Monday, December 20, 2010

Day 81: First Snow!

Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA 8:00am-8:35am
cool, breezy, misty overcast

It's snowing as I type this, and not just random bits that melt: my deck has a nice thick dusting. One day before the Winter Solstice, Mother Nature is right on schedule, and the fall period of A Bird a Day has reached its end-mark.

Luckily I was able to get a good bird recording this morning before the snow started to fall - quite a drama, in fact.

Disclaimer: my interpretation may have been subconsciously influenced by the charming and anthropomorphizing narrative in the documentary Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill which I watched yesterday.

This is what happened: I noticed several noisy black crows congregating on a tree in the meadows, and went over to investigate. Crows have been relatively sparse of late, so this was a bit unusual.

They've also been on my mind because some friends and I were wondering what happens to birds when they die (yes, all wild animals must die in the wild, but there are so many birds!), and we speculated that crows are among the predators who would take care of bird carcasses.

When I got to the scene, I realized the crows were cawwing furiously at a sedentary red-tailed hawk perched resolutely on a tree branch. They seemed to be taunting it.

At one point the hawk flew towards the crows to a slightly higher branch, and they backed off a tiny bit, but not much. What was going on? Was the hawk sick or injured, and the crows poised for attack?

Then, a heroic moment. From the distance, the salvation "aaaww"s of a partner hawk, as a second red-tail swooped over to the tree, causing the crows to scatter. It was a beautiful and dramatic scene to witness: the partner coming to the rescue.

The crows, while scattered, did not go far, and began to creep closer. This drama left me breathless because it was so inconclusive - just a minute later, the first hawk took off with four crows in hot pursuit. The second hawk waited for a few seconds, then followed the chase.

They flew too far for me to catch up, so I cannot tell you what happened in the end. Both hawks were healthy enough to fly further than my eye could follow (several hundred yards, and past the train station), so I am not sure what emboldened the crows to get so aggressive.

Here is a clip of the moment of rescue:

A good dramatic ending to the fall episode of this project! Stay tuned for winter installments and the spring explosion..

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 80: Sabbath

My 3rd floor deck, Jamaica Plain, MA, 3:00pm
overcast, cool

Not feeling well today, so I go with the Easy Option (opening the door to my deck). Luckily I can count on the starlings to make a ruckus!

Check out how the sounds of the braking bus merge with the highest-pitches of starling calls.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Day 79: City Walk

Inman St., Cambridge, MA, c. 11:00am
partially cloudy

Hung out with a couple treefuls of sparrows while walking from Inman Square to Central Square.

For today's bird, I pick the one who was a bit different (lower, more squawky/hoarse) from the rest - can you hear him?

Also, this sudden quiet was fascinating - perhaps in response to the siren?
Then a lone sentinel (same squawk as Bird of the Day) begins to cheep again, rejoined one by one by the others.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Day 78: Super-High

Franklin Park, Dorchester/Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:50am-7:50am
very cold, very clear

The perfectly clear day means I saw a red sunrise for the first time in weeks - it was intensely red-orange, right on the horizon, with no cloud bank to climb.

As soon as the sun emerged I was alerted by this call. I'm pretty sure I saw the tree-clinging bird who was calling- I watched him fly away and continue to cheep - but boy did he sound like a chipmunk, which makes me nervous!

In following him, I heard this virtuoso driller/woodpecker - incredible speed! Couldn't spot it, though.

Bird of the Day goes to this remarkably high-pitched bird. Maybe one of the call variants of the chickadee?

It is a day of more questions than answers!

My version:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day 77: Belly-View

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, 6:55am-7:40am
cold, very clear with small bank of clouds on northern horizon

It doesn't take much to inspire a person - the first clear day after four grey ones fills me with jubilant energy.

It is very clear, and dawn proceeds in three color stages. First a reddish glow on the horizon when I am leaving my house, next a pale whitish brightening as I arrive at the hill, then another set of colors (rose, fire-orange) when the sun rises. Tiny flecks of bright cloud appear just above the horizon, like nicks made with a celestial knife.

Winter seems to be a lot about muting of the senses: a diminishing of colors to gray-scale, the quieting hush of fallen snow. Today I realize that the weather has also taken away my sense of smell - not only is my nose so cold I can hardly breathe through it, but the ground and plants are too frozen to transmit smells. I miss the fragrance of wet earth.

Yet birds persist! Today I spent forever trying to capture the sound (and memorize the appearance) of the tiny bird I like so much, who I suspect is the weee-err bird,

but I can never quite see him in the act of calling.

What I need is a special kind of field guide, with belly-views of birds. The guides I have show a bird politely perched, or the silhouette in flight, but that doesn't help me when my little bird is five feet overhead and all I can really see is his belly! (White, very smooth)

So, no confirmation yet on that little guy. Instead, an obstinate and annoyed robin gets to be Today's Bird. He is certainly one of the Northern cousins who has come south - his head is very black, and he's yellow-beaked, a different look than the Arboretum robins of last month.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 76: Cold Listening

Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:55am-7:45am
very cold, chilly wind, overcast

The overcast sky suggested the sunrise was unlikely to be visible, so I decided to trek down to the frozen marsh (the "new mecca") and see how it fared right at dawn.

When I arrived, the bird sounds were painfully sparse. Literally painful - I had to remove my hood and uncover my ears in order to listen. Wind-blown frigid ears no fun! Plus my neck was somewhat immobilized by many layers of scarf/jacket, and I had to sort of thrust my whole body in whatever direction I was trying to listen. Awkward.

It was fun, though, to traverse the little raised concrete strip that I'd spotted previously, some kind of divider or drainage system which cuts right through the marsh.

I was disappointed to hear just a few cheepy sparrows here and there, nothing like the maelstrom of activity on Saturday. It made sense though- it was SO much colder today. I imagine most birds are burrowing somewhere warm and protected, far away from the windswept open marsh.

On my way out I discover the enclave of the day, a more sheltered area at the northern base of Bussey Hill, populated by robins, doves, and nuthatches.

This nuthatch won for Bird of the Day - I'm pretty sure both these clips are the same bird:

Then there was this guy, who sounds related but may not be:

A nuthatch-based groove is in the works, will eventually get posted!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Day 75: Ducklings Make Their Way

Franklin Park, JP/Dorchester, MA, 6:45am-7:50am
dense and billowy overcast, cool, light breeze

The ducklings caught my eye as they tottered by the edge of Scarborough Pond. They were so new, uncertain, and strange-looking that I thought I'd discovered a new water bird. But as the two dark-grey birds eased gingerly into the (frigid!) water, I could see that their light beaks were duckish in shape, and their coloring (grey bodies, black heads) ducky as well.

It was an endearing sight: the two ducklings, while not brand-new chicks, were clearly youngsters. They paddled with effortful head-bobbing, and seemed terribly unsure of which way they should go. But whichever way that was, they were sticking together - that much was for sure!

A tentative paddle here, a turn to another direction, then a cautious foray in a third.

Eventually two parental ducks rolled by and the ducklings fell in line with greater confidence, though their swimming was still jerky and haphazard compared to the placid glide of the adult ducks.

Later, the breakfast-club-of-ducks: a swift convergence of some 15 ducks from opposite sides of the pond.

I sketched a piece about following, based on the two young ducks who were so tentative, yet so firmly-attached to one another:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 74: Man/Nature

Forest Hills train station and Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 8:00am-8:45am
drizzly, grey, not cold

Within steps of leaving my house, I hear a persistent and unfamiliar call at the end of my street:

I willingly depart from my planned route in search of this bird, even though he is leading me towards the busy street, then across the street to the train station.
Wherever the Bird of the Day calls, I will follow!

A large hawk flies overhead, rather unusual for the neighborhood - Nature is asserting herself this morning.

When I get to the train station, I discover my source:

Turns out that observing and recording a creaky door at the station is not all that different from observations in nature. Waiting for people to pass through my noisy door (the other doors are silent) is not unlike waiting for a desired bird to speak again, and the occurrences feel similarly random, though I can see that the flow of human traffic has to be just right. Too few people, and they pick the other doors; too many, and the door never gets to close fully enough to re-activate the creaking portion of the joint.

Watching a stream of humans, attempting to "blend in" and not draw attention to myself, and my uncontrollable sense of willing people to walk through "my door" (just as I sometimes silently will a desired bird to call again) all make for a very funny urban/human take on my usual nature observations.

Later, I watched a similar stream, of birds this time, alighting on a large tree at the Arboretum and chatting for a while before taking off again. The jays led me there, and we were joined by a slew of tufted titmice, and a pair of cardinals. Listen for the little human cameo (a heaving construction vehicle) in the background:

Day 73

Day 72: Floating Feast

Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 7:10am-8:10am
not-as-cold, quite clear

Like the floating concert series I will one day curate, the optimal feeding ground keeps shifting location depending on the season.

Today I found the current mecca for birds in the Arboretum. Peters Hill has been pretty quiet for weeks now, but the frozen-over marshes between the Visitor's Center and the ponds are a flurry of avian activity.

Lots of robins, chickadees, sparrows, and my long-lost friend, the White-Throated Sparrow. I thought he'd gone south for good! But here he is:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 71: All aboard!

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:50am-7:20am
clear, frosty, cold

I love the crystal-clear skies of winter. This morning just the barest whisper of purple cloud hovered by the horizon - otherwise, it was clear, free sky in every direction.

Today's bird was conversing with a few others. It was fun to hear the back-and-forth from all sides, the little build-up as they all get involved, and the climactic trill (who was that??):

I got as close as I could, and am pretty sure he's a kind of sparrow, but would love help confirming this!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Day 70: City Park

Dana Park, Cambridge, MA, 9:40am-10:05am
clear, cold, light breeze

Checked out a city park today: a tiny, corner affair, a small lawn edged by a few trees, rosebushes, a basketball court, and a playground.

It's nice to be out so late in the morning, on such a clear day. I marvel at how bright, vivid and visible things are when the sun is out full-force, high in a cloudless blue sky. The whole world looks much more alert and awake than my usual rosey dawns, and I don't think it's just me...

The most apparent animal life in the park, apart from a couple of human walkers, is a small white dog who jingles everywhere he goes. As he approaches me, I hear a faint chirping and find the Bird of the Day, a sparrow, perched atop a tall metal trellis.

For one long moment, Bird, Dog and I are all frozen within a few feet of each other. Dog and I stare eagerly, cautiously, at Bird, who is tensing for departure. Dog leaves first.

Here's the sparrow's call from inside the rose bushes, where his intimate little chirp alternates with a bit of a squawk (protest at my invasion of his territory?).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day 69: Hide-and-Seek

Bussey Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 7:10am-7:40am
cold, clear, breezy

Did a lot of following this morning.

The sun was already peeking above a narrow sliver of clouds at the horizon when I got to Bussey Hill - I could see rosy splashes of light on the upper branches and tree-tops.

There were lots of trees screening the horizon, so I made haste to follow the glowing spaces in hopes of clearer views (logic: if the sunlight can make it through to this spot, I should be able to see the sun from this spot).

It was pretty quiet on the hill, and I decided to follow the one chickadee in the area. He took me from tree to tree to tree to tree! He didn't want to stay still, especially when a human with recording device kept creeping closer.

Unfortunately, my creeping is recorded too in today's clip!

Later I also followed a cardinal and a quasi-cardinal (crowned but only partially red in head, the rest brownish) into some bushes where we played hide-and-seek. Once again I marveled at Nature's ability to hide her own. Peeping through a latticework of branches and pine-like needles, I could not pick out the bird at all - he was perfectly camouflaged. However, when I stayed very still, I could discern some motion and figure out where he was.

It was not possible to glimpse more than a slight variation of color, though. The darkness of the inner bush, and the layers of criss-crossed branches made it impossible to see more.

I was impressed by the camouflage, and sketched a piece that emulates the busy latticework with a barely visible bird (melody) hidden in it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Day 68: He Chirps Too

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 6:45am-7:40am
very cold, breezy, various clouds

Maybe I should have set the start of winter as the Twentieth Downy Woodpecker (instead of Chicadee). He's everywhere!

I'd love to be able to identify a bird in mid-flight, just by its shape, size, and flight patterns.

One flight style I really like is the darting, swallow-like thing where the bird suddenly drops and sprints at incredible speeds in seemingly erratic directions.

Today's Bird was doing just that before he settled into focused consumption of a juicy berry. He was so engrossed in pecking at his fruit that after watching for a few minutes I wanted to try it too!

Tiny little guy, white chest, slender pecking/extracting beak, he was chirping non-stop. He flew off to a nearby tree when I got too close, though not before I saw the give-away spots on his wings. He then confirmed his ID by giving the new tree a couple of good, thumping pecks.

It was my first time connecting this chirp with a Downy Woodpecker. I've only noticed them pecking before. At home I sketched a piece based on the combination of monotone cheeps and percussive pecks.

P.S. Gorgeous sunrise today: purple clouds, and a build-up so intense and bright I was sure the sun had come up several minutes before it actually appeared.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Day 67: Windfreeze

Franklin Park, JP/Dorchester, MA, 6:45am-7:45am
windy, very cold, overcast gradually clearing

A soft-focus sky.
Blushing dawn ushers in sun.
Marvelous cold wind!

The birds I follow
can't stay still. I agree. Too
cold. Too cold. Too cold!

Where do they lead me?
Blustering wind wipes out sounds,
leaving just traces.

(these are notes masquerading as poem!)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Day 66: Beech

Bussey Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 8:15am-8:45am
cool, various clouds

I missed sunrise today due to an alarm clock snafu - accidentally set for PM instead of AM. Sabotage by my sub-conscious?

Birds of the Day are a flock of twitterers I've encountered before on Bussey Hill. They are little, dark grey with yellow beaks, and very skittish.

However, the highlight of the morning is really the Tree of the Day, and week, and maybe month. It's new to me, and it's right on Bussey Hill: a gorgeous, gargantuan grandpa of a beech tree that has no less than five major trunks, and several offshoot trees growing around it.

I love the silvery-grey sleek skin of beeches, even when riddled with carvings and scars. One offshoot, emerging several feet from the main tree, is growing at such an acute angle to the ground it looks like the sixth branch of the tree which got buried under an avalanche of soil.

At home, I sketch a tune interweaving five melodies, one for each trunk of the beech tree.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Day 65: Sunset

The Wilderness, Franklin Park, Jamaica Plain, MA, 3:30pm-4:00pm
cool, breezy, scattered clouds

The last rays of sun are a little like the first ones: bathing tree tops in a warm orange-y glow.

I saw my first Franklin Park sunset today, after dozens of dawns there. Filtered through many trees, it was a gorgeous one, with sharp layers of clouds brilliantly lit up. The rocky outcroppings there are perfect outlooks.

Not too many birds out at dusk, but I did startle some robins into talking to me:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 64: Bamboo Forest

Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA, 7:15am-8:15am
grey variegated overcast, frosty

Groggy and late this morning, I cannot tell you whether the sunrise was visible today or not. Hoping for my sake it wasn't!

As I trudged through the BB Meadow, I was concerned by the relative quiet and wondered if the birds had finally thrown in the towel to the ever-colder weather. Or if I was just too late in the morning for the usual dawn bustle.

The fun part of the cold is that it's made the whole meadow more accessible : a lot of the marshy areas are frozen over now, and I was able to get the back country view.

Unfortunately, frozen rushes are just as loud, if not louder, than dry leaves and twigs, and every time I aim for a bird-y direction, the chatterers have relocated by the time I get there.

I resolve to wait it out by the (dead) bamboo forest, a thickly-clustered stand of dessicated yellow bamboo. When I get there, I am delighted to spot a downy woodpecker, whose black and white spots, white belly, and flash of red on the head are striking against the monochromatic tan color of the bamboo.

It's much easier to spot the birds against this light backdrop, I realize, as opposed to the dark branches, leaves, and variable sky of my usual observations. As I cautiously edge forward, I find a trio of sparrows, also more clearly visible than I'm used to.

The highlight, and the Bird of the Day award, goes to the second Downy Woodpecker I see, who shows off the variety of percussive timbres he can get out of a flimsy stalk of bamboo.

When another wood-(bamboo)-pecker displaces my Bird, he does a complete flight circuit around me, stopping en route at a tree branch next to my head to drill a bit, and demonstrate the difference in tone.

It's exciting to be circled at such close range by the same bird, and to see him in various kinds of action, including a funny moment of extreme puffiness when he's on the tree branch. Maybe it was colder there than in the protected bamboo.

At home, I jot down an idea for a loop-based tune using various "pecking" patterns and sounds.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Day 63: Green Mountains

Middlebury (town and college), Vermont, 6:50am-8:00am
chilly, post-storm, bunched clouds

Mountains make me nostalgic. I don't know if it's because I grew up in a valley of sorts, with mountains always in the distance, or if it's the universally-good memories I have of hiking and traveling in mountainous places.

This morning I was in Middlebury, Vermont for a gig at Middlebury College: smack dab in the middle of the amazing Green Mountains!

It was a little hard to discern which way was East, with clouds blocking the sun and an ambiguously lightening sky all around me, but I eventually found the pinker clouds and a good viewing spot by the track course.

It was a classically beautiful sunrise: dense blue clouds with hot-pink underbellies above blue mountains. Beams of dusty pink reached out of a couple peep-holes in the clouds.

Nearby, a stagnant pool of water, while not promising for aquatic life, nonetheless encouraged some trees and a lively chickadee population.

Bird of the Day goes to the Starling, however, who both grooved:

and melodicized (with reversing-truck accompaniment):

Recent research reveals that starlings are considered a kind of pest, which is a shame, since they are killer-singers!

**Update 12/5: My versions of the Starling melody:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Day 62: Oceanic

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, JP, MA, 6:40am-7:30am
moist, not cold, steady breeze, diverse clouds

Bluish blues, purple-y blues, baby blues, pale blues... and some neon pink highlights. Too many shifting, percolating, shirred and smooth, low and distant, thick and misty clouds to describe.

It was a gorgeous pre-dawn which faded apologetically into a rather static, rather solid blue palette of cloud cover when the sun should have emerged triumphantly.

At this point the white houses in distant Roslindale/JP that I see from Peters Hill had the look of a quaint seaside village. Was it the bluish cast from a very bluish and thick sky? I couldn't pinpoint the reason, but I felt ocean.

Then I noticed that the warmish, steady breeze and heavy damp verging on drizzle were sea-evoking too. Surely the ocean is just over there, past those trees?

Come to think of it, the Bay is not far away- the idea is not so ludicrous.

There was a bit of a tussle for Bird of the Day, but given today's marine theme, I awarded these guys.

First they were the backdrop to some sparrows I was investigating, and I almost didn't consciously note them:

Then they wheeled overhead, four or five of them, and made themselves heard. It's the first time I've heard seagulls make much of an appearance at the Arboretum (and the flocks I see at the Franklin Park golf course are usually silent). A day at the beach without leaving JP!