Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day 31: Nana's Hood

Marlboro, New Jersey, 7:15 am - 8:30am
Chilly, some clouds on horizon

The Sanity Rally Crew ended up crashing with Amanda’s grandma in New Jersey last night.

Nana is a feisty 78, and wonderfully hospitable. I feel guilty about potentially disturbing her or my exhausted buddies as I slip out of the house in the morning.

Am instantly glad, though, once I step out into the chill quiet. It’s beautiful in this wooded retirement community, which has the look and feel of an established neighborhood. There’s variety in the architecture and landscaping, and it doesn’t feel like a typical cookie-cutter gated community.

It’s extremely flat here, and while there's no sign of even a small hill, I meander towards the almost-risen sun. Statistically-speaking, there’s no reason that heading east is any more likely to bring me to a hill with a clearer view of the horizon than any other direction. However, that’s the instinct, so I go with it.

I chat with an older woman about the natural surroundings, which she knows well: “I’m a walker”. I love her self-description, cuz after a month of this project, I’m a walker too. It's a more meaningful pace at which to experience nature.

Eventually I dare to wander between houses to reach a stand of woods. It’s much quieter here than along the bird-chatty houses. Perhaps this is because “wild” birds are more skittish, and I am appallingly raucous when I walk through the woods.

I have this great moment of hearing and seeing a bird of prey (hawk?) in the distance:

Back on the road I hear the bird of the day. It’s impressive to me how well birds camouflage – I have so much trouble spotting even one as loud as today’s. Eventually I catch a glimpse, I think: He’s tiny, and flits between two gnarled, leafless tall trees:

Today’s sketch was inspired by the three-repetition call of today’s bird.

Day 30: Dawn in DC

Meridian Hill Park, Washington DC, 6:45am-8am
cool, breezy, scattered smoke-wisp clouds

I am much more excited to get myself out of bed when I've got a new city to explore.

I'm out and in the chilly dark streets of DC just after 6:30am, headed for the enticingly-named Meridian Hill Park in hopes of catching sunrise.

But as I approach the park, I realize with a sinking heart that the buildings are simply too tall - I am in DC proper, after all.

However, the park is beautiful. It's compact, with peaceful reflective pools and viewing terraces that put me eye level with the tops of several trees - nice!

The bird of the day is a no-contest: the loudest, most "melodic". Following him I end up in a corner of the park where, surprise! I can see a good chunk of the horizon, including a glimpse of the sun and vivid layers of clouds.

An alternative song:

A little later, I couldn't resist recording these other southern (more temperate) delights. I know, I know, I'm supposed to stick to ONE bird a day, but it was too exciting to hear so many new birds when the Boston scene has become pretty slim pickings.

Whole crew of dark birds with grey-mottled chests, needle-beaks, perched atop a tree one block from my friend's house. Beautiful singers and such fascinating sounds! Sorry about the passing cars..

I had to run right after to a pretty inspiring and powerful gathering of about ten million people (Stewart's estimate) at the Mall, so no sketch today..

**UPDATE 11/12: Bird of the Day was a Carolina Wren, and those needle-nosed guys are Common Starlings. Thanks, Haynes!**

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Day 29: Amplified Dawn

Scarborough Hill and Pond, Franklin Park, 6:30am-8am
cool, some clouds, light breeze

My buddy Jonas joined me for the sunrise this morning. Yay, ripple effect!

We did our various calisthenics (me: push-ups/sit-ups; him: yoga), ruminated on the difference between public and private golf courses, and I learned to identify fairways from greens.

As dawn approaches, the bird of the day makes a ruckus from a nearby grove of trees.

I think this is him, or his cousin, again:

A gigantic sun rises above and through a high bank of clouds, blinding-white light amplified to three or four times its usual size by the whirling clouds around it. I think of how to render this experience in sound:

Later I show Jonas the long lake that I discovered a few days ago, and we find a whole enclave of these birds. Enclave of the Day. They move too quickly for me to catch details, but seem to NOT be robins (chests are light grey-colored).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day 28: Pysche!

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, 6:35am-7:30am
UMass Research Building parking lot, 7:35am-7:45am
moist and misty, comfortable temp, small distant clouds on horizon

Let's talk about total sunrises versus basic sunrises.

In my ideal world, the total sunrise is the FULL transition from complete night-darkness to sun-drenched light.

I have mostly been catching basic sunrises: the 15-30 minutes before the actual sun emerges, which means the sky is already pretty light by the time I get in place. But it's not my ideal..

Today got closer to complete. I left my house under a night sky, and when I arrived at the Arboretum, it was just barely becoming more blue than black.

I love this bi-chromatic period of the day.

Everything looks different by this (lack of) light. I am struck by the towering height of trees forming a tunnel over the path. The etchings of black branches are sharp against the blue-black sky.

It is awesome (in the original sense of the word).

Today's bird is again a White Throated Sparrow. I heard at least three different ones around the hill this morning. Forgive the uninvited guests: lots of dog-walkers, and morning traffic in full swing.

Mr. Bird bumps it up a notch when the chickadees start to warm up; I like his variation here:

Even when the sun itself is blocked by clouds, as it was this morning, there is no end of interest and variety in what dawn can look like. I am getting well-trained in Sun-less Dawn Appreciation.

A single smear of cloud became brilliant golden-pink, while the sun stays hidden by a mix of dense clouds and smoky mist.

Satisfied by that visual treat, I made my way home. As I neared my street, I discovered that I had been duped! ...A patch of clouds on the horizon began to glow golden-white and I could see that there would be a sun-emerging performance today after all.

Luckily I know just the spot- parking lot of the UMass Research Labs.
It was a gorgeous, if belated sunrise.

And I had been so sure that today was a sunrise-less dawn. Nature keeps teaching me that I don't know nothin' yet.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day 27: Shades of Yellow

Hemlock Hill, Arnold Arboretum, 6:45am-8am
not cold, drafty, drizzly, misty overcast

Something delectable has perfumed the air. Is it the moist earth? The sweetness of decaying leaves?

I wander through a dim and drizzly forest of hemlocks and come upon a bright yellow-gold carpet laid out in a clearing, a royal greeting hall. A nearby tree trunk offers me a seat. It is so inviting - how can I refuse?

As I examine nature's embroidery, I regret the limitations of the words "gold" and "yellow", and regret even more the usurpation of alternative color words by the cosmetics industry.

Every leaf is uniquely shaded, and there is such a variety of orangey, ochre, and gold tones, among thousands of leaves. Together, they form an incredible visual feast. Who needs to see the sun when you have these sources of light?

Meanwhile, the bird of the day, little, brown, is feasting with several cronies in a berry patch nearby. He is jumpy, so I can't get too close. A giant truck is passing at the same time.

On the path down, I am struck again and again by stunning spreads of gorgeous yellows. My favorite spot, after the carpeted hall, is an intimate yellow room, with slender trees whose foliage is just tall and sparse enough that I can stand comfortably under a clear-yellow canopy, surrounded by porous bright yellow walls.

How to create the sound of many many shades of the same color? Here is one attempt:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day 26: Ripple Effect

Peters Hill and environs, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, 6:45am-8am
unseasonably warm, some clouds

It was crazy warm out today!
I kept shedding layers: hat and gloves at the basement door, fleece at the park entrance, hoody on the hill.

As I enjoyed a partial sunrise - the sun again blocked by a cloud bank, but a clearance on the horizon allowed for some nice cloud/light displays- I reveled in the warmth and fragrance of the hour.

There was something positively summery about the moist air and warm breezes, a feeling furthered by the sudden sensation of being bitten by a mosquito. Yes, there were mosquitoes out - in late October! I tallied at least three bites.

I wondered if migrating birds would think they'd already reached Florida, and settle in. I certainly would, if I was them.

I like thinking of the crabapple trees on Peters Hill as nature's version of water station volunteers in a marathon. Specifically, those folks who hold out paper cups/little gel packs to runners as they go on their way. The trees are tireless, ever-patient volunteers offering sustenance to birds on their ultra-marathon migrations from Canada to Florida. (According to a park placard, wintertime robins in the Arboretum are not "our" robins - they are robins from further north who are on their way down South.)

The other great thing about dawn here is the emergence of sound that matches the emergence of light. It's a definite moment, a span of a couple minutes, within which all the birds rouse themselves and each other, and start to fly from tree to tree. The first bird sounds we hear are super-high chitters, followed by the cheeps of robins:

(I meant to post the recording, but it's too muddled by wind and passing cars, sorry!)

Today's bird called out to me as I ambled down a dirt path. He was, I believe, a cardinal, though he didn't sing, only cheeped real high! I think that's a chipmunk conversing with him. Can you tell the difference?

At the end of the clip, you can hear the fading sound of the cardinal as he flies away, right around when the commuter train passes.

Was a little disappointed to not find a new song on the hill today, but I satisfied my urge for discovery by finding a new place: a tiny little puddle-of-a-pond, surrounded by gorgeous sinewy redwood-like trees. It's a sweet little spot, enclosed and secretive, with a few sitting rocks.

The funny thing is, like so many places I've discovered this month, I've passed within 15 yards of this spot dozens of times in the last three years (it's on my regular running route), just never LOOKED.

The second highlight of my morning was a human connection. On my way to the redwoods, I saw a biker paused at a break in the trees, enjoying the end of the (partial) sunrise. I was happy to see a fellow dawn-aficionado.

When we passed each other a moment later, I was happier still to recognize her-- I had met Molly just this last Sunday, at a storytelling potluck where I performed one of my Bird a Day compositions. Molly said I inspired her to come out and see the sunrise! This was a fun convergence, and just the kind of ripple effect I had (secretly) hoped this project could have.

Here is an excerpt of the piece I performed on Sunday - I'm still polishing it =):

Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 25: Hazy Skies

Franklin Park, JP/Dorchester, 6:40am-8:30am
hazy, whitish-covered sky

Some mornings it's obvious that cloud cover will obscure dawn, but today's pre-dawn sky was hard to read. The hazy layer of clouds was just uneven enough, with some patches of almost-blue sky, that I thought the sun would pull through.

Alas, I was mistaken. As dawn approached the clouds thickened; greyish blanket became a whitish one.

Even without the drama of a fiery orb, it's satisfying to witness the start of day, the slow emergence of light and sound in the natural world.

There are some great natural acoustics at play in this corner of the park. A kind of resonating chamber is created in the hollow formed by a clean-cut golf-course slope, bounded by trees. Today's bird, one I had tried to catch last week, seems to revel in this space, his clear, glassy call bouncing off the golf course,

and then the waters of a nearby pond:

Franklin Park is full of surprises! I discovered that the tiny pond is connected to a longer, larger pond, full of ducks, geese as well as a large beautiful crane who refused to be stalked. A beautiful stone bridge traversed their connecting waterway, leading to a beckoning new trail -- to be explored!

After sunrise I met up with my friend Nate, who has been birding for two years. He let me try his binoculars, and showed me the "Wilderness" section of Franklin Park -- appropriately named and gorgeously secluded, with winding trails up to some higher rocky hilltops.

Up at the rocks, I learned that binoculars have a steep learning curve - it is nearly impossible to figure out what you're looking at before the flying target has moved on! - and learned to identify a titmouse. The mohawk helps, as did the gigantic red berry in his beak.

At home, I was feeling as hazy as the weather, and my sketch for the day reflected that. Yup, composed haze... we'll see how it sounds!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Day 24: Dawn-beams

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:45am-8:15am
cool, diverse mix of clouds

Another spectacular sunrise this morning, thanks to a motley assortment of clouds. We've got corrugated cardboard-clouds up high, a few slinky, gold-lined puffs just below, and a brief, brilliant, oval sun rising between two cloud banks on the horizon.

At one point, just as the sun disappears behind some puffy clouds, huge, dusty beams of rose light emerge, extending horizontally, parallel to the earth, towards me and beyond.

I've never seen anything like it: descending beams of light, yes, like the oft-painted rays of heaven coming down from clouds. But light that reaches out horizontally is quite a different sight. Yet another face of heaven...

The sun has moved much further south on the horizon, at least 1.5 handwidths, in the last 11 days (since Dawn Chorus, Day 13), and I discover a new place from which to get a good view of this part of the horizon. It's fun to be compelled to discover new sunrise-watching spots.

Today's Bird of the Day is again a Downy Woodpecker (female). This was the closest I've been to one - she was maybe 5 feet away. No calls, just pecking rhythms:

When she flew off, she joined several other woodpeckers at the same tree. It was really fun to hear multiple tappity-tap rhythms coming from a couple neighboring trees. Can you hear them here? There are at least three different woodpeckers on this cut:

At home, I sketched a piece based on the dusty beams of horizontal dawn. It's written for two of me (IE, there are two recorded layers here):

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 23: Sun-less Sunrise

Blue Hills Reservation, Canton, MA 5:30am-7:30am
cold, some shifting clouds, mostly clear

Hats off to my hiking companions this morning, Andrew and Rane, who got up in the four o'clock hour to join me for a hard-core sunrise expedition.

Make that the sun-that-didn't-rise expedition, or the sun-less sunrise expedition. And I can't blame the clouds. The dawn was not imperceptible, it was simply not perceived.. by us...

Let me explain - I had the perfect hill in mind, one I had climbed last summer. I knew it to have a clear, 250 degree, eastern view of the Boston harbor, downtown, and much of the reservation. It is the perfect sunrise spot.

However, the difference between finding a perfect summit by leisurely daylight and finding it again, one year later, by headlamp, is vast. Too vast- my memory and I couldn't close the gap.

A little run-down of our morning:

5am: We leave my house in Jamaica Plain

5:30am: Arrive Blue Hills Reservation; begin hike by headlamp (thanks to Rane's foresight!) and a practically-full moon. It is a gorgeous night sky, complete with stars.

6:10am: Arrive at top of a hill! But IT'S THE WRONG HILL - trees and a further hill block our view of the eastern horizon. We explore a bit, then decide to try to reach that next hill to the east, which looks higher and more promising.

7:00am: Arrive at second hill. IT'S STILL THE WRONG HILL. Beautiful, but with tall trees obscuring the horizon. We wander off the path, padding on deep forest-needle carpet, and find tiny patches of impending dawn sky through dense branch lattice. Can't quite see the sun yet, but it's too cold to stay still. We head down, and I can't stop apologizing.
It is one thing to fail yourself at 5 in the morning; it is exponentially more painful to have dragged others along with you.

7:05am: The birds begin to talk.
I am tickled by the conversation of this funny colony of little ones, though I can't catch sight of them. They sound like cartoon characters beeping back and forth at each other in, awesome multi-speaker surround sound. (The faint rubber-squeaky sounds are the "tree-clinging" birds I actually did see. Andrew thinks they were nuthatches):

7:10am: Bird of the Day announces himself from a nearby tree! AWESOME-sounding creature. Again, I couldn't see him, but loved his distinctive mini-machine trill. (I hope it wasn't actually a squirrel...)

Here are two snatches:

7:30am Three half-frozen hikers pile into the car and have consolation snacks (rice-cakes with cream cheese, apples) during the car ride back to JP. They were very gracious about the sunrise-less expedition. I owe these guys big time!

8am At home, I sketched ideas for an improvised piece based on three hikers sharing one headlamp.

Here is an excerpt:

**UPDATE 11/12: The beepers were White-Breasted Nuthatches, and the Bird of the Day possibly a downy or hairy woodpecker. Thanks, Haynes!**

Friday, October 22, 2010

Day 22: Deja Vu

Hills of Jamaica Plain and Anderson Park, Brookline, MA, 6:45am-7:45am
fantastical clouds, frigid, sleet, hail, some sun

It's a quintessential Boston experience: you're traveling somewhere you've never been before when suddenly a familiar intersection or landmark appears and you think, "So, that's where that is!" New linkage made on that internal Boston map...

That's how I felt when I finally reached Anderson Park this morning, picked off my bike map for its impressive altitude of 250 ft. Make that Lars Anderson Park, which houses both a large public skating rink (!!) and the Anderson Auto Museum, where I had played a gig a couple years ago. Deja vu! (At the time of the gig I thought we were a long way from home; it seemed to take forever to get to, and we drove through lots of woods to get there. Must have taken the scenic that time!)

This morning's journey to Anderson Park was only a couple miles, but all uphill, and took me through the campuses of Dexter and Alexandria Schools, the Boston British School, and the Showa Institute in search of a sunrise vista.

I had no idea that there were posh prep/boarding schools a couple miles from my house. To be honest I didn't even know those hills were there!

Had a mediocre view of a spectacular sunrise -- all kinds of fantastic clouds, some billowing and dramatically etched, others long and languid, still others dense and impenetrable. But I ran out of time to find a good spot to watch from, and had to settle for a "limited viewing" position: perched on a fence post, peering through a couple trees.

Right after the sunrise, I had time to wander the grounds and find a much money-er spot a bit further down, with a clear view. (One should never settle.)

That's when it started to snow.

Did I mention that my hands were frozen and my nose about to fall off?

OK, so what looked like snow quickly turned out to be sleet and tiny hail. It was ridiculously cold, but thankfully, short-lived.

I then hung out with some leetle leetle birdies -- tiny and greyish, with short yellow beaks, and white and black edged tails. These cheeps are SO HIGH they sound like electronically produced blips to me.

My approximation takes me higher than one is technically supposed to be able to play on the violin. I can't believe there exists a situation where I wish I had an even higher string on the (usually plenty high) violin!

The little birds are so plentiful I feel that they must be fairly common (thus less special). However, when they fly it is wondrous. They are so fast, flitting and gliding and suddenly changing direction. I see two flying in tandem, one a few inches above the other, and it is a miracle of synchronized motion.
I sketch an idea at home to mimic this.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Day 21: Sonic Frames

Franklin Park, JP/Dorchester, MA, 6:45am-8am
light frost, misty, few clouds

Mist nestled in the green hollows of the golf course this morning, transforming an urban park into an imagined Celtic countryside. I kept thinking "Anne of Avonlea" : maybe the book cover had such an image..

It was an almost cloudless sunrise: beautiful, but stark. I missed the magic and dynamism of clouds.

As I started down my hill (staying on paved paths to make amends for Tuesday's romp) I kept turning to see how the sun was doing. It was actually much more striking now from between the trees, or framed by the battered green-gold leaves of sick tree.

I started to think about "frames" and wondering about the difference between frame as boundary, and frame as content. In a way, the leaf-edged perspective of the sun was only interesting because of the leaves (frame as content). But if the sun was the main subject, one could argue that the leaves were simply an interesting line that gave more meaningful context to the sun (frame as external boundary).

I'm getting all analytical about this because I think the idea of frame applies a lot to my own projects, where I'm trying to put classical and improvised music into new contexts, framing the abstract musical experience with storytelling, narrative, movement, etc.

It is also interesting to ponder purely musical, sonic "frames" - can such a thing exist? I suppose the idea of "background" or a drone is kind of a frame, but I am curious if something even more like an external boundary can be created and perceived. (I sketched out a few ideas at home later.)

Anyway, back at Franklin Park, I'm feeling open-minded about bird sounds after yesterday's realization that I need to learn a lot more to mimic a bird chorus- not just the melodic and complex ones! Peeps, cheeps, squawks - I need to learn them all!

Today's bird eeeked at me from pretty close-range, which is usually a decisive factor for selection. It had a very perky tail (making a V with the body) -- I'm afraid that's the only clue I've got.

A jay was screeching close by, and I enjoyed this "accidental" (incidental) duet. It's fun to imagine they are talking to each other, but the reality is they were in their own worlds and the sounds happened to overlap.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 20: Hush

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, 6:55am-7:45am
mostly cloudy, nippy

Somebody cut the grass on Peters Hill. It's not so rugged a walk as last time, and my dew-proof rain-boots also help.

The sky, cloud-stuffed, hides the actual horizon, revealing alternate horizons: a good thing since I am late this morning. Through small moments of clearing I get to experience multiple sunrises.

12 o'clock (to use birder/hunter directional parlance), straight ahead of me, I see a little opening in the pastel-dense clouds, all red and a-glow. It seems to be silhouetting downtown buildings, but no, that's the wrong direction: it's actually a cloud city formed by a closer layer.

At 2 o'clock (to my right) a larger, higher opening is rosy-bright, lighting up scattered puffs and even some blue sky.

I can't remember what happened at 11 o'clock (slightly left), but rest assured it was lovely. Later on I saw a version of the "Glory" sunrise from Harlem in a higher break in the clouds. Clouds, clouds, clouds, I think they are especially diverse at this hour. Often-times the rest of the day seems just dully overcast.

This hill is incredible, just teeming with birdlife. Today's bird landed very close to me, on a short crab-apple tree. I'm desperate to know what kind he was -- there were many like him, all over.

He's small, orange-breasted, with some kind of black striping around the eye, and a tiny tuft of white right over his throat. Good singer, too!

I would guess maybe an oriole, but the pictures didn't match up exactly.

I love how chatty and filled with bird sounds Peters Hill is. Coming up to it feels like arriving at a gigantic family reunion : everyone is busy talking, laughing, and stuffing their faces.

The most dramatic moment of the morning came when the constant din of feeding birds suddenly hushed, like an unexpected, estranged relative suddenly showed up. I heard one "CAAAHHWW" and turned just in time to see a large hawk flapping down, then away.

It was incredible, the quick response and silencing of hundreds and hundreds of birds to this predator. Felt like a moment of truth (the recognition of mortality?). Within seconds the din had picked back up, but I felt changed.

At home, I wanted to recreate this aural experience, since my recorder was off at the time. However, I found that my bird-call repertoire is still way too small to do such a complex scene justice.

So, here is a baby-step: learning one snippet of a call.

The original snippet (from Today's Bird):

My version:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Day 19: First Frost

Franklin Park golf course and environs, JP/Dorchester, MA, 6:30am-8:15am
frosty, chilly, covered sky

Today was the first frost I've noted this autumn. Could see my breath and was longing for gloves. Time to move the potted plants indoors!

I found a new spot to greet the sun (or the clouds covering it!): a little wooded hill smack dab in the middle of the park, overlooking the golf course.

So many birds today! Tons of geese and crows hang out here. I also spotted a large something - hawk?- that made a similar single "awwk" to yesterday's bird. It is thrilling to suddenly notice a huge bird was perched on the top branch of a bare tree. As I approached it flew right over my head. "Awwwk!"

I started to worry that yesterday's bird could have been a common crow, since they are also large and also "awwwk". Not that there's anything wrong with being a crow, I just feel dumb if I can't identify it! But was relieved to notice that the crows usually call at least three times in succession, sometimes more:

It was a fun morning, despite my very cold frost-soaked feet. Turns out frost-wet is a lot more uncomfortable than dew-wet. I felt a little guilty tramping all over the golf course, but I kept getting pulled hither and tither by interesting bird sounds and couldn't be bothered to detour to a far-off paved path. I did try to walk softly.

Today's bird was a small and sleek little woodpecker! I love how it kind of rotates around the branches as it hops around for bugs. White-bellied, tiny slender beak, and bluish spotted feathers. I'm going to guess "downy woodpecker" based on my field guide, but can't say for sure.

Can you hear him pecking?

Then he started to peep, perhaps in response to a crow. This recording cracks me up because I think the woodpecker sounds a bit like me pretending to be a bird. Or, a little bit like an Elmo version of a bird (nasally and a little slow):

As I was leaving the park, I encountered two huge birds, tawny-yellow and mottled, gigantic! I followed them for several minutes trying to memorize their markings. I think they might have been buteos, or hawks of some kind, because they had really wide tails. Beyond that insight, these field guides are hopeless! Lots of pictures but none like the ones I saw..

Back at home, I created a little loop based on the woodpecker's sounds, the crow calls, and the geese honks that filled my morning.
Here are two excerpts of my improvisations over the loops:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Day 18: Twilight Adventure

Dorchester Park, Dorchester, and Governor Hutchinson's Field, the Reserve, Milton, MA, 5:45pm-6:45pm
cool, breezy, cloud-strewn sky

I enjoyed the sunrise this morning, but it was a moving target from my New Jersey to Penn Station train. No birds on board.

It was a packed day (New York to Boston and then straight to work), and I worried that I would miss my first day of this project.

Fortunately, it was still light out when I finished teaching - the sun was just setting, and I hurried over to Dorchester Park next door. What I had presumed to be a one block little area turned out to be several times larger, complete with ball fields and tennis courts, and I enjoyed finding this enclave of squirrels:

But I couldn't hear any birds.

A man in a Bruins sweatshirt walking three small dogs chatted me up, and after the customary "Is that a violin?" and "You out of high school?", I mentioned that my audio recorder and I were in search of a bird.

He must have been my angel, for he excitedly told me about a nature reserve close by, where at this time of the day, the birds would be going to sleep and going "crrockkk".

I thanked him, but didn't really believe: the woods we were in were completely quiet except for squawky squirrels. Besides, I'd never heard of a nature reserve in Dorchester. The sun had fully set, I couldn't hear even faint cheeps, and I felt like I was about to get an "F" on my own project.

It seemed too late and too dark, but I hopped on my bike anyhow, recorder on standby, and headed towards the nature reserve.

It's getting darker and darker, cars have their headlights on, I've crossed into Milton, am huffing up a hill. At the top of a hill, a big meadow backed by woods. This must be it..

I bike down the meadow path towards the trees, and see water glinting further down. Following goose honks and a murmuring of birds, I leave my bike by the trail, and crash through the rather dark woods towards the water. I arrive at the pebbly shore of a small lagoon: motor boats docked to the far left, and a giant reedy marsh opposite me.

Geese are arriving to the water, and the distant reeds are full of what sounds like hundreds of birds. The Bruins man was right!

I'm charmed by the twilit scene: the distant but audible presence of a symphony of birds, and the reflective beauty of the water (which is literally reflecting both sound and light). I pull out my violin and interact a little with my environment:

My Bird of the Day then flies overhead, a large black silhouette with curved wingtips, all the while caaawing. Really large, maybe some kind of hawk or eagle? Or just a solo goose? I'm afraid it's not a pure recording: I was really getting into my birdcall practicing and overlapped a lot with him. Can you tell who gets the last word in?

*UPDATE 10/23: Those are Canada Geese at the lake, and very likely a Great Blue Heron as my birdcall companion at the end. Thanks, Haynes! *

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Day 17: Street-lit, Sun-lit

South Orange (downtown) and South Mountain Reservation, New Jersey, 6:20am-8:30am
cool, windy, mixed clouds

Streetlamps are not the ideal lighting by which to identify a bird.
Today's bird stopped me well before dawn (and my mountain destination), his songs resonating off parking lot asphalt.

Squinting through the street lamp's dull orangey-pink cast, I couldn't make out details about the bird, even when he perched conveniently on a short fence post for me. Little and plump doesn't narrow it down much!

Great variety of calls, though he seemed more consistent than the mockingbird. Here are two more samples:

Today I'm in New Jersey, visiting my best friend from college, Jody. She's given me running directions to South Mountain Reservation, a 2000 acre nature preserve about 2 miles from her house.

It's all up-hill, and I'm a little bummed to be running westward - can't see the sky lightening. But it's fun to watch the trees in front of me gradually get brighter, and I also get a kick out pretending to be Orpheus ("don't turn around, whatever you do, until you reach the destination!") (I cheated twice)

The lookout point is beautiful, and several deer, including a young buck with antlers!, pass through my vista. There are many birds competing for bird of the day, and I am drawn further up the road to record them.

A lone car drives up and I hurry back to claim my sunrise viewing spot, pointed at a break in the trees. My hoarding instinct turns out to be unnecessary with this dog-walker, as it is with the 3-4 joggers that pass by shortly after. Nobody else seems compelled to stop and watch this daily miracle.

It's a watercolor dawn -- some meteorological phenomenon of thin clouds creates vast washes of peach and pink across the sky. A layer of cottony, hand-pulled clouds extends the vista way over my head, extending westward into tufts of white. This project has me in a perpetual neck crane/ back bend!

The sun creeps up, red-gold, behind two distant silhouetted Manhattan buildings. It is a striking image. On my tiptoes, peering over nearby trees, I can make out other bits of Manhattan skyline, the Hudson River, some bridges.

When I turn around, westward, the reddish glow of first rays of the day are warming the upper trunks and branches of the road-side trees. I love early morning light, and am struck by how different the trees appear in this glowing, warm orange. Reminds me of what Mequitta was saying about dreams and the turning of a perspective to create a sort of alternate, parallel world. I imagine a piece that switches between instrumental and vocal choruses to create this effect.

Got lost / de-toured going back, and stumbled upon this residential hang:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Day 16: Second Time Around

St. Nicholas Park, Harlem, New York, 6:30am-7:45am
windy, scattered clouds low in sky

I needn't have worried about overindulging in sunrises.
They are clearly different from chocolate-covered pretzel slims.

I'm sure if you are observant enough, you can find a world of detail that makes each pretzel unique- but there are exponentially more variables with sunrises. Each dawn is such a unique experience there is no risk of overdosing.

I realize this as I revisit the terrace of City College overlooking St. Nicholas Park. It is lovely to be in the same spot and have a completely different experience. Yesterday was all gorgeous cloud layers and little peeks of glowing sun; today was clear with a few scattered clouds, and one of the most glorious sunrises I've ever seen.

A bank of low dark clouds hid the horizon while tufts of higher clouds began to brighten with streaks of pink, rose, and burning-light.

Liquid gold ignited both layers of clouds as the sun emerged. I've never seen something so brilliant, molten, and glorious as this cloud-framed sunrise. Felt like I saw the true color of gold for the first time in my life : unbearably yet irresistibly bright.

Got to reconnect with the whistling bird(s) of yesterday. It's a funny, whistle-y, watery, tremulous sound. I'm tempted to call them warblers cuz they sound warble-y to me, but maybe that's overly onomatopeic.

They seem to favor the low-lying bushes, and are very well-camouflaged. I can't for the life of me spot one! Sorry for the wind noise:

Thanks to Mequitta, my dear friend and amazing artist, for letting me know about this amazing spot.

Speaking of amazingly beautiful experiences, anyone who's in NY should check out Mequitta's exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem (up till Oct 24) and my other wonderful friend Ari Tabei's solo show at the New York Studio Gallery in the lower East Side (till Nov 6). Beautiful people, inspired art. I recommend coupling Ari's show with a trip to the Donut Plant. Yum!

*UPDATE 10/23: Today's birds may be young white-throated sparrows, according to Haynes. Thanks, Haynes!*

Friday, October 15, 2010

Day 15: The City that Sometimes Sleeps

City College and St. Nicholas Park, Harlem, New York, 6:30am-8:30am
many layers of clouds, breezy to windy, cool to chilly

Yesterday's post too long! Today I try haiku as a limiting form =):

Too many words fill
Too many lines, who will read?
Let's keep it simple:

Sunrise in Harlem
Defies dogs, trucks, construction
A hint of whistle..

Nooks in rocky wall
Invite birds' turf-fight. Real? Play?
Strangely familiar.

Dense blue, pale puffs, wisps
Layers on layers: some fast,
Some slow-moving clouds:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day 14: Parking Lot Trespass

Martinwood St. and University of Massachusetts Laboratories' Parking Lot, South St, Jamaica Plain, 6:50am-7:30am
clear skies, one wisp on the horizon

A musician's schedule does not exactly facilitate early rising. Last night was a late night, it was hard to get out of bed, so I needed to find the closest view of the sunrise from my house.

Once again, I found my street to be quite tuneful -- my ears picked out yet another of the same bird from Monday (grey-feathered, long-tailed, with white and black stripes under the wings), which my sources suggest is likely a mockingbird. It makes perfect sense, since this guy seems to have an endless repertoire!

My search for high ground led me to the parking lot of the UMass research labs one block from my house. It's on a small hill overlooking Forest Hills train station, and one grassy edge has a clear view to the eastern horizon.

The silhouettes of birds in pre-dawn flight were my aperitif, and while I'm not usually one to swoon over seagulls, I must admit that the beauty of flight trumps details of species. Flocks of sparrows and gulls alike were gorgeous inky black shapes swooping over a blushing, almost-risen sky.

I settle into my comfortable Chinawoman's squat, and wonder which raises more eyebrows - my human stillness when I'm out in the woods (which must seem strange to the busy squirrels and birds), or my current position, squatting between a parking lot and a traffic-filled road and gazing at the horizon, drawing looks from commuters hurrying by.

It occurs to me that stillness is an unfamiliar state for a lot of animals, and can really be a cause for concern. Am I a predator waiting to attack? Am I a deranged person plotting some devious move?

I guess I look pretty devious (freshly rolled-out-of-bed, hair a-tumble), because after the sunrise, as I peer at the bulletin board for a COMMUNITY GARDEN IN THE PARKING LOT (!!), trying to figure out what "AMSNA SLI" might stand for, a woman in the lot calls out, "Can I help you?"

Apparently my runners' clothes do not compensate for the suspicious bulge (audio recorder) in my pocket, or the aforementioned crazy hair.

I quickly explain my curiosity and delight at discovering a community garden (IN A PARKING LOT!!) one block from the house I have lived in for three years. The lady very nicely offers to put me in touch with the coordinator of the garden so I can get on the waitlist. Turns out it's a shared community garden between UMass Lab employees and community members. I like the idea that cooped-up researchers get to come out and garden during their lunch break.

On my short walk home, another mockingbird (?). For a novice like me, hearing a mockingbird is a little bit like listening to a jazz solo without recognizing the quotations from other tunes or players : I don't know who he's imitating, but it sure sounds good:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Day 13: Dawn Chorus

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, 6:30am - 8am
clear, thin puffs of clouds on the horizon, dewy

I take it all back! The birds, they are not lazy, they DO sing at dawn, when the weather is clear - you just have to find their feeding grounds.

..And did I ever today! Peters Hill (previously avoided because I thought it too manicured), is a local hot spot. The crab-apple and hawthorns on the east-side of the hill are a food mecca: the hillside was rife with robins, sparrows, woodpeckers, and others busily pecking at bright red berries and flitting from tasty tree to tasty tree.

The lauded dawn chorus does exist in the fall, even if it's cheep-ier and less songful than spring. Phew. Nice to know that my recent structure of: 1) Sunrise; 2)Wait 30 minutes, maybe do situps, maybe stare blankly into space; 3) Find Birds Awake and Calling; is not the only option.

I wonder if the same logic is at hand with the phenomenon of many more singing birds around residential areas than in the wooded parks. Are landscaping trees and shrubs generally tastier than pine forest fare?

It was a gorgeous dawn. The east side of Peters Hill has a fairly good view to a distant tree-lined ridge, though it's a shoe-soaking tramp in long dewy grasses to get there. I'll take it - it's still much more accessible than my dream sunrise spot in Blue Hills Reservation, some 7 miles and a hike away. One of these days...

Minutes before dawn (when my shoes were still dry), I was stopped in my tracks by two or three very tonal birds in the rushes (bamboo?) along the path. They are the Birds of the Day:

Just how tonal were they? Listen closely for the cadence after two regular calls:

My rendition of the birdcall and cadence (careful, it's loud):

Of course, I can't resist a musical prompt with such distinct pitches. My original idea was to whistle and play; unfortunately, I can't whistle high enough. Yet.

Here is a snippet of an improvisation based on the bird-call:

*UPDATE 10/20 Today's bird was a White-Throated Sparrow. Thanks to Nate and Haynes for the ID!*

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Day 12: Who's who?

Arnold Arboretum, 6:55am-8am
distinctly layered clouds, covered

No (visible) sunrise today. Just as well, I woke up a bit late.

I met a lot of nice trees today, mostly from China. I particularly liked the "Paperbark Maple". Guess I'm into the peeling bark theme, and the manzanita-like smooth red branches.

Heard a new sound today, a little bit like a baby blue jay pretending to be a crow (or vice versa):

As I peered through the large shrub to identify the sound, a more visible bird (sparrow or warbler) perched on top of the bush and had a bit of a duel for audio territory:

Turns out the cheeper wins the title of Bird of the Day, as I suspect my first creature was, once again, a chipmunk or squirrel. I wonder why they are so loud, and why they mimic other birds. You can hear the transition here:

The bird cheeps are really high. My rendition takes me way past the highest note I can actually play on the violin. Here is my version of the dueling voices, just for fun. I left the fumbles in so you can tell it's me =)