The Casual Blog

Tag: great blue heron

Thinking about animals: puffins and other wild things

Yates Mill Pond

Last week I was notified that I had a spot on a nature photography trip to Lubec, Maine, after waiting for some months on the wait list.  The trip, sponsored by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, has as a prime objective shooting Atlantic puffins, which nest on nearby Machias Seal Island. They’re comically beautiful little birds. With only a week to get organized, I joined the GNPA, booked a room,  bought a plane ticket, arranged for a rental car, and started cramming on Maine and puffins.  

On Saturday, Sally did a hike at Yates Mill Pond park, and saw a family of 5 red-headed woodpeckers.  I took my equipment there on Sunday, and couldn’t spot the woodpeckers, although I’m pretty sure I heard them.  With our hardwood trees now fully leafed in, it’s hard to see birds, but there were plenty singing there on Sunday.  I’ve been refreshing on my bird song ID skills, and recognized perhaps a dozen familiar songs and calls. There were perhaps a dozen more that I couldn’t identify, so I’ve got a lot to learn.  I also took some pictures there of a great blue heron.

A great blue heron

Also last week, I went out to Anderson Point park east of Raleigh on the Neuse River.  It had been a long time since my last visit. The place used to be one of the best places to hear and see birds in Raleigh.  But, as I discovered, the park is now completely gone, replaced by single family homes. It made me very sad to think of the wild creatures that used to thrive there which lost their habitat and their lives.  

Humans are extremely dangerous to non-human animals.  Even when we’re not killing them to eat or just for the fun of it, we hardly give a thought to eradicating them by taking their territory.  This is bad for humans, inasmuch as it makes our world less varied and beautiful, but, obviously, worse for the victims.   

We’re taught from an early age to regard humans as inherently superior to other beings, and as somehow having an unlimited right to exploit and murder those beings.  But the support for this position is dubious.  We tolerate this situation because we’ve been deeply conditioned  to avoid and ignore it.  But it doesn’t take a moral genius to see there’s something not right here.  Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee, and also hard to know how to address it. 

Christine Korsgaard has a go at it in her recent book, Fellow Creatures:  Our Obligations to the Other Animals, which I’ve been working my way through.  Korsgaard, an eminent philosophy professor at Harvard, comes out of the Kantian tradition, but disagrees with Kant’s view that non-human animals are not entitled to moral recognition.  After a multi-stage analysis, she concludes that there is no principled justification for treating the lives of non-human animals as having less value than homo sapiens’ lives. The great Thomas Nagel gives a good summary and endorsement of Korsgaard’s book in The New York Review of Books (subscription required).  

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

My surefire tax cut system, and some thoughts on the military and terrorism

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Gabe had his birthday this week, and we went out for dinner at An to celebrate. Diane, who’s not been well recently, joined us, and seemed in good form, as did Gabe’s sparky redheaded girlfriend, Clark. I had a lychee cosmopolitan and veggie ramen, and enjoyed everything.

Gabe is about two-thirds through his first semester as an on-line grad student in graphic design at Parsons, and seems to be kicking it. Initially I was dubious about the on-line approach, but it’s working well for him. He’s getting challenging assignments and feedback that keeps him focused and motivated, working really hard. His projects look fantastic. He’s played some of the audio critiques he’s received from teachers and students, and they are trenchant and highly positive.
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Because of the birthday dinner, we missed the Republican debate, which I wanted to catch, because I really would like to understand the Republican mindset better. But from reading the press accounts, it didn’t sound like I missed much that was ground breaking. The candidates all are in favor of lower taxes, and most are in favor of a stronger military.

One exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul was particularly revealing. I strongly agree with Paul on a couple of things (and disagree on many), and could probably agree with Rubio on something. But I was stunned to learn that Rubio wants to raise the military budget by a trillion dollars.

Our current military budget is around $615 billion , so raising by a trillion would be a 162 percent increase. Leaving to one side the obvious impossibility that this could be paid for while lowering taxes, there’s the question of why anyone would think this a good idea. We have the most expensive military in the world by far. Our military expenditures are currently greater than the next seven countries in the world combined. To state the obvious, our relative military power is unparalleled.
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Our military strength is wonderful, in a way, but also useless, in a way. It is of no help at all against a disciplined, determined cell of terrorists. Indeed, it could well be that our military activities of recent decades have inspired and invigorated more terrorists than they’ve destroyed. In any case, there’s no basis for thinking that even massive amounts of bombs and bullets could ever eliminate a fanatical, violent ideology. We’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t work.

I have written before about the havoc wrought by our military misadventures, and I still think there’s a huge disconnect between our ideals and our misdeeds in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But for argument’s sake, forget all that, and just look at the finances. We’ve spent a huge portion of our wealth on those unnecessary and unsuccessful wars. And we continue to to spend sums that are barely conceivable on them. There’s an interesting graphic showing how we’re hemorrhaging money for military purposes here.

So, for those who believe the most important possible political reform is to lower taxes, wouldn’t it be appealing to take the largest single item of nonrecurring expenses – defense – and cut it by, say, twenty-five percent? Could anyone seriously doubt that there’s at least that much waste and useless spending in the existing defense budget? Admittedly, we might need to think more carefully before embarking on and continuing unnecessary wars, but that would not be a bad thing. So, for my friends who view the issue of lowering taxes as the preeminent public policy, could we agree on this: we’d be better off, in a lot of ways, if we stopped the financial bleeding of an out-of-control military?
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I wrote most of these thoughts before the horrible carnage this week in Paris, where the death toll from 8 suicide attackers now stands at 129. I lived in Paris for several months years ago, and feel a special affection for the city, and like everyone, I’m in the midst of shock and sorrow at the attacks.

We should be outraged. But these strong emotions may lead France and other countries to policies that cause many more deaths and ultimately increase the risk of terrorism, as happened after 9/11. Already President Hollande has characterized the attackers as “a terrorist army” that committed “an act of war,” and Nicolas Sarkozy has called for “extermination” of ISIS. But it wasn’t an army, and we can’t end jihad fanaticism by killing all the jihadists. As I learned in my rescue diver course, in an emergency, the first thing to do is stop, and think.

On Saturday I went out to Cary for a haircut with Ann, my longtime hair cutter, and then went for a walk in Swift Creek Bluffs park. The path was covered with brown leaves, and they crunched as I walked. A few leaves were falling. The colors were mostly yellows, browns, and pale greens.
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Big birds at Crabtree Swamp, and a first spin class at Flywheel

14 09 28_2902There’s a wide-but-shallow wide body of water to one side of Raleigh Boulevard which is fed by Crabtree Creek. It has no official name that I can find, so I’m hereby naming it Crabtree Swamp. CS is worth knowing about if you enjoy seeing birds, turtles, dragonflies, and other creatures. There isn’t usually much drama, though I once saw a doe leaping and splashing in desperate flight from a pursuing buck. It has a long boardwalk over it that allows for good views into the woods and out over the water.
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Sally had mentioned to me that she’d taken Stuart (our dog) for a walk up there recently, and seen a great blue heron and a great egret. They were still around fishing when I got there with my equipment last weekend. I used my long Sigma zoom lens (150-500 mm) with a 2x tele converter, a heavy set up that required a tripod.
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Both birds would stand frozen, watching, for periods, and then move almost imperceptibly, and then, suddenly, they would radically change shape and position. A hundred yards or so away, I stood on the boardwalk for well over an hour, watching them, working hard to get them in focus with proper exposure, trying to anticipate their next phase shift. It was absorbing.
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Happy as I was watching these brilliant creatures, later that day, when I downloaded the 423 new images, I wasn’t thrilled with the quality. Alas, I’d forgotten to switch on the lens’s image stabilization system. In any case, there were a few photos I liked enough to share.
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In contrast to the subtle joys of trying to capture the essence of the big birds, also last weekend I tried a new spinning experience — Flywheel, at Cameron Village. I liked it. Whenever I try to describe spinning to a non-spinner, I realize it sounds a little crazy. The basic situation is, you ride on a stationary bike as ordered by an outrageously fit teacher to thumping club music. What’s to like? Well, it’s an amazing workout. You quit thinking, just follow orders, listen to the music, sweat, become one with the class, and feel the endorphins.
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The new Flywheel operation has been successful in New York and other cities, and I can see why. They let you pre-register and reserve a bike. They figure out if you’re new the moment you walk in and take care to show you the ropes. They provide special shoes, towels, lockers, and (a great idea – it’s loud) earplugs. The bikes are set on risers, stadium style, and they’re nice, heavy non-vehicles that have digital read outs showing the amount of effort you’re putting in.
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Once the class starts, the room is dark. You can see the teacher at the front (very fit) and also a screen that lists (if you opt in) your units of effort relative to those of others. Yes, there’s a kind of race – who can spin the hardest? At the end of the 45 minutes, I managed, barely, to come in second (one unit ahead of the next male down). I felt tired but good.
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