The Casual Blog

Tag: birds

Spring birds, and The New Jim Crow

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

Spring is definitely arriving here in Raleigh, and the birds are singing lustily.  This week at Jordan Lake, I sawsome juvenile bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons.  At Shelley Lake, I enjoyed my old friends the Canada geese, and there was a towhee who posed nicely for me while singing.

A towhee

At Jordan Lake, I thought I might have spotted a rarity — a black-headed gull.  After studying my bird books, I posted a picture on the Carolina Bird Photographers Facebook page, and asked for the opinion of any gull experts.  I got a quick response: it was a Bonaparte’s gull, which is not uncommon. I was a little disappointed, but I now have a firmer grasp of what a Bonaparte’s looks like.

A Bonaparte’s gull that looked a lot like a black-headed gull

For the spring migration, I’ve been refreshing on my bird song identification skills, using Peterson recordings and the Audubon app.  I’m able to identify most of our local birds, and I’m getting ready for the less common migrants.

I finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I highly recommend.  Alexander, a former civil rights attorney and professor, paints a powerful and disturbing picture of mass incarceration in the US, showing that the  war on drugs was to a great extent a war on black people. Seemingly race neutral laws resulted in a huge increase in imprisonment, with most of the prisoners black people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. 

This had a ripple effect through black communities, destroying families and leaving a large percentage of black males unable tp find work and unable to vote. The effect has been comparable to the Jim Crow system for suppressing blacks after abolition, and has sustained our racial caste system using the race neutral terminology of crime.    

An osprey at Jordan Lake

There’s a quick overview of the book in Wikipedia, and she wrote a recent essay in the NY Times that has some of her main points.    though I thought it was well worth reading the whole book.  

Alexander was on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast recently, and sounded like a really knowledgeable and thoughtful person.  The subject of the podcast was prison abolition. This was the first time I’d heard that there is a prison abolition movement that is connected to the insights of her book.  The basic idea is to address mass incarceration by changing our penal system, including redefining what’s criminal and designing less draconian punishments. This does not sound at all crazy, and I look forward to learning more.  

Juvenile bald eagle

 When Alexander’s book was first published ten years ago, her message that the drug war was a  symptom and expression of a racial caste system seemed radical, but it’s becoming widely accepted.  We’ve made some progress in modifying the worst discriminatory laws of the war on drugs and addressing policing abuses, but much of the system is still in place, and the victims are all around us.  It’s a prime opportunity to exercise our capacity for compassion, expand our political vision, and work for change.

Cold first flights, and a thought experiment — forget the rule of law

 

It was cold here this week, and it took some willpower to get up while it was still dark and roll out to check on the birds.  But I did it, making it to Shelley Lake just after sunrise to listen to the geese honking and watch them take their first flights of the day.  Each bird and each group bird is a little different. As the sunlight hits the trees on the far side of the lake, the calm dark water turns orange and green.  

As always, it was calming and invigorating to spend some time beside the still water with the geese, ducks, herons, gulls, eagles, and song birds.  But there were challenges. One day my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the shutter button on my camera.  But fortunately, I didn’t get frostbite, and I wore heavier gloves after that.   

My more serious pain issue now is from the Trump impeachment fireworks.  Last week I suggested that too much anger, hysteria, and other strong emotions are a big part of our polarization problem, and we need to calm down.  I admit, I was thinking the Trumpians might need calming more than me, but I’ll also admit, I’m finding I greatly need it.    

I was stunned and sickened when the Republican legislators repeatedly declared this week that the investigation of Trump  was a sham. They said it was a hoax, a witch hunt, and a dastardly sneak attack on America. They compared their Democratic colleagues to those who crucified Jesus!  What they did not do was acknowledge the voluminous evidence of Trump’s serious misconduct, much less attempt to rebut it.  

I keep trying to understand this world view, in which Trump is the innocent victim of the evil Democrats.  As I’ve said before, part of the explanation seems to be tribal loyalty and fear of being cast out of the tribe, but a big part of it seems to be raw anger and hatred of Democrats, fueled by the Fox-led propaganda machine and reinforced by group-think.  The Republicans seem to be projecting their hatred of Democrats onto Democrats. That is, they seem to think the real problem is Democrats’ blind hatred of Trump, rather than what Trump did.  

Perhaps in the Republican mind this justifies dismissing the evidence against Trump as a sham.  In this mind, their obstruction of the process, obfuscating, repeating diversionary lies, and promoting wingnut conspiracy views are all the lesser of evils, necessary to combat the greater of evils (that is, Democrats).

Whatever the causes, I’ve been expecting the Republican fever to break (as Michelle Goldberg put it in her column yesterday).  I’ve thought that eventually the dissonance between reality and their alt-reality would become untenable.  Surely loyalty to the nation, honesty, and honor would eventually prevail. But the hearings this week and the lack of any indication of diverging views among Senate Republicans have made me think (along with Goldberg), that I may have been mistaken.  We may be starting a new normal.

The Republicans’ unqualified support for Trump is probably more corrosive of our democracy than Trump’s own misconduct.  Let me explain.  We’ve only got two major parties, and one of them is signaling that there is nothing — no crime or constitutional violation — that a president of their party can commit that they will deem disqualifying.  If that turns out to be their final position, the president will no longer be subject to our traditional system of checks and balances. That is, the president will not be subject to the rule of law. That would be a big change in the very idea of law.  

Great blue heron

So it doesn’t seem premature to consider the possibility that without much reflection we’re about to dramatically change our system of government.  How will life be different if the legislature and the courts exert no authority over the supreme leader, and the law has force and meaning only when it suits the leader?

In fact, there are already a number of systems like that.  I’m thinking of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the list goes on.  And more appear to be coming on line. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen to democracy in India, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, and that list also goes on.  

I wouldn’t volunteer to be a citizen of China or other authoritarian, but of course life in any of those places wouldn’t be all bad.  There would be many of the things we enjoy and value now, like friends and family, art and entertainment, adventures and sports, good food and wine.  There would be beautiful forests, mountains, and ocean waves. The swans would still swim in lakes and mount the air.

Hooded mergansers

But without protections for a free press or free speech, opposition to the regime would gradually fall silent.  Normal life would not include any meaningful political participation. There would be no limits on arbitrary state violence.  

Just as now, our leaders would act out of ordinary human impulses like greed and the lust for power, but unlike now, there would be nothing to check those impulses.   Just as now, our leaders could harbor racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bias, and hatred of political opponents, but unlike now, no law would generally prevent violent action against targeted groups.  Just as now, there would be powerful propaganda and wacky conspiracy theories, but fewer and fewer rebuttals based on reality.  

Mallards

This is depressing, I realize.  So I should also say I don’t think any of this is inevitable.  I heard a podcast recently recounting a few cases where people had fallen out of planes for thousands of feet, hit a kindly tree branch or a snowbank, and survived.  Sometimes, even when it looks like all is lost, you catch a lucky break.  

But rather than count on a long-shot miracle, we’d better start coping with the reality we’ve got — the reality that is obscured by overwhelming fear and hatred.  Unless we figure out a way to overcome that fear and hatred, we’re in big trouble. The place to start is with ourselves. In first aid training, they teach you that the first thing to do in an emergency is stop and think.  Take a moment to calm down. Take some deep breaths.

New bird views, meditating for health, and the Trumpian take on liberals

 

With the chilly and rainy weather this week, I didn’t get out for any nature photography.  I missed seeing the birds, but was glad to have some extra time to experiment with photo processing. I’ve been improving my Lightroom and Photoshop skills, and learning how to use Nik, Topaz, and Luminar software.  Along with various failures and frustrations, I’ve discovered some new possibilities.  

These images are revisions of recent shots.  When I first made them, I was excited to be able to see details that were generally invisible to the human eye.  Looking at them again reminded me of the joy of just looking at the birds and sharing their world.  Trying out new software tools to the images made me look at the animals in new ways.  

Like most everyone, I generally think of reality as fixed and solid, though I also try to keep in mind that there are other ways to think about it.  Along that line, I’m currently reading Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. Carroll is a research professor of theoretical physics at CalTech.  He gives a lively account of the main ideas of quantum theory, including the mind-bending oddities, such as entanglement (particles affecting the behavior of distant particles).  

For all its remarkable theoretical and practical achievements, Carroll admits that quantum physics is incomplete, lacking in a broadly accepted paradigm.  He is supportive of the Many Worlds theory, which holds that the best explanation of quantum phenomena is that our universe is only one of a great many. I’d thought that Many Worlds was some sort of game for deep science nerds, but he convinced me that it’s more than that. 

More research is required.  Anyway, along with our enormous universe, there could be many others, some with beings like us that we can never communicate with.  That seems less farfetched after experiencing the polarization of US politics, and most recently the Trump impeachment hearings.

 

Watching Republican legislators last week was, for me, surreal.  Asked to address hard evidence that Trump had acted in direct opposition to US policy on Ukraine in order to benefit himself, they tried various maneuvers, including objecting to procedures, talking about conspiracies, and babbling and shouting incoherently — seemingly anything to avoid the issue.

I couldn’t watch for long — it was just too painful.  But I saw enough to conclude that these Republicans had very strong feelings.  They were very emotional. I had been assuming that they were cynical hypocrites, with little regard for the public interest or much of anything other than their own selfish interests.  

But their anger seemed sincere.  So I decided to work with the assumption that they sincerely believed that Trump had done nothing wrong and was the victim of an evil witch hunt by liberals.  I wondered how, in spite of a mountain of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such a belief could arise.

Part of the story is surely Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press.  By calling every report that is unfavorable to him “fake news,” Trump seems to have thought that he could create doubt and confusion about facts that were otherwise uncontested.  And, amazingly, he may have been right.

I originally assumed that no thinking person would buy the fake news idea.  After all, Trump has such a long record of compulsive lying on matters large and small that the most reasonable assumption about his latest statement is that it is false.  He also reflexively resorts to the schoolkid move of flipping any attack, as in, “You can’t say I’m a bully — you’re the bully!” As his preferred “news” organ, Fox News, beams out praise for him and attacks on his opponents without regard to reality, it makes a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland sense that he’d call all other news “fake.”  

The traditional media has struggled to survive in an online world, with newspapers closing left and right.  But other than the Trumpian claims, there’s no reason to think that our long established and respected media organs, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, have switched from their traditional business of reporting on actual events in a relatively balanced way to just making things up.  The charge of fakeness generally comes with no back up evidence or proposed corrections.  But the claim of “fake news” seems to really resonate with Republicans.

Why?  I have some ideas.  First, there’s the information bubble.  Our online world has made it easy to surround oneself entirely with information sources that fit one’s own preferences and biases, and avoid any contrary information.  Fox News has been a trailblazer in the dark art of stylish disinformation, while Facebook, Twitter, and others have enabled the creation of alternative realities.

At the same time, human thought processes are far from reliable.  Our brains are generally subject to confirmation bias, which makes us tend to believe what fits with our prior beliefs.  We avoid cognitive dissonance, or information that calls into question those beliefs.  We are prone to mistakes based on our likes and dislikes.  We’re also inclined to think whatever the tribe says we should think.  Even with the calmest, most rational among us are subject to these tendencies. 

And Trumpism does not encourage calmness and rationality.  It encourages fear and anger. Trumpism sounds the alarm as to various non-existent threats that are declared to be dire:  hordes of brown-skinned people invading across the southern border so they can rape and pillage and take over jobs, minorities that are predominantly criminals, child molesting gays, secularists destroying traditional religion, Jews, etc.  

But the most dire, most hated threat in the Trumpian universe is liberals.  This is so bizarre that it took a long time for liberals to see it.  Liberals thought they were engaged in ordinary life and politics, in which having diverse views was normal.  That is, liberals thought of themselves as normal people, and of Trumpian Republicans as basically normal people who just disagreed with them.  Liberals assumed the feeling was mutual. 

That turned out to be wrong.  In the Trumpian world view, liberals are not just ordinary political opponents.  They are a threat to the social  order and basic values. They are subhuman animals. They are evil.  

As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in a good op ed piece, Trump treats liberals as “the enemy” and subjects them to a constant barrage of dehumanizing propaganda.  Liberals are “scum.” Repetition and amplification by Fox News and its allies fills the Trumpians’ information bubble.  

So the Republican legislators’ recent behavior — the lies, the insults, the shouting — probably seems to them well justified.  Fearful for their careers and their tribe, they feel that they’re under violent attack and must defend themselves.  For them, facts that implicate Trump are ipso facto just “fake news.” Those who say otherwise are evil liberals. 

When we get excited or scared, it’s much harder to think reasonably and to be our best selves.  This is one of the reasons I spend some time every day doing mindfulness meditation.  It settles me down emotionally. It also helps in understanding more about how the mind works, and recognizing that it is just the mind.  For a timer, I use a free app called Insight Timer,  which also has a collection of good instructive talks.  I’ve also benefited from the guided meditations from an app called Calm.  

 

The end of fall, a photo contest, a piano event, and considering impeachment

 

The fall colors have faded here in recent days, and the trees have dropped most of their leaves.  Most mornings I stood in the cold by Shelley Lake with my camera waiting for the first light and the birds. A few minutes after sunrise, the Canada geese took off with much honking and splashing.  For a few minutes, the calm water reflected the forest colors. Every so often, a bald eagle swept over the water, probably looking for a fish, but not catching one when I was looking. The great blue herons changed fishing spots every ten or fifteen minutes, while flocks of ring billed gulls wheeled about.  I enjoyed watching the birds and got a few shots I liked, which are here.  

I’ve been looking at a lot of nature photography as part of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association annual members’ choice contest, which I entered this year.  I certainly learned something in the process of choosing and polishing a few images, and am learning more from reviewing hundreds of competing landscapes, wildlife shots, and macro subjects.  It would be gratifying to place in this competition, but I’m not counting on it, since there are quite a few excellent images that could arguably be viewed as the best.

 

I also learned some things from my first piano performance at Presto, a group of amateur pianists that regularly play for each other in members’ houses.  While playing the piano has been one of the joys of my life, I’ve had few opportunities to share the music that I’ve loved with people who feel similarly.  I’ve viewed engaging with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and others primarily as music therapy, bringing me happiness and sanity.  But music is inherently social, and sharing it is important.

The Presto group in Raleigh includes some nice people who enjoy classical music and play at various levels, including some who are highly accomplished.  I felt some trepidation as I took on a fairly demanding piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2. But preparing helped me see some new aspects of it.  The actual performance was not entirely fun. At one point I felt like the hands attached to my arms were not my own, and they were not playing my best. But it wasn’t a disaster, and I appreciated several kind words.    

 

Meanwhile, I’ve been following the Trump impeachment proceedings with a particular question in mind:  what is the deal with Republican leaders? For my friends who are occupied with matters more important than American politics, here’s the nutshell from the new House impeachment report:

The impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.  In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent.  In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. 

As my friend, Michael Gerhardt of UNC Law School, said (roughly), if Trump’s conduct is not impeachable, nothing is.   His written statement is here.   Key comments from the other testifying law professors are here.    On Friday a group of more than 500 law professors issued an open letter supporting impeachment. 

 

And the key facts really aren’t in dispute.  But Republican legislators are, at least publicly, united in support of doing nothing.  Trying to fathom what may be in their heads, I’ve considered various motives, but the most persuasive to me is fear.  Cory Booker mentioned this in a podcast interview with David Remnick a few weeks back.  Asked to explain why his Senate colleagues didn’t speak out, he said they were afraid.

I think what Booker meant was that they feared that their careers would be destroyed by Trump forces if they departed from Trumpism.  But there may be a related and deeper fear:  being separated from the tribe.  

For social animals, including humans, the need to be part of the tribe, herd, or flock is fundamental.  The individual cannot survive except as part of the group. Members of the tribe will tolerate bad leadership, as long as it’s not as bad as the highly risky alternative of isolation.

Of course, people do sometimes leave their tribes, and tribes splinter and re-form.  The really interesting question is how bad does it have to get?  In particular, what would the Trumpians have to do to exceed ordinary Republicans’ boundaries of tolerance?   I would have thought that subverting U.S. foreign policy for personal gain would qualify. But then again, I used to think that obvious fraud (like Trump University and the Trump charity), encouraging racist violence, bragging about sexual assault, and separating immigrant children from parents each would each be more than enough.  And that’s before we get to the attacks on the free press, undermining our traditional alliances like NATO, supporting recognized enemies like Russia, and threatening nuclear annihilation.  The list goes on.  

So it’s really hard to say.  But I’m trying to keep in mind that, even if we go over the constitutional cliff, it’s not because the Trumpian legislators are evil.  They’re just humans. And they might be persuaded to change course. That means it’s worth continuing the conversation.  

Some flying birds, and some Thanksgiving myth-busting

 

This Thanksgiving week I’ve been trying hard to get to Shellie Lake at sunrise.  The birds usually start flying shortly after that in the warm fall colors. As I went to the same place every day, it seemed like the birds seemed to be getting used to me.  One group of geese swam to the shore close to me and started out of the water. Just then a jogger came along the path, and they retreated.  I didn’t necessarily think they liked me better, but most likely they  preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar — just like us.  

We had a happy Thanksgiving dinner with family, and of course thought about some of the many things we had to be grateful for.  One of those things was new this year: I was grateful that there were several pieces of mainstream journalism on the truth behind the traditional Thanksgiving story—  in the NY Times (here and here), the Washington Post (here), and elsewhere.   They pointed out that the story most of us were taught significantly distorts the history of early English colonialists and their relation to North America’s indigenous peoples.  

This is a chapter of American history that still gets little attention in our basic history courses, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel good about the colonists’ attacking and in some cases destroying civilizations.   But pretending it was otherwise is even more problematic. 

The traditional Thanksgiving story is tricky, because the superficial lesson is a sweet one of racial harmony.  But the more subtle message is about the racial superiority of the colonists and the inferiority of the “savages.”  That second message — that the white race is superior — continues to infect our society. Some of its victims (surviving Native Americans) are still with us.  We owe Native Americans a lot, as the traditional story acknowledges. We can cultivate respect for them, and work towards realizing the racial harmony of that story.  

President Trump has issued a call to arms against those who supposedly want to declare a “War on Thanksgiving.”  The point seems to be sort of like the supposed “War on Christmas” — that is, generating fear and outrage in the Republican base at any challenges to traditional practices, be they religious, consumerist, or just old habits.

 

It took me a long time to realize that there are real people who are genuinely triggered by this bogus fearmongering.  They are highly susceptible to false claims that their values and way of life are under attack by liberals. When they watch Fox News, they hear such claims all the time, and they get angry and afraid.  They are encouraged to believe that the true cause of their anger and fear is liberals. So they really hate liberals!

This is the best explanation I can come up with for a good portion of Republicans continuing to support Trump.  No matter how clear the evidence of his high crimes and misdemeanors, they see him as a lesser evil than the evil liberals.  

There’s no clear path out of this level of polarization, which calls to mind the dehumanization of wartime enemies (remember “Krauts” and “Japs”?).  But I’m still hopeful that the fever will eventually break. After all, we’re now pretty good friends with the Germans and Japanese.

Anyhow, just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting a war on Thanksgiving.  And I’d like to throw out a few last notes of respect and gratitude for people who are risking much struggling for human dignity and the planet, including students fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, Europeans protesting consumerism and environmental irresponsibility, South Americans protesting corruption and inequality, and many others.  Let us all give thanks for those brave souls, and perhaps find in ourselves something of their courage.

Catching local birds flying, and considering their lives and ours (including improved eating)

We’ve been happily not traveling lately, and instead I’ve been keeping an eye out for the creatures and fall colors in the Raleigh parks.  Several mornings a week I’ve been getting up early, bundling up, and hauling my photography equipment to Shelley Lake, Umstead, Durant, or another nearby green space.  The eagles at Shelley Lake are working on a new nest, and I caught one that had just caught a fish. I enjoyed watching the Canada geese and mallards flying in groups, and blue herons working on nests.

The NY Times had a good story this week about vulturine guineaflowl and their surprising abilities.  These east African birds have relatively small brains, but surprisingly complex social organizations.  It made me think there may still be a lot to learn about the lives and talents of the birds we take for granted, like our common ducks and geese.  

It seems to me self evident that their lives have value, and as a matter of basic morality we owe them respect and consideration.  So I’ve been struggling with how to think about the current crisis. Bird populations in North America have declined by almost 30 percent in the last 50 years. That’s about 3 billion dead birds.  See the Cornell Ornithology report.  There are various factors (habitat loss, pesticides, pet cats), but the root cause is us.  Our systems and lifestyles have resulted in an ongoing bird holocaust.  

The latest Audubon magazine acknowledged the tragedy, but stressed that there’s a lot we can do save a lot of wildlife.  It discusses not just political leadership and technical initiatives, but also how we can be more responsible in our own traveling, yard care, eating, and other areas.  Things are not hopeless — just desperate — and we are not powerless.  

Apropos of change for the better, Sally and I tried a new (to us) restaurant last week:  Soca at Cameron Village, and loved it! It has great, modern-but-warm look, and features various interesting small plates (tapas).  We were delighted when our friendly waiter alerted us to the vegan menu, and found several interesting dishes to try. Everything was delicious.  N.B., prices were at the special-occasion level.

We also watched on Netflix a recent documentary on eating better:  The Game Changers. It presented some world class athletes and public figures, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made the switch from meat to plant food, with no regrets.  It addressed some of the misunderstandings around plant-based eating, including the myth that you can’t get enough protein, and showed that living free of animal products is consistent with high-level athletic performance.  You also get a lowered risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.  

Of course, the health benefits of a plant-based diet are only one of the excellent reasons to quit eating meat.   You also reduce the torture and killing of animals and the huge amounts of greenhouse gases from factory farming. Anyhow, I recommend the film.

I also recommend Sam Harris’s latest Making Sense podcast, in which Harris interviews Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and religious skeptic.  It is really a bracing discussion of some cutting edge science.  

Dawkins is well-spoken and entertaining, and, it turns out, knows almost nothing about insight meditation.  Harris, who is also a meditation teacher, gave Dawkins an impromptu lesson which also taught me a few things.  Among other points, he noted that meditation helps us not by giving new ideas, but rather by letting us drop a lot of useless and distracting concepts, which allows us to see our reality with more clarity.  The podcast is here 

Beautiful birds

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact:  if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark.  I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.  

Canada geese coming in low

Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light.  From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.

Great egret

There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves.  A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill.  There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.  

The more I listen, the more I realize:  the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages.  Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.  

Being a bird cannot be easy.  There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere.  And then there’s the problem of human activity.

 

Killdeer

I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years.    In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were.  That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels.  All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course. 

Young deer

Puffins

 

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An Atlantic puffin

I took these pictures of Atlantic puffins week before last at Machias Seal Island off the northern coast of Maine.  Puffins nest there for a few weeks every year, and spend the rest of their lives at sea.  It’s not easy to get to the island to see them: permits are required, and there are not a lot of permits.  Even with a permit, the seas are often too rough to get there safely.  One of our two planned trips to the island was cancelled on account of weather. But for our second trip, the skies cleared up and the seas calmed down, and we got to see the famous birds.  

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With the puffins on Machias were a lot of nesting razorbills and murres.  Both are gorgeous, though of course not as photogenic as the puffins — who is?  It was a real thrill to spend time with all these amazing birds.

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A common murre, also known as a common guillemot

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Razorbills, which are the closest living relatives to the extinct great auk

The puffins are fast fliers and skilled fishermen.  And they’re incredibly cute! We stood in small wooden blinds to photograph them.  At times the birds were so close that I couldn’t get them in focus with my big zoom lens.  

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Our group was organized by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, which I joined to participate in this trip.  I enjoyed meeting the Georgians, who were all very nice and very experienced in nature photography. With Bill and Ken, I explored some of the area parks, and started to fall in love with the Maine.  There were lovely harbors, big forests, and many wildflowers.  The weather was mostly cool and rainy.  

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Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation

Chilly birds, a friendly fish in hot water, and a successful cell phone repair

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Saturday morning was overcast and chilly.  I put on some layers and warm gloves and went up to Shelley Lake to check on the birds and take some pictures.

Ring-billed gull

  There were a few dozen ring-billed gulls that mostly bobbed on the lake, but occasionally took to the air for some fast acrobatic flying.  Back home, when I looked at my pictures, I saw a pattern: when there were groups of gulls, they were usually chasing a gull that had some food.  That seems mean! A friendly passerby pointed out a couple of eagles sitting in a tree on the other side of the lake. I also enjoyed seeing the double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, and great blue herons.  The shots here were taken with big heavy lenses (Nikkor 80-400mm, and Sigma 150-500mm), and no tripod.

Chasing gulls

Why are some birds so beautiful?  This weekend I read a really good piece in the NY Times on this by Ferris Jabr:  How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.  Some birds, like peacocks, are extravagantly gorgeous, with colors and shapes that seem to make them easy targets for predators.   This seems to contradict some of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), and after 150 years scientists have still not agreed on an explanation.

But there’s modern support for the view that natural selection is supplemented by sexual selection (usually, females preferring males that look or sound better).   This implies that the animals have preferences that aren’t purely functional — that is, aesthetic preferences. Jabr’s piece gives a sense of the strong passions of the scientists involved. It’s well worth reading.

Double-crested cormorants

Speaking of animal intelligence, I want to make a note about a particular fish who captured my heart when we were scuba diving in the Bahamas.  As we prepared for a dive onto a ship wreck, our leader recommended we look around for a friendly grouper they called Binks, who she said liked to be petted.  Near the end of the dive, I looked over the top edge of the wreck and saw a little grouper (perhaps 18 inches) watching me. I extended my arm, and he came up and nuzzled my hand.  I petted him with gentle strokes, like a dog. Binks was such a sweet little fish!

I was startled at Washington Post’s report this week that recent studies have found oceans are warming significantly faster than had been thought.  Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth.  Warmer oceans mean rising sea levels, more severe weather disasters (hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, etc.). This is terrible for many living creatures, including humans, and fish, including Binks.

The Sierra Club magazine this month had an encouraging piece titled There Is No Planet B:  It’s Up to Us to Craft the Shape of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.   Robinson acknowledges the possibility of mass extinction, but outlines the possibility that we can still reverse course.  He notes that need to rethink some of our traditional capitalist assumptions, which will not be easy. But those assumptions were created by humans, and they can be changed.  

Two bald eagles on the far side of the lake

Finally, I need to give a shout out to CPR — that is, Cell Phone Repair, a local business at Holly Park, off Wake Forest Road.  I discovered last week that I’d broken the camera in my Samsung Galaxy S7 device. The guys at CPR said they could get it fixed in 3 hours.  I asked if there was anything to be done about my weakening battery, and they said, sure, they could help me out with a new battery. They got it done in 2 hours, and everything worked great!