Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Update #4: Breakin' Records

Jan 19- Jan 29, Arnold Arboreum, Jamaica Plain, MA
record-breaking low temperatures (-22C with windchill!!), more snow!

In the last 10 days, several pressing questions have been answered:

Q: Do birds sing in sub-sub zero degree temperatures (coldest Boston temps in six years)?
A: Yes! Even at record-breaking single digits F (negative teens Celsius!), the chickadees, jays, and robins were still out and busy, tweeting and foraging.

Q: Is sunrise over a snowscape worth writing home about?
A: Yes! Take that rosy glow that we like so much on the tree branches, and dust the white white snow with it. Beautiful!

Q: Is there any variety to winter cheeping, or is it just the same old, same old for weeks on end?
A: In fact, I discovered two new calls this week, still to be identified:
(recordings pending!)

Q: Why would anybody consider getting snowshoes instead of cross-country skis?
A: They also allow you to traverse deep snow without sinking to your mid-calf or knee with every step, they are cheaper, and most importantly: your hands are free to wield your audio recorder/camera/binos.
This is a theory that I hope to test out!

Q: What is a serious winter like?
A: Aha, I finally get it! My fifth year in Boston is showing me what real winters are made of. Snow every week, piles so high we don't know where to put the next snow, roads reduced to half their normal size by snow banks, car-owners perpetually cursing, the car-free blissfully carefree, and still-white everywhere. So cold that it's the main topic of conversation and a point of bonding just to see your fellow human beings bundled up and equally miserable. Even the pigeons are poofed 50% fatter to stay warm. This is exciting (for now, anyway)!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Winter Update #3: Wonderland!

Jamaica Plain, MA, Jan 11-18, 2011
snowy and cold

Jan 12th - my first Blizzard! Or was it?

According to Wikipedia, a blizzard must include wind speeds of at least 35 mph, along with the requisite dumping of snow. Apparently it hit 80mph on the Cape, but I couldn't find figures for windspeed in Boston.

I must have caught the tail end, at any rate, because by 9:30am on Wed. when I headed out the winds were considerably calmer (though still vigorous). It was also magically quiet - the clunky SUV and snow plow that passed me were transformed into harmless whisperers by the thick carpet of snow on the road.

It was my first time walking around the Arboretum during a snowstorm, and I was enchanted. I felt like I was inside one of those snow globes that you turn upside down. So much snow! Everything white and fluffy!

And quiet - muffled, even- but not silent. Sounds of the storm: the delicate pattering of snowfall, sirens in the distance, and the sudden tremendous cracking of tree branches collapsing under the weight of 12-15 inches of snow. Exciting, startling, and a little scary (especially when I noted a heavy, potentially-fatal fallen branch crossing my path).

I also heard some chickadees. Saw a passing robin. Yes, the birds were out and about even through falling snow!

Today, Jan 18, we got some more snowfall and I wandered through the Arboretum, my ears on alert for the occasional industrious bird: three chickadees under the protective dome of red-branched Japanese Yew, a dozen fat sparrows in the Bussey Brook Meadows, a brilliant-red cardinal.

Cardinals take the cake for Bird of the Season, for sheer visual glory. They are so striking against the black-and-white of a snowy landscape. I was especially impressed by a giant cardinal I saw yesterday, who was easily twice as fat as previous cardinals I've seen. Was he the fittest of them all? The prize-winning forager? Extra-fluffed up for warmth?

The answer is unclear, but I'm in awe of these hardy birds who can keep going all winter! I take inspiration from them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winter Update #2: California Wrap-Up

San Francisco Bay Area and Monterey, CA, Jan 4-Jan 10
mostly clear, sunny days, coldish (high 40's, low 50's)

It's not exactly true that we don't have seasons in California.

They are less defined, to be sure, than East Coast extremes, but some seasonal variation does exist.

For example, after some 3 decades of confusion, my family finally realized that WINTER is in fact the best time to visit the Monterey Bay (see photo, left): far higher chances of clear weather, with gorgeous blue skies. Chilly, though! My childhood memories of Monterey are of grey, overcast summer visits.

I'd have to say that there seems to be less fog and cloudiness in San Francisco during the winter as well. However, the general lack of freezing weather means that folks don't really use central heating very much, even though it's actually quite cold. Lots of shivering in restaurants!

Highlights of this week:

We thought we heard someone breaking into the apartment, but turned out it was a crow pecking away at the skylight. Of the bathroom, no less. Birds out here have no shame!

One of my favorite views, in the Outer Sunset (two blocks from Ocean Beach):
The gulls were silent, but accompanied by these nearby starlings (pictured in background):

The funniest thing is, you can tell these are San Franciscan starlings and not Boston ones by the sound of the passing cars- all hybrids (thus eerily quiet as they brake at the corner). Try to find such a street corner in Boston!!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Winter Update #1: Not-So-Winter

Jamaica Plain, MA and San Francisco Bay Area, CA, Dec 22-Jan 3
all kinds of weather!

Happy New Year!

From a snowy wonderland in Boston, to the rainy climes of San Francisco, to today's gorgeous sunny day in Monterey, CA, the last two weeks have been a funny mixture of winter and not-so-winter.

I miss my birds, my sunrises.. and admittedly, even my blog! Am already plotting how to pick up the rhythm once I'm back to Boston next week.

Here are some audio highlights from the winter so far:

1) White-Crowned Sparrow Song My Christmas Day composition, using White-Crowned Sparrow clips from November 9th in San Francisco

2) Blackbirds in a Cupertino parking lot yesterday, January 2nd, en route to Monterey. Man these guys were loud! Did I really grow up to age 18 with these birds in earshot without noticing them once? Definitely some red-winged blackbirds here, though there may have been another, smaller kind of blackish bird as well.

On the planning front, I've been busy applying for a short-term artist residency at a couple national parks for 2011. Whether or not this pans out, I intend to spend a week or two living in a wilderness area this spring with "A Bird a Day" - even if I have to camp out with my Zoom recorder!

I've also started delving more deeply into the bird-inspired music of Messiaen. Olivier Messiaen, 20th century French composer, was an almost mystically-devout Catholic and a hard-core birder. His music does not merely reflect these passions: it is built out of them. His faith and his fascination with nature are integral parts of how he created sound worlds.

Messiaen would go out and transcribe the bird-songs he heard (essentially, taking musical dictation from the birds) with his own special shorthand music notation. Then, he'd create music based on these bird-song transcriptions.

My current favorite is Catalogue d'Oiseaux, where Messiaen captures whole nature scenes: different birds interacting, the changes of color in the sky, etc, with a single piano player.

It's great to have inspiration from a genius!