Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 61: Jay?!

Franklin Park, Dorchester/JP, MA, 6:50am-8:10am
cool, thick low clouds

The sky reminded me of lava this morning: the clouds crusty plates of cooled lava, breaking up to reveal jagged crevices of molten lava light.

It was an eventful morning at Franklin Park: a double sun-rise (Red in a small opening at the horizon, then White and dangerously-bright as it emerged from a second, cloud horizon); two red-tailed hawk sightings; a goose fight; and a goose swarm (at least 150 geese lifting off from the Club House and wheeling over the golf course).

Of these, the goose fight was the most dispiriting: two geese barreling head-first at each other, the mob squawking enthusiastically. I told them to cut it out, but I guess it's their nature. Animals.

It was a good bird day on the hill: I spotted a redheaded tree-clinging bird I'd never seen before, who says this when he flies:

But the Bird of the Day goes to the bird who, it turns out, makes ALL of the following sounds:
the dry trill

the "glass whistle" call I've heard before

call-and-response with buddy down the hill

and then, the identity revealed...

Can you believe it?? Turns out jays are right up there with squirrels (perhaps superseding them) in sonic ubiquity and variety. What I thought were three or four distinct birds turns out to be the one and the same, ingenious Jay!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Day 60: Jay!

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:50am-7:15am
very clear, frosty, chilly

I climbed up Peters Hill just as the sun emerged from its hill/tree horizon.

Everything was submerged in a rosy-orange light, which is beautifying but also makes identification more difficult.

Today's bird flew over to a tree close to me, landing conspicuously on a low branch.
He made that glassy double-whistle that I've been enjoying so much lately, immediately followed by a jay's screech. They seemed to emanate from the same bird. Could it be that this melodious whistle is a jay call?

I was much surprised, and tried to follow the bird from tree to tree, trailing as closely as I dared. He had a little crown, and the expected long perky tail. But it was hard to identify more details given the rose filter of dawn.

At home, I sketch a piece alternating between harsh raucous sounds and gentle whistles of same bird.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Day 59: Haydn

my house and Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, afternoon
cozy at home, clear, cold and gorgeous outside

It's Sunday, and we sight-read string quartets for fun at my house : a reunion of old friends from California who are all now living in Boston.

I must say that the most interesting Bird Today was from Joseph's Haydn's string quartet, subtitled "The Bird". Here's an excerpt. Do you hear the bird(s)?

Just to be fair to Mother Nature, though, here is the official outdoor Bird of the Day, a friendly and very chubby sparrow at the Arboretum. They are getting fatter and fatter!!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Day 58: Monotone

Central Woods and Hemlock Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:45am-7:45am
chilly, breezy, cloud-covered

Deep listening is meant to be all-inclusive, hearing the whole environment, but not everything is pleasant to listen to. Today I'm hungry to be in natural environment unpolluted by humans, their vehicles, and their dogs.

For a while this morning, my needs are almost satisfied. The Arboretum, especially Hemlock Hill, is pretty quiet on an early Saturday morning, seemingly free of birds and humans alike. Traffic is a distant dull roar - I can deal.

As I wind down to the "Central Woods", I'm absorbed by some fascinating trees new to me, especially the eerily-human, smooth and intricate musculature of the European Hornbeam, and the furry red strip-bark of the Cypress.

Spotting a light-colored bird by the creek, I meander down a slope and find myself in the cross-fire of two funny nuthatches. They do some subtle rhythmic variations on their otherwise very straightforward monotone call.

Day 57: Sabbath

My 3rd-floor deck, Jamaica Plain, MA, 1:15pm-1:45pm
cool, breezy, dreary

My friend Heidi believes in keeping Sabbath - one day off of working per week - regardless on one's religious beliefs.

I like this idea, though I can rarely follow through due to the haphazard nature of a free-lance schedule.

Today's version of Sabbath is the laziest recording I could do, just two steps outside my bedroom. These crazy starlings recently have been gathering in giant, Hitchcock-worthy throngs around the trees by my deck for 20-30 minutes at at time. We're talking over a hundred perched on five or so trees, and they make a racket!

Here they are, in their full glory:

I was mystified by the way they would suddenly decide to take off, thirty birds at once. You can hear the return to the urban hum in this clip:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Day 56: Imitation (Is a Good Thing)

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:35am-7:25am
nippy, windy, mostly clear

It's only about three feet off the ground, but I love my little viewing nook this morning, tucked between two huge branches of a prominent White Oak. (It'd be absolutely perfect without the awkward bump sticking out of it, but for a sunrise hang I'll take it!)

A dreamy lucid and tender blue lights up the horizon and I feel like I'm in another place and clime than the Northeast. Not sure where - but it's transporting. A wisp or two of brilliant gold waft above some strewn pink haze. Lovely.

From my tree I feel protected, even though the wind whistles right through the nook. Something about having a trunk on either side of me, craggy strong branches descending before me, and the rustle of the last leaves above my head create a sense of sanctuary. I also feel invisible to the dog walkers and other humans, which is always fun!

Today's bird was faking hawk. Luckily I recalled from a skim of a bird book that jays sometimes imitate hawks.

Here you can hear that extra pitch at the end of the hawk "Awww" descent call. That extra note, plus the non-plussed continuous chatter of other birds assures us it's only a blue jay:

After I recorded this clip, the jay came right up to the branch next to me and "Awwed" one more time as if to prove his talent.

Makes me feel good, the rampant imitation in nature. It reassures me that what I'm doing is in the natural order of things!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day 55: Sunrise-in-Bed

Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 7:45am-8:30am
a little chilly, gusty winds, scattered cloud-puffs

It's a sensory indulgence to rival breakfast-in-bed...I decided to out-rest my burgeoning sickness today, and enjoy dawn from a warm, prone position. It was an inferred sunrise: I watched the light spill into my room from the comfort of my cozy cozy bed, rousing myself twice to crawl closer to the window (still in bed!) to peek at the horizon and the sun itself.

Then I lazed around some more before getting up at 7:30.

Wasn't it a gorgeous day! The sky - an unusually brilliant blue! The clouds - so sharply etched and uncommonly fluffy! The sun was spectacularly warm, putting the whole world in especially clear relief! O, lovely cardinal, I never saw one as beautiful as you!

What made today so particularly lovely? The glorious clarity of post-rain weather? The contrast to the overcast gloom of previous days?

These factors cannot be discounted. But I am finding, as I have previously, one sure-fire way to make the world a better and more beautiful place...

That's my public service announcement for the day.

Here is Today's rather alarmed-sounding Bird.

My version:

An excerpt of my compositional/improv sketch for the day:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 54: Post-Rain

Franklin Park, JP/Dorchester, MA, 6:30am-7:30am
rainclouds, comfortable temp, moist air

Trust the Boston weather to make me eat my words...Today's weather suggested we are not quite in winter yet!

The air was fragrant, not cold, and palpably moist this morning, with lovely bluish rainclouds sprawled over the sky.

Neither expecting nor needing more, I was happily surprised when a meandering sunrise peeped through chinks and crevices in the clouds. Little brilliant glints of gold-white, tiny sprays of pink "heavenly" rays from a distant cloud break, and an array of shifting colors created dozens of scenic moments across the sky. To top it all off, the entire cloudscape was very slowly shifting north - awesome!

I settled under a tree on Scarborough Hill for a nice meditative listen. It was warm enough that I was perfectly comfortable sitting on my bulky jacket in just a hoodie. Such a respite from recent frigid temperatures, which make it hard for me to stay still for long.

Today's Bird of the Day, probably a robin, was just one in a tapestry of sounds. Here's a short clip of him relatively isolated:

Here he is with his mates, including geese, nuthatch, chickadees, and squirrels:

I marvelled a-new at the experience of three-dimensional spatial listening: not only the 360 degrees of surround sound (an element I like to explore in my performance projects) but also the great depth to the points of sound - some distant, some very close. Decibels only tell a tiny part of the story- it's amazing that our ears can perceive the difference between a loud sound far away versus a soft sound close by.

I dreamed up a musical performance for this very space, or one like it, that mimics this natural deep-listening experience: like a Flash Mob for nature, with camouflaged musicians tucked away in the trees and hillsides, making little calls and sonic colors. It would be an improv-based score, with simple instructions and some element of interaction (musical responses to the environment, audience, and/or other musicians). I would mix bird calls with more abstractly "musical" sounds, trying to blur the line between the natural world and the human one.

Would be a good project for a spring/summer month when it's very comfortable to be outside. Will need lots of players!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 53: Winter Pruning

Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:50am-7:20am
overcast, cool, breezy

An amorphous grey vapor-solid filled the sky this morning, making the sky seem both close and infinitely far away. No visible sun, which is good since I was a bit late.

I have a new way to think about my barbaric off-trail tramping through the brambles and bushes: Winter Pruning! It might be different at other times of year, but for now I can be less guilty about my trespasses: the branches are old dead wood anyway, I'm not destroying habitat. Perhaps the lucky bushes in my path will be extra healthy come spring!

And yes, I did say Winter Pruning. Let's face it: winter is here. I've broken out the down coat, faced my first cold, purchased 3 pairs of gloves on desperately cold last Friday.

Nonetheless, it's nice to find a grove of chatty birds who continue to forage and feed. Chickadees, robins, woodpeckers.

And this orange-brown sparrow creature who crossed my path (2 of them), the birds of the day:

At home I sketched out a tune for looper based on my off-trail tramping, where every step, no matter how careful, ends up snapping several twigs in raucous fashion.

Here's the Snapping Twig Loop:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Day 52: Insomniac Dawn

Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:30am-7:10am
cold, windy, overcast and low clouds

A post-insomnia sunrise is a different experience from a post-sleep sunrise.

After almost no sleep last night, I was in fog this morning- a weird throwback to incidental sunrises from my college days. Everything felt a far away and filtered, like I was intoxicated.

It was the perfect sunrise to wow such a state of mind : a little bit psychedelic, with garishly bright and intense colors saturated in a hemisphere at the horizon. A low layer of clouds made the horizon feel closer and the sky more intimate, as the colors reached out and practically touched me.

Amazing. Or was I high on fatigue?

Then there was a color-retraction as the sun actually rose, as if the sun sucked all the vivid hues back into itself in order to emerge, simply, in bright and orange to a pale sky.

It's nice that the sunrise never disappoints - the transition from dark to light is always powerful - but I can't say the same for birds.

Couldn't find anyone interesting or new today, and was sobered to hear how quiet Peters Hill has become, compared to a month ago. Winter is definitely on its way...do I have it in me to record 20 chickadees??

Even a tree full of robins didn't have much to say. There is a new urgency in the quiet focus with which they consume their berries.
(recording pending)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Day 51: Deck-Street Corner Sandwich

my street corner and 3rd-floor deck, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:40am-7:10am
cold and breezy, streaky clouds

Woke up this morning feeling like my body was on the verge of sickness, and that I should keep sleeping. A good day to invoke the deck option!

However, my attempt to stay partially asleep whilst I ventured a few yards from my bed to capture my bird and sunrise was not very successful. Something about brisk air, being upright, and the fascinating details of dawn are not conducive to semi-consciousness.

I'd like to report that the sun just fully rose, 7:17am, from my window/deck perspective. It's highly delayed by the hill it has to cover to reach me, as well as a rather dense little block of clouds right above the hill.

Today was a sandwich because, after watching pre-dawn for a few minutes from my deck, with only one cheeping bird in earshot, I decided to go downstairs and try my street. After a short hang at the street corner with sparrows, I came back to my deck and watched the rest of the sunrise from my deck again. Deck-Street Corner Sandwich!

The sparrows are always hanging at this corner. In fact, I hear this chorus in every city I go to, rain or shine: a bush or tree full of cheepy birds. It's the one fail-safe. But today was the first time I hung out properly, and scrutinized.

It's hard to get close, as they will take off, but I noted very youthful birds (super-downy and cute!) as well as at least two kinds (one chubby with yellow beak, the other slender).

My Bird of the Day was a fluffy little sparrow who looked newish to the world. It's hard to isolate his sound, though, and I was interested in capturing the whole flock of them, since they create such a composite sound, with such variety: including the innocent cheep, more anxious alarm chirps (contagious), and trills of flight.

Here is an example of mild concern. You can hear the gentler cheeps (like my BOTD) in between:

Here is more full-fledged alarm:

A new bird, the slender one, joining the bush (I sensed annoyance/protest here):

In several minutes of observation, I was unable to suss out what exactly they are doing. They appear to perch, look around, fluff their feathers, and then follow someone's lead to get riled up, or fly quickly to the next location (for the same procedure). Hmmm.

I guess much of human behavior could be reduced to the same??

Friday, November 19, 2010

Day 50: Stony Brook

Stony Brook State Reservation, West Roxbury/Hyde Park, MA, 6:00am-7:30am
clear and very cold

To celebrate the 50th day of the project, I trekked out to Stony Brook, about 3 miles south of my house. I'd spotted it on an old-fashioned paper map a few weeks ago, and have been plotting a visit ever since. Imagine, a state reservation just a few miles from me!

I got to see almost the whole sunrise, if my glimpses from the road count. The sky was just beginning to blue on the horizon when I left my house, with a startling large and bright planet just above the eastern horizon - probably Venus. As I neared my destination the sun was also reaching the horizon, a nice parallel anticipation.

It was impressive how many folks were out at 5:45 in the morning on busy Washington St., and I especially felt tender towards a group of five jovial teenagers waiting at a city bus stop. That's EARLY to be going to school!

Stony Brook felt a lot like Franklin Park -- rambling with giant rocky outcrops and clustered woods of slender trees, and even an adjancent golf course. I wasn't super lucky in my quest for a perfect sunrise spot - was screened through trees - but enjoyed my boulder-top perch.

Day 50 was seriously impacted by the temperature. It was FRIGID out this morning, and I spent the last 30 minutes at Stony Brook (and the whole bike ride home) muttering, It's so ****ing cold!

Here is one stony brook I encountered:

I was disappointed that I couldn't readily escape Traffic Noise (both ground and air). I guess the fact that it was a state reservation led me to imagine it as a remote retreat with no sound pollution. The overhead planes, many cars (and even reversing trucks) were constant, however. A glance at the map clearly shows that the park quite small and criss-crossed by large roads. Must remember that traffic noise travels far!

The Bird of the Day made the briefest of appearances. We've heard him before!:

My version- listen for guest bird =):

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Day 49: K.I.S.S.

The Wilderness, Franklin Park, Dorchester/JP, MA, 6:25am-7:45am
windy, rather cold

One of these days I will watch the sunrise from my balcony.
It's the time of year when the sun's place on the horizon is just about perfect.

Just out of bed I got a glimpse of the opening act - gorgeous bars of dark color on the horizon- which had lightened to more innocuous pale tones by the time I got outside.

Strangely, at Scarborough Hill the horizon and the emerging sun were filtered through trees for the first time I recall - can it be that usually it comes up from a higher bank of clouds (not the true horizon)?

I need to remember my buddy Trevor's wisdom, K.I.S.S. : Keep It Simple, Stupid!. Today I tried to do too much: my usual push-ups and situps while anticipating sunrise, then a short run around the park to get to the Wilderness, all while listening for birds. It was not meditative.

Well, it was one too many things-- time to get back to my beloved walking.

Bird of the Day, White-breasted Nuthatch:

My crack at it (on location!):

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day 48: Practice Volume

Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:40am-7:40am
drizzly, overcast, warmish

It was so rainy and dim outside I had a hard time pulling myself out of bed this morning. What was the point? Birds and sun would both be in hiding.

By the time I got out, the rain had dimmed into a light drizzle, and it was actually rather lovely. I am now convinced that "sky-blue" is not that insipid pastel color Crayola would have us believe, but the gorgeous hue of drizzly cloud-covered sky just before dawn.

It took a while to walk off my grogginess, but by the time I had made it to the ponds by the visitor center, I was feeling more lively.

Many vied for bird of the day (including Chickadees #2 and 3), but in the end I go with this fellow:

He was about robin-sized, soft-grey, with a white chest and throat. I was only a few yards away, and could see him clearly perched on top of a bush, yet could barely hear him. He was singing super-soft (pianissimo in music terms), and I kept blinking to make sure his throat and beak were moving to the calls (they were).

It was fascinating, and hard to convey through this recording, but it really sounded like he was practicing songs quietly to himself, at a volume that nobody else would notice. It reminded me of the first couple musicians onstage before an orchestra rehearsal, warming-up at quarter-volume because they are embarrassed to blast it while everyone else is listening.

I suspect he is a young mockingbird. And admittedly, I had the idea in the back of my head: I had read in the The Singing Life of Birds about young birds practicing their songs quietly in the bush. It's exciting to witness first-hand!

My turn to practice! Whistling, in my case.

Here's a sample clip from Today's Bird:

My version:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Day 47: Stake-out

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA 6:15am-6:50am
drizzly, overcast, comfortable

I get it, why hunters dress in camouflage and build "blinds" out of branches, and stake out their prey for hours: it's FUN to try to merge into the environment and become an invisible observer.

I only took it on for a few minutes this morning, and pretty half-heartedly at first- my experience so far has shown that walking around was a better bet than standing still for finding interesting birds.

However, today's stillness was fruitful. The birds didn't fly away right away like they usually do. Was it the distracting cover and sound of the drizzle? Am I becoming more stealthy? Are the birds starting to recognize me as a non-threat??

It was in pursuit of this White Throated Sparrow that I made my way to a certain tree and decided to be still for a while.

In a few minutes, I heard this guy. Familiar, but from when? (uh-oh, they are starting to jumble!)

Just when I thought my mission was accomplished, this Bird appeared just overheard and I had to make him Today's Bird, though I could barely see him:

My version:

Here's a little improvisation based on the bird today:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Day 46: Optical Illusions

Franklin Park, Dorchester, MA, 6:20am-7:30am
shifting clouds, cool

Pretty overcast this morning: looked like a no-show for the sun.

Just in case, I headed up Scarborough Hill, and was pleasantly surprised to see the tiniest hints of dawn-lit pink peeping through some breaks.

It was ultimately a sun-less but gorgeously stratified dawn. The cloud cover broke up to reveal an array of colors. Splatters of bright white clouds held static against high blue sky, while hazy grey clouds raced over fluffier pink-lit ones. The translucence of the grey clouds made them appear multi-colored as they passed in front of the pinks, and on closer examination it turned out the pink fluffs were moving too, just not as fast.

Meanwhile, I'm checking out the noisy trees behind me, and I keep mistaking a twirling, falling leaf for a bird. Lots of tricks to the eye today!

Later I decide to run the whole perimeter of this golf-course area of the park. Halfway around, the Bird of the Day pops out at me from the side of the path, perched visibly atop a dead tree trunk. He's pointy-beaked and perky-tailed, maybe some kind of nuthatch?

I'm impressed with the variety of rhythms he gets out of a single pitch, uttered once or twice
(note car honk interjection):

My sketch today is based on the illusion of stationary versus moving clouds from the sunrise.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Day 45: No Juice

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, JP, MA, 6:25am-7:30am
wisps of clouds, frosty

It's an early sunrise, but I'm glad for the time change and the added calm of Sunday morning. Prior to daylight savings, the sunrise (c. 7:30 and later) was getting a bit insufferable with traffic noise and hordes of dog/dogwalkers.

I'm the only one on the hill for a good while, and don't mind as a distant dog here and there join the scene.

There's a great hazy wash over the horizon that acts as a rose-color filter, with some streamy gold-rimmed clouds above. The haze wraps around the whole horizon, 360 degrees, in various phases of color. Beautiful!

At the south-eastern slope of the hill, I find this disturbing grove of sick birds talking amongst themselves:

OK, so they are actually squirrels, which I basically knew but wanted to confirm. Confirmed! I wonder what this call means in Squirrelese, and why they do it. They are such talkative animals!

The battery meter on my recorder is messed up, and goes from one bar to zero to emergency "X" about-to-expire battery status in a matter of seconds. Then auto-shuts off.

I panic about not being able to record my bird today, and consider the annoying prospect of returning home for batteries.

The whole situation makes me reflect on how dependent I've become on my "electronic ears". What would I have done 100 years ago?

Use my own ears and try to remember the calls.

This is a good reminder that the point of this project is developing my own ears, that the recorder is merely an aid.

Still, my 21st century resourceful self finagles with the recorder (wiping off the batteries, switching positions), and I manage to resuscitate it a couple times, recording a few snatches of nothing before I finally hear my bird of the day.

The recorder is not ready in time, but I do get in a few seconds of my own rendition:

At home, my sketch is based on yet another call, an unusual White Throat Sparrow that I also heard this morning (and whistled the whole way home to keep it in my head). I transcribe and compose a little piece around it.

Day 44: Strange Fit

Scarborough Hill, Franklin Park, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:45am-7:30am
clear, chilly

The sun pulled a fast one on me today.
6:45 am and it was already well above the horizon - weird considering I saw the full sunrise at 6:50 yesterday. I guess the location and relative height of horizon makes a big difference.

Need to keep better track of the sunrise times on this coast. A quick internet check reveals tomorrow's sunrise in Boston is at 6:33, while in San Francisco it's a leisurely 6:48. No wonder!

My missed-sunrise consolation was the immediate appearance of the Bird of the Day, some kind of hawk with a light-colored, spotted chest, darker wings, and whitish furry legs. I eagerly followed him across the golf course to a tree where he joined another hawk. When he took off from the tree he flew right over my head, just a yard or two above me. I got a good look at his belly spots.

I followed, running, right back to Scarborough Hill where we had started. The two hawks were flirting, or bickering (what's the difference, really?) and I was mesmerized by the "little bird chirps" one of them kept making. It was utterly incompatible to his goodly size and predator-looks, and the other hawk responded by flying over and pecking at him or nudging him.

Were the chirps a seduction ploy? Did they make the hawk more attractive, like an innocent, helpless prey? Or were the two in cahoots, trying to convince local birds that they were harmless?

The most likely explanation would be that there actually was a little bird, captured in one of their talons, cheeping for mercy or out of sheer terror, but I swear their talons were empty, and that I watched the hawk move his beak along with these chirps.

I never sorted it out- they eventually took off, and I lost them.

In my search for the hawks, another unusual call came through that I had to take.
We'll call it the Guest Bird of the Day, perhaps.

I've heard snatches of this bird before, but never this clearly. Was unable to get a sight on this one though.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Day 43: Stalking

UMass Labs parking lot and Bussey Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, 6:50am-7:30am
chilly, slight breeze, clear skies

Jet lag hit me hard this morning, and I was only vaguely aware of the alarm. Next thing I know it's 6:45! I barely made it in time to a parking lot sunrise.

Afterwards I trudged over to the Arboretum, pausing every several meters to check out my surrounding soundscape. It's really hard to hear subtle sounds when you're moving -- even gentle footsteps and the most moderate breathing are relatively noisy. Add some leaves underfoot and even the best ears are outta luck.

Additionally, most birds take off when I get within a certain distance, a few yards. I decide to experiment with how close I can get before this happens, trying different approach methods (how do cats do it?): slow, continuous, gradual movement; then, periodic slow movement with long pauses in between for them to get used to my presence. I stop short of getting on all fours and actually crawling, though I'm sure being shorter would help. Ultimately my mammoth size gives me away.

I'm starting to be able to pick out the cardinal's chirp - super-high, and a little longer than other birds:

The bird of the day is new to me, about the size of a chickadee, though not as plump, very smooth bluish-grey feathers, white chest. The one I got a good look at had a small black mark in the middle of his chest:

Did you like the hawk at the end of the last clip? Here is some more of him:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Day 42: Back East

Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 3:20pm-3:50pm
chilly, light winds, mostly clear

I forgot that it was fall.

Just a few days in temperate California weather was all it took to put me in ever-spring mode: I am jolted to be back in the practically leaf-less, cold Northeast. No complaints though! Apparently I missed a week of rainy miserable weather here.

The Bussey Brook meadow used to be mostly inaccessible, with high shrubs and trees blocking the the meandering path from the meadow. Today I find the area has been significantly cleared, part of a project to remove invasive plants and replace them with native species. The result is that I can pretty easily access the marshy innards that I've been curious about for a while.

Late afternoon is not the ideal time, but I check out a high-chirping cardinal, some chickadees, and an all-new bird of the day.

Let's set the scene first: here is the marsh, with various cheepers including cardinal:

Now, the Bird of the Day joins the party. Can you hear him in this clip? I only caught three of his trills, but they are distinctively high and almost what I imagine a dog whistle would sound like (if one could hear in dog range):

Day 40: Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks, San Francisco, 6:40am-7:15am
breezy, mostly clear

I raced the sun to the top of Twin Peaks this morning, and won. Just barely!
I reached the peak just a few minutes minutes before the sun emerged from behind the East Bay mountains.

Here is the sound of sunrise from the rocky, grassy, tree-less Peak (Twin A or B, I don't know which!):

From here I have a stunning 360 degree view which includes downtown San Francisco, the Bay, Oakland/Fremont in front of me; Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County to my left, and the Pacific Ocean behind me. The ocean and mountains are bathed in pink-purple clouds. And I have post-running endorphins flowing through me. Whoa...

I hear my familiar White Throat**, or at least a relative of the one in Boston, and follow the sound down to the main Twin Peaks road. The back side of the hills shelters a steep, verdant half-valley full of little birds.

As I have noted previously, the birds here are less shy (just like their human West Coast counterparts) and I am able to clearly see a White Throated Sparrow** for the first time, perched just a few yards away. Very exciting!

Here he is, the Bird of the Day:

**Correction 2/26: It is a White-Crowned Sparrow. Thanks, Don!**
Here is the Song based on this call.

Day 41: Bernal Hill

Bernal Hill and Holly Park, San Francisco, 6:30am-7:15am
windy, mostly clear, low bank of clouds on horizon

For my last morning in SF I hit Bernal Hill one more time. It is super-windy, and everyone is here with their dog. This must be the one city where dog parks practically out-number children's playgrounds!

It's stunningly picturesque, especially if you avoid the cell-phone-tower filled main peak. I'm drawn to the steep, green sub-hills, their beckoning dirt trails wandering east. I'm a few miles closer to the sunrise than yesterday and the sun really looks bigger and closer - can it be??

Behind me the towers of Twin Peaks are shrouded in mist, but the windows of its apartment buildings reflect a blinding gold as the sun emerges.

Bare hills are not the likeliest place for birds, so I listened for a Bird of the Day on my way home. I was happy to be hearing the San Francisco soundscape with more specificity - I could recognize starlings and hummingbirds in the dawn mix. Passing through Holly Park, I decided to focus on this cheeper/triller for today. The tall grove where he resided was a nice respite from the strong winds and clatter of city sounds:


Monday, November 8, 2010

Day 39: City of Hills

Holly Park and Bernal Hill, San Francisco, CA 6:50am - 7:50am
mostly clear, comfortable winds

San Francisco would be the perfect sunrise city if it wasn't for all the fog.

On a day as clear and gorgeous as today, though, it IS the perfect city. I am surrounded by hills to pick and choose from, in any direction.

As usual, I head East.

At Holly Hill I catch the tail end of the sun rising over the Bay, water alit, distant hills in vivid relief. Just north of me, my real goal, Bernal Hill, beckons enticingly with its green beauty and the inspiring silhouette of a single runner ascending its crest. I want to be that runner!

In between the two hills I encounter a flock of starlings, happily singing and freely pooping on a car from their electricity pole perch.

These are the same kind as I saw in DC, though a bit smaller. I'm charmed by their diverse melodies, especially the catcall:

and the questioning call:

It's funny to be an urban birder: instead of stealthily trying to wait for or sneak up on my bird, I wait out the passing cars, trucks and dogs to get a somewhat clean recording. Meanwhile the urban birds are bold and could care less who is passing by.

At home, a sketch of a tune pitting the relentlessness of city traffic against the meandering, free bird melodies.

Day 38: Off-Trailing

Open Space Preserve, San Martin, CA 6:45am-8:15am
overcast, drizzly, comfortable temp

It was too cloudy to see the sunrise this morning - a good thing since I'm a bit late getting out.

I explored some trails adjacent to the winery/golf course, enjoying my last immersion in delicious hilly airs before returning to SF. It's not at all cold, and the moist air and drizzle feel refreshing.

I'm happy to hear more quails from yesterday, and spend a good bit of time with today's bird, who is determined to mark his tree. He's a little guy, and flits from low branch to low branch asserting this call:

Later I can't resist the urge to summit, and I scramble up and up and up a tiny, very steep deer path. The steepness reminds me a bit of nightmares I have where I get stuck on a nearly vertical hill, and I decide to turn around before this becomes a reality.

My sketch today: an irregular groove based on today's call.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Day 37: Winery wilds

Cordevalle Resort, San Martin, CA, 7:30am-8:15am
foggy, comfortable

I grew up 30 miles from here, and had no idea this ranch-town or vineyard existed. It's a beautiful spot, with olive trees and craggy hills overlooking small vineyards.

My dear friend Heidi is getting married today, and we took a morning stroll through fragrant and fog-shrouded premises.

We liked today's bird, whose clear and tonal whistle reminds me of the white-throated sparrow of the Arboretum:

Later, I could not resist recording this family (Bird Family of the Day?) - I believe they are quail, they have distinctive floppy decorative pieces hanging from their foreheads, and their calls crack me up. They sound both petulant and silly (and one of them really loses it!):

Day 36: Fogged

Diamond Heights neighborhood, San Francisco, CA, 7:15am-8:30am
fog-immersed, cool

I got pleasantly lost in the winding hills of my sister's neighborhood. I realize that my usual orientation is based on some visual cues, cues missing in today's all-absorbing fog.

It's funny and fun to get a little lost, and to discover that both Gold Mine and Diamond streets are U-shaped and double-back on themselves.

This crazy high call turns out to be a ruby-throated hummingbird. I don't know if that's its technical name, but it had a scarlet splash on its throat, and was definitely a hummingbird:

I was delighted to discover that hummingbirds do sit still on branches and sing at times, that they do not just hover and dart at miraculous speeds constantly. I would worry if they were always in hover mode - it seems pretty exhausting!

Day 35: Land's End

Land's End, San Francisco, CA, 5:30pm-7pm (Nov 4)
warm, summery, smattering of clouds

Tonight I saw an indescribably beautiful sunset over mouth of the San Francisco Bay. Clouds, mountains and water conspired to envelope the world in a blossoming of color.

It's one of my favorite places in the whole world: we are perched on a steep cliff overlooking a desolate beach, three tiny surfers perilously close to the rocks. The Marin headlands and Mt. Tamalpais are opposite us, the Golden Gate Bridge to my right.

My beloved sister at my side, as we alternate between raucous laughter and quiet contemplation. Life doesn't get much better!

Birds here seem much bigger and less skittish. Maybe the good weather makes friendlier birds as well as humans!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Day 34: Falling

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, 6:50am - 8am
frosty, very cold, mostly clear

Today it rained leaves. It was a gentle rain.

At first I thought the birds were shaking the leaves loose. Then I realized the leaves were descending of their own, even from bird-less branches.

I tried to record the sound of the large leaves landing softly on a thick bed of fellow leaves, but the audio didn't capture well. It certainly couldn't convey the feeling of watching one by one waft, drift and spin down, now this way, now that.

Felt a bit like the first snow flakes of the season: each one was large and distinct, quiet and beautiful.

The Bird of the Day was unusual for Peters' Hill, though I think I've heard him once before. Let me prep you with my version of his call so you can pick it out of the scenery.

My version:

In nature:

In nature (close-up, short variation):

I thought about writing a song about Falling Leaves.. but remembered that it's been done. My sketch today was for looper, will use just abstract sounds (not words) to render today's leaf fall.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day 33: Take-Off Zone

Scarborough Hill and Pond, Franklin Park, 7:15am-8:15am
chilly, light winds, mostly overcast

A heavy pewter lid covered most of the sky this morning, leaving just a peep of horizon.

Clouds created new topographies: a dark, distant cloud-mountain range lay behind drifting, fragile white clouds. It reminded me of Tiger Leaping Gorge in China.

The sunrise was spectacularly finite: a gorgeous build-up to a blazing appearance, the trees behind me bathed in gentle dawn light for a few precious minutes. Then the sun disappeared beneath the pewter lid, and all was grey again.

I went into a little mind-warp thinking about how the earth had made half a rotation since I saw the sun set last night, and how at every moment any given spot on the earth is moving to a different point in three-dimensional universe-space.

Specifically, I was imagining the exact spot where I stood, Scarborough Hill, and how it would pass through so many different points in space in the next 24 hours, before coming back to approximately the same point. I like envisioning how in this process it would come to occupy the same points in space as all the Earth-spots on the same rotational pathway, including those on the opposite side of the globe (like China!).

Made me want to understand the Earth's rotation and angles of rotation better, and it simplistically also made me feel closer to my parents, who are in Taiwan (even if they are on a totally different latitude)!

Food for further research. **UPDATE 11/3: I forgot to take into account the galaxies are moving too. Whoops! **

Today was take-off observation day. Within ten minutes of sunrise, the geese were gearing up and taking off in flocks of 4-20. Here was my the initial audio clue, when I was still coming down the hill:

When I reached the pond, I found the perfect spot on the shore to squat and watch the geese as they paddled towards the western end of the pond and took off.

It's a beautiful and thrilling scene, the sudden crescendo in honking, flap-flap and a couple of foot pushes, then the whole group airborne in seconds: all reflected against a dark pond surface.

I sat for quite a while trying to discern the communication system - how did they decide when to take off? Which geese were with which groups? Did different honks have specific meaning or did it only matter Who was honking?

Here, I watched a large group float down to "take-off zone" and chill before being triggered by another group to fly:

At home I sketch a dance piece for dancers who can sing. I want 20 of them, on a darkly reflective surface. Dancers will be divided into groups with one lead dancer per group.

There will be four vocal "calls" (which I would compose) for lead dancers, each call indicating a movement instruction (Follow Me; Chill Here; Get Ready; Fly!). Group dancers would have response calls, probably just two ("OK" and "Are you sure?").

The whole piece would unfold over 20 minutes, with different combinations and re-combinations of dancers "taking off" from the reflective surface.

Time to start recruiting!