but every time they turn their wings towards the sun like a radar dish, it illuminates a body made of pure charcoal. Their sharp eyes spot my presence, and indignant, they wheel in a stuttering radius around my body. I’ve found the pair of nesting Zone-tailed Hawks. The location of the nest, where life is cradled in a haphazard basket of sticks, is less apparent.
Life begins in the Mojave. It begins for a pair of Zone-tailed Hawks, whose presence in the preserve eludes most. Here, bits and pieces of interior species just brush California. Gilded Flickers frequent the reaches of Joshua Trees across Cima Road. Hepatic Tanagers and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds dwell in the East. Juniper Titmice and Woodhouse's’ Scrub-jays inhabit campgrounds and juniper-pinyon forests. And Zone-tailed Hawks breed in the fork of a canyon which they have been returning to, year-after-year, guarding with raucous cries of platitude. My sentimality, however, is wasted on the hawks. Life here is brutal. Like most raptors, the pair will likely rear two chicks. One is simply a spare for the parents; a backup in case the stronger chick dies. From the moment of birth one chick is destined to perish. Millenia of evolution have decided that this is the most efficient way for a Zone-tailed Hawk to rear its young, and evolution functions without sentimentality.
If the remaining chick survives, a small avian victory is won for the Zone-tailed Hawk. In most range maps, the breeding range of the Zone-tailed Hawk ends well before California. Or, their presence here is recorded with dashed-lines that signify the irregularity of the species. Range maps are a difficult depiction; the range of a species is never sharply demarcated, but dissolves into gradual nonexistence. Here, however, the hawks have been returning since 2014. They may be the first of their kind breeding here. In the heat of late May, a rare life begins in the Mojave.
I watch the hawks closely, trying to demarcate where there nest may be. The hawks periodically perch and call, then spin into the air like carelessly-thrown frisbees. As they whirl, another vulture joins the canon of black bodies in the sky. The all-dark hawks welcome the comparison. To hunt, Zone-tailed Hawks rely on their uncanny resemblance to vultures to surprise prey. Turkey Vultures, then, may be one of many limiting factors in the extent of their range. If there are too many hawks, then the advantage of imitating a vulture is lost, because prey will begin to react to any vaguely vulture-like-shape as a danger. Throughout its range, including the vulture-dense pinyon-juniper of the Mojave desert, the Zone-tailed Hawk is never abundant. The imitation game between vulture and hawk is not simply a tenet. It flies directly above me in formationless circles, as I stand on the edge of a teetering canyon.
After a few minutes of observing the hawks, I leave them alone. They have hidden their nest too well for a pair of human eyes to find. That’s a good thing. Humans, as much as any other animal, pose a threat to rare nesting hawks. I am no danger, but the hawks seem to think so, anyway. Each second I spend enticing avian rage is a waste of their time and resources. I slide down the waterfall with the grace of a caterpillar and watch as the hawks glide away from me in arching motions. From where I stand, I see one remaining vulture as it spins around the dimming sky.
March 24th, 2018: Wrens At Dusk
Whoever said that the great era of early ornithologists was over is wrong. I’m a modern-day explorer in an unexplored land, clawing through introduced Russian thistles and pishing through my teeth, no socks on because all of them are in the wash today. A thistle thorn goes right through my toe.
Perhaps it was not very wise to wear shorts and flats here. This land is far more remote than anywhere Lewis and Clark could ever have journeyed to. There are tire tracks in the wide dirt path: proof that once upon a time, humans have visited. They have no role here. I am an intruder alien in the ranks of prickly pears, who twist their necks to regard me with suspicious stares. The white hills are streaked with blood swathes eroding into fine rivulets, and my footsteps shift the soil in insidious ways.
This place is nameless. It’s behind a church where my dad plays badminton, and if you keep on the trail enough it leads to a big ol’ dusty path called the Edison Riding and Biking Trail, which then continues into eastern oak forests through Whiting Wilderness Park and Modjeska Canyon. From thereon I have faint idea of where it goes. I know of it only through my dad, who hiked the trail out of curiosity and said he saw two Cactus Wrens that were flushed by a dog. I've come back here to look for them.
Cactus Wrens are in trouble. Their habitat has been fragmented, resulting in a genetic bottleneck where isolated populations lose their genetic diversity. They’re mainly at risk on the coast, where little stops people from mowing over their habitat. There was a controversy a few years ago about the legitimacy of the coastal subspecies sandiegensis. When that was refuted by the American Ornithologist’s Union, any chance the coastal Cactus Wrens had for protection was lost.
That’s the problem with subspecies: noone knows just how to define them. There are quantifiable statistic methods, but a vast majority of subspecies were described many decades ago. The data to collect for a rigorous analysis is also frequently a lengthy process. There are graver consequences to this confusion, as the case of the coastal Cactus Wren, which although is clearly a distinct population, lacks the protections necessary. In recent years, “studies” funded by developers proving that the Southern California subspecies of the California Gnatcatcher, Polioptila californica alta, have attempted to use taxonomy to remove an endangered species. Perhaps our federal system should not go by definitions of taxonomy that lack consistency and form.
The Cactus Wren may be doomed either way. The wrens I am looking for are not sandiegensis, but rather the more northern cousei. Compared to the plight in San Diego County, where sandiegensis is relegated to more-or-less two locations, cousei is relatively better off. That's not to say it's doing well. Nothing stops development here now. I stand, in the midst of the prickly pears, on a small patch of land that has been partitioned by concrete. In the Southwest, the Foothill Transportation Corridor guts through the land like a giant knife. In the East, fancy boxes of glass and wood dice the landscape. Both the construction of transportation corridors -- specifically, the huge Eastern Transportation Corridor -- and housing development have dealt deadly blows to Cactus Wrens in the last decade. Their current distribution is patchy and unpredictable, in accordance with the fragmented distribution of the cacti they depend on for predator-free nest sites.
The wrens I am looking for may be one of the last generations here. Cactus Wrens are short-distance dispersers, a trait that makes them especially vulnerable to genetic bottleneck. Even if this land was indefinitely preserved, the Cactus Wrens living here would not be. They are fated a slow death here. In a land where wren and cactus have evolved together for thousands of years without whirring machines, change does not come easily.
All I want to do is find a sign of life. Now I only hear the hum of electricity. There’s an power grid to the West. The giant metal birds and their tangled nests of wires shoot into the sky. They hold down the sloping giant of the land, as the prickly pear cacti watch like sentinels. The air is silent in the fast approaching dusk. This ancient land was once peaceful, then raked with a man-made spine, and now it rests quietly again. The atmosphere feels muffled, as I am standing on the moon, and whatever sounds I make will be absorbed into a vast stretch of space.
I pass under a small road. A hissing leaks from a hole deep in the concrete. White acid streaks drip down from a platform where a long dark shape sits and croaks. Further down the road, I encounter a trash pile of reeds and trickling water. From the sycamores emerges a low rumbling motor engine that revs until it burns out and dies from overexertion. It’s a grotesque sound for a frog, but then again, the whirring of an introduced Northern Leopard Frog is alien to my ears. The range of the Northern Leopard Frog used to extend only in a few interior patches of California, but it was extirpated. Now, new populations in east Orange County have been established by introductions from the other side of America. Their groans of the frogs and nest of the raven are a reminder of the curious ways in which humans have taken life away, and then given again.
Finally, about a mile into sloping hills of prickly pears, I stand where my dad saw the wrens a week ago. I have reached the border of the cacti kingdom. A road bars the prickly pears from going further. There are no wrens, nor are there any nests that I can see. There is, however, a mockingbird imitating Cactus Wren songs. I feel delirious as several times, a distorted wren-like song intermingles with his normal chorus. There is also a driver stopping for a smoke. He looks on from a highway and hangs over the metal guardrails, gazing down a sloping hill to where I stand with binoculars a thousand yards away.
I begin to trace back the way I came. As the sun sinks below the mountain like a dimming lightbulb, I hear a metallic click. A California Towhee calls from the bottom of a lemon berry bush. I pish a few times, expecting it to emerge curiously from the brush.
Instead, a medium-sized spotted bird with a rosy belly springs up into the red-tinged light. It rattles a few notes of discontent in response to my calls. My camera clicks away, but the bird is not focused on me. It keeps turning its head to the east, where a line of golden-windowed houses glitter in the sunset.
April 6th, 2018: Wrens In The Morning
In the early hours of the morning I hear the repeated clacking of a wren. One pops up onto a prickly pear, then a second, its mate. They wave their wings in unison in a terrific fanning display. It's the third pair I've observed in my prickly pear patch. The first lives close to the transportation corridor. I found their nest yesterday, with rufous-brown feathers strewn all over a strawn nest, unused. Cactus Wrens are one of two North American birds that build nests for winter roosting, so I suspect it may see some use even in the cold weather when the wrens are not yet bursting with hormones and singing at full volume.
Two weeks have passed since my first visit here. A quarter mile north of the nest, Cactus Wrens appear to be alive and well. The pair is curious, finding interest in my presence rather than being fazed by the loud sound of my camera shutter. The land that was silent as the moon just eleven days ago is bright and awake in the morning light. From the underbrush, I hear the clicking of California Quails. Ever so often, a male belts out a loud "chi-CA-go!" From a lemonberry bush, a thrasher sings a scratchy song. The chattering of distant White-throated Swifts catching insects over the Foothill Transportation Corridor is barely audible. But over the morning din, one sound excites me more than the others. Hope has a very specific sound. It sounds like a squeeling pinwheel, or as others have described it, a squeezed cat.
I spy the culprit. Five feet to the right of a curious wren, a male California Gnatcatcher leafs through the buds of a California Buckwheat, ducking beneath stems and flitting with nervous energy. Its dark black cap contrasts strikingly against a gray body. It moves too fast for my camera to focus properly, but its presence is telling. As an federally endangered species in California, the tiny bird is enough to preserve mountains and block houses. It may also explain why this small patch of habitat remains intact.
California Gnatcatchers are an umbrella species, one whose protections provide shelter for other species not elevated to federal status. They inhabitat highly specific sagebrush habitat that is home to special birds such as Wrentits and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Their habitat, however, normally does not overlap with Cactus Wrens. It is likely that both species have expanded their niches in the face of extreme pressures from humans. Overall, gnatcatchers don't seem to being do too poorly. In the drought that has scoured Southern Caifornia for years, California Gnatcatchers have fared surprisingly well. Ironically, if the California Gnatcatcher ever does well enough that it could be de-listed, thousands of acres of sagebrush would face lost protections and impeding deveopment. It's a catch-22 that is mirrored in other endangered umbrella species. For now, however, the California Gnatcatcher remains ever-dependent on dwindling habitat that will warrant its endangered status for a long time to come.
As I walk back down the slope to my car parked behind the church, I discover more gnatcatchers. The canyon directly behind the church lot is less than 500 feet across and polluted with invasive species: hardly perfect gnatcatcher habitat. The pair seems content, however, to forage beside piles of trash and the distant roar of the highway. The male peridiocally gives off a harsh buzz, to which the female responds with the characteristic California Gnatcatcher squeal.
Perhaps birds are more resilient than we make them to be. The term "sensitive species," is misleading. As is evident by their perserverance through drought and habitat destruction, gnatcatchers are not a frail species liable to becoming extinct at the drop of a hat. Rather, they just occupy a habitat that has seen more human destruction and development than any other: the coastal sagebrush. Gnatcatchers are tiny, almost as tiny as hummingbirds, but they are powerful. They are protectors of the this prickly pear patch. For the wrens, they represent hope. And it so goes that once again, the future of two species who barely notice each other are inextricably intertwined.
I watch the artist as she watches the bird. Her pen glides over the sketchpad, unfettered. Rough black lines erupt onto the paper. She fills in the details, big-to-small, like this: big circles and triangles, then boxes of feather tracts, to eyes and talons, clawing to fly and escape. It is an incredible likeness. The Brown-headed Cowbird browsing in the grass is immortalized by her careful gaze. Paper and pen translate it into an individual.
Therein lies one value of sketching. Illustration for field guides is done with museum specimens. The bird you see depicted in your Sibley or National Geographic is a composite of dozens of dead birds. It is perfectly average. There is nothing especially streaky or dark or large-billed about it. Sketching a moving bird in the field reveals the imperfections in a carefully measured ideal.
And the bird is alive, too. It struts with its chest forward, and every time it bends down to nibble something in the grass, its head tips forward and its tail tips upward, like a seesaw. The large chest and short tail result in a comical effect in which the bird appears to struggle to keep from falling forward when it walks.
The pen sees the cowbird moving, and more. It only has the time for a few hasty judgments before the cowbird flies away. In that precious few moments, it must remember as much as it can, contained within large arching circles and rectangles that capture the rough size and shape of the cowbird. Through sketching, an observation is born.
That observation is not measured in careful inches or centimeters. It is nothing more than an impression that stores all the oddities of the bird, its useless details, its unique body shape. It is with this impression that the next cowbird will be compared. After a few thousand sketches, maybe a mutual understanding will be reached between the artist and the cowbird. Then the pen will have served its job.
I saw my first Long-eared Owl in March 2016, during a California Young Birders Club field trip. It was sitting in a tamarisk tree, and the small crowd pointing and shouting at its tree was beginning to irritate it. It briefly squinted with one eye, and shifted its talons ever so slightly. Yet one or two people, failing to take social cues from both the owl and a few people telling them to back off, moved closer to take photos. The scene was thoroughly uninspiring.
Five months later, I had an idea born from summer boredom. It was a pretty simple one. I wanted to create a publication to show the writing, art, and other talents of young birders. There was nothing complicated about it, frankly, with the internet providing an easy method of distribution. The name? Wrong-eared Owl (cue the dramatic music that would play if Wrong-eared Owl was actually well-known).
Now, the beginning anecdote has nothing to do with my newsletter. It only introduces California Young Birders Club (a self-promotion) and reinforces the point that I find Long-eared Owls uninspiring; the name choice for Wrong-eared Owl was no way influenced by the actual bird. The name Wrong-eared Owl comes from a sound identification challenge, back in 2014, during a Western Field Ornithologists conference. There were competing teams. One of the names was “Wrong-eared Owl,” which I thought was clever. That was not my team. I have a scarce of who came up with the name, maybe Kimball Garrett. For a long time I debated whether adapting the name would be a case of egregious plagiarism. A recollection of third grade, when I copied a water-saving slogan, “Saving water makes cents!” for a school project weighed on my conscience. Finally, I decided that Wrong-eared Owl was a better name than “The Pelican” “The Gnatcatcher,” “The Booby,” or whatever name everyone else would probably vote on. So my newsletter became “Wrong-eared Owl.”
Names are important. National Geographic and Audubon are household names, Wrong-eared Owl is not. But if Wrong-eared Owl were to ever be a household name, it would be a good one, in my opinion. “Honey, the newest issue of Wrong-eared Owl just came in!” has a satisfying ring to it. So once I was satisfied with the name, there was a furious effort for maybe a month, in which I concealed the idea from nearly everyone, including my parents. I wanted it to be a secret. I knew the project was going to a big one, and the encouragement you receive for ambitious projects is usually half hearted and sometimes discouraging. It is better to unleash the final project and remove all the doubt from everyone’s mind at once. “Just wait til August 1st!” I repeated to everyone. “I have a surprise!” I appointed my copy editor, Cayenne Sweeney, in the cover of darkness. Or, to state it less dramatically, without anyone else in the club knowing.
This is where the mildly interesting parts stop. It took me a long time to begin writing this piece. It has been requested by a few people. Maybe they find Wrong-eared Owl impressive, but I didn’t know how to write about it and not have a boring piece that noone wants to read. Most of the processes of content editing and designing just involve me sitting in front of a computer for hours, opening blank documents over and over again, writing down dozens of ideas recklessly, and emailing people asking for interviews or samples of articles. Designing the newsletter is even worse. I use Adobe inDesign, and each part of the newsletter must be preened to satisfaction. You can always tell when I am designing the newsletter because I will sit down in a comfortable chair, glue my eyes to the screen with two songs on repeat, eating whatever my mom sets down on a plate beside me. And I will eat anything. It’s a great way to get me to eat my vegetables.
The most interesting part about the Wrong-eared Owl is the actual thing. It's the product of about a week of highly intense work. I usually begin prepping for an issue a month before I want it to come out. A month is usually more than enough time. One thing you learn while working on a publication by teens, however, is that other teenagers are just as lazy as you. They will procrastinate, far past the deadline. As frustrating as it is, I have a sinking suspicion that adults are no better, anyway. And someone needs to give young birders a voice. Maybe someday, being featured in Wrong-eared Owl would be something to be proud of. For now, I'm only on my second issue, and it was a week ago that I raged at Adobe for having charged me for the past three months even though I had only signed up for one. I have a long ways to go, and that's okay. It's the Wrong-eared Owl, not the Right-eared Owl.
Read my original article "Should We Save The Salton Sea?" here.
The beaches of the Salton Sea have a distinctive crunch. It’s a potent mixture of dead fish, salt, and sand. Some say that the smell of the sea carries for miles. That’s a myth. Only once you get closer to the water does its pungency become obvious.
The odor of the Sea is one I would recognize anywhere. Somehow, I always end up back there, even though I live three hours away. Take last winter. I wasn't on a birding trip, but I had somehow ended up at the North Shore. Again. It was right after Christmas. And I had run out of cash for camping, so I had to sleep in the back of the car with my travel companion Cynthia. Slightly excessive door-slamming prompted a noise complaint from a nearby RV, not quite the scene you imagine a "teenage disturbance," to be.
We were out late. It was 10:45 PM when we walked out to the North Shore of the Sea, attempting to appreciate the stars obscured by city lights and fog. A legion of Black-necked Stilts was feeding under the cover of the night. The scene was overtly depressing. I was tired, and Cynthia must have been more so, since she had just driven straight from Joshua Tree, where all the campgrounds were taken. We sat down on the slightly damp sand. In the dark, you couldn't see all the tilapia skeletons. But I had visited here so many times, and I had written an article, after all, so I knew all the important facts to parrot about the Sea to someone who knew nothing. There were barely any stars visible and barely any words spoken. But it was a movie moment, one of those scenes in your life that you feel could appear in a depressing art film.
It was on a clear day approximately eleven months before that gloomy night that I had crunched my way to water on the same northern shore, enjoying its sharp odor. Salt and fish skeletons crackled under my feet. A new camera was strapped close to my chest. The light was dimming, and I had an article on the conservation of the Sea to publish in Birding magazine. The photos accompanying the text were to be mine; my claims of a great lens were yet to be backed up. As I reached the edge of the sea, the sun was sinking below the mountains fast.
The classic position of the bird photographer is to lie on his or her belly while taking photos, usually of waterfowl or shorebirds. Only then can you get a good depth-of-view, and a more personal photo. Naturally, this included the swimming waterbirds on the water of the Sea. I dropped into position. An American White Pelican drifted along a glossy blue surface. The sound of a furiously clicking camera shutter mingled among calls of startled shorebirds.
As lines of birds flew back to their roosting grounds, the light disappeared behind the mountains. My ISO (a setting for sensitivity to light) climbed from 1600 to 3200 to 6400, until photography was retired and appreciation for the remainder of a glorious sunset began.
The orange and yellow hues were tinged with sadness. It was the sadness of a dying Sea. The water was receding and increasingly salty; the once magnificent sea was a now a pathetic groaning beast turned on its side. The article was due soon. I had to articulate a reason to save the Sea, and a glorious evening, in a thousand words and less than a dozen photos.
Maybe I am talented at photography, maybe I'm not; but it was the kind words that everyone had given my photography in mind that I had departed at 5:00 AM on a Saturday morning, ready to do whatever I could to save the Sea. On the drive back home, my camera felt new in my hands.
In April 2017, the fate of the Sea was written in my mailbox. “Should We Save The Salton Sea?” read the article title in glossy print. An image of a dried tilapia fish accompanied the cover page. My words dripped off the paper in orange sunsets, swimming pelicans and the smell of salt. That year, I knew that I would be writing and photographing for the rest of my life.
In December 2017, the fate of the Sea was written in Cynthia's words. "This is so dead," she said, as someone who knew virtually nothing about the Sea. And I had no choice but to nod and agree, and make my precious memories of a dying sea while I could.
The window, 2013
To have a stranger die in your hands is a sad thing indeed. I remember that first beautiful red-headed male Western Tanager with a lemon yellow belly as it went limp in my hands. It taught me that life is valuable, and not to hang the feeders so close to the windows.
The funeral pyre, spring 2016
Death is something you have to deal with frequently when you monitor well over fifty nest boxes. Most of the chicks I find out are dry and flattened. I chuck them deep into the bushes where no kids can see them, along with the rest of the nest. Sometimes I cut off a leg to retrieve the band, wielding my big clumsy pliers like a medieval surgeon. The band comes off and into an envelope. Then the rest goes into the bushes.
Today heat drips off the feathers of the flying swallows. The metal clasps on the boxes are hot to the touch. I cover the hole of nestbox B24 with my hand, imitating a parent Tree Swallow bringing back food to its fledglings. Silence ensues. The chicks have fledged already.
One chick has remained in the box, eyes closed in slumber. Ants meander over the body. It is still plump, as large as it was in life. I cradle the freshly dead body. Maybe it’s the heat making me irate, but I suddenly have a death wish for the ants crawling over it. I carry the body to the water and lay a sprig of sage on its back. The body floats. I imagine the beady black insects crawling on their tiny island, desperate and stranded, destined to drown or starve. The body circles gently along a current. I place another pink blossom on it, to complete the funeral pyre. As I leave, I see it bobbing, like a fallen leaf. I cry, just a little, for the dead bird.
In the next box, all three chicks are dead. They are flat. I chuck the whole nest into the bushes.
The Hillside, Summer 2017
Sometimes I feel like a bird whisperer. The birds summon me. They chirp and fly around my head and beckon me up where the hillside, where I discover that their fledgling is being swallowed by a gopher snake. The snake is rather tiny. It shall be a tad larger after this encounter, and the Orange-crowned Warbler fledgling shall be no more. C'est la vie.
The Museum, Fall 2017
A woodpecker wing hides in my refrigerator. It was taken from a once-live Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus. Alas, birds die. Dead birds aren't normally found in freezers. It was months ago that upon discovering a body swarming with ants in a remote forest, a wing was snapped off with a sharp crack and smuggled into a soft duffel bag. The rest is in the earth. Only the glossy feathers of a single black wing remain.
17-year olds aren’t interested in dead things.
The musty smell of the San Diego Natural History Museum lab, where specimens are prepared, hits overwhelmingly; the skinless bodies stacked in the fume hood are guilty. This week they are skeletonizing a tuna. The fan is broken. Dead fish-smell overpowers the room.
Philip Unitt, my mentor, places a stack of Brown-headed Cowbirds recovered from a cowbird trap on the table. They are fresh, recently transported from the site of collection, Dos Palmas Preserve. Cowbirds are easy. They have a simple shape, easy to nail for early learners like me. “Birds are harder,” says a woman working on the opposite side of the table. In her hand, she fiddles with a tiny bat body.
Phillip approves my cowbird selection: a juvenile, with brown streaks running down its throat and belly. My scalpel splits the skin open in a neat line. Huge yellow globules peek out. Damnit. Fat birds are easy to soil; grease stains feathers and turns it an unattractive orange color. Memories of a fat Rosy-faced Lovebird, my last specimen attempt, resurface; parrots are sparse-feathered, and my rough handling of the greasy skin left the lovebird balding. The cowbird has more feathers. I hope it will look better.
The work of skinning a bird is methodical. The bell tower in Balboa Park tolls every few hours. My mind is immersed in the rich anatomy of the cowbird. Skin down the thighs, separate the thigh and drumstick meet, then a caudal cut, peeling down of the skin. Now the bird is inside out. Ask Phillip questions. Pull the ears and cut the eyes. “Do you have your own private collection?” I inquire. Snip neatly along the skull. Clean the brains. “No, I don’t,” he replies. Pull the bird back right-side out. Clean the wings, tie them together shoulder-length. Realize that keeping a woodpecker part in my freezer might be illegal. Wash the bird, it was slightly soiled. Dry it. Run the cotton eyes up the throat. Wrap the body. Take your needle and your thread, and sew the belly of the bird up. A clock chimes for noon. The smell of dead fish is less distinctive.
“I will be in Baja California next week,” Phillip says. My cowbird lays pinned on a cardboard platter, Phillip’s completed specimens beside it. The juvenile bird’s shape is a little too dense. An adult male laying beside it is perfect and fluffy.
“How about the week after?” I ask, eager to rid my woodpecker wing. I begin packing.
Outside is a brilliantly blue sky. The bus stops by every twenty minutes. Last week, the doors were closing as I walked down the sidewalk. Today, I am on time. Week-by-week, I perfect the timing in my routine. Sundays are for taxidermy. Two weeks from now, I will be returning, this time, with a jet-black woodpecker wing.
The beetle room, winter 2018
Volunteering at a natural history museum means you often come face-to-face with death. Today, my mentor, Phil. takes me to the “beetle room,” where meat-covered corpses are left to naturally decompose in a beetle colony in the process of skeletonization. The warehouse is in Chula Vista. Phil drives me there. His truck still has one of those window cranks, that you have to physically wind to move the windows up and down. Our conversation about Trump seems out of the time period.
We stop in the parking lot of a storage center. Phil and Leah, another taxidermist, gesture towards the biggest unit, one big enough to fit five people comfortably. They open the lids of our containers. In the biggest one, a deconstructed orangutan skeleton is nestled among jars. “I think it had a human name,” Leah remarks. “Bertha, or something old fashioned like that.” The other box contains a half-decomposed lynx corpse. I remember seeing it being gutted earlier in the week. The taxidermist had appeared like a wild hunter of the West, carving out the meat with a knife while chiding the “kitty,” in a raspy voice.
The inside of the unit is stacked high with jars. Leah immediately opens a big storage bin that occupies one fourth of the floor. She sifts through boxes of half-decomposed skeletons. Stringy, dry meat hang halfheartedly from unidentifiable bones. A spider scurries over her finger.
I jump back. I’m arachnophobic.
“We have a spider problem,” she says. I take one step back, noticing the foot of cobwebs to my right.
“I’m arachnophobic,” I say apologetically.
Leah nods. She and Phil browse through the shelves, occasionally asking me to hand them jars, or giving me jars of skeletons to put away. There are not many: most of the beetle colony dies off in winter.The outside breeze shifts around layers of insect exoskeletons. I make sure to stand upwind. Five more spiders scurry out from between the shelves.
In between passing jars, I find myself staring again at the human-like visage of the orangutan. It has crooked teeth. Orangutans don’t have dental care.
The time comes to say good-bye to the oragutan. I will miss Bertha, or Debbie, or whatever her name was. But I will see her again, maybe in a year’s time, when the rest of decomposition has been completed.
When we return, we fill the jars containing skeletons with water, where bacteria will continue the next stage of decomposition. The process feels impersonal. Each animal is assigned a tag with its scientific name and date of death. Some were beloved zoo animals. All will go through the same four steps, and eventually they will all end up in a dark, small, cardboard box on a shelf in the back of the museum.
“Special Cashews,” reads the label of one of the jars. The smell of ammonia wafts from another.
Before I leave, Phil asks me to string together the vertebrae of a Harpy Eagle retrieved from the zoo. Each talon measures three inches across. I fit together the tiny pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, feeling the groove between each bone carefully.
I wonder if death always feels this scientific.
I never want to go to the beetle room again, not until they clean it out and get rid of the excess of spiders. The scurrying black arachnids evoke some sort of adrenaline-pumping impulse in me. At the sight of a spider, my parasympathetic nervous system activates my flight-or-fight response, as if I am in a life or death situation. Even in a warehouse dedicated to the ritual of death, my primitive brain wants to live.
The vertebrae of the eagle are clean and easy to grasp. I will be content to see Bertha again, in the relatively spider-free shelves of the lab.